Don't Overvalue The Revenge Factor When Handicapping
by Robert Ferringo - 09/25/2006
Last week I was sitting down to dinner with my wife and, as is her preference, she turned on Dr. Phil. She suffers through hundreds of hours of sports throughout the year so I try to yield to her indulgences when I can. It's only fair.
Dr. Phil's topic for the day was bitter breakups and vengeful exes and at the end of the episode he asked someone in the audience what was the craziest thing she'd ever done to get revenge on a guy. The young blonde woman told the story of her ex-boyfriend, who used to love it when she would cook him bacon and eggs in the morning. Well, after she got dumped the embittered ex-girlfriend took the time to scramble around 120 eggs and then proceeded to toss them all over the guy's home.
In relationships, you can never underestimate the Revenge Factor (or the Psycho Factor, but that's a different article). But in football, it seems like too often John Q. Public overestimates the Revenge Factor.
This past weekend we saw a slew of high-profile games in both college and professional football revolve around the theme of Revenge. Ohio State and Michigan both pulled away late from Big Ten enemies Penn State and Wisconsin, respectively, to avenge crippling road losses from a year ago. And those games were just the tip of an ill-intentioned sword. Teams with revenge from last year were an astounding 17-2-1 against the closing spread this weekend in college football.
In the National Football League, one of the key subplots this weekend was that Cincinnati was seeking a reprisal from Pittsburgh. These archrivals were meeting for the first time since the Steelers ended the Bengals' season and treated Carson Palmer's knee like bubble wrap last January. Naturally, the Bengals scored retribution with a 28-20 underdog win at Heinz Field.
So the Revenge theme is a pretty reliable system to back, right?
Sharp football bettors have known for years that fading the revenge angle can be one of the more profitable plays you can make. The reasoning is that the public loves the whole "Count of Monte Cristo" idea of ripping out the heart of the team that stabbed you in the back the year before. It's a karma thing. And restoring balance to the universe and watching justice prevail - in the most brutal and shameful way possible - is an American ideal.
But there are holes in the logic. The first is that, well, the public loves it. And we all know that the general betting public is full of rubes and Justin Timberlake fans. So as square bettors pour their money into backing The Avengers, they drive up the lines to JoJo the Whale-levels. Each week several major line moves are directly related to the public's obsession with the Revenge Factor.
Payback is definitely a motivating factor in football. Everyone wants to win whenever they step on the gridiron. And they especially want to beat any team that has humiliated them in the past. But gamblers shouldn't confuse a team "wanting to win" with "wanting to cover the over-inflated spread". Last weekend was an anomaly - and hopefully a profitable one for payback players - but you shouldn't bank on that trend to continue.
Case in point: I doubt many people were running to the windows to make a play on Georgia Tech simply because they lost to Virginia in 2005. In fact, that couldn't have been the case because the line actually dropped from its opening at 17 down to 16.5 at kickoff. The Yellowjackets won 24-7, meaning the only reason the "revenge team" covered is because people were betting against them.
Or what about the New York Giants? Certainly they were going to give that "extra effort" to settle the score after last year's heart-wrenching overtime defeat in Seattle, right? Well, it was 35-0 before the G-Men got off the plane. And it proved that besides the problem of skewed spreads there is also a small matter of talent deficiencies. Seattle is simply a much better team than the New York Giants. That's why they beat the G-Men last year and that's why they destroyed them on Sunday. But if you thought that revenge would make up for that gap then it would've cost you.
Betting the Revenge Factor in the NFL is a completely different animal. Whereas rivals in college only get a crack at each other once a season - perhaps twice in a conference title game - pro teams within the same division square off twice each year. That level of familiarity, coupled with a sense of parity, often tricks people into assuming that good teams will likely split their season series.
However, in 2005 in the NFL teams were just 17-29-2 against the spread when facing a divisional rival that had beaten them the first time. In 2004, that mark was a profitable 26-20-2 ATS. But that's a mere 43-49-4 ATS record over two years. Further, in 2005 playoff teams were 5-0-1 in those situations. Yet in 2004 they posted a 2-4-1 mark.
Clearly these numbers show that there is no overarching trend that can be counted on. Even the overall two-year total of 46.7 percent isn't even poor enough to fade. These games seem to fall under the same category of any other: blind, dumb luck and which team makes the plays (or catches the breaks) will determine who covers.
In his definitive work "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Edward Gibbon wrote that, "Revenge is profitable." Gibbons may have known history, but he didn't know football. There are certain instances where a team's lust for retribution should be factored into a wager. But the Revenge Angle is generally more overrated than Lorne Michaels or Sigmund Freud.
Here's a look at three marquee matchups on the college football schedule this Saturday. All three of these games are conference clashes and each has a juicy revenge angle that will be touted this week. However, I doubt that what happened last year would mean very much the first time some adrenaline-addled middle linebacker goes barreling through the line to deliver a suplex on some helpless tailback:
No. 12 Oregon (-2) at No. 18 Arizona State
The Ducks (3-0) have managed to migrate south in the polls but they will meet the wrath of an Arizona State (3-1) team they defeated 31-17 last year. It doesn't appear that the oddsmakers have shaded the lines that way though. If anything has affected this number it's the fact that Cal mauled the Sun Devils last week.
No. 22 Alabama at No. 5 Florida (-13.5)
The Tide (3-1) rolled in a 31-3 laugher last season in Tuscaloosa. But Florida (4-0) coach Urban Meyer is 15-1-1 ATS with conference revenge coming off a win. A blowout to restore balance would be nice, but the Gators also have LSU waiting on the horizon. Alabama's ATS victory over Arkansas last week was one of the two games won by the team that didn't have a score to settle from 2005.
No. 1 Ohio State at No. 14 Iowa
Ohio State (4-0) dominated Kirk Ferentz's charges 31-6 last season at The Shoe. They'll roll into Kinnick Stadium as the top team in the land after avenging a 2005 loss to Penn State last Saturday. However, Iowa (4-0) is a rough and rugged crew and they owned a 22-game home winning streak until a loss to Michigan late last year.
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