Oddsmakers make Bama their No. 1

Look at the latest College Football Playoff rankings and Alabama is in fifth place, on the outside looking in for a spot in the new playoff system. Look around this gambling town where real money is bet, though, and Alabama is the No. 1 team in the country.

That may cause some consternation among Bama fans, whose only consolation is that the Tide has another month to find a way into the top four before the final rankings come out. When cash is on the line, though, bookies make Alabama the favorite on a neutral field against any team in the country.

“We’re not saying Alabama will necessarily win if they play the other top teams,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, oddsmaker at the South Point casino. “But if we put them against anybody in the top four on a neutral field they would be the favorite by between one and a half and four points.”

Alabama isn’t on a neutral field Saturday, traveling to No. 14 LSU for a game critical to its postseason hopes. Even on the road against a Top 25 team, though, the Tide is favored by 6½ points, an indication that both bettors and bookies believe the team is better than both its playoff ranking and No. 4 AP ranking.

That holds true the next week when the early line has the Tide favored by 5½ points at home against consensus No. 1 Mississippi State.

“You don’t even have to speculate that much to see Alabama is the top team in the country,” said R.J. Bell, a betting analyst who runs the Pregame.com website. “Look ahead at some of the early lines and Bama is favored above any reasonable home field advantage. That’s the market saying Alabama is just the better team.”

Bookies have been wrong before, of course, but tend to operate more in real time than either the college polls or the new playoff rankings. They have long since discounted Alabama’s loss to Mississippi with the reappearance in recent weeks of a team that more closely resembles Nick Saban’s better teams in Tuscaloosa.

The committee that ranks teams for the four playoff finalists appears to be discounting early losses, too, more than the BCS rankings of the past. Just not as much as the people who make a living off knowing which side to be on.

“It’s not their fault, but they release these rankings way too early to try and get people talking about them,” Vaccaro said. “I think a Las Vegas person on the committee would help them but do we have a crystal ball? No, because crazy things happen.”

Actually, the committee and the bookies agree on almost everything but Alabama. Bell said the Vegas top 10 matches up with the committee’s top 10 with the exception of Baylor and Arizona State. Bookies believe Baylor should be in the top 10 in place of the Sun Devils, who Bell said would be a touchdown underdog on a neutral field against the Bears.

Bell said the Vegas view is that Alabama is the nation’s top team, followed by Mississippi State, Auburn and Oregon. Florida State, which is ranked No. 2 by the committee, is seen as the No. 5 team at the sports books.

Whoever comes out on top in the final rankings, the new playoff system has been good for this city’s legal bookmakers. Vaccaro said this weekend’s slate of college games is so loaded and so attractive that his sports book will likely take in more money on Saturday’s college games than Sunday’s NFL for the first time.

”People are sticking around for 12-13 hours on a Saturday to bet,” he said. “If you lose your early games you’re mad and bet something else. If you win and have money in your pocket you’re still going to bet something else. You can’t underestimate the entertainment value in college football.”

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