True road-field advantage in football

November 2, 2021 07:05 PM
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In last week’s Point Spread Weekly, I introduced the method I use to calculate teams’ true home-field advantage in college and pro football. This week’s piece deals with the opposite side of the ledger — performance on the road.

Reiterating what I said last week, anyone who still assigns the base 3 to 3.5 points for home field for every game at either level is making a gargantuan mistake. This not only leads to errors in handicapping games but also compounds itself in building team power ratings, which take into account schedule strength and where teams have played their games. Because of this risk, my experience on both sides of the counter has led me to build and maintain team-specific home- and road-field ratings. These are built into the formulas I use to calculate the Power, Effective Strength and Bettors Ratings in PSW and on VSiN.com.

I believe that coaching and preparation level are the leading factors for teams that play best on the road. These teams typically have solid defenses and reliable quarterback play. Another factor I think is relevant is that a lot of teams that don’t enjoy massive home-field edges in atmosphere tend to play better on the road as their performance level is more consistent across the board and not as influenced by game location.

To determine which teams hold the best true road-field advantage in college and pro football, I have taken the teams’ logs in true road games since the start of the 2018 season, or essentially the last 3 1/2 seasons. I compared their average power ratings in those games with their opponents’ average power ratings, using my actual logged numbers during that span 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 number to the actual point differential the team accumulated in those games. Obviously, teams that had a greater actual differential than expected played the “best” on the road. For college teams with at least 10 road games in that span, the margins went as high as + 4.8 for Iowa to as low as -11.8 for UMass. In the NFL, the top road-field edge belonged to the Ravens at + 4.1, while the worst rating went to the Jets at -6.1.

Interestingly, the Ravens also had the highest true home-field rating. What does this tell us? It tells us the Ravens have been covering a lot of point spreads lately and they are consistently underrated in power ratings by me and those setting the odds.

Of course, no one would ever assign a road-field edge of 4.8 points to Iowa, as that would outweigh any opponents’ actual home-field points. However, it does lend a lot of value to betting the Hawkeyes on the road. In theory, bettors should discount the opponents’ home-field points when facing Iowa. Regarding UMass, with a -11.8 true road-field rating to go along with a 1-19 SU and 4-16 ATS record, you’d probably have to be clinically insane to back the Minutemen on the road.

The numbers I showed last week suggest the actual true home-field advantage in college football has been about 2.6 points and just 1.0 in the NFL. If you’re using numbers larger or smaller than these, they are probably impacting your betting results negatively, as you’re not getting a true gauge of what it means to play at home or away.

I don’t specifically assign the road-field ratings in accordance with the order of the true road-field numbers you’ll see here, as I also give strong consideration to straight-up and ATS records. Otherwise, single games in which a team won or lost big could falsely impact the overall ratings. With all factors considered, Clemson (+ 3.3) and the Saints (+ 3.8) are my top road-rated teams for college and pro football, respectively. 

Let’s take a quick look at each college conference and NFL division and analyze the true road-field edges. I encourage you to utilize all the findings in these charts in conjunction with those I revealed last week for the home fields to formulate your best home- and road-field mismatches each week for the rest of the season.

COLLEGE CONFERENCES

Atlantic Coast Conference

Clemson has maintained its spot from two years ago, when I last did this exercise, as the top-performing road team in the ACC. Its secret has been defense, as the Tigers have allowed just 15.4 ppg in their last 17 road contests. Syracuse and Pittsburgh share the ATS honors in the conference, however. Only the Tigers, Orange and Wake Forest boast positive TRF figures. On the opposite end of the spectrum you’ll find Louisville and Florida State, who in addition to sharing 3-14 SU records on the road over the last 3 1/2 seasons also show TRF ratings of -7 or worse. Considering that the average college rating is -2.6, both teams are more than 4.5 points worse than average in road performance. This has to be considered when creating ratings and handicapping weekly games.

American Athletic Conference

College Football Playoff contender Cincinnati boasted an AAC-best 8.1 THF rating. The Bearcats are essentially nine points worse on the road over the last 3 1/2 seasons, showing a TRF of -0.9. Even so, that’s good enough to place fourth of 11 teams in the conference, behind Tulsa (0.9), UCF (0.3) and Houston (-0.8). Of those four, Cincinnati boasts the best outright road record at 14-5, while Tulsa has been the best spread-covering team at 14-6 ATS. The other seven teams in the American have TRF ratings of -3.5 or worse, with Memphis’ -7.2 at the bottom. That makes this conference among the worst-performing road leagues in the country. Not coincidentally, all seven teams with a TRF of -3.5 or worse have allowed over 32 ppg in road games since ’18.

Big 12 Conference

Baylor scores a zero on true road-field rating, with every other Big 12 team in negative territory. Only Oklahoma has an outright road record of at least two games over .500 over the last 3 1/2 seasons, so counting on teams to score road wins in this league has been a mistake. Texas (-5.3) and West Virginia (-4.6) are the lowest-rated true road teams in the Big 12. Those two were the highest-rated home teams last week. This is a good indication that the ratings truly reflect the strength of the teams and that the power ratings I’ve used have been accurate. This is good information to consider. 

Big Ten Conference

According to this study, Iowa (4.8) has been the toughest team to host in the Big Ten and nationally. You probably wouldn’t get much argument from their opponents, though the Hawkeyes did come up empty last week in Madison against Wisconsin. Ohio State, Penn State and Minnesota have also been strong road teams in recent years. Combined, those four Big Ten teams show a record of 46-20 SU and 39-22 ATS in this study. On the opposite end, Michigan and Maryland were both highly respected home teams. Not so much on the road, as they are the conference’s worst-performing teams since ’18 in terms of TRF. The Wolverines lost a huge game in East Lansing last weekend. Bettors aware of these findings would have thought twice before backing them as road chalk in that key contest.

Conference USA

Two teams in Conference USA, Western Kentucky (+ 1.7) and Marshall (+ 0.3),  have 3½-year positive TRF ratings. Rice is just behind at -0.1. In last week’s home-game study, Rice and Marshall were the two lowest-performing C-USA teams. Obviously, the Owls and the Herd do their best work on the road. Current league favorite UTSA has also been a solid road team lately, going a conference-best 14-7 ATS in the last 21 road contests. Holding up the bottom is North Texas, both in TRF (-6.5) and point-spread struggles (7-11 ATS).

FBS independents

Half the FBS independent teams have been solid road teams with positive TRF ratings, one has been exactly average at -2.6 and the other three are well below the norm. Naturally, the most consistent teams over the last 3 1/2 years are the ones with the positive numbers — BYU (+ 3.0), Army (+ 2.0) and Notre Dame (+ 0.4). Not only are those three teams in positive range, they have combined for a 32-21 ATS record in true road contests since ’18. New Mexico State (-5.8), Connecticut (-6.5) and Massachusetts (-11.8) have been dreadful on the road, and anyone betting them should cease immediately. All three have allowed over 44 pgg in road contests over the last 3 1/2 years.

 

Mid-American Conference

Last week I made the case for Kent State as the best true home-performing team in the country since ’18. Unsurprisingly, the Golden Flashes have been the worst road team in the MAC in that span. Their -6.4 TRF rating is equal to Bowling Green’s, but truthfully, Kent State has been a better team during that time frame, so that earns the worst honors. Ohio U. (+ 1.5) and Eastern Michigan (+ 1.4) show positive TRF numbers, but overall the road-performance level from this league has been suspect. In fact, Buffalo is the only team with a winning road record since 2018.

Mountain West Conference

The two programs fans associate with the most success out of the Mountain West have been the league’s best road teams over the last 3 1/2 seasons. Those programs would be Boise State (+ 0.7) and San Diego State (+ 0.7). Neither was rated all that highly for home performance, so on the road is where these teams are making it happen. Nevada has been the exact opposite. Though the Wolf Pack have thrived at home, they have struggled on the road, showing a league-worst TRF of -5.1. Overall, teams have been generally better on the road in this league, as the 12 teams’ average TRF is -1.7, second best nationally only to the Big Ten.

Pac-12 Conference

Among the highlights of last week’s true home-field breakdown was the concept that the Pac-12 has recently had what would be interpreted as the least home advantage of any conference. The road results are far more mixed, with some pretty good road teams such as Oregon State, Arizona State and Utah and some pretty lousy visitors in Arizona and Colorado. The chart reveals that the top eight teams in the Pac-12 in TRF have ATS marks of .500 or higher over the last 3 1/2 seasons. That said, it seems that the lose-but-cover mantra runs rampant here, with Utah setting the pace in outright success in that span with a modest 10-7 SU record. This is simply more evidence of what we found last week, indicating that laying points with Pac-12 home teams is a losing strategy.

Southeastern Conference

Like me, you probably aren’t surprised that Georgia and Alabama are great road teams, both very well-coached and both loaded with talent, particularly on defense. Combined they have gone 28-4 SU and 20-11 ATS on the road since 2018, both winning by over 20 ppg. Surprisingly, however, for as dominant as those teams have been, the rest of the conference has been fairly ordinary on the road. Only Florida and LSU have winning records outright. I attribute the records of .500 or less for the other 10 teams to what was proven to be a strong home-field advantage based on traditions, huge crowds and other environmental factors. Missouri has been the SEC’s worst-performing road team both in terms of TRF (-7.9) and ATS (3-14).

Sun Belt Conference

Last week I touted the home prowess of Georgia Southern, only for the Eagles to blow a home game in a miserable effort against Georgia State. This week they have another home contest, but it’s against the Sun Belt’s best-performing road team of recent years, Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers show a respectable + 2.0 TRF figure and need this game to maintain hope for a conference title game appearance. Like many other conferences, the Sun Belt’s best teams of recent years have been their best in general, as following Coastal Carolina on the list are Appalachian State and Louisiana. The Eagles, whom I noted were great at home, have been equally bad on the road, better only than ULM, with each team showing a TRF figure of -7 or worse. 

FCS teams

The FCS True Road Field chart shows some unique situations to consider if you wager on these games weekly. Pay attention to not only the ratings but to the SU and ATS marks, as teams like Villanova, Weber State and Northern Iowa have proven to be reliable options away from home. Also, only three teams in the FBS level had TRF ratings worse than -8.0. The FCS has 13 such teams. Some of these really poor road teams, such as Idaho, Colgate, Howard and Youngstown State, should be faded regularly until they show signs of shaking off their road doldrums. 

NFL DIVISIONS

AFC East

Strangely, the order of True Road Field ratings in the AFC East is the same as the THF. Does this mean Buffalo and New England, the top two teams, are generally underrated by oddsmakers and vice versa for bottom-feeders Miami and the Jets? That could be the answer. However, New England’s TRF is -1.7, well below the average NFL team, and Miami (-3.4) and the New York Jets (-6.1) have just been plain bad, so it might be unfair to blame the numbers. Buffalo’s 16-11 ATS mark and 1.7 TRF rating are easily the best among these four teams.

AFC North

Like the AFC East, one team is setting itself apart for bettors when they play on the road, and that has been the Ravens. As their league-best THF rating suggested, Baltimore is consistently underrated or has gotten into a pattern of winning two games handily and losing a close one. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Baltimore’s road resume over the last 3 1/2 seasons is the actual point differential of + 9.0 ppg. Pittsburgh, whose offense is showing just 20.5 ppg in road games, and Cleveland share -3.3 TRF figures. However, collectively the AFC North boasts a 63-45 ATS mark on the road since 2018.

AFC South

The Titans and the Colts are positive true road teams in the AFC South, but these teams’ outright records away from home vary greatly. Tennessee is 19-11, while Indy is five games worse at 14-16. Of course, one of the Titans’ wins came in last week’s divisional clash at Indianapolis. Houston and Jacksonville are poor-performing teams away from home, each with a TRF grade of -4.7 or worse. While the Jaguars have struggled with rotating quarterbacks, the Texans had a solid situation in that regard with Deshaun Watson before this year. That didn’t help their road ratings much.

AFC West

Kansas City’s true road performance rating of + 1.4 is nearly as good as its home mark of + 2.5. With good quarterback play, NFL teams can win at any locale, and the Chiefs are scoring 32.7 ppg over the last 3 1/2 seasons on the road. The Chargers have been a very good find in road play lately, also showing a positive TRF figure as well as an 18-10 ATS mark. The Raiders, the lone AFC West club under .500 ATS, seem to be the only team you’ll probably want to avoid away from Las Vegas.

NFC East

Dallas shows the biggest swing in the league in terms of true home and road dichotomy. The Cowboys were tied atop the THF chart with a + 4.6 rating. On the road they are -3.0, and that even includes Sunday night’s key 20-16 win at Minnesota, a game in which my closing ratings reflect QB Dak Prescott’s absence. In other words, the Cowboys are more than 7 points better when playing at home as opposed to the road. That’s something to watch as they’ll be facing more and more road elements as the season gets deeper. The Giants have been the best ATS road team in the league lately with a 20-6 ATS record. However, they are typically big underdogs at + 5.8 points on average, and their outright record of 9-17 SU typically scares off a lot of bettors.

NFC North

None of the four NFC North teams have proven consistently strong on the road in recent years. All show negative TRF ratings, although Minnesota at -0.4 is above the league average. Green Bay showed strong home numbers last week but is on the bottom of this week’s chart at -2.2. The Packers’ records of 17-12 SU and 16-12 ATS are not really reflective of that rating, more of a team that has fared well overall on the road but has put up a significant number of stinker games along the way.

NFC South

New Orleans has been among the league’s best road teams in recent years with a True Road Field rating of + 3.8. Only Baltimore is better. This is obviously an undervalued factor in the Saints’ recent success, as the general belief is that they are toughest at home in the Superdome. New Orleans’ THF was 1.4, so it has been more effective on the road than at home. The Saints’ 23-5 SU and 20-8 ATS records confirm it. Their current quarterback woes could be a concern as far as keeping that trend going. Tampa Bay and Atlanta have posted respectable road numbers lately, while Carolina has the NFC’s worst TRF figure at -3.4.  

NFC West

Collectively, the NFC West has been the league’s best division in terms of TRF rating with an average of + 0.8. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who saw last week’s low home-field numbers. Arizona, which I pointed out was one of the league’s worst home teams before its loss to the Packers, has been the best performing road team in this division. The Cardinals’ rating of + 2.3, as well as their 17-10 ATS record, will be put to the test this week at San Francisco. Not only are this group’s TRF ratings good, but the 65-47 mark is just a tick worse than the AFC North in terms of percentage points.

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