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.
Perhaps the biggest college football wagering story of 2015 took place on Saturday—and it didn’t happen on the field. Conversation about the Utah-USC line dominated this space last week, as well as several other gambling publications. To many, it didn’t make sense that a top-five Utah team was an underdog on the road at a “reeling” USC program. Per SportsInsights.com, it was the first time since 2007 that an unranked team had been favored against an AP Top 25 opponent.
As we saw it, the books’ decision to favor USC by 3.5 points was likely a combination of valuing home field advantage and favoring USC’s elite individual talent over Utah’s strong-as-a-single-unit defense. As Ed Feng and the Los Angeles Times also pointed out, the 3.5 mark also reflected the heavy value casinos put on yards per play and team efficiency data.
While square bettors were confused, sharps quietly but consistently piled on USC. Money was a consistent 75–25 split in Utah’s favor from late the previous Sunday night until Saturday’s game. What no one was prepared for, however, was that money distribution staying the same while the line shot all the way up to a touchdown for USC. But that’s what happened, booming up to seven points on Saturday morning—despite no major player news, and without the money breakdown changing at all—before settling back down to between 5.5 and 6.5 depending on where you shopped. If the indication all week that there was sharp money on USC hadn’t been obvious enough, this was a slap in the face.
Utah +7 was a defensible choice for strong Utes believers on their merits, and I didn’t see any simulations that had USC winning by a touchdown. But based on the behavior of the line all week, and the fact that late sharp money was pushing the line up even further, the Utes +3.5 was simply a square pick. After the first half, the margin in this game was never really in doubt, with the Trojans winning 42–24. The books cleaned up on the USC win, considering the game was one of the most heavily bet games of the week.
The Fade also took the Trojans -3.5 in our second conditional pick of the year (where we advise a pick later in the week based on how a set of variables play out), which capped off a 6–1 week for the column and improved The Fade’s season-long ATS record to 33–22–1.
Utah’s fate was symptomatic of a larger trend throughout college football in Week 8: Neither underdogs nor road teams fared well against the spread. After performing well in recent weeks, dogs went 22–32 ATS, while road teams went 23–30 ATS, per SportsInsights.com.
Several games still featured very low totals, including an all-time record low. Just two weekends removed from Boston College and Wake Forest setting the record for the lowest closing O/U of all time at 35.5, Missouri and Vanderbilt’s total closed at 34. The number turned out to be more than enough, as Vanderbilt won 10–3.
• For a second there on Saturday, we were worried Auburn would let us down by running out of ways to let us down. Bettors have cashed in against the Tigers all season. For the second straight year, Auburn is a bottom-10 team at covering the spread, and carried a 1–5 ATS record into its tilt against touchdown-favorite Arkansas in Week 8. Auburn took the game to overtime on a Daniel Carlson field goal with four seconds left, meaning the only possible way the Tigers could somehow not at least push was to have the game go past two overtime periods, have Arkansas score a touchdown and two-point conversion and not score a touchdown themselves. And that’s … exactly what happened. The end result was a Letdown Award win for the Tigers, a highly improbable Razorbacks -7 cover and a box score that looked like this:
• The Backdoor Cover of the Week Award goes to Toledo, which continues to have a remarkable year. Down 28–10 at halftime to a feisty UMass squad, the Rockets’ undefeated season (2–0 against Power 5 teams, those Rockets) was in serious jeopardy. But Toledo (-14.5) rallied from that 18-point deficit to make up a net of 34 points, winning 51–35. The game was capped by a cover-saving field goal with 1:41 left that put the Rockets up by 16. The cover improved the MAC’s crowned jewel to 6–1 ATS according to VegasInsider.com, which is tied for the second-best mark thus far this season.
• Clemson closed as 7.5-point favorites on the road at Miami. If it had wanted to, though, the No. 3 team could have closed as 75-point favorites and still probably covered. The Tigers’ 58–0 destruction of the Hurricanes was so whole, so all-encompassing and soul-crushing, that Canes coach Al Golden lost his job the next day. Those banners flying over Miami games finally got their wish, making the Hurricanes the Week 9 recipient of the Paging The Burn Unit Award.
The Matchups, home underdogs edition
USC at California (+6)
The same thing that happened to Utah last week at the hands of USC is now happening to USC at the hands of Cal. USC will star in Week 9 in the role of Road Team The Public Is Backing In Droves (80% of the money is on the Trojans as of late Tuesday). The Trojans are also the team the sharps are fading, as evidenced by reverse line movement: Kessler and Co. opened as 6.5-point favorites and despite the windfall of action on them have moved down to either 5.5 or six points depending on where you look.
After last week’s tutorial from the books on how to properly judge a matchup and manipulate bettors into backing the team the books want them to, don’t be surprised if the same thing happens here. The Jared Goff hype train has lost some steam in the wake of back-to-back road losses to Utah and UCLA. That’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean Cal is out of contention.
This game comes down to two questions: 1) Will the Bears stop JuJu Smith-Schuster or will he run over them like he has nearly every other team he’s faced? 2) Will Goff make smart, accurate throws or will he force the types of passes that led to a five-interception night against Utah in Week 7?
While Cal has allowed 20 sacks in seven games this season, protection shouldn't be a make-or-break issue for Goff. Perhaps more intriguing is how much pressure the Bears can get on Kessler. The Trojans’ offensive line is 100th in adjusted sack rate and 118th in passing down sack rate, meaning it can leave Kessler exposed more than it would prefer.
The Pick: Cal +6
North Carolina at Pittsburgh (+2.5)
Vegas is just begging you to believe North Carolina will win this Coastal Division-separator game by a field goal. Bettors have responded to this request with mixed results. As of Tuesday night, the money distribution on the game was an even 50/50 split.
Both teams run the ball more often than they pass it. Here’s how each team’s rushing offense stacks up against the other’s rushing defense in terms of yards per play, S&P+ and Success Rate (metrics from Football Outsiders):
|rushing||Off ypp||def ypp||Off S&P+||def S&P+||off srate||def srate|
|North Carolina||6.00 (6th nationally)||4.61 (89th)||109.7 (44th)||82.9 (116th)||50.3 (12th)||48.1 (113th)|
|Pitt||4.20 (72nd)||4.46 (76th)||108.4 (49th)||90.3 (98th)||43.5 (66th)||42.0 (69th)|
Based on this info alone, it seems like both teams will have offensive success, especially North Carolina, and that each team’s offense could put the other’s defense on its heels. It seems like this, that is, until you consider the Tar Heels’ strength of schedule. UNC’s 6–1 record has come against the seventh-weakest schedule in all of the 128-team FBS, according to FootballOutsiders.com, better only than Colorado among Power 5 teams. In contrast, Pitt is almost dead in the middle in SOS.
If you’re thinking about taking the OVER 55 in this game based on the rationale that neither team’s defense will be able to stop the other, remember that both teams don’t run many plays relative to the amount of time they have the ball. North Carolina actually has the nation’s third lowest average time of possession (24:59) on the season, which is especially odd for a run-based team.
The books here are trying to paint the Tar Heels as an attractive team by offering them at a tempting price. But the real temptation is taking a home underdog in a major-conference Thursday night game which would be undefeated were it not for a four-point loss to a very good Iowa team. Pick your guilty pleasure here. Mine is Pitt.
The Pick: Pitt +2.5
Texas at Iowa State (+7)
A Texas Longhorns bettor, somewhere: Horns are back, baby. Patterson’s gone. Couple of good wins under our belt. And those early-season losses were a combination of bad luck, tough scheduling and bad play that won’t happen again. The kinks are worked out. Even (beloved SID John) Bianco is back. Iowa State? Psh. What has it ever done? You’d be crazy not to take the Horns and the easy cash this week.
I mean … maybe. But unless you’re a Longhorns fan looking to add a little extra excitement to the game, none of those is a reason why you bet on a team. Completely unsurprisingly, 78% of the money is on the Texas spread as of Tuesday night.
Iowa State at 2–5 is, believe it or not, improved. Iowa State used to be Kansas. Now, it’s holding Baylor to within 18 points. You know who else has done that so far this year? No one. The week before that the Cyclones played TCU to a 10-point game until midway through the fourth quarter. Something those teams have that Texas doesn’t? Insane passing attacks.
Texas is ranked 81st in passing S&P+ and just 119th in passing success rate. It runs more than twice the amount of times it passes each game. Unless the Longhorns switch up the game plan entirely, a frequent rushing attack is something Iowa State can reasonably prepare for. The Longhorns should expect success on defense: Iowa State is still without an elite offensive option, and one of the Horns’ biggest improvements over the course of the season has been the reduction of opponents’ big scoring plays.
For Texas backers, let’s look at the Should-I-Think-Twice-About-This-Bet? Checklist: Is the narrative headed into this game mostly a positive one focused on my team and largely ignorant of the other team? Check. Is a significantly higher percentage of money being bet on my team rather than the other? Check. Is there reverse line movement moving it lower for my team despite my team taking the majority of bets? Check. Is recent spread-covering history on my opponent’s side? Check.
The Pick: Texas to win, Iowa State (+7)
San Diego State at Colorado State (+4)
Can you keep up with the chain of upsets in the Mountain West? A mid-tier Utah State team upset Boise State in Week 7 by 26 points. The Aggies picked up a small majority of the bets in its following game against San Diego State (+4, O/U 44.5), and promptly lost by 34 to an Aztecs team that had hit the under in 16 of its last 19 games. So, obviously, the sharp pick here is to take Colorado State in Week 9 to knock off SDSU and continue the chain, no?
Joking aside, sharps do appear to be taking the Rams, with 68% of the money on San Diego State and minor reverse line movement dropping the Aztecs from four-point to three-point favorites as of Tuesday night.
But there’s a big issue here: Colorado State’s run defense gives up big plays that yield points, as evidenced by its sub-100 defensive rushing S&P+ and rushing points-per-play ratings. Run-stopping numbers matter against San Diego State because it runs the ball 47 times per game with the likes of Donnel Pumphrey and Chase Price, who both average more than five yards per carry.
If you’re envisioning another MWC shootout in which the Rams’ offense can make up for whatever points it gives up on the defensive end, those points will likely have to come from the arm of Nick Stevens, as the Aztecs’ bigger defensive weakness is against the pass. Stevens is improved under center for the Rams after having a weak start to the season, but the sophomore QB still has a ways to go before we start hanging Colorado State covers solely on his shoulders.
Selfishly, I’d like to pick Colorado State to fit the theme of the post. Cerebrally, I’d like to take the team the sharps are taking and the one the projections list as a field goal better than the line. But I can’t do it with the Rams’ run defense being what it is.
The Pick: San Diego State -2.5 (First half), Colorado State +4 (Full Game)
Bonus Picks: Louisiana Tech -10, South Florida +8
Cumulative ATS record: 33–22–1; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 3–0; Cumulative O/U record: 5–3