Wise to bet on stability in CFB

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If you’re one of the many readers of VSiN’s Point Spread Weekly who have been with us since kickoff of the 2017 football season, you will recognize my methodology on College Football Stability. I offer the analysis at the beginning of every season, and to be exact, for the first four weeks of every season. It is one of the foremost strategies I employ every year to find early value. The thought behind it is that teams that are in more stable year-to-year situations are better bets early while those that have undergone a lot of change in the offseason should be faded. The logic is fundamentally sound. Returning fewer starters, starting over at quarterback, and welcoming in new head coaches or coordinators are always hurdles for teams to get over. Eventually the teams may overcome these hurdles, but the general thought is that it doesn’t happen early, and oddsmakers don’t account for these factors enough in building their lines.

Having worked with people on both sides of the betting window for many years, I have found that the amount of preseason preparation people take on can vary greatly from book to book and from bettor to bettor. Because of this, there can be huge misses by those setting the numbers. Doing the homework early has become one of the most important aspects for college football bettors hoping to enjoy a successful season. Those bettors who scour the various betting publications, such as the VSiN College Football Betting Guide, before the season tend to be best prepared once Week 1 rolls around.

There are many reasons why things can change dramatically from one season to the next in college football, among them the four-year eligibility rules, the pressure now placed on coaching staffs at every level of program, and of course player transgressions off the field. The result is that there is always significant turnover from year to year, both on the field and on the sidelines. Bettors expecting to see the same thing they watched from a team at the end of the prior season are most often startled at the change.

Being a numbers guy and always looking for quantitative advantages in betting, I like to conduct an exercise that quantifies the level of stability for each program. I figure that the higher level of stability, the better the chances for success for any team, particularly early in the season. Naturally putting a numerical grade to it makes it easier to spot this stability. Again, the feeling is that oddsmakers don’t adjust the point spread enough for the “instability.”

Over the last nine years or so, I have implemented an early-season strategy that employs backing the teams with the greatest stability ratings in matchups against those in the most unstable situations. In those nine years, I have never experienced a losing record by playing the games on the lists for the first four weeks of the season. The degree of success has varied during that span, but in all nine years I have closed with a profit. Of course, these numbers can be improved by factoring in other successful handicapping strategies or by more closely examining the individual factors of instability, but as a stand-alone strategy, the success level is tough to beat.

I’ve put together a chart of the College Football Stability Scores for 2021. When the season arrives, I will put together lists in each of the first four weeks detailing the top mismatches. I have found that a Stability Mismatch score of 8 is the minimum on which I will consider a play.

Here are the basics for how I determine each team’s Total Stability Score. In essence, the score is determined from five stabilizing factors: head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, quarterback and overall returning starters. Here is how the scores are determined:

Returning Head Coach Points

Yes, same head coach as 2020: 4 points

No, new head coach for 2021: 0 points

Returning Offensive Coordinator Points

Yes, same offensive coordinator as 2020: 3 points

No, new offensive coordinator for 2021: 0 points

Returning Defensive Coordinator Points

Yes, same defensive coordinator as 2020: 3 points

No, new defensive coordinator for 2021: 0 points

Returning Starting Quarterback Points

Yes, same starting quarterback as 2020: 4 points

No, new starting quarterback for 2021: 0 points

Returning Starter Points

0-7 returning offensive and defensive starters: 0 points

8-9: 1 point

10-12: 2 points

13-16: 3 points

17-19: 4 points

20-22: 5 points

 

 

As you analyze the chart of the 130 FBS teams, you’ll see that there are teams this season in both very stable and very unsettling situations. However, there are far fewer “unstable” situations this season because of the additional year of eligibility granted last season because of COVID-19. In fact, before the 2020 season, there were 19 teams that were returning 17 starters or more. For 2021, there are 69 such teams, more than half of the total FBS programs! Furthermore, there are 89 teams bringing back their starting quarterbacks, eight entire starting offensive units returning, along with nine full defenses. There will certainly be a lot of recognizable players on the field this fall. That said, there are 18 new head coaches along with 82 new coordinators, resulting in five teams with Stability Scores of 3 or less, just one fewer than last year. Let’s dig into the teams on both ends of the stability scale a little deeper.

Highly Stable Teams with scores of 19 or higher

Last year there were seven teams with scores of 18 or higher, and in the prior season, there were only three. For 2021, there are 30 teams that meet that benchmark for stability. The maximum score is 19, and because of the added stability this season, for this piece I am choosing to focus only on those “perfect” scores. These programs figure to be in good shape for the coming season, at least early.

AKRON (MAC) — 19

Akron was only 1-5 last season for second-year head coach Tom Arth, but his program gained some valuable experience along the way. Most of his expected postseason departures decided to stick around for another season with the added year of eligibility. In fact, a healthy 86% of this team’s production is back for 2021, including starting QB Zach Gibson. With most of the MAC teams coming back in good shape, however, it’s hard to foresee any massive improvement here as a benefit of the perfect stability score.

ARIZONA STATE (PAC-12) — 19

Herm Edwards’ 2020 Arizona State season could best be described as “incomplete.” The Sun Devils lost to USC and UCLA and beat Oregon State and rival Arizona. Not exactly a whole lot to brag about. It was Edwards’ third season in Tempe. Year 4 has a lot of promise with 20 starters back, including one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and the country for that matter, in Jayden Daniels, who has a sparkling 22-3 touchdown-interception ratio in his two years as starter to go along with nearly 600 yards rushing and 7 TDs. ASU also ran for 264-plus yards per game in the four games last season. It’s not a surprise DraftKings set this team at 9.0 wins for 2021.

BALL STATE (MAC) — 19

When we last saw Ball State, the Cardinals were completing a memorable 7-1 2020 season that included a MAC title as well as an impressive Arizona Bowl win over San Jose State. Head coach Mike Neu’s team won its final five games both outright and against the spread, and he has 20 starters back to build on that momentum. Quarterback Drew Plitt is the biggest name of that bunch. The 2021 schedule features a challenging nonconference slate with games at home versus Army and at Penn State and Wyoming. This team might have to be perfect in league play to beat its DraftKings win prop of 9. If stability matters, it could be.

EAST CAROLINA (AMERICAN) — 19

East Carolina was just 3-6 last season but will carry the momentum of season-ending wins over Temple and SMU into the 2021 season. The Pirates will also have the benefit of bringing back 20 starters from that team, including QB Holton Ahlers, who will be starting his fourth season under center in Greenville. This will be head coach Mike Houston’s third year atop the program, and he has a good chance of breaking the trend of a .333 winning percentage. (4-8 and 3-6). The DK win total is set at 4.5, but Houston surely has higher goals for his team.

FRESNO STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

Jake Haener took over as starting quarterback for Fresno State last year and gained a great deal of experience without losing a season of eligibility. He ended up leading the Bulldogs to a 3-3 record, throwing for over 2,000 yards and 14 TDs in what is normally just half a season. He might be the most important of the 20 returning starters for head coach Kalen DeBoer, who gets a bit of a redo for his rookie year. End-of-year losses to Nevada and New Mexico spoiled what was otherwise an encouraging start for Deboer’s team. A DraftKings win prop of 6.0 awaits, as do tough nonconference road trips to UCLA and Oregon.

LIBERTY (INDEPENDENT) — 19

There probably aren’t many teams in the country more excited about getting back to work in 2021 than Liberty, as the Flames are in very good shape for coach Huge Freeze’s third season, coming off a 10-1 season that culminated with a 37-34 win over previously unbeaten Coastal Carolina in one of the year’s bests bowl games. Quarterback Malik Willis had a huge season, throwing for 2,250 yards, rushing for 944 and accounting for 34 touchdowns. He is back along with 19 other starters. This year’s schedule is very manageable with the toughest game theoretically at Ole Miss. The DraftKings win prop of 9.0 could be a little modest.

MINNESOTA (BIG TEN) — 19

After a record-setting 11-win season in 2019, Minnesota’s program was derailed by COVID-19 last year as the Golden Gophers suffered from opt-outs and an overall loss of momentum. They failed to even reach a bowl game after going 3-4, falling to Wisconsin in the waning seconds of the season finale. For 2021, coach P.J. Fleck, now in his fifth season, brings back 20 starters, including fourth-year starting QB Tanner Morgan. The DK win prop is set at 7.0, and the challenges come early with a season opener at home versus Ohio State. I don’t see this team finishing .500 or below, but this 7.0 could be one of the sharpest numbers on the board.

NEVADA (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

The return of QB Carson Strong gives Nevada one of the best potential offenses in the Mountain West and a very good shot at beating the DraftKings season win prop of 7.5. The Wolf Pack won seven games last year in a season shortened to nine games, including a bowl victory over Tulane. Strong threw for 2,858 yards and 27 TDs. All 22 starters return for coach Jay Norvell, whose team has won at least seven games in each of the last three seasons.

RUTGERS (BIG TEN) — 19

Rutgers made an exciting coaching hire last year in bringing back Greg Schiano, who led the program to its best seasons in the early 2010s. I’m not sure even the most optimistic Scarlet Knights fans could have imagined the resurgence the program experienced in his first year back. While 3-6 isn’t an overwhelming level of success, the three wins matched the total of the previous two years combined, and the three conference wins tied for the most since Schiano last left in 2011. With 20 starters back and his staff in place for another season, Schiano has a chance for an even better run in 2021. With a favorable nonconference slate on tap, Rutgers has a chance to head to Michigan on Sept. 25 at 3-0.

SAN JOSE STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 19

When QB Nick Starkel announced after San Jose State’s bowl game last year that he was coming back for yet another season, it certainly laid the foundation for continued success for the Spartans in 2021. He is just one of 20 total starters back for coach Brent Brennan’s team, which received a bowl bid for the first time since 2015. There is continued success expected, with DraftKings setting the season win total at 7.5. Recapturing the momentum it had at 7-0 before the blowout loss to Ball State could be tough, considering Game 2 is at USC, the start of a crucial three-game road trip.

TOLEDO (MAC) — 19

After an incredible run of success, Toledo has failed to reach a bowl game in each of the last two seasons, although, to be fair, in any other year, a .667 winning percentage (4-2) would have qualified. That said, sixth-year coach Jason Candle is counting on big things from his returning starters in 2021 as all 22 are back. The offense averaged 35 points per game, so it should be one of the better units in the MAC again. The win total is set at 8.0, so expect this team to be back competing at its customary pre-2019 season level.

UCLA (PAC-12) — 19

If Chip Kelly’s ever going to have success at UCLA, this HAS to be the season. He has 20 starters back, including senior QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who seems to get more and more prolific in the Kelly offense each season. The pressure is mounting on Kelly as the Bruins have not made a bowl game in any of his three seasons. This could and should be the end of that streak, with the DK win total set at 7.0. The Bruins face a huge game in Week 2 when they host LSU. A win there and people might start thinking higher of their 2021 prospects.

 

Unstable Teams with scores of 3 or lower

Over the last two seasons, 11 teams have gone into the fall with Stability Scores of 3 or lower. The combined record of those teams wound up being 43-61 ATS, good for just 41.3%. This shows a solid foundational system to use in fading teams that have undergone a lot of changes from one season to the next. For 2021, there are five teams that meet the criteria of scoring 3 or lower. 

TENNESSEE (SEC) — 2

A good way to describe the shape Jeremy Pruitt left the Tennessee program in would be “in flames.” He was fired after an internal investigation revealed recruiting improprieties. Josh Heupel takes over after a good run at UCF, having scored 40-plus points per game in four straight seasons. He brings over a new staff with him as well. His QB competition figures to be down to end-of-2020 starter Harrison Bailey and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker. There is promise there, but it does usually take time for these massive overhauls to prosper. Only 11 starters are back and the schedule is tough as always in the SEC, including trips to Florida and Alabama. This team probably should be on your early fade list for 2021 as the country’s most unstable situation.

UTAH STATE (MOUNTAIN WEST) — 3

Blake Anderson comes to Logan after a solid run at Arkansas State, however, his last team was his worst. He figures to completely overhaul the systems that were in place under predecessor Gary Andersen, as he prefers a high-tempo aerial assault. Utah State actually gained more yardage on the ground last year than it did passing, a rarity in today’s college football. That group also scored only 15.5 points per game, so a change was obviously in order. The natural assumption is that a team like this can only get better. However, in college football, this instability is tougher to overcome than it is at the pro level, so expect continued struggles for the Aggies.

TEXAS (BIG 12) — 3

Texas also heads into the 2021 season with a lot of question marks. The Tom Herman era ended in disappointment, and most experts figured he would have been around Austin for much longer and have had a bigger impact in recruiting. The program is turned over to Steve Sarkisian, the unofficial architect of the prolific offenses of Alabama of the last few years. The problem is the Longhorns didn’t struggle to score, in fact, they averaged 42 points per game in senior QB Sam Ehlinger’s final season. With Ehlinger gone, Sarkisian will have to fill the massive void left at the game’s most important position. The new coach has prior experience at the FBS level but never really broke through to any elite success at either Washington or USC. I’d expect a lot of oddsmakers and other experts to get it wrong with this program, especially early. There could be some roadblocks in the first month or so before the Longhorns get into the thick of the Big 12 slate.

SOUTH CAROLINA (SEC) — 2

Another SEC East Division team makes our list of programs with Stability Scores of 3 or lower for 2021, perhaps leaving the door open for a team like Missouri or Kentucky to rise this fall. South Carolina is coming off a horrible 2-8 season, and first-time head coach Shane Beamer takes the reins. The Beamer name is well known in college football circles, so figure that most analysts will be more optimistic than not in looking at this program’s fortunes for 2021. I have to disagree, however. Completely new staff, new quarterback, a low number of 13 starters returning … it all adds up to what looks to be another tough year in Columbia. After all, usually these unstable teams struggle early. Unfortunately, that is the winnable part of the schedule. I can’t see this team winning any of its final five games.

ARIZONA (PAC-12) — 3

New coach Jedd Fisch left what is thought of as one of the NFL’s top franchises in New England to take over a college program that has fallen off the cliff. Arizona was 0-5 last season, getting outscored 39.8-17.4 per game. It was actually fortunate that the season was as short as it was, so the misery wasn’t expended any longer than it had to be. Fisch brings a new staff with him, and although he probably would have been changed out anyhow, QB Grant Gunnell has also moved on. DraftKings oddsmakers don’t see a whole lot of promise for this fall, setting the Wildcats’ season win O/U at 2.5. In all honesty, that is probably generous considering how bad this team was in 2020 combined with what amounts to a very tough schedule.

 

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