LAS VEGAS — Welcome to the Alabama Invitational, better known as the College Football Playoff.
This is the fifth year of the four-team tournament for the championship, and the Crimson Tide have been invited every year, winning two of the first four and getting to the title game the past three years.
- A good idea would be even better with eight schools invited — all five major conference champions, the top dog in the Group of Five (hello, Central Florida) and two at-large teams.
- The bowl season will always flourish and charm us, especially those of us who like to wager on the games. These final games are wonderful rewards for the many student-athletes — yes, they damn well do exist — who will never get closer to an NFL experience than the ticket window.
One problem this playoff has had is scheduling. The Rose Bowl is contractually set for Jan. 1 regardless of whether it hosts one of the semifinals or the championship. In the past we have had to put up with semifinal games on New Year’s Eve — a horrible idea. So this year, the College Football Playoff committee did us a favor and picked a traditional Saturday for the play-down.
That brings us to the New Year’s Six:
PEACH BOWL (Dec. 29, Florida +7¹/₂ vs. Michigan; O/U 51): The SEC vs. the Big Ten. In his first year with the Gators, coach Dan Mullen has done a superb job. The veteran Jim Harbaugh … not so much. His Wolverines were blown out by Ohio State 62-39, and this is a case where that regular-season finale could linger with coaches and players. For the Gators, quarterback Feleipe Franks threw 23 touchdown passes this season. He has been inconsistent. But when Mullen was at Mississippi State he coached Dak Prescott into becoming an NFL quarterback. It says here Franks and the Gators will upset the Wolverines, who still feel the bruises from the pounding by the Buckeyes.
Florida 30, Michigan 24.
COTTON BOWL (Dec. 29, Clemson –12 vs. Notre Dame; O/U 55 ¹/₂): If it wasn’t for St. Nick over in Tuscaloosa, we would all be raving about the job Dabo Swinney has done at Clemson. The Tigers have been overshadowed by the Crimson Tide, but they are a playoff perennial, getting there four years in a row. Tiger quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a spectacular youngster, but it is his running back Travis Etienne who will carry the load against the Fighting Irish. Kudos to Notre Dame for keeping Brian Kelly after he went 4-8 in 2016. Now Kelly has Notre Dame back in the championship discussion. But it looks to me as if the undefeated season will end for the Irish at Jerry World.
Clemson 27, Notre Dame 10.
ORANGE BOWL (Dec. 29, Alabama -14 vs. Oklahoma; O/U 81): A Heisman Trophy isn’t always a handicapper’s tool, but this year may prove the exception. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa finished one-two in the voting. The Crimson Tide’s defense doesn’t need added motivation, but after the Heisman decision, several of Tua’s teammates tweeted out their desire to prove the voters wrong. Talking about shutting down Murray’s considerable talents and then doing it are two entirely different tasks, but coach Nick Saban knows his players will not lose focus preparing to stop the Sooners. There are huge differences between these two defenses. The Sooners have given up 53 touchdowns this year, the Tide only 25. It works out to 32 points against Oklahoma per game and only 15 against Alabama. I’m willing to lay the 14.
Alabama 38, Oklahoma 21.
FIESTA BOWL (Jan. 1, Central Florida +7¹/₂ vs. LSU; O/U 55½): A year ago the little guys from Orlando swatted Auburn in the Peach Bowl, so Ed Orgeron will have his Tigers on full alert. UCF rallied superbly to beat Memphis in the American Athletic Conference final, but scoring 56 against this LSU defense is virtually impossible. The Tigers’ outstanding defensive back Greedy Williams will be missed, but there is still plenty of NFL talent in Baton Rouge.
LSU 23, Central Florida 20.
ROSE BOWL (Jan. 1, Ohio State -6¹/₂ vs. Washington; O/U 58): This line jumped when Urban Meyer announced this would be his final game as head coach of the Buckeyes. Interestingly, for all his success, Urban has never coached in the Rose Bowl. He grew up in Ohio watching on television as Woody Hayes and the Buckeyes traveled west and sometimes stumbled in their final game against the old Pac-8. I have great respect for the job Chris Petersen has done with the Huskies in Seattle, but this is simply a win-one-for-Urban type of game. The Buckeyes will outlast the Huskies.
Ohio State 38, Washington 21.
SUGAR BOWL (Jan. 1, Texas +11¹/₂ vs. Georgia; O/U 58): This is another game in which a team’s previous game may have an impact. It looks to me as if the Georgia players and coaches may not have recovered from Alabama’s fourth-quarter rally in the SEC Championship. The decision to run a fake punt against the Tide with the score dead even lingers over the Bulldogs like a dark cloud. Texas coach Tom Herman is well-known for his ability to hang close as an underdog. The ’Dawgs win but don’t cover the big number.
Georgia 24, Texas 21.