Wilson: The College Football Playoff Bets I’m Making

Wilson: The College Football Playoff Bets I’m Making article feature image

USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Trevor Lawrence (16), Tua Tagovailoa (13), Kyler Murray (1).

  • The College Football Playoff semifinal matchups are within sight and Collin Wilson is making his picks.
  • He's placing wagers on the spread and total in the Cotton Bowl (Clemson-Notre Dame) and the Orange Bowl (Oklahoma-Alabama).

2018 Cotton Bowl Betting Odds: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame

  • Odds: Clemson -12
  • Over/Under: 56.5
  • Date: Saturday, Dec. 29
  • Location: Dallas, TX
  • Time: 4:00 p.m. ET
  • TV: ESPN

>> All odds as of Thursday afternoon. Download The Action Network App to get real-time bowl odds and win probabilities on your bets.

The path for Notre Dame-Clemson

Two undefeated teams roll into AT&T Stadium for a chance to make the national championship game. Notre Dame has transformed during the season from a Brandon Wimbush led victory against Michigan in the opener, while Clemson has done the same at quarterback.

One aspect that many did not expect is the Notre Dame strength of schedule having a low S&P+ rank of 61st. Virginia Tech, Northwestern, Pitt and Florida State all ranked outside the S&P+ top 50. The Irish brought their best when needed in covering efforts against their toughest opponents in Michigan, Stanford and Syracuse.

Clemson had a transformation with the insertion of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Kelly Bryant led Clemson into the 2017 College Football Playoff with a loss in the semifinal to Alabama and was the inherent starter for 2018. The element missing from this Clemson team was an explosive offense.

Lawrence provided that in spots leading up to Week 5, when head coach Dabo Swinney elected to move the freshman into the starter role, relegating Bryant as a backup. Week 5 against Syracuse included a Kelly Bryant transfer and a Lawrence injury within the span of a few days.

Lawrence returned from injury and Clemson started to roll on both sides of the ball. In the Tigers’ remaining eight games the offense scored at least 56 points on four occasions. The defense stepped up as well, allowing more than 10 points just twice in the final eight contests. Clemson has been dominant since the events of Week 5.

Odds Movement for Notre Dame-Clemson

The opening line of Clemson -10.5 was right in line with The Action Network Power Ratings, but a flurry of money on the Tigers is taking the line to -13 at most shops. A small flicker of Notre Dame +14 held for a total of three minutes before plenty of Irish money pushed the number back down.

As for the total, an opener of 55.5 had been stable for weeks until movement on Thursday, Dec. 27 came in on the over. As of this writing the number sits at 56.5. This number may tick a bit higher with further information coming on the Dexter Lawrence suspension for a banned substance.

What I’m Betting in Clemson-Notre Dame

My initial reaction to the line was that the point spread had disrespected Notre Dame, and that this number should be closer to the power rating of Clemson -10 than the key number of -14. With plenty of wagering on the preseason Clemson +750 for the national championship in mind, I shed a unit on the Action App with Notre Dame +12 when lines were first opened.

After further investigation, I am not worried about my futures with Clemson moving on to Santa Clara. I am worried about my one unit position on Notre Dame at +12, and I expect there will be a buyback or an even bigger position on Clemson to cover. Taking a deep dive into the advanced statistics sheds a bit of light as to why the Tigers should be the side to get behind.

The Notre Dame S&P+ defensive rank is fourth in compared to Clemson’s defensive rank (first). Surprisingly, the individual units are nowhere close in ranking. Between rushing, passing, standard downs and passing downs the Clemson Tigers lowest unit rank is sixth, with rush defense ranking first overall in the nation. Notre Dame isn’t quite as impressive ranking 18th in rush defense and 15th in standard downs.

The Irish passing defense is top 10, but a sack rate of 58th and a third-and-short success rate of 114th in the nation shows some of the holes in this Irish defense. While Notre Dame is quite good at limiting explosiveness, it is a poor rank in opponent third downs (57th) and average third down distance on defense (101st).

Another reason to be cool on the covering chances for Notre Dame is the list of opponents who lack the skilled players that Clemson possesses. While Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and wide receiver Tee Higgins may be the toughest individual players the Irish have faced, it’s the Clemson offensive line that is 10th in stuff rate for rushing and 16th in sack rate protection.

Clemson may be limited in explosive plays, but should have no issues in efficiency and moving the sticks on third down. The other side of the ball for these two teams is where the decision to take Clemson comes in.

Will Ian Book have time to throw? Plenty has been made of the Dexter Lawrence situation, but when a suspension like this happens, it is important to look at the replacement player. In this case we get senior Albert Huggins, a former 4-star recruit who has more sacks than Lawrence himself. Huggins averages over 20 snaps per game this season, and is skilled enough to start at any other FBS program.

Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Clemson Tigers defensive tackle Albert Huggins (67).

It may not even matter, as there are other Clemson defensive players with better numbers against the rush and pass. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell leads the team in tackles for loss (17.5) and run stuffs (19). Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is just shy of those numbers while a host of other Clemson players have stats as worthy as Lawrence.

Notre Dame’s rush offense ranks outside the top 100 in opportunity rate and stuff rate, leaving the scoring attack all on Book’s shoulders. That is a Clemson defensive specialty, to make an offense one dimensional. If Book is unable to get more than three seconds without pressure, this game could resemble something closer to a previous Clemson semifinal from 2016, where the Ohio State Buckeyes were blanked.

As for the total, Notre Dame is not a pass-first offense. Although both teams rank in the top 35 in adjusted pace, the Irish are 24th in passing downs run rate. Plenty of passing downs result in a run for Notre Dame, which could equal inefficiency with the Clemson defense ranking eighth in third down success rate and third in average third down distance.

Unless Book develops an appetite to throw it down the field, as the Irish are 70th in pass explosive, this should go under the total.

Collin’s Pick: Clemson -12.5, Under 56.5

2018 Orange Bowl Betting Odds: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma

  • Odds: Alabama -14
  • Over/Under: 77
  • Date: Saturday, Dec. 29
  • Location: Miami, FL
  • Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
  • TV: ESPN

The path for Alabama-Oklahoma

Was there ever a question that Alabama would make the College Football Playoff? The highest odds I’ve seen in the past 12 months came directly after last season’s national title victory over Georgia.

A number of shops posted the Crimson Tide at +250. That did not last long, as Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa for Heisman took in the majority of the tickets through November.

Alabama finished at the top of the S&P+ rankings and The Action Network power ratings after a SEC Championship comeback against Georgia, led by Jalen Hurts.

The problem with the 2017 Oklahoma Sooners was a defense that could not do enough against Georgia in last season’s Rose Bowl. Those issues were not addressed in the offseason, and a rivalry loss to Texas had defensive coordinator Mike Stoops fired halfway through the season. With Ruffin McNeil serving as interim defensive coordinator, the defensive stats remain dreadful.

A few key defensive stats include ranking 126th in pass efficiency, 106th in opponent completion rate, and 116th in opponent third downs success rate. Despite these numbers on defense, the offense has been led by Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.

Since the loss to Texas, the Sooners finished the regular season scoring at least 48 points in every remaining conference game. Oklahoma ranks first in the country in overall efficiency and explosiveness.

Odds Movement for Alabama-Oklahoma

For a game featuring the Heisman winner and runner-up, the point spread has been a bit of a bore. Most shops opened the number at Alabama -14 without much movement. One book had a few movements to Alabama -13.5 and -14.5 over the past two weeks, but the number has always come back to 14.

As for the total, an opener of 79 has trickled to 77 at most wagering outlets. As of this writing, SportsInsights reports 57% of the tickets are on the under, while 67% of the money is on the over.

What I’m Betting in Alabama-Oklahoma

We can throw as many statistics as we want to find the correct handicap in this game, but flat out, both teams are going to score. I often joke that Big 12 football games are like a ‘servbot’ Tennis game.

That term refers to ATP Tennis matches between players who score all their points through aces on serve. It consists of two players trading points for five hour matches, and the first player to get a break generally wins. Think Milos Raonic-John Isner type matches.

How does that apply to the Orange Bowl?

Whether you have your money down on the Sooners or the Crimson Tide, if a drive ends in anything less than a touchdown, then consider that a tennis break point. Oklahoma and Alabama rank first and second in the nation in overall offensive efficiency and explosiveness.

The 14-points in the handicap go against the Sooners defense, which ranks 109th in overall efficiency and 117th in defensive finishing drives. There was improvement by the Sooners against rushing explosiveness, holding West Virginia and Texas well below national average over the final two games.

Whether or not Oklahoma can find a defensive wrinkle against Alabama will determine which side to back. The closest comparison we have is Georgia, which ranks third in the nation offensively in success rate.

The Bulldogs ended the SEC Championship with a higher success rate on offense than Alabama, a 44% to 41% difference. The box score from the Alabama’s last game shows Georgia was over the national average in passing, standard downs and passing downs success rate.

Alabama’s one area of mediocrity in the advanced stats is defensive passing downs efficiency, where it ranks 35th. Even Mississippi State was close to the national average of 31% against Alabama in passing success rate. I will bet on Oklahoma being successful enough against Alabama to stay within a number.

As for the total, there should be at least 12-14 drives during the game, and if anyone is as successful as Army in scoring touchdowns in a bowl, the total should sail over the number. The Action Network projected total is 74, and the Oklahoma defense should oblige all over bettors.

The key question: how much will Alabama run the ball when they get a lead? The Crimson Tide rank 107th in standard downs run rate, but may stick to the ground to keep Kyler Murray off the field.

Collin’s Pick: Oklahoma +14, Over 76

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