LAS VEGAS — With the best defense in college football, the nation’s No. 1 team is rolling into the Southeastern Conference championship game as a big favorite. After Alabama owned that description for the past decade, Nick Saban is on the other side of it now.
Top-ranked Georgia, which has the dominant defense, is a 6.5-point favorite against the Crimson Tide on Saturday in Atlanta. The point spread is one for the history books.
Vinny Magliulo, a veteran Las Vegas bookmaker, said, “When have you seen Alabama as a ’dog like this?”
Saban is in his 15th year as Alabama coach, and this has not happened since his early years. The last time Saban was an underdog of more than three points was in 2009. The last time Saban was a ’dog was in 2015, when the Tide (+1) upended Georgia 38-10 in a regular-season road game.
Alabama’s streak of 93 straight games as a favorite has ended, but its national title hopes remain alive. Three of the four College Football Playoff spots are up for grabs this weekend, with only the Bulldogs (12-0) considered a certainty.
“The question in the back of everyone’s mind is, who can afford to lose in this game?” Magliulo said. “A one-loss Georgia team still gets into the playoff. Alabama has been erratic. You’re waiting to see if you can get seven points, and it may get to seven because Georgia’s defense is just phenomenal.”
A two-loss Tide team might sneak into the playoff, too, depending on the chaos that could be unleashed if there are upsets in other conference title games. The truth is Alabama was lucky to avoid a loss last weekend when it rallied to beat Auburn 24-22 in four overtimes.
Bryce Young had his so-called Heisman moment, leading the Tide on a 97-yard drive that was capped by his 28-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining. Alabama’s leading rusher, senior Brian Robinson Jr., left Saturday’s game with a leg injury and his status is questionable for the SEC title game.
Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense by allowing 6.9 points per game, and it has won each game by at least 17 points since beating Clemson 10-3 in the season opener. The Tide’s running attack seems likely to hit a wall, so Young will need to make big plays as a passer, and he’s a far superior quarterback to the Bulldogs’ Stetson Bennett.
“Saban is rarely a ’dog, and certainly not a ’dog like this, and I’m backing ’Bama here with a chance to win this game,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said.
BetMGM lists Georgia as the odds-on favorite (-225) to win the national championship, followed by Alabama (6/1), Michigan (8/1), Cincinnati (14/1), Oklahoma State (14/1) and Notre Dame (25/1). The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 and have no chance to strengthen their playoff case this weekend.
Cincinnati is a 10.5-point home favorite over Houston (11-1) in the American Athletic Conference title game. The Bearcats (12-0) have a tiebreaker of sorts to their advantage, and that’s a 24-13 win at Notre Dame on Oct. 2.
The playoff committee might not agree, but Cincinnati is an attractive Cinderella story. In the preseason, BetMGM posted the Bearcats at 100/1 odds to win the national title.
Oklahoma State (11-1) is another surprise playoff contender. The Cowboys, 5-point favorites against Baylor in Arlington, Texas, are 9-0-1 against the spread since mid-September and shooting for their first Big 12 championship since 2011.
The coaching carousel could be as intriguing as the playoff race. There are whispers that Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy might soon be on the move. The Cowboys’ wild 37-33 victory over Oklahoma eliminated the Sooners and sent their coach, Lincoln Riley, off to a new job at USC.
Jim Harbaugh has newfound job security at Michigan after snapping his five-game losing streak to Ohio State with a resounding 42-27 win. The Wolverines have replaced the Buckeyes in the playoff picture, setting the stage for an important title game in the Big Ten.
There’s nothing sexy about Iowa, but the Hawkeyes have an opportunity to play spoilers as 10.5-point underdogs to the Wolverines.
“Michigan is a very dangerous team, but I think experienced bettors are waiting for more than 10.5 and they will grab the points with Iowa,” Magliulo said.
A title game never should be a flat spot, especially when a playoff spot is on the line, yet that’s a handicapping angle because the Wolverines could experience an emotional letdown.
“This is the letdown I would be worried about,” Marshall said. “It’s going to be hard for Michigan to reach the same crescendo two weeks in a row. The Iowa defense might be able to muck this game up.”
A Michigan loss would shut out the Big Ten and open the door for playoff chaos.