True home-field edge in football

October 26, 2021 07:34 PM
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With all that has gone on over the last season and a half in football, a lot has been made about home-field advantage. What is it worth? Has it changed since the pandemic began? Have oddsmakers adjusted appropriately for any changes? These are extremely important questions that football bettors have probably been asking and researching for answers. 

In my own history of oddsmaking and in doing the strength ratings for VSiN, I have found that one of the most important factors in analyzing teams’ strengths is determining how much home-field advantage to assign. I know some handicappers use a general sense, issuing a standard three to four points. Others develop team-specific home-field edges, assuming that some environments are naturally tougher than others across the football landscape. For that latter group, I am here to help in your quest for determining which teams deserve the most home-field advantage points in college and pro football.

Let’s face it: We almost have to use the team-specific method as bettors because many reasons could explain why certain teams have clearer home-field advantages than others. Among these are weather, field surface as it fits the roster, crowd capacity and enthusiasm, confidence level and perhaps even distractions available to visiting teams. One thing is certain, though: No way is every team’s advantage the same. Judging home-field edges as equal across the board can lead to mistakes and missed or lost betting opportunities.

To determine which teams hold the best true home-field advantage in college and pro football, I have taken the teams’ game logs at home since the start of the 2018 season, or essentially the last 3 1/2 seasons. I compared their average power ratings in those games to their opponents’ average power ratings, using my actual logged numbers for every game. This margin would be considered the amount they should have won or lost by on a neutral field, or the expected margin. I then compared this amount with the actual point differential in those games. Obviously, teams that had a greater actual than expected differential played the “best” at home. For college teams with at least 10 home games in that span, the margins ranged from + 8.3 for Kent State to -6.1 for Duke. In the NFL, the top home-field edge belonged to Baltimore and Dallas, tied at + 4.6, while the worst rating went to the Chargers at -2.7.

Of course, no one would ever assign a home-field edge of 8.3 points to Kent State. That would be a reach. However, the Golden Flashes might be worthy of your betting consideration when oddsmakers don’t give them the respect they perhaps deserve when playing at home, such as in their last big home win a couple of weeks ago against Buffalo. Kent State will host Northern Illinois on Nov. 3. Similarly, there is no way that those setting the lines could penalize Duke when it plays at home, but to give the full credit of three or more points would also be too much.

I believe most bookmakers will assign an average of about 3.5 points to a home team in college football and 2.5 points in the NFL. In this study, I have found that the true college football number is closer to 2.61 for the last 3 1/2 seasons, and that is about what I assign to the average-performing college home team in my ratings. For the NFL the average has been only 1.04. This number, as well as the college figure, takes into account the fanless 2020 season. It cannot be overstated, however, just how little home-field advantage has meant in the NFL recently as compared with history and assumption. When I do my ratings you see in Point Spread Weekly, the average I assign for NFL teams is about 1.6 points, as I am assuming the low recent number should trend back upward over the next couple of seasons.

Importantly, I don’t specifically assign the home-field ratings in accordance with the order of the true home-field rating, as I also give strong consideration to the straight-up and ATS records as well as the perceived difficulty of playing at a particular stadium. Otherwise, single games in which a team won or lost big can falsely impact the overall ratings. Even with those other factors, Cincinnati (+ 8.1) and Baltimore are in fact my top-rated teams for college and pro football, respectively. 

Let’s take a quick look at each major conference in college football and each division in the pros and analyze the true home-field edges I have uncovered. Next week I’ll review the road-field numbers.

COLLEGES

Atlantic Coast Conference

When I did this study a couple of years ago, Clemson was the best-performing home team in the ACC. But the Tigers have been surpassed by Virginia, which boasts a 22-3 SU and 18-6 ATS record at home since the start of the 2018 season. The Cavaliers boast a true home-field advantage rating of 5.6, a modest number comparatively for a conference leader. NC State is a close second at 4.4. Pittsburgh and Syracuse have also been solid home teams lately. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Duke and Georgia have struggled to maintain much home-field edge, both showing negative THF ratings, meaning it actually has been a disadvantage for them to play at home in recent years.

American Athletic Conference

Two teams from the AAC have enjoyed a true home-field edge of 7.7 points or more over the last 3 1/2 seasons — Cincinnati (8.1) and Tulane (7.7). And Cincinnati’s 23-0 SU record during that span sets the pace. Tulane and SMU share the best point-spread marks at 14-6 ATS. Two other teams, South Florida and Tulsa, have not enjoyed much home-field edge, each sporting a negative rating. In general, home-field advantage in the AAC arguably has been as definitive as any conference in college football.

Big 12 Conference

TCU and Kansas in the Big 12 own negative true home-field advantage ratings over the last 3-plus seasons, and the former might come as a surprise since the Horned Frogs own a point differential of + 5.9 ppg at home during that span. However, to understand why the THF ratings are negative, you have to see that they’ve been 6.5 ppg better than their opponents on a would-be neutral field. Thus, playing in Fort Worth is providing no real edge. The best home-field team in the Big 12 has actually been West Virginia, whose rating of 7.0 is 1.8 points higher than any Big 12 rival. Second best is Texas (5.2) and then Kansas State (5.0). Oklahoma is an interesting case on why you can’t just use points as the end-all rating. The Sooners are 23-0 SU in our study, a testament to how well respected they have been by oddsmakers and how difficult it is to play in Norman. They are officially getting only 2.1 points of true home-field edge on average, however.

Big Ten Conference

According to this study, Ohio State (7.9) has been the toughest place to visit in the Big Ten. I don’t think you’d get much argument from opponents in saying that, specifically from Penn State, which has the unenviable task of visiting Columbus on Saturday night. In fact, the Buckeyes’ THF rating ranks fourth nationally. They are on a 20-1 SU run and scoring 49 ppg in front of crowds in excess of 100,000. Another program with a huge stadium, Michigan, is on a 18-4 run at home and boasting a THF of 5.2. For those wondering where the huge season-finale rivalry game between the two will be played, it is in Ann Arbor. There is just one Big Ten team with zero or worse as its home-field edge, with Michigan State owning the bottom at -3.2, although the Spartans’ performance in 2021 might be signaling a turnaround. They host the Wolverines in a massive contest Saturday. Wisconsin’s 7-14 ATS record in its last 21 home games should be of major concern to bettors, as the Badgers’ THF is just 0.3, and the electric game-day atmosphere in Madison tends to get overvalued as an edge for the hosts by those not in the know. Keep this in mind as you analyze Saturday’s Wisconsin-Iowa showdown at Camp Randall.

Conference USA

Three teams in Conference USA have a 3½-year THF rating of + 5.0 or better, led by UTSA’s 6.0 rating. Interestingly, the Roadrunners are just 10-11 ATS in their last 21 home games, so take the rating with a grain of salt. Perhaps Charlotte, UAB and Middle Tennessee would be of more interest, as all have respectable THF ratings and are three games over .500 ATS. On the opposite end you’ll find Rice (-1.1) and Marshall (-0.1), a program that has fared well overall lately but seems to play its best ball on the road. The Herd’s 6-17 ATS home record since ’18 is of concern as they prepare to host Florida International on Saturday.

FBS independents

Liberty is easily atop the independents list at 7.8 true home-field advantage, and the Flames have accumulated this lofty total in a 21-game span compiling records of 19-2 SU and 16-5 ATS. The problem for the Flames is that all of their biggest games each year seem to come on the road, as Power 5 foes are rightly fearful of visiting Lynchburg. But Liberty does have three home games left in 2021, starting Saturday with UMass. Of course, whenever discussing independents, Notre Dame is always on bettors’ minds. The Irish boast a THF of 2.7, about 0.1 points better than the average college team, and have earned a 22-1 SU record in South Bend over the last 3 1/2 seasons. Elsewhere, Army (2.7) and BYU (2.2) show modest ratings, while New Mexico State (-0.6) and Connecticut (-1.3) land in negative territory.

 

Mid-American Conference

Buffalo has arguably been the class of the MAC for the last 3 1/2 seasons, so it should come as no surprise that the Bulls boast a THF rating of + 7.7, second only to Kent State’s nation-leading 8.3. No other MAC team is within 3.7 points of those two elite hosts. Combined, Kent State and Buffalo have gone 25-9 SU and 24-9 ATS at home since the start of the ’18 season. The Bulls host Bowling Green this weekend, and as mentioned earlier, Northern Illinois is next on Kent’s home docket. Beyond that pair are three teams with ratings above 3.1. The worst home team in MAC of late has easily been Akron, with a record of 4-14 SU and 3-15 ATS, as well as a THF rating of -5.5 in its last 18 home games. Consider playing against the Zips on Tuesday when they host Ball State.

Mountain West Conference

One team sets itself apart in terms of true home-field advantage in the Mountain West, though Air Force’s big loss to San Diego State last weekend takes a little luster off the findings. That game is included in these numbers, and at + 8.1 the Falcons boast the country’s third-highest true home-field edge. Nevada, Fresno State and Colorado State have also performed admirably at home in recent seasons, with the Wolf Pack boasting the best point-spread record at 13-6 ATS. Two teams on the opposite end have dramatically failed to live up to oddsmakers’ expectations at home over the last 3 1/2 seasons. New Mexico and UNLV are in negative THF territory and have combined to go 12-26 SU and 13-24 ATS.

Pac-12 Conference

According to the study, the Pac-12 owns the distinction of having what would be interpreted as the least true home-field advantage of any conference lately. Utah sets the pace with a rating of + 5.7, but only two other teams, Washington State (+ 4.7) and Arizona State (+ 3.7), show numbers above the national average. Furthermore, a nation-high four Pac-12 teams have negative THF ratings, headed by California’s -1.1. Those four — Cal, USC, Arizona and UCLA — have combined to go 28-48 ATS since 2018. Of note, Washington’s and Oregon’s THF ratings are respectable, but they have also combined to go 13-28 ATS in this study at home.

Southeastern Conference

The average true home-field advantage rating in the SEC is 2.8, giving the league a collective above-average home-field edge. That should be no surprise to those fans and experts who think the SEC is the toughest conference, as almost every program’s home environment is loaded with tradition and passionate fan bases. The strongest-rated home teams of late have been Kentucky (+ 6.4) and Florida (+ 5.5). Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt show outright records below .500 at home over the last 3 1/2 seasons, and they are the only SEC programs with negative THF ratings. Naturally, in any SEC chart, eyes tend to gravitate toward Alabama. The Tide have been pretty strong lately at home, 22-1 SU and 15-8 ATS in their last 23, with an accompanying THF rating of + 3.0. This marks a noticeable improvement in all three categories from the first couple of times I did this exercise before 2019.

Sun Belt Conference

Most bettors are familiar with the success of Louisiana (+ 6.1) and Appalachian State (+ 4.7) in recent years of Sun Belt play, but I can’t imagine nearly as many have noticed Georgia Southern’s stellar run at home. The Eagles are 18-4 SU and 15-7 ATS with a conference-leading THF of + 7.4 since the start of the 2018 season. So you might want to note that three of its final five games are at home, starting Saturday against Georgia State and including huge upset opportunities versus Coastal Carolina and BYU. Texas State holds up the bottom in terms of true home-field in this conference,at -0.2, but no one else is below 1.2. No other league in the country can match that.

FCS teams

With the increasing popularity of wagering on FCS teams each week, I’ve included a full chart of the true home-field advantage ratings of those teams over the last 3 1/2 seasons. Note that St. Thomas (Minn.), at the top of the chart, began FCS-level play this year and has hosted only two games. Montana State and North Dakota are probably the two highest-rated teams in THF that would command your wagering respect. Alternatively, Lamar has earned its -9 rating in 10 recent home games.

NFL

AFC East

I’m sure no one is surprised to see Buffalo atop the AFC East in terms of true home-field rating at 4.2. The Bills are third in the NFL and second in the AFC in this rating. New England is a close second to Buffalo in the AFC East at + 3.9, a figure aided by the Patriots’ rout of the Jets on Sunday. However, despite their slow home start in 2021, they still own a 21-10 SU and 18-13 ATS record in their last 31 home contests. Miami’s rating isn’t nearly as strong, but the Dolphins also boast a respectable 17-10 ATS mark.

AFC North

While Baltimore and Pittsburgh have been tough at home and their THF ratings reflect it, Cleveland and Cincinnati have been gaining steam of late, and their ratings figure to go nowhere but up for the rest of the season. Interestingly, none of the four owns a winning ATS mark as host over the last 3 1/2 seasons.

AFC South

The AFC South also has four teams with records of .500 or less against the spread in home games since 2018. Indianapolis has been the best of the four in terms of THF rating, at + 3.7, with Tennessee less than a point back at + 2.8. The Titans are coming off two huge home wins that could affect the AFC playoff picture, though, and could be ready to claim the top spot in the division soon. Jacksonville has the AFC’s second-worst rating at -1.9, and it could be argued that the Jaguars actually give themselves an advantage by giving up a home game to London each season. 

AFC West

Kansas City is still the standard in the AFC West in terms of true home-field advantage, though that standard is fairly low. In fact, the Chiefs are the only one of this division’s teams above a rating of 1.0. None of the four owns a winning ATS mark over the last 3 1/2 seasons. The low benchmark for home-field success in this division goes to the Chargers, who have inevitably been struggling to find a home environment to support a respectable franchise. Interestingly, the Raiders are making a move upward since relocating to Las Vegas before last year and should continue to reap the improved benefits for the near future.

NFC East

Dallas has made a quantum leap in terms of true home-field advantage from when I first did this study over three years ago. At that point, the Cowboys were among the league’s worst teams at home, but now they tie for the top spot in THF. They are on a 20-8 SU and 16-11 ATS run at home and have put up an impressive 29.9 ppg in that span. While Dallas has risen, Philadelphia has fallen. The Eagles were No. 1 in this study after their Super Bowl run. Those days are long past, and Philly’s + 0.9 THF rating actually ranks below the league average. Washington and the Giants are not worth your money when playing at home, regardless of New York’s easy win over Carolina on Sunday.

NFC North

Believe it or not, the NFC North is the only division in the conference to show a pair of teams with winning point-spread records over the last 3 1/2 seasons. The Bears and the Packers boast THF ratings of 2.3 or higher, which is almost a point and a half above the league average. Green Bay’s 24-5 SU record is the NFL’s best in that span. Minnesota has been a bit of a disappointment in its relatively new home, while Detroit has clearly struggled to win many home games.

NFC South

The NFC South has four teams bunched together in terms of true home-field advantage, and the division holds the distinction of being the only one with four teams in positive THF territory. Tampa Bay leads the bunch at + 2.3, but New Orleans easily shows the best outright record at 20-10. None of the four teams has a winning point-spread mark. 

NFC West

Home-field advantage has meant only 0.4 points per game for NFC West teams over the last 3 1/2 seasons if you consider my THF ratings valid. However, Arizona drags down the rating significantly with the NFL’s fourth-lowest mark. Could that be a significant finding as the Cardinals head into one of this season’s biggest games to date versus Green Bay on Thursday? We’ll see. The Rams easily boast the best outright and point-spread records among this quartet, and they seem to be adapting to their new Los Angeles home far better than the Chargers.

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