NCAA Football Predictions: Championship Week Opening Line Report and Picks
It's my final Opening Line Report of the 2018 college football season, although of course Doc's will have you covered on every game through the national championship on Monday, Jan. 7 at Levi's Stadium outside San Francisco.
We'll get into most of the major conference championship games in Friday's Last-Minute News & Line Movements story, so I suppose it's time to address the Heisman Trophy race. Largely have ignored that all season because there's no doubt it's a foregone conclusion: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa was -780 (entering Week 13) to win the award on Dec. 8 in New York City. He was the favorite entering the season and has never surrendered that perch since a three-touchdown opening night against Louisville.
Anyone else winning the Heisman was +460 at 5Dimes. Don't waste your money on that, it's a done deal. I would imagine that Tua will set a record for fewest minutes played as a Heisman-winning quarterback because the Hawaii native almost never played the fourth quarter this season. He didn't need to with the Tide crushing everyone. To think at this time last year, very few non-Tide fans even knew who this kid was. That second-half national championship performance vs. Georgia vaulted him onto the national radar.
Tagovailoa will become the first quarterback from Alabama to win the award - the other two winners were running backs Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry. It also shows that even Nick Saban is willing to change. He no longer is all about running the ball down a team's throat and wearing an opponent down. Nope, even Saban is in tune with modern spread offenses these days. That should scare everyone because now all the top passing QBs in the country will have reason to go to Alabama whereas perhaps they didn't even three years ago. It goes without saying that Tagovailoa will be a heavy opening favorite to win the 2019 Heisman as well and join Archie Griffin as the only two-time winners.
The guys who may finish second and third this year, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray (all but a lock he finishes second) and West Virginia's Will Grier, won't be around in 2019. Murray would have eligibility left but will begin his pro baseball career in Oakland's farm system and will not be allowed to play football per his big-money contract. Grier likely will be a first-round NFL Draft pick. Ditto Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins if he declares.
The betting favorites right behind Tua early on (at least among players we have all heard of currently) figure to be two Clemson players: quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. Maybe Michigan's Shea Patterson if he returns to school. Ditto Oregon's Justin Herbert, but I doubt he comes back if he can go No. 1 overall in the draft.
Here are a few Week 14 opening lines that caught my eye. Rankings from last CFP Top 25 and may change Tuesday.
No. 17 Utah vs. No. 16 Washington (-4.5, 43), Friday: Pac-12 title game from the site of the National Championship Game. Washington screwed the conference over by knocking off Washington State, 28-15, in a snowy Apple Cup because now there will be no Pac-12 team in the College Football Playoff for a second straight season. It was the third straight year the Huskies denied Washington State the North Division crown. The winner here will go to the Rose Bowl and probably faces either Ohio State (if it beats Northwestern in the Big Ten title game but doesn't make the playoff) or Michigan (if OSU beats NW and does make the playoff). Utah lost at home to Washington 21-7 on Sept. 15. Myles Gaskin rushed for 143 yards and a score on 30 carries. The UW defense held the Utes to 261 yards and forced three turnovers. Utah's QB that day, Tyler Huntley, has since been lost for the season to a broken collarbone. The pick: Washington.
Memphis at No. 9 Central Florida (-3.5, 71): American Athletic Conference title game hosted by UCF. I was really looking forward to this game because I expected it to be as entertaining as last year's AAC title game, won by the Knights over Memphis in Orlando 62-55 in double overtime. The 117 points were a record for an FBS conference championship game and they combined for 1,479 yards. Alas, this has lost some luster because UCF star quarterback McKenzie Milton suffered a gruesome injury in Friday's 38-10 win at rival South Florida to complete a second straight perfect regular season. His backup is freshman Darriel Mack, who was just 5-for-14 for 81 yards vs. USF. He's more of a running threat. UCF had little shot of getting into the playoff regardless but now has zero without Milton. The committee does consider injuries. Memphis got here by trouncing Houston, 52-31, on Friday. The Tigers' star is Darrell Henderson, who rushed for 178 yards and two scores and has set the AAC single-season record with 1,699 yards (to go with 19 scores) rushing. Memphis lost at home to UCF on Oct. 13, 31-30. Milton scored the go-ahead TD on a 7-yard run with 12:14 remaining. The pick: Memphis.
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 24 Pittsburgh (+25, 56): ACC title game from Charlotte. Looks to be clearly the biggest Power 5 championship game mismatch and it would be a true stunner for Clemson not to win this game a fourth straight season and take its spot in as many years in the College Football Playoff. Frankly doesn't much matter if Clemson finishes No. 2 or 3 in the final CFP Top 25 - as long as it avoids No. 1 Alabama in the semifinals. That didn't happen last year, but only because the Tigers were No. 1 and Tide snuck in at No. 4. Pittsburgh is still pretty new to the ACC and obviously in the opposite division, so these schools have played only twice all-time and once as conference foes: No. 2 Clemson lost 43-42 at home in 2016 on a last-second field goal. A guy named James Conner had a big game for Pitt. The Panthers might have been caught looking ahead to this one on Saturday as they were stomped 24-3 at Miami. Pitt was 1-for-15 on third down. Clemson routed rival South Carolina, 56-35. Lawrence threw for a career-high 393 yards. Etienne rushed for 150 and two scores. The pick: Pitt.
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