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2018-19 College Football Playoff Odds, Preview and Lean

FBS(2-2) @ Alabama Crimson Tide(2-2)

  • Where: Various. Various
  • When: December 29, 2018 4:00 pm EST
  • Moneyline: Alabama (-235), Clemson (+280), Notre Dame (+1400), Oklahoma (+1400)

Sports betting sites are surprisingly uniform in their opening lines for Army-Navy, and a few of the opening bowl games in mid-December. But what’s really striking is how everyone in Las Vegas (and handicappers beyond) has the 2 semifinals pegged as snoozers.

Alabama is giving up (-14 ½) points to Oklahoma in the maiden prime-time contest of the bracket on December 29th, beginning a title-defense as a 1st seed only thanks to out-lasting UGA in a tough SEC Championship Game. Alabama is a (-590) moneyline favorite next to Oklahoma’s (+440). A nuclear white-hot O/U total (not to be confused with OU’s total) is set at (79 ½) points.

Earlier the same day, #2 Clemson takes on #3 Notre Dame at Jerry World as double-digit favorites.

It’s also fun to look at how futures odds differ from the spreads, with bookies seemingly unwilling to write-off even a heavy underdog with the potential to get hot in crunch time. The sportsbook currently offers no such-influenced lines on UND or Oklahoma, giving each a 14-to-1 payoff on the winner.

At a glance, it might seem like this group of College Football Playoff semifinalists got to the dance by disparate means. Yet look closer at the QB position, and there are great similarities between how all 4 coaching staffs have grown their offenses through taking chances behind center.

As the defending champs, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide could not have been blamed for sticking with the program in 2018.

But Tua Tagovailoa’s heroics in last season’s CFP final vs the hated Georgia Bulldogs helped convince Saban to take a risk and install Tua as the starting QB.

The timing and vibe of the move offended former starting signal-caller Jalen Hurts, and quite a few fans and reporters. But on the gridiron, it paid off in spades. The team is undefeated in 13 games.

For a while in early fall, it appeared that Alabama’s offense and defense might each be the best in the FBS. Damien Harris’ slow burn at RB, the front-7’s marauding dominance, and the HC’s icy glare – not to mention scores like Alabama 29, LSU 0 – emphasized that the Tide might actually kill their entire division (as in, major college football) by the holidays.

But late in the year, the team began to show a few cracks. The Citadel, a military program from the FCS, threatened for over 30:00 to spoil Alabama’s homecoming, and Georgia almost made off with the SEC title a few weeks later. Hurts, a true team player if there ever was one, was wonderful while spelling an injured Tagovailoa in the comeback over UGA last weekend.

We all know he’s a streaky passer, though. The Dawgs caught Hurts on an unlucky day.

Alabama’s defense looks a step slow at times when trying to load the box. There are too many 1-dimensional players in the rotation. It could haunt the Tide if things get hairy in the final.

Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney also took a chance at QB, soon after an early-season meeting with Texas A&M finished way too close for comfort. Exit Kelly Bryant, enter Trevor Lawrence, a hot-shot freshman who looks like the world’s richest surfer and plays like a soon-to-be-rich NFL draft choice.

The unbeaten Tigers put together a resume of blow-out victories late in the season that rivals or surpasses what Alabama did against also-rans from the SEC.

Led by tailback Travis Etienne and an AFC West-level defensive line, Clemson dismissed Florida State and Boston College by a combined 86 points to 27, roared over a Top 25 team from North Carolina State 41-7, and won the ACC title with a 42-10 slaughter of Pittsburgh.

Lawrence plays like a mentally-stable version of Johnny Manziel. Dabo Swinney improved his team’s ceiling with the QB move, but the whole gambit will rely on keeping Lawrence healthy. Kelly Bryant, seeing the writing on the wall when Lawrence first got the nod, has transferred to the SEC.

Yet another QB change set Notre Dame’s season alight – the emergence of Ian Book as Brian Kelly’s talisman in the passing and running games. While Book represents a less-daring approach to the running game than his predecessor Brandon Wimbush, the superior accuracy of the new starter’s passing arm has led UND – already a fierce blocking and tackling unit with NFL prospects in the OL and front-7 – to a juiced-ball formula of scoring on befuddled opponents. 3rd down and long is no longer wrong.

Consider the scores of 2 wins from prior to Book’s takeover – 24-16 over Ball State and 22-17 over Vanderbilt. Now a couple of final scores from Book’s time behind center: Notre Dame 38, Stanford 17. Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3.

The offense is moving the sticks more consistently, which doesn’t just lead to more points. It makes a happier Fighting Irish defense.

Notre Dame has not lost a contest in 2018, though some have called their schedule into question despite the presence of Northwestern, Michigan and Florida State.

Speaking of called-into-question, how about a (+1400) line on Oklahoma winning the national title?

Of course, the scrum with Alabama could always go just as bookies predict. OU will have a small margin of error.

An early turnover following a Tua pass (or a Jalen Hurts run) for a go-ahead TD could go ahead and wipe out the point spread by the 10:00 mark.

The Big 12 champions barely squeaked into the College Football Playoff with a 12-1 record, and it’s not just a Red River Showdown loss to Texas holding them back. Oklahoma beat Texas in a re-match for the conference crown, but earlier in the year the Sooners went to OT with Army after not scoring a single point in the 2nd half, and labored to beat Kansas and Texas Tech.

Oklahoma’s defense is the real reason for the long odds on a College Football Playoff title in January, a unit that resembles the Kansas City Chiefs’ defense in its penchant for making big, athletic plays unfortunately crossed with routine failure to win on the LOS.

But the Sooners may have the most dynamic and explosive offense in the CFP, leaving a match-up with OU a scary potential shoot-out for the favorites to deal with.

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The underdogs are being undervalued. There are too many superior teams to fit into the playoff this season; compelling cases for inclusion can be made on behalf of Georgia, UCF, and Ohio State.

There’s a big gap between the top 10 or 15 and everybody else, that’s for sure. Clemson vs Pitt, UCF vs Memphis, Georgia vs Georgia Tech, and a host of other contests over the past 10 days have proven that. But there’s no plateau that Clemson and Alabama are on that couldn’t be challenged by the rest of the top 10. Taken in a sliver, during one of their hot streaks, yes the Tide and the Tigers could be hyped as dominant beyond all belief. Taken in view of the whole season? Nah.

I’m liking Notre Dame as an efficient squad that can take advantage of Clemson on a bad day, and certainly leaning UND’s way on the big wide point spread. But is Trevor Lawrence likely-enough to finally blink in a huge moment to justify a (+350) moneyline wager on the underdog? That’s not clear.

Oklahoma could be an excellent ATS or ML wager vs Alabama in the prime-time semifinal, but I’m leaning toward the moneyline.

In a reality, the Tide’s burly defense will beat up Murray and frosh phenom Kennedy Brooks in the backfield so bad that nasty speed on the outside won’t matter, and neither will the QB’s passing arm. Meanwhile, ‘Bama scores all of the points. But in another reality, Oklahoma’s NASCAR-offense will stun the slow-footed favorites early, and Murray will turn out to be the brightest star of the CFP.

Alabama should not be a (-200) or shorter favorite until we know how Tagovailoa will bounce back from his injury against Georgia. Hurts wasn’t at 100% in the SEC Championship Game, either. Saban does not want to get out-played at QB by Heisman hopefuls while his defense slowly slides. As shown in January ’17, that’s a recipe for losing the playoff.

Clemson could very well win the whole thing, or fall short with a green-horned passer in the pocket, backed-up by nobody. In any case, the Tigers are currently the best value pick.

But for a long-shot pick that could pay off in Crimson and Cream riches, try the OU Sooners. If the improved defensive play vs Texas wasn’t a fluke of familiarity, then holy cow.

If Oklahoma can somehow craft a solid defense for the College Football Playoff, what a terrifying sight their dead-eye sprinter of a QB would be when standing across from a favored opponent.

Go with Clemson and/or Oklahoma for a value pick on a January champion.

Kurt BoyerThis article was written by Kurt Boyer

A freelance sportswriter from Missouri, Kurt has covered court, gridiron, rink and ring for 10+ years. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.

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