While we’ve been getting more involved with basketball and hockey as the football season has been winding down, we don’t have to quit cold turkey as the XFL returns this weekend.
Those who were reading us last year may recall that I hit seven straight Best Bets in the Alliance of American Football, and we were very disappointed when the league folded after eight weeks. However, we’re hoping the XFL will bring similar success, as we love pitting our handicapping skills against the oddsmakers. Let’s be frank: They’re looking at the same stories and practice reports the bettors are reading in trying to determine the relative strength of these teams before their first games.
The consensus seems to be that the Dallas Renegades are the best in the eight-team league. They’re 5/2 favorites at the Westgate SuperBook and Caesars properties, 3/1 faves at PointsBet USA and 3/1 co-faves with the Tampa Bay Vipers at William Hill and MGM. Opinion varies widely on the other teams. The New York Guardians are the 4/1 co-second choice at PointsBet but the longest shots on the board at 12/1 at William Hill and MGM. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Battlehawks are 10/1 long shots at the Westgate but only 6/1 at MGM and Caesars, so this gives us hope that we can find some live underdogs once the games start.
But first we need a primer on the rule differences for the XFL. You can get the full rundown at XFL.com/rules, but we’ll address the ones that have the greatest impact on how we’ll be handicapping games.
— Most of the changes are meant to increase the number of plays, which leads to more scoring, such as a 25-second play clock after the ball is spotted and stopping the clock after every play inside the 2-minute warning in each half until the ball is spotted. So don’t expect lower Over/Unders like we saw in the AAF.
— Offenses are also aided by receivers needing to get only one foot inbounds, like in college, and they’re planning to have coach-to-player communication in the helmets of skill-position players, not just QBs. In addition, linemen are not illegally downfield until 3 yards past the line of scrimmage, allowing more freedom on run-pass option plays. Offenses are also allowed a double pass as long as the first forward pass is behind the line of scrimmage.
— Big returns on kickoffs and punts are encouraged — likely to set up shorter fields for the offenses — by penalizing touchbacks and kicks out of bounds. The rules also don’t allow kick-coverage teams to move until the ball is touched, and punt-coverage teams can’t cross the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked. The league says this should reduce injuries, with defenders less able to get running starts.
— Conversion kicks will not exist. Teams will opt for a one-, two- or three-point conversion from the 2-, 5- or 10-yard line (defenses can score the corresponding points with interceptions or fumble returns). So don’t think of 3 and 7 as key numbers anymore in betting. Big edge to teams that can convert such plays consistently. It’ll be interesting to see which teams go for the shorter one-point try and which roll the dice and go for three.
— Halftime is only 10 minutes, so make your halftime wagers quickly.
— Overtime is similar to hockey or soccer shootouts, in which teams will alternate running five two-point conversion plays from the 5-yard line until one team can’t catch up. If still tied after five rounds, they alternate until one team converts and the other doesn’t.
As you can see, the emphasis is on the offense. We also see that in the coaches chosen to lead these teams and what the league hopes are some recognizable names at quarterback. Longtime Steelers backup QB Landry Jones, who is nursing a knee injury, is expected to be one of the league’s stars and a big reason for Dallas being the preseason favorite with his former coach at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops. Even if Jones is unable to go in the season opener, Dallas has former Syracuse dual-threat QB Eric Dungey, though he has missed some training camp with a hamstring injury.
Former Ohio State QB Cardale Jones, who led the Buckeyes to the national title in his freshman season, gets his chance with the D.C. Defenders under coach Pep Hamilton, who is probably most famous for being Andrew Luck’s offensive coordinator at Stanford and with the Indianapolis Colts. Former Georgia QB Aaron Murray is the man in Tampa Bay under former Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman.
I’m not sure how involved I’ll get with this weekend’s openers. I went 0-2 ATS in AAF Week 1 last year before I could watch the teams and make better decisions. But here are my takes on the four matchups, and I’ll stick to my dog-or-pass approach:
Seattle Dragons at D.C. Defenders (-7.5)
The XFL season kicks off in our nation’s capital on ABC. I saw this line at -7, and it has been bet up to -7.5 — though, again, we don’t want to get hung up on 7 as a key number in this league. Seattle is coached by former Seahawks QB Jim Zorn, but maybe he should consider putting on the pads if the best QB option is Brandon Silvers. Former Navy QB Keenan Reynolds will be a fan favorite as a multi-threat RB/WR, but I’m not seeing enough on the Seattle roster to back this dog. Best Bet: Pass.
Los Angeles Wildcats at Houston Roughnecks (-4.5)
Houston is coached by June Jones with former Michigan State QB Connor Cook. Los Angeles’ Winston Moss is probably the most unheralded of the XFL’s coaches, but I’m excited to see what offensive coordinator Norm Chow can do. His QB is Josh Johnson, the definition of a journeyman who has been with 13 NFL teams in 11 seasons. But he might still have the most talent in this league and be worth a shot in the opener. Best Bet: Los Angeles + 4.5.
Tampa Bay Vipers (-3.5) at New York Guardians
Some books have had this game lined as high as Tampa Bay -5, and it was down to -2.5 at the Westgate as of Tuesday night. Again, there’s a lot of difference of opinion about this New York team, and I’m hoping the downward movement is from sharp action, as I love home dogs across all sports and this is the lone home dog in Week 1. Former Oakland Raiders QB Matt McGloin is in charge of the New York offense, and I always felt he was underrated. I have no problem trusting him. Best Bet: New York + 3.5.
St. Louis Battlehawks at Dallas Renegades (-9)
This line opened Dallas -7 and is all the way up to -9, presumably as the hype builds around the Renegades as title favorites. I’m tempted to fade them, especially with the uncertain injury status of Jones and Dungey, but it’s looking from most reports like St. Louis might be the worst team in the league. So I’ll wait for better teams to go against Dallas. Best Bet: Pass.