WagerBop had another hot week predicting NFL games, and I’m wondering how to translate that handicapping success into a winning record in the biggest bowl games.
There’s something to be said for analyzing more games at a time. For instance, it was hard to do more than tread water on 3 or 4 NFL picks at a time early in the season. Parity in pro football is dead, at least for the time being, and favorites are covering easily against division opponents instead of blood-rivalries leading to a toss-up scenario. I wouldn’t normally have thrown-in a “meaningless” game like Seattle vs Arizona on Sunday, but it sure felt like a Seattle cover and a cautious low-scoring scrum, so why not throw in some extra touts on that basis? 2-0 on that game alone became a nice “cherry” on top of a streak.
There are going to be 7 bowl games – well, 6 bowl games and a stand-alone FBS title game – that determine a season’s fate for the biggest and best 2019-20 college football teams. 7 previews is more than I’m used to handicapping for WagerBop readers going into a Saturday. But maybe it will help us vibe some of the FBS’s overall trends. NFL players hitting the “pause” button on longstanding feuds is an overall trend which informed my Seattle-Arizona wagering. Not every pick out of 5 or 10 or 15 has to conform to a trend, but it’s best if a bunch of them don’t directly contradict it.
And what are the overall trends of FBS football as we prepare to crown another national champion?
There are 4 elite teams in the College Football Playoff – no doubt about that. The ACC’s perceived weakness in 2019 has been 25% reality and 75% Clemson making everyone else look bad. LSU roared through the SEC with a superior QB and the same punishing lines we’re used to. Ohio State romped to a Big Ten title, and Oklahoma’s QB has already led a national champion at Alabama.
Gamblers will anticipate that the strength of the 4-team playoff field should lead to 3 close elimination games. Maybe it will, but maybe not. The greatness of the 2019-20 schools includes each being explosive-enough to blow out an opponent with its guard down. Ohio State needs about 15 minutes of pigskin to score 3 or 4 times and end all suspense at the betting board, and Trevor Lawrence will pick apart any secondary that slips even a fraction in coverage.
Lawrence was my biggest whiff of the 2018-19 postseason – while I recommended bets on Clemson I had no idea just what a phenom was taking snaps for the Tigers. Joe Burrow looked like a world-beater throughout LSU’s 2019 conference schedule, but how will the Heisman winner measure-up against a trio of tremendous QBs?
Just because games won’t always be close doesn’t mean Las Vegas hasn’t drawn tight lines as usual. Let’s look at the marquee bowls of the season and find any potential blow-outs hiding on the board.
Cotton Bowl: Penn State Nittany Lions vs Memphis Tigers
It’s nice to see the Memphis Tigers getting so much respect with a shrinking (+215) moneyline to beat Penn State on Saturday. A Texas gridiron crowd is a discerning crowd and I can think of no better venue than the Cotton Bowl for the American Athletic Conference to finally prove its mettle. Nobody accused the Big Ten of being thin this year – those complaints were reserved for the ACC and the Pac-12. And nobody can say “Penn State didn’t try” if the Tigers conquer the kids from Happy Valley, because the Big Ten is not the SEC (or even the Pac-12) as it pertains to the arrogance of programs. Penn State would like the trophy just fine. It all sets up for a no-excuses-this-time coup for the AAC.
Unless Memphis plays lousy and loses, of course. The Tigers are a resourceful team with speed and skill everywhere – when Navy out-gained Memphis on the ground at the Liberty Bowl, the hosts averaged 50 yards on kickoff returns and scored 4 short-field touchdowns to prevail 35-23. Brady White can pick his spots against an elite defense, but will Memphis be able to contain the Nittany Lions?
Wind and rain may force the roof into action, and the forecast has ironically helped drive the O/U upward to (60). If the AAC representatives do get blown out, the 4th quarter has “mop-up points” written all over it.
College Football Playoff (Peach Bowl): LSU Tigers vs Oklahoma Sooners
If there was 1 out of all major bowls to be handicapped with a double-digit point spread, LSU vs Oklahoma on Saturday was always going to be it. Louisiana State is the SEC champion and snaps to Mr. Heisman, while OU is perceived as not strong enough on defense or special teams to give the powerful Sooner offense a chance in the CFP.
But the betting public could be overlooking a game-management factor. Gamblers have taken an opening (-10) spread on the Tigers into (-14) territory for a warm, cozy game in Atlanta between 2 slick offenses. What if Oklahoma manages to take a lead in the 1st half? With a 4-to-1 moneyline on OU that hasn’t moved a whole lot, the only sound explanation for the point spread jump is that the Sooners’ injuries will prevent OU from keeping the 2nd half close, even if spotted a few points by Hurts’ offense along the way. Oklahoma is dealing with many more injuries than LSU, bumps and bruises in the front-7 and in the offensive backfield. Running back Trey Sermon was ruled-out for the season weeks ago.
Yet if OU’s offense doesn’t dismantle LSU’s defense but simply builds a temporary lead, you can expect Ed Orgeron’s team to run the ball all that much more. Burrow’s number of pass attempts will be in direct relationship with the number of points LSU needs to score to beat Oklahoma. Rankings and margin-of-victory don’t matter anymore. An inflated O/U total of (76) imagines an epic 4-quarter fireworks show. Defenses may come to play instead.
College Football Playoff (Fiesta Bowl): Clemson Tigers vs Ohio State Buckeyes
Between Clemson and LSU, Clemson has drawn the worst of the lots – there’s no doubt about that. Ohio State has hardly been scared in a contest this season (the Tigers cannot say the same) and the Buckeyes to-my-eyes looked like the finest college football team in the country for most of the autumn. The betting public is afraid to blink on Saturday night’s Fiesta Bowl, with Bovada’s moneyline on the defending champs sitting steady at (-125).
From a close-angle lens it should be possible for Justin Fields and his crew of blockers to gash runs on a Clemson defense without most of a legendary “Power Rangers” DL from 2018-19. But in the broader picture, we know that Lawrence and his receivers will raise their games up a notch in a playoff atmosphere. Ohio State is still an unknown quantity in the CFP without Urban Meyer, whose teams gave every indication of over-achieving. Those weird latter-2010s losses to Iowa or Purdue felt like days when Meyer just couldn’t hold the Buckeyes aloft. It’s the team’s success without the Hall of Fame coach that makes you want to re-evaluate all of those outcomes. Maybe Ohio State is still hitting its ceiling all the time but without the baggage of a controversy-riddled HC.
Dabo Swinney’s teams have ways to keep an opponent from hitting its ceiling, at least for 4 quarters at a time.
Orange Bowl: Florida Gators vs Virginia Cavaliers
Forget what I said about the LSU-Oklahoma semifinal being the most lopsided Las Vegas handicap. LSU’s getting a big rush of action to cover a wide spread, but Virginia (+14.5) isn’t expected to make a game of it against Florida.
I’ll point to a successful margin-of-victory prop wager on Texas over Georgia at the Sugar Bowl last season. It’s dangerous to handicap conferences vs each other instead of handicapping the teams 1st and foremost, because in modern FBS football you could throw the top schools in each league into an “elite division” and get less-than-predictable outcomes.
Even a few mid-major programs belong in the “elite division,” and “B-Flight” front-runners from the ACC certainly do. Virginia has played and beaten some hard-nosed teams this season, demolishing Pittsburgh and controlling the 1st half against Notre Dame. (+14.5) is just too exaggerated to pass-up despite Florida’s obvious strength.
Pick: Virginia ATS
Rose Bowl: Oregon Ducks vs Wisconsin Badgers
Oregon-over-Utah for the Pac-12 championship was another pick that made my little cup brim with tiddles. Handicappers forgot that Oregon’s flaky consistency was largely tied to Justin Herbert’s lack of consistency, and that no matter what pundits thought, coaches needed to simplify the game plan and make sure the QB was comfortable instead of buying-into the Heisman hype. The issues have largely been worked-out. Oregon’s 37-15 domination put Herbert in such a good mood, he’s sticking around to play on New Year’s Day in Pasadena.
I’m high on Oregon’s form right now, but there are a lot of injuries affecting each school’s 2-deep. That calls into question a rising (51.5) O/U total on a popular event for recreational gamblers.
Sugar Bowl: Georgia Bulldogs vs Baylor Bears
Georgia fans, in the words of a sportswriter friend of mine, go to extremes. I once published a sentence, “the most fearsome contenders of the Power-5 like Clemson, Alabama, and Oklahoma,” and a website boss went into the WordPress, deleted “and Oklahoma” and wrote “and Georgia.”
It can only be melancholy holding back high-roller SEC partisans in the Sugar Bowl. The fan base is too morose to place any bets, and the optics aren’t great after backing-in to the bowl season.
Yes, Georgia failed to win the Sugar Bowl against a Big 12 opponent last go-around. No, the Bulldogs did not have a barrel o’ laughs against LSU in a 27-point SEC Championship Game defeat. And the 2020 Sugar Bowl is the kind of scenario for the NFL Draft to hold some athletes back.
That’s no excuse for a (-7) point spread on UGA to have tightened to (-5.5). Baylor backed-into the New Year’s Six too, after all.
Can you imagine the Georgia Bulldogs having problems with Rice? Texas Tech? West Virginia? Baylor is an exciting team with a potent offense and plenty of weapons on defense, but the Bears aren’t among the elites even though gamblers are putting them there. Georgia has a reason to play hard and win convincingly – Sugar Bowl redemption.
Pick: Georgia ATS
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.