This is the fourth year of the truncated four-team College Football Playoff system in the FBS Division and if the previous years are any indication there may be a chance for bettors to extract value in picking the ultimate national champion. In the first three years, the top-seeded team has yet to be crowned the national champion.
The first task for punters is to identify the quartet of fortunate teams that will be selected to compete for that championship – a tricky matter since there are five major conferences and only four berths available. With that in mind let’s sort through the top teams and top conferences for 2017.
The University of Alabama is the only team to have participated in all three national playoffs. Twice Nick Saban’s bunch has been the #1 seed but Alabama only won in 2015 when the Crimson Tide was slotted number two. Bookmaker Bovada has made Alabama the overwhelming favorite to win the national title at +240 on a combination of bottomless reserves of talent in Tuscaloosa and a lack of stiff competition in the typically stout Southeastern Conference (SEC). The SEC is loaded with good, but not great teams – Auburn (+2000), LSU (+2500), and Georgia (+2500).
Alabama runs out a star at every offensive skill position with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, Calvin Ridley at wide receiver, and Bo Scarborough leading a deep corps of running backs. Under Saban, Alabama has been an elite defense but has proven vulnerable come playoff time against explosive opposition. The Tide are 25-2 in conference play in the Playoff era that has kept them in the mix for a national title. This year should be no different, even if Alabama should trip up against Florida State in a much ballyhooed non-conference season opener.
Florida State is listed at +750 to capture the national title, favored to replace defending national champion Clemson as the representative from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles finished last year by holding off Michigan in the Orange Bowl and big-armed quarterback Deondre Francois is back at the controls in 2017. The ACC has beefed up in recent years – Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is back for another season at Louisville (+3300) – so the Seminoles will not be able to pencil in routine conference wins as in the past.
At Clemson (+2800) Dabo Swinney has to find a new quarterback for departed DeShaun Watson to return to the national championship game for the third year in a row. Swinney has named junior Kelly Bryant the starter for opening day – but without job security. The Tigers have an important non-conference clash with Auburn in early September that could decide both Bryant’s fate and the fate of Clemson backers even before the ACC Conference grind begins.
The second choice in the pre-season betting is the University of Southern California Trojans at +600. The West Coast glamour team has been hampered by scholarship reductions for recruiting violations in the past several seasons but now appear primed to compete for a 12th national championship and first since 2004. Sam Darnold is a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and he has talented weapons around him in running back Ronald Jones II and wide receiver Deontay Burnett. But USC’s strongest case for a national title might be made by the schedule which sees the Trojans avoiding powerhouse Washington (+2000) and getting rival Stanford (+7500) at home.
In Seattle, the Huskies will once again assemble behind quarterback Jake Browning who threw 43 touchdown passes in leading Washington to the playoffs last year. A return trip may well come down to a single game in the Pac 12 playoffs this time around for coach Chris Petersen.
The most spirited in-conference competition for a slot in the playoffs for the national championship is expected to come from the Big Ten. Ohio State won the first national playoff in 2014 as a surprise #4 seed but Michigan State in 2015 and the Buckeyes in 2016 were both shut out in their first round playoff games. The resurrection at the University of Michigan (+1600) by Jim Harbaugh and Penn State (+1600) by James Franklin have put teeth back in college football’s oldest conference. In 2017, Harbaugh’s vaunted recruiting will be tested as he returns only five starters for his third season in Ann Arbor. In Happy Valley, Penn State will run out one of the more potent offenses the Big Ten has seen in recent years.
Ohio State (+650) remains the favorite to win the Big Ten. As always, Urban Meyer, can send out a blue chip recruit to every position but after last year’s whitewashing in the playoffs, a new offensive coordinator has been brought to Columbus to coach them up. With the quality of the conference strengthening, there may not be much margin for error for quarterback J.T. Barrett to get the new system rolling quickly.
The conference that appears to be in the greatest danger of being left out of the playoffs heading into the season is the Big 12. The conference has been rocked by coaching changes and program upheavals to the extent that a perfect undefeated record is practically required for the playoff selectors to include the Big 12 winner among the last four teams standing. The Big 12 was the conference omitted in 2014 and 2016 and when Oklahoma was included in 2015, the Sooners got thumped in the opening round.
Oklahoma is again the odds-on choice to win the conference but at +1600, the Sooners are also expected to require quite a bit of chaos in the rest of college football to be given a chance to play for the national title. Talented Baker Mayfield is back at quarterback but coach Bob Stoops will not be on the sidelines. Stoops retired after 18 seasons and a 190-48 record that included ten Big 12 titles and a national championship. In his stead will be 33-year old Lincoln Riley who will be the youngest head coach in FBS football. But if bettors are looking for a piece of karma, Stoops’ national championship came in his rookie year back in 1999.