LAS VEGAS — From top to bottom, COVID-19 outbreaks are creating chaos within the college football season. The virus impacted the nation’s top-ranked team last week when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive, forcing bettors and oddsmakers to adjust on the fly in the face of another news blitz.
It did not make headlines when the North Texas-UTEP game was postponed in El Paso, but Lawrence is a different story. When the Heisman Trophy favorite and probable No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft is quarantined, a lot of things change.
Heisman odds and point spreads changed, and the playoff race could, too.
The biggest game on the ACC schedule is missing the biggest man on any campus. Lawrence’s positive test meant he must sit for a minimum of 10 days, so freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will get his second start Saturday at Notre Dame. The Tigers’ quarterback change makes the matchup more competitive and gives the Irish a fighting chance to pull an upset.
Clemson was projected to be favored by around 14 points with Lawrence. When lines were posted Sunday, the Uiagalelei-led Tigers opened -4 by Circa Sports and -7.5 by DraftKings — and both books were at -5.5 on Monday.
“Clemson is probably going to get bet,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “The young quarterback really looks good, and that didn’t surprise me. He’s going to step in and make plays. Is he Lawrence? No, but he’s not that far behind. I just know how they bet this Clemson team every week.”
Last week was an exception. The Tigers were 31.5-point favorites against Boston College before rumors of Lawrence’s absence started to spread. The line nose-dived to 24.5. Clemson trailed 28-13 at halftime before rallying for a 34-28 win. Uiagalelei went 30-for-41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 25 yards and a touchdown.
“I heard pretty early about Lawrence being out, so we just closed the betting on the game,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “He’s too significant of a player. In the NFL, we know the backups for all of the teams. We don’t know as much about the backup quarterbacks in college football.
“This is not the year when you want to be spraying a bunch of college football bets early in the week. Who knows what’s going to happen? This is just such a crazy year.”
Lawrence was listed as the Heisman favorite a week ago. BetMGM has made Alabama quarterback Mac Jones the new favorite (3/2), ahead of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (+175) and Lawrence (3/1).
Clemson remains the national championship favorite (+170) at BetMGM, with the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide each at +275.
“Jones has been incredible, but so has been Fields,” Avello said. “Lawrence will miss two games, and he probably would have picked up some votes this week if he had a good game against Notre Dame. If you miss a couple of games in a shortened season, I don’t know how they will vote.”
When the betting public hits the polls this week, Clemson is likely to get more support than No. 4 Notre Dame, which will play its first game against a ranked opponent. The Irish defense allowed a total of 23 points in the past three games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville, and the Cardinals are the only team in that threesome with a competent offense.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book is a senior, but the Tigers’ Uiagalelei appears set to become the program’s next superstar if Lawrence leaves for the draft and potentially lands with the Jets.
Brad Powers, a Las Vegas-based college football handicapper, showed his $2,200 betting ticket on Clemson -4 after Circa Sports opened the line.
“Besides having the better roster and better head coach, I believe Clemson has the better QB in Uiagalelei, who is way more talented than Book,” Powers said. “I also think Clemson has a significant edge with defensive coordinator Brent Venables taking on a first-year offensive coordinator in Tommy Rees. Finally, there’s a disparity in how these teams play in the big games.”
In a playoff semifinal two years ago, Clemson was a 10-point favorite in a 30-3 victory over the Irish. Since 2015, the Tigers are 22-3 straight up and 16-8-1 ATS versus ranked teams.
This is Notre Dame’s first home underdog spot since the 2018 season opener, when the Irish were +3 in a 24-17 victory over Michigan.
Clemson bettors would be wise to lay less than a touchdown before the number goes up. Underdog bettors should wait for the line to get to 7, which is likely to happen sometime before Saturday’s prime-time kickoff.
Even if the Tigers take a fall this week, they will remain in the playoff picture, assuming Lawrence returns and leads Clemson to the conference title game.
“This game really doesn’t matter that much,” Murray said. “If Notre Dame wins Saturday, Lawrence comes back and Clemson beats the Irish in the ACC championship game, Clemson is still going to the playoff.”
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