- Jan. 10, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET
Clemson hasn’t lost a football game in two years. But when they play Louisiana State in the national championship game on Monday, they will be 5½-point underdogs and the team that most gamblers will be rooting against.
Clemson has the best defense in the country, giving up only 11½ points per game. Yet bettors looking to wager on the total points scored by both teams in the game are facing a massive number: 69½.
What’s going on?
It would seem to be pretty tough to bet against a team with 29 straight wins, but fans have been doing so heavily in the two weeks leading up to the game. After the College Football Playoff semifinals, L.S.U. opened as a 3½-point favorite against Clemson. Bettors who had just watched the Tigers’ record-breaking 63-28 rout of Oklahoma started putting their money down on L.S.U., and the line moved up. “The early betting, close to 90 percent came in on L.S.U.,” said Pat Morrow, the head oddsmaker at the online bookmaker Bovada. “The line got to 6½ at one point, then back down to 6.”
So why were bettors so much more excited about undefeated L.S.U. than about undefeated Clemson? “Clemson was so fortunate to beat Ohio State in the semifinal,” said Marco Blume, the trading director at the online bookmaker Pinnacle. “But L.S.U. had an incredible performance in obliterating Oklahoma. L.S.U. has won many, many games with ease.”
Another knock against Clemson is that they play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, widely regarded as an inferior league to the Southeastern Conference, where L.S.U. plays. “Clemson did not have a lot of sexy wins, and they struggled to pull it out against North Carolina,” Morrow said, describing a game in which Clemson had to stop North Carolina on a 2-point conversion on its final drive to win. Clemson so towered over their opponents that until the playoffs they were never less than a 16-point favorite in any game.
“L.S.U. has all the excitement around a guy like Joe Burrow, who was 200-1 to win the Heisman when the season started and then put up video-game numbers.”
L.S.U. was only No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll, while Clemson was No. 1. A key moment in taking L.S.U. seriously came back in September, when it beat Texas, at the time a top 10 team. The wins kept coming, and some, like Florida and Auburn, made strong impressions. “Then there are the middling teams that they stomped,” Morrow said. “With Clemson, the victories were tighter, and Trevor Lawrence had a bit of a regression compared to his previous season.”
The clincher that showed L.S.U. was perhaps the best team in the nation came when it beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9. The spread opened with Alabama as a 7-point favorite. After some concerns about an injury to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, it dropped to 4½. When L.S.U. won the game by 5, there was a clear new top dog in college football.
After that, expectations for L.S.U. grew against even good teams, while views of Clemson stayed relatively unchanged with its easier schedule. Going into the final, L.S.U. has a record of 9-4-1 against the spread while Clemson is 11-3 against the standard set by sports books.
Point spreads are not destiny, of course, and sometimes, like in the title game, they reflect the opinions of ordinary bettors more than professional gamblers or football experts. “We do rate L.S.U. internally as a better team on a neutral field, but maybe not as a 6-point favorite,” Morrow said. On a game like this, which will have the most money bet all season, “we do kind of bend to public pressure.” And the public loves L.S.U.
So do some of the coaches who tried to win against the SEC champions. “I think people got to be careful at times with the spreads,” said Derek Mason, the defensive-minded coach at Vanderbilt, which lost to L.S.U. in September. “They put so much pressure on your offense to be good all the time that you can’t afford to waste possessions. If Clemson does not stay on the field, and they give L.S.U. too many opportunities, I think L.S.U. can get too far ahead.” (Before you bet your bankroll on Mason’s tip, consider that he also had kind words to say about Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney and that team’s big game experience.)
Considering how stingy Clemson’s defense is, the over/under of 69½ might seem to be absurdly high. That number, plus a point spread as much as 6 in some places, means bookmakers are expecting a score of in the neighborhood of 38-32, with L.S.U. winning. If that is the score, it will be the most points given up by Clemson in 48 games.
But while Clemson has the No. 1 defense, L.S.U. has the No. 1 offense, scoring a dazzling 49 points a game. Besides Oklahoma, L.S.U. put up 58 against Mississippi and 66 against Vanderbilt. So will great offense or great defense dominate?
“It’s the unstoppable force versus the immovable object,” Morrow said. “It’s very, very difficult. We haven’t seen a college player light things on fire like Joe Burrow. Can Clemson’s defense be the first all year to stop L.S.U.? Even Georgia gave up 37 to them.”
And, even if Clemson does win, will they really do so by holding L.S.U. to 10 or 14 points? “The only way that we anticipate that it is winnable for Clemson is if it is a complete shootout,” Blume said. “An all-out frenzy where the offenses drive the defenses into the ground. In a tight game, the L.S.U. offense is just superior.” So whichever way the result goes, there may be a lot of points on the board.
Don’t expect the total to climb even higher though. “There’s a ceiling effect,” Blume said. “It would seem crazy to go to 72. How high can it possibly go? It’s more likely to go down.”
While the public perception of the game is clear, don’t be surprised if it also turns out to be wrong. Even the experts struggle sometimes to find their footing with college point spreads.
“In the N.F.L., most teams look alike and do similar things,” Morrow said. “It’s a bit easier to create power rankings. College football is more about comparing conferences, because teams play mostly inside their conference. That’s a problem.
“There is some guesswork.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.