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Analyzing some 2021 Northwestern football betting lines

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Let’s take a look at how Vegas views the ‘Cats in 2021.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Auburn vs Northwestern Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

With Northwestern’s Big Ten West title last season, a lot of Wildcat fans may be turning to Vegas once again to place preseason wagers on their team. Here, we’ll break down each of the main team futures for Northwestern, their implied winnability percentages given the odds they’re set at and whether and why we feel there are/aren’t reasons to place money one way or another so that, in the second year of legal sports gambling in Illinois, the NU faithful can bet wisely.

Over/Under Wins: 6.5

Bet winnability percentage: 50 percent

If you take a look at the Inside NU staff’s predictions for the 2021 season, you’ll see that a good amount of the win totals listed hover within 1.5 wins, give or take, from 6.5. It’s a well set over/under, and a hard one to pick, as evidenced by the fact that it’s exactly 50/50 in implied likelihood.

Still, the overwhelming majority of staff picked Northwestern to win seven or more games, despite the injury to Cam Porter and the amount of turnover in the depth chart and coaching staff alike. The ‘Cats schedule may be the reason for the optimism relative to the Vegas line.

With a season-opening win against Michigan State, Northwestern would likely be favored in each of its first six games of the season. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the ‘Cats will overcome the non-conference play demons that have haunted them in the past, but it is entirely possible that the ‘Cats start off the season with five or six wins in the first half of the season before regressing to a weaker record upon playing the fearsome foursome of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, who the Wildcats will play in consecutive order after the opening six.

Yet, after that tough autumnal stretch, NU emerges to take on Purdue and Illinois in the waning weeks of the season. While it’s certainly wise to bet with caution on Northwestern the year after it won the Big Ten West, given the likelihood of an inflated line, there’s reason to be optimistic that there are seven wins on what is statistically the weakest schedule in the B1G.

Big Ten West Champions: 15/1

Bet winnability percentage: 6.25 percent

Even though Northwestern heads into the 2021 season as defending Big Ten West champions, the odds for Northwestern to repeat are actually worse than last year. Last year, sportsbooks set the ‘Cats’ odds at winning the West at about 20 percent, which is more than 13 percentage points higher than their odds this year at 6.25 percent. At first, these odds might make you inclined to take a chance on this bet, but upon taking a closer look, there’s one statistic that sheds some light on why the Wildcats are being pegged as a long shot to repeat as champs.

Despite Northwestern’s measly 3-9 finish in 2019, bookmakers seemed to have been drawn by Northwestern’s returning production; entering 2020, the ‘Cats were bringing back 84% of its production, the most out of any school in the FBS. The script is flipped for Northwestern this year, as it ranks second to last in the FBS in returning production going into the 2021 season.

However, there are still reasons for optimism here. Unlike Ohio State in the Big Ten East, there is no clear and overwhelming favorite to win the West. Wisconsin is the usual favorite and they do boast 54% confident projection to take the division crown, while Iowa is a close second at 34.5%. Considering the question marks that both teams still face after disappointing 2020 campaigns, putting your money on the ‘Cats to reclaim their hardware might be worth a look.

Big Ten Champions: 50/1

Bet winnability percentage: 1.96 percent

Is it reasonable to feel that if Northwestern was so close to pulling it off and actually winning the Big Ten Championship, it’s worth it to bet on them at such long odds this year? Possibly. But the task will likely be tougher to accomplish this year than it was last, with a tougher fight from Wisconsin likely on deck in Madison and the addition of Penn State and Indiana as the teams the ‘Cats would need to get through if Ohio State were to falter. No qualms should you place this due to emotional attachment, but it doesn’t make it any smarter and likely knocks your net worth down a few rungs.

National Champion: 250/1

Bet winnability percentage: 0.4 percent

While #CatsToTheCFP might be a fun catchphrase to tweet, this bet is not hitting anytime soon (sorry Darren Rovell). The ‘Cats got the closest they have ever been last year following their 5-0 start, and their odds to win it all rose to sixth best in the country on the day of the first CFP Rankings Show in November 2020. Even then, Northwestern’s odds to become national champions were under two percent. But if you like to lose money, no one’s stopping you.