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.
With the thrilling endings of Michigan-Michigan State, Georgia Tech-Florida State and now the immortalized (Candy) Corn Elder Halloween return, college football just keeps on giving and giving. It gives us excitement, anger, confusion, joy; it gives us everything except predictability.
But one of the surest ways of putting yourself in a position to predict, and therefore be profitable, is to fade big public bets and keep an eye on what sides “sharps,” or smarter bettors, are putting their money on.
The evidence is admittedly anecdotal, but it’s felt this season as if there have been more examples of reverse line movement—line action that tips off which teams sharp bettors are backing—than in other seasons. For a non-hypothetical example, if USC opens as a 6.5-point favorite at Cal and it receives 67 percent of the tickets, one would expect the line to move up at least a little, perhaps to -7 or -8. But in a reverse line movement situation, such as the one the Trojans were involved in in Week 8 against Utah as well as in Week 9 against Cal, USC would receive 67 percent of bets and the line would drop. In the case of the Trojans-Bears game, it dropped all the way to -3.5 before settling back at -4.5.
So in an effort to no longer be anecdotal, The Fade took a look at how teams in Week 9 that received 35 percent of spread bets or fewer, and whose line increased rather than decreased, fared against the spread.
(All the data below except the Dog line close is courtesy of the valuable SportsInsights.com, which uses Bookmaker as its opening line. The Dog line close is from VegasInsider.com).
|Game||dog line open||dog line close||underdog bet %||final score||sharp result ats|
|Texas at Iowa State||Iowa State +8||Iowa State +3.5||35% Iowa State||Iowa State 24, Texas 0||Iowa State win|
|Stanford at Wash. State||Wash. State +13||Wash. State +10||35% Wash. State||Stanford 30, Wash. St. 28||Wash. State win|
|Georgia at Florida||Georgia +1||Georgia PK||34% Georgia||Florida 27, Georgia 3||Georgia loss|
|USC at Cal||Cal +6.5||Cal +4.5||33% Cal||USC 27, Cal 21||Cal loss|
|Michigan at Minnesota||Minnesota +12.5||Minnesota +11||32% Minnesota||Michigan 29, Minnesota 26||Minnesota win|
|South Carolina at Texas A&M||South Carolina +14||South Carolina +13.5||32% South Carolina||Tex. A&M 35, So. Caro. 28||South Carolina win|
|Nebraska at Purdue||Purdue +11||Purdue +8||32% Purdue||Purdue 56, Nebraska 38||Purdue win|
|West. Mich. at East. Mich.||Eastern Michigan +21||East. Michigan +18.5||29% Eastern Michigan||WMU 58, EMU 28||Eastern Michigan loss|
|San Diego St. at Colo. St.||Colorado State +3.5||Colorado State +3||28% Colorado State||San Diego St. 41, Colo St. 17||Colorado State loss|
|Illinois at Penn State||Illinois +7||Illinois +4||27% Illinois||Penn St. 37, Illinois 0||Illinois loss|
|Georgia St. at Ark. St.||Georgia St. +19.5||Georgia St. +17||26% Georgia St.||Ark. St. 48, Georgia St. 34||Georgia State win|
|Buffalo at Miami (Ohio)||Miami (Ohio) +9||Miami (Ohio) +7||26% Miami (Ohio)||Buffalo 29, Miami 24||Miami (Ohio) win|
|East Carolina at UConn||UConn +6.5||UConn +5||26% UConn||UConn 31, ECU 13||UConn win|
|Air Force at Hawaii||Hawaii +7.5||Hawaii +7||26% Hawaii||Air Force 58, Hawaii 7||Hawaii loss|
|ULM at ULL||ULM +12.5||ULM +10||25% ULM||ULL 30, ULM 24||ULM win|
|FIU at FAU||FAU +3.5||FAU +2.5||23% FAU||FAU 31, FIU 17||FAU win|
|Vanderbilt at Houston||Vanderbilt +13.5||Vanderbilt +11||23% Vanderbilt||Houston 34, Vanderbilt 0||Vanderbilt loss|
|W. Virginia at TCU||W. Virginia +13.5||W. Virginia +12||22% W. Virginia||TCU 40, W. Virginia 10||W. Virginia loss|
|Tulsa at SMU||SMU +3.5||SMU +1||21% SMU||Tulsa 40, SMU 31||SMU loss|
|Marshall at Charlotte||Charlotte +20||Charlotte +17||13% Charlotte||Marshall 34, Charlotte 10||Charlotte loss|
That 20 of the weekend’s 53 FBS games technically fit the description of reverse line movement was notable alone. The phenomenon is traditionally treated as an eye-opening tipoff to potential sharp action, not an every-other-game type of occurrence.
But taking underdogs with less than 35 percent of bets whose lines moved counter to money trends didn’t actually end up being profitable last week. Bettors who would have taken this approach across the board would have gone 10–10 ATS. Conversely, taking the spread on any team that received 35 percent of bets or less regardless of line movement would have resulted in a 19–12 record ATS.
The above data can serve as a reminder to study percentages, and scrutinize what really constitutes reverse line movement and sharp money, as opposed to any line incongruity. Any time you see a team with less than a third of the action on their side, maybe give it a second look. It’s a good indication that either the public, or the betting house, could be missing something.
- In the absence of a particularly anticlimactic push, and with the reverberations of the Miami-Duke ending likely to play out over the coming weeks, the Letdown Award for Week 9 goes to this entire game. Duke was let down as a team by not winning a critical game that would have kept it in the driver’s seat in the ACC Coastal. But beyond that, what many missed in the insanity of the final six seconds was the total. The game’s Over/Under closed at 51.5, a convenient half-point above what would have been the game’s final total had the return not counted. When officials ruled the return stood, the 30-27 score popped the game firmly into the Over, which 70 percent of bettors had, according to SportsInsights. Condolences to those in the 30 percent bracket.
- Week 9's Backdoor Cover Award goes to the Navy Midshipmen, who rewarded -6 backers with a gutsy late game play. Down 22-17, South Florida got the ball back from Navy with just under seven minutes left, and looked poised to do what it seemingly always does: cover on the road (the Bulls are 24-6 ATS on the road under Willie Taggart). But USF’s Rodney Adams couldn't hold on to the ball at the end of a 41-yard kickoff return. Navy got the ball back on the 42, and sucked more than five minutes off the clock before getting stopped on USF’s one-yard line, setting up a fourth-and-goal situation. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo opted to go for it rather than kicking a field goal and going up by more than a touchdown. Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds broke the Bulls’ back with his FBS-tying 77th career rushing touchdown. Navy won by 12, covering easily.
- Last month we chronicled Illinois’ uncanny ability to not only lose, but to get flat out blown-out. Of its 28 regulation losses since the 2012 season, only three of them have come by fewer than 10 points. (The Fade’s recommendation on Oct. 8 was to take a College Football Playoff-contending Iowa team to cover a 10.5-point spread against the Illini, and of course, Iowa only won the game by nine). Bad beats aside, our reaction to this past weekend’s Illinois (+4) line at Penn State was on theme: Either the Illini would eke out a win, or the Nittany Lions would win by several touchdowns. Hopefully Penn State at least did the favor of Paging The Burn Unit on Illinois’ behalf after the game ended, because the winners of the award got torched by James Franklin’s team 39-0. The margin gave Penn State (-4) backers seven extra touchdowns of breathing room.
The Matchups, situations repeating themselves edition
LSU at Alabama (-6.5)
Saturday’s premiere game is being billed as a Game Of The Year, and came into the weekend with months worth of money already accumulated on it, at what one might call a weighted -7. Despite three quarters of the money being placed on LSU, the line has moved in early trading between a point and a half-point lower for Alabama (hey, there’s that pesky reverse line movement, again). This line is eerily similar to those of past Tide-Tigers matchups, providing plenty of relevant data from which to draw. But the two teams are split so evenly over the course of that data that any conclusions seem futile.
Alabama is a sexy team to bet the money line on, and rightfully so. It’s the third-winningest team of the last 10 years (LSU, at fifth, is no slouch). The problem bettors run into is conflating the Tide being a good money-line bet with the Tide being a good ATS bet. Since 2007, the beginning of the Nick Saban and Les Miles shared eras at each school, the Tide are an even .500 ATS but 12–18–1 in November. Miles-era spread data for LSU varies based on the source, but November is a similarly low-performing month for the Tigers, at 11–19–1.
Breaking down head to head spread data reveals even less. Alabama leads the nine match ups of the Saban-Miles era 6–3 straight up, and 4–3—2 ATS, including last year’s push at -7. After a bye week, Saban’s teams are 7–5 straight up but 4–6–2 ATS. Half of those 12 games after a bye week have come against the Tigers. In those six games, Alabama has gone a numbing 2–2–2 ATS, and all but one of them featured a line for Alabama between -6 and -7.
The Tigers have the better offense, averaging 1.44 isolated points per play and featuring Heisman frontrunner Leonard Fournette. But quarterback Brandon Harris will face his toughest opponent yet. Meanwhile, Alabama has the better defense, as it features a dominant front seven and allows only 2.60 yards per rushing attempt, good for third in the country.
The Pick: Alabama -6.5
Minnesota at Ohio State (-23, since moved to -23.5)
A Minnesota team many thought would rally in the face of adversity after coach Jerry Kill resigned last week actually did rally, and came within a play of beating an excellent Michigan team that was favored by 11 points.
Surprisingly, neither the Gophers’ strong performance in Week 9 nor Ohio State’s suspension of J.T. Barrett for an OVI citation seem to be shaping perception in Week 10. The money on this game is split almost 50–50. The -23 line seemed a little high for Ohio State at first and is somewhat of a no-man’s-land opener, but it’s barely moved at all.
The conventional thought here would seem to be a sandwich play: Few people think Minnesota will pull the outright upset (as of Tuesday evening, SportsInsights.com registered no money line bets on the dogs) but a Minnesota team that scored 26 points against Michigan’s top-ranked defense could put up that amount against Ohio State’s 12th-ranked unit. So there could be a fair amount of cards out there that read “Ohio State ML” next to “Minnesota +23.” After all, before its two most-recent games, the Buckeyes had failed to cover in five straight games.
Perhaps bettors aren’t thinking this way now, but my bet is that the line will gradually shrink down in Ohio State’s favor. The key margin here is 21, the three-touchdown mark for the Buckeyes. It might not shrink that low, but assuming Gophers backers start showing up, it’ll be an opportune time to pounce on Ohio State for two key reasons.
First, Minnesota’s passing game is not likely to perform as well as it did last week. The Gophers recorded 7.6 yards per attempt, much more than normal, and had three big plays account for the majority of their scoring. Ohio State’s defense is very adept at finishing opposing drives off inside the 40-yard line.
Second, Urban Meyer is 36–9 ATS in his career with more than one week to prepare for an opponent. No other coach in FBS comes close to that mark. You don’t mess with a stat that’s that established that for a guy whose teams face notoriously high lines.
The Pick: Ohio State (-23)
Texas Tech at West Virginia (-7.5, since moved to -8.5)
We get it, Big 12. You’re an exciting conference that scores tons of points. O/U’s of 75 are no longer extraordinary because of you, as evidenced most recently by Saturday’s 70–53 basketball score between Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. The logic with Big 12 betting has almost been reduced to making spread decisions based on which team scored more points the prior week, and Texas Tech almost always wins that contest.
Meanwhile, West Virginia is coming off of a brutal stretch: consecutive games against Top 20 opponents Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU, all but the second of which were on the road. The Mountaineers didn’t win any of those, and thanks in part to some over-valuations of their own defensive efficiency, didn’t cover any, either.
On Saturday, the Mountaineers are home favorites to Texas Tech. Those variables don’t seem promising: After the October stretch, Dana Holgorsen’s all-time cover record at West Virginia is now 24–34, his home cover record now 12–19, and his cover record as a favorite now 13–22.
And yet, something’s not right here. It’s not the spread percentages; more than 80 percent of the bets coming in on the Red Raiders is just about what you’d expect given the circumstances explained above. It’s that the -7.5-point line appears to be moving higher toward 8 or even 8.5 (there’s that pesky reverse line movement again) per SportsInsights, perhaps falsely appearing to offer even more value for Texas Tech backers.
Texas Tech will score points, but it has the 120th-ranked defense in FBS, according to FootballOutsiders. West Virginia will likely play at Texas Tech’s pace like it did against Baylor, with whom it hung until the fourth quarter. Baylor, though, is basically a much better version of the Red Raiders.
You can X’s and O’s this game all you want, but by setting the opening line at a half-point above a the common seven-point victory margin, the books are showing their hand: they want bettors to pick Texas Tech, and sharp money is responsible for the line moving even higher. It’s generally a good idea to do the opposite of what the books want you to do.
The Pick: West Virginia (-7.5)
Michigan State at Nebraska (+5.5)
Two years ago almost to the day, the Spartans beat Michigan 29-6 at home for their eighth win of the 2013 season. They took a bye week, and then traveled to Lincoln as a 5.5-point favorite to face Nebraska (and would win by 13). If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happening all over again this week.
A tip that sharp bettors think Michigan State is finally worthy of spread backing? This is one of the first lines of the season that has moved higher and not lower for the Spartans after it’s come out, meaning money that counts is forcing books to adjust the line higher.
Moreso, Nebraska is a bad football team. It’s not prudent to cite whatever a team’s most recent example of failure is when you’re making a case for how bad they are, but the Cornhuskers gave up 55 points to Purdue. Michigan State can exploit Nebraska’s passing defense (95th in YPA) with a passing attack that rates in the top 40 in nearly every efficiency category.
For a while, the Spartans eked out straight-up wins while underwhelming spread bettors, and after Week 6 were the worst team in the country at covering. If nothing else, though, Michigan State grinds opponents down. With so much left at stake in 2015, Sparty is at least bound to be solid, and Nebraska is at least bound to make a few big mistakes. This line doesn’t seem particularly threatening.
The Pick: Michigan State (-5.5)
Cumulative ATS record: 36–25–2; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 3–0; Cumulative O/U record: 5–3