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Giving Away Money: College Football Playoff Semifinals Odds and Tale of the Tape

Alabama - Michigan, anyone?

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Alabama

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Whoooo buddy, Saturday was quite the day, wasn’t it? And now, our field is set:

The historical dynastic powerhouses put the analytics on their back and flat-out trucked opponents. And, seriously, after doing any deep-dive into the numbers, the winner of the Big 10 and SEC should not have surprised you.

When I cranked the data for ‘Bama-Dawgs, the lowest margin I got for UA was -3.16 — most hovered at or above a full score (the highest was -8.87). At the lowest end, fancy math thought Alabama had an 87% chance to cover -6.5 and 68% to win straight up. At the highest margin, Alabama had a 93.4% chance to cover, and an 83% chance to win S/U.

Michigan was even better — not a single number fell below 17 points, and most were around 20-22 points for the Wolverines. The lowest win probability? 95%. Anyone thinking these are the same ole’ angry snow weasels is going to be sadly mistaken. Michigan has finally put it together. Alongside Pitt and Alabama, this is the only team in the country in the Top 15 in opponent-adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. (No, I don’t use that trash SP+, sorry Balloons).

The nouveau riche Cincinnati Wildcats finally decided that they can, indeed, hit the switch when they needed to. Every “big” game that has stared down UC has resulted in a one-sided Bearcats romp: From SMU to Notre Dame to UCF to Houston. This team is rare in the country in that it is one of the few that appears capable of just hitting a switch and finding another gear — unsurprisingly, Alabama and Michigan also seem to be in this category. It helps that it is also the most talented Group of 5 squad and one of its best coached.

As for Georgia? The talent is still there, no doubt. The backs remain dangerous (particular Cook the Younger), Brock Bowers is an absolute unstoppable hoss, the front seven is the best in the country, and if you give SBIV some time without pressure or disguise, he can drop absolute beautiful tosses into some very tight windows.

But, questions remain for this angry team licking its chops.

It was long-wondered what would happen should UGA’s defense face an elite passing attack; could the secondary hold up? And, if the Dawgs required must-have points, could its ball control offense respond, particularly in the passing game?

UGA failed both challenges in major ways. Does this motivate them? Or does Michigan now have the book on how to beat a very limited Georgia team? Will it show up on the scoreboard — and, importantly for our purposes, in the spread?

As bowl season starts, we’ll use our same analytical tools. And we begin today with a quick and dirty Tale of the Tape for the Semifinal games today.

Cotton Bowl

Alabama -13.5 vs. Cincinnati
Alabama 12-1, 7-6 ATS (2-0 Neutral ATS)
Cincinnati 13-0, 8-5 ATS (0-0 Neutral ATS)
Alabama -2.6 PPG underperformance relative to spread (+19.5 PPG Neutral)
Cincinnati +3.6 PPG overperformance relative to spread

Initial Analysis: If the Bearcats have tended to have one niggling bugaboo under Fickell, it’s been against explosive passing attacks. They play a lot of press-man, and have an aggressive 3-3-5 blitzing scheme. Boom or bust, for sure, as we saw under the Carl Torbush scheme with Dennis Franchione and to some extent Pete Golding’s increasing move to 3-3-5 look to counter modern spreads.

There is some reason to think that issue may be somewhat ameliorated entering this game. The corner tandem in Cincinnati is the best in the nation, period. And their job was made significantly easier by a walking wounded Alabama wide receiving corps down their No. 1 receiving option. No matter how well JoJo Earle or Ja’Corey Brooks or Slade Bolden or Traeshon Holden play, you can’t just wave a wand and replace 90 catches and 1000 yards. That, and an equally-banged up running back group, is going to make explosive plays premium commodities for the Tide.

On the other side of the ball, where Cincinnati may really find itself in trouble, is with its propensity for slow starts and with their gratuitous turnovers. Yes, UC leads the nation in total takeaways, with 33. But that is subject to some caveats. The first is that 23 of those 33 have come against teams below .500: UC is making bad teams pay. And, second, they’ve also given it up 20 times. The UC TOM is “just” +14 as a result, still good for 3rd in the nation. But Alabama simply doesn’t turn it over (9 total), and the Tide have forced 22 of their own, including 12 against teams above .500. With their +13 TOM, Alabama is 3rd in the country.

Alabama forces better teams to screw up more often, and when they do, Alabama has converted those TOs into points an unreal 88% of the time.

Slow UC starts, the Bearcats propensity for turnovers and allowing explosive passing plays, Alabama’s big stage experience away from Tuscaloosa, coupled with the Tide’s superior pass rush (not to mention overall team speed) is just too much, no matter how hard Cincy plays. What mistakes Cincinnati makes are apt to be backbreaking. And don’t expect a clean game, for sure. These two rack up a lot of penalties. Mobile QBs and gambling defenses have that tendency.

Preliminary Analysis: This is subject to revision for sure, and we will break it down more in depth later, but Alabama -20.5 seems the more realistic spread: so, -13.5 should be more than manageable for the Tide.


Alabama - Cincinnati

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Alabama -13.5
    (493 votes)
  • 12%
    Cincinnati +13.5
    (70 votes)
563 votes total Vote Now

Orange Bowl

Michigan +7 vs. Georgia
Michigan 12-1, 11-2 (best in the country) ATS, 1-0 Neutral ATS
Georgia 12-1, 8-5 ATS, 1-1 Neutral ATS
Michigan (nation’s best) +10.6 PPG overperformance relative to spread (+28 PPG Neutral)
Georgia +6.3 PPG overperformance relative to spread (-6.5 PPG Neutral)

Initial Analysis: This game figures to be everything Alabama-Cincinnati is not. If those two thrive off of the new era of gambling, where they win and lose with big plays on both sides of the ball, then the Wolverines and Bulldogs hearken back to a more genteel era of violence — win the line of scrimmage, pound the ball, set up play-action and misdirection, keep plays in front of the secondary, let the front seven dictate what the offense does. Quick knockouts. And they both are old-school “percentages” guys, who love a sexy punt.

Neither offense is particularly innovative either — I honestly LOL’d twice on Saturday. Once, when I saw Georgia line up in Weak Trips to run the flood — a play made famous 35 years ago by the Washington Redskins; and the second, when I saw the Wolverines line up in a Y Offset 22 to run the sail route — a play made famous by the Dallas Cowboys 30 years ago. And they both run Andy Reid’s Hi-Lo flood and opposite, staples of every west-coast inspired playbook since the 90s (yes, including Alabama’s).

FFS, they both still have fullbacks on the roster.

Needless to say, this is a game that is much more in the wheelhouse of Kirby and Harbaugh.

That similarity in style seems to set up nicely for under bettors, right? A good ole’ fashioned 17-13 slugfest?

“Not so fast, my friend.”

Neither the history nor the numbers really bear that out. The totals on this one are preliminarily sitting at 43.5. But the vast majority of CFP games have tended to go over (79% since 2014). And, just this year, Michigan games have gone over in 8 of 13 contests — including against 3 of the 4 best defenses the Wolverines faced. It’s scarce better on the other side — excluding the Bulldogs’ FCS game, UGA went over in 7 of 13 games this season.

What was the common theme? Against relatively equal opponents, the offenses tend to have the advantage. Against crappy teams, you get one-sided dominance and thus lower scoring games

That is a trend we have seen time and again this season and in the playoffs historically — and one which figures to be replicated in the Orange Bowl. It’s easy to see why, too. Michigan is Top 15 in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency; Georgia is just outside that (18th). And both are 20th or better in explosive play efficiency.

When you break it down by-snap, you see where this will really come to bear in the final score: Michigan has racked up 66 plays beyond 20 yards; UGA 70 — this despite the fact that Georgia has ran 112 more plays than Michigan, though UGA has the better per-play average.

Figure UM to get the better explosive play percentage, and capitalize off of a sloppier Georgia team; meanwhile, expect a very efficient Georgia offense to be able to drive the field. But neither will do it a whole bunch. The third down defense and lack of defensive penalties for both, will make scoring drives precious. Still, with a month to scheme, the elite talent on the field, rules stacked in favor of modern offenses, the defenses remain significantly disadvantaged...even in this game, and with these teams.

Preliminary Analysis: Michigan — Georgia well over 43.5, and in fact, the Orange Bowl should probably see closer to 51 points.



This poll is closed

  • 60%
    Over 43.5
    (214 votes)
  • 39%
    Under 43.5
    (142 votes)
356 votes total Vote Now

Again, we’ll break these (and more) down in painful detail as the bowl season approaches. For now, I hope this has given you something to think about. There are plenty more to check out at our SuperGroup.

Go forth to profit.