I’ve made a close study of the Las Vegas Bowl over the past couple of years, and it’s amusing how a hometown industry becomes overwhelmed by outside influences and offshore betting action. The result is a moneyline gambler’s bonanza.
The formula has gone like this – the Las Vegas Bowl committee selects the Mountain West Conference champion to face a marquee Power-5 program that didn’t quite reach the College Football Playoff or the New Year’s Six. In 2017, the match-up was Boise State vs Oregon. In 2018, it was Fresno State vs Arizona State. In each case, the P5 representatives have suffered NFL Draft-motivated player defections and inner turmoil while the MWC champ prepared in lock-step unity. Yet the media continued to overrate the aristocrats’ chances, leading to a nice ML price and a favorable point spread on each mid-major.
If my business was gambling and not writing, I might have made a fortune since 2017 on the Las Vegas Bowl alone. Boise State crushed Oregon as I expected the Broncos to, and the Bulldogs of Fresno State played – to win – the game – and prevailed over Herman Edwards and ASU in ’18.
What strikes me as strange is not that there’s an annual rush of wagers on the Power-5 to win the Las Vegas Bowl, but that bookmakers – many of whom still live in Las Vegas – don’t know better than to open with minus-moneylines on the Mountain West winners to beat disappointed and only-90% motivated squads that finished 3rd or 4th in a league. Of all places on Earth for analysts to know better!
Sin City residents have been watching sleek and talented UNLV teams get dusted by Boise State and Fresno State forever. They ought to know how dangerous a Mountain West “underdog” can be against the big-shots.
Looking at the lines for this Saturday’s meeting between Vanderbilt of the SEC and visiting Nevada-Las Vegas, it appears as though the gambling community is ready to compensate for its mistakes. Maybe too ready. Vandy’s line-to-win opened at 1-to-5.75 and has shortened to (-600), but the point spread has shrunk from a 3-score margin to just (-14.5) and could wind up at 2 TDs + XPs by kickoff time.
Gee Haw! I mean, whoa – whatever the opposite of “Gee Haw” is – slow down a little bit here mushers. UNLV is from the Mountain West, yes, and the conference has had a hex on the Power-5 – not just anyone from the Power-5 but schools like Florida State – throughout the early weeks of the 2019 season. It’s not just the Boise Blue prevailing in a hostile Seminole setting that the Broncos didn’t even know they’d face – it’s results like Hawaii over Arizona in Week Zero in which the Rainbow Warriors showed that vulnerable P5 programs can lose to mid-majors who are not expected to contend in their leagues.
But it’s important to pick the right representative of a mid-major conference that impresses you. As high as the MWC’s ceiling may be, its floor is lower than any of 6 or 7 other sets of FBS teams, and that’s bad news for gamblers rushing to take UNLV-to-cover in Nashville.
Here’s 3 in-depth picks and 3 bonus “quick hitters” – aka what the UNLV Rebels might need to call to get any running lanes at all in the 1st half on Saturday.
Colorado Buffaloes at Oregon Ducks (Friday Night)
Oregon used to blow-out Colorado pretty bad in Eugene and in Boulder, and gridiron gurus who are staying home (and perhaps gambling) this Friday night deserve some type of optimism for an entertaining late scrum on TV. So many Ducks-over-Buffaloes snoozers in the early 2010s might cause stubborn “long-term trend”-style bloggers to lean to Oregon before the teams kick-off at Autzen Stadium. The blow-outs are still fresh in memory.
Something is causing a massive betting rush on the Ducks, whose point spread has ballooned to (-21) since opening. But Colorado’s 41-38 win in Eugene back in 2016 may have been an omen of insecurity in the Oregon program in the wake of Chip Kelly’s departure. The Ducks are still swift, dynamic, and talented…but more prone to the “big” upset than in the fast-break offense years during which the team simply out-lasted exhausted Pac-12 rivals who weren’t 2-deep elite at every position. Does CU’s point spread for Friday deserve consideration based on line-movement alone?
Colorado clearly doesn’t offer-up the defense that Oregon can, and the Buffaloes’ 2 losses were to marginal opponents in Air Force and Arizona. But a pair of stirring wins over competent Power-5 outfits Nebraska and ASU have Boulder buzzing. Steven Montez just won’t leave campus (can’t imagine why) and was excellent in the win against Herm Edwards’ Sun Devils, and currently banged-up 5’8″ speedster K.D. Nixon made history with a catch-and-run spanning 96 yards in the overtime win over NU. There was also some semblance of a worthy Buffs’ pass rush against the Cornhuskers.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert would trade all the mainstream media hype in the world for a mean defense, and it appears as if Mario Cristobal may have built an imposing front-7 in Eugene. Duck defenders gave up around 5 yards per carry but intercepted Bo Nix twice while inside LB Troy Dye tore up the field in a 27-21 loss. Since then the Ducks are 4-0 and have given up a grand total of 22 points in 16 quarters.
CU-to-cover (or even to-win at (+775)) could be a decent wager on general principle and because the public is so apt to get caught-up in Oregon hype. But I’m feeling the Over (57) since CU’s solid rush and weaker secondary will lead to Herbert scrambling and either making big plays, going down, or coughing up the ball. Feast-or-famine on Duck drives means a “longer” game, more possessions, and more short-field opportunities for both sides. The Ducks won’t play cautiously following the debacle of 3 years ago, meaning that 57+ points is going to come from somewhere – a 48-21 final wouldn’t be a surprise.
Texas Longhorns vs Oklahoma Sooners
Ah, the Red River Showdown – best excuse ever to mention fried Coca-Cola in a gridiron preview.
It’s no surprise that the Over/Under total is (75.5) for this year’s meeting at the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners are putting up astronomical numbers with Jalen Hurts under center, averaging almost 650 yards and also 53+ points per game. Hurts is completing just over 75% of his passes and has a shining 14:2 TD/INT ratio through 5 appearances, adding yards and points on the ground with an amazing 8+ yard average per-carry.
The Longhorn offense is also a well-oiled machine, and QB Sam Ehlinger is right up there stats-wise with Hurts. Ehlinger has amassed 1,448 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and just 2 INT’s, and he has a former top recruit who spurned Baylor after the scandals who is now emerging at UT in receiver Devin Duvernay.
Duvernay leads the nation with 45 catches. While he is used in a possession role for the most part, Ehlinger has capable outside receivers in Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith. Both are flourishing as downfield threats.
Hurts has become “bulletin board” fodder for the opposing (+285) underdogs as Longhorn defensive B.J. Foster quickly spun the OU quarterback’s “I’ve played in Iron Bowls, I can handle a big game” remark as a slight against Texas and against the Big-12. The Longhorns are hearing what they want to hear – Hurts meant no offense as you’d have to be an idiot to think the Iron Bowl isn’t comparable to the Red River rivalry as a bright-lights setting with a lot of pressure. Did UT notice the fanfare for Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, by chance? Maybe not – the team was too busy winning the game – but still.
Foster and company will bring fight to the field, making it appear as though Las Vegas has overlooked the wrong defense while setting the odds. Through 5 games, Texas has already intercepted 9 passes, including 4 last week in a 42-31 win at West Virginia.
Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray is likely to make big plays from the LB spot, and OU’s defense is no pushover under the tutelage of Alex Grinch…who might steal Christmas from a few Big-12 rivals hoping to play later in winter.
Texas has a big edge in the kicking game, however, and that’s why I’m liking UT-to-cover (+11) at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. Oklahoma’s PK Calum Sutherland has been suspended from the team, paving the way for fellow sophomore Gabe Brkic. Brkic has not been tested beyond low-pressure chip shots in conference play. Longhorn PK Cameron Dicker has a monster leg in comparison and will likely be in the NFL soon.
UNLV Rebels at Vanderbilt Commodores
Macro-analysis – a fancy term for looking at a bunch of final scores and outcomes – is the bedrock of all handicapping. Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier and George Foreman destroyed Joe Frazier, causing the “common opponent” factor to sway the odds heavily in Foreman’s favor going into the Rumble in the Jungle. Of course we all know how that fight turned out, but recall that “Big” George Foreman was also only a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 underdog to beat Michael Moorer on the night George KO’d the unbeaten champ. Fans loved the new/old Heavyweight champion, but high-roller gamblers had used big-picture analysis to determine that Foreman had lost very few bouts in 100s of appearances, and that he had knocked-out 50+ smaller fighters like Moorer while stacking-up that prodigious overall W/L record.
I can’t understand why Las Vegas and the betting public would collaborate on a big-picture mistake like the Vanderbilt vs UNLV point spread and moneylines. Not with an SEC team in the picture – even an SEC program lampooned as an “example cupcake” (with yours truly guilty-as-charged) along with Coastal Carolina and Little Sisters of the Poor.
Yes, Vandy has looked just as bad against marginal opponents as the Rebels so far this season. But consider that the teams Vanderbilt has lost to would look a lot shinier than those UNLV has lost to if they played comparable schedules.
For instance, the Commodores lost 42-24 to the Purdue Boilermakers despite Riley Neal’s near-400-yard passing display (though it was surpassed by counterpart Elijah Sinclair) and the Purdue offense going nowhere on the ground for most of 4 quarters. The Boilermakers haven’t looked so hot before or since, losing 3 out of 4 other games. But they’ve had to play Georgia, LSU, Northern Illinois and Ole Miss.
In contrast, Wyoming – which blew-out UNLV with a 26-point 2nd quarter and a 53-17 result – has beaten Missouri, Texas State, and Idaho, losing to Tulsa prior to the Nevada Las-Vegas game. If the Cowboys had Purdue’s schedule and the Boilermakers had Wyoming’s schedule, bettors would be focused on how Vanderbilt, not UNLV, has looked good in flashes against top competition.
The initial point spread of Vandy (-16.5) was closer to an accurate line than the current number. Take Vanderbilt-to-cover and increase units if the spread dips to (-14) points even.
3 Bonus Quick-Takes for FBS Saturday Week 7
Pigskin bettors are on to something in Idaho, taking the low-side of a (60.5) Over/Under total for a meeting between Hawaii and host Boise State on Saturday night. The Rainbows will be happy in a late-night setting but maybe not as prolific on offense as bookmakers expect, and that goes for the Boise Blue too. Wednesday’s “Appalachian State 17, Louisiana 7” outcome taught O/U gamblers that even explosive offenses can get bogged-down against bad field position and excellent down-field coverage by well-coached adversaries with 3-unit intensity, and the Hawaii and BSU programs each qualify in spades.
Army should cover (-5.5) vs WKU as Las Vegas has down-valued the Black Knights too much after a sparing loss to Tulane.
Finally, Northern Illinois is an awesome moneyline pick at (+205) to beat an Ohio team at 2-3 and prone to letdowns as ever.
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.