Travel: Road teams less than 100 miles from home thrive

It’s always more comfortable to sleep in your own bed.

Home-field advantage can be attributed in part to an electric in-stadium atmosphere.

The vocal support of fans can have an impact on the referees (read Scorecasting for more), and familiarity also helps home teams.

But sometimes visitors get that same benefit.

Betting on visitors in short-distance road games – what we’ll call the hidden home-field advantage – is utilizing one of the most overlooked edges in college football.

Before I started writing about college football, I worked in the front office of a minor-league baseball team. There’s a practice in MiLB that likely translates to a wide variety of sports: when your opponent is located within a certain radius, you play a commuter series.

In short, the visitors sleep at home, report to work a little earlier than usual, and take a bus to and from the game. The visiting team saves money otherwise spent on 30-plus hotel rooms.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, especially since many college football programs take their players to a nearby hotel the night before home games. But even that is a familiar routine, especially by season’s end.

But college football teams playing within 100 miles of home transform what looks like a traditional road trip into something in between, sleeping in their own beds.

In 2018, there were 43 such games in FBS. The road team covered the spread 27 times for a 61.0 percent success rate.

Were all of those games treated like a commuter series? Probably not. But let’s compare that to more than 650 games in which an FBS road team traveled over 100 miles to its opponent’s campus: the road team covered just more than 51 percent of the time.

A 43-game sample is very small. Even 650 might not justify sweeping conclusions.

Going back to 2013, we can see more evidence of a pattern.

There are 27 FBS series in which teams play an annual rivalry or compete in the same conference, and travel fewer than 100 miles to play one another.

These are games we’re all familiar with, such as Duke-North Carolina, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Oregon-Oregon State. Others we may not have realized were so close include Wyoming-Colorado State, Toledo-Eastern Michigan and Alabama-Mississippi State.

Last year, using this 27-series subset, visitors posted a 19-7-1 record against the spread for a 73.1 percent success rate. From 2013-17, the visitors were 79-45-6 (63.7% ATS).

Here’s the breakdown over the last six years:

TeamOpp.DistanceAway WsAway LsPushes
North CarolinaDuke11 mi.510
AkronKent State12 mi.141
USCUCLA15 mi.330
Bowling GreenToledo23 mi.501
N.C. StateUNC28 mi.510
TCUSMU32 mi.411
CincinnatiMiami (Ohio)40 mi.420
SMUNorth Texas40 mi.230
BYUUtah45 mi.400
NMSUUTEP46 mi.231
OregonOregon State47 mi.510
CalStanford48 mi.330
FAUFIU49 mi.240
ToledoEMU52 mi.240
WyomingColo. State64 mi.510
MichiganMich. State65 mi.330
Ball StateMiami (Ohio)72 mi.130
GeorgiaGeorgia Tech72 mi.510
KentuckyLouisville79 mi.411
Wake ForestDuke81 mi.321
OklahomaOkla. State82 mi.510
KansasKansas State84 mi.420
UCFUSF84 mi.510
AlabamaMiss. State85 mi.231
TCUBaylor89 mi.510
PurdueIllinois91 mi.510
Miss. StateOle Miss95 mi.420

As you can see from the chart above, betting on the visiting team playing in a familiar opponents’ home stadium within 100 miles of its own campus has
provided great value over the last six seasons.

Are we cherry-picking? Is the sample size big enough, and is the timeline long enough to establish a true edge in similar situations? Maybe, maybe not.

But there’s logic at play given these situations provide a hidden homefield advantage for the visiting team that’s playing a road game without enduring a flight, hotel stay in an unfamiliar city and other aspects associated with long trips.

Either way, all 27 series continue in 2019, so we have 27 opportunities to test this theory. First up: Utah at BYU on Thursday, Aug. 29 in the season opener for the two teams.

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