College Football Looks Even More Top-Heavy Than Usual This Year
If you believe the betting odds, it’s Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State’s world and we’re all just living in it.
Even by its own lather-rinse-repeat standards, the air of inevitability is particularly strong as we near kickoff for the 2022 college football season. Three teams (the Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs and Ohio State Buckeyes) are dominating most national title conversations — and while that particular three-horse race isn’t terribly surprising, the degree to which it’s expected to dominate is.
Yes, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State have combined to win five national championships in the eight-season era of the College Football Playoff, including UGA’s victory over Bama in the national championship game seven months ago. But this trio has never been quite so highly regarded by sportsbooks around the country going into a season. According to the Action Network, the Crimson Tide, Bulldogs and Buckeyes each have consensus championship odds of +400 or shorter, which equates to an implied probability of at least 18 percent apiece after adjusting for the vigorish. (By comparison, there was one team that fit the bill before last season: Alabama at +260.) With 131 teams at the Division I level, it’s startling — and historic — to see only three of them devour so much of the preseason championship odds.
Heavy favorites are increasingly the norm on the college gridiron, where a first-time national champion hasn’t been crowned in 26 years1 and where six teams (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma) hoard 25 of the 32 all-time playoff appearances. In all but one season of the playoff era, the preseason betting favorite was installed with an adjusted probability of 24 percent or greater in the final week leading up to the start of the regular season, according to BetMGM odds compiled by SportsOddsHistory.com. Until 2022, the highest preseason odds of any team in the playoff era belonged to 2018 Alabama, whose odds adjusted to 30.3 percent. This year, the Crimson Tide’s adjusted probability of 33.7 percent broke that record.
Alabama is the heaviest preseason favorite of the playoff era
Preseason favorites to win the College Football Playoff in each season of the playoff era, by adjusted probability*
|Season||Team||Championship Odds||Adjusted Probability*||Won Title?|
A bullish outlook for the nation’s top team is seldom misplaced. While the preseason favorite has gone on to win the title just once in the playoff era (Alabama in 2017), it has managed to win at least 90 percent of its games in all but one season, the lone exception being when Clemson stumbled to a relatively dismal .833 win percentage in 2020. In other words, preseason powerhouses are almost always in the mix by season’s end.
And yet, it’s still rare to see favorites so overwhelming that we can basically pencil in three-fourths of the playoff bracket by August, as seems to be the case this year. To see how 2022 stacks up for sportsbook confidence, we added up the adjusted championship odds for the top three teams heading into each season in the playoff era. This season stands to have the most dominant trio of favorites on record by far, with a total adjusted probability of 75.8 percent; no other preseason of the playoff era saw the top three add up to even 70 percent.
The top teams of 2022 are lapping the field
Highest combined adjusted probabilities* to win the College Football Playoff for the top three preseason favorites in each season of the playoff era
|Season||Preseason Top 3||Nos. 1-3||Nos. 4-5||All Others|
|2022||Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia||75.8%||12.8%||11.4%|
|2020||Clemson, Alabama, Georgia||69.0||13.5||17.5|
|2019||Clemson, Alabama, Georgia||66.1||12.3||21.6|
|2017||Alabama, Ohio State, USC||62.2||15.4||22.4|
|2021||Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State||61.2||25.8||12.9|
|2018||Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State||58.9||19.5||21.6|
|2014||Florida State, Alabama, Oregon||55.3||20.8||23.9|
|2015||Ohio State, TCU, Alabama||51.5||16.1||32.4|
|2016||Alabama, Clemson, Florida State||39.1||22.1||38.8|
The trio sits significantly ahead of the pack, as Clemson and USC — the teams with the fourth- and fifth-best preseason championship odds, respectively — check in with a combined adjusted probability of just 12.8 percent. That’s the second-lowest combined figure for Nos. 4 and 5 in the playoff era (ahead of only 2019), and this preseason also features the lowest odds for all teams outside the top five.
The particulars of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State’s dominance notwithstanding, there are a few systemic reasons for the books’ unprecedented confidence in the top teams. For one thing, the playoff selection committee has proven comfortable punching a ticket for a big-name Power Five team even if it fails to win a conference championship. Most recently, Georgia took this path to its first national title in 41 years, toppling Alabama one month after it lost by 17 points to the Tide in the SEC championship game. And the playoff system has not proven to confer parity. In 2014, each of the four teams with the shortest preseason championship odds hailed from different conferences; this year, two of the three teams with the best odds are SEC schools.
From talent flows success, more often than not, and the hoarding of talent at a select few programs is obvious to most fans of the sport. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State just collectively exported nearly one-third of the first-round picks in the latest NFL draft. The talent gap in college football is so wide that Georgia is expected to contend for another national title despite recently setting the all-time record for players taken in a seven-round draft (15) and defensive players picked in the first round (five). Alabama coach Nick Saban cheekily referred to 2021, a year in which his team came up a few touchdowns shy of an eighth national title, as a “rebuilding year.”
Despite all of its departures, Georgia returns starting quarterback Stetson Bennett IV from last year’s national title team and benefits from a schedule that includes just two games against ranked opponents and no in-conference regular season matchups with Alabama (No. 1), Arkansas (No. 19), Kentucky (No. 20), Ole Miss (No. 21) or Texas A&M (No. 6). Meanwhile, Alabama returns arguably the best players in the country on offense (Bryce Young) and defense (Will Anderson), and Ohio State brings back a Heisman front-runner (QB C.J. Stroud) along with the best receiving corps in the nation.
Assuming everything goes to chalk for the top three, one playoff spot is still up for grabs. And arguably no team has more promise or incoming talent than Texas A&M, a dormant SEC titan that recently landed what some outlets consider to be the best recruiting class in college football history. That class will need to build off an eight-win campaign in which the Aggies etched marquee wins over top-ranked Alabama and No. 13 Auburn but dropped their final two conference games and missed out on a bowl appearance due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries. The program hasn’t brought a conference title to College Station since 1998, back when the Aggies were members of the Big 12. Texas A&M’s national title drought dates back to World War II. But it has a rabid fan base and a $75 million head coach, who now oversees a roster overflowing with blue-chip talent.
And yet, all of that is worth just a 3.6 percent adjusted playoff probability for Texas A&M, putting it firmly in the same category as Clemson, USC and the rest of a nation fighting over the top trio’s leftovers. The predictability of the playoff has been widely lamented in recent years, with the same programs appearing time and time again. With this year’s Big Three looking as dominant as any in recent memory, don’t expect things to change anytime soon.