Monday, June 23, 2008 | 2 a.m.
HIS TOP 25
Phil Steele’s preseason college football top 25:
2. Ohio State
6. West Virginia
8. South Florida
10. Penn State
11. Texas Tech
16. Virginia Tech
18. South Carolina
19. Notre Dame
24. Florida State
Phil Steele’s 2008 College Football Preview magazine ($8.95, 328 pages) is at stores including the Gambler’s Book Shop, 630 S. 11th St., Las Vegas.
Phil Steele’s 2008 College Football Preview, the first of the major annuals, has arrived, prompting bettors to delve into some early-season and season-long handicapping.
Four of the usual suspects occupy the top spots in Steele’s preseason rankings — future-book favorites Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma and USC — followed by some intriguing long shots.
Football bettors who respect Steele’s insight might consider five teams in his preseason top 25 that still command attractive prices in the future books of Las Vegas casinos.
Clemson, ranked No. 5 by Steele, is still available at 25-1 to win the BCS national championship game according to odds at the Las Vegas Hilton, although the Tigers opened at 50-1 and were 40-1 a month ago. Steele points out that Clemson is “loaded” with 16 returning starters, including quarterback Cullen Harper and running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and that the Tigers face a relatively weak regular-season schedule.
West Virginia, ranked No. 6 by Steele, is a 25-1 shot at the Hilton sports book. Steele notes the Mountaineers should be favored in all 12 games and play their two toughest games, against Auburn and South Florida, at home.
No. 12 Auburn, which returns 16 starters and is projected by Steele to reach the SEC title game, is available at an attractive price of 50-1 according to Hilton odds.
Another good bet in the future book is No. 16 Virginia Tech at 40-1. Steele predicts the Hokies will reach the ACC title game.
Wisconsin, ranked No. 21, has to get past Ohio State at home but is tempting at odds of 75-1 at the Hilton sports book.
As usual, Steele breaks down each team’s returning starters by offense and defense. The angle of mismatches in the number of returning starters in early-season games might have lost value in the past several years, becoming “built into the line” as the betting marketplace became more cognizant of it. Even so, some bettors consider it a valid starting point in their handicapping or a tool to forecast possible movement in the betting line.
The early-season matchup with the most startling difference in the number of returning starters comes Aug. 29 when Temple visits Army. The Owls, the only NCAA team on the betting board that returns 22 starters, have a lopsided advantage against the Black Knights, who return only eight starters.
Penn State returns 18 starters and hosts Oregon State, which returns only 10 starters, Sept. 6. Don’t be surprised to see support at the betting windows for the Nittany Lions in that game.
South Carolina and Miami, Ohio, could draw plenty of support in each of their first two games because of big edges in returning starters. The Gamecocks, who return 17 starters, play North Carolina State (10 returning starters) in Week 1 and Vanderbilt (nine returning starters) in Week 2. The Redhawks return 17 starters and play Vanderbilt and Michigan (10 starters, only three on offense) in their first two games.
Other notable matchups in the season’s first couple of weeks are Florida (16 returning starters) against Hawaii (eight), and Florida Atlantic (18) against Texas (11).
Perhaps a better use of studying returning starters comes in predicting over/unders, or “totals,” in early-season games. A matchup of two teams with loads of returning starters on offense but few on defense could indicate a good “over” bet.
The most vivid example comes Aug. 30 when Idaho visits Arizona. The Vandals and the Wildcats each return 10 starters on offense but only four and three, respectively, on defense, creating a 20-7 combined ratio. Expect to see support for the “over” in the game after oddsmakers post betting lines for Week 1 of the college football season.
Other games where the same angle points to an “over” wager are UNLV-Utah on Sept. 6 (17-11 ratio), and BYU-Washington on Sept. 6 (16-9 ratio).