The college football season hits an important schedule milestone this weekend. Week 4 marks the time to say goodbye to most non-conference games as more teams will clash with conference rivals. It's a bittersweet time when the excitement of seeing more competitive matchups blends in with the realization that the season is already flying by. But, as bettors, we must slowly start letting go of our priors and accept that teams are what they have shown us for the season's first quarter. This is the week we gain valuable insight on whether the team's early success is sustainable or if it was just a product of soft scheduling. I have two best bets for Saturday's games, and they are both Top 15 teams looking to flex their muscles as they open conference play.
Maryland at Michigan (-16.5)
Fresh off a storybook season that saw coach Jim Harbaugh deliver a Big Ten title along with a College Football Playoff berth, Michigan looks poised to make another run. The Wolverines' first three games had a preseason feel with the intent of using the softer competition to solidify QB J.J. McCarthy as the starter. The sophomore gunslinger has completed 88% of his passes in his two starts, while Michigan scored 56 and 59 points.
I don't think anyone expected this to be a clash of 3-0 teams, but the Terrapins always had the offensive potential to outscore mid-level teams. Now, they enter the Big House as 16.5-point underdogs against a fourth-ranked Michigan team that has dominated them in the last six meetings by the following margins: 41, 31, 21, 25, 56, and 28. So if you are looking for blowout potential from a favorite, this is the game you want to circle.
Maryland's defense may have come through in the clutch against SMU, but the Terrapins' secondary is still ranked 107th (273.3 passing yards per game) out of all FBS teams. If SMU can rack up 520 yards of offense along with 30 first downs, Michigan may continue its three-game streak of scoring at least 50 points on Saturday.
Despite Maryland's improvement, I see this game following a pattern similar to previous years. McCarthy will help Michigan jump to a big lead in front of a home crowd, and Maryland will recklessly turn the ball over in a desperate comeback attempt. Turnovers and penalties are two key factors when games spiral away from big underdogs, and both will be in play here. Michigan has been the least penalized team in the nation this season, while Maryland's 10.3 penalties per game are the second most in the entire FBS. The Terps don't have the talent to give away yards to a team as complete as the Wolverines. I see this as a short number based on Maryland's hot start. Harbaugh's history of running it up at home makes me comfortable with taking the Wolverines to cover. Since the beginning of last season, Michigan is 7-2 ATS as a favorite in Ann Arbor with an average margin of victory of 34.6 points. We can still cash this bet with only half of that margin. Lay the points with Michigan.
Oregon (-6.5) at Washington State
Who needs Red Bull when you can just bet Bo Nix on the road? I understand why there is a concern Oregon is heading for a letdown, but it covered as a 13.5-point favorite against Washington State last season. This game is another example of an inferior conference opponent getting too much credit for starting 3-0. Yes, Washington State pulled an upset over a ranked team in Wisconsin. But, if we dig into the box score, the Cougars were severely outplayed. Washington State lost first downs 22-10, were outgained by the Badgers 401-253, and only converted 18% of third downs.
The level of athleticism on Oregon's defense proved to be difficult for BYU to handle last week. Washington State's offensive line has allowed nine sacks this season (105th), and will be no match for the defensive front of the Ducks. How many points can we expect from a Cougars offense led by QB Cam Ward, an FCS transfer from Incarnate Word, in a massive step up in competition? Nix historically doesn't do his best work away from home, but if the Ducks can score 28 points, Oregon should cover this number.