Point Blank – September 2
Where the Hell was the Buyback?
Yesterday in this space there was the first edition of what will be the weekly Monday focus on taking a deeper look inside the NCAA results. But some of the most interesting action this time around happened at betting windows, over telephones, and via apps. As is so often the case, there were major line moves for the opening college week, with that card being one of the biggest challenges of the sports calendar year for the oddsmakers. But there were a couple of catches this time.
First, there was much more money wagered on underdogs than any opening week I can recall, over three decades worth of memory banks. That was confirmed when the usual reaching out for added info took place, after seeing the screen black out time after time. For some of us, studying the marketplace is every bit as important as evaluating the teams themselves, so that we can anticipate the fluctuations ahead. The unusual flow meant time to contact Bob Scucci, Race and Sports Director of Boyd Gaming, who has been on the front lines since the old Stardust days (Bob is the “George Harrison of Bookmakers”, a theme that will be developed here over time).
From Scooch – “Yes, I was surprised at the action on the underdogs. My assistant Jake and I had started calling the first Saturday of college football “sacrificial lamb Saturday” because all the top teams would play cupcakes, and lay 20, 30, 40 points! The last few years were not good to us as many of those games ran a little bit, and covered on top of it. That may be partially why we got some more dog play, though, as many of the favorites were inflated.”
So how do both Bettors and Bookmakers react to a shift in the market patterns? By tracing the source of the money. This was not “public” action – the parlay cards had their usual ratio of chalk circled, and the Nevada books were able to use their shredders for the overwhelming majority of those cards this weekend. But there was some sharp straight money in play, from a group that had a plan. More Scooch – “It did not appear like the money was coming in from all directions. It seemed like it came from the same small group.”
There is some tangible method behind that madness, which was discussed here on Friday (/pregame-forums/f/14/t/1022330.aspx) - under the new Playoff format, incentive has been greatly reduced for the prime contenders to aim for early style points. But that only explains part of it – there was also a lot of underdog money played into favorites that will not be a part of the Championship discussion in any way. While the numbers can bounce around in the higher pointspread tiers without the action being all that major, when key numbers get crossed in the lower ranges it can be a headache for Scucci and his brethren; it brings the fear of “Buyback”, and the potential of being middled. But that was the biggest fascination of this weekend - the Buyback was not there.
It started on Thursday night, when Vanderbilt went from an opener of -17, and a genuine settle-out of -14.5 a week prior to kickoff, all the way to -7.5 at post vs. Temple. On Saturday how about Purdue, which opened at -13 vs. Western Michigan, getting knocked down to -7, without those 7’s being turned back around? On Sunday night, Tennessee was reduced from -6.5 all the way to -3 vs. Utah State, again without much of anyone stepping in near kickoff to buy low on the favorite.
This was extremely unusual to see. In two of the instances there was significant money wagered on teams from lower-tier conferences (Temple and Utah State), on the road against SEC opponents. Naturally the public does not do that. But what did happen were public followers joining those bandwagons and tacking on, even at the worst of it. Someone was still betting Temple +8 in the moments leading up to kickoff. There were takers for Western Michigan at +8, despite the 13’s that existed earlier. Bettors were still willing to take Utah State at +4 and at +3.5, after the best of that line had disappeared. That created opportunities for someone to trust the oddsmakers and play “pong” to the “ping”, but there was precious little of that money entered into evidence.
When the counting was completed, the Sports Books came out OK. The Purdue game falling on nine would have been much more damaging in the past, but the late chalk money was not there (although LSU landing on four Saturday night did them no favors), and enough big favorites covered against the moves (Auburn, Notre Dame, USC, Baylor, etc.) to keep things relatively balanced. Meanwhile the one major power that drew the money, Florida State, never threatened the spread.
Now time to turn the page to the next chapter. Was this underdog money purely a Week #1 phenomenon, or will we see it again? That becomes a big part of the thought processes as the early board takes shape this week. If you have a favorite that you want to play, do you hold back to see if that money shows again, so that you can lay a cheaper price? If you want a big underdog, do you lock in now? There is so much more to this endeavor than stats and power ratings…
The Texas Offense: Sifting through the “Ashes”
What is certain is that David Ash will not be the QB for Texas this week vs. Brigham Young. What is not known is whether or not Ash will ever play again – this may be one head injury too many. So now time for the Sports Books to readjust, after the Longhorns were a painted -3.5 when the Ash news was announced. We have to readjust as well, but under the radar may be the fact that the QB position was not the only one burned for the Longhorns on Saturday, so there needs to be a close look at those remaining ashes.
First, Texas will be fine at QB eventually, though perhaps not this week. Tyronne Swoopes is a 6-4/245 playmaker with significant upside, bringing a run dimension to the attack that it did not have with Ash. Swoopes played in six games as a freshman LY, and got a lot of practice work with the first-team offense in spring and fall because Ash was handled carefully.
But here is the problem that Swoopes faces immediately – also being lost on Saturday was C Dominic Espinosa, the veteran mainstay of a precocious OL. The win over North Texas was his 40th career start, while the other four members of the unit combined had only 14 entering the game. He was replaced by red-shirt freshman Jake Raulerson, who subsequently had two miss-handled snap exchanges with Ash. The Espinosa injury may be the more important of the two this week.
Now Swoopes and that OL get little time to develop. Under Bronco Mendenhall, BYU runs some of the most complex defensive packages in college football, taking full advantage of the fact that because of their Mormon missions, he often has players that are a year or two older than their counterparts at other schools. Mendenhall can be counted on to have many tricks up his sleeve to confuse both Swoopes, and that young blocking corps. Texas can counter that with some simple ground-and-pound, behind that depth at RB, and that will be the starting point for the handicap when this game hits the board again.
In the Sights…
Last week there was a discussion here about how those +1.5’s on the Run Line could be more valuable than usual this September, given that the top teams in the pennant races have been more pitching-heavy than in the past, lacking the punch at the plate to get many margins. But it was difficult to envision that there would be a chance to actually back one of those contenders as the Play-On team for such a setting.
You can purchase the Nationals at +1.5 -140 in Los Angeles tonight (though you should not go any higher), and having that run to work with looms substantial with a Total sitting at 6 Under -125 (the first 5.5 is already out there). It shows the power of Clayton Kershaw’s name for such a line to be generated, but it is a classic example of the difference between winning the game, and getting a margin. The Dodgers are 18-4 in Kershaw’s starts this season, but just 12-10 as -1.5, and over the past five seasons it has been 100-53 behind their ace, but only 69-84 when a -1.5 is attached.
The Nationals are 33-10 as +1.5 since the All Star break, and 15-5 in that role behind Doug Fister this season. Fister continues to lack a certain “sex appeal” in the marketplace but he keeps his team in games, having allowed two runs or less in 14 of 20 starts, and he also turned a 24-8 as +1.5 in 2013 with the Tigers. The Washington bullpen does not bring any fatigue issues, so we can dare the Dodger offense to produce in this setting.