Conference title winner futures are out. If oddsmakers are correct, we could be in for quite the boring college football season. The longest odds for a favorite to win a Power 5 conference? Ohio State at 5/4 to win the Big Ten. Fans for other schools besides Alabama, USC, Florida State, Oklahoma and Ohio State will hope things become interesting. Looking beyond the favorites and the obvious alternatives, I offer a “sleeper” conference title pick in each conference.
Basic strategy: you want a team that could conceivably win the conference. Betting on Kentucky at 80-1 to win the SEC is just throwing away money. You have the “then” statement: team X wins the conference title. You are looking for the solid value team that requires the fewest ifs. Hedge any of these with Alabama at 3-1 to win the national title.
ACC: Miami Hurricanes (13/2)
For the ACC, you want a team in the Coastal Division. It’s easier for a sleeper to win that division and pull off one upset in the title game than it is to fight off Clemson and FSU in the division and still have to win the title game. The team to watch is Miami.
Miami should have a formidable defensive front and a soft schedule. Their toughest game outside Tallahassee is a winnable road trip to Pitt in November. We’ve seen Miami get up to play FSU. One score has decided 14 of the past 17 games in that series. Virginia Tech should be in for a down year with quarterback turnover.
The Hurricanes are a strong bet to win the Coastal. Then you would just need them to pull off the upset. I’m not saying they will. The trend lines for both Miami (irrelevant for more than a decade) and Mark Richt (averaging four losses per season since 2007) aren’t great. But it’s a reasonable bet.
Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats (20/1)
In the Big Ten, you want a team from the West. An East sleeper would have to fight through Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. A West sleeper can slide into the conference title game to pull off the upset. But that won’t be easy. Wisconsin is an overwhelming favorite to win the West. Looking at their schedule now, they may play one Top 25 team, Michigan, at home in November.
Take a chance on Northwestern. The Wildcats have a veteran team coming back. They have a well-regarded third-year quarterback. Northwestern reeling off a 6-2 or 7-1 record in conference is conceivable. The Wildcats don’t play Michigan or Ohio State. If Wisconsin falters, that could be enough for a title game appearance. Northwestern has given Ohio State a tough time both times Meyer and Fitzgerald have met.
Sure, that’s a convoluted scenario requiring a sequence of events. But oddsmakers account for that with the potential 20-1 payout.
Big 12: Texas Longhorns (17/2)
Oklahoma has been much better than Texas this decade. They have seldom shown that against Texas. In the last four games, the Longhorns have pulled off the upset or come quite close.
Tom Herman enters. We’ve seen him have an immediate impact his first season. He has a penchant for getting his team to perform against odds in big games. Texas was a young team in 2016, with a lot of talent. Charlie Strong thought the Longhorns would win ten games in 2017, with or without him.
Reminder: that Texas does not have to win the league. The Big 12 instituted its wonky title game. So, the Longhorns can finish second and get another shot.
Pac-12: Stanford Cardinal (9/1)
USC and Washington are the obvious favorites. Beyond that, old reliable Stanford. In six of the last seven seasons, the Cardinal have finished ranked in the Top 12 with double-digit wins. They have a lot coming back for 2017, besides the two Top 10 2017 NFL draft picks Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. Stanford is a good bet to be at least a Top 15-20-ish team.
Stanford has a tough road to the Pac 12 title. The Cardinal have to play USC too. But, there is a road. Washington has what appears to be a soft schedule. The Cardinal probably need to pull off an upset on a Friday night at the Farm. Could they do that, win the North, and pick off USC in round two in a close title game? That’s possible, and at 9-1 you’re getting decent value.
SEC: Auburn Tigers (6/1)
If you’re going to win the SEC, you need to be Bama, or you have to beat them. Trusting anyone from the East in a title game scenario seems to be a reach. The favorite right now is Georgia, and the Bulldogs are coming off a very underwhelming season. LSU has a brutal conference schedule with five SEC road games and has to face Bama in Tuscaloosa. That leaves Auburn.
Auburn has beaten Saban before, twice. The Crimson Tide have that treacherous trip to Jordan Hare to close the season. Auburn has potential this season, especially if Gus Malzahn and talented transfer QB Jarrett Stidham can get the offense rolling. In a scenario where that is working, entering the Iron Bowl 6-1 is reasonable. So would the Tigers pulling off an upset, winning the division, and then being a favorite in the title game.