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Handicapping the College Football Playoff race, Heisman winner and more

Lamar flies

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson celebrates a touchdown against Florida State, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in Louisville Ky. Louisville won 63-20.

It’s Talking Points tradition to spend the opening Thursday of college football season taking one final look at the futures market.

Before diving into the dozen games between Football Bowl Subdivision opponents on the board over the next two days, let’s continue the blog’s custom for labeling College Football Playoff best bets and a Heisman Trophy wager. It’s paid off in the past.

Last year, Talking Points’ top bet to make the playoffs, Clemson at plus-155, not only cashed but went on to win the championship. The rest of the picks failed to come in — thanks to Michigan for blowing two games by a total of four points — to make it a losing year, but Talking Points remains far in the black for this column’s overall history.

Picking Derrick Henry to win the Heisman at 25-to-1 two years ago ensures as much. But there’s no resting on laurels here.

We’ll try to secure a few more decent payouts below, before making a couple picks on Week 1’s pre-Saturday slate. The blog started 1-1 against the spread on college football last week. Come back Saturday morning for the full week 1 college football by the odds preview.

College Football Playoff picks: Oklahoma at plus-260 and Louisville at plus-1100

Four teams make the playoffs, so it’s an obligation to place four playoff bets, right? That was Talking Points’ previous stance, until spending way too much time trying to get to four this year before reaching a revelation: There are no rules.

The Sooners and Cardinals offer fantastic value on their current prices. No other teams do. Betting these two and passing on the rest is a more profitable strategy than forcing a pair of extra plays.

If odds weren’t a factor, the other two teams I’d pencil into my playoff bracket are Alabama and Ohio State. But the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes are the two favorites at a respective minus-235 (risking $2.35 to win $1) and minus-125 (risking $1.25 to win $1), prices too swollen to buy.

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Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, right, runs over Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.

Alabama might have merited more consideration when it opened minus-190 in June, but money has increased the line, which now implies a two-thirds chance the Crimson Tide make their fourth straight berth. Not even the best team in the nation, which Alabama should be considered, has that strong of a chance facing a perilous 13-game regular season.

The odds say Ohio State has the second-best chance of any team in the nation, but I would disagree. I think it’s Oklahoma.

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Oklahoma fullback Dimitri Flowers (36) scores in front of Oklahoma State defensive end Trace Clark and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, left.

The two teams play next weekend, but even if the Sooners lose as expected in Columbus, Ohio, their schedule the rest of the way is more manageable. Ohio State’s Big Ten East division could prove the best in the nation this year, while it would take a surprise for Oklahoma’s Big 12 not to be the worst power-five conference.

The biggest concern with Oklahoma is its staff, headed by rookie head coach Lincoln Riley. But in just two years in Norman, Okla., the 32-year-old has turned the offense into the nation’s best as a coordinator. Watching Riley direct an Oklahoma attack that racked up a national-best 7.2 yards per play against FBS opposition last year sure made him look ready for a promotion.

Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has not been as successful in his last two years, but he has more pieces at his disposal this season. Returning starting edge-rushers Ogbonnia Oronkwo and Caleb Kelly, Oklahoma might be one of the country’s best at applying pressure — an underrated and recurring hallmark of championship teams.

Speaking of teams with proven defenses led by pass rushers, that’s a quiet area of strength for Louisville. According to Football Outsiders, the Cardinals return 80 percent of their production from last year’s defense, which tied for fourth in the nation in giving up 4.5 yards per play.

Louisville’s offense needs no introduction coming off a Heisman Trophy season from now-junior quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the scary thing is, the Cardinals were extremely unlucky on that side of the ball last year.

Louisville lost 22 fumbles, five more than any other team in college football. That won’t repeat.

Florida State is the rightful ACC favorite as the most talented team, but the gap between the Seminoles and Cardinals isn’t nearly as large as betting boards indicate. Florida State’s plus-150 price to reach the playoffs looks as uninviting as Alabama’s or Ohio State’s numbers considering its rugged non-conference schedule — the Seminoles play both Alabama and Florida — and ACC road game at Clemson.

Usually, it’s worthwhile to identify and fire on an even longer shot than Louisville but betting lines seemed too compressed this year. Notre Dame had even worse luck than Louisville last year and should be much improved, but plus-1300 to reach the playoffs isn’t nearly enough.

The payout is similarly subdued for teams like Auburn (plus-1300) and Georgia (plus-850) in a contingency wager for Alabama getting upset late in the season.

Four teams will make the playoffs, but for this year, Talking Points is only rooting for two.

Heisman Trophy bet: Baker Mayfield at 10-to-1

Player A threw for 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions at 8.4 yards per attempt last year on a team that hasn’t won a conference championship in 12 years. Player B threw for 40 touchdowns to eight interceptions at 11 yards per attempt last year on a team that won its seventh conference championship in 12 years.

How can Player A possibly be favored over Player B to win college football’s most coveted award? The excitement surrounding USC’s Sam Darnold, or Player A, has gone too far as he’s shifted to plus-250 (risking $1 to win $2.50) in Heisman odds.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Player B, is better. Mayfield hasn’t received enough credit for the historic nature of his college career, which included setting the all-time highest mark for passer rating last season.

Mayfield finished third in Heisman voting last year, behind Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, despite Oklahoma being mostly ignored after a 1-2 start to the season. The Sooners won’t fall into a hole this year; Mayfield can’t be denied.

The 20-year-old sophomore Darnold is a stronger professional prospect because of his size and youth, but the 22-year-old Mayfield stands apart as a college quarterback.

Bets for the first two nights: Arizona State minus-22.5 vs. New Mexico State; Utah State plus-28 at Wisconsin

The opening week is a place to pick off perceptions based too strongly on the previous season. That’s the strategy for each of these plays.

Thursday’s schedule is weaker than normal with the average line in the FBS games minus-22. The most promising favorite on the board is the one that’s being the bet the least — Arizona State, which has trimmed from opening as high as a 27.5-point favorite.

The Sundevils were terrible last year, but they dealt with as many injuries as anyone in the nation. They’re now healthy, and with pressure intensifying on coach Todd Graham, primed to come into the year strong.

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Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook throws during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia State Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won 23-17.

New Mexico State has spent the last several seasons as one of the worst teams in FBS, and an influx of junior college transfers shouldn’t alter its fortunes dramatically.

On Friday, Wisconsin is the opposite case of Arizona State. The Badgers broke out last year, exceeding expectations to blow out teams and go 11-3 straight-up and against the spread.

They should be great again in 2017, but now the odds have caught up. In coach Paul Chryst’s first two seasons, Wisconsin laid 28 points or more only four times — against Miami (Ohio), Troy, Georgia State and Purdue.

Utah State is better than all those teams. Wisconsin’s success last year has made this line almost a touchdown too high.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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