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ATS BCS Championship Bowl Pick: Alabama -9 vs. Notre Dame (Covers 56.6%)
Notre Dame absolutely deserves to be ranked #1 in the BCS and to be playing in this game. The Irish played a top 30 schedule in FBS this season and won every game. However, that does not mean that Notre Dame is the best team in the country or would be favored over every other team nationally on a neutral field. In fact, at best, Notre Dame is the fifth best team in the nation and, according to our projections, on a neutral field, would be an underdog to at least four teams in the SEC (Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida).
Alabama, on the other hand, may have lost a game (at home even) and actually played an easier overall schedule than Notre Dame (#35 in FBS), but the Crimson Tide have the best team in the nation and deserves to be favored in this matchup for the BCS National Championship.
On the season, Alabama is 12-1 straight-up and 6-6 against-the-spread. Of those six ATS losses, four came at home and three were as 31+ point favorites in games that were not close. Outside of Tuscaloosa, the team is 6-0 straight-up and 4-2 ATS, with blowout wins over Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee and narrow victories over LSU and Georgia (the OVER is also 4-2 in those games). In our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency metrics, Alabama ranks in the top five in all four core facets of the game - pass offense (fourth), run offense (second), pass defense (fifth) and run defense (first).
More specifically, junior quarterback A.J. McCarron ranks third in FBS in yards-per-pass (9.3) and second in touchdowns-per-attempt (.09), while averaging 3.3 MORE yards-per-attempt than opponents. On the ground, with a combination of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon and an offensive line that dominated the SEC Championship game and may be the best that college football has seen in the last decade, Alabama ranked third in the nation with 5.6 yards-per-rush and rushed for 3.1 MORE yards-per-carry than opponents. The Tide also committed the fourth fewest penalties-per-game (3.8). The team runs the ball 61.9% of the time. Alabama's kickers are 15-of-20 on the season (with all misses coming from greater than 40 yards). A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown figured strongly in Georgia's cover (though still a loss straight-up) over Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Do not expect that to happen again.
While Notre Dame's profile is strong, it cannot match that. The Irish are 12-0 straight-up and 7-5 ATS. Away from home, Notre Dame went 5-0 SU and 4-1 ATS with two outright victories as an underdog - at Michigan State (+6) and at Oklahoma (+10) while the OVER was just 1-4 in those games. Defensively, this team is as nearly as good as Alabama. The Irish rank second in overall defense in our metrics and are third against the pass and 12th against the run. Offensively, there have been some struggles and uncertainty at the quarterback position, but this is still a top 15 passing (#15) and running (#8) squad as presently constructed (especially with sophomore quarterback Everett Golson's maturation into an adequate playmaker down the stretch).
Digging deeper into the numbers, Notre Dame ranked just above the national passing average (of 7.3) in yards-per-attempt (7.5) and just below in touchdowns-per-attempt (0.04 as compared to 0.05) and completion percentage (58.2% as compared to 60.5%). The Irish still averaged 1.7 more yards-per-attempt than their opponents in the passing game. The run offense averaged 5.0 yards-per-carry and 1.8 more yards-per-carry than opponents. Notre Dame commits 5.7 penalties-per-game and runs the ball 57% of the time. Lastly, Notre Dame field goal kickers are 23-of-31 on the season.
And then we get to the time off in preparation for this game... Nick Saban already has three national championships and is 5-3 ATS as a favorite in bowl games. Brian Kelly is 1-4 all-time ATS in bowl games and lost his only appearance in a BCS bowl with Cincinnati to Virginia Tech, 20-7, in the 2009 Orange Bowl (his undefeated Bearcats were destroyed in the 2010 Sugar Bowl by Florida after Kelly left for Notre Dame). These records and experiences do not reflect why we are picking this way, but they certainly do not hurt the argument. With the time off, it does not appear as though injuries to either side will play a role.
Playing very similar styles and with similar strengths, Alabama is the more dominant team and a team without a major weakness. The SEC has won six consecutive BCS National Championship games - five of which came by double-digits. Look for a seventh consecutive title and another resounding victory for the conference. In 50,000 simulations of the BCS Championship Game, Alabama wins 70.2% of the time and by an average score of 29.1-16.3. As nine point favorites, Alabama covers the spread 56.6% of the time, which would warrant a $44 wager from a normal $50 player. With a total line at 42 and 45 points expected, the OVER covers at a similar percentage of 55.6% and would justify a $34 wager.
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