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September 21, 2018

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College decisions: We offer predictions for the Heisman, playoffs and championship

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa congratulates Henry Ruggs III (11) after his touchdown catch during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta.

The college football season begins Aug. 25 and really kicks into gear the following week, which means predictions are due, and preseason future betting windows are about to close. After scouring the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook odds, here are the best bets to answer college football’s three biggest questions: Who will win the Heisman Trophy, which teams will make the College Football Playoff and which team will win the national championship?

Pick to win the Heisman Trophy: Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald at 60-to-1

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Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald (7) runs past Massachusetts defenders in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. No. 21 Mississippi State won 34-23. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

College football’s most prestigious award has (rightfully) turned into an honor for the nation’s best quarterback. The most efficient, or sometimes most electric, signal caller has won the Heisman in seven of the past eight years, and bettors have caught on.

Quarterbacks like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Arizona’s Khalil Tate have drawn big action in sports books this preseason to drive their prices down. Meanwhile, the market has ignored one of the most exciting and experienced players at the position.

Three-year starter Nick Fitzgerald has inexplicably seen his odds rise from 40- to 60-to-1, despite many factors pointing upwards. The now-senior emerged as a dark horse Heisman candidate by scoring 12 touchdowns in Mississippi State’s first three games last year, before tailing off.

He has a better chance to keep the pace the season. The Bulldogs’ schedule looks softer — they should be favored in their first five games leading into a pair of behemoth clashes with Auburn and LSU.

If Fitzgerald slays those two teams of Tigers, he’ll be the talk of the college football world. He gained nearly 3,000 yards and scored 29 touchdowns last year and should improve under new coach Joe Moorhead this season.

The former Penn State offensive coordinator is known as one of football’s most innovative minds. Moorhead’s first text message to Fitzgerald after taking the job instructed him to make room on his mantel for a Heisman Trophy, according to an ESPN.com story.

At odds this high, it’s worth betting on that tale becoming legend in Starkville, Mississippi.

Heisman favorites: Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa 4-to-1; Stanford RB Bryce Love 5-to-1; Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor 8-to-1; Penn State QB Trace McSorley 15-to-1; West Virginia QB Will Grier 15-to-1

Picks to make the College Football Playoff: Clemson at minus-140, Washington at 3-to-1, Wisconsin at 5-to-1 and TCU at 25-to-1

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Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) throws the ball against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 14-6.

Alabama has made every College Football Playoff and is likely to continue with a fifth-consecutive berth this year, but there’s no value in betting on it. The Crimson Tide are as high as a minus-300 (risking $3 to win $1) favorite to get back there. There’s too much randomness in a 12-game regular season schedule to ever lay that high of a price.

The rest of the Southeastern Conference contenders — led by Georgia at plus-150 and Auburn at 4-to-1 — also look overvalued, so for the purpose of this exercise, let’s ignore the league and focus on the most likely representatives from the four other major conferences.

Clemson, the only program currently close to Alabama’s consistency level with three straight playoff appearances, represents a bargain at half the price. The Atlantic Coast Conference has less top-end talent this year, and the Tigers are currently at least a 10-point favorite in every game.

Washington is a favorite in all but one game, a Week 1 matchup against Auburn in Atlanta. The Huskies are far and away the most experienced and best-coached team in the Pac-12, with a roster full of stars including quarterback Jake Browning and linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.

Wisconsin isn’t the best team in the Big Ten Conference, but the Badgers are virtually guaranteed to win the league’s weak West Division while the East Division teams—Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State—cannibalize each other for another year. That means Wisconsin could be a Big Ten Championship Game upset away from inclusion in the playoff for the second year in a row. The Badgers fell three points short against Ohio State last year.

The Big 12 Conference is where it might pay to take a long shot. Oklahoma could endure a transitional year after winning the past three conference titles, allowing a team like TCU to emerge. Coach Gary Patterson typically fields a stingy defense, and dual-threat sophomore quarterback Shawn Robinson averaged 7 yards per carry in limited action last year.

Playoff berth favorites: Alabama -200; Clemson -140; Ohio State -140; Georgia +150

Pick to win the national championship: Washington at 15-to-1

The Huskies went 10-3 with no losses of more than a touchdown last season — and that was in a rebuilding year. Washington is fully reloaded for 2018, and just might be the most complete team in the country apart from Alabama and Clemson.

Unfortunately, the best price is gone — the Huskies opened at 30-to-1 before getting bet down to 15-to-1, which still looks like a steal. And there’s a chance the odds could shoot back up.

If Auburn defeats Washington in Week 1, expect the Huskies to unnecessarily return to the 30-to-1 range. Even if Washington loses a nonconference game, it should be able to make it out of the Pac-12 unscathed and compete for the program’s first national championship since 1991.

National championship favorites: Alabama +175; Clemson 4-to-1; Ohio State 6-to-1; Georgia 6-to-1; Michigan 10-to-1; Washington 15-to-1; Wisconsin 20-to-1; Penn State 25-to-1; Auburn 25-to-1

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.