Away from the endless middle and towards the bottom of the top?
Let's play with some early Big Ten odds, which currently imply Nebraska is maybe the eighth-best team in 2024.
The Big Ten has seen two major coaching changes since my initial conference trend report for 2024, and maybe “major” is understating it. The two teams that played for the national title lost their head coaches, with Alabama hiring Washington’s Kalen DeBoer and Jim Harbaugh finally finding his way back to the NFL after winning it all at Michigan.
Neither move changes my initial gut reaction on those programs for 2024. I already had the Wolverines and Huskies trending down based on the heavy roster attrition they were expected to experience. Losing their coaches only makes a regression more likely. To be clear, Washington and Michigan should still be strong teams this season. National title contenders, though? Probably not.
But the betting markets are still offering contender prices on both teams. The early national title odds have been out at various places since the end of last year, and the numbers didn’t move a ton based on the coaching changes. That’s fine. Odds this far in advance are more of a talking point than any actual risk for the books anyway.
And I’ll take a talking point as I await the first wave of power rankings for 2024. These national-title odds can serve as a placeholder for that, telling us roughly how Vegas is ordering the Big Ten to start the year. Georgia was the title favorite at +330 when I checked DraftKings this week, but Ohio State was second choice at +500.
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Those that followed my weekly Big Ten picks column know I like looking at odds for purposes such as this, more than for any gambling reasons. It’s one thing for a talking head to say, “Look out for USC, they’re being overlooked.” That’s a take. Odds, however, are a stance. They say, “Sure, USC has a shot. At our current price we’re implying the Trojans could win the title about 2.5% of the time.”
Anyway, let’s get to the order and then I’ll share some thoughts:
Ohio State +500
Penn State + 2500
Nebraska, UCLA, Iowa +20,000
Michigan State +30,000
Rutgers, Purdue +80,000
>>Would you take an eighth-place finish in the newly expanded Big Ten for Nebraska in Matt Rhule’s second season? That feels more than fair to me, and I think the price indicates expected improvement in 2024, though I feel strong enough about that improvement that I don’t think I’d sacrifice the upside to lock in eighth right now.
I’m not sure what it says that Iowa has the same odds, other than, despite the records, the Huskers and Hawkeyes were basically viewed as equivalent from an odds perspective at the end of November.
>>Not viewed as equivalent? Wisconsin, surprisingly. I’m not quite sure why the Badgers are twice as likely to win the national title as the three teams one rung below them. I guess I didn’t see that level of separation between Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa last year. It’s tougher to make a direct comparison with UCLA, but if this were Brandon’s Sportsbook I’d probably group Wisconsin with the Huskers, Bruins and Hawkeyes. We’ll get a good heat check on the Badgers early. They host Alabama in Week 3.
>>If you gave me $50 and told me to build a three-team portfolio, I’m putting $30 on Oregon and then throwing $10 each at Penn State and USC. I think the Ducks’ odds offer the best bang for your buck of any team in the country. That’s a team built to win now.
Penn State might have to unload some mental baggage of the James Franklin era to date, but his high-profile failings against the best teams in the sport—pretty much his only failings with the Nittany Lions—matter less in a 12-team era. The Nittany Lions would’ve been a relative fixture in the playoff had this format existed earlier, and they definitely have the talent to win it all with a few breaks. I also really like both of Franklin’s coordinator hires, former Kansas OC Andy Kotelnicki and former Indiana head coach Tom Allen as DC.
USC also has title-level talent, and Lincoln Riley, based on some splashy coaching hires, seems to be serious about addressing the defense. The Trojans have to navigate the new-conference waters, which is probably a handicap, but could I see USC playing for a championship at the end of the year? I wouldn’t call it likely, but, yeah, I could see it. I didn’t bite on Ohio State at +500, but add them to this group and I think those are the four Big Ten teams who could realistically win the whole thing.
>>If you want to schedule-watch a bit, UTEP, Nebraska’s opening opponent, has +500,000 odds that put it among the 13 worst teams in the country. The Miners are starting fresh this season under 34-year-old head coach Scotty Walden.1 Colorado enters year two under Deion Sanders at +20,000 to win the national title, same as Nebraska, which I suppose is good for narrative purposes. That said, I expect the Huskers to be a decent favorite when the Buffs visit Lincoln in Week 2, but then again I spent all last offseason thinking the Huskers would be a decent favorite over Colorado in Week 2. Didn’t happen.
>>FanDuel already has a couple of early lines for games, none involving Nebraska unfortunately, but they add a little to this broad, perceived-power discussion. Colorado opens the season by doing something a team like Colorado should never do—play North Dakota State. The Buffs were listed at -7.5 in that game.
USC opens the season against LSU in Las Vegas, which is wild. The Trojans were +6 to start in that one, which is a pretty big number for a neutral-site, opening-weekend game. Looking at the schedule again, maybe I should take my $10 on USC back. In addition to LSU, the Trojans also play Michigan, Penn State, Washington and Notre Dame.
Texas visits Ann Arbor in Week 2. FanDuel opened the Longhorns as a 1.5 point road favorite and that was before Harbaugh’s departure.
Ohio State at Oregon Oct. 12 is probably the Big Ten game of the year this year. The Ducks were -1.5 on the early line, which, when you factor in home field advantage, is in line with the overall title odds.
As for The Game, FanDuel had Ohio State at -6 over Michigan in Columbus. Just in case this isn’t coming through clearly, the Buckeyes are expected to be very good. Ohio State is a title contender almost every year, but it’s primed to be a title contender this year. That said, I find it at least a little amusing that, if that proves to be the case, Ryan Day won’t have the chance to slay his Harbaugh dragon, which is the thing Buckeye fans probably want most.
For all of my fellow Great Plains Athletic Conference fans out there, Walden began his playing career at Dordt.