Not everyone is excited about playing college football during the COVID-19 pandemic. LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a top NFL prospect, is the latest star to opt out and join the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences on the sidelines.
But some games will go on and the party bus is about to leave the station, so who’s in and who’s out? The betting public is strapping on a face mask and opting in, which is no surprise.
Amid a busy Saturday sports schedule highlighted by the NBA and NHL playoffs, baseball, golf and the UFC, South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said there was “real good two-way action” on Austin Peay-Central Arkansas in the first college football game of the pandemic.
Never mind that most bettors probably could not name one player for either the Governors or the Bears, a pair of FCS teams meeting before an estimated 2,000 fans in Montgomery, Ala. The game was televised and a betting line existed, so there was action.
“It was solid, but nothing crazy,” William Hill book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “It goes to show you if there’s no other college football, they will bet it. It also goes to show it can be done.”
At least six FBS conferences — the American Athletic, ACC, Big 12, Conference USA, SEC and Sun Belt — and a few other schools will attempt to do it this fall. Week 1 of a bizarre season officially kicks off Thursday with two games — Central Arkansas at UAB and South Alabama at Southern Mississippi.
A mini-Saturday schedule consists of six games, highlighted by Middle Tennessee at Army, before ESPN’s prime-time stage goes to Brigham Young at Navy on Monday night. Sharp money is showing early on the Cougars, who opened as 2½-point underdogs and have flipped to one-point favorites at the Westgate.
“BYU-Navy by itself on a Monday night might be a monster,” Bogdanovich said.
It’s not a monster the size of Texas-LSU or Ohio State-Oregon, two of the early-season marquee matchups that were scratched, but anything will do for now.
Most Las Vegas books took college football futures off the board because of the season’s uncertain status, but the Westgate SuperBook reposted odds Monday. Clemson is a -375 favorite to win the ACC (which includes Notre Dame), Oklahoma is + 125 in the Big 12 and Alabama is even money to win the SEC.
LSU is the fifth choice at 20-1 odds in the SEC, and Chase’s decision to opt out is the latest blow to the reigning national champion. Chase is projected to be the first receiver picked in next year’s draft. The Tigers lost quarterback Joe Burrow, the NFL’s No. 1 pick, and have only six returning starters, with two on offense and four on defense.
Paul Stone, a college football handicapper and VSiN analyst, said his power rating of LSU’s current team is about 17 points worse than its 2019 team led by Burrow.
“Usually when a team is that dominant, like Clemson and Alabama, they just reload,” Stone said. “There were a lot of things not to like about LSU to begin with, and now this with Chase. It’s nothing like last year’s team.
“Texas would have beaten LSU, and that was going to be a big bet for me. But that’s not happening now.”
LSU’s new season opener is Sept. 26 against Mississippi State. DraftKings has opened the Tigers as 16½-point home favorites. In addition to player departures, LSU’s Ed Orgeron lost two key members of his coaching staff in the offseason when passing-game coordinator Joe Brady moved to the NFL as the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda took the head coaching job at Baylor.
The decline of LSU is nothing compared with the demise of the Big Ten, which resembles a Mickey Mouse operation. The Big Ten, which released a revised schedule a week before canceling its fall season in early August, is reportedly reconsidering and debating a start around Thanksgiving. Opening the season in late November makes no sense.
“I still can’t understand why the Big Ten canceled its season a few weeks ago, and it just baffles me,” Westgate oddsmaker Ed Salmons said. “It’s so hard to fathom what’s going on right now.”
While the shifting schedule has created chaos for bookmakers, additional wrinkles will need to be addressed, including more players opting out and rumors of players being ruled out with positive coronavirus tests.
Memphis, which opens Saturday against Arkansas State, just lost star running back Kenneth Gainwell for the season. Gainwell, who rushed for 1,459 yards last season, opted out, citing concerns about the pandemic. The Tigers, initially favored by 20½ points, dropped to -18½ after Gainwell’s announcement.
“People will be pushing rumors,” Salmons said. “It’s good for business, and it moves lines. It’s going to be part of the landscape.”
On the morning of the Austin Peay-Central Arkansas game, social media rumors speculated that Austin Peay would be missing several players due to COVID-19 tests. The line moved two points in Central Arkansas’ favor. Expect similar situations to happen repeatedly.
“There were reports swirling around that Austin Peay had five or six players who tested positive, and I don’t know whether that came to fruition,” Stone said. “I might have to change my betting strategy a little bit this season because I typically bet a lot early in the week.”
(For the record, Stone made two early plays this week — Arkansas State-Memphis Over 69 and BYU + 3 — and got the best of the number in both games.)
Austin Peay was without top receiver DeAngelo Wilson, and it might have made a difference. The Governors, who closed as six-point underdogs, lost 24-17. Central Arkansas covered with a touchdown pass and two-point conversion with 34 seconds left.
So for dog bettors, Bogdanovich said: “Is that a bad beat? Unbelievable.”