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NCAA Football Predictions: Week 14 Opening Line Report and Picks
by Alan Matthews

The first College Football Playoff had some controversy with Ohio State jumping over TCU and Baylor into the Top 4 in the final rankings. The committee clearly turned out to be right there, however. If the favorites in this Saturday’s Power 5 conference championship games all win, then the playoff field should be controversy-free. It’s going to be Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and the winner of the Big Ten Championship Game between Michigan State and Iowa. Done deal. The only question is whether Oklahoma or the Big Ten champion is the No. 3 team. I’d guess it’s the Big Ten club, and I’d frankly prefer to be No. 4 and play Clemson in the national semifinals than No. 2 Alabama.

I do expect all the favorites to win Saturday’s conference championship games. The Tide should have no trouble at all in Atlanta against a Florida Gators team that clearly has been overrated all season. UF was embarrassed at home Saturday by Florida State, 27-2. That victory probably gets the Seminoles into a New Year’s Six bowl.

Clemson might have its hands somewhat full with North Carolina, which has won 11 straight, in the ACC Championship Game. I would be curious to see what the committee might do with the Heels if they won. UNC doesn’t have any other quality wins and played two FCS teams. But don’t you have to take a one-loss conference champion over a one-loss Ohio State team that didn’t even win its own division? Or over a two-loss Pac-12 champion if Stanford beats USC? The Heels were 14th in the most recent CFP rankings but should get up to around No. 8 in Tuesday’s updated version.

The playoff chances of Baylor, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame vanished, along with Florida’s, with losses on Saturday. The final rankings will be announced on Sunday.

The Heisman race also lacks drama. Alabama running back Derrick Henry solidified his grasp on the award by carrying an insane 46 times (school record) for 271 yards in the Iron Bowl victory over Auburn. He already has smashed the school’s single-season rushing record and has two games to play. Henry is the +333 favorite to become the first running back since Alabama’s Mark Ingram to win the Heisman. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is the +500 second-favorite. He could throw for 500 yards and seven TDs against UNC and is not going to win him the Heisman.

Here are a few Week 14 opening lines that caught my eye. Rankings from AP poll.

No. 20 Temple at No. 17 Houston (-6.5, 57): The winner of the American Athletic Conference Championship Game in Houston will earn the Group of Five’s automatic New Year’s Six bowl slot, either in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl. These teams are nothing alike on the field as the Owls are rather conservative and have a great defense, while Houston is an offensive juggernaut, but they do have one thing in common: head coaches who are in demand by Power 5 schools. It’s looking like Houston’s Tom Herman will accept a raise and stay put for now. Temple will try to throw money at Matt Rhule to keep him, but reports are he’s the leading candidate at Missouri. Temple and Houston didn’t meet in the regular season. The Owls visited Houston last year and lost 31-10. Greg Ward Jr. threw two touchdown passes in a 51-second span late in the third quarter. UH’s only loss this year, to UConn, was when Ward couldn’t start due to injury. The pick: Houston, which then faces Ohio State, Herman’s former employer, in the Fiesta Bowl.

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 18 Florida (+17, 39.5): The SEC Championship Game is in Atlanta, and that total is by far the lowest on the board in Week 14 This line is much bigger than I was expecting. I’ll bet it would have been about half that if the Gators didn’t lose so badly to Florida State. If not for a safety in the fourth quarter, the Gators would have suffered their first shutout since 1988. Florida averaged 13.8 points per game and scored just seven touchdowns in November despite facing terrible defenses in South Carolina and Florida Atlantic. This team badly misses suspended quarterback Will Grier. Alabama, meanwhile, is No. 2 nationally in total defense. This is the eighth time in the 24-year history of this game that Florida and Alabama have faced off. It’s the third SEC title game for Florida coach Jim McElwain even though he’s in his first season in Gainesville. He was once Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator with the Tide. The pick: Hold off here. If it gets over 17, I’d probably take the points. Anything under, I’d give them.

No. 7 Stanford vs. No. 24 USC (+4.5, 60): The Pac-12 Championship Game is at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and the winner is probably headed to the Rose Bowl (for sure if USC). The Cardinal kept their College Football Playoff hopes slightly alive with that thrilling last-second win over Notre Dame on Saturday. Stanford needs a blowout win here and probably losses by both Clemson and Alabama to get in — and even that might not be enough. I was shocked on Monday that USC named interim coach Clay Helton as the full-time guy. That’s one of the best jobs in the country, and the Trojans likely could have had their pick of coaches. Reportedly they did reach out to Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, among others (apparently not Chip Kelly, though), but Fisher has said he was staying in Tallahassee. USC is a solid 5-2 under Helton with wins over ranked teams Utah and UCLA, the Trojans have outrushed opponents in each game and have been plus-9 in turnovers — and he’s popular with his players. Stanford won 41-31 at USC when the Trojans were No. 6 in the country on Sept. 19. Helton was still offensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian then. The pick: Stanford.