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January 20, 2019

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

Clemson wins Cotton Bowl

Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press

Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell (8), safety Nolan Turner (24) and safety Isaiah Simmons (11) celebrate a interception thrown by Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) in the second half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl semi-final playoff football game, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas.

The favorite has never covered in the College Football Playoff national championship game.

It’s been all underdogs since the new postseason system was implemented five years ago. Ohio State and Clemson won the title outright while taking points in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Meanwhile, Clemson and Georgia both slipped within the number while challenging Alabama during the Crimson Tide’s pair of CFP championships.

The point spread coming into play in two of the first four CFP championship games stands in stark contrast to the BCS era, where the line had no effect on which team cashed for the first 15 years.

Can the trend keep up? Talking Points will attempt to figure it out below with the final pick out of the 735 dispensed this season — every non-weeknight regular-season game and all bowl games were handicapped as part of the pick'em column this year.

The blog’s record stands at 374-346-14 — including 46-31-1 on plays and 19-19 on bowls — going into the last game, the biggest game.

College Football Playoff National Championship Game at 5 p.m. in Santa Clara, Calif.: Clemson plus-5.5 vs. Clemson, over/under: 58.5.

These teams’ routes to big victories in last week’s semifinal games weren’t much unlike the paths of their overall seasons. Clemson started relatively slow in the Cotton Bowl, before igniting to torch Notre Dame 30-3 as 10.5-point favorites. Alabama engulfed Oklahoma in its destruction immediately, getting out to 28-0 lead in the Orange Bowl before backing down — quite literally, with its kneeling to the end the game and not cover the 14-point spread — in a 45-34 win. Much like the year as a whole, Alabama burned brightest early but Clemson ended up just as imposing in the end.

Problem is, Clemson’s catching-up to Alabama seems to be common knowledge. Or at least enough bettors have wised up to it to cut into a spread that was once unequivocally too high. Ever since the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook installed the Crimson Tide as an 8.5-point favorite over the Tigers in a potential matchup line midseason, the number has gone down. The pattern has stayed the same over the last week, as Clemson opened as high as a 7-point underdog locally and now sits as low as plus-4.5. Getting the worst of the number is a road to ruin long-term for a sports bettor, so have Clemson believers missed their opportunity? Not necessarily.

This line still seems to have the influence of perception, namely the perception that Alabama is in a different position as a program than any rival. The perception that Alabama is on a higher plane than Clemson. It looked true last year, when the Crimson Tide lambasted the Tigers 24-6 as 3.5-point favorites in a semifinal game. It even looked true at the beginning of this year, as Clemson’s toughest test came in a 28-26 home escape against Texas A&M — the same team Alabama smoked 45-23 two weeks later. But the Crimson Tide were at their peak then, a peak it’s arguably been able to maintain, but the Tigers have transformed into a better version of themselves. The obvious, and often-cited, spark is switching to mega-recruit freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence from serviceable junior Kelly Bryant. And it’s true that Clemson’s ceiling shot up as highly as Alabama’s did with the change from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa with that move. It’s not the full story though. Clemson’s defense also turned into one of college football’s best of the last decade, becoming virtually impenetrable. The Tigers have the No. 1 defense in the nation by almost all metrics, and their edge on that side of the ball compared with the Crimson Tide has only increased. They’re giving up 3.9 yards per play, a significant edge of .6 yards better than Alabama. That more than makes up for a slight offensive deficit — Alabama is gaining 7.6 yards per play to Clemson’s 7.2.

But all those numbers are, of course, influenced by the entire season. And Clemson’s early returns should holder lesser weight than usual. Everything over the last two months of the season, during which Clemson went 7-2 against the spread with a plus-339 point differential to Alabama’s 5-4 against the spread with a plus-235 point differential, points towards the Tigers being at least equal with the Crimson Tide. There’s no reason Clemson shouldn’t continue the run of underdogs coming through in the championship game unless it doesn’t play anywhere near its best, and there’s been nothing for an extended period of time to indicate that being imminent.

Play: Clemson plus-5.5

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

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