College Football: Betting on Conference Championship Futures
It isn't college football season quite yet, but there is absolutely no shortage of lines to bet on as we approach the month of August.
Two weeks ago, we took a look at which teams' win totals to target at FanDuel Sportsbook. This week, we will zoom out a bit to pick a team to win each conference, but it's not all about taking the favorites. If there is value to be had -- based on the numbers -- we are going to take it.
That being said, we'll start with the bets you should feel most confident about -- at the shortest odds -- and work our way toward those with more risk -- longer odds -- but greater rewards in the form of cold, hard cash.
And what better way to start than with the defending national champs.
ACC: Clemson Tigers (-700)
The Clemson Tigers are at the top of everyone's list in 2019, as Dabo Swinney and company lead all teams at +170 to win the College Football Playoff. They have short odds to finish with more than 11.5 wins, and their star quarterback is the early favorite (+200) to capture the Heisman Trophy.
On top of a proven leader behind center, Clemson returns a running back, in Travis Etienne, who ran for over 1,600 yards and 24 touchdowns a year ago, as well as star wideouts Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. And despite losing star players on the defensive front, Clemson enters the year third in both Bill Connelly's early S&P+ rankings and returning production. They are eighth in returning defensive production -- a scary thought for a team that has done well to replace key players. Five-star recruit Andrew Booth is one of many candidates to contribute from the secondary in year one.
At +900, Miami is the only other ACC team at lower than +2000, though they come with an over/under of just 8.5 wins. Even if you're getting a better return on any non-Clemson team, the Tigers are a cut above the competition. Just know that you are going to have to throw down a handful of shekels to get rewarded for your confidence.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners (-125)
Oklahoma is another team that performed well last year and is expected to do more of the same this time around. And hey, no surprise, they are favored to end the year atop the Big 12. However, by comparison they have longer conference odds than Alabama (-180) in the SEC and Appalachian State (-150) in the Sun Belt.
For everything in their favor, the Sooners aren't big enough favorites. They check in fifth in projected S&P+ and sixth in overall returning production, and in case you haven't noticed, they emerged from the recruiting trail with the fifth-ranked class, including three five-stars at the receiver spot.
Who's going to be slinging it to those weapons? No, not Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray, but they are in good hands with former 'Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts. All Hurts has done is throw for more than 5,600 yards and 48 touchdowns, run for 1,976 and 23 more, and win a championship.
Let's just say that OU is in good -- if not great -- hands. They are projected first in Offensive S&P+, so expect them to light up porous Big 12 defenses once again.
American: Memphis Tigers (+225)
Full disclosure: Memphis was a lot more of a steal a week or so ago. They were +350, behind UCF at +125, but the odds have shifted in their favor. Still, the Tigers might be the non-power team best flying under the radar.
In 2018, they were merely 8-6 overall and 5-3 in the American. However, Football Outsiders had them at 9.6 second-order wins, meaning they were a bit unlucky. And as for this year's version, it's projected 26th in overall S&P+ and 10th in offense. The former puts them a spot ahead of the conference favorites. They're even three spots higher in returning production.
By name, UCF seems to be getting a bit of a tilt in their favor, but that's all the more reason to fade them in favor of Memphis.
SEC: Georgia Bulldogs (+240)
In case you haven't caught on yet, teams with really good quarterbacks tend to compete (or be favored to win) for their conference title. Believe it or not, but Tua Tagovailoa isn't the only signal caller getting Heisman consideration for the upcoming season. At the head of Georgia's offensive attack, Jake Fromm finds himself among the top eight players in terms of Heisman betting odds (+2000).
Fromm isn't a household name, nor has he wowed with his play, but as a sophomore he improved his passing efficiency rating while throwing for 2,761 yards and averaging 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt. He also contributed 30 scores to 6 interceptions. Assuming Fromm continues to develop, the Bulldogs will be neck-and-neck with the Tide.
Alabama is the only team ahead of Georgia in all of projected S&P+, returning production and recruiting impact. Defensively, they have the upper hand by four spots, meaning if all goes to plan you could be running into a nice little return for a team that would be at minus odds to win any other conference.
Big Ten: Michigan Wolverines (+250)
This year's Big Ten figures to be a two-horse race between two bitter rivals: Ohio State and Michigan. The Buckeyes opened as favorites and have since moved from +100 to +110. And while the Wolverines' odds haven't shortened, they have gone from +200 to +250, giving us greater incentive to go blue over red here.
If anything, Jim Harbaugh's crew is ready for redemption following a rather unsatisfying 10-win season. They were blown out 41-15 in the Peach Bowl despite finishing the year 10th in S&P+ and allowing fewer than 20 points per game.
The Wolverines appear to be well-rounded again, boasting a top-15 offense and defense by projected S&P+, not so much accounting for two five-star recruits on the defensive side of the ball. No one has been talking them up much, but their 9.5 win total is right on the heels of the Buckeyes' 10.5.
If you aren't so trusting, though, Wisconsin (+900) is worth a look at some shortening odds.
Pac-12: Utah Utes (+250)
Utah is one of the three squads the numbers like to exceed their win total (9.0) this year, and they're actually a fairly popular team to side with at this point. The thing is, it shouldn't matter -- follow the pack at their current odds.
The reasoning is pretty simple: they are one of the more experienced teams in the country. Led by experienced head coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes are 15th in returning production with a lot of that on the offensive side for once. Their defense was as good as they come last year, and they're projected top-20 again. At 17th in projected S&P+ as a team, they are a measly two spots back of Washington.
A November 2nd clash could decide the fate of the Pac 12 title.
Conference USA: Southern Miss (+480)
While it's probably true that if you're betting on Conference USA you're either an alum of one of those schools or a complete football geek, there's nothing keeping a wise bettor from getting in on the fun -- especially if your form of fun is a crapshoot.
The top four teams in the conference have all been given odds of +550 or shorter with Florida Atlantic (+300) and Florida International (+450) ahead of Southern Miss. But S&P+ says that the experts are a bit off here. The Golden Eagles are the conference's highest-projected team at 74th, putting them five spots clear of FAU and another nine beyond FIU. Their returning production also provides an edge in the experience department.
The aerial connection of Jack Abraham-Quez Watkins figures to be the staple of the offense, while the defense projects to be a top-25 unit, per S&P+. A road win over Lane Kiffin and company could be the key to a title come the final week of the season.
Sun Belt: Troy (+550)
I guess there's just something about fading the favorites in smaller conferences. After all, the aforementioned App State is the overwhelming top dog heading into the new year -- and they're followed by Arkansas State at +450. Only then do we get to Troy, who did nothing but go 10-3 with an identical record (7-1) to the Mountaineers in conference.
Three 10-win seasons earned Neal Brown a new job, but the Trojans have built a winning program with three straight bowl wins to their credit. They finished last year with the country's 48th-best defense and ranked 62nd in S&P+. They're 69th in this year's projections, which is well back of App State but ahead of Arkansas State (70th) despite longer odds.
You're not getting any big names or star players, but Troy has proven itself and returns a decent number of productive starters. A return of $550 for every $100 is worth the investment.
MAC: Western Michigan (+750)
Western Michigan is (like Utah) another team to look at for the over, but why stop there? The Broncos remain at +750 in the middle of the pack in the MAC, tied with the likes of Eastern Michigan and Miami (OH), and behind all of Northern Illinois (+700), Ohio (+350) and Toledo, the favorites at +150.
Frankly, not much about this makes sense. Toledo is coming off a seven-win season and ranks 78th in projected S&P+. WMU also went 7-6 in 2018, but they were without their lead quarterback for three of their losses, meaning they were 6-3 when Jon Wassink was under center. The senior will aim to lead a very experienced team (ninth in returning offensive production) past the ranks of the favorites in conference.
Western Michigan hasn't gotten the same respect since the departure of coach P.J. Fleck, but they should be getting it this year. They might be the best dollar-for-dollar play in the conference champs market.
Mountain West: Utah State (+900)
Admittedly, Utah State is off the wall. They aren't a well-known football school and are back to the coach they had before the departed Matt Wells. But last year they went and won the New Mexico Bowl en route to an 11-2 season. The fact that they opened at +1200 to win the conference is a bit insulting if you're an Aggies fan, but they have been bet down accordingly.
Utah State's starting quarterback, Jordan Love, is probably the best arm in the conference. As a sophomore, he completed 64% of his passes on his way to 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns. He made seven more trips to the end zone via the ground, proving himself a dual-threat weapon and rising up to a super-longshot at the Heisman this season.
Love is a big reason to lay money on Utah State, but he isn't the only one. The Aggies are a decently-rounded squad, drawing a 7.6 projected S&P+ -- good enough for 42nd of all teams and 2nd in the conference. Boise State (24th in S&P+) is correctly priced, but San Diego State (+500) and Fresno State (+390) fall below them, thereby creating value. The top three are drawing too much attention, but there's where we take advantage.