Monday, Jan. 1, 2018 | 2 a.m.
It’s hard to determine which of the four national semifinal teams came through the most for sports bettors this year.
It’s not hard to determine which one came through the least. It’s Alabama, which had its first losing record against the spread in four seasons at 5-7 versus the number.
The other three teams alive for the crystal football were all profitable, albeit falling short of remarkable at the betting window. Georgia wound up with the best against the spread record of the bunch at 9-4, but it took bettors a while to warm up to the Bulldogs.
Their best stretch came to start the season, where the Bulldogs covered five of their first six.
Clemson was perhaps the most popular bet in the nation all season, rewarding backers when they opened and closed the year with against the spread win streaks but wiping out bankrolls with a four-game midseason swoon. Like the Tigers, the Sooners sit at 8-5 against the spread but did their fair share of damage to bettors in failing to cover four straight midseason, including in heavily-bet spots against teams like Iowa State and Baylor.
Betting action is relatively even on the four teams going into what each hopes is their second-to-last game of the season. It’s time to break down the national semifinals.
Find Talking Points’ picks for Monday’s five bowl games below. The blog stands at 19-14-1 against the spread picking every bowl game so far, and 125-114-7 wagering on all the biggest games this season.
Outback Bowl: Michigan minus-7.5 vs. South Carolina, over/under: 42.5
9 a.m. Monday, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on ESPN2
Line has come down from minus-8.5, but the hook staying intact to hover above a touchdown is valuable. Michigan is the better team but has a lot of injuries and questions, including at quarterback, where Brandon Peters returns from a concussion and two mediocre starts.
Pick: South Carolina plus-7.5
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl: Central Florida plus-10 vs. Auburn, over/under: 67.5
9:30 a.m. Monday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on ESPN
If coach Scott Frost is as committed to the Knights as he claims despite accepting the job at Nebraska, then they have a great shot at upsetting the Tigers. If Frost and his team are distracted, then it’s bound to be a long day. Statistically speaking, there’s not a lot separating the two sides. Central Florida has the second-best offense in the nation by the S&P ratings, which include opponent adjustments, while Auburn counters with the fifth-best offense. The Group of Five Conference representative has performed well against power-five opponents in New Year’s Six games since the current system was implemented, winning two of the three games outright.
Pick: UCF plus-10
Citrus Bowl: Notre Dame plus-3.5 vs. LSU, over/under: 51.5
10 a.m. Monday, Camping World Stadium in Orlando on ABC
Notre Dame failed to cover in its final four games of the season, while LSU has cashed in six straight contests. But it’s dangerous to focus too much on one part of the season. On the year as a whole, the teams were remarkably similar. They played schedules of comparable strengths with both defenses allowing 4.9 yards per play. Notre Dame was .1 yards per play better on offense — 6.4 to LSU’s 6.3 — and doesn’t have a major unresolved issue going into the bowl game. The relationship between LSU coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Matt Canada has deteriorated, leading to reports of the latter’s firing being imminent after the Citrus Bowl.
Pick: Notre Dame plus-3.5
Rose Bowl: Georgia minus-2.5 vs. Oklahoma, over/under: 60
2 p.m. Monday, Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on ESPN
Talking Points is in position to hedge here after picking Oklahoma as a national champion future bet at 18-to-1 before the season — please ignore the accompanying selection of Louisville at 30-to-1. The window to get the best price for that strategy has passed, though. The first national semifinal underwent the surprise line move of bowl season, after Oklahoma opened as high as minus-2.5 before the action titled the spread towards Georgia. It’s not as simple as taking the value by going contrarian either, because Oklahoma has taken a higher percentage of the tickets. It’s just that Georgia is drawing more of the money, by virtue of all the large bets on the Bulldogs.
Georgia might be attractive, because unlike Oklahoma, it has no glaring weakness. Some have considered the Bulldogs’ pass defense a liability because it hasn’t seen anything like Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, but it’s first in the nation in giving up 5.5 yards per pass attempt. Oklahoma’s defensive matchup is worse as it was mediocre against the run all season and now tasked with slowing Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. This line, therefore, seems to have ended up where it belonged all along. It might be hard for gamblers to lay off a game as big of the Rose Bowl, but restraint is the best play here.
Pick: Georgia minus-2.5
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Alabama minus-3 vs. Clemson, over/under: 60.5
5:45 p.m. Monday, Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on ESPN
Yes, Clemson has covered two straight years in the College Football Playoff against Alabama. No, that really holds next to no bearing on this year’s matchup. This is a fresh puzzle for bettors to solve. Roster turnover, and injury attrition, has the Crimson Tide and Tigers hardly resembling the pair of teams that tangled in back-to-back national championship games. It’s important to remember the meetings the last two years were both national championship games, giving each team a week to prepare instead of a month going into this year’s tilt.
That’s got to be an edge for Alabama, because as impressive of a program as Dabo Swinney has built, Nick Saban remains the gold standard of college football coaches. He’s done his most inspired work offensively this year, where Alabama has amassed a towering 7 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll. Clemson, which is gaining 6 yards per play, has been more hit or miss on offense with Kelly Bryant taking over for Alabama-killer Deshaun Watson at quarterback. For the first time in this trilogy series, the defensive advantage is more negligible. Clemson and Alabama are first and second in giving up the fewest yards per play nationally. Alabama has surrendered 4.1 yards per play, as compared to Clemson’s 4.3. That indicates the same thing as most other measures — Alabama is just a little bit better. The Crimson Tide have graded out as the best team in college football all season, meaning there’s no team — not even Clemson — it shouldn’t lay more than 3 points against on a neutral field.
Pick: Alabama minus-3