If information is what you seek, those privy to it likely won’t share it easily. And although the number of games across college football will increase in the weeks ahead -- with the Big Ten and Mountain West returning to the field for Week 8 -- who exactly takes the field will remain a mystery heading into each Saturday.
The ritual isn’t atypical. Football coaches have long attempted to secure every available advantage. Secrecy rules. Few will ever actually divulge the status of a player’s hamstring or bum shoulder in a press conference during game week.
If you thought this would change when it comes to COVID-19 and how a roster is being impacted by positive tests, think again.
With his team welcoming Michigan on Saturday, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck essentially said that a) the Gophers (now a three-point home underdog) will likely be down players and b) we’ll figure out the rest when the game begins.
“I mean I don’t have an estimate as I know that number, but I’m just not going to tell you the number,” Fleck said on Monday, regarding potential positive COVID-19 tests among the Golden Gophers team. “There’s a lot of reasons why, but this is how the whole year is going to be, and there are no excuses. We’ve got to be able to find a way.”
He’s not alone. Other coaches whose seasons have started have regurgitated similar responses along the way. Whether that is the right or wrong way to handle an “injury” report during a pandemic is up for debate. What is not up for discussion, however, is how much these absences can impact a game and change a point spread -- if that information is made available early enough.
Torn ACLs are not contagious, but the coronavirus is -- and we’ve already seen its impact on teams like Florida and Baylor. The impact can be significant enough to cancel or postpone games, something that has become assumed after two months.
For the teams that play, it’s more complicated. Often, when it’s not Nick Saban or Dan Mullen or Jeff Brohm testing positive, the news is made known right around kickoff, aka the last possible time it has to be.
The best asset in moments like these? Beat writers. Those with roster and depth chart PhDs for a specific program. Social media, specifically Twitter, is a perfect place to gather this information quickly.
Follow these people -- especially on Twitter. Bookmakers do. It’s where information flows quickest.
The problem? You’ll have to be fast. As such, as more teams begin their seasons, flexibility is paramount. That is, of course, unless a coach willingly offers up this information on his own well in advance.
And, well, good luck with that.
The Buffet: The Five Best Games of the Weekend
1. Michigan (-3, O/U 54.5) at Minnesota: One team is coming off one of the greatest seasons in its program’s history. The other is coached by Jim Harbaugh. Now, it’s not that simple. Minnesota appears to be dealing with some COVID issues (see: above), and Michigan is hoping to finally, officially bring its offense into modern times. One thing to watch ahead of schedule? The weather. While we aren’t in snow globe territory yet, the forecasted high on Saturday is a balmy 31 degrees. It’ll be even colder when this game is played, which might not be the ideal ingredients for a team in search of an offense trying to find itself.
2. Iowa State at Oklahoma State (-3.5, 52): This game could be ugly, and I mean it in the nicest (sort of) way possible. This is not the game we would’ve gotten five or six years ago where the total would’ve been somewhere in the 70s. This is likely to be a defensively-charged, field position-game between two teams that have nice offensive pieces still trying to work things out. This total has plummeted since it has opened -- down nearly 10 points. And it’s not hard to see why. Oklahoma State is the last playoff hope for the Big 12. A loss here would potentially eliminate the conference from consideration before Halloween.
3. Cincinnati at SMU (-2.5, 56.5): Full disclosure: I was ready to pull the trigger on Tulsa against Cincinnati last weekend before the game was postponed. Cincinnati, now No. 9 in the AP Poll, feels a smidge overvalued having won three games as large favorites against inferior competition. SMU is the more explosive team, although its defense could have issues; you could say the same for Cincinnati. However, the Ponies can play at a pace Cincinnati might not be able to match. Don’t let the rankings fool you.
4. Georgia Southern at Coastal Carolina (-5.5, 52): It won’t receive the same buzz as the other games on deck, but the matchup is delightful. Coastal Carolina is (finally) ranked in the Top 25 and one of the darlings of the young season at 4-0 and 3-1 against the spread. Georgia Southern enters with just one loss. Led by the nation’s No. 4 ranked rushing attack, this is a unique obstacle for Coastal. If that ground game gets rolling, the underdog is live.
5. Alabama (-21, 64.5) at Tennessee: The point spread says this probably shouldn’t have a place in The Buffet, but the rivalry, timing and general intrigue between these two teams -- whenever they play -- says otherwise. Alabama’s offense is rolling; Tennessee, after two straight losses and six very bad quarters in a row, is floundering. The Crimson Tide are averaging 48.5 points per game -- second in the nation. Unless there’s a hangover after throttling Georgia, the offense feels poised to hit another 50-burger. In search of a competitive game? Hope for that hangover.
The Weekend’s Worst Football Game is Ripe with Gambling Intrigue
We were deprived of these kinds of point spreads when college football all but abandoned out-of-conference matchups in 2020 and thus did away with cupcake point spreads. But Clemson-Syracuse, despite being an ACC matchup, has cupcake vibes. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, though Syracuse is a 46-point underdog -- rarified air when it comes to a conference game. Clemson is also a cartoonish -100,000 money-line favorite.
It’s a perfect storm. The Orange just lost woefully as a home underdog to Liberty and Hugh Freeze. (Not a bad loss, if we’re being honest. But not great optics.)
Clemson, meanwhile, just dropped a 70-spot on Georgia Tech. For further context, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the future No. 1 overall pick, played just one series in the second half.
The total might be the most interesting piece of all. At 61.5, Clemson could hit the over by its lonesome. For even more context, last week the Tigers inserted the punter at quarterback and still broke the scoreboard.
For those who wish to dream big, this would be the largest upset in the history of college football if Syracuse finds a way at the current line. Howard, led by Caylin Newton, Cam’s younger brother, was a 45.5-point underdog when it beat UNLV Rebels in 2017.
Somehow, this feels like it would be more significant. No offense, Howard. Or Syracuse.
The Biggest Total on the board: Central Florida (-19.5) vs. Tulane (O/U: 73.5)
This should come as no surprise for those who watched Central Florida edge Memphis last Saturday in a game that featured 99 points and nearly a fight on the UCF sidelines after the game was lost on a final-minute missed field goal. It’s worth noting that Memphis and Temple have the second-highest total on the board (71.5).
Central Florida is an ideal over team -- an offense that moves with pace led by a quarterback, Dillon Gabriel, who is a star in the making. Tulane, even at 2-3, is a team ripe with talent as well.
The schedule hasn’t been easy, and losses to SMU and Houston are quality losses. The loss to Navy ... not so much.
The over has hit in seven of the nine combined games these two teams have played. And although the total has climbed throughout the week, opening at 66.5, this number seems reasonable. (Also, Tulane looks pretty good as nearly a three-touchdown ‘dog.)
Last Call: Parting Shots on Other Games of Note
Penn State (-6.5, 58.5) vs. Indiana: Really interesting game. Penn State has lost a lot on defense (including star LB Micah Parsons opting out), and this is not an ideal road opener. Indiana is a better team than most realize. The Hoosiers also came close to beating Penn State last year. Don’t sleep on this one.
Texas (-9, 61) vs. Baylor: The point spread and total have both come down. Baylor has struggled to get on the field due to COVID -- playing only two games. Texas has issues once again. Just a mess of a game to handicap.
Auburn (-3, 71) vs. Ole Miss: If Gus Malzahn loses this game, the Auburn message boards are likely to catch on fire. After a turnover-filled loss last week against Arkansas, this is a fascinating number for Ole Miss. The Lane Train is poised to get back on track.