As spring turns into summer here in Las Vegas and the NBA Playoffs wind down, the upcoming football season begins to attract more and more betting attention. Last month we saw NFL season win totals hit the betting boards around town, drawing a significant initial flurry of heavy wiseguy money. And this past week, we saw another clear sign that football is just around the corner, as the Golden Nugget released their lines on more than 110 Games of the Year.
The Nugget is not generally a hotbed of wiseguy betting activity, but their sportsbook takes center stage as the first place to post college football game pointspreads around this time every year. Last year, the book wrote more than $200,000 in handle on the very first day the college football lines were posted. This year, the volume of bets was a little bit slower for several reasons.
First, in 2011, the book opened their college football numbers at noon on Friday, and the place was packed right from the get-go. This year, the numbers opened at 10 AM on a Monday, resulting in slow and steady action as opposed to the fast and furious action we saw last year.
Secondly, according to several professional bettors that I spoke with, this year, the Nugget’s lines were tighter. We didn’t see four, five or six point line moves from multiple bets on the same team in the same game, like we saw in 2011. The Nugget’s power ratings were closer to those of the bettors they were battling against. Stronger numbers equals fewer bets; plain and simple, and I’m quite certain that management was content to make that trade-off.
The Nugget made one structural adjustment that sharp bettors definitely appreciated, opening multiple betting windows, eliminating waits and lines, and allowing more than one bettor to get down their bets against the opening numbers at the same time. In fact, when I personally got to the sportsbook less than an hour and a half after the openers were posted, the place was busy but not bustling, with Brian Blessing’s Sportsbook Radio show attracting the lion’s share of attention.
Enough with the descriptions of the scene and the changes from last year! Bettors want to know which teams took wiseguy money right from the opener, and why. Five teams got significant support in multiple games within the first few hours of betting: Florida, Ohio State, Texas, LSU and Tennessee. And there were also five teams who were bet against in multiple games during that same time frame: Alabama, Notre Dame, West Virginia, South Carolina and Oklahoma.
The next question, of course, is why wiseguy bettors had particularly strong opinions on or against those ten squads. That question is not as easy to answer – each individual bettor makes their own decision on which games they want to bet. There is no clearinghouse for information – bettors are competing against one another to get the best numbers every bit as much as they are competing against the sportsbook itself. Bottom line – the money does the talking.
It’s no accident that the Nugget’s opening numbers were posted within days of Phil Steele’s 2012 College Football Preview magazine arriving on newsstands and in mailboxes all around Las Vegas. The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook is considered to be the preseason bible for college hoops; a publication that most assuredly affects early season pointspreads. Steele’s influence on the early college football betting market is similar in its scope. Bettors read it cover to cover, and those same bettors expect that others will be reading it cover to cover as well.
Steele’s research and offseason work on college football is considered to be as good as or better than anything else out there as an overview. His rankings and predictions are certainly influential.
Ohio State and Tennessee rank among the top six of his ‘most improved teams’ this year. After finishing tied for sixth place in the Big XII last year and finishing in last place in the Big XII South in 2010, Steele has the Texas Longhorns ranked ahead of Oklahoma State; the projected second place team in the conference. Steele has Florida winning the SEC East, a dramatic improvement off their 7-9 SU record in SEC play over the past two seasons. And Steele has LSU at the top in the SEC West, expecting them to pick up right where they left off last year; national title contenders once again. To summarize, all five teams that took big early money were teams that Steele was bullish on.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of the bet-against teams in early betting action were squads that Steele was looking to fade in 2012. Steele cautioned bettors that West Virginia “probably will not match LY’s 10 win total.” He has South Carolina returning to mediocrity in the SEC East after winning the division two years ago and coming in second with a 6-2 SEC mark last year.
But while Steele’s influence cannot be denied, bettors aren’t shy about disagreeing with him. In recent years, Steele has overvalued Oklahoma repeatedly. This year, he has them as the #2 team in the country in his preseason rankings, behind only Florida State. Early bettors didn’t seem to agree with that sentiment, betting against the Sooners on opening day for the college football markets. It was a similar story with Alabama, a team Steele ranked #5 in the country. Bettors looked at the enormous graduation losses suffered by the defending national champs – five of the top 35 picks in the NFL draft played for Nick Saban – and concluded that the Crimson Tide were ripe for a fall.
Notre Dame is a different story, with multiple issues involved in their initial fade from the wiseguys. According to Steele (who compiles his recruiting rankings based on a composite of the numerous services that rank high school players), the Fighting Irish have enjoyed four Top 7 recruiting classes in the last five years, with a Top 15 class in the other year. In other words, Notre Dame should have the talent to be competing for national championships right now.
But the Irish haven’t been competing for national titles since Lou Holtz left town more than 15 years ago; enjoying only two seasons with ten wins over the past 18 years and zero seasons with less than three losses during that span. The national recruiting rankings are always high for the Irish, but the results haven’t matched the supposed talent level for the entirety of that timeframe. What gives?
Wiseguy bettors seem to think there’s some circular logic behind the Irish’s consistently high recruiting rankings – the talent level in South Bend in terms of both size and speed isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. How does this happen? Here’s one theory. High school player rankings are often categorized by which teams are recruiting those players. Notre Dame still holds a tremendous reputation among the scouting services. So when Notre Dame is recruiting someone, their ranking goes up a notch or two, regardless of their talent level.
Repeat this process dozens of times over nearly two decades and you get the current state of Notre Dame football: good, but not great, and certainly not a team that lives up to expectations. The Irish haven’t enjoyed a season with more than seven ATS wins since 2002; Ty Willingham’s first season on the job.
Notre Dame also faces what Steele calls the single toughest schedule in the country this year; without a single patsy on its 12-game slate. When we put it all together, the wiseguys fade of Notre Dame can’t be considered a surprise. A team that has been consistently overrated and a team that is likely to be worn down fairly early thanks to their tough schedule is a team that sharp bettors were clearly looking to fade, right from the get-go.