Tide in unfamiliar role as big dog

December 3, 2021 06:27 AM
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With the best defense in college football, the nation’s No. 1 team is rolling into the Southeastern Conference championship game as a big favorite. After Alabama owned that description for the last decade, Nick Saban is on the other side of it now.

Top-ranked Georgia, which has the dominant defense, is a 6.5-point favorite over the Crimson Tide on Saturday in Atlanta. The point spread is one for the history books.

“When have you seen Alabama as a dog like this?” Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director and veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said.

Saban is in his 15th year as Alabama’s coach, and this has not happened since his early years. The last time Saban was an underdog of more than three points was in 2009. The last time Saban was a dog was in 2015, when the Tide (+ 1) upended Georgia 38-10 in a regular-season road game.

Alabama’s streak of 93 straight games as a favorite has ended, but its national title hopes remain alive. Three of the four College Football Playoff spots are up for grabs this weekend, with only the Bulldogs (12-0) considered a certainty.

“The question in the back of everyone’s mind is, who can afford to lose in this game?” Magliulo said. “A one-loss Georgia team still gets into the playoff. Alabama has been erratic. You’re waiting to see if you can get seven points, and it may get to seven because Georgia’s defense is just phenomenal.”

Circa Sports opened Georgia -3 on Nov. 15. The inflation to 6.5 might not be enough. DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said dog bettors should wait patiently for a better number.

“It’s going to go to seven,” Avello said. “This (wagering handle) is going to be bigger than most of the NFL games this week.”

It would not be a bit surprising if a two-loss Tide team sneaks into the playoff. All possibilities are on the table, depending on the chaos that could be unleashed if other conference title games result in upsets. The truth is Alabama was lucky to avoid a stunning upset last weekend when it rallied to beat Auburn, a 20-point home underdog, 24-22 in four overtimes.

Bryce Young had his so-called Heisman moment, turning the Tide on a 97-yard drive capped by his 28-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left. Alabama’s leading rusher, senior Brian Robinson Jr., left Saturday’s game with a leg injury, and his status is questionable for the SEC title game.

Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense by allowing 6.9 points per game — while facing a mostly weak lineup of opposing quarterbacks, it should be noted —  and it has won each game by at least 17 points since beating Clemson 10-3 in the season opener. The Tide’s running attack seems likely to hit a wall, so the smart strategy would be to spread the field and let Young and his receivers stretch the defense. Young is a far superior quarterback to the Bulldogs’ Stetson Bennett.

“Saban is rarely a dog, and certainly not a dog like this, and I’m backing Bama here with a chance to win this game,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said.

BetMGM lists Georgia as the odds-on favorite (-225) to win the national championship, followed by Alabama (+ 600), Michigan (+ 800), Cincinnati (14-1), Oklahoma State (14-1) and Notre Dame (25-1).

The Fighting Irish, who finished the regular season 11-1 and have no chance to strengthen their playoff case, were dealt a stunning loss Monday when coach Brian Kelly left for the LSU job. Less than 48 hours earlier, he was lobbying for Notre Dame to get a playoff invite. Kelly decided not to stick around for the party.

Cincinnati is a 10.5-point home favorite over Houston (11-1) in the American Athletic Conference title game. The Bearcats (12-0) have a tiebreaker of sorts to their advantage, and that’s a 24-13 win Oct. 2 at Notre Dame.

The clumsy, phony NCAA playoff committee might not agree, but Cincinnati is an attractive Cinderella story. In the preseason, BetMGM posted the Bearcats at 100-1 odds to win the national title. What are the odds on Luke Fickell being named the next Notre Dame coach?

Oklahoma State (11-1) is another surprise playoff contender. The Cowboys, 5-point favorites over Baylor in Arlington, Texas, are 9-0-1 against the spread since mid-September and shooting for their first Big 12 championship since 2011.

The coaching carousel and the insane amounts of money flying around are just as crazy as the playoff race. There are whispers that Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy might soon be on the move. The Cowboys’ wild 37-33 victory over Oklahoma eliminated the Sooners and sent their coach, Lincoln Riley, into the transfer portal and off to a new job at USC.

Jim Harbaugh has newfound job security at Michigan after snapping his five-game losing streak to Ohio State with a resounding 42-27 win. The Wolverines have replaced the Buckeyes in the playoff picture, setting the stage for an important title game in the Big Ten.

There’s nothing sexy about Iowa, which has a pedestrian quarterback and an opportunistic defense, but the Hawkeyes have a chance to play spoilers as 11-point underdogs to the Wolverines. Harbaugh has come too far to blow this now, right?

A title game never should be a flat spot, especially when a playoff spot is on the line, yet that’s a handicapping angle because the Wolverines could experience an emotional hangover. The Ohio State game was not only circled on the calendar, it was targeted for a few years, and it turned into a defining career achievement for Harbaugh and many of Michigan’s players.

“This is the letdown I would be worried about,” Marshall said. “It’s going to be hard for Michigan to reach the same crescendo two weeks in a row. The Iowa defense might be able to muck this game up.”

A Michigan loss would shut out the Big Ten and open the door for playoff chaos, which would be fitting considering the great game of college football has become a circus of a business.

 

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