Handicapping the Top ATS Teams from College Football Last Season
by Trevor Whenham - 8/20/2014
One of the big challenges handicappers face is deciding how much what a team has done in the past should factor into what we expect them to do in the future. Sometimes a team that was very strong against the spread one year will continue to be the next year because they face a favorable schedule, return strong talent, and are focused on success. Other times, though, a strong team one year will really struggle - perhaps because they lost key talent, faced a coaching change, their schedule is tougher, or they let their previous success go to their heads.
Today we'll look at the top five teams against the spread in college football last year (seven, actually, because of ties) to see what we might expect going forward:
Auburn Tigers (12-2 ATS): The national runner-ups last year are back for more. They have their QB back, the coaching will again be excellent, they will run the ball very well again, and they know how to deal with the pressure they will face. That being said, I don't expect them to be nearly as good against the spread as they were last year. For one thing, last year no one saw them coming, whereas this year they are the 9/1 fourth choice to win the national championship. They kept winning last year, but many people remained understandably skeptical because of how bad they had been the year before. That made value relatively easy to find. This year, though, they will often be favored, and their odds won't be nearly as juicy. On top of that, they face an absolutely brutal schedule, so it is going to be tougher to come out on top against the spread consistently. This won't be a disastrous team, but they won't be at the top of the list again at this time next year.
Missouri Tigers (11-2-1 ATS): Like Auburn, Missouri had a serious element of surprise on their side last year. No one expected anything from them in their debut season in the SEC, so their success was both shocking and very profitable. They lost a ridiculous amount of strong talent to the NFL, but they also have an easy schedule in SEC terms - no LSU, Alabama or Auburn. They also have the advantage that the public still doesn't really seem to believe in them much. That makes value easier to find. I don't expect them to do this well ATS this year, but they should still be a profitable squad.
Florida State Seminoles (11-3 ATS): The defending champs still have a ridiculous amount of talent, and their schedule is still pretty manageable. They will be solidly favored in every one of their games, and could very easily run the table. The biggest issue, though, is that everyone expects them to be flawless - much like Alabama or Oregon in recent years. They will almost certainly face significantly inflated lines every week. Last year they were strong enough to overcome them. Can they handle the pressure this year and regularly overcome even more inflated lines? Maybe, but not nearly as often.
Duke Blue Devils (11-3 ATS): A team that is outgained by more than 40 yards per game in conference play should not go 6-2. A team that does not convert a third down in an entire game should not be able to win at Virginia Tech. Duke was a team that played very hard last year, but they also got very lucky repeatedly. It's like they rolled a seven every time they touched the dice. They can't be that lucky again, and they aren't good enough to win consistently when they aren't getting help from the fates. They should wind up much closer to .500, and that will result in fewer covered spreads.
Navy Midshipmen (10-3 ATS): The Midshipmen have a great quarterback for their triple-option system in Keenan Reynolds. They have a schedule that is very manageable - Ohio State is not as scary in the opener without Braxton Miller, Notre Dame is a potential mess, and the rest of the teams are manageable. They are well-coached. This is a team that again has a good chance to win a lot of games and cover a lot of spreads.
North Texas Mean Green (10-3 ATS): After years of struggles, North Texas rose last year to win nine games and a bowl game. Dan McCarney has now been in charge for three years, and he is doing a very good job. This year they have to replace a starting quarterback, but Derek Thompson was more good than spectacular. There are options, and there's plenty of returning talent to help guide the transition. The offensive line is excellent, and the defensive line should be very strong. This is a team moving in the right direction. No one cares about the C-USA, and they will care even less in the playoff era. That means that there is a good chance for value here. There is one thing that could derail that, though. They open their season at Texas for the first game of the Charlie Strong era. If the Mean Green were to play very well, or even pull off the huge upset, then the public would be aware of them, and value might not be as plentiful.
Houston Cougars (10-3 ATS): I complained earlier that Duke was too lucky last year, but they couldn't hold a candle to the Cougars. Houston had a ridiculous +25 turnover ratio last year, and that was by far the biggest reason the team did as well as they did last year. They shouldn't have had a ratio anywhere close to that, so they shouldn't have had nearly as many essentially free chances to score. If things fall back to earth on that front - and there is really almost no reason to think that it won't - then Houston isn't going to be quite the team they were last year. On the other hand, QB John O'Korn was impressive as a freshman and could take a step forward, and the schedule is very weak this year. It would not be a complete shock to see Houston as a strong betting team again this year, though I will definitely adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
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