*Jigsaw voice* Would you like to play a game?
(By the way, I just watched Saw last week and it absolutely holds up.)
Every year there are teams that come from out of nowhere. Your UTSAs and Utah States last year. Two years ago it was Coastal Carolina. Who it’s going to be this year is anyone’s guess. In an era where teams are changing conference left and right, Wild Cards are as wild as ever. Now, here’s the game. Let’s say you have $100 burning a hole in your bank account, have a full gas tank, and are looking for a few bets to make. What are a few longshots to take that aren’t that crazy? Here are five, making each pick a $20 bet. (Based on Draftkings numbers as of August 3.)
Old Dominion to win the Sun Belt (+5000) – We’re starting out hot.
In the Sun Belt, the East Division is considered the more difficult of the two. You have App St., Coastal Carolina, Marshall and Georgia St. all considered major threats to win the division, if not the entire conference. Then there is James Madison, who is expected to be at worst, competitive. Let’s not forget that the team projected to finish last in the division (according to the coaches poll) won the last five regular season games they played to become bowl eligible and returns a quarterback with pro potential, four starters on the offensive line and at least two skill players that will play on Sundays.
There’s no reason to think that Old Dominion is the worst team in the Sun Belt East. They were picked last because SOMEBODY had to be…and probably the schedule.
I did the whole breakdown of ODU’s schedule in my “Predicting the Futures” column on the Sun Belt, so I won’t rehash that again. The Monarchs have the chance to build momentum early on, as they host a Virginia Tech team Week One that is rebuilding. But for the purposes of winning the conference, that game doesn’t matter. The reality is, the games that do are road games at Coastal Carolina, at Georgia St., at Appalachian St. and at South Alabama. Those are downright hard and don’t even count home games against Marshall, JMU, Arkansas St. and Georgia Southern.
You have to think the division champ is only going to be able to lose one game, so things are definitely going to have to break right for ODU. But the silver lining is, whoever comes out of this division will likely face a Louisiana team that won’t be as dominant as the Ragin Cajuns of the past couple years. So if you have faith in Ricky Rahne and company, I’ll just point out that ODU winning the division is +1800. If you are making a $20 bet, may as well ride them all the way for the boost. (A $20 bet pays out $1000.)
Southern Miss to win the Sun Belt West Division (+900) – You know how I just said three sentences ago that Louisiana won’t be as dominant as they have been in past years? They may not even win the gosh darn division.
I sung the praises of Southern Miss in the aforementioned “Predicting the Futures” column. (Seriously, it was pretty informative. You should read them all.) But among the things I mentioned was the sheer potential of the Golden Eagles with a healthy Ty Keyes, a talented running back in Frank Gore Jr., a second-year offensive minded coach and a division that could offer a bit of chaos. When you are looking for a longshot, sometimes it boils down to who you think has the highest ceiling.
The schedule doesn’t look great at first glance, but things might be ok if they can go to Troy and beat them in their first conference game. Division favorite Louisiana comes to Hattiesburg, as does crossover opponent Georgia St. nine days later. But the Louisiana game is a Thursday nighter. If they can figure out a way to win both those, they would have a bit of a buffer for the next week’s game at Coastal Carolina. Again, things have to break right, but “longshot” is literally in the headline and there’s undoubtedly potential here. (A $20 bet pays out $180.)
Kent St. to win the MAC (+900) – In a conference as unpredictable as the MAC, let’s look at we know.
Thanks to a “basketball on grass” style of offense led by stud quarterback Dustin Crum, Kent St. reached the MAC Championship game. While replacing a star quarterback is never easy, having arguably the best wide receiver and an all-conference candidate at running back helps.
Expected starter Collin Schlee proved capable as a dual-threat, rushing for three touchdowns and throwing for another in game action. He showed enough similarity to Crum that the Golden Flashes may not miss a beat. If the defense and hold up its end of the bargain, Kent St. should be very good. (Pay absolutely no attention to the non-conference games at Washington, at Oklahoma and at Georgia before conference play.)
The Golden Flashes have a very difficult road slate, with games at Miami, Toledo, Bowling Green and Buffalo. But if the last few years of MACtion have proved anything, it’s that home field is not the be-all-end-all. In a wide open conference and for a $20 bet that would pay out $180, trust that Kent St. is going to be hard to stop for anyone. (A $20 bet pays out $180.)
Charlotte to make the conference title game (+800) – Quick question. Who is the third best team in Conference USA?
The consensus is that UTSA and UAB are the top two teams in the conference and on a collision course for the conference title game. And maybe they are. But if either teams falters – say UAB just doesn’t look the same without Bill Clark at the helm or UTSA struggles as the hunted instead of the hunter – then that opens up a spot at the top of the conference.
Charlotte returns starting quarterback Chris Reynolds, four returning linemen and a couple of receivers from a better than average passing attack last year. That’s all well and good, but it may not matter by the time Week One starts. The 49ers open the season Week Zero with a conference game at FAU, which may prove to be a blessing in disguise. The Owls derailed a promising season last year for the 49ers, so there is definitely a focal point all offseason. If Charlotte can get past that, there is no UTSA or North Texas on their schedule and they get UTEP and Western Kentucky at home. Other than going to UAB, there is not much meat on the conference bone. This team can make a run. (And oh by the way, the 49ers DON’T EVEN HAVE TO WIN THE CONFERENCE to cash in, just make the title game.) (A $20 bet pays out $160.)
Colorado St. to win the Mountain Division (+1200) – The consensus top two teams in the Mountain West are San Diego St. and Fresno St., but they are in the West Division. If you want to take a shot on an out-of-nowhere team, check the other division.
The Rams are switching to an Air Raid offense behind former Nevada coach Jay Norvell. He brought with him quarterback Clay Millen and a ton of other weapons, so the transition shouldn’t be that difficult. And if you don’t believe me, ask Utah St., who had a new coach and quarterback from the same previous stop lead them to the conference title last year. Road games at Boise St. and Air Force will be tests, but if the offense is clicking, then the juice is definitely with the squeeze to take a chance on CSU. You have to assume this team will look nothing like the 3-9 squad under Steve Addazio last year, so why not? (A $20 bet pays out $240.)
So there’s five bets that, while definitely dart throws, are ones that can pay off handsomely. There are going to be surprises this year, there always are in the Group of 5. And I don’t want to tell you how to spend your winnings, but if we all happen to turn $100 into $1760, then we meet up for an epic tailgate at the National Title game.