Betting the bowls: Best bets for Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Clemson vs. Ohio State

Sam Cooper
·5 min read

It’s finally here. We’ve reached the College Football Playoff.

Back in August, we had no clue if there would even be a college football season. It didn’t always go smoothly, but we’ve somehow made it to the home stretch of bowl season, highlighted by two intriguing semifinal matchups on New Year’s Day: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State.

We’ve also got six other non-playoff bowl games on tap on Friday and Saturday. It’s your last weekend of 2020 to wager on college football and there are four sides I’ve got my eye on.

(Note: All times ET, odds from BetMGM)

Citrus Bowl: Auburn vs. No. 14 Northwestern

Time: 1 p.m. (Jan. 1) | TV: ABC | Line: Northwestern -3 | Total: 43.5

This one is about motivation.

Auburn enters the Citrus Bowl on the heels of another underwhelming season that led to the firing of Gus Malzahn. Kevin Steele, the interim coach, was a candidate to replace Malzahn but was passed over for Boise State’s Bryan Harsin. On top of that, the Tigers will reportedly be without some key contributors due to opt-outs, injuries and COVID-19 issues.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is coming off a strong effort in the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats were terrible in 2019 but bounced back to win the Big Ten West in 2020 with one of the nation’s best defenses. Northwestern would love to finish off the year with a win over an SEC opponent, especially in the final game of longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s career (Hankwitz is retiring after this game).

Pat Fitzgerald’s program has won four of its last five bowl games and I think they make it five of six.

Pick: Northwestern -3

Rose Bowl (CFP semifinal): No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame

Time: 4 p.m. (Jan. 1) | TV: ESPN | Line: Alabama -20 | Total: 65.5

The Alabama offense has been a high-powered machine all season long. The Tide enters the College Football Playoff averaging a whopping 49.7 points per game. It’s a unit that can do it all. It boasts three top-five Heisman Trophy vote-getters, including finalists DeVonta Smith and Mac Jones.

Notre Dame has one of the better defenses Alabama will face this season, but I don’t envision the Tide having much trouble putting up 40-plus points. But I think Notre Dame will be able to put some points on the board, too. Notre Dame has a really good offensive line, an excellent group of tight ends, two good running backs and a solid receiving corps.

If Alabama gets to 45, all you need out of Notre Dame is 21 points to hit the over. And if Alabama gets its usual 49 points, all you need is 17 from Notre Dame. Over the course of 60 minutes, I think that will happen.

Pick: Over 65.5

Sugar Bowl (CFP semifinal): No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State

Time: 8 p.m. (Jan. 1) | TV: ESPN | Line: Clemson -7.5 | Total: 66.5

Clemson and Ohio State will square off in the CFP semifinals for a second straight season. Last year’s game was a doozy. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 16-0 lead, but Clemson stormed back and won 29-23.

In this year’s game, most of the key characters are the same. There’s Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Dabo Swinney on the Clemson side. There’s Justin Fields, Chris Olave and Ryan Day on the OSU side. That sort of familiarity creates a really intriguing chess match for these coaching staffs. I also think it lends itself to more of a lower scoring game.

Ohio State struggled in the first half of the Big Ten title game against Northwestern but was able to win almost solely because of its rushing attack. There has to be some carry over into this game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Day got Fields involved via some designed QB runs in addition to plenty of touches for Trey Sermon and Master Teague. The run game can open things up for more one-on-one matchups on the outside for OSU receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.

Of course, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knows all of this, and Sermon and Teague are nowhere near as explosive as J.K. Dobbins, who had 221 total yards vs. Clemson last year. Fields has also struggled dealing with pressure in 2020. Venables’ defenses have performed spectacularly in CFP semifinal games, allowing an average of 13.4 points over Clemson’s five semifinal games.

Pick: Under 66.5

Fiesta Bowl: No. 25 Oregon vs. No. 10 Iowa State

Time: 4 p.m. (Jan. 2) | TV: ESPN | Line: Iowa State -4 | Total: 57.5

This is the biggest bowl game in Iowa State history. The Cyclones nearly won their first-ever Big 12 title two weeks ago, but were unable to overcome a large first-half deficit in an eventual 27-21 loss to Oklahoma. Iowa State fought to the end and nearly completed a 17-point comeback, but were doomed by three Brock Purdy interceptions.

I think Purdy and the Cyclones play a much cleaner game against Oregon. Oregon beat USC 31-24 to win the Pac-12 title, but the 31 points scored is misleading. The Ducks were aided by some sloppy USC turnovers that provided excellent field position. Oregon’s first three touchdown drives spanned an average of 27.3 yards.

Oregon’s offense was ineffective for much of the game and put up just 243 total yards, including a measly 109 yards through the air. The ground game wasn’t much better, going for 135 yards on 41 carries. That’s a 3.3-yard average.

Iowa State has the ninth-best run defense in the country, allowing just 3.15 yards per attempt. As long as the ISU offense doesn’t put the defense in compromising situations via turnovers, I think the Cyclones can win this game pretty comfortably.

Pick: Iowa State -4

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