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September 17, 2014

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College football by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of week 14

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Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) directs this team against Georgia Tech during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Athens, Ga. Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Murray have piloted their teams into the SEC championship game as the nation’s two most efficient passers.

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The national championship race is down to three teams — Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia — and none of them concern Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Sports books took no significant action on any of those teams to win the national championship in future bets before the season began. Alabama, at 6-to-1, was too low for most bettors’ liking.

Georgia had a much better payout at 15-to-1, but sports book directors reported that the Bulldogs weren’t a popular selection at all. Despite Notre Dame’s national following, not many gamblers took a shot on the Irish at 30-to-1.

“Notre Dame wasn’t even a thought,” William Hill sports book director Jimmy Vaccaro said. “I took a smattering of money on them like you always do with teams like that, but it was nothing drastic. Georgia would be the best team for us. Alabama would be second with Notre Dame last, but there’s not a minus with any of them.”

Alabama is currently a 7.5-point favorite over Georgia in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, which doubles as a national championship semifinal. Since it’s the game of most significance this week and I already previewed it here, Talking Points will be set up a little differently for the final regular-season entry of the year.

We’ll jump straight to the notes section to run down the abbreviated college football schedule. The six pack of picks will follow. Make sure to check back to this blog for more coverage during bowl season.

Quick slants

• Conference championship action begins this evening when Kent State looks to become the fifth straight underdog to cover in the MAC Championship Game. Northern Illinois, which beat Kent State 40-10 last year to start a 16-game MAC winning streak, is a 7-point favorite. Both teams possess dangerous running games, Northern Illinois with quarterback Jordan Lynch and Kent State with running back duo Dri Archer and Traylon Dunham. The Huskies biggest advantage comes on the defensive end, where the Flashes have struggled in recent weeks.

• Sharp money drove down the line in the Pac-12 Championship game to Stanford -8.5. The Cardinal opened as a 10-point favorite, an obvious overreaction to its 35-17 victory at UCLA last week. As pointed out in this blog last week, there was a motivation discrepancy with UCLA already in the championship game and Stanford needing to win to get there. The number could trend upwards, however, by kickoff. Bettors love Stanford, which has covered in five straight and finished with a conference-best 8-4 against the spread record.

• The line hasn’t come into play in the last eight SEC Championship Games, as the favorite has either covered the spread or the underdog has won outright. That trend could snap Saturday in Atlanta. With the way Georgia’s played down the stretch and its advantage in the Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs aren’t 7.5 points worse than the Crimson Tide. But with clear edges on defense and in the running game Alabama should still prevail. Georgia’s last six games have gone under the total — which is set at 50.5 this week — so look for a close, low-scoring affair.

Click to enlarge photo

Wisconsin's Montee Ball celebrates a touchdown run against UNLV during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011, in Madison, Wis.

• If you took under 13 years for the next time Nebraska would win a conference championship after it captured the Big 12 crown in 1999 — sounds like a good bet, right? — it all comes down to this weekend. Nebraska plays in its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, which seeks its third straight Rose Bowl berth. Nebraska is a 3-point favorite after beating Wisconsin 30-27 earlier this year at home. If Wisconsin emerges as conference champions, it would mark a fitting end to an underwhelming year in the Big Ten. Wisconsin went only 4-4 in the conference, but the postseason ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State propelled the Badgers into this spot.

• Speaking of comical title games, 6-6 Georgia Tech advances to the ACC showdown against Florida State. The Seminoles lay 14 points against the Yellow Jackets, which may not seem like enough until considering Florida State’s point-spread troubles. The Seminoles haven’t lived up to their status as one of the top power-rated teams in the nation at the beginning of the year, as they went 3-8 against the spread in the regular season.

• It’s nice to see one conference other than the SEC wind up with the two most deserving teams in the championship game. Too bad it’s the Conference USA, which will attract a miniscule betting handle compared to the other games. But there has been some movement early, as Tulsa is up to a 2-point favorite over Central Florida after the game opened at a pick’em. The Golden Hurricane get to play on their home field, the same place where it beat the Knights 23-21 two weeks ago. A quick glance at the box score reveals that game could have been much worse, as Tulsa outgained Central Floirda by more than 200 yards but was -2 in turnover margin.

• Few teams have proven more electric over the last two months than Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have covered four straight and gone over the total in four of their last five. Their dominance has led to an inflated point spread this weekend as they lay 10 points against Middle Tennessee, which similarly last failed to cover five games ago. The contest isn’t the designated Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, as it was scheduled at the beginning of the year. But it’s worked out that these are the two top teams.

• Sports books hung the highest over/under in the history of college football this week. The total in Oklahoma State at Baylor is 87 points, four points higher than the number posted for West Virginia vs. Baylor earlier this year. Oklahoma State beat Baylor 59-24 last year to mark its sixth straight win and cover in the series. Oddsmakers favor the Pokes by five this week, the smallest spread in that span.

• One of the better non-championship games features two teams who have stumbled repeatedly for bettors in recent years. TCU and Oklahoma have gone a combined 3-7 against the spread since the midway point of the season. The Sooners are 6-point favorites at Amon G. Carter Stadium, where the Horned Frogs have only covered once in four tries this season.

• Even when Kansas State went through a few bad years, it had Texas’ number. The Longhorns haven’t beaten or covered against the Wildcats since 2003. Oddsmakers like purple to beat orange again at Billy Snyder Family Stadium, as Kansas State is posted as an 11-point favorite. That’s a large number for a team that saw its national championship hopes crushed in its last game, a 52-24 loss at Baylor.

Six pack of picks: Tulsa -2, Alabama vs. Georgia under 50.5, Texas +11, Kent State +7, UCLA +9, Nebraska vs. Wisconsin over 49

Year to date record: 41-41-1

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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