Sportsbooks are dreading potentially large exposure on the key betting number of 3 in the Rose Bowl, matching Pac-12 champion Oregon and Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin (5 p.m. ET Wednesday, ESPN).
The point spread has been shuttling between 2.5 and 3 since it went up weeks ago. Favored Wisconsin draws enthusiastic support at -2.5. The Badgers are seen as the slightly superior team. Three points is the most common victory margin in nail-biters because that’s the exact value of a field goal. Plus any bettors impressed with the Big Ten so far — or skeptical about the Pac-12 after watching USC lose badly to Iowa and Washington State get bullied by Air Force — love getting Wisconsin at a low price.
But sportsbooks posting the full 3 see Oregon bettors rush the counters enthusiastically. It takes Wisconsin by at least four to beat them at that price. Oregon’s balanced approach under coach Mario Cristobal appeals to sharps and gives the Ducks a chance to compete for 60 minutes with anyone.
Isn’t that a dream for sportsbooks? Enthusiastic split action?
Split action at a locked in number is ideal. Sportsbooks collect the standard 10% vigorish from losers (bettors risk $11 to win $10 on every bet, or anything in that ratio). They use the rest to pay the winners. An easy, no-risk profit.
But split action at different prices around a key number is a potential disaster. Let’s say half of a very large handle is on Wisconsin -2.5, and the other half is on Oregon plus 3. If the game lands exactly on 3, all the Badgers bets win. But Ducks money “pushes” (ties) and is refunded. Nobody loses but the sportsbooks.
Obviously, books deal with this danger anytime a line moves. They can handle taking hits on lower-priority games, and it’s less likely to happen on non-key numbers. But if early trends continue, a perfect storm is brewing in Pasadena.
Other marquee bowls this week that could see a key-number dynamic play out with half-point (or more) adjustments: Utah (currently -7) vs. Texas in the Alamo Bowl (6:30 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN), Auburn (-7) vs. Minnesota in the Outback Bowl (noon Wednesday, ESPN) and Alabama (-7) vs. Michigan in the Citrus Bowl (noon Wednesday, ABC).
As to the national championship game (7 p.m. Jan. 13, ESPN), LSU temporarily opened at -3 over Clemson. Circa Sports in Las Vegas posted that line while Clemson-Ohio State was still in play Saturday night. Bettors could take LSU -3 over either potential opponent or take its to-be-determined opponent at plus 3. But the key-number dynamic probably won’t be an issue moving forward. After Clemson survived a thriller, sharps and recreational bettors drove LSU all the way up to -5.5 by the next afternoon.
In the semifinals, LSU (-12.5) beat Oklahoma 63-28 with a monster yardage edge of 692-322, and Clemson (-2.5) beat Ohio State 29-23 despite getting outgained 516-417 thanks to a 2-0 turnover edge, tough red-zone defense and what some would call fortunate officiating.