Move over, SEC. The best college football in America last year was played in the Big 10.
Sure, the ACC may be home to national champion Clemson and the SEC has Alabama, but no other conference can boast the depth at the top that the Big 10 illustrated in 2016. Even with a down year from Michigan State, the Big 10 produced 10 bowl-eligible teams, a national semifinalist and representatives in the Outback Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Rose Bowl.
Oddsmakers at BetOnline feel that the Big 10 will be strong at the top once again this season. Perennial national title contender Ohio State leads the way at +125 odds to win the conference, but Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin also pay +500 or less to claim the title.
Let’s take a closer look at those 4 top contenders, along with a few darkhorses that pay +2000, to see which is the best value bet in the Big 10 this year.
Ohio State (+125)
The last time we saw the Buckeyes in action, they were humiliated 31-0 by Clemson in the national college football playoff. That might make you think less of Ohio State’s chances this year, but it only makes me more wary of them in 2017.
That’s because the Buckeyes might be the most motivated team in college football. Urban Meyer made it clear that a shutout loss in the national semifinals wasn’t acceptable, replacing both the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 15 starters return from last year as well, no doubt eager to erase that foul taste in their mouth from the loss to Clemson, not to mention a regular-season loss to Penn State that cost the Buckeyes a berth in the conference title game.
There are early-season question marks about their receiving corps as well as a secondary that has lost 3 starters from last year, but Ohio State still has tons to work with. Veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett is 26-4 as a starter. On defense, the front 4 returns intact.
Finally, the schedule looks to be in Ohio State’s favor as well. In their first 11 games, the Buckeyes’ toughest tests will be against non-conference opponent Oklahoma and Big 10 rival Penn State, and they’ll host both of those contests. Their regular-season finale is at Michigan, but it’s quite possible the Buckeyes will be a favorite in that game as well, especially if the Wolverines have a down season the way I think they will.
+125 odds to win a conference championship might not seem like that great of a value, but those odds are actually the most generous of any power conference favorite in college football this year. Ohio State is 1 of just 2 teams in the nation favored by Bovada to win more than 10.5 games this year (Alabama is the other one, and they’re -175 to win the SEC), so we could be getting a potential national champion at plus money to win their conference.
I’m already invested in the Under on the Wolverines’ season win total (it’s currently set at 9 at BetOnline, with -175 juice on the Over), and I’m down on their Big 10 chances for basically the same reasons.
With Michigan coming off a 10-2 regular season and fourth-year QB Will Speight back in the fold, I understand why people are high on the Wolverines. But has anybody noticed the guys who aren’t back? The defense was hardest hit by off-season departures, as Michigan will have 11 new starters. But the offense could also be hurt by the loss of its top 2 receivers, best tight end, several linemen and even its passing coordinator.
The conference schedule is no cakewalk, either. The Wolverines will play road games in both Penn State and Wisconsin, the two division champions from last year and also face Ohio State in their regular-season finale. The season could even go off the rails early as Michigan has to face Florida on a neutral field in its season opener, a tough non-conference matchup for a lineup with so many new faces.
Penn State (+450)
First of all, can we acknowledge just how nice it is to see Penn State back near the top of college football after years of wandering the wilderness as a fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal? The Nittany Lions came out of nowhere last year to win the Big 10, then nearly claimed the Rose Bowl, falling 52-49 to USC in a classic.
Better yet for Penn State, they return nearly all of the players on offense that helped them put up 38+ points in each of their final 7 games last year. Running back Saquon Barkley (249 yards from scrimmage in the Rose Bowl) and quarterback Trace McSorley (36 touchdowns last year as a sophomore) are both legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates, and their offensive line is also full of veterans.
To win the East and get to the Big Ten championship game, however, the Nittany Lions will have to go through Ohio State. I mean that literally, since Penn State will visit the Buckeyes Oct. 28. Ohio State will be gunning for revenge and has the added advantage of coming off a bye week, while the Nittany Lions will have their hands full with a visit from Michigan before having to travel to Columbus.
Penn State will be a ton of fun to watch, but I do not like their chances of beating Urban Meyer’s bunch 2 years in a row simply to win the East, then having to beat the West champ (probably Wisconsin) just to cash a +500 futures bet.
The defending Big Ten West Division champions are a solid favorite to repeat this year, partly because of a strong returning cast and also because there really isn’t that much competition within the division to worry about.
Though Wisconsin will have new faces at running back, left tackle and both of their outside linebackers, the Badgers have a returning QB in Alex Hornibrook as well as veteran-laden offensive and defensive lines. The defense has its third coordinator in 3 years, but the new coordinator was their defensive backs coach last year so at least there’s a familiarity with the 3-4 scheme that helped Wisconsin allow just 15.6 points per game in 2016.
Hornibrook needs to improve from the form he showed as a redshirt freshman last year (9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions), but at least he’s got his top 2 receiving threats back in WR Jazz Peavy and TE Troy Fumagalli. Wisconsin’s always able to run the ball well, and it seems reasonable to expect a better year from Hornibrook now that he’s a sophomore.
The Badgers’ schedule is very friendly, with an Oct. 7 visit to Nebraska and a Nov. 18 home game against Michigan looking like Wisconsin’s biggest challenges in conference play. They don’t have to face Ohio State or Penn State, while Nebraska – the only other team in the West favored to win more than 7 games this season – does.
Even if the Badgers don’t win in Nebraska (Wisconsin has won 4 straight meetings in the series), they’re the safest pick to win the West. At that point, they simply need to beat the East champion to claim the Big Ten title, making +500 to win the conference look like an excellent value.
Michigan State (+2000)
For the first time in a long time, the Spartans come into a season with a lot to prove after a disastrous 3-9 campaign in 2016. It hasn’t helped that they’ve also had a horrific offseason, losing 7 projected starters due to a variety of reasons, including arrests for sexual assault.
Still, Mark Dantonio is a terrific coach and I expect Michigan State to be much better this year than last, even with an offensive line and secondary that both lost 3 starters to graduation or the draft. They’ve got possibly the best running back duo in the Big 10 in L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes, and sophomore QB Brian Lewerke looked pretty good as a freshman last year before breaking his leg 4 games into the season.
But the Spartans’ schedule is a real bear. CBS Sports ranks it as the toughest slate in the country, and it’s not hard to see why. They have to visit both Ohio State and Michigan, have a home game against Penn State, and will also travel to Minnesota and Northwestern.
The Wildcats could be a wild card in the Big 10 West this season. Their 7-6 record last year (5-4 in conference) is unimpressive at the surface level, but that was due to a dreadful start to the season, losing to Western Michigan and Illinois State.
After that 0-2 start, Northwestern actually had a pretty decent year. The Cats beat Iowa and Michigan State, gave Ohio State all it could handle in Columbus (losing 24-20), and then upset #23 Pittsburgh 31-24 in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Now, the Wildcats return 9 starters on both sides of the football, including a pair of elite juniors in quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson. They’ve lost the Big 10’s top receiver in Austin Carr, but Garrett Dickerson may emerge as the conference’s best tight end and Oregon transfer Jalen Brown adds a deep threat to the passing game.
Best of all for Northwestern’s conference title hopes is their schedule. They don’t have to play Ohio State or Michigan, and they get to host Penn State. If they can win either at Wisconsin or at Nebraska, the Wildcats could be a serious contender in the West.
The Cornhuskers had a decent year in 2016, going 6-3 in conference play and 9-4 overall.
But ESPN expects them to regress significantly this season, projecting Nebraska to win 5-6 games on its Football Power Index. According to the FPI, the Cornhuskers should only be favored to win 3 of their 9 conference contests – the first 2 against Rutgers and Illinois, then at Purdue in late October.
Even though the Huskers have lost their top receiver and running back from last year and enter this season with uncertainty at quarterback, ESPN’s outlook for them might be a little harsh. I think Nebraska can beat both Northwestern and Iowa at home, but they still have Wisconsin, Ohio State and a road game in Penn State on their schedule.
Big 10 Conference Champion Betting Picks
The easy pick (and probably the right one) to win the Big 10 is Ohio State. Even though they made it to the college football playoff last year, you know Urban Meyer isn’t happy with the way things ended, and I expect the Buckeyes to play with a huge chip on their shoulder in 2017. Like I said earlier, +125 return to win the conference really isn’t that bad on a team with legitimate national title hopes.
If you’re looking for a chance at a better payday, I recommend looking to the West because I don’t see Penn State or Michigan beating out Ohio State in the East.
+500 odds are great value on a Wisconsin program that is always in the hunt.
I’m also going to sprinkle a little bit on Northwestern at +2000. If the Wildcats can simply get to the Big 10 title game, we should be able to hedge that bet and still lock in a nice profit at those generous odds.
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