The important trends for every college football title game

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Perhaps not even the most optimistic college football fan thought we would get to this point in 2020, but this weekend offers 10 big games that will decide conference championships. A few will also influence the final College Football Playoff bracket. Much looks familiar as we analyze this year’s board, with the usual big names such as Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma playing for titles. These teams have become fixtures in their conference championship games. A few rematches of previous league title games, one as recent as two years ago, also are on tap. Perhaps the biggest storyline for this year’s games will be the rematch in the ACC, pitting first- and supposedly only-time participant Notre Dame against revenge-minded Clemson, which has a playoff berth on the line. Initial point spreads don’t indicate a very competitive weekend, with five double-digit lines and only two games with a number less than 5.5. But that shouldn’t matter to bettors, especially since underdogs won half of last year’s 10 games ATS. Here is a look at the betting history of the league championship games and how it might affect this year’s contests. 

 

Friday

Conference USA: UAB at MARSHALL (-5.5/42.5)

The Conference USA championship gets the weekend title slate started with a 7 p.m. ET kickoff. In the 15 C-USA title games, UAB and Marshall have each appeared twice, going 1-1. UAB is playing for the title for the third straight season. However, the Blazers (5-3) were drilled last year 49-6 at Florida Atlantic. That setback was compounded when they went on to lose the New Orleans Bowl. Marshall (7-1) has not been in this game since back-to-back appearances in 2013-14. The Herd won the latter contest. They will be 5.5-point favorites, eager to rid themselves of the memories of their most recent game, a 20-0 shutout loss to Rice. Marshall allows just 11.4 ppg, about half of UAB’s figure. In the recent history of this contest, home teams boast an impressive 11-3 SU and 10-4 ATS mark since ’06. Favorites are also on a 4-1 ATS surge, and three of the last four have gone Over the total. Winning teams have topped 40 points in five of the last seven.

Mid-American: BALL STATE vs. BUFFALO (-12.5/66.5)

The MAC showdown in Detroit pitting Ball State and Buffalo is one of three conference title-game rematches of recent years. These teams last met for MAC bragging rights in 2008, when Buffalo, a 15-point dog, pulled a massive 42-24 upset. That result started what has become a heavy underdog trend in MAC title contests, as dogs have gone 9-2-1 ATS since despite favorites winning seven times outright. At 5-0 and scoring a whopping 51.8 ppg, the Bulls are the heavy chalk this time around. Their potential for winning and covering the hefty number figures to hinge on their continued ability to run the football, as they have piled up an insane 446.3 rushing yards per game over the last three. Ball State (5-1) is a veteran group and doesn’t figure to roll over easily, considering a win would be its first MAC title since the championship game began. The Cardinals have won five straight, including upsets in two of the last three. With a current total of 66.5, this will be the highest posted number the MAC title game has seen since 2011, a game that went Under by 28 points.

Pac-12: OREGON at USC (-2/62.5)

The 10th annual Pac-12 championship game will be unusual not only because each team has played only five games. First, the matchup was changed Monday after it was announced that Washington (3-1) would be unable to play due to COVID-19 problems. In stepped Oregon (3-2), leaving a matchup that most preseason experts predicted, though not by this means. Second, the game will be at USC’s home field, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the first time since 2013 that it won’t be at a neutral site. How does that change things for bettors? Well, in the first three Pac-12 title games played at a host school, the road team went 3-0 ATS, each time as the underdog. Since then, favorites have gone 5-1 SU and 4-2 ATS. USC is the home favorite, but by a slim margin. The Trojans are 5-0 and have won three straight ATS. They are 1-1 SU and 0-2 ATS in two previous tries in this game. Oregon has played in it three times, winning all three while going 2-1 ATS. Totals have alternated in consecutive years since 2014, leaving Under due for 2020.

Saturday

Big Ten: NORTHWESTERN vs. OHIO STATE (-20.5/59.5)

Ohio State and Northwestern met in the 2018 Big Ten title game, with the Buckeyes coasting 45-24. That was the third of what is now a four-game winning streak for Ohio State in this contest (3-1 ATS), including the three most recent affairs. If the Wildcats have any hope, it’s that underdogs have fared well in this series, going 7-2 ATS since its inception. Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is also very experienced, having brought back 19 starters this season. While few prognosticators expected them to be here, internally they believed. A 17-7 upset of West favorite Wisconsin made it a reality. Northwestern is 6-1 and has gone Under the total six times while allowing just 14.6 ppg. Ohio State’s talent is undisputed, but its worthiness for this game was controversial. The conference had to overturn a rule mandating teams play six games to qualify. So the 5-0 Buckeyes will be in Indianapolis hoping to lock down a playoff berth. The Over holds a 6-3 edge since the inaugural Big Ten title game in 2011.

Big 12: OKLAHOMA (-5.5/58.5) vs. IOWA STATE

Oklahoma has won the last three Big 12 title contests, saving some of its best defensive efforts for the occasion. The Sooners have outscored three different opponents 110-67 in this game, following up three regular seasons in which their defense had been maligned. Iowa State is the opponent for 2020, and for the fourth straight year, Oklahoma is expected to win. Coach Lincoln Riley’s team has gotten hot since starting 1-2, and much of the turnaround can be attributed to the defense, which has held four of its last five opponents to 14 points or fewer. The Cyclones (8-2) have won one more game than Oklahoma (7-2) and are riding a five-game winning streak. They hope their first appearance in this game coincides with the first win by underdogs. With a total set at 58.5, the first Big 12 title tilt under 63, note that the three previous games have gone Under the posted number.

Sun Belt: LOUISIANA at COASTAL CAROLINA (-3.5/53.5)

Louisiana (9-1) is making its third straight appearance in the Sun Belt title game but is still seeking its first win. Perhaps facing an opponent other than Appalachian State will help. But it won’t be easy, as even though Coastal Carolina has never appeared in the league championship game, the Chanticleers (11-0) are more than deserving. They were one of the country’s biggest surprises and played two weeks ago in one of the season’s biggest games, edging BYU 22-17. This game is being played at CCU’s home, Brooks Stadium, where coach Jamey Chadwell’s team went 6-0 SU while going 4-1-1 ATS and outscoring opponents by 16.3 ppg. Appalachian State won both previous Sun Belt title games as the host, and the Ragin’ Cajuns did cover the Vegas number in 2018.

ACC: CLEMSON (-10.5/60.5) vs. NOTRE DAME

All that stands in the way of Clemson advancing to its sixth straight College Football Playoff is a win over Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. Problem is, the Tigers (9-1) lost to the Irish in November. Of course, they played without QB Trevor Lawrence in that game, but they still threw for 439 yards in the loss. The rematch comes Saturday at Charlotte, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team will be looking to win its six straight conference crown. With the Irish on a one-year ACC tie-in agreement, this will be the first and perhaps only time these historic programs meet with these stakes on the line. The Irish are 10-0 and supposedly a lock for the CFP, win or lose, making it somewhat of a surprise to see them installed as double-digit underdogs. They’ll need to play better than Clemson’s last three opponents in this game, as the Tigers have made this stage a playground, winning by 35, 32 and 35 points. Overall, favorites are on a 10-1 SU and 7-4 ATS surge in this conference title series, and four of the last six have gone Over the total. 

American Athletic: TULSA at CINCINNATI (-14.5/47.5)

Tulsa and Cincinnati were supposed to play last weekend in the regular-season finale. But due to COVID-19 problems with the Bearcats, that game was canceled, and this week’s game will be for the American Athletic Conference championship. The Bearcats (8-0) haven’t taken the field since a 36-33 win Nov. 21 at UCF, nearly a month ago. At stake for them is a presumed New Year’s Six bowl berth, which would mean prestige and big dollars for the program. Tulsa lost its opener 16-7 to Oklahoma State but has pieced together six straight wins since. The Golden Hurricane have not played in any of the five AAC title games. Cincinnati played last year but is looking for its first conference crown since this game began in 2015. Home teams in this conference title series own a 4-1 SU and 3-2 ATS advantage, having been favored every time. If this line holds, it will easily mark the biggest favorite in the game’s history. Memphis, at -8, was the previous high in last year’s 29-24 win over Cincinnati.

SEC: ALABAMA (-17.5/74.5) vs. FLORIDA

The SEC championship game is the longest-running conference title series — and usually the biggest stage. Saturday’s clash between Alabama (10-0) and Florida (8-2) will have a familiar ring, as the programs have met for these stakes nine times. Considering that only three other conferences have even conducted title games for more than nine years, it magnifies these teams’ accomplishments. In the title series, Alabama holds a 5-4 edge outright, but Florida leads 5-4 ATS. The Crimson Tide became the first team since I started tracking power rankings in 2000 to which I assigned a rating of 80 or better. The Tide’s season has been historic and perhaps underrated on a grander scale. A blowout win in the SEC title game against the prolific Gators could be the megaphone needed to validate it. Alabama is making its record 14th appearance in the SEC title tilt and owns an 8-5 SU and 5-8 ATS record. Florida is just one appearance behind and owns a 7-5 SU and ATS mark. Favorites have typically gotten the job done here, winning 15 of the last 18 SEC title games while going 10-7-1 ATS. Surprisingly, Over the total has converted in 13 of the last 17, though last year’s powerful LSU team scored only 37 points, leaving the total 10 points shy. If the current total of 74.5 holds, it will smash this game’s previous high by 12 points. In fact, only two games have had a number higher than 60. Both went Over.

Mountain West: BOISE STATE (-6.5/54.5) vs. SAN JOSE STATE

This will be the eighth Mountain West Conference championship game and the fifth in which Boise State has taken part. However, it will be the first played at a neutral site, as Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium hosts. The Broncos got here by virtue of a 5-1 regular season, the only loss an embarrassing 51-17 setback to BYU. San Jose State is somewhat quietly undefeated, having gone 6-0 SU and 5-0-1 ATS. The Spartans’ schedule is a big question mark, however, as they didn’t top 38 points in any game against a weak schedule. Boise State surpassed 40 points four times. The experience edge would certainly go to the Broncos as they look for a fourth MWC crown, having gone 3-1 SU and 1-3 ATS in their previous appearances. SJSU is here for the first time, though underdogs have fared quite well historically, going 5-1 ATS in the last six installments of this title series. Six of the seven also went Under the total, a trend that would clearly favor the Spartans.

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