USFL primer: What you need to know to bet

April 13, 2022 08:38 PM
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Football returns this weekend — not in full force and not exactly as we know it, but with point spreads, familiar names and unique technology for TV viewers. 

The new USFL kicks off its inaugural season and hopes this version of spring football is here to stay.

I was a kid when the USFL first went toe-to-toe with the NFL, both on the field and in court. When I think of legitimate past competitors to the almighty NFL, this is the league that comes to mind. 

It had big-name owners and coaches (think Donald Trump and Marv Levy, among others), paid high salaries to keep some of the best college players from entering the NFL draft (Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Herschel Walker come to mind) and made sure its TV partners gave it a grand stage. 

The league fizzled after three seasons and we haven’t seen anything make a lasting impression on fans or bettors since. There were leagues that lasted longer, such as NFL Europe, but none had the success of the USFL. The last league to give it a real try was the AAF in 2019.

Like the AAF, the new USFL will field eight teams to begin its first season. Among those are the Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars, the teams that won the first two USFL titles in 1983 and 1984. 

The AAF sold itself as a minor league to the NFL, giving players a shot at performing for NFL scouts. The USFL has grander plans and wants to be a big draw in the spring and early summer. It has partnered with FOX and NBC for its TV coverage and plans to back that up with a top-level web and social media presence. 

The league has also tinkered with some NFL rules, including the overtime process, onside kicks, timing rules in the last two minutes and different options for points after touchdowns. 

In my humble opinion, though, for the league to really make a name for itself, it has to find a home in the hearts of sports bettors and the books that house the action.

Some interesting trends emerged in the first few weeks of the 2019 AAF season, and we might see some similar patterns when the USFL kicks off: 

— Early in the AAF’s brief run, teams vastly underperformed oddsmakers’ expectations offensively. In each of those first four weeks, three of the four games went Under the total, making for a 12-4 Under start. Some of the offenses finally found their footing in Week 5, leading to four Overs. In the first four weeks, games averaged 37.5 combined points. In Week 5, that average jumped to 48.5.

— Favorites were 4-0 SU and ATS in Week 1 of the AAF. Over the next three weeks, there were some wild line moves, with bettors following moves of 4 points or more going 3-2 SU and ATS. In other words, it behooved bettors to jump on the backs of the so-called sharps who forced books to move shaky early lines.

— The betting action eventually settled down after the first month of games, and the league was forced to close its doors after eight weeks. In all, home teams went 18-14 SU and 16-16 ATS. Unders held a 19-13 edge as games produced 39.9 PPG.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect to the USFL’s 2022 schedule: All regular-season games will be played in Birmingham, Alabama, at either Protective Stadium or Legion Field. It remains to be seen whether fans will provide any lift for the Birmingham Stallions, thus no home-field advantage ratings will be employed. 

I’ll begin the season by tailing oddsmakers’ totals numbers as far as offensive expectations are concerned. I’ll move quickly to adjust as the season wears on and it should be full steam ahead by Week 4 or 5. Hopefully, we’ll see a full 10-game season culminating with a championship game scheduled for July 3 in Canton, Ohio. 

Here are the lines for the first week of action (spreads/totals according to FOX Bet, which figures to be a leading source for USFL odds and other key info as a league partner):

Saturday

Birmingham Stallions (-3.5/49.5) vs. New Jersey Generals, 7:30 p.m. ET

Sunday

Michigan Panthers (-3.5/47.5) vs. Houston Gamblers, noon ET

Philadelphia Stars (-2.5/46.5) vs. New Orleans Breakers, 4 p.m. ET

Tampa Bay Bandits (-2.5/48.5) vs. Pittsburgh Maulers, 8 p.m. ET

As you can see, oddsmakers seem to have some distinct opinions already, placing at least 2.5 points of separation in all four matchups. Let’s dig into each of the teams to find out the reasons why:

North Division

Michigan Panthers

Coach: Jeff Fisher. Longtime coach of the Titans and then the Rams.

Starting quarterback: Shea Patterson. Played for Ole Miss then Michigan in college … pro stints with the Chiefs and in the CFL … top pick in USFL draft. 

Other potential starting quarterback: Paxton Lynch. Starred at Memphis … started four games for the Broncos before stints with the Steelers and Seahawks … played in CFL in 2021.

DraftKings title odds: + 400 (favorites).

Steve’s power rating: 26 (No. 1).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: Houston Gamblers

April 22: New Jersey Generals

April 30: Pittsburgh Maulers

May 6-8: Philadelphia Stars

May 13-15: Tampa Bay Bandits

May 21-22: Birmingham Stallions

May 28-29: New Orleans Breakers

June 5-6: New Jersey Generals

June 11-12: New Jersey Generals

June 18-19: Pittsburgh Maulers

New Jersey Generals

Coach: Mike Riley. Coached at Oregon State then Nebraska … later coached in AAF.

Starting quarterback: Ben Holmes. Smaller frame at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds … put up big numbers at Tarleton State … spent time in Indoor Football League.

DraftKings title odds: + 700.

Steve’s power rating: 22.5 (tied for No. 7).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 16: Birmingham Stallions

April 22: Michigan Panthers

May 1: Philadelphia Stars

May 6-8: Pittsburgh Maulers

May 13-15: New Orleans Breakers

May 21-22: Houston Gamblers

May 28-29: Tampa Bay Bandits

June 5-6: Michigan Panthers

June 11-12: Michigan Panthers

June 18-19: Philadelphia Stars

Philadelphia Stars

Coach: Bart Andrus. Coached at various levels over the past 40 years including college, NFL, NFL Europe and CFL … last coached at Ottawa University in 2021.

Starting quarterback: Bryan Scott. Played in college at Occidental in California.

DraftKings title odds: + 600.

Steve’s power rating: 25 (No. 3).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: New Orleans Breakers 

April 23: Pittsburgh Maulers

May 1: New Jersey Generals

May 6-8: Michigan Panthers

May 13-15: Birmingham Stallions

May 21-22: Tampa Bay Bandits

May 28-29: Houston Gamblers

June 5-6: Pittsburgh Maulers

June 11-12: Pittsburgh Maulers

June 18-19: New Jersey Generals

Pittsburgh Maulers

Coach: Kirby Wilson. Running backs coach for eight NFL teams, the last being the Raiders in 2020.

Starting quarterback: Kyle Lauletta. Starred at Richmond … MVP of 2018 Senior Bowl … drafted by Giants in fourth round.

DraftKings title odds: + 600.

Steve’s power rating: 23.5 (No. 5).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: Tampa Bay Bandits

April 23: Philadelphia Stars

April 30: Michigan Panthers

May 6-8: New Jersey Generals

May 13-15: Houston Gamblers

May 21-22: New Orleans Breakers

May 28-29: Birmingham Stallions

June 5-6: Philadelphia Stars

June 11-12: Philadelphia Stars

June 18-19: Michigan Panthers

South Division

Birmingham Stallions

Coach: Skip Holtz. Coach at East Carolina, South Florida and Louisiana Tech from 2005-21.

Starting quarterback: Alex McGough. Starred at FIU … drafted by Seahawks in 2018 before stints with Jaguars and Texans.

DraftKings title odds: + 750.

Steve’s power rating: 24 (No. 4).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 16: New Jersey Generals

April 23: Houston Gamblers

May 1: New Orleans Breakers

May 6-8: Tampa Bay Bandits

May 13-15: Philadelphia Stars

May 21-22: Michigan Panthers

May 28-29: Pittsburgh Maulers

June 5-6: Houston Gamblers

June 11-12: Houston Gamblers

June 18-19: Tampa Bay Bandits

Houston Gamblers

Coach: Kevin Sumlin. Coached at Texas A&M and Houston before most recent job Arizona from 2018-20.

Starting quarterback: Clayton Thorson. Solid career at Northwestern … drafted by Eagles in 2019 before stints with Cowboys and Giants.

DraftKings title odds: + 750.

Steve’s power rating: 22.5 (tied for No. 7).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: Michigan Panthers

April 23: Birmingham Stallions

April 30: Tampa Bay Bandits

May 6-8: New Orleans Breakers

May 13-15: Pittsburgh Maulers

May 21-22: New Jersey Generals

May 28-29: Philadelphia Stars

June 5-6: Birmingham Stallions

June 11-12: Birmingham Stallions

June 18-19: New Orleans Breakers

New Orleans Breakers

Coach: Larry Fedora. Coached at Southern Miss and North Carolina from 2008-2018 … assistant at Texas and Baylor since.

Starting quarterback: Kyle Sloter. Played multiple positions before settling in at quarterback for his senior year at Northern Colorado … Has had preseason snaps for Broncos, Vikings, Cardinals, Bears, Lions and Raiders.

DraftKings title odds: + 500.

Steve’s power rating: 23 (No. 6).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: Philadelphia Stars

April 24: Tampa Bay Bandits

May 1: Birmingham Stallions

May 6-8: Houston Gamblers

May 13-15: New Jersey Generals

May 21-22: Pittsburgh Maulers

May 28-29: Michigan Panthers

June 5-6: Tampa Bay Bandits

June 11-12: Tampa Bay Bandits

June 18-19: Houston Gamblers

Tampa Bay Bandits

Coach: Todd Haley. High-profile offensive coordinator with Cardinals, Chiefs, Steelers and Browns.

Starting quarterback: Jordan Ta’amu. Played at Ole Miss … Stints in AAF, XFL and NFL.

DraftKings title odds: + 500.

Steve’s power rating: 25.5 (No. 2).

Schedule

Games with multiple dates are TBD

April 17: Pittsburgh Maulers

April 24: New Orleans Breakers

April 30: Houston Gamblers

May 6-8: Birmingham Stallions

May 13-15: Michigan Panthers

May 21-22: Philadelphia Stars

May 28-29: New Jersey Generals

June 5-6: New Orleans Breakers

June 11-12: New Orleans Breakers

June 18-19: Birmingham Stallions

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