Betting Against Top Five Teams a Windfall for CFB Bettors
by Trevor Whenham - 11/29/2007
In college football a team ranked in the top five is supposed to be virtually unbeatable. They are a team full of the best talent in the country, playing their best football. That's the theory, anyway. If you've watched even a little bit of college football this year you know how far that theory has been from reality. Being in the top five has been a kiss of death for many teams. Every time you turn around you read another article about how bad the top five are, or hear another expert talking about the problems of those on top of the college football rankings. I wanted to know just how bad the top five were, though. I was especially interested in how poorly they had performed from a betting perspective. So, I fired up a spreadsheet and crunched some numbers from the first 13 weeks of the season. Let's just say they aren't pretty.
There were 13 different teams that occupied a spot in the top five for at least one week. That seems a bit high. Three teams - Michigan, Texas and Missouri - only appeared in the top five for one week over the 13-week period. As a group, those 13 teams combined to have a respectable record ATS of 97-71. That's a 57.7 percent winning rate - nothing to complain about as a bettor. Here's the first place it gets strange, though. A combination of increased public attention and the pressure of the lofty heights led those teams to go 26-29 ATS while they were in the top five. That's just a 47.3 percent rate - a quick road to poverty for a bettor. Good teams just didn't look as good when they rose to the top of the heap.
Despite all the turmoil and confusion this season, just three teams held the No. 1 ranking. LSU did something fairly uncommon - they held the spot two different times. They also gained a less flattering distinction - they dropped out of the top spot twice with a loss. USC had the longest reign at six weeks, from the beginning of the season until their humiliation against Stanford.
As you well know if you are a football fan, the No. 2 spot was as lucky as a black cat this season. Five different teams held the post. LSU was there two different times for a total of seven weeks. Both times they had the spot they left it to move up to No. 1. The other four teams - Cal, Boston College, Oregon and Kansas - all lost while in the post and dropped down. Boston College was the only team of the bunch to manage multiple weeks. They were No. 2 for three weeks, though one of those weeks they were on a bye.
By this point you have probably heard this incredible stat - on 12 different occasions this season a top five team was beaten by an unranked team. It got to the point that we hardly noticed after a while. That kind of thing isn't supposed to happen at all, but it happened in nine of 13 weeks of the season and happened twice on three different weekends. So poorly regarded were the top five at times that one member, Wisconsin, not only lost to unranked Illinois, but were the underdogs in the game. That Illinois team became the only squad to beat two top five teams when they beat top-ranked Ohio State in week 11.
If you had blindly flat bet each of the top five teams against the spread each week (done what the public did, in other words), it was a long year. Not only did you end up at 26-29 ATS as I said earlier, but you ended up with less money than you started with on nine out of the 13 weekends. On weeks five and eight you wouldn't have covered a single game. It wasn't all terrible, though - week three was a clean sweep for the ranked teams. You may think that you'd do better against the spread by backing the best team, but that certainly isn't the case. The No. 1 team was just 4-8 ATS. If you wanted to stick to one ranking, you were better off to go with the No. 5 spot - they were 7-4 ATS.
With all of those depressingly bad numbers, was there a way to make a solid amount of money by betting on games with top five teams? As a matter of fact, there was one outstanding way. All of those upsets by unranked teams created some very juicy money lines. Excluding the Missouri-Kansas game in week 13 because two top five teams played each other, and also ignoring Michigan's humiliating loss to Appalachian State because there was no line, there were 13 losses by top five teams. The average spread in those games was 13.5 points. Assuming that that translates to a money line of about +400, the profit on those 13 games assuming a flat bet of one unit on the team outside of the top five in each game is 52 units. There were 41 lined games that top five teams won against teams outside of the top five. Since each one of those would be a loss of one unit on the money line in this example, that's a total loss of 41 units on those games. That means that you could have made a healthy profit of 11 units just by blindly betting on the money line on the opponents of every top five team. If you only knew that at the beginning of the season! I'll take a return on investment of better than 20 percent any day.
It's fun (or horrifying) to look back on the top five this year, but it's not likely to show us many profitable trends for the future. This has been an abnormally abysmal year for the top five, and it is very likely that the top teams will perform significantly better next year. This year is unprecedented in the futility of these teams, and now you can say you (hopefully) survived it.