Before 2018, I would have approached this column as mere fun, fiction and fodder for sports fans. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May to remove the federal ban on sports betting, I can actually envision the College Football Playoff committee adding a professional oddsmaker to the team.
Go ahead and try to give me one single reason that oddsmakers are unqualified. I’ll wait.
Bookmakers study this material as closely as anyone, computing their own power ratings. They have access to wagers from the sharpest college football bettors. They make decisions that dictate the flow of millions of dollars every week based on a vast amount of knowledge and insight.
“It’s not like they’re oblivious to what we’re doing,” 35-year Las Vegas sportsbook veteran and new DraftKings director of sports and operations Johnny Avello told ESPN. “They follow what we do and they see our spreads, but it would be nice to have an oddsmaker, someone from the sportsbook world, on that committee.”
By the start of next season, if all works out legislatively, approximately half of the 50 U.S. states could offer legalized sports betting. Professional leagues are embracing it with advertising sponsorships and data-sharing deals. Sports betting has arrived and is here to stay. And hopefully, acceptance from a room of NCAA dignitaries is not all that far-fetched.
I understand the argument in favor of current members Frank Beamer and Ronnie Lott, although the conversation has clearly evolved beyond giving complete deference to anyone who’s “been there.” However, if those who never coached or played — athletic directors, media members and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice — can serve on the committee, then a well-respected oddsmaker certainly belongs.
“Oddsmakers in Las Vegas live in a corporate world. It’s an area that has expertise to it,” said Avello. “It answers to all compliance issues. It has for many, many years. It’s not some back-of-house, cigar-smoking group of guys taking bets and writing them down on a piece of paper.
“You’re not taking anything away from what they already have, which is a group of knowledgeable people. You’re just adding to the mix. To get someone else’s perspective, they’re going to hear something they’re not thinking about now.”
Sunday’s final rankings might provide the most controversial decisions of the committee’s brief six-year history. No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson are each double-digit favorites and figure to hold serve in their conference title games and head to the CFP. However, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Georgia will all likely have legitimate cases for one of the last two spots.
“Georgia would definitely be the team that deserves to go,” veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker Ed Salmons told ESPN, assuming a competitive loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC Championship game. “You can’t penalize them for playing the best team in the country. But that’s just not how this system works.”
Technically, the bylaws task the committee to choose the four best teams, whereas fans tend to fixate on the most deserving or best resumes. For example, the undefeated Irish have no more games remaining and probably feel confident about their chances. However, Salmons would favor Georgia (-6), Oklahoma (-2) and Ohio State (-1) over Notre Dame on a neutral field right now. “The Irish just play to a lower power rating,” Salmons said.
Albeit slowly, we are progressing as a fan base to accept that not all records are created equally (sorry, UCF). An undefeated record does not automatically make you better than a one-loss team. You might be better, but it’s not solely because of your unblemished record. With that being said, game outcomes and conference titles should matter. Otherwise, we would just simulate the entire season on a spreadsheet.
No matter how hard we try, evaluating college football teams will always be a challenge. We will never achieve a clean playoff because of unbalance conference schedules, FCS cupcakes and the home-field advantage in high-profile games. An oddsmaker with a unique and informed opinion would only enhance the process.
Here’s what I like this weekend:
Clemson -27.5 (vs. Pitt) — This is a big spread but this is also a big mismatch. Pitt relies on its rushing attack, but that is Clemson’s defensive strength. Clemson just allowed 35 points to South Carolina so I expect maximum effort and focus. Pitt ranks 49th in ESPN’s FPI and does not match up well with a national championship contender.
Northwestern +14.5 (vs. Ohio State) – I am going to need more than one great game to trust Ohio State, which has failed to cover five straight games as a double-digit favorite. Plus, the underdog Northwestern has remarkably covered in 11 of 12 games this season. The Wildcats can certainly score enough against a porous Buckeyes defense to keep this within the number.
UCF -3 (vs. Memphis) — The Knights were dealt a devastating blow with the loss of star quarterback Mackenzie Milton. Any CFP hopes likely vanished with that leg injury. I understand the concept of a flat spot here, but I trust the undefeated Knights with an emotional effort. Memphis has an impressive ground game, but I’m not sold on QB Brady White. Plus, the Tigers have a shaky defense that has contributed to their four losses.
Dolphins -3.5 (vs. Bills) — Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is back for Miami, which is 5-6 and somehow still alive for a playoff spot. Buffalo has shown some nice flashes, including last week, but I just cannot see this team ripping off three straight wins.