The College Football Playoff is likely to omit at least one team that would be favored over each of the four teams that actually make the field.
Alabama and Ohio State are the two teams that appear squarely on the bubble and not in control of their own national-championship destiny heading into the final set of games before the bracket is revealed. They’re also the two teams that have sat on top of oddsmakers’ power ratings for much of the season.
Alabama would be favored against any team in the country on a neutral field despite last week’s 26-14 loss at Auburn as 4-point favorites. Ohio State would lay points against everyone except Alabama.
This is all subject to change, of course. There are still five more sets of power-conference data points in the form of conference championship games to consider before the playoff and bowl bids are announced at 9 a.m. Sunday morning.
But in the first three years of the College Football Playoff, the field pretty accurately reflected the Las Vegas view of the best teams. Even when Ohio State was controversially included twice, in 2016 and 2014, the odds were on the selection committee’s side if their intention was to pick the best teams.
It looks nearly impossible that such symmetry could continue for a fifth straight year.
Check below for a preview and picks on the five major-conference championship games, along with extra bets at the end. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas, and picks are labeled in three separate confidence categories. College football by the odds sits at 104-94-4 against the spread on the year after going 11-5 last week.
Pac-12 Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.: Stanford plus-3.5 vs. USC, over/under: 58; 5 p.m. Friday on ESPN
The Big Ten is the only major conference to wind up with the exact championship game matchup that the odds indicated as the most likely at the start of the season.
The Pac-12 came pretty close. USC was the odds-on favorite to come out of the South division ever since the futures opened, while Stanford was the second choice in the North.
The betting market implied Stanford would only need to upset Washington to reach its fourth Pac-12 Championship, and that’s exactly what happened. This game only loses some of its luster because of underwhelming non-conference performances from both teams.
USC is only a little over a month removed from getting blown out 49-14 at Notre Dame as 4-point favorites, while Stanford was upset earlier in the season 20-17 as 8.5-point favorites at San Diego State. These teams’ first meeting is also affecting the excitement level, albeit to a lesser extent.
The Cardinal had no answers for the Trojans in a 42-24 loss at the Coliseum as 4-point underdogs. They allowed Ronald Jones III and Stephen Carr to rush for a combined 235 yards on 34 carries.
Rush defense has proven to be an issue all year for Stanford, as it rates 78th in the nation in giving up 4.6 yards per run attempt.
Guess: USC minus-3.5
Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas: TCU plus-7 vs. Oklahoma, over/under: 63.5; 9:30 a.m. on Fox
Irony emerges as the true Big 12 champion if TCU knocks off Oklahoma on Saturday.
The conference’s stated reason for brining back a conference championship game for the first time in seven years despite a round-robin schedule was to give it a better chance for representation in the College Football Playoff. The opposite will occur if the Horned Frogs prevail.
There appears to be no path to the playoff for two-loss TCU, while Oklahoma is comfortably in the field unless it falls victim to an upset. Most bettors don’t see that happening, as Oklahoma is the most popularly bet side in the major conference championship games.
At William Hill sports books, 86 percent of the early tickets came in on the Sooners. That doesn’t mean late money can’t come in on the Horned Frogs.
It happened the first time they played. Oklahoma sat as a 7-point favorite all week, before closing at minus-7 with big bets pouring in on TCU.
The Sooners dispatched the Horned Frogs 38-20 in that matchup as part of their current 4-1 against the spread stretch to end the season. Oklahoma’s only non-cover in the last month and a half came in a 41-3 win at Kansas as 40-point favorites.
Lean: TCU plus-7
SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta: Georgia plus-2.5 vs. Auburn, over/under: 48; 1 p.m. on CBS
The championship game with the most lopsided betting action will lead into the one with the most split opinions.
Early reports indicate Auburn drawing only about 60 percent of the tickets despite its 40-17 victory over Georgia three weeks ago. The Tigers were a 2.5-point underdog at home in that game, meaning when taking into account location, this game has swung a touchdown in their favor.
The rematch is a semi-home game for the Bulldogs given their campus’ close proximity to Atlanta, which is also its biggest alumni base.
But none of that should matter if the Tigers can replicate what they did against the Bulldogs the first time around. Auburn’s defensive front overwhelmed Georgia’s offensive line with six hurries and four sacks on quarterback Jake Fromm.
The Tigers also controlled the trenches on the other side, averaging more than 5 yards per carry to Georgia’s less than 2 yards per carry. It could be more difficult to sustain that success in Atlanta with leading rusher Kerryon Johnson nursing a shoulder injury.
It’s possible the whole ordeal was a one-game blip for Georgia anyway. Neither pass protection nor rush defense was a problem for the Bulldogs on the season as a whole.
They rank in the nation’s top 25 in giving up 3.6 yards per rush attempt against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, and have a below-average allowed sack rate at 6.3 percent.
Play: Georgia plus-2.5
ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte: Miami plus-9.5 vs. Clemson, over/under: 46.5; 5 p.m. on ABC
The Tigers and Hurricanes couldn’t be entering the ACC Championship Game on much different terms.
Miami had by far its lousiest performance of the season in spoiling its undefeated record with a 24-14 loss at Pittsburgh where it fell short of its point-spread expectation by a season-high 22 points. Clemson, meanwhile, eclipsed its expectation by the biggest amount since week 3 in blowing out South Carolina 34-10 as 12.5-point favorites.
The betting market certainly seems swayed by the contrasting results. Last week’s look-ahead lines had this spread as low as Clemson minus-6.5 before the teams’ games.
The field goal boost interestingly puts this line at the same price it was the last time the two schools’ met — a 58-0 Clemson win in 2015. That performance may have wound up benefiting Miami, as it precipitated the firing of then-coach Al Golden.
The Hurricanes have been much better under new coach Mark Richt, including a 14-10 against the spread record. It’s a small sample size but that's an even better clip than Dabo Swinney, who’s gone 69-59-1 versus the number at Clemson.
Lean: Miami plus-9.5
Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis: Ohio State minus-5.5 vs. Wisconsin, over/under: 51; 5 p.m. on Fox
Wisconsin fans may have experienced fever dreams of the last time their team met Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game this week.
That was when Ohio State, en route to winning the first-ever College Football Playoff, routed Wisconsin 59-0 with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones three years ago. It looked like the Buckeyes might have to dip into their reserves again under center against the Badgers with J.T. Barrett hurting his knee in a 31-20 win over Michigan as 12-point favorites last week.
But Barrett had minor surgery and will play against Wisconsin. In other ways, the matchup still seems similar to the 2014 game.
The Buckeyes are again looking for a way to sneak into the playoffs despite currently being on the outside, and the betting market isn’t sure it’s capable. Undefeated Wisconsin is drawing most of the action, shaving a half-point off of the opening spread at most local sports books.
The Badgers hold both 84 percent of the money wagered and 81 percent of the tickets placed at William Hill sports books. Wisconsin has covered far more frequently than Ohio State — the Badgers are 8-4 against the spread to the Buckeyes’ 5-7 — and also has a near identical point differential.
The retort to those numbers is that Wisconsin has faced a far easier schedule. It’s finally time to figure out how much that matters.
Lean: Ohio State minus-5.5
Louisiana-Monroe plus-27 at Florida State This spread looked inflated for anemic Florida State even before the ordeal of coach Jimbo Fisher leaving for Texas A&M started to spread. The Seminoles will need a great performance to eclipse this big of a number, and given the circumstances, that seems unlikely.
North Texas plus-11.5 at Florida Atlantic North Texas is peaking with five straight wins and four straight covers behind quarterback Jason Fine. The Mean Green are going to give up a lot of points, just as they did in a 69-31 midseason loss to the Owls, but they should score a lot to keep it close.
Arkansas State pick’em vs. Troy Statistically, these two teams are almost dead-even, meaning the Red Wolves should be laying at least three points at home. A field goal of value in the final week is too much to pass up.