Best Bets: 2021 college football season win totalsESPN PLUS ($ MATERIAL)
We are just 10 weeks from the start of college football season. Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill has released win totals for all teams. Betting analysts Chris "The Bear" Fallica, Doug Kezirian, Tyler Fulghum, CFB writers Bill Connelly and David Hale, as well as Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics, have picked their favorite ones.
Alabama Crimson Tide under 11.5 (-120)Connelly: Like Ohio State, Alabama is quite obviously going to be very good in 2021. The Tide will likely be projected No. 1 in SP+ and, well, just about every other projection system. But 11.5 is a really high number.
It's hard to remember sometimes, but Alabama does lose games, even in the regular season. Even during this absurdly dominant run, the Tide have finished the regular season unbeaten four times in the past 12 years. With a new quarterback and three games away from home against projected top-15 teams, odds are solid that they won't get to 12-0 this year either -- SP+ gives them an 85% chance of losing at least once. At -120 odds, the break-even point for this bet is about 55%, but that's still quite a bit of value.
Ohio State Buckeyes under 11 (+100)
Connelly: There's usually going to be some value at each end of the bell curve, where the worst teams' win totals are too low and the best teams' are too high. Betting off that leads to what feels like provocative picks -- Ohio State's going to disappoint! ULM's going to surprise! -- but really, it's just a pure odds thing.
SP+ is likely going to end up ranking Ohio State fourth when the final preseason projections come out. Despite losing Justin Fields, Trey Sermon and company, the Buckeyes clearly remain the gold standard in the Big Ten. But they're going to play about five or six projected top-30 teams, three or four away from home. Even with a top-five rating, SP+ currently gives them only about a 6% chance of going 12-0, 21% of 11-1 and 73% chance of 10-2 or worse. They're obviously going to be very good, but there's a little more uncertainty here than normal, and 11 is a lot of wins.
North Carolina Tar Heels under 10 (-135)Fulghum: Sam Howell may be one of the more intriguing QBs to watch this season, but Mack Brown has a ton of production to replace around Howell on the offensive side of the ball. Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown, and Dazz Newsome all moved on to the NFL, and the quartet accounted for 48 total TDs last season.
Oregon Ducks over 9 (-115)
Fallica: Even if the Ducks lose in Columbus, 9-3 is a worst case scenario, and I think 10-2 is very likely. Joe Moorhead will have plenty of weapons at his disposal on the offensive side of the ball. Kayvon Thibodeaux and Noah Sewell will give opposing offenses tons of problems. Maybe the Ducks get tripped up on the road in Seattle or Salt Lake, but this roster is better than any Pac-12 team they will face.
Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns under 9Hale: When betting win totals, I focus almost exclusively on luck. Who was lucky the previous year and who was not? Those things tend to even out from one season to the next, offering ample room for profit if the public hasn't distinguished between skill and luck. Perhaps no team had more good luck in 2020 than Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns saw a +10 shift in turnover margin from 2019 to 2020, had one of the most beneficial starting field position differentials, and went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. All these metrics are apt to revert to the mean, making nine wins a tall task in an increasingly competitive Sun Belt.
USC Trojans under 8.5 (+105)Hale: One metric I always note is the year-to-year swing in points off turnover margin. Big moves in one direction are almost always followed the next year by a huge swing in the opposite direction. That's a huge red flag for USC, which saw a 60-point positive swing in points off turnover margin from 2019 to 2020 (fifth highest in FBS). Add in a 3-1 mark in games in which the Trojans trailed in the fourth quarter and an absolutely wild bit of field-position luck (more than 25% of their offensive drives started in opponent territory, while just 4% of their defensive drives did), and there's ample reason to think the Trojans' luck runs out in 2021.
Iowa Hawkeyes under 8.5 (-110)
Kezirian: Iowa tends to outperform expectations, but an 8-4 season still cashes the ticket. The upcoming schedule presents a lot of challenges. The annual rivalry game with Iowa State is in Ames, and the Hawkeyes have to travel to Wisconsin to play what should be a stout Badgers team. Additionally, home games against Indiana and Penn State and road games at Northwestern, Nebraska and Maryland all offer losable games.
UTSA Roadrunners under 8 (+115)Hale: Conference USA is always a crapshoot, and there doesn't appear to be a truly great team in the mix. Still, eight wins for a program that hasn't hit that mark since 2012 might be asking a lot, and then there's this: UTSA was 4-0 in games decided by a field goal or less last season. All seven of the Roadrunners' wins came against teams with a losing record. They were 0-5 against teams that finished the season above .500.
Michigan Wolverines under 7.5 (+120)Walder: Michigan's 2020 wasn't just poor in the standings (2-4) -- the advanced metrics were ugly too. The Wolverines ranked 77th in total efficiency last season, albeit in a half-season sample. FPI expects a better Michigan this year, with a change at quarterback and -- surely? -- better play from a defense that ranked 106th in efficiency last season. But when I say better, I mean 40th-best-team-in-college-football better. That's not exactly what Wolverines fans are hoping for.
And that leads us back to the win total, where our model sees eight wins as unlikely. FPI makes Michigan underdogs in six of its 12 games, plus a coin flip at Maryland. Ultimately the model gives the Wolverines just a 23% chance to hit eight wins, which would make the under a worthwhile bet at -110, let alone +120.
Missouri Tigers over 7 (-125)Fulghum: Eli Drinkwitz's first season in Columbia went better than many expected. Freshman QB Connor Bazelak won the job a few weeks into the season and provided the Tigers with a good foundation for 2021. Drinkwitz went bonkers in the transfer portal this offseason and added Steve Wilks, Scott Linehan and Jethro Franklin to his coaching staff, who all most recently worked in the NFL. The Tigers' schedule is much easier this season than last, when they played Alabama and LSU from the SEC West.
Louisville Cardinals over 6.5 (-120)Hale: In Scott Satterfield's first season in 2019, the Cardinals enjoyed a huge amount of good fortune (or perhaps good karma for ridding themselves of Bobby Petrino). But much of that good luck swung in the opposite direction in 2020, with turnovers absolutely killing the Louisville offense, as the team finished a woeful minus-12 in turnover margin. That translated into a devastating 1-6 mark in games in which the Cardinals were within a TD or ahead in the fourth quarter. And while the defense wasn't terrific in 2020, the offensive turnovers clouded real progress on D, where Bryan Brown's group made big strides for the second straight year. Louisville puts it all together in 2021 and gets to at least eight wins.
Troy Trojans over 6.5 (-130)Hale: Last year's 5-6 record hardly told the full story. Troy was 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including two losses by a field goal or less. A big reason for the close losses was a complete inability to finish drives. While the Trojans were a respectable 53rd nationally in percentage of possible yards gained, they ranked 110th in both red zone and goal-to-go TD rate. For a team that was just a few touchdowns away from nine wins, that's a big deal.
Hawai'i Rainbow Warriors over 6 (-140)Walder: Though the Rainbow Warriors return QB Chevan Cordeiro (2020 QBR rank: 69th), FPI doesn't love Hawaii, ranking the team just 84th in the country. This pick, instead, is all about the schedule. The Rainbow Warriors have the 11th-easiest SOS this season and are at least 60% favorites in eight of their 12 games. Most of their underdog contests are winnable, too. Three of those four games -- against Oregon State, Nevada and Wyoming -- Hawaii has at least a 34% shot to win. Put it all together and FPI is overwhelmingly confident -- just under 90% -- that the Rainbow Warriors will hit at least seven wins, which makes a -140 price tag no problem at all.
Florida International Panthers over 4.5 (+125)Connelly: Few teams were dealt a tougher hand by COVID-19 testing, tracking, postponements, etc., than Butch Davis' Golden Panthers. They ended up playing only five games, all with at least one week in between, and they lost them all. They also looked progressively worse in each game, from a tight and exciting two-point loss to Liberty in the opener to losses by a combined 36 to FAU and WKU.
This presents a buy-low opportunity. FIU was bad last year but maybe not as bad as its record, and even though the Panthers likely will end up projected between about 105th and 110th in SP+, they'll also end up playing about eight or so teams that are also projected in the triple digits. Their best opponent will likely be Texas Tech, which might not even crack the top 70. Even with a poor ranking, SP+ gives the Panthers an 82% chance of hitting at least five wins, and considering the break-even point for +125 is around 44%, those are awfully good odds right there.
Old Dominion Monarchs under 3.5Fallica: The Monarchs didn't play last year and new head coach Ricky Rahne inherits a team that went 1-11 in 2019. ODU should beat Hampton but likely will not win another nonconference game. Maybe D.J. Mack from UCF wins the starting QB job, but who knows how much talent there is in the skill spots surrounding him? If they win four games, I'd be really surprised. They are well behind everyone in C-USA East and probably even UTEP in the West.
Kansas Jayhawks over 1.5 (+175)Walder: After a winless 2020 campaign, Kansas kicks off 2021 and the Lance Leipold era with what should be an easy win over South Dakota. After that, there are not only no gimmes, but there are also no likelies. Kansas is a significant underdog, according to FPI, in every single one of its remaining contests. Every Big 12 team except for Kansas ranks in FPI's top 50. The Jayhawks crack triple digits.
So why the over here on the Jayhawks, who have the lowest total (if we factor in vig) of anyone on the board? Because we don't round down their chances of winning every one of those last 11 games to zero. We have to think probabilistically or at least, lean on FPI to do that for us. Kansas has a 13% chance to beat West Virginia, for example. A 23% shot against Duke. It's 9% against Coastal Carolina. Those add up. And altogether, we make the Jayhawks -- as weak as they are compared to the rest of their conference -- more likely than not to hit two wins this season. Given the +175 juice, that's a bet worth taking.
UL Monroe Warhawks over 1.5 (+130)Connelly: On the other end of the bell curve, you've got teams that won't be good but have good odds of beating their win totals. You just have to pick which team makes you the least-queasy to back. ULM, Bowling Green, UNLV and Kansas are all at 1.5 wins, and SP+ thinks each of them have pretty good odds of going over that, if only because of the schedules they each play.
The best odds of the bunch appear to be ULM's. SP+ projects Terry Bowden's new team 124th overall -- quite bad -- but the schedule features three opponents projected 118th or worse. An 0-12 or 1-11 season is certainly on the table, but SP+ gives the Warhawks an 86% chance of winning at least two games. The +130 odds are equivalent to a break-even point of 43%, so there's a TON of value here.