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College Football Gambling Primer: National Championship

Alabama (-5, O/U 57.5) vs. Clemson, 8:00 PM, E***:

This is it. Hundreds of games done. All led to this. A matchup many could’ve predicted in August (I had Georgia vs. Clemson). Alabama vs. Clemson IV. The third time they’ve met in the national championship in the past four years.

Alabama opened as a 7-point favorite, quickly bet down to 6.5 or 6. They are now 5 or 5.5 point favorites depending on where you look.

The location of this game is important: Levi Stadium, in Santa Clara, California. I think it was a mistake putting the game here, but it’s what we got. The playing surface stinks. Here is Pete Carrol after the Seahawks game on December 18th:

SOURCE-“It wasn’t great,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll told reporters on Monday. “It wasn’t great. There were guys slipping all over the place and you could see guys in pass protection, you could see guys on field goal protection sticking their cleats in the ground and it was moving. It’s the same on both sides of the ball, though. They’re subject to the same turf that we are, so there’s no reason to complain about it. It just is what it is. It was a factor.”

This is a national championship game at a neutral site, I don’t know how anyone could allow this to be an issue, but there is a high chance it will be. I initially liked the over, but was scared away from it when I remembered the turf issue in Santa Clara. I, then, did a full 360 back to the over when I thought about it more and came to the hypothesis it is better to know where you are going on a crappy surface than not (advantage: offensive skill position players). Soon after, I saw this stat: unders at Levi Stadium are 36-23 (61%) since the 49ers started playing there.

Another aspect of this is the weather. It’s California, but we are in central Cali. It rained in Santa Clara on Sunday, but I assume the field is completely dry by now. Here is the forecast for today:

Screen Shot 2019-01-06 at 6.46.16 PM

At least it’s not going to rain. The wind may become a bit of a factor. 9 MPH isn’t game-changing wind, but every MPH matters when both of these below average kickers walk out onto the field.

Now, onto the game. These two teams are incredibly close in terms of talent and performance. Although it is Alabama -5.5, three of the highest respected advanced analytical systems have Alabama around a 1-point favorite:

Not to spoil the rest of my preview, but I will be harping the same theory.

Let’s take a look at these two teams at a glance, using Bill Conelly’s S&P+, a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play data of all 800+ of a season’s FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). S&P+ ratings are based around the core concepts of the Five Factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. This is opponent adjusted.

Alabama Overall: 1st

Clemson Overall: 2nd

Clemson Offense: 5th

Alabama Defense: 12th

Alabama Offense: 2nd

Clemson Defense: 1st

Just 1 point separates Alabama and Clemson according to S&P+ (which hit at a 53.4% rate ATS this year predicting all 822 games with lines). This is going to be a battle. You may be tired of Alabama and Clemson, but the two best teams are meeting in this game, which is what we want.

When we look at Alabama’s defense, one weakness stands out: allowing explosive plays. According to IsoPPP (S&P+’s explosiveness stat), Alabama ranks 84th in America. When you adjust for opponent they rank 50th. Clemson is no juggernaut creating explosive plays, but they do rank 37th overall and 22nd when you adjust for opponent. This is where Clemson will have to succeed if they want to pull off this “upset.” We saw Trevor Lawrence & Travis Etienne convert on those explosive plays against Notre Dame and I see them breaking a few against Alabama:


One of Alabama’s defying strengths comes rushing the passer. The Tide rank 3rd in adjusted sack rate, but Clemson’s line isn’t too shabby keeping Trevor Lawrence upright (18th in adjusted sack rate). This is thanks to a steady line and Trevor Lawrence quick release (I’ve heard he releases the ball in 2 seconds on average).

On defense, you’re going to hear a lot about Dexter Lawrence’s suspension. How big of a loss is it for Clemson? Well, you hate to lose an All-American, but they held Notre Dame to 3 points last game. That was thanks to Dexter Lawrence’s backup, Albert Huggens, being more than above replacement level. He’s racked up 13 TFL in his career, along with 7 sacks, and a forced fumble against Notre Dame last week. My prediction for this side of the ball is simple: Clemson’s defense plays the game of their lives. Alabama is going to score, don’t get me wrong, but they are going to have issues. Let’s look at where they succeed:

Explosiveness: Alabama ranks 3rd, Clemson ranks 9th

Efficiency: Alabama ranks 2nd, Clemson ranks 1st

Rushing: Alabama ranks 4th, Clemson ranks 1st

Passing: Alabama ranks 1st, Clemson ranks 4th

Adjusted Sack Rate: Alabama ranks 14th, Clemson ranks 5th

Clemson is built to beat Alabama. Will they do it? They are going to have to bring their A-game (duh), but their b-game will still allow Clemson to stay within striking distance.

One thing I will say about Clemson’s defense is their secondary scares me a little bit. In opponent-adjusted metrics they do rank 4th and performed admirably against Notre Dame’s passing defense, but Alabama is a different beast. This game will come down to Clemson’s secondary against the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devontae Smith, Jaylen Waddle, and TE Irv Smith Jr.

Another advantage Clemson has going for them is their coaching staff. I know what you are thinking, Dabo is better than Saban? I’m not saying that. Saban has the edge there, but Clemson has a definitive edge in the coordinator game. DC Brent Venables is the best in the country and will bring in a game plan that will limit Alabama:


On the other side of the ball, you have Jeff Scott, who has been at Clemson since 2008 and the OC since 2015. Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley will be Maryland’s coach in 2019, but will be coaching this game. He has been with Alabama since taking that job, but I’m not 100% sure his attention has been strictly on Alabama since. DC Tosh Lupoi has done a good job this year, but this is still his first national championship as a DC. The edge for Clemson in coaching isn’t huge, but I do think it’s something you have to keep in mind when coming into this game.

On special teams, it’s pretty much a draw. Alabama ranks 99th, while Clemson ranks 93rd.

Ultimately, I see two incredibly evenly matched teams. This could be another classic. I’m taking the points.

Jack Mac’s Stay In The Black Picks: 

2018: 95-80-4, +6.65 units 

Bowls: 16-15

Clemson +5