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Top four mismatches in college football stability

By Steve Makinen  () 

USATSI_13542861
Last week I reintroduced my college football handicapping strategy focusing on program stability. I have employed this methodology for about 10 years and never have suffered a losing record with it.
 
Among the many reasons things can change dramatically from one season to the next in college football are the four-year eligibility rules, the pressure on coaching staffs and player transgressions off the field. This results in significant turnover 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 often startled at the change. With the impact of COVID-19, the number of factors affecting teams’ stability levels is greater than ever. Bettors must be continuously cognizant of players opting out of games or becoming infected with the virus.
 
Being a numbers guy, I like to quantify the level of stability for each program. The higher the 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 stability mismatches. With the point spread considered, the feeling is that oddsmakers don’t adjust enough for instability factors.
 
Last week only one game qualified under my standards as a play, and that was South Alabama, which upset Southern Miss on Thursday night as nearly a two-touchdown underdog. Through regression analysis, I have found that a stability mismatch score of 8 is the minimum on which I will consider a play for this thought process. By the way, an astute reader asked me last week if I had ever discovered a relationship between my success and the degree of stability mismatch, and the answer is no. In fact, it seems to me that the bigger the mismatch number, the more obvious it is to oddsmakers, so the more the chance they will overadjust in advance.
 
Three of this week’s games meet that criteria. However, I’ve also written about the one game that shows a difference of 7. For the rest of the first month of the season, I will offer weekly mismatches. I believe that after two or three games for each team, oddsmakers can catch up and fully adjust. However, you should feel comfortable employing this strategy in the first few weeks while the dust settles. With the disjointed schedule in place for 2020, I plan to run this through at least the games of Sept. 26.
 
Here are the basics in determining 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 77 FBS teams playing this fall and their stability scores on the accompanying chart, but in short, here is how the scores are determined:
 
Returning Head Coach Points
Yes, same coach as 2019: 4 points
No, new coach for 2020: 0 points
 
Returning Offensive Coordinator Points
Yes, same offensive coordinator as 2019: 3 points
No, new offensive coordinator for 2020: 0 points
 
Returning Defensive Coordinator Points
Yes, same defensive coordinator as 2019: 3 points
No, new defensive coordinator for 2020: 0 points
 
Returning Starting Quarterback Points
Yes, same starting quarterback as 2019: 4 points
No, new starting 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
 
Here are the top four stability mismatches for the limited 17-game Week 2 slate.
 
1. (399) GEORGIA TECH at (400) FLORIDA STATE. Stability advantage: GEORGIA TECH by 10
The top stability mismatch game for Week 2 comes in the ACC, where Mike Norvell makes his Florida State coaching debut. Norvell comes over from Memphis, where he guided the program to new heights, including a berth in the Cotton Bowl last year. He takes over a Florida State program that has fallen on tough times, going 18-20 over the last three seasons after winning 10 or more games in each of the five previous seasons. He has 17 starters back, including QB James Blackman, but the hurdle will be in implementing new schemes, as he brings in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The Seminoles haven’t scored over 30 PPG in a season since 2016, and that figures to be the biggest challenge for Norvell. The expectations for Georgia Tech are cautiously optimistic as second-year coach Geoff Collins brings back a nation-high 19 starters. The Yellow Jackets were just 3-9 in 2019, but the three wins were over USF, Miami and NC State as the program made the drastic transition out of former coach Paul Johnson’s option attack. FSU was a double-digit favorite, a daunting prospect considering its instability and the change in preparation level this offseason has mandated.
 
T-2. (393) UAB at (394) MIAMI. Stability advantage: UAB by 8
UAB came out of the gate a bit slowly last week but still emerged with a 10-point win over FCS foe Central Arkansas. The Blazers have put up three straight bowl-qualifying seasons since returning to college football in 2017. The 2020 campaign figures to build on that foundation, as coach Bill Clark is back for a fifth season with his coaching staff intact and 18 returning starters. Leading that group on offense is junior QB Tyler Johnston and senior WR Austin Watkins. The defense is the better unit, though, as it allowed just 21.6 PPG in point-happy Conference USA last year. The top four tacklers return. UAB is more than a two-touchdown underdog to Miami but figures to be motivated to prove itself on the big Thursday night stage. Miami isn’t exactly rebuilding, but the Hurricanes have a new offensive coordinator and a new QB in Houston transfer D’Eriq King, an early Heisman candidate. King’s prep in his new offense has obviously been very limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would be unexpected for the unit to fire on all cylinders against UAB’s respected veteran defense.
 
T-2. (395) SYRACUSE at (396) NORTH CAROLINA. Stability advantage: NORTH CAROLINA by 8
North Carolina has a ton going for it after being one of last season’s most pleasant surprises. Quarterback Sam Howell returns as a sophomore and is a trendy pick to be among the Heisman finalists. The Tar Heels return 10 offensive starters along with seven on defense. The 2019 season was the first in coach Mack Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill, so it made the 7-6 finish in the new schemes all the more impressive. UNC outscored its final three opponents 152-30 and was fueled by that momentum all offseason. It’s no surprise to see the Tar Heels favored by nearly three touchdowns over Syracuse, which finished 5-7 last year but starts fresh with new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The rest of the Orange’s situation is relatively stable, but UNC’s stability score of 18 makes this a qualifying game.
 
4. (397) CHARLOTTE at (398) APPALACHIAN STATE. Stability advantage: CHARLOTTE by 7
As I’ve said, the typical score I rely on to form the basis of a play using this methodology is a difference of 8. The stability edge is 7 for Charlotte over Appalachian State, so if you think enough other indicators show the 49ers as a play, by all means go with it. Charlotte is a heavy underdog but brings back 13 starters from a team that played in its first bowl game. Quarterback Chris Reynolds heads that group after throwing 22 TD passes a season ago and leading his team to nearly 30 PPG. The 49ers were within 15 points of Appalachian State last year, putting up 41 points and 526 yards of offense on the Mountaineers. ASU turns to a new coach for the third straight year but comes off a 13-1 campaign. The Mountaineers have the same number of starters back as Charlotte, but the new coaching staff had far less than the usual prep time heading into this season opener.
 
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