College football forecast: Lawrence puts perfect record on line

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

December 28, 2019 05:32 AM
Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers are 2-point favorites over the Buckeyes on Saturday in a Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal.
© Imagn

When something has never happened, it’s tough to bet on it happening. Trevor Lawrence has not lost a game as Clemson quarterback.

The Tigers are riding a 28-game win streak, 24 with Lawrence as the starter. In last season’s College Football Playoff, Lawrence led the way in blowout victories over Notre Dame and Alabama.

Next on Lawrence’s hit list is Ohio State. The Tigers are 2-point favorites over the Buckeyes on Saturday in a Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal. There is no so-called sharp side in the game because there is sharp money on each side, but the betting public is on Clemson.

For the most part, the teams are mirror images. The Tigers rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (10.6 points per game), and the Chase Young-led Buckeyes rank No. 3 (12.5). Ohio State is No. 1 in scoring offense (48.7), and Clemson is fourth (46.5).

Lawrence and Justin Fields were ranked as the top two prep QB prospects in 2018. Fields transferred from Georgia after one year and accounted for 50 touchdowns (40 passing, 10 rushing) with one interception in his first season for the Buckeyes. Lawrence overcame a slow start to finish the regular season with 34 touchdown passes.

Each team has a workhorse running back. J.K. Dobbins has rushed for 1,829 yards (6.5 per carry) and 20 touchdowns for the Buckeyes. Travis Etienne has 1,500 rushing yards (8.2 per carry) and 17 TDs for the Tigers.

So where are the edges?

Clemson is in the playoff for the fifth consecutive year, so coach Dabo Swinney has the experience factor in his favor. Ryan Day replaced Urban Meyer and guided Ohio State to a 13-0 record (9-4 ATS) with each win by double digits, but Day is a playoff rookie.

The Buckeyes faced a stiffer schedule in the Big Ten. The ACC was soft under the Tigers, who are 7-1 ATS since surviving a scare in a 21-20 win at North Carolina in late September. (As it turned out, the Tar Heels were no joke in Mack Brown’s return.)

Revenge motivation is with Ohio State. When these teams collided in the playoffs three years ago — also in the Fiesta Bowl — the Tigers rolled 31-0. The rematch will be much closer.

This will be an alley fight and probably a one-score game, and it should come down to which quarterback makes more big plays. Lawrence gets the edge, especially with Fields’ mobility limited by a knee injury. My pick is Clemson -2.

Seven more bowl plays for the next week:

Peach Bowl, Saturday

Oklahoma (plus-14) over Louisiana State: Several books are moving to 14 — the number might even go to 14½ before kickoff — and that’s the buy sign on the Sooners. Joe Burrow figures to have his way with an Oklahoma defense that allowed big passing plays to Baylor’s two backup quarterbacks in the Big 12 title game. Jalen Hurts has accounted for 50 touchdowns (32 passing, 18 rushing) this season, and he owned a 3-0 record against LSU while at Alabama. The Sooners are underdogs for the first time this season, and Lincoln Riley is smart enough to know Oklahoma must run the ball effectively and control the clock. Hurts has the ability to run and trade scores with Burrow in a shootout, though I doubt it goes over the total of 76½.

Camping World Bowl, Saturday

Notre Dame (-3) over Iowa State: The underdog figures to be more motivated for this game, so that’s a concern, but the Fighting Irish have speed and overall talent advantages. Notre Dame scored 38 points or more in each of its last four games behind Ian Book, who has 33 touchdown passes and six interceptions while topping 500 yards rushing.

Sun Bowl, Tuesday

Arizona State (-4) over Florida State: Bowls are often about distractions and motivation. The Sun Devils, who upset Oregon as two-touchdown ‘dogs in late November, are coached by a master motivator in Herm Edwards. The Seminoles are transitioning from fired coach Willie Taggart to Mike Norvell, recently hired from Memphis. Edwards’ team will be more excited to be in El Paso. Each team’s stud running back (Cam Akers and Eno Benjamin) is sitting out for the NFL draft.

Alamo Bowl, Tuesday

Texas (plus-7) over Utah: Sam Ehlinger and the Longhorns were double-digit ‘dogs in a Sugar Bowl upset of Georgia last season, and coach Tom Herman is 3-0 in bowls as an underdog all three times. The Utes could be flat after getting pounded by Oregon in the Pac-12 title game.

Citrus Bowl, Wednesday

Michigan (plus-7) over Alabama: Nick Saban will try to fire up the Crimson Tide, but he’s without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and this destination is a big disappointment. Alabama is 3-7 ATS in its past 10 bowls. After another humiliating loss to Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh appears to have the Wolverines pumped up to play in this game. 

Rose Bowl, Wednesday

Oregon (plus-3) over Wisconsin: Is the Big Ten simply superior to the Pac-12? Iowa’s blowout of USC in the Holiday Bowl made it look that way. But Oregon also pounded USC. The Ducks appear to have two clear edges over the Badgers — quarterback play and team speed. Justin Herbert had a disappointing final month of the regular season, but he’s still an elite passer and a level or two above Wisconsin’s Jack Coan. Oregon’s speed on both sides of the ball made Utah seem slow and surprisingly overmatched in a 37-15 blowout in the league title game.

Sugar Bowl, Wednesday

Baylor (plus-6) over Georgia: This line opened 9 and I bet it at plus-7½, so some value is gone at this number. Maybe last year’s loss to Texas serves as motivation, but the Bulldogs have some stars sitting this one out. Bears coach Matt Rhule plays this role well as he’s 8-0 ATS with five outright wins in his past eight games as a ‘dog.

Last week: 4-2 against the spread

Season: 59-57-3

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