Let’s get something straight. There will be FBS football, NFL football, Canadian football, and probably High School football played in 2020-21. Nobody needs to worry about that. The NFL Draft is going-ahead right on time for a reason.
The only question is how many people will see the games happen live.
Those who think pigskin should simply “postpone for 18 months” don’t understand sports in 2020, nor social distancing during a pandemic. Schools don’t just participate in SEC football or the NCAA Tournament because live-event ticket sales generate money. This isn’t the 1820s.
Does the Mid-American Conference pay coaches triple-digit salaries just to “rake in” profit on the smattering of spectators who straggle to Akron on a Tuesday night? The MAC has a contract with ESPN. Its games are broadcast nationally, streamed and speculated-on around the world. If there wasn’t money in that, the conference wouldn’t bend over backward to accommodate TV viewers.
If a bunch of student-athletes and coaches who test negative for COVID-19 want to get together and play in an empty stadium 6 months from now, that’s no more of a health risk than 22 untested family members sharing a cookout. Whether or not campuses can welcome the usual share of season-ticket holders and walk-in fans will be another story. There is no suggestion that the college football year will be “business as usual,” nor the 2020-21 NFL or prep cycle for that matter.
Speaking to people in and around college football this week, there is “strong conviction” there will be college football this season. Uncertainty about when – multiple scenarios being debated – but they sound certain there still will be college football this season.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 9, 2020
So that settles it. The season could begin a little late, and games may occur with “Positively No Admittance” like in the Three Stooges comedy Three Little Pigskins.
But it’s going to happen. In lieu of cancelling an entire season and a national industry along with it, most ADs seem to agree that playing with restricted attendance is better than nothing as a worst-case-scenario, both from a financial POV and a humanitarian view considering the plight of the players.
Which top-ranked FBS contenders will benefit from the delays, scheduling restrictions, and lack of an ideal practice window in 2020-21?
Pundits will come up with all kinds of “sexy” picks from locations not hit especially hard by the Coronavirus outbreak, like Boise State or Kansas State. Not WagerBop.
In fact, I’m touting a team for 2020-21 which is slammed in some quarters as a thin CFP championship wager at (+225), a team that Joe Burrow and LSU just embarrassed in January.
Sometimes a betting line is too long even though plenty of gamblers are taking it. The Clemson Tigers are the best futures pick to win the next national championship, despite owning the highest-risk price in Las Vegas.
Why the 2020-21 Clemson Tigers are a Good Gamble at Current Odds
While we celebrate the 2019-20 LSU Tigers for putting an all-time great college roster on the field, it’s weird to think that Louisiana State was just 1 loss away from suffering the same fate as the 2018-19 Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama ’18 was set to make history as a legendary, unstoppable offense before Clemson stepped onto a College Football Playoff gridiron and shut it down.
But that was the “Power Rangers” from Dabo Swinney’s 2018-19 defense, not the less-intimidating batch of up-and-comers who led the Clemson pass rush last season. There are signs that the glaring weakness is being addressed in Death Valley following LSU’s tour de force 42-25 victory in January’s national-title scrum.
Not only will this autumn’s Clemson defense boast more experience and athleticism along the front-7, but Swinney has brought in so many 5-star recruits along the DL that no veteran will be assured full quarters of playing time. It’s a pity for the Tigers that the season may not begin until September or later. An 8-man rotation on the DL could be a deadly advantage against tired units in hot summer games.
It’s the skill positions that are in best hands, though. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Byrd happen to be the finest QB-WR coming back for another season of college football. Consider that Lawrence is almost unique among a crop of FBS signal-callers at CFP-contending schools who are moving on to the NFL in 2020 – Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa. Justin Herbert is finished at Oregon. Jake Fromm is done between the hedges. Nate Stanley, K.J. Costello, all turning professional.
Lawrence won’t enjoy at least 1 of his targets from last season, as Tee Higgins has declared eligible for the NFL Draft. But he’ll be glad to keep tossing passes to Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers is likely to have a stellar senior campaign. Meanwhile it’s scary to think Travis Etienne has decided to remain in the FBS for another go-around, or at least scary from the perspective of rival ACC coaches.
Speaking of the ACC, the Tigers’ plight in a weakened Atlantic Coast Conference is a blessing and a curse. On 1 hand Clemson has a small margin-of-error with the College Football Playoff committee due to the lesser likelihood of facing a Top 25 contender on a given weekend of conference play. On the other, the school can usually eke-out important ACC victories even if all cylinders aren’t clicking, and Power-5 status means more when you’re ranked among the top 5 teams in preseason.
For gamblers, Clemson’s presence in a muddled ACC is a godsend. The Pac-12’s long road to regaining street cred as a Power-5 conference means an ACC champion will be a more-or-less automatic CFP bid for the foreseeable future. An SEC team’s path to the College Football Playoff is a decathlon in comparison.
Successful futures betting is about considering all obstacles on a team’s path, not simply its chances to “win championship game X.” Perhaps the team will not even make it to game X. When a bookmaker sets the odds for a college to win the FBS championship, she is calculating the chances that the school could reach the College Football Playoff final and lose, plus the odds that it could lose in the semifinal, plus the % chance that something could go wrong during the season and ruin the bid before December (or in 2020-21’s case maybe a later month) rolls around.
I’ve been claiming for a while that the biggest national contenders have cast talent nets that transcend the typical recruiting milieu of any FBS league. Handicappers should put Clemson, LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, and a few others in an imaginary “Elite Football Conference” or EFC, of which the SEC may have a couple more representatives but no automatically-higher ceiling than anyone else. From that perspective, having a team of returning Heisman and All-American candidates “stuck” in the ACC is like an insurance policy against “unexpected damage” during an upcoming regular season filled with special challenges.
You might say that Clemson’s experience, returning talent, and ability to get through practice restrictions by means of familiarity and smart coaching – defensive line is among the easier spots at which you can just “throw in” an under-practiced athlete and get positive results – are factors already “baked in” to the (+225) futures line. But is the line taking into enough consideration what effects COVID-19 may have on the Tigers’ chief national rivals? Kent State is not going to beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff next winter. Winning the “Elite Football Conference” is the 2018-19 FBS champions’ real obstacle course in 2020-21, and Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and other schools of the EFC need 1st-string reps more than Clemson does.
Almost every other Top 10 program from 2019 must retool at the QB position and/or other skill positions. LSU’s secondary will need some work just as a Heisman winner leaves campus. Someone not named Hurts or Tagovailoa will lead the Crimson Tide’s starting 11 for the 1st time since the mid-2010s, Oklahoma will need a new identity on offense too. So will the Georgia Bulldogs. None of the aforementioned programs would have any trouble producing a quality QB-WR-RB combo by Week 3 under normal circumstances. The year of 2020 is not normal circumstances. 5-star freshmen and sophomores may not flourish when team veterans have to stand 6 feet away instead of teaching hands-on and lending encouragement.
No matter when the season begins, the preseason top 5 is likely to be flying blind, teaching new starting QBs how to operate under-practiced offenses with new faces everywhere. Missed spring games will hamper depth chart decisions. Offensive lines will struggle to work in unison. Pre-snap penalties could be chronic, with an autumn full of unprepared teams trying to get into sync. But not in Death Valley.
Clemson has been preparing to face a mid-season gauntlet of 2020 opponents that includes Virginia, Florida State, and Notre Dame. It would be insane to watch the Tigers simply mow-down a group of FBS “powerhouse” units still trying to work through the rust and solve problems. But it could happen – and it’s just another reason why the CFP favorites are the best futures bet on the board in April.
FBS Teams Who Could Benefit vs Under-Prepared Opponents
A slice of lost-preparation time for FBS programs en masse would seem to create a tremendous opportunity for mid-majors. What if an underdog Group-of-5 school was in position to ride a familiar lineup, excellent coaching, short-order preparation, and solid execution against opponents still struggling to sort things out as of October? The team could become like the Usain Bolt of pigskin, winning by racing at regular speed while others are forced to slow down.
Service academies have traditionally had advantages in Weeks 1-4. Sometimes those advantages are wasted. Weird that Army, Navy, and Air Force schedule cupcakes right next to giants in OOC play. (With the edge of military discipline and crisp fundamentals right out of the gate, I’d schedule as many P5 schools as I could in the opening weekends, then look for an FCS pushover to welcome on Homecoming.) Army’s initial run in 2019 epitomized how a schedule can work against a strong-starting team. The Black Knights nearly beat Michigan on the road before crushing UTSA and Morgan State, only to go on an autumn losing streak vs competent foes. Navy has scared Ohio State a couple of times in late summer only to fare badly against other Top 25 schools in October or November. Last year, the Midshipmen opened with a hot 7-1 record, but it’s a testament to Ken Niumatalolo’s coaching that Navy did not run out of steam after getting shellacked 52-20 in South Bend.
Navy opens against Notre Dame this season – and will follow it up with an easy conquering of Lafayette (of course). Even if the game vs UND is postponed by a month due to COVID-19, the less practice time afforded to all FBS teams, the better chance that Navy will pay-off as a fat-odds moneyline underdog. Academy kids are used to squeezing-in practices alongside other duties and undertaking a large chunk of mental preparation for each Saturday as individuals. The same adaptability could boost Army in a planned Week 3 contest with Oklahoma, except West Point’s schedule is so filled with so many “ceremonial” opponents (Bucknell? UMass? Princeton?) that a genuine sock-in-the-mouth from the Sooners in the 1st half may be all she wrote.
Air Force hosts Boise State in an early OOC contest, but BSU is in another category of programs that could flourish under weird 2020 conditions.
Avoid wagers on teams that go way up and down with the talent at QB and elsewhere, like Louisville or Houston. Look to gamble on programs (in conference-futures and early-season moneylines) which do not rely on outstanding performances from superstars and manage to consistently post winning seasons. Boise State, for instance, may not be a wise national championship pick, but the Broncos don’t need any 1 particular player to have a Heisman-level campaign to win the MWC.
You can make an argument for Oklahoma State, but Mike Gundy’s defense is as consistently poor as his offense is deadly. Texas is a better Big 12 option. Oklahoma may not look high-tech enough to please supporters.
I’m looking hard at all schools that can win without precision passing games. Alabama is the safest choice to win the SEC title (No current betting line at Bovada or MyBookie) because the Crimson Tide showed in the 2020 Citrus Bowl that if the offense gets back to running the football, the defense can flourish. LSU and Clemson would have each had challenges trying to blow out the Michigan Wolverines without Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence respectively taking snaps. But the Tide did it with backup QB Mac Jones at the controls.
It could prove more difficult for other SEC contenders to revert to a more-basic style of pigskin if the season is disheveled and disorganized. LSU will reap a tremendous recruiting crop now that the Tigers have claimed the national title, but Ed Orgeron may be limited in how much he can involve his 2020-21 frosh class right away. For the time being his offense might relapse into a worm-burner-and-punt syndrome on 3rd down and long. Georgia may be a boat without an anchor now that Fromm is gone. Mississippi State has relied on a precise series of option-reads to move the ball, but “precision” and 2020 may not always cling in conjunction.
Sorry, Texas Techs, Hawaiis, and Washington States – like the planet Earth in 2020, you might have to deal with abrupt, early pratfalls before things get brighter in the year’s waning days. The concerto you’ve penned (or chalked in Xs and Os) won’t get suitably rehearsed for a while to come.
Meanwhile, college football’s “heavy metal bands” – teams that hit right in the gut – could enjoy an atypically-effective Weeks 1-7 while so many fancy passes fly incomplete.
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.