It would be easy to circle the conference favorites, light up premature victory cigars and call it a day. But where on earth is the fun in that?
Let us dig deeper—much deeper—and search for the longshots with the kind of value that could lead to the backyard swimming pool Clark Griswold committed kidnap over.
As the college football world braces for actual football, the sportsbooks—in Las Vegas and online—are prepping for games by offering up point spreads and betting options on players, teams and conferences.
The latest odds posted by Bovada.lv (h/t Kegs ‘n Eggs) center on the power-five conferences, and more specifically, the chances each team has of coming away conference champion. From Florida State at a value-drained 4/11 in the ACC to Purdue at a robust 250/1 to win the Big Ten, the brands that will soon consume your Saturdays are all included.
And while it’s difficult to bet against a handful of these favorites—they are the chalk for good reason—the search for value is far more entertaining and rewarding. In an effort to find a big score (and hopefully a pool with a diving board that won’t break after a few faulty cannonballs), here are a handful of teams down the oddsboard that could make noise if things go their way.
The Value Pick: Iowa (14/1)
At first glance, it's almost as if a portion of the schedule was somehow cut off. Maybe the Internet stole it; maybe your dog ate it, or maybe the Scheduling Gods decided it was time to throw Kirk Ferentz a bone.
The Hawkeyes won’t play Ohio State or Michigan State. They will play Wisconsin and Nebraska, although both games will come at home to close out the year. This, more than some intriguing pieces in place, is why Iowa makes some sense. Well, that and the division.
Remember: Legends and Leaders is no more. The Big Ten is now geographically set with East and West, which means the Hawkeyes need to beat out Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. That’s not a given, but it certainly helps to be across from Ohio State and Michigan State in a year such as this.
In the end, winning the West won’t cash in 14/1. But all you want is a shot and a trip to the championship game.
Led by Brandon Scherff at left tackle—arguably the best offensive lineman in the country—and a backfield that is talented, versatile and (for now) healthy, the offense has a chance to be one of the best Iowa City has seen in years. Jake Rudock, who was quietly efficient at quarterback a season ago, should be much better than he was a season ago.
Defensively, Carl Davis will anchor a line that could be one of the better units in the conference. It’s not on Ohio State’s level in terms of talent and depth, but almost everyone from last year’s more-than-stellar group is back.
Overall, it remains unlikely that Iowa will conquer the more talented teams if it comes to that. At 14/1, however, this is an off-the-pack team that figures.
The Value Pick: Missouri (30/1)
Ole Miss at 12/1 and Florida at 15/1 are appealing, although let’s dig a little deeper. Down the oddsboard we go, and we stop at the Missouri Tigers.
It’s easy to forget that Missouri represented the SEC East in the SEC Championship. It’s also easy to lose sight of the fact that the Tigers were a blown field goal away from an undefeated regular season. Of course, it would be an unfair not to highlight that this season occurred with the likes of Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington and Henry Josey, none of which will be back for 2014.
You cannot replace talent like this with a snap of the finger, and I will by no means paint a picture that says otherwise. Missouri, however, does have some things working in its favor.
For starters, this is the side of the SEC you want to be on. While South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and others present a challenge, the SEC East is still ripe for the taking. It may not open up as it did last year for Mizzou, but nothing is decided. It remains wide open.
Helping the Tigers is a schedule that isn’t horrible by SEC standards. Games at South Carolina and Florida are no fun—neither is a home game against Georgia and a tricky late visit to Texas A&M—but there are much worse SEC slates.
And then there is Maty Mauk, the nation’s ultimate wild card. In limited time at quarterback last season, Mauk looked the part of a future star. How he performs over the course of an entire season will dictate how far Missouri can take yet another underdog role.
The Value Pick: Louisville (15/1)
Here’s the reality of the ACC: Each team not named Florida State—including North Carolina, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami—should be considered enormous underdogs. The only difference between these teams and everyone else is that they’re not getting true underdog odds.
That’s where Louisville comes in at 15/1; the great unknown in a conference that many have already decided on.
It’s hard to argue with. The talent gap between Florida State and every other ACC team—maybe even nationally—is significant. But because betting the chalk is incredibly boring and not all that lucrative, let’s bet on Bobby Petrino instead.
The truth is we don’t know much about Petrino’s second stop in the City of Bourbon, especially as he inherits a roster he is still learning. We do know that few coaches can teach offense like he can, however, which is a great place to start.
Gone are Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Preston Brown—four players that were integral to the Cardinals’ success over the past two seasons. The cupboard has been cleaned out, but it is nowhere close to empty.
Even without Bridgewater, the offense is in wonderful shape. DeVante Parker is one of the nation’s premier pass-catchers, while Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer should be one of the better duos in the conference. There are weapons everywhere—particularly at wideout and tight end—which is a great way to set the table.
The real question, of course, comes at quarterback, where Will Gardner is expected to take over. His 32-of-37 spring game was certainly an encouraging start, although take from that what you will.
The defense has enormous holes to fill, but there is talent on this roster. More importantly, there is value in a team that doesn’t have a tough road slate and will at least get Florida State at home on an unassuming Thursday. Look out for that one.
The Value Pick: Kansas State (10/1)
This is, without question, the least value-packed selection of all five picks. While Oklahoma and Baylor are considered the chalks of the Big 12—and rightfully so—plenty of prognosticators will tab the Wildcats as their preseason pick. No one will laugh at them for doing so.
When you can get 10/1 on a team ripe with offensive promise and a coach who has achieved wizard status, you take it. And that’s exactly what we’ll do here.
Unlike every other conference, the Big 12 comes with a caveat: There is no championship game, which means the work will have to be done in the regular season. Because of this, scheduling is critically important.
Now, Kansas State is not perfect. The offensive line is under construction while running back doesn’t have a convincing fix yet. But even with these holes, there should be a flood of optimism.
Tyler Lockett is the nation’s most productive wide receiver, and Jake Waters is poised to star at quarterback now that the job is all his. He flashed glimpses last year, finding the end zone 18 times in his final seven games.
The schedule, which includes an early out-of-conference game against Auburn, is not easy. K-State will travel to Oklahoma and Baylor, and the Wildcats also draw Texas and Oklahoma State at home in back-to-back weeks.
As tough as it may seem, Oklahoma and Baylor—while loaded—are beatable. Kansas State should at least be mentioned with these two when talking about the cream of the conference, and that’s exactly why we're happy with 10/1.
The Value Pick: Arizona State 12/1
Does it feel good to bet against Oregon, UCLA and Stanford? Not particularly, but we're going to do it anyway today.
The chalk in the Pac-12 is pretty defined. Oregon is just about even money—meaning 1/1—while UCLA, Stanford and even USC are all 6/1 or less. For our Pac-12 pick, however, we're doubling those odds and tabbing Arizona State at 12/1 as a team that fits what we're looking for.
Let us not forget that this team represented the Pac-12 South in the Pac-12 Championship last year. Many of the offensive players that made this possible will be back in 2014.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly will have DJ Foster and Jaelen Strong—two of the conference’s premier playmakers—at his disposal yet again. If Kelly can improve on his play just a little bit (and he has already been quite proficient), this offense could be one of the nation’s best. That’s the good news.
The bad news is the defense, and this is why Arizona State checks in at 12/1 and not 6/1. The Sun Devils have to replace just about everyone, including defensive tackles Will Sutton and Davon Coleman along with linebacker Carl Bradford. Todd Graham has a handful of intriguing JUCO players he hopes to lean on, although these won’t be easy voids to fill.
On the schedule front, Arizona State also has work in front of it. The month-long stretch between September 25 and October 25 includes a home game against UCLA, a trip to USC, a home game against Stanford and a road trip to Washington. We’ll learn a lot about Todd Graham’s team in that point, and the Pac-12 South will take shape sooner than later.
It’s by no means impossible—especially with this offense—but that 12/1 will have been earned.