Talking about the college football national championship race in mid-October is a pointless endeavor.
The mainstream media hypes the unbeaten teams and the elite level programs among the Power 5 conferences – that’s what boosts ratings, what the “general public” seems to be interested in.
But we all know the teams that look elite in mid-October aren’t necessarily the teams that look elite when the pressure ratchets up in November and beyond.
Look no further than last year at this time, when teams like Auburn, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and Oklahoma all were ranked as Top 10 teams; championship contenders. Those four teams finished the season with 19 losses between them, each team suffering at least four SU losses after Week 7 of the season.
So here we are in 2015. Ohio State has been ranked No. 1 since the preseason, and since the Buckeyes haven’t lost in SU fashion, they remain 1. Michigan State opened as the No. 5 team in the country (AP Top 25; they were 6 in the coaches poll). Currently, the Spartans rank 4 in the coaches poll and 7 in AP. They are another team the pundits have been reluctant to drop in the rankings due to being undefeated.
Yet here in Vegas, both the Buckeyes and the Spartans must be described as “disappointments,” despite their current undefeated status. The point spread is the great equalizer.
Ohio State has been favored by three touchdowns or more in each of their last five games, but they haven’t covered a single one of those spreads, sending Buckeye bettors to the poorhouse.
Ohio State’s only win and cover all year came on national TV in their opener against Virginia Tech, a game that was tied 14-14 when Hokies QB Michael Brewer went down with an injury; 0-5 ATS since.
Michigan State’s ATS run has been even worse. The Spartans are the ultimate rarity in sports: 6-0 SU, 0-6 ATS. Like Urban Meyer’s squad, Mark Dantonio’s team has been a big favorite in five of their first six games. In those five games, all with point spreads that opened at -16 or higher, the Spartans haven’t really sniffed a cover, winning only once by more than two TD’s.
In their “competitive” early season game against Oregon, Michigan State failed to cover in a three point win. Throw in Oregon’s subsequent collapse and even that win doesn’t look particularly impressive at this stage of the season.
There is a real and legitimate point spread tax to support the defending national champions. Alabama won the title in 2013, then proceeded to cover only one point spread in the first six games last year on the way to a losing ATS campaign.
Last year, off their title winning season, Florida State took enormous hype (returning the vast majority of their skill position talent), then proceeded to go 1-6 ATS in their first seven games on the way to a 3-11 ATS campaign.
So to see Ohio State struggling ATS this year cannot be a major surprise – just being priced a notch too high, much like Florida State last year and Alabama the one before that. Even elite programs – especially those with championship aspirations – aren’t going to run up the score every week, and the coaches of those teams know how important it is to keep their key guys fresh for the November stretch run.
There’s one other key factor in Ohio State’s early season ATS struggles – coaching. Urban Meyer has always surrounded himself with elite offensive minds. Dan Mullen was with him in early career stops at Bowling Green and Utah, as well as for his first national championship run with Florida.
Tom Herman was a positively brilliant offensive coordinator for Meyer last year both in terms of his play calling and his ability to get a third string QB up to speed to win the national title. Herman took the Houston Cougars head coaching job this past offseason and is off to a 5-0 start. QB Greg Ward would be in the Heisman discussion if he was in a Power 5 conference.
Meyer’s quote about his ex-OC: “Tom’s an excellent coach, one of the best I’ve ever been around and a guy that I have great respect for. I think he handled the situation last year as well as anyone I’ve been around.” Without Herman designing and calling the plays, the Buckeyes offense isn’t quite what it was last year, and the markets have been relatively slow to react.
But Ohio State is still ranked 1. Michigan State, on the other hand, has fallen out of the Top 25 when it comes to most bettors I talk to. The Spartans’ problems are two-fold – unrealistic expectations and an ugly barrage of injuries.
Michigan State’s offense in 2014 averaged 43 points per game. That was a two TD increase over their production in 2013 and, by far, the most productive offense of the Dantonio era. In the offseason, they sent a pair of WR’s and a RB to the NFL draft. Their elite defense has lost NFL first rounders in the secondary in each of the last two seasons, losing a pair of All Americans from last year.
While Dantonio’s recruiting has been quite good, the Spartans have not found elite playmakers to replace those who departed, leaving their offense relatively limited and their defense down a notch or two from what it has been.
It’s surely worth noting Dantonio had a losing career ATS mark in East Lansing as a favorite, including an 0-6 mark as home chalk as recently as 2012. So when Michigan State has been asked to lay double digits week after week, they simply haven’t been good enough to cover their inflated expectations.
The really scary thing for bettors is Michigan State won the turnover battle in every game prior to Rutgers this past weekend (they were -1 against the Scarlet Knights). Despite the positive turnover edge, the Spartans STILL haven’t been able to cover a single spread.
For Michigan State, inflated expectations is only one piece of the story. A nasty barrage of early season injuries has been the other key factor in their ATS disaster.
Players who were starters at the beginning of fall camp who were sidelined by the end of the Rutgers game include their two best offensive linemen (Jack Conklin and Jack Allen), TE Josiah Price, RB Madre London, both projected starting cornerbacks, safety RJ Williamson, DL Lawrence Thomas and LB Ed Davis.
These aren’t second tier players – they’re many of Michigan State’s best players. And that’s not even counting backups or guys who are playing hurt, like right tackle Kodi Kieler who shuttled in and out of the game against Rutgers after sitting the previous few weeks.
By the end of the Rutgers game, the Spartans had only two healthy cornerbacks and Dantonio was considering pulling the redshirt from a couple of guys who he had not planned to play this year.
Two months ago, the Spartans were lined as 4.5 point road favorites in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines at the Westgate Superbook’s Games of the Year for college football.
When the lines opened for this week’s games on Sunday Night, the Spartans were 6 point underdogs, and the early money has pushed that point spread up to -7. That puts Michigan State in very different point spread range from where they have been all year, in a series they have absolutely dominated since Lloyd Carr left Ann Arbor.
This quote by Spartans senior quarterback Conner Cook is worth noting: “Guys are going to get healthy next week. We’ve got some guys that should get back. Josiah should be back, Jack Conklin should be back. I don’t know what’s up with Jack Allen, but he’ll probably end up playing too.”