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Crimson Tide open as huge chalk for Conference Championship Week
By Colin Kelly

Clemson may be the No. 1 team in the college football playoff rankings, but the Tigers aren’t the team most expected to make it to the national semifinals.

That would be the Alabama Crimson Tide, based on the opening lines for next Saturday’s conference championship game. Nick Saban’s squad (11-1 SU, 7-5 ATS) heads into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference title tilt as a 17-point chalk against Florida, according to Johnny Avello, executive director of race and sports at Wynn Las Vegas.

‘Bama is coming off a 29-13 victory laying 14.5 points at Auburn on Saturday, its ninth consecutive SU win since a stunning home loss to Mississippi. It was also the fourth straight week that the Tide cashed for bettors.

On the flip side, Florida is coming off its worst performance of the year. The Gators (10-2 SU, 7-5 ATS), 2.5-point home underdogs to rival Florida State, mustered only a safety in a 27-2 loss Saturday. That knocked them entirely out of the playoff picture, even if they somehow stun Alabama this week at the Georgia Dome.

“The Gators do play very good defense, but that can only get you so far,” Avello said, noting Florida ranks fifth nationally in both points allowed (15.5 ppg) and yards allowed (283.6 ypg). “Scoring two points won’t win many games. The Seminoles’ Dalvin Cook ran for 183 yards Saturday, and now the Gators get the unenviable task of shutting down the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Alabama’s Derrick Henry.”

ACC Championship Game – North Carolina vs. Clemson (-5.5)

The Tigers (12-0 SU, 5-7 ATS) will try to complete a perfect run and wrap up a playoff berth in the Atlantic Coast Conference final in Charlotte, N.C. Clemson wrapped up the regular season by fending off instate rival South Carolina 37-32, falling far short as a 20.5-point road chalk.

North Carolina has also been stout since suffering a Week 1 loss at South Carolina. The Tar Heels (11-1 SU, 8-4 ATS) followed by winning 11 in a row SU to reach the ACC final, including a 45-34 victory Saturday as a 3.5-point fave at North Carolina State.

“It’s been a great year for Clemson, and it’s hard to believe they went undefeated with 24 total turnovers. The Tigers escaped on all the close calls, and here they are playing in the ACC championship game and ranked No. 1 in the playoff rankings,” Avello said. “One of Clemson’s weaknesses is its rush defense (130 ypg). It’s imperative the Tigers stop Tar Heels running back Elijah Hood, who’s been on a tear lately.

“I’ll open this game with Clemson around a 5-point favorite, noting that the Tar Heels get a touch of home-field advantage.”

Big Ten Championship Game – Michigan State (-3) vs. Iowa

The Hawkeyes are arguably the biggest surprise of the 2015 season. Iowa (12-0 SU, 7-5 ATS) stayed perfect with a 28-20 victory at Nebraska as a 2.5-point favorite Saturday.

Michigan State suffered its only loss of the season at Nebraska four weeks ago, 39-38 as a 3.5-point chalk. But the Spartans (11-1 SU, 5-7 ATS) have had a huge bounceback, going 3-0 SU and ATS, including a road upset of Ohio State and a regular-season-ending, 55-16 blowout of Penn State giving 7.5 points at home Saturday.

“At the start of the season, this is not what we envisioned the Big 10 championship would look like,” Avello said of the Michigan State-Iowa matchup, to be held in Indianapolis. “The Hawkeyes, by winning the weaker West Division, will have to prevail over the stronger East Division winner to show they belong in the elite final four.”

Pac-12 Championship Game – Stanford (-4) vs. Southern California

The Cardinal still have an outside shot at the playoff, but would need to beat USC in the Pac-12 title game and see Clemson or Alabama – and possibly both – lose on conference championship weekend. Stanford (10-2 SU, 8-4 ATS) capped the regular season with a last-second field goal to best Notre Dame 38-36 Saturday giving 4 points at home.

The Trojans (8-4, 6-6 ATS) managed to reach the Pac-12 final after firing coach Steve Sarkisian midseason.
Southern Cal won five of its last six games SU (3-3 ATS), including a 40-21 rout of archrival UCLA on Saturday as a 3-point home chalk.

These two teams met in Week 3, with the visiting Cardinal taking a 41-31 win and cover as a healthy 9.5-point pup. This week’s contest is at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers.

“It’s been a challenging year for the Trojans,” Avello said. “They certainly have enough talent to compete for college’s top prize, but inconsistent play, not to mention losing their head coach, did them in early for that goal.

“In that Week 3 meeting, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan beat USC for the first time in his career. USC quarterback Cody Kessler played very well, but Hogan was better. Both teams are playing very well, except for blemishes against Oregon. Opening Stanford just a touch more than a field goal feels like the right price here.”