There may be nothing more frustrating than the trap game. By simple definition, a trap game is one where a team is looking past their current opponent towards the one they will be playing the next week. In those cases, the team may not be as prepared or as focused as they should be, and they may not cover like they should. It's frustrating as a football handicapper to come to a conclusion that a team is a legitimate bet, and then to have them fail to cover not because of what the other team did, but what they failed to do. It only makes sense, then, that it's good for the bottom line if we can identify trap games and avoid them (or at least consider how we are going to deal with them).
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How big of a problem are trap games? One study I found online, though not perfect, was very revealing. The study looked at the 2004-2006 NFL seasons. It identified trap games as one in which the line in the middle game of a three game set was at least seven points higher than the other two games. Say that a team had lines in three games of -4, -13, and -2. Looking back we could identify that middle game as a trap game because the team was clearly facing an inferior opponent that they would expect to beat easily. This isn't useful as a handicapping technique because you need the benefit of hindsight, but the results are nonetheless fascinating. The favorites in those trap games had a straight up record of 84-43. Against the spread they were disastrous - 53-72-2. That means the teams covered just 42.5 percent of the trap games they played. Betting on them in those cases would be a quick route to bankruptcy. By itself this study tells us little because of the impossibility of applying the criteria to current games, but it does indicate that there is something to the theory of trap games.
On a practical level, the perfect example of a trap game happened this past Monday night. Dallas, by far the class of the NFC, was in Buffalo playing a team near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense. Six days after that game loomed New England, likely the best team in the league. Dallas was favored by 10.5 points, but they sure didn't play like it. They needed one of the most bizarre finishes in recent football history to pull off a one-point miracle win, and they obviously didn't come close to covering. The public heavily backed Dallas, which left a lot of unhappy, and poorer, bettors.
With that in mind, let's set out to find ourselves some trap games this week. Finding the games is an imprecise science that requires as much feel as it does statistics, but here are the games that strike me as potential problems:
Baylor (+26) at Kansas (Saturday, Oct. 13, 12:30 p.m.) - After a big win over Kansas State the Jayhawks are undefeated and suddenly relevant. Nebraska has faltered, so the Big 12 North is wide open. There are three teams that are undefeated in conference play. Kansas plays Missouri to end the season, and plays the surprising Colorado Buffaloes next week. Before they get there, though, they have to play the lackluster Baylor Bears. A team that is unaccustomed to success, as Kansas is, is a prime candidate to look past this easy game.
Central Florida (+11.5) at South Florida (Saturday, Oct. 13, 12:00 p.m.) - South Florida has been thrust onto the national stage much faster than most people expected. A disastrous season by Louisville, a loss by Rutgers, and their victory over West Virginia has suddenly put South Florida in the driver's seat for the Big East Championship. Beyond Central Florida lies Rutgers, and a win could put South Florida closer to the title, and further into the public conscience. This game doesn't purely fit the definition of a trap game because they played Florida Atlantic last week after West Virginia the week before, but the potential for a letdown here is still strong. Central Florida showed what they can do to an unfocused team when they almost upset Texas.
Washington (+11.5) at Arizona State (Saturday, Oct. 13, 10:15 p.m.) - Dennis Erickson has the hapless Sun Devils suddenly believing that they know how to play. Everyone knew that Erickson would bring the team around, since he usually does, but this is sooner than most expected. A win here would bring Arizona State undefeated at 7-0 into a huge matchup at home against No. 2-ranked Cal, and a win there would make Arizona State very relevant nationally, and in the forefront of the Pac-10 title race. Washington is slumping and one-dimensional on offense around Jake Locker, so Arizona State could easily be thinking about 7-0 when they are still one win away.
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Houston (+6.5) at Jacksonville (Sunday, Oct. 14, 1:00 p.m.) - The Jaguars have to have their sights set on winning the AFC South. At 3-1 they have made a solid start towards that goal. To win, though, they have to hope that Indianapolis loses some games, and the best way to do that is for Jacksonville to beat them themselves. They get their first chance to do that next week, but first they have to get past Houston. Though the Texans are much improved, Jacksonville should be able to beat them handily. If they are focused on the game, that is. With Indy waiting around the corner, that might not happen.