College football is a wonky sport.
Major League Baseball features a 162-game regular season. The NBA plays 82 regular-season games. The NFL is at 16, and is talking about expanding by reducing preseason games.
College football? Most teams play 12, and that’s if you count glorified exhibitions like Alabama vs. The Citadel.
It’s the most meaningful regular season in sports.
From a betting standpoint, it’s also unique. A program can get lucky or unlucky in three games and its final record becomes cemented in history, forever misleading those who didn’t watch or haven’t seen the box scores.
That also means that we can find betting edges if we study enough data.
Every offseason, I pour through specific stats for every FBS team as part of my handicapping.
I look at things like record in one-possession games, fumble recovery rate, Pythagorean win expectation, opponent field goal percentage, starts lost due to injury, returning starters, four-year recruiting rankings and year-over-year schedule changes.
This helps me find little edges where the market is not properly valuing certain teams.
Below, I share five of the teams that I think got really unlucky or really lucky in 2018, and then look at whether there’s value on their season win total.
UNLUCKY IN 2018
Tulsa Golden Hurricane
After a 10-3 season in 2016, the Golden Hurricane are 5-19 since, putting pressure on fifth-year coach Philip Montgomery.
Athlon Sports quoted an AAC assistant coach in their preview of 2019 Tulsa: “Honestly, no coach could really tell you why things haven’t worked out lately. Is it culture? They should be better than they’ve been.”
Two reasons for the struggles are major regression on offense and playing in a competitive AAC.
Another reason: plain ol’ bad luck.
Tulsa finished 1-4 in one-possession games in 2018 for a net minus-3, behind only Arkansas and North Carolina among 130 FBS teams. And that doesn’t include a nine-point loss against Arkansas State.
The Golden Hurricane (3-9) were more like a 4.6-win team, according to their Pythagorean win expectation, a formula that spits out how many games a team should’ve won based on points scored and points allowed.
Tulsa was one of just nine teams nationally with a Pythagorean win expectation more than 1.5 games higher than their final record. It played more like a five-win team than a three-win team.
Montgomery’s team also gave up 44 non-offensive points in 2018, 129th out of 130 teams.
To boot, opposing placekickers made 19 of 21 field goals (90.5 percent). Only seven other FBS teams had worse luck in the kicking game, which usually isn’t based on skill. (Michigan and LSU were two of those seven.)
According to Phil Steele, only seven teams lost more starts due to injury last year than Tulsa (40).
Tulsa’s defense quietly got a lot better last season, and punter Thomas Bennett should contend for all-conference honors.
If Baylor transfer QB Zach Smith thrives in Montgomery’s offense, Tulsa can overachieve.
The schedule includes games against San Jose State, SMU, Navy and East Carolina, teams that finished a combined 12-37 last season. Wyoming and Tulane are winnable tossup games. That’s discounting any major upsets.
The Play: 5Dimes lists Tulsa’s season win total at 4.5, and the over includes a +130 return. It’s worth a flier.
EAST CAROLINA PIRATES
Everyone agreed coach Scottie Montgomery needed to go after three consecutive 3-9 seasons.
Fortunately for new coach Mike Houston, East Carolina isn’t as far from becoming bowl eligible as it may seem.
First, there’s decent talent on the roster in Greenville, N.C. Let’s look at the four-year recruiting rankings in the AAC East, according to 247Sports:
1. UCF (No. 62)
2. Cincinnati (No. 69)
3. South Florida (No. 72)
4. East Carolina (No. 77)
5. Temple (No. 94)
6. UConn (No. 114)
There’s a gap up to UCF, but it’s not huge. Cincinnati, lauded for how it has overhauled its roster in the last few years, and USF have similar talent.
East Carolina recovered just 11 of 31 fumbles in its games last year, or 35.5 percent. Only two teams – Florida State and San Diego State – had worse fumble luck in 2018.
Data proves that fumble recovery is luck, with teams regressing to the mean of 50 percent over time. With average luck, East Carolina would’ve gained an extra four or five possessions last year.
ECU opponents made every single field goal, which is also unlucky. Only Michigan and Maryland also saw opponents fail to miss a field goal in 2018.
East Carolina’s minus-14 turnover margin ranked ahead of only UConn and UTEP out of 130 FBS teams. Turnover margins can vary wildly by year. According to Steele, since 1991, teams with a double-digit negative turnover margin have won more games the next season 67 percent of the time.
There’s also the sense that Montgomery lost the team before he got fired, and there’s a renewed enthusiasm and attention to detail at practice under Houston, who won the 2016 FCS national title at James Madison.
East Carolina’s defense quietly improved by allowing 1.6 fewer yards per play last season.
The Pirates lost to North Carolina A&T, South Florida and Tulane by a combined 18 points. ECU had a turnover margin of minus-5 in those games.
This year’s schedule includes games against Gardner-Webb, William & Mary, Old Dominion and UConn.
With better turnover luck and a few misses from opposing kickers, East Carolina should win at least four games.
The Play: 5Dimes lists East Carolina’s season win total at 3.5, but with -150 juice to the over. Once it gets posted at other books, if you can find over 3.5 at -120 or better, grab it fast.
Others: Air Force, Arkansas, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska, North Carolina, SMU, Texas State, Virginia Tech
LUCKY TEAMS IN 2018
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame lost to eventual national champion Clemson, 30-3, in the College Football Playoff semifinals after a 12-0 regular season.
Remember the last time that happened?
Alabama humiliated Notre Dame, 42-14, in the 2013 BCS National Championship. The Fighting Irish proceeded to go 8-4 in the 2013 regular season.
That team had Tommy Rees as a first-year starting quarterback. This team returns Ian Book, probably a top 10 quarterback nationally. As a result, almost everyone projects them as a preseason top 10 team.
However, Notre Dame wasn’t close to a 12-0 team statistically.
The Fighting Irish went 5-0 in one-possession games, best in the country.
Just six Power 5 programs have won five or more one-possession games without a loss in the last decade. They lost an average of three more games the next season. That would suggest 9-3 would be pretty normal for 2019 Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s Pythagorean win expectation was 10.2, suggesting that the Fighting Irish (12-1) were more like a 10-3 team.
Notre Dame opponents also made just 14 of 25 field goal attempts (56.0 percent). Just 11 FBS teams had better luck with opposing placekickers.
Vanderbilt missed a field goal and finished minus-3 in turnovers in a 22-17 loss, including a fumble into its own end zone that negated a potential first-and-goal for the Commodores. Pitt missed two field goals and failed to recover a Book fumble in a 19-14 loss. Both games took place in South Bend.
NFL teams drafted six players from Notre Dame, and three of those were early entries. Backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush transferred to UCF, making it imperative the team keep Book healthy.
According to Steele, this Notre Dame team ranks 98th nationally in returning experience.
Notre Dame’s four-year recruiting rankings sit at No. 14. That’s good, but it’s right between Oregon and Florida State, and a far cry from Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma. It’s not as easy for the team to plug-and-play.
Then there’s the schedule. The Fighting Irish play at Georgia, at Michigan and at Stanford. Notre Dame also hosts Virginia, USC and Virginia Tech.
The Play: Notre Dame’s season win total is 9.5 with heavy juice to the under. So the betting market already is pricing in a decline by the Irish. But games against Virginia and Virginia Tech come one week after road trips to Athens and Ann Arbor, and are good spots to target betting against Brian Kelly’s team.
It’s a long hold, but I also really like Notre Dame to not make the College Football Playoff at -600. If you invest now and you cash, you’ll get an annualized ROI of 16.5 percent, probably much better than you’d expect to get in a general index fund tracking the stock market in the next six months.
You know the saying, “it’s better to be lucky than good?” Well, UCF proved it’s better to be lucky AND good during its 25-game win streak.
That luck turned, though, when back-to-back AAC Offensive Player of the Year McKenzie Milton suffered a career-threatening leg injury late last season.
UCF still finished 12-1 with a one-possession Fiesta Bowl loss to LSU.
The Knights recovered 23 of 35 fumbles in their games (65.7 percent), generating an extra six possessions due to good luck. UCF scored 3.5 points per possession, so fumble luck generated about 21 points for a team that didn’t need much help.
UCF also finished with a plus-14 turnover margin, third-best in the country. According to Steele, teams with positive double-digit turnover margins have worse records the next season about 64 percent of the time.
The Knights allowed just six non-offensive points to opponents, tied for 13th-best in FBS. If you think that’s a function of a good team, you’re partially right – but that doesn’t explain how teams like Louisville, Vanderbilt and Tulane fared even better in that category.
UCF is now 5-1 in one-possession games the last two seasons, which is not sustainable. (Remember that fortunate 31-30 escape in Memphis last year?) One of the Knights’ regular-season games against a Power 5 opponent got canceled due to a hurricane for a second consecutive season.
Games against Stanford (pick’em on 5Dimes), Pitt (UCF -2), Cincinnati (UCF -3.5), Houston and South Florida probably will prevent a third consecutive unbeaten regular season for UCF.
The Play: 5Dimes is offering -120 juice on under 10 wins. I think there’s a good chance that UCF wins exactly 10 games. But if you’re comfortable with the likelihood of a push, I don’t think you’ll lose money on that bet.
You also may want to target Stanford as a pick’em choice (Sept. 21 in Orlando), especially if UCF erases questions about its starting quarterback with strong performances in Weeks 1 and 2 against Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic, respectively, and enters that game with a nice price in the market.
I was heavy on Florida entering last season.
I figured QB Feleipe Franks would improve under Dan Mullen, and that replacing Jim McElwain’s embarrassing strength program would boost an experienced, inherently talented offensive line. The Gators also were due some better injury luck.
That one worked out well as Florida finished 10-3.
Now, Lindy’s Sports (No. 6), Athlon Sports (No. 8), Street & Smith (No. 8) and Phil Steele (No. 10) all project the Gators as a top 10 team and a College Football Playoff contender in 2019.
To that, I say not so fast.
Florida was fortunate to finish 3-0 in one-possession games against Mississippi State, LSU and South Carolina.
The Gators also had tremendous turnover luck, recovering 21 of 33 fumbles (63.6 percent), leading to a plus-12 turnover margin, the team’s best mark since 2012 and tied for seventh nationally.
That’s unlikely to happen again.
Then look at the schedule.
Florida figures to get revenge on Kentucky, which finally broke through in 2018. But Georgia is a monster, as is LSU in Baton Rouge. Tennessee, Florida State and Auburn could be much improved. A game at Missouri isn’t a guarantee.
Plus, the Gators replace a home game against Colorado State with a neutral-site game against a Miami team that also should be much better than it was in 2018.
Florida ranks No. 6 nationally in the 247Sports four-year recruiting rankings. But Georgia (No. 2), LSU (No. 3), Auburn (No. 7), Florida State (No. 15), Tennessee (No. 17), South Carolina (No. 19) and Miami (No. 23) are right there.
Mullen has done an excellent job in his career of beating lesser talented teams, but he’s struggled against ranked opponents with similar or better talent.
Five Florida players left early for the NFL draft. The team also lost transfers in buckets, and must rebuild its offensive line.
Depth could be a significant issue if Florida faces injuries.
The Play: BetOnline lists Florida’s season win total at 9, with significant juice on the under at -125. That’s not enough value for me to play. But if I can find a friend who really believes in the Gators, I’d be happy to bet on Florida not finishing inside the final Associated Press Top 10 this season.
Others: Army, Georgia Southern, Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Northern Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State, Texas, UAB