In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Maybe I said the wrong thing.”
Yes, I’ve preached for years that when a pair of football teams appear to be perfectly matched, to the point of splitting a 10-game series on a neutral field, the underdog – the team with the longer betting odds – is always the right pick.
Call me crazy, though, but I thought I saw a few key differences between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide when the programs met in Santa Clara to settle the 2018-19 national title on January 7th.
Like the fact that one school had 44 points at the end of the game, and the other one had 16.
You wouldn’t think that bettors with Clemson’s destruction of Alabama fresh in-memory would consider the Tide likely avengers. But since the ACC’s Tigers opened at around (+175) to defend the CFP crown next to (+250) for ‘Bama, the odds have begun to shift in the SEC program’s direction at select sportsbooks.
MyBookie’s 2019-20 College Football Playoff title futures board currently has Alabama and Clemson deadlocked at (+200) each. BetOnline’s current odds have the Tigers at (+225) and the Crimson Tide at (+275), while Bovada is sticking with the defending champs at (+165) vs (+235) for Nick Saban’s program.
Meanwhile the Georgia Bulldogs are gaining steam in the betting action. UGA opened as a 12-to-1 team but is now showing up as short as (+600) to win the FBS in 2019-20.
Texas may have beaten Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Texas A&M might have nearly crowned Clemson – albeit before Trevor Lawrence got on the field – and Alabama may have weirdly had problems with The Citadel. But last season’s College Football Playoff took things to a whole new level on an NCAA gridiron. 18 year-olds like Clemson WR Justyn Ross look ready to play in the NFL already, and it’s not like any 5-star recruits are missing their text messages from Saban, Dabo Swinney, or Kirby Smart.
Long-shot underdog bets on the national crown are worthless until your team could conceivably beat the best of the ACC and the SEC.
Here’s a quick outlook for each of the 3 most-popular picks to win in January 2020…and some clues as to why the lines are moving toward ‘Bama and Georgia.
The response from student-athletes at 120+ other Football Bowl Subdivision programs watching Clemson beat the snot out of ‘Bama in the season’s climactic battle must have been a shiver and a fright. They had already been told that the SEC was on another level. Now, an ACC school had turned the Crimson Tide into a Floral Brook.
Credit goes to the Tiger defense for stopping Tagovailoa’s dual threat on multiple 4th-down and goal-line efforts. The real story of the National Championship Game, for me anyway, was a pair of teenagers playing throw-and-catch. The frosh phenom Lawrence and classmate Ross were able to connect on several epic blows against the Alabama secondary, with the WR making several of the best clutch grabs in recent memory.
RB Travis Etienne is coming back. So is the receiving corps and most of the offensive line. But points may be needed by the bushel, because the defense might be smoke and mirrors at this point. Coordinator Brett Venables has lost a huge piece of his “Power Rangers” defensive line, a cracking LB in Kendall Joseph, and CB Travyon Mullen.
Pundits are lauding backups who are perpetually “ready to step in,” but sometimes that is all just talk. Clemson’s front-7 is getting gutted in the offseason and must be rebuilt with untried recruits.
Saban’s Shaky Sandcastle
There is a phenomenon in football that has been known to work almost like gravity. We are still not sure exactly how it happens, but it happens again and again.
When a team starts scoring points in bunches, they also start giving up more points. This does seem to contradict Lombardi’s First Rule – that a weakness or strength tends to remain as it was.
Defenses do not magically forget how to execute when their offense scores a ton of touchdowns. Although sometimes it does help to wake up the opposing assault just a little bit.
Alabama ran (and passed) opponents ragged all season until the visiting Citadel Bulldogs killed the clock and the hosts’ field position for 2+ quarters in mid-November. The Bulldogs nearly took a 3-point lead into halftime. Yep, you read that correctly – an FCS squad was the first team to threaten ‘Bama for more than 15 minutes of game clock.
A communal plan was drafted by opposing coaches – put QB Tago Tagovailoa in more strenuous situations on the field than what he had been dealing with. Success is complicated for a young player to handle. Clemson was able to trick Tago on quite a few occasions in January, but any 28-point loss is a team-wide failure.
Does ‘Bama deserve its current betting line? It’s never really a shocker to see the Tide lifting the CFP hardware at season’s end. However, despite a WR corps in which Jerry Jeudy not the only developing star, and a pretty good returning crew of blockers and rushers, I am not going to handicap the offense to put up nearly as many Nintendo numbers as it did early last autumn.
Saban perhaps won’t want his offense moving so swiftly in 2019, using little time before scoring or punting, because that kind of style gives opposing QBs like Lawrence plenty of cracks at the end zone from good field position. The Alabama defense no longer appears dominant in the postseason and needs a game-management life raft.
Alabama’s front-7 must show that it can react better to play-action and bootlegs. A veteran linebacking corps that includes Dylan Moses, Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings will be celebrated, but Crimson Tide LBs looked slow and lethargic against the pass in the Georgia game. It does help that imposing DE Raekwon Davis has elected to stay with the program for another year.
Georgia on Everyone’s Mind
With any luck, Kirby Smart has learned from his critical mistake in the conference title game, and he won’t call any more foolish fake punts. Georgia’s defense merited a chance to stop Jalen Hurts and Alabama on a full field.
Head coaches do learn and develop, and Smart will have all kinds of toys at his disposal in a pursuit of vengeance in 2019-20. QB Jake Fromm and tailback D’Andre Swift are back, and while the program’s WR and TE corps loses a lot to the NFL, young wideouts like Tyler Simmons will continue to step forward and make an impact.
On defense, the school does lose names like Deandre Baker and Jonathan Ledbetter. But Ledbetter was often a pain in the neck, and there’s lots of coachable size and talent coming up on all 3 levels. That’s line, linebacker, and backfield of course…not Middle School, JV and Varsity. SEC colleges stopped trying to recruit QBs in 6th grade – a big reason why the league is getting so much better behind center.
Gridiron gamblers are reasoning that if UGA can win the SEC East and defeat Alabama for the conference title, they’ll be seeded #1 in the CFP and get an advantageous position over Clemson – or anyone else who gets in the way.
That’s a pretty lengthy leap of faith to take for a (+600) team in February, so we’ll watch and see if the betting odds correct themselves.
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.