November 24, 2021

Is There Any Longshot College Football Contenders Worthy Of A Future?

The 2021 college football season has been historically unpredictable outside of what most of us expected at the end of the year. We didn't know exactly what the pathway to the college football playoff would entail, but figured the trio of Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State would possess the strongest resumes.

With just one game remaining before its conference championship week, those three teams have established themselves as the prohibitive favorites on the field and in sportsbooks.

Our friends at DraftKings have Georgia as the favorite to win the National Championship (-120), followed by Ohio State (+300), and Alabama (+400). The next slew of competitors brings a return of at least +3500. This potential return discrepancy begs the question of whether any college football longshot is worth betting on to win the title.

The Longshots

At face value, it's hard to ever say "no" when placing a partial unit on a team with a legitimate pathway to making the playoff and a base of talent to pull two upsets. However, the difference in recruiting hauls between the big three of Georgia, Ohio State, and Alabama is huge, and that's before mentioning their coaching talent.

Michigan (+4000) and Oklahoma (+4500) sit with odds between Cincinnati's +3500 and both Oklahoma State's and Notre Dame's +5000 return. Looking beyond the blue-blood pedigree of Michigan and Oklahoma and simply evaluating the teams' pathway, resume, and talent is key for recommending any longshot.

Any team outside of this group, despite the gaudy return of +20000 or more, is not good enough to shock the world even if they could reach the four-team finale. Which at this point, is not likely.

Blue-Blood Dominance

First, let's look at the qualifications for these teams. ESPN analyst Bill Connelly's esteemed SP+ rankings are an excellent start. These rankings encompass the efficiency of a team's offense, defense, and special teams. It's not a resume ranking, but it's a strong predictor. 

Georgia and Ohio State are lapping the field with an overall rating of 32.3. Georgia has the fourth-best offense and by far the best defense. The Buckeyes have easily the best offense, the best special teams, and the 14th-ranked defense.

There's then a large drop to Alabama, which has a cumulative 27.4 rating thanks to the second-best offense, 11th-ranked defense, and 25th-ranked special teams. The drop from No. 1 to Alabama is the same as the drop from Alabama to the seventh spot, and from the seventh spot to the 17th spot.

These numbers verify these teams' dominance and justify their high betting odds.

What About The Others?

With Ohio State traveling to Michigan this week and the matchup of Georgia and Alabama in the conference title game, some natural fleshing out will happen soon. If predictions and efficiency rates stay true, the Buckeyes will win by single digits against Michigan, ending their playoff bid, and Georgia will edge out Alabama to likely knock the Crimson Tide just out of the top-four.

Michigan has a strong SP+ ranking at 24, good for fourth in the nation, but their costly loss to Michigan State gives them zero room for error. They must beat Ohio State and either Wisconsin or Iowa before clinching their bid. This is a tough sell as Michigan's seventh-ranked defense and second-best special teams unit likely don't compensate for their 22nd-ranked offense.

Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have a long way to travel upwards to make the playoff. First, Cincinnati would need to lose. Then, Alabama would need to be judged as an inferior option to both, and I'd even bet a two-loss Tide team makes it over the Big 12 winner. Finally, Notre Dame would need to be considered lesser to both teams, and in good faith, I can't make that argument based on their performance this season.

Oklahoma State is 16th in SP+ with a 16.4 rating, carried by their sixth-ranked defense. As much as I've enjoyed this teams' breakthrough season, they're not a well-qualified contender. Oklahoma is also on the edge before we even get into the justified narrative they were overhyped and finally exposed in their loss to Baylor. They rank 10th with a 17.9 rating, largely carried by their third-ranked offense and 18th-ranked special teams. Poor offensive performances in recent weeks have exposed their supposed strength as well. 

I'm ruling both Big 12 teams out.

The Wild World of Cincinnati 

That leaves Cincinnati. With the seventh-best efficiency profile (21 ratings), boosted by the 12th-best offense, and 10th-best defense, the Bearcats have the argument of the unknown on their side. We know they're good enough to win every game even if not in a blowout fashion. They can argue they'll elevate their game against top competition, and it's all speculation of whether they can swing above their recruiting class.

All the Bearcats need to do to lock in their playoff seed is beat the 7-4 East Carolina Pirates and 10-1 Houston Cougars. That's easier said than done. Cincinnati has skirted some close outcomes and has looked vulnerable against similar teams. 

Are There Any Worthy Bets?

The best-case scenario for longshot bettors is for Michigan and Cincinnati to win out and hope two-loss Alabama and Ohio State are out of the party. A final four of Georgia, Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame is the best case for bettors. And while Georgia looks unbeatable against more limited rosters, the strongest profile of these teams, in order, go Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame.

I'd consider placing a partial unit on the Bearcats considering all of the factors. Their schedule is slightly more favorable than their foes, and their on-field performance is just slightly behind the favorites. 

Photo: Getty Images