LAS VEGAS — In a normal year, the college football bowl season is crazy and unpredictable. This could be the most chaotic year ever, and Nick Saban facing off with Cinderella is only a small part of the big picture.
With a dizzying number of high-profile coaching changes, more star players opting out to declare for the NFL draft and the lingering uncertainty of COVID-19 issues, the bowls are overflowing with challenges for oddsmakers and handicappers.
“Betting the bowls can be treacherous,” said Dan Saley, a Las Vegas professional bettor who specializes in college football. “This is a different kind of animal. Are the players excited to be there? Who’s sitting out, and who’s on the coaching staff? You have to look at the situations completely. Be cautious and know your info.”
Soon after the College Football Playoff bracket was set Sunday, the rest of a super-sized bowl lineup fell into place. There are 42 bowls plus the national championship game.
“Speaking as a bookmaker, hell no, there’s not too many bowls,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “I love the bowl season. There’s a bunch of really good matchups.”
Forget the idea that only three matchups matter — the semifinals and the title game — because that’s far from the truth. When there’s money on the line, no game is meaningless. More action is always better for bettors and bookmakers. After all, who goes to a buffet and complains about too many food options?
The playoff matchups on New Year’s Eve serve as the prime rib. No. 1 Alabama is a 14-point favorite against No. 4 Cincinnati, the aforementioned Cinderella crashing the Power Five party. No. 2 Michigan is a 7.5-point underdog to No. 3 Georgia, which dropped two spots following its first loss.
Saban is back on top, at least for now, after the Crimson Tide rolled over the favored Bulldogs 41-24 in the SEC Championship.
“Every which way, Georgia got beat,” Andrews said. “I was completely shocked by that. If Alabama comes with their best, they should beat Cincinnati and cover, but Alabama has not been that good consistently. I think these are the four teams that deserve to be in and they were seeded properly.”
The bowl season, which kicks off Dec. 17, is full of handicapping riddles and mystery angles to analyze. Here are five of the most intriguing matchups aside from the playoff games:
Cheez-It Bowl, Dec. 29
Clemson (-1.5) vs. Iowa State: The Tigers are accustomed to being in the playoff bracket. Instead, coach Dabo Swinney will take his three-loss team to Orlando for a game sponsored by a cheesy snack food. Swinney will be without his longtime defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, the new head coach at Oklahoma.
The Cyclones (7-5) were a popular pick to take the Big 12 by storm this season, but it all fell apart on Iowa State coach Matt Campbell, who’s not a hot candidate for job openings anymore. Which team will be more motivated to finish a disappointing season with a win?
Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29
Oklahoma (-3.5) vs. Oregon: Three days after the Ducks were blown out by Utah in the Pac-12 title game, the Hurricanes swept in and took away coach Mario Cristobal, who’s leaving Oregon for Miami. How many players will follow Cristobal out the door?
“Bowl games have historically been a different type of handicap due to their uniqueness,” said Paul Stone, a Texas-based football handicapper. “There are a number of games featuring coaching changes where one of the teams has an interim head coach and fewer assistants.”
This game is a prime example. A similarly problematic situation faces the Sooners after coach Lincoln Riley left for USC. Oklahoma is in a more stable spot due to Bob Stoops returning from retirement to coach the bowl and Venables being named to lead the program.
Peach Bowl, Dec. 30
Pittsburgh (-3.5) vs. Michigan State: A matchup of Heisman Trophy candidates boosts the profile of this bowl. Kenny Pickett, who led the Panthers to the ACC title, has 42 touchdown passes and will fire away at a Spartans pass defense that ranks among the nation’s worst. Michigan State counters with Kenneth Walker, the nation’s second-leading rusher with 1,636 yards.
Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1
Notre Dame (-1.5) vs. Oklahoma State: Brian Kelly stunned everyone taking big money and running for the LSU job. Marcus Freeman was promoted from defensive coordinator and introduced Monday as the head coach. Freeman is a motivator who will have the Fighting Irish (11-1) fired up to play on New Year’s Day.
It’s difficult to predict how the Cowboys will rebound after getting upset by Baylor in the Big 12 title game, which was not one of coach Mike Gundy’s finest hours.
Rose Bowl, Jan. 1
Ohio State (-6.5) vs. Utah: After getting whipped by Michigan, who swiped Ohio State’s playoff spot, the Buckeyes must regroup and show up in Pasadena, Calif. This game is never a bad consolation prize, but it’s still a letdown.
The Utes capped off a Pac-12 title season by blowing out Oregon for the second time in three weeks. The Ducks upset the Buckeyes in September. Respect the underdog in the Rose Bowl, and expect plenty of upsets in bowl season.