Eligibility questions surrounding a pair of college football programs could cause headaches for sports betting operators in the coming weeks.
Michigan finds itself in the middle of an in-person scouting scandal that revolves around an elaborate plot to steal signs. The Wolverines are under investigation by the NCAA, and the Big Ten Conference suspended head coach Jim Harbaugh for his team’s final three regular-season games. Michigan beat Penn State without Harbaugh on Saturday, but the coach is taking legal action that could return him to the sideline this weekend.
James Madison, a new FBS team, is petitioning the NCAA for bowl eligibility after a hot start to the season. NCAA rules require a two-year FBS transition, which includes bowl ineligibility. The Dukes have lobbied for the NCAA to grant them a waiver for immediate bowl eligibility as they near the end of their second transition year, which could create a mess in Sun Belt Championship futures markets.
If either program sees its eligibility status for conference championships or bowl games changed, it could create challenges for sports betting operators nationwide.
“These are unique situations. We do not have hard rules in place for these specific events occurring,” BetMGM spokesperson John Ewing said.
Michigan punishment looming?
Michigan’s situation seems to have more clarity than JMU’s, at least for most betting operators.
“We have the Michigan situation covered,” said Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of race and sportsbook operations at the Westgate SuperBook.
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If the NCAA or Big Ten decide to rule the Wolverines ineligible for postseason play — that’s a big if, especially with the Big Ten suspending Harbaugh rather than ruling the team ineligible for the league title — futures bets would be graded as losing wagers, according to Kornegay.
“If your team gets caught cheating and becomes ineligible, they’ll have action on that cheating team,” Kornegay said.
Meanwhile, FanDuel’s house rules state, “If a player, team or other competitor has taken any part in a sporting event once it has officially started and then fails to complete that event for any reason, any bet placed on that player, team or other competitor will be deemed live.” In theory, that wording would give FanDuel the ability to grade Michigan futures wagers as losing bets as well.
Jeffrey Benson, Circa Sports’ director of operations, says he hasn’t thought about the hypothetical much, but he imagines his sportsbook would likely view Michigan futures as losing bets.
“Thinking about it for all of six seconds, I imagine those bets would have action given that Michigan started the season eligible to win the Big Ten and the championship and based on extenuating circumstances was not eligible,” Benson said.
In Michigan’s case, however, immediate NCAA action that forces operators to make a decision on the status of their futures bets doesn’t seem probable. In all likelihood, a full investigation into the program’s sign-stealing operation will need to be completed before the program faces disciplinary action from the NCAA. The Big Ten also left open the possibility of additional punishment for Harbaugh and the program once a full investigation concludes.
Michigan is viewed as a national title favorite across multiple sports betting apps, with BetRivers ( 210) and Caesars Sportsbook ( 220) among the sportsbooks giving the Wolverines the shortest odds to win the title.
JMU’s unique season
James Madison’s situation differs from Michigan’s, in that the Dukes are seeking increased eligibility. The FBS-transitioning Dukes applied for a waiver in the spring to shorten their transition from the FCS to the top level of college football to one year rather than the standard two years required. The waiver was denied.
Since JMU sits at 10-0 on the season and inclusion in a lucrative New Year’s Six Bowl is contingent on the waiver, JMU’s administration is asking for the denial to be revisited. The NCAA confirmed with Sports Handle that it received JMU’s recent letter asking for reconsideration of its bowl eligibility status, and the organization will review its merits in a “timely” manner.
The waiver requires input from four different NCAA committees before the NCAA Division I Board of Directors can make an official decision on JMU’s newest request. It’s unclear how long that process might take.
If NCAA approves James Madison waiver to become bowl eligible, Dukes would be eligible for Sun Belt title game, based on the league’s by-laws. And also could by ranked by @CFBPlayoff & earn Group of 5’s New Year’s 6 bowl berth. NCAA already denied JMU’s appeal in April. “That’s…
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) November 7, 2023
If JMU is fully eligible to play in a bowl game, then the Dukes’ conference, the Sun Belt, has said it will allow JMU to play in its conference championship game.
This creates a tricky situation for sports betting operators.
While not the most popular market, preseason Sun Belt futures markets didn’t include JMU due to the program’s postseason ineligibility. If the Sun Belt reverses course and allows JMU to play in its title game, it alters a market that bettors entered into with the expectation that JMU would be excluded.
“Would we entertain refunding or would we entertain paying off the second-place team, whoever would have won it if they didn’t change the rules? That’s a possibility,” Kornegay said. “I guess we’re gonna cross that bridge when we get there.”
Circa and FanDuel are among the operators to temporarily take Sun Belt futures off the board as the NCAA revisits JMU’s status. While national pundits might support the Dukes becoming bowl eligible, operators might be less pleased with the ensuing inconvenience.
“Any situation in any sport, changing the rules versus what we started with, it’s a little frustrating for bookmakers,” Kornegay said.
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