Believe it or not, the college football bowl season is much more than waiting for Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney to butt heads again. The Alabama-Clemson fight for No. 1 is becoming a tired theme, not to fault the coaches of the two elite teams.
Problems in the sport run deep. The control exhibited by the Power Five conferences essentially has turned the exclusionary four-team playoff into the Saban-Swinney Invitational, and teams such as Boise State, Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina need not apply. The small-conference teams do not even qualify as long shots to win a title because they have absolutely no shot, so forget betting any of those teams on the futures board.
The playoff system is dominated by the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, so it was no surprise Sunday when the committee unveiled the top four seeds in this order: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
“I would go from four to eight teams, and I would have done it a long time ago,” said VSiN’s Brent Musburger, who lobbied for “the little guys” to get a fair shot.
The little guys getting a shot is a big part of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament so great, and it happens to be the most spectacular betting event in American sports. A larger college football playoff would create NFL-size wagering handles.
“From our side of the counter, we would like to see an expanded playoff,” said Vinny Magliulo, veteran Las Vegas bookmaker and VSiN oddsmaker.
Fox Sports announcer Tim Brando called the playoff system a “complete farce” while firing his shots Monday on a VSiN show.
“It’s past the point of just being flawed,” Brando said. “It is corrupt. They don’t just throw these (little) teams under the bus. They throw them under the bus, then they put the bus in reverse and drive over them again and bludgeon them. It’s so wrong. We have got to go to eight, and we have got to overhaul the system. I’m going to continue to call them out until something is done about it.”
Musburger predicted “big changes down the road” in college football, and hopefully we’ll reach that point in the road soon.
The playoff aside, a typical bowl season is full of surprises. We see coaching changes, player injuries and suspensions and, more often in recent years, star players opting to sit out to prepare for the NFL draft. For various reasons, including motivation or a lack of it, we always see upsets.
Throw the COVID-19 pandemic into the mix, and what will the rest of 2020 and the new year bring? Fewer bowls but more unpredictability.
“I think it’s going to be the most volatile bowl market we have ever seen,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “There will be COVID news we get late, and there’s going to be a lot of information out there. This is why sportsbooks have (wagering) limits, because sometimes people get the information before we do. My advice is to approach these games with caution.”
Many betting lines will run wild as money follows the information. The money moves do not always win, of course. Bettors and bookmakers will be watching closely for breaking news and moving numbers.
“There is too much uncertainty with some of these teams,” Magliulo said. “In recent years, you had players opting out of bowl games. This year, there are teams opting out. From both sides of the counter, there are so many more factors you have got to take into consideration.”
Coronavirus chaos has reduced the bowl season from more than 40 games to fewer than 30. The bowl schedule is overflowing with bizarre matchups and other oddities.
The Rose Bowl has been moved from Pasadena, Calif., to Arlington, Texas. The New Mexico Bowl will be played in Frisco, Texas, and a team with a losing record, Houston (3-4), is a double-digit favorite. South Carolina is going bowling with a 2-8 record. Army (9-2) was excluded from the lineup until Monday, when Tennessee dropped out of the Liberty Bowl because of COVID issues and the Black Knights were picked as the obvious replacement team.
“How are you supposed to predict some of these games?” Magliulo asked.
It’s never easy, and this bowl season appears to be the granddaddy of all handicapping challenges.
In the playoff semifinals set for Jan. 1, Alabama is -20 against Notre Dame, and Clemson is -8 against Ohio State. Murray said he expects “massive” wagering handles on the marquee games. But, again, the story is not all about the Crimson Tide and the Tigers.
Some of the best bets can be found in minor bowls. The BYU-UCF matchup Tuesday in the Boca Raton Bowl featured two offenses that ranked in the nation’s top six in scoring, and the quarterback duel between the Cougars’ Zach Wilson and the Knights’ Dillon Gabriel was about as good as it gets outside the playoff. Here are five more especially intriguing matchups.
CURE BOWL, Saturday
Coastal Carolina (-7) vs. Liberty: The Chanticleers, who upset BYU on Dec. 5, ran the table in the Sun Belt Conference and are shooting for a 12-0 finish. Grayson McCall has thrown 23 touchdown passes with two interceptions. The Flames (9-1) are led by ex-Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, whose offense gets a spark from dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis, an Auburn transfer.
COTTON BOWL, Dec. 30
Florida (-3) vs. Oklahoma: In a wild SEC championship shootout, the Gators fell short in a 52-46 loss to Alabama. Will they have enough left in the gas tank? Florida quarterback Kyle Trask is a Heisman Trophy contender, but tight end Kyle Pitts has opted out, and his next game will be in the NFL. The Sooners, who held off Iowa State to win the Big 12, will go into next season as national title contenders with quarterback Spencer Rattler returning.
PEACH BOWL, Jan. 1
Georgia (-7) vs. Cincinnati: No realist expected the American Athletic Conference champions to land the fourth playoff spot, but the committee disrespected the Bearcats (9-0) with a No. 8 ranking. Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell will be coaching a team with a point to prove. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart faces the possibility of several players opting out to prepare for the NFL draft. Is this a classic case of a motivated dog taking on an unfocused favorite? I’ll take the points with the Bearcats as one of my best bets.
OUTBACK BOWL, Jan. 2
Indiana (-7) vs. Mississippi: The Hoosiers, who lost only once in a tight game at Ohio State, head to Florida hunting for their first bowl win since 1991. It’s easy to like Indiana coach Tom Allen, who’s all about defense, and dislike Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who’s all about offense.
ORANGE BOWL, Jan. 2
Texas A&M (-7) vs. North Carolina: Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher hopelessly lobbied for a playoff spot, so this bowl could be a letdown. The Tar Heels, led by rising star quarterback Sam Howell, are scoring 43 points per game. On the downside, the Heels’ top linebacker (Chazz Surratt), leading rusher (Michael Carter) and leading receiver (Dyami Brown) have opted out to prepare for the NFL. Notre Dame’s 31-17 win at North Carolina on Nov. 27 is a big reason the Fighting Irish landed the fourth playoff spot and the opportunity to get crushed by the Crimson Tide.