College football’s 2020-21 postseason is a breaking point for handicappers who spend more time ranking FBS conferences than rating individual teams. Due to the worsening rash of opt-outs in minor and mid-tier bowl contests, many “championship” games are practically decided in-advance by which team chooses to stick together in December-January and which depth chart of divas becomes scattered to the 4 winds. 1st-string players from just about any league can handle 2nd-stringers from another league, which is why Oklahoma finally looks shiny against the SEC, and why the Mountain West is racking-up a winter W/L record as if it were a Power-5 stronghold like the SEC.
I’ve felt for a while that there’s a 6th “invisible” power conference in American pigskin, called the “Elite Conference” or the “Champions’ Conference” if you will. Schools must dominate their rivals and make noise in the College Football Playoff to be considered a part of the 6th “conference,” but there’s no mistaking the discrepancy between teams that are in it, and teams that are not. A given 5-star prep athlete might be recruited by the SEC, the ACC, and the Big Ten. But it’s not as if he chooses a conference and then a school in that order, at least not most of the time. If the top High School QB in the country doesn’t sign with Alabama for some reason, he’s not going to think, “Hmm, I’d better through some lower-ranked SEC teams and figure out where to sign.” He is more likely to land at Clemson, or OU, or another program in the “conference” of Top-10 mainstays. There is thus more parity among “Champions’ Conference” teams than between ordinary league foes.
Games between teams that know each other well – and 2021 CFP Semifinalists Clemson, Alabama, Notre Dame, and Ohio State know each other quite well, at least after all these years of slugging it out at season’s end – tend to be fierce, faltering battles, very lopsided or hotly competitive, often from quarter-to-quarter or half-to-half of the same game. The foremost rule of handicapping scrums between familiar opponents is not to rule-out any outcomes, but to only rule-in.
Clemson’s offense could roll over 2 teams in a row, or an angry batch of “11th-ranked” Buckeyes could play 4 quarters of fanatical chip-on-the-shoulder defense and frustrate Trevor Lawrence. Dabo Swinney’s group could look like gold in a semifinal and peter-out in a final…it’s happened before. Alabama could do the same, or even step onto the field overconfident on Friday, before realizing that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish could have the best QB in the Rose Bowl.
That’s in the Rose Bowl “Game,” not at the Rose Bowl. Jerry Jones agreed to help host the iconic bowl game in lieu of Pasadena’s missed eligibility due to California’s COVID-19 lockdown, just as the Dallas Cowboys were manufacturing a run at a miracle NFC playoff bid. People have lots of varied opinions about Jones and his franchise, but Big D stepped-up to the plate this time. (Jerry’s luxury box also abides a 1st-hand scouting opportunity on New Year’s Day.)
As usual, the successful gambler’s task isn’t to deny possibilities, but to figure out which % chances of which outcomes are priced too cheaply. Let’s look at FanDuel Sportsbook’s props-and-totals spread on the 2021 CFP Semifinals with some of the above possibilities in mind.
CFP Semifinal Odds: Clemson vs OSU 1st Half Spread and Point Total
Media attention is drawn to a handful of Clemson cogs who either will or could miss Friday’s semis against OSU, including offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who has COVID. That’s not good for Clemson, though an injury or illness that knocked-out a lower-level assistant coach would be a worse calamity at this stage. Head coaches and main assistant coaches are often reduced to kibitzers on the day of a game, while key communications and adjustments are made by delegated position-coach proxies and upperclassmen on the field of play. Elliott’s game plan is already set out, but he probably can’t help call plays from quarantine. Play-calling won’t determine the outcome vs OSU.
The key to handicapping Clemson is to understand that the Tigers have threatened to do what few others in college ball have ever done – invent a 3-headed monster of NFL Pro-Bowl level QB, tailback, and wide-receiving weapons. Swinney’s OL and front-7 are stout as ever but lack the game-changing dynamic of the “Power Rangers” who conquered Alabama 2 years ago.
Changeover in the trenches wasn’t bound to hurt the Tigers’ CFP chances so long as Lawrence was handing-off to Travis Etienne and throwing to Justyn Ross, a collegiate “Aikman-Irvin-Smith” connection that’d last as long as the 3 stayed at Death Valley. But soon thereafter, Ross suffered a career-altering injury.
As the golfer Colin Montgomerie once said, “Well, that changes all that, then.” Or does it?
Clemson-Ohio State’s O/U total has settled on a healthy number in the mid-60s, and FanDuel’s standard (33.5) 1st-half total is based on easy math. The arithmetic of predicting Friday’s 2nd playoff game is simple too – can Clemson’s WRs produce like the 2018-19 corps in the CFP? If so, then a Clemson cover (and the Over) could each be automatic in the #2 vs #3 contest.
Ohio State’s weakness could be its pass defense, for the Indiana Hoosiers are not the only team from outside “Conference #6” to bother the Buckeyes through the air. Not that it’s a prohibitive black mark that Scarlet & Gray gave up about 500 yards passing to IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr. After all, the Clemson secondary had a similar collapse against South Carolina in 2018. But the OSU pass rush has flagged in big moments ever since Tommy Togiai’s 3-sack opener against Penn State.
I like the Tigers to cover already, but (-4.5) and a (+100) 1st-half spread makes the favorites’ 1st-half ATS prop market the correct bet.
Pick: Clemson (-4.5) (1st half)
Alabama vs Notre Dame: 1st-Half O/U Total Pick
I’ve got a hot Over/Under pick on the #1 vs #4 College Football Playoff Semifinal. But I’ve also got a problem.
Throughout the season, I’ve examined Alabama’s O/U lines carefully, thinking that Nick Saban would eventually turn to RB Najee Harris and a powerful set of blockers to salt games away, especially since Alabama’s defense isn’t what it was even 2 years ago.
But too many times, the ‘Bama O/U line has been blown-away in a battle of tempo-pass offenses. Even the SEC Championship Game turned into a hectic 98-point orgy of bombs and missiles and long gallops in the open field.
Mac Jones has developed into an All-American level pocket passer, and the Crimson Tide are more than capable of beating Notre Dame in a shoot-out on Friday.
Potential game-control factors and common sense seem to indicate that the Rose Bowl will go over its Las Vegas total (65.5), since if Alabama jumps out to a lead through the air, Saban will be too wary of opposing QB Ian Book’s skills to take his foot off the gas pedal. If UND gets out to a surprise lead, the Alabama playbook will be opened-up even more.
Things could quiet down in the 2nd half…even enough to make a “sure thing” over-result turn into a bitter bad-beat. Alabama won’t be interested in scoring 50+ points until Notre Dame pushes the Tide along the way – there’ll be another game to prepare for. If the contest is close in the 2nd half, ‘Bama’s spare weaknesses in pass-protection could be exposed at the tired end of 4 quarters.
No such caveats exist when forecasting a pile o’ points in the 1st half. Alabama will out-class Notre Dame and lead 28-10, or Brian Kelly’s squad will poke the beast and hang on for a 24-21 lead at the 30:00 mark. Either way, FanDuel’s halved 1st-half O/U number (33.5) is probably toast.
Pick: 1st Half Over
College Football Playoff Semifinals: Recommended Player Prop Bets
DeVonta Smith – (+360) to score first TD of game
Harris’s odds to score the opening TD of the Rose Bowl are almost twice as thin at (+210), even though the Heisman-candidate WR is just as likely to light-up the scoreboard right away.
Ian Book – Over (248.5) passing yards
With nothing to lose, Book will bravely fling passes for 4 full quarters, and garbage-time yards still stand against the O/U prop line.
Trevor Lawrence – Over (334.5) passing yards
The presumed #1 NFL Draft pick can do anything the guy from IU can.
Justin Fields – (-105) to score a touchdown
I can see Fields carrying for 1 or more TDs at the end of long, difficult OSU drives that don’t end up helping to pull off a Sugar Bowl upset, but count at the sportsbook all the same.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.