Each Monday, our “What’s on Tap” series previews the week ahead in the world of sports betting. Come here for a summary of upcoming financial happenings, legislative and regulatory meetings, industry conferences, top games scheduled for the week, and much more. Also, check out our weekly review “Get a Grip” for a look back at last week’s notable news.
Monday, December 27
Mediocre teams with juicy story lines on MNF
A new surge in COVID-19 cases is quickly returning sports to the uncertain days of spring 2020. Not only has the pandemic begun to seriously affect multiple leagues’ seasons, particularly the NHL’s (which took an unexpected Christmas break), it has perhaps become the No. 1 factor that sports gamblers need to track. That includes Monday night’s NFL contest between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.
The weirdness reached new levels with a NOLA.com report last week that the Saints had reached out to both Drew Brees and Philip Rivers to try to lure them out of retirement. See, the Saints have a quarterback problem. A big one. Jameis Winston had a season-ending injury and the next two options, Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemien, are among nine Saints recently added to the reserve/COVID-19 list. With the Saints’ (7-7) season on the line, former Notre Dame standout Ian Book will take his first NFL snaps. Wow.
Betting lines have rarely been so erratic, but that’s part of life under COVID rules. The Saints opened as 3-point home favorites, only to see the COVID news knock them all the way down to 3-point home ‘dogs. The over-under total plunged from 40.5 to a paltry 37.
If that isn’t enough uncertainty for gamblers to sort through, they have to decide what to make of a Dolphins team that has won six straight games, albeit against the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, New York Giants, and New York Jets. Good luck with this one, folks.
Tuesday, December 28
When will the puck drop next?
The NHL hit pause on its season last week due to the surging number of positive cases its teams are dealing with. The hope was the season could resume on Tuesday, but that had yet to be finalized as of this writing. Teams at least were allowed to start practicing together on Sunday, so that’s a hopeful sign.
Once the league figures out when it will next play again, fans and bettors will be tasked with figuring out what the heck to make of these games. Take one team: the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. A year ago, playing in a bubble, they had a total of two players on the COVID list. This year, they have already used the list 14 times, with four more contributing players joining it Sunday.
COVID is creating chaos that sports has rarely dealt with. Depending on how interested you are in tracking the latest health news, it makes this a good time either to lay off betting or to find hidden value.
Tuesday kicks bowl season into high gear, with some of college football’s better programs involved in five games kicking off with New Year’s Day on the horizon. Among the matchups are a good Houston team (No. 20) against a good-conference Auburn (-2.5) team in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, and a well-matched AutoZone Liberty Bowl featuring UCLA against No. 18 NC State (-2.5).
Wednesday, December 29
What about the NBA?
The NBA is getting higher numbers of positive tests as well and that trend could continue now that expanded testing went into effect Sunday for players who haven’t yet gotten their boosters. By Sunday evening, at least 116 players were in COVID protocols. Toronto played Cleveland Sunday with just eight players because 10 Raptors are currently in the protocols.
Celtics star Jayson Tatum is the latest big name to go into protocols, bringing the number of Celtics on the list to nine. Wednesday, the Celtics are scheduled to host the Clippers. Who do you like in that one? Before you decide, make sure to check the latest COVID news daily, if not hourly.
🚨 Celtics F Jayson Tatum has entered into the league's health and safety protocols pic.twitter.com/Qtkf8KpKxo
— NBABet (@nbabet) December 27, 2021
More big names enter the bowl drama by mid-week, with curiosity over how interested Clemson (-1.5) will be in its matchup with Iowa State given the relatively dreadful season the usually much stronger Tigers just endured.
Clemson was 4-8 against the spread this season and, presuming it’s not all that fired up about playing in the Cheez-It Bowl, a strong Iowa State team could be the play here. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables left Clemson to become the head coach at Oklahoma, and Iowa State’s best playmaker, running back Breece Hall, opted out of playing in the game. The line hasn’t changed much, perhaps because developments have balanced out.
We also get an intriguing late-night game in the Valero Alamo Bowl, with No. 14 Oregon vs. No. 16 Oklahoma (-4.5).
Thursday, Dec. 30
Peach Bowl is top bowl of the day
Assuming there are no more cancellations, four more bowl games are on tap, with the most intriguing undoubtedly the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl featuring No. 12 Pittsburgh vs. No. 10 Michigan State (-2.5). Both these teams brought good value to bettors who backed them all season, with the Spartans going 8-3-1 ATS and the Panthers going 10-3 ATS.
If you’re stumped about which side to pick, take a long look at the over-under total of 56.5. Michigan State and its opponents went over 56.5 in two-thirds of their games while Pittsburgh and its opponents managed to beat that number in nine of 12 games. The total is set 18.9 points lower than the two teams’ combined points-per-game average, most likely because the teams’ biggest offensive stars — Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and MSU running back Kenneth Walker III — have opted out with eyes on the NFL draft instead.
The other games:
Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina (-9.5) vs. South Carolina
TransPerfect Music City Bowl: Tennessee (-5) vs. Purdue
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin (-6.5) vs. Arizona State
Friday, Dec. 31
And … now we’re talking. The College Football Playoff kicks off with No. 4 Alabama (-13.5) facing No. 1 Cincinnati and No. 2 Georgia (-7.5) playing No. 3 Michigan. Yeah, the usual two SEC teams are playing, but undefeated Cincinnati becomes the first Group of Five team to join the party and an intriguing Michigan team spices things up as well.
Let’s take a quick peek at both games:
Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Cincinnati vs. Georgia, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Poor Cincinnati. Nobody has believed in them all year and neither, apparently, do the bookmakers or the betting public so far. And here’s the thing: As good as Alabama’s Heisman QB Bryce Young has looked lately, they’re probably appropriately rated in this spot.
The line really hasn’t budged, edging down a hook from its two-touchdown opening. Cincinnati is probably better than most skeptical observers think after beating up on the likes of Tulane and East Carolina all season, but Alabama is showing signs of reaching peak performance, with speed demon Jameson Williams giving Young another lethal weapon, so the point total might be the play here.
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) December 26, 2021
The total is 58.5. Alabama and Cincinnati each covered the over in only five games. The Bearcats haven’t faced a defense like Alabama’s while Cincinnati’s defense could give Alabama some problems initially by stuffing the run. Alabama didn’t rush for more than 115 yards in any of its final four SEC games, while the Bearcats have done a good job stopping the run, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry (13th in the nation).
Capital One Orange Bowl
Georgia vs. Michigan, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
You haven’t heard quite as much about Georgia’s historically good defense after Alabama put 41 on them in the SEC Championship game, but you also have to remember Georgia didn’t need to win that game to reach the CFP. That seems to be the pivotal question here: Will the real Georgia defense please stand up?
Michigan made it here largely because it finally found its quarterback. Cade McNamara has gotten better all season, and Michigan’s offensive line has bullied a lot of teams, including Ohio State. It’s awfully hard to bully Georgia’s front seven. A lot of the nuances in this game will take place in the trenches, with Michigan’s excellent front contending with Jordan Davis, Nakobe Dean, and the rest of the big, fast athletes Georgia will throw at them.
The books seem to have retained their faith in Georgia’s defense, as the over-under is 45.5, absurdly low for a bowl game not massively impacted by COVID. This one will come down to bettors’ instincts about Georgia’s last performance and how much credit they give the Big Ten. Personally, I expect a big bounce-back from the Bulldogs and think Michigan will be fighting uphill all game.
Saturday, January 1
New Year’s Day tradition continues
OK, so the CFP has taken some of the sizzle out of New Year’s Day, but we still get the best of the rest and there’s good football on TV from 11 a.m. to about 11:45 p.m. ET, so who’s complaining?
Outback Bowl: Penn State (-1.5) vs. No. 22 Arkansas
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: No. 5 Notre Dame (-2.5) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State
VRBO Citrus Bowl: No. 25 Kentucky (-3) vs. No. 17 Iowa
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One Venture X: No. 7 Ohio State (-6.5) vs. No. 10 Utah
AllState Sugar Bowl: No. 8 Ole Miss (-1.5) vs. No. 6 Baylor
Why not start with the granddaddy of them all, as Keith Jackson used to say. Ohio State is making its third Rose Bowl appearance under Ryan Day while Utah is making its first Rose Bowl appearance under, well, anybody.
Don’t count the Utes out, at least to cover. Ohio State has given some signs of being overrated, including going 0-4 ATS in games where the spread was 14 points or less. Also, Utah figures to follow the model of Oregon and Michigan of making high-percentage throws while leaning on its running game. Utah won four straight to finish the season, and motivation won’t be a problem, while it could be for an Ohio State team that hoped to be in the CFP this time of year.
Keep an eye on Notre Dame even after Brian Kelly’s departure to LSU, as the Irish are on a seven-game winning streak ATS. The Penn State-Arkansas matchup is a good one. Motivation could be key here as Penn State had high expectations before crashing to five losses, while Arkansas was picked to finish 12th in the SEC before finding an effective formula under coach Sam PIttman. Kentucky and Ole Miss seem like decent favorites.
Sunday, Jan. 2
NFL nearing the finish line
The slate is clear for the NFL on Sunday, and the league is taking advantage by playing 15 of its 16 games in one day. Take everything with a grain of salt at this point given the uncertainty of COVID lists, but there are certainly some intriguing matchups.
The Arizona Cardinals (10-5), on a three-game losing streak, try to fight back for better seeding in the NFC against a Dallas Cowboys team (11-4) that has the same objective. The Cowboys opened as 3-point favorites at home.
Another game that could have big playoff implications, depending on what happens Monday night with the Dolphins, features Miami traveling to Tennessee, which (for the moment) is giving 3.5 points. After playing poorly most of the prior month, the Titans got a huge 20-17 win over the 49ers Sunday, putting their playoff hopes back on track. The Titans could be in a good spot to win their 11th game and set themselves up nicely for the playoffs.