How do Bettors Play Michigan Now?
by Trevor Whenham - 09/06/2007
What now? As a diehard Michigan fan I have asked myself that question about a million times since the unthinkable happened on Saturday. Though my Appalachian State-induced sorrow is personal, questioning Michigan's future is something that serious college football bettors also need to undertake. When something as bizarre and unexpected as this upset happens, there is inevitably going to be some value in the next few games. The trick is figuring out whether that value will come from betting on the Wolverines or betting against them. Here's a collection of my thoughts on that issue (and believe me when I say that there has been several since Saturday).
The Oregon game is crucial. It doesn't take much imagination to come up with a long list of questions that will at least partially be resolved during this game:
Do they have any pride? - The team suffered perhaps the biggest humiliation in the history of the sport. They can either bounce back from that and make the Ducks regret that they ever left Oregon, or they can pout and quit and underperform again. This will especially be magnified because of the crowd. The 110,000 or so faithful in the crowd will have short patience, and will jump all over the team if they look like they did last week.
Is something wrong with Chad Henne? - Henne is a four-year starter who looked like a non-scholarship freshman on Saturday. He's shown that he's a much better quarterback than he was on Saturday. We'll know quickly if he just had a monumentally bad day, or if there is something more seriously physically or mentally wrong with the veteran.
Can they stop a mobile quarterback? - I'm least optimistic about this point. The Wolverines haven't been able to stop a quarterback who can move for most of this decade, so it seems likely that they will struggle at least a bit with Oregon's Dennis Dixon, who put up more yards on the ground than he did through the air in his team's season opener against Houston. If the defense struggles again, their already fragile confidence could take a serious blow, and that impact could extend into the season. It could even be a problem against teams that aren't particularly fast or mobile.
Is Mike Hart okay? - Running back Hart was pretty much the only bright spot last weekend with 188 yards and three touchdowns, but he missed most of the middle part of the game with an upper leg injury. He came back and ran well later on, but desperation and adrenaline can hide some real problems. Hart is crucial to this offense, and more so if Henne struggles, so it will be very important to watch his first touches to see if he is at his best.
How's the O-line? - Offensive lineman have been dropping like flies. Right guard Alex Mitchell was hurt in training camp, forcing redshirt freshman Jeremy Ciulla into action. Ciulla was hurt in the fourth quarter on Saturday, which led to some serious reshuffling. Hart was successful behind the new line, but it will be important to see if the line can hold up under a full game of demands.
Special teams? - The kicking game, and the kick protection game, were abysmal. It can't get any worse, but will be it better?
Discipline? - The most shocking and frustrating part of the game last weekend was the lack of discipline and effort shown by the team in almost every aspect of the game. Teams of the caliber of Michigan are not supposed to look so unprepared and mismatched when they play anyone, let alone a team from a lesser league. They consistently missed tackles, and were regularly not where they were supposed to be. Those problems have more to do with the coaching and mindset than with a talent problem, so it can be fixed by a hard week of preparation. We'll quickly see if Lloyd Carr still has the desire and the ability to do what clearly needs to be done.
If Michigan doesn't put up a good performance on Saturday then the season, or at least the first part of it, is a total write-off from a sports betting perspective. Even a damaged Notre Dame team could be a challenge, and Penn State would be a horrible matchup for a struggling team. The problem would be not that they won't win (that would make them a betting cinch). The problem would be that they would be a wounded team, and we would have no way of knowing if and when the team may wake up. I don't even want to contemplate that possibility.
Call me naive or delusional, but I tend to favor the other possibility. I think that Michigan will come out looking more like a top 10 team than the unranked one that they currently are. If that's the case, then we are likely to see some real value on the Wolverines until the public catches up. The upset has been the biggest story in sports for several days, so people are going to be very negative and pessimistic towards Michigan. We've already seen the impact of this - Michigan would have been favored by quite a bit more than eight points at home against Oregon before this happened, so you could argue that there is already value present. If the team improves dramatically against Oregon, and especially if they win solidly but not by the kind of huge margin that the public loves, then there could be a few bonus points available in the spread for the next couple of weeks.
Though the game against Appalachian State was brutal and deeply concerning, it's important to remember, in my mind at least, that this Michigan team is still essentially the same team that voters and the public thought was the fifth best in the country, and the class of the Big Ten, just a week ago. They didn't have any real injuries, and their flaws were mostly correctable. The team isn't as good as people thought it was, but it also isn't as bad as people now think it is. That spells opportunity for a savvy bettor.