LAS VEGAS--This is the biggest week of the season in college football, and here in the desert, we mean business. Big business.
For the past three weeks the oddsmakers at South Point tell me that they have taken in a bigger handle on the colleges than the pros. Think about that. That may be the biggest upset this football season.
“That’s what most people thought only because the NFL for a thousand years has been king,” South Point senior oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro told me this week on VSiN.
Gaughan Gaming’s Vinny Magliulo backed that up, saying that “every game is a big game in college, and there’s so many big games especially now at this point in the year.”
But my two guys in the desert also think that other factors – both on and off the field – are contributing to this recent trend.
“Let’s not get into the political side of this, but the NFL is pushing people away to some degree with all this nonsense they’re going through,” Jimmy said. “College just keeps going forward.”
“There’s also the impact of six (NFL) teams being on a bye,” Vinny said. “Two of them this week happen to be very public teams that people love to bet – the Patriots and Steelers. On Saturday you’ve got like a dozen or 15 really good college games.”
No doubt about it. This is Showdown Saturday. With the table formally set on Tuesday by the first College Football Playoff rankings, we have a pretty good idea which games are important, which ones are elimination contests, and which ones have more at stake than meets the eye.
Ranked No. 4 by the playoff committee, Clemson is still very much alive for a national semifinal, and the Tigers will be a 7½-point favorite Saturday visiting North Carolina State. Undefeated Miami is no better than No. 10, and it is a 2½-point home underdog against No. 13 Virginia Tech. Wake Forest is a 14-point underdog visiting No. 3 Notre Dame, which clearly has the respect of the playoff committee.
The winner of the Miami-Virginia Tech game will certainly be alive to make the playoff. For Clemson and Notre Dame, these are must wins – as are all the rest of their games this season.
With fifth-ranked Oklahoma a three-point underdog at No. 11 Oklahoma State, the 112th renewal of the Bedlam rivalry is Saturday’s most important game in the championship chase. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield also has a chance to take a big step forward in his pursuit of the Heisman Trophy and even-money betting favorite Saquon Barkley of Penn State.
If Oklahoma loses, No. 8 TCU has a chance to pounce with a win at home Saturday night against Texas. But beware of the Longhorns. They are a 6½-point ’dog, and Tom Herman is tough on favorites. Including his two seasons at Houston, Herman has beaten the spread in his last eight games coaching an underdog.
Although it appears to be out of the national picture, No. 15 Iowa State is still very much alive for a shot at the Big 12 championship. That is thanks to last week’s upset of TCU – and to coach Matt Campbell. He has turned things around in Ames, so you better believe he will be a very hot commodity this winter. We already know that the Florida job is available, and you have to figure that Nebraska, Tennessee and UCLA will also come open. I think that Nebraska is going to take a long, long look at Campbell. Of more immediate concern for him is a visit to West Virginia, where the Cyclones will be two-point underdogs Saturday.
Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin are all on the outside looking in at the top four. The sixth-ranked Buckeyes are a 17½-point favorite visiting Iowa. That could be a tricky place to cover the spread, especially with rain in the forecast this weekend. I think there is going to be a little bit of a letdown for Ohio State after last week’s thriller with Penn State. I am not anti-Buckeyes – I think they could wind up in the playoff – but I am going to take Iowa and the points.
J.T. Barrett’s Heisman push could get a boost from a big performance at Iowa City, but it is hard to imagine that he will make a better impression than he did last weekend, when he pitched a perfect fourth quarter in that comeback against the Nittany Lions.
You have to look deep to find the first Pac-12 team in the new rankings. Washington is No. 12, and it will be a 21-point favorite at home against Oregon. The Huskies’ non-conference wins over Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State clearly have not impressed the committee, so the Pac-12 sits clearly on the elimination bubble.
There should not be any drama Saturday for No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama. Both at home Saturday, the Bulldogs are 24-point favorites against South Carolina, and the Tide is laying 21½ against LSU. Ed Orgeron has pulled himself off the hot seat – for now – but with a bad result in this game, he is squarely back on it. I’m not saying that he has to deliver the upset of the year. However, for all my Cajun buddies down there in Louisiana who like to bet them, that 21½ is where they are headed. The Bayou Bengals need to hang in there. Me? I wouldn’t touch that game.
And yes, even No. 14 Auburn at Texas A&M is important, not only because the Tigers can still win the conference title, but because another major coaching job may be opening at the losing school. Gus Malzahn is trying to hang on with the Tigers, and it may already be too late for Kevin Sumlin at A&M.
One thing to remember now that the playoff rankings are out is that there will be movement. In the first three years of this system, the initial top four have never stayed in place all the way through the naming of the semifinalists. We should also remember that with every game we will see teams, Heisman candidates and even coaches eliminated.
It is clear that the colleges have made our football weekends more meaningful. If they ever expand the playoffs to eight or even 16 in the Bowl Subdivision, then NFL, look out. That’s because it is going to have major, major competition on its hands.
Right now the colleges concede December to the pros. But if they expand the playoff, they won’t concede anything. And the weeks when the colleges draw more betting dollars to the counters than the pros will not be such a surprise.