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College football projections, season win total best bets

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

May 8, 2020 10:09 PM
Trevor Lawrence of Clemson
© Imagn

For the last few issues of “Point Spread Weekly,” I have been methodically digging into the key information I use to build my college football power ratings. I am now releasing those ratings for the 2020 season and running them against the schedule to project win totals and schedule strength for all 130 FBS teams. I’ll then use the projections to build conference standings predictions.

Let’s look at some of the highlights:

— According to my figures, Nebraska plays the nation’s toughest schedule, at least as it stands now. The Cornhuskers, ranked just ahead of USC and Michigan State in that regard, will face Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin on the road and will host Cincinnati, Penn State and Minnesota. They do bring back QB Adrian Martinez along with nine other offensive starters. And in coach Scott Frost’s third year, Nebraska could be ready to meet some of the high expectations imposed since his arrival. My projections show a record of 6.2-5.8, so a reasonable chance to finish over .500 and qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2016.

— For the second straight season, the country’s easiest schedule belongs to UAB of Conference USA. The Blazers have enjoyed an amazing run since bringing back football in 2017, earning bowl bids in all three seasons. Coach Bill Clark’s 2020 team should have nine starters returning on each side of the ball so should continue to thrive. My numbers show UAB projecting at 8.8-3.2, atop the C-USA West Division. Ranking just after UAB in terms of schedule ease are Ohio U. and Liberty, both returning bowl teams.

— Also for the second straight season, Clemson has the highest win projection of any team. At 11.5, that is a bit better than Ohio State (11.0), Alabama (10.4) and Oklahoma (10.3). The Tigers’ win total is 0.1 less than before the 2019 season, thanks in part to what looks to be an improved ACC lineup. Still, they are an overwhelming choice to win the conference and are projected to win at least two more league games than any conference rival.

— Assuming the projections play out accurately after Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma, other Power 5 conference teams that would be expected to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff would be Wisconsin, Georgia, Penn State, Florida and defending champion LSU. Notre Dame, predicted to go 9.3-2.7, as well as Texas and Texas A&M could also be in the mix should they pull a key upset. LSU faces a ton of challenges, including replacing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, 12 other starters and its passing-game coordinator.

— UCF (10.1 wins), Boise State (9.6), Appalachian State and Louisiana Lafayette (9.4 each) have the highest projected win totals among Group of 5 teams, although each faces a test or two that might prevent an undefeated season.

— In terms of teams expected to improve from last season, Northwestern is expected to top the list and win 3.3 more games than last year. Akron and Old Dominion (2.7), Fresno State (2.5) and Stanford (2.3) are next on that list. Two of the three teams I highlighted here last year, North Carolina and Central Michigan, returned to bowl games after dismal 2018 campaigns.

— The list of teams expected to decline 4.0 wins or more from last year’s record includes LSU (5.5 win drop), Hawaii (4.4) and Baylor (4.0). Of course, these drops don’t include potential conference championship or bowl game appearances.

In the accompanying chart (in Point Spread Weekly), you will find my projected standings for each conference. The teams are sorted by conference wins. You will also find their season win totals from Caesars Sportsbook, their 2020 Steve Makinen Power Ratings, Home and Road Field Ratings, Schedule Strength and National Ranking, plus their overall and conference record projections.

Season Win Total Best Bets

Here are my best bets for the season win totals released by Caesars Sportsbook about a month ago, my five top Over plays and my five top Under plays. Most are based on the projections from the chart.


Tulsa Over 4.5 (+ 105)

Tulsa was 4-8 a year ago and lost five games by 11 or fewer points, including a one-point defeat to Memphis, the Group of 5 team that played in a New Year’s 6 bowl. The Golden Hurricane return 13 starters, including senior QB Zach Smith, who threw 19 TD passes last year against just nine interceptions. I show them favored in four games with lines of + 1.5 or fewer in three other games. This team has gone from two to three to four wins the last three seasons and could be poised to return to a bowl game in 2020.

Georgia Tech Over 3 (+ 200)

According to my stability scores, Georgia Tech is the most stable program in the country heading into 2020. The Yellow Jackets won three games last season when they were one of the least stable programs in the country. Now in coach Geoff Collins’ second season, they have all the signs of a team ready to leap forward. While the schedule is difficult and I show Tech being favored in only two games, the team is a pick-’em in another and a TD-or-less underdog in three other games. This program has recruited well recently and again has the talent and experience to pull a few upsets and become one of the nation’s surprise teams in 2020.

Northwestern Over 5.5 (-105)

A common thread among my season win total Over plays is that I expect these teams to be much better than a year ago. Northwestern fits right into that description. The Wildcats suffered through an uncharacteristically rough 2019 season, winning just three games after going 9-5 the previous season. They struggled horribly at quarterback and couldn’t emerge from a rough schedule stretch in which they faced six straight bowl teams. By the time that stretch was over, Pat Fitzgerald’s team was 1-7 and out of bowl contention. In at QB for 2020 is Indiana transfer and multiyear starter Peyton Ramsey, and 19 starters return. This should be a bowl team.

Stanford Over 5.5 (-110)

We had little reason last year to suspect that Stanford would win only four games, especially having won eight or more in every year of the eight-year David Shaw era. A lot of the struggle can be attributed to the injury to QB K.J. Costello. Although he has transferred, I am projecting a return to normalcy in 2020. Replacement QB Davis Mills, a former top-ranked recruit, emerged as a potential star last year. Also, 17 starters are back, Shaw has continued to recruit well and the Pac-12 has a lot of question marks this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this well-respected program is in the hunt for the North Division title.

Colorado Over 3 (-120)

If you consider that three wins for Colorado in coach Karl Dorrell’s first season would essentially mean just one conference victory projected, I believe oddsmakers are taking this unstable situation a little too far. Much is being made not only of the coaching change but also of QB Steven Montez having graduated. However, for as good as his stats were, his team didn’t win much with him under center. There are some pretty strong recruiting classes in tow for Dorrell, and the unstable Pac-12 could give the Buffaloes the opportunity to win a few.

Others I’m considering Over: Houston (5.5), Miami of Ohio (6.5), Purdue (5), UCLA (5.5), Texas (9), Florida State (7.5), West Virginia (5.5), Nebraska (6.5)


Wake Forest Under 6.5 (-120)

Wake Forest lost QB Jamie Newman to Georgia after an 8-5 campaign in which the team dropped four of its final five games. The Demon Deacons will be replacing half their starters in 2020. When I look at the ACC’s prospects, I see a lot of potentially improved teams. This could all be to Wake’s detriment. As I see Wake favored in only four games, getting to 6.5 wins seems like a real stretch.

Miami Under 9 (-110)

No argument, Miami has talent and has recruited well. But what can be argued is whether this program will be able to mold that talent into a highly successful unit. The Hurricanes have brought in transfer QB D’Eriq King from Houston, but seeing as how they scored just 41 points in their final three games last year against opponents that allowed over 27 PPG, a lot more work remains to get this offense to nine wins. I show Miami favored in nine games, though four could go either way. Having lost three straight bowl games in ugly fashion, I don’t think this program is ready to turn the corner yet.

Minnesota Under 9 (-130)

Was Minnesota’s 11-2 season last year a fluke, or will this be the new normal for fourth-year coach P.J. Fleck’s team? With the Gophers having averaged just 6.1 wins per season in the previous decade, I’m not ready to commit to it being a new normal. The 2020 team should be plenty good on offense, with QB Tanner Morgan and most of his talented weaponry back. However, the defense has a lot to work on with only four starters back. The program also has the pressure of expectations now, something new to deal with. The final three games are against Purdue, Northwestern and Nebraska, all of whom I think will be better in 2020. This should keep the Gophers from reaching nine wins.

Oregon State Under 5.5 (-130)

Oregon State has a win total set at 5.5 after a season in which it went 5-7 and had a now-departed quarterback who threw 28 TD passes against just three interceptions. The Beavers also had a turnover ratio of + 0.8 per game. They were an experienced team with 16 starters back. That sounds like a team that had a lot going for it yet couldn’t even reach a bowl game. I’m wondering how the expectations are actually higher this fall. My numbers show OSU being favored in four games and a double-digit dog in six. That doesn’t look like the makings of a bowl season.

Hawaii Under 6 (+ 110)

One key to consider when betting Hawaii’s win total is that the Warriors are one of just two teams that will play 13 regular-season games, so this needs to be accounted for in your calculations. What is most important, though, is that regardless of the number of games, Hawaii could be in a lot of trouble with an entirely new coaching staff, a new QB to replace the prolific Cole McDonald and a non-conference schedule that features three games against Pac-12 foes. I see the Warriors being favored in only five games, and a team with as much instability as they are facing typically has trouble closing out close contests. I’ll call for 5-8 or worse for this rebuilding program.

Others I’m considering Under: Memphis (10), Texas A&M (9.5), BYU (7), San Diego State (8), Baylor (7.5), Temple (6)

To see the chart accompanying this story, visit “Point Spread Weekly” at


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