COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Odds Shark released the most recent national championship odds for the 2016-17 college football season, it didn't take long to spot the first head-scratcher on the list.
It came at the very top.
Despite dealing with a mass exodus of experienced NFL-ready talent while preparing to face its toughest schedule of the Urban Meyer era, it was Ohio State who the offshore gambling site proclaimed as college football's national championship favorite for the coming year.
With 6-1 odds, the Buckeyes edged out defending national champ Alabama (7-1), runner-up Clemson (15-2) and rival Michigan (15-2) as the favorites to capture college football's crown in the coming year. As recently as a month ago, Ohio State was listed behind the Crimson Tide and Tigers—who both still had their current odds—with the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Baylor tied for third at 12-1.
So why the change when all that's happened since now and then was a national signing day where Alabama inked a higher-ranked class than Ohio State?
First, it's important to note that odds aren't always a reflection of what oddsmakers project will happen, but rather what will protect them from potentially dangerous payouts on what bettors deem as strong value picks.
So while Odds Shark still feels the same way about Alabama and Clemson as it did just weeks ago, based on their odds, early money on the Buckeyes' initial line likely forced oddsmakers to cut the potential payout on an Ohio State national championship in half. Betting on the Buckeyes makes a lot more sense when the payout is $12 for every $1 risked, rather than their current 6-1 odds.
With a relatively straightforward path to the College Football Playoff, arguably the Big Ten's best quarterback in J.T. Barrett returning, a three-time national champion head coach and the addition of the nation's fourth-ranked 2016 recruiting class, the rationale was certainly there for Ohio State to be perceived as a value pick based on the Buckeyes' potential return on investment at 12-1.
But even with that line of thinking in mind, it's hard to imagine so much money already coming in on Ohio State that it boosted the Buckeyes to becoming the new national title favorites before spring practice has even begun.
After all, there may not be a perceived national title contender facing more questions entering 2016 than Ohio State, which will be short on experienced talent taking the field in the coming year.
With 14 former Buckeyes preparing for the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, including nine underclassmen, Urban Meyer is plenty aware of the challenges facing his relatively young roster in the coming year. Ohio State will return just three starters on each side of the ball from its 2015 team and is projected to have around 45 combined true freshmen and redshirt freshmen on its upcoming roster.
"I call it the year of development here," Meyer said on national signing day. "I don't know if that's ideal. I'm not sure you want 40—you want better spacing out than that. But sometimes that doesn't always happen that way."
Offensively, the Buckeyes will be replacing 83.1 percent of their receiving yards and 73.1 percent of their rushing yards from 2015. Defensively, they lost seven of their top 10 tacklers and the NFL draft's potential No. 1 overall pick in defensive end Joey Bosa.
Even if they can make it to the College Football Playoff, it's tough to count on such an inexperienced team beating the likes of Alabama and Clemson, each of which return key players and only seemingly got better this past signing day.
And while Ohio State can certainly point to its 2014 campaign as proof that a group of first-year contributors is capable of a successful playoff run, that Buckeyes team didn't face a schedule as daunting as the one this year's squad appears to be preparing for.
By the third week of the season, Ohio State will likely find itself an underdog, traveling to Norman to face 2015 playoff participant Oklahoma. The Sooners are slated to return 14 starters from last year's team, including second-team All-American quarterback Baker Mayfield.
But if the Buckeyes can pull off an upset or find themselves in the same position as their 2014 team did, falling to Virginia Tech in the second week of the season, Ohio State faces a significantly tougher Big Ten slate in the coming year as well.
Taking part in a nine-game conference schedule for the fist time, the Buckeyes' divisional crossover opponents from the Big Ten West include Wisconsin (in Madison), Nebraska and Northwestern, three programs which combined for a 26-13 record in 2015. In the East, Ohio State will play Penn State on the road, as well as Michigan State, which has beaten the Buckeyes in two of their past three matchups.
That's not to mention that a regular-season finale with archrival Michigan still looms as well. Under second-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines appear to have their most formidable roster in nearly a decade, as evidenced by the recent adjustment in their championship odds from 12-1 to 15-2 in Odds Shark's most recent release.
"We certainly monitor everything," Meyer said after Michigan inked the nation's fifth-ranked class on signing day. "Not just them, but the Eastern side is one of the most competitive conference divisions in college football. So we know everything that everybody's doing."
Given the parallels between this year's team and the 2014 Buckeyes, who were similarly short on experienced talent but still managed to capture the first-ever CFP National Championship, the case for an Ohio State national title run is also compelling. No Meyer-coached team can ever be counted out, and even with a loss to Oklahoma, a successful run through the Big Ten would likely result in a playoff appearance.
But betting on the Buckeyes as a championship underdog makes much more sense than wagering on them as the favorites, which by definition is the role Ohio State now finds itself playing.
It's one the Buckeyes are seemingly undeserving of given all the question marks in their outlook for the 2016 season.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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