We’re back to covering international “football” this week, and I might be very wrong about my pick in the Croatia-England match. But it’s a confident pick, and handicapping the match made me think of how gambling principles apply to all sports.
College football is what it is, to quote every student-athlete who ever stepped in front of a microphone. But the gridiron bookie wants you to get caught up in the fine details of one particular sport, league, conference or division, and miss the bigger picture.
For instance, the UCF Knights are not considered a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. Why? Because they play in the American Athletic Conference, only considered the 6th strongest league in NCAA football at best. Vegas handicappers seem to be evaluating Croatia like a team that was always awesome in the World Cup and which always bounces back from bad losses instead of applying a broader standard and sample-size. But the same “experts” refuse to evaluate the unbeaten Knights by the same standard they would use to evaluate the Texas Longhorns.
What if you lifted Georgia’s football team up out of Athens and plopped the Bulldogs down in Athens…Ohio? If UGA had to play in disguise in the MAC for a season, they would likely win it going-away, but would also lose national respect due to playing in a mid-major conference.
Yet, hypocritically, the CFP committee uses “game control” and lopsided final scores as a factor in its determination of 4 playoff teams. If those elements are as highly-valued as winning games, then why can’t UCF be given credit for walloping everyone put in front of it?
Ah – but that’s the problem. The AAC is a deep bracket, and occasionally you’re going to have trouble putting an underdog away in the 3rd quarter. SMU gave UCF the business for a while last weekend, and memories of December are lingering. The ripple effects include a tighter-than-expected spread on the Knights’ visit to meet the Memphis Tigers.
Memphis vs UCF: Odds on an AAC Showdown
MyBookie’s odds-managers clearly expect the Knights to win in a close, tough scrum. The payoff line on a straight-up UCF win is (-185) while Memphis is (+160), and the point spread is a meager (-4 ½) for the visiting Black & Gold.
Has Memphis done anything in particular to earn those kinds of stripes in Vegas – marked as less than a TD underdog to an undefeated powerhouse putting on a streak for the ages? No, not necessarily. The Tigers crowned Connecticut by 31 points in their most recent outing, but UConn is one of the most floundering football programs in the nation and is swimming in the dregs of the AAC. On the previous 2 weekends, the 4-2 Tigers beat average Sun Belt teams. On the weekend prior, they lost to Navy.
But you can always look at rivalry trends in a league match-up that appears to be handicapped too tight. Like the Giants vs Eagles rivalry in the NFL, bettors won’t buy more than a 1-score spread if every game seems to turn into a barn-burner.
Memphis had an epic struggle against UCF last season. It began when tropical weather conditions forced a postponement of an early-season showdown. In late September the 2 schools played a make-up game which the Knights dominated up, down, and sideways, controlling the ball with a fantastic 350 yards on the ground.
But when the schools met for the conference title, it was a very different story. Memphis had reeled-off 7 wins in a row, including triumphs over Houston and a ranked Navy squad. UCF’s McKenzie Milton was picked-off 3 times, but passed for almost 500 yards along with 5 touchdowns as the teams went to OT tied 48-48.
The Knights somehow prevailed as the footage tells it, but it wasn’t a badly-played 100-point game with a bunch of blown coverages. Each team earned more respect for playing physical football than the participants in the Big 12’s infamous 61-58 Arena Bowl between TCU and Baylor in 2014.
Memphis and UCF: Regression and Advancement
Pundits will talk plenty about the individual players returning from the memorable battle last December. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson isn’t playing ball in the Home of the Blues anymore, and WR Anthony Miller (who had almost 200 yards receiving against the Knights that day) now plays for the Chicago Bears.
The Tigers have plugged-in accurate QB Brady White and are still handing the egg to talented tailback Darrell Henderson. They’ve been racking up big yardage totals and points galore against poor teams, but look what happens when they face a good’un.
In Week 2, Memphis faced the Navy Midshipmen, who controlled the ball with long drives as usual, limiting White’s opportunities to take snaps at advantageous times to do so. The Tigers responded by fumbling 3 times and throwing a pick. Tulane is another run-heavy team that was able to abuse White, stuffing Henderson and the Tiger run game while harassing the QB in a 40-24 upset win.
Maybe that’s the logic of Vegas on this contest – if Memphis is confident against UCF and gets a lot of offensive snaps, the Tiger offense is bound to get rolling. The O/U total is currently hovering at (79), an eye-popping total that shows just how much odds-makers and the betting public expect fireworks. UCF likes a high tempo and Milton loves to run a whole lot of plays. If both teams run more plays, more points are likely to be scored, and the contest becomes…less predictable?
Uh…no. The O/U may have logic behind it, but the point spread is too beholden to last year’s grudges. If more points are scored, UCF is more likely to win by 5+ points…not less likely.
Vegas has put an SEC point spread on a AAC contest. That could be a serious mistake.
The Knights are Checkmating Offenses
So let’s take a closer look at this UCF-SMU result from last weekend. Yes, Southern Methodist gave the Knights a few problems in the 2nd and 3rd quarter, and the score appeared to tighten for a while. But that was after Milton and the Knights rang-up a 21-3 lead at the end of the 1st frame.
Statistically, UCF gave every impression of a squad breezing through a warm-up before the important road trip, severely limiting the Mustangs by ground and air while allowing a few short completions.
In fact, the Knights’ record against mid-majors so far is a positive, not a negative, considering that the UCF defense resembles an above-average unit from the Big 12 (think Iowa State) was plopped down in the Group of 5.
While the Knights were beating Pittsburgh halfway up and down the east coast, they allowed the ACC’s proud Panthers just over 250 yards of total offense.
Penn State allowed Pitt a 100-yard rusher. Central Florida did not. Pittsburgh beat a resurgent, burly Syracuse team 44-37 in OT last week. UCF crushed an ACC contender, but simply made the ACC look bad to the media instead of making the American Athletic league look good.
Players like Gabriel Davis and Adrian Killins Jr. will get the most hype and recognition – after all, they catch and run with the ball. But it’s the fact that the UCF program is playing at a high Power-5 level on offense, defense, and special teams, yet is being handicapped by Vegas and the betting public like a mid-major school, that interests me even more than the school’s magical unbeaten streak.
2 Winning Picks for UCF at Memphis: Point Spread and O/U
Pro wrestling fans – imagine the odds on Undertaker losing at WrestleMania in the 2000s. At (+160).
Don’t bet against streaks. Don’t bet against teams that could win in the Big 12 or the Pac-12…especially when they’re up against a squad that has lost every time it hasn’t simply out-matched an opponent in size and speed. Don’t bet against UCF.
UCF’s defense also continues to be undervalued, so think hard about the Under (79).