College Football Preview

College football has been around long enough to see stranger days than these, but there’s no question that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the 2020-21 campaign for a loop. The Big Ten and Pac-12 only played half of their normal schedule – or even less. Teams who would normally line up for bowl games are pulling out instead. Yet through it all, the Alabama Crimson Tide (–175 at press time to win the title) have enjoyed the shortest National Championship odds here at Bovada Sportsbook.

Even that seems a bit strange, though. Alabama missed the College Football Playoff last year for the first time under the new format, and at first blush, they had an even tougher road ahead of them this year after stud quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (now with the Miami Dolphins) turned pro. However, thanks to the lack of quality opposition in the SEC, and the reluctance of the Big Ten and Pac-12 to play during the pandemic, the top-seeded Tide (11-0 SU, 8-3 ATS) have enjoyed a relatively clear path to the Playoff. The SEC wasn’t even close to this year’s top conference, not after the dismantling of the reigning champions, the LSU Tigers; the Pac-12 outperformed them on paper, but didn’t play nearly enough games to be considered for the CFP.

No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide

Judging by the latest College Football Playoff odds at Bovada, Nick Saban and his crew won’t have much trouble reaching the National Championship, either. They’re 20-point favorites to beat the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Rose Bowl, which will act as one of this year’s CFP semifinals. Even this venerable bowl game will have a different look when they kick off Friday, January 1 (4 PM ET, ESPN); because of increased lockdown measures in southern California, this matchup has been moved from Pasadena to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

College football is very much a coach’s game, and Saban is one of the most gifted football minds in the history of the sport. He’s won six National Championships – the first at LSU in 2003, and the remainder (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017) since landing in Tuscaloosa 13 years ago. His recruiting prowess, and Alabama’s brand, have kept the talent flowing from one season to another as players graduate or leave early for the NFL.

Case in point: Mac Jones. Aside from his incredible arm strength, Alabama’s new starting quarterback couldn’t be more different than Tagovailoa, but he’s the Tide’s latest Heisman Trophy finalist – although that award could end up going to his teammate, WR DeVonta Smith, who has moved into the top spot at –200; Jones is now second at +200. They’ve combined for 17 touchdowns through the air thus far, driving the best offense in the nation and compensating for Alabama’s good, but not great defense.

Notre Dame (10-1 SU, 5-6 ATS), meanwhile, have seen their National Championship odds take a tumble all the way to +2200, after losing the ACC title to the Clemson Tigers. The Fighting Irish got past Clemson during the regular season, but that was while Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence was sidelined by COVID-19. Losing 34-10 in the ACC Championship Game doesn’t bode well for Notre Dame’s chances on New Year’s Day; neither does their 30-3 loss to Clemson two years ago in the CFP semis. Having said that, the Irish are more than competent on both sides of the ball, and have a highly respected head coach of their own in Brian Kelly, plus a quality quarterback in Ian Book. Don’t write them off just yet.

No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 2 Clemson Tigers

The Sugar Bowl will be this year’s second CFP semifinal, also taking place this Friday (8 PM ET, ESPN) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The aforementioned Tigers (10-1 SU, 5-6 ATS) are back in the Playoff for the sixth year in a row – they missed the first one in 2015 – and they’re +210 to claim their third title for Dabo Swinney, the four-time and reigning Paul “Bear” Bryant Coach of the Year winner. Both title victories came against Alabama.

Before Swinney and Saban go at it for a fifth time (Alabama won their first meeting in the 2016 title game, and again in the 2018 semis), the Tigers have to get past Ohio State (6-0 SU, 3-3 ATS). That won’t be easy, even if Clemson won this matchup last year at the Fiesta Bowl. This year’s Buckeyes may be +650 on Bovada’s National Championship odds board, down from +500 last week, but they’re also undefeated, and their offense is superior to Clemson’s, with head coach Ryan Day (OSU’s offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer) and QB Justin Fields slicing and dicing the competition.

Unfortunately for Day and Fields, they’re about to meet the best defense in college football. Lawrence (+500 to win the Heisman) may be Clemson’s marquee attraction, but their real strength is their talent and depth under defensive coordinator Brent Venables – who recently turned down the head coaching opportunity at Auburn to stay with Swinney. Venables has done an incredible job managing the high turnover he faced during the offseason, getting the most out of freshmen like DE Myles Murphy and LB Trent Simpson, who are tied for the team lead with four sacks apiece.

Add it all up, and Clemson are holding steady as 7.5-point favorites to beat Ohio State at the Sugar Bowl. You’ll also find well over 100 different props on each of the two CFP semifinals, and a healthy dose of college football specials, from this year’s Heisman winner to the potential matchups for the 2021 National Championship game on Monday, January 11 (8 PM ET, ESPN). The favored result at press time is Alabama beating Clemson (+105), followed by Clemson beating Alabama (+225); if past results have shown us anything, the latter might be the best bargain of the bunch.