College Football Best Bets: Our Top Picks for Championship Saturday
Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: The Michigan Wolverines.
College Football Best Bets for Conference Championships
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Championship Saturday is here.
With eight college football conference championships on deck, we're primed for a big day.
Our college football writers came through with five best bets for Saturday's conference championship games, including picks for Georgia vs. Alabama in the SEC Championship, Louisville vs. Florida State in the ACC Championship, Iowa vs. Michigan in the Big Ten Championship and more.
Check out all five of our best bets for Saturday's college football conference championship games below.
By John Feltman
The Longhorns have a lot of work to do in order to climb up the College Football Playoff rankings, but first, they must take care of business on the field.
The Horns need as many style points as possible in order to spruce up their resume, but to me, this could be done by their terrific defensive front.
It’s been impressive how Pokes head coach Mike Gundy has turned around this season when everyone wrote them off by the end of September.
The biggest reason has been quarterback Alan Bowman claiming the starting job and running back Ollie Gordon II, who’s been absolutely sensational this season.
That’s all fine and dandy, but this is a huge matchup nightmare for the Pokes. It’s nearly impossible to run against this Horns defensive front that ranks sixth nationally in explosive runs allowed.
Quite honestly, I have a hard time seeing the Pokes putting up any sort of fight offensively. They're going to have to win this game with their defense, but considering they're 111th in Defensive Passing Success Rate, this has to be a big day for Ewers.
Both of these offenses also struggle with Finishing Drives, which could be a big difference in covering this number. Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian is usually very aggressive, and he’ll have the lingering thought in the back of his head that his team needs style points.
Gundy won’t have an issue motivating this group, but the talent discrepancy and major mismatches for the Pokes are very concerning. Remember, they barely squeaked into this game after struggling mightily in the first half against BYU last week.
The Horns should roll here, and I think Ewers is primed for a massive day.
Pick: Texas -15.5 (Play to -16.5)
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No team has improved more over the course of the single season than the Alabama Crimson Tide.
After a performance against Texas that had the Tide faithful reeling, everything seemed to be falling apart. The offensive line was a mess, the pass rush was nonexistent, and most importantly, Jalen Milroe was making poor decisions with the ball.
It seemed like Alabama was going to have to live with 1-2 horrific turnover-worthy plays per game.
However, after being benched against USF, Milroe has blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He's logged a PFF grade of 91.4, good for fifth among all qualifying quarterbacks.
Ironically, the player two spots ahead of him is Georgia's Carson Beck, the quarterback who has quietly been leading the Dawgs to yet another undefeated season.
However, something just feels different about this Georgia team.
It’s probably because instead of being historically dominant, this UGA defense is merely very good. In two of our most important metrics — total Havoc and Points per Opportunity Allowed — the Dawgs rank just 67th and 48th, respectively.
Alabama has been great this season inside opposing territory, ranking 20th in Points per Opportunity. I think the Tide will be able to move the ball on UGA, especially if Milroe utilizes his legs.
This will be a great game with significantly more offense. However, instead of betting the total, I’ll take the team that's peaking at the right time.
Pick: Alabama Team Total Over 24.5 or Better
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By Dan Keegan
Appalachian State and Troy meet in the Sun Belt title game in a matchup between quarterbacks who have submitted surprisingly quality campaigns.
Troy’s Gunnar Watson was along for the ride last year as the ultimate game manager while the Trojans rode their killer defense to the Sun Belt title.
He has taken a huge step forward this year, along with running back Kimani Vidal, and the team has learned to score the football. Troy’s offense is not efficient, but it's surged in big-play capability, ranking eighth in the nation in explosives.
A major reason for his success has been the downfield playmaking of Chris Lewis, a transfer from Kentucky and one of the best jump-ball merchants in college football.
App’s cornerback duo of Ethan Johnson and Tyrek Funderburk are well-regarded, but the 6-foot-4 Lewis has the size advantage and will make some plays downfield in this game.
In addition, Vidal will have a big game for Troy on the ground against an Appalachian State front that ranks 127th in EPA/rush.
But an over takes two teams, and while Troy’s defense has a reputation, it's not as strong as last year’s outfit. It’s a middle-of-the-pack FBS defense, not the top-10 SP+ unit it was last fall. It can be had.
And App State’s offense is clicking right now. Quarterback Joey Aguilar has thrown at least three touchdowns in the last five games. The ‘Neers defeated an excellent James Madison team on the road and have blown out other conference opponents during Aguilar’s heater.
Like Troy, App has excellent receivers and one of the best big-play offenses in the country, ranking 23rd in explosive play rate.
The only thing I’m keeping an eye on is the weather: the forecast has muddled up recently. If things stay clear or end up just damp, I think these teams will trade haymakers all day. If the forecast calls for heavy rains, I’m out.
Otherwise, on Saturday morning after a spin through your weather app of choice, take Appalachian State and Troy to go over 53.
Pick: Over 53 (Play to 55)
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By Cody Goggin
Florida State has had a fantastic season, but in my opinion, it ended when Jordan Travis went down against North Alabama. The Seminoles are currently holding the fourth and final College Football Playoff spot, but a loss here would eliminate all hope.
Tate Rodemaker steps in at quarterback after mostly playing in relief over the last few seasons. In his first start of the season against Florida last weekend, Florida State averaged just 3.96 yards per play and sat in the 15th percentile in Offensive Success Rate.
This isn’t going to fly against a Louisville defense that's ranked 31st in SP+, including marks of 14th in Defensive Success Rate and 13th in Havoc.
Both facets of Louisville’s defense have been strong, as it ranks 16th in Rushing Success Rate Allowed and 12th in Rushing PPA. Against the pass, it's 12th in Passing Success Rate Allowed and 18th in Passing PPA.
This will be a tough defense to overcome with a backup quarterback.
Louisville’s offense has been equally respectable this season, ranking 32nd in SP+. The Cardinals are 54th in Finishing Drives and 47th in Havoc Allowed against a somewhat weak schedule.
Florida State may have lost its quarterback, but it still has a very good defense to fall back on. The Seminoles are 12th in Defensive Success Rate, 18th in Finishing Drives and sixth in Havoc Rate.
This unit comes in as the ninth-best defense in the country, according to SP+.
With Travis out, I believe Louisville has the advantage in this matchup. However, Florida State’s stout defense makes me believe this will be a lower-scoring game.
I like taking this game to go under its current total of 47.5 points and would play it down to 46 points.
Pick: Under 47.5 (Play to 46)
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Iowa has one of the best defenses in the country because of its strong secondary.
The Hawkeyes boast the No. 1 coverage unit in the country, per PFF, and are allowing only 5.0 yards per attempt to rank second in the nation. They did lose their best cover man in Cooper DeJean for the season, but they still held both Nebraska and Illinois to under seven yards per attempt.
J.J. McCarthy certainly poses a much more difficult threat, but if we go back to when Iowa played Penn State, Drew Allar couldn't average over five yards per attempt either.
Ultimately, it's going to be really difficult for Michigan to throw the ball.
Iowa is also incredibly difficult to run against. Michigan is going to take to the ground quite a bit in this game, but it'll have to do so two or three yards at a time.
The Hawkeyes are also one of the best teams in the country at defending a short field. They're allowing only 2.4 Points per Scoring Opportunity, which ranks third in the nation.
They've also allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season — the best mark in the country.
Special teams should give the Iowa defense a boost as well. Tory Taylor has downed the most punts of anyone in college football inside the 20-yard line, which has helped Iowa rank eighth in average starting field position on defense.
Michigan's offense is built on methodically moving the ball down the field while sucking the life out of the opposing defense, which is what Penn State did to Iowa earlier this season. The Wolverines run the ball 59.4% of the time and rank second in seconds per play at 31.5.
The offense isn't built on big plays. It's built on positive EPA plays over and over again. Michigan sits 112th in explosiveness, but it's generating a positive EPA on 50.3% of its offensive plays, which is top-10 in the nation.
I only have Michigan projected for 23.1 points in this game, so I like trusting Iowa's defense and taking the Wolverines team total under 28.5 points