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December 20, 2014

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Vegas-style college football preview: Big Ten at the sports book

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller throws a pass against Alabama-Birmingham during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

Odds to win the Big Ten

  • Ohio State: 4-to-5
  • Michigan: 9-to-2
  • Nebraska: 9-to-2
  • Michigan State: 5-to-1
  • Wisconsin: 9-to-1
  • Northwestern: 12-to-1
  • Iowa: 40-to-1
  • Indiana: 50-to-1
  • Minnesota: 50-to-1
  • Purdue: 100-to-1
  • Illinois: 100-to-1
  • Numbers from LVH Superbook

Big Ten conference win totals

  • Ohio State: 10.5 (over minus-150, under plus-130)
  • Nebraska: 9.5 (over minus-140, under plus-120)
  • Michigan: 8.5 (over plus-110, under minus-130)
  • Michigan State: 8.5 (over minus-170, under plus-150)
  • Wisconsin: 9 (over minus-110, under minus-110)
  • Northwestern: 7.5 (over plus-130, under minus-150)
  • Numbers from LVH Superbook

Note: Talking Points is previewing all of college football's power conferences leading up to kickoff. This is part four. Check out the SEC here, Mountain West here and the Pac-12 here. Scroll to the bottom of the page for odds on all the Big Ten games released so far.

An inherent problem exists with the buzz phrase “Vegas likes” that’s ever-present in conversations and pieces relating to sports betting.

Not only is the statement that follows almost always fundamentally false — sports books aren’t in the business of popularity contests or even predicting outcomes as much as setting a market price — but “Vegas likes” holds more potential meanings than a metaphor-laden passage from an Ernest Hemingway novel.

Does it mean oddsmakers are forcing gamblers to pay a premium to back one side? Is it bettors doing the “liking” and coming in strong on a team? Or what? There are endless possibilities.

No grand council convenes to establish the gambling capital’s position on teams or games. Conflicting opinions are everywhere.

Leading into this college football season, the action and lines on the Ohio State Buckeyes best illustrate the concept.

By one measure, Ohio State is the team “Vegas” likes. The Buckeyes are the bet to win the last national championship of the BCS era.

Their odds have plummeted at shops across the valley as the most popular choice in future books. At the LVH Superbook, for example, Ohio State is 9-to-2 to win the national championship from an opening line of 6-to-1.

But oddsmakers don’t have the Buckeyes power-rated as highly as top-of-the-board neighbors Alabama and Oregon. As presented in previous previews, Alabama and Oregon are favored in every game for the upcoming season by an average of 22.5 points.

The Buckeyes are also giving points in all 10 games involving them listed at the Golden Nugget sports book. But they’re only an average favorite of 16.5 points, an entire touchdown less than the Crimson Tide and the Ducks.

This comes despite the fact that Ohio State has the easiest schedule of the three, ranked 88th in the nation, according to Football Outsiders, as opposed to Oregon’s No. 49 and Alabama’s No. 51.

In wagers other than futures, money is steadily coming in against Ohio State. Both the LVH and Cantor Gaming applied extra vigorish to ‘under’ 10.5 wins for the Buckeyes after attracting early action in that direction.

At the Golden Nugget, four game lines have moved against Ohio State with only one shifting in its favor.

It’s a classic case of the smarter money, found in win totals and game lines this time of year, not necessarily agreeing with the widespread public sentiment reflected in the future market.

Not everyone is on board with Ohio State deserving a minus-120 (risking $1.20 to win $1) price to win the Big Ten and as high as a staggering minus-800 mark to win the Leaders Division offshore.

Wisconsin must be one of the only three-time defending conference champions to ever enter the fourth season as high as 9-to-1 to do it again. The Badgers, which followed each of their three Big Ten titles with a Rose Bowl loss, are completely in the shadow of the Buckeyes.

They deserve some light of their own. Wisconsin may have gone 7-5 a season ago as opposed to on-probation Ohio State’s 12-0, but the gap wasn’t as wide it seems. If Ohio State’s overtime victory against Wisconsin wasn’t proof enough, consider the teams’ results in games decided by less than a touchdown.

Ohio State went 6-0, while Wisconsin was an unlucky 2-6.

The departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas and running back Montee Ball to the Denver Broncos hurts, but not as much as it looks on the surface.

James White and Melvin Gordon averaged eight yards per carry last season. Prying Gary Andersen away from Utah State was the best move Wisconsin could make, as bettors would willingly attest.

Andersen consistently delivered the cash last year, going 11-1-1 against the spread in the best season in Utah State history.

The only coach in the country who could claim a higher success rate is now a conference rival, as Northwestern went 12-1 against the spread a season ago under Pat Fitzgerald.

Click to enlarge photo

Northwestern defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt (91) and Bo Cisek (1) holds the trophy while their teammate Will Hampton (92) kisses it after the Gator Bowl NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013 in Jacksonville, Fla. Northwestern won 34-20.

The Wildcats will continue to employ the wacky two-quarterback system — Kain Colter does most of the running while Trevor Siemian predominantly passes — that enabled the success but bettors and bookmakers alike don’t see them matching it.

With a tougher schedule, the LVH set Northwestern’s win total at 7.5 and got money on the under. Six line moves have gone against Northwestern at the Golden Nugget, including two — from minus-12 to minus-6.5 at Iowa and from minus-3 to plus-2 hosting Michigan — by a titanic 10.5 combined points.

Oddsmakers view the Legends Division largely as a three-team race. Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State are all close to dead even.

Click to enlarge photo

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner captures a self-portrait from an arm-worn camera as he throws passes in Michigan Stadium during the NCAA college football team's annual preseason media day on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

None of the teams were profitable bets over the course of last season, but all have something to like this year. Michigan boasts the most pure talent — good luck stopping a trio of quarterback Devin Gardner, wide receiver Jeremy Gallon and running back Derrick Green — but also the toughest schedule as neither of the other two contenders meet Ohio State.

Nebraska’s schedule sets up the best as its favored in every game except a trip to Michigan, but the Cornhuskers defense was so helpless last year that Wolverines coach Brady Hoke could have run for 100 yards against them.

Michigan State might not be as strong offensively, but has up to five defenders with NFL futures. The Spartans have owned their in-state rivals as of late, covering the spread against the Wolverines in five straight meetings and winning straight-up four of those games.

The Cornhuskers have beaten and covered against the Spartans in both matchups since joining the Big Ten, but split with the Wolverines.

There’s a divide the size of Lake Michigan between the top six teams in the Big Ten and the bottom six.

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Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien watches his team stretch during the NCAA college football team's practice in State College, Pa., Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013.

Penn State surprised in its first year under Bill O’Brien with a 9-3 record against the spread, but will start either a freshman or sophomore in 2013 and is banned from competing in the postseason for three more years.

Purdue went 1-5 against the spread in the second half of last season, capped by a 58-14 loss to Oklahoma State as a 17-point underdog in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and now starts anew with coach Darrell Hazell. Indiana is improving, but saw eight of 11 games glide over the total last year with one of the worst defenses in the nation.

Iowa had the opposite problem, going under in eight affairs due to a hapless offense and coming up short of bowl eligibility for the first time in 11 years. Illinois has recorded a losing record against the spread in Big Ten competition for five of the past six years, including a 1-7 mark in Tim Beckman’s first year.

Minnesota worked through a paperweight schedule to get into a bowl game and could do the same this year with UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State as its first four opponents.

Like a hungry shark descending from just below the surface, Ohio State is going to feast on a sampling of the bottom-feeders. How the Buckeyes fend off predators of a comparable size will determine whether the program and conference have a shot to win their first national championship in 11 years.

They’ve got the second lowest odds in the nation and quarterback Braxton Miller has transformed into the Heisman Trophy favorite at offshore sports books.

But remember, it’s not a case of Vegas liking Ohio State. It’s just a subset, quite possibly one not worth putting much stock into.

Golden Nugget game lines

Aug. 29: UNLV +14.5 at Minnesota

Aug. 31: Penn State -6 vs. Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J.

Aug. 31: Northwestern -8 at California

Sept. 7: San Diego State +22.5 at Ohio State

Sept. 7: South Florida +15.5 at Michigan State

Sept. 7: Notre Dame +2.5 at Michigan

Sept. 7: Syracuse +13 at Northwestern

Sept. 14: Ohio State +19.5 at California

Sept. 14: Wisconsin +3.5 at Arizona State

Sept. 14: Notre Dame -13 at Purdue

Sept. 14: Washington -12 at Illinois

Sept. 14: UCLA +7.5 at Nebraska

Sept. 14: Iowa +2 at Iowa State

Sept. 21: Michigan State +5.5 at Notre Dame

Sept. 21: Michigan -12 at Connecticut

Sept. 28: Wisconsin +9 at Ohio State

Oct. 5: Ohio State -7 at Northwestern

Oct. 5: Michigan State -6.5 at Iowa

Oct. 5: Minnesota +17 at Michigan

Oct. 12: Northwestern +7 at Wisconsin

Oct. 12: Michigan -3 at Penn State

Oct. 19: Iowa +23 at Ohio State

Oct. 19: Minnesota +14 at Northwestern

Oct. 26: Penn State +16 at Ohio State

Oct. 26: Northwestern -6.5 at Iowa

Nov. 2: Ohio State -17 at Purdue

Nov. 2: Illinois +19 at Penn State

Nov. 2: Michigan +1.5 at Michigan State

Nov. 9: BYU +7.5 at Wisconsin

Nov. 9: Penn State -6.5 at Minnesota

Nov. 9: Nebraska +4 at Michigan

Nov. 16: Ohio State -23 at Illinois

Nov. 16: Purdue +13.5 at Penn State

Nov. 16: Michigan State +6 at Nebraska

Nov. 16: Michigan -2 at Northwestern

Nov. 23: Indiana +25 at Ohio State

Nov. 23: Wisconsin -10 at Minnesota

Nov. 23: Nebraska -1 at Penn State

Nov. 23: Michigan State +1.5 at Northwestern

Nov. 23: Michigan -9.5 at Iowa

Nov. 29: Iowa +14 at Nebraska

Nov. 30: Ohio State -4.5 at Michigan

Nov. 30: Penn State +9 at Ohio State

Nov. 30: Northwestern -13 at Illinois

Nov. 30: Minnesota +14 at Michigan State

Three early leans: Michigan State over 8.5 wins, Northwestern +7 vs. Ohio State, Michigan State -1.5 vs. Michigan

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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