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Who is the Best Bet to Win the 2017 SEC Football Championship?

By Matthew Reese in Sports
| June 8, 2017 12:00 am PDT
SEC Football Championship Alabama

With the ACC’s Clemson the defending national champion, the recent improvement of the Big 10 and the high expectations for USC and Washington in the Pac-12, the SEC can no longer declare itself the undisputed king of college football conferences.

However, you can’t argue that the road to a national football championship still goes through the Southeast.

Alabama is clearly the class of the SEC and possibly the nation as well. The Crimson Tide is the biggest favorite in all of the 5 power conferences, with bettors forced to lay a hefty -175 price to back Bama to win its fourth straight SEC crown and fifth in the last 6 years.

The Tide is also a +350 favorite at BetOnline to win its second NCAA title in 3 years and fifth in the Nick Saban era. By comparison, the second-biggest power conference favorite (Oklahoma) is -150 to win the Big 12 and +700 to claim national supremacy, and who knows what to expect from the Sooners now that Bob Stoops is gone.

The biggest knock you can make on the SEC right now is its lack of parity. Alabama’s dominance obviously factors into that, but there are only 5 other teams in the conference that pay less than +5000 to win the title. The Big 10 and Pac-12 each have 9 teams in that price range, the ACC has 10, and the Big 12 has 7.

Outside of conference play, the SEC is coming off a 6-7 showing in bowls last year and had only 1 team in the top 10 of the last AP Top 25 poll. So even if Alabama has basically been handed the conference title already, the rest of the teams in the SEC still have plenty of motivation.

Plus, this is sports. Anything can happen. Alabama has lost before when it was expected to win. With that in mind, let’s take a closer took at the 6 legitimate SEC contenders to see which is the best bet to win the conference in 2017 (all odds references are from BetOnline).

1. Alabama (-175)

We could sing Alabama’s praises for a while.

Their defense is always a steel curtain (least points allowed and rushing yards allowed in the nation last year, and second in total yards against). And quarterback Jalen Hurts is a dual threat who was in Heisman Trophy contention last year as a freshman and pays +1600 to win the award this season.

But at -175 odds, we already know the Crimson Tide are good. So let’s try to poke a few holes in them to make the argument why they might not win the SEC.

For all of Hurts’ potential, he still hasn’t proven himself in the passing game. The big key to Alabama’s success last year was its ability to run the ball (12th in the NCAA in yards), and if an opponent can somehow take that away from the Tide and force Alabama to beat them through the air, Bama might not be able to do it.

On defense, the Tide has lost 4 key players and won’t be as experienced on that side of the ball when it kicks off the season with a tough matchup against Florida State. That could make them vulnerable to an early loss, and they also need to visit Auburn to close out the campaign.

Finally, they’re in the much tougher division, grouped with Auburn and LSU. Alabama needs to finish ahead of both teams during the regular season in order to play for the conference title.

Honestly, that’s about all I’ve got as a criticism of Alabama’s chances. You can argue about the pressure of high expectations, but Saban’s teams are used to it. I’m not even sure an injury to Hurts or one of the defensive stars can derail the Tide in 2017.

2. Auburn (+550)

The Tigers are priced as Alabama’s biggest threat in the SEC, and it’s for good reason. Though Auburn is coming off a seemingly mediocre 8-5 campaign, including a lopsided loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the Tigers return 15 starters and have lots of depth.

Though Auburn doesn’t have a clear-cut starter at quarterback and is working in a new offensive coordinator, the Tigers should still be able to run the ball with the best of them. They were sixth in the NCAA in rushing yards per game in 2016 and have star running back Kamyrn Pettway back in the fold once again.

The defense allowed the 7th-fewest points in the nation last year (17.1 per game) and should be strong again in 2017. The Tigers lost their top two sack leaders from last year, but a soft early schedule (outside of a Week 2 visit to Clemson) can buy Auburn time to figure out how to plug those holes.

The key to whether Auburn can upend Alabama in the SEC will be the Iron Bowl, which the Tigers will host in the final week of the season. If Auburn can enter that game with just 1 loss (the toughest games on its schedule is the early game at Clemson and a mid-October visit to LSU), you can’t rule out the possibility of the Tigers upsetting Bama at home.

3. LSU (+600)

If LSU were in the SEC East, they’d be the class of the division. They have a championship-caliber defense (15.8 points per game against last year), are coming off a dominant performance in the 2016 Citrus Bowl (wiping out Louisville 29-9) and boast a Heisman candidate in running back Derrius Guice.

Unfortunately for LSU, they’re in the West and have to beat out Alabama and Auburn just to get to the SEC championship game. That alone may be enough to derail the Tigers’ conference title hopes.

QB Danny Etling struggled against elite competition last year (versus Auburn, Florida and Alabama) and is a bit of a question mark for LSU, though he could improve under new offensive co-ordinator Matt Canada. The Tigers also have a few holes to fill on the defensive line and at linebacker, which could cost them an early loss or two.

LSU has to visit Florida, Alabama and Tennessee this year, and also hosts Auburn. I see them struggling to get to 9 wins, which won’t be enough to contend for the SEC title.

4. Georgia (+700)

It’s been 4 years without an SEC East title in Athens, but this looks like the year the Bulldogs will return to the top of the division.

They won 4 of their last 5 games last year, including a 13-7 upset of Auburn and a 31-23 win over TCU in the Liberty Bowl, and they return star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Sophomore QB Jacob Eason should only be better this year, and they can also be bolstered by a top-5 recruiting class.

In order to get the job done this year, however, the Bulldogs need to be better inside their division. They’ve lost to Florida each of the last 3 years, and they also fell last season to Tennessee and Ole Miss. With visits to Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech on their schedule, the Oct. 28 neutral-field battle with the Gators becomes critical.

5. Florida (+1000)

Though the Gators have represented the East in the SEC title game each of the last 2 years, they haven’t really been close to winning a conference title. Florida was routed 54-16 by Alabama in last year’s title game, and was outyarded 437-180 in a 29-15 loss to the Tide in the 2015 SEC championship.

Florida has tons of weapons at receiver, but you still need a QB to get them the ball. The Gators’ top 2 quarterbacks last year combined to throw 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, an awful ratio. If Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire can provide Florida with a passing threat, the Gators might finally be able to close the gap on the SEC West this year.

The Gators defense was sixth in the nation last year in points per game and second against the pass. They lost a lot of their defensive stars (as well as their coordinator), but still return Outback Bowl MVP defensive back Chauncey Gardner and several other leaders.

Of the 3 top contenders in the SEC East, Florida’s got the easiest schedule. They will host Tennessee in Week 3, face Georgia on a neutral field following a bye week, and their only true road games are at Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.

6. Tennessee (+1400)

The only other team we have to pay attention to on the SEC championship odds is the Volunteers, who finished second in the East last year with a 9-4 record, including wins over both Florida and Georgia.

However, that might have been the peak for the Volunteers, who have since lost star QB Joshua Dobbs, defensive end Derek Barnett (picked 14th overall by the Eagles in the NFL draft) and a pair of starting running backs.

Throw in a schedule that includes road games at Florida and Alabama, and a lot will need to go right for the Volunteers just to win the SEC East and play for a conference title.

So Who’s the Best Bet to Win the SEC?

That depends on what your definition of best bet is.

If the best bet is the one that is most likely to win, it’s obviously Alabama. But laying -175 odds over a full season doesn’t appeal to me. If I’m going to bet the Tide to win the SEC, I’d rather wager on them in the big games that will help determine the champion, such as their games against Auburn and LSU, or even the SEC title game.

I recommend taking a flyer on both Auburn +500 and Florida +1000. The Tigers have a chance to control their own destiny when they host Alabama in the regular-season finale, while the Gators probably only need to worry about beating out Georgia in the East.



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