We love football here in the Tuley’s Takes home office.
I hope that’s evident during the NFL and NCAA seasons in the fall. We go through withdrawal when the college regular season comes to a close and then also die a little inside when the NFL regular season ends and, of course, after the Super Bowl.
So we’re very excited that we’re going to have spring football with the renewal of the USFL kicking off this weekend. I was in high school when the original USFL kicked off in 1983 and competed against the NFL with big salaries for its marquee stars — Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie (both signed by the New Jersey Generals, owned by a pre-presidential Donald J. Trump), Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White, among others. I was a kicker, so I liked the thought of extra pro jobs being available. But the league folded after three seasons when the USFL won its $1.69 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NFL’s monopoly but was awarded just $1 for damages (because it was an antitrust suit, the amount was tripled to $3.
Yes, the 1980s were as wild as you youngsters have heard!
This is the third try by a start-up (or revived) league in the last four years. The American Alliance of Football (AAF) suspended operations after eight weeks of its 10-week schedule in 2019. The XFL was looking more promising when it started in February 2020 but played only five weeks as it became one of the first sports casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve had a lot of success with these minor-league football seasons. I wasn’t gambling during the original USFL, but I was already living in Las Vegas when the original XFL (founded by the WWE’s Vince McMahon) was one-and-done in 2001, then my career path led me to VSiN in time for the AAF and revival of the XFL, which is now owned by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and is expected to return in 2023.
I won’t try to kid you: I don’t have any inside knowledge about these USFL teams even after looking at the rosters, especially since there’s been less information available (ie: depth charts or practice reports) than we had with the AAF and XFL. We'll definitely be betting more in later weeks as we get to see these teams perform on the field, but my first thought is that we’re all working from a blank slate here and the oddsmakers don’t know any more than we do.
However, PSW editor Steve Makinen points out that the oddsmakers did appear to be ahead of us in the AAF as he wrote that the chalk went 4-0 SU and ATS in Week 1 and that line moves of 4 or more points were 3-2 ATS in the following weeks, so he advises us to take cues from the “experts behind the betting counter” and the sharp bettors moving the lines.
I’ll take that as a fair warning and see if that’s true in the opening weeks of the USFL, but remember that underdogs rallied and ended up leading 17-15 ATS by the time the AAF folded after Week 8.
I believe it’s important at this time to discuss the key number of three. We all know from decades of betting football that three is the most common winning margin. Now, the USFL has added a new wrinkle to conversion attempts after a touchdown is scored. The team can kick a traditional PAT with the ball snapped at the 15-yard line, just like the modern-day NFL, or move the ball to the 2-yard line and attempt a two-point conversion — OR move the ball to the 10-yard line and go for a three-point conversion.
I believe this will lead to three being even more of a key number.
When a team scores a TD to pull within three, it will obviously go for three, and the odds are it will fail and still trail by three. Overall, more combinations of 6s and 3s should lead to three-point margins (and 1 plus 2 equals 3 if a team scores one of each of those).
In addition to the relative parity of the league, it’s also no surprise that the lines for this weekend’s four games are right around three points.
Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher was great with underdogs during his NFL career, but I’m afraid we’ll rarely see him in that role as Michigan is the 4-1 favorite (DraftKings) to win this first USFL title just like it did the first one in 1983. The Panthers are 3.5-point favorites in their opener against the Houston Gamblers on Sunday.
I will, however, make my first bet of the USFL season in the Saturday night opener with the New Jersey Generals + 3.5 vs. the Birmingham Stallion.
Another important difference in the USFL is that all regular-season games will be played in Birmingham, Ala. It seems a little weird to have the other seven teams representing different cities or states throughout the country and not get to play any home games, though it also doesn’t seem too strange in this pandemic era to have an upstart play in what amounts to a bubble.
So home-field advantage won’t be a factor. And if you want to say that Birmingham should have a home-field advantage, I’ll point out that home/away teams split 16-16 ATS in the AAF three years ago and we’ve seen a huge reduction in HFA across all sports the past couple of years, even with the return of fans in the stands.
My last point is on the points — aka the Over/Under betting totals in the USFL.
The Under has been the way to go in the recent leagues with Unders going 18-13-1 in the eight weeks of the AAF in 2019. Unders went 3-1 each of the first four weeks to start 12-4, 75%, so Overs were actually 9-6-1 the last four weeks. Unders also went 12-8 in the XFL in 2020.
When I recapped the shortened XFL season in Point Spread Weekly in March 2020, I had a message for us in 2022: “The lesson is to be skeptical of the hype the next time a new sport or variation of an existing sport promises high-scoring action.”
So, yes, you’re going to be hearing a lot about “an exciting new brand of football” and the rules changes, etc., but history has shown us to expect low-scoring games in these new leagues, especially at the start.
The betting totals have already been adjusted down from some early lines I saw, but I believe they can only be set so low, so let’s go Under in all four games this weekend (note: we’re not going too crazy here, half our regular “unit” or less):
— New Jersey Generals-Birmingham Stallions Under 42.5
— Houston Gamblers-Michigan Panthers Under 42
— Philadelphia Stars-New Orleans Breakers Under 43
— Tampa Bay Bandits-Pittsburgh Maulers Under 42
Best Bet (ATS): New Jersey + 3.5 vs. Birmingham