Thor Nystrom

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Alabama-Clemson mega preview

Monday, January 7, 2019

Rotoworld has a college football podcast dedicated to betting against the spread. This week, my co-host Mark Lindquist and I break down Alabama-Clemson from all angles, including props. We're joined by Hayden Winks for his DFS thoughts on the matchup. Subscribe on iTunes here! Write us a review on iTunes and we'll shout you out on the next episode.


*All stats below refer to S&P+ (an advanced stats computer model created by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) unless otherwise noted. For a look at Clemson and Alabama's S&P+ team pages, click their names in the section headers below. “ATL” refers to my system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap).



2019 College Football National Championship


Monday, January 7
8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, California)

Alabama (No. 1 S&P+) -5.5 vs. Clemson (No. 2 S&P+)
Total: 58
ATL: Alabama -1.5


At a glance

Alabama (14-0 vs. No. 6 SOS) - S&P+ off (2, 4/1), def (12, 3/5), ST (93)
Clemson (14-0 vs. No. 59 SOS) - S&P+ off (5, 6/17), def (1, 1/4), ST (99)


Oddmaker's intel

Dave Mason, SportsBook Brand Manager: "After Bama initially opened at -9, an early influx of money on Clemson has dropped this all the way to -5! Since then, we're seeing some big bets on Bama. This line could potentially fluctuate quite a bit by game time but right now we are Clemson fans on the spread. However, from a futures perspective we are Bama fans. I'm really curious to see how this spread ends up closing and who we are rooting for."


Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects


Alabama DT Quinnen Williams (Round 1): “The fastest rising defensive prospect in the nation. Williams could be the first pick in the 2019 draft. He’s a complete three down lineman with the quickness, athleticism and power to line up in multiple fronts.”

Clemson EDGE Clelin Ferrell (Round 1 grade): “A force the past three years at Clemson, Ferrell is one of the best defensive front seven prospects in a draft loaded with front seven prospects. He can stand over tackle or come out of a three point stance. He’s a natural pass rusher with the ability to play off the line and play in space. And Ferrell is not bad stopping the run. Athletic, disrupts the action behind the line of scrimmage and also effective making plays in space.”

Clemson DT Christian Wilkins (Round 1 grade): “Wilkins is yet another prospect in this game poised to be an early first round pick. He combines the power of Williams with the athleticism of Ferrell to stop the run or rush the passer. Wilkins is an unstoppable force when the motor is running.”

Alabama DT Raekwon Davis (Round 1 grade): “Despite a slightly disappointing campaign Davis still grades as a top-15 pick. He’s not the playmaker of the prior three prospects yet still a forceful defensive lineman who easily occupies the gaps or collapses the pocket.”

Alabama S Deionte Thompson (Round 1 grade): “Thompson is another member of the Crimson Tide’s defense watching his draft stock soar. He’s proven to be a true centerfield with outstanding ball skills and the physicality to stuff the run.”

4.50 1st Quinnen Williams Alabama DT 92 3So
4.35 1st Clelin Ferrell Clemson DE 99 4Jr
4.32 1st Christian Wilkins Clemson DT 42 4Sr
4.19 1st Raekwon Davis Alabama DT 99 3Jr
4.09 1st Deionte Thompson Alabama S 14 4Jr
4.05 1st Mack Wilson Alabama OLB 30 3Jr
4.03 1st Dexter Lawrence Clemson DT 90 3Jr
4.02 1-2 Damien Harris Alabama RB 34 4Sr
4.01 1-2 Irv Smith Jr. Alabama TE 82 3Jr
4.00 1-2 Trayvon Mullen Clemson CB 1 3Jr
3.99 1-2 Jonah Williams Alabama G 73 3Jr
3.97 2nd Isaiah Buggs Alabama DE 49 4Sr
3.73 2-3 Isaiah Simmons Clemson S 11 3So
3.64 3rd Austin Bryant Clemson DE 7 4Sr
3.63 3rd Tre Lamar Clemson ILB 57 3Jr
3.62 3rd Savion Smith Alabama CB 8 3Jr
3.59 FA Albert Huggins Clemson DT 67 4Sr
3.59 3-4 Christian Miller Alabama OLB 47 5Sr
3.55M 4th Terrell Lewis Alabama OLB 24 4Jr
3.55 4th Mitch Hyatt Clemson T 75 4Sr
3.53 4th Tavien Feaster Clemson RB 28 3Jr
3.52 4th Joshua Jacobs Alabama RB 8 3Jr
3.51 4th Mark Fields Clemson CB 2 4Sr
3.49 4-5 Diondre Overton Clemson WR 14 3Jr
3.45 5th Trevon Diggs Alabama CB 7 3Jr
3.41 5th Hunter Renfrow Clemson WR 13 5Sr
3.39 5-6 Ross Pierschbacher Alabama G 71 5Sr
3.35 6th Kendall Joseph Clemson ILB 34 5Sr
3.34 6th Matt Womack Alabama T 77 4Jr
3.33 6th Lester Cotton Alabama G 66 4Sr
3.32 6th Tanner Muse Clemson S 19 4Jr
3.13 FA Sean Pollard Clemson T 76 3Jr
3.03 FA J.D. Davis Clemson ILB 33 4Sr
3.02 FA Hale Hentges Alabama TE 84 4Sr
3.00 FA Tremayne Anchrum Clemson G 73 3Jr
3.00 FA Jamey Mosley Alabama OLB 16 5Sr
2.95 FA Johnny Dwight Alabama DT 95 5Sr
2.81 FA Justin Falcinelli Clemson C 50 5Sr
2.78 FA Ronnie Clark Alabama RB 5 5Sr
2.77 FA Chris Register Clemson DE 45 5Sr
2.72 5th Trevion Thompson Clemson WR 1 4Jr
2.72 FA Richard Yeargin Clemson DE 49 4Jr
2.60R FA Keith Holcombe Alabama ILB 42 5Sr


Sitting: Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence (suspended), Alabama OG Deonte Brown (suspended)


What You Should Know

Welcome to the tetralogy! Alabama-Clemson IV. The short-term stakes: The national title. The historical stakes: The winner becomes the first 15-0 champ in FBS history.

Either Alabama or Clemson has been ranked No. 1 for 53 consecutive weeks. For this generation of college football fans, Clemson-Alabama is Celtics-Lakers, Federer-Nadal, Ali-Frazier, Balboa-Creed. We’re witnessing two concurrent dynasties in an era of college sports where rules should have facilitated a bit more parity (loosening of transfer restrictions, less pauper programs, more teams have access to playing on national television, etc).

It’s epic. It’s special. It’s giving me a jolt just typing these sentences. Turn your TV on Monday night and you’ll be a part of one of the great series in the history of the sport — and we may only be getting warmed up with the fourth rendition (these teams will be clear 1-2 in the 2019 preseason polls).

This is the fourth consecutive year these Goliaths have met in the playoff, and the third time in four years they’ve met in the natty. In Round 1 last year, Alabama dominated from the jump, winning 24-6 as 3.5-point favorites. The year before, QB Deshaun Watson­ led Clemson to the title by rallying past Alabama 35-31 as 6.5-point underdogs on an epic last-second touchdown pass to ageless slot WR Hunter Renfrow. Watson and crew were avenging the 2015 title game, when Alabama used a 95-yard Kenyan Drake kick return touchdown in the fourth quarter to win 45-40 as 6.5-point favorites in a raucous, back-and-forth affair (Jacob Coker was Alabama’s quarterback back then).

Clemson covered both previous title games, including the one they lost, and both games went over the total by at least 15 points. Alabama easily covered the number in the semifinal matchup last year. I’d love to be able to glean something from what we’ve seen on the field in those three games that will have predictive value for Monday’s game. But reader, let me shoot straight with you: I’m not able to do that.

These teams are too different — in both personnel and schema — from the incarnations we’ve seen in the recent past. The first two go-arounds, Clemson was led by Watson, a program-changing tour de force. Last year’s team wasted a good defense with a young offense run by a limited dual-threat quarterback (Kelly Bryant). Alabama got by them in the last full game of the Jalen Hurts Era (another limited dual-threat). Each offense has gotten a gallon of nitrous oxide poured into its engines since then.

To Dabo Swinney’s eternal credit, he understood early — perhaps even as early as last January — that Bryant’s limitations weren't going to cut it in the inevitable re-re-rematch against Alabama. So, in late September, he benched Bryant for five-star true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 or No. 2 overall prospect in the last cycle (Georgia QB Justin Fields, now in the process of transferring, was considered the 1B to Lawrence’s 1A at the top of the 2018 class).

Bryant responded by publicly divorcing the program for the purposes of extending his collegiate career. Swinney did Bryant a great service in making the change before Bryant had appeared in his fifth game of the season. Due to the NCAA’s new rule, Bryant was able to use 2018 as a redshirt campaign.

Bryant ended up taking advantage of another new-ish rule, the grad transfer one, in bolting to Missouri, where he’ll take over for Drew Lock next season. Bryant’s prompt exit ironically turned into a coup for Clemson, which no longer had to worry about a discontented veteran peering over the youngster’s shoulder and playing locker room House of Cards political games. It was the perfect breakup, really. Once Swinney ripped off the bandaid, Bryant said his piece, bounced, and a new normal of Clemson football began.

Alabama’s quarterback transition occurred after halftime of last year’s title game win over Georgia, when Tua Tagovailoa entered for a benched Hurts to spur a furious comeback victory. To Hurts’ credit, he accepted the demotion with class (only voicing appropriate frustration publicly that I can recall once, before the season). Hurts’ situation was slightly different from Bryant’s, in that it didn't benefit him to pull the ripcord immediately — Hurts would have had to sit out this season had he transferred. With Tagovailoa returning for at least one more year, Hurts is expected to transfer as a graduate this winter.


But thank goodness he stuck around this fall! Hurts came on for an injured Tua in the SEC title game rematch against Georgia last month and poetically led the Crimson Tide to a second half comeback victory. He then got a little run in the playoff game against Oklahoma last week in sub-packages. With Tagovailoa’s ankle issues — and Alabama’s subsequent desire to keep him out of harm's way — you can expect to see a few Hurts cameos again on Monday night, primarily in short-yardage and goal line formations that call for quarterback runs.

Clemson arrives in California having traveled the express highway, with fewer detours and potential pitfalls than Alabama was asked to deal with. Prior to the dominant 30-3 win over Notre Dame (S&P+ No. 7) in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson’s best wins were over Texas A&M (No. 18), NC State (No. 31), Syracuse (No. 36) and South Carolina (No. 38). Bryant was the starter for the A&M game. Clemson has played the S&P+ No. 59 schedule.

Alabama faced the No. 6 S&P+ schedule, blowing out Texas A&M (No. 18), Missouri (No. 20), LSU (No. 12), Mississippi State (No. 15) and Auburn (No. 17) by 22 points or more during the regular season. The past two times out, the Tide beat Georgia (No. 3) by seven in a late comeback and staved off Oklahoma (No. 4) by 11 in the Orange Bowl, a game in which the Tide raced out to a 28-0 lead but then toggled the offensive aggression meter to conservative as Oklahoma’s offense woke from its first quarter slumber.

You can read the schedule discrepancies one of two ways in your handicap. You can either argue that Clemson has only beaten one top-notch opponent with Lawrence under center, and thus still shoulders a burden of proof, or you could argue that Clemson is a team of similar talent to Alabama that didn't accrue nearly the wear on its tires that Alabama did to get here.

Line, Location, Lowdown

BetOnline posted the first spread in the second quarter of the Alabama-Oklahoma game, releasing Alabama -9 with low-limits. Pro bettors immediately devoured that line. By the time the clock struck 0:00, that line had been steamed down to Alabama -6.

When the other books opened the game over the next 24 hours, most did so with either Alabama -5.5 or -6 lines. It is, as I type this sentence on Saturday, now Alabama -5.5 across the market. All of that makes sense. Any number seven or above was an objective gift.

This is the 54th consecutive game that the Tide have been favored in — Alabama last an underdog against Georgia in the 2015 regular season — including each of the past three playoff matchups against Clemson. Clemson isn’t used to being an underdog, either, but they’ve performed well in the role recently.

Since the start of the 2016 season, Clemson has been an underdog four times — a one-point home ‘dog to Louisville in Lamar Jackson’s Heisman season (Clemson won outright 42-36), a one-point underdog to Ohio State in Round 1 of the 2016 playoff (Clemson won outright 31-0), and, of course, the last two playoff games against Alabama.

We’re working with a very small sample size, and short numbers to boot, but Clemson’s 3-1 SU and ATS records as an underdog the past three seasons is a nice datapoint for our upcoming handicap. Each school went 8-6 against the number this fall. Neither team has been an underdog this season, but, of course, that’s about to change for the Tigers.

Over the past 20 title games, the underdogs have a slight advantage at 11-9 ATS. But interestingly — and this tidbit should absolutely be in the forefront of your mind if you end up betting Clemson — eight of those underdogs won the game outright (8-12 SU). A favorite hasn’t covered in the title game since Alabama blasted Notre Dame 42-14 as 10-point favorites in 2012.

I began my Alabama-Oklahoma writeup with this: “The same caveat must be made before we get into any Alabama handicap: To bet the Tide, you must pay a tax. Not a mythical tax. A real one based on objective numbers. Here, we aren’t getting the same amount of line value on the ‘dog as we did in the SEC title game with Georgia (an easy Bulldogs cover), but I’m still showing a solid 4.5 points of line value on Oklahoma.” Oklahoma, of course, went on to cover.

I’ve bet against Alabama in each of the past two games and cashed twice. I didn't step in front of the Crimson Tide because I don’t respect them — I very much do. I stepped in front of the Crimson Tide because the public respects them too much — for value-shopping grinders like myself, there wasn’t much of a choice.

My model set the adjusted line of this game at Alabama -1.5 vs. Clemson. Once again, there’s significant line value on the underdog — if you’ve got the guts to step on the tracks as the Alabama train rolls through.


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Thor Nystrom is a former associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
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