The Market is in Love With Michigan


It seems like you can't turn on the TV set or go online without hearing something about the Michigan Wolverines football team. If Jim Harbaugh isn't at a satellite camp wearing an Allen Iverson jersey he's engaged in a Twitter war with Nick Saban. It turns out you can't review a tote board in Vegas without being hit with the Wolverines either - the betting market is so in love with these Wolverines that it's time to ask some serious questions before real money starts getting bet.

Let's open with the futures numbers that are on the board for Michigan - they're (+800) to win the national championship, trailing only Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The Wolverines are a mere (+185) to win the Big Ten title. And their Over/Under for wins is an even 10.

Now let's put those numbers in some historical context. Michigan hasn't won the Big Ten championship since 2004, the longest drought the program has had since 1951-63. They last won as many 11 games (the number it would take to cash an Over) in 2011 and before that you have to go back to 2006.

So right off the bat, we can say that Las Vegas is asking bettors to give the Wolverines a heavy benefit of the doubt to do something they've done only sporadically in the entire 21st century. Harbaugh is the reason and as reasons go this is a pretty good one. The man's record, at Stanford and then with the 49ers is impeccable. His first year in Ann Arbor was impressive. But are these numbers a case of asking too much too soon?

The results on the field last year suggest they may be. Michigan had their game with Ohio State at home and it wasn't close. They were outrushed an astonishing 369-57 as the Buckeyes won in a 42-13 rout. The market's numbers tell us that Michigan is now virtually on a par with Ohio State.

The Wolverines' crushing 27-23 loss to Michigan State earlier in the year might be dismissed as a fluke. You may recall that the Wolverines had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown on the final play of the game. But before dismissing that outcome, remember that this was another case where Michigan could not run the football against a good football team. In spite of having the lead virtually the entire way, the Wolverines gained only 62 yards on the ground and were unable to put the game away.

Harbaugh believes in a power running game. But in his team's two biggest games, both at home, he was unable to generate anything at all on the ground. What basis is there for believing that this year will be different, with those games now on the road? You can add to that list the Iowa Hawkeyes, the champs of the Big Ten West last year and now on Michigan's schedule. That's three games right there where the Wolverines have to be substantially better and to cash an Over on the win futures, they'll need to win at least two of those games and sweep the rest (a list that includes another non-gimme in Wisconsin).

I don't want to suggest that Michigan can't accomplish these things - winning a Big Ten title and winning eleven games are within their grasp and it's not a big step after that to win a national championship. But the point has to be emphasized that they were a significant distance from those standards at the end of last season, they haven't been at those standards consistently in a long time and the numbers on the betting market aren't giving college football bettors a lot of wiggle room.

A principle of smart handicapping is never to fall in love. The market is currently in love with Michigan. We're in "like" with them. We like the defensive line duo of Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst and believe they're going to lead an extremely stingy unit. We like corner Jourdan Lewis, one of the top cover men in the country and loved by NFL people. We like Jabrill Peppers, a beast at strong safety. When you can play defense like Michigan can, you deserve to be in a conversation for big things.

But being "in a conversation" is different than being vaulted into a premature role of favorites. Handicappers are going to wipe the steam away from their eyes and make sure they have a clear-eyed sober view of the Wolverines before stepping up to the window.


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