How do you handle Alabama? It’s a query posed not just by strung-out coordinators and head coaches, but also Las Vegas sportsbooks as they brace for one of the most overwhelming favorites in recent college football memory.
Well, sort of.
Alabama has not been an underdog in three seasons, a streak that will be pushed to 42 games when Nick Saban’s team opens against Virginia Tech on August 31. This streak will then, barring major injuries, push on well through (and perhaps beyond) the 2013 season. And while it’s a long way out, USC’s streak of 58 consecutive games favored between 2003 and 2007 is suddenly in jeopardy.
Don’t sound the alarm (at least not yet), but take note. After all, it will be hard to ignore.
This run of Tuscaloosa domination has forced Las Vegas and other online sportsbooks into a fascinating predicament. Alabama will draw betting interest on name value alone, receiving “public” support (or wagers) regardless of whether it’s warranted. Texas, Notre Dame and other renowned powers with colossal fanbases find themselves in similar situations each season.
The difference, however, is that Alabama has an obscene amount of talent and depth at key positions, a head coach who might actually be a robot and a recent track record of winning at an alarming rate and in key moments. This scenario has generated a perfect storm of sorts, one that could culminate in an unprecedented season for those tasked with handicapping these games.
“Two Vegas veteran oddsmakers have told me that we're looking at the higher power-rated college football team they've seen,” said David Purdum, who has covered the sports betting industry for five years. “And even though Alabama has been favored on average by more than 20 points a game over the last three seasons, Saban has covered the number in 26 of those  games.”
Think about that for a moment. Over a three-year stretch, Alabama is averaging out to a three-touchdown favorite each week. It’s startling, but somehow not surprising if you’ve been tuning in.
What’s even more extraordinary, however, is these gaudy point spreads are not enough. Alabama is still covering the ridiculous numbers more often than not.
Right on cue, the Crimson Tide are listed as a 19.5-point favorite over Virginia Tech in Week 1, just slightly below the three-year, three-touchdown average. This is also Virginia Tech and not “Thanks For the Paycheck” University, but again, Alabama is morphing the distance between the two.
Looking at the bigger picture, Alabama is now a 5-2 favorite to win the 2013-14 BCS national championship on the online sportsbook Bovada.lv. The number opened at 5-1 back in January, and it was almost immediately bet down to 3-1. Following the autograph controversy surrounding Johnny Manziel, it has shifted even further to its current position.
Although value in this championship bet is at a minimum, it hasn’t stopped bettors from backing the Tide regardless. Alabama has taken at least two times more money than any other team, according to the sportsbook manager of Bovada.lv, Kevin Bradley.
Bovada also gave the BCS favorite a win total of 11—a prop bet asking whether a team will eclipse this win mark during the regular season. Despite offering up little room for error, nearly 60 percent of the money is being wagered on the over, according to Bradley.
The books are again providing an enormous handicap for the nation’s No. 1 team, and thus far it isn’t slowing anyone down. But as for quantifying how Alabama stacks up against other betting favorites in recent years, you don’t have to search long to find a team that received similar support at the betting window.
“Before we go anointing Alabama presumptive national champion, keep in mind there is historical precedent for a team starting the year at less than 3-1, and you don't need to go far back,” said former Caesars bookmaker and current Donbest.com market analyst Todd Fuhrman. “USC opened last season as 12-5 favorites, and while I won't compare Nick Saban's leadership to Lane Kiffin, there is a danger to crowning a paper national champion.”
It feels strange and somewhat distant given hindsight, but USC—yes, the same USC that looked pitiful against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl—was given a similar odds treatment before the 2012 season.
The Trojans entered the fall as a 3-1 favorite to win the BCS national championship, and that game's tickets were in the garbage by October. The prior season, Oklahoma entered fall as a 9-2 favorite to win the BCS national championship, and it too came up short.
This should come as no surprise and requires no real in-depth analysis. Forecasting these teams—through preseason magazines, preseason polls and betting odds—is a challenge. The room for error in college football’s current system is minuscule, and “any given Saturday” can derail an entire season. At least, that is the case for one more season until the BCS is put to rest.
Still, neither USC nor Oklahoma entered the season with the kind of talent Alabama will put on display this year. Barring injury—particularly at quarterback—Alabama will likely be at least a touchdown favorite in each of its games, and a double-digit favorite in all but one or two regular-season games.
Point spreads will continue to soar if things go as planned, and the limited value Vegas is offering will continue to shrink as Alabama attempts to do what many believe it will do. Again. The numbers will be massive, and although there are no guarantees that this will amount to anything beyond simple betting numbers, this favorite seems like one that will not go down without a fight.
*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.