College football stability scores: Teams to back (or not) early

June 20, 2022 07:37 PM
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Longtime readers of VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly will recognize my methodology on college football stability. I offer the analysis at the beginning of every season, and to be exact, for the first four weeks of every season. 

It is one of the foremost strategies I employ to find early value. The idea is that teams that are in more stable year-to-year situations are better bets early while those that have undergone a lot of change in the offseason should be faded. The logic is fundamentally sound. Returning fewer starters, starting over at quarterback and welcoming in new head coaches or coordinators are always hurdles for teams to get over. They might eventually overcome these hurdles, but it doesn’t usually happen early, and oddsmakers don’t account for these factors enough in building their lines.

Having worked with people on both sides of the betting window for many years, I have found that preseason preparation can vary greatly from book to book, from bettor to bettor. Because of this, there can be huge misses by those setting the numbers. Just this spring we’ve seen books offering win totals that vary by as many as 2.5 for certain teams. Doing homework early has become one of the most important aspects for college football bettors. Those bettors that scour the various betting publications, such as the VSiN College Football Betting Guide, before the season tend to be best prepared once Week 1 rolls around. Other resources that I am certain to take in each spring are the Phil Steele annual pub and the work of Brad Powers, who makes regular VSiN appearances.

There are many reasons why things can change dramatically from one season to the next in college football, among them the four-year eligibility rules, the pressure now placed on coaching staffs at every level and of course player transgressions off the field. The result is that there is always significant turnover from year to year, on the field and the sidelines. Bettors expecting to see the same thing they watched from a team at the end of the prior season are most often startled at the change. Obviously, the transfer portal has also become a major factor in rosters changing from one year to the next. For the record, I consider a transfer quarterback who is expected to start for his team as a new quarterback, regardless of the starting experience he brings to the table. For 2022, there are numerous recognizable QBs who have found new starting homes.

I like to quantify the level of stability for each program. I figure that the higher level of stability, the better the chances for success for any team, particularly early in the season. Naturally putting a numerical grade to it makes it easier to spot this stability. Again, the feeling is that oddsmakers don’t adjust enough for the instability.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have implemented an early-season strategy that employs backing the teams with the greatest stability ratings in matchups against those in the most unstable situations. I can tell you that I have never experienced a losing record by playing the games on the list in the first four weeks of the season. The degree of success has varied during that span, but in all 10 years I have closed with a profit. Of course, these numbers can be improved by factoring in other successful handicapping strategies or by more closely examining the individual factors of instability, but as a stand-alone strategy, the success level is tough to beat.

In this week's edition of Point Spread Weekly, coming out Wednesday at VSiN.com, you can find a chart of the College Football Stability Scores for 2022. When the season arrives, I will put together lists in each of the first four weeks detailing the top mismatches. I have found that a Stability Mismatch score of 8 is the minimum on which I will consider a play.

Here are the basics for how I determine each team’s Total Stability Score. In essence, the score is determined from five stabilizing factors.

Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Defensive Coordinator, Quarterback and Overall Returning Starters. Here is how the scores are determined:

Returning Head Coach Points

— Yes, same Head Coach as 2021: 4 points

— No, new Head Coach for 2022: 0 points

Returning Offensive Coordinator Points

— Yes, same Offensive Coordinator as 2021: 3 points

— No, new Offensive Coordinator for 2022: 0 points

Returning Defensive Coordinator Points

— Yes, same Defensive Coordinator as 2021: 3 points

— No, new Defensive Coordinator for 2022: 0 points

Returning Starting Quarterback Points

— Yes, same Starting Quarterback as 2021: 4 points

— No, new Starting Quarterback for 2022: 0 points

Returning Starter Points

— 0-7 returning offensive and defensive starters: 0 points

— 8-9: 1 point

— 10-12: 2 points

— 13-16: 3 points

— 17-19: 4 points

— 20-22: 5 points

In the chart of the 131 FBS teams in Point Spread Weekly, you’ll see that there are teams this season in both very stable and very unsettling situations. In fact, there are a far greater number of “unstable” situations this season because of the super senior rule that was offered before 2021, allowing an additional year of eligibility because of COVID-19. Many teams last year brought back fifth-year seniors, which means other players were kept out of a starting spot. In fact, before the 2020 season, there were a total of 19 teams that were returning 17 starters or more. For 2021, there were 69 such teams, more than half of the total FBS programs. This year there are just 15. Furthermore, last year at this time, there were 89 teams that brought back their starting quarterback, along with eight entire starting offensive units and nine full defenses. For 2022, those numbers drop to 78 QBs, ZERO full offenses and just one intact defense (BYU). That said, there are also 28 new head coaches along with more than 130 coordinator changes, resulting in 14 teams with Stability Scores of 3 or lower, nine more than last year. Let’s dig into the teams on both ends of the stability scale.

Highly Stable Teams with scores of 18 or higher

In 2020, there were only three teams with scores of 18 or higher. For 2021, the number ballooned to 30. Keep in mind, the maximum score is 19. For 2022, there are eight teams that reach the 18-point benchmark. These programs figure to be in good shape for the coming season, at least early.

Boise State (Mountain West), 18: Boise State was just 7-5 last year in the first season under head coach Andy Avalos, an underachievement by program standards. All five of the losses were by 11 points or fewer, so with 17 starters back, including multi-year starting QB Hank Bachmeier, the expectations are once again high in Boise. This team is far more stable heading into 2022 than it was in 2021. The opener at Oregon State should be a good barometer.

Bowling Green (MAC), 18: The Bowling Green program has fallen on hard times, and you would have to think coach Scot Loeffler needs to produce this season to return in 2023. He has a lot of starters back, including senior QB Matt McDonald, who is just one of six returning starters at that key position in the MAC. This team needs to rebound this season. 

BYU (Independent), 18: BYU was very good last year, winning 10 games. It has a chance to be great this season, perhaps as good as it was in the 2020 COVID season, with a nation-high 19 starters back, including its entire starting defensive unit. There are several high-profile games on the schedule, including Baylor, Oregon, Notre Dame and Boise State. If the Cougars win all of those, we could be talking about an undefeated season.

Kansas (Big 12), 18: Almost all of the preseason publications again have Kansas landing at the bottom of the Big 12 standings in 2022, despite the experience edge the Jayhawks will be returning. In fact, other than TCU, which shares honors with 17 starters back, no other conference opponent has more than 14. Unlike TCU, one of KU’s returnees is its starting QB, redshirt sophomore QB Jalon Daniels, who has shown promise in his season and a half. Coach Lance Leipold’s team has Tennessee Tech, Duke, and a weakened Iowa State team at home in its first five games. I’m not going to call those all wins, but this team did beat a 1.5-win prop for me last year.

Mississippi State (SEC), 18: Mike Leach begins his third year at Mississippi State and so far the results have been somewhat underwhelming. He has his QB back for 2022 in Will Rogers, who had a very productive 2021. There are 16 other starters back, but the SEC West is expected to be tough. It’s going to take an upset or two to get to the nine-win mark, but I would expect this team to be competitive and worth your betting dollar.

Northern Illinois (MAC), 18: Northern Illinois returned to the MAC title game as well as a bowl game in 2021, once very familiar territory for the program. The 9-5 season may serve as a building block for bigger and better things this fall, as the Huskies have 17 starters back, including QB Rocky Lombardi, who performed well after transferring from Michigan State. This is among the best teams in the MAC.

NC State (ACC), 18: NC State had a very disappointing recruiting class come in this spring, but that shouldn’t take much of the expectation away from what figures to be a very successful 2022 for coach Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack were 9-3 last year with two losses coming by a combined four points. Unfortunately, their Holiday Bowl game versus UCLA was canceled. Still, with 17 starters back, including QB Devin Leary, this team should be in the hunt for the conference title. The big showdown with Clemson comes on the road on Oct. 1. That’s game No. 5. If CFB Stability patterns hold, this team should be rolling after the first four weeks.

Stanford (Pac-12), 18: A team can go from unstable one season to extremely stable the next if unproven players blossom in their first year in a new system. Such could be the case for Stanford, which seems to have sacrificed the 2021 season for better hopes in 2022. It was coach David Shaw’s worst season in Palo Alto, as his team finished 3-9. That said, 17 returning starters gained valuable experience, including QB Tanner McKee, who posted good numbers despite the team’s offense sinking to just 20.4 points per game. I expect this team to be far more competitive than a year ago, when it lost its final four games by 31.8 PPG.

Unstable Teams with scores of 3 or lower

Over the last three seasons, 16 teams have entered the season with Stability Scores of three or lower. The combined record of those teams wound up being 76-92 ATS, good for just 45.2%. This shows a solid foundational system to use in fading teams that have undergone a lot of changes from one season to the next. For 2022, there are 14 teams with a score of three or lower. 

Akron (MAC), 3: Akron was one of the more stable teams in the country heading into the 2021 season but wound up starting three quarterbacks along the way in finishing 2-10. Five of the losses were by 35 points or more. Now, although 16 starters are back, new coach Joe Moorhead and his staff inherit a mess. With just a 7-35 record since the last bowl appearance in 2017, Akron is a huge rebuilding job.

Colorado State (Mountain West), 2: Interestingly, new Colorado State coach Jay Norvell left what is the nation’s most unstable situation at Nevada for one that isn’t much better. In fact, the Rams’ 3-9 record in 2021, compared with Nevada’s 8-5 mark, might mean that this rebuilding job may take longer. CSU is just 11-29 in its last 40 games and brings back just 12 starters.

Duke (ACC), 2: Duke is in real trouble, and if you think it has bottomed out over the last two seasons, you might want to wait until after the 2022 season to make that judgment. This year’s team, under the tutelage of first-time head coach Mike Elko, will be the least experienced Blue Devils group in quite a while. Only 11 starters are back from a team that failed to win a conference game last season. After being outscored by 17 PPG in 2021, this is not a team I would back, especially early.

Florida International (Conference USA), 1: The Panthers were 1-11 last season and bring back just nine starting players in terms of experience. Suffice to say, expectations are not high for new coach Mike MacIntyre, who comes over from Colorado State. It’s not often you find a team that played in eight games with spreads in the -2 to + 13 range fail to win any of them. There are some hungry teams on what would be an easy schedule for most programs that want a piece of FIU.

Georgia Southern (Sun Belt), 3: Clay Helton is by far the most well-known head coach that Georgia Southern’s football program has ever employed. Will it be enough to bring in top-flight recruits and eventually more wins? The expectations aren’t very high in 2022 for the former head man at USC, although 13 returning starters from a 3-9 team and the addition of QB Kyle Vantrease from Buffalo make this job better than others on the list. I wouldn’t bet on the Eagles early, though.

Hawaii (Mountain West), 3: Hawaii has not fallen off as much as it may seem. The Rainbow Warriors have qualified for bowl games in back-to-back seasons and are 11-11 over the last two seasons. This year is going to be a major challenge, however, as new coach Timmy Chang, yes, the former quarterback here, has just six starters back and no upper-level college coaching experience to lean back on. The highest rank he made was an offensive assistant at Nevada. I wouldn’t count on another bowl bid.

Louisiana Tech (Conference USA), 3: Sonny Cumbie, new coach at Louisiana Tech, has spent a lot of years in the state of Texas coaching football. His hiring has already had an impact on the quarterback position for the Bulldogs as he was able to bring in potential starters from TCU and Texas Tech for 2022. He takes over a team that was 3-9 last season but was outscored by only 6.0 PPG. Fourteen starters return. Cumbie’s team has the looks of one that might be better come November.

LSU (SEC), 2: New coach Brian Kelly won’t be relying too heavily on the team that was embarrassed by Kansas State in the Texas Bowl this past January, and he’s probably better off for it. There are only 10 starters back, but he has recruited very well, and this is a program that always has a ton of talent. The new QB is Jayden Daniels from Arizona State. I’m not sure what to expect from this team in a tough SEC West this season, but I’m confident Kelly will eventually turn the Tigers into winners.

Nevada (Mountain West), 0: Nevada and Hawaii share the nation’s low honors with just six starters returning from their 2021 teams. Nevada’s program will look a lot different as new coach Ken Wilson comes in from Oregon with a defensive pedigree. Those familiar with this program know that the offensive side of the ball has received the lion’s share of attention of late. The team has been successful with that strategy. Adequately replacing QB Carson Strong will be job No. 1.

New Mexico State (Independent), 3: It will be an interesting transition for new coach Jerry Kill in taking over at New Mexico State as he is used to coaching at the upper levels of college football. This is a program in college football’s basement, having eclipsed the three-win mark just once in the last decade. He has 13 starters back for 2022, but unfortunately, nine of them are from a defense that yielded in excess of 40 PPG. Don’t expect much this fall, even though Kill’s team is taking on a number of teams also in a transitional year.

Oklahoma (Big 12), 2: The 2022 season is going to be a real test for the Oklahoma program and new coach Brent Venables. Sooners fans’ expectations are always very high, and this team still has the talent to compete on the national stage. Will Venables’ defensive-minded approach be able to take this program to another level? With just 10 returning starters, will the Sooners be able to hold off teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas? This is one of the more intriguing coaching moves of the offseason. Be careful in laying too many points early.

Oregon (Pac-12), 3: New Oregon coach Dan Lanning had to travel farther than any other new coach in arriving at his position. The trip from Georgia, where he served as defensive coordinator, was essentially cross country. The program he left and the one he takes over have been at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the way they do things as well. The Bulldog way has been physical and grind, the Oregon way has been fast and flashy. Interestingly, Lanning may have his quarterback of 2022 from the SEC, in Auburn transfer Bo Nix. Fourteen other starters return to a team that should remain near the top of the Pac-12.

USC (Pac-12), 2: Clearly the Lincoln Riley move to USC was a pivotal point in the offseason coaching carousel, and it lit up the transfer portal as well. Riley has brought in an elite class of recruits and transfers to join what was already a very talented group of players. Can Riley’s offensive prowess bring the Trojans’ program back into national prominence? I think so, and QB Caleb Williams figures to be the biggest beneficiary. All of that considered, the biggest job Riley faces is in rebuilding a defense that allowed more than 30 PPG last season, ugly numbers by program standards. Fortunately, only three starters are back from that unit, so the rebuild could be quick.

Virginia Tech (ACC), 2: Several of the programs I have detailed on the unstable list have been known for their high expectations. Winning is the only option. Such is the case at Virginia Tech, where Brent Pry tries to pick up the pieces after a disappointing run under Justin Fuente that ended in an embarrassing 54-10 bowl loss to Maryland. Pry comes from Penn State, where he was defensive coordinator. He has just 11 starters back from last year’s 6-7 team and will be starting over at quarterback, where he figures to choose from a pair of transfers out of Marshall and South Carolina.

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