The inimitable Kreighton Rahn has agreed to take over WagerBop’s NFL-prediction duties for 2 weeks so that yours-truly can focus on climactic college games like Power-5 and Group-of-5 conference championships, and of course Army vs Navy on December 14th.
But as streamlined as my efforts may be, somehow I can’t look at the FBS betting board for this weekend and make perfect sense out of it.
These are supposedly conference title games. The best against the best. Division-winner vs division-winner. You’d expect at least a few tightly-handicapped scrums out of a batch of 10. Instead, “Championship Weekend” might as well be re-named Blow-Out Saturday…at least if we’re to take the Las Vegas lines as gospel.
Some of the match-ups would be easily confused for regular-season snoozers. Clemson is currently a 4-touchdown favorite vs Virginia in the ACC Championship Game. The Memphis Tigers beat Cincinnati last weekend and will play the Bearcats again for the American title on Saturday, opening as a double-digit point spread favorite to go 2-0 in the “series.” Boise State is a huge favorite to prevail over Hawaii for a Mountain West trophy, Oklahoma is a (-9) favorite against Baylor despite the Bears’ impressive autumn run, and Ohio State is expected to scold the Wisconsin Badgers by (-17) points in the Big Ten title tilt.
Try as they might, bookmakers can’t get any of the favorites under a TD margin against the spread or longer than (-225) on a moneyline.
Utah opened at (-172) to beat Oregon for the Pac-12 title and was soon pulled with the betting action to a solid favorite’s line of (-240). Georgia opened as a field-goal underdog vs LSU in a crucial SEC Championship Game that could affect several teams’ College Football Playoff chances. After just half a week’s gambling action, LSU is now at (-7.5).
Long underdog odds and wild line-movement creates opportunity for profit of course. But we’ve got to be sure to pick the right underdogs, because there’s bound to be a few lopsided games on Friday and Saturday. Nothing bites more than touting a (+300) ‘dog and watching them lose by 50.
As usual, I’ll provide a few in-depth handicaps (along with another guest-spot from trusty scout Chris Aliperto). But conference trophies are on the line – surely some readers would be upset not to find their hometown team on our ledger. We don’t have room to publish a book on every upcoming contest – but there’s time to handicap each vs the betting book.
Read ahead for a trio of previews and exclusive predictions – and/or scroll-to-bottom for quick-takes on the other 7 FBS title bouts happening this weekend.
SEC Championship Game: LSU Tigers vs Georgia Bulldogs
QB Joe Burrow is hot, and so is the Louisiana State offense. In a recent 56-20 victory over pitiful Arkansas, all Burrow had to do was hand-off to Clyde Edwards-Helaire and throw the occasional pitch-and-catch pass downfield. But the LSU attack has been spectacular throughout November’s other battles, flying past Alabama on the road and scoring a combined 106 points vs Texas A&M and Ole Miss. LSU’s offensive line is big, strong, and mobile, opening holes for Edwards-Helaire and other rushers that serve to discourage opposing DEs from teeing-off. What’s even more impressive is that the unit has put on 1 dominant performance after another without all of its pieces.
Injuries in the trenches can kill a championship run but haven’t appeared to hurt the Tigers yet. The OL is looking pretty healthy in December – the best news of all for Louisiana State fans.
The Georgia Bulldogs have not lost in regulation in 2019 and are coming off a terrific 5-game run in which the “Dawgs” defeated Florida, Missouri, Auburn, and A&M before destroying rival Georgia Tech in Clean Old-Fashioned Hate last weekend. Meanwhile, RB D’Andre Swift continued to flourish behind an OL that’s pretty good in its own right, but took limited touches as Kirby Smart played it smart with his best cogs headed into the SEC title scrum.
Georgia’s dealing with a few more injuries than LSU, but the names of the wounded are scattered among units and positions. No single aspect of the team’s performance has been suffering, save for an offense that appears – as Ohio State’s had in 2017 and 2018 – to feast on poor defenses better than it conquers tough teams. UGA can be forgiven for not scoring a bundle o’ points vs Florida, Missouri, or Auburn – after all the Bulldogs led the Tigers 21-0 after 3 quarters. But a 7-4 Texas A&M squad was able to cause yet another sub-50% passing day from the veteran Fromm while limiting Swift to just over 100 yards between the hedges at Sanford Stadium.
WR Lawrence Cager is out for the year and another UGA receiver, George Pickens, must sit-out the 1st half of the title game due to egregious conduct vs Georgia Tech – a sad, conventional version of GT that LSU needed not intimidate in order to beat. That hurts the Georgia offense, and could be responsible for the line-movement in LSU’s direction.
I don’t see the Georgia pass rush making life miserable for Burrow on Saturday, but I also doubt that the Bulldogs will allow the star QB to scramble for a bunch of 1st-down conversions. UGA’s defense hasn’t really been beaten all year – talented kicker Rodrigo Blankenship went 4-for-4 to essentially win the Texas A&M game 19-13, but the D wasn’t the reason it was close in the last quarter. Georgia’s linebackers and DBs are too disciplined to allow gratuitous QB runs or RAC yards in the short-passing game. It’s on Burrow to hit Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson on aggressive downfield throws if Louisiana State is to cover the spread.
Notre Dame was the regular-season UGA opponent with an NFL-level deep passing game, and Ian Book was intercepted twice by the Dawgs in Georgia’s victory. Yes, Book attempted nearly 50 passes while Brian Kelly only gave a token nod to his running game. But Georgia didn’t boast a murderous pass-rush against Notre Dame – it was a speedy and smart defensive backfield that saved the day for UGA.
Finally, unless Louisiana State is crushed on Saturday, the Tigers can expect to play in the College Football Playoff. It’s Georgia which absolutely must win the contest to receive an invitation. That’s not a motivational downer for LSU, but it’s a big motivational upper for the Dawgs.
LSU has the ability to get ahead and stay ahead, but only if Orgeron chooses to pound the rock and allow Burrow to pick his spots downfield. I’m liking the Under (54.5) and Georgia to cover any line wider than 7 points in Atlanta.
MAC Championship Game: Central Michigan Chippewas vs Miami-Ohio RedHawks
Favored CMU’s line-to-win at Ford Field on Saturday afternoon is shrinking thanks to the complete-team form flashed in a 49-7 rout of Toledo last week, a game in which sophomore tailback Kobe Lewis rushed for 131 yards and 2 scores. The impressive performance gives the Chippewas an average of 47.3 points-scored over the last 3 games. Coach Jim McElwain boasts a run-heavy attack with short, quick screens and runs-after-catch, an unorthodox (and often deadly) attack led by 2-time transfer QB Quinten Dormady.
Since Week 11, Dormady has completed 75% of his passes for 894 yards with a 5:1 TD/INT ratio. The 23-year-old took over for suspended Memphis-transfer David Moore in early October and is 5-1 as CMU’s starter, taking credit in large-part for sparking the program’s big-time turnaround after a dreary 2018 campaign.
The underdog Miami RedHawks had to survive a tight game with Buffalo in Week 5 beat-out the Bulls and earn a shot at the MAC title. Defensive back Mike Brown took an INT 25 yards for a score early in the 3rd quarter to put Miami ahead after a 14-13 halftime deficit – the junior became 1 of just a small handful of DB’s to have 2 pick-6s over the last 14 weeks.
I’m not in love with either side of the (54) point Over/Under total, because the defenses involved are feast-or-famine types of units. Miami’s or CMU’s defense could hold a quality opponent to less than 20 points, but each unit is prone to getting blown off the ball once things go wrong in the 1st half. The best scenario for good defense is having a lead, and CMU should stake-out 1 or 2-TD edge in the thanks to the Chippewa offense playing in a passing-game-friendly indoor environment. That means Central Michigan is a solid pick-to-cover (-7).
And now for a word on the Big Ten Championship Game from Minnesota-native Chris Aliperto…
Big Ten Championship Game: Ohio State Buckeyes vs Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers were able to take care of business at home against the Golden Gophers, ending a Cinderella run for Minnesota that had them near their first Rose Bowl since 1962. Wisconsin won 38-17 to improve to 10-2 and earned a chance to face #1 ranked 12-0 Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes beat the Badgers 38-7 just over a month ago.
Wisconsin looked good against the Gophers, as QB Jack Coan was able to make great throws in the snow and sleet to guide the Badgers to victory. Minnesota was able to contain RB Jonathan Taylor for 3 quarters and actually held him to his lowest rushing yardage of the season with just 76 yards, but 2 late touchdowns brought his season total up to 20.
Ohio State was flawless all season, and the only team that gave the Buckeyes a legitimate threat was Penn St. Ryan Day has 3 of the top 5 current Heisman hopefuls in QB Justin Fields, who has 37 TD passes to just one INT, DL Chase Young, and RB J.K. Dobbins. Young leads all of FBS with 16.5 sacks and is a can’t miss future 1st round pick, and Dobbins finished the regular season with 1,657 yards and 19 TD’s. The Buckeyes 49.9 PPG ranks 1st in all of FBS.
Injury update: Fields is dealing with a sprained knee ligament but plans to play through the pain, and is listed “probable” on USA Today’s injury list.
I think we’ll see a very similar game to the first time these teams met, with Wisconsin scoring a few more points this time around but Ohio State pulling away late once again. The total feels just right at 56.5, but I like the Buckeyes to cover -16.5.
Bonus exact-score prop prediction: OSU 35, Wisconsin 14.
Quick-Picks on Other FBS Conference Championship Lines
Pac-12 Championship: Utah Utes vs Oregon Ducks (Friday)
With rainy, windy weather expected at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, gamblers are throwing the baby out with the (rain) water.
Yes, QB Justin Herbert of Oregon is among the most-overrated college athletes of the decade. He’s likely to foul-up in the slush, but so is the Utah offense and special teams. Conditions could be so bad as to equalize the contest. Pick: Oregon (+200)
Big 12 Championship: Oklahoma Sooners vs Baylor Bears
This is the time of year when OU typically makes a statement. Pick: Oklahoma (-9) ATS
Sun Belt Championship: Appalachian State Mountaineers vs Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns
With the Baltimore Ravens running a Sun Belt offense (and destroying the NFL with it), maybe we’ll soon see App State adopt an old-school NFL style with a new QB named Joe Cracko. Pick: App State (-6)
C-USA Championship: FAU Owls vs UAB Blazers
Alabama-Birmingham’s unlikely success story continues vs another chronically-overrated asset named Lane Kiffin. Pick: UAB (+240)
AAC Championship: Memphis Tigers vs Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats were playing possum last week, setting up another quality ML pick on a potential surprise. Pick: Cincinnati (+275)
Mountain West Championship: Boise State Broncos vs Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
The point spread is tightening, but expected rain will likely hamper UH’s all-important precision on offense and leave the underdog’s defense exposed. Pick: BSU (-13.5)
ACC Championship: Clemson Tigers vs Virginia Cavaliers
UVA could be a weirdly-solid pick to cover (+28.5) since Dabo Swinney is likely to play it safe with a big lead and protect his top talents. But I’m with the public on the O/U total. Pick: Over (55)
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.