Given the dominance we’ve seen from Alabama and Clemson in recent seasons, putting money on anyone else to win the 2019 College Football Playoff might seem foolish.
The CFB Winning Edge preseason Team Strength ratings slot Alabama No. 1 and Clemson No. 2, and also indicate the Crimson Tide and Tigers would be at least six-point favorites over any of the other 128 FBS teams at a neutral site.
Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and the presence of two apparent superpowers could create value for an underrated title contender. At the very least, two other teams will be invited to the College Football Playoff.
As I scan the odds to win the 2019-20 College Football championship game at the Las Vegas Superbook (as of Monday) and consult the CFB Winning Edge 2019 FBS Preseason Projections for win probabilities, I see five teams who could provide value in the futures market.
Oklahoma Sooners (14/1)
The Superbook lists Alabama as the 5/2 favorite, followed closely by defending champ Clemson at 9/4. But from there, the oddsmakers list Georgia third at 6/1 and put Michigan and Oklahoma in a tie for fourth at 14/1.
According to CFB Winning Edge Team Strength ratings, the Sooners are the No. 3 team in the country. Oklahoma leads the Big 12 and ranks No. 5 in the country in both Roster Strength (90.15) and average 247Sports Composite rating (.8976). The Sooners may have improved despite the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and top playmaker, Marquise Brown.
The Sooners improved its CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength by 2.82 points since the end of the 2018 season, the second-biggest gain in the Big 12 and No. 9 nationally. The addition of Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, who is a max 100-rated player in the CFB Winning Edge VGR+ player ratings formula, should provide a smooth transition at quarterback.
Also, the Oklahoma defense features the No. 1 defensive line and No. 1 linebacker corps in the conference, according to Roster Strength ratings. The unit ranks No. 2 in the league in overall defensive Roster Strength.
New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who arrived with a sterling reputation for the work he did at Ohio State and Washington State, should have a positive impact and help the Sooners improve upon last year’s last place Big 12 finish in total defense, scoring defense, and passing defense.
Oklahoma also has an easier path to the CFP than Georgia, Michigan and Alabama. In fact, all nine sets of CFB Winning Edge power ratings project OU as the favorite in all 12 regular-season games, which also means the Sooners would be favored to win the Big 12 Conference Championship Game.
Oklahoma’s closest projected opponent, Texas, would be a 6.98-point underdog with just a 34-percent chance of pulling of the upset in Dallas. The Sooners have at least a 74 percent chance to beat everyone else on the schedule.
Even if OU slips in a game, we know the Sooners can make it to the playoff with one loss because they’ve done it three times. And should Oklahoma meet Alabama again in the playoff, head coach and offensive play-caller Lincoln Riley can draw upon his experience game-planning against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide from last year’s 45-34 loss in the Orange Bowl.
Stanford Cardinal (200/1)
Utah would have been a good Pac-12 pick in late winter or early spring, when the Utes (who rank No. 14 in Team Strength and are projected to be favorites in 11 games) were listed in the 75/1 range.
However, once Phil Steele listed Utah as his No. 1 “Surprise Team” in his 2019 preview magazine, the odds on the Utes moved to 50/1 at the Superbook – tied for ninth with Auburn, Florida, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Washington.
Instead, we turn out attention to the true longshots, because it’s fun to spend a few bucks on a lottery ticket from time to time – especially if you know the odds of winning are better than advertised.
Stanford looks like a rebuilding team. The Cardinal return just four starters on offense and five on defense. And as a whole, the team welcomes back a roster with a combined 150 career games started.
Every Power 5 team has more starting experience, and only UAB has fewer starts among all 130 FBS programs. Nevertheless, Stanford ranks No. 18 in Roster Strength (86.88) and No. 21 in average 247Sports rating (.8661).
Head coach David Shaw has a 91.4 Head Coach rating, which ranks No. 8 in the country. Combine those factors together and the Cardinal rank No. 16 nationally in overall Team Strength (87.87).
But the schedule is difficult, and the first six games are brutal. Stanford hosts defending Big Ten West champion Northwestern in the season opener, and then plays back-to-back road games at USC and UCF, respectively.
The Cardinal then hosts fellow Pac-12 North contenders Oregon and Washington, with a trip to Oregon State sandwiched in between, before a much-needed bye week Oct. 12. When adding up the win probabilities of those first six games using the CFB Winning Edge Preseason Projections, we expect Stanford to win 3.56 on average.
A 3-3 or 4-2 start won’t be good enough for a playoff push, especially for a Pac-12 team given the lack of respect the conference has earned as a whole in recent years. But Stanford should be favored in five of those games, according to our projections.
The only time I project the Cardinal as an underdog all season is the trip to Orlando, and Stanford has a 45-percent chance of beating the Knights in Week 3.
Stepping away from the analytics, UCF hasn’t played a team as big and physical as Shaw’s very often.
The last time it did (in the Fiesta Bowl against LSU), it lost. Looking toward the back half of the schedule, things are much more manageable. Stanford is favored in each of its final six games, including the regular-season finale at home against Notre Dame.
If the Cardinal took care of business and finished undefeated in the Pac-12 and 11-1 overall with a victory over the Fighting Irish (who we rank No. 7 in Team Strength), Stanford would enter the Pac-12 Championship Game with terrific momentum – something the playoff committee seems to appreciate.
Everything needs to go right and the Cardinal must walk a tightrope of toss-up games where its win probability falls between 58 percent and 45 percent. As a result, we only project Stanford to win 7.64 games in 2019.
But Stanford only plays its schedule once, and we also see the Cardinal as 11-time favorites. On that note, quarterback K.J. Costello currently sits at 100/1 to win the Heisman Trophy (80/1 at Bovada).
Last season, Costello threw for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns as a sophomore, and there’s a strong chance he puts the ball in the air just as often in 2019.
If Stanford truly does make a run at the Pac-12 title, and contends for a playoff spot, Costello will be the primary reason why.
Virginia Tech Hokies (500/1)
We’ll go into less detail on the final three longshots, but these teams could follow a similar path to a title: Navigate a manageable schedule and pick up an outright upset or two in order to qualify for the conference championship game.
Then, knock off a prohibitive favorite to earn a ticket to the dance, where anything can happen. The first, Virginia Tech, is a schedule bet. The Hokies miss Clemson, Florida State and Syracuse from the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and are therefore projected to be favored in 10 games during the regular season.
The only two games in which Virginia Tech is an underdog are at Miami, where the Hokies have a 48 percent chance of beating a Hurricanes program in transition, and at home against Notre Dame, a game that shouldn’t hurt a potential playoff resume if Virginia Tech makes it to the ACC Championship Game with 11 wins.
The Hokies would then simply need to beat Clemson to earn a playoff bid. No sweat.
Tennessee Volunteers (1,000/1)
Despite last year’s 5-7 record, Tennessee is favored to win nine games according to CFB Winning Edge. Yep, nine games. The Vols rank No. 24 in Team Strength in large part because of a talented roster that ranks No. 17 overall in Roster Strength and No. 12 average 247Sports Composite rating (both fourth-best in the SEC).
There’s also evidence to suggest Jeremy Pruitt is better than the 81.28 Head Coach rating he posted in his first season. Pruitt, the former Saban assistant and defensive mastermind, has proven capable of drawing up a winning game plan as an underdog.
The Vols beat No. 21 Auburn on the road, and knocked off No. 12 Kentucky. There’s also hope new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (whose 86.43 OC Rating ranks No. 22) will have a positive impact on quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
If Pruitt and his coaching staff click, the Vols should be competitive in games against Florida and Georgia, which are favored by 12.43 and 6.07 points, respectively. The 21.81-point projected spread at Alabama might be too tall a hill to climb, but Tennessee might have more wiggle room than the average playoff contender.
Two years ago, there was talk Auburn would earn a spot in the committee’s final four with two losses if it beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. The Vols, by beating the Bulldogs at home to win the East, and theoretically scoring an upset over the Crimson Tide in Atlanta, would be in a similar situation.
Arizona State Sun Devils (1,000/1)
Utah is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South, and USC is still the No. 1 team in the conference in both Roster Strength and average 247Sports ratings. Nevertheless, Arizona State – which beat the Utes in Tempe and knocked off the Trojans at the Coliseum last year – could make a move.
Running back Eno Benjamin is one of the best players in college football, and the Sun Devils have the No. 6 offensive line in the country according to CFB Winning Edge O-Line Strength. And regardless of whether or not you believe Herm Edwards is going to succeed as a college head coach long-term, he’s already shown a willingness to lean heavily on Benjamin while shortening the game to keep it close enough for an opportunity to win at the end.
Remember: each of ASU’s five regular-season losses were one-possession games in 2018. Plus, though quarterback Manny Wilkins graduated, true freshman Jayden Daniels was a fringe five-star signee and should beat out Dillon Sterling-Cole by midseason. If he does, Daniels could spark the Sun Devils (get it?) much like Trevor Lawrence, Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa did for playoff teams as freshmen.
Looking at the preseason projections, the Sun Devils are expected to win 7.38 games on average and should be favorites in eight contests. That’s higher than most college football analytics projections.
However, a reason for that optimism is the fact Arizona State avoids North heavyweights Washington and Stanford. The Sun Devils also draw Oregon at home and have a 48 percent chance of upsetting the Ducks in Week 13.
If Edwards can win that coin flip after leading his team to two wins in three upset opportunities on the road against Michigan State, Utah and UCLA, the Sun Devils could be 11-1, with a chance to beat a highly ranked Washington, Stanford or Oregon in the conference title game.