Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023 | 2 a.m.
College football enters a new era next season with the most drastic conference realignment in decades and the increase from a four- to 12-team playoff.
With Oklahoma and Texas set to jump from the Big 12 to the SEC, and UCLA and USC shifting from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten, the 2024 season will mark an end for the “Power Five Conference” age. It’s now going to be an unofficial “Titanic Two” 16-team leagues, with three semi-major conferences (the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC) falling in line behind the SEC and Big Ten.
The larger national playoff will also ensure that conference championships won’t be as meaningful, with half the field almost certainly not having won their own league.
Let’s bid adieu to the current setup of college football by handicapping futures in each of the Power Five conferences one last time. Listed odds for all teams come from Circa Sports, while the pick at the end is the best price available among all the sportsbooks in Las Vegas.
No single game in the country will have a greater impact on a conference championship race than a showdown between Clemson and Florida State on Sept. 23.
The Tigers (+145 to win the conference, i.e. risking $100 to win $145) and the Seminoles (+175) enter the season heads above everyone else in the ACC. The most important thing to know about their highly anticipated clash? Clemson is hosting.
That’s a huge advantage and gives the Tigers a clearer path to the ACC Championship Game in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, which would serve as another edge in the likely case of a year-end rematch with the Seminoles. Louisville (12-to-1) and North Carolina (13-to-1) are popular sleeper picks in the ACC, but their overall talent gap compared with Clemson and Florida State is too much to overcome. Miami (17-to-1) is the only other realistic contender, but that would require everything clicking into place in coach Mario Cristobal’s second season after a disastrous debut in 2022.
Pick: Clemson +145 (Circa)
As in the ACC, the betting market is split on which team should be favored in the Big 12 — Michigan (+175) or Ohio State (+180).
The Wolverines have beaten the Buckeyes, and won the conference, in two consecutive seasons, but it’s worth remembering that they were touchdown or larger underdogs in both of those games. That speaks to Ohio State’s absurd overall talent level, which only back-to-back national champion Georgia can top.
Ohio State’s skill players, led by wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and running back TreVeyon Henderson, look unstoppable when healthy. Michigan has the experience edge at quarterback with J.J. McCarthy, but Ohio State coach Ryan Day has coaxed the most out of almost every passer with whom he’s ever worked, and presumed new starter Kyle McCord should be no different.
Penn State (+550) is earning buzz behind new blue-chip quarterback Drew Allar, but the Nittany Lions have gone 4-14 combined against Michigan and Ohio State under coach James Franklin. Wisconsin (+900) is a sleeping giant under new coach Luke Fickell but probably not a true threat in his first year.
Pick: Ohio State +180 (Circa & BetMGM)
Texas (+110) could quite possibly wind up favored by double digits in every Big 12 game this season. That’s how much stronger the Longhorns look on paper than everyone else.
Unfortunately, the betting market has caught up. Texas opened as high as +150 to win its first Big 12 title since 2009 but has since taken virtually all the action to get to even money at most sportsbooks.
The Longhorns deserve to be priced even lower, into odds-on favorite status, but might still be available on discount since they’ve perennially disappointed. Returning quarterback Quinn Ewers has similarly seen his Heisman Trophy odds crash from as high as 30-to-1 to as low as 10-to-1, but he still might be worth a bet at 16-to-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
The Big 12 has produced back-to-back surprise champions in Kansas State last season and Baylor two years ago, but the parity should come to a halt in 2023. Second-choice Oklahoma (+330) might be the only team capable of beating Texas, but even that feels like a stretch.
Pick: Texas +110 (Circa)
Double the number of contenders from the first three conferences in the Pac-12, where the odds accurately reflect a race between four primary teams: USC (+190), Oregon (+325), Washington (+325) and Utah (+700).
Utah has won back-to-back conference championship games at Allegiant Stadium but is saddled with the toughest schedule this year and doubts about the early-season availability of star quarterback Cameron Rising, coming off a torn ACL. The Utes were priced ahead of the Huskies before this month, but their drifting odds are justified as rumblings on Rising’s status grow more pessimistic.
USC has the defending Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Caleb Williams but benefited from historic turnover luck last year and might still be relatively lacking on defense and in the trenches.
Washington and Oregon look like the most complete teams, but give a nod to the former’s duo of coach Kalen DeBoer and quarterback Michael Penix Jr. over the latter’s Dan Lanning and Bo Nix, respectively.
Pick: Washington +375 (BetMGM)
The highest-profile conference typically draws the most money and therefore winds up with the tightest market. And that appears to be the case this year.
Georgia (-105, i.e. risking $105 to win $100) could run through a third consecutive regular season without a loss, but its preseason price has been beaten into place after two years of dominance. With a new offensive coordinator/quarterback duo in Mike Bobo and (presumably) Carson Beck, the Bulldogs might be more vulnerable to fall victim to an upset this year.
Wait to see if that happens, and then jump on the Bulldogs to win the league. Their price would raise, but there’s little chance they’ll lose another game and fall out of the top spot in the East Division to miss the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
On the other side of the conference, in the West Division, it’s difficult to settle on whether it’s worth having more confidence in Alabama (+275) or LSU (+500). The former has the infrastructure and track record while the latter might have the more tantalizing roster.
One other team has a similar talent level, but it doesn’t feel comfortable to back Texas A&M (17-to-1), given how archaic the offense has looked recently under coach Jimbo Fisher.
But maybe Fisher will fully cede control to new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, who spent two weeks at UNLV before bailing for Texas A&M this offseason, and the Aggies will reach their potential. It was a more tempting gamble when a couple of sportsbooks posted 50-to-1 opening odds, but still, why not take a long shot in a league priced this efficiently going into the season?
Pick: Texas A&M at 18-to-1 (South Point)
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.