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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: BCS Championship Game (Bowl #32)...By S.H. Austin

1/8, 8 p.m. ET FOX

Ohio State by 7 points, total of 46

Ohio State: 12-0
Florida: 12-1
There was a surprising amount of debate about how good these teams would be back before the season started. Most pundits had Ohio State in a trio with Oklahoma and Notre Dame as the threesome most likely to spit out a national champion. Pinnacle even had a prop bet where you could take a shot on whether or not somebody in that trio would take the trophy. "NO" was a big favorite, so people on that prop are rooting for Florida here. There was some skepticism about whether or not Ohio State could compete amongst the elite with only two returning starters on defense. They would also have to deal with road games at defending national champion Texas, and at Iowa (nobody ever wins at Iowa). For its part, Florida was seen as having too demanding a schedule to compete for a national championship. The Gators returned only five starters on both sides of the ball, and were looking at a road slate that included Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida State.

The debate was best expressed by the preseason ranking in the publications we've been using throughout this bowl series:

Ohio State was 4th in Athlon, 8th in Phil Steele
Florida was 5th in Athlon, but a stunning 20th in Phil Steele (ahead of 21st LSU)

It turned out that the hurdle was lower than anticipated for Ohio State. The Big Ten was awful this year. Road games at Iowa weren't all that dangerous. The road game at Texas came before the young UT quarterback had his sea legs. And, Ohio State was legitimately terrific. They went 12-0 and rarely had to sweat. Only two victories were by single digits, and both of those saw the losers score late to create misleadingly close scores.

Florida managed to split with Tennessee and Auburn. Florida State turned out to be a very manageable road foe (barely getting past Troy and Western Michigan in Tallahassee this year). Georgia had a down season, so the cocktail party didn't lead to a hangover. That being said, Florida did have additional challenges. LSU turned out to be better than people thought. South Carolina could play with anyone for 60 minutes. Kentucky and Alabama weren't great, but qualified for bowls. And, you have to add in the SEC championship game against Arkansas. Clearly Florida had the more impressive list of victims.

Ohio State: 36-10 versus the 40th ranked schedule
Florida: 29-14 versus the 18th ranked schedule
In raw numbers, Ohio State shows an edge of +11 (+26 to +15). If you adjust for strength of schedule, it comes down pretty much to where the Vegas line is with this data. We'd be sympathetic to anyone saying that Florida's schedule difference was bigger than those USA Today rankings suggest, but only to a degree. It depends on how much credit you give Ohio State for dominating teams like Cincinnati and Iowa. Ohio State played six teams that ended up in bowls. Florida played a whopping 10 bowl teams!! If you want to call that 10th versus 50th, you'd get no complaints here.

Ohio State: 9-3 versus the spread
Florida: 5-7 versus the spread
There's something interesting about Ohio State that we wanted to bring up. There's a general rule of thumb in college football handicapping that you're supposed to go against the "public" teams that are hyped by the media. The spreads get bet up way too high, and it becomes very difficult for the public teams to cover the spread. This is largely true. I've ghostwritten scores of articles in the BCS era about how you should go against teams in the BCS rankings the second half of the season when they're double digit favorites...or when they're single digit road favorites against good teams. The numbers always bear that out with so many teams bubbling in and out of the top ten. Eventual champions often buck that trend. Texas was 9-2-1 ATS last year even though their spreads kept rising throughout the season. Everyone kept waiting for the flat performance, and they just kept on beating teams like Kansas 66-14, or Colorado 70-3 in the Big 12 championship game. USC was 16-7 ATS in the 23 games leading up to their 55-19 rout of Oklahoma in the BCS championship game two years ago. LSU was 10-2 ATS the year they beat Oklahoma in the championship game.

There's pretty good evidence in my mind that these teams are virtually ANNOUNCING their championship worthiness by constantly outperforming the growing expectations in a strong season. The lines go up, and they keep covering anyway. They get a target on their backs, and they keep covering anyway. The studio shows talk about all the upsets and all the competitive balance in college football, but the teams destined to win the championship keep posting blowouts while other teams are falling by the wayside.

In that light, a 9-3 ATS mark vs. a 5-7 ATS mark could very well mean something. And, Ohio State would have been 10-2 ATS if Michigan hadn't scored a garbage time TD in a game that OSU dominated statistically (503-397 in yardage). Florida had the look of a team that couldn't lift its game to rising expectations.

Remember the parameters: go against BCS teams in the second half of the season as double digit favorites, or single digit road favorites:

Florida (-13) beat Georgia 21-14 (non cover)
Florida (-17) beat Vanderbilt 25-19 (non cover)
Florida (-13) beat South Carolina 17-16 (non cover and lucky win)
Florida (-9) won at Florida State 21-14 (non cover)

Those are the only four games in the sample, and the Gators were 0-4 ATS. They did cover the SEC championship game against Arkansas on a neutral site. They did beat Western Carolina 62-0 in a non-board game. In lined action, Florida was 1-5 ATS its last six games, and 3-7 ATS its last ten.

I know a lot of you don't place much weight on pointspread performances. In this particular instance, we may be seeing "signature significance" in the regular season performance of eventual champions that bears watching.

Ohio State: +136.8, with a season turnover differential of +11
Florida: +129.3, with a season turnover differential of +1
Considering their strengths of schedule, we're more impressed with Florida's average there. Unfortunately, the number becomes much less impressive if you take out the 528-59 win over Western Carolina, and the 637-153 advantage over Central Florida. Florida is a yardage "bully" against soft opponents. They only played three teams all year who didn't go to bowls. If wins were based on total yardage, Florida would have gone 7-4 outside of those two patsy games. Ohio State was 11-1 in yardage for the season.

There also may be some hidden pop in the Buckeyes numbers because they're actually a "Milton Berle" team in terms of the classifications we've been using this year (see pre-series article). Head coach Jim Tressel typically calls off the dogs scoreboard-wise in the high 30's unless he really needs the extra points. Sometimes the bench can't control themselves and they score anyway. Ohio State had wins this year of 35-12, 37-7, 35-7, and 38-7 that could have been much worse if the coach was a bully in the model of a Clemson or a Louisville.

Ohio State: 30-5, fantastic numbers for a cold weather Berle team
Florida: 26-14, way too many picks for a championship contender

Ohio State really represents the ultimate championship-style force. They're a Berle team that also has a QB who's a dangerous threat. You saw what this approach can do when LSU (similar style) crushed Notre Dame the way Ohio State crushed Notre Dame in last year's Fiesta Bowl. This style combines everything at once in a way that few teams can consistently muster. Solid running game...dangerous quarterback...fantastic defense...low risk percentages. LSU didn't quite measure up to Ohio State because they were more mistake-prone in big games, and because the defense forced a lot fewer turnovers (LSU forced 20 this year, Ohio State forced 27). I'm not saying Ohio State is automatic to beat Florida in this encounter. We're talking about "characteristics," and Ohio State, right now, has the package that wins championships at all levels of football. It could turn out that a soft schedule hid some blemishes that Florida will expose.

Florida is very hard to figure out. They have an "offensive genius" head coach, and an offense that has trouble scoring points. They have a lot of inventive plays (like having your backup QB throw a 1930's jump pass from the 3-yard line), but they make way too many turnovers (25 giveaways this year, compared to 16 for Ohio State). The offense gets all the press because of the gimmicks, but the defense does all the work. It's one of the great underreported stories of the year. Florida continually stops people cold. Here's what SEC bowl bound teams did vs. the Gators in the regular season.

Tennessee scored 20 points on 220 yards
Kentucky scored 7 points on 249 yards
Alabama scored 13 points on 323 yards
LSU scored 10 points on 318 yards
Auburn scored 27 points on 315 yards (with mostly non-offensive scores)
Georgia scored 14 points on 215 yards
South Carolina scored 16 points on 410 yards (bad yardage game for UF)
Florida State scored 14 points on 235 yards

All that, and we have to listen to a thousand dumb stories about Tim Tebow.

We're in rarefied air here. You don't face many teams who are similar to Ohio State. Nobody's similar to Florida right now. We've mentioned some decent similarities between Ohio State and LSU, so let's look at the Florida/LSU game.

Florida beat LSU 23-10 in the Swamp back on October 7th.

LSU won total yardage 318-288
Florida won turnovers 2-4
LSU won the "stat score" we've been referencing in threads 18-17

Since Florida was playing at home, this all suggests LSU would have been the better side on a neutral field. The Gators lost stat score playing at home, but won the game because of turnover differential.

The game against Ohio State isn't at home. Florida is mathematically unlikely to win turnover differential the way these teams play. This doesn't paint a great picture for a Florida win. It does suggest a competitive game that might have them in position to cover in a defensive battle.

Nobody's flat for a championship game. Some teams do go in overconfident though. We're not getting that sense from either team.

Ohio State beat Notre Dame 34-20 in the Fiesta Bowl, winning yardage 619-354
Florida beat Iowa 31-24 in the Outback Bowl, winning yardage 447-410.

Ohio State has covered its last four bowl games, reversing what had been years of frustration under previous coaching regimes. Ohio State beat the spreads by 18, 14, 29, and 10 points, meaning every one was a double digit win. Clearly, Jim Tressel has a good history preparing for bowls. The opponents were Miami of Florida in a national championship game, Kansas State when they were good, Oklahoma State, and Notre Dame. It's arguably one of the best four-year bowl stretches ever, considering the context.
Florida's cover last year was its first after three notable failures. Those failures can be blamed on Urban Meyer's predecessors.

This preview is our final summation of this 32-game bowl version of "War and Peace." Hope you enjoyed reading them. Thanks to Russ (Major) for backing the project as a service to all of his readers and posters. Thanks to David (Rogthedodger) for editing and posting what has turned out to be a 60,000+ word odyssey through the college bowl slate.

The best evidence heading into the BCS championship game suggests a defensive battle where Ohio State proves victorious. It's important to remember that a lot of people expected that in the Ohio State/Michigan game, and we got a shootout instead. That game almost went Over in the first half! Florida doesn't play like Michigan though. They have a knack for either struggling to move the ball, or moving the ball before making a bad turnover. This is not an explosive Gators team, so a shootout seems less likely here.

Recent championship games have had a mix of Overs and Unders. USC tends to play shootouts in big games, so their results flew Over the last two years. LSU beat Oklahoma 21-14 in the last championship game not involving USC. In the one before that, Ohio State and Miami were under in regulation before the Buckeyes managed that 31-24 double overtime upset as an 11-point underdog. The best expectation here is for a game in the style of OSU/Miami and LSU/Oklahoma. We've seen a few bowl games this year with that kind of expectation go Over anyway because of cheap points (Georgia/Virginia Tech), wide open play from teams that made good use of their month off (FSU/UCLA), or even garbage time points when talented teams were on the field (Michigan/USC). This is a low enough total that you can't say the value is huge for an Under.

We have great respect for the ATS evidence pointing to Ohio State. That's led to very sharp selections the past few seasons. We love this "model" of team in terms of production and percentages. It's largely the basis of the New England dynasty in the NFL, and Pittsburgh's win last year (the Steelers had an ungodly two-year record straight up and ATS in games where Ben Roethlisberger played before his motorcycle accident this past offseason). Heck, it's largely the model that basketball champions like UCONN or the San Antonio Spurs follow if you apply the principals to other sports. Ohio State is playing championship style football.

Florida's not that far off. The defense is there. The offense is too mistake-prone. It looks like the Gators need to catch some turnover breaks to score the upset here. It might only take a turnover edge of one to cover the game. Can they get that? The math only says maybe.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

55% that Ohio State continues to express its dominance over expectations and opponents. 45% that Florida finds a way to hang within the number, probably because of a turnover break or special teams points

55% that we see a defensive battle that stays Under the total 45% that the game goes over because of field position points, creative additions to the offenses, a back-and-forth battle in the fourth quarter (or even OT), or because Ohio State's defense turns out not to be as good as projected when they step up in class

S.H. Austin

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