Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The mood is just a lot less celebratory than the last couple seasons. That’s because my positions look a lot less promising this time around.
I’d take the 3-2 fate my futures finished in conference-championship games the last two years in a heartbeat this time around.
The only team favored in a game this weekend that I hold on a future on is Texas is the Big 12 at +120 (i.e. risking $100 to win $120). The other four sides are clear underdogs — Washington at 475 in the Pac-12, Miami (Ohio) at 8-to-1 in the MAC, Appalachian State at 7-to-1 in the Sun Belt and SMU at +350 in the AAC.
Barring a spate of upsets across the board, I’m likely to take a loss on conference futures for the first time in at least five years.
That might have been sealed when Ohio State couldn’t finish the job at Michigan last week to get into the Big Ten title game. To a lesser extent, Air Force’s collapse in the Mountain West race where it was once an odds-on favorite also contributed.
Such is life, especially betting life.
But that doesn’t mean I’m entirely taking a defeated mentality into the week. Conference-championship week is a unique beast for bettors because much of the handicapping has to revolve around the pre-existing futures positions.
So that’s what I’ll do below — still handicap every game but with some nuance attached for the half of them where I’m still alive with at least a fighting chance to cash a future.
Read below for my picks on every conference championship game below. Picks are labeled in three separate confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen side at publication time. The record picking every game on the season stands at 360-338-13 (84-89-1 on plays, 131-111-5 on leans and 145-138-7 on guesses).
Conference USA Championship Game: New Mexico State +10.5 at Liberty, over/under: 54.5. New Mexico State has covered 10 point spreads in a row, controlling its own destiny to win a College Football Betting Award this year, and has leveled up every bit as much as that run implies. Despite facing a tougher schedule than Liberty, New Mexico State now isn’t all that far behind from an analytical standpoint with the Aggies 33rd in the nation by expected points added per play to the Flames’ 15th. That makes a double-digit spread feel a bit too high. Lean: New Mexico State +10.5.
Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon -9.5 vs. Washington at Allegiant Stadium, over/under: 66.5. I think Oregon wins the national championship if it gets a chance by making the College Football Playoff. That’s how impressive the Ducks have looked in six straight victories since losing to Washington 36-33 as 3.5-point underdogs on Oct. 14. All that said, this line is drifting a little far against the rare team that’s not all that outclassed from a coaching- and explosive-play-perspective. Washington hasn’t played to its potential during Oregon’s late-season ransack through the Pac-12, but it was the better team earlier in the year and that can’t be totally ignored. Guess: Washington +9.5.
Big 12 Championship Game: Oklahoma State +14 vs. Texas in Arlington, Texas, over/under: 55. No hedge here despite Texas being my biggest futures bet. In fact, I’ve added some extra on the point spread. This is a nightmare matchup for Oklahoma State. Texas has mauled virtually every opponent in the Big 12 up front, and that shouldn’t change against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys made an improbable surge to the title game behind running back Ollie Gordon, but Texas is one of five teams in the nation allowing less than three yards per rushing attempt. The Longhorns won’t stop scoring either as they look to impress the playoff selection committee. Play: Texas -14.
MAC Championship Game: Miami (Ohio) +7.5 vs. Toledo in Detroit, over/under: 44. The RedHawks nearly knocked off the Rockets earlier this year, 21-17 as 2.5-point underdogs, in a dead-even game aside from two turnovers that went the latter’s way. But that was with Miami (Ohio) quarterback Brett Gabbert healthy for most of the game. It’s too bad he went down late and then underwent season-ending surgery. If he was around, Miami (Ohio) may beat Toledo, and at the very least, would command a shorter line to provide more maneuverability with my future bet. As it stands now, there’s not much I can do — especially considering the line is probably a half-point too high. Guess: Miami (Ohio) +7.5.
Mountain West Championship Game: Boise State -2 at UNLV, over/under: 58. It’s been an unbelievable year for the Scarlet and Gray, which have performed at a higher level and hold a coaching-advantage over the Broncos. But the overall roster quality here should provide some pause. Boise State hasn’t lived up to expectations — to the point where it feels hollow that it’s playing in this championship game — but it’s got the higher-caliber athletes. The opening price of -3 felt fair, but the action on UNLV diminishing this spread is getting a bet on the perennial-contending visitors closer to in range. Lean: Boise State -2.
Sun Belt Championship Game: Appalachian State +6.5 at Troy, over/under: 52.5. Much like the Oregon-Washington game, there’s not much I can do with my position here on such a large underdog. Unlike Oregon-Washington, I wouldn’t want to do much anyway. The Mountaineers have a strong chance to beat the Trojans. It’s a tall task as the Trojans are more fundamentally sound and stronger defensively, but the Mountaineers have found something offensively and are playing by far their best in a four-game winning and covering streak to end the season. In reverse of Oregon-Washington, this spread looks justified when taken on the season as a whole but inflated if weighing for any recency. Guess: Appalachian State +6.5.
AAC Championship Game: SMU +6 at Tulane, over/under: 48. The Gabbert injury hurts, but the one to SMU quarterback Preston Stone is devastating. Not only was the timing more painful — Stone just went down last week with a broken leg — but it also may have ruined the future I felt best about all year. There’s not much doubt in my mind that the Mustangs are the AAC’s best team at full strength. On the upside, backup quarterback Kevin Jennings is not all that bad and got some repetitions this year. But he forces the Mustangs to shift to a more run-focused offense, and the Green Wave swallow up the rush. Still, this would be around a pick’em with Stone and a six-point shift is might be too large. Tulane is just a little too high of a favorite — the lowest moneyline price is -194 — to arbitrage my SMU position so this is another one I’ll just roll with and hope for the best. Guess: SMU +6.
SEC Championship Game: Alabama +6 vs. Georgia in Atlanta, over/under: 55.5. This number just keeps climbing, and it sure feels like an over-reaction to Alabama’s miraculous 27-24 escape against Auburn as 13-point favorites last week. Let’s not forget that in the two-and-a-half SEC games before the Iron Bowl, Alabama blew out a trio of Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee (overcoming a rough first half to glide in the second). The Crimson Tide looked every bit on the Bulldogs’ level during that stretch. Georgia didn’t acquit itself all that well in a 31-23 victory over Georgia Tech as 24-point favorites last week either, by the way. The Bulldogs should be favored, but their offense is prone to droughts and their defense isn’t quite as dominant as it’s been the last couple years so this is too many points. Play: Alabama +6.
Big Ten Championship Game: Iowa +24 vs. Michigan in Indianapolis, over/under: 35.5. Maybe the return of suspended coach Jim Harbaugh to the sidelines can spark the Wolverines’ offense and get it back to the way it looked while crushing overmatched opponents to start the season. That’s their best hope in covering this number anyway. Iowa is no real threat to win but it’s defensively-stingy, offensively-slow style could at least allow it to hang around here. That might not have been the case earlier in the season but Michigan’s recent decline when playing against decent competition is undeniable and it’s arguably not all Harbaugh-related. Lean: Iowa +24.
ACC Championship Game: Louisville +3 vs. Florida State in Charlotte, over/under: 49. Louisville quarterback Jack Plummer, and the Cardinals’ offense as a whole, has been up and down for much of the season. In its first game with Tate Rodemaker taking over for the injured Jordan Travis, Florida State averaged an alarming 3.9 yards per play against a mediocre Florida defense. All that adds up to mean under 49 points might be the best way to bet this game. And, in a low-scoring game, the advantage goes to the underdog. Louisville has a better chance to create a couple explosive plays in a contest that might be decided by those types of gains. Wynn is one of the only sports books in the world that has this line at 3 instead of 2.5, so let’s take advantage. Lean: Louisville +3.