I’m a firm believer that there are not too many bowl games, and that big money/big hype are not the only ingredients for a great bowl game. A postseason college football scrum can thrill onlookers on New Year’s Day, but there can also be great games on Christmas Eve, and even in mid-December. Good football games just happen – they can’t be planned, pre-arranged, or molded to fit a narrative.
Great bets happen in much the same way. My #1 rule for the sports gambler is to read the odds as often as you can and place bets as seldom as you can stand it, because the higher the ratio of looks-to-wagers, the more likely it is that you’ve caught the bookies napping when there’s a mispriced market that you just can’t pass on. The mistaken odds don’t always pop up for the Super Bowl, or for the Rose Bowl. But they appear often enough that the house loses its long-term advantage on the shark.
What’s my #2 rule? Not “bet against the public.” The public gets it right sometimes, and there are lots of well-informed bettors out there. Last season, the public drove the O/U total on Army vs Navy down into the pits a week in advance of the kickoff. It felt like an overreaction to weather patterns and a mostly-coincidental streak of low-scoring games in the rivalry. Turns out meteorologists weren’t kidding – a blizzard in Philly put points at a premium as Army won 14-13.
The #2 rule is to bet against the buzz.
Prior to the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl, hundreds of Power-5 pundits – jazzed-up about the underclass at Oregon in Willie Taggart’s final season – picked the favored Ducks as a lock to cover against Mountain West Conference champion Boise State. The Oregon Ducks are practically ESPN’s “house” team of modern times, and the Worldwide Leader in Shorts poured it on thick. Oregon’s space-age tactics and Power-5 athleticism were about to overwhelm the Boise Blue at the Las Vegas Bowl, and that was that. Just look at those confident, smirking faces! The hype felt so real.
Except it was all fake. Mere marketing. Public relations. Bar buzz. Boise State’s moneylines were in the (+200) range, but the Broncos humiliated the Ducks and won easily.
When I saw the opening point spread for 2018’s clash between Fresno State and ASU at Sam Boyd Stadium, I had to laugh.
Vegas has finally learned a lesson – from its own backyard bowl game.
2018 Las Vegas Bowl: Moneyline, Point Spread and Over/Under
Any bowl committee with rights to the MWC champion is no slouch, and so it feels like an anticlimax for Fresno State to be paired against a mid-tier contender like the Arizona State Sun Devils on December 15th, especially after all of the challenges that the Bulldogs overcame to win a tough league.
But live-event planners from Las Vegas know what they’re doing (imagine that) and usually manage to put a marquee match-up on the gridiron. A ranked Boise State team beat Washington 28-26 in 2012, and Utah beat BYU by a TD in an emotional Las Vegas Bowl played 3 years ago.
Coach Herm Edwards’ ASU squad is traveling to Sin City as a 7-5 team that needed a furious comeback to squeak past Arizona in the Duel in the Desert. Enduring belief in the Power-5 (and in ex-NFL coaching) will make certain they’re not cast as a double-digit underdog against Fresno at any point. But house handicappers are not about to make the same mistake 2 Decembers in a row. Underestimating the Mountain West is a recipe for low-risk, high-payoff underdog bettors beating the casino.
ASU is giving (+4 ½) on the spread and is a (+165) moneyline underdog at MyBookie next to (-195) for Fresno State. The Over/Under is set at (52) total points.
Bulldogs Bite the Snake’s Head Off
It really looked for a while as if the Fresno State Bulldogs would not be able to get over the hump against Boise State. The programs have become such fierce and familiar rivals that any small advantage seems to carry the day, and the Broncos hosted the MWC title game on blue turf.
The visitors systematically ground-down the Boise Blue in foul weather, holding Brett Rypien to just 125 yards passing and eventually prevailing in OT.
Fresno State’s defense is ranked #17 overall in the FBS, and plays like crazy in the Red Zone. Marcus McMaryion is the type of quarterback that does just enough to win a lot – the 22-year-old only tossed 1 touchdown pass in a 38-14 thumping of UCLA, but dwarfed the rest of his team’s offensive production and point-scoring in a 27-3 whipping of Wyoming that set the Bulldogs alight in the MWC.
The Mountain West was a typical 3-6 against the Pac-12 this season, though a majority of the meetings were Pac-12 strongholds against MWC also-rans. Washington State beat San Jose State and Wyoming easily, but SDSU gave Stanford what-for for a little while in August.
In sum total, I’m not prepared to say that an 11-2 MWC winner that crushed Chip Kelly’s team should be handicapped as an underdog or even a pick’em against any 7-5 squad from the Pac-12. That is, unless and until there’s evidence proving otherwise.
For ASU, Exhibit A might have already fled the courtroom.
The Pied Piper Syndrome
Last season’s lucrative win for ‘dog bettors at the Las Vegas Bowl showed how an agenda-driven media narrative can impact the gambling lines.
For all of the TV buzz, there were clear reasons – discernable well in-advance – why Boise State was the true favorite. For one, championship mid-majors like Boise State field Power-5 level rosters and would not be losing teams in power conferences. Dismissing a MWC champ with a smirk and a backhand-wave is a terrible mistake.
Meanwhile, Oregon was having all kinds of issues. Hurry-up guru Willie Taggart left campus in December, bolting for Benjamins at Florida State. That left current HC Mario Cristobal to lead the demoralized Ducks in a bowl season. Cristobal focused on his transition while his inmates began running the asylum. Royce Freeman, the star tailback, chose to sit out the Las Vegas Bowl to protect his NFL Draft status, but showed up on the sideline and yelled at his former teammates to play hard.
The fact that none of the active Ducks belted Freeman in the jaw was a minor victory, but it was the only victory the Pac-12 representatives would get. Boise State ruled the 1st half and coasted to a 38-28 win.
Could Arizona State turn out to be similarly overmatched by the MWC’s best in ‘18?
It’s not like the Pac-12 has been outstanding this season. In almost every opportunity to prove its parity with the Big Ten, SEC or ACC, the conference has failed. Herm Edwards’ team played – to win – the game 5 times out of the last 6 weekends, finishing with a 5-4 league record. In fact, the Sun Devils played and defeated a worthy Big Ten opponent, Michigan State, back in September.
Things immediately took a turn for the worse. Arizona State lost to a San Diego State team that would go on to finish 4th in the Mountain West West (yep, that’s a thing) underneath Nevada and Hawaii. ASU would go on to play its way out of the Top 25 over the next few weekends.
No doubt Edwards’ charges have played better over the past several scrums. Led by dual-threat QB Manny Wilkins, the Sun Devils earned stirring wins over USC, Utah and UCLA to become bowl-eligible in the celebrity skipper’s debut season. “Herm” may not have any original ideas for building the next national contender, but he’s secured a lot of funding and upgrades for the training facilities, football staffing and scouting in Tempe.
In fact, as betting odds trickled-in for bowl games following Championship Weekend, some handicappers may have line-forecasted Arizona State as the favorite over Fresno State on 12/15. The Sun Devils’ late-season hot streak is hard to ignore.
Then came a headline on Monday morning.
Deja Vu, ASU
Star Arizona State WR N’Keal Harry announced on Monday that he has hired an agent, and will prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft as opposed to playing in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.
Well, suh-praahze, suh-praahze, sub-praahze.
Las Vegas delivers a terrific bowl game, but its event suffers from the syndrome that affects all minor bowls. The biggest names don’t tend to play, especially if they’re from Power-5 schools that “expected” to play later in December. Ingratitude is the only sin, and Royce Freeman’s choice is the popular one.
Has ASU’s sudden loss of Harry caused any lines to shift? Surprisingly, not really, though many sports betting sites began offering bowl odds on Monday, so it could have been timed perfectly for books to avoid a big mistake on the Over/Under. The O/U total hasn’t risen at all since Harry’s announcement, that I can tell you.
A big bummer at the WR position might be the last thing the Sun Devils need right now. Wilkins is a good, solid veteran presence behind center, but he’s not always the most accurate or prolific passer in the Pac-12. In a loss to Oregon on November 17th, the senior finished well below 50% through the air and was humiliated on rushing attempts.
If Wilkins can’t find open receivers among a group that collectively posted only 1 more touchdown than Harry did in 12 games, that leaves it to a quality OL and a sophomore tailback named Eno Benjamin to try to crack the steely Fresno defense.
Las Vegas Bowl: My Pick Against the Spread
All of the Eno Benjamins in the world can’t win bowl games for Power-5 schools so long as everyone else is about the Benjamins. The fine running back should have a great day behind ASU’s burly blockers, but when it comes time to throw, look out for the resourceful, scrappy Bulldogs to take every advantage of a skill corps missing its talisman, and potentially win the turnover battle by +2 or +3.
Meanwhile, the Fresno State offense could produce more points than expected. It’s the unit that drilled drives through the ice at Albertsons Stadium not too long ago. I’m looking for McMaryion to have at least as productive an evening as Wilkins, and probably rush for more 1st downs.