Vegas Wiseguy Report: NCAA Football ATS Outliers

Teddy Covers | Aug 26, 2013 | ARCHIVE

College football season kicks off on Thursday Night.  By Labor Day, we’ll have seen 88 teams play other FBS opponents and another 31 teams play FCS foes, available for betting at many top books on the ‘Extra Games’ board.  How important are those Week 1 results when we project forward?  What about Week 2 and Week 3? Read on to find out!

26 college football teams were pointspread outliers last year.  12 squads hit 75% or better ATS.  14 squads hit 25% or worse for the full season.  This falls within recent historical patterns – in every recent season, 20-25% of the teams are strong ‘bet-on’ or ‘bet against’ squads.  If we broaden the base to 67% ATS wins or losses for the full season, it’s not unusual to see 35-40% of the teams in college football fall into ‘bet-on’ or ‘bet-against’ categories.

So how do we identify these teams?  Most importantly, how do we identify them early in the season, before September is through, so we can take advantage of their success or ineptitude repeatedly before the market starts to catch up?

The top pointspread teams of 2012 were Fresno St, Northwestern, Utah St, San Jose St, Kent, Kansas St, Penn State, Northern Illinois, Ball St, Miami-Florida, Ole Miss and Cincinnati.

The bottom pointspread teams of 2012 were Virginia, Southern Miss, Idaho, Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Cal, Virginia Tech, Air Force, USC, Nevada, Florida St, Arkansas and South Florida.

In 2011, the 75%+ pointspread teams were Stanford, Arkansas St, Louisiana Tech, Houston, Western Kentucky, LSU, Oklahoma St, Kansas St and Vanderbilt.

The 25% or worse ATS teams were Central Michigan, Maryland, Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss, Middle Tennessee, Troy, Syracuse, Texas A&M, UNLV, Florida, Arizona St and Penn St.

In 2010 the best ATS teams were Hawaii, Ohio St, Virginia Tech, Central Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma St, North Carolina St, Arizona St, Northern Illinois and Auburn.

The very worst ATS teams that year?  Buffalo, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, UCLA, Florida Atlantic, Texas, Northwestern and Michigan.

I’m not all that interested in longer term sample sizes, and had no interest in going back ten years or twenty.  The betting markets have changed so dramatically in the last five years that longer sample sizes can be very misleading, doing as much harm as good.  Yes, lines were always set with wiseguy bettors in mind, but the public’s influence over global betting numbers has disappeared completely and the quants stat-based models have grown to rule the roost when it comes to market influence.  So my little three year sample is exactly what I was looking to do – a thorough examination of the NCAA pointspread marketplace right now.

Oklahoma State made the ‘good’ list twice.  So did Northern Illinois.  Kansas State was the only team to make it in back-to-back years.  Of the 29 teams that made the ‘good’ list over the three year span, those were the only three teams to make it more than once.

Among the 34 ‘bad’ list teams, only one – Florida Atlantic – made the list multiple times.  Four teams switched lists; either from very bad to very good ATS within the three year span or vice versa.  Northwestern made both lists. So did Ole Miss and Penn State.  All three of those teams were bad initially, then good a year or two later. Virginia Tech went from a great ATS team in 2010 to being a miserable one last year.

The fact that we don’t see many repeaters tells us that, in general, we’re looking for a new group of outliers each year.  The markets react and adjust -- eventually.  The vast majority of last year’s 26 outlier teams will be replaced by different teams in 2013. 

68 teams of the FBS college football world resided in the big six’ power conferences last year and both Notre Dame and BYU deserve to be grouped with the power conference teams, bringing the total up to 70.  Army, Navy and the Sun Belt, MAC, WAC, Mountain West and C-USA squads add up to 54 schools.  It’s a 55:45 ratio in favor of the bigger conferences. 

Over the three years, that ratio played out fairly evenly with the number of ‘good’ pointspread outliers: 16 teams from BCS Conferences were good; 13 from non-BCS conferences were good; a 55:45 ratio.  On the bad side, however, more major conference schools than smaller conference schools made the list, a 2:1 ratio (67%).  Based on recent evidence, it seems easier for schools facing tougher competition on a weekly basis to fall apart completely.  But, on the good side of the equation, non-BCS schools have just as good as short as their BCS brethren at beating up on their conference foes.

From here on out, for the sake of brevity, I’m just writing about the outlier squads from last year.  That being said the outlier results in both 2011 and 2010 were strikingly similar.

Straight up success for these teams correlated strongly with ATS success.  All 12 ‘good’ teams last year had a SU winning record (7-6 or better) and nine of the twelve won nine games or more.  The ‘bad’ group includes teams that went 0-12, 1-11, 1-11, 2-10, 2-10, 3-9, 3-9, 4-8 and 4-8,  Four of the five bowl teams from the ‘bad’ group finished 7-6 or 6-7, and all four had a weaker record than they did the previous season.  The only exception to that rule among weaklings was the 12-2 Florida State team that simply couldn’t cover pointspreads as chalk consistently.

Some very interesting trends start to develop when we look at Week 1 results.  The ‘good’ pointspread teams combined to go 10-1-1 ATS on the opening week of the season.  The ‘bad’ pointspread teams combined to go 4-10 ATS. In both Week 2 and Week 3, the good teams combined to go 9-3.  Bad teams went 4-10 ATS in Week 2 and 3-11 ATS in Week 3. 

As an aggregate group, this doesn’t tell us much.  But when we look at the full spectrum of the first three weeks, only four of the 12 ‘good’ pointspread teams went 3-0 ATS to open the season.  Most had a hiccup, pointspread wise, over the first three weeks; a hiccup that misled the market into thinking they weren’t as good as they actually were.  And many of those so called ‘hiccups’ were actually ugly losses!

Ole Miss got blown out at Texas 66-31.  Penn State was dominated at home by Ohio U.  Miami-FL was throttled 52-13 at Kansas State.  Northwestern blew a three TD lead on the road at Syracuse.  Kent lost 47-14 at Kentucky.  Northern Illinois gave up a season high 40 points to Army, barely winning. Those subpar results led to market perceptions that left each and every one of those squads undervalued for MONTHS, not just weeks, after the fact.

One other consistent factor among the ‘good’ teams was an upset or near upset early in the season.  Penn State came back in Week 2, losing by only 1 as double digit underdogs at Virginia. Fresno kept things interesting at Oregon.  Northwestern upset Vanderbilt.  San Jose State nearly knocked off Stanford in Palo Alto.  Northern Illinois led at Iowa in the fourth quarter before coming one point short of the upset.  Cincinnati upset Virginia Tech.  Utah State took Wisconsin to the wire.

The bad teams weren’t necessarily awful early.  Only five of the 14 squads started 0-3 ATS, and more than one team from this group had a winning pointspread record after three weeks.  But the bad teams had a remarkable commonality – an early season SU loss as chalk.  Arkansas lost as home as 30 point favorites against UL- Monroe.  Southern Miss lost by double digits as TD home favorites against East Carolina.    Kentucky got upset at home by Western Kentucky.  Virginia Tech lost SU by 18 as double digit favorites against Pitt.  Cal lost SU as double digit home favorites against Nevada.  Air Force lost as double digit chalk against UNLV. South Florida lost by double digits at home as TD favorites against Rutgers. 

Getting back to my original point – what do we look for early from these ATS outliers so we can identify as many as we can?  The good teams come from a relatively even mix of BCS and non-BCS conferences.  They tend to win Week 1 SU and ATS.  They tend to pull off a major upset or hang tough in near-upset fashion early on, telling us that they’re capable.  And they don’t tend to go 3-0 ATS to open the season, shining the pointspread spotlight on them.

The bad teams tend to come from BCS conferences more often than smaller conferences.  They tend to have an ugly SU loss as chalk, a clear early September red flag!  And, like the best teams, they don’t tend to start 0-3 ATS, attracting attention from discerning bettors.  Keep your eyes wide open for these outliers as NCAA action begins this week!