Betting lines are driven by expectations, and expectations are based on public perception. After an excellent season last year, all eyes are on Louisville. Let's take a look at their betting prospects for the upcoming 2013-2014 college football season.
The Cardinals Against-the-Spread (ATS)
Predicting any team’s ATS success or their college football odds in the off-season is challenging, but we've discovered some precepts worth examining. In general, a team’s ATS season record usually stems from the difference between expectations and actual results. Those expectations can be measured by their variation in straight-up (SU) wins (from the previous season), their preseason ranking, and an extreme (either very good or very bad) ATS season immediately prior to the one in question.
In 2012, Louisville finished 11-2 SU and 6-7 (46.15%) ATS. Even though they improved their SU win total from the previous year by four, why did they still fail to show a profit? If you subscribe to our theory of expectations discussed above, you should note that the 2012 Cardinals entered the season ranked in the preseason top-25 for the first time since 2007. They were also coming off of a profitable ATS year (beating the spread 61.54% of the time during 2011). Their improvement in SU wins was not enough to overpower those two forces (i.e. a preseason poll ranking and a very good ATS year the prior season).
Looking to this upcoming season, improving on 11 SU wins is tough, but given the Cardinals’ 2013 strength-of-schedule ranking of 90th, combined with returning 15 or 16 starters, it is not impossible or even improbable for Louisville to increase that SU season wins total. Over the past 10 seasons, in three out of the four times that the Cardinals have added to their SU win total from the previous season, they were profitable ATS. The only exception was that 2012 season. Conversely, over the last 10 years, every time Louisville’s SU season win total declined (from the previous season), they were unprofitable ATS.
While we are still months away from the release of the 2013 Preseason Associated Press (AP) Poll, nearly all the early polls currently published have Louisville in the top-10 (more on that below). Over the past 10 years, the Cardinals have been in the preseason top-25 four times. In three of those four years, Louisville was unprofitable ATS, and 2013 could mark Louisville’s highest preseason ranking. That is a bad sign for ATS profitability on the season.
Some Louisville ATS Trends
Beware of betting on Louisville when they are Home underdogs. Since Charlie Strong has been their head coach, the Cardinals are 0-3 ATS in that position. It might also be wise to avoid betting the Cardinals when they are double-digit favorites. Since Strong has been there, Louisville is 3-7 (30%) ATS -2-4 (33.33%) in 2012 alone- as double-digit chalk. On the positive side, during Strong’s tenure, the Cardinals are an amazing 10-2 (83.33%) ATS as Away underdogs. This final trend is particularly interesting: Since Charlie Strong has been Louisville’s coach, the Cardinals have won all four games ATS when the difference between the opening and closing lines was 2.5 points or more in Louisville’s direction. This means that when there is extreme line movement that makes the Cardinals either less of an underdog or more of a favorite, Louisville has won all of those games ATS (so pay close attention to line movement).
2014 BCS National Championship Futures Bet
As this is being written, Bovada has Louisville at 22-to-1 to win the 2014 BCS National Championship, giving them the ninth shortest odds to win it all. In a previous article, we outlined our 60% Rule, where all BCS National Champions had at least three of the following five criteria before starting their championship seasons:
1) An upperclassman quarterback.
2) A top-20 scoring defense one year prior.
3) A preseason top-10 ranking.
4) Membership in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
5) A head coach who had been at the school for two to four years.
Louisville’s quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, will be a junior in 2013. Of the 15 previous starting quarterbacks for BCS National Champions, 11 of them (73.33%) were juniors. In case Bridgewater’s 2012 sophomore season is forgotten -like water under a bridge- he is an exceptional quarterback. How exceptional? If you thought another underclassman quarterback nicknamed “Johnny Football” was good, Bridgewater proved himself a better passer. Compared to Manziel, Bridgewater finished 2012 with a better QB Rating, a superior TD-to-INT rate, slightly more total passing yards, an edge in completion percentage, and more yards per passing attempt. If you object on the basis of conference or schedule difficulty, it should be noted that Bridgewater did that with a broken wrist for the last part of the season and a considerably inferior offensive line. (Plus, he beat Florida, something Manziel and the Aggies did not do.) Teddy Bridgewater might be the greatest football player in the history of the University of Louisville, so he deserves to be considered one of the most elite QB’s entering 2013.
Of the 15 previous BCS Champions, 13 had top-10 scoring defenses the year they won their title (and 6 out of 15 had top-2 scoring defenses). Those statistics should underscore the importance of having an exceptional scoring defense when gunning for the National Championship. As a predictive criterion, the standard is a top-20 scoring defense the year before winning the BCS. In 2012, Louisville’s scoring defense ranked 36th in the FBS, meaning that Louisville fails to meet the second predictive criterion. However, head coach Charlie Strong was a defensive coordinator for 11 years before becoming the Cardinals’ head coach. Four of those Strong-coordinated scoring defenses were in the top-10; Charlie Strong knows defense. Still not convinced? Louisville of 2013 will return nine defensive starters, more than all but four teams in the FBS (and none of those four teams had a scoring defense ranked in the top-50 in 2012). Need even more convincing? Only three teams won a BCS National Championship without having a top-20 scoring defense the previous season; one of those three was Florida of 2008. Their scoring defense the year prior to that 2008 championship season was ranked 46th, and they jumped from 46th to 4th in 2008, when they won it all. That 42-spot leap in scoring defense ranking was orchestrated by Florida’s (then) defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong.
No matter which prominent preseason poll is considered, the current (way-too-early) projections have Louisville ranking in the top-10 for all but one such poll. Given that Louisville does have the ninth shortest odds to win the BCS, we are crediting the Cardinals with meeting that third criterion of the 60% Rule: the preseason top-10 ranking. As for the final two criteria, obviously Louisville does not play in the SEC, but they sure did make an SEC team (Florida) look bad in the greatest point spread upset of the 2012-2013 Bowl season, which was the crowning achievement of Charlie Strong’s third year as Louisville’s head coach. (So, since Coach Strong enters the 2013 season as a fourth-year head coach, Louisville meets that last criterion.) In total, Louisville meets three of the five predictive criteria (60%), and with 22-to-1 odds, we think there is value placing a BCS futures bet on the Cardinals.
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Early Preseason Conclusions
Louisville does not appear to be particularly well-positioned to have a profitable ATS season in 2013, but mentioned earlier, there should be pockets of opportunity for the informed and discerning Cardinals bettor. The expectations appear to be too high for a great ATS year, but those expectations are warranted. Passing the test of the 60% Rule, Louisville should be considered a legitimate BCS contender and a solid college football pick, worth that futures bet.