Like the stock market, college football wagering is all about value. In order to beat the system, the sports bettor must obviously locate teams whose true worth is incongruent with the perception of the gambling community at large. Fortunately, early season games are fertile ground for the savvy gambler, as the various teams have not developed a sufficient body of work from which strong conclusions can be drawn. As such, I have assembled my preliminary report of college football teams that seem to be undervalued or overvalued. This analysis, of course, is for informational purposes only and is not meant to condone gambling of any sort. With that disclaimer, here goes…
Virginia Tech- According to Stassen’s preseason consensus, which represents a simple average of the major annual publications (e.g., Phil Steele, USA Today, Athlon, etc.), Virginia Tech is rated at 20th nationally. This represents Tech’s lowest preseason ranking in five years and a departure from its top-ten preseason and postseason ranking last year. Based upon a superficial look at Tech’s roster, the reasons for this decrease are manifest. After all, (1) the Hokies are coming off a bowl loss to Kansas, (2) they lost all of their top running backs and receivers, (3) standout defensive players Brandon Flowers and Chris Ellis are now in the NFL and (4) a possible quarterback controversy looms between veteran Sean Glennon and sophomore and former hotshot recruit Tyrod Taylor.
Notwithstanding these factors, I believe that Tech will run roughshod through the ACC Coastal Division again, en route to another BCS bowl and top-10 finish. Why? For starters, Coach Frank Beamer has built this program into a national power with defense and special teams, as opposed to an explosive offense. While Tech has certainly seen its share of explosive skill position players come through Blacksburg, such as Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones (a/k/a “The Untouchables”), it has also proven that it can win without such players, as in 2005 and 2007. More importantly, defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s track record is astounding. From 2004-07, Foster’s vaunted “Lunch Pail Defense” has finished 4th, 1st, 1st and 4th in the nation- not just the ACC- in total defense. With outstanding defensive players such as Victor “Macho” Harris (great nickname, by the way) and Beamer’s customary special teams magic, the Hokies should be able to stifle the rest of the ACC without requiring an extraordinary offensive effort.
Nebraska- As indicated by Stassen, the general consensus (except for noted contrarian Phil Steele) is that Nebraska will finish either fourth or fifth in the Big 12 North. Under new coach Bo Pelini, however, I expect Herbie Husker to awaken from his slumber and challenge nouveau riche programs Missouri and Kansas for the division crown. In 2007, Nebraska brought shame to its proud Blackshirt tradition by surrendering 37.9 points per game, including 40 at home against Ball State, 65 against Colorado and a staggering 76 at Kansas. Despite the horrific performance of the defense, former head coach Bill Callahan’s West Coast offense actually performed admirably and several key performers return, most notably of which is tailback Marlon Lucky.
Although he proved to be a failure at coach, Callahan’s recruiting success at Nebraska was well documented. Nebraska’s roster is stocked with many promising recruits and, from a pure talent standpoint, there is no reason to believe that any team in the Big 12 North will be more skilled than the Huskers. In addition, during Pelini’s only year as defensive coordinator in Lincoln (2003), the Blackshirts finished second nationally in total defense at 14.46 points per game, compared to 45th in 2002 and 71st in 2004. Thus, it is reasonable to expect immediate and substantial improvement from the defense with Pelini at the helm. Given Nebraska’s overall raw talent vis-à-vis the rest of the league and the expected coaching upgrade, a New Years Day bowl appears to be an appropriate goal for Nebraska.
Iowa- It appears that the bloom is off the rose for Kirk Ferentz. After three consecutive top-ten finishes in 2002-2004, Iowa has regressed to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten over the past few years. In addition, Ferentz has presided over a recent spate of arrests and suspensions, including ongoing allegations that the Athletic Department attempted to cover up a rape by several players. Amid this firestorm of controversy off the field and Iowa’s recent struggles on the field, it is unsurprising that Iowa is a consensus 8th place pick in the Big Ten, per Stassen.
While the trend line is obviously negative for Iowa, I think that the Hawkeyes are primed for a bounce back year in 2008 for several reasons. The primary reason is the remaining talent level. Ferentz has continued to recruit well as the program has slipped from its 2002-04 level, especially along the offensive line. In many ways, Iowa’s offensive line resembled Notre Dame’s offensive line last year, as highly touted, but inexperienced, players struggled to develop cohesiveness. I expect the talented Hawkeye offensive line, as well as second year quarterback Jake Christiansen, to improve significantly this year. In light of the soft early schedule (Maine, FIU and the annual “Cy-Hawk” rivalry at Iowa State), the team should be able establish early momentum and gain some much needed momentum heading into the Big Ten season. The Hawkeyes aren’t going to unseat Ohio State as the conference champion, but count on them to rally behind the embattled Ferentz and put together a strong 8 or 9 win season.
Texas Tech- This year’s trendy pick seems to be that Texas Tech will overtake Texas and/or Oklahoma in the Big 12 South. According to many pundits, the Red Raiders have upgraded their defensive talent to a competitive level which, combined with their explosive offense led by Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, will enable them to reach double digits wins.
Although I do not doubt that Tech will score points in bunches under head coach and buccaneer aficionado Mike Leach, I have not seen any probative evidence to suggest that their defense will improve. A cursory review of the Scout or Rivals recruiting rankings shows that Tech remains well behind their traditional South division superiors in terms of talent. Furthermore, while the Raiders will play their usual slate of out of conference tomato cans, they must visit Oklahoma and Kansas, along with tough home games against Texas and Nebraska. Until proven otherwise, therefore, I cannot take this team seriously as a contender in the Big 12.
West Virginia- Per Stassen again, every preseason magazine predicts West Virginia to finish first in the Big East. The Mountaineers will be led again by standout quarterback Pat White, who returns for his 12th year in Morgantown, and sophomore sensation Noel Devine at running back. Additionally, with three children at age 20, the precocious Devine is on pace to challenge such breeding legends as Shawn Kemp and Calvin Murphy. Despite this offensive star power, however, I believe that West Virginia’s preseason hype, like Devine’s offspring, is illegitimate.
Following Rich Rodriguez’s well publicized jump to Michigan in the offseason, West Virginia turned to assistant Bill Stewart as head coach. While Stewart has some prior experience and he will benefit from a soft schedule in 2008, the balance of power in the Big East appears to have already shifted. The offense loses star running back Steve Slaton, folk hero Owen Schmitt and dynamic receiver Darius Reynaud, while the defense loses multiple contributors on the line and secondary. Moreover, even though West Virginia has shown a willingness offer a scholarship to anyone with a pulse, including, inter alia, Devine, Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and convicted armed robber/current backup linebacker Pat Lazear, former coach Rodriguez has left somewhat of an empty cupboard beyond the starting unit. Given White’s propensity for injury, a suspect defense, an increased workload on the diminutive Devine and the aforementioned coaching change, it should be a relaxed autumn for the couch arson investigation team of the Morgantown Police Department.