Michael Conroy / AP
Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The major college football conferences are ditching the divisional format, and there’s no place where that will be a more welcomed change than in the Big Ten.
The Big Ten’s two definitive best programs (Ohio State and Michigan) over the last 10 years, and probably top three (Penn St.) or even four (Michigan State), have all been stuck together in the East Division since the conference last realigned. It’s made for an annual downer of a conference championship game where the East victor is undefeated, having beaten the West representative by an average score of 36-16.
The top three favorites to win the Big Ten overall are all competing against each other in the East in Michigan at +175 (i.e. risking $100 to win $175), Ohio State at +180 and Penn State at +550.
The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 have already enacted the death of their divisions and instead granted championship game appearances to the teams with the two best records. But nothing feels completely official in college football until the pair of Goliathan conferences join in, and that will have to wait another year.
So, in the meantime, let’s proceed the traditional way one last time and work through handicapping the Big Ten win totals by starting with the East division teams before getting into the West.
Read below for a win-total handicap on every team in the Big Ten. Listed odds next to the team are from Circa Sports, while the pick comes from the best odds on the chosen side available at the five Las Vegas sports books with win totals available on their mobile apps — Circa, SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas, Caesars/William Hill, STN Sports, BetMGM and Boyd Sports. Picks are labeled in three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses. Plays will be tracked in the Weekend Wagers column throughout the season.
Indiana: 4 wins (over +125, under -145)
The Hoosiers shouldn’t be outmanned on special teams considering they have one of the nation’s best returners in Jaylin Lucas. Unfortunately, despite what coach-speak would indicate, special teams only account for 10% or less of a team’s overall success. And Indiana doesn’t have much else going for them. Coach Tom Allen enters the season under fire, and he’s consistently failed to produce except for in a couple seasons when he had current Washington coach Kalen DeBoer on staff and current Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. behind center. Both are long gone now.
Guess: Under 4 wins at -135 (STN Sports)
Maryland: 7 wins (over -125, under +105)
The Terrapins have only won more than seven regular-season games three times in the last 20 years. Granted, one of those instances was last year and most of Maryland’s most recognizable offensive names return including quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. But that’s helped obscure the fact that it’s mediocre in terms of returning production on the roster as a whole. The schedule is as forgiving as can be in such a rugged division, but coach Mike Locksley’s teams have generally underperformed and struggled to at least cover as a favorite.
Lean: Under 7.5 wins at -135 (BetMGM)
Michigan: 10.5 wins (over -145, under +125)
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the return of the offensive core starring quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back Blake Corum and running back Donovan Edwards, but in the trenches is where Michigan really separates itself. The Wolverines should be able to maul everyone on their schedule, even archrival Ohio State, which they’ve now beaten twice in a row. A season-ending three game stretch that features road trips at Penn State and Maryland before the home showdown with the Buckeyes will probably result in one loss, but they’re currently favored in all those games. And it’s tough to see Michigan losing two of them.
Guess: Over 10.5 wins at -125 (Caesars/William Hill)
Michigan State: 5 wins (over -130, under +110)
The number has crashed so much on the Spartans that there’s no longer any way to look but over. Coach Mel Tucker has found it difficult to keep talent in East Lansing, Mich., with the latest transfer exodus occurring after spring football and including the likes of former starting quarterback Payton Thorne (who went to Auburn) and star receiver Keon Coleman (Florida State). The remaining personnel is mediocre at best, but programs with a higher baseline over a large sample rarely bottom out this far in consecutive years. It’s not a pick on the talent, but a pick based on the infrastructure once the incredibly-low over/under 4.5 wins bar showed up.
Guess: Over 4.5 wins at -180 (Caesars/William Hill)
Ohio State: 10.5 wins (over -110, under -110)
Other than quarterback and offensive line, there’s a case to be made that Ohio State has the best roster in the nation. Yes, those are two essential areas but there’s reason to believe that the lack of experience there won’t cost the Buckeyes and could wind up a strength. Coach Ryan Day has virtually turned every college quarterback he’s ever worked with into gold, and there’s little reason to believe Kyle McCord and/or Devin Brown will be any different. The Buckeyes also got some late transfer-portal help on the line. The presence of stars like receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and running back TreVeyon Henderson can make up for a lot of other offensive issues.
Play: Over 10.5 wins at Even money (Circa)
Penn State: 9.5 wins (over -145, under +125)
New starting quarterback Drew Allar, a sophomore, might be all he’s cracked up to be and lead Penn State to a long-awaited Big Ten title. But it’s putting a lot on him to call for it to be this year when Ohio State and Michigan have more overall returning production. Even if the offense takes a major step forward, it’s more likely that the defense regresses at least subtly after ranking around the top 10 in the nation by most metrics a year ago. A recurring theme in this series is fading hyped teams whom have seen their win totals rise too far, and Penn State fits squarely within that category.
Play: Under 9.5 wins at +130 (SuperBook)
Rutgers: 4 wins (over -120, under Even money)
The Scarlet Knights haven’t fielded the offense to keep up in the East Division lately, and that’s unlikely to change this season. They do appear to be switching to a more fitting ball-control strategy under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, as Rutgers’ only chance in its current situation is shortening games and increasing variance. That might be good for one upset this year to reach four wins for the second consecutive season, but asking for a second as sports books with a line of 4.5 wins are doing, is a hard sell.
Guess: Under 4.5 wins at -120 (BetMGM)
Illinois: 6.5 wins (over -120, under Even money)
The Illini broke through last season in coach Bret Bielema’s second season, but could have been even better if not for poor luck in close games as they went 1-3 in contests decided by less than a touchdown. They lost most of a secondary that was arguably the best in the nation, but Bielema has always been a coach that leans on his players winning at the line of scrimmage. And Illinois should still be able to do that with continuity among the line on both sides of the ball.
Lean: Over 6.5 wins at -110 (Boyd Sports)
Iowa: 8.5 wins (over Even money, under -120)
The number on Iowa has steadily risen all offseason with rumblings that it may finally have an offense this year to match what’s perennially one of the nation’s best defenses. But how can anyone be that confident after years of underachieving and still retaining the same offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz? Is Michigan transfer Cade McNamara really the answer to Iowa’s woes? McNamara was supplanted with the Wolverines after all as fans grumbled the offense wasn’t as explosive as it should have been with him leading the way. Iowa’s defense should still be outstanding but it’s virtually impossible to top last year when it finished first in the nation by the SP+ ratings.
Play: Under 8.5 wins at -115 (BetMGM)
Minnesota: 7 wins (over +105, under -125)
The talent is strong; the schedule is daunting. The Golden Gophers found something with returning quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis down the stretch last season when they went 5-1 straight-up, 4-2 against the spread. They have enough back to compete for their first Big Ten Championship Game appearance, but were dealt a painful blow by drawing both Ohio State and Michigan as inter-division opponents. Like a lot of win totals, this may ultimately hinge on the outcome of a few close games, and coach P.J. Fleck has shown an above-average decision-making ability in such situations.
Guess: Over 7 wins at +110 (SuperBook)
Nebraska: 6.5 wins (over -110, under -110)
Yes, new coach Matt Rhule is a proven college-football builder but part of his process has traditionally been tearing down the foundation to its bare parts at the start of his tenure. In other words, this season will be more about establishing the culture than competing for a title. College football traditionalists may like to believe that the Cornhuskers are only a couple tweaks away from getting back into contention, but that’s simply not the case after six straight losing seasons. Rhule needs time.
Play: Under 6.5 wins at -110 (Circa)
Northwestern: 3 wins (over -110, under -110)
Even before the hazing scandal that led to the summer firing of coach Pat Fitzgerald, the outlook was far from rosy for the Wildcats. Fitzgerald reinvigorated the program through defense that led it to a pair of Big Ten Championship game appearances in the last five years, but that unit had plummeted the last two seasons where Northwestern went a combined 4-20. And the defense might be even worse this year without much of an infusion of talent either from recruiting or the transfer portal. The program may climb again, but it’s in complete disarray at the moment.
Guess: Under 3 wins at -110 (SuperBook)
Purdue: 4.5 wins (over -140, under +120)
This is like the aforementioned Michigan State situation from a betting standpoint but magnified. The Boilermakers have taken nothing but money on the under this offseason, and it’s hard to figure out why. They lost coach Jeff Brohm (to Louisville) and quarterback Aidan O’Connell (to the Raiders in the NFL Draft) but Ryan Walters and Hudson Card seem like outstanding replacements, respectively. Few defensive minds are higher-regarded than Waters in college football. And Card was productive in his first college spot, at Texas, where he only didn’t last because of the parade of blue-chip recruits the Longhorns have since attracted. The schedule is tough, but Purdue is capable.
Play: Over 4.5 wins at -140 (Circa)
Wisconsin: 8.5 wins (over -135, under +115)
Count on the Badgers to win the West Division but perhaps betting that future at a higher payout (+130) is a smarter approach. There was no better head-coaching hire this offseason than Wisconsin bringing in Luke Fickell, and then no better coordinator hire this offseason than Fickell luring offensive wiz Phil Longo away from North Carolina. There could be some growing pains early in the season with Fickell, Longo and new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel overhauling schemes despite having a lot of holdover personnel. But expect Wisconsin and prolific SMU transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai to figure it out eventually.
Guess: Over 8.5 wins at -135 (Circa)