Massachusetts moves from football obscurity (Division I-AA) to the Mid-American Conference. Temple moves from the MAC to the Big East. West Virginia moves from the Big East to the Big 12. Missouri and Texas A&M move from the Big 12 to the SEC. TCU moves from the Mountain West to the Big 12. Fresno State, Hawaii and UNR move from the Western Athletic Conference to the Mountain West. And all this comes on the heels of last year’s defections/relocations by Boise State, BYU, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska.
Indeed, college football’s conference landscape has undergone more maintenance recently than Bruce Jenner’s face. And brace yourself, because there’s more plastic surgery to come—I’m referring to college football here, not (God willing) Mr. Kardashian’s mug—as another wave of conference realignment is scheduled for 2013.
What does all this reorganization mean from a handicapping perspective? Well, for starters, there’s a lot of extra offseason homework and readjusting of power ratings. For instance, Missouri (which is now lumped with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the SEC East) and Texas A&M (whose SEC West neighbors include Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas) will be significantly downgraded—at least until they start pulling some SEC-caliber blue-chip recruits. At the same time, expect to see teams such as Boise State in the Mountain West (goodbye TCU, hello Fresno State and Hawaii) and Louisville and Cincinnati in the Big East (so long West Virginia, welcome aboard Temple) favored more frequently and/or favored by wider margins.
Personally, I detest the game of musical chairs, both as a fan (I hate that universities continue to put the almighty buck ahead of tradition and rivalries) and as someone who likes to wager on a game or two (I hate extra homework—always have). Speaking of wagering on a game or two, the college football season (finally!) kicks off Aug. 30, meaning it’s time to dust off the incredibly shrinking bankroll and see if I can convert all that offseason homework into actual cash-money.
On to my best bets for the opening two days of the season (Aug. 30 and 31), with Labor Day weekend selections to follow next week (note that all point spreads are as of Aug. 21) …
$220 on BYU -13½ vs. Washington State (Aug. 30): Look who’s back on the sideline—way up in Pullman, Wash., no less: Mike Leach. The exiled Texas Tech coach brings his high-flying offense (and love of all things pirate) to Washington State, which actually showed signs of turning the corner in ex-coach Paul Wulff’s final season, going 4-8.
Leach spent the spring installing his fast-break offense, which according to reports looked in midseason form in the spring game … against a leaky Wazzou defense that allowed at least 27 points in each of the final 10 games in 2011 (including more than 40 points four times). That defense will have its hands full against BYU, which finally found a reliable quarterback last season in Riley Nelson, who helped BYU close on a 9-1 run (averaging 41.2 points over the final six regular-season contests).
Believe it or not, it’s not the offense, but rather the defense that has the folks in Provo really excited—and I’m talking “BCS bowl game” excited—about the 2012 season. BYU held nine of 13 opponents to 21 points or less in 2011, and many of the key defensive contributors are back. Yes, the D will be tested immediately against Leach’s offense, but at least it’s in August and not October, when Washington State figures to be much more explosive. Another reason to lay the chalk in this battle of Cougars: BYU covered in each of its final seven games last year and is 16-5 against the spread (ATS) since mid-2010.
$110 on UNLV +9½ vs. Minnesota (Aug. 30): Call this one a battle of the resistible object vs. the movable force. Minnesota last year was held to 17 points or less six times (only twice did the Gophers score more than 24, and they never reached 30). At the same time, the 2011 Rebels surrendered 35 points or more in nine of 12 games, giving up 40-plus seven times. So why back UNLV here—especially since my winning percentage when playing on or against the Rebels is lower than Victoria Beckham’s body-fat percentage? Because Minnesota went 0-5 on the road last year, hasn’t won a road game by double digits since 2009 and hasn’t covered as a sizable road chalk since the 2006 season opener at Kent State. Meanwhile, the Rebels have been quite profitable at Sam Boyd Stadium the past two years under coach Bobby Hauck (8-2 ATS).
$77 on Boise State (+7) at Michigan State (Aug. 31): I know Boise State lost a bunch of talent from last year’s 12-1 squad (most notably four-year starting QB and Heisman Trophy finalist Kellen Moore). I also know that Michigan State has to replace a senior starting QB, too. More importantly, I know Boise State coach Chris Petersen has had nine months to prep for this game; he’s getting a full touchdown; and his Broncos are 20-7-1 ATS in their last 28 as a rare road underdog—winning the last four in a row outright.
BEST OF THE REST (Aug. 30): Vanderbilt +7 vs. South Carolina ($55); Louisiana Tech +7½ vs. Texas A&M ($44). (Aug. 31): Tennessee -4 vs. North Carolina State ($55); Boise State-Michigan State UNDER 50 ($44).