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.
Sometimes bettors are compelled to ride hot teams. Or, rather, teams which have been hot for them. If Southern Miss covers four times in a row, why wouldn’t it cover a fifth time, the impetuous bettor asks? Unless you have an actively good reason to bet on a team a fifth time in a row (looking at you, Texas A&M fans), this type of “shotgun” wagering is a bad habit to get into.
This also applies to types of wagers. If you read this column (née Pick Six) in the lead up to the last two weeks, you would have found yourself called to put spread money down on home underdogs. It worked in Week 3 for teams like Notre Dame and Louisville, and the strategy felt failsafe. But in Week 4, home dogs like Arizona and Arizona State didn’t come close to cashing out (on a related note, never bet on the Pac-12 under any circumstances).
While this serves as a reminder to divvy up your default positions, SportsInsights.com helps us identify at least one long-term profitable position: underdogs of any variety in major conference matchups with low point totals. For example, if very dangerous and routinely overlooked Kansas State were to roll into Stillwater, Okla., this weekend as a nine-point underdog in a game with an O/U hovering at 48, more than a decade’s worth of data illustrate that Kansas State has a good chance of covering.
This week The Fade looks at road underdogs with above-average defenses playing in Power 5 conference matchups, a few of which are expected to have low totals. Road teams as a whole went 36–21 ATS in Week 4, their best week of the 2015 season.
Before we get to the picks, let’s hand out some hardware and take a look at some young 2015 ATS standings.
• Thanks to the cold-blooded murder that took place in Eugene last weekend, this long-harbored, carefully groomed stat I was preparing to unleash in advance of the Oregon-Colorado game may now be useless. Since Oct. 10, 2013, when favored by fewer than 21 points, the Ducks were 11–3 ATS, and when favored by more than 21 points, they were 3–9 ATS. The trends obviously didn’t play out for Paging The Burn Unit Award-winner Oregon, as it lost at home by 42 points to Utah (+11). For the past two seasons bettors have been used to the Ducks blowing covers in supposed blowouts, not getting blown out. To think the line on an Oregon-Colorado game is now just Oregon -7.5 is mind-blowing. Do the Ducks rebound and cover on the road in Week 5 against a bottom-level Pac-12 team?
• The Week 4 Backdoor Cover Award goes to Florida, which snuck right past +1 against Tennessee, actually winning outright by a point when Will Grier found Anthony Calloway on a ridiculous 63-yard curl route with under a minute left. Tennessee continues to struggle mightily S/U in games against ranked or even near-ranked opponents, and so the Vols remain a solid choice against which to pick the moneyline.
• Week 4’s Letdown Award for Worst Push In A Failing Role belongs to Texas, which has already specialized this season in every other type of letdown imaginable. In a game it desperately could have used after starting 1–2, and with TCU, Oklahoma and Kansas State coming up, the Longhorns not only lost but pushed against the spread. Several controversial calls from the officiating crew didn’t sit well with Longhorns fans. The push didn’t sit well with Vegas, though. Now Texas is 1–2–1 ATS, and bettors have to decide if the Horns’ overall improvement is enough to warrant backing (+15) against a TCU team that won last week and yet dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 in the AP Poll.
The First Shall Be Last
Through four weeks, 12 of last year’s top 25 covering teams are among the bottom 25 covering teams in 2015. TCU, Michigan State, Arkansas, Ohio State, Oregon, Missouri, UTEP, UCF, Boston College, Rutgers, Minnesota and Texas State all posted cover records of at least 8–5 last season.
That record might not seem that good, but it’s both profitable and in the top 20% of all FBS teams. If a coach put up that spread record every year over a career, he would be one of the top covering coaches in the sport’s history. This season, every one of those teams already has at least three ATS losses.
2015 ats record
2014 ats record (national rank)
week 5 line, opponent
-21.5, vs. Purdue
No line, @ Tulane
-3.5, vs. South Carolina
+3.5, vs. UTSA
+6.5, @ Tennessee
-15, vs. Texas
+5, @ Northwestern
-21, @ Indiana
-7.5, @ Colorado
+7, @ Duke
This reflects an important principle I call the “Lagging Effect.” When teams outperform for part of or an entire year, public perception eventually catches up with that team. Once it does, the team often goes on a spread streak opposite of the one it went on previously. In other words, by the time the public catches on to the team’s tendencies and starts zigging, the team stops zigging and starts zagging.
Old perceptions, especially perceptions from the previous postseason (see: Ohio State, Oregon), die hard the following season, by which time much has changed with the personnel, makeup and performance of those teams in question. This is why sharp bettors are constantly seeing which teams are too hyped up, looking at how much money is coming in on each side and challenging existing perceptions of teams.
Week 5 Matchups (lines as of Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET)
West Virginia at Oklahoma (-7)
The betting rap on West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen is that he’s generally unsuccessful against the spread. Coming into the 2015 season, his career ATS record (22–29) was third-worst among active FBS coaches, according to ESPN.com’s David Purdum. But this season might be different for the fifth-year head coach. The Mountaineers have used a ferocious defense to clear two -16.5 spreads by three additional touchdowns.
Part of the reason West Virginia has quietly been the most dominant team to go unnoticed this year is its depth and experience on defense. Per FootballStudyHall, the Eers are ninth in defensive S&P+, first in field position and first at limiting opponents scoring chances inside the 40-yard line. They also lead FBS in interceptions and are first in points allowed.
Against Tennessee, Oklahoma’s only challenging opponent of the season thus far, the Vols effectively applied pressure from the outside to get to Baker Mayfield and plugged up the middle of the field, which is normally shredded by Samaje Perine at will. If West Virginia’s offense (no slouch, either) was its obvious strength, I’d give the slight edge back to Oklahoma in this game. But if Tennessee can stop the Sooners’ vaunted offense for three and a half quarters, West Virginia certainly can too behind the play of linebackers like Nick Kwiatkoski and Al-Rasheed Benton and defensive backs Dravon Askew-Henry and Karl Joseph.
I think this is one of those back-and-forth games in Norman that some team wins by three or four points. Either way, a one-touchdown margin is outside of that range.
The Pick: West Virginia (+7)
Mississippi State at Texas A&M (-7)
Texas A&M’s loss of running back James White in the season opener against Arizona State after only two carries was a quiet one that nonetheless had significant implications. The Aggies don’t have many other consistent options at tailback, and as a result an offense that looked like it was erring toward running the ball more has instead had moderately more success through the air (8.91 YPA, 22nd nationally and 12 TD) than on the ground (4.84 YPA, 46th nationally and 7 TD) in the ensuing weeks.
Mississippi State, which in Dan Mullen’s six full years with the program has never passed more than it’s thrown in one season, is finally turning more frequently to the air, undoubtedly in part because Mullen woke up one morning and realized he has Dak Prescott under center. As a result, we have a matchup of two teams which might experience the majority of their success in the passing game.
Mississippi State has looked strong at defending the pass this season, yielding just one touchdown pass (tied for the fewest in the country) and being oddly adept at deflecting passes before they even reach opposing receivers. Look for the Bulldogs to attack with short to mid-range passes in the middle of the field against A&M’s middle linebackers.
While Texas A&M is a talented team with the slight edge in this matchup, it feels like it’s already “bloomed” this season—the Aggies have nearly reached their 2015 potential already. Mississippi State, on the other hand, feels as if it hasn’t fully bloomed yet, like it’s waking up from a long summer nap and is still waiting to have that breakout game. The reason Mississippi State could not have that breakout game is if it allows a lineman like Myles Garrett and a cornerback like Donovan Wilson to disrupt Prescott’s ability to connect with Fred Ross and De'Runnya Wilson.
Mississippi State thrives on keeping scores low and games close. I’m not comfortable saying this will be the game in which the Bulldogs break out, but I’m also not comfortable saying this will be a game Texas A&M clears by more than a touchdown.
The Pick: Mississippi State (+7)
Kansas State at Oklahoma State (-8)
Have you not heard? Surely you’ve heard. You say you haven’t heard? All right. Here comes The Fade’s first Bill Snyder paean of the year.
The Kansas State head coach is a covering genius. He has covered the third most games of any college coach, and has a career cover percentage of over 59, an astounding mark for anyone with more than 250 games under his belt. His teams are full of two- and three-star recruits and stress discipline and defense.
If Snyder’s personal history doesn’t woo you, here are some other factors pointing to the Wildcats being a sharp pick in this game:
-On offense, the Cowboys are more or less a Big 12 version of the Louisiana Tech team Kansas State just beat by six points last week, passing frequently. They haven’t been forced to defend anyone this year, except for Texas, to which it nearly lost despite Texas being penalized 16 times for 128 yards.
-Despite putting up 69 points a few weeks ago against poor UTSA, the Cowboys actually rely on their defense to win games. So does Kansas State. Therefore, this could actually be a deceptively low-scoring, low-margin game.
-As we learned from SportsInsights earlier, road underdogs in games with totals of 48 or less are 179–110 ATS since 2005.
The Wildcats are no stranger to spread success against the Cowboys either, going 9–3 ATS lifetime against Oklahoma State, including covering four of their five most recent meetings.
kansas state line
result vs. oklahoma state
kansas state outcome
Nov. 1, 2014
Kansas State -13
Kansas State 48, Oklahoma State 14
ATS win, S/U win
Oct. 5, 2013
Kansas State +13
Oklahoma State 33, Kansas State 29
ATS win, S/U loss
Nov. 3, 2012
Kansas State -7.5
Kansas State 44, Oklahoma State 30
ATS win, S/U win
Nov. 5, 2011
Kansas State +21
Oklahoma State 52, Kansas State 45
ATS win, S/U loss
Oct. 30, 2010
Kansas State +4
Oklahoma State 24, Kansas State 14
ATS loss, S/U loss
The Pick: Kansas State (+8)
Boston College at Duke (-7)
Unlike the previous three games, in which spread money is nearly dead even, this game’s money is at least 2 to 1 on Duke to cover, if not more, at various shops. The public is down on the Eagles because they play ugly football. I’ll just get this out of the way right now: The Eagles’ offense is an unholy disaster. Don’t watch it. You might go blind.
The majority of casual college football watchers have seen Boston College on television once this year, and it was when it scored zero points against Florida State. Bettors’ only other lasting impression of the Eagles is hearing peripherally about a 76–0 win over Howard in Week 2, and maybe something about the team’s defense.
Wait. Did someone say defense? Defense can generate ugly football. Ugly football doesn’t help win perception battles, but it can help win games, and it can certainly keep scores low. Boston College has the second-highest defensive S&P+ rating of any team in FBS, right behind Alabama and right ahead of Florida State.
Speaking from a personal standpoint, Duke confounds me. It was in 2014 form in Week 1 against Tulane, then played a MEAC team in Week 2. But when Northwestern came into Brooks Field two weeks ago and laid a 19–10, is-the-paint-done-drying-yet final score on the Blue Devils, it was a wake up call in the Wildcats’ favor. A slow-paced, defensive-oriented team halted any rhythm Duke attempted to generate all afternoon.
The only projections I’m half-confident making about this game are that few points will be scored and that Boston College will limit Duke’s scoring chances more than Georgia Tech did.
Reaching yet again to the SportsInsights concept of road underdogs in low-scoring games, I like the Eagles here if this margin is at a touchdown or greater. While the rest of the country doesn’t give Boston College a chance in this game, I think its defense is undervalued, and people are valuing Duke’s most recent win against Georgia Tech slightly too much.
The Pick: Boston College (+7)
Bonus Picks: Ole Miss -6.5, Western Kentucky -7.5, Baylor-Texas Tech 1H OVER 46, Baylor TEAM OVER 52.5
Cumulative ATS record: 21–14–1; Cumulative < 5pt ML record: 3–0; Cumulative O/U record: 2–3