The college football season is quickly approaching, and for betting fans in Pennsylvania, it could prove challenging figuring out Penn State and Pittsburgh as both teams are facing overhauls at key positions offensively.
The Nittany Lions were ranked 17th in the preseason AP Top 25 but face long odds in ending the stranglehold of Ohio State and Michigan on the East Division of the Big Ten in order to be a player at the national level. Las Vegas does not rate Penn State’s chances all that much, offering +10000 odds for James Franklin’s team to win the College Football Playoff.
Getting there would require the Nittany Lions to win both the East and the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, and those odds are also daunting. Vegas is making Penn State a +750 pick to win the division and a +1100 darkhorse to claim the conference championship. The Nittany Lions are fourth in the pecking order on both counts, with the Buckeyes and Wolverines ahead of them for both the division and conference titles. Michigan State is rated slightly higher in the division, while West Division favorite Wisconsin is third-favorite for conference winners.
Oddsmakers, however, are bullish on at least another nine-win season for the Nittany Lions, establishing a -115 money line for over 8.5 wins.
Penn State’s success hinges on finding a successor to Matt McSorley, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens after setting school records for passing yards (9,899) and touchdown passes (77) in addition to rushing for another 1,697 yards and 30 scores. Franklin had expected to turn over the offense to Tommy Stevens, but he transferred to Mississippi State in the offseason.
That leaves largely untested Sean Clifford and redshirt freshman Wil Levis vying for the starting role. Clifford saw mop-up duty in four games last season and completed 5 of 7 passes for 195 yards and two TDs, including a school-record 95-yard scoring toss. Clifford may have the inside track after taking first-team reps at spring practice, but the Nittany Lions will be relying on a standout defense to carry them early.
Linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos return to anchor a defense that ranked 15th nationally in passing yards allowed at 181.5 per game. Parsons led Penn State with 82 tackles while Gross-Matos had team highs of eight sacks and 20 tackles for loss.
Two hours to the west of Happy Valley, Pittsburgh’s offensive question marks are at running back after 1,000-yard rushers Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall graduated. Despite being surprise winners of the ACC’s Coastal Division, the Panthers finished 7-7 as they lost both the conference title game and the Sun Bowl.
Oddsmakers do not figure on Pitt making a return to the title game, offering +600 money line odds to repeat as division winners and +4000 to win the ACC – which would likely require an upset of defending CFP champion and preseason AP No. 1 Clemson.
Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi has retooled the offense to gear around junior quarterback Kenny Pickett, which included hiring former Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple – best known for helping develop Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — as offensive coordinator. If Pickett, who threw for 1,969 yards and 12 TDs last season, can evolve from game manager to a quarterback who makes plays, Pittsburgh would have a credible chance at surpassing the six-win total oddsmakers have established for the over/under.
The defense also has a huge personnel loss to overcome as lineman Rashad Weaver was lost for the season with a torn ACL in early August. An all-ACC preseason selection, Weaver led the team in sacks (6.5), tackles for loss (14), and fumble recoveries (3) in 2018.
The teams will get a good gage of how far they are along in the season when they meet at Penn State on Sept. 14 in the final game of a four-year series that started in 2016. The Nittany Lions have won the last two matchups and embarrassed the Panthers 51-6 in Pittsburgh last year, scoring 44 unanswered points.