So another season of college pigskin is here, and we’ve got everything lined up here at the NCAAF end of the website, with preseason futures and handicaps and predictions arranged like so many (Oregon) ducks in a row.
Power-5 conferences have been case-studied, linemen have been profiled before their noses can be bloodied, and though WagerBop isn’t about to try to analyze all of the Week 1 moneyline movement through a wild summer of Las Vegas action, we’ll get in on the individual-game prediction circus as early as next week.
But wait – what are we forgetting? Oh, yes…silly me. The Big Ten.
All 14 teams of it.
Then again, 2018-19 wasn’t the most memorable season in Big Ten history. Urban Meyer departed Columbus in the wake of scandal, and the Buckeyes failed to qualify for the College Football Playoff despite winning the conference yet again, thanks to another inexplicable blow-out loss to a 2nd-tier league foe on the road (Purdue this time).
Scott Frost’s debut at Nebraska was a dud on scoreboards, though a glance at Las Vegas odds-to-win the Big Ten in 2019 show that pundits simply gave Frost credit for tearing down and starting from scratch.
But the role of dangerous underdog has been filled by Northwestern, an upstart that gave Meyer’s Buckeyes what-for in the legendary coach’s final postseason go-around for OSU.
Let’s look closer at 8 potential 2019-20 Big Ten champions…and what Bovada Sportsbook thinks about each school’s chances to prevail in Indianapolis this December.
Ohio State ((+185) Odds-to-Win Big Ten at Bovada Sportsbook)
It has been a long time since Ohio State has faced series questions at arguably the 2 most important chairs in a football program – skipper and starting QB. New head coach Ryan Day went 3-0 leading the Buckeyes while filling in for a suspended Meyer last season, but is still a greenhorn compared to his predecessor.
At quarterback, former Georgia Bulldog Justin Fields takes over the starting role for 2019 Washington Redskins rookie Dwayne Haskins.
Fields is a former 5-star recruit and is said to have easily won the starting job for the Buckeyes this season as a sophomore. However, he didn’t have the best spring camp in ’19. Sometimes I think it’s good for a QB to make mistakes in camp and in exhibition play – work all of the nerves and no-no’s out prior to the onslaught of pressure.
Defensively, Ohio State is blessed with even more NFL talent, and the depth chart is filled with 4 and 5-star recruits at every position. CB Shaun Wade is one of the best in the conference, and there’s a mean pass rusher on the edge in DE Chase Young, who could be 1 of those unlikely defenders to go #1 in the NFL Draft.
Scarlet & Gray is favored by 4 TDs in the season-opener vs FAU on Saturday.
Preseason rankings (bleh) are giving plenty of love to the Buckeyes, but could this finally be the season Jim Harbaugh gets it done in Ann Arbor? Michigan went 10-3 in the fiery head coach’s 4th season at the helm, and this Michigan squad returns 8 starters on offense.
Pep Hamilton is out as passing game coordinator, and a brand new playbook has been installed this offseason. Former Alabama assistant Josh Gattis was brought in to innovate a more pro-style offense utilizing spread formations and a faster tempo. Talent on the outside like Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones should allow senior QB Shea Patterson opportunities to throw check-downs and still rack-up RAC yards.
Defensively the team is still burly and stubborn, but it’s hard to forget watching the OL and DL take turns losing on the line-of-scrimmage against Notre Dame last summer.
Michigan’s schedule sets the team up for a potential 6-0 start, but watch out for Army and Wisconsin in Weeks 2 and 3.
There’s a big leap on the odds board from the 2nd and 3rd-most popular picks to win the Big Ten, and Nebraska is considered the best “sleeper” pick of the bunch below the 2 Big Ten East rivals profiled above.
Could a team from a weaker conference sneak-up and get into the championship scrum at Lucas Oil? That’s what bettors looking at the West division are hoping, but you still have to beat OSU or Michigan or Penn State once you get there.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Cornhuskers might be ready for a feat like that in only Scott Frost’s 2nd year in Lincoln.
Frost has a good’un at QB in sophomore Adrian Martinez, a dual-threat who threw for 2,617 yards last season, and Martinez has J.D. Spielman to pass the egg to. Spielman is small at just 5’9” 180 pounds, but the former Minnesota prep star showed his ability to get loose and make plays last season. The offense has also added JUCO transfer Dedrick Mills, who scored 12 times as a freshman for Georgia Tech.
Nebraska’s defense has lost a few starters but will be led by senior linebacker Mohamed Barry. It’s good to have an upperclassman helping to hold the front-7 together, but the ‘Husker defense hasn’t been spectacular in ages and could use a fresh start with new faces anyway.
Overall respect for the Wisconsin program is evident in the team’s 8-to-1 line to win the conference in 2019.
After all, last year’s Badgers went 5-4 in the Big Ten. The starting QB spot is up in the air this season as Alex Hornibrook is no longer with the program. It seems as though Jack Coan will start the season under center, but freshman Graham Mertz is lurking and has been touted as the best QB the Badgers have had since Russell Wilson. That’s great that a potential NFL prospect is in the mix…but the Badgers need help at the position now.
Play-callers will give Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor as much work as he can handle. Taylor has accumulated over 4,000 yards rushing in just 2 seasons. In a 3-OT game at Purdue last season, Taylor rushed 33 times for 321 yards. The Badgers have lost a few starters along the offensive line but should be better on defense, and hopefully enough doses of the star RB will keep opposing pass rushers at bay.
Michigan State (+900)
Yet another sub-10-to-1 market on a team with uncertainty at QB. Senior passer Brian Lewerke and the Michigan State Spartan offense struggled at times in 2018, and backup Rocky Lombardi will challenge for a starting role, but it looks like Lewerke will start the season under center.
WR Cody White also caught the sophomore blues after a promising frosh season in which he caught 45 passes. Connor Heyward is listed first on the depth chart at the RB position, but coach Mark Dantonio has said that the backfield will be a fluid situation. I hope Heyward “flows” into the game on 3rd down a lot, because he’s a terrific receiver.
An entire defensive line returns for the Spartans. Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes is back, and upperclassman Joe Bachie is another NFL caliber talent. I haven’t mentioned special teams in this preview yet, but with MSU’s depth at linebacker and elsewhere, the kick-coverage and return game could be an important catalyst for Dantonio’s squad in 2019.
Tip – bet the Over (48) for the upcoming MSU vs Tulsa game. The Golden Hurricane won’t be able to run with Michigan State on special teams for 4 quarters.
It’s not like the school doesn’t have a tradition of big plays on opposing 4th downs.
Penn State (+1500)
I know the East division is tough, but give me a break. Penn State at twice-as-long of a futures line as Nebraska?
Former QB Trace McSorley has moved on to the NFL, and redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford will be taking over under center. That’s all some handicappers care about, but there is a lot of elite young talent in Happy Valley, highlighted by 6’4” 235-pound redshirt freshman WR Justin Shorter and sophomore K.J. Hamler. Sophomore Ricky Slade will be the primary tailback, but watch out for his classmate Pat Freiermuth at tight end.
Meanwhile, James Franklin has recruited an NFL talent DE in Yetur Gross-Matos, who has freakish skill at 6’5” 265-pounds, and another scary greenhorn in LB Micah Parsons who recorded 82 tackles as a true freshman.
The Hawkeyes have lost tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hokenson to the NFL, and it seems as though 3rd-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley is lacking in similar weapons this season. Junior Shaun Beyer will have some huge shoes to fill at TE, and the offense will lean heavily on the running game with juniors Makhi Sargent and Toren Young leading the charge.
As always, Iowa has NFL talent along the offensive line. Tackle Tristan Wirfs is projecting as a top-10 pick should he declare himself draft-eligible after this season, and 6’6” 320-pound tackle Alaric Jackson is also a probable future NFL baller.
Only 5 starters return on defense, keeping Iowa’s line at 26-to-1 at Bovada despite the sack-happy excellence of rusher A.J. Epenesa.
Talk about an eye-popping futures market.
The Northwestern Wildcats won the Big Ten West last season, going 8-1 in conference play, and eventually lost to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Northwestern also beat Utah at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego…and returns a majority of starters on offense.
Pat Fitzgerald has 2 very capable QBs to choose from and is developing fine new traditions of strong defense and special teams by the Windy City.
Why is Northwestern a 40-to-1 conference bet? I don’t know, but I’m sure liking the Wildcats at 2-to-1 against Stanford on opening Saturday.
Notes on 6 Other Big Ten Conference-Winner Lines
If that photo is restricted just find any photo of Coach Michael Locksley of the Maryland Terrapins where he’s not coaching a different team that is visible-by-jersey. Maryland wears light red compared to his other team (Alabama).
A typical Bovada “troll” line tempts bettors at (+100000) on Rutgers, but all the Scarlet Knights have been doing lately is prove that an 80% rush, 20% passing offense won’t work unless you get out of the spread formation and do it right.
Maryland is also a 500-to-1 wager in head coach Michael Locksley’s maiden turn at the wheel as a non-interim skipper. Illinois is less promising despite “shorter” (+35000) odds, a program that continues to do the same things and expect different results.
Purdue, or “the Purdue!” as Sean Astin calls the Boilermakers in Rudy, is a (+2800) bet after whipping Ohio State and taking Missouri to the limit in ’18. P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers are an unproven and dubious commodity at (+1500).
Finally, I was all set to cover an Indiana freshman who I’ve reported on at my High School blog pages, but darn it, tailback Ivory Winters – whose Hayti Indians won the Class 1 Missouri State Championship in 2018 – is transferring out of Bloomington.
I’m also not a fan of Indiana’s Big Ten chances even at 180-to-1 at Bovada, so I’m transferring-out of this preview.
See you in Week 2!
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.