Betting Stuff: Capitalizing on chaos in college football
Betting Stuff is a regular sports gambling column at Saturday Down South with a focus on college football wagering (though don’t be surprised to see some non-college football insights from time to time). Betting Stuff is brought to you by MyBookie. If you’re looking for a place to make a deposit and start getting in on the action, look no further than MyBookie.
The return of college football was accompanied by an expectation that the off-field distractions of 2020 would likely lead to some uneven performances. Nothing exemplified that more than the Week 1 performances of Army and Navy. Army, a short favorite against Middle Tennessee, ended up boat racing the Blue Raiders 49-0. The Cadets scored touchdowns on their first 5 possessions and dominated the time of possession battle by nearly 11 minutes. Conversely, Navy opened as a slight favorite before closing as a 1-point underdog to BYU. The line movement proved to be prescient, with Navy no-showing their home opener in a 55-3 defeat. The question is, how did two triple-option teams coming off winning campaigns turn in dramatically different home performances?
If you ask Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, you can lay the humbling loss at his feet. “That game was 1,000% my fault. Obviously, we weren’t prepared,” he said following the Midshipmen’s blowout loss. “There’s no one to blame but myself. I erred on the side of trying to keep our guys safe and clearly that was a bad decision.” Navy’s decision to use blocking dummies and to rely on sled work in lieu of live tackling during fall camp was not disclosed to the public, nor was their exact plan at quarterback (3 played against BYU). But their fan policy, on the other hand, was known ahead of their opener. Due to regulations issued by the state of Maryland, no fans were permitted at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Monday night. This is a good example of the level of information the gambling public is working with in 2020. Which is to say, very little. COVID-19 protocols have limited press access to practices, which means an air of mystery will continue to surround games in the early going.
So what alterations can gamblers make between Week 1 and Week 2 to account for the “new normal” in college football? The first is to invite the possibility of outlandish outcomes. Of the 9 Week 1 games, 4 ended with results 23 or more points off the Vegas line. That included runaway victories from BYU, Army and Marshall, as well as a sizable upset by South Alabama. The best way for gamblers to take advantage of volatile outcomes like this is to consider moneyline plays on underdogs and alternate line plays on favorites.
For example, I’ll be breaking down Clemson-Wake Forest later in this piece, a game that’s being offered at Clemson-33 from MyBookie. Many books have been offering alternate lines just before kickoff for college games, and laying an additional 10 points with Dabo Swinney and the Tigers could net a gambler just shy of 3:1 on his money. Conversely, underdogs are taking on additional value against the spread and on the moneyline, particularly those who are playing their second game of the season against a team in its opener. In Week 2, that means considering UAB (+400) over Miami, Arkansas State (+600) over Kansas State, and South Alabama (+250) over Tulane.
Games I’ll Be Playing In Week 2
Syracuse at North Carolina-22.5 (65.5)
Both the Orange and Tar Heels are near the bottom of total offseason practice sessions among FBS programs suiting up this fall. Syracuse players boycotted practices last month in response to, what they perceived to be, lackluster testing and safety protocols. After meeting with coach Dino Babers and athletic director John Wildhack, a compromise was found, but not before the players sacrificed invaluable fall practice reps.
North Carolina’s football program dealt with a truncated practice schedule due to numerous COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. Despite both teams dealing with similar hardships, the point spread in this contest has shifted noticeably from North Carolina-19.5 to -22.5 at MyBookie. As of this publication, nearly 70% of all bets placed have been on Syracuse, which indicates that sharp money is driving the line even higher in favor of North Carolina.
Clearing the key number of 21 is notable, particularly for a UNC team that defeated just 2 FBS opponents by 21+ points last season. Mack Brown’s team played in 9 one-possession games in 2019, but the way they finished the season (41-10 over NC State, 55-13 over Temple) is clearly influencing this large spread. Before Notre Dame’s single-season ACC inclusion, UNC was widely viewed as the conference’s 2nd-best team behind Clemson. As I mentioned last week, player and coach continuity matters, and UNC returns the 9th-most offensive production in the country, including Heisman hopeful Sam Howell. Toss in the coaching continuity UNC is working with, namely two rising star coordinators, and there’s a lot to like about the upstarts from Chapel Hill.
But this game comes down to playing the numbers and not the teams. I’m wary of fading a road dog with a veteran quarterback (Tommy DeVito 11 career starts) in a season-opener in general, but I also think this is an opportunity for Tony White to prove why he was a highly sought after assistant coach. Syracuse’s new defensive coordinator caught my attention as Arizona State’s defensive play-caller in the Sun Bowl, when his unit forced 4 turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown against Florida State. White’s aggressive style will mesh with a defense that finished 2nd in forced turnovers in the ACC a year ago. I like the Orange to win the turnover battle and keep the margin under 21 points.
Clemson-33 at Wake Forest (60)
The offseason afforded me some time to dig into the gambling record books. One of the deep cuts I emerged with was the ATS records of top coaches as big favorites (4+ TDs). Some coaches empty their benches and have their second and third strings operate vanilla versions of their playbooks. Others run up scores mercilessly. Dabo Swinney falls into the second category. Since taking the reins in Death Valley, Swinney is 19-12 (61.3% | +5.8 units) as a massive favorite. Case in point, Swinney and the Tigers beat the brakes off Wake Forest 52-3 as 34-point favorites last November.
What has changed since then? Well, Wake Forest lost its starting quarterback to the transfer portal and their All-American wide receiver decided to opt-out of the 2020 season altogether. That’s not a recipe for success, especially against a Clemson team that appears ready to prove their critics wrong after a humbling national title game defeat.
The missing element for Clemson last season appeared to be the “havoc” factor. Havoc refers to the total number of tackles for loss, passes defensed (interceptions and breakups), and forced fumbles a team generates. Clemson took a step back in TFLs and forced fumbles (19 to 8). The defensive line was great at times, but compared to their historic 2018 season, as a unit they were no longer game-changers in the big moments.
I think that will change from the first whistle Saturday. The defensive line will be able to generate pressure on the edge and inside, thanks in large part to the addition of super recruit defensive tackle Bryan Bresee. Wake Forest has no shot of generating a running game (1.7 ypg in last game vs Clemson) and returns less production than virtually every team in college football (125th). This has the makings of a shutout for Clemson.
Everyone is well versed in what Clemson brings to the table offensive, namely a pair of Heisman candidates and speed and size on the perimeter. My only hesitation in this game is just how quickly Clemson switches into fifth gear. Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers sauntered through their early slate last fall, averaging just 20 points in the first half of games against their first 6 Power 5 opponents. For this reason, I’m passing on Clemson-17 in the first half but loading up on the Tigers at any number under 35 for the game (Currently, CU-33 at MyBookie).
Pick: Clemson-33 / Lean ALT LINE: Clemson-43 at +280
Louisiana at Iowa State-11.5 (56.5)
This year’s Cyclones team is generating the most preseason hype in program history. Numerous national college football pundits have mentioned ISU as possible College Football Playoff sleepers and Brock Purdy has graced countless preseason Heisman watch lists. Iowa State playing with a target on its back will be a fairly new experience for its players and coaching staff. Louisiana playing as a dangerous underdog, on the other hand, is a scenario the Ragin’ Cajuns are very familiar with.
Under coach Billy Napier, UL is 7-4 ATS as an underdog, covering against the likes of Mississippi State and Alabama in the past 2 seasons. A bona fide top 10 offense last fall (37.9 ppg, 494 ypg), UL returns its entire backfield, which includes quarterback Levi Lewis and running back Elijah Mitchell, both preseason first-team All-Sun Belt selections. Clearing holes for Mitchell and his backfield mate Trey Ragas is the most experienced offensive line in the SBC. All 5 starters have at least 1 full season of starting experience and surrendered just 15 sacks all of last season (8th nationally). This offense is fully capable of scoring 28+ on an Iowa State defense that allowed 30+ points in 4 of its last 6 games in 2019.
The question is, can the Cajuns slow down Matt Campbell’s offense? In my opinion, Iowa State will be able to move the ball, especially in the air. Purdy has an excellent receiving corps, especially at the tight end position, and will be facing a defense under a new defensive coordinator. Where things get interesting will be on the ground. Bryce Hall is an emerging superstar at running back, but UL was remarkably stingy against the run last season and will be even better now that 4-star Tayland Humphrey is eligible to play.
A play on UL provides you with an elite Group of 5 offense and a stingy defense that rarely surrenders the big play. That combination puts Iowa State in a position requiring the Cyclones to score at least 42 points to comfortably cover, a total that I think is just outside their reach given their issues with ball security (86th in turnover margin).
Interesting Gambling Facts About Week 2
More fireworks: I flagged the North Texas-Houston Baptist game last week as a likely shootout and the Mean Green and Huskies delivered with a 57-31 track meet. The 88-point explosion was nothing new for HBU, whose past 5 nonconference games averaged a total of 86.4 points. The FCS program with a great passing game and non-existent defense is back this week against another Power 5 program from the state of Texas.
Texas Tech’s quarterback Alan Bowman averaged 344.5 total yards last season before a season-ending injury and should carve up HBU. Keep in mind, UNT was breaking in a slew of new offensive starters and managed 721 yards of total offense last week. My power rankings set this total at 79.5, but it opened at 71.5. Try to grab it before it passes 75 at kickoff.
Public perception: The general narrative on public teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Yankees and New England Patriots is that the public is unwittingly giving away points/runs by over-betting them in nearly every situation.
In the college football world, we see a similar phenomenon with programs like Alabama, Notre Dame and Texas. In the case of Texas, however, the Longhorns have actually performed well against the spread, particularly during their nonconference slate. Since 2003, UT is 39-31 ATS in non-con spots, the 20th-best ATS record among FBS teams during that time frame. Recent history paints an even rosier picture, as the Pride of Texas is 8-4 ATS under Tom Herman before they begin Big 12 play. On Saturday, don’t be afraid of the massive number (MyBookie: Texas-43) and ride with the Horns against lowly UTEP.
Two programs that have underwhelmed (against the spread) during nonconference play in recent years are Miami and Louisville. The Canes historically have gotten a lot of attention from square bettors and Louisville joined that club once Lamar Jackson elevated their national brand. This year, Miami was lauded for having “won” the offseason by wrangling sought after transfers like Houston’s D’Eriq King, and have been installed as 2-touchdown favorites over UAB. Louisville, fresh off an 8-win campaign, opened as a double-digit favorite against Western Kentucky (MyBookie: UL-11.5).
Both numbers are slightly inflated and allow the underdogs to reach or exceed key numbers (10, 14). I would recommend taking the points with UAB and WKU, two programs that are co-favorites to win C-USA this fall.
Coaches drive me crazy, Part 22,489: And finally, the video below shows how my over call in MTSU-Army failed to hit the mark.
Middle Tennessee State really just dribbled out the clock to end the first half of a football game where they were down 21 and at their opponent’s 14 yard line.
God I missed football.
— Sean Gross (@TheSeanGross) September 5, 2020
I’ll be forever confused by how a colossal time management blunder like this is even possible. Oh, college football, how I’ve missed you.