From top to bottom, COVID-19 outbreaks are creating chaos for college football. The virus impacted the nation’s top-ranked team last week when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive, forcing bettors and oddsmakers to adjust on the fly in the face of a breaking news blitz.
It did not make headlines when the North Texas-UTEP game was postponed in El Paso, but Lawrence is a different story. When the Heisman Trophy favorite and probable No. 1 pick in the NFL draft is quarantined, a lot of things change.
Heisman odds and point spreads changed, and the playoff race could change.
The biggest game on the ACC schedule is missing the biggest man on any campus. Lawrence’s positive test meant he must sit for at least 10 days, so freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will get his second start Saturday at Notre Dame. The Tigers’ quarterback change makes the matchup more competitive and gives the Irish a fighting chance to pull an upset.
Clemson was projected to be favored by about 14 points with Lawrence. When lines were posted Sunday, the Uiagalelei-led Tigers opened -4 by Circa Sports and -7½ by DraftKings — and both books were at -5½ on Tuesday.
“Clemson is probably going to get bet,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “The young quarterback really looks good, and that didn’t surprise me. He’s going to step in and make plays. Is he Lawrence? No, but he’s not that far behind. I just know how they bet this Clemson team every week.”
Last week was an exception. The Tigers were 31½-point favorites against Boston College before rumors of Lawrence’s absence started to spread. The line nosedived to 24½. Clemson trailed 28-13 at halftime before rallying to win 34-28. Uiagalelei went 30-for-41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 25 yards and a touchdown.
“I heard pretty early about Lawrence being out, so we just closed the betting on the game to reassess it,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “He’s too significant of a player. In the NFL, we know the backups for all of the teams. We don’t know as much about the backup quarterbacks in college football.
“This is not the year when you want to be spraying a bunch of college football bets early in the week. Who knows what’s going to happen? This is just such a crazy year.”
The virus has sidelined college football’s top quarterback and coach, though Alabama’s Nick Saban was back on the sideline to coach against Georgia the same week he tested positive in mid-October. Saban’s initial test turned out to be a false positive. Bettors who raced to back the Bulldogs after the Saban news broke paid the price for jumping to a conclusion. Saban made key halftime adjustments that he could not have made from his home office as the Crimson Tide rolled to a 41-24 win.
The Big Ten’s handling of COVID issues since early August has been a comedy of errors, and Wisconsin’s pursuit of a conference championship is in jeopardy one game into its season.
Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez said 15 players had tested positive for the coronavirus, including freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who passed for five touchdowns in a 45-7 victory over Illinois on Oct. 23. Two days later, Mertz was ruled out and, according to conference protocol, must serve a 21-day absence. How does it make sense that a player must sit out 21 days in the Big Ten but only 10 in the ACC?
This week’s Purdue-Wisconsin game was canceled Tuesday. The Badgers already had a game at Nebraska canceled, and that’s important because a team is required to play a minimum of six games to be eligible for the conference title game in December. The Big Ten set an eight-game schedule, so the Badgers are walking a tightrope.
As COVID cases surge across the nation, the potential problems in college football are numerous. A handful of bowls have been canceled. More players will test positive, more games will get canceled and conference title races might become a mess. If there’s good news for Clemson and Lawrence, he’s expected to recover soon and should be cleared to play the rest of the season.
Lawrence, listed as the Heisman Trophy favorite a week ago, is now the 4-1 third choice at DraftKings. BetMGM has made Alabama quarterback Mac Jones the new favorite ( 150), ahead of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields ( 175) and Lawrence (3-1). The SuperBook opted not to repost Heisman odds in August.
“We thought it was just too confusing, and the main reason was Justin Fields,” Murray said. “His season was so tenuous with the Big Ten being delayed.”
Clemson remains the national championship favorite ( 170) at BetMGM, with the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide each at 275.
“Jones has been incredible, but so has Fields,” Avello said. “Lawrence will miss two games, and he probably would have picked up some votes this week if he had a good game against Notre Dame. If you miss a couple of games in a shortened season, I don’t know how they will vote.”
When the betting public hits the polls this week, Clemson is likely to get more support than No. 4 Notre Dame, which will play its first game against a ranked opponent. The Irish defense allowed a total of 23 points in the last three games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville, but the Cardinals are the only team in that threesome with a competent offense.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book is a senior, yet the Tigers’ Uiagalelei appears set to become Dabo Swinney's next superstar when Lawrence leaves for the draft and lands with the New York Jets.
Brad Powers, a Las Vegas-based college football handicapper, showed his $2,200 betting ticket on Clemson -4 after Circa Sports opened the line.
“Besides having the better roster and better head coach, I believe Clemson has the better QB in Uiagalelei, who is way more talented than Book,” Powers said. “I also think Clemson has a significant edge with defensive coordinator Brent Venables taking on a first-year offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees. Finally, there’s a disparity in how these teams play in the big games.”
In a playoff semifinal two years ago, Clemson was a 10-point favorite in a 30-3 victory over the Irish. Since 2015, the Tigers are 22-3 straight up and 16-8-1 ATS versus ranked teams. Powers also noted Notre Dame is 4-40 straight up and 11-32-1 ATS against teams that finished in the Top 10 of the AP poll since 1994.
Irish coach Brian Kelly defended his program’s track record this week by pointing to a 29-3 record in the last 32 games and a 22-game home winning streak.
This is Notre Dame’s first home underdog spot since the 2018 season opener, when the Irish were 3 in a 24-17 victory over Michigan.
Clemson bettors would be wise to lay less than a touchdown before the number goes up. Underdog bettors should wait for the line to get to 7, which is likely to happen sometime before Saturday’s prime-time kickoff.
Even if the Tigers take a fall this week, they will remain in the playoff picture, assuming Lawrence returns and leads Clemson to the conference title game.
“This game really doesn’t matter that much,” Murray said. “If Notre Dame wins Saturday, Lawrence comes back and Clemson beats the Irish in the ACC championship game, Clemson is still going to the playoff.”