The story behind the wildest college football bet of the offseason begins on a Sunday night in April in Freehold, New Jersey, where two gambling buddies -- a local restaurant owner with a hangover and a former Goldman Sachs trader -- are chatting after hours at a Russian-style bathhouse.
"Pete, listen, I have a bet for you," says Robert Doran, who is at the spa trying to sweat out the tequila shots he took the night before at a wedding.
Pete Kizenko, the banya's 56-year-old owner, is intrigued. He likes to bet and sweat, always has. In 2012, he left his Moscow-based trading gig with Goldman Sachs to bring the Russian tradition of banyas to New Jersey and opened Bear and Birch. It has become a popular spot to watch games and talk gambling.
Doran explains to Kizenko that former Michigan athletes were at the wedding he attended the previous night and were really hyping up a team from the Mountain West as a sleeper for the next college football season.
"I think we should bet Utah State," Doran says, suggesting they take the Aggies to win more than seven games during the regular season.
Kizenko looks over Utah State's schedule, notes a big game in Week 2 and checks the odds on his phone, before letting out an expletive.
"F--- it! Let's hammer the national championship," he blurts out. "They're 1,000-1."
Doran nods, and Kizenko enters the bet on his sportsbook app: $1,000 on Utah State to win the national championship at 1,000-1 odds with Caesars Sportsbook. It may be the one of the first $1,000 bets ever placed on a 1,000-1 underdog. If the Aggies shock the world, the bet would pay a net of $1 million. More likely, it will equal a $1,000 donation to Caesars.
Utah State is a 38.5-point underdog at Alabama in Week 2.
Every dog has its day
Bets of $1,000 on 1,000-1 long shots are as rare as a 38-point underdog pulling off an outright upset or a team from a non-power conference reaching the College Football Playoff. At college football's highest level, there has been only one such upset in the past 44 years: Stanford (+40.5) over USC in 2007. Last year, Cincinnati became the only team not from a power conference or named Notre Dame to be selected to the playoff. Likewise, Kizenko's bet on Utah State may be the first of its kind.
Several veteran bookmakers struggled to recall ever taking a four-figure bet on a team with 1,000-1 odds or longer. Adam Pullen, who has been taking bets in Las Vegas for 30 years, says wagers on 1,000-1 long shots are typically in the $5-$20 range or "the $100 variety at most," nowhere close to the $1,000 Kizenko dropped on Utah State. At Caesars, the next-largest national title bet on a team with 1,000-1 odds or longer is $100 on UMass as 10,000-1 and $100 on UConn at 10,000-1.
"It definitely stands out when you see a bet like this, a four-figure bet on this long of odds," Pullen, assistant director of trading for Caesars Sportsbook, said. "That's definitely not the norm."
The charismatic Kizenko, a veteran bettor, has gambling tales he can tell for days. He is no stranger to backing underdogs or placing big bets. He says he typically bets a "couple thousand dollars" on an NFL game but acknowledges $1,000 on Utah State is a little out of the norm for him on a futures wager.
One of his best scores came on 200-1 long shot Y.E. Yang to win the PGA Championship in 2009. One of his biggest losses came overseas in 2003, when he wagered with a bookmaker in the United Kingdom that the temperature in London would not reach 100 degrees for the first time.
"I get off the plane in London. It feels a lot more like Bangkok than freaking London," Kizenko recalls. "I sit down in the lounge, and the BBC says it's 95 outside. It's like 9 o'clock in the morning. Oh no, I'm in trouble."
Kizenko placed his Utah State bet on April 17, but he wasn't done yet. The day after he placed his first bet on the Aggies, he noticed Caesars did not move the odds, so he put another $1,000 on Utah State. A third $1,000 bet on Utah State came in the next day from an unidentified bettor at Caesars Sportsbook in Illinois. Kizenko says it wasn't him.
As of mid-July, the Aggies had attracted more national championship bets of $1,000 or more at Caesars than any other team, except Alabama and Ohio State, the two consensus favorites.
As news spread on Twitter of the three $1,000 bets on Utah State in three days, there were questions like, "Did they get Utah and Utah State mixed up?" and comments like, "Probably the worst bet I have ever seen."
Meanwhile, Pullen and Caesars' trading team were asking, "What's the angle? What are we missing? Because it's just so unusual."
"It's funny, because you had everybody thinking that these smart people are doing crazy research on Utah State and that it's some like hidden Messiah golden pick," said the 33-year-old Doran, who owns the breakfast and brunch spot Almost Home General. "And really, it just came from me ripping tequila shots with some players at a wedding."
You're telling me there's a chance
Pullen characterized Caesars Sportsbook's level of concern about Utah State winning the national championship as "none."
"We're not worried," he said.
But there are reasons to believe the Aggies will be good this season. They return 12 starters, including senior quarterback Logan Bonner, from last season's 11-3 team that beat Oregon State in the LA Bowl. In addition, they received an influx of impact transfers, including a receiver from Alabama and multiple Michigan players.
Even with an upgraded roster, though, winning the national championship seems like a tall task, with Week 2's game at No. 1 Alabama likely the end of the road for the Aggies' hopes, if they get by UConn on Saturday.
"If they didn't play Alabama, I wouldn't have made the bet," Kizenko said in a recent phone interview, noting that the Crimson Tide play at Texas in Week 3. "In the Mountain West, even if they went undefeated, they wouldn't get considered, but now they'd have a win over Alabama, so they'd be in consideration.
"I told my friend that 1,000-1 is the biggest mispricing of a team since the Wolverines against the Soviet army in 'Red Dawn,'" he added with a laugh.
Kizenko is realistic about the Aggies' chances. According to ESPN Stats & Info, no eventual national champion has even been more than a 10-point underdog in a game during the regular season. Utah State will likely be around 40-1 to beat Alabama straight up.
Kizenko and Doran believe the Aggies' chances are better than the odds suggest. They've already purchased tickets for the Alabama game and will be sitting "first row behind the Aggies' bench."
Since 1978, underdogs of 38 points or more are 1-368 straight up.
"I'm not gonna miss being part of history," Kizenko said.
Editor's note: Caesars Sportsbook is a betting partner of ESPN.