College Football National Championship Odds & Picks: The Case for Betting Alabama & Ohio State
Credit: Getty Images. Pictured, from left: Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle (17) and Ohio State running back Trey Sermon (8).
Ohio State vs. Alabama Odds
The Case for Ohio State
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Calabrese: Somewhere between Ohio State’s shorthanded win over Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game and its kickoff against Clemson in New Orleans, the general public seemed to forget that there are only three true superpowers operating in today’s college football: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
According to 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite Rankings, the Buckeyes actually edged out the Tigers from a talent perspective.
They also countered Clemson’s all-world quarterback with a future top-five pick of their own and were healthy for the first time in weeks. The result was a resounding blowout of Clemson as a seven-point underdog.
And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re familiar with Ohio State’s tremendous record as an underdog in recent years.
Since 2012, Ohio State is 8-1 outright as an underdog, including an upset of Alabama in the College Football Playoff as a 7.5-point dog back in 2015. Some teams like to block out the external noise; others seem to embrace it.
If you followed Ohio State’s beat writers ahead of the Sugar Bowl or since, it’s clear that Ohio State is in the latter camp. The third-most talented roster in the game is playing angry, and it shows. Not only was its offense balanced and exceptionally aggressive against Clemson, but its spotty defense made its fair share of big plays.
And that’s where this game will swing, for better or worse, on Ohio State’s defense. I could play the role of compromised data scientist and try to juke some of Ohio State’s defensive stats in its favor, but I respect our audience enough to state the fact that the Buckeyes’ pass defense is terrible.
With that out of the way, let’s examine the question, “How did a terrible defense hold Trevor Lawrence to 28 points?” The Buckeyes did it in three ways.
They won early downs by limiting the Clemson running game (two yards per carry), they got off the field regularly on third down (Clemson went 5-of-12 on third) and they limited the big play (Lawrence 8.3 yards per attempt).
Sure, they still gave up 400 yards through the air, but they made Clemson continually earn it. The Tigers didn’t hit a play of 30 yards or more in the entire game.
Given how dynamic and balanced the Ohio State offense looked against a previously regarded “elite” Clemson defense, I have faith it can score at least 38 points against the Crimson Tide.
If it does so, it’s on its defense to provide moderate resistance against Alabama. I’m not looking for a lights-out performance or the benefit of three or four lucky turnovers.
If the Buckeyes can bow their necks on third down and prevent explosive plays as they did against Clemson, this will be a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, with all of the pressure sliding to the sizable favorite and not Ohio State.
The Case for Alabama
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Ianniello: Is it possible that Alabama is actually a little underrated? I know that sounds crazy for a team that is universally agreed to be the best team in the country. But the Tide have averaged 48.2 points per game, 535 points per game, and have an average margin of victory this year of 29.2 against an all SEC schedule.
They have the Heisman Trophy winner, and took home the awards for the best player, best quarterback, best running back, best wide receiver, and best offensive line. This Alabama team is one of the best teams of all time.
Alabama is extremely well balanced on offense, ranking first in Rushing Success Rate< and second in Passing Success Rate. Its offense has exactly what you need to beat this Ohio State defense: elite receivers.
Ohio State’s secondary has struggled all season against the deep ball threat. The Buckeyes rank 60th on defense in Passing Success Rate and 50th against passing explosiveness. They have allowed 281.1 passing yards per game which ranks 116th in the country. Again, that’s 116th. Only 11 teams in the FBS were worse against the pass.
Against Penn State, Jahan Dotson totaled eight catches for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle torched the Buckeyes for seven catches, 218 yards and three scores. And last week against Clemson, Cornell Powell went for eight receptions, 139 yards and two touchdowns.
Shaun Wade has really struggled all season and was absolutely turned inside out by Powell in the semifinal. He now gets the task of guarding DeVonta Smith, the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991. Ever heard of him?
Smith has caught 20 touchdowns in 12 games and averages 136.8 yards per game and 15.6 yards per catch. On top of that, the rich could get even richer, as Jaylen Waddle returned to practice this week after fracturing his ankle on Oct. 24 and will be a game-time decision. Waddle was actually Alabama’s leading receiver before his injury, totaling 557 yards and averaging 22.2 yards per catch in the first four games.
Throw in the best running back in the country as well as the most accurate quarterback in college football history (77.0 completion percentage), and this Alabama team is a runaway freight train you do not want to get in the way of.
Buckeyes Secondary Argument
Calabrese: As I said from the onset, Ohio State will give up big yards in this game through the air. That’s a given. It’s really a matter of how those yards are given up.
Chunk plays are not only a killer in terms of field possession and momentum, but they’re also demoralizing to a defense that is fully aware it’s squaring off against an all-time great offense.
I equate those 30+ yard pass plays to fast-break dunks for a high-scoring college basketball offense. If you let them make those highlight-reel plays, you risk losing your confidence early. And we’ve seen what Mac Jones and Alabama do to teams not playing with confidence on defense.
The way I respond to this is the same way Ohio State will: with a dynamic passing game of its own. Alabama’s secondary has a surprisingly poor track record against bonafide No. 1 wideouts.
Florida’s Kadarius Toney cooked Alabama for 153 yards in the SEC Championship Game. Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore made his case for a slot on the All-American team by racking up 143 yards in the third game of the season.
Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith (123 yards) and LSU’s Kayshon Boutte (111 yards) also found great success.
Enter Chris Olave.
When the Ohio State junior has taken the field this season, he’s averaged 110 receiving yards per game. The only game he didn’t blow past 100 receiving yards was against Rutgers, which featured just 28 total pass attempts. He’s cut from the same cloth as Toney, Moore, Smith and Boutte in that he can take over a game. I believe he will, keeping Ohio State in it along the way.
Crimson Tide Counterargument
Ianniello: Yes, Ohio State looked tremendous last week. It was the best it’s looked all season. But I think that was its peak, not the norm.
Ohio State was very open in admitting it used the 2019 Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson as motivation all season. It had the 29-23 loss displayed all over the locker room and weight room. Justin Fields wanted to get to a rematch with Clemson all year after throwing the game-sealing interception last year.
Add in Dabo Swinney throwing gasoline on the fire by ranking the Buckeyes No. 11, and it was clear this game was very personal.
Ohio State went out and played its best game of the season and celebrated as it got their revenge against Clemson, something that has motivated the Buckeyes all season.
Alabama is motivated by one thing: championships. Alabama walked off that field as if it was business as usual. In fact, it was kind of upset. The Tide were scored on late, and Nick Saban was not happy after his team managed just 10 points in the second half of the semifinal game.
Do you really want to back an Ohio State team that is likely to regress after a highly emotional and personal victory or an angry Alabama team that knows it needs to play better?
Ohio State Rebuttal
Calabrese: It’s entirely possible that Ohio State played its best game of the year in the Sugar Bowl, but I wouldn’t expect it to come out flat by any means.
Ohio State’s M.O. in recent years has been playing great against ranked teams and occasionally coming out flat against inferior opponents (Hello, Iowa & Purdue). You have to go all the way back to Sept. 9, 2016 against Oklahoma to find an instance in which Ohio State didn’t show up in a big game, as the Sooners pulled off a 31-16 victory.
Since then, the Buckeyes are 19-1 against ranked opponents straight up with their lone loss coming to Clemson last year in the Fiesta Bowl, 29-23.
What this illustrates is that Ohio State hasn’t been outclassed by a ranked opponent in nearly four years, which is why I think it’ll hold its own and avoid an early knockout punch from the Crimson Tide.
And as I said above, the longer Ohio State hangs in this one, the more pressure Alabama will begin to feel as the prohibitive favorite.
Ianniello: In a fitting end to the 2020 season, Ohio State is once again dealing with COVID-19 issues and rumored to be missing players for the National Championship.
As Calabrese said, a huge part of the Buckeyes’ success against the Clemson offense was limiting the run and getting pressure on Lawrence.
Well, the Ohio State defensive line is widely rumored to be the unit currently affected by COVID-19.
That would be very significant for the Bucks. Even if they are at full strength, the Alabama offensive line won the 2020 Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line. Even without Landon Dickerson, Alex Leatherwood and crew should find a way to neutralize a potentially shorthanded OSU front seven. You are taking a big risk backing a team with players who may or may not be suiting up.
Why You Should Bet the Buckeyes
Calabrese: If Ohio State was at full strength, I’d feel more bullish on it potentially pulling the upset outright, but there’s a final factor that I believe trends in the Buckeyes’ favor.
Steve Sarkisian has one foot out the door, and while he’s said all the right things in the media, he is mentally preparing for his head coaching reboot in Austin.
With a play-caller not 100% locked in, I’m banking on the slightest of regressions from a red-hot Alabama offense, which opens the door for Ohio State to keep pace and end this game within a possession of Saban and the Crimson Tide.<
Pick: Ohio State +8.5.
Why You Should Bet the Crimson Tide
Ianniello: Both of these offenses are going to be able to move the ball and pick up big plays, we both agree on that (bet the over). The spread of this game is going to come down to who can get the most stops. I don’t see Ohio State being able to stop this Alabama offense. Roll Tide.
Pick: Alabama -8.5.