Saturday night’s Wisconsin-Michigan showdown (ABC, 7:30 p.m.) is one college football fans had circled before the season started. Both were well-regarded entering the 2018 campaign. Wisconsin was ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll. Michigan was tabbed at No. 5 by respected summer publication Athlon.
Both have been disappointing, particularly in testers. Wisconsin is just 1-4 against market point spreads, making the now-No. 15 Badgers one of the most overrated teams in the country. Wisconsin lost outright to BYU as a 23-point favorite, a loss that looks even worse given the Cougars’ subsequent fade.
Michigan looked awful through the bulk of its season-opening loss at Notre Dame. And, that was the version of the Fighting Irish with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback that then struggled to beat Ball State and Vanderbilt. Though the now No. 12 Wolverines haven’t lost since, they had to rally to sneak past Northwestern 20-17 as 15-point favorites.
Is this week’s prime-time powder keg just a bunch of marketing hype? Sports bettors must be open to that possibility, at least in terms of whether or not these teams will be overrated in Big 10 discussions or as Final Four long shots. Corporate partners tend to hype product whether or not its deserved.
Sharps made an early statement, hitting an opening line of Michigan -6 ¹/₂ and driving it through the key number of seven all the way to -8. Many stores were offering -8¹/₂ late in the week. Why such support for the favorite in what’s being marketed as a “smash mouth” defensive battle? Isn’t that a lot of points for that kind of game?
Wisconsin may not be as “smash mouth” as you were thinking. Two key factors here:
- Wisconsin’s rush defense ranks a shocking 81st in the nation in yards-per-carry allowed at 4.43. Sharps are betting as if they believe that will allow Michigan to control the flow of the game on the ground. (If you’re wondering, Michigan’s defense ranks fifth in that stat, at 2.64 allowed per carry).
- Wisconsin is ill-suited to play from behind versus quality. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is very inaccurate with his downfield passing. If Hornibrook has to rally through the air, it’s more likely to lead to incomplete passes, turnovers, and an overall field position disaster.
The rankings may see these teams as about even. Sharps have invested heavily that the nuances of this particular talent matchup favor the host. Michigan can stay in its comfort zone while controlling its own destiny. The overrated visitor cannot. That’s the theory anyway.
Game-day handicappers must decide if the line has moved too far. Totals bettors can consider whether game-time temperatures in the 40s will help put a ceiling on scoring potential at a market price of 48 ¹/₂.
Even if you don’t bet the game, it’s not a bad idea to scout it because both teams will be on TV several more times. If Wisconsin’s rush defense continues to flounder, you can be the guy pounding the opening line next time.