Buying or Selling Top Contenders for 2021 College Football Playoff

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 18, 2021

Buying or Selling Top Contenders for 2021 College Football Playoff

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    Alabama head coach Nick Saban
    Alabama head coach Nick SabanLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    It's never too early to start thinking about (or betting on) College Football Playoff odds, and watching Sam Houston State eke out a win over South Dakota State in the FCS championship on Sunday got us craving some FBS natty banter.

    Per DraftKings, these are the 10 teams with the best odds of winning the College Football Playoff this coming season. Teams are listed in ascending order of given odds. In cases in which multiple teams have the same line, the team(s) we are buying will be listed after the one(s) we are selling.

    Alabama is, per usual, the favorite to win it all, but is a line of +225 (bet $100 to win $225) enticing or nauseating? Or what about fellow SEC West rivals LSU and Texas A&M both listed at +2500? Are either of those longer shots worthy of an investment?

    For each team, we'll discuss a big reason to buy and a big reason to sell before coming to a verdict.

    Be sure to note that if we're buying a team at +2500 and selling a team at +400, that doesn't necessarily mean we believe the former will have a better season than the latter. It's merely a reflection of whether we agree with the implied percent odds of that team winning the College Football Playoff.

USC Trojans

1 of 10

    USC QB Kedon Slovis
    USC QB Kedon SlovisAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +3300

    Reason to Buy: Prolific passing game

    The past few national champions have had a proficient quarterback and a loaded receiving corps, and that's no accident. It's helpful to have a stingy defense, but gone are the days of defending your way to a title. Now it's all about that pass, 'bout that pass, no huddle. And Kedon Slovis running the show is a great starting point in USC's quest for a title.

    Slovis averaged 320 passing yards and just under three passing touchdowns per game last season. Those are respectable numbers, but it felt like a disappointment compared to how impressive he was as a true freshman in 2019. If he can bounce back from that slight sophomore slump, USC should be in business.

    Because despite losing Amon-Ra St. Brown to the NFL, the Trojans are still overflowing with talent at receiver. Just in the main trio of Drake London, Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant Jr., they should be able to find holes in any secondary.


    Reason to Sell: Can they run the ball?

    The Trojans had one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation in 2020, managing a meager 97.3 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.

    That wasn't some new, truncated-season phenomenon either. Inability to establish the run has been a major issue for USC for three consecutive years. Making matters worse, the best thing about last year's offensive line (G Alijah Vera-Tucker) was the No. 14 overall pick in last month's NFL draft.

    The Trojans did pick up a solid rusher via the transfer portal in the form of former Texas tailback Keaontay Ingram, but they also lost a pair of running backs to the portal in Stephen Carr and Markese Stepp. If they're unable to improve in this realm, it will make them too one-dimensional and unlikely to vie for a national championship.


    Verdict: Selling

    USC should be the best team in the Pac-12, but will it be consistent enough to run the table? And is it well-rounded enough to win a pair of games against the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State? Even at 33-1 odds, it's not great value.   

Texas Longhorns

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    Texas RB Bijan Robinson
    Texas RB Bijan RobinsonEric Gay/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +3300

    Reason to Buy: Steve Sarkisian

    Tom Herman wasn't bad in his four seasons as Texas' head coach, but he wasn't good enough for the Longhorns' lofty standards.

    Perhaps the offensive coordinator who just steered Alabama through a dominant undefeated season will be the answer this program has been searching for over the past decade.

    Sarkisian is inheriting a fair amount of talent, starting with star running back Bijan Robinson. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a true freshman and is arguably the best non-quarterback candidate for this year's Heisman Trophy. There's a ton of skill at receiver. And if Casey Thompson is even half the quarterback who torched Colorado in the Alamo Bowl, this could be an electric offense.


    Reason to Sell: Defensive shortcomings

    With so many key returnees, 2020 was supposed to be the year Texas finally made the leap on defense. Instead, the Longhorns had a middle-of-the-pack D in what was a down year for the Big 12 as a whole.

    Now, they have to figure out how to improve on that end of the field while replacing four of the five leading tacklers from that unit and also adjusting to new defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski. Because if they don't, edging out Oklahoma for the Big 12 title is highly unlikely.


    Verdict: Selling

    "Texas" and "overperforming preseason expectations" haven't gone hand-in-hand lately. But this goes beyond just fading a team that frequently disappoints. There's too much uncertainty here, especially on defense. Factor in the lack of experience/Heisman potential at quarterback and the need to finish ahead of a superior Oklahoma squad, and these title odds are nowhere near long enough.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Iowa State LB Mike Rose
    Iowa State LB Mike RoseMatthew Putney/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +3300

    Reason to Buy: Roster cohesion

    Iowa State just enjoyed its best season in program history, and there's plenty of reason to believe it was the beginning of something extra special.

    That's because just about all of the key Cyclonesthree-year starting quarterback Brock Purdy, dynamic running back Breece Hall, star tight end Charlie Kolar, defensive leader Mike Rose and more than a dozen other startersare coming back for one more year.

    As we always caution in the offseason, year-over-year growth is never a given for a returning player, though it is often expected. Even if a couple of Iowa State's guys endure some negative regression, there's more than enough proven talent here to justify a presumed leap from "Fringe Top 10 Team" to "Serious CFP Challenger."


    Reason to Sell: Inconsistent defense

    There were several afternoons in 2020 on which it looked like Iowa State could defend its way to victory against any foe. There were also afternoonsor at least lengthy stretches of afternoonson which even mediocre offenses (TCU and Baylor in particular) were able to move the ball almost at will against the Cyclones.

    To successfully make the transition from the hunter to the hunted, Iowa State needs to significantly cut down on that randomness on defense. Because as just mentioned in regard to Texas, the road to a Big 12 title runs through Oklahoma. And head coach Lincoln Riley and Co. have a tendency to feast on defensive weaknesses or inconsistencies.


    Verdict: Buying

    Do I love Iowa State as a title contender? Not particularly. But do I like Iowa State's chances more than I like those of Texas and USC at the same odds? You betcha. The season-opening loss to Louisiana-Lafayette put an early damper on the 2020 Cyclones campaign, but this was a doggone good team that deserved more national acclaim. A few modest, reasonable improvements and this experienced bunch will be in business.

LSU Tigers

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    LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
    LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +2500

    Reason to Buy: Been there, done that

    For most teams, "Must Finish Ahead of Alabama" would be a hard stop to any championship discussions. But in two of the past 10 seasons, LSU defeated Alabama during the regular season and went on to play in the national title game.

    Granted, aside from head coach Ed Orgeron and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., just about every key piece of this roster and coaching staff has changed since that most recently happened two seasons ago. But there's something to be said for having been there before.

    And for as disappointing as last year's 5-5 campaign was, the Tigers are getting back the vast majority of what was a potent offense. All five starters along the offensive line return, which is always a nice perk. The Myles Brennan vs. Max Johnson battle at quarterback could have Heisman implications, particularly if phenom tight end Arik Gilbert ultimately decides to return to Baton Rouge.

    And though the running game was dreadful in 2020, John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price were highly touted recruits from the 2019 class who could both break out in a big way this year. 


    Reason to Sell: Must overhaul one of the worst defenses in the country

    As phenomenal as LSU's offense was while winning the national championship two years ago, its defense was almost that atrocious last year. The Tigers ranked dead last in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (323.0). And it's not like they were much better against the run, allowing nearly five yards per carry.

    Suffice it to say, that lone season with Bo Pelini as the defensive coordinator was not good, and they must improve drastically in order to have any hope of winning the loaded SEC West.

    The good news is that new DC Daronte Jones was a defensive backs coach in the NFL (Dolphins, Bengals and Vikings) over the past five seasons. He was also the DB coach at Wisconsin in 2015, when the Badgers limited opponents to a 49.1 completion percentage and just seven passing touchdowns in the entire season.

    Pairing him with talent like Stingley, Elias Ricks and Cordale Flott could produce those required drastic improvements. However, simply transitioning from "awful" to "average" in one season will be a challenge.


    Verdict: Selling

    LSU should improve considerably from last season but probably not enough to win another title. The Tigers will have road games against Alabama, Kentucky and Ole Miss in addition to home games against Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M.

    They must win at least five of those six games just to have a case for CFP inclusion. It could happen. Replace the Kentucky game with a Vanderbilt game, and it happened two years ago. But there's just no way this team should be tied for the sixth-best odds of winning it all.          

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller
    Texas A&M RB Isaiah SpillerSam Craft/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +2500

    Reason to Buy: Loaded at RB and WR/TE

    While the Aggies don't have a DeVonta Smith or Ja'Marr Chase type of talent at wide receiver, they have all sorts of returnees on offense with the proven ability to contribute.

    Running back Isaiah Spiller and tight end Jalen Wydermyer are the standout guys who should both land somewhere in the preseason All-SEC conversation. Scatback Ainias Smith also emerged as a fantastic producer in 2020, as did freshman RB Devon Achane. WR Chase Lane had more than 400 receiving yards, and Caleb Chapman was more than well on his way toward doing the same prior to suffering a season-ending leg injury after just three games.

    Provided Chapman makes a full recovery, the Aggie who wins the QB battle will have more than his fair share of valuable targets. Couple that with a defense that just keeps getting better each year under Jimbo Fisher, and this team should be great.


    Reason to Sell: Uncertainty at QB and OL

    Losing a four-year starter at quarterback and still competing for a title is tough enough. Kellen Mond threw for nearly 10,000 yards and scored a combined 93 passing and rushing touchdowns since the beginning of the 2017 season. He could have opted for one more campaign in College Station, but he is instead now with the Minnesota Vikings, leaving Fisher to figure out whether Haynes King or Zach Calzada gives the Aggies a better chance at winning the SEC.

    Making that change at quarterback while also needing to replace four of your five starting offensive linemen is even tougher. Kenyon Green is back and figures to start at left tackle, but there are a lot of question marks beyond that one staple.

    Most of the defense and every noteworthy contributor in the rushing/receiving game will return, though, so A&M could be cooking with gas if it is able to make a seamless transition in the snapping, blocking and passing departments.


    Verdict: Buying

    Texas A&M at +2500 is a plenty reasonable line that becomes enticing when juxtaposed with LSU also at +2500 and the lack of teams in the +801 to 2499 range. Basically, the oddsmakers are saying there are five legitimate threats to win the title, followed by a swath of teams that reasonably could pull it off.

    I think these Aggies deserve slightly better than that, particularly since they'll have ample opportunity to figure out their QB/OL situation while opening the season against Kent State, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Oklahoma Sooners

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    Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler
    Oklahoma QB Spencer RattlerMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +800

    Reason to Buy: No clear weaknesses

    After a 1-2 start to the 2020 campaign, Oklahoma ended on an eight-game winning streak and felt like a team that could have contended for a national championship if had been deemed worthy of a spot in the College Football Playoff.

    Most of the key contributors from that rock-solid roster are back for another year. And between Kennedy Brooks returning from an opt-out year and adding a bunch of instant-impact transfers, the Sooners have adequately plugged what few holes they might have otherwise had.

    Quarterback Spencer Rattler is the biggest returning star, but this defense should be stout. Oklahoma has made massive strides on that side of the ball under DC Alex Grinch, holding opponents below 360 total yards in back-to-back seasons. With Nik Bonitto and Isaiah Thomas back for another year of pass-rushing goodness, that trend should continue.


    Reason to Sell: Past failures on the biggest stage

    If I had to place a bet right now on the two teams I'm most confident in reaching the College Football Playoff, it would be Clemson and Oklahoma. That doesn't necessarily mean I think they'll be the two best teams. But they are the clear favorites in their respective conferences, and they have been two of the most consistently successful regular-season programs during the CFP era.

    Emphasis on "regular season," though, because the Sooners have an 0-4 record in the College Football Playoff and by an unsightly average final score of 49.8 to 31.8. Save for the double-overtime loss to Georgia in the 2017 CFP, none of those games were even competitive by the fourth quarter.

    This year could be different, of course. But Oklahoma has basically become the early 1990s version of the Buffalo Bills, repeatedly reaching the Promised Land only to get smashed upon arrival.


    Verdict: Buying

    Save for perhaps Alabama, Oklahoma should be the best team in the country this season. We had the Sooners at No. 2 in our way-too-early rankings back in January, and that was before they added three key transfers from Tennessee. ESPN's Mark Schlabach put them at No. 1 in his post-spring top 25 rankings earlier this month.

    Recent CFP semifinal struggles are the only justification for this team receiving the fifth-best odds of winning it all. Even that isn't enough to scare us away at +800.      

Georgia Bulldogs

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    Georgia QB JT Daniels
    Georgia QB JT DanielsJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +600

    Reason to Buy: They found their answer at quarterback

    Since Aaron Murray exhausted the last of his eligibility in 2013, Georgia has been in a constant state of question marks at quarterback. Sometimes the question has been, "Is Jake Fromm good enough to win a title?" Other times, the question has been, "Do we trust anyone on this roster to throw anything other than screens and checkdowns?"

    But in JT Daniels, the Dawgs finally have some certainty under center. In just four games last season, he racked up 15 completions that went for 30 or more yards, averaging better than 300 yards per game. That ability to take the top off the defense simply hadn't been there for Georgia in recent years. Now that it is, the Bulldogs could be headed for their first national championship in more than four decades.


    Reason to Sell: Retooling the defense

    While the blanket bonus year of eligibility has been a godsend for a lot of programs that would have otherwise been in rebuilding mode in 2021, Georgia has the daunting task of replacing all sorts of starters on defense, particularly in the secondary.

    The cupboards aren't exactly empty. Kelee Ringo sat out all of last season following shoulder surgery in August, but he was the biggest name in their loaded 2020 recruiting class. He could have Derek Stingley Jr. or Patrick Surtain II type of immediate impact at cornerback. Head coach Kirby Smart also added a star safety via the transfer portal in Tykee Smith.

    But with so many new starters, there could be some bumps in the road for what has typically been one of the best defenses in the country over the past four years.


    Verdict: Neither

    The +600 line isn't great value, but Georgia is the clear front-runner in the SEC East, which is always a great place to be. Not only should the Bulldogs be a little bit better than Florida, but the Gators have to deal with cross-division games against Alabama and LSU, while Georgia drew Arkansas and Auburn. There's a big difference there, and an implied 14.2 percent chance of winning it all sounds about right as a result.

    If forced to choose a side, though, I'd sell. Even with the assumed strength in the passing game, the sheer volume of changing parts on defense is concerning enough to sell.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Ohio State WR Chris Olave
    Ohio State WR Chris OlavePaul Vernon/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +400

    Reason to Buy: It's Ohio State

    There are question marks on defense and a much bigger one at quarterback that we'll mention shortly, but the Buckeyes don't do down years. Despite losing what feels like at least 10 players to the NFL draft every year, they have an overall record of 84-9 during the College Football Playoff era, finishing each of those seasons in the Top Six of the AP poll.

    And if they're able to figure things out at QB, mercy me are they loaded on offense. Master Teague III is back, and star incoming freshman TreVeyon Henderson could quickly become the next great Ohio State running back. And then between WR and TE, the Buckeyes have at least seven guys who are all but certain to play in the NFL one day. With Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson both coming back to lead that unit, they are in great hands.


    Reason to Sell: Uncertainty at quarterback

    Georgia and Oklahoma are set at QB with returning starters JT Daniels and Spencer Rattler, respectively. Alabama and Clemson are presumably set with 2020 recruiting-class phenoms Bryce Young and D.J. Uiagalelei, respectively. And then there's Ohio State, where no one on the active roster has attempted a pass at the collegiate level.

    There's a lot of raw talent. C.J. Stroud was the No. 3 QB in last year's recruiting class, albeit a good distance behind both Young and Uiagalelei. Kyle McCord is a 5-star recruit in this year's class, but can a true freshman win the Big Ten and then outduel two other established starters? 2020 recruit Jack Miller III also should figure prominently into the QB battle, adding to the uncertainty.


    Verdict: Selling

    The national championship odds for Ohio State and Oklahoma should probably be flipped. Giving the Sooners a +400 line and the third-best odds feels right, as would giving the Buckeyes a +800 line and the fifth-best odds.

    Ohio State had some significant defensive issues last season, allowing at least 400 passing yards in three of eight games played. It then lost the five leading tacklers from that mediocre defense. Saying there's a 1-in-5 chance that defense wins a title is a bit too optimistic. 

Clemson Tigers

9 of 10

    Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei
    Clemson QB D.J. UiagaleleiMatt Cashore/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +300

    Reason to Buy: Should be elite on defense

    Despite losing several key defenders to the transfer portalmost notably LB Mike Jones Jr. and CB Derion KendrickClemson's cup runneth over on defense. In particular, a front seven anchored by dominantly destructive DT Bryan Bresee, edge-rusher Myles Murphy and veteran linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector should be all sorts of special.

    That might be tough for some of you to believe, given how awful the defense looked in allowing 639 total yards and 49 points in the CFP semifinal loss to Ohio State. But with Brent Venables back for a 10th season as defensive coordinator, this figures to be one of the most impenetrable defenses in the country.


    Reason to Sell: Big shoes to fill on offense

    Trevor Lawrence had a fantastic three-year run as Clemson's starting quarterback, throwing for 90 touchdowns and more than 10,000 yards. Travis Etienne racked up 78 touchdowns and more than 6,000 yards from scrimmage in his four years with the Tigers. Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell combined for more than 1,900 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 2020.

    Replacing some fraction of that group of leaders would be tough. Replacing the entire quartet is legitimate cause for concern.

    D.J. Uiagalelei was stellar when he saw the field as a true freshman, but he's still a relatively inexperienced quarterback. Lyn-J Dixon has good speed and has averaged 6.6 yards per carry over the past three years, but is he (or is true freshman Will Shipley) ready to take on the role of featured back?

    And even if we assume Justyn Ross is able to return from what was once feared to be a career-ending spinal condition, is there enough at WR to properly showcase Uiagalelei's arm strength and talent?

    Clemson should win the ACC. But the season-opening game against Georgia will be a huge indicator of how much work it needs to do on offense over the subsequent four months to win a national championship.


    Verdict: Selling

    Even in the current era of championship teams generally averaging 44-48 points per game, Clemson's defense is a huge plus, if only because it limits the amount of pressure placed on the bevy of new starters on offense.

    Right now, we have some question marks about the offense. By early January, we expect Uiagalelei and Co. to be firing on all cylinders. And it's highly unlikely that any ACC team will be able to trip up the Tigers during that maturing process, particularly since they will not face Miami or North Carolina until at least the conference championship.    

    Still, +300 odds on Clemson feels a little too favorable to the house. I would much rather make a knee-jerk decision after the opener against Georgia than bet on this line now.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    John Metchie III
    John Metchie IIIRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: +225

    Reason to Buy: Should be elite on defense

    Alabama sending a bunch of key defenders to the NFL draft had been an annual rite of passage lately. Just in the 2016-20 time frame, we're talking 29 defensive players drafted, including seven first-rounders and 16 who went within the first 60 picks. That, then, typically results in the other annual rite of passage of questioning whether Alabama's deep stable of young, raw talent is ready to step into starting roles.

    This year, though, the Crimson Tide are bringing back quite the stockpile of established veterans.

    Patrick Surtain II was a top-10 pick, Christian Barmore went early in the second round and Dylan Moses inexplicably went undrafted. That's one key hole to plug at each of the defense's three levels. But that's more than doable for the Crimson Tideespecially with the recent acquisition of Tennessee transfer Henry To'o To'o at linebacker.


    Reason to Sell: Big shoes to fill on offense

    Yes, Alabama and Clemson have the exact same reasons to buy and sell. Deal with it.

    Just like the Tigers, the Crimson Tide have to replace the starting quarterback, the starting running back, the two best wide receivers and several key offensive linemen. That's a lot to ask, even from a program that is always at or near the top spot in the recruiting rankings.

    Bryce Young is inexperienced, but he should be great at quarterback. WR John Metchie III and TE Jahleel Billingsley are valuable returnees in the receiving game. By all accounts, incoming freshman WR Agiye Hall could immediately become one of the best receivers in the nation. And there is more than enough 5-star and high 4-star talent throughout the depth chart to assume the offense will rank among the best in the country.

    All the same, there could be some hiccups while replacing the likes of Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.


    Verdict: Buying

    Alabama has played in five of the last six College Football Playoff championships, winning three of them. Factor in the BCS era, and this program has won six of the last 12 national championships. Getting anything more favorable than +150 odds on Nick Saban winning a title is basically free money.


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