What markets tell us about CFP semis

Though it took a while for the college football bowl bonanza to get rolling, the much-anticipated national semifinals will be upon us Saturday when LSU plays Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl (4 p.m., ESPN) and Clemson battles Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl (8 p.m., ESPN). 

Many of you are thinking about betting those games at local sportsbooks. Let’s study the market and a few key stats. We’ll look at national rankings on offense and defense, strength of schedule as ranked by Jeff Sagarin of USA Today, and turnover margin.

— LSU (-13.5) vs. Oklahoma

LSU: #1 offense, #22 defense, #10 schedule, 8 turnover margin

Oklahoma: #2 offense, #25 defense, #24 schedule, -7 turnover margin

It’s hard to understand why this point spread is so high until you get to turnover margin. LSU played cleanly against a very tough schedule in the nation’s best conference. Oklahoma was mistake-prone and erratic against a slightly softer slate. 

LSU’s pro-style offense led by Heisman Trophy winner and projected No. 1 draft pick Joe Burrow will move the ball and score, and it will likely turn any OU miscues into bonus touchdowns. 

An early line of LSU -11 was bet hard up to -13 right off the bat. It subsequently rose to -14 after news broke of player suspensions for Oklahoma. Dog lovers have taken a bite of 14, which dropped the line to 13.5 entering the week. For now, sharps clearly like LSU at -13 or less, but the percentages (and bets) flip when the key number of 14 comes into play. 

Picking the winner could come down to properly gauging Oklahoma’s turnover issues. The Sooners can cover if they play relatively cleanly. If not, the Tigers will run away and hide — as they did vs. Georgia 37-10 and Texas A&M 50-7 in their last two tests against bowl-caliber opponents.

— Clemson (-2/63.5) vs. Ohio State

Ohio State: #5 offense, #2 defense, #18 schedule, 11 turnover margin

Clemson: #3 offense, #1 defense, #61 schedule, 14 turnover margin

The big mystery here is how much of a factor Clemson’s soft schedule played in shaping the defending national champion’s dominant season. Clemson has earned the benefit of the doubt. For now.

Sharps immediately bet Clemson up from an opener of -1 to -2. And that was after media discussion that Ohio State might open as a small favorite. Certainly the Buckeyes would get pounded were the public to drive the line up to Clemson -3. But, given OSU’s national profile, recreational bettors could just as easily move the number back toward pick-’em.  

Given team quality, it’s basically a national championship-caliber matchup in itself. And the winner will have to do it all again Jan. 13 at the Superdome, probably vs. LSU. 

LSU sits atop futures boards to win the playoff because it has the easier road. A global composite of championship odds is showing LSU 7/5 (42%), Clemson 2/1 (33%), Ohio State 3/1 (25%) and Oklahoma 16/1 (6%). Those percentage equivalents add up to 106% because sportsbooks build a universe larger than 100% to create a house edge.  

Note that if you believe in Oklahoma as a Cinderella, you can get a lot better than 16/1 just by betting them on the money line twice. They’re getting in the range of 400 to 425 to upset LSU. The price would likely be similar vs. the Clemson-Ohio State survivor. 

Let’s make the math easy and call it 400 twice. Instead of putting $100 on OU at 16/1, you could put that $100 on the Sooners at 400 to upset LSU. If that happens, the sportsbook would return you $500 (your stake plus your winnings). Put that $500 on OU at 400 to win the championship game. If the slipper fits, the sportsbook would return $2,500 ($500 stake plus $2,000 winnings). That’s 24/1 with a rolling parlay.

It’s almost always better to reinvest with money-line wagers than to play the futures board. Make it a New Year’s resolution to use that approach from now on.

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