Sunday, May 27, 2012

Conference Championship Odds: The SEC


It is no secret the SEC has owned college football for the past six seasons. Since 2006, the national champion has come from the SEC each year (2006 Florida, 2007 LSU, 2008 Florida, 2009 Alabama, 2010 Auburn, 2011 Alabama). Therefore, it is only natural to look at the SEC Championship odds with national championship goggles. Whatever team wins the SEC is more than likely the next national champion, right? The great thing about the SEC, other than the way it produces champions the same way Chiquita produces Bananas, is the parity. Four different teams have won the conference and national title in the past six seasons. (Go back to 2005 and you make it five conference champions in seven seasons thanks to Georgia). The fact is no conference has more great teams than the SEC which makes navigating the conference toward both SEC and NCAA hardware a ridiculous, yet-rewarding, challenge. As it stands now, here are the odds to secure the automatic BCS Bid from the Southeastern Conference this season:
***Much like the 2011-12 season, the odds tell an easy story: The winner of the regular-season meeting between Alabama and LSU has the inside track to the SEC title. (Notice I said nothing about the loser being eliminated from national championship consideration, sincerely last year’s Crimson Tide). LSU lost some blue chippers on defense but the unit continues to reload under Les Miles. The Tigers might be the best team in the country and only one road game is truly scary (at Arkansas in SEC finale). Nevertheless, playing at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium in the conference opener and at Florida and at Texas A&M in October won’t be cakewalks either. The biggest question I need answered before I put my faith behind LSU is will the offense be dependable. Take out both games against Alabama and LSU scored 35+ points in 11 of the 12 games (the only other offensive struggle coming in a 19-6 win at Mississippi State). In two games against Alabama the Tigers scored a combined nine points. Now, Alabama’s defense was one of a kind, but LSU was also one win away from being crowned one of the best college football teams ever. To win the SEC LSU is going to have to duplicate the year it had last season and that will be tough to do.
***Alabama, to me, is still the conference’s team to beat. Therefore I like the slightly better odds here compared to LSU (though I’m someone who would really value the extra $10 winnings on a $100 wager). The best thing about Alabama’s team is you’ll get a feel if it is SEC title material early. The season kicks off with a cross-conference battle against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium. Alabama has fluctuated between a 10.5- and 15-point favorite. It depends on how you feel about Michigan (our Big Ten odds will be revealed next week but the Wolverines are the Big Ten favorites), but I said in February that Alabama should be about a 14- to 17-point favorite and shouldn’t shock anyone with a three-touchdown victory. Of course, the Michigan game means nothing to the SEC Championship odds. The same day LSU opens at Auburn, Alabama opens at Arkansas. If Alabama happens to drill both Michigan and Arkansas, it’ll be carrying a lot of momentum through the SEC heading into the Nov. 3 showdown at LSU’s Tiger Stadium. Until LSU proves it can score a few touchdowns against Alabama’s defense, I favor Alabama regardless of the field. Like LSU, Alabama lost some key defensive components but I trust Nick Saban as a coach more than Les Miles. If you’re deciding between LSU and Alabama for your wager, side with the Tide in 2012.
***I really like Georgia’s 5-1 odds and here’s why: Whichever team wins the SEC East technically has a 50/50 shot at the SEC Championship. While Alabama or LSU would be heavy favorites, stranger things have happened in conference title games. Georgia played great for 30 minutes in the SEC title game last season before LSU carved up the Bulldogs in the final 30 minutes. Mark Richt’s team will be good and, probably lucky for the Bulldogs, will be flying under the radar all season because of the Alabama and LSU hype. Georgia’s schedule also positions itself nicely for a possible undefeated season: No Alabama. No LSU. Fairly-easy nonconference schedule. Surviving at South Carolina in early October is the season’s biggest test. Like the SEC West’s Alabama-LSU showdown, the SEC East is likely to be decided by the winner of the Georgia-South Carolina clash. Williams-Brice Stadium will be rocking but Georgia will be more than ready to win that and position itself nicely opposite of the SEC West Champion in the SEC title game.
***Arkansas’ 7-1 odds aren’t bad but I can’t see a situation where Arkansas beats both Alabama and LSU despite both games being at home. Even if it splits and there is a three-way tie atop the SEC West, I’m not confident Arkansas would win the tiebreaker. All that mystery coupled with the latest controversy in Fayetteville has me steering clear of anything Arkansas related. (Note: I attended Michigan State while John L. Smith was our head coach. If circuses win conference championships you should go all-in; unfortunately, that isn’t how things work and Arkansas will find that out quickly).
***South Carolina’s 21-2 odds might be my favorite because of the payout. It’s definitely a gamble for one reason: The Gamecocks have a three-game stretch of Georgia, at LSU and at Florida. That doesn’t include the SEC finale against Arkansas. I could see a real scenario where South Carolina finishes 11-1 but misses out on the SEC title game because of a head-to-head loss to Georgia. However, if you can imagine South Carolina winning all its home games, and the only loss coming at LSU, you would have the right mindset to think South Carolina could get its revenge in the SEC title game.
***The only other odds that peak my interest are Vanderbilt’s at 55-1. Like all long shots you have to have an abundance of faith, and here is why Vanderbilt could surprise: The schedule avoids Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. The first two conference games will either set the stage for a magical SEC Championship run or another .500 season. If Vanderbilt can upset South Carolina at home in the season opener it only has to get past Georgia at Sanford Stadium to have the inside track on the SEC East championship. Would it be a shock if Vanderbilt beat both Georgia and South Carolina? Absolutely. Would it be apocalyptic if Vanderbilt somehow upset LSU or Alabama in the SEC Championship game? Undoubtedly. Could it happen? At 55-1 it’s worth a gamble.

Bottom line: It would be very surprising if the coach holding the SEC Championship trophy in December wasn’t Les Miles or Nick Saban. It’s tough to peg a winner in the showdown this far out as well. The smart strategy would be to make a play on an underdog (Georgia, South Carolina or Vanderbilt) now and, as the season rolls on, pick your favorite between LSU and Alabama in early-to-mid October.  Though, I don’t think I’ve ever been more of a Vanderbilt fan until now. The Commodores have never won the SEC Championship. Maybe the Mayans really want the world to end with a bang.

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