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September 20, 2018

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National championship by the odds: Vegas preview of Alabama vs. Georgia

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Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) celebrates after a Georgia fumble recovery late in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Georgia won 20-19. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

A favorite has yet to cover in the College Football Playoff national championship game.

Underdogs are 3-0 against the spread since the system was implemented, with 2015-2016 Alabama the only favorite to even win outright. Dating back to the final BCS National Championship Game, Florida State’s 34-31 win over Auburn as 10.5-point favorites in 2014, underdogs have covered four straight in the final game of the year.

Will Talking Points call for the trend to continue this year?

Read below for the blog’s final pick of the year. Talking Points has gone 24-14-1 against the spread picking every bowl game to bring the season record to 130-114-7 picking all the biggest games each week.

College Football Playoff National Championship: Alabama minus-4 vs. Georgia, over/under: 45

5 p.m. Monday in Atlanta on ESPN

Most bettors had serious apprehension regarding Alabama heading into its national-semifinal matchup with Clemson on New Year’s Day. Eighty percent of the tickets wagered at William Hill sports books were on the underdog Tigers against the Crimson Tide.

That seems like distant history now, after Alabama pounded Clemson 24-6 as 3.5-point favorites to help the house start 2018 with a flush cash drawer. It also helps that the action split in tonight’s national championship game is reversed, with William Hill now printing nearly 70 percent of its tickets on Alabama.

It’s safe to say now that the conventionally-spread concerns with Alabama going into the Clemson game were overblown. But it’s just as dangerous to completely ignore them and act as if they’ll have no bearing against Georgia.

The betting market seems to have committed a recurring sin — Overreacting to one game. Alabama is not perfect, and many of the reasons why people were picking Clemson apply even stronger in a showdown with Georgia.

The Crimson Tide’s linebacker situation seems like a good place to start. They’ve dealt with injuries all year, and looked to be at their most vulnerable down the stretch of the regular season after Shaun-Dion Hamilton went down with a fractured kneecap.

Alabama’s defense looked a rung below past versions in finishing the season 1-3 against the spread with the only cover a 56-0 blowout of outmatched Mercer as 49.5-point favorites. The Crimson Tide healed up and weathered the storm against the Tigers, impressively holding them to less than 3 yards per play.

But sophomore linebacker Anfernee Jenkins was their MVP in the game — despite Da’Ron Payne, whose memorable touchdown was set up by Jenkins’ pressure, winning the actual award — and now he’s joining Hamilton on the sidelines. Jennings played like a man possessed against Clemson before his knee gave out, and he almost immediately underwent surgery.

Here’s why that’s troublesome: The health of Alabama’s linebackers is much more significant against Georgia than it was against Clemson. The Bulldogs’ offense is a notch above, which was clear well before they tore apart a mediocre Oklahoma defense to win 54-48 in double overtime as 2.5-point favorites in the Rose Bowl.

Georgia averages 6 yards per rushing attempt behind the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, which deserves every bit of the praise it has garnered. Alabama, as is often the case, stops the run better than any team in the country in giving up only 2.7 yards per rush.

But this is far and away the best rushing offense the Crimson Tide has seen — those issues with Alabama’s schedule strength going into the Clemson game also seem to have evaporated — so missing a few key contributors is not insignificant.

While not quite the caliber of Alabama, Georgia’s defense has a track record of success strong enough to give it an exception for a hapless first half against Oklahoma. The Bulldogs were playing the Heisman Trophy winner, after all, and the game only boosted their average to allowing 4.6 yards per play on the year.

That’s in the nation’s top 10.

Unlike Alabama, Georgia has been on the fortunate side of injury luck this season. A strong argument could be made that soon-to-be first-round draft pick Roquan Smith, an outside linebacker, will be the best player whenever he’s on the field.

With the likes of Lorenzo Carter and D’Andre Walker alongside Smith, the Bulldogs should have plenty of firepower to throw at Alabama’s own spectacular running back duo of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough.

But quarterback Jalen Hurts is the Crimson Tide’s leading rusher, and it’s easy to envision him carving into the Bulldogs. Alabama may not have seen a rushing attack like Georgia’s this season, but Georgia hasn’t seen a dual-threat quarterback at Hurts’ ability level.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has been much better than he’s given credit, including throwing only one interception in his last six games, but Alabama has the advantage behind center. Go position-to-position, in fact, and Alabama is going to have the advantage at most spots.

Georgia, however, has subtle edges — getting to prepare at home and keep its normal routine with the game a mere 70 miles away from its campus is another — that don’t appear to be reflected in the point spread. Alabama shapes up as more of a 3-point favorite, trending more towards minus-2.5 than minus-3.5.

In a game that commands as much money as the national championship, a point or a point-and-a-half of value at a key number is about all a bettor should expect to find. And, in this case, it’s there for the taking.

Alabama 24, Georgia 23.

Pick: Georgia plus-4

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

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