How do you handle Alabama? It’s a query posed not just by strung-out coordinators and head coaches contemplating the most daunting of matchups circled on their schedules over yet another pot of coffee, but also Las Vegas sportsbooks as they brace for one of the most overwhelming favorites in recent college football memory.
Well, sort of.
Alabama has not been an underdog in three seasons, a streak that will be pushed to 42 games when Nick Saban’s team opens against Virginia Tech on August 31. This streak will then, barring major injuries, push on well through (and perhaps beyond) the 2013 season. And while it’s a long way out, USC’s streak of 58 consecutive games favored between 2003 and 2007 is suddenly in jeopardy.
Don’t sound the alarm, at least not yet, but take note. After all, it will be hard to ignore.
This run of Tuscaloosa domination has forced Las Vegas and other online sportsbooks into a fascinating predicament. Alabama will draw betting interest on name value alone—receiving “public” support (or wagers) regardless of whether it’s warranted or not. Texas, Notre Dame and other renowned powers with colossal fanbases find themselves in similar situations each season.
The difference, however, is that Alabama has an obscene amount of talent and depth at key positions, a head coach who might actually be a robot and a recent track record of winning at an alarming rate and in key moments. This scenario has generated a perfect storm of sorts, one that could culminate in an unprecedented season for those tasked with handicapping these games.
“Two Vegas veteran oddsmakers have told me that we're looking at the higher power-rated college football team they've seen,” said David Purdum, who has covered the sports betting industry for five years. “And even though Alabama has been favored on average by more than 20 points a game over the last three seasons, Saban has covered the number in 26 of those games,”
Think about that for a moment. Over a three-year stretch, Alabama is averaging out to a three-touchdown favorite each week. It’s startling, but somehow, not necessarily surprising if you’ve been tuning in.
What’s even more extraordinary, however, is these gaudy point spreads are not enough. Alabama is still covering the ridiculous numbers more often than not.
Right on cue, the Crimson Tide is listed as a 19.5-point favorite over Virginia Tech in Week 1, just slightly below the three-year, three-touchdown average. This is also Virginia Tech and not “Thanks For the Paycheck” University, but again, Alabama is morphing the distance between the two.
Looking at the bigger picture, Alabama is now a 5/2 favorite to win the 2013-2014 BCS National Championship on the online sportsbook Bovada.lv. The number opened at 5/1 back in January, and it was almost immediately bet down to 3/1. It has since shifted even further following the autograph controversy surrounding Johnny Manziel to its current position.
Although value in this championship bet is at a minimum, it hasn’t stopped bettors from backing the Tide regardless. Alabama has taken at least two times more money than any other team, according to Bovada.lv Sportsbook Manager Kevin Bradley.
Bovada also gave the BCS favorite a win total of 11—a prop bet asking whether a team will eclipse this win mark during the regular season. Despite offering up little room for error, nearly 60 percent of the money is being wagered on the over, according to Bradley.
The books are again providing an enormous handicap for the nation’s No. 1 team, and thus far it isn’t slowing anyone down. But as for quantifying how Alabama stacks up against other betting favorites in recent years, you don’t have to search long to find a team that received similar support at the betting window.
“Before we go anointing Alabama presumptive national champion, keep in mind there is historical precedent for a team starting the year at less than 3/1, and you don't need to go far back,” said former Caesars bookmaker and current Donbest.com market analyst Todd Fuhrman. “USC opened last season as 12/5 favorites, and while I won't compare Nick Saban's leadership to Lane Kiffin, there is a danger to crowning a paper national champion.”
It feels strange and somewhat distant given hindsight, but USC—yes, the same USC that looked pitiful against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl—was given a similar odds treatment before the 2012 season.
The Trojans entered the fall as a 3/1 favorite to win the BCS National Championship, and those BCS National Championship tickets were in the garbage by October. The prior season, Oklahoma entered fall as a 9/2 favorite to win the BCS National Championship, and it too came up short.
This should come as no surprise and requires no real in-depth analysis. Forecasting these teams—through preseason magazines, preseason polls and betting odds—is a challenge, regardless of the visions of how it may unfold on paper. The room for error in college football’s current system is minuscule, and “any given Saturday” can derail an entire season. At least for one more season as the BCS will be put to rest.
Still, neither USC nor Oklahoma entered the season with the kind of talent Alabama will put on display starting August 31. Barring injury—particularly at quarterback—Alabama will likely be at least a touchdown favorite in each one of its games and a double-digit favorite in all but one or two regular season games.
Point spreads will continue to soar if things go as planned, and the limited value Vegas is offering will continue to shrink as Alabama attempts to do what many believe it will do. Again. The numbers will be massive, and although there are no guarantees that this will amount to anything beyond simple betting numbers, this favorite seems like one that will not go down without a fight.
*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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The Notre Dame Fighting Irish shocked the college football world last season by making it all the way to the National Championship Game by virtue of an undefeated regular season.
The Irish were crushed by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the title game, but it was a great year for Notre Dame nonetheless. Brian Kelly's squad has a lot of work to do if it intends to get back to that point this season, though.
Notre Dame lost several notable players to the NFL as well as through graduation, so Kelly needs to find out which players on his roster can handle expanded roles.
There are definitely some tough games on the schedule this year, but another undefeated season could be there for the taking. It all depends upon whether or not a small sampling of players is able to rise to the occasion.
Here are three players in particular who must step up in a big way for the Irish this season if they are to have any hope of getting another crack at the Coaches' Trophy.
It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that the quarterback must play well in order for a successful season to occur. Tommy Rees has more pressure riding on his shoulders than most, though, as he is a senior with starting experience.
Rees lost his starting job to Everett Golson last year, and Golson went on to lead Notre Dame to the National Championship Game. Golson has been suspended for the entire 2013 season; all eyes are on Rees to see if he is capable of being a title-contending quarterback.
Although Rees showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his penchant for making mistakes often overshadowed that.
Rees was solid as a starter two seasons ago as he completed for 65 percent of his passes for more than 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rees did throw 14 interceptions, though, which is something he can't afford to do this year.
Early reports regarding Rees leading up to the season are good, however, as Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports has heard that Rees' understanding of Kelly's playbook is masterful.
That type of leadership is precisely what Notre Dame's offense will need as it will be without several key players who made a major impact last season.
Also, it seems likely that Notre Dame's defense will take a step back even if it's a slight one.
The Notre Dame defense singlehandedly won plenty of games last year, but it's going to need more offensive support. That means Rees can't sit back and be a game manager. He needs to be the reason why Notre Dame wins games this season, and if he can do that, then the Irish will be in good shape.
He became a punch line by the end of last season, but there is no denying the fact that linebacker Manti Te'o was the driving force behind Notre Dame's magical 2012 campaign.
Te'o was all over the place last year as he made big tackles, forced fumbles and intercepted passes at will. It's difficult to remember a defensive player having a bigger impact over the course of a season than Te'o did last year, so there is going to be a transitional period for the Irish.
Te'o very nearly won the Heisman Trophy, and while it's unlikely that the Irish have another Heisman-caliber linebacker on their roster, they do have a considerable amount of depth at the position. It will probably be a group effort in terms of replacing Te'o's production, but senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese will shoulder much of the load.
Calabrese has been a steady defensive contributor for the Irish over the past three seasons, but his role has never really be expanded. That will inevitably happen this season, though, as Kelly needs a senior leader like Calabrese to take on some of the responsibilities that Te'o dealt with so well.
There is a lot of talent on the Notre Dame defense, but they need direction.
Te'o was like a coach on the field in a lot of ways as he seemingly always knew where he needed to be, and he knew where his teammates needed to be as well. Nobody is asking Calabrese to play like Te'o as that is nearly impossible, but he does need to have the best season of his career by a considerable margin. Provided Calabrese shows some leadership and acts as the heart and soul of the defense, Notre Dame will have a chance to do some damage.
George Atkinson III
A much underrated aspect of Notre Dame's success last season was its running game. It was easy to see the impact that the defense made, and Golson received much of the credit whenever the offense made plays, but the Irish rushed for nearly 2,500 yards last season, which allowed them to control the ball for large chunks of time.
Notre Dame has its hands full in terms of replicating that success this year as leading rushers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have graduated and departed South Bend. That means well over 1,600 rushing yards and nine touchdowns have been lost.
All hope is not lost, though, as George Atkinson III made quite an impact as Notre Dame's No. 3 back last season.
Atkinson had just 51 carries, but he made the most of them as he rushed for 361 yards and five touchdowns. That means he averaged 7.1 yards per carry, which is nearly unheard of. Atkinson isn't exactly a small guy either at nearly 6'2" and 220 pounds, so he brings a mix of explosiveness and power to the table. That combination of skills has landed him on the College Football Performance Awards' All-Purpose Performer of the Year watch list, according to Notre Dame assistant director of media relations Michael Bertsch.
Even though Notre Dame's defense won't be exactly the same as it was last year, the winning formula will remain unchanged.
Notre Dame needs to be able to stop the run on defense and run the ball effectively on offense, and the onus will fall on Atkinson when it comes to the latter point. The junior running back seems ready to accept a bigger role, so there isn't much reason to be concerned about him. Provided he is able to remain healthy, Atkinson could be Notre Dame's breakout player of the 2013 season.
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Urban Meyer got an unexpected pre-National Signing Day present when he landed big-time playmaker Dontre Wilson out of Desoto, Tex., who had long been committed to Oregon before Chip Kelly went to the Philadelphia Eagles.
As soon as Wilson's highlight film from his senior season dropped, Buckeye fans had every reason to get excited. But OSU fans should have learned all they needed to know about this young freshman when Meyer gave him the No. 1 jersey—something he didn't do with Percy Harvin at Florida until his sophomore season.
Meyer liked something about Wilson, and it didn't take long for Wilson's future teammates to find out either.
Wilson has been one of the stars of Ohio State's fall camp and has shown game-changing speed that just wasn't on the team a year ago.
Last season, even though OSU had the country's No. 10 rushing offense, the Buckeyes only had one home run hitter on offense in Braxton Miller.
That dimension was clearly lacking from the Buckeye offense because other than Miller, defenses had very little to really worry about.
If Wilson can do the things he does in practice when it's game time, then all bets are off: He is equally dangerous in the running game and the passing game. And as Meyer showed at Florida, he knows just how to get the football out to his impact players.
The Buckeyes haven't had this kind of consistent big-play threat on offense since Ted Ginn Jr. became more than just a special teams weapon.
Wilson has that kind of speed and field vision which will make him a nightmare for Big Ten defensive coordinators this year.
A majority of the teams in the Big Ten run the spread and thus practice against it every day. But few if any can simulate what Wilson can do in the open field.
It's not just his pure speed that makes him deadly. His vision makes that speed even better.
He played his high school football at Texas 5A, which is among the strongest ranks in high school football. More impressively, he was able to make big plays routinely against those talented players. That skill should translate to the next level, which is bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.
Worse yet for the Big Ten is that Dontre Wilson is only a freshman. They will have to worry about him for at least two more years after this one.
Follow me on Twitter @bielik_tim for the latest college football news and updates.
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Gus Malzahn has already proven his salt as a great offensive coach. In 2010, his offense was No. 7 in the country, averaging almost 500 yards per game, according to the NCAA. Quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and Auburn ran the table and won the national championship.
Now that he's back at Auburn, this time as head coach, Tigers fans hope that he can reinstall that high-powered, hurry-up offense that was visibly absent from last year's team.
Ah, but in 2010, Malzahn had players like Newton, Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Besides, not just any team can run Malzahn's offense and expect to win against the likes of Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC.
It takes a certain amount of speed and ability for Malzahn's offense to work. So, let's look at the Auburn offense, one position at a time, and see if that talent is there this season.
Malzahn's new starting quarterback, Nick Marshall, is a highly sought after junior college transfer who was previously recruited to another SEC team, but was kicked out for breaking school rules.
It should. Cam Newton came to Auburn under almost identical circumstances.
The similarities are uncanny. Newton started at Florida before having to transfer to Blinn College after he was caught with a stolen laptop. Marshall started at Georgia before having to transfer to Garden City (Kan.) Community College after he was dismissed for violating team rules.
Before Auburn fans get too excited, however, Marshall and Newton aren't the same. The most glaring difference is, while Newton was a quarterback all along, Marshall was recruited to Georgia as a defensive back.
However, there's no doubt that Marshall has done well since he started playing quarterback. Last season, he passed for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns plus another 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing.
Keep in mind that this was against JUCO competition and not SEC defenses. However, he's great at keeping plays alive with his feet, and he has a good arm to go along with it.
It's unlikely that Marshall will lead the Tigers to an unbeaten season, national championship and win the Heisman like Newton did in 2010. But does Marshall have the talent to go toe-to-toe with the tough SEC West defenses?
Whether or not he has the experience to execute Malzahn's hurry-up offense is another matter. However, right now, we're focused on talent, and Marshall certainly has is.
Auburn brings back the biggest star from last year's dismal offense, and that's running back Tre Mason. Mason rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, and he'll be the feature back with Onterio McCalebb gone to the NFL.
However, Mason won't have to shoulder the burden alone.
Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne will contribute this season. Artis-Payne has good size at 216 pounds combined with a blazing 4.4 40-yard dash, according to AL.com.
Then there's Alabama transfer Corey Grant. Grant was a 4-star running back, according to Rivals. However, he only made nine carries all of last season. However, Alabama recruited Corey for a reason, and the junior could have a breakout season.
And don't forget newcomer Johnathan Ford. Ford is also a 4-star player, according to Rivals.
These may not be the brightest stars Malzahn has coached, but he has plenty of talent and potential at his disposal at running back.
If last season was any indication, Malzahn has the most work to do at wide receiver.
However, none of Auburn's top returning receivers had more than 150 yards in 2012.
Granted, the Tigers quarterback struggles undoubtedly contributed to the wide receivers' poor performances last season. However, these players are going to have to step up their game for Malzahn's offense to have a chance.
However, is there potential and talent in this group? Yes. After all, Denson, Ray and Bray weren't 4-star recruits for nothing. Any one of them could have a breakout season in 2013.
This offensive line has gone through a trial by fire. This came into 2012 with only 35 combined starts and having to face the most brutal defensive lines in college football.
After that rough 2012 season, they've doubled their number of combined starts to 70, according to AL.com.
Furthermore, there's plenty of talent in this experienced offensive line. Reese Dismukes was the No. 1 center of his class, according to Rivals. Also, Greg Robinson was the No. 2 offensive guard of his class, according to Rivals.
Auburn's offensive line had the talent last season, but not the experience. Now, they have both.
That's a good sign for the Auburn offense this season.
After investigation, there's no doubt that Coach Malzahn has the talent on offense to execute his hurry-up offense. Really, it's not that surprising, given that Auburn has brought home a top-10 recruiting class for the past four years, according to Rivals.
In fact, the greatest indictment against former head coach Gene Chizik was that he was recruiting all this talent, but wasn't able to develop it properly.
Obviously, Auburn's offense doesn't have a talent problem. However, can Malzahn help this offense reach its potential and compete right away against SEC defenses?
Maybe not, but that's a matter for another article.
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As the beginning of the college football season draws near, key players are highlighted and analyzed. Watch lists come out, detailing many of the players to keep an eye on this season. Some deserving players, however, are overlooked because they play for teams who were the opposite of successful last season. Let's take a look at 15 such standout returning players who produced at a high level despite playing on bad teams last season.
Note: Only players who played for teams who won two or less games last season were considered for this article. These players played for the worst of the worst, teams who couldn't even win a fourth of their games.