Betting Stuff: Good coaches win, great coaches cover
Betting Stuff is a regular sports gambling column here at Saturday Down South with a focus on college football wagering (though don’t be surprised to see some non-college football insights from time to time). Betting Stuff is brought to you by BetOnline. If you’re looking for a place to make a deposit and start getting in on the action, look no further than BetOnline.
As the story goes, Charles K. McNeil, a former math teacher turned bookie, invented the point spread in the early 1940s. Its purpose was simple: handicap games so that both sides receive an equal volume of bets. The point spread achieved this by enticing gamblers to speculate on the final point differential instead of simply who would win the game. In theory, any game could become of interest to a gambler no matter the vast differential in quality between the two sides. McNeil’s invention made sports betting more popular than he ever could have imagined.
The original purpose of the point spread, essentially giving lowly underdogs a chance to compete (in the eyes of gamblers), has worked very well over the years. Powerhouses across the country have won national championships with losing records against the spread (2017 Alabama, 2007 LSU, 2006 Florida). And otherwise forgotten programs have won the hearts of avid gamblers with gaudy returns on their gambling investments. It’s a way of turning the entire game upside down. But does it really level the gambling playing field?
For purposes of this piece, I’d like to single out 6 head coaches with long tenures (8+ years as a HC) who have won a conference or national coach of the year award. The longevity requirement rules out Lincoln Riley, Coach O, Kirby Smart and Ryan Day from the discussion. I might stash that group for another piece dissecting coaches in their first 3 years with a major program.
The group that did make the grade all have significant hardware in their trophy cases and provide a case study in line-setting. Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Brian Kelly, Jimbo Fisher, Dan Mullen and James Franklin have all coached on the big stage as favorites and, as a result, have incentivized bookmakers to handicap their games carefully. Let’s see how they’ve done against the spread as head coaches:
- James Franklin 67-48-3 (58.3% | +14.2 units)
- Dabo Swinney 87-65-1 (57.2% | +15.5 units)
- Jimbo Fisher 69-53 (56.5% | +10.7 units)
- Nick Saban 165-132-2 (55.5% | +19.8 units)
- Dan Mullen 78-63 (55.3% | +8.7 units)
- Brian Kelly 105-90-6 (53.8% | +6 units)
Blindly backing any of these coaches would have yielded a positive return on your money, but there’s a significant disparity between Franklin and Kelly. The 4.5-percent differential can be attributed largely to their early head coaching days. Franklin posted a surprising 25-14 ATS record as Vandy’s leading man, while Brian Kelly floundered against the spread with just a mediocre 20-17 record during his time at Cincinnati. Three of the four coaches in the middle of the standings have won national titles, and Mullen helped Mississippi State reach unprecedented heights while in Starkville. Which got me thinking, how did this group perform when they had a bullseye on their chests? That’s to say, how did they do as heavy favorites (28+ pts)?
- Dan Mullen 12-7-1 (63.2% | +4.3 units)
- Jimbo Fisher 20-12 (62.5% | +6.8 units)
- Dabo Swinney 19-12 (61.3% | +5.8 units)
- James Franklin 8-6-1 (57.1% | +1.4 units)
- Nick Saban 31-24 (56.4% | +4.6 units)
- Brian Kelly 3-4 (42.9% | -1.4 units)
The fact that half of this list was above 60 percent is shocking. This really speaks to the college game which is still judged by human beings. Style points matter and this group has no problem putting up huge numbers to impress the Playoff Committee. Combing through results, two things popped out. The first is that Notre Dame has only played 7 games as a 4-touchdown or larger favorite in the past decade. The Irish used to be the butt of jokes when it came to poor scheduling, but they’ve managed to nearly abstain from true cupcakes without the benefit of a set conference schedule. The second factoid that was of interest was Nick Saban’s ATS performance as a major favorite. During his time at Michigan State and LSU from 1995 to 2004, Saban amassed a perfect 6-0 record against the spread as a 4-touchdown plus favorite. Since he spurned the Miami Dolphins for the top job in Tuscaloosa, he’s just 25-24 in such scenarios.
My main takeaway from this exercise is that if you’re tempted to take a huge favorite, make sure it’s an elite program with a coach who has an established record of beating the tar out of his opponents. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for possible heartbreak via a backdoor cover.
Do Special Teams Matter?
CBS’ NFL Today owned the airwaves in the 1970s and ’80s, and its analysis of football through a sports gambling lens brought Las Vegas right into American living rooms across the country. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder handicapped games each Sunday morning with Brent Musburger by his side, providing casual fans with insight via a 15-foot checklist.
A few things caught my attention the very first time I saw a recording of The Greek’s segment. The first was team speed, an element of football that is just as important in today’s spread-oriented game as it was in the ground-and-pound ’80s. The second was the significance he gave special teams. As you can see in the picture above, he gave weight to both return and coverage teams (Special Teams) and the kicking game (Punting and Placekicking). Field position and kicking accuracy remain meaningful metrics in today’s game. And luckily for sports gamblers, the advent of advanced statistics has helped quantify the true value of special teams as a whole.
For purposes of this recap, I’ll be examining Football Outsiders’ FEI rankings. The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency, representing the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. It boils down every team’s offensive, defensive and special teams efficiency into a single number and then rates them against all other FBS programs.
With a quality rating system at my disposal, it became relatively easy to see if there existed a correlation between elite special teams play and a profitable ATS win-loss record. I started by pulling data on the top 10 rated special teams units from the past 5 years. Here is a breakdown of the 2019 top 10 and their respective ATS records.
Eight teams in the top 10 finished with profitable ATS records. I wondered if this was an anomaly given the fact that all 10 schools finished the 2019 season with winning records straight-up. As I dug deeper, it became clear that this was an excellent long term strategy. Since 2015, teams that place in the top 10 of FEI’s special teams rankings are 364-294 (55.3% | +39.6 Units) ATS. Given the volume of games, a winning percentage of 55.3-percent yields an ROI of 6 percent. Any long-term college football gambling strategy that returns between 5 and 10 percent is considered worthwhile.
So given its lucrative track record, what is the best way to identify an elite special teams unit? Generally speaking, coaching matters a great deal when it comes to special teams, from personnel management to in-game tactics. Virginia Tech, for example, regularly found itself in the FEI top 10 under Frank Beamer, a testament to his creativity and insistence on playing defensive starters on special teams. So when looking for the next team with a significant special teams edge, I’m stalking coaches.
Chris Partridge was Michigan’s special teams coordinator between 2016 and 2019. During that time, the Wolverines finished in the FEI top 3 twice. Partridge has now moved to Ole Miss as a co-defensive coordinator, joining a staff with an excellent special teams track record. One of Lane Kiffin’s first hires upon arriving in Oxford was Blake Gideon, stealing the rising star away from Houston. His impact on the 2019 ST unit for the Cougars was truly unbelievable. Under Gideon, Houston was No. 1 in the country in both blocked punts (5) and blocked kicks (6). The Cougars also led the American Athletic Conference in kick return defense (17.6) and net punting (43.6). Thanks in large part to these two coaching acquisitions, I’m anticipating a major turnaround for Ole Miss’ ST unit (77th, 2019), which should equate to a strong ATS record for the Rebels in 2020.
The second program and name that jumped off the page were Kansas State and Sean Synder. The Wildcats finished in the FEI top 3 twice under Snyder, with a 1st-place finish in 2017. The former All-American punter and son of College Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder has been a tremendous asset to K-State over the years but has now taken his coaching talents west to remake the USC special teams. Much like Ole Miss, the Trojans were awful on special teams a year ago (95th), which means that Synder’s impact could change their ATS fate overnight. The Trojans finished last season 7-6 ATS, but failed to cover 2 of those 6 losses by single digits. Field position and/or a blocked kick could have reversed their fortunes.
One final team to keep an eye on is Penn State. Joe Lorig was a major coaching acquisition last spring for PSU. James Franklin pried Lorig away from Mike Norvell’s staff at Memphis. Lorig had shepherded the nation’s top special teams unit in 2016 and led Penn State to a 5th-place finish in his first season in Happy Valley last fall. I’d expect more of the same as the Nittany Lions return their placekicker (Jake Pinegar) and the explosive Journey Brown for kickoff return duties.
Sports Betting 101: Teasers
Stringing together wins over the course of a football season can feel like a grind. And bad beats, inexplicable play-calling and erratic kickers are enough to push a gambler to the edge. In those desperate times, in need of a season-changing win, many have turned to the teaser for a quick buck. Well, I’m here to tell you there’s a reason the house always wins and one of those reasons is the teaser.
Much like a parlay, a teaser requires a player to successfully string together a series of bets. The player must win all linked bets to cash. Unlike a parlay, a teaser provides players with a set amount of points to move the point spread or total in their favor. The amount of points a player moves the spread or total and the number of games involved determines how much a player can win. Traditional or standard teasers move the line 6 points in a football game and pay out -110, which means that a player can net $100 on a bet risking $110. Here is an example of a teaser at work:
- USC vs. Alabama-13.5
- North Dakota State at Oregon-10.5
In this hypothetical, the player wants to wager on both favorites.
- USC vs. Alabama-7.5
- North Dakota State @ Oregon-4.5
The allure of a quick payday persuades many gamblers to bundle a larger number of games, which is where they usually get into trouble. On a standard 6-point teaser, the payouts are as follows:
- 2-teamer -110
- 3-teamer +165
- 4-teamer +265
- 5-teamer +410
- 6-teamer +610
Another option for players is to select teasers that offer more points. Most online sportsbooks offer teasers for football and basketball at 6, 6.5, 7, and 7.5 points. The more points you’re playing with, the lower the payouts. Here is what the payouts on a 7.5-point football teaser look like for comparison:
- 2-teamer -150
- 3-teamer +120
- 4-teamer +185
- 5-teamer +270
- 6-teamer +380
If this quick tutorial has done the opposite of its intended purpose, and you now want to incorporate teasers into your regular weekend action, well I can’t stop you. But I can offer a tried and true piece of advice for first-time teaser bettors. Always be cognizant of key numbers.
In football, a key number refers to a final margin of 3, 7, and to a lesser extent, 10 and 14. The reason that these key numbers are important is that they represent the 4 most common margins of victory. Since 2010, these 4 margins have accounted for 29.8% of all college football outcomes. So if you’re teasing a favorite from 8.5-points to 2.5-points, that’s a wise decision because you’ve picked up 2 key numbers (7 & 3) with that leg of the teaser. Conversely, if you were to move a team from a 4-point favorite to a 2-point underdog, you would be missing out on the key number of 3, not extracting enough value from the teaser, and essentially banking on an outright win. As a personal rule of thumb, if I’m interested in a few teams that are favorites in the 2-to-6-point range, I rarely consider using them in a teaser because I can’t pick up enough key numbers. On the flip side, if I really like a team as an 8- or 8.5-point underdog, I jump at the opportunity to bump them up to 14 or 14.5 in a teaser because I’m acquiring 2 key numbers.
From The Vault
One of the great parts of college football is that before the season starts, you never know which sleepy town could find itself smack dab in the middle of the national title chase. In some cases, it’s a program playing spoiler as Iowa State did in 2011. The Cyclones shocked Oklahoma State in Ames as a 27-point underdog and subsequently ruined the Pokes’ only real chance at an undisputed national title. In this week’s segment of FTV, we examine the perfect storm of hype, Heisman hopefuls, and national title intrigue that descended upon the Big XII’s western outpost, Lubbock, Texas.
2008: Week 10 — No. 1 Texas at No. 7 Texas Tech
Talk about a “where were you?” moment in college football history. I would imagine most readers can still hear Brent Musburger’s voice on the final call as Harrell connected with Crabtree along the sideline. But what’s wonderful about this game is all of the Easter Eggs. From forgotten Heisman campaigns with presidential themes, to a walk-on kicker who was plucked directly from the stands, this game was overloaded with backstories. Then you have all the future pros popping up left and right. The Ravens’ Justin Tucker gets the game started with a kickoff and the audience is quickly introduced to future NFL All-Pro Earl Thomas in the Longhorns’ secondary, coached by defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Texas Tech, not to be outdone, had 3 future FBS head coaches working as assistants in Lincoln Riley, Seth Littrell and Ruffin McNeill. So keep your eyes peeled for some great cameos throughout the game. And try your best to refrain from fast-forwarding to the end because it wasn’t just the final moments that made this game great, there were wild highlights throughout.
So set up a Zoom hangout, share the prop bets with friends, and fire up the YouTube link to get through these thin sports-watching times.
3 Player Prop Bets:
- Colt McCoy Total Yards-36.5 vs. Graham Harrell’s Total Yards
- Michael Crabtree’s Receiving Yards-39.5 vs. Jordan Shipley’s All-Purpose Yards
- Will a player under 5’10” score a TD in the game?
3 Game Prop Bets:
- First score of the game: FG, Offensive TD, Defensive TD, or Safety
- Longest touchdown of the game O/U 66.5 Yards
- Over/Under 1.5 non-offensive touchdowns
3 Announcer Props:
- Who is Mike Leach’s new celebrity friend? Donald Trump, Eva Mendes or Usher?
- Over/Under 2.5 times Brent Musburger says “You are looking live…”
- What did Crabtree attribute the last play to? Poor defense, a dream he had or an exotic formation?