College Football Odds: Handicapping The Top 11

The college football season starts Thursday night. TheSportsNotebook has completed all previews of the major conferences, as well as the mid-majors. We’ll have a final preseason extravaganza on Wednesday, with national championship picks and projections of major bowl matchups. Today we’re going to warm up by reviewing the top 11 teams. I’ve chosen the number eleven for three reasons—I have to make a superficial effort to be different from everyone else, the number has obvious relevance to football, and most importantly it’s my tribute to Oceans 11, both the original Sinatra movie and the Clooney/Pitt/Damon/Garcia remake, a name I also use for my Fantasy Football league teams. With that out of the way, TheSportsNotebook runs through the top 11 teams in the country…

Before we go into the teams, note that these are not necessarily my top eleven. This is 1 thru 11 in the current AP poll. And we’ll assess them against the betting odds Las Vegas has posted regarding their chances to win the BCS National Championship, along with their Over/Under number on total wins. Please also note that the win totals must be achieved in the 12-game regular season, with conference championship games and bowl games not counting to the total…

The Big Three: USC (5-2, 10.5), Alabama (5-1, 10.5), LSU (6-1, 10)
In my SEC preview I talked about how Alabama and LSU had to rebuild their defenses and that left the door open in the SEC for a dark horse. Having said that, the national title odds aren’t all that bad. The SEC champ will get benefit of the doubt in a close vote and whichever of these teams gets to Atlanta and the SEC title game obviously found a way to put new pieces in place and those pieces would have had 12 games to jel. And if an SEC team gets to Miami for the BCS National Championship Game, is anyone ready to bet against them? I’m not saying I’d pick at, but at 5-1 or 6-1, that’s a reasonable shot. As to USC, while that’s who I’m leaning toward as my own national title pick, 5-2 are just too tight for odds. Betting on an 11-1 season and taking the Over on win totals makes more sense.

The Top Challengers: Oklahoma (10-1, 10.5), Oregon (8-1, 10.5), Georgia (15-1, 9.5)
If I were lounging in the sports book at the Bellagio right now and saw these odds posted, I’d be at the window to get a ticket on Oklahoma at 10-1. They are clearly the best team in the Big 12, have a home game with Notre Dame that’s both easily winnable and worth some value with the voters and don’t have a conference title game to deal with. If it’s an election year with a title game in Miami, mark the Sooners down for being there, whether it’s 2000, 2004, 2008 and now 2012. Then it’s just about whether they can finally win it. But 10-1 is a great number for all that. I’m less high on Oregon, and while I like Georgia I don’t see them as decisively better than the rest of the SEC East, making either number a tough play.

The Dark Horses: Florida State (10-1, 10), Michigan (45-1, 8.5), South Carolina (30-1, 8.5)
This is what I was talking about with Florida State when I picked them to win the ACC, but said they were still overrated. To give them the same odds as Oklahoma is ridiculous. And you can’t even consider the Over, because there is no way they go 11-1 and if that doesn’t happen you can only hope for a push. It heartens to see some realistic numbers on Michigan, who is getting too much media hype. Apparently Las Vegas money sees the Wolverines a little more clearly and that 8.5 number on wins is a very reasonable Over bet. As far as a national title shot, South Carolina is the one I like the best. The Gamecocks are my pick to win the SEC East and to eventually win Spurrier’s first SEC championship. If you think a team will get to the SEC title game, possibly win it and they’re 30-1, the conference’s track record tells you it’s worth a flyer.

The Longshots: Arkansas (30-1, 8.5), West Virginia (50-1, 8.5)
Taking either of these teams to win a national title is tantamount to pulling money out of your wallet, lighting a match and starting a blaze. I don’t even like Arkansas on the win prop number, given the uncertainty in the program after Bobby Petrino’s departure and John L. Smith’s arrival. Taking West Virginia for a nine-win season is reasonable, although I still see them for fourth or fifth place in their first season in the Big 12.

BEST BETS: Oklahoma (10-1) and South Carolina (30-1) to win the national championship. That’s based on the betting odds. Who TheSportsNotebook actually picks straight-up comes later this week.