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Anarchy reaches the SEC

The first 3 weeks of the college football season have been reliably unreliable. Underdogs were not only covering at a 60%+ clip, but major double-digit upsets were happening every weekend. It was easy to write off some of the results as a by-product of strange intersectional matchups, some of which were scheduled just weeks before the games were actually played.

The thought that the same level of anarchy could infiltrate the SEC was seemingly far-fetched. After all, SEC favorites have the best ATS records of any major conference in the past 10 years, and it’s not particularly close. So when the defending national champions played host to new Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, it was reasonable to assume that history would repeat itself. Evidently, previous trends and norms are utterly worthless here in 2020.

SEC underdogs posted a 4-2-1 record against the spread Saturday, and Mississippi State scored a +500 upset of LSU in Death Valley. The much-maligned Bo Pelini now has the dubious distinction of coaching defenses that surrendered the most rushing yards to a single player in Big Ten history (Melvin Gordon III), as well as the most passing yards to a single player in SEC history (KJ Costello).

But it wasn’t just Mike Leach’s impressive debut that caught my eye. Both Vanderbilt and Arkansas, noted SEC cellar-dwellers, threw halftime scares into Texas A&M and Georgia, respectively, before covering. Saving their best for the final 30 minutes, Mizzou became just the second team to cover against a Saban-led Crimson Tide team and the first since 2014 when WVU accomplished the feat in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. Even Ole Miss and Kentucky remained in their games down the stretch, in what amounted to a really impressive performance by all 7 underdogs Saturday.

Five of the 7 SEC matchups this weekend feature double-digit spreads, topping out with Florida laying 17.5-points to South Carolina in Gainesville. Early action on Alabama (87% of tickets), Mississippi State (85% of tickets) and Tennessee (83% of tickets) indicate a slight overreaction from the public to the SEC’s opening week.

This overreliance on a small sample size is likely to increase each of those 3-point spreads in favor of the underdog before kickoff Saturday. As a rule of thumb, I generally advise grabbing a few games with favorable odds in the early portion of the week, but the uncertainty that COVID-19 has thrust upon depth charts and player availability has removed that tactic from my arsenal. I would now recommend waiting until at least Friday, to gather information from local beat writers.

Long layoffs

Total spring practices, positive COVID-19 cases, and data on first-time head coaches were highly valuable predictors in the month of September. The new trend to keep an eye on is extended layoffs between games. We see this create rust in teams every bowl season and we’re likely to see it this week as a handful of teams return to the field after cancellations.

North Carolina will be traveling to Chestnut Hill to take on an undefeated Boston College team after a 3-week layoff. While Sam Howell and UNC’s offense look to shake off a sleepy performance in their Sept. 12 opener against a decidedly mediocre Syracuse squad, Boston College is looking to start 3-0 for just the second time since 2007. The Eagles have been impressive defensively, ranking 22nd in TFLs, 12th in forced fumbles and 11th in interceptions, all massive improvements from last season. The competition has also been decent, with both Texas State and Duke featuring former 3-star recruits at quarterback. If this spread jumps above the key number of 14, I’ll be backing BC.

Another notable “rust vs. momentum” game is Memphis-SMU. Both Memphis and SMU failed to cover in their openers, but since then SMU has kicked it up a notch on offense. The Mustangs have scored 105 points in back-to-back blowouts and look like the same elite Sonny Dykes offense we saw in 2019. Memphis, meanwhile, hasn’t played in nearly a month and is currently a 2.5-point road favorite in a revenge spot.

Memphis beat SMU at home by 6 last season, in a game that ultimately helped them reach the Cotton Bowl as the Group of 5 New Year’s 6 bowl invitee. The difference this time? The Tigers no longer have their dynamic backfield of Antonio Gibson and Kenneth Gainwell. The duo combined for 488 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns in last year’s game. Without those dynamic ball-carriers,  I’ll take the red hot SMU offense and the points.

My record

  • Last Week: 4-2-1 (66%, +1.8 Units)
  • Overall: 12-10-1 (54%, +1 Unit)

Games I’ll be playing in this week

Auburn @ Georgia-6.5 (44.5)

My power rankings called for this total to be in the 39- to 40-point range, so the fact books are offering it past the key number of 42 is advantageous for under-bettors in my opinion (MyBookie: Total of 45). As of right now, Georgia has a major issue at quarterback and no time to iron things out before Saturday.

D’Wan Mathis was horrific against an Arkansas defense that ranked dead last in the SEC in scoring last season and 124th nationally. His replacement, Stetson Bennett, was far more effective (20-29, 211, 2 TDs) but hasn’t taken meaningful snaps against a defense like Auburn’s during his career in Athens. USC transfer JT Daniels is now cleared to play Saturday, but even if he were to start, it’s reasonable to assume there will be some rust issues for a player coming off arthroscopic knee surgery.

On the Auburn side, I was impressed with the Tigers’ 2nd-half performance against Kentucky but doubt that they’ll be able to replicate their success through the air against one of the nation’s best secondaries. Kentucky was lauded for having an elite pass defense, but their 2019 success was predicated on the fact that they didn’t play many dominant quarterbacks.

Georgia, on the other hand, has incredible talent at cornerback and safety. According to ESPN and CBS Sports’ draft prospect rankings, the Bulldogs have 3 defensive backs in the top 75 of all prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft. One of those standouts is Eric Stokes. The preseason Thorpe and Bednarik award watch list honoree will likely draw Seth Williams in coverage Saturday. Williams is the real key in this matchup because if he replicates the kind of success he had against Kentucky (6/112/2), this under play will be in trouble. I foresee Georgia slowing Gus Malzahn’s offense by limiting chunk plays in the passing game and grinding out a low scoring win behind Zamir White and James Cook.

Pick: Under 45 / Alt Total: Under 42 (+140)

Memphis-2.5 @ Southern Methodist (74.5)

I faded the Tigers in their season-opener against Arkansas State and I’m looking to back their opponent once again in this spot (MyBookie: SMU+2.5). SMU’s offense has been devastating in the past 2 weeks, pushing the Mustangs into the top 10 in total offense, rushing, scoring and explosive plays. They’re arguably more dangerous through the air this season thanks to the addition of JUCO speedster Danny Gray. The Blinn College transfer is a touchdown waiting to happen.

Sonny Dykes’ offense sets this game up to be a track meet and I’m not sure that Memphis has the horses to keep pace. As I mentioned, the loss of running backs Kenneth Gainwell and Antonio Gibson have made the Tigers’ offense a bit less ferocious than last year. And keep in mind, Memphis hasn’t played since Sept. 5. The extended layoff isn’t even comparable to the time off between the end of the regular season and bowl season because of the special circumstances Memphis and its staff are currently dealing with.

Memphis announced Sept. 11 that it had paused football-related activities because of a COVID-19 outbreak in its program, which means that practice sessions and other team activities were put on hold. This level of distraction is likely to have a negative effect on the team. Furthermore, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that at least 20 people within the program had tested positive for the coronavirus and 20 more were quarantined. This puts into question the state of the Memphis depth chart.

I would give Memphis a punchers’ chance on a neutral field with equal rest and an intact depth chart, but given the layoff, uncertainty about player availability, and the fact that this game will be played at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, I’m going heavy on the Mustangs to win outright.

Pick: SMU ML+115

Texas Tech @ Kansas State-2.5 (64)

Over has cashed decisively in both of Kansas State’s games this season. Wildcat games have exceeded the closing total by an average of 11.5 points per game. Texas Tech games are averaging a combined total of 93.5 points, although one game did include an overtime session. No matter how you slice it, these teams can score, and their defenses are nearly powerless to stop opposing passing attacks. Kansas State is allowing 358 yards per game through the air, while Texas Tech is allowing 417. In a normal year, with all 130 teams playing, both teams would rank near the bottom of all FBS pass defenses.

The only way that either team could hope to slow the opposition’s passing attack would be through an assist by Mother Nature. Winds have a tendency to swirl at Snyder Family Stadium, but current weather projections call for little to no wind at kickoff on Saturday afternoon. This game should start with an air raid horn and not a whistle. My power rankings call for this contest to be played in the 70s, which means that this total (MyBookie: 64.5) provides a lot of value.

Pick: Over 64

Odds and ends

NCAA ’14 Simulation

As I reported last week, the dedicated volunteer team at Operation Sports has updated EA Sports NCAA Football ’14 with the current rosters. Their work has paved the way for realistic simulations, which I viewed as potentially profitable. Well, after 1 week, I can confirm that this tool is valuable and will be an additional data point I use to select games moving forward.

The simulation series went 18-9-1 (66% ATS, +8.1 Units) overall and 4-2-1 ATS in SEC play. The sim series also aligned with my top three picks of the weekend and went 2-1. With that success in mind, I’ll be posting all SEC simulation picks as well as the top 3 games in which the simulation matched my personal predictions.

EA’s video game continues to like underdogs with Mizzou, Auburn, Ole Miss and Arkansas all covering on the road this week. Only Auburn flirted with an outright upset, falling to Georgia in a defensive battle 17-13. Mizzou, Arkansas and Ole Miss all scored backdoor covers with 4th-quarter touchdowns. Now, for the simulation picks that most closely matched my top plays here in Week 5.


The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is already being billed as a defensive showdown and that was reflected in the simulation as well. Bo Nix turned the ball over 3 times and Georgia played 3 quarterbacks. Boston College rode a fast start (10-0 lead) to an easy cover, falling to UNC in the final minutes 31-26. The Friday night matchup between La. Tech and BYU ended up flying past the total and hitting the over with ease. BYU’s Zach Wilson continued his strong play this season, racking up 387 total yards and four touchdowns during the Cougars’ 55-34 victory.

FCS darlings

Houston Baptist’s 3-game run against FBS opponents ended Saturday night in Ruston, La. In the end, Husky games averaged 86.5 ppg, and HBU nearly upset Texas Tech as a 40-point underdog. Betting Stuff will miss the high-flying offense and non-existent defense of the Blue and Orange.

In their stead, Campbell will pick up the mantle of FCS programs willing to take on FBS opponents for lucrative paychecks.

The Fighting Camels travel to Winston Salem to take on a hapless 0-2 Wake Forest team. Campbell is 0-3, but it is 3-0 ATS. All-Name Team honorable mention Hajj-Malik Williams may parlay this extended audition into an FBS scholarship offer via the transfer portal this offseason. The sophomore signal-caller has 6 touchdowns against a single turnover, and nearly orchestrated an upset of Georgia Southern as a 4-touchdown underdog. The Camels are catching 35 points on Friday night and I’ll happily take the points.