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We’re over a month into the college football season, and most teams have played three or four games. This makes it a good time to start taking stock of how teams might fare the rest of the way. It can be a real find to uncover the teams that will still be the big point-spread winners in 2021. In the last eight seasons, 32 teams have won more than 75 percent or at least 11 games ATS in a given campaign, as the chart indicates.
With just a few games gone in 2021, it leaves plenty of time to take advantage of these big-money teams — if we can uncover them. Let’s look at some of the shared characteristics of those 32 top-performing teams after three games into those seasons to see if we can determine the big-money teams of 2021 and then ride them the rest of the way.
If you’re thinking you’ve already missed the boat on these teams because they are off to great starts, think again. The 32 teams in the chart combined to go 230-62 ATS (78.7 percent) the rest of the way after their first three games! It is certainly worth our while to try to lock down these teams.
Narrowing the list of potential ATS breakout teams for 2021
The chart shows several variables and characteristics of teams that have enjoyed stellar ATS seasons over the last eight years. We will look at the 2021 teams and eliminate candidates that don’t fit the shared criteria of the successful teams of the past.
Trait No. 1: Winning record after three games
Of the 32 teams in the chart, 28 had winning records after three games. That would produce a list of 80 teams for 2021.
Trait No. 2: Winning ATS record after three games
Of the 32 teams in the chart, 27 had winning ATS records after three games. From our 80-team list, we would have 50 teams left that would still qualify for our big-money criteria.
Trait No. 3: Showing capable offense already
Another 30 of our 32 ATS-excelling teams were scoring at least 28 ppg after their first three games. We eliminate only six teams from our narrowed list of 50 for 2021, leaving us with 44 potential teams.
Trait No. 4: Defensive benchmark for ATS success about 30 ppg
The next eliminator has been defensive points per game. To keep our same criteria of about 27 to 30 teams qualifying, the benchmark for defensive points allowed is 30 ppg. Eliminating the two teams in 2021 still on our list that don’t meet that threshold leaves us with 42.
Trait No. 5: Same head coach as last season
Of the 32 teams on the chart, only two had new coaches that season. Take out this year’s three remaining teams with new coaches and our list is trimmed to 39.
Trait No. 6: Had at least 11 starters back from previous year’s team
A group of 27 teams from the chart shows that the successful teams brought back at least 11 starters. Checking our list for 2021, and because of the extra year of eligibility, we don’t have to eliminate any of our 39 teams!
Trait No. 7: Running same offensive system as last year under same coordinator
Another key building block in successful ATS seasons is the consistency of running the same offensive system for the same offensive coordinator. Of the 32 teams in our chart of the last eight seasons, 24 fit this bill. Applying this qualifier to our list of 39 teams eliminates nine more, leaving us with 30.
Trait No. 8: Same starting quarterback from previous season
A lot of success in college football stems from stability. One of the key traits is a returning starting quarterback. A total of 22 of the 32 teams that have enjoyed great ATS seasons over the last eight years have had a returning starter at QB. After eliminating the teams for 2021 with new quarterbacks, we are down to 23.
Trait No. 9: Won fewer than 2/3 of its games the previous season
Taking it a step further, of our 32 teams, 27 had a 66.7 percent winning percentage or worse the previous season. In other words, they weren’t elite. These are the real surprise teams that can build so much momentum early that they are able to ride it to huge profits for the entire season. Looking at our remaining 2021 teams, we have 15 left.
Here are those 15 teams with a comment on each.
Boston College: The Golden Eagles suffered a blow when QB Phil Jurkovec was lost for an indefinite period with a wrist injury. Although they are 4-0, they will be tested big-time at Clemson this week. Minus Jurkovec, I’m not sure they should remain on the list.
Fresno State: The Bulldogs could be a magical team this season.They are 4-1 SU and ATS already, with the only ATS loss coming in a badly overpriced game against UNLV. Surely you’ve seen the highlights of Fresno State’s incredible win at UCLA, and QB Jake Haener is playing at an elite level.
Houston: The Cougars check all the boxes on our list of qualifiers, but nothing about their start seems magical. They were tagged by Texas Tech in the opener and barely survived Navy last weekend. Tread carefully here.
Kansas State: The Wildcats, like Boston College, will be spending the next few games without their starting quarterback, Skylar Thompson. Kansas State’s undefeated start was also put to rest last week in a disappointing effort at Oklahoma State.
Nebraska: A lot of bettors wrote off Nebraska after losing its opener at Illinois, but the Cornhuskers have roared back with four straight ATS wins and seem to be finding their identity in the fourth season under Scott Frost. With the Big Ten West looking somewhat weak, I wouldn’t discount this team’s chances of faring well the rest of the way, particularly against the spread.
Ole Miss: With a drastically improved defense and a Heisman-caliber quarterback, Ole Miss has the makings of a team that could go on a season-long run. QB Matt Corral is very good. I had him ranked No. 1 in the SEC at his position before the season. The big test comes Saturday at Alabama. If the Rebels compete and at least cover, don’t be shy about backing them the rest of the season.
Oregon State: If you weren’t thinking about Oregon State as a potential big-money team before last week, the 45-27 win at USC might change your mind. This team has put up 40 or more points in three straight weeks and could be poised to end its seven-year skid without making a bowl game.
Pittsburgh: Take away the Week 3 loss at home to Western Michigan and Pittsburgh looks like the ideal team for bettors to be gauging as a big-money team in 2021. The Panthers are scoring 52.5 ppg, and QB Kenny Pickett is off to a great start with a 15-1 TD-INT ratio. The ACC looks wide open this season as well.
Purdue: Purdue got off to a great start, beating another team on our list, Oregon State, in the season opener. However, after throttling UConn in Game 2, the Boilermakers have lost back-to-back games against the spread while putting up only 13 points in each. In my opinion, that takes them off this list as a potential big-money threat in 2021.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights’ ability to climb back from a 20-3 halftime deficit at Michigan last week and make it a game at the end should have bettors excited about the prospects for the rest of the season. This is exactly the type of gritty team that has bought into its system. Rutgers may be short on talent compared with most of its remaining opponents, but the point spreads will reflect that. The results will show something much better. Already 4-0 ATS, this is a true big-money contender.
Syracuse: The Orange’s lone loss came at the hands of Rutgers. Otherwise, this team has completely overachieved in 2021. It has two upset wins and seems to be becoming more galvanized each outing. Allowing fewer than 18 ppg, the defense is much improved as well. Plus, the ACC is ripe for the picking.
Texas-San Antonio: UTSA has been slowly building for its run at a Conference USA championship, and it looks like that could come in 2021. With QB Frank Harris running the show, the Roadrunners are 4-0 SU and ATS and outscoring opponents by nearly 20 ppg. The best part is that I don’t believe oddsmakers think this team is that good yet. A real find.
UCLA: It took an inhuman effort by Fresno State and QB Jake Haener to keep UCLA from being unbeaten at this point, but the Bruins still have the look of a team you can rely on the rest of the way — senior quarterback, very experienced roster, a team finally comfortable in its system. Sounds like a consistent winner to me.
Virginia: After two nonconference games, Virginia had the look of a surprise team in 2021. However, the Cavaliers have since been walloped in back-to-back ACC games. Remove the Cavaliers from consideration.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers have played three tough opponents and have been within six points in all three games. At 2-1 SU and ATS, the jury is still out. This week’s game against Texas Tech shows West Virginia badly underpriced, in my opinion. A big win there and this team could be dangerous the rest of the way.