The worst potential nightmare for an online sports handicapper is making a factual error that costs readers money. Not a bad prediction or a mistaken opinion – we’ll never be free of those even on the very best day. But a failure to objectively report on the facts that leads directly to gamblers losing money on your prediction and recommended pick.
For instance, “Neymar is a great soccer player and will help Brazil beat Argentina” is an opinion that could be proven right or wrong based on the outcome of a match. “Neymar is honest-to-goodness injured every time an opponent touches him, never embellishes a fall, and makes miraculous recoveries in less than 5 minutes every time” would be an error. A boo-boo. A bungle. Fake news.
I spent most of last Saturday night’s LSU vs Alabama scrum biting my nails off, after realizing that while I brought up Louisiana State’s stud linebacker Devin White in my prediction of LSU-to-cover, I had neglected to mention that the junior would not play in the 1st half against the Crimson Tide.
It didn’t help that Gary Danielson spoke of White as if he is a genetically-engineered cross between Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary, not only the best LB at LSU but the greatest athlete in all of college or professional sports. Personally I think Grant Delpit is just as crucial to the Tiger defense – he snags the ball and gives it back to the offense often, which is the name of the game. But as CBS harped and Alabama shot into a lead, my fingers began to look like half-eaten sausages.
The snafu turned out not to matter much. I lost the pick, but there was at least an odd sense of relief that the omission hadn’t caused anyone to lose. The wager was lost for other reasons.
Alabama’s offense was fine no matter who the Tigers put on the field. It was the match-up of LSU’s offense against the Alabama defense that turned the tide…and burned the Tide’s opponent.
Alabama vs Mississippi State: Handicapping Another Huge SEC Battle
The “crucial” halftime substitution for the host defense turned out not to matter a lick in Baton Rouge. Alabama moved the ball steadily (if not at a fantastic clip) all night, scoring 2 touchdowns in the 1st half and 2 more touchdowns in the 2nd half.
Meanwhile, Joe Burrow and the LSU offense could have spent 4, 6 or 8 halves of football without reaching pay dirt. Yes, ‘Bama’s defense is very, very good, but the Tiger quarterback and offensive line did not have their finest hours. Especially the QB, who “Burrowed” a hole in the backfield and stood in it protecting the bean…as if his team was being awarded a 1st down after each of 5 devastating sacks.
Even as you read this sentence, Burrow is still holding the ball in the pocket, thinking that there’s just no way the Alabama pass rush can get to him in 8 or 9 seconds.
Will Nick Fitzgerald of Mississippi State fare any better? Possibly. The MSU signal-caller is fearless when running with the football, and directs an 11 x 11 rushing attack that has helped him set program and conference records. Apart from being full of 5-star talent, Nick Saban’s defense has a few tricks up its sleeve against the read-option, adjustments that can only be taken advantage of by a dynamic opposing unit. We’ll get back to that later. But for now, here’s a quick look at what has brought the #1 ranked and unbeaten Crimson Tide and the 6-3 Bulldogs to this point, and of course how college football betting sites are handling the gambling markets for Saturday’s clash in Tuscaloosa.
No Surprise on the Point Spread
Our pals at BetOnline are not offering a moneyline on the SEC West contest, a clear indication that house handicappers think MSU’s chances to win are slim. But remember that bookies are always looking out for #1 – and I don’t mean Alabama. The last thing a sportsbook wants is to put an astronomical payoff line on an underdog beating a powerhouse and have bettors buy in on a lark, only to watch in horror as an unexpected result costs them a piggybank and maybe a regular bank account or 2.
The missing ML doesn’t mean the house expects Alabama to win no matter what. If the odds-managers at BetOnline thought that, then they’d take that moneyline action against the Tide.
The point spread is stark (ville?) with (-24) on the hosts to prevail over the Bulldogs. That seems logical enough at a glance. Alabama has been able to whip every 2018-19 opponent with a simple formula. Saban’s defense shuts down the opposing ground game, giving up a few token points to the passing game early-on, or giving up no points at all thanks to a brutal 3rd-down edge rush. Meanwhile, Tua Tagovailoa expertly leads scoring drives for the Tide. By the time it’s a 3 or 4-score advantage (usually in the 2nd quarter) it’s all over but to acknowledge the elephant in the room – that maybe there’s nobody in the SEC who has a prayer of beating Alabama.
An Over/Under total of (53) is another example of how the new-look Tide is scaring away underdog bets with a terrific offense in addition to trademark bruising D.
Alabama – Do the Crimson Tide Have a Weakness?
Saturday’s match-up in Tuscaloosa will feature an enticing battle between 1 of the country’s 2 most dynamic offenses (only Clemson goes in the same breath for now…sorry Notre Dame fans) vs an outstanding front-7 and defensive backfield. The Crimson Tide offense averages an FBS-leading 51.3 points per game while the Bulldog defense is allowing a 2nd-best 12.3 points per game. Mississippi State has only given up 9 touchdowns on the season.
Don’t expect the ‘Bama offense to get rattled. Tagovailoa has completed 68.0% of his passes while throwing for 27 touchdowns and only 1 interception in 2018. That’s without finishing most of the games, and even while sitting down for occasional 1st-half drives to help keep backup Jalen Hurts warm.
The Crimson Tide are so good at run blocking and have so many big, fast running backs that the team’s rushing stats are oddly slanted with some of the role players on top. There’s simply no need to hand Damien Harris the rock 20+ times in a blow-out win, though he did carry 19 times for 107 yards and a score in Alabama’s beat-down of LSU.
The Bulldogs will counter the Heisman trophy hopeful with arguably the most destructive pair of D-linemen in the country. Montez Sweat is 4th in the nation with 9.5 total sacks. Jeffery Simmons has singlehandedly intimidated opposing backfields and has double-digit tackles for loss.
But the LSU-Alabama game showed that the Crimson Tide will always find ways to score if the opponent cannot control the ball or flip the field. Relying on Sweat alone (see what I did there?) or Simmons to cover the spread with a dominant performance is fool’s good. Unless someone’s offense can surprise the Tide early-on and get out to a lead, Saban’s squad can afford to be patient, neutralizing opposing pass rushers by running right at them. A punt is a positive play for Saturday’s hosts.
Fitzgerald Must Author a Masterpiece
For the Bulldogs to be competitive against the Tide, a quick start out of the gate is imperative.
The ability of Alabama’s top ranked high-powered offense to produce explosive plays has put opponents away before the 1st half (or sometimes first quarter) is completed. In Alabama’s semi-competitive SEC games against Texas A&M and Missouri, the opposing defenses limited big play opportunities.
Missouri kept the Tide out of the end zone in 3 of their first 4 drives by forcing a fumble and holding 2 drives to field goals. The Tigers trailed 13-10 after the 1st quarter as Mizzou was able to pass the ball on 1st and 2nd down with moderate success.
The equalizer for the Bulldogs against the Tide defense could be the threat of Fitzgerald’s legs. Fitzgerald is the all-time leading SEC rusher from the QB position and he leads the team with 839 yards and 9 touchdowns. Look for Fitzgerald to run a heavy dose of read-option plays against the Tide.
Alabama has been vulnerable to giving up chunks of yards to dual-threat quarterbacks, but only struggles against those who can run and pass at an NFL level such as Deshaun Watson.
But Fitzgerald has had success running the ball against the Tide defense, as seen in last season’s nail-biter in Starkville. Fitzgerald ran for 66 yards as the Cowbells produced 172 yards on the ground. The Tide wound up on the ropes as the underdog Bulldogs held a 24-17 lead in the 4th quarter, but clutch play by Hurts lifted the Tide to a 31-24 comeback victory.
Tom Landry Middle-of-the-Road School
Saban’s brilliant tactics against the read-option have helped rack up SEC and national titles for the Tide. Put simply, the coach asks his unblocked DE to “sit” and wait in the zone, slow-playing the “double” option until a RB-give or a QB keeper can be identified. The player is then able to run to the ball once the ball-carrier is headed upfield…or more often headed sideways.
That’s why a bedeviled Burrow seemed hesitant to run last weekend, handing-off time and again for no gain or 1 or 2 yards. Alabama’s style of defense against zone-read blocking is similar to the “Flex” defense pioneered by late Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, and it still works today.
But there’s always an antidote to everything. In my opinion, teams are playing right into Saban’s hands when they hand it to the tailback on 1st down, hoping to get some type of positive yards. QBs must hold the ball as long as possible on option plays, and take off quickly around end whenever there’s a hint of an opening.
Play-action passes out of the spread-option look should be called on 1st down, not 3rd down, since the weakness of Alabama’s sit-and-read style is that it gives the OL a little bit of an edge in pass-blocking. That hasn’t mattered in 2018-19 so far because opposing QBs are always in 3rd down and long, a down-and-distance at which the Tide can forget about the run and tee off.
In short, cautious play-calling and QB play just don’t do. Middle-of-the-road play-calling equals an automatic loss. To compete with the Crimson Tide defense, a signal-caller and his supporting cast must play wide-open for 4 quarters and let the chips fall where they may.
Fitzgerald has looked miserable at times trying to throw the bean in SEC games this season. But he has passed it better as of late, going 14/22 for 241 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the Bulldogs to a win over Texas A&M and adding 4 touchdown passes in a blow-out of LA Tech.
Alabama vs MSU: My Pick on the Over/Under
I suspect the Bulldogs will throw caution to the wind, which has a coin-flip chance of resulting in a tighter-than-24-point result or a blow-out win for the Tide.
But I’m loving the Over (53). Unless Mississippi State sinks into a funk and cowers before the powerful hosts (not likely) then we can expect an exciting ballgame with a few scoring drives for MSU and likely a whole lot of them for Alabama.
Most importantly, the Tide can score on defense if Fitzgerald makes a mistake or 3.