Clemson will not play on championship weekend for the first time in seven years. Ohio State won’t suit up for the first time in five years. Oklahoma will watch from home for the first time in seven years.
Only the SEC makes sense — on the surface.
Georgia and Alabama have long been the most dominant forces of their respective divisions, but Saturday will be just the second time in the past nine years — and third time ever — that the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide meet in the SEC Championship. It will be the first time Nick Saban is an underdog since 2015, when Alabama destroyed Georgia en route to a national championship. It will be the first time Saban is an underdog of more than three points since 2009, when Alabama hammered defending national champion Florida in the SEC Championship en route to a national championship.
It seems unlikely Saban will do it again. The best team in the country belongs to his protégé, Kirby Smart, whose all-time defense gives up less than seven points per game and whose underrated offense puts up over 40 points per game. Georgia has been the most dominant and consistent team in the country, the only team certain to reach this season’s playoff.
It has no holes — on the surface.
Georgia hasn’t yet played a team currently ranked inside the top 20. It hasn’t faced a quarterback near the level of Heisman favorite Bryce Young. Its average margin of victory is more than 32 points, meaning the Bulldogs haven’t been tested in three months. On Sept. 4, Georgia was held without an offensive touchdown, needing a pick-six to get past Clemson, 10-3. The 11th-ranked Tigers’ defense is the best Smart has seen all season. Until now.
Though Georgia’s defensive front will beat down a beat-up Alabama offensive line, Stetson Bennett will have just as much trouble moving the ball against Saban’s sixth-ranked defense. With Alabama’s run defense giving up fewer than 82 yards per game — virtually the same as Georgia — Smart will be forced to turn to the air. And Bennett, a former walk-on, is just one season removed from throwing three interceptions and completing 45 percent of his passes against the Tide.
Georgia likely will still come out on top, but just twice in the past 10 years has Alabama (+6.5) lost a game with national-title implications by more than a touchdown. Saban — who is 3-0 against Smart, 6-0 against Georgia (at Alabama) and the winner of his past seven SEC title game appearances — hasn’t been discounted like this in more than a decade.
It’s a good time to invest in the greatest coach of all time.
Northern Illinois (+3.5) over Kent State
There will be no defense. It’s unclear if either team even has a coordinator. When the teams met last month, the Golden Flashes pulled out a 52-47 win at home. Now, they move to a neutral site for the MAC Championship. With so many points set to hit the scoreboard, it’s nice to have an extra few sitting in your pocket.
Oklahoma State (-5.5) over Baylor
It has been two months since the Cowboys’ 10-point win over the Bears, captured despite Spencer Sanders’ three interceptions. Oklahoma State’s third-ranked defense has only improved since limiting Baylor to 14 points, most impressively keeping Oklahoma’s offense from scoring in the second half of Bedlam. Gerry Bohanon’s status is irrelevant. If the Cowboys can stop Caleb Williams, neither Baylor quarterback will do much damage.
Utah State (+6) over SAN DIEGO STATE
Brady Hoke has written a brilliant comeback tale, but I don’t feel good laying this many points with a team averaging 22 points — with an average scoring differential less than five points — in its past seven games. The Aggies are 3-0 as road dogs this season.
Appalachian State (-3) over LOUISIANA
Split focus won’t be Louisiana’s only issue in Billy Napier’s final game before departing for Florida. Appalachian enters with greater motivation — losing a midseason battle, 41-13, after a four-turnover performance — and greater momentum, having won its past five games by an average of more than 30 points.
Houston (+10.5) over CINCINNATI
A win — against a balanced opponent riding an 11-game win streak — isn’t enough to send the Bearcats to the playoff. A loss by Oklahoma State and/or Michigan helps, as would Georgia annihilating Alabama, but no result can make Cincinnati feel confident it will be the first Group of Five playoff team. Everything ultimately hinges on an elitist and unpredictable voting body. It dropped TCU from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final rankings of 2014 after a 52-point win. In 2016, two-loss Auburn entered the final weekend at No. 2, ahead of undefeated Wisconsin. In 2018, undefeated UCF was ranked eighth, behind two-loss Michigan. The committee can move the goalposts wherever it pleases.
Michigan (-10.5) over Iowa
The letdown potential is obvious, just like it was after the Miracle on Ice, Duke’s upset of UNLV and Boston’s unprecedented comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Michigan’s upset over Ohio State marked its first win in a decade over its biggest rival, but also its most meaningful win since its 1997 national championship. The Wolverines now have a chance to win another, peaking on offense, owning the trenches and free from the Buckeye-sized weight defining the past decade. After slowing the nation’s highest-scoring offense, Michigan could keep Iowa’s 121st-ranked offense from ever reaching the end zone.
Wake Forest (+3) over Pittsburgh
Kenny Pickett is the more talented quarterback in the shootout to come, but Wake’s Sam Hartman gets the better matchup, throwing against the 119th-ranked pass defense in the nation. Wake is extremely vulnerable against the run — Clemson and North Carolina combined for 663 rushing yards in Wake’s two losses this season — but the Panthers aren’t equipped to exploit the Demon Deacon’s greatest weakness, owning the ACC’s 11th-ranked ground game.
Usc (+4.5) over CAL
Didn’t you hear? Lincoln Riley is going to make USC the “mecca of college football.” With pride set to be restored to the storied program, the Trojans should enter this postponed affair in greater spirits, looking to make a strong impression on their new coach.
Best bets: Alabama, Oklahoma State, Appalachian State
This season (best bets): 90-101-4 (22-15-2)
2014-20 record: 904-866-15