We’re more than a full month into the college football season and most teams have played four games. This means it’s a good time to start taking stock of the teams and how they might fare the rest of the way. Uncovering the teams that will be the big point spread winners yet in 2022 can really pay off. The fact is that in the last 10 seasons, 45 teams have won more than 75% or at least 11 games ATS in a season, and the chart below shows those.
There’s plenty of time to take advantage of these big-money teams, if we can uncover them. Think about it, even if a team is 4-0 ATS right now, if they were to finish 75% ATS for the entire season, that would mean at least a 5-3 ATS finish the rest of the way. If you’re thinking you’ve already missed the boat because these teams are off to great starts, think again. The 45 teams in the chart combined to go 282-98 SU and 295-80 ATS (78.7%) the rest of the way after their first four games. It is certainly worth our while to try to lock these teams down.
Readers of my college basketball analysis at tournament time know I like to use “shared characteristics” of past great teams to predict greatness for the coming action. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the shared characteristics of those past 45 top-performing college football ATS teams after four games to see if we can uncover the big-money teams of 2022 to ride them the rest of the way.
Here is a chart of the 45 teams over the last 10 years that have excelled against the spread in a given season.
Narrowing the list of potential ATS breakout teams for 2022
The chart above shows several variables and characteristics of the teams that have enjoyed stellar ATS seasons over the last 10 years. We will look at the 2022 teams and eliminate candidates that don’t fit the shared criteria of the past successful teams. Typically, I am looking for a benchmark of about 80% of teams meeting a certain threshold.
Trait 1: Winning record after three games
Of the 45 teams in the chart above, 30 had winning records after three games. This is a little less than the 80% I prefer, but there were no other possible break points. That would produce a list of 61 teams for 2022 still eligible for our list.
I will show a chart with these results and the eligible teams as we narrow them down a little more, after Trait 2 specifically.
Trait 2: Winning ATS record after three games
Of the 45 teams in the chart above, 40 had won at least three games ATS (>=75%) in their first four games. From our 61-team list, we would have 30 teams remaining that are still eligible qualifiers for our BIG MONEY criteria.
This is where I will cut off the list and chart the remaining shared traits.
Trait 3: Showing capable offense already
Another 80%, or 36 of our 45 ATS excelling teams, were scoring at least 28.5 PPG after their first four games. Illinois is the only team that does not qualify for this benchmark of our 30-team 2022 candidate list.
Trait 4: The defensive benchmark for ATS success is around 20 PPG
To keep our same criteria of about 36 teams qualifying, the benchmark for defensive points allowed is 20 PPG. Of our 30 candidate teams, 20 of them reached this benchmark for points allowed, thus earning a mark on the chart.
Trait 5: Same head coach as last season
Of the 45 teams, only five of them had new head coaches that season. When considering our 30-team candidate list for 2022, 24 of the teams brought back the same coach from last year, earning them marks on our chart.
Trait 6: Had at least 11 starters back from the prior year’s team
From our recent successful teams list, about 80% (37 of 45) brought back at least 11 starters. Checking our list for 2022, only five of our 30 teams won’t earn a checkmark.
Trait 7: Running same offensive system as last year under same coordinator
Another key building block in successful ATS seasons for college teams is the consistency of running the same offensive system for the same offensive coordinator as the prior season. Of the 45 teams in our chart of the last 10 seasons, 32 fit this bill. Although this falls a bit short of the 80% threshold, it’s close and is obviously a fundamentally important factor. Applying this qualifier to our list of 30 teams for 2022, we award just 14 checkmarks. Keep this in mind as it is a big eliminator. A lot of teams are able to start hot because there isn’t much film available on a team’s offense. Sustaining the success is key and comes from running a system for multiple seasons.
Trait 8: Brought back the same starting quarterback from the previous season
A lot of success in college football stems from stability as I have discussed on numerous occasions. One of the key traits of stability is a returning starting quarterback. Twenty-seven of the 45 teams (60%) that have enjoyed great ATS seasons over the last 10 years have had a returning starter at QB. For 2022, 16 of our 30 candidate teams earn checkmarks.
Trait 9: Team won fewer than two-thirds of its games in the prior season
Taking it a step further, 36 of our 45 teams had a record of 66.7% winning percentage or worse the prior season. In other words, they weren’t an elite team in the previous year. These are the real surprise teams that can build so much momentum early that they are able to ride it to huge profits for the entire season. For 2022, 22 teams earn check marks, eight do not.
This is the final chart of the 30 teams with winning records right now and at least three point-spread (and >=75% ATS) victories, complete with checkmarks for the traits they meet.
The top candidates
There are two teams that meet the criteria for being “BIG MONEY TEAMS” in 2022 perfectly. They are Penn State and Tennessee.
The Nittany Lions are flying below the radar in the Big Ten East, which is exactly where you want them to be if they are to become one of the big-money teams in 2022. They are undefeated but have given up a game ATS, so there is still room to grow. Coach James Franklin also has a steady veteran quarterback in Sean Clifford who continues to set the pace, leading the team to four outings of 33+ points so far. Plus, their home-field advantage is huge. Penn State continues Big Ten play this week versus Northwestern and looks ready to continue its early surge.
A lot of bettors figure to get behind Tennessee the rest of the way. The Volunteers score a ton of points behind prolific QB Hendon Hooker, have a hungry and rabid fan base, and just survived their toughest test of the season against their fiercest rival. This team looks ready to roll coming out of its bye with a game at LSU on Oct. 8.
Here are 10 more teams that meet the criteria in six of the seven traits:
Air Force looked great Friday night in blowing out Nevada. And with QB Haaziq Daniels running the show, has the ability to match its powerful running attack with big plays through the air. It is very difficult to defend this team. Because they were too good last season, the Falcons missed one mark on the chart. This is a veteran team that could keep up the pace, though.
How bad would it be for sportsbooks if Alabama were to wind up being a “big-money team” in 2022 and cover most of their point spreads? Like Air Force, the Tide’s one failure to secure a checkmark came from being too good last season. I wouldn’t worry much about that as this team seems hungry after losing in the title game last season. Other than a 20-point outing versus Texas, this offense has put up 55, 63 and 55 in its other three games. That makes it easier to cover huge lines.
The Seminoles are an intriguing team as they have won both of their games that could have gone either way, judging by the point spreads. That is a huge lift as FSU seems to be becoming more cohesive with each passed test. The Seminoles also survived a scare with quarterback Jordan Travis escaping serious injury. At this point, the only game coach Mike Norvell’s team didn’t cover was a 47-7 season-opening win vs. Duquesne. This might just be the team that restores pride in Tallahasee.
You like to see a veteran team pick up right where it left off the previous season in terms of momentum. Maryland closed 2021 with a huge blowout of Rutgers in the regular-season finale and then a 54-10 romp of Virginia Tech in the Pinstripe Bowl. This season, the Terps have gone 3-1 SU and ATS while scoring 37 PPG. Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa is making a big name for himself like his brother, and they almost pulled off a huge upset on Saturday at Michigan in their toughest test to date. This could be a banner year for Maryland football.
Minnesota could be the surprise team of 2022 so far. The Gophers are running the football up and down the field on anyone that steps in their way, and they have a veteran quarterback in Tanner Morgan to balance the attack. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team is also picking up right where it left off last season in winning and covering its final three games. This team is now the favorite in the Big Ten West, and its only game remaining where it might be an underdog is at Penn State on Oct. 22.
Oregon State almost took down USC on Saturday, and if it had, it might not be as qualified as it is now to land on this list as it would no longer be flying under the radar. The Beavers are riding a four-game ATS winning streak to start the season, and like Florida State, have posted outright wins in two games that were virtual toss-ups. Coach Jonathan Smith’s team is also showing great balance offensively and has limited some big-time offenses to 24 PPG. Ironically, that respectable defensive performance (over 20 PPG) is the one checkmark they didn’t earn.
The Sun Belt Conference has already pulled off a ton of great feats in 2022. South Alabama was responsible for one near-upset, falling short, 32-31, at UCLA. That was one of four point-spread victories the Jaguars have earned thus far, as it seems that bookmakers have not given this team the respect it deserves. Interestingly, the only checkmark USA didn’t receive was due to having a new quarterback in 2022, but Carter Bradley is off to a fine start, passing for 1,012 yards and a 10-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Syracuse is another team turning heads with a surprising 4-0 start. The Orange started fast with a 31-7 season-opening upset of Louisville and have not looked back. They did lose ATS in their last outing, however, surviving a 22-20 decision against Virginia. Coach Dino Babers had 17 starters return for 2022, including QB Garrett Shrader, who is off to a big start. After this week’s homecoming game vs. Wagner and an off week, Syracuse faces a seven-game ACC slate to end the season in which it could be an underdog in every game. The Orange could rally around that motivational point.
Last week’s 27-24 loss to Southern Miss as a 12-point favorite has the potential to thwart Tulane’s big start, but this is a veteran team that brought back 18 starters, so I don’t expect it to linger. The Green Wave have already won more games than last season, and QB Michael Pratt is a gritty veteran who will help this team compete against some of the better teams in the AAC. I prefer teams like this better as an underdog, and I expect them to be in that role at least six more times in 2022, starting this week at Houston.
I wouldn’t call it writing them off, but after their season-opening loss at Florida, the Utes have become somewhat forgotten. If you think about it, that’s a lot like last season, when Utah started 1-2 and rallied for wins in nine of their next 10 games. I’m not sure coach Kyle Whittingham’s team would thrive under the CFP pressure anyway. Since the loss to the Gators, all this veteran team has done is go 3-0 SU and ATS while outscoring opponents 142-27.
The other 18 teams on the list meet fewer traits and thus would have to overcome a “weak spot” in being able to become a “big-money team” this season.