Finding Value for the 2018 NCAAF National Championship

Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide at the White House
Public domain (White House archives).

It’s early May, the NBA playoffs are in full swing, the NHL postseason meatgrinder has been turned on, and there’s only one thing to talk about: too early college football odds.

The Favorites

If you’re holding out hope that a Cinderella is going to take home next year’s national championship, stop. No team outside the Power Five power structure has ever done so (unless you count Notre Dame). One of the 11 blue bloods listed below is probably going to win the National Championship, and it’s Alabama.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had.


Alabama (+300)

Nick Saban press conference
By Matt Velazquez (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]
It’s 2017 and you can still bet money that Alabama will win the National Championship Game. Go ahead, your financial adviser won’t even be mad. Things are looking good for the Crimson Tide: Nick Saban just signed a three-year contract extension, Bo Scarbrough is on early Heisman watch lists, Jalen Hurts will hit the age of majority in Alabama before the season starts, and Lane Kiffin has been tagged and released into the wild.

The only real problem they have is that they lost 10 players to the NFL draft, including four first-rounders. But that’s nothing new for Saban. The Tide lost seven guys to the 2016 draft, and another septet the year before. At this point, the losses merely show an unparalleled institutional capacity to recruit and develop talent. Saban doesn’t rebuild; he reloads.

This year, Saban only really has to reload on one side of the ball. The bulk of Alabama’s offensive production is returning in Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and the aforementioned Jalen Hurts, while we can rely on DC Jeremy Pruitt developing his warehouse of four and five-star recruits into the best defense in the country, again.

The only real question mark with Alabama is new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Daboll hasn’t coached a college team since 1999 (Michigan State), although he has won five Super Bowls with New England since then. It will be interesting to see if he can keep the offense on track quickly enough to keep the Crimson Tide in contention once again. In the college football world, an early stumble or two can wipe out your entire season.

Betting outlook: Looking at the lines available, +300 is about the shortest odds anyone is comfortable offering on a violent game played by amateur students with an oblong ball, and honestly it’s still something of a bargain.


Ohio State (+550)

JT Barrett during an OSU spring game
By Paula Lively [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0]
Despite being shut out by Clemson in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes are listed at +550 and the second favourite to win. Their spring game was certainly promising: JT Barrett shined in a no-contact jersey, once again flashing the limitless potential that has frustrated Buckeye fans since he became the starter, while high-school star and Instagram legend Tate Martell scored on his first play from scrimmage. The other side of the ball is something of a concern, however: after losing safety Malik Hooker and corner Marshon Lattimore, the Buckeye secondary proved vulnerable to the deep ball (part of what made Barrett look so good).

Their 2017 schedule avoids one of the toughest teams in the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and sees them host the lone team to beat them in the regular season (Penn State). Only Oklahoma (home) and Michigan (road) pose a credible threat for the rest of the season. Look for that Michigan rivalry game to again be critical to the playoff picture.

Betting outlook: Ohio State hasn’t been as foolproof as the Crimson Tide in years past — nobody has — and at +550 they don’t really make sense. Pass.


USC (+700)

Sam Darnold at USC's 2017 spring game
By Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

Another year, another USC hype train. The Trojans are listed third by most sportsbooks, and once again it’s a little tough to justify. Adoree’ Jackson is long gone, a PAC-12 team hasn’t won the national championship since Condoleezza Rice was made Secretary of State (coincidence?), and the last time USC played another national title favourite they were blown out 52-6 by the Crimson Tide.

On the other hand, USC continues to recruit very well, they’ve managed to name (and keep) a head coach, and starting quarterback Sam Darnold has captured the hearts of Trojan fans and Heisman bettors alike. In their 52-49 Rose Bowl thriller against no. 5 Penn State, Darnold piled up 437 passing yards, threw for five touchdowns, broke Vince Young’s 2006 record for total offense (473 yards), and led a huge fourth-quarter comeback.

USC should have a decidedly easier Week 1 than last year, playing Western Michigan instead of Alabama, but after that, their schedule gets remarkably difficult for a PAC-12 team. Tom Herman’s first Texas team can’t be overlooked, and Notre Dame won’t (or rather can’t) be as weak as last year.

Betting outlook: No one is better at putting a lot of athletic talent on a football field at one time than USC (save Bama), but I can’t bet on a team that lost to Utah.


The Field

Though not in the top three, this next crop is still talented enough to warrant consideration.

Michigan (+1200)

It’s Jim Harbaugh’s third year as Michigan head coach, and it’s time for college football’s favourite lunatic to produce what Wolverine fans hired him for: a line of signature khakis, a win in The Game, and (if he has time) a national championship. They’ve come breathtakingly close: if not for a one-point road loss to Iowa and a spot so controversial that it inspired its own Zapruder film, Michigan might have made the playoff in Ohio State or Washington’s stead.

Michigan has recruited extremely well in the Harbaugh era, bringing in a new wave of talent (including Christian McCaffrey’s little brother) and, hopefully, the depth it takes to compete in January.

Michigan gets its out of conference schedule over with in its first three games, facing Florida, Cincinnati, and Air Force. It’s neither a murderer’s row nor a cakewalk. Air Force shouldn’t be too much of a challenge but triple-option teams have a way of getting upsets; Cincinnati is improving fast under Luke Fickell; and Florida is the reigning SEC East champion, whatever that means.

Betting outlook: With 11 players being selected in the 2017 draft, no team lost more players to the NFL than Michigan, and that’s without counting Jabrill Peppers four times. If Michigan can fill those gaps, they’ll be a real bargain at +1200.


Penn State (+1200)

Depending on who you ask, Penn State either finished last season ranked an encouraging no. 5 or was robbed of a spot in the playoff by committee bias. Either way, they put on a show in their Rose Bowl loss to USC, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley showing exactly how they beat Ohio State and why they’re going to be so dangerous in 2017. Both return, and in the third year of James Franklin’s tenure in State College, it looks like the Nittany Lions will entrench themselves in the national spotlight.

Betting outlook: What we saw in the Rose Bowl was two evenly matched teams playing a fantastic game, so it’s tough to understand why USC is at +700 and Penn State at +1200, especially considering the difficulty PAC-12 teams face making the playoffs and the talent that the Nittanies return.


Clemson (+2200)

As painful as it is to see the books this long on the reigning national champions, it’s not unreasonable. Losing the best player in college football will do that to a program, and while Clemson’s certainly emerged as one of the most talented programs in the country, it’s hard to overstate Deshaun Watson’s personal contribution to their national championship ring.

After losing his QB and his top receiver (Mike Williams), Dabo Swinney is left with a young team and some serious questions on offense. They’ve done everything they can to recruit the quarterback position, bringing Elite 11 star Hunter Johnson in as an early enrollee and securing a promising commitment from 2018’s top high-school pivot, Trevor Lawrence, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to find a player as complete and as competent as Watson for some time.

Clemson will have to find a way to score, and fast, with the Louisville Lamar Jacksons on their schedule for Week 3. Their Week 2 matchup against Auburn could also be critical.

Betting outlook: Clemson will be rebuilding in 2017. As talented as they are, they play a tough schedule in what’s become a tough conference without a lot of the tools that made them great in 2016.


Louisville (+2200)

Louisville isn’t a favourite, but they have one thing nobody else in the country has: Lamar Jackson. The Heisman winner scored more total touchdowns (51) than Cam Newton did in his historic 2010 season (50), came within a score of beating eventual national champion Clemson, and generally redefined what we mean when we say something is “like a video game.” Everyone else looks slow, awkward, and wobbly when Jackson’s on the field.

What’s holding the Cardinals back? Their offensive line couldn’t handle Houston, which doesn’t bode well for their prospects against blue-bloods. Also, a defense that allows 41 points to Kentucky has some questions to answer. When Louisville gave Jackson room to breathe, he was unstoppable. When Houston and Kentucky denied him that space, he looked mortal.

Betting outlook: Louisville is a strong team with an unbelievable quarterback and a real shot at the playoff. If they can put Jackson on the field in Atlanta on January 8th, there’s absolutely no reason they can’t win it all. At +2200, they’re one of the better value bets on the board.


Washington (+3300)

The Huskies are a really good football team. They lose the fastest man in football history, their coach won’t talk to anyone, and they got pumped by Alabama in the Peach Bowl, but still: really good football team.

Quarterback Jake Browning put up great numbers in 2016 and is featured on every Heisman watch list. The offensive and defensive lines that power-cleaned Stanford and pancaked (almost) everyone else are still largely intact. On defense, they lose a lot to the draft: Budda Baker, Kevin King, and Sidney Jones all did great things for UW’s secondary. So finding solutions there before playing pass-happy UCLA and Oregon in Weeks 9 and 10 will be critical. They’ve also struggled to run the ball against elite defenses. Nowhere was that more clear than in the Peach Bowl, but fortunately they have until mid-November (when they face Stanford in Palo Alto) to figure that particular problem out.

Betting outlook: There are some weaknesses in Washington’s team, but they play the easiest schedule of the teams listed here. If they can keep it together and address their problems by November, they’ll be a playoff contender.


The Longshots

They’re not going to win, because college football lacks parity and Alabama is going to win, but hey, why not? Crazy odds.

Ole Miss (+10000)

Ole Miss has a lot of problems. In the last few years, they’ve flashed from the best team in the country to 5-7 non-bowl-qualifier to NCAA investigation magnet and everything in between. They’ve lost their quarterback, committed to a 2017 bowl ban, and generally been shaken by the roller coaster that is college football more than anyone else.

The upside is that Ole Miss has beaten conference rival and perennial national favourite Alabama in two of their last three meetings, and did it with a quarterback who breathes manually, was named Mr. Irrelevant, and gets into fights at high-school football games.

Betting outlook: Here’s why this is fun: you’re basically parlaying three bets:

(1) that the NCAA won’t sanction the team in a way that prevents them from competing;

(2) that an SEC West team which lost seven games last year will make the top four in the playoff committee’s rankings; and

(3) that Ole Miss will renege on its own, self-imposed bowl ban in order to compete for the national championship.

What’s not to love about that? (Also Shea Patterson could hunt deer with a football and I am very excited to watch him throw.)


Texas A&M (+10000)

That’s right, oddsmakers have Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies with the same chance to win as the team that promised the NCAA it won’t play. That’s kind of what happens when you lose to Kansas State in the venerable Advocare V100 Texas Bowl and watch Myles Garrett go to the draft.

Betting outlook: What do the Aggies have going for them? As mentioned, they are still eligible to play, so far. They also signed 27 recruits for the 2017 season, including Elite 11 QB Kellen Mond and a deep well of top talents. Plus they’re an air-raid team, but that’s less a promising attribute and more of an entertaining way to watch your money go away.


Pittsburgh (+30000)

In an era when even the most conservative programs are incorporating spread concepts into their playbooks, one plucky team rages against deeply un-American ideas like no-huddle offenses and the forward pass. If you’re a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy, this team is for you. Also, last year they beat Penn State, who beat Ohio State, so that’s like a transitive playoff slot, or something.

Betting outlook: This is less of a bet and more a piece of consumer activism against all that fancy-pants nonsense so called “football” teams have been doing recently, and by “recently” I mean since the late 1990s.