My 4 favorite value bets on teams to make the Playoff in 2020
Let me stop you before you skim right past this.
I fear that you saw the words “favorite,” “bets” and “make the Playoff,” and not the words in between. You read the headline too fast and you thought you would come here to read a column about a Playoff prediction. This isn’t quite that.
The key word for that headline was “value.” As in, which team could allow you to make triple your money? Or which team could allow you to make 20 times your money?
For the sake of this argument, that’s what we’ll focus on. That is, the teams with a legitimate path to the Playoff that could yield a fat pay day.
We’ll use the latest odds from BetOnline, where the favorites to make the field are Clemson -200, Ohio State -150, Alabama -125, Oklahoma +125, Georgia +150 and LSU +200. Those, in my opinion, wouldn’t qualify as “value bets.” Betting $100 on Clemson just to net $50 isn’t taking a chance. It could be deemed a wise choice given the lackluster expectations of the ACC in 2020, but there’s other value to be had.
So, here are 4 teams that make a lot of sense if you’re looking to hit it big on a Playoff bet:
1. Florida +350
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t Florida one of the preseason favorites to win the SEC and make the Playoff? How is that a value bet? Well, the Gators are a value bet compared to other SEC contenders. You can get 3.5 times your money betting on Florida compared to 2 times your money on LSU while Georgia is 1.5 (Alabama is -125).
Is there that much separation between Florida and the other SEC contenders? I’d argue there isn’t. After all, Florida is the only SEC contender with a returning starting quarterback, and that’s for a team coming off consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowl victories.
We all know the hurdle. It’s Georgia. That’s why Florida’s odds aren’t +200. Three consecutive losses to the Dawgs certainly contributed to that +350 mark.
But given the production Florida returns, there’s still a favorable path. The most challenging road game is against a Tennessee team that the Gators smoked last year, and I wouldn’t consider Florida State in Year 1 of the Mike Norvell era a roadblock to the Playoff. Florida could theoretically lose that LSU game, which is at home this year, and go into the SEC Championship with a Playoff path.
It’s all about getting over the Georgia hump. It’s by no means a given, but this weird offseason favors the team without massive turnover on 1 side of the ball. You could do much worse than +350 on Florida.
2. Oregon +500
Sooner or later, the Pac-12’s Playoff drought has to end … right? Why can’t it end with an Oregon team that has a decent chance of starting in the top 6-8? The risk of figuring out how to replace Justin Herbert is baked into those odds.
It’s a major offensive shift, but returning one of the nation’s top tailbacks in C.J. Verdell with the unquestioned top offensive lineman in America in Penei Sewell should help. And taking over that unit is Joe Moorhead, who was widely considered one of the sport’s top offensive coordinators before he took the Mississippi State job.
Mario Cristobal signed 3 consecutive top-13 classes with 20 offensive recruits rated 4-stars or better. There’s talent in Eugene, and with Cristobal, there’s some elite development. Oregon returns 81% of its defensive production, and that’s from a top-10 defense that helped win a Rose Bowl. That team, by the way, lost 2 games by 1 score.
Unlike last year when the Ducks had to travel to Dallas for the opener against Auburn, they’re scheduled to host Ohio State this year. That could potentially be a major feather in their cap, and they’d still have a Playoff path with a loss. Getting Washington and USC at home this year could also be huge.
The big question is figuring out the quarterback situation. But man, if Oregon can do that, getting 5-to-1 on your money doesn’t seem far-fetched.
3. Penn State +600
Tell me if you can sense a theme with the top 7 betting favorites to make the Playoff:
- Ohio State
- Notre Dame
What’s the common denominator? All of them made the Playoff at least once. None of the next 7 teams after that have made the Playoff in its 6-year history. Among those teams is Penn State, which at +600, owns the title for “team that hasn’t made the Playoff, but has been the closest to doing so.” The Lions played in New Year’s 6 Bowls in 3 of the last 4 years, including last year when they won the Cotton Bowl to get to 11 wins. Their lone losses were November road games to a pair of teams that finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25.
From that team, Penn State returns an established starting quarterback in Sean Clifford, who has one of the country’s top 1-2 punches at tailback in Journey Brown and Noah Cain. They’ll run behind nearly the entire offensive line that paved the way for a top-20 scoring offense last year. That group will add offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who was masterful in elevating Minnesota’s offense last year. And defensively, Penn State’s No. 8 unit returns All-American linebacker Micah Parsons to lead a group that ranked in the top 25 in each of the past 3 seasons under Brent Pry.
The risk with Penn State is obviously that it hasn’t happened yet. Betting on a first-time Playoff qualifier, as we’ve seen, is tricky. There’s plenty of reason to question Franklin’s play-calling in tight situations, and we saw in 2018 what happened when Penn State had questions at receiver like it has this year. There’s also Ohio State potentially blocking the path to a division title.
Here’s the thing, though. After a year in which very few teams handled Ohio State that well, Penn State outplayed the Buckeyes in the second half of that game in Columbus. This year, they’ll play in Happy Valley. Road games at Virginia Tech, Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska could all trip up Penn State, but if you’re betting on a team to make the Playoff, they’re winning several quality road games no matter what.
Maybe now is the time that Penn State finally breaks through. Lesser teams certainly have.
4. Iowa State +2000
Is this a dart throw? Yeah, but for 20-to-1 on my money, I’ll go with Iowa State for a few reasons. It helps when you have an elite quarterback and one of the better coaches in the country. Check both boxes for the Cyclones. It seems extremely difficult to make the Playoff without quality quarterback play and a coach who knows what he’s doing.
It also helps that Iowa State ranks No. 3 in the Big 12 in percentage of returning production. The Cyclones return 10 defensive starters, which seems important in a league that doesn’t have a ton of units who can stop the bleeding.
But here’s the other thing that intrigues me. Iowa State lost 5 regular-season games last year. All were decided by 10 points or less. It’s obviously easier said than done to flip that number, but could there be a significant regression to the mean?
One of those losses, you might remember, happened because of a failed 2-point conversion in the final minute at Oklahoma. Remember that muffed punt that sealed a 1-point loss against Iowa in that rain-delayed game? Or what about the go-ahead pick-6 in the 4th quarter vs. Oklahoma State or the go-ahead field goal with 21 seconds left against Baylor? The point is, Iowa State was a young team that lost a bunch of close games in a lot of fluky ways.
Perhaps it’s not crazy to think that Matt Campbell — who has wins against Lincoln Riley, Mike Gundy and Tom Herman — could lead a team reminiscent of 2016 Washington. That is, a team who starts in the back half of the Top 25 who becomes a surprise 1-loss conference champ and a first-time Playoff invitee.
And if not, well, I hope you won’t lose sleep not hitting on a bet with 20-to-1 odds.