Ah, those wistful days of yore when gift bags containing headphones and a watch were enough to get college football players excited about going to bowl games.
No more—now many NFL-bound players choose to sit out bowl games, while lots of others leap into the transfer portal and look for situations that might afford them more NIL dollars or a better opportunity at making the pros. And while that’s great for the players, goodness does it make this time of year a tricky one for sports bettors.
Bowl games have always been fraught with unknowns, given the length of time that coaches have to prepare for a single opponent. But the presence of the transfer portal, which officially opened on December 4, takes that to another level.
Which players are going? Are they staying for bowl games and then leaving, or skipping town immediately? Keeping up with day-to-day developments becomes crucial for sports bettors trying to place informed wagers with the best chance of winning.
Transfer Portal Tango
Prior to December 4, most of the transfer news in the SEC involved teams that did not qualify for bowl games — Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers, South Carolina receiver Juice Wells, and every decent player at Vanderbilt.
But more notable moves have begun to trickle in: Georgia defensive lineman Jonathan Jefferson, Auburn defensive linemen Stephen Johnson and EnyceSledge, Kentucky receiver Shamar Porter, Texas A&M defensive lineman Walter Nolen and quarterback Max Johnson. No question, there will be more to come.
And then there are departures suffered by opponents SEC teams will face in bowl games. Missouri is set to play Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl—but will the Buckeyes have quarterback Kyle McCord, who entered the portal Monday? What about linebacker Jaishawn Barham and tight end Corey Dyches of Maryland, set to face Auburn in the Music City Bowl?
Or receiver Cristian Driver of Penn State, which will play Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl? Sports bettors have to weigh the more favorable odds they get by wagering in advance against the more complete picture they get by waiting until closer to the game.
Consider the situation at LSU, which will face Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Star Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels—currently the overwhelming odds favorite to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday—hasn’t said whether he’ll play in the game, according to NOLA.com. “I gotta make some decisions,” he told the outlet after LSU’s regular-season finale.
But standout receiver Malik Nabers has indicated that he will play because he wants to break the school record for career receiving yards.
So yeah, it’s a minefield out there right now from a sports betting perspective. With no national championship at stake, potential first-round NFL draft picks like Daniels, Georgia tight end Brock Bowers and LSU receiver Brian Thomas Jr. (and receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. of Mizzou bowl opponent Ohio State) will certainly weigh opting out of bowl games. If history is any indication, bettors should probably assume those guys are goners.
NY6 Line Movements
And expect betting lines to move as a result. Ohio State opened as a 6.5-point favorite over Missouri in the Cotton Bowl—but that was before the news about McCord, who won’t play in the game according to reports out of Columbus. Should Daniels and Thomas opt out at LSU, expect the line favoring the Tigers by 10 points over the Badgers to drop significantly.
Georgia is favored by 13.5 over Florida State in the Orange Bowl, but who knows what those rosters will look given that this is a game neither team really wants to play.
There are a lot of moving parts for sports bettors to consider, and a lot of time involved—the transfer window remains open until Jan. 2, and NFL-bound players can opt out whenever they want.
Expect opt-outs and transfers to impact just about all of the nine bowl games in which SEC teams are scheduled to compete—with the notable exception of Alabama’s national semifinal against Michigan in the Rose Bowl, of course.
Alabama’s Semifinal Success
The Crimson Tide has been good to sports bettors as of late. Alabama’s upset win over Georgia in the SEC Championship as a 5-point underdog marked the fourth time in the past five games that the Tide has covered the spread.
Alabama opened as a 1.5-point underdog to Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinals, marking what has to be the first time in forever that the Tide has been an underdog in two consecutive games under coach Nick Saban.
Alabama has played in 22 bowl games under Saban, winning 16 of them, including five of the past six. The Crimson Tide is also 6-1 in CFP semifinal games under the current four-team format, winning six straight after a loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, 2014. Since then Alabama has won every semifinal by double-digits, with an average margin of victory of 20.3 points.
Michigan, meanwhile, has covered in seven of its last nine games this season. The Wolverines head to Pasadena on a six-game bowl-losing skid that includes defeats in CFP semifinals after each of the past two seasons—to Georgia and TCU, respectively. Michigan is 1-6 in bowl games under coach Jim Harbaugh, that lone victory coming over Florida in the Citrus Bowl after his first season in Ann Arbor.
SEC in the New Year’s Six
The New Year’s Six slate 🔥 pic.twitter.com/rI7yg35P27— 247Sports (@247Sports) December 3, 2023
Opt-outs and transfers notwithstanding, Ole Miss opened as a 3.5-point underdog to Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.
The Rebels are 4-2 in “New Year’s Six” games since 2000, winning the Cotton three times in that span, though they dropped their most recent effort to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl following the 2021 campaign. Georgia heads to South Florida having won six straight bowls or CFP championship games, though this Orange Bowl against the Seminoles clearly doesn’t have the juice of some of those previous matchups.
The SEC’s other team bound for a “New Year’s Six” game is Missouri, which hasn’t been involved in a postseason game this big in a decade—since the Tigers downed Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl following the 2013 season.
Mizzou heads to Arlington on a four-game bowl losing streak, but this is a showcase opportunity for a program that doesn’t get them very often. Expect the Tigers to be all in, while the Buckeyes will face lots of questions on the status of McCoy, Harrison, and other standouts in scarlet and gray.
Outside of the NY6 games, the most intriguing bowl matchup involving an SEC team is Kentucky against Clemson in the Gator Bowl, where the Tigers opened as 7.5-point favorites.
The Wildcats are coming off a road upset of Louisville as 7-point underdogs, and have won four of their last five bowl games under coach Mark Stoops. Clemson finished the regular season with four straight wins both overall and against the spread but has dropped three of its last four bowl appearances—most recently to Tennessee in the Orange Bowl following last season.
Can Tennessee Get To 36?
Speaking of the Volunteers, Tennessee is an 8-point favorite over Iowa in a Citrus Bowl that features the most curious number of any postseason matchup involving an SEC team: 36.
That’s the total for the Citrus Bowl, and it’s markedly lower than any over/under the Vols have faced this season. Their previous low was 47.5 against Alabama, which the teams went over. Tennessee in fact went over in four of its last six games to close the regular season, exceeding totals that ranged up to 56.5—so certainly they can eclipse 36, right?
Well, Iowa will have something to say about that. The Hawkeyes went UNDER in eight straight games to close the regular season, failing to exceed totals of 30.5 (against Minnesota), 27.5 (against Rutgers) and 26 (against Nebraska).
Yes, part of that is because Iowa ranks fifth nationally in total defense. But an even bigger reason is because the Hawkeyes rank 127th out of 130 FBS teams in scoring offense, averaging a mere 16.6 points per game.
Iowa has scored 20 or fewer points in a game nine times this season, including the Big 10 championship where they were shut out 26-0 by Michigan—a game that went under the total of 36. Tennessee averages 31.5 points per game, but managed just seven and 10 respectively in losses to Missouri and Georgia near the end of the regular season. So maybe that under will carry the day once again.
Player Prop Watch
A few SEC players to watch for potential bowl game prop bets, should they be made available and the players involved don’t transfer or opt-out:
SEC Pick 3, Bowl Edition
These selections are based on rosters as of Dec. 4. Be sure to check transfer portal and opt-out news before making bets on bowl games.
Alabama +102 Michigan
Do we ever doubt Nick Saban again? The SEC Championship Game was a masterclass by a coach whose ability to adapt belies his 72 years. The Crimson Tide pulled out all the stops, let Milroe play to his strengths, and made Georgia look flat-footed and cautious as a result.
Now, with a month to prepare, against an opponent that’s played the worst schedule of any national championship contender? Sorry, Coach. We won’t doubt again.
Missouri +6.5 Ohio State
McCoy is bound for the transfer portal, and other Buckeyes are certain to follow. Harrison, a likely top-five NFL draft pick, seems likely to opt out of the Cotton Bowl.
While Missouri could have a few opt-outs on the defensive side, the offensive power trio that’s fueled Mizzou all season—quarterback Brady Cook, running back Cody Schrader and receiver Luther Burden—will almost certainly arrive in Arlington intact. Motivation can be a huge factor in bowl games, and in this matchup, one team will have lots more of it than the other.
LSU -10 Wisconsin
It’s tough to believe that Daniels will want to finish his career in something called the ReliaQuestBowl. But even if it’s Garrett Nussmeier behind center, the Tigers should have enough to dispatch a Wisconsin team that lost to 3-9 Indiana, lost at home by 14 to Northwestern, and salvaged bowl eligibility only after late-season wins over Nebraska and Minnesota. Plus, the line will likely drop into more manageable single digits should Daniels opt-out.