College Football Odds & Futures: Our Top Picks Ahead of Week 1, Including Utah & Baylor

College Football Odds & Futures: Our Top Picks Ahead of Week 1, Including Utah & Baylor article feature image

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Utah tight end Brant Kuithe.

In 2021, we experienced a bit of change in college football at both the conference and national level.

Baylor ended Oklahoma’s stranglehold on the Big 12 by beating the Sooners in the regular season and then taking down Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship.

Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011 en route to its first Big Ten Championship since 2004.

Clemson didn’t win either the ACC Atlantic or ACC Championship for the first time in six years. Instead, Pitt took home its first ACC Championship. In the Pac-12, Utah finally broke through to win its first conference championship after losing its two previous appearances in the Pac-12 title game.

Georgia had been recruiting like a power for several years, and it finally broke through to win its first National Championship since 1980. It even got redemption in the process by avenging its loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

However, entering 2022, there are a lot of familiar faces at the top. Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson make up the top four in the preseason AP Poll. Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson even have minus-odds to win their conferences, offering little value to sit on for an entire season.

With 2022 looking like another season dominated by the same teams, is there value to be found in the futures market?

Alex Hinton

National Championship Picture

Utah to Win National Championship (+8000)

By Alex Hinton

When looking at teams that can win the National Championship, you have to start with teams that have a favorable path of making the College Football Playoff.

Texas A&M has to play at Alabama this season, and if it loses that game, its chances are likely finished.

Georgia and Alabama both made the CFP last season because Georgia got through its regular season undefeated. While the Bulldogs defense will still be very strong, it's unlikely that it matches the historic unit from last season. That could make the Bulldogs ripe for an upset during the regular season.

In the Big Ten, Michigan and Ohio State are both candidates to reach the Playoff, however, they play "The Game" in November. Michigan has not won in Columbus since 2000. Its national title hopes likely evaporate if it loses to Ohio State.

So, by process of elimination, there should be a spot available for a team like Utah. However, the Utes are good enough to handle business on their own to put themselves into contention.

Utah returns its star-studded backfield that features quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas. Those two will give Utah a chance in every regular season game. SP+ has Utah as the No. 9 offense in the country entering its season.

That offense may carry Utah to begin the year as the Utes adjusts to life without Devin Lloyd on defense. However, a Kyle Whittingham-coached team is going to be tough, physical and disciplined. SP+ projects Utah to finish 38th defensively this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Utes finished the year as a top-20 unit.

Utah’s schedule also sets itself up to make a Playoff run. Utah begins its season on Saturday at Florida. Tim Tebow is not walking through that door for the Gators, but Florida should make a bowl game in Billy Napier’s first year.

A true road win over a name-brand SEC program will look good in the eyes of the CFP committee.

In its conference schedule, Utah plays at UCLA and Oregon but gets USC at home. I expect Utah to beat USC. If it can at least split with UCLA and Oregon — it could win both outright — Utah would likely enter and win the Pac-12 Championship as a one-loss team.

That will put the Utes in position to make the College Football Playoff. At +8000, you can't pass up on a team that can actually reach the CFP.

From there, you can evaluate your hedging options. However, Utah proved it can play with any team in the country and probably should have beaten Ohio State in the Rose Bowl last season.

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Conference Championship Picture

Baylor to Win Big 12 (+650)

By Mike Calabrese

The Bears are the defending Big 12 champs, and the media rewarded that accomplishment by placing them atop the conference pecking order back in July.

Vegas wasn’t nearly as moved.

Oddsmakers have listed Baylor with the fourth-lowest odds to win the conference, behind Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State. Dave Aranda’s bunch went 3-1 against those three teams last season.

So, why the lack of faith in Sugar Bowl champs? In a word, continuity. Baylor is 99th in returning production, and according to Action Network’s Collin Wilson, the Bears have been hit the second-hardest in the Big 12 by the portal and players exhausting their eligibility.

This play is predicated on two things:

  1. The first is my faith in Aranda, a defensive mastermind who has seven returning starters at his disposal with strength along the defensive line (17th-ranked rush defense).
  2. The second reason I’m still bullish on the Bears is Blake Shapen. The sophomore played well enough last season to unseat Gerry Bohanon, taking hold of the job in the spring and forcing Bohanon into the transfer portal.

Shapen can offer a previously one-dimensional BU attack (10th in rush, 92nd in pass) real pop through the air. In the Big 12 Championship against Oklahoma State — which ranked fourth in total defense — Shapen completed 82% of his passes and tossed three touchdowns, earning title game MVP honors.

He’s a solid improvisational runner and has tremendous touch for a player with just two career starts.

Then there’s the offensive line in front of Shapen, a group capable of winning the Joe Moore Award. Their superiority in the trenches will allow offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to keep his RVO (reliably violent offense) rolling. The Broyles Award finalist unleashed a devastating running game that paired perfectly with the Bears’ stout defense last season.

Looking around the Big 12, there are reasons to view Baylor as a safer bet than the three teams Vegas has slotted ahead of it.

Oklahoma State will be breaking in 12 new starters in Stillwater, Oklahoma has completely overhauled its coaching staff, and UT is dealing with the crushing weight of outsized expectations on the Forty Acres.

I’m confident Baylor can at least return to the conference title game in 2022.

Conference Bet to Watch

Air Force to Win Mountain West (+450)

By Mike Calabrese

Our very own Brett McMurphy dropped an interesting factoid on the masses earlier this month. There are six college football teams projected to be favored in every game this season. Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Utah are the teams from the Power Five that can justifiably dream of a perfect season. The Group of Five entrant? Air Force.

The Falcons went 10-3 last season, dropping those three games by a combined total of 17 points.

This season, USAF returns 14 starters and both specialists. Haaziq Daniels, Brad Roberts, DeAndre Hughes and Dane Kinamon all return after this group accounted for 34 total touchdowns last season. The offensive line returns three full-time starters and two others with starting experience.

Defensively, the Falcons are coming off a historically good season that saw them finish fourth in total defense and ninth against the run. They’ll be stout against the run again and can bank on Vince Sanford (17 TFLs) disrupting opponents from the edge.

Both cornerbacks need to be replaced, but they have time to gel thanks to a forgiving schedule.

Air Force won’t be threatened by quality quarterback play until Oct. 8 when they travel to Logan to take on Utah State. Before that road trip, it hosts Northern Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Navy while traveling to Wyoming on Sept. 17.

Additionally, the Falcons avoid Fresno State from the West Division and get Boise State at home. Even their road trip to Army is softened by a bye week in between.

If they protect the ball as they did last season (10 giveaways, 6th) and remain a top-25 defense under new defensive coordinator and alum Brian Knorr, they’ll win the Mountain Division and find themselves in the MWC Championship for the first time since 2015.

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