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Gaming Guru

Jeff Haney

Jeff Haney on Las Vegas sportsbooks early lines on football games

16 July 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In response to the insatiable demand for football betting opportunities among sports gamblers, it has become fashionable - even expected - for Las Vegas sports books to offer lines on dozens of games from the forthcoming season by early summer.

Whereas there were just a handful of these so-called 'games of the year' available a few years ago, a leading sports book such as the Las Vegas Hilton now routinely posts as many as 80 NFL games and the same number of college football games, with other books offering a smaller selection.

A major target audience for the games of the year, oddsmakers have said, is visitors to Las Vegas who like to place a season's worth of wagers on their favorite teams during their trip to the only state with legal sports betting.

But more serious sports bettors - professionals and wannabe pros - also take their shots, trying to forecast moves in the point spread and lock in some value.

Their performance has been surprisingly erratic, however, especially in college football, where the talent disparity between opposing teams is often greater and point spreads fluctuate more than in the pros.

Even in the highly inexact discipline of projecting point spreads months in advance, their results usually end up all over the place, according to a review of how point spreads moved in games involving top college teams and whether those moves indicated which team covered the point spread.

For instance, consider the track record of Ohio State, last year's preseason No. 1 team, in its 'games of the year' that were posted by oddsmakers in July.

In an early season game at Texas, the Buckeyes opened a 1 1/2-point favorite according to the Hilton's games of the year, went off as a 3-point underdog on game day - yet easily covered the spread in a 24-7 victory.

A couple of mid-season games played closer to form. Ohio State went from minus-1 to minus-7 against Iowa and from minus-6 to minus-14 against Michigan State, winning and covering easily both times.

Then, in a late-season game against Michigan, even though the Buckeyes entered with a record of 11-0 straight-up and 9-2 against the spread, they went off as a 6 1/2-point favorite after opening on the early line at minus-7. Ohio State won but failed to cover, 42-39.

Notre Dame, last year's No. 2-ranked team before the season, also had uneven results in its games of the year that had significant moves in the point spread.

The Irish opened a 15-point favorite on the Hilton's early line against Penn State, went off on game day as just an 8 1/2-point favorite - then easily covered both of those numbers in a 41-17 victory.

The line move in Notre Dame's game against UCLA was more accurate, as the Irish opened at minus-22, closed at minus-12 1/2 and won by only 3 points.

Against Air Force, however, the Irish opened at minus-16 1/2, closed at minus-10 and covered both numbers in a 39-17 victory.

The trend swung back again in Notre Dame's regular-season finale, when the Irish went from plus-2 to plus-8 1/2 before losing to Southern Cal by 20 points.

Good luck finding any pattern there.

It's difficult enough to analyze a point spread on the week of a particular game, let alone several months beforehand.

Bettors would do well to keep that in mind when betting this season's college games of the year, including the 30-plus already available at the Golden Nugget and the roughly 80 expected to be posted at the Hilton this month.

In a sampling of games on the Golden Nugget's board involving top preseason contenders, USC is favored by 12 against Nebraska, by 14 against Notre Dame and by 9 1/2 against Cal. Defending champion Florida is favored by 6 in a rivalry game against Tennessee and by 5 1/2 against Florida State, but is an underdog of about a touchdown at LSU.

In a couple of key Big Ten matchups, Michigan - at 8-1 one of the preseason favorites to win the national championship - is a 6-point favorite against Ohio State and a small underdog at Wisconsin.