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Hindsight is +20: Looking Ahead (and Back) at College Football’s Early Gambling Lines (UPDATE)

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Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, left, and Baylor head coach Art Briles shake hands before an NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

This post, first written on August 28, was updated on September 26.

If you were a betting man, you would have made some money taking Baylor against Texas last December 3. The Bears were favored by as many as 15 points, and beat the Longhorns 30-10.

But if you were a betting man in June, you would have made some really easy money. That was when the Golden Nugget sports book in Las Vegas released its “Games of the Year,” a list of early point spreads for the college football season’s most anticipated (or, most-likely-to-be-wagered) games. With eventual Big 12 champion Baylor entering the year unranked, and UT’s season not yet disappointing, the Golden Nugget’s opening line had Baylor as an eight-point underdog. So even when the Bears were not looking too good at halftime, when the game was tied up 3-3, Baylor bettors were still in the money.

Similar situations could be found with TCU and Texas Tech. The Horned Frogs went into the season as a 4 point favorite over Texas Tech September 12, and a 4 ½ point favorite over Kansas State November 16. It being so so early in the season, the Tech line didn’t change too much (dropping just a bit to TCU -3), but the Horned Frogs lost to the Red Raiders, 20-10. By the time that Kansas State game came around, TCU was 4-6, and went into the Wildcats game at 10 ½ point underdogs (they covered both lines as K State beat them 33-31). Tech, meanwhile, only had two other games deemed worthy of the early lines, and went from a 14-point and 16-point underdog, against, respectively, Oklahoma and Texas, to 7-point and 4 ½-point underdogs. The Raiders lost to Oklahoma 38-30, and to UT 41-16.

All of which just goes to show you shouldn’t gamble. But what makes the lines so interesting is not actually wagering money (ok, actual gamblers are bound to disagree), or even caring all that much about the spread per se (because what fan wants to take the points if their team isn’t favored?). Rather, it’s because those numbers represent the collective sentiment ad expertise of casual fans (betting online/offshore, or while on Vegas vacations), professional gamblers and the oddsmakers, a collective conventional wisdom that is at least as accurate and scientific as the college football polls and TV pundits.

So now, we look at 2014—which is itself old news, but the purpose of this post is to eventually look behind, and see how the preseason line compared to the game-week line, and then the actual result.

Oklahoma, the highest-ranked Big 12 team, is a heavy double-digit favorite in its early games: 19 points over Tennessee September 13, 17 points over West Virginia on September 20, and also favored over all the Texas teams. Baylor’s September slate of SMU, Northwestern State, Buffalo and Iowa State is not in play, but the Bears are favored against Texas, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech.

Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech team, meanwhile, gets more attention this year, with six of its contests earning “game of the year” lines. The Red Raiders are underdogs in four of them, while favored heavily over West Virginia (because, who isn’t?), and slightly over UT (one point, with the game being played in Lubbock).

Texas A&M, which kicks off the entire college football season (sorry, Abilene Christian-Georgia State) Thursday, puts in the most appearances of any Texas team (SEC! SEC!), but barely goes .500, being favored in five games, and ‘dogs in four (including two touchdowns to Alabama and Auburn).

And, presumably due to its rivalry status, TCU-SMU is on the list, the Mustangs’ sole appearance (they are 10-point underdogs).

Here’s the full list of Golden Nugget’s early lines for this year’s games involving schools from Texas, with notes and updated odds* on the first games. This post will be updated periodically during the season, as teams begin to meet or don’t meet expectations.

August 28

Texas A&M at South Carolina

Golden Nugget opening line: South Carolina -9

Updated odds: South Carolina -10.5

Of course, this exercise can’t truly begin until some of the season has been played. The smart money obviously likes the Gamecocks, hence the minor change in spread, while Aggies fans who don’t feel morally compromised by making money off of anything but a straight-up bet will surely take their team and all those points. And then if Kenny Hill wins the Heisman Trophy and the Aggies takes the SEC West, we’ll look back on this spread and laugh.

Update:

It’d be dumb to admit that I was kidding about Kenny Hill now, right? As everybody knows, the first line of the year proved to be the worst, with visiting A&M destroying South Carolina, 52-28. Hill’s been on every Heisman short list – and the Aggies in top 4 on a bunch of College Football Playoff watch lists – ever since.

September 6

BYU at Texas

Golden Nugget opening line: Texas -6

Updated odds: Texas -7

If you think that’s optimistic, consider that the Horns are 25 ½ point favorites against North Texas, which went 9-4 in Conference USA, including a bowl win, last season. But, Charlie Strong plus the revenge factor plus home field are each worth about two points; even if the Mean Green give Texas a close game, this line probably won’t move that much.

Update:

Once the season started, this line started moving off of UT quickly, even though they covered against UNT. All of the suspensions probably didn’t help. On August 31, various offshore books still liked the Longhorns by at least a field goal; by game day, the lines ranged from UT -1.5 to even odds to BYU being favored by one point. Of course, the Cougars destroyed the Horns, 41-7. And yet, it didn’t have a major impact on…

September 13

UCLA at Texas (Arlington)

Golden Nugget opening line: UCLA -8

Updated odds: UCLA -7

Update:

UCLA wound up as an 8.5 or 9-point favorite offshore by the time this game was played, but the -7 number held in Vegas. A certain number of non-scientific gamblers are always gonna bet on Texas if they’re fans, and with this game still being essentially at home, plus the understanding that UT couldn’t possibly play any worse than it did a week ago, there was no crazy reactive change in odds. That said, the Baylor and OU point spreads will probably look different as those games approach.

September 25

Texas Tech at Oklahoma State

Golden Nugget opening line:  Oklahoma State -7

Update:

Oklahoma State -14

The Raiders lost to Arkansas, struggled against UTEP and beat Central Arkansas 42-35, a game in which Tech was a 33-point favorite. They are 0-3 against the spread. And then there’s that whole defensive coordinator drama. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, exceeded expectations in its opening loss to #1 Florida State, and handled a pretty good UTSA team at home two weeks ago. If you placed that bet on OSU in August, you are in the money, but not so much the current line. The Cowboys prevailed 45-35.

September 27

Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington)

Golden Nugget opening line: Texas A&M -11

Updated odds:

Texas A&M -10

A&M’s better than everybody thought over the summer, but so is Arkansas. Still, that number looks kind of familiar.

TCU at SMU

Golden Nugget opening line: TCU -11

Updated odds:

 TCU -32

Not much mystery here, even though my first reaction was, “is that a typo?” So far this year, Baylor, UNT and A&M beat up the Mustangs 45-0, 43-6, and 58-6, respectively. And last year’s disappointing Horned Frogs’ squad still beat ‘em 48-17. But hey, the game’s in Highland Park, and it’s a rivalry. Maybe SMU will find the end zone twice (one more time than it has all season) and cover in a 45-14 loss. 

October 4

Baylor Bears -3 at Texas Longhorns

Texas A&M Aggies at Mississippi State Bulldogs -3

Texas Tech Red Raiders at Kansas State Wildcats -7

Oklahoma Sooners -14 at TCU Horned Frogs

October 11

Texas Longhorns vs. Oklahoma Sooners -9 (Dallas)

Mississippi Rebels at Texas A&M Aggies -1

West Virginia Mountaineers at Texas Tech Red Raiders -10

October 18

Baylor Bears -16 at West Virginia Mountaineers

Texas A&M Aggies at Alabama Crimson Tide -16.5

October 25

Texas Longhorns at Kansas State Wildcats -3.5

November 11

Texas Longhorns at Texas Tech Red Raiders -1

November 8

Texas A&M Aggies at Auburn Tigers -14

Baylor Bears at Oklahoma Sooners -11

West Virginia Mountaineers at Texas Longhorns -13

Kansas State Wildcats -4 at TCU Horned Frogs

November 15

Texas Longhorns at Oklahoma State Cowboys -2

Missouri Tigers at Texas A&M Aggies -6

Oklahoma Sooners -10 at Texas Tech Red Raiders

November 22

Oklahoma State Cowboys at Baylor Bears -9

November 27

LSU Tigers -5 at Texas A&M Aggies

TCU Horned Frogs at Texas Longhorns -9.5

November 29

Baylor Bears -6.5 at Texas Tech Red Raiders

December 6

Kansas State Wildcats at Baylor Bears -6

*(While Golden Nugget gets all the press for its “Games of the Year,” announcement, it is a physical Las Vegas sports book with no online presence. For the sake of what is no more than a rough comparison, more recent odds are via Covers.com).

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