The question whether sportsooks will tighten up FCS vs. FBS lines in the future is being asked after a handful of huge inter-level upsets to open the 2017 college football season. What do you think?
Last weekend we witnessed what some are calling the biggest upset in college football history. The Howard Bison, members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship, charged their way to a shock 43-40 win over the UNLV Rebels as 45.5-point underdogs. The victory was one of a few big-priced FCS victories over FBS programs in Week 1. Big South representatives, the Liberty Flames, burned the reeling Baylor Bears 48-45 as 20.5-point pups, while the Tennessee State Tigers clawed their way to a 17-10 road win over the Georgia State Panthers spotted 15 points.
Last week’s upsets add to a number of high profile FCS wins over FBS programs in recent years, which have some bettors pondering whether oddsmakers will tighten the lines between inter-division matchups in the future. Don’t bet on it. The competitive gap between FCS and FBS teams is not shrinking per say, rather it’s the increasing number of matchups, and meetings to bet on, which is fueling the growing trend. Let’s look at the history and explore some numbers.
The most memorable FCS victory and the one the public commonly refers back to when discussing lopsided interdivisional wins is App. State’s 34-32 victory over Michigan in the 2007 season opener. It was a game-changer for sure. The Wolverines ranked No. 5 nationally and the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten, kicked off as 31-point chalk just to be defeated by a proverbial David. The Mountaineers, which entered the game having won consecutive Division 1-AA national championships, became only the second FCS team to defeat a ranked FBS program with the victory. With 22 fewer scholarships, the short-on-talent, but well-coached FCS program, changed the public’s perception regarding competition between the two divisions. The Associated Press even amended their polling policy to allow ranking FCS teams following the upset, which prior was FBS only. App. State ended the season ranked No. 18, the first ever FCS team to receive votes in the final poll.
Division I football split into two levels (I-A, I-AA) in 1978. Despite seeing a record-high 118 inter-division meetings in 1982, the annual average was roughly 70 games throughout the 1980s and 1990s (1997 offered only 36). The number of contests started to grow in 2008, surpassing the century mark (105) in 2012 for the second time ever. Since, there have been 100 or more FCS-FBS matchups every year, with 98 scheduled in 2017.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Vegas bookmakers offered well fewer than half of the FCS-FBS scheduled games to wager each season. Most brick-and-mortar shops, for example, didn’t offer a line on the 2007 App. State win over Michigan. The growth of online sportsbooks has increased the size of the betting market immensely, to the point one can wager nearly any matchup within 24 hours from kickoff.
The sheer growth in scheduling is causing a greater number of FCS wins over FBS teams. The figure averaged between 6 and 7 victories throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s regularly in double digits now, peaking at 16 wins in 2013. The increase in wagering availability, and the betting line demarcating matchups makes the FCS upsets more prominent in the public discourse—hence the current discussion on tightening lines.
There are some factors supporters arguing in favor of FCS programs closing the competitive gap on FBS teams in recent years can point to, including technology advances allowing for better recruitment and coaching, early NFL draft entrees sapping FBS talent and experience, FCS transfers allowed to play immediately, etc. On paper, however, FCS teams are losing to FBS teams by the same margin they did 30 years ago, if not by more.
FBS teams, for example, won by an average of 25 points last week versus FCS foes. This number is on par with the gap every season. In 2016, the average points differential between the two levels was 23.5; in 2009, 28; in 1999, 23; in 1988, 27 points, and so on. Until these numbers change, the betting line will remain as lopsided as ever in FCS-FBS matchups. For every upset win, there is a FBS favorite that exceeds expectations. Texas Tech routed 2016 FCS national title semifinalists Eastern Washington 56-10 last week, covering a 12.5-point spread by almost five touchdowns. Oh, and let’s not forget Michigan avenging that App. State loss 52-14 as 34-point chalk in 2014, the first season the Mountaineers moved up to the FBS.