Did you stay up until 5am ET (or get up) to watch the first football game of the year live from Tokyo last weekend? I promised myself (and my wife) I wouldn’t, and so I went to bed at a normal time, but somehow I woke up at 4:45am ET for no reason whatsoever. I looked at the clock and my heart started racing. I felt like a kid who thinks he just heard Santa Claus early on Christmas morning and is going to get to open his presents soon. I quietly made my way to the couch and turned on the TV just in time for the game to start. I must admit I was impressed with the quality of the play and it felt good to be watching live NFL, regardless of the location, the time or the importance of the game. Football is back, let the fun begin!
Over the next few months, my columns will cover a host of topics related to betting on football, specifically the NFL. Before I start with those columns, I thought it might make a little sense to discuss the unique properties of college football and the NFL pre-season from a bookmaking point-of-view because they are up first on the sports calendar.
NFL Exhibition has increased in handle dramatically in recent years. It used to be that the only bettors this time of year were professionals trying to catch a few early wins using information from sources that bookmakers may not have access to. Sharp bettors would listen to local radio broadcasts, read local papers, etc. in an effort to find out how long certain key players would be in the game and bet before the books found out. Now, this information is given willingly by coaches at press conferences and spread across the Internet so quickly that there is little time for anyone to take advantage of it. Last Monday’s exhibition game between the Chiefs and Packers is a great example. Packers opened as 1.5-point favorites but then the news hit that the Packers’ starters were only going to be in the game for about 15 plays. Within minutes of that announcement, it was common knowledge and by game time the line was Chiefs -3 (it didn’t matter in the end because a thunderstorm cut the game short and all bets were off). The other result of the wide distribution of this information is a huge increase in the number of people betting these games. We are booking way more on Exhibition football games than we are on baseball games. I think betting has made football more exciting for a lot of fans and for them, September is just too far away!
Anyways, with respect to using preseason football to judge regular season success, I pay very little attention to wins and losses, as a lot of that has to do with politics. If a team had a great year, has brought back the same starters and coaches, and has sold out their season tickets, then they really have no reason to have to win their exhibition games. For those teams, the preseason is a time for the starters to run a few plays to work on their timing, work on some new formations, or to evaluate draft picks to build depth on the bench. For teams that struggled last year, or have new starters/coaches, and have loads of tickets left, the preseason takes on a more important role. Going 4-0 or 3-1 might help build confidence for fans (and ownership) and coaches in these situations make more of an attempt to win. Thus a 4-0 preseason team could very easily be worse than the squad that goes 0-4 in their exhibition games. Keep this in mind when you are betting preseason or looking to extrapolate exhibition results across a 16-game schedule.
What I do look for in preseason football are intangibles. How well does a team tackle? Does the offence look like its timing is down? Are there any players getting frustrated or arguing? If there are new coaches, how do the returning starters appear to be adjusting to the new system? I also like to watch specific rookies, to see how they are handling the adjustment to the size and speed of the pro game. Again, the actual score doesn’t matter that much to me, but a few notes scribbled in the margin can give you a big edge in September when you are undecided on a bet or a pick for your football pool.
That brings me to college football, where there is no pre-season-for most teams anyways. One of the coolest things about college football is that teams have the ability to manipulate their schedules. Some choose to open with easy games (or even stack their whole schedule with soft teams) while others look to make a big splash with a big opponent to kick things off. This year, we only need to look at the top few teams to see the range. Oklahoma opens with a visit from North Texas (North Texas were 33-point dogs at Texas last year to start both teams’ seasons so they seem to like being early season whipping posts). Miami opens at Louisiana Tech. Last time they played (2000) the Hurricanes were 41-point favorites. (Miami also opened the 2000 and 2002 season against Division I-AA schools McNeese State and Florida A&M so they seem to like getting their season started with a win). Compare that with Ohio State’s first game, a match-up with Washington and you see the difference. If Ohio State wins that first game in a big way, they will get a big jump in the polls and a lot of press which will help with things like TV revenues, ticket sales (although in their case they don’t need help) and even recruiting. But if they lose, their chance at a repeat could be over.
My point is that college teams don’t have any official preseason schedule so in the absence of an unboarded game (games like Miami-Florida A& M wouldn’t have a line at most books) there is no film to look at prior to making your first bet. There are also no opportunities for new starters to play at game speed before they are playing for real. This makes the number of returning starters a critical factor and as a result that stat is now included in most of the good college preview magazines. For example, a quick peek tells me the Sooners are returning 9 of 11 starters on defense, but just 6 of 11 on offence. Without considering any other factors, those numbers could indicate the defense will be a little quicker getting up to game speed than the offence will and would have me looking at the Under as a possible play. Compare that with Ohio State where all 11 starters are returning on offence (or so Maurice Clarett hopes) and just 6 on defense. Those numbers might make the Over a good place to start looking for a bet. There are a hundred different theories on how to use the number of returning starters to handicap early college games. I am not the best qualified by any stretch to be discussing them, but suffice it to say that if you are not looking at those numbers, you should be.
There are less than 2 weeks until the first college game and just over 3 weeks until the first NFL game. Looks there are still a couple of Christmas mornings to come!
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