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College Football Championship Preview: Can Alabama Stop DeShaun Watson? 1

Posted on January 07, 2016 by Jim Hurley
The Alabama Crimson Tide will have to stop Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson if they hope to win another national title.

The Alabama Crimson Tide will have to stop Heisman finalist DeShaun Watson if they hope to win another national title.

We’re down to one more game in the college football season. On Monday night in Glendale, Alabama plays Clemson for the national championship. The Crimson Tide are a six-point favorite. What way do you play it?

Let’s begin by saying that the fluctuations of the pointspread mean that shopping for the right price and timing will be important. Some books in Las Vegas have the line as high as (-7). If you’re a Clemson backer you’d clearly like to get a clean touchdown. Just as clearly, Alabama bettors only want to give 6 or 6.5.

Both teams rolled through their semifinal games on New Year’s Eve and both did it by pulling away in the second half. Clemson trailed Oklahoma 17-16 at the half before ripping off twenty unanswered points to win 37-17. Alabama led Michigan State 10-0 at intermission before four unanswered touchdowns led to a 38-0 rout. The Tigers & Tide are clearly the best two teams in the country and playing like it right now.

Let’s begin with the keys for Clemson. It all starts with quarterback DeShaun Watson, a dual-threat quarterback who used his running to great effect against Oklahoma, rushing for 145 yards. Watson also ran well in his team’s biggest games this year, going for 93 against Notre Dame, 107 against Florida State and 131 in the win over North Carolina.

The performance against Florida State is most relevant here because the Seminoles were a top five defense this season. With their speed on the edge, Florida State is the only team that comes even close to providing a test case for what might happen against Alabama. The fact Watson was able to make hay on the ground against FSU provides reasonable hope he might be able to do on Monday night.

Running back Wayne Gallman was vital in the win over Oklahoma, gaining 150 yards and that was no fluke. He also went over 100 yards against Florida State and North Carolina and got close to that against Notre Dame in monsoon-like conditions. Gallman and Watson together make for a diversified running attack where a defense can’t just focus on one player.

The key is going to be throwing the football. Michigan State had opportunities in the first half to make plays in the passing game, but drops killed one drive and an ill-advised pass that was intercepted on the goal line killed another. If Sparty doesn’t make those mistakes, they might have been tied at the half and who knows how the second half unfolds.

Watson’s season-long passing numbers are impressive, but he was erratic against Oklahoma, completing 16/31 for 187 yards and missing some receivers that were clearly open. There won’t be nearly as many opportunities against Alabama, and Watson can’t leave plays on the field, especially early in the game the way Michigan State did. If Clemson is going to win, we need to see the Watson that went 28/42 for 297 yards against Florida State.

Defensively, the Tigers have playmakers, but the health of Shaq Lawson is going to be crucial. The talented defensive end left the Oklahoma game in the first half with a knee injury, but is expected to play. He needs to be able to pressure the quarterback for Clemson to win.

On the other side of the defense is another terrific playmaker in Kevin Dodd. At linebacker, Clemson is anchored by B.J. Goodson, who is both steady at making the sure tackle and capable of blowing up a play behind the line of scrimmage. The top corner, Cordea Tankersley, leads the team in interception with five picks and it’s likely Clemson will need to get some mistakes from Alabama quarterback Jake Coker if they’re going to win this game. Read the rest of this entry →

College Football Bowl Preview Part 2: Sizing Up the Big 6 Bowls 3

Posted on December 30, 2015 by Jim Hurley
The health of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook could be a big factor in their Cotton Bowl game against Alabama.

The health of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook could be a big factor in their Cotton Bowl game against Alabama.

The biggest college football games of the season are here! The six major bowl games will run on December 31-January 1, with the two biggest—the Playoff semifinals situated within the New Year’s Eve schedule. Whether you wager or simply want to watch, our job is to have you ready.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled the “Tale of The Tape”, a concise snapshot of all six games. It’s not comprehensive—if you actually plan to bet, this is a starting point not a finishing point. But it will provide the framework for an enjoyable (and profitable, if you’re so inclined) run of watching games.

Our tale of the tape includes…

*The basics of W-L record and most importantly, strength of schedule. The latter has to be a significant factor in how you weigh every other piece of data. Some of us rely on complex computer models to do it, others just keep it in the back of their mind. Just make sure you keep it in mind.

*Each team’s national ranking on offense and defense, as measured by points allowed.

*The basic stats of each team’s quarterback—their completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and TD/INT ratio.

*A notable player on the team besides the quarterback—usually an elite running back or defensive playmaker, and occasionally a wide receiver.

Now let’s dive into the games, in sequential order…

December 31: Peach Bowl—Florida State (-7) Houston (Noon ET, ESPN)
Houston: 12-1 (Schedule ranks 99th)
Offense: 10th
Defense: 23rd
QB: Greg Ward Jr: 68% 8.5 YPA, 16/5 and also ran for over 1,000 yards)
Notable: Linebackers Elandon Roberts & Steven Taylor combined for 33 tackles for loss

Florida State: 10-2 (56th)
Offense: 41st
Defense: 5th
QB: Sean Maguire: 62%, 7.8 YPA, 11/3
Notable: Running back Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,658 yards (7.9 yards per carry)

Comment: It will be Maguire at quarterback for Florida State, with Everett Golson not making the trip to Atlanta. The balance of Houston both offensively and defensively gives them a shot at an upset, but the concern is that the offense is so heavily reliant on Ward that the excellent FSU defense may be position to dominate the football game.

December 31: Orange Bowl—Oklahoma (-3) Clemson (4 PM ET, ESPN)
Clemson: 13-0 (39th)
Offense: 15th
Defense: 19th
QB: DeShaun Watson: 70%, 8.5 YPA, 30/11
Notable: Defensive ends Shaq Lawson & Kevin Dodd have combined for 37 tackles for loss and 18 sacks

Oklahoma: 11-1 (27th)
Offense: 1st
Defense: 24th
QB: Baker Mayfield: 69%, 9.6 YPA, 35/5
Notable: Samaje Perine rushed for 1,291 yards at 6.1 per carry

Comment: Those talented Clemson defensive ends need to win their battles or it will be long day for the Tiger secondary given how hot Mayfield is. The bigger area of concern for betting Oklahoma is the question of how much those dazzling offensive numbers are a product of playing in the wide-open Big 12 and the tendency of high-stakes bowl games to be a bit more conservative.

December 31: Cotton Bowl–Alabama (-8.5) Michigan State (8 PM ET, ESPN)
Alabama: 12-1 (17th)
Offense: 31st
Defense: 3rd
QB: Jake Coker: 66%, 7.4 YPA, 17/8
Notable: Heisman Trophy winning RB Derrick Henry ran for 1,986 yards

Michigan State: 12-1 (5th)
Offense: 45th
Defense: 22nd
QB: Connor Cook: 57%, 7.9 YPA, 24/5
Notable: Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge caught 79 passes for over 1,200 yards

Comment: The health of Cook’s shoulder is the overriding factor in this game. When healthy, he is by far the superior quarterback. When banged up, as he has been at the end of this season, he’s statistically inferior to Coker. Note that if you wager this game make sure to shop prices. The line of 8.5 can also go as high as 10 depending on the sportsbook. Read the rest of this entry →

College Football Bowl Preview – Part 1: Football For Diehard Fans 4

Posted on December 17, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Bronco Mendenhall will be on the BYU sidelines for the final time during their bowl game against Utah.

Bronco Mendenhall will be on the BYU sidelines for the final time during their bowl game against Utah.

The college football bowl season kicks off this Saturday afternoon. Many of you will wager on these games and even more will enter recreational pools where you have to pick every game. If you’ve looked at the early schedule, you know there’s a lot of teams only the most diehard of fans and those of us in the business of handicapping are familiar with in detail.

To redress that, I’ve compiled a little “tale of the tape” on the nine bowl games that will between December 19-23. This is by no means a complete look at each game. What it will do is give you a basic statistical snapshot of how each team looks at what it does well. Each listing includes…

*The basics of W-L record and most importantly, strength of schedule. The latter has to be a significant factor in how you weigh every other piece of data. Some of us rely on complex computer models to do it, others just keep it in the back of their mind. Just make sure you keep it in mind.

*Each team’s national ranking on offense and defense, as measured by points allowed.

*The basic stats of each team’s quarterback—their completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and TD/INT ratio.

*A notable player on the team besides the quarterback—usually an elite running back or defensive playmaker, and occasionally a wide receiver.

If you just want to enjoy the bowls on TV and in a pool, this will do it for you. If you want to bet the bowls, this is one small step to get started on handicapping the array of personnel matchups and intangibles that are involved at this great time for college football.

Arizona (-11.5) New Mexico, Saturday, December 19, 2 PM ET
New Mexico
Record/SOS: 117th
Offense: 61st
Defense: 66th
QB: Lamar Jordan (53%, 8.3 YPA, 4/6), Austin Apodaca (51%, 6.5 YPA, 1/5)
Other: Dakota Cox (LB, 9.5 Tackles For Loss)

Arizona
Record/SOS:  56th
Offense: 19th
Defense: 107th
QB: Anu Solomon (63%, 7.6 YPA, 18/4)
Other: Scooby Wright (LB, one of best players in country but hindered by injuries this year)

Comment: The health of Wright, currently listed as questionable is a huge factor in this game. Also keep an eye on Solomon who’s had injury problems of his own this year. From a stylistic standpoint, this is a classic battle between a run-heavy offense in New Mexico and a pass-happy attack with Arizona and Rich Rodriguez. Note that the game is played on New Mexico’s home field and a key factor for handicappers will be weighing that—along with Arizona’s disastrous showing in last year’s Fiesta Bowl against Boise State—against the obvious strength of conference factor that works in the Wildcats favor.

Utah (-3) BYU, Saturday, December 19, 3:30 PM ET
Utah
Record/SOS: 9-3/32nd
Offense: 57th
Defense: 3rd
QB: Travis Wilson (62%, 6.8 YPA, 13/10)
Other: Gionni Paul (LB, 12.5 Tackles For Loss)

BYU
Record/SOS: 9-3/72nd
Offense: 34th
Defense: 31st
QB: Tanner Mangum (62%, 7.9 YPA, 21/7)
Other: Bronso Kafusi (LB/DL goes 6’7”, 15.5 Tackles For Loss)

Comment: Take note that BYU’s strength of schedule ranks pretty low at 72nd. The Cougars played a brutal early slate with four tough games right out of the gate and it drew national attention. That’s because, as an independent, they had to frontload the schedule with teams going into conference games. If that was the last you heard of BYU, don’t be under any illusions about the overall quality of their slate. Also note that Utah’s star running back Devontae Booker missed the end of the regular season and will miss this game as well. BYU is undergoing a coaching change with Bronco Mendenhall leaving for Virginia. Read the rest of this entry →

Breaking Down the Odds: SEC and Big Ten Bowl Games 2

Posted on December 10, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Derrick Henry had a huge game earlier this season against Wisconsin. Can he have similar success against Michigan State?

Derrick Henry had a huge game earlier this season against Wisconsin. Can he have similar success against Michigan State?

The Big Ten and the SEC are about as close to rivals as two leagues can be. The bowl season always offers several high-profile matchups, mostly on New Year’s Day, where the conferences match up. They’re easily the leagues with the most television exposure, with the Big Ten Network being owned by Fox and the SEC Network owned by ESPN. But until last season, their rivalry was about as hard-fought as the battle between a hammer and the nail.

Over a four-year period, the SEC’s bowl record validated its reputation as the best conference in the country. The SEC has a 26-14 record while the Big Ten is at 14-21 in that same timeframe, due in large part to the consistent New Year’s Day beatdowns the SEC delivered.

But last season marked a change. The overall performances were close to even, with the SEC going 7-5 and the Big Ten clocking in at 6-5. In the head-to-head matchups, Wisconsin beat Auburn and most important was the high-profile victory of Ohio State over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff semi-final.

It wasn’t the whole story—Missouri also beat Minnesota and Tennessee coasted past Iowa. But the two biggest stories of last year’s college football postseason were Ohio State’s national title and the collapse of the SEC West. In addition to Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State all laid an egg in their bowl matchups. The defeats were a big blow to SEC prestige and an offseason where Michigan’s hire of Jim Harbaugh was the most significant development added to the positive buzz moving around the Big Ten.

The SEC reclaimed some mojo in non-conference play this season when Alabama handled Wisconsin, but the real test begins now. Each conference has put ten teams in bowl games and they’ll play head-to-head in five of those, including another Playoff matchup when Alabama meets Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.

I want to walk through some of the factors my staff and I at WinningEdge.com are looking at with each game, both the head-to-head conference matchups as well as ones they’ll play against other leagues. But before beginning, I want to remind everyone of an adage that many in football handicapping subscribe by—it’s that the pointspread matters less in the bowl season than any other time of year.

The reason is that underdogs often end up winning outright—disinterested favorites are common and Las Vegas can misfire in pricing teams from disparate parts of the country with few common opponents. I mostly agree with this line of thinking and believe the focus of football betting should be picking the outright winner. For those of you who are in bowl pools where you’re required to pick every game against the number, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

But for those of you who wager these games individually, be careful not to oversimplify. The spread still matters, even if not as decisively as in the regular season and knowing how to pick your spots—how to narrow the card down to which games to bet and how many units to invest still have to be settled by the number. I’ll be constantly evaluating how these conferences and others match up throughout the bowl season before making final gameday decisions. Read the rest of this entry →

Will the North Carolina Tar Heels Spoil Clemson’s Championship Party? 1

Posted on December 03, 2015 by Jim Hurley
The only loss for Marquise Williams and the UNC Tar Heels this season was the season opener to South Carolina. Another Palmetto State team will look to recreate history in the ACC Championship Game.

The only loss for Marquise Williams and the UNC Tar Heels this season was the season opener to South Carolina. Another Palmetto State team will look to recreate history in the ACC Championship Game.

If you’re hoping for some drama in the unveiling of the four-team College Football Playoff this coming Sunday, then your best hope is for North Carolina to upset top-ranked Clemson as (+5) underdog in the ACC Championship Game. If you’re a handicapper, it’s just as important to be aware of how strongly the Tar Heels are coming, both on the football field and at the betting window.

North Carolina lost its season-opener to South Carolina 17-13. It’s a mark of how long ago that was, that the Tar Heels were actually a (+1.5) dog to the Gamecocks, who have gone on to a disastrous season. North Carolina hasn’t lost since.

The turnaround wasn’t apparent immediately. While UNC won their next six games, it was a soft part of the schedule. The most impressive wins were against disappointing Georgia Tech, Illinois and Virginia—all of whom finished with losing records.

Then came a Thursday Night visit to Pittsburgh on October 29 to start the meat of the schedule, the games that would determine the winner of the ACC’s Coastal Division. North Carolina stepped it up in a big way—not only did they win their final five games, but they covered the number four times. The finishing surge made UNC 8-4 ATS (against the spread).

This five-game stretch started with the prime-time win at Pitt, and included home victories over Duke and Miami. North Carolina then survived Virginia Tech in overtime—the one non-cover in this schedule sequence, and closed out the season with a win over N.C. State.

All of these games were against bowl-bound teams and all except Virginia Tech finished with at least seven wins—and even at Virginia Tech, North Carolina had to deal with an exceptionally pumped-up Hokie team for head coach Frank Beamer’s final home game. Read the rest of this entry →

Will Stanford Spoil Notre Dame’s Championship Dreams? 1

Posted on November 26, 2015 by Jim Hurley
Christian McCaffrey and the Stanford Cardinal will look to run Notre Dame out of the college football playoff mix.

Christian McCaffrey and the Stanford Cardinal will look to run Notre Dame out of the college football playoff mix.

The Stanford Cardinal just keeps churning along. They enter a sequence of two big games—Notre Dame on Saturday night and the Pac-12 Championship Game against the UCLA-USC winner the following week—with a chance to reach at least the Rose Bowl, and maybe the College Football Playoff with a little help. And for my purposes as a handicapper, they’ve been an excellent bet all season long.

Stanford is 8-3 against the spread (ATS), covering in five of six home games and going 3-2 on the road. They do it primarily with the power running game that has become a staple of this program under the current leadership of head coach David Shaw and his predecessor Jim Harbaugh.

This year’s stud running back is Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman contender who has rushed for over 1,500 yards and is averaging nearly six yards a pop. McCaffrey has also caught 34 passes for 416 yards, making him the Cardinal’s second-leading receiver.

You don’t run the football like that without talent on the offensive line, and NFL people love the left side of the Stanford line, with tackle Kyle Murphy and guard Joshua Garnett. Both of them will be on your TV screen on Sundays next season.

The combination of McCaffrey and the great offensive front has made Stanford that rare team that can not only run the football, but still be explosive offensively while doing it. It’s enabled the Cardinal to cover big pointspreads in conference games—they won at Oregon State 42-24, at home against Washington 31-14, and at Colorado 42-10 each time covering a two-touchdown line. Stanford dropped 50-plus points in easy covers over Arizona and UCLA, and they delivered another double-digit cover last week, beating Cal 35-22 as a (-10) favorite.

Those type of offensive explosions are coming almost exclusively through the running game, which ranks 15th in the country. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is in his fourth year as a starter and he’s smart and competent, but his limitations along with that of the receivers’ corps have resulted in a passing game that ranks 79th.

On the flip side, Stanford is not an outstanding team defensively. They aren’t bad by any stretch, but good offenses have been able to put up points—notably Oregon, which came to The Farm on November 14 and won 38-36. Stanford also gave up 35 points to UCLA. The Cardinal defense isn’t dotted with players that attract NFL attention. Read the rest of this entry →

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