Week 3 Football Recap (9/24/12)

By Paul Bessire

Monday, September 24 at 10:30 PM ET

For the weekly football review blog throughout the season, I am stealing a page from our weekly football podcasts (while also preparing for said podcasts) and will identify three things that stood out to me in college football and the NFL from the weekend as well as a play or two from the Live ScoreCaster in game projected results that  had the most notable bearing on a pivotal game.

NFL Week 3 Thoughts:

Points, Points, Points… What a crazy weekend. It was oft-noted by me and others that the average total lines at sportsbooks of 46.1 for the week signified the expectation that this would be one of the highest scoring weeks in the history of the NFL. With ten teams topping 30 points and six games that topped 50 total points, most games certainly lived up to the hype.

Speculation was that the replacement officials were/are to blame for the high scores and totals. While that is somewhat true – penalties-per-play and penalty-yards-per-penalty are both up year-over-year, but just barely (.05 to .052 and 8.5 to 8.6 respectively), like we have discussed when talking about how the league took Peyton Manning’s lead and passed him up, we have been headed in this direction for a while.

When I started working on this version of the Predictalator for the launch of PredictionMachine after the 2009 regular season, we looked at some league averages from that year to help us calibrate the results. In 2009, teams averaged 21.5 points-per-game with one team, New Orleans, averaging 30+ points. At the time, teams passed the ball 54.8% of the time and for 6.9 yards-per-pass on 60.6% completions and 3.1% interceptions. The average run went for 4.2 yards-per-carry.

Through 47 NFL games in 2012, teams are averaging 24.0 points-per-game with four teams putting up more than 30+ points. Passes account for 56.7% of all plays from scrimmage with passes going for 7.2 yards-per-pass on 61.9% completions (even with five starting rookie quarterbacks; and there are 13 teams completing 65%+ of their passes on the season) and 2.6% interceptions. The average run is going for just 4.0 yards-per carry.

It’s a smaller sample size, but the trend is here to stay. Scoring is up because passing is up (and more effective).

Pass rush wins football games (he says while watching a game with a team leading at halftime that has eight sacks)… Of the 23 NFL Playoff picks that make up our 20-3 ATS record, 17 had the better sack rate (sacks/opponent pass plays) in the matchup. With everything related to passing more important and more prevalent – and with an ever-shrinking gap between the elite and the adequate quarterbacks – keeping the quarterback from having time to get the ball downfield is of the utmost importance.

According to our new (awesome) team stats, the teams with the best pass rushes in the league thus far are: Green Bay (17%), Chicago (11%), Cincinnati (10%), Arizona (9%), Dallas (8%) and Houston (8%). Those six teams are a combined 13-4 straight-up and, according to our new (awesome) ATS Stats, 11-5 against-the-spread. More notably, aside from the game in which Green Bay and Chicago played against each other, those teams have been underdogs six times and have won outright in five of those contests.

Home field advantage still matters… In Week 2, there were six home underdogs. Five of them won outright. This week, there were five home underdogs (before Monday Night Football, which is ongoing as I write this, but the home underdog is currently winning that game): Arizona (+4) vs. Philadelphia, Denver (+1.5) vs. Houston, Minnesota (+7) vs. San Francisco, Oakland (+4) vs. Pittsburgh and Miami (+3) vs. New York Jets. Arizona and Minnesota won outright over undefeated teams. Oakland shocked Pittsburgh. Miami took the Jets to OT. And Denver was down less than a touchdown as when it started its final drive.

We didn’t talk about it last week and I don’t think anything is being done intentionally, but this may be the facet of the game where the replacement referee situation may be the most impactful. The replacement referee situation is certainly something we have been monitoring and will continue to monitor. While we generally hold the assumption that any officiating mistakes will even out, a case can be made that home field advantage will be stronger this season than before. Home field advantage exists in every sport largely due in part to the impact of the crowd on officiating – this is a proven fact. The more susceptible the referees may be to intimidation, the greater the advantage for the home field. I hesitate to say that this is why home teams fared so well straight-up and against-the-spread last week, but I cannot rule it out as a factor. Our projection/assumption is that home field advantage in the NFL will increase by roughly half a point due to officials (and higher scoring) in 2012 – which we are already accounting for.

That all being said, the two teams that look like the best teams in the NFL right now – Houston and Atlanta – are 4-0 on the road and have out-scored their opponents by an average score of 31.3-14.0.

College Football Week 4 Thoughts:

The confounding Big 12… Allow me to indulge in some bitterness. It’s not just frustrating that Kansas State, a 14-point underdog that we had losing at Oklahoma by 23 points, won outright over the Sooners, 24-19. The impact of that game (aka loss for us) is compounded by the situation.

The Big 12 has consistently been the most difficult conference for us/me to project (straight-up and against-the-spread – our over/unders with it have been the opposite). The Big 12 has also consistently seen the highest home winning percentage (straight-up and against-the-spread) of any FBS conference. The research we conducted in the offseason on home field advantage supported the expectations that these facts were related. Not only did we find that nine teams that were in the Big 12 for the majority of our ten year window ranked in our top 30, Oklahoma ranked first and Kansas State ranked 27th. Since home field compares performance at home to on the road,  the difference between this game being played in Manhattan, KS (where Oklahoma won 58-17 over KSU last year) and Norman, OK would mean a full 14 point swing (as opposed to the 6-7 points sports books assume).

It is just one game. Bill Snyder is amazing (has anyone found a way to get more out his talent – particularly transfers?). And there were some fluky elements to the loss by the Sooners (who doubled-up the Wildcats passing output to the yard). So I certainly do not think that the effort and approach was all for naught. But, thinking back on Week 4, the most pressing thought that I cannot shake from the weekend is that the Big 12 remains a source for surprise, intrigue, chaos and – for me at least – frustration.

Arizona WTF?… In Arizona’s game against Oregon, the Wildcats made it into the red zone six times – and scored ZERO points. That’s amazing(ly terrible). Last season in FBS, 82.2% of all red zone attempts were converted into scores. No team converted fewer than 62% of its attempts. The chances of a result not occurring six times in a row that has an 82.2% chance of happening are 0.00322% or 1-in-31066. Needless to say, Arizona did not score at all. And lost. By 49 points.

Totals, Totals, Totals... We will bring up prediction/pick performance shortly to outline an even greater point (plus, when it is this consistent, it’s to your advantage to know this and important for me to highlight). In the past 18 regular season college football weeks (dating back to the beginning of the 2011 season), our strong, “normal” or better (when the pick covers greater than 57% of the time) over/under selections have been profitable in 17 weeks for a combined record of 95-54 (64%). We are coming off of a 9-2 week on such plays (and are 24-14 on the season with such plays).

To me, our continued, consistent success with college football totals tells us something about the nature of college football and wagering. When 85-man rosters of 18-22 year olds are dictating outcomes on the field, it is much easier to trust schemes, coaches and weather to live up to expectations than it is to trust the players to always interact relative to each other in the exact way that we project – especially with such motivation concerns as we experience in college football (while I/we have only ever had one unprofitable college ATS season and have started pretty well overall this season, over/unders have consistently provided a better source of realized value).

That’s half the equation. There is also the market. One would assume that if teams, schemes, coaches and weather can be so consistent, then the lines would be sharp. In general, they are not, especially earlier in the week. Its more anecdotal evidence for me right now than it is proven fact, but no lines seem to move more often and to a greater degree (non-injury related) throughout the week than college football totals. My rationalizations for the exploitable lines are four-fold:

  • 1) There is a difference between team’s reputations/traditions offensively and defensively and what they actually are. We play the latter while the market plays the former.
  • 2) For lack of a better way to phrase it, in extreme situations/matchups, it would seem crazy to set the lines where they should be (Baylor 2011 comes to mind immediately because 80+ point lines should have been the norm). This phenomenon only really exists in totals and not sides (against the spread picks)
  • 3) Bettors wake up on game day, see that it is raining, snowing or windy and they bet the under. We consistently get updated weather forecasts for game time at every stadium more than a week in advance. We also have a better idea about how weather truly impacts the game.
  • 4) With between 35-85 expected total points scored, there is a large margin for error in the original line.

Live ScoreCaster Play of the Week:

The Live ScoreCaster App has several notifications that can be turned on for games that will keep users up-to-date on things like quarterly scores and projections, games ending, projected lead changes and major swing plays. I love utilizing all of these, especially the latter two as it’s interesting to see which plays lead to teams being favored and ultimately winning the game (as it happens).

For the Major Swing notification, when the projected winning percentage in a game shifts by 35% or more over the course of up to two plays, the notification is activated and the user learns the play, the current score and the new projection. Most games don’t actually have these kinds of plays. And those that do often come in the form of late, game-winning field goals that are less than 65% likely to convert. But there will still be a few other plays each week that stand out for playing pivotal roles in big games.

This NFL week was bonkers. BONKERS. We recently added a publicly viewable page that will show the charts from all Live ScoreCaster games for a week after each game. These are available for free to everyone. In other words, you have to check out the win probability charts from Kansas City @ New Orleans, Detroit @ Tennessee, Pittsburgh @ Oakland, Cincinnati @ Washington and San Francisco @ Minnesota on our new Live History page. In an effort to keep this to one unheralded play in a high-profile game, though, I would like to point to the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Ravens (which also happened to be our free game on Sunday) and a type of play getting a ton of attention this season: a pass interference penalty.

After the team had been less than a five percent favorite to win when down 30-21 without the ball and less than eight minutes remaining, Baltimore found itself down just two points, 30-28, and with the ball with less than a minute left. After an incomplete pass on 3-and-9 from the New England 34, Baltimore was just a 41% favorite to win the game (it would have been a 51 yard field goal for rookie kicker Justin Tucker from that point). On the ensuing third down play, Devin McCourty was called for pass interference against Jacoby Jones at the seven yard line. After the play, Baltimore had a first-and-goal and an 80% chance to win the game – which they did 31-30 on a last second, 26 yard field goal. The penalty is not making many highlight reels this week, but it shifted the win probability of this game by almost 40% and changed the likely victor in what could be a crucial AFC game (New England is now under .500 for the first time since 2003).

See the chart that tells the story of this game: Baltimore 31 – New England 30