The Fade is your weekly college football column that breaks down some of the upcoming weekend’s best bets and takes a look at moves and news around the sports betting industry.
We’re five weeks into the college football season, and it seems like the further we go, the more vexing, the more confusing to predict, the more nonsensical the landscape becomes. College football is not a game to which the transitive property applies and human polls out this week from the arbitrary to the analytical reflect that. If the season ended today, forget expanding to an eight-team playoff. Throw one through 16 in there and scramble it all up.
As teams are more evenly matched, lower totals and lower margins are reigning again. Underdogs won the weekend for the second straight time, going 32–27 ATS in Week 5, according to SportsInsights.com.
One high-scoring exception came in the form—as it so often does—of the Baylor Bears. Before Week 5, the highest total of all time (88) involved a Baylor game in 2012. The Bears’ total against Texas Tech closed at anywhere between 88 and 90, depending on where you looked, tying it at the very least for the distinction of the highest total ever. The Bears and Red Raiders easily cleared the mark in a defenseless bloodbath in AT&T Stadium. Behind 63 points, the Bears also cleared their spread (-17), team total (56) and first-half total (28.5).
While its defense continues to face questions (what will happen when it plays a similarly prolific offense?), Baylor’s offense continues to be explosive beyond bettors’ expectations. With several years worth of Art Briles shootouts firmly implanted in bettors’ minds, you’d think Vegas totals would have adjusted—as audacious as they are—to atmospheric totals to get on top of trigger-happy “Over” wagers. But so far, simply betting the Over on Baylor works more often than it doesn’t. While spreads might not be safe with the Bears as their level of competition increases, it’s going to take a ripple in the space-time continuum to stop Baylor from scoring down the stretch. Find a Baylor team total early in the week and go for it.
Despite Baylor-Texas Tech, Week 5 was as great of a week for Unders as it was for Underdogs. Several notable Power 5 matchups featuring low totals nonetheless cleared the under comfortably. A sampling:
|Game||Closing O/U||Game Score, Total||Margin of Under win|
|Louisville-NC St.||46||Lou 20, NC St. 13, 33||13|
|Michigan-Maryland||46||Mich 28, Mary 20, 48||18|
|Iowa-Wisconsin||46||Iowa 16, Wisc. 10, 16||30|
|Pittsburgh-Virginia Tech||44||Pitt 17, Va. Tach 14, 30||14|
|South Carolina-Missouri||42||Mizzou 24, USC 10, 30||12|
|Minnesota-Northwestern||40||NW 27, Minn 0, 27||13|
|Duke-Boston College||37||BC 9, Duke 7, 16||21|
In Baton Rouge, meanwhile, a historically high spread in favor of the Tigers unsurprisingly didn’t work out. LSU -44 was the fourth-most the Tigers have ever been favored by, and it seemed at first like that margin made sense. Eastern Michigan is one of the worst teams in all of FBS and has the worst run defense in the country. LSU, on the other hand, has Leonard Fournette. Despite 233 yards and three touchdowns from the star running back, the Tigers only won by 22 points, 44–22.
A deeper look, however, would’ve allowed bettors to anticipate a closer margin of victory. Power conference teams routinely fail to cover huge margins. For example, SEC teams are 20-34 ATS since 2000 when favored by more than 40 points. LSU is 4–8 in this time range. Alabama is a league-worst 1–9. Texas A&M and Arkansas are the only SEC teams with winning spread records in this margin at 3–0 and 3–1, respectively.
This week, Ole Miss is favored by 42 over New Mexico State, despite the recent bad optics of a 38–10 blowout loss to Florida. Tread lightly on the Rebels this week, no matter how terrible you think the Aggies are.
The Week 5 Backdoor Cover Award might seem like a foregone conclusion to some. Notre Dame +3, right? With the Irish coming back from a 24–3 deficit to pull within two, before failing to pull off a last-second conversion? Not even. This week’s award goes to the BYU Cougars. Remember them? The erstwhile Hail Mary heroes, who were favored by 14.5 points, kicked a meaningless field goal with 26 seconds left to go up by 17 against UConn.
This week’s “Letdown Award for Worst Push In A Failing Role” goes to South Florida, which caused a few hurls of the remote at the end of a Thursday night game last week against Memphis. A touchdown pass from Quinton Flowers to Elkanah Dillon with less than two minutes to go pulled the Bulls to within seven points at 24–17, and USF (+7) pushed. This game is reason No. 1000 why you don’t have to bet for Willie Taggart’s team, but you should always think twice or three times about betting against them. USF is a known cover-ruiner on the road (23-6 ATS under Taggart), but this one came at home.
And the “Paging The Burn Unit Award” from Week 5 goes to TCU, which cleared its two-touchdown spread at home against beleaguered Texas by an additional 29 points. TCU’s embattled defense didn’t need any bolstering against the Longhorns, holding them to 10 points. Texas now takes on Oklahoma at 17–point underdogs in a game that’s approaching must-win territory for head coach Charlie Strong. TCU, meanwhile, has a dangerous date with Kansas State.
Week 6 Matchups
* Lines as of Thursday at 9:00 ET
Ball State at Northern Illinois (-10.5)
When nothing in the world makes sense, you go to the MAC for a spoonful of #MACtion because there's little more reassuring and bankable than a conference comprised of roughly 84 schools in Ohio that’s known for playing games on Wednesday nights and harboring coaches who jump shirtless with body paint into a frozen lakes.
Since 2000, Ball State has gone into DeKalb as an underdog six times and it has covered five of those times. Moreover, the Cardinals are 35–13 ATS as a road dog since 2005. They're still a little cheap after their loss to Toledo, despite this line moving down more than a field goal from 14 points.
Earlier this year, Ball State went in to Evanston and was gifted nearly three touchdowns. Northwestern and its stout defense have covered every other game this season but not the one against the Cardinals. It didn’t even come close, as a late turnover prevented Ball State from rallying from five points down for a possible win.
Neither Northern Illinois nor Ball State are very good. Both run the ball more often and with more success than they pass, which has contributed to each hitting the under in its last three games. To that end, Under 55 might be a good play here as well, if it’s still available.
The Pick: Ball State (+10.5)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Navy at Notre Dame (-14.5)
Very quietly, Navy has built a robust defense that’s flown about as far under the radar as the team in general.
The Midshipmen are a top 15 defense in Bill Connelly’s “defensive explosiveness and defensive finishing drives” ratings. Navy limits opposing offenses to an average of just 3.33 points per trip inside the 40-yard line (14th-best).
Navy also has something to prove.
No one’s saying Notre Dame's going to lose—that’s happened only three times in the past 20 years of their annual game—but I liken this matchup to the Fighting Irish's tangle with a pesky Virginia squad earlier this season in which they were also double-digit favorites but won by just seven after a late touchdown.
In a period of time when the Under seems to rule every game outside of a Baylor matchup, it might be a good idea to try Under 55. It could be a little harder for Notre Dame to score in this game than anticipated.
It also could be a bit of a letdown game for the Irish after an emotional near-comeback against Clemson last week that ended on a failed two-point conversion attempt. USC looms on the schedule for the Irish in Week 7.
The Pick: Navy (+14.5)
Illinois at Iowa (-10.5, since moved to -11.5)
This pick is as much about Illinois as it is about Iowa’s thrilling 10–6 suffocation of Wisconsin during the early slate of games last weekend. If you a think a matchup between the Fighting Illini and an opponent features several ways in which the Illini will be outflanked (this is not uncommon), it’s reasonable to think the margin of loss will be disproportionately large.
Illinois has 25 losses in regulation since the beginning of the 2012 season. Two of them have been by fewer than 10 points. Two! Illinois’s average margin of loss since 2012 is 22.76. Here’s a sampling of some of Illinois big losses relative its underdog spread in road games:
|Date||Opponent||Underdog spread||Margin of Loss||Difference|
|9/9/15||North Carolina||+6.5||34 (48–14)||+27.5|
|11/1/14||Ohio State||+28||41 (55–14)||+13|
|9/8/12||Arizona State||+6||31 (45–14)||+25|
As a result, Illinois is 10–15 ATS an an underdog during the aforementioned time span. In games that it’s been an underdog in which it has lost straight up, it’s 5–17 ATS. Lesson: Either bet on Illinois to pull a straight-up upset against a vulnerable team, or take the spread on a favorite you trust to not get upset.
Iowa is a disciplined, methodical team with a defense that’s going to make it difficult for Illinois to score, and an passing offense that’s quietly efficient. Barring a major letdown by the Hawkeyes or a rousing performance from Illinois, Iowa should win. And by the evidence above, if Iowa wins, it’s likely to win by a significant margin.
The pick: Iowa (-10.5, since moved to -11.5)
Middle Tennessee State at Western Kentucky (-8)
Bettors might be tempted to take Middle Tennessee State here on the grounds that the Blue Raiders just played a tough Vanderbilt team really close as a two-point dog. Here are two points to consider:
1) As strong as Vanderbilt’s defense is, it’s not a good barometer by which to judge the Blue Raiders’ performance against a diametrically opposite team like Western Kentucky.
2) You know who else played Vanderbilt close as a two-point dog? Western Kentucky. And the Hilltoppers actually won, defeating the Commodores in Week 1.
Western Kentucky’s success in this one is going to come down to the arm of Brandon Doughty. Here are some superlatives, and his corresponding national rankings, from the 6'3" senior quarterback: 2000 total passing yards (2nd), a 15-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio (5th), 10.4 yards per attempt (4th), 74.1% completion rate (1st), 400 yards per game (2nd), and a 184.72 QB rating (3rd).
His most frequent targets are 6'1" Taywan Taylor, 6'3" Jared Dangerfield and 6'6" Tyler Higbee. The Blue Raiders’ passing defense ranks in the bottom-third nationally in terms of efficiency and teams throw at it often to test it, especially on early downs.
Middle Tennessee’s defensive backs are going to be tested repeatedly, and eventually they get worn down. Watch for Western Kentucky to pull away in this one in the second half.
The pick: Western Kentucky (-8)
Bonus Picks: Central Michigan +7, Boston College/Wake Forest Under 37, Syracuse +3
Cumulative ATS record: 26–17–1; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 3–0; Cumulative O/U record: 2–3