I was explaining to a friend yesterday that it isn’t enough to compare sports reporting to news reporting. Sports blogging is news blogging as a rule, confined to extremely “light” reportage about 90% of the time. We consume ourselves with goals, touchdowns, back-line tactics, and birdies, trivia which will be rendered ephemeral within eras and even decades, except for the feats of those athletes and teams whose dynastic success stitches their names in stone.
But along comes the wild card – and we’re not talking about the NFL playoffs. Stories from all corners of so-called “real life” can affect the “sports world” until we’re reminded the “sports world” is all too real. When that happens, blogs like this one have the weird, grave responsibility to report objectively on totally new subjects. As a familiar “unfamiliar” example from our recent past, I’m pretty sure there weren’t many bloggers who spent 2019 considering the potential impact of a world pandemic on Champions League soccer odds…or any odds at all. Far more importantly than that, erroneous and sloppy coverage of actual news can have negative effects that spread far beyond losing $10 on a Man City moneyline.
We’ll try to get all of 2021-22 College Football Playoff’s hard news correct. That’s a hell of a promise, since this season’s CFP has been hit with a wave of national headlines (not sports-page headlines) like none other in its short history.
Cancel! Forfeit! Postpone! Barring the specter of freak storms in Pasadena or Miami, the College Football Playoff’s rota of bowl brands have never contemplated such horrors before – not even in 2020 as a weary, restricted season ran down. The Wall Street Journal, filled with better hard-news reporters than yours truly, wrote succinctly on Christmas Day that Alabama, Michigan, Georgia, and the upstart Cincinnati Bearcats must “defeat the COVID-19 virus” before defeating CFP opponents. Quarterback J.T. Thomas of Georgia is among a handful of high-profile coronavirus cases that have caused the NCAA to tighten down its bowl media restrictions for January and remind all 4 CFP teams of the forfeit policy.
Pigskin media moguls shouldn’t be blamed for recoiling in panic. But neither should anyone trash the NCAA for imposing its hardest line on scholastic teams who’re used to showing up to a warm bowl location and throwing a 5-day party. Something has to be done to get coaches and players on afterburners when it comes to COVID precautions and safety. It’s the only way to prevent the FBS season’s finale from fizzling-out with a health crisis and a PR disaster.
What’s more, the NCAA’s tactic seems to be working. There’s a profound deficit of breaking news on other positive COVID-19 tests or potential New Year’s Six cancellations from the past few days (as of Wednesday), which is very good juju for fans hoping to see a complete 3-game College Football Playoff that kicks off as scheduled on NYE. It’s been a real, charted phenomenon that the media prefers negative COVID-19 stories to like-newsworthy positive COVID-19 stories.
No (coronavirus) news is good news for the 2021-22 CFP and the remaining scheduled New Year’s bowl games. Let’s hope the ugly headlines hold-off until Friday is close enough that all bold copy is about football – on the gridiron.
College Football Playoff Odds, Lines, and Predictions
Cotton Bowl: Alabama Crimson Tide vs Cincinnati Bearcats
CFP speculators who aren’t on social media should turn their TVs on early this Friday. Even as the NFL re-introduces Saturday games to its ledger over the holidays, it’s still a surprise when so many New Year’s Six bowl games are scheduled for New Year’s Eve, instead of on New Year’s Day. As early as breakfast, the window of time in which bettors can gather accurate information on either College Football Playoff semifinal will be closing fast.
Any business owner knows just how hard it is to get people to work on New Year’s Eve, and sports-media employees are no exception. There should be many useful College Football Playoff betting angles reported early in the day on Friday, on ESPN and elsewhere in mainstream media. But by 9 PM, aficionados of live “in-play” betting will have to figure everything out on their own. YouTube feeds will be abandoned, stat lines will be neglected, and hearing the broadcast on small speakers will be hard for those in urban party meccas.
Once, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets upset Dak Prescott and Mississippi State with a run-away win in the Orange Bowl, played at night on New Year’s Eve. An Atlanta sports jockey, tasked with hosting a postgame show by himself at 11:45 PM, repeated the same sentence 6 straight times and signed-off, headed for a speakeasy. Take any opinions offered late on NYE with a grain of salt – pigskin pundits will have 1 foot in the studio and another in the nearest sports-bar.
That won’t be an issue in Alabama or Ohio on Friday, given a 3:30 PM kickoff at Jerry World and fan bases respectively bound by tradition and Cinderella fever. Anyone in Cincinnati (or Louisville for that matter) who absolutely won’t shut up during Friday’s semifinal will wind-up wearing a mint julep instead of drinking it. Alabama vs Cincinnati’s most noteworthy betting narrative is that there isn’t one, with the kickoff’s remarkably stable odds raising the topic of whether a NYE schedule – or the possibility of a cancelled game – has deflated betting action from high-rollers along with recreational bets that would cause line-movement.
Most people don’t party at 2 PM on New Year’s Eve, so there’s no reason to assume Bovada Sportsbook and others aren’t collecting firm handles on Alabama vs Cincinnati. The usual line-movement from casual and/or sharp gambling action simply isn’t there, as the Crimson Tide remains the same strong (-13.5) point spread favorite that Nick Saban’s team was when CFP markets opened. Bet Now has taken the “courageous” step of knocking the spread down to (-13).
The scrum’s O/U markets are just about as inert, holding at (57.5) predicted total points from the Tide and Bearcats after opening at (58). Odds of stone!
Perhaps gamblers don’t know how to react when Las Vegas sets lines based on recent form, not overall body-of-work. Alabama is a weak 2-touchdown favorite from a body-of-work POV, since the ’21 Crimson Tide has posted a loss to a below-.500 Florida team that Cincinnati might have defeated easily, and the Bearcats are battle-tested against college football’s Top 15, in addition to having a style that befits hanging close to Alabama, Michigan, or Georgia in a 1-off bout. Cincinnati took on powerful Houston in the AAC Championship Game and had the Cougars down 35-13 in the 3rd quarter, a result that many of Alabama’s most threatening SEC opponents could not have manufactured against the Cougs.
But the Crimson Tide just scored what’s undoubtedly the best W of any FBS team so far this season, a double-digit beatdown of the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game. Bryce Young threw for 421 yards and 3 touchdowns in a performance that resembled Tom Brady carving-up Joey Porter and the top-ranked Pittsburgh defense with a pass-first game plan. Georgia’s defense, after all, was a historically great unit in the 2021 regular season. Alabama’s D can be credited with manufacturing key turnovers and shutting-out the Bulldogs in the 3rd quarter, but scoring enough to beat UGA by 17 under almost any circumstances defied what pundits previously thought was doable. Zero of Cincinnati’s performances in 2021-22 can compare to what Young and his top target Jameson Williams did, along with the Tide’s offensive line, in finding ways to exploit a team that had allowed 1 meaningful TD since mid-October.
A single game isn’t as reliable as a season’s ledger for making predictions. But that’s not the only reason the above angle is flawed. Alabama’s offense has blossomed into another elite unit, but no outcome as unpredictable as Georgia allowing 4 TDs and 3 FGs comes about via factors on 1 sideline alone. UGA’s defense didn’t know what to do with an opponent that it couldn’t out-run, out-hit, and out-muscle, and the harsh reality of parity struck the Dawgs at a bad time. Psychologically speaking, it takes a sloppy, woebegone frame-of-mind for a group of players to fall that far short of the water-line against any opposition. There’s no guarantee (or even likelihood) that Cincinnati will get so demoralized or miss so many coverages in the 2nd half, even if the Tide scores on the Bearcats early.
Don’t forget also that Georgia was not that desperate to come back in the 4th quarter of the conference title game, even as Alabama danced and pranced around the gridiron in celebration of a statement victory. UGA knew it would get another kick at the can after a near wire-to-wire #1 campaign.
Friday afternoon’s game is not a wonderful match-up for Cincy. In fact, the #4 ranked Bearcats (+410) would ironically have superior chances against a defensively-oriented SEC brand like Georgia in ’21, an opponent against which Desmond Ridder’s could claw-out just enough points to win a low-scoring game. Alabama’s offense is explosive enough to struggle for a quarter or a half and produce 30+ points anyway, a number that Cincy couldn’t reach against Notre Dame and barely surpassed against Indiana.
While the Tide is more likely to out-score the Bearcats in an entertaining 2nd half, that doesn’t make Alabama a solid pick ATS. If CFB handicappers are forecasting “by 7s” and not “by 3s,” it’s because they’ve perceived that ‘Bama should have great chances to score in the Red Zone once long drives are pushing the underdogs and helping the favored OL gain steam. But the Alabama ground game isn’t fantastic enough to muscle its way around between the 20s, and Cincinnati’s offense is likely to eke-out a number of field goal drives.
Lopsided ACC games may finish 49-21 with 0 Red Zone stops, but that’s no reason to be chilled by a (-13.5) number in a CFP scrum. We’ll see TDs, field goals, 2-point conversion tries, and perhaps even a safety or 2 on Friday, making it less important which side of the market pays if Alabama should happen to win by 14 points. Cincinnati is the better pick ATS when you remove the “2 TD + 2 XP” factor, which means NYE’s impending “predictable chaos” helps Cincy-takers more.
Pick: Cincinnati (+13.5)
Orange Bowl: Georgia Bulldogs vs Michigan Wolverines
Here’s how we know the 0% line-movement for Alabama-Cincinnati isn’t a fluke. Betting odds on New Year’s Eve’s latter CFP semifinal are stone-cold stable too, and have been locked in place with a measure of consistency ever since gambling opened on the College Football Playoff (for bets placed post-bracket determination, anyway) weeks ago. The regrouping Georgia Bulldogs began as (-7) point-spread favorites and are now (-7.5) at most sportsbooks, a “line-movement” that – if that’s what you want to call it – at least puts the earlier game’s spread market to shame. As for moneylines? Georgia opened as a (-286) wager. Many days of gambling action later, the Dawgs are a (-285) bet.
Gosh. Is the gambling public throwing up its collective hands (and handles) and deferring to Sin City now?
Ah, but at least there’s a changing line somewhere. Over/Under lines on the Georgia vs Michigan game opened at a cautious (43.5) and have risen to at least (45) total predicted points at all sportsbooks.
Not to make a Bulldogs-Wolverines preview more about betting culture than the actual football teams (always a tightrope!) but old-school handicappers may be assuming all the wrong things about the CFP’s lone changing Vegas line. O/U lines rising on a championship game between 2 big brands – and with due respect to Alabama, the match-up of Georgia vs Michigan is the weekend’s main event relative to a David vs Goliath preliminary – can be traced to “fun” casual betting. However, recreational bets would be more likely to affect Alabama-Cincinnati’s odds this time, for no other reason than human nature and the adult age of gamblers.
What casual-only college football fan would pick Friday’s late game to gamble on? Most 20-somethings with money to burn will be close enough to enough TV sets and broadcasts of the CFP to follow along loosely, but they’ll also be buying drinks, having dates, and going on random adventures while (if living in an urban center) pushing through crowds of intoxicated, mindless revelers. (Rather than make it easier, the crowd-restrictions and precautions of the COVID-19 era will probably just create even more look-away distraction as casual gamblers try to follow their Georgia-Michigan bets.) Since even party-hound college kids are capable of imagining what New Year’s Eve will be like as of 72 hours before the fact, I find it farfetched that a bunch of pigskin-illiterate thrill seekers are driving the O/U upward for Friday’s late game while leaving everything else alone.
Nay, there are football reasons why the UM vs UGA total is rising, even if some of the analytics favor bookies who set the scrum’s O/U line so low. J.T. Daniels’ omicron case wouldn’t be such a scandal if Georgia QB Stetson Bennett hadn’t looked so shaky in the SEC Championship Game. Daniels, an immature player who once cursed 5 times in 15 seconds during a sideline interview, has thrown for under 1000 yards as a part-timer this season. But the INTs Bennett tossed against Alabama are part of a running theme for 5’11” senior, who turned the ball over more than 5 times during the regular season. That doesn’t sound like a lot of picks or fumbles, but Bennett’s taken limited snaps and tried just over 200 passes throughout a year in which Georgia’s offense was under no pressure.
No rushers or receivers on the UGA roster have had dominant years. Brock Bowers, the Dawgs’ leading pass-catcher by a wide berth, is a tight end. Georgia’s run-away victories have been a product of the defense playing so well that the offense scores “by default” against exhausted units on short fields. That’s not quite how it worked out on December 4th, making Georgia’s ATS line an iffy proposition with Michigan’s defense poised to force more 1st-down passes.
It goes without saying that if Georgia’s defense suddenly reverts back to form, as Clemson’s “Power Rangers” did after getting hosed by South Carolina’s WRs on Rivalry Weekend, the Michigan Wolverines won’t have an easy time scoring.
But analytics only go so far when each team’s story is best told in emotions. Michigan’s loss to Michigan State was a turning point after which the Spartans were burned out and the Wolverines got the big logs burning. Following a successful November road trip, Hassan Haskins and the Michigan backfield galloped for 10 rushing TDs against Ohio State and Iowa, performances that are collectively as impressive as Alabama’s aerial bombardment against Georgia.
Meanwhile, Kirby Smart’s staff is recalibrating its play-calling effort to the possibility of Georgia falling behind by 14+ points. Teams tend to work on what they need to do to win and little else, which is why Bennett and Daniels never surpassed 30 pass attempts on a Saturday this year until facing the Tide in Atlanta. Now that Smart knows his defense isn’t an impenetrable force-field, the Dawgs should be somewhat more prepared to complete 20 out of 30 passes without throwing an interception first. That doesn’t mean Georgia is likely to score 45 points and win in another blow-out, but it does mean O/U (43) points was probably a mistaken low-ball number on the part of bookmakers.
Over (45) is still a decent idea, but the real angle behind Friday’s line-movement points to a better wager against the late semifinal’s “accurate” point spread. Michigan has a puncher’s chance to win and is almost certain to forge a close contest in the 2nd half. Bettors taking the “Over” for reasons other than “cheering fun” are imagining a desperate fight for winning points in the 4th frame, and they might just be right. Georgia is riddled with minor injuries and annoying depth-chart holes that could prevent Bulldog Nation from responding to its lopsided rivalry loss in true championship fashion. Michigan is healthy, tuned-up, and firing on all pistons and cylinders. Hassan Haskins could out-score Cincinnati’s entire backfield on Friday night if the AAC proves unready for prime time.
Our hunch is that field goals, not TDs, will delineate the scoreboard in much of Friday’s CFP action. But the fact that so many of Michigan’s games wind up riding on 7-point margins in the 4th quarter makes UM’s spread too tasty to pass up.
Pick: Michigan (+7.5) or (+240)
Quick-Fix Picks on the Rest of the New Year’s Six
Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs Oklahoma State Cowboys
It took OSU head coach Mike Gundy approximately 46 years, but the man has built himself an excellent defense. He’s also still coaching at Oklahoma State (+2) which isn’t something you can say for former UND coach Brian Kelly.
Pick: Oklahoma State (+2)
Citrus Bowl: Iowa Hawkeyes vs Kentucky Wildcats
There’s been a ton of against-the-spread action pushing Kentucky’s line to a favorite’s number of (-3), but there’s no flood of negative COVID-19 news out of either practice facility, and certainly no exodus of NFL Draft prospects hampering a team’s chances. Bettors are favoring the SEC over the Big Ten. That’s ludicrous to do categorically in this case, given that Iowa often snaps back when beaten by a lopsided score. The Hawkeyes were embarrassed by Northwestern prior to winning 4 in a row over reasonably tough opponents, while UK slumped badly in mid-season before riding an easy November slate to a major bowl bid.
Pick: Iowa (+3)
Rose Bowl: Ohio State Buckeyes vs Utah Utes
I’ve always wanted to see a head coach introduce a pair of Utah players as “these 2 Utes.” Anyway, even Joe Pesci is taking ATS bets on Utah this week, as the Utes’ lines have shrunk to deadly-underdog status as OSU’s ML swells to (-185).
Once again, an electric team has been underestimated due to a conference-championship defeat. Utah’s black magic has mostly victimized Oregon. Absences from the Ohio State defense could make the Buckeyes vulnerable on rushing downs, but that implicates an O/U of (64) more than the opening spread.
Picks: Ohio State (-4) and Under (64)
Sugar Bowl: Baylor Bears vs Ole Miss Rebels
The Over/Under has skyrocketed to (55.5) points for the weekend’s most unpredictable game. Baylor is an interesting toss-up pick at (+105) odds to win outright. But (not to sound like an ad for V-8) the best late-night Saturday pick to make is your hangover beverage of choice, not a steep wager on this doozy.
Pick: No Bet
New Year’s Six Prop Bets: Interesting Lines and Best Picks
It would be nice to compare College Football Playoff prop bets from around the world wide web prior to Friday night, but FanDuel has spent much of its Wednesday and Thursday completing an excellent spread of New Year’s pigskin props. Such an excellent spread, in fact, that it’s worthwhile to cull-out other alternatives and focus on whipping around just the aforementioned sportsbook.
FanDuel and WagerBop are pals and collaborators if not business partners (that’d be pretty sleazy of a “beat the bookie” blog after all), but that’s not the reason why, which is rather that prop betting involves such a massive selection of options, it’s like covering “prep” sports (a lone letter removed from “prop” sports betting) or junior college teams. At some point, you’ve got to narrow your analysis to some kind of scope that merely 1 article can handle, or you’ll go crazy trying to touch on everything.
Thankfully, there are several New Year’s Six games with at least a single name-brand, mispriced prop bet staring gamblers in the face on FanDuel Sportsbook’s CFP odds ledger.
Alabama vs Cincinnati: Alabama by 1-13 Points (+175)
Alabama should have a Red Zone edge running the rock, which makes Cincinnati’s overall task of outscoring the Tide rather difficult. But the Bearcats have waited for this for 5 years. Cincy is not going down without a fight, and the winners must conserve some fuel for the final round. Verdict: 3 unit bet
Georgia vs Michigan: Hassan Haskins Anytime Scorer (-125)
I’ve covered Mr. Haskins since he was a junior at Eureka High School, but we’re not feeling slimmer than 1-to-1 odds on the above market. Verdict: pass
Georgia vs Michigan: QB Stetson Bennett O/U (229.5) Passing Yards
For the reasons outlined above, Bennett is a pretty safe bet to toss a lot of attempts for a sizable chunk of yardage on Friday night – for better or for worse. Verdict: 2 unit bet
Oklahoma State vs Notre Dame: OSU by 1-13 Points (+210)
The 2022 Fiesta Bowl’s most likely trope of an outcome, offered at 2/1 odds. Verdict: 3 unit bet
Baylor vs Ole Miss: O/U 1st Half Points (27.5)
NFL Draft commodity Matt Corral will be starting behind center for the Rebels, a factor that could help lead to a spirited opening 30:00 and a few rounds of tit-for-tat scoring before the defenses get things settled down. Verdict: 2 unit bet
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.