The first season of college football’s playoff era will come to a close Monday night, as the Oregon Ducks face the Ohio State Buckeyes for the national championship.
The Ducks come into the contest favored by most sources, including the consensus of sportsbooks in Las Vegas and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI). But there’s disagreement on the degree of Oregon’s edge. The FPI, which includes results from every game of the 2014 season (plus a preseason rating as a prior), thinks Oregon would beat Ohio State by about five points at AT&T Stadium or another neutral field. Vegas, however, spent most of the past week favoring the Ducks by more — as many as 6.5 to seven points, according to the bookmakers listed at VegasInsider.com.
This was looking like a sure sign of the markets’ skepticism over the ability of Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones. Jones began the 2014 season third on Ohio State’s QB depth chart, behind Heisman candidate Braxton Miller and touted redshirt freshman backup J.T. Barrett. Then Miller was injured and lost for the season in an August practice, upon which Barrett took the reins and led the Buckeyes to a 11-1 record (on the strength of one of the nation’s best passing performances) before going down with a season-ending injury in late November.
Now Jones is at the helm.
Jones, a sophomore, was only regarded as the 41st-best QB prospect in his freshman class, according to Phil Steele’s recruiting aggregations, and had thrown just 19 career passes before starting in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. But Jones and the Buckeyes were spectacular in that game, winning 59-0, and then upset favored Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals. (Jones’s numbers were less impressive against Alabama than against Wisconsin — but then again, Alabama also has a slightly tougher pass defense.)
It effectively created an interesting Bayesian problem: How do we balance a sample of two great games against the prior assumption that Jones is a lightly regarded third-stringer? The initial discrepancy between Vegas’s Oregon-Ohio State point spread and that generated by season-long power ratings seemed to indicate how much of a downgrade Jones was relative to Barrett: roughly 1.5 to two points by the market consensus. As a point of comparison, this is a smaller margin than the typical gap between a starter and a backup QB in the NFL.
Complicating matters now, though, was the news early Saturday that Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington, the team’s second-leading receiver, failed a drug test and was declared ineligible for the title game. That shrunk Vegas’s consensus edge for Oregon down to about 5.5 points by Saturday morning — nearly the same as the FPI predicts using both teams’ full-season numbers. (The game’s line has since returned to a consensus of 6.5 points favoring Oregon, as of Monday morning.)
Even so, it will be worth keeping an eye on which effect is bigger, and whether the market’s implicitly Bayesian assessment of Jones turns out to be on the money or not. It’s no stretch to say the accuracy of that appraisal could determine Ohio State’s fate Monday night.