Less frenzy, more intrigue in NCAA football lines

Jun 14, 2011 3:00 AM

In 2010, when the Golden Nugget opened up betting on their college football "Games of the Year," there were long lines for several hours as bettors jockeyed with one another to take their crack at college football’s very first point spreads.

With a $1,000 maximum bet and a three-bets-per-customer limit, wiseguys spent a good portion of the afternoon making repeated trips to the betting window.

Golden Nugget sportsbook director Tony Miller: "Last year, we had lines out the door… it was a frenzy." The Nugget wrote close to $130,000 on the first day they posted their lines.

When the Nugget posted their advance college football lines this past Friday, the action was somewhat subdued compared to last year – shorter lines and less frenzy.

Some of the lesser handle was a result of competition. On the same day, Cantor Gaming opened its NFL lines for every single regular season game at the "M" – another highly attractive wiseguy destination.

Some of the reduced handle had to do with the smaller menu this year – after the Nugget got hammered last year, they reduced their number of Games of the Year nearly in half; from 200 games in 2010 to 105 this year.

Last year, the lines built up in anticipation of the numbers coming out, but the numbers came out later than expected. This year, the numbers came out right on time, allowing the "early birds" to get the "worms" so to speak. The uncertain state of the offshore betting world was probably a factor as well – there simply isn’t as much wiseguy money floating around today as there was a year ago (or two, or three) at this time.

Miller, talking about the book’s willingness to post early numbers, despite the beating they took last year: "Yeah, it’s a risky move and, like always, we’ve had things work for us and against us. But in the end, it’s worth it. For this one day, we’ll have more handle than anywhere else in the state."

Even if you didn’t make it down to the Nugget for the openers, there is still one major advantage to having these opening numbers sitting for us to bet all summer. You can bet any information that comes out in the weeks and months to follow.

One of the biggest losers for the Nugget last year was North Carolina. Bettors wagered against the Tar Heels repeatedly as NCAA allegations and then suspensions dogged the program all summer.

Bettors had a better handle on the situation than the oddsmakers, and Butch Davis’s squad was a real money loser for the house. We can expect that at some point this summer, some "hot off the presses" info will come out on one or two teams, giving fast moving bettors an opportunity to bet information, not opinions.

It’s not hard to tell what teams the earliest bettors were interested in supporting and what teams they were interested in fading. The line moves tell the entire story, and there were a handful of significant changes within the first few hours after the numbers were posted.

Popular "bet on" teams at the Nugget this past Friday included Tennessee, Georgia, Notre Dame, Northwestern and LSU. All five of those schools took multiple bets in more than one game, driving the line in their direction.

Popular "bet against" teams included Auburn, Michigan, TCU, Mississippi State and Florida. All five of those schools were "fade" material; either shorter favorites or bigger underdogs now than they were at the opener.

If those lists seem SEC heavy, it’s because they are! Of the 105 games, 36 featured at least one SEC team. The Big Ten, Big-12 and PAC-12 were all heavily represented as well. The Nugget didn’t show any hometown or home-state love this year – neither UNLV nor Nevada-Reno were listed even once.

Here’s a brief synopsis of those 10 teams, in an effort to explain the betting attention they received:

Tennessee: The Vols came on strong down the stretch in a 2010 season that could have been a complete disaster. UT won its last four regular season games to earn a bowl bid. After last year’s growing pains, the Vols finally have the same head coach returning for the first time in four years. Early bettors respect that continuity and were willing to overlook the Vols myriad of defensive concerns.

Georgia: No SEC coach is on a hotter seat than Mark Richt and early bettors expect that his Bulldogs are talented enough to help him keep his job. Georgia lost four games by a TD or less in 2010, without winning a single tight contest; a long term ‘likely to improve’ statistical profile.

LSU: Les Miles has recruited at a national championship level in recent seasons and Tigers team speed is second to none in the SEC. With a senior quarterback returning behind a veteran offensive line, bettors were willing to overlook LSU not enjoying a winning season against the spread since 2005, Miles first year on the job.

Notre Dame: The Irish have gone 3-9, 7-6, 6-6 and 8-5 over the past four seasons. Betting markets haven’t been particularly high on ND in years, but head coach Brian Kelly has a truly exceptional track record in his second season on the job in previous stops – winning the MAC with Central Michigan and the Big East with Cincinnati. With a boatload of returning starters and a QB battle between talented choices, early bettors see double digit win potential.

Northwestern: QB Dan Persa set the Big 10 single season record for completion percentage last year (73.5%). Persa returns for his senior season behind an offensive line with a whopping 137 returning career starts (No. 2 in FBS in that category). Bettors expect a stellar senior season.

Auburn: Two time Hilton Supercontest winner and professional sports bettor Steve Fezzik tweeted "I think I bet against Auburn seven times today." He wasn’t the only one. Bettors faded the Tigers in just about every game that they were lined. After losing Heisman winner (and top overall NFL draft choice) Cam Newton, four multi-year starters on the offensive line and much of their defense to graduation, early bettors saw one direction to go – down!

Florida: The Gators spent the six years of the Urban Meyer era competing at a national championship level, but 2010 was clearly a notch or two down. New head coach Will Muschamp has shown a willingness to kick talented players off the team for off-field transgressions (something we didn’t see much of from Meyer) and the Gators have new coordinators on both sides of the ball. Early bettors expect some growing pains.

Mississippi St: The Bulldogs won nine games last year, their best season in more than a decade – culminating with a 52-14 blowout over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. They return every key skill position player, including a senior QB. Head coach Dan Mullen spurned other offers, deciding to stay in Starkville after being given a hefty raise. That said, the money coming against the Bulldogs is a real head scratcher to this bettor!

Michigan: The Wolverines were on the wrong end of that blowout loss in the Gator Bowl – Rich Rodriguez’s final game as head coach. The hire of Brady Hoke was well received in betting markets, but this program has been through all kinds of turmoil in recent years and again installs a brand new offensive system with players recruited for a different style. Bettors expect struggles as the Wolverines transition to the Hoke era.

TCU: The Horned Frogs enter their final season of Mountain West Conference play before their move to the Big East with a 25-1 SU record over the past two years – a narrow loss in a BCS Bowl to Boise State. But TCU was decimated by graduation losses – QB Andy Dalton, both star wide receivers, four starters on the offensive line and numerous impact players on defense. Early bettors expect a significant decline.