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QB Watson, Clemson thrive as underdogs

Instead of ripping the losing coach, pause for a moment to praise the winning quarterback. Deshaun Watson did not get much pregame hype from the media and was quickly dismissed by most bettors, yet he directed a dominant performance by Clemson.

The first College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday was supposed to be all about Oklahoma. Baker Mayfield was supposed to be the better quarterback. Bob Stoops was supposed to recapture his big-game magic. The Sooners were supposed to roll, or at least win and cover a short number.

The so-called experts got it wrong. Dead wrong on every angle.

Watson ran for a touchdown in the second quarter, passed for a touchdown that blew it open late in the third quarter and led his team into the national championship game as the Tigers crushed Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl.

“The bettors were all over it,” said Wynn Las Vegas sports book director John Avello, who was referring to the favorite.

Recall the morning of Dec. 6. As soon as the playoff pairings were announced, the Sooners opened as 2½-point favorites over the nation’s No. 1 team. Clemson was undefeated and getting no respect. The line was bet to 3½ immediately. At kickoff, it closed minus-4.

The Tigers thrived as underdogs, so they should feel comfortable playing that role one more time.

Clemson (14-0) is a 6½-point underdog against Alabama (13-1) in the title game on Jan. 11 at Glendale, Arizona, where it appears a giant spaceship is parked in the desert. It’s also where the New England Patriots’ perfect season once ended in a Super Bowl.

The Tigers were nearly perfect in the second half while outscoring the Sooners 21-0. Watson accounted for 332 total yards, passing for 187 and rushing for 145. On the flip side, Mayfield made some plays, but the Clemson defense intercepted him twice. A lot of praise also goes to that defense and coach Dabo Swinney.

Now it’s time to rip the losing coach, formerly known as “Big Game Bob.” After Oklahoma marched to a 7-0 lead on its first possession, Stoops was badly outcoached the rest of the way. The Tigers made adjustments, specifically on defense. The Sooners did next to nothing and got embarassed.

Maybe it should not come as a surprise because Clemson also crushed and embarrassed Oklahoma in a minor bowl game last season. Stoops has been losing big games for a long time, and he was upset by Texas this season.

“That Oklahoma coach can’t get the job done,” Avello said. “That’s a very poor showing. Stoops wins a lot of games, but he just doesn’t win big games.”

The books won the first decision of the day, though the Tigers did get some game-day support at the windows.

“We took a lot of Clemson money late, but overall it was a good game,” Avello said.

The Crimson Tide, favored by 10 points and minus-380 on the money line, rolled to a 38-0 victory over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. The game ended close to midnight on the East Coast, which is why Ryan Seacrest was shown on TV almost as often as Nick Saban. Seacrest was hosting a New Year’s Eve party. Saban was frowning while winning another grind-it-out football game.

“We were heavy on Alabama. The public liked Alabama,” Avello said. “I’m not sure what side the sharps were on. I would say if the sharps were on anything, it was probably under the total.”

The total dropped from 48 to 45, and that seemed a safe, smart bet. Avello said the first-half decision was a significant one because bettors were all over Alabama minus-6. As the final seconds ticked away in the half, the Spartans’ Connor Cook threw an interception at the goal line that proved costly in more ways than one. The Tide led 10-0 at the half, and it started to get ugly late in the third quarter.

There are five games on New Year’s Day, and I will throw out an opinion on none of them. In a bowl handicapping contest against an orangutan, I would have been crushed by the orangutan picking random team names out of a hat. My best bet, Southern California, was a dud in the Holiday Bowl, and most of my bowl bets were losers.

VegasInsider.com handicapper Brian Edwards is siding with Notre Dame as a 6½-point underdog against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes rolled through Alabama on the way to the national title last year, but coach Urban Meyer is on a smaller stage this time.

“I like the Irish, and I feel like motivation is part of it,” Edwards said. “Ohio State was able to get up for Michigan, but that was a rivalry game. Nobody has run away from Notre Dame all season.”

As Edwards said, there was “no shame” in the Irish’s two losses — 24-22 at Clemson in early October and 38-36 at Stanford in late November.

For what it’s worth, I played an Alabama-Stanford money-line parlay. The Cardinal are 6-point favorites over Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

Edwards and I each bet Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday. But that game changed dramatically — from pick ’em to Ducks minus-7 — after Texas Christian quarterback Trevone Boykin was arrested and suspended Thursday morning.

The bowl season is difficult to handicap for various reasons. The bettors who jumped all over Oklahoma learned the hard way.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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