College Football Playoff Odds: Who Will Win it All?
Published on December 05, 2017
To the chagrin of many, but not to their surprise, the Alabama Crimson Tide was the fourth team added to the college football playoff after the dust settled on another regular season of NCAA pigskin.
Alabama did not win its conference and it lost its most recent game, 26-14 at Auburn, a game that also happened to be the most difficult on the Crimson Tide’s otherwise unimpressive regular-season slate. Yet, the playoff committee made Bama the second SEC representative in college football’s final four, joining conference champions Georgia (SEC), Clemson (ACC) and Oklahoma (Big 12).
Ohio State, which ended Wisconsin’s quest for an unbeaten season with a solid 27-21 win over the Badgers in last weekend’s Big Ten final, and USC, the Pac 12 champion following a 31-28 victory over Stanford on Friday, were left on the outside looking in.
Was that fair? That’s a tough question to answer. The committee’s job is to choose the 4 best teams in the country, not necessarily the 4 teams that deserve to be there the most. By selecting Alabama as the fourth team to participate in the playoff, the committee may have actually taken the more difficult route, subjecting itself to criticism while also sticking its neck out in case Alabama gets outclassed in the national semifinal.
But if the committee needed some validation for their decision, they got it this week from college football oddsmakers. Alabama goes into the playoff as the favorite to win it all, with its +200 odds slightly shorter than defending national champion Clemson (+250). Oklahoma is third at +300 odds, followed by Georgia (+350).
Looks like the committee isn’t the only group of people making a statement about Alabama. But who is really most likely to win it all this year?
In the semifinals on New Year’s Day, #4 Alabama will take on #1 Clemson in a rematch of the last 2 national championship games while #2 Oklahoma will clash with #3 Georgia. Before I break down each of those semifinal matchups as well as my projections for the national final, let’s take a closer look at each of this year’s playoff participants.
The thing about Alabama is that we really don’t know how good they are. They were favored by 2 touchdowns or more in all but 2 of their games, and their non-conference opponents included Fresno State, Colorado State and Mercer. So it’s hard to put that much stock in Bama’s point differential of nearly 28 points per game, or even a defense that allowed the fewest points per game in the country.
However, it’s not necessarily Alabama’s fault, either. Other top programs schedule a few non-conference games against inferior opponents (Ohio State beat Army and UNLV by a combined score of 92-28 early this season), and Nick Saban did schedule what at the time was a showdown of 2 national title contenders when Alabama opened the season against Florida State. The Tide can’t be blamed for the fact that Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois was lost for the season during Alabama’s convincing 24-7 victory or that Florida State went on to go 7-6.
What we do know about the Crimson Tide is that Saban might be the best coach in the history of college football and that Alabama has played in the national title game 5 times in the last 8 years, winning 4 of them. We also know that other teams in the college football playoff probably would have rather faced Ohio State than Alabama, especially Oklahoma – which pounded the Buckeyes 31-16 in Columbus in September.
I don’t think many expected Clemson to be the #1 seed in this year’s college football playoff, or even to be one of the final four teams standing. The Tigers lost a huge piece of the team that appeared in the last 2 national title games when Deshaun Watson was drafted into the NFL, and 3 of the top receivers from that team had moved on as well.
The one constant that Clemson still had going into this season, was a ferocious defense. And that’s exactly what carried the Tigers to an overall record of 12-1, culminated by a 38-3 dismantling of the Miami Hurricanes in last weekend’s ACC championship game. Clemson finished the year ranked second in the nation in points allowed per game (12.8), fifth in yards allowed per game, eighth against the pass and 13th against the run. The Tigers also did it against much tougher opposition than Alabama, holding Auburn, Louisville, Georgia Tech and Miami to a combined total of 40 points.
The lone blemish on Clemson’s schedule was a weird 27-24 loss at Syracuse in mid-October, a Friday night non-conference road game in which the Tigers lost starting quarterback Kelly Bryant to injury before halftime and in which the Orange scored a couple of big-play touchdowns. Otherwise, Clemson has been solid as a rock all year, evidenced by its 8-4-1 record against the point spread.
Of the 4 teams in the college football playoff, Oklahoma is by far the most one-dimensional.
The Sooners have simply overwhelmed opponents this season with offense, led by Heisman Trophy favorite Baker Mayfield (the last odds I saw on Mayfield to win the Heisman, he was listed at -2000). Oklahoma’s attack led the country with nearly 600 yards per game, was third in passing yards and scored the fourth-most points. They were also incredibly consistent, scoring at least 29 points in every game they played and putting up 40-plus in 9 of their 12 contests.
However, the Sooners have had to put up points because their defense really doesn’t scare anybody. Oklahoma gave up 52 points in a win at Oklahoma State in early November, and it also allowed 38 points at home to Iowa State (a loss that nearly cost the Sooners a chance at the playoff), 41 points at Baylor and 35 at Kansas State. Overall, the Sooners were outside of the top 50 in the country in points allowed (52nd), yards allowed (57th) and passing yards allowed (57th).
The good news is that with Mayfield under center, the Sooners are never truly out of a game and have the ability to play from behind. But the bad news is that if you believe that defense wins championships, a national title isn’t in the cards in Lincoln Riley’s first year as Oklahoma’s head coach.
Other than an early-season 20-19 win at Notre Dame that looked better and better as the Fighting Irish improved throughout the year, Georgia was a bit like Alabama through most of the campaign. They were dominant, but we didn’t really know how good they actually were.
Then came a 40-17 loss at Auburn on Veteran’s Day, a game in which the Bulldogs looked like the emperor who lost his clothes. Auburn racked up 25 first downs against Georgia’s vaunted defense, outgaining the Bulldogs 488-230 in yards. After scoring a touchdown on their opening drive, the Dawgs could only manage a 47-yard field goal the rest of the way.
But just when many of us gave up on Georgia as an impostor, the Bulldogs rallied in a big way. They got their confidence back with a 42-13 blowout of Kentucky, easily handled a pretty good Georgia Tech team by a 38-7 score, and then bludgeoned Auburn 28-7 last weekend in the SEC championship game. Suddenly, we need to respect this Bulldogs defense (4th in the country in points allowed and yards allowed, second against the pass and 12th against the run) a lot more.
Georgia can also run the football, finishing 11th in college football with more than 260 yards on the ground per game. If the Bulldogs can play with a lead in their playoff games, they’ll be awfully tough to chase down.
Oddsmakers have ignored the final college football playoff rankings when setting the betting lines for the semifinals, favoring the lower-ranked team in both games. Georgia is a 1.5-point favorite to beat Oklahoma, while Alabama is laying 2.5 points against Clemson.
I agree that the Bulldogs should be favored over Oklahoma and I actually think Georgia should be favored by more. I expect Georgia to be able to move the ball against that Sooners defense, and I’m not so sure that Oklahoma can put up 30 points against the Bulldogs. Factor in the Georgia running game that should be able to grind out first downs in the fourth quarter, and I love the Bulldogs to win the Rose Bowl.
While Georgia and Oklahoma are facing each other for the first time in college football history, Clemson and Alabama are obviously tremendously familiar with each other. I expect we’ll get a hard-fought, low-scoring battle as a result, perhaps opening up some nice value on the Under 47. I give Alabama a slight edge in that game because A) they’re motivated to prove they belong in the playoff; B) they seek revenge for last year’s loss to Clemson in the national final; and C) Nick Saban’s got a tremendous record as a head coach when he has extra time to prepare for an opponent, whether it be season openers or bowl games.
If those semifinal predictions come to fruition, that leaves us with an all-SEC national final showdown for the second time in the last 7 years. Alabama will almost certainly be the favorite if that matchup takes place but, to me, Georgia/Alabama is essentially anybody’s ballgame. Just look at the SEC championship, when the Bulldogs took apart an Auburn team that had routed the Crimson Tide the previous week.
The Bulldogs are favored to win their semifinal game, they match up very well against Oklahoma, and their run game and defense make them one heck of an attractive darkhorse to win the 2018 college football playoff.