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Bettors beware of ATS trends when evaluating college football

Aug 26, 2008 7:05 PM

By David Stratton | For sports bettors, one of the joys – and challenges – of the college football season is evaluating the teams and analyzing match-ups, all in the hope of finding that elusive point spread winner.

There’s no shortage of statistics to sift through as witnessed by the dozens of football books and manuals that flood the shelves of bookstores like the Gamblers Book Club in Las Vegas.

Many of the betting guides like to cite "trends" as some sort of road map to betting success. These trends are usually expressed as a team’s record against the spread (ATS), based on a set of parameters.

The parameters can be as simple as where a team plays (home vs. road), who it plays (conference or non-conference), when it plays (at night or in the afternoon), and so forth.

Trends can also be based on a dizzying set of parameters, such as a revenge-minded underdog of 18 points or less coming off a straight up dog win (this was a trend attributed to Indiana last season).

The problem with ATS trends is they’re based on the point spread. And, if the oddsmaker is doing his job effectively (admittedly the "if" can be iffy), the theoretical result is a 50-50 proposition.

For the most part, that has been the case as all football contests in 2007 were virtually evenly split between favorites and underdogs – NFL favorites covered the spread 50.9 percent of the time, while college favorites covered the number about 49 percent.

So, if the point-spread outcome is virtually a coin flip, relying solely on it to predict the future outcome can be like rolling the dice, especially in the college ranks, where a team’s make-up can change dramatically from year to year.

Examine the pointspread results for most college teams and you’ll find a season-to-season swing resembling the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

A trendy approach in recent years has been the so-called "100 percent ATS" trend, which is based on a set of parameters that has always produced one outcome.

Unfortunately, because these trends have always produced the same result, bettors mistakenly believe they’re a "can’t miss" proposition, which is patently ridiculous.

If you had bet all the 100 percent trends cited by touts last season, you probably would have lost money. Here are a few examples from the losing-ticket file:

• Northwestern was 14-0 ATS in games prior to Michigan. But not last year; they were blown out by Ohio State, 58-7.

• BYU was 11-0 ATS as a dog in the first of back-to-back road games. That situation occurred last season at UCLA, but the Cougars lost and failed to cover the spread.

• Nevada was 12-0 ATS when playing the second of back-to-back home games. That scenario unfolded twice last season, with the Wolf Pack going 1-1.

• Oklahoma State was 11-0 ATS in games preceding Texas Tech. They were 11-1 after losing outright to Troy as a 10-point favorite.

Note that some of the 100 percent trends won, as you would expect when the outcome is theoretically 50-50.

Tracking trends can be like tracking a coin flip. It’s possible to get swings in one direction or another, but that doesn’t make the next situation, or coin flip, any more likely to fall in one direction.

Overall, trends should never be used as a substitute for solid analysis, based on teams’ strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating how they will match-up. For those interested in thoughtful analysis of this season’s football action, GamingToday will provide a detailed preview of the all the college and NFL action in the form of a weekly podcast, beginning Friday morning on GT’s website,

The podcasts will be available free of charge, and will feature experts discussing the upcoming weekend’s games. Hopefully, the process will lead to a few winners, but along the way listeners should also gain insight into how to approach the handicapping process.

And, wasn’t it Confucius who said, Thought without learning is perilous?

The same might be said for betting on football.