College football conference odds: Michigan reigned in 2021, but Big Ten is still Ohio State’s league

Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh watches an intrasquad spring game on April 2 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Harbaugh’s eighth team is his first at Michigan that is coming off a win over Ohio State. The eighth-ranked Wolverines’ new challenge is to beat the Buckeyes on the road for the first time since 2000. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh watches an intrasquad spring game on April 2 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Harbaugh’s eighth team is his first at Michigan that is coming off a win over Ohio State. The eighth-ranked Wolverines’ new challenge is to beat the Buckeyes on the road for the first time since 2000. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Between now and the start of college football season on Sept. 1, we’ll preview every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an emphasis on futures odds. Each preview will include a look at favorites, long shots and a pick as well as the full list of odds for the conference.

(If you’re just getting started with sports betting and want to learn the terms and how it works, check out Sports Betting 101.)

We’ve started with the smaller conferences and worked our way toward the top, with the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference coming out this week just before games kick off. Our goal has been to give you a comprehensive look at the top division in college football.

This Saturday brings the first day of the new college football season, with games from Dublin (Nebraska-Northwestern, 12:30 p.m.) to Honolulu (Vanderbilt-Hawaii, 10:30 p.m.). What a wonderful thing that is.

On to the Big Ten, which signed a major media rights deal this week and has forced its way onto the college football mountaintop, the only league around that consider itself something of an equal with the SEC.

The only thing keeping the Big Ten a notch below is championship pedigree; outside of Ohio State, a Big Ten team hasn’t won a national title since Michigan shared one in 1997. The Wolverines’ College Football Playoff appearance last year was the Big Ten’s sixth in eight years of the CFP but only the second by anyone other than OSU.

UCLA and USC are joining up in 2024. Until then (and perhaps even afterward), it looks like more of the same: Everyone playing catch-up with the Buckeyes.

Last season

Before Michigan stole all the headlines of the 2021 Big Ten season, they had to cede that spot to cross-state rival Michigan State first. The Spartans beat the Wolverines 37-33 in an epic game in East Lansing in October and were momentarily the talk of the country before fading with a loss to Purdue the next week and then a 56-7 trouncing at the hands of Ohio State.

Michigan, however, went the other way, reeling off five straight wins after that defeat, including a cathartic 42-27 win against Ohio State and then a 42-3 beatdown of Iowa in the Big Ten title game. (Actually, if we’re being totally fair, Iowa was the Big Ten team du jour first, winning its first six games with a lockdown defense before limping to the West Division title despite an offense that locked down itself.)

The Wolverines were out of their league in a 34-11 loss to Georgia in the CFP semifinal at the Orange Bowl, encapsulating the Big Ten’s SEC problem in one terrible first half.

None of this is to say Ohio State was having a bad year, at least by almost anyone else’s standards. The Buckeyes lost early to Oregon and late to Michigan. Other than that, they won every regular season game by at least nine points and then beat Utah 48-45 in a classic Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin was the opposite of Iowa, starting off with high expectations that fizzled in a 1-3 starts — but a seven-game winning streak and Las Vegas Bowl win over Arizona State helped them finish 9-4.

Elsewhere, Penn State was a disappointing 7-6 with four losses by four points or less. Purdue and Minnesota both had 9-4 seasons that very much flew under the national radar. And Nebraska somehow went 3-9 despite outscoring opponents by 63 points.


How did oddsmakers respond to the Buckeyes’ one-season blip? By making them the biggest conference favorite of any team in the country. Ohio State (-250) has Heisman Trophy favorite CJ Stroud at quarterback, plus returning superstars at running back in TreVeyon Henderson and wide receiver in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. There are five-star recruits along both the offensive and defensive lines and a flashy defensive coordinator hire in Jim Knowles, who had Oklahoma State’s defense among the nation’s best. Plus, the schedule sets up favorably, with opening test Notre Dame plus Wisconsin and Michigan among eight games at The Horseshoe this season. The Buckeyes must travel to Penn State and Michigan State but are a robust -380 to win the East Division.

Michigan (+750) is the second choice and also has eight home games — that’s some strategic scheduling by both rivals. Plenty of talent is here for another run, too. But the Wolverines lost six starters off of an explosive defense, including No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson, and also must figure out its quarterback battle between Cade McNamara and JJ McCarthy. And don’t forget Michigan travels to Columbus to end the regular season.

The next team on the list is Wisconsin (+1200), which is a modest +175 favorite to win the West Division. The Badgers have Graham Mertz returning for his third year as starting quarterback but bring back only three returning starters on defense. The schedule is also unfavorable, with Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska all on the road.

Longer shots

There are only two other options under 20/1, and both disappointed last year because of close losses. Penn State (+1400) started 5-0 but then lost five close games in the second half of the season as Sean Clifford and a mediocre offense had trouble backing a good defense when it mattered most.

Likewise, Nebraska (+1600) had a nightmarish run of close losses brought on by curious decisions by coach Scott Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez and lousy special teams. Martinez transferred to Kansas State, but Frost is back and Texas transfer Casey Thompson is in line to be the QB. If the Cornhuskers can turn around their luck, a bowl game should be the minimum expectation.

Carrying its typical no-offense, all-defense reputation, Iowa (+2200) has the misfortune of drawing both Ohio State and Michigan out of the East Division, though they do get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home late in the season. Eight starters are back from that elite D, but better quarterback play is a must.

Michigan State (+2500) won’t have Kenneth Walker III to carry the load, but the passing attack seems ready for the next step. Of course, a stacked defensive front seven will help. Two other options at the same price are Minnesota and Purdue (both +2500). Boilermakers quarterback Aidan O’Connell has thrown for nearly 6,000 yards in his career but loses top receiver David Ball, and Gophers star Mo Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year, returns after missing a season with an Achilles injury.

Value picks

Bet against Ohio State at your own risk, but it’s tough to lay -250 on a conference future.

If you do want to fade the Buckeyes, a couple of options stick out. One is Penn State at +1400. The Nittany Lions fell off last year after Sean Clifford was injured. If he’s healthy and new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz doesn’t let that side of the ball drop off, there’s a lot of upside for a team that gets most of its tough games at home (Minnesota, Ohio State and Michigan State, with the toughest road trip Oct. 15 to Michigan after a week off.)

The other? Laugh if you want, but Nebraska at +1600 may represent some value. Someone has to come out of the West Division, and while Wisconsin and Iowa must both play at Ohio State, the Huskers draw the slightly easier task in Michigan. A soft early schedule (outside of a visit from Oklahoma) could yield a 7-1 start, and if close-game luck finally turns Nebraska’s way, a trip to the Big Ten title game isn’t out of the question. If the title is a bridge too far for you, the Huskers’ West Division odds are +240.

Full Big Ten odds and win totals

(From Caesars Sportsbook)

 Team  Division  Title odds  Win total
 Ohio State  East  -250  11 (o-140)
 Michigan  East  +750  9.5 (o-140)
 Wisconsin  West  +1200  9 (u-130)
 Penn State  East  +1400  8.5 (u-125)
 Nebraska  West  +1600  7.5 (o-125)
 Iowa  West  +2200  7.5 (o-125)
 Michigan State  East  +2500  7.5 (o-125)
 Minnesota  West  +2500  7.5 (o-130)
 Purdue  West  +2500  7 (o-150)
 Maryland  East  +12500  6 (u-125)
 Indiana  East  +15000  4 (o-120)
 Illinois  West  +20000  4.5 (o-125)
 Rutgers  East  +30000  4
 Northwestern  West  +30000  3.5 (o-140)


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