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Expert Team

Are SEC Schools Still the Best College Football Playoff Futures Picks?

Football Player Diving into a Pile of Cash
Handicapping angles have a fatal flaw. They are discussed, examined, tested, debated and utilized as stand-alone speculations on games in which there are no stand-alone factors.

Everything that occurs on a gridiron affects everything else, just as a piece on the “A1” square of a chess set impacts a piece on the “H8” square.

Got an ailing QB? Your middle linebacker – technically the QB’s “counterpart” – is likely to be a little more occupied and might even lose his voice calling signals.

Finding a lock-down pick using only 1 angle is rare. For instance, the debate about which Power-5 conference is the best will rage on forever, but people go back and forth on the subject without defining what “best” means. Does it mean which P5 conference has produced national-title contenders most often in modern times? Then it’s the SEC. Is it the league with the highest number of programs that could legitimately jump-up and contend nationally at any time? Then it’s the ACC or the Big Ten.

It all has to do with how much people “weigh” the ceiling of a conference against its median average…and against the breadth and depth of its cellar.

But what if we looked at only the ceiling, the top level of college ball in every P5 conference, and only at the final scores of College Football Playoff games? Is there more clarity at the very top of the FBS?

Maybe, maybe not. But regardless of whether Clemson or Alabama will claim more CFP hardware in 2019-20 or whether an upstart is destined to crash the dance, ignoring the bowels and the mid-card of every Power-5 league and analyzing the power struggle at its peak could potentially bear results.

When you look at only the national title results of the last 10 years, a clear road map emerges on how to handicap the most-popular futures wagers for CFP champion next January.

The SEC Didn’t Die, But Others Are Waking Up

You’re probably expecting a wide-view lens on college football’s FBS title picture. Instead, let’s make writing teachers around the world upset and start with the Big Bang instead.

To my eyes the biggest Fake News of the decade is the story that talented young athletes are turning away from pigskin and that parents just aren’t letting their kids play football anymore. Did the journalists who are saying that happen to watch Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross in the College Football Playoff just a few months ago? Who let those 2 babies go on the field and dominate Alabama?

Someone is still playing football, and the prep fields of Texas, Florida, California, and New Jersey continue to churn-out phenomenal athletes who want to play in the FBS. The teenage talent ranks are not thin. I’m more successful at handicapping college football than just about any other sport, and my #1 principle is that in 2019 it would be impossible for Alabama or Georgia to give scholarships to every outstanding NFL-bound recruit in Texas (or even the states of Alabama and Georgia) even if they had 500 free-rides each to give away.

Excellent players would rather start at BYU than ride the pine in Tuscaloosa. That makes the FBS’s hierarchy of recruiting more complex than simply a stepladder from the P5 on down, just as the best pitchers plying their trade in Asia are better than the least-effective Major League Baseball hurlers.

Have the people saying “there aren’t as many talented kids” in football anymore ever wondered why there’s basically no such thing as an automatic win for a Power-5 powerhouse these days?

Did you notice the 2nd highlight? There went a 4.3 sprinter from, oh, I don’t know, an entire other league ranked about 7 or 8 leagues below the conference Penn State represents.

Roger Goodell would kill for parity like that in the NFL.

Clemson, Alabama, UGA: Experts at Getting to the Dance

In days of yore when there was merely a National Championship Game, the powerhouses of college football were measured by how they played against top rivals. Oklahoma knew that getting through Texas in the regular season was an end-all, be-all proposition.

So how did Kyler Murray and the Sooners lose to the Longhorns in 2018-19 and still qualify for the College Football Playoff?

It helps that there are 4 national-title seeds now instead of 2 as there used to be, or as opposed to the old old system, the pre-computer days of ranked schools simply vying for the best bowl bids they could find prior to a national beauty contest on New Year’s.

Nobody wants to say it out loud, but the CFP’s committee approach to selecting 4 worthy postseason contenders is probably fairer in the long run than the old landscape in which “bandwagons” for powerful P5 teams lobbied for top honors and prestigious venues.

Even if the “Wild-West” landscape of old-time college football is fun for gridiron historians to look back on, you’ve got to admit that the CFB national-title picture has evolved a looooooong way.

You Can Shove It

As of 2019 the FBS is much like the NFL in a crucial aspect – championship teams are those who win almost every single game they’re supposed to win. When Clemson defeated Alabama in Santa Clara last season, it was a terrific performance by the Tigers. But the squad wouldn’t have gotten to play in it had it lost to an ACC school or 2 along the way, or to Notre Dame in the semifinal.

Oklahoma is obviously shaky when it comes to getting through the Big-12 without a scratch. The program has also had issues against underdogs like Army as recently as last season.

Notre Dame is excellent at wiping big ‘dogs off the field under Brian Kelly. The coach may crumple-up his face and sulk ridiculously on the sidelines from time to time, but he knows to attack a Group-of-5 team’s systemic weakness as opposed to getting caught up in man-on-man match-ups that the Irish are mostly going to win anyway.

Notice how the Irish jump right out with “scripted” opening TD drives against the pesky Navy Midshipmen, ensuring that Ivan Jasper’s genius if-this-then-that offense doesn’t have a chance to begin adjusting (and therefore clicking) until it’s too late to do anything but play catch-up.

Alabama and Georgia are fending-off underdogs every bit as well as Dabo Swinney’s defending champs. It may not be that an SEC futures wager is any less of a valuable asset than it was in the conference’s heyday 5-15 years ago, especially relative to the payoff odds, but for different reasons now.

If the SEC’s mid-card like Mississippi State and Missouri is still overrated compared to the ACC and Big Ten, then that doesn’t mean Alabama and UGA are overvalued in Las Vegas.

In fact, the opposite could be true. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide didn’t have much-if-any trouble with the SEC teams on its schedule in 2018 and neither did Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs. A thin conference is only bad news for the underdogs! It’s wonderful news for CFP hopefuls in the league. That’s been born-out in 2017-through-2019 as ‘Bama and Georgia threaten to become twin postseason institutions.

When the brand takes a hit from having so many lousy squads, sometimes the big boys laugh all the way to the bank.

Oklahoma certainly isn’t complaining that there is only a single Texas to worry about.

Betting Odds on the 2020 College Football Playoff

There are plenty of odds on potential winners of the next CFP bracket in January ’20, but I’m also interested in schools like UGA and Oklahoma’s odds-to-qualify for the playoff, since while those programs can’t seem to break through and win a national championship, they sure seem to be in the picture quite often.

If Oklahoma consistently plays close to its ceiling, the Sooners under Lincoln Riley can become a lock-down wager to finish top-4 and still be a heavy underdog to overcome the Tigers or the Crimson Tide or even the Bulldogs and Fighting Irish in elimination games.

Clemson currently enjoys a (+200) line-to-win the next College Football Playoff at MyBookie, with Alabama sharing the 2-to-1 mark and Georgia all the way down at (+900). Oklahoma is a 16-to-1 pick at (+1600). How’s that for exposing a house % right off the top?

If Trevor Lawrence’s Tigers and Tua Tagovailoa’s Crimson Tide each really had 1-in-2 chances to win the national championship in January, then wouldn’t that make everyone else a big, fat, long-odds underdog?

Not exactly. But it’s close enough to the case that we can see gamblers taking the 2 programs to a very popular degree, not realizing that other schools are close to the same ceiling of performance.

Bovada Sportsbook is giving the Sooners and Bulldogs a little more credit with (+1400) and (+750) national title lines respectively, and has an (+850) line on Ohio State. The Ohio State line is balderdash because there will be no replacing Urban Meyer’s genius for game planning in Columbus.

Ahh, but here’s what I was looking for – the “season props” at Bovada. At the top of the section there is a group of markets asking whether each contender will qualify for the CFP in the upcoming season.

Alabama (-270) and Clemson (-280) are each nearly-prohibitive favorites to reach the next College Football Playoff, and LSU – which has struggled to win games the program is supposed to win – is at a justifiable (+450). But Ohio State is a (+135) wager in the same market.

…and that’s all we need to know.

Best CFP Futures Bets: Look for the “Quiet” Stalwarts

There is so much hype around all SEC teams that it feels weird to call the Georgia Bulldogs a “quiet” perennial contender. But compared to the hype and predictions about Alabama every year, Bulldog Nation makes little more than a playful bark or 2.

The Southeastern Conference used to win almost every national championship game by multiple touchdowns. Now, the monopoly of SEC strength has been replaced by a monopoly of aristocrats from various conferences. 5 or 10 teams maximum rule the FBS, but the best of them avoid losing to upstart programs…whether by beating them or not playing them at all.

College football betting sites are not using enough “house chips” in the too-popular Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State markets. That leaves fat stacks of payout with other contenders who are matching those schools in the most-important category…putting themselves in position to claim the hardware.

Clemson won the national title in 2018-19 with a tremendous QB-to-WR combination that isn’t going away. But the Power Rangers are. No more NFL defensive line for Dabo means that the plethora of contenders in the ACC will be head-hunting.

Meanwhile, no team is more head-hunted than Alabama, though the Crimson Tide remain the far-better short-odds pick on the board (both to win the FBS and to reach the 4-team playoff) thanks to the relatively-thin conference it plays in.

Oklahoma is currently minus-line to reach the next CFP. But take a look at Georgia at plus-postseason odds wherever you can find them. With 2 schools towering over the SEC for the foreseeable future, a program like Athens might be the safest haven for bettors hoping not to sweat every Saturday.