By Ryan Mayer
After nearly a month of waiting, college football’s playoff kicks off this weekend at 4:00 p.m. when #2 Clemson meets #3 Notre Dame in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Shortly after that game ends, the other two teams in the playoff, #1 Alabama and #4 Oklahoma meet in the Capital One Orange Bowl. It’s a matchup of the top two Heisman finalists as quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray meet on the field for the first time. With the game rapidly approaching, let’s take a look at the odds and which team you should think about laying a little change on.
Spread: Alabama -14
This year’s version of Nick Saban’s machine did things a little bit differently, killing teams early and often with offense rather than slowly choking them out on defense. Led by Tagovailoa, the Tide ranked second in scoring (47.9 PPG), S&P+, success rate (55%) and explosiveness (1.44 IsoPPP). Tagovailoa completed 67% of his passes for over 3,300 yards with 37 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The Tide had five (FIVE) receivers average over 17 yards per catch this season, and, as usual, they had a pounding running game. This year it was a trio of backs (Najee Harris, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs), who doled out the punishment.
On the defensive side, Alabama was third in the country in success rate (31.7%), fourth in points per game (14.6), and eighth in S&P+. The lone area of concern, particularly against Oklahoma, is big plays. The Tide were ranked in the high 60’s in explosiveness (1.17 IsoPPP) this season.
That is a problem against the Sooners because of the Heisman winner, Murray, and his arsenal of weapons with which he attacks defenses. The Sooners were first in the country in all of those offensive categories, just ahead of the Tide, and Murray was lethal both through the air (4,000+ yards 40 TDs) and on the ground (892 yards 11 TDs). His top target, Marquise Brown is questionable for this game after he suffered a foot injury in the Big 12 title game, but there are still plenty of options available.
While the Sooners should be able to score, the biggest concern heading into this game, and the reason the spread is so high, is whether they can stop Alabama. Rather, that question has been whether they can stop anyone this season as the defense allowed over 32 points per game, and ranked in the bottom third of the country in success rate (45.7%) and finishing drives (5.16 points per scoring opportunity).
When it comes to records against the spread this season, the Tide have the edge. Alabama was 8-5 this season ATS despite being favored (often big) in every game. The Sooners, meanwhile, were 5-7-1 in a similar scenario, having been favored against every team they played this season. In the end, it comes down to whether you think Oklahoma can get enough stops to beat the Tide. The answer for me is no, though they’ll likely keep it within two touchdowns. Oklahoma +14, Under 76.