Nine Week 1 CFB stability mismatches

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I have employed a strategy I call College Football Stability Mismatches for about 10 years, and I steadfastly believe in its foundational principles. To me this is a winning strategy, and the more of this type of logic you come to rely on in your own handicapping, the more successful you will be. Let’s look at what makes for a stability mismatch.

Having worked with people on both sides of the betting window for many years, I have found that the amount of preseason preparation people take on can vary greatly from book to book and bettor to bettor. Because of this, we might see huge misses in those setting the numbers. Doing early homework has become one of the most important aspects for college football bettors hoping to enjoy successful campaigns. Bettors who scour betting publications, such as the VSiN College Football Betting Guide, before the season tend to be best prepared when Week 1 rolls around.

For many reasons, a program’s prospects can change dramatically from one season to the next. Among them are the four-year eligibility rules, the pressure on coaching staffs and players’ off-the-field transgressions. This results in significant year-to-year turnover 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 often startled at the change. After the impact of COVID-19, the number of factors affecting teams’ stability levels in 2021 is greater than ever.

Being a numbers guy, I do an exercise I call quantifying the level of stability for each program. The idea is that the higher level of stability, the better the chances for a team’s success, particularly early in the season. Putting a numerical grade to it makes it easier to spot stability mismatches. With the point spread considered, the feeling is that oddsmakers don’t adjust enough for instability factors.

I have implemented an early-season strategy that employs backing the teams with the greatest stability ratings and fading those in the most unstable situations. In the last 10 years I have never experienced a losing record by using this method to play the games on the lists for the first four weeks of the season. It has never been wildly successful, but typically I’ll win about 60% of the games I play on this methodology. Of course, these numbers can be improved by factoring in other successful handicapping strategies. But as a standalone plan, the success level is tough to beat.

I’ve put together a list of the top stability mismatches for Week 1. I have found that a stability mismatch score of 8 is the minimum on which I will consider a play using this thought process. For the rest of the first month of the season, I will continue to offer the weekly mismatches for you to use. I typically believe that after two or three games, oddsmakers can catch up and fully adjust for teams’ changes. However, you should feel comfortable employing this strategy in the first few weeks while the dust settles.

Here are the basics for how to determine each team’s total stability score. In essence, the score is determined from five stabilizing factors — coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, quarterback and returning starters. You will find a breakdown of all 130 FBS teams and their stability scores on the chart accompanying this report, but in short, here is how the scores are determined:

Returning Coach Points

Yes, same coach as 2020: 4 points

No, new coach for 2021: 0 points

Returning Offensive Coordinator Points

Yes, same coordinator as 2020: 3 points

No, new coordinator for 2021: 0 points

Returning Defensive Coordinator Points

Yes, same coordinator as 2020: 3 points

No, new coordinator for 2021: 0 points

Returning Starting Quarterback Points

Yes, same starting quarterback as 2020: 4 points

No, new starting quarterback for 2021: 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

As you analyze the chart, we see far fewer unstable situations this season because of the additional year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19. In fact, before the 2020 season, a total of 19 teams returned 17 or more starters. For 2021, there are 69 such teams — more than half of FBS programs! Furthermore, 89 teams are bringing back their starting quarterbacks, and eight entire starting offensive units return, along with nine full defenses. We will certainly see a lot of recognizable players on the field this fall. However, 18 new coaches and 82 new coordinators were hired, resulting in five teams with stability scores of 3 or less, just one fewer than last year.

Highly Stable Teams With Scores Of 19

Last year seven teams had scores of 19, and in the previous season, there were only three. For 2021, there are 30 teams that meet that benchmark for stability. The maximum score is 19, and because of the added stability this season, I am choosing to focus only on those perfect scores. These programs figure to be in good shape for the coming season, at least early.

AKRON (MAC) — 19

Akron was only 1-5 last season for second-year coach Tom Arth, but his program gained valuable experience. Most of his expected postseason departures decided to stick around for another season with the added year of eligibility. In fact, a healthy 86% of this team’s production is back, including starting QB Zach Gibson. But with most MAC teams coming back in good shape, it’s hard to foresee massive improvement here as a benefit of the perfect stability score.

ARIZONA STATE (Pac-12) — 19

Herm Edwards’ 2020 Arizona State season could best be described as incomplete. The Sun Devils lost to USC and UCLA but beat Oregon State and rival Arizona. That was Edwards’ third season in Tempe. Year 4 has a lot of promise, with 20 total starters back, including one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Jayden Daniels, who has a sparkling 22-3 TD-INT ratio in two years as a starter to go along with nearly 600 yards rushing and seven TDs. ASU also ran for 264+  yards per game in its four games last season. It’s no surprise DraftKings set this team at 9.0 wins for 2021. 

BALL STATE (MAC) — 19

When we left off with Ball State, the Cardinals were completing a memorable 7-1 season that included a MAC title as well as an impressive Arizona Bowl win over San Jose State. Coach Mike Neu’s team won its final five games outright and against the spread and has 20 starters back. Quarterback Drew Plitt is the biggest name of that bunch. The 2021 schedule features a challenging nonconference slate, with games at home against Army and at Penn State and Wyoming. This team might have to be perfect in league play to beat its DraftKings win prop of 9. If stability matters, it could be.

EAST CAROLINA (AAC) — 19

East Carolina was just 3-6 last season but will be carrying the momentum of season-ending wins over Temple and SMU into the 2021 campaign. The Pirates will also have the benefit of bringing back 20 starters from that team, including QB Holton Ahlers, who will be starting his fourth season in Greenville. This will be coach Mike Houston’s third year atop the program and probably his best shot at breaking the trend of 33% winning (4-8 and 3-6). The DraftKings win total is set at 4.5, but Houston surely has higher goals.

FRESNO STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

Jake Haener took over at quarterback for Fresno State last year and gained a great deal of experience without losing a season of eligibility. He ended up leading the Bulldogs to a 3-3 record after throwing for over 2,000 yards and 14 TDs in what is normally half a season. He might be the most important of the 20 returning starters for coach Kalen DeBoer, who gets a bit of a redo for his rookie year. End-of-year losses to Nevada and New Mexico spoiled what was otherwise an encouraging year for DeBoer’s team. A DraftKings win prop of 6.0 awaits, as do tough nonconference trips to UCLA and Oregon.

LIBERTY (INDEPENDENT) — 19

Few teams in the country were more excited to get back to work in 2021 than Liberty. The Flames are in very good shape for coach Hugh Freeze’s third season after a 10-1 campaign that culminated with a 37-34 win over previously unbeaten Coastal Carolina in one of the year’s best bowl games. Quarterback Malik Willis had a huge season, throwing for 2,250 yards, rushing for 944 and accounting for 34 touchdowns. He is back along with 19 other starters. This year’s schedule is very manageable, with the toughest game at Ole Miss. The DraftKings win prop of 9.0 could be a little modest.

MINNESOTA (BIG TEN) — 19

Minnesota was coming off a record-breaking 11-win season in 2019, but COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Golden Gophers, who suffered from opt-outs and a loss of momentum. Minnesota failed to even reach a bowl game after going 3-4, falling to Wisconsin in the waning seconds of the season finale. For 2021, fifth-year coach P.J. Fleck brings back 20 starters, including fourth-year starting QB Tanner Morgan. The DraftKings win prop is set at 7.0, and the challenges come early with a season opener at home Thursday against Ohio State. I don’t see this team finishing .500 or less, but this 7.0 could be one of the sharpest numbers on the board.

NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

The return of QB Carson Strong gives Nevada one of the best offenses in the Mountain West and a very good shot at beating the DraftKings season win prop of 7.5. The Wolf Pack won seven games last year in a season shortened to nine games, including a bowl victory over Tulane. Strong threw for 2,858 yards and 27 TDs in those nine games. All 22 starters return for coach Jay Norvell, whose team has won at least seven games in each of the last three seasons. 

RUTGERS (BIG TEN) — 19

Rutgers made an exciting coaching hire last year in bringing back Greg Schiano, who led the program to its best seasons in the early part of the 2010s. I’m not sure even the most optimistic Scarlet Knights fans could have imagined even a bit of the resurgence the program experienced in his first year back. While 3-6 isn’t an overwhelming success, the three wins matched the total of the previous two years combined, and the three conference wins tied for the most since Schiano left in 2011. With 20 starters back and his staff in place, Schiano has a chance for an even better run in 2021. With a winnable nonconference slate on tap, Rutgers has a chance to head to Michigan on Sept. 25 at 3-0.

SAN JOSE STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

When QB Nick Starkel announced after San Jose State’s bowl game last year that he was coming back, it laid the foundation for continued success for the Spartans. He is just one of 20 starters back for coach Brent Brennan’s team, who received a bowl bid for the first time since 2015. Continued success is expected, with DraftKings setting the season win total at 7.5. Recapturing the momentum it had at 7-0 before the blowout loss to Ball State could be tough, considering the second game on the slate is at USC, the start of a crucial three-game trip.

TOLEDO (MAC) — 19

After an incredible run of success, Toledo has failed to reach a bowl game in each of the last two seasons — although in any other year, last season’s 4-3 record would have qualified. Still, sixth-year coach Jason Candle is counting on big things from his returning starters, as all 22 are back. The offense averaged 35 ppg in the seven contests, so it should be one of the better units in the MAC again. The win total is set at 8.0, so expect this team to be back competing at its customary pre-2019 season levels.

UCLA (PAC-12) — 19

If Chip Kelly is ever going to have success at UCLA, this has to be the season. He has 20 starters back, including senior QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who seems to get more prolific in the Kelly offense with each season. The pressure is mounting on Kelly, having not made a bowl game in any of his three seasons. That streak should end, with the DraftKings win total set at 7.0. The Bruins face a huge contest in Week 2 when they host LSU. A win there and people might start thinking highly of the 2021 prospects. 

Unstable Teams With Scores Of 3 Or Lower

Over the last two seasons, 11 teams have gone into the fall with stability scores of 3 or lower. The combined record of those teams wound up being 43-61 ATS, good for just 41.3%. 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 2021, five teams meet the criteria of scoring 3 or less.

TENNESSEE (SEC) — 2

Perhaps a good way to describe how Jeremy Pruitt left the Tennessee program would be in flames. He was fired after an internal investigation revealed recruiting improprieties. Josh Heupel takes over after a good run at UCF, having averaged 40+  ppg in four straight seasons. He brings a new staff as well. His QB competition figures to be down to end-of-2020 starter Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker. Only 11 total starters are back, and the schedule is as tough as always in the SEC, including trips to Florida and Alabama. This team probably should be on your early fade list as the country’s most unstable situation.

UTAH STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 3

Blake Anderson comes to Logan after a solid coaching run at Arkansas State, but his last team was his worst. He figures to completely overhaul the systems in place under predecessor Gary Andersen, preferring a high-tempo aerial assault. Utah State actually gained more yardage on the ground last year than it did passing, a rarity in today’s game. That group also scored only 15.5 ppg, so a change was in order. The natural assumption is that a team like this can only get better. However, this instability is tougher to overcome in college than at the pro level, so expect continued struggles for the Aggies.

TEXAS (BIG 12) — 3

Texas heads into the season with a lot of question marks. The Tom Herman era ended in disappointment, and most experts figured he would have been around much longer and have had a bigger impact in recruiting. The program was turned over to Steve Sarkisian, the unofficial architect of the prolific offenses of Alabama of the last few years. But the Longhorns didn’t struggle to score. In fact, they averaged 42 ppg in senior QB Sam Ehlinger’s final season. With Ehlinger gone, Sarkisian will have to fill the massive void left at the most important position. The new coach has experience at the FBS level but never really broke through to elite success at Washington or USC. I’d expect a lot of oddsmakers and other experts to get it wrong with this program, especially early. Texas could face some roadblocks in the first month or so before getting into the thick of the Big 12 slate.

SOUTH CAROLINA (SEC) — 2

Another SEC East team makes our list of programs with stability scores of 3 or less, perhaps leaving the door open for a team like Missouri or Kentucky to rise. South Carolina is off a horrible 2-8 season, and first-time head coach Shane Beamer takes the reins. The Beamer name is well known in college football, so most analysts will be more optimistic than not in looking at this program’s fortunes. I have to disagree. Completely new staff, new quarterback and just 13 starters returning — it adds up to what looks to be another tough year in Columbia. Unstable teams struggle early, but that is the winnable part of the schedule. I can’t see this team winning any of its final five games.

ARIZONA (PAC-12) — 3

New coach Jedd Fisch left one of the NFL’s top franchises in New England to take over a college program that has fallen off the cliff. Arizona was 0-5 last season, getting outscored 39.8-17.4 per game. It was actually fortunate that the season was as short as it was so the misery didn’t extend any longer. Fisch brings in a new staff, and though he probably would have been changed out anyhow, QB Grant Gunnell has moved on. Oddsmakers at DraftKings don’t see a lot of promise, setting the Wildcats’ season win O/U at 2.5. That is probably generous considering how bad this team was in 2020 combined with a very tough schedule in and out of conference.

What we are really interested in is finding spots where this information is most useful, and from my experience, looking for stability mismatches is a great way to do it. Simply compare the stability scores of the teams in a given matchup and calculate the difference. The larger the number, the bigger the supposed mismatch. This doesn’t mean the team with the higher stability score is better, just more stable. We are then assuming that oddsmakers have not accounted for this factor enough when setting their lines. 

Here are the top stability mismatches for Week 1.

THURSDAY

(139) EAST CAROLINA vs. (140) APPALACHIAN STATE (-10.5)

Stability advantage: East Carolina by 8

Analysis: This line has dropped from ASU -13.5 to -10.5 since opening. Perhaps most bettors are keen to the fact that the Pirates seem to be in pretty good shape this season, returning 20 starters, including prolific QB Holton Ahlers, who has 17 starts under his belt. It is the third season in the Mike Houston era, and ECU could be poised for a breakout after averaging 30.2 ppg last year. Appalachian State is off a disappointing season by the new standards that have been set there, having gone 9-3 in 2020. The Mountaineers return 17 starters but start fresh at quarterback and welcome a new offensive coordinator in Frank Ponce.

(143) BOWLING GREEN at (144) TENNESSEE (-35.5)

Stability advantage: Bowling Green by 12

Analysis: The Tennessee opening-game line has ballooned in the weeks since going live, as it started as Vols -28.5 and has moved a full touchdown despite their unstable situation. New coach Josh Heupel, who also brings in new coordinators, has seen at least 25 players transfer, leaving Tennessee with the lowest stability score (2) of any team in the country. Bowling Green is by no means a hotbed for talent right now but is the more stable team in this matchup — and getting 35.5 points, BGSU has a lot of wiggle room for bettors.

FRIDAY

(151) DUKE (-6.5) at (152) CHARLOTTE 

Stability advantage: Charlotte by 8

Analysis: Charlotte has a chance to make a big opening statement when it welcomes in-state foe Duke. The Blue Devils lost QB Chase Brice to Appalachian State and bring in a new offensive coordinator and nine other starters after going 2-9 last year. They are in a difficult road spot here, laying 6.5 points to a team that figures to be very hungry to knock off a Power 5 opponent. The 49ers have some reason for optimism in 2021 after going 2-4 a year ago as they bring back 13 starters for coach Will Healy, including starting QB Chris Reynolds. Charlotte also will have payback as motivation, as Duke rolled 53-19 last season in Durham.

SATURDAY

(169) FRESNO STATE at (170) OREGON (-20.5)

Stability advantage: Fresno State by 8

Analysis: Fresno State’s season got off to a fast start last week as the Bulldogs crushed UConn 45-0. They enter the second season of the Kalen DeBoer era with optimism and led by junior QB Jake Haener, who put up solid numbers last season after transferring from Washington. He is one of 19 starters back. Oregon has a lot of talent as usual, but putting all the new pieces together will be a task for coach Mario Cristobal. He gets back several key opt-outs from last year and will turn to Boston College transfer Anthony Brown as his quarterback. The Ducks are expected to contend for the Pac-12 title, but laying nearly three TDs to a solid Fresno State club could be asking a lot.

(187) LOUISIANA at (188) TEXAS (-8.5)

Stability advantage: Louisiana by 13

Analysis: Texas starts a new era with former Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian taking over as coach. Sarkisian’s offenses at ’Bama were record-setting, so it could be a bit of a reality check for him in Austin. While quite good under Tom Herman, the Longhorns’ offense must replace veteran QB starter Sam Ehlinger, who is off to the NFL. Sarkisian brings a whole new staff with him, and the opening contest could prove difficult facing a Louisiana team that went 10-1 last year in the Sun Belt and returns 20 starters.

(199) AKRON at (200) AUBURN (-37)

Stability advantage: Akron by 12

Analysis: Auburn is one of the biggest favorites on the Week 1 board despite bringing in a new coaching staff after a 6-5 finish last season. Bryan Harsin, formerly of Boise State, takes over as coach and gets 15 starters back, including QB Bo Nix. Akron is one of the many teams in the MAC that brings back a ton of experience for 2021, as 18 starters return, including multi-threat QB Kato Nelson, who has 20 starts to his credit but missed 2020. The Zips aren’t expected to be one of the top teams in their conference, but catching 37 points against a team that scored only 25.1 ppg  last season looks enticing.

(201) UTSA at (202) ILLINOIS (-5.5)

Stability advantage: UTSA by 8

Analysis: Illinois was the one play-against team from Week 0 on my stability plays but upset Nebraska to foil that option. We’ll see how the Illini fare as favorites as they face upstart Texas-San Antonio, which is expected to contend for the Conference USA crown. The Roadrunners are led by junior QB Frank Harris and bring back 21 starters from the 7-5 team of a year ago. That team scored a five-year-high 28.3 ppg and figures to be a live dog to the Illini, who will have to show the same focus they did last week in turning back a conference rival. This could easily be seen as a game they look past after that big win.

(221) UTAH STATE at (222) WASHINGTON STATE (-16.5) 

Stability advantage: Washington State by 15

Analysis: Blake Anderson, formerly of Arkansas State, faces one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the country at Utah State. He takes over a team that was 1-5 last season and scored just 15.5 ppg. He does bring his quarterback with him from ASU, as the name Logan Bonner should sound familiar to anyone who follows Sun Belt football. This figures to be a tough opener, however, with Washington State looking for better things in Year 2 under Nick Rolovich. His team was 1-3 in last year’s disjointed campaign. His quarterback figures to be Jarrett Guarantano, who formerly started at Tennessee. Otherwise, 18 starters are back for the Cougars.

SUNDAY

(223) NOTRE DAME (-7.5) at (224) FLORIDA STATE

Stability advantage: Florida State by 9

Analysis: This has to be the biggest game Florida State has hosted in at least five years as the Seminoles look to claw out of a funk in which they have gone 20-26 since 2016. There is a lot to be excited about in Tallahassee this fall, as coach Mike Norvell starts his second season and his first in normalcy. He turns to 17 returning starters as the foundation to rebuild. His quarterback will be McKenzie Milton, who had been out of football for two years after a devastating injury while starring for UCF. Notre Dame lost its defensive coordinator to Vanderbilt and its winningest quarterback in Ian book. Coach Brian Kelly’s team is one of just a few with fewer than 10 starters back, and going on the road for a nationally televised first game against win-starved FSU will be a challenge, especially as a road favorite.

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