Cram Session: Big Ten balanced but frighteningly fragile

David Payne Purdum
The always proud Big Ten is bigger, but not necessarily better.

It is, however, the most balanced conference in the nation.

Over the past five seasons, favorites in Big Ten conference play are 107-107-6. During that same timeframe, 216 Big Ten conference games have eclipsed the total, and 214 stayed under.

Described by some as mediocrity, the Big Ten’s balance means the conference’s hierarchy is fragile and can dramatically shift with the loss of one key player or the addition of another. Like, for example, a 5-foot-11 quarterback from North Carolina State.

When ex-Wolfpack QB Russell Wilson landed in Madison, Wisconsin, Monday, oddsmakers scrambled to adjust the Badgers’ odds.

The Las Vegas Hilton cut Wisconsin's odds to win the BCS title in half, from +3,000 (30-1) to +1,500.

“Guys out here are high on (Wisconsin), thinking the quarterback was the only position lacking,” Hilton sportsbook manager Jeff Sherman told

Offshore, the Badgers head into July as the second favorite (+175) to win the conference, behind only newcomer Nebraska (+125). opened its college football Games of the Year lines over the weekend. The Oct. 1 Nebraska at Wisconsin (-2.5) game received the most action. No. 3 was Wisconsin at Michigan (PK) on Oct. 22.

It’s almost comical how much football-starved bettors will overreact to any news that comes out in July. Wilson isn’t even guaranteed to start and, if the recent success rate of one-year transfer quarterbacks like Jeremiah Masoli at Ole Miss and Sam Keller at Nebraska is any indication, the Badgers aren’t guaranteed to be any better than, say, Illinois.

Just think about how bad things would have been in the Big Ten if Nebraska hadn’t transferred in and if Wilson would have decided to take his talents elsewhere. Ohio State, with all its issues, might have still been the favorite. And, honestly, is there any doubt that the Buckeyes still boast the most talent in the conference?

With that said, there aren’t a lot of folks who believe Ohio State will even be eligible for either the inaugural Big Ten title game or a bowl game. So investing in the Buckeyes’ futures odds isn’t the smartest of moves.

That leaves the Huskers and Badgers as the oddsmakers’ favorites, although Penn State began the year as the No. 2 favorite when conference odds first popped up in early June. Until wishy-washy quarterback Robert Bolden fully commits, it’s hard to believe in the Nittany Lions, though.

The uncertainty at the top of the conference spells opportunity for the second-tier of teams like Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois. After last year’s 11-2 campaign, the Spartans have to feel a little bit overlooked. They do, after all, have the league’s best senior quarterback in pro-prospect Kirk Cousins.

There’s some buzz about the Fighting Illini, as well, and their young, explosive sophomore quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase.

Michigan still possesses the most dynamic player in the league in quarterback Denard Robinson, and Northwestern gets its star quarterback back in Dan Persa. The Wildcats return 16 starters from a team that was 7-3, before Persa was lost to an Achilles injury last season.

Any one of those teams could pop off against one of the so-called favorites.

Without Ohio State in the mix, the Big Ten lacks a legitimate national title contender, which leaves a balanced conference of debatable strength.

Big Ten Team-by-Team Betting Preview

(Listed in order of projected finish; ATS and over/under records from last three seasons; * indicates returning starting QB)


Michigan State Spartans
ATS: 17-19-2 (Home: 9-10-1. Away: 8-5-1) Over/under: 20/18

Returning starters: Offense 6*, Defense 8.

Thing to remember: A sleeper pick to win the conference, Michigan State has been a terrible bet at home, going 24-39-1 at Spartan Stadium in the past 10 seasons.

Twitter: @LSJGreenWhite

Nebraska Cornhuskers

ATS: 23-18 (Home: 7-12. Away: 9-5) Over/under: 17-24

Returning starters: Offense 5* Defense 7.

Thing to remember: Concern over quarterback Taylor Martinez’s relationship with the coaching staff have lingered over from last season. Reports out of Nebraska say the relationship is improved, but not everyone is convinced. Martinez had -32 yards rushing in the Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma and was ineffective in a Holiday Bowl loss against a Washington defense that he scored three touchdowns against earlier in the season.

Twitter: @bigrednetwork

Iowa Hawkeyes

ATS: 22-14-1 (Home: 10-8-1. Away: 9-5) Over/under: 13-20-4

Returning starters: Offense 5, Defense 4.

Thing to remember: With Tressel out the door, Kirk Ferentz is the biggest Big Ten cash cow. The Hawkeyes are 83-59-2 ATS under Ferentz. Only Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops and Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer have had more success covering the spread among active coaches.

Twitter: @HawkCentral

Northwestern Wildcats

ATS: 17-20 (Home: 6-10. Away: 8-8) Over/under: 19-18

9*, Defense 7.

Thing to remember: The Wildcats boast the most experienced offensive line in the conference, which will help quarterback Dan Persa, who was in the running for Big Ten Player of the Year, before rupturing his ACL last year.

Bonus: Northwestern is 5-20 ATS - 3-11 under head coach Pat Fitzgerald - as a home favorite since 2001. The Cats will be home favorites vs. Rice (Nov. 12) and Minnesota (Nov. 19).

Twitter: @TeddyGreenstein

Michigan Wolverines

ATS: 10-26 (Home: 7-14. Away: 3-11) Over/under: 22-13

Returning starters: Offense 9*, Defense 7.

Thing to remember: Brady Hoke’s record in his first year at Ball State -- 4-8 (4-7 ATS). His first year at San Diego State 4-8 (4-6-1 ATS).

Twitter: @freepworlverines

Minnesota Golden Gophers

ATS: 18-18 (Home: 8-11. Away: 9-5) Over/under: 20-16-1

Returning starters: Offense 6, Defense 8

Thing to remember:
Leading returning rusher DeLeon Eskridge left the program in mid-June, leaving new coach Jerry Kill and his in his run-oriented offense with a backfield by committee.

Twitter: @MillerStrib


Ohio State Buckeyes

ATS: 25-12-2 (Home: 14-7. Away: 7-5-2) Over/under: 15-21-2

Returning starters: Offense 7, Defense 4

Thing to remember: True freshman Braxton Miller looks to be the frontrunner in the Buckeyes’ quarterback race. Miller, a highly touted recruit, definitely has the most upside, but senior Joe Bauserman is considered a more reliable option. It all comes down to how quickly new coach Luke Fickell wants to turn the page to the future.

Bonus: The Buckeyes have been the best bet in all of college football the previous two seasons, covering the spread in of 25 games.

Twitter: @kgordonosu

Wisconsin Badgers

ATS: 19-17-1 (Home: 9-10. Away: 8-6-1) Over/under: 24-13-1

Returning starters: Offense 6, Defense 6.

Thing to remember: Don’t be fooled by all the talk about the Badgers’ potent power running game. This offense always puts up points under head coach Bret Bielema. Heading into Bielema’s sixth season, games involving the Badgers have gone over the total 58 percent of the time.

Twitter: @TomMulhernWSJ

Penn State Nittany Lions

ATS: 19-18 (Home: 11-12. Away: 2-5) Over/under: 20-18

Returning starters: Offense 7*, Defense 7.

Thing to remember: All eyes are on quarterback Rob Bolden, who after considering transferring, is back in the mix heading into July.

Twitter: @BSDtweet
Illinois Fighting Illini

ATS: 17-18 (Home: 7-9. Away: 7-6). Over/under: 17-17-2

Returning starters: Offense 7*, Defense 6.

Thing to remember: The Illini are just 8-14 ATS in non-conference games under head coach Ron Zook.

Twitter: @BobAsmussen!/bobasmussen

Purdue Boilermakers

ATS: 15-19-1 (Home: 8-11-1. Away: 2-8). Over/under: 15-18-2

Thing to remember: Head coach Danny Hope got a vote of confidence from his AD in June, but how much confidence can one have in a third-year coach that has yet to experience a winning season? With that said, the Boilermakers are on a lot of pundits’ most improved lists. They do return a conference-high 16 starters.

Twitter: @BoiledSports

Indiana Hoosiers

ATS: 15-19. (Home: 8-10. Away: 7-8). Over/under: 20-12-2

Thing to remember: New coach Kevin Wilson inherits a program that has been one of the worst when it comes to covering the spread. The Hoosiers have covered in only 55 games since 1999 -the fewest of any BCS conference team.

Twitter: @DustinDopirak

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Posted by coakley69
5 years ago

On Wisconsin!

Posted by zoocorp
5 years ago

Wilson is the real deal and with the Badgers ability to run on 3rd and long they can put Wilson in a good position where he doesn't have to force the balls which should cut down on his one deficiency- too many ints.
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Top Response

Posted by coakley69
5 years ago

"On Wisconsin!"

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