By Flint Wheeler
The debates are hardly over, but regardless, matchups are set for college football’s New Year’s Six bowl games, including the College Football Playoff semifinals. I spoke with Rusty Justice, lines manager for an offshore sportsbook and my former co-host on my “Behind the Lines” podcast with ESPN Radio, about the opening lines and early action on the two national semifinals matchups, set for New Year’s Eve.
No. 4 Washington Huskies vs. No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (-14.5)
Over the past few weeks, there was talk of Alabama being a double-digit favorite against any possible CFP contender. That proved more than true in this case, and in fact, the line is already on the rise, which Rusty expected. That’s why, when several other shops opened Alabama at -14, some the offshore shops went a notch higher, opening at 14.5.
“We didn’t even want to mess around and give bettors an opportunity to get the flat -14 without incurring some extra juice,” Rusty said. “We’ve taken steady Tide money for the past two months, from sharps and squares alike, and I don’t see any way this number closes at two touchdowns or less. Don’t be surprised if this spread jumps to -17 at some point.”
Alabama (13-0 SU, 9-4 ATS) has now won 25 consecutive games, including Saturday’s 54-16 beatdown of Florida laying a massive 24 points in the Southeastern Conference title game in Atlanta. Washington battered Colorado 41-10 Friday night in the Pac-12 final in Santa Clara, Calif.
Rusty said that within 30 minutes of posting Washington-Alabama, early action moved the Crimson Tide to -15. By late this afternoon, it was up to 15.5. Needless to say, if you like Washington wait until 3 minutes before kickoff, you might be getting 17.
No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. No. 2 Clemson Tigers (+3.5)
Clemson bagged the ACC title on Saturday, but had to hold off a Virginia Tech comeback to do so, perhaps explaining why the Tigers (12-1 SU, 6-7 ATS) swapped spots with idle Ohio State in the CFP rankings. DeShaun Watson and Co. bested the Hokies 42-35, coming up short as a 10-point neutral-site chalk in Orlando.
Ohio State (11-1 SU, 6-6 ATS) sat back and waited this weekend, failing to reach the Big Ten title game due to an upset loss to Penn State back in October. But that setback didn’t keep the Buckeyes out of the playoff. In its regular-season finale, Ohio State went double overtime to edge Michigan 30-27 laying 4.5 points at home.
“We’re anticipating the classic sharp vs. square divide, with the public bettors siding with Ohio State and the pros on the underdog,” Rusty said. “Adjustments in the odds are almost always predicated on sharp money, but this spread should stay around a field goal if we get the influx of Buckeyes action that we expect.”
Rusty said early action on Clemson moved Ohio State down a tick in price, to -3.5 (-105). Later this afternoon, most larger books adjusted to Buckeyes -3 (-120).
Early look at lines for next week, I couldn’t help but notice what I believe to be an early mistake for the books. Why is Pittsburgh such a small favorite vs. Buffalo? Analysis: I think this a great indicator of just how good Pitt is coming down the stretch. The Pitt team that most expected to be a contender needs to show up here. Buffalo might have lost the season last week with a road loss to the Raiders, but the Steelers really opened up a good chance now to surge in the playoff race. Dropping this game for the Steelers would be a killer for them in the playoff race. Steelers defense has played rather well and the offense is getting back into shape now with thanks to playing together for an extended period. Buffalo, with long travel during the season now sits at 6-6 with three games following this match up with the Steelers that are very winnable. Perhaps the Bills look past this week and attempt to close out the season winners of three in a row and finish 9-7 on the season. Bills offense is good but I trust Big Ben vs. Taylor any day of the week. Pitt has won 3 in a row and the defense has been the key to the recent success. Buffalo on the other hand hasn’t been very strong on defense. They got lit up for 38 points last week. When the Bills play a team that is actually good, they tend to give up big point totals. I’ll grab Pitt to keep it going here lying under a FG. G’Luck!