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Determining college football stability for 2020

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

April 28, 2020 09:35 PM
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Geoff Collins of Georgia Tech

If you’re one of the many readers of “Point Spread Weekly” who have been with us since the opening of the 2017 football season, you will recognize my methodology on college football stability. I offer the analysis at the beginning of every season and for the campaign’s first four weeks. It is one of the foremost strategies I employ every year to find value early. The thought behind it is that teams 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 new coaches or coordinators always present hurdles. Eventually teams might overcome these hurdles, but the thought is that it doesn’t 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 the amount of preseason preparation done can vary greatly from book to book and bettor to bettor. Because of this, those setting the numbers can have huge misses. Doing the homework early has become one of the most important aspects for college football bettors hoping to enjoy a successful campaign. Bettors who scour publications, such as the VSiN “College Football Betting Guide,” before the season tend to be best prepared once Week 1 rolls around.

Many reasons dictate why things can change dramatically from one season to the next, among them the four-year eligibility rules, the pressure on coaching staffs and player transgressions off the field. As a result, significant turnover occurs from year to year on the field and on the sidelines. Bettors expecting to see the same thing they watched from a team at the end of the previous season are most often startled at the change. 

Being a numbers guy and always looking for quantitative advantages in betting, I like to conduct an exercise that quantifies the level of stability for each program. I figure the higher level of stability, the better the chances for success, particularly early in the season. 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 eight 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. In those eight years, I have never experienced a losing record by playing the games on the lists for the first four weeks. Of course, these numbers can be improved by factoring in other strategies or by more closely examining the individual factors of instability, but as a standalone strategy, the success level is tough to beat.

When the season arrives, I will put together lists in each of the first four weeks detailing the top mismatches. A stability mismatch score of 8 is the minimum on which I will consider a play in this process.

Here are the basics for how I determine each team’s total stability score. The score is determined by five factors: head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, quarterback and  returning starters. Here is how the scores are determined:

Returning Head Coach Points

Same coach as 2019: 4 points

New coach for 2020: 0 points

Returning Offensive Coordinator Points

Same coordinator as 2019: 3 points

New coordinator for 2020: 0 points

Returning Defensive Coordinator Points

Same coordinator as 2019: 3 points

New coordinator for 2020: 0 points

Returning Starting Quarterback Points

Same quarterback as 2019: 4 points

New quarterback for 2020: 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

Many teams this season are in very stable or very unsettling situations. In fact, seven teams have stability scores of 18, and six teams have scores of 3 or less. 

Highly stable teams with scores of 18 or higher

Last year only three teams had scores of 18 or higher — BYU, Hawaii and Western Michigan. All three went to bowl games. This year seven teams have scores of 18, and considering the maximum score is 19, this is a pretty big number. These programs figure to be in good shape for the coming season, at least early.

GEORGIA TECH (ACC): 18

This will be the second year of the Geoff Collins era, and the prospects for a successful campaign are a lot better than they were a year ago, when the Yellow Jackets were on the opposite list. That team finished 3-9 SU and 3-8 ATS. With 19 starters back and a highly respected 2020 recruiting class stepping onto campus, Collins has a lot to build on. However, with a nonconference slate that includes UCF, Notre Dame and Georgia, this team’s better won-lost record might come against the spread when compared to outright.

MIAMI, OHIO (MAC): 18

Miami of Ohio finally turned the corner in 2019 by winning a MAC title. The RedHawks had endured a pretty rough era since their 10-win season of 2010, averaging just 3.75 wins per season since. The 2020 team looks capable of winning the title, with 17 starters back and coach Chuck Martin’s staff intact for a seventh season. Miami will face Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in two of its first three games, potential landmines for those bigger conference favorites. 

NORTH CAROLINA (ACC): 18

North Carolina was one of the country’s biggest surprises last season and lost to Clemson by just one point. That was Mack Brown’s first year as coach at UNC, and the lineup was a work in progress. This year’s version will be a much more solidified unit, with 17 starters back, including a Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Sam Howell. When we last saw the Tar Heels, they were dismantling Temple in the Military Bowl 55-13. In fact, in the last three games, UNC outscored its opponents 152-30. This could be a dangerous squad in 2020.

PURDUE (BIG TEN): 18

On the surface, Pudue’s 4-8 season of 2019 was an obvious disappointment after qualifying for bowl games in back-to-back years. However, the Boilermakers were much more competitive than the record showed and were a gold mine for bettors, going 8-4 ATS. Four losses were by a TD or less, so with a healthy core of 17 starters back and the last two recruiting classes highly respected, coach Jeff Brohm’s team has several signs to look for in a resurgent program. Don’t be surprised to see Purdue finish off those close games while continuing to reward bettors.

STANFORD (PAC-12): 18

Many of Stanford’s struggles last season can be attributed to the injury to veteran QB K.J. Costello. He played only five games in a disjointed season. After a decade of success that produced 10.2 wins per season, the Cardinal dipped to 4-8 in 2019. This year’s team is loaded with experience and talent, and even though Costello has transferred to Mississippi State, former top-rated recruit Davis Mills showed potential in 2019 and could be poised for a big year.

TENNESSEE (SEC): 18

After some tumultuous times in the early going, third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt could be on the verge of bringing Tennessee football back to prominence. After failing to even earn bowl bids in 2017 and ’18, the Vols won their fourth straight bowl in December. That 23-22 win over Indiana was their sixth straight to end the 2019 season, and the experienced 2020 team will ride that momentum into this season. Last year’s group improved on both sides of the ball in the second half of the season, and UT fans are rightly optimistic.

UAB (CONFERENCE USA): 18

Despite losing the Conference USA title game and the New Orleans Bowl, the 2019 season was another successful campaign for a UAB program that was out of football just four years ago. What Bill Clark has done in Birmingham has been nothing short of miraculous. The program is 28-13 with three bowl appearances since restarting football before the 2017 season. The 2020 Blazers will be the most experienced and stable group Clark has had with 18 starters back.

Unstable teams with scores of 3 or lower

Before the 2019 season, five teams had scores of 3 or lower. And North Carolina was the only one that had a winning record outright or against the spread. The five combined for a record of 17-44 SU and 21-36 ATS (36.8%). The evidence for fading the following unstable teams in 2020 is pretty strong. 

HAWAII (MOUNTAIN WEST): 2

Hawaii won 10 games last season, but the immediate future will be a huge challenge for new coach Todd Graham. The silver lining is that Graham is a veteran, having been with four programs, most recently Arizona State. He will inherit a team with just half its starters back and losing prolific QB Cole McDonald. His staff is new, at least half his starters will be new and his program’s two latest recruiting classes were rated its worst in many years. This team should be on your fade list for 2020.

MICHIGAN STATE (BIG TEN): 2

The Michigan State athletic program has come under fire, most recently for football recruiting violations. Former coach Mark Dantonio is gone because of it. Making matters worse, the program is coming off back-to-back 7-6 seasons, an unacceptable level for a team that had won double-digit games six of the previous eight years. New coach Mel Tucker inherits a mess. A new quarterback will be under center, and only 10 starters are back. This is a highly volatile situation.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (SEC): 2

In many programs facing unstable situations, prospects are bleak. But not many experts are looking at the many changes at Mississippi State with that same pessimism. In fact, a lot of excitement is in the air with the arrival of new coach Mike Leach. Leach brings his prolific Air Raid offense, and it will be intriguing to see how it fares in the SEC. Mississippi State returns only 12 starters and Leach must break in a new quarterback, but the last two versions of the Bulldogs were stagnant offensively and tough to watch. History says MSU is still a team to fade early in the season, though two of its first four opponents are the next two teams I’m about to detail, New Mexico and Arkansas.

NEW MEXICO (MOUNTAIN WEST): 2

New Mexico hopes its team has bottomed out after a 2-10 season in 2019. However, with a stability score of 2 for 2020, things could get worse before they get better for new coach Danny Gonzales. The Lobos lost their last eight games of 2019, the last seven by double digits. Only 12 starters are back. Gonzales has a mountain to climb in getting this program back to success.

ARKANSAS (SEC): 3

Arkansas has endured back-to-back 2-10 seasons, its worst two-year showing since 1931-32. It’s fair to say this program has bottomed out and there is nowhere to go but up for new coach Sam Pittman. With that in mind, this is still a very unstable situation, and my methodology says the Razorbacks should be faded in the first four weeks against stable teams. But with 14 starters back, several strong recruiting classes in tow and Florida transfer QB Feleipe Franks ready to take the reins, this team could get noticeably better as the season wears on.

WASHINGTON STATE (PAC-12): 3

With coach Mike Leach having left for Mississippi State, the void is enormous as the Cougars move on from a successful, exciting era. Fortunately, Washington State moved quickly in replacing Leach with Nick Rolovich, who guided Hawaii to a 10-win season a year ago. His brand of football is pretty explosive, too, so Cougars fans should like what they see in the near future. But with an entirely new staff and a new quarterback, they will have to be patient, as things typically start slowly for teams with that level of instability.

To view the chart accompanying this report, see this week's “Point Spread Weekly."

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