Alabama begins its push for another berth in the College Football Playoff on Saturday night against Wisconsin in a neutral-site game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington (8 PM ET, ABC). The question those of us who handicap teams in Las Vegas have to ask ourselves is this—will the Tide offer better value than last season, when they were a money-burner?
To the average fan, it was business as usual in ‘Bama, as Nick Saban’s team went 11-1 in the regular season and then won the SEC Championship Game before ending up in the way of Urban Meyer’s freight train out of Columbus on New Year’s Night in New Orleans in the Playoff semi-final. But for those who wagered on the Tide, it was a different story—5-7-1 against the Vegas number.
That 5-7-1 ATS record (with one game against Western Carolina off the board) was actually better than it appeared. Tide backers got a big break in the road game at LSU. Alabama was a (-6.5) point favorite and only covered because the game went to overtime in a 20-13 final. Another cover, as (-10) favorite against Auburn came by a single point, 55-44. None of the ATS losses were as close.
What this boils down is that Alabama was overrated in 2014. Before Tide fans rise up in rebellion, remember that the term “overrated” is a criticism of the betting market (the collective wisdom of oddsmakers and the wagering public that ultimately creates the posted line) rather than the football team itself. When you look at those lines ‘Bama was facing—giving nearly a touchdown on the road at Baton Rouge at night, giving double digits to Auburn—you can make a pretty good argument that they simply weren’t reasonable.
But that’s what happens with highly successful dynastic programs. The public wants to bet them. Las Vegas keeps pushing the number higher. Eventually it becomes unsustainable. The question here is whether this was a one-time phenomena, or if Alabama is now a prime go-against team?
Expectations are modestly down this year, which Alabama “only” ranked third in the nation, behind Ohio State and TCU. The Crimson Tide are “only” a (-11) favorite against Wisconsin, as opposed to the (-22) they gave up to West Virginia in last year’s neutral site opener—a 33-23 non-cover win.
But there also personnel challenges, most notably a quarterback situation that remains completely up in the air. You can say the same is true at Ohio State, but we don’t yet know if Alabama’s uncertainty will be due to the same embarrassment of riches that exists in Columbus, or if there’s really going to be some problems at the game’s most important position.
The best Alabama teams have had offensive lines that were on a level somewhere between college football and the NFL. Only one starter returns this year and underclassmen will have to perform. The defense, Saban’s specialty, has its key pieces back, but those pieces also came apart down the stretch in the games against Auburn and Ohio State.
Saban indicated in the offseason that he believes the up-tempo style that helped his offense, then led by Blake Sims, had a negative effect on the defense, with increasing possessions wearing them down by season’s end. We don’t yet know if this means a change in offense or playing more people on defense early in the season. It’s another big unknown for Alabama this season.
Alabama’s ATS woes were at their worst in non-conference plays, where the public is betting not only their brand, but also that of their entire conference. Does this mean it’s time to jump up and grab Wisconsin and the points on Saturday night?
Well, as a famous analyst might say, not so fast my friend. Wisconsin has a coaching change, and new players on both sides of the trenches. And while the Badgers have become a modern Tailback U, the departed Melvin Gordon was a unique backfield talent that probably can’t be truly replaced by anyone. How we go about wagering this game—or if we even include in our Saturday slate of releases—is something our handicapping team is still looking at carefully.
What I do want to emphasize here is that Alabama is a team you have to handicap carefully, remembering that your correct respect for Saban, his program and what they’ve accomplished have already been factored into the posted line.
Watch them carefully on Saturday night, especially whether their offensive line can handle a young Badger defensive front consistently. Watch the tempo the Tide play at offensively. What we see and learn here will go a long way toward our decision-making on two other important games, September 19 against Ole Miss and an October 3 visit to Georgia. By then we’ll know if this will be a “turn-around” year for Alabama, at least when it comes to their performance against the number.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.