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Opening statements favor Alabama

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If there is ever a time to anticipate Alabama football’s decline under coach Nick Saban, this is it. The first round of last month’s NFL draft was a roll call of Crimson Tide stars, putting Saban in a tight spot as he faces a tough schedule.

Alabama must replace two wide receivers, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, who were drafted in the top 10. Six players went in the first round, including quarterback Mac Jones to the Patriots and running back Najee Harris to the Steelers.

Is this finally low Tide? Don’t bet on it.

South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews still power-rates Alabama as the nation’s No. 1 team, and the reality is he might have underrated the reigning national champion. After Andrews opened lines Friday on about 100 of the college football season’s top games, sharp action rolled in on the Tide.

“I bet Alabama four times,” said professional handicapper Paul Stone, who flew in from Texas to fire shots at Andrews’ opening numbers.

Andrews made Alabama a 13-point favorite against Miami in a Sept. 4 game in Atlanta. Stone and others laid the points, prompting Andrews to move the line to 16.

“I think Miami is going to be really good this year,” Andrews said. “But I don’t know if the Hurricanes can hang with Alabama.”

The Hurricanes should be strong, especially if quarterback D’Eriq King is ready to go. King, who blew out his right knee Dec. 29 in the Cheez-It Bowl, is reportedly on track to start against the Tide.

It’s always surprising when veteran oddsmakers open Alabama lines on the low side of key numbers. Most of the time — and especially in Week 1, when the betting public will be playing popular favorites with both fists — lines on the Tide rise. It’s logical to envision the Hurricanes, even with King at full speed, being 17-point underdogs by the time kickoff arrives.

Stone and bettors like him are looking to get closing-line value by grabbing the best numbers now. Stone also bet on Alabama as a 10-point favorite at Texas A&M, a 17-point favorite against LSU and a 12-point favorite at Auburn.

“This is right up my alley,” Stone said. “I love to bet college football in late May.”

Stone said he played 20 games, some at the South Point’s betting limit of $2,000. Andrews moved a handful of lines two to three points based on sharp wagers, but there were no dramatic differences of opinion between the oddsmaker and the small collection of handicappers who were searching for soft numbers.

“I’m pretty happy with it,” Andrews said. “We got a lot of play, and there was nothing I was off by seven or eight points on. I’ve probably been working on it since late January. The transfer portal has got my head spinning, and I can’t keep up with it. It was weird coming off a COVID year, and it was very hard this year to make my ratings.”

After a season of scheduling chaos because of COVID-19, bookmakers are carefully writing house rules. Even if a date or site changes, according to South Point rules, if a game is played, it is considered action.

“I’m still afraid of COVID,” Andrews said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

We do know Alabama, even in a reloading year, is a relatively easy team to rate. Saban recently won his sixth national title with the Tide, capped by a 52-24 blowout of Ohio State in January, so it’s a simple exercise to project more of the same. The quarterback to follow Jones is expected to be dual-threat sophomore Bryce Young, a former five-star recruit from California.

The other three College Football Playoff finalists also move ahead with new quarterbacks. The Buckeyes lost Justin Fields, a first-round pick by the Bears, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 overall to the Jaguars. Notre Dame senior Ian Book was a fourth-round pick by the Saints.

On the first weekend of September, Clemson is a 3.5-point favorite over Georgia on a neutral field in Charlotte, N.C., and Notre Dame opened as a 6-point favorite at Florida State. Ohio State is a 13-point home favorite Sept. 11 against Oregon.

“Ohio State loses a lot, but we kind of know what Ohio State is going to be,” Andrews said. “I lowered Notre Dame about eight points from where I ended them last year. I think people tend to overrate the Irish. I overrate Oklahoma almost every year, and I have the Sooners as my No. 2-ranked team behind Alabama.”

Maybe I am overrating LSU, but I think one of the weakest numbers Andrews opened was LSU -2 at UCLA on Sept. 4. I project the Tigers to be at least 7-point favorites. Stone said he “really thought the number would be closer to a touchdown.” The line was immediately bet to 3.5.

In a game of opening statements and closing arguments, Andrews ends up being right with his numbers far more than he’s wrong. He opened Oklahoma as a 9-point favorite over Texas on Oct. 9 in Dallas, and the line did not budge. The Sooners could have the nation’s top returning quarterback in Spencer Rattler. The Longhorns’ new coach is Steve Sarkisian, the former Alabama offensive coordinator.

Stone did not bet the Oklahoma-Texas game, but he did take the Longhorns %plussign at Iowa State on Nov. 6. Andrews adjusted the number to 7.

“I was very high on Iowa State, and I got some opposition there,” Andrews said.

Virginia-BYU opened pick-’em, but bettors jumped on the Cougars to push them to -3 in an Oct. 30 game in Provo, Utah. Andrews said he “really downgraded” BYU after it lost quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick by the Jets.

Only a few teams can lose an elite quarterback and multiple first-round picks and remain dominant. Those few teams are Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.

 

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