Six seasons into his run as Michigan coach, Jim Harbaugh was an overhyped underachiever. He was all talk and empty promises, not to mention a punching bag for Ohio State. He was coming off a losing season that was a colossal embarrassment and put him on a hot seat.
Nearing the end of his seventh year, Harbaugh has rewritten the storyline. Now there’s some bite behind his bark and he’s a hungry underdog in the hunt for the national championship.
If the favorites live up to the hype in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Alabama and Georgia will advance with ease. But if there’s a surprise, Harbaugh is the best bet to crash the party on New Year’s Eve and prevent an all-SEC title game.
The Wolverines, the second-seeded Big Ten champions, are 7.5-point dogs against the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl. The total of 45.5 indicates the fight will be dictated by the defenses, and that’s not a bad deal for Harbaugh.
“Michigan stands a puncher’s chance against Georgia because you can keep that a low-scoring game,” VSiN’s Brent Musburger said.
In the Cotton Bowl semifinal, No. 1 Alabama is a 13.5-point favorite over Cincinnati, the Cinderella of the four-team bracket. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young leads the Crimson Tide in what should be a high-scoring game with a total of 58.5.
“I think Alabama gets pushed to 14, not that I think that’s necessarily the right move,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Cincinnati is not a team to take lightly.”
With no Thursday or Saturday games in NFL Week 17, college football gets the spotlight the rest of the week, especially for Friday’s playoff games.
“There will be a big (wagering) handle on both games,” Avello said.
BetMGM lists Alabama as the + 115 favorite to win the championship, followed by Georgia (+ 135), Michigan (+ 750) and Cincinnati (14-1). In the preseason, the Bearcats were getting odds of 100-1 and higher. It’s easy to root for the underdogs this week yet hard to believe one will survive.
Tide coach Nick Saban, who has won six national championships since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007, is this era’s Paul “Bear” Bryant and is always a bear to deal with when given extra preparation time. In the Southeastern Conference title game, Georgia had no answers for Saban’s defense and Young’s sensational playmaking. Young passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns without an interception as Alabama rolled 41-24 as a 6.5-point dog.
The Bulldogs’ top-ranked defense was allowing 6.9 points and 230 yards per game before the Young-led offense totaled 536 yards. The Tide attempted 44 passes and ran the ball 26 times, a wise plan of attack against a defense that had been rock solid against the run but mostly untested through the air.
Paul Stone, a Texas-based handicapper and VSiN contributor, said Alabama should be concerned by the loss of key performers on both sides of the ball — wide receiver John Metchie III (1,142 receiving yards) and starting cornerback Josh Jobe. But he still likes Alabama to defeat Cincinnati by two touchdowns or more.
“While Cincinnati is new to the big stage, Saban and Alabama are accustomed to preparing for and executing in these types of games,” Stone said. “I could see the Bearcats hanging around for a couple of quarters, but in the end, I don’t see this being a fourth-quarter game.”
As part of his handicap, Stone said he believes Alabama has better than a 50 percent chance of winning the turnover battle, which would go a long way toward the Tide getting the money.
“Alabama is plus-78 in turnover margin since the start of the 2015 season, and Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder has committed more turnovers than any player in college football over the last three seasons, with the exception of Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders,” Stone said. “I think that bodes well for Alabama’s chances of winning by a decisive margin.”
For three months, the media propped up Georgia as an invincible team with a dominant defense. In one day, Alabama exposed that perception as phony. How will coach Kirby Smart and his team respond?
Is the Wolverines’ long-awaited breakthrough for Harbaugh the real deal? Dog bettors are taking a leap of faith with Michigan, which physically punished Ohio State before blowing out an outclassed Iowa team 42-3 in the conference title game.
Michigan’s run-first offense is likely to run into trouble against Georgia at the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Cade McNamara does not have Young’s talent. The Wolverines need to find success with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum on the ground to ease the pressure on McNamara.
A Michigan defense led by end Aidan Hutchinson must slow the Bulldogs’ running attack. Georgia’s obvious weakness all season has been its mediocre quarterback play, and Stetson Bennett did nothing against Alabama to dispel those doubts. Rarely has a college team won a national title or a pro team won a Super Bowl with a liability at quarterback.
The Wolverines are full of confidence and running red hot. If Michigan can match Georgia’s strength on the offensive and defensive lines, the underdog should be in position to cover and possibly advance.
It took Harbaugh seven years to build a physical team that could beat up Ohio State and challenge an SEC heavyweight. As it turns out, the Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s overhyped underachievers this season, and Harbaugh is certainly getting immense satisfaction from turning the tables on Ohio State, whose top four NFL prospects recently opted out of the Rose Bowl.
There are no opt-outs in playoff games and hopefully no COVID-19 complications either. The latter adds a degree of difficulty to the betting process, with several players sidelined in various games and at least five bowls canceled.
“Watch the COVID situation with all four teams, especially Alabama,” Musburger said. “If healthy, the Tide rolls to another trophy.”
The task for sharp sports bettors is to see through the media hype to find value in a number. The value was there with Michigan against Ohio State, and it was there with Alabama against Georgia. I’m not sure it’s there with the Wolverines this week, but I took eight points with Harbaugh, who got here the hard way.