By Flint Wheeler
When gambling on the biggest football games, the general rule of thumb has always been to either bet the favorite immediately or wait until kickoff to back the underdog.
Why? The season’s premier games draw abnormally large action from recreational gamblers, who are far more likely to wager on favorites. Their money typically sends point spreads shooting upwards, resulting in better prices on underdogs on game day and leaving discounts on favorites in the past.
In the first two years of the College Football Playoff, however, advocating for that traditional approach has made for terrible advice. Three of the first four national semifinals have seen the point spread actually diminish, rather than of increase in the lead-up to game time. And it looks like this year’s CFP betting lines could be on the same trajectory.
Alabama and Ohio State are currently favored in the two New Year’s Eve final-four games. Alabama lays 16 points to Washington at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, while Ohio State gives 3.5 points to Clemson at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona. It doesn’t appear you should rush to the window to lock in tickets on the Crimson Tide or the Buckeyes. Better prices are likely still to come.
Three weeks is a long time for bettors to talk themselves into underdogs, but they haven’t needed it when it’s comes to Clemson. Eighty-eight percent of the money in the first 24 hours of the game being posted at William Hill sports books was on the Tigers. Ohio State’s stock is low after its narrow escape against Michigan in the Buckeyes’ regular-season capper, and its controversial inclusion over Penn State in the playoff. Bettors appear more comfortable going with Clemson, which also came through as a publicly backed underdog in last year’s playoff against Oklahoma.
There are already a handful of sports books with the spread down at Ohio State minus-3, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the number drop to 2.5 eventually. That might not seem like a major difference, but getting below a field goal would be significant.
It seems more plausible that Alabama could hold at its current price. Eighty-nine percent of the initial action at William Hill sports books was on the Crimson Tide. Alabama has walloped point spreads all year, going 9-4 against the number—including 5-1 when laying less than 20 points—so no one seems to be in a hurry to bet against the defending national champions. But it’s hard to believe sharp bettors won’t be attracted by a team as strong as the Huskies getting so many points.
Washington is extremely well-rounded and would seem to have the rare coach, Chris Petersen, capable of matching wits with Alabama’s Nick Saban. The most advanced statistics put Washington as only a 10- to 14-point underdog.
The prediction here is that the majority of bigger bets get placed on the Huskies, and that they’ll be sizable enough to push the spread down a point or two.
So forget the old wisdom. If you’re planning to bet on the College Football Playoff and like either of the underdogs, bet them now. If you want the favorites, wait patiently and pounce when the point spreads go down. Happy Holidays!