College football records against the spread

Good coaches win, great coaches cover: How does your team stack up?

12/13/11 in NCAAF   |   Dan_B   |   1066 respect

There is winning, and then there is winning. When I say winning, I mean it kind of like Charlie Sheen does--I mean beating the crap out of your opponent. When SEC schools inevitably play there couple games against FCS foes every year, should they be content winning by a field goal? Heck, no! They need to cover... the spread.

The spread exists basically as a means for gamblers to equalize unequal teams. It is there to make that meaningless pick six in garbage time meaningful. Spreads range all over the place, but normally oddsmakers are pretty good at leveling the playing field. (Though they weren't so good when USC was supposed to beat lowly Stanford by 41.5 points in 2007, when the Trojans were the top team in the nation and Stanford was a middling program and the Cardinal upset the Trojans in the Coliseum--which is the biggest known upset against the spread ever).

So one way to see if your team is living up to expectations, whether you are a fan of a good team or a bad one, is to see how it is doing against the spread.

Until losing against Oregon on Nov. 12, my alma mater, Stanford (why do you think I included the above anecdote... and yes I was at the USC upset), hadn't lost against the spread since the middle of 2010--which made the team's stagnation in the polls perplexing to my friends and me. Stanford didn't beat the spread against Oregon (the Cardinal was a 3.5 point favorite), or the following week in a victory over Cal. Still, Stanford finished 9-2-1 against the spread this year--one of the best records in the nation.

In fact, only three schools were better than the Cardinal in that regard this season. And if you can guess them, you should either give yourself a pat on the back or find the nearest G.A. meeting.

Those schools are Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky and Arkansas State. All three went 10-2 versus the spread, meaning they consistently exceeded betters' and oddsmakers' assessments. How did those teams do straight up this season, you might wonder? Arkansas State went 10-2 and Louisiana Tech went 8-4 and both are headed to bowl games. Western Kentucky went 7-5 but was not invited to a bowl game because the NCAA (stupidly) gave 6-7 UCLA a bowl waiver. So one of the teams that continually out kicked its coverage--to borrow a football cliche--won't even go bowling this holiday season.

So what of the other top schools, you might ask? Well, unsurprisingly, No. 1 LSU was also pretty darn good against the spread, finishing 10-3. The Tigers opponent in the BCS National Championship Game, Alabama, was solid if not spectacular, at 8-4 (and the popular "snub" from the title game, Oklahoma State, was 9-3).

What are perhaps even more interesting are the teams on the other end of the spectrum--the teams that stunk against the points.

Hawaii, which faced a point shaving investigation this season, was, as you might've guessed, one of the nation's worst, going 3-9-1 against the spread versus 6-7 straight up. That wasn't quite as bad as Central Michigan, however, who went a nation-worst 1-11 against the spread this season.

Who was the most disappointing team among the BCS schools? Well of course it was the team that didn't belong in a BCS game in the first place: Virginia Tech. The 11-2 Hokies were just 4-9 against the spread. Beating Duke by four doesn't exactly cut it. 

Also disappointing--9-3 Penn State, who went just 3-8-1 against the spread.

Coaches will ALWAYS dismiss the importance of beating the points--as they should. Winning is, after all winning (even if it isn't winning or #winning). Plus, the BCS doesn't take margin of victory into account, so there is no incentive to run up the score. 

Still, the spread is a good way to figure out if your team is beating its perceived expectations. For a full breakdown of success against the spread, check out this chart
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12/16/11   |   TonyCiv   |   2 respect

It may be a good sign if a team consistently covers the spread.  I'm not sure the opposite is necessarily true.  Penn State's poor record against the spread was cited.  The Nittany Lions are a team with a very good defense and a not so great offense.  They win a lot of low scoring close games and likely won't cover as a favorite while consistently winning.  If you look at the win/lose predictions of the ESPN crew, Penn State exceeded expectations.  Corso, Herbstreit and sometimes Howard repeatedly picked PSU to lose to Iowa, Ohio State and even Northwestern.  The Lions won all those games. 

Virginia Tech also seems to be getting a bit of a bad rap.  The Hokies are one of the weakest BCS teams but are Michigan and the annual big east champ much more deserving?  Everyone seems to forget the game before the ACC championship.  Tech beat a good Virgina team by more than 30.  They covered the spread on that one.