College football championship games: The bets to make

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It’s a huge Saturday of college football ahead, with conference championship games galore. Our handicappers Adam Burke, Tim Murray and Wes Reynolds are here to give you their best bets for some of the big games.

SEC Championship Game: Georgia (-6.5, 49.5) vs. Alabama, 4 p.m.

Burke: This game ends Alabama’s favorite streak at 92, perhaps a little bit of foreshadowing in a season that saw Nick Saban lose to a former assistant for the first time. Saban is now 24-1 straight up after losing to Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M early in the year. He is, however, undefeated against former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

The Bulldogs are one of the best CFB teams of all-time in a statistical sense. Their + 3.39 yards per play differential is incredible, as Georgia has the third-ranked offense at 7.06 YPP and the top-ranked defense by far at 3.67 YPP. Alabama’s seventh in defensive YPP allowed and 13th in offensive YPP, but something still seems amiss with the Crimson Tide.

Maybe that has to do with the rushing attack that ranks 83rd in yards per carry. Brian Robinson is injured and he was easily the bell cow back for this team with 157 more carries than anybody else. He’ll likely give it a go, but at less than 100 percent. It could make ‘Bama one-dimensional on offense. With a UGA defense that has allowed 2.49 yards per carry, passing more might be the best course of action anyway.

Bryce Young
Getty Images

The sticker shock of seeing Alabama as a 6.5-point underdog has not influenced bettors to this point, as many are still siding with Georgia. The crazy part about what Georgia has done is that the Bulldogs are only + 2 in turnover margin. They only have 16 takeaways in 12 games. There is nothing fluky about their defensive dominance.

All of that being said, 6.5 points are a lot in a game that projects to be a defensive slugfest. Saban knows what his former assistants are going to do before they even do it. This will be the first time since the Clemson game that Georgia has been matched up against a team with similar athleticism and talent. It is also fair to point out that Georgia’s strength of schedule per Sagarin is 33 spots lower than Alabama’s, a byproduct of playing in the weaker of the two divisions. Georgia has been dominant, but Alabama is the first opponent in months that can hang with the Bulldogs.

Pick: Alabama + 6.5

Big Ten Championship Game: Iowa Hawkeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines (-11, 43.5), 8 p.m.

Burke: As a general rule, I look at the underdog when the spread is such a big percentage of the total like it is in this game. That is not the case for me with this matchup. Iowa has been a fraudulent team throughout the season. The defense ranks sixth in yards per play allowed with 4.52, but the team only has a + 0.08 yards per play differential because the offense has been such an embarrassment.

As the season wore on and the offense got worse, the Iowa defense showed more and more cracks, allowing nearly five yards per play in four November games. Michigan managed 6.41 yards per play offensively during the regular season, which makes the Wolverines just the third offense in the top 50 in yards per play that Iowa has faced.

The others were Nebraska and Iowa State. The Cyclones had four turnovers and Nebraska had a first-time starting quarterback, but still mounted a 21-9 lead before collapsing in true Cornhusker fashion under Scott Frost.

Iowa’s +13 turnover margin trailed only Nevada and Kent State during the regular season, but Michigan only had nine turnovers during the regular season, which was tied for sixth. The reality here is that Michigan may only need to get into the mid-20s to cover this number, as the Iowa offense has a very low projection. Michigan’s offense was almost two yards per play better than Iowa’s while the gap between the defenses was just 0.26 yards per play.

The only concern here is a Michigan hangover for finally beating Ohio State, but it’s the Big Ten Championship Game and that should keep the Wolverines focused. The Big Ten Championship Game was instituted in 2011 and Michigan had never played in this game up until now.

Pick: Michigan -11

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
Aaron Josefczyk/UPI/Shutterstock

Murray: When Michigan takes the field on Saturday night in Indianapolis, it will be the first time in school history that the Wolverines will play in the Big Ten Championship; hard to believe but it’s true.

Michigan exorcised its demons against rival Ohio State last weekend, snapping an eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes with an emphatic 42-27 victory. How will the Wolverines respond? Could Michigan’s first ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship game be a “let down” spot? My first inclination was to take the points with Iowa but it is hard to back a team that was trailing by 12 points entering the fourth quarter a week prior at 3-9 Nebraska.

The angle for this game is in the future’s market. Last Saturday, 15.89 million viewers watched Michigan beat Ohio State. It was the most watched regular season college football game since Nov. 2019. The man who stood out the most in that victory was Michigan’s DE Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson finished the afternoon with three sacks as the Wolverines all but eliminated Ohio State QB CJ Stroud from the Heisman race.

In this week’s Heisman straw poll by The Athletic college football reporters, Hutchinson was second in the Heisman race behind Alabama LB Will Anderson. Crimson Tide QB Bryce Young is the prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman Trophy in the betting market. But what if Young struggles in t he SEC Championship against Georgia, the nation’s top defense? Are Young’s numbers so overwhelming that he will be awarded the Heisman regardless of the outcome? I don’t think so. If Alabama loses to Georgia, will the Crimson Tide’s best defensive player win the Heisman Trophy? Seems unlikely.

In a year where the Heisman race is as wide open as it has ever been, Hutchinson has an opportunity on Saturday night in prime time to make the final statement to Heisman voters. If you believe that Alabama will lose to Georgia in the SEC Championship, #Hutch4Heisman is absolutely worth a shot.

Pick: Aidan Hutchinson 12-1 to win the Heisman Trophy (Boyd Sports)

MAC Championship Game: Kent State Golden Flashes (-3, 74) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies, noon

Burke: While Northern Illinois rested some personnel and got doubled up on Wednesday by Western Michigan, Kent State was preparing for the first of two straight championship games. In order to appear in this game, the Golden Flashes needed to beat Miami (OH) in the MAC East Division title game.

It took everything that Kent State had to win that game, stopping a two-point conversion attempt after scoring first in overtime. The 48-47 final was an instant classic that featured 1,191 yards of offense and 63 first downs. Kent State has to get up and play another game against a well-rested NIU team, but the Flashes should have a lot of advantages.

The Huskies managed to win the MAC West and go 8-4 in the regular season despite allowing 6.72 yards per play. Only 10 teams fared worse in defensive yards per play: Vanderbilt, USF, Duke, Charlotte, Akron, TCU, Kansas, Arkansas State, New Mexico State and UMass. That isn’t the company a team wants to keep.

Northern Illinois converted just 36.4 percent of its third downs, while Kent State covered 42.4 percent. NIU only scored 23 touchdowns in 43 red zone trips. The Flashes did struggle in the red zone with only 31 touchdowns in 60 trips, but those 60 red zone trips were tied for the fifth-most in the nation. Northern Illinois ranks 106th in TD percentage against in the red zone.

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis
Kent State head coach Sean Lewis
AP

Kent State has the more explosive offense on the fast, indoor track at Ford Field in a game expected to get up into the 70s. They should have the upper hand here.

Pick: Kent State -3

Reynolds: Kent State was predicted to win the MAC East at MAC Media Day in Detroit over the summer. That is exactly what they did last weekend, although the Golden Flashes had to survive a two-point attempt by Miami (OH) with the division crown on the line. Kent held on for the 48-47 victory in overtime in a typical MACtion shootout.

The Golden Flashes have been in their fair share of track meets as they run one of the quickest tempos offensively in FBS, averaging 78.3 plays per game. Sean Lewis, FBS’s youngest coach at 35, has an offense that rates eighth nationally in total offense (490.5 yards per game) and third in rushing offense (247.2 yards per game). One of Kent State’s shootouts this season was back on Nov. 3 with a 52-47 victory over its MAC Championship opponent, Northern Illinois.

Speaking of Northern Illinois, the Huskies were predicted to finish last in the MAC West division but wrapped up the division title before the final game of the season. In that final game, Northern Illinois was defeated 42-21 at home by Western Michigan; however, the Huskies were playing sans starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi who transferred in this year from Michigan State. Lombardi is still listed as questionable but more than likely should play as the Huskies will need him to help match Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum (24th nationally in total offense) score for score.

Both teams are probably lucky to be playing for the MAC Championship this week in Detroit. Kent State ranks 124th out of 130 teams in total defense (474.6 yards per game) and allows 34.6 PPG. Nevertheless, the Golden Flashes rank second in the nation in turnover margin (+ 15; 24 takeaways). Meanwhile, Northern Illinois has had its fair share of good fortune. Despite having a defense that allows 452.4 yards and 33.5 PPG, the Huskies went 8-4 and exceeded all expectations. NIU’s success this season simply comes down to breaks on fourth down. The Huskies rate No. 1 in the nation for fourth down conversions at 19-for-23 (82.6 percent). They also rank top 25 nationally on defense against fourth down by only allowing opponents to convert 40 percent.

Kent State (-3.5), 5-1 ATS this season as a favorite, defeated Northern Illinois 52-47 on Nov. 3 and both teams eclipsed 600 yards of offense, but Kent’s 31-point second quarter led to ending a 10-game losing streak in the series.

Pick: Over 74

Sun Belt Championship Game: Appalachian State Mountaineers (-2.5, 53) at No. 20 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns, 3:30 p.m.

Burke: How interesting is this line? Louisiana hosts the Sun Belt Conference title game because of the head-to-head win against Appalachian State. Win is an understatement, as Louisiana won that game 41-13, more than doubling up the Mountaineers in yardage. App State had four turnovers to Louisiana’s one and settled for two red zone field goals in the first half that could have made the game a lot closer.

In that Tuesday night game back on Oct. 12, Appalachian State was a 4.5-point road favorite. This line has been adjusted in light of that result and the bodies of work for both teams, yet App State is still a road favorite. Obviously, Louisiana has a distraction with head coach Billy Napier headed to Gainesville after this. In some respects, this is the Ragin’ Cajuns bowl game, as they’ll have an interim coach in the bowl and have double revenge against App State for the 2018 and 2019 conference championship games.

Louisiana head coach Billy Napier
Louisiana head coach Billy Napier
Greg Atkins/CSM/Shutterstock

Given all of that, the early movement on the line is still towards App State, which says a lot. If you look statistically, App State is better in yards per play on offense and defense. The Mountaineers defense is in the top 10 in third-down conversion rate against and also TD percentage against in the red zone.

There are some 3s out there and the market is trending to going to 3 across the board, so grab any 2.5 you can find. The key numbers aren’t as big in college football as they are in the NFL, but you still want as much line value as possible.

Pick: Appalachian State -2.5

USC Trojans vs. Cal Golden Bears (-4, 58), 11 p.m. ET

Burke: Rightfully buried after the conference championship games is some #Pac12AfterDark between USC and Cal. These two teams were supposed to play back on Nov. 13, but a major COVID outbreak for the Golden Bears pushed the game back to Dec. 4.

The big news at USC is that Lincoln Riley is now in town, so we’ll see if that puts any pep in the steps of the Trojans. Given that everything as they know it will change, it may not really have any bearing on their effort level. For Cal, with the reports that Kalen DeBoer is the new Washington head coach, the Bears won’t have to worry about Justin Wilcox going anywhere.

This is a pretty easy handicap for me, and it will be to play the over. Offensive players are always going to worry about padding their stats in hoping to impress scouts at the next level or put a stamp on the season by hitting some personal accolades. In games that don’t have high stakes, offenses usually rules over defense. The more important the game, the tighter the game ends up being. This one may just be an outright track meet, as both teams are 4-7 and the mantra will be to go out there and have fun.

USC ranks 119th in red zone defense going into this week, so Cal’s offense should be able to cash in on those opportunities inside the 20, which is something that has been a problem most of the year. The USC defense is also 113th in yards per play allowed, so Cal should be able to move the ball.

OC Graham Harrell will probably just let it all hang out for USC, whether Kedon Slovis or Jaxson Dart gets the call. Cal’s defense has played well this season, but guys may just be looking for the big plays here. USC’s offense should be invested, given that both QBs are likely to return, unless one transfers, and the top receivers are all looking to be the Drake London replacements for next season.

Pick: Over 58



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