Sports look silly from 50,000 feet above Earth. “Q” from Star Trek would say (condescendingly of course) that the way college football’s 2020 preseason went was drearily predictable, given the political climate of the United States and all-around human mendacity.
Conferences that make money for the eldest oligarchical interests, centered in the southeast where a conservative electorate is determined to celebrate autumn no matter what, are more likely to be playing pigskin. Leagues from the west coast, northeast (with exception of the American Athletic Conference), and various other blue strong-holds are less likely to start playing ball, at least until Washington D.C. politics give them a reason to feel optimistic about life again.
But the truth is simpler, yet more complex in a way. Coronavirus was brought to the United States through travel hubs, which means that the biggest cities have been in for a wallop, while the Alabama and Carolina countrysides remain relatively unperturbed by the crisis. Urban governments tend to be Democratic and rural civic leaders tend to be Republican, but watching local news is still a bi-partisan activity. Presidents and ADs of colleges near COVID-ravaged towns have decided that there’s no way to put on a football season without another dangerous rash of outbreaks. After all, no strategy they’ve implemented so far has reliably stopped the virus. On campuses far from major airports, where coronavirus case loads have appeared far more manageable, it’s natural that the consensus opinion leans toward giving the season a shot.
There are, of course, SEC schools that play football (and teach classes) virtually on top of COVID hotbeds, but COVID-19 is not the only contagion going around. Optimism is contagious too.
Nick Saban is correct to think student-athletes are more likely to get sick socializing at home than through practicing for a team in a highly-regulated environment. However, a skeptical – and sometimes petulant – sports media is about to put the Southeastern Conference under a microscope like never before experienced.
Gamblers who watch pro wrestling (or Trailer Park Boys) may better understand the dynamic of SEC football in 2020. Yes, teams will remain blood rivals, but they’ll be responsible for each other too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more sportsmanship on the field and fewer crazy final scores this season. The SEC in ’20 could be like a Trailer Park Boys episode in which outsiders attack the park, and Ricky and Jim Leahy join forces.
If the SEC had backed out of playing, there would probably be no college football this fall, and as a result of the Southeastern league’s last-minute “save” the conference may become even more of a focal point for controversy. NBC and the Associated Press may be seeking revenge after the “Dewey Defeats Truman” embarrassments of July and August, in which both outlets reported confidently that a cancellation of all FBS football was imminent. (Probable NBC headline in October: “Alabama Claims To Play, Beat Rival Team in Debunked Conspiracy Theory.”)
Thus unfolds the main SEC betting angle of the autumn. Any program that parts its hair the wrong way will be splashed with negative headlines and a ton of distractions. Who will be able to plod along successfully under the radar? Whose coaches are best at shutting-out externals?
If an unheralded school manages to avoid any infections or quarantines for 10+ weeks running, would that be enough to overcome a distracted Georgia or Florida’s edge in talent? Which teams are quietly working hard while others grapple with the politics of a pandemic?
Futures Odds to Win 2020 SEC Championship
(Courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook)
Texas A&M (+1500)
Wiseguys are high on ‘Bama despite QB Tua Tagovailoa moving on to the National Football League. I felt that Tua’s replacement (and likely 2020 starter) Mac Jones was fine against Michigan in January, and provided a nice excuse for the Crimson Tide to become a run-first, field-position team again, throwing a lifeline to a diminished defense.
Given the 2019 Tide’s level of ball control against the Wolverines in the Sunshine State, Jones didn’t have to do much for Alabama to score enough points to win, and the D began to resemble Nick Saban’s shut-down units of the mid-10s.
But there will be more dangerous offenses than Michigan lined up in the SEC this year, and despite the return of most of the Alabama OL and offensive backfield, I’m not sure the Tide is a bargain to win the SEC at sub-EVEN prices. The defense must show that it can return to top-10 FBS dominance for Alabama to contend for yet more titles this fall, and though scouts are high on CB Patrick Surtain and a few other standouts, they’re also high on the 5 former starters who’ve left for the NFL.
We do know that Saban has been a powerful voice behind the scenes, not only in the fight to save college pigskin from cancellation, but for practicing as much as possible. Given Army West Point’s annihilation of a distracted and under-rehearsed MTSU team this weekend, we can observe that squads with plenty of focused preseason practice are going to be blow-out seekers in the early weeks.
It’s likely Alabama crushes Mizzou, a team from a liberal alcove with more distractions (including a fresh head-coaching change) and discontent off the field, in Week 1. ‘Bama is a great early-year pick to win football games. WagerBop just isn’t going to invest in a (-125) futures line with Georgia, Auburn, and LSU looming on a team’s schedule, and (lest we forget) absolutely 0 FCS or out-of-conference cupcakes to beat and build confidence along the way. The grueling regular season will stretch into December.
Georgia is also a popular bet due to Wake Forest transfer QB Jamie Newman taking over for Jake Fromm. It’s 1 of those half stop-gap, half-upgrade offseason moves that send betting markets spinning. The UGA offensive line and backfield are promising despite about half the ’19 unit going away in the NFL Draft, but I’m not high on the Georgia price either, with a punishing schedule in early October which will not allow Newman to acclimate between the hedges before taking on SEC royalty. SEC speculators are convinced that the Southeastern Conference is far superior to mid-tier programs in all other Power-5 leagues, so why gamble so readily on a QB from Wake Forest?
LSU looks like a strong pick at a generous 7.5-to-1. Not to say Louisiana State is a “solid” bet – there’s a difference between a safe, low-risk pick and a worthwhile Moon-shot. Ed Orgeron’s 2020 lineup could be like a million-dollar check that won’t cash, with an untested offensive line and the obvious loss of Joe Burrow at QB to sour an attack with great wide receivers and RBs like Chris Curry and John Emery poised to break out. On defense it’s the same story – LSU may enjoy a ball-hawking secondary or wind up with a frustrated, cushion-happy set of defensive backs, depending on whether Orgeron can whip a largely-new set of interior linemen and pass-rushers into shape in time.
Baton Rouge has experienced a late COVID-19 spike with very bad timing for the fall semester. However, the “Crocodile” has already managed to hold elaborate practices with the Tigers, some of which were closed to the media. Again, the disparate performances of Army and Navy (a 94-point gap in Week 1 outcomes!) tell us that programs with similar athletes, operating under the same rules, can have wildly-different results in their attempts to safely prepare. That benefits bets taken on long-shot conference bids. If LSU is 3 touchdowns worse per weekend than expected, the wager flops, but it also flops if Louisiana State is only about as good as pundits expect. If the Tigers are 3 scores per-game better than expected, the nearly 8-fold payoff is in play.
Finally, while Auburn is unlikely to win the league title, if War Eagle’s 30-to-1 conference championship odds lead to a 15-to-1 line on the Tigers to play in the SEC Championship Game, that’s a nice bet. Sportsbooks handle such “halved” futures odds differently and tend to release them as an afterthought, so look around.
Now let’s have some schedule-parsing fun with win-totals on the rest of the SEC field.
2020 SEC Football Win Total O/U Lines
(Lines courtesy of MyBookie)
Arkansas – O/U (1.5)
Guess this is rock bottom for the struggling Razorbacks. a (1.5) win-total line on a 10-game season. In fairness, it’s only against the SEC. Arkansas football won’t stay lousy forever, but for now, the ailing program should have fair chances to beat Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and perhaps even Missouri.
Kentucky – O/U (5)
The Wildcats should be an exceptionally fun bunch to watch, with multiple multi-talented QBs, a fierce OL, and lots of up-and-comers on defense and special teams. Much of the skepticism of UK that still exists is based on history and not objective merit – dress Kentucky’s best athletes in Georgia or LSU uniforms and scouts would swoon.
Mississippi State – O/U (4)
You can’t say MyBookie is afraid of pushes! However, by setting a win total line at (4) with a (+160) payoff on Over and a (-200) market on Under, the sportsbook has removed all tenable value from the line. Mississippi State is unlikely to win 5+ contests vs a hefty schedule that includes an opener with LSU and Kentucky, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia in a 6-game stretch. At the same time, 1-to-2 payoff on a < 4 win total bet you’ve got to fret over until December is bunk.
Pick: No bet
Missouri – O/U (2.5)
Even if the Missouri Tigers start badly – and they probably will against a killer slate – Eli Drinkwitz’s new side could actually sweep the final 3 games against USC, Arkansas, and Mississippi State, following a season of steady development.
Ole Miss – O/U (4)
The obvious pick (Under) is the same (-115) price as the high side.
South Carolina – O/U (3.5)
The Gamecocks’ fortuitous schedule does not include a game with Alabama but does include 3 home games out of 4 in November.
Tennessee – O/U (5)
A crazy-inflated win total line on a program for which big blunders, not big victories, is the #1 calling card.
Vanderbilt – O/U (1)
Ha! That’s not a very respectful line out of Las Vegas on the Commodores. But the Over market is a (+155) payoff if Vanderbilt can manage 2 victories. With games scheduled against both Mississippi teams and the lack of parity expected in this year’s pigskin, it’s likely that Vanderbilt will find 2+ vulnerable opponents to vanquish.
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.