Sometimes the best bets in life are the ones you don’t make. This is one such story: Back in mid-July when college football’s season win totals were released, I instantly locked in on Notre Dame and its posted number of 8½. My eyes bugged out; drool streamed down my chin—you’d have thought I was looking at a website devoted to Kate Upton’s greatest wardrobe malfunctions.
8½? WHAT? Did we travel back to 1989 and someone not tell me? How are the Fighting Irish—who have about as many NFL-ready skill-position players as UNLV and who scored 16, 14 and 14 points in their final three games last season (losing the last two)—going to reach nine victories in 2012?
How could the oddsmakers be oblivious to Notre Dame’s mid-September to late-October gauntlet that featured Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, BYU and Oklahoma in successive weeks?
Oh yeah, I was all-in on Notre Dame “under” 8½ wins. Then mid-July turned into late August, and on the eve of the Irish’s season opener against Navy in Dublin, I finally went to the book to place the wager. One problem: A few hundred bettors with a similar opinion of Notre Dame beat me to the window, and the juice on the “under” had ballooned from minus-120 to minus-180—meaning for every $100 you wanted to win, you had to lay $180. I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger.
By now you know the rest of the story: Thanks to some incredible luck that’s been both direct (20-13 controversial overtime win against Stanford, plus a trio of three-point victories over Purdue, BYU and Pittsburgh, the latter in triple overtime) and indirect (unbeaten Kansas State and Oregon suffering shocking losses within an hour of each other on Nov. 17), Notre Dame enters Thanksgiving week at 11-0 and needing only a season-ending victory at USC to secure a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Which brings us to another bit of good fortune for the Irish: USC, which was ranked No. 1 in the preseason media poll, is 7-4, including 1-3 in its last four games after last week’s loss to rival UCLA. Not only that, but Matt Barkley—the Trojans’ four-year starting quarterback—suffered a shoulder injury late against UCLA and won’t play against Notre Dame.
That means USC’s offense is now in the hands of redshirt freshman Max Wittek. The good news for Wittek? He’s 8-for-9 for 95 yards passing this year in mop-up duty. The bad news? He’s facing an Irish defense that leads the nation in scoring defense (10.1 points per game), ranks sixth in total defense (288.3 yards per game) and has allowed just six TD passes against 14 interceptions. Put it this way: USC has faced exactly two above-average defenses this year—Washington and Stanford—and was held to 24 and 14 points, respectively … and that was with Barkley!
So, yes, less than three months after I nearly bet the house that Notre Dame wouldn’t finish better than 8-4, I’m backing the Irish to complete a 12-0 regular season—and do so with a convincing road win against this year’s preseason No. 1. Give me $330 on Notre Dame minus-6 at USC (which, by the way, is 3-8 against the spread this year, with three of its outright losses by a touchdown or more).
On to the rest of this week’s selections (Note: all point spreads are as of Nov. 19) …
$220 on Fresno State -16½ vs. Air Force: In this space a week ago, I mentioned that the 10 most profitable college football teams were a combined 85-15-1 ATS. Now, those same squads are 90-19-1 ATS, having covered in five of nine contests last week. The only team that was idle was Fresno State, which comes into this season finale at 10-1 ATS (tied with Northwestern for the best spread record in the nation). Here’s why the Bulldogs will improve to 11-1 ATS: They’ve defeated their last four opponents (Wyoming, New Mexico, Hawaii and Nevada) by the aggregate score of 188-92. Air Force also defeated those same four Mountain West foes … by the combined score of 125-88. And while Fresno is 5-0 straight-up and ATS at home (winning by an average of 31.4 ppg), the Falcons are 1-4 SU and ATS on the road. Overall, Air Force has cashed in just three of 11 games (1-6 ATS in its last seven).
$110 on Rutgers +2 at Pittsburgh: Rutgers is 9-1 overall, 5-0 on the road (including three outright upsets) and 5-0 in Big East play. Pitt is 4-6 overall, 3-2 at home and 1-4 in conference. Rutgers has given up 38 total points in its last five victories. Pitt has given up 53 total points in its last two games (both losses). And while the Panthers did have Notre Dame pinned to the mat three weeks ago, since upsetting Virginia Tech 35-17 on Sept. 15, they have just three victories against the following opponents: Gardner-Webb, Buffalo and Temple. And yet, the Panthers are favored? OK, I’ll bite …
$110 on Bengals -7½ vs. Raiders: Since back-to-back wins over the Chiefs and Jaguars—and, boy, is that impressive—Oakland has dropped three in a row to the Buccaneers, Ravens and Saints, allowing 135 points in the process! Now they make their fourth trip to the Eastern Time Zone, this time to face a hot Bengals squad coming off consecutive blowout victories over the Giants (31-13 at home) and Chiefs (28-6 on the road). What’s more, Cincinnati’s five victories were all by at least a touchdown, the last three by margins of 17, 18 and 22 points. Meanwhile, take out a 23-20 loss at Atlanta, and the Raiders’ other six losses were by eight, 22, 31, 10, 35 and 21 points.
Best of the Rest: LSU -12 at Arkansas ($77); Penn State -3 vs. Wisconsin ($55); Oregon State +10 vs. Oregon ($55); Oklahoma State +7½ at Oklahoma ($44); Packers +2½ at Giants ($66); Rams +2½ at Cardinals ($55); Broncos -10 at Chiefs ($44).