[Ed: you know what? I'm just going to bump this instead of linking it again.]
[Quick JCB plug: We’ve got you covered on all the weekend action, including a great preview on the stellar prime time schedule tomorrow night from SteveY and a breakdown of the Evil Empire vs Little Brother match tomorrow afternoon. More to come later today including a deeper look at the Nebraska-Wisconsin showdown and, of course, my weekend card of picks, so bookmark us already!]
October is hours away. And so is the start of the 2011 Big 10 conference season. Out of conference games are more or less over and we're about to begin an historic Big 10 season, one with Nebraska in it, two divisional races and a winner-take-all championship in, of all months, December. This will be season to remember, but will Michigan be a factor? The numbers from September are in, and the early math points to the Wolverine's showdown with Nebraska in November being for the division title.
But we've all been here before with Michigan looking good on the verge on the conference campaign only to see the September numbers wither with the changing seasons. I have a feeling this year will be different, but that doesn't mean the Wolverines will run the table or boss their division. My prediction for the division has always been its pretty mediocre and that we'll see three teams tied atop at 5-3. Michigan has as good a chance as anyone to hit that 5-3 mark. My other prediction was if they beat ND, they would be one game better through ten games than a year ago, so that's 8-2 heading into the nasty double date at the end of November with the Huskers and Ohio State coming to town.
There are plenty of storylines to be had in tomorrow's league opener for Michigan against Minnesota. The Little Brown Jug is on the line, fer gawd's sake!! We get another data point in the evolution of the new offense. How does Minnesota look with the whole Jerry Kill situation? Can these young, new playmakers on the Michigan defense continue their progression. And, of course, in my world, can Michigan cover the point spread. Generally speaking, I don't consider covering the line or not a true storyline for the masses. But in Michigan's case this season, I do. Don't forget, the Wolverines didn't cover a single point spread in Big 10 play a year ago. That's only the fifth time in the last decade that any FBS school didn't cover against the closing game in all their league games.
The paranoid ninny in me is naturally not happy that Michigan is the biggest chalk on the Big 10 board in the wake of last year's 0-8 ATS mark and 4-20 ATS mark the last three years against the Big 10. Obviously part of that is Minnesota's serious sucktitude so far this season. But some of it is indeed a changing mindset towards Michigan within the gambling community. Back in the summer, not only was nobody betting on Michigan, but everybody and their pet cats was betting against the Maize and Blue. However, a month into the season, Michigan has showcased some defensive competency, they still have Denard Robinson and, well, the rest of the Big 10 just looks terrible. The result? A major shifting of the odds in favor of Michigan. The Wolverines used to be 8th in line on the board with Big 10 Championship odds, checking in at +1600. But with the shifting Big 10 odds, today they are third in line at +800, behind Wisco and Nebraska. And when books re-released lines for future games on Monday, Michigan, which had been an underdog in almost every Big 10 game available, is now the favorite in almost all those games.
[ed: specifics after the jump. Thanks for being terrible, Big Ten.]
This doesn't mean folks are putting their tin can money on the Wolverines, but its a signal of a different tune. In the peak of the summer, in order to get equal money on both sides, oddsmakers had to give the Wolverines a boatload of points. But, with four games of evidence in the books, in order to get equal money on both sides, oddsmakers have to give Wolverine foes points. The ironic thing is we can all agree that Michigan isn't even close to peaking, yet their performance, combined with the rest of the Big 10, has altered the betting mindset. Rather than continue to preview tomorrow's game, lets instead take a look at Michigan's future games and the new pointspreads attached to them. The only game not on the board is the Homecoming tilt with Purdue in four weeks.
(Lines from Sportsbook.com)
at Northwestern, 10/8
August Line: Northwestern -1; Current Line: Michigan -3
This line has done a full 360. Originally opening as Michigan -3 back in June, the wave of Anti-Michigan sentiment eventually bowled this line all the way to NW -3. Over the course of the summer, the line slowly shrunk, eventually settling into the NW -1 for the last several weeks of the off season. I contend this is a major trap game for Michigan. As long as Persa is on the field, the Cats have a puncher's chance against anyone in this league. But it's a trap game for two reasons. Michigan's horrible history over the last generation in its first road game of the season. I hate teams going on the road after beginning the season with four or five home games in a row. Its just a setup of for failure. Remember how much Michigan struggled in 2007 against a worse Northwestern team? That was their first road game after four straight to start the season at home. The other reason is that its a notorious look ahead spot with rival Michigan State and their unprecedented three-game winning streak in this series slapping every Wolverine in their face. Sharps have made money for years betting against teams in look ahead spots like this. Clearly, we're all watching the Illinois-Northwestern game this weekend to see if Persa actually does play and just how well he looks in his return.
at Michigan State, 10/15
August Line: MSU -4.5; Current Line: MSU -3
The only future line where Michigan remains an underdog is the state championship match in two weeks. The line was once as high as MSU -7, but by the time a majority of online books finally released game of the year lines, it was MSU -4.5. And, its pretty much stayed there until this slight adjustment down to a field goal spread when lines we re-released on Monday. I have tons of thoughts on the game that I will develop as we get closer to game time, but here's a sneak peak. Despite the scoreboard looking rout, I thought Michigan, at least on offense, played MSU better a year ago than they did the prior two seasons. For the first time in a number of years, Michigan might have an advantage in the trenches in this match, especially our Defensive Line against their woeful Offensive Line. And, I know this wont go over well, but I would trade defensive rosters with MSU. I would have changed in a heartbeat back in July. But as October approaches, I am less bullish on that statement because, well, the Wolverines appear to be doing something odd and unexpected: They're finally developing playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. So maybe that doesn't count as a legit statement because events on the field have--thankfully--changed my mind a bit. I still like MSU's defensive roster a lot, but Michigan appears to have enough defense of their own to make the Spartans pay for the gross weakness they have on the offensive front. A year ago, a feeling of dread washed over me when I saw one of our freshmen, in this case Cullen Christian, matching one on one with an MSU receiver, and the play resulted in a long, back breaking TD to open the second half. I wont feel the same sense of dread if I look out there and see Blake Countess on an island. From the defensive hole Michigan has been in, this counts as impressive progress. I'm still putting this game in the 'L' column for Michigan, but like almost every game I feel so much better about the team's chances than I did in the summer.
at Iowa, 11/5
August Line: Iowa -3; Current Line: Michigan -3
Iowa is going to be an interesting storyline this season. They are completely revamping their identity. At least, if they want to win this season, they need to revamp it. Gone are the days that the Hawks could play conservative offense and let their mean, nasty defensive front, that specialized in making quarterbacks look bad, take over games from there. This season, they're rebuilding on defense. From what I saw against Pitt and Iowa State, this defense looks about as shaky as Michigan's the last two years. They have about as many 2-star recruits in the starting defensive lineup as 3-stars and while the Hawks have mined recruits like that into legit Big 10 players, they still haven't done that with this corps just yet. Their linebackers look slow and their defensive front looks average instead of dominant. But, they can light you up on offense with that passing game. There aren't many better WR duos in the league than Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis. They will be a huge test for the young and still developing Michigan secondary.
at Illinois, 11/12
August Line: Illini -3; Current Line: Michigan -1
I wont lie. I don't understand the line movements behind the future Illini games. They've been about the most impressive team in the league this month outside of Madison. Yet, as I pointed in my Big 10 column at the JCB earlier this week, all the lines are going against the Illini. In addition to the 4-point swing in this game, the Illini have ballooned from +6 to +11 in their home clash against Wisconsin later in the season, while they've shrunk from 9-point chalk to 7-point chalk against Minnesota. That last one is a head scratcher. But so too is the line shift in the Michigan game. I don't understand why oddsmakers moved the number at all, let alone shift it four points to make the Wolverines chalk. I think most would agree this road trip will be harder than the one in Iowa City and that's probably a fan mindset that's changed since August. We have an improved defense in Ann Arbor, but the Illini have been a terrible matchup for Michigan recently. Michigan just hasn't stopped this offense, giving up 45, 38 and 45 points in regulation the last three years. I think the Illini have had 10 different 100-yard rushers against Michigan in that time. I didn't look that one up, but I am sure its right.
August Line: Nebraska -5.5; Current Line: Michigan -1
Did Nebraska lose a game, and I forgot to notice? That's the only way could understand a 6.5-point swing in this line over the last week or so. Of course, the Huskers haven't lost a game, but I still don't know what bettors could possibly be seeing to force such a radical shift. Could I see the line shrinking to -3 in favor of Nebraska? Absolutely. Michigan looks improved. Nebraska hasn't looked dominant. But, we're still talking about a Michigan program that has been terrible money burners for three years running. I have a hard time imagining a flock of Wolverine money coming in on this game right now to force the oddsmakers hand so strongly. However, here's the dirty little secret about Nebraska. They are exactly like Michigan. Their offense? It's Taylor Martinez running and a bunch of moon balls in the passing attack. A year ago, the Huskers had a legit 3-headed rushing attack. This year, it's just a two-headed attack and Rex Burkhead, the tailback, isn't exactly a gamebreaker. Basically if Nebraska cant get a 40-yard play somehow of out Martinez, they just don't move the football that well down the field. Their passing game's reliance on chuck it and pray seems to be more notable than Michigan's. I actually don't feel I'm going out on a limb saying that from a personnel standpoint Michigan has an edge over Nebraska at QB, WR, RB and Oline. And while they have those famous Blackshirts on D, they've looked very vulnerable against the run in games against Fresno and Washington. The Wisconsin Badgers this weekend against the Huskers will bring in a much better rushing attack than those teams. And so will Michigan come November. I haven't talked myself into Michigan yet on this game, but I do feel much better about it than I did a month ago.
Ohio State, 11/26
August Line: OSU -2; Current Line: Michigan -3.5
This line movement I understand. Kind of, at least. The Buckeyes had been installed as underdogs over the summer in every big game they had on their slate. The lines in both the Nebraska and OSU games against Michigan have shifted more than 5 points during the course of the first month of the season. I can understand the OSU movement because they look very shaky, almost losing to Toledo, getting woodshedded by Miami and just looking like a shadow of the Evil Scarlett and Gray Empire we've come to despise and resent. Another thing to consider with this line is that it originally opened as a pick 'em when it was finally released and bet to OSU -2. Every other game they put on the board for Michigan began with them as an underdog, but this one didn't. So, its not that odd to see the line come back to even or even slight Michigan chalk. But, man, I'll believe a Michigan win over Ohio State when I see it. On one hand, the gap still feels pretty wide between the teams. On the other hand, everything is lining up for Michigan in recent months in this rivalry. The only thing missing is a result on the field. The line suggests that oddsmakers now assume the betting public will expect said result. Please don't be a tease.