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Early College Football Futures: Best Bet for Conference Winner (2021)

by January 15, 2021

The 2020 college football season wrapped up just a few days ago, but it’s never too early to look at next year’s futures market.

We’re still eight months away from kicking off the 2021 campaign, and while there are coaching changes, transfers, and unfortunate injuries still to happen, this is still the perfect time to identify teams that may hold value once odds are released. I’ve identified three conference winners I like in the coming year, as well as one long shot I think is worth a flier.

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Big Ten West Champion: Wisconsin

Odds aren’t yet released for the Big Ten title, but I have a feeling that we’ll get decent ones on the Badgers. I picked them to win the West in before the 2020 season kicked off, but that came before COVID affected the entire season. Clearly, I believe in their talent. This was just a strange year.

Wisconsin’s defense was bad in 2020. They ranked 103rd of 126 qualifying teams, but they were much better at stopping the run than stopping the pass. Their secondary was inexperienced in 2020, but they should improve in 2021. In a West Division that doesn’t exactly ooze with offensive juggernauts, I’m willing to trust defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to get a usually-strong Badger defense back on track.

Graham Mertz is the most talented quarterback in the West. Still, after so many years of Wisconsin relying so heavily on their running backs, a transition year to more of a quarterback-centric approach didn’t go as smoothly as the Badgers hoped. Another year in a similar offense, despite some turnover at the wide receiver position, will serve Wisconsin well.

And finally, as I mentioned before, the Big Ten West is the weaker of the two divisions. Four Big Ten teams have better or the same odds as Wisconsin to win the National Championship in 2021, and all four are in the East. While that should peg Wisconsin as the East favorite, they’ll still have some value and plus-money odds to go along with a weaker schedule.

Pac-12 Champion: Arizona State

This is a bit off the board, but we’ll get some pretty good odds on the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12, which is always one of the more unpredictable conferences. The Pac-12 is all about offense, and Arizona State has offense in abundance, starting with quarterback Jayden Daniels. Daniels is a Heisman candidate and will be heading into his third year as the starter under center. With a few other Heisman hopefuls in the conference, namely USC’s Kedon Slovis, having a reliable quarterback with a ton of experience is something I really value. That’s what we get with the Sun Devils.

Many will be down on Arizona State after this season; they had somewhat lofty expectations in 2020, but they ended up playing just four games. Their 2-2 record seems underwhelming, but if we dig in a bit, there’s a lot to like heading into 2021.

The Sun Devils opened up the season against the conference-favorite — and the most-likely favorite heading into next season – USC Trojans. Despite allowing nearly 400 passing yards, Arizona State led that game 27-14 with three minutes to go. They, of course, imploded and lost by one, but they can clearly hang with the upper-echelon teams in the conference. The Sun Devils’ next two games got canceled, and after a month without a single live snap, they naturally came out flat and lost to UCLA. However, in the final two games of the season, they went 2-0 and outscored Arizona and Oregon State 116-40.

The final two performances are more of what I’m expecting from Daniels and Arizona State in 2021.

SEC Champion: Georgia

It feels like we talk about Georgia as the trendy pick to unseat Alabama and take home the SEC crown every year. Next year’s Bulldogs roster certainly won’t be their best under Kirby Smart, but they’ll have an opportunity to exploit some potential weaknesses in the conference.

For starters, they play in the much weaker SEC East. Their toughest obstacle is usually Florida, but the Gators won’t have Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts, or Kadarius Toney. Nothing is a cakewalk in the SEC, but Georgia has a much easier path to the conference championship game than any West division team. And once you’re there, anything can happen, especially if they square off with a Crimson Tide team that’s undergoing loads of changes.

Alabama loses their best players and coordinators every year, yet they seemingly never miss a beat. I think 2021 will be a unique year for the Crimson Tide, as they’ll not only lose their quarterback, but they also won’t have their three top weapons — Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Najee Harris. Worse, they also must transition to a new offensive coordinator, all while breaking in a young quarterback with 22 career pass attempts under his belt. This could cause Alabama to slip up early in the year, opening the door for another team to win the West and setting up a much less daunting task for the Bulldogs in a potential title game.

On the other hand, Georgia will have an experienced JT Daniels at the helm, and he looked great once he was given a chance to start late in 2020. I like what he brings to the table, and he’ll get to work with an always strong Bulldogs defense. We’ll get solid odds as well, considering how heavy of a favorite Alabama usually is.

SEC Champion: Ole Miss

This is the longshot I mentioned earlier, and I really think that Lane Kiffin’s Rebels are worth a flier. Ole Miss finished 2020 at 5-5; they beat exactly who you expected them to beat, and they lost to exactly who you’d expect them to lose to. 

It was just their first year under Kiffin, but he already kicked their offense up a notch. Ole Miss finished 14th in the country in scoring, and their 39.2 points per game marked a full two-touchdown improvement from their 2019 scoring average. It’s impossible to expect the Rebels to add another 14 points per game to their average, but it’s possible to expect more improvement in the second year in Kiffin’s system.

As I mentioned in the Georgia write-up, you’ve got to go through Alabama to win the SEC. But Ole Miss does the one thing that seems to give Alabama a slight bit of trouble: they score a lot of points. In the Championships that they lost to Clemson, the Crimson Tide allowed 35 and 44 points. 

This Ole Miss team reminds me of the Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M squads who just put together rapid-scoring drives and tried to get in the endzone at any cost. Remember, Manziel went 1-1 against Alabama and threw seven touchdowns in those two games. I still think Ole Miss is a few years away from being a true playoff contender, but with how high-octane this offense can be, they can upset anyone. They’re worth a long-shot wager to win the SEC as a result.

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Mike Wagenman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @mjwags23.

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