Underdogs bark early

September 10, 2002 5:13 AM
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   Dogs bark often in September. As Week 1 illustrated, there’s a reason they play the games.

That’s often evident early in the pro and college football seasons because some teams are very different from year to year.

   Few people thought Maryland would go 10-2 last year and unseat Florida State as ACC champs. A year ago, the Terrapins started the season as a road dog at North Carolina, but whipped the Tar Heels 23-7.

   Last year, the underdogs went 24-19 against the spread the first full week of the season. The opening week of September saw the dogs go 24-16 ATS.

   This is not uncommon. Linemakers are more in the dark now than at anytime during the football season. They have to go by last season’s stats as well as offseason player and coaching moves. But the performance of a team last fall doesn’t mean they will be similar this year.

   Wisconsin is another example. The Badgers averaged 10 wins from 1998-2000 under coach Barry Alvarez. But last year a lot of things went wrong.

   The Badgers slipped to 5-7 SU, including a stunning 32-20 loss at home last September to Fresno State as a favorite. For money-line players looking to cash in with big underdogs winning straight up, now is a good time of year.

   Kentucky pulled one of the first big shockers of this season. The Wildcats, off consecutive 2-9 seasons (7-14 ATS) and using a defense that allowed 33.4 points and close to 500 yards per game, stunned Louisville.

   The Cardinals had outscored teams by a 30-17 average in 2001 and had a slew of returning players, including QB Dave Ragone. On paper, it looked like Ragone would carve up Wildcats secondary just like last year’s 36-10 result.

   But the Kentucky defense was outstanding, forcing three turnovers and holding Louisville to 55 yards rushing (2.3 yds per carry) in a 22-17 win as a 14-point home dog. Kentucky hadn’t won as an underdog since a 1999 upset of Mississippi State (an 0-19 SU run as a dog).

   Another surprise was Missouri. The Tigers have gone 13-18 ATS the last three years while never winning more than four games. But, coach Gary Pinkel’s team stunned Illinois, 33-20, as an 8-point home dog.

   The Illini defense was solid last season, giving up 21.6 points per game. Seven starters are back on a 10-2 defense that played in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, Missouri gave up 30 ppg in 2001 while allowing nearly 200 yards rushing and passing per game!

   That explains why Illinois was a road favorite, but what was not expected was Missouri’s dynamic running attack. Sophomore QB Brad Smith ran for 135 yards and RB Zack Abron sprinted for 117 in the upset. Again, talent and ability can change dramatically from year to year.

   A number of big dogs that covered came close to pulling off huge upsets, as well. UConn, a 35-point underdog, gave Boston College a scare before losing 24-16. Nebraska, a 35-point home favorite, was up only 14-10 on Troy State in the third quarter before winning 31-16.

   Middle Tennessee State was a +17 dog at Alabama and fell short 39-34. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. MTSU has a talented offense that upset Vanderbilt of the SEC in last year’s road opener, 37-28.

   And, it may be a long season at SMU. The Mustangs went belly-up at home as an 11-point favorite to Navy, 38-7. The visiting Middies were winless last season and were 1-20 SU the last two years. Beware of bad teams as a double-digit favorite, especially early in the season.

   Perhaps the best story of college football’s first week was at Duke. The Blue Devils may win regularly in college basketball, but the football program has struggled mightily. Since Steve Spurrier left after the 1989 season, Duke has had one winning season (1994) and three winless seasons.

   But Duke ended a 23-game losing streak with a victory over East Carolina as a 14-point home dog, 23-16. The Blue Devils recorded their first win since defeating Wake Forest in November 1999. Fans poured onto the field and tore down both sets of goalposts at Wallace Wade Stadium.

   This was a surprise, as East Carolina averaged 32.7 points per game in 2001 with a sensational offense (202.7 yds rushing, 214 yds passing per game).

   Since Duke gave up 44.6 points and 245 yards rushing per game last fall, it certainly seemed like a good spot for the heavily favored Pirates. But all seasons are not created equal. The dogs often bark in September, so beware!