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Last edition of Betting Stuff: Finding Heisman value in the preseason and how to properly hedge later on

Is There Value In Betting On SEC Futures?

Prior to researching this piece, my gut instinct was that the SEC champion’s ascension to the league crown mirrored that of the NBA. By that I mean, teams pay their dues and gradually rise to the class of title contender before finally capturing a conference championship. Once they’ve won the conference, they remain in their top perch for seasons to come. From a value perspective, that assumption would put a considerable damper on conference title futures. As it turns out, my assumptions about the nation’s preeminent football conference were mainly on the mark.

For framing purposes, I’d like to examine the past 28 seasons of SEC football, dating to the expansion of the league to 12 teams in 1992. When viewing conference champions across nearly three decades, a few common factors emerge right away. For starters, only 6 of the 14 current programs have claimed conference titles. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Texas A&M (eligible in 2012) have all failed to make a December trip to Atlanta. Avoiding that pitiful distinction by a single appearance are Mississippi State (‘98) and South Carolina (‘10). And quickly we have a tale of the haves and have-nots, with 6 teams holding the hardware and 8 teams annually filling the collective role of afterthoughts. More than half (53.5%) of the SEC championship trophies have ended up in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville, begging the question, is this normal? Since 1992, the Pac-10/12 has produced 10 different champions, the Big Ten 9, the Big 8/12 8, and the ACC 7. So the SEC stands alone as the most top-heavy of all major college football conferences.

You would think that this level of predictability has lent itself to accurate predictions from the media. Unfortunately for the folks in the press box, the media has accurately predicted the winner of the SEC conference crown just 7 times in 28 tries. While it would be easy to bash the press, I’d rather point out that their predictive ineptitude isn’t caused by a flurry of Cinderellas. In fact, if you remove Auburn’s 2013 miracle season, you start to see a highly consistent pattern in SEC champions. Using recent history as a predictive tool, you find that SEC champions, by and large, are coming off tremendous prior seasons. The average overall win-loss record of SEC champions in their previous season is 10-3 with a 6-2 record in SEC play, good enough for a 3rd-place finish.

Given that 8 of the past 11 SEC champions were coming off a 3rd-place or better prior year finish,  it’s no wonder that the majority of recent champions have offered very little preseason value to gamblers. And given Alabama’s dominance, it’s difficult to advocate backing another SEC West team with longer odds to win the conference. Generally, top-heavy conferences provide value in the opposite division of a colossal heavyweight. For example, during Ohio State’s dominant run over the past 7 years, the Big Ten West/Legends Division has sent 4 different teams to Indianapolis. By contrast, only 3 SEC East teams (Mizzou, UGA, UF) have made it to Atlanta in the past 9 years.

Does all of this SEC history mean that I’ll be sitting on the sidelines this season, essentially punting on any and all futures? Absolutely not. With the 3 conference favorites breaking in new quarterbacks (LSU+500, UGA+450) or engaging in an open-competition (Alabama-135), there is room for an upstart or two to vie for a division crown well into November. And that’s the name of the game given the SEC’s track record. You’re not necessarily hoping for a Cinderella run. Instead, you’re targeting a 5-1 conference start, which would present a host of hedging opportunities.

The SEC regularly sends a host of underclassmen to the NFL and 2020 was no different. As a result, only 5 teams return top-50 production from last fall and that’s where I’d like to start.

Team
SEC Championship Odds
Nat’l Rank Returning Production
Texas A&M
12:1
16th
Kentucky
150:1
25th
South Carolina
150:1
32nd
Ole Miss
150:1
35th
Tennessee
100:1
50th

This ragtag group has a bit of charm to it. For starters, 4 of the 5 schools return head coaches with at least 2 years of experience at their current program. Texas A&M and Tennessee return QBs with at least 25 career starts. South Carolina returns 7 starters from the 30th rated S&P+ defense that helped orchestrate an upset of UGA last fall. You have to really squint to see a team from this grouping capable of winning the SEC next season, but the differentiator in this list is their respective schedules. Only Tennessee has a truly manageable conference slate. The Vols play 4 of their first 6 conference games at Neyland Stadium, with the road tilts coming at South Carolina and Arkansas. They also have every conceivable scheduling advantage for their Oct. 24 matchup with Alabama. The Vols will be coming off a bye week and Alabama will be playing its 8th game in as many weeks. At 100:1 odds to win the SEC, what I’m really targeting is a 3-0 start in conference play, which would provide UT with an inside track to winning the East, all while controlling its fate. If the Vols beat UF and Mizzou at home while taking care of South Carolina on the road, the Alabama and Georgia games become ideal hedge spots to, at the very least, break even on UT.

How might this work? For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use a $100 bet to outline what this hedging strategy would look like in practice. At 100:1 odds, the payout, including the return of the initial investment, would be $10,100. In this instance, if the Vols started off 3-0 in SEC play their Oct. 24 home game against Alabama would offer the first opportunity to break even. Given historical spreads in this series, if UT entered with a record of 6-0 or 5-1 it’s likely they’d be somewhere between a +300 to +500 moneyline underdog against Alabama in Knoxville. A $500 wager on Alabama would secure break-even on the initial futures bet, in the event of UT loss.

If UT were to win, a similar situation would present itself 3 weeks later at UGA. Even with a large spread and subsequent moneyline, gamblers could once again break even with a large straight-up bet on the Bulldogs. In the scenario in which UT wins the East, this strategy would leave gamblers down, at max, between $800 and $1,200 on their hedges with $10,100 on the table should the Volunteers win in the SEC title game.

In this scenario, you’ve created 2 instances in which a Tennessee loss would have amounted to a wash on your initial bet, and now you stand to make four figures on your initial investment by fading the Volunteers one final time in the conference title game.

That’s the power of a 100:1 future, you can hedge multiple times while maintaining significant upside. Keep in mind, I’m essentially banking on a 3-0 start before I begin to hedge against my bet.

The implied probability of Tennessee winning the SEC is 1% on a 100:1 futures bet, and I see their odds of attending the SEC title game as a lot higher than that. As a value play, this is the best combination of returning talent, manageable schedule and plus-sized odds currently on the market.

On the field, there’s plenty to like about UT … at 100:1 odds. I may need to state that fact a few more times, because this play is predicated on the fact that the oddsmakers have essentially given Jeremy Pruitt’s squad zero chance of winning the conference. It’s also a good time to remind casual gamblers to always shop around for the right number, especially when it comes to futures. The spread on Tennessee to win the SEC is enormous between established books, with some offering 20:1 on the low end, while others are floating odds of 100:1. Given that many handicappers and pundits alike view the Vols as the 3rd-best team in the SEC East, Tennessee ending up in Atlanta is far from a pipedream.

The Vols closed 2019 strong, winning 7 of their last 8 games while holding opponents to just 14 points during those victories. The Vols have some coaching continuity going for them as well, with Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley set to reprise their coordinator roles this fall. But the major reason I like the Vols is their potential to field the best line in the conference. If Cade Mays is granted immediate eligibility, not only will they have the best line in the SEC, they might end up trotting out UT’s best collection of road-graders since 1999 when a pair of All-Americans (Chad Clifton, Cosey Coleman) paved the way to 30 rushing touchdowns. Phillip Fulmer’s hog mollies led that team to the Fiesta Bowl, and at 100:1 odds, backing the best line in the South in 2020 is an investment I can get behind.

Enticing SEC Win Totals

Whether I’m taking an over or under on a specific season win total, I love to have outs at my disposal. In recent years, Alabama and Clemson season-total backers have dealt with the rare and dreaded 11.5 regular-season win total. That is the definition of zero wiggle room. To properly identify the ideal win-total candidates, you need to group a team’s schedule into 3 buckets: Assured win (10+ point favorite), assured loss (10+ point underdog) and toss-up (everything in between). You can do this by comparing preseason power ratings while accounting for home-field advantage. For instance, Billy Connelly’s SP+ preseason rankings for 2020 boil each team down to a single number and can help add a bit of third-party objectivity as your projections.

Texas A&M 9.5 | Over: -160 Under: +140

I’m not sure I’ve seen a middling non-public team get more offseason love in recent memory than Texas A&M. While the Aggies’ win-total has held firm at 9.5, the juice has swung considerably in the past 2 months, indicating that books are taking a lot of ‘over’ action. Yes, the Aggies’ 7-5 regular season in 2019 belied the fact that they finished the season as a Top 25 team in both the SP+ and Sagarin rankings.

Their schedule last fall was beyond brutal, but it also afforded Jimbo Fisher numerous opportunities to grab a marquee win. In the end, they walked away with a 3-point bowl victory over 25th ranked Oklahoma State as their high-point.

Since arriving in College Station, Fisher is 3-7 against the AP Top 25 and 0-4 on the road in those spots. This year the Aggies will be traveling to Auburn and Alabama, and are set to host LSU in the season finale. I’ll take the added juice betting against the Aggies while banking on at least one head-scratching loss from Kellen Mond. This is the same quarterback who closed his 2019 campaign 23-for-49 for 187 yards with zero touchdowns and 3 interceptions in his last 2 starts.  Should they slip up and drop a game they’re favored in, A&M would have to win 2 of 3 against Auburn, Alabama and LSU to hit the over.

Mississippi State 6.5 | Over: -170 Under: +150

Casual gamblers generally love betting overs, which is great for savvy gamblers interested in fading programs at a favorable price. Mike Leach is one of the offseason coaching hires who has gained massive national attention. He did wonders elevating Texas Tech into a consistent bowl team and revived a dormant Washington State program that was dying to be relevant. What he didn’t do was work his magic overnight. In Year 1 in Lubbock, he improved on the previous win total by a single game. His debut in Pullman was actually a step backward, by one game to be exact. That’s why it could be a tough season for the faithful in Stark Vegas. Yes, the schedule includes New Mexico and Alabama A&M and 2 favorable draws from the East (UK, Mizzou),  but that’s where the good news stops. A 3-week stretch in October serves up road trips to Alabama and Auburn before they return home to host LSU at Davis Wade Stadium. Even if they enter that gauntlet at 4-1, a physically punishing 3-game assault should be enough to send them into a late-season tailspin. I’ll bet against Leach in Year 1 and start backing him when the public starts fading him.

The “Letdown-Lookahead Sandwich” (LLS)

The co-hosts of the Solid Verbal podcast may or may not be the originators of the “letdown-lookahead sandwich” but they certainly made it famous. In its simplest terms, it refers to when a “good” team is coming off a loss with a meaningful game against a ranked opponent or a rival the following week. They suffer the “letdown” of the loss, and look past their current opponent to focus on a meaningful game the following week. This results in odd upsets and poor performances against the spread. Let’s see if this phenomenon impacted ATS performance by SEC teams that finished 2019 with winning records.

Teams that didn’t qualify based on record: Arkansas, Miss St, Mizzou, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Vandy.

Winning teams that didn’t face a LLS: Alabama, LSU.

Winning teams that did face at least one LLS: Auburn, UGA, UF, A&M, Tennessee, UK.

Auburn (2-1) 

The Tigers were the only team in the conference to face 3 LLSs in a 2-month span. After enduring an 11-point loss at Florida, they easily covered as 20-point favorites against Arkansas. Their 3-point loss to LSU was more damaging, as they nearly lost outright as 17.5-point favorites to Ole Miss the following week. Finally, they rebounded from a single possession loss to UGA, by routing Samford (and covering) before their annual Iron Bowl matchup.

Texas A&M (1-1)

Just like Auburn, the Aggies dealt with multiple LLSs during a 5-week run. After a two-touchdown defeat to Clemson, they smoked Lamar as 41-point favorites. They couldn’t repeat the feat after falling to Auburn and failing to cover a big number against Arkansas.

Georgia (0-1) 

Their befuddling 3-point loss to South Carolina was followed up with a 21-0 shutout of UK, which wasn’t enough to cover the 24.5-point line. Their focus was clearly on the upcoming tilt with UF in Jacksonville.

Florida (1-0)

A 2-touchdown defeat to the eventual national champs didn’t create a hangover, nor did they look ahead to UGA, as the Gators handled South Carolina, covering as 3.5-point favorites.

Tennessee (2-0)

After a humbling double-overtime defeat at home to BYU, the Vols shut out Chattanooga 45-0 as 30-point favorites. A month later they rebounded from a blowout loss to Georgia and won outright as an underdog against Mississippi State with No. 1 Alabama on deck.

UK (1-0-1)

Sandwiched between road trips to South Carolina and Georgia (eventual losses), was Arkansas, the easiest team to overlook last season in the SEC. The Wildcats hung on for the win, but pushed as 4-point favorites. Two weeks later in a LLS spot, they hammered Mizzou as a 9.5-point underdog ahead of their rivalry game with UT.

In the end, SEC teams proved to be the exception to the rule posting a 7-3-1 (70%, +3.7 units) record against the spread in LLS situations last fall.

From The Vault

Good news has been incrementally hitting the news cycle as it relates to college football being played in the fall. While it’s still too soon to say definitively what the landscape will look like in late August, we now have power brokers from nearly every corner of major college football making statements on the record indicating that a wholehearted attempt will be made to play games this season. In the meantime, tapping into the vast video history of the sport is a great way to rekindle some joy far removed from the administrative politics of the current situation. As an added bonus to the classic game I’ve selected this week, I’ve added 9 unique prop bets to spice things up for folks who might remember how this game shook out. So set up a Zoom hangout, share the prop bets with friends, and fire up the YouTube link to get through these thin sports-watching times.

2001: Culligan Holiday Bowl — No. 21 Washington vs No. 9 Texas

Before Vince Young donned his Superman for the Burnt Orange in back-to-back Rose Bowls, Mack Brown and company had a doozy of a quarterback controversy on the 40 acres. The 2001 season was awash with what-ifs for the Longhorns, but it did witness some incredible backup quarterback heroics from Major Applewhite. After riding the pine for the majority of the season, he nearly completed an improbable comeback in the Big XII title game following Chris Simms’ 3 INTs, which put the Horns in a 19-point hole. As a reward for his valiant effort, Mack Brown started Applewhite in his final collegiate game. Would that sentimentality be enough for Applewhite to play all four quarters or would Simms return the benching favor and play reliever in the 2001 Holiday Bowl? Only one way to find out!

3 Player Prop Bets:

Major Applewhite Passing Yards-100.5 vs. Cody Pickett Passing Yards
Roy Williams’ Receiving Yards-22.5 vs. Reggie Williams Receiving Yards
Derrick Johnson’s Total Tackles vs. Total FGs attempted in the game

3 Game Prop Bets:

Long Touchdown Of Game O/U 55.5 Yards
Total Combined Turnovers O/U 4.5
Total Combined Pass Attempts: 99.5

3 Announcer/Sideline Reporter Props:

Number of times Rick Neuheisel is linked to a job opening O/U 3.5
Number of times TV crew shows Chris Simms on sideline O/U 5.5
Will the player of the game reference: Haters (+250), Scripture (-110), Bowl Game History (+300), Offensive Coordinator (+700)