Weekend Predictions: Bama, Clemson, Ohio State win in routs

Picking games against the spread is difficult under normal circumstances. The many new variables of this season made it harder. How to account for a truncated offseason, player opt-outs, COVID-19 disruptions, and few (or no) fans in stadiums?

No surprise, then, that some major statistical forecasting systems haven’t been as good with college football this season. FiveThirtyEight.com reports that the top 10 public models from the past five years have, on average, correctly picked a winner against the spread in 51.4% of games. That’s not bad but, FiveThirtyEight notes, “when they miss against the actual scoring margin, they really miss.”

I pity those algorithms. While they’ve been wheezing to get half their picks right ATS, I’ve hit on 60% of my 90 college football selections this season. The best model among the 10 in FiveThirtyEight’s sample has been right on 55% of its picks ATS.

It’s true that those statistical systems predict every college football game while I don’t. Yes, I’ve also missed big a number of times. But don’t let those small details distract you from the main story: I’m smarter than the numbers. Also note that, despite my 2-7 record last week, I’ve been right on 55% of my 146 picks ATS on all games this season.

I ask you to please consider these factors as you try to determine if I’m an idiot for being wrong on my Falcons pick for nine consecutive games.

It’s conference championship week in college football. The SEC, ACC and Big Ten Championship games all feature favorites giving at least 10½ points. It’s likely the only real drama will be if Notre Dame loses and Texas A&M wins. Then the College Football Playoff committee would have to come up with a reason other than TV ratings to put the Fighting Irish in over the Aggies.

Buccaneers (-6) at Falcons

I obviously have no clue what to make of the Falcons. I assumed the Chargers would suddenly look great on defense because I picked the Falcons to win. That’s what happened. The closest I’ve come to being right about a Falcons game in two months is correctly predicting the way in which I’d be wrong.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was bad against the Chargers. He almost certainly will be better this week, but how much will that matter against Tampa Bay’s very good defense? Julio Jones (hamstring) could be out again, too. I’m taking the Bucs to cover with the full expectation that Ryan will light them up in a Falcons victory.

Conference championship games of interest

SEC (Mercedes-Benz Stadium): No. 1 Alabama (-17) vs. No. 7 Florida

The Gators (8-2) lost to depleted LSU last weekend, dashing their CFP hopes one week earlier than expected. Florida is going to lose this game and Texas A&M, which beat the Gators, will defeat Tennessee. The Gators would have ended up outside of the playoff, anyway, but it was still funny to see the them lose because a player tossed an opponent’s shoe.

Alabama hasn’t just covered the spread as a favorite in seven consecutive games. In four of those games, the Crimson Tide’s victory margin was at least 11 points more than the line. The betting public hasn’t caught on that Bama can cover big lines with no problem. I also was slow to learn because of my love of big underdogs, but now I’m on board with the Tide to cover.

ACC (Charlotte): No. 2 Notre Dame (+10½) vs. No. 3 Clemson

Freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei replaced Trevor Lawrence for Clemson’s 47-40 loss in double overtime at Notre Dame on Nov. 17. Said Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly this week: “It was actually more difficult (to game plan), quite frankly, because we weren’t sure what DJ’s skill set was across the board and we didn’t have enough film to really evaluate them.” Lawrence is set to play Saturday, so Notre Dame should have an easier time preparing to face the probable No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft.

Maybe Kelly was just making an excuse for his defense, which surrendered 402 passing yards and two touchdowns to Uiagalelei in regulation time. Clemson’s defense isn’t playing to its usual elite standard, but I don’t see the Tigers giving up so many big plays to Notre Dame this time. I’ll take Clemson and give the points.

Big Ten (Indianapolis): No. 4 Ohio State (-20½) vs. No. 14 Northwestern

Swinney and Florida coach Dan Mullen both have suggested the Buckeyes (5-0) don’t deserve a CFP bid because they haven’t played enough games. Mullen was whining after losing at home as a 24-point favorite. Swinney sounds like a coach who would rather play Texas A&M than get a CFP rematch with Ohio State.

The Buckeyes have been No. 4 in every CFP ranking despite playing one game during that stretch. They are CFP shoo-ins if they win this game. But junior cornerback Shaun Wade told reporters they are taking no chances: “Like I’ve been telling a lot of my teammates, we have to blow (Northwestern) out.” I say they’ll do so while covering.

Big 12 (Arlington, Texas): No. 6 Iowa State (+5½) vs. No. 10 Oklahoma

Oklahoma has won the Big 12 title in each of coach Lincoln Riley’s three seasons, but this is the first time his Sooners won’t be going to the CFP. Riley’s name doesn’t seem to come up as often for NFL coaching vacancies. If you need a reminder of his track record with QBs: Kyler Murray (Cardinals) and Jalen Hurts (Eagles) are set to face one another Sunday afternoon before Baker Mayfield (Browns) plays that night. Sooners cover.

Pac-12: Oregon (+3) at No. 13 USC

The Pac-12 put Oregon in this game after a COVID-19 outbreak prevented North champion Washington from playing. Beating either Washington or Oregon wouldn’t be enough to get USC (5-0) in the playoff. Credit the Trojans for not complaining about the four two-loss teams ranked ahead of them. They are quietly accepting their fate as a pretty good team from a conference no one respects. USC is the pick.

Last week against the spread: 2-7 (79-64-3 season)