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.
Old Dominion and UTEP are in a race to the bottom while Central Michigan is holding on to the top spot in the country—in terms of covering the spread, that is. The former teams are 0–6 and 0–5–1, respectively, against the spread, the only two to not cover all season according to VegasInsider, while the Chippewas (6–0–1 ATS) are the only team not to lose a spread bet. To the one poor sap who has taken either the Miners or the Monarchs every weekend this year, I say to you: Keep your day job. On the other hand, if you've Fired Up Chips! each weekend so far, you're sitting pretty.
It was two other Michigan teams who blew up betting houses everywhere, this past weekend. Michigan State’s cover against Michigan was its first of the year, but a mere failure to cover wasn’t what earned Jim Harbaugh presidential condolences. Moneyline bettors on the Spartans got a huge surprise with 10 seconds left when Jalen Watts-Jackson did the unthinkable. David Purdum’s report on the ground in Vegas—where the roars were apparently as loud as the those in Big House—is worth a read.
The game was the highest-bet college football game of the year according to SportsInsights.com’s Dan McGuire, who also noted road teams like the Spartans yet again won the weekend, going 33–24 against the spread.
Speaking of road teams, this week we’re back to a familiar theme: road underdogs whose virtues are being overlooked in favor of their shortcomings. Before we get to the matchups, there’s hardware to hand out.
• This column has frequently documented the aged ATS badassery of Kansas State’s Bill Snyder. Backers taking a flier on Kansas State as five-point home underdogs against Oklahoma needed no further justification than Snyder’s magic. Except the Kansas State principle, which is defined as “Kansas State always covers at home during league play,” did not hold true. With apparently nothing left in the tank after a close loss to TCU in Week 7, the Wildcats’ 55–0 destruction at the hands of the Sooners made Snyder’s team this week’s recipient of the Paging The Burn Unit Award.
• The Backdoor Cover of the Week Award goes to one of 2015’s most bankable teams so far: Boston College. A late money push on Saturday afternoon pushed Clemson’s line against BC from -17 to -18. Sometimes every point matters. The Eagles’ resolute defense yielded 34 points to an elite offense, but down 24 with less than two minutes to go, BC’s Jeff Smith punched the ball in from two yards out on the team’s fourth try at the end zone, cutting Boston College’s margin to +17 and ensuring an Eagles cover. This game served an important reminder: Never feel bad going in on an elite defense, especially when it’s a road underdog in a game with a low projected total.
• Somehow, a dead-in-the-water, 0–7 Central Florida team tabbed as a three-touchdown underdog on the road at Temple found itself leading by two points at the start of the fourth quarter on Saturday. Backers on the Owls -20 might have torn up their slips, which ultimately ended up being the right decision—but not before some heartbreak. As if they were trying to cover a specific margin, this week’s Letdown Award winner proceeded to score two touchdowns and two two-point conversions to swing the margin to 14 points, taking a 30–16 lead. Then with a minute left in a then-decided game, Temple’s Ryquell Armstead ran for a seven-yard touchdown to put the Owls up 36–16 and make them an extra point away from covering the 20-point spread...only to have the touchdown called back due to holding. Instead of going for it again, the Owls took a pair of kneel-downs and got out with a win.
Week 8 matchups
What was your first reaction to this opening line, which had USC -3? I was in an Uber when I saw it on my phone and my exclamations of confusion nearly caused my driver to miss the turn to the Lincoln Tunnel. That the undefeated Utes are getting a field goal at a three-loss USC team whose program faces multiple, public off-field challenges raised a few eyebrows. Or at least it raised mine.
With wagering, it’s often good to let those first gut reactions—Utah +3!?!? Did John Avello go completely insane!?—marinate for a while, and then look at a game with a fresh perspective a little later. When one takes this approach with this game ... he/she might still come back to Utah.
It’s unlikely that this opening line was attributable to USC having greater name recognition from being in the news recently (casual bettors wager more often on teams they know more about than those they don’t—think Donald Trump’s polling figures), because 48 hours into the betting cycle money was 80%–20% in favor of Utah and the line was actually reversing against that money, moving closer to -4 at shops like the Wynn and CG rather than its initial -3.
At any rate, this line as it opened more likely reflected 1) where its Game Of The Year line opened this summer (USC -7), 2) an accommodation to bettors’ supposition that USC will benefit from home field advantage, which bettors overvalue, 3) bettors believing more in the name-brand electric offensive duo of Cody Kessler and JuJu Smith-Schuster rather than the nameless, faceless force of defense embodied deep in the Utes’ DNA.
Utah is in fact a top-20 defense that’s going to be tasked with stopping a top-10 offense, specifically a top-10 passing attack. Teams run against Utah on standard rushing downs at a lower rate than nearly any other team in FBS. Assuming USC tries the same plan of attack, Kessler’s abilities will be on full display.
When the Utes have lost in the past, they’ve kept games close by playing their best defense in the red zone (they’re 10th in the country in Bill Connelly’s ‘Finishing Drives’ metric). USC on the other hand has proven undisciplined defensively regardless of the outcome of its games. The Utes are 7–1 ATS in their last eight road games—although this may well be attributable to randomness as much as anything else.
Either this line will correct in a way that reflects the money breakdown, moving back down to three or two points, or both the money distribution and the line will remain the same for the next several days. The latter would be a huge tip-off that the casinos and/or sharp money is betting on USC for some reason, signals bettors are always wise to heed. Ergo, a conditional pick.
If Utah starts rising to +3 or +2.5, pick the Utes against the spread quickly before the deal is gone. OR, if Utah remains a 3.5 or 4-point dog by Thursday and the money distribution stays around 80%–20% for Utah, then something’s up. Take USC.
(UPDATE: Something certainly is up. The second scenario in this conditional pick occurred, so we're locked in to USC -3.5. However, on Saturday morning USC shot from -3.5 up to -7 very quickly, despite no major public news, despite USC being an ostensibly worse team, and despite the money percentages staying heavily in favor of Utah. This is one of the strangest lines we've ever come across and now looks to be either a great game to avoid or a great value for Utah backers).
Western Kentucky at LSU (-16.5)
The problem with the Power 5 scheduling cupcake non-conference opponents three or four years out is that it’s hard to know which teams are going to still be cupcakes in three or four years. As Week 6’s column chronicled, the Hilltoppers’ offense is prolific, led by quarterback Brandon Doughty. If he doesn’t get knocked out of the game for some reason, the senior superstar could hit 50 or 55 passing attempts, because there is no way Western Kentucky is consistently running the ball against the Tigers’ defense.
LSU fits in a sweet spot for bettors relative to the spread. It’s too elite of a team to lose to non-elite teams, but its tendency isn’t to blow teams out, either. It took a 45-point spread into a game against horrendous Eastern Michigan that it won by just 22. It took a 24-point spread into a game against deeply average Syracuse that it only won by 10 points. With the Tigers, you can often count on a steady, run-based, high single-digit or low double-digit win.
Furthermore, this game could set up a classic “overlook” scenario, in which LSU doesn’t give Western Kentucky its full attention due to a huge opponent (in this case, Alabama) looming the following weekend. If LSU wins out, it won’t face a team ranked lower than Arkansas (42nd in Sagarin, 34th in S&P) the rest of the season, which would last in that scenario somewhere between six and eight more games.
Last weekend, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit said he would have liked to pick Memphis (a team similar to Western Kentucky) to cover or even beat Ole Miss, but he couldn’t do so because the Tigers “had the Rebels’ full attention” due to Memphis’s talent. Clearly that wasn’t the case, and Memphis won outright. Louisiana Tech, yet another pass-oriented, high-scoring team, was also in danger of covering against Mississippi State last weekend until late in that game.
When Leonard Fournette rushes for 200 yards in the first half and LSU wears down Western Kentucky by 24 points with long, time-consuming drives, I’ll regret writing this. But with the public backing LSU against the spread by a margin of 2 to 1, with projections putting this at more of a two-touchdown game and with Bama looming, this pick is too good to resist.
The Pick: Western Kentucky +16.5
Washington State at Arizona (-7.5)
A Mike Leach with nothing to lose is a weird, dangerous Mike Leach. It squints at you in its beady-eyed way and tells you you have 10 seconds to run before it pelts you in the back with a water balloon, but when you turn it throws it at you immediately, making no discernible facial expression.
Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez, who is 13–19 ATS with the Wildcats in Pac-12 games in his career, is going to run right into this volatile compound this week.
See, Washington State hasn’t been good in a long time. But it just beat both Oregon schools for the first time in a season since 2006, it has one of the most prolific (but not necessarily efficient) passing attacks in college football, and it’s come a long way since losing to FCS Portland State to start the season.
The Cougars are averaging 55 pass attempts per game. Only nine other teams attempt more than 40 passes per game, and none more than 50. The Cougars run a lot of plays to maximize the amount of scoring chances they have.
|Football outsiders data||wsu offense||arizona defense|
|Passing S&P||96.8, 85th nationally||76.7, 120th nationally|
|Passing Success Rate||49.3%, 11th||42.3%, 83rd|
|Passing IsoPPP||1.24, 117th||1.71, 114th|
One of Bill Connelly’s Five Factors is Passing Success Rate, which examines what proportion of a team’s plays were successful by measuring the amount of yards gained on each down. The above numbers illustrate that quarterback Luke Falk, the leader of WSU’s Air Raid attack, does rack up yards and moves the chains, even if the Cougars score few points relative to their large number of plays per game.
If Washington State did have success against any Pac-12 team south of Mt. Shasta, it could come against a team like Arizona, with a defense suffering from the absences of Scooby Wright and Derrick Turituri and that allows opposing passing attacks a generous amount of points per play, yards and nearly everything else needed to keep a game’s margin within a touchdown.
So again, in a grand and deeply regrettable tradition, The Fade will futilely attempt to pick a #Pac12AfterDark game.
The Pick: Washington State +4 First Half
Army at Rice (-10)
That’s right. I went there. To a place no football fan sanely goes: a Rice Owls home game. After Rice won our Week 2 backdoor cover award, it dropped both in the rankings and off the collegiate football map: A 70–17 Baylor pasting blew the Owls off the radar entirely and into Conference USA oblivion, somewhere out of reach of your TV dial.
This prediction is about misperception. First of all, throw out records, here. 3–3 Rice is an awful football team. There are only nine teams in the country worse than Rice in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, and the Owls are almost unquestionably the worst .500 team in the nation. It is somehow ranked 121st in both offensive and defensive explosiveness, which means it scores very few adjusted points per play (1.10) while also allowing relatively many points per play (1.47).
Second, everyone’s most recent memory of the Black Knights is a 44–3 loss to Duke. On the surface, yes, this looks terrible. But Duke’s defense is elite. It would stop any one-dimensional, bottom-half team dead in its tracks. Army’s tried to pass the ball just 53 times all season. That's less than Washington State averages per game. When Army attacks Rice on Saturday, it won’t matter that it is entirely dependent on the option run, because the Owls can’t stop anything.
Projections from Ed Feng and FootballStudyHall have this game anywhere between a push and a two-point Rice win, illustrating that on a neutral field Army is most likle the slightly better team. We’re not on a neutral field here, home field does not gain a team anything close to an 8 to 10-point advantage. Anytime you get a spread that’s 8–10 points off of multiple simulations, you should pay attention.
The Pick: Army +10
Bonus Picks: Boston College +8, BC-Louisville UNDER 38, Nevada -7, Hawaii-Nevada UNDER 51.5
Cumulative ATS record: 28–21–1; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 3–0; Cumulative O/U record: 3–3