Here we go, guys. We finally made it. After four long months of arguments about college football odds and best vs. most deserving, we have two national semifinals in the 2021 College Football Playoff.
The entire college football world will be locked into Friday’s games, with the first kickoff between Cincinnati and Alabama at 3:30 p.m. EST. You’ve got until then to head over to your favorite online sportsbook (might I recommend BetMGM?) and lock in your position.
In my opinion, this game is actually a fairly simple handicap. Let’s get into it.
Cotton Bowl Semifinal Preview: Cincinnati (+13.5) vs. Alabama
Many college football fans – myself included – wanted to see Cincinnati bust through the College Football Playoff’s G5 glass ceiling.
Now that the Bearcats are officially in, the conversation shifts to whether or not Cincinnati is actually a wise football bet.
Their opponent needs no introduction. Through the first seven years of the College Football Playoff era, Alabama has been included in the four-team bracket six times – every year but 2019, when LSU won the SEC West en route to a perfect season.
The Crimson Tide own an 8-3 playoff record, and their average margin of victory in those games is 17.1 points. The CFP has developed a rather infamous reputation for noncompetitive games, and Alabama has certainly played its part.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s Alabama team is very highly regarded, as the Crimson Tide own both the reigning champion status and the newly-minted Heisman Trophy winner. Bryce Young has just completed a season ranking No. 2 in Total QBR (88.7, behind C.J. Stroud) and No. 3 in Expected Points Added (94.5, behind Kenny Pickett and Bailey Zappe).
But Cincinnati has a top playmaker of its own in quarterback Desmond Ridder, who satisfies every sports cliché in the dictionary as a grizzled, veteran guy who just knows how to make plays and win games.
For Ridder, there’s also the added benefit of how a competitive playoff game with Alabama could really turbo-boost his NFL draft odds.
Cincinnati will also bring the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense to the Cotton Bowl (16.1 points allowed per game). This is particularly impressive when you consider that the American Athletic Conference – for all the G5 taunts that fans might want to lob at it – does not lack for offensively gifted teams.
Alabama ranks just inside the top 20 units, allowing 20.2 points per game. While the Tide’s defense is often the engine through which Saban has won many championships, this year’s unit has been noted as more vulnerable than usual.
Golding has dealt with criticism throughout his tenure as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator and discussed his primary focus as his team prepares for the Cotton Bowl.https://t.co/7yM15FxU57
— Joey Blackwell (@BlackwellSports) December 29, 2021
It’s hard to blame Alabama for that too much, though, when you consider how many players it lost to last year’s NFL Draft.
In short, the Cotton Bowl semifinal should see two capable offenses testing the limits of two highly-rated defenses.
How to Bet the College Football Playoff Semifinal: Cincinnati (+13.5) vs. Alabama
One fundamental principle of online sports betting that I talk about often is that your handicap should start with the number itself. There’s a saying we refer to often on The Lion’s Edge: “Joes bet teams; pros bet numbers.”
The story of this game’s point spread is all I need to see to know that the right side is Cincinnati.
BetMGM, alongside most other sportsbooks, opened this number at 13.5, just underneath the key number of 14. Traders had to know that doing this would invite a deluge of action on Alabama.
Naturally, this is exactly what happened, and the line almost immediately moved up to 14.
But as the days passed in December, a funny thing happened – sharp action on Cincinnati moved the number back down as low as 13. It’s stabilized now at its original opening position of 13, which is where I expect it to stay through kickoff on Friday afternoon.
To a bettor with a professional eye, that quick summation of the line movement contains two separate indications that Cincinnati is the play.
One is the fact that the book was willing to open at 13.5 in the first place since it immediately created liability on a juggernaut program like Alabama.
Two is the fact that there was professional buyback on Cincinnati at 14.
The College Football Playoff history says that Alabama will romp here, just as they often do in semifinal matchups against programs not named Clemson or Ohio State. But the number says that Cincinnati has a shot to keep this competitive, or at least sneak in the backdoor with a late score or two.
I’m backing the Bearcats here, with some public fade consideration on Over 58.5 as well. More than 80 percent of tickets are backing the under, and that just feels like a totally square play on the reputation of Alabama’s defense, rather than acknowledging the power of both of these teams’ offenses.
Play: Cincinnati +13.5; Lean: Over 58.5