College football lines gain early attention

Forget about the game of musical chairs that college conferences have been playing. And forget about the NCAA’s heavy-handed smack on the backside of USC’s football program (although I haven’t seen a more just and overdue punishment since, ironically, former Trojan great O.J. Simpson finally moved into the pokey).

No, the most exciting and important college sports happening of the summer occurred on June 11. On that day Golden Nugget race and sports book director Tony Miller put nearly 200 college football games on his betting board. Despite capping wagers at $1,000 and limiting bettors to three bets at a time, Miller says the Nugget’s handle reached six figures within the first hour. By day’s end, Miller had taken about $150,000 in wagers.

Most of the money that poured in that first day came from “sharps” (i.e. professional bettors), and much of the action focused on three teams. “We got a lot of anti-Tennessee money, and a lot of people like Texas A&M and Oregon,” Miller says.

Not so coincidentally, one of the biggest line moves centered on a Sept. 11 matchup between Oregon and Tennessee. The visiting Ducks were installed as a 3-point favorite, but when bettors loaded up on Oregon, Miller pushed the number to 6 even though Ducks QB Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team this month after repeated run-ins with the law.

In all, Miller is taking action on 185 “Games of the Year.” All games involving USC (recent NCAA sanctions) and Clemson (first-string quarterback might not return) were taken off the board, but after studying the three pages of matchups, I still managed to find a few nuggets:

Wisconsin (-23) at UNLV (Sept. 4): As always, this will be a virtual home game for the Badgers, whose fans flock to Las Vegas when their team plays here. Wisconsin (18 returning starters) is loaded this year—one preseason publication has them ranked sixth in the country—while UNLV is rebuilding yet again under new coach Bobby Hauck. If this game was played in November—when Hauck and the Rebels had several games under their belt—I’d give the hometown team a chance of competing. But since it’s being played before Labor Day, well, let’s just say anything less than a 30-point defeat should be considered a victory for UNLV.

BYU at Air Force (+7) (Sept. 11): Air Force always fields a competitive, disciplined team, and this year will be no different with 11 returning starters. So even though BYU is clearly the third-best team in the Mountain West Conference (behind TCU and Utah), to be getting a touchdown with the Falcons at home is too good to pass up. This is also a very dicey “sandwich” spot for BYU, which opens the season at home against improving Washington, then faces Air Force before traveling to Florida State the following week for a revenge battle with the Seminoles, who crushed BYU, 54-28, in Provo, Utah, last year.

Alabama at Arkansas (+3½) (Sept. 25): Barring key injuries, you can bet this will be one of my bigger plays of the college campaign. The Razorbacks are a legit top-20 team entering the season, thanks in large part to the presence of quarterback Ryan Mallett, who bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his junior season after throwing for more than 3,600 yards with 30 TDs last year. This is a perfect spot to back Arkansas, which will be coming off a game at Georgia while Alabama plays rival Florida the week after traveling to Fayetteville.

Tennessee at South Carolina (-6) (Oct. 30): Early money poured in on South Carolina in this one, as the Gamecocks opened as a 4-point home chalk. South Carolina returns 17 starters and is a fringe preseason top-25 squad. Meanwhile, Tennessee breaks in a new coaching staff (thanks to Lane Kiffin bolting for USC), a new quarterback (Phil Simms’ son Matt) and a new offensive line. South Carolina figures to be laying more than a touchdown by game time, and you know that Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier isn’t afraid to run up a score, especially against the Vols.

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