Ever hear the term offseason champions?
In sports vernacular, it’s typically reserved for the professional leagues, and how certain teams seemingly make monumental strides with personnel during the offseason, either through the draft, blockbuster trades or free agency.
And almost always, this label comes with a hint of sarcasm, as if the actual production will ultimately never surpass the hype.
Well, this concept has somehow trickled down to the college ranks. In just six months’ time, with no college football games played during this span, the Westgate Las Vegas sports book has dramatically upgraded Michigan’s odds for claiming the national championship – with the Wolverines’ chances increasing from 15-1 to 7-1.
As such, Michigan will now be wearing the invisible crown of “offseason champions” this fall.
Now, I understand that Vegas sports books have the perpetual right to change bets on the fly, based on new information hitting the marketplace. For example, the sex-assault scandal shaking the Baylor football program to its core – including the firing of head coach Art Briles – obviously has a huge betting effect on Baylor and every other team in the Big 12.
But in Michigan’s case, what has really changed since January?
- Tight end Jake Butt delayed his viable NFL dreams for another season, which shouldn’t have affected the odds at all because the Westlake sports book already knew this before its initial odds release.
- The Wolverines’ quarterback situation hasn’t become any clearer over the last six months, with John O’Korn, Wilton Speight and Shane Morris seemingly entrenched in a three-way battle for starting reps. The Houston transfer O’Korn could certainly be a breakout candidate this fall, assuming he gets the nod.
- Ohio State still has quarterback J.T. Barrett on the roster, the same Barrett who helped the Buckeyes offense average 42 points in their last two meetings with Michigan and has accounted for 5,446 total yards and 67 touchdowns in his two-year career.
- Michigan’s schedule still includes three road games against the Big Ten’s other elite programs – Michigan State (Oct. 29), Iowa (Nov. 12) and Ohio State (Nov. 26).
The explanations for Michigan leapfrogging vaunted programs like Clemson (8-1 odds), Florida State (8-1), Ohio State (8-1), Oklahoma (10-1), Tennessee (12-1) and LSU (12-1) during the offseason?
Well, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh tapped into the star power of Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and pro-wrestling icon Ric Flair, among other celebrities, to land a top-notch recruiting class in February, including 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary).
And don’t forget about Michigan’s stealth proclamation that Jabrill Peppers, one of the Big Ten’s most versatile athletes, would become a hybrid cornerback, safety and linebacker for 2016.
Presumably, the Wolverines would have 10 other defenders on the field with Peppers at all times and not let the burgeoning NFL prospect handle multiple positions on the same play.
The above comment is made in jest, of course. But it’s also fair to wonder about the sports book’s true motivations for boosting Michigan’s standing: Has betting demand on Michigan forced the drop in odds? Will the publicity over the shift bring out more bettors? Was the offseason acquisition of defensive coordinator Don Brown – who oversaw Boston College’s No. 1-ranked defense from last year – a major upgrade over D.J. Durkin, who’s now the Maryland head coach)? After all, the Wolverines had a top-10 defense themselves last season.
For the record, I’m not knocking Michigan’s chances of collecting double-digit victories and qualifying for a high-profile bowl. U-M could easily sweep its eight home games.
However, the daunting road slate makes it implausible to believe the Wolverines will finish the regular season at 11-1 or 12-0 overall, with a chance to play in the Big Ten title game.
Looking at the national schedules, only eight Power 5 teams have a realistic shot at posting zero or one loss this season. They are Clemson, LSU, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Houston and Iowa
Of course, relative to Westlake Las Vegas’s latest odds, Michigan doesn’t need to finish t0 regular season with only one defeat. The Wolverines simply have to capture the Big Ten title and qualify for the College Football Playoff.
And that’s the easy part, because it’s difficult to imagine a Big Ten or SEC champion – with a record of 11-2 or higher – not reaching the four-team Playoff. It’s a nice benefit for being part of the nation’s most powerful (read: lucrative) conferences.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.