Nebraska's title odds more reflective of Husker fan fervor than expectations
FanDuel released odds for college football conference and division winners this week. And in the Big Ten 1 team’s number stands out like a big, red thumb.
Odds to win Big Ten West
- Wisconsin (+185)
- Nebraska (+250)
- Purdue (+370)
- Iowa (+550)
- Minnesota (+900)
- Illinois (+3300)
- Northwestern (+7500)
Odds to win Big Ten
- Ohio State (-200)
- Michigan (+800)
- Wisconsin (+1200)
- Nebraska (+1400)
- Purdue (+2000)
- Penn State (+2500)
- Michigan State (+2500)
- Iowa (+2500)
- Minnesota (+4000)
- Maryland (+10000)
- Indiana (+15000)
- Illinois (+25000)
- Northwestern (+50000)
- Rutgers (+50000)
The response to this will be predictable: Nebraska? Are we really doing this again?
Seemingly every season, we are told that the Cornhuskers are back. Ever since their classic 2009 Big 12 championship game, Nebraska and Texas surely lead the nation in unwarranted preseason Top 25 hype. (In reality, the Huskers have been ranked in the preseason Top 25 and fallen out of the poll 3 times since 2013.)
But Nebraska’s odds are probably more related to liability than probability.
The price of optimism
If Nebraska fans want to prove they are the most zealous in the Big Ten, they usually turn to a Memorial Stadium sellout streak that dates to 1962. Or the fact Memorial Stadium turns into Nebraska’s 3rd-largest city on gamedays.
Now there is another arrow to add to that quiver. Because it feels like these odds are more about what Nebraska fans are capable of than what the Cornhuskers can do on the field.
Based on what we’ve seen in the Scott Frost era, it’s difficult to argue that the Cornhuskers should be more expected to contend for the conference title than Penn State or Michigan State. Or even Iowa. The Hawkeyes have beaten the Huskers 6 straight times.
Nebraska is coming off a 3-9 season. No team has won the Big Ten following a losing season since Northwestern in 1995 — the single biggest bolt of lightning in conference history.
Granted, there was a big of ignominious history attached to that 3-9 mark. The Cornhuskers were the first team in the 152-year history of college football to lose 9 games by single digits. So it’s reasonable to believe that the program is close to turning a corner when the team itself was close in every game.
But Nebraska is not bringing back the bulk of its production from last year’s team. ESPN’s Bill Connelly calculated that it is only 103rd nationally in returning production. Illinois is the only Big Ten team bringing back less.
So why would oddsmakers be so high on the Cornhuskers?
Much of it is probably respect for transfer quarterback Casey Thompson. Thompson threw 24 touchdown passes at Texas last year. Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell is the only other returning quarterback in the Big Ten West who threw for more than 10 TDs in 2021.
But more of it is probably respect for the fervor of Nebraska fans combined with the general uncertainty in the West.
Reality dictates that Nebraska’s odds to win the West should be slightly above or below Iowa’s — perhaps in the range of +500 to +600. Bud Elliot of 247 Sports projects both teams to win 7 games next season. That seems a pretty reasonable baseline.
And at those odds, Nebraska would become a pretty attractive bet to win the West. Especially for an optimistic, starved and large fan base. Why not try to turn 10 bucks into 50 or 60 while rooting on the Huskers all season?
That being the case, Nebraska would be quite the liability for sportsbooks. Nebraska fans are going to bet Big Red for the fun of it. And in a division with no clear front-runner, there’s at least a semi-decent chance of it happening.
And if more people bet Nebraska than any other team — which certainly would be likely in that price range — the sportsbooks would be dishing out a lot of money if the Huskers come through. So instead of having the 3rd- or 4th- best odds to win the West, or 7th or 8th to win the league, Nebraska is in the same zip code as the favorites.
For years, this phenomenon was associated with the Chicago Cubs.
Books could have put any price on the Cubs winning the World Series for 107 years and made out like bandits. But whether out of novelty or devotion, so many people bet the Cubs to win each year that the odds were much lower than they should have been.
In the NBA, we see it with the Knicks. No matter how bad the team is, Knicks fans are going to bet on their team to win every year. And that volume of fans becomes a liability that lowers the odds. If the Knicks somehow pulled through, the books would take a bath.
The Nets were a perfect example this season. Despite barely sneaking into the playoffs, Brooklyn had the 2nd-best odds to win the Eastern Conference behind Milwaukee most of the season. The threat of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving getting hot made them a potential liability.
Nebraska, it seems, belongs in the same category. And that’s a testament to just how loyal Huskers fans are.
Ideally, they’ll have a team that rewards that devotion — both emotionally and financially — in 2022. But at these odds, I’m not sure I’d bet on it.