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Irish look to solidify position for College Football Playoff

Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Central Florida are college football’s final four unbeaten teams.

The Crimson Tide and Tigers are virtual locks to make the four-team College Football Playoff. But the Fighting Irish and Knights face their toughest remaining tests Saturday — though UCF almost certainly won’t make the CFP regardless of its record.

Notre Dame (10-0), No. 3 in the CFP rankings, is a 10½-point favorite over No. 12 Syracuse (8-2) at Yankee Stadium in the week’s marquee matchup. No. 11 UCF (9-0) is a 7-point home favorite over No. 24 Cincinnati (9-1).

Bettors back Book

The Irish opened as 9-point favorites, and the line climbed to 11 as bettors backed Notre Dame and the return of quarterback Ian Book, who was sidelined with a rib injury in Saturday’s 42-13 win over Florida State.

Book leads the nation in completion percentage (74.5), and the Irish have scored at least 31 points in five of his six starts. If Notre Dame defeats Syracuse and then a bad Southern California squad in the regular-season finale, the Irish should reach the CFP.

“I don’t think there’s any way Notre Dame will get left out if it’s undefeated,” said handicapper Wes Reynolds (@WesReynolds1), who is tied with Paul Stone for the lead in the Review-Journal College Challenge with a 32-22-1 ATS record.

The Orange, led by dual-threat senior quarterback Eric Dungey, feature the nation’s No. 7 scoring offense at 44.4 points per game. But Syracuse is No. 71 in scoring defense (27.6 ppg), and the Irish are No. 15 (18.7 ppg).

“I’m still not sure of the Syracuse defense and can understand why Notre Dame is getting the money here,” Reynolds said. “If it gets a little higher, I can only look at Syracuse, but I don’t know if I want to get in front of Notre Dame here.”

The Orange suffered their two losses in back-to-back weeks at Clemson (27-23) and Pittsburgh (44-27).

“I’ve been impressed with Syracuse this year, and I like (Dino) Babers a lot as a coach,” Westgate sports book manager Ed Salmons said. “It might be asking a lot for them to win, but it figures to be a pretty tough game.”

Central Florida (-7) over Cincinnati

UCF has the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games. The Knights can state their CFP case on a national stage against the Bearcats as ESPN’s “College GameDay” will visit their campus for the first time and they’ll be showcased on ABC’s prime-time game.

“They obviously want to push the storyline that maybe UCF can somehow sneak into that top four,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think they can. But I do kind of like them in this game.

“It’s kind of a ‘show them who’s boss’ game. The team that has been the power versus a team on the come up, like Cincinnati is.”

The Knights’ No. 8 scoring offense (44.2 ppg) will be tested by the Bearcats’ No. 7 scoring defense (14.9 ppg). UCF whipped Cincinnati 51-23 last season and is laying its smallest spread at home this season. The Knights were 10-point home favorites over Temple on Nov. 1 and won 52-40 despite allowing 670 yards.

“I have Cincinnati and Temple rated about the same,” Salmons said. “The number is really cheap. Either bet UCF or don’t bet. You really get a bargain on UCF.”

Bargain basement

Salmons also noted discounted prices on Ohio State (-14) over Maryland and USC (-3½) over UCLA.

The Buckeyes opened as 17-point favorites before sharp action on the Terrapins drove the number down.

“The spot says Ohio State is overlooking this game after Michigan State and before Michigan,” Salmons said. “But guys try to bet the spot so much. See if you can lay 13 or 13½. Normally Ohio State laying 13 here is dirt cheap.”

The Buckeyes whipped Maryland 62-14 last season and 62-3 in 2016.

The Trojans (5-5) and Bruins (2-8) are down this season, but USC has won 15 of the past 19 meetings.

“This spread is really low,” Salmons said. “I don’t think much of UCLA this year. You almost have to ignore what you see in USC and dare UCLA to beat you.”

Sharp plays

Westgate sports book director John Murray said there was sharp action on Massachusetts at plus 44 and plus 43 over Georgia, on Kansas at plus 36½ over Oklahoma and on UNLV at plus 7 over Hawaii.

“Georgia has got Georgia Tech next week and Alabama the week after. That’s a tough spot for them,” he said. “Oklahoma just played Oklahoma State and has West Virginia next week. It’s a real sandwich spot for Oklahoma.”

Best bets

Reynolds likes San Diego State (+13) over Fresno State and Wake Forest (+7) over Pittsburgh and leans to Indiana (+28½) over Michigan, which is in a look-ahead spot to Ohio State.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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