Big Ten championship betting preview: Michigan over the hump
Upsets are the lifeblood of college sports until you wake up on a March morning and see the second-round matchups in the NCAA basketball tournament. That same feeling washed over me when the stark reality of a Michigan versus Iowa title hit home after Nebraska predictably choked, Michigan upset Ohio State, and Minnesota ruined Wisconsin's season. After the dusting of snow settled Saturday, we were left with a tough game to stomach in Indianapolis.
Forget a more tantalizing matchup with the Buckeyes' offense against the Badgers' defense. We now get a team built on running the football, playing solid defense, and finding an edge in special teams, against one that does all of those things but slightly better. Ugly football is on the menu for the Big Ten championship game, and we have no choice but to eat it.
Michigan offense vs. Iowa defense
Facing the Wolverines, who are ninth in rushing yards per game, Iowa's eighth-best rush defense - yards per carry - might have had a chance to buck up and slow down Michigan, especially in a December contest outdoors. Unfortunately, for the Hawkeyes, this game is in the comfortable confines and fast track of Lucas Oil Stadium, and they're getting the Marshawn Lynch treatment - Over ... and over ... and over ... and over - from Haskins and Corum on Saturday night, with either running back capable of cracking a big play.
That brings about the bigger issue for Iowa's defense: vulnerability to the play-action pass, and McNamara's ability to avoid big mistakes (three interceptions this season). Though the run defense has been reminiscent of the Hawkeyes' of old, they've given up 20-plus points to every team in the conference other than Northwestern and Maryland. The former is the worst team in the conference, and the Terrapins had 5.0 yards per play to Iowa's 5.4 in a game that ended 51-14 for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa offense vs. Michigan defense
Iowa's offense comes from their defense and special teams.
Call it impeccable game planning or magic, getting four touchdowns on defense and one on a kick return is remarkably clutch assistance for an offense that has seen two quarterbacks struggle.
Iowa is 121st in offensive yards per play in the country. The quarterback tandem of Spencer Petras (likely to return as the starter Saturday) and Alex Padilla have combined for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions over 12 games this season. Now they have to deal with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Best of luck.
After a 4-0 start to the season with wins over Indiana and Iowa State that looked more impressive at the time, Iowa came back to beat Penn State following Sean Clifford's injury that kept him sidelined, and the Nittany Lions couldn't score in the second half. Then after losses to Purdue and Wisconsin, November consisted of close wins over Northwestern (17-12), Minnesota (27-22), and a comeback victory over Nebraska (28-21). The Hawkeyes' biggest win was a 33-23 win over Illinois, in which Iowa mustered just 3.6 yards per play.
The betting market thinks Iowa should keep this close as published ticket counts indicate a fairly even split in public betting. However, I would need a team that I can rely on to score at least somewhat consistently, especially if they get down early.
While the line has held firm on its open at 10.5, to me, that only means there's some value on the favorite here. It's common theory to think a letdown is in order for Michigan after a program-inspiring win over their archrival last week. I might buy into that theory if a College Football Playoff spot wasn't on the line here for the Wolverines and/or if they came into this game as an underdog, a role Jim Harbaugh has struggled in, despite last week's breakthrough.
How to bet the Big Ten Championship
Getting over the Buckeye hump was the shot of life the Wolverines needed to run right through Iowa, who backed its way into the title game with a lot of good fortune this season. While I loathe laying a lot of points as a general policy, I can envision backing Iowa and feeling good about that right up until it's 14-3 in the second quarter, and it becomes clear the Hawkeyes may not score again.
Michigan takes an early lead, and Iowa can't keep up, on the way to a two-touchdown victory and a place in the College Football Playoff. I'll be looking to jump on any -10s that pop up but will back the Wolverines at -11 or better.
Matt Russell is a betting writer for theScore. If there's a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on Twitter @mrussauthentic.
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