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Betting on the Dawgs

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How Washington has fared in Vegas in the Chris Petersen era

With a 37-17 overall record, a CFP birth, and a Pac-12 Title, Chris Petersen’s first four years have left Husky fans with lots to feel good about. While the occasional pessimist might nitpick the team’s record against top teams or the lack of impressive non-conference wins, the overall body of work has been overwhelmingly positive. Who could find something to complain about on that resume? Well, if you’re a Husky fan and a degenerate gambler, you might be less satisfied with Petersen’s output.

In his four seasons as the head coach, Petersen has gone 29-25 against the spread. For those of you less immersed in the betting world, bookies set a line for the game with the goal of driving bets on both sides. If the Huskies play Washington State and they are favored by seven (UW -7), they would have to win by more than seven points to win the bet. Winning by a FG would count as a victory in the standings, but a loss against the spread (ATS).

Theoretically, every team’s record ATS should eventually approach .500 because the lines are set to drive action on both sides and to account for the difference in quality between the teams. If a team wins every week ATS, then the odds-makers would be wise to favor them by a wider margin in the future. If UW was favored by three against the University of North Dakota when they play in September, nobody would bet on UND. Instead, the line will probably favor UW by a number in the 30s to encourage debate so bettors go on both sides.

Why does Vegas try to drive action on both sides? Because they make money on every bet. Generally, an ATS bet will come with odds around -110. What that means is that a winning $110 bet would return $100. If two bettors bet opposite sides of the same game at -110, the sports book would take in $220 in bets and pay out $210 to the one who won. That’s about a 5% profit just for giving bettors the privilege of getting in on the action. Put another way, an individual bettor has to win about 52.7% of the time to make a profit, and they have to do even better to make any real money- about 55-57%.

So even though Peterson has a 53.7% winning percentage ATS, a fan who bet the Huskies to win every time would barely have their head above water over Petersen’s entire tenure. If a Husky fan bet $10 on the Huskies every game to cover the spread, that bettor would be up a whole $13.61 over Petersen’s tenure. Of course, smart bettors look for trends beneath the surface. Are there any trends in Petersen’s UW tenure that could help a fan make some money?

Against the Spread

The overall 29-25 record against the spread isn’t bad. Over Petersen’s four years, the Dawgs have stayed close to .500 ATS each year. They started out 7-7, then 8-5, 7-7, and 7-6. Interestingly, the team’s breakout 2016 season only yielded a .500 record ATS while the 7-6 season in 2015 made more money for its consistent backers.

UW has been slightly better in conference games than non-conference games. They are 21-16 ATS in the Pac-12 and only 8-9 in non-conference games. Part of the weaker non-conference performance has been an unwillingness to run up the score against lower-tier non-conference opponents. Husky fans can attest that Petersen has had a relatively quick hook for his starters against weaker opponents early in the season. Whether that tendency is intended to give more experience to his young players or to avoid humiliating other teams, the result is the same if you bet on the games. The 1-3 record ATS in bowl games also stands out as a disappointing number, but with only four games in the sample, it’s not enough to make any meaningful conclusions.

The 21-16 ATS record in conference equates to a 56.7 winning percentage, which is high enough to stand out as a very positive trend. Those positive results have been buoyed by strong 6-3 marks in both 2014 and 2017, but the Dawgs were actually below .500 (9-10) ATS from 2015-2016, so the conference bets are by no means a sure thing.

Another important split in betting is between home and away. Petersen’s teams have gone 15-13 ATS at home and 12-9 ATS on the road. Neither number jumps out as exceptional. A more noteworthy number is the difference between UW ATS results as a favorite and underdog. When UW has gone into the game as a favorite, they have gone 24-17 vs just 5-8 as an underdog during Petersen’s tenure. For those who complain that the Dawgs haven’t played up to the level of better competition, the straight-up record of 2-11 as an underdog stands out. Does that mean that Petersen’s stuff only works against inferior teams? Does it say that UW has got the most out of its talent but cannot cut it against true contenders? These results can’t give us a conclusion to those questions, but it is noteworthy that the performance against top teams is worse, even when adjusting for the point spread.

Over/Unders

Outside of the point spread, every game has a point total associated with it. Unlike the ATS record, going over or under is not inherently good or bad. On the other hand, like the spread, the point totals would move from week to week as the bookmakers see past patterns. If a team goes over the total in its games several weeks in a row, the probability is that the totals will start moving up to account for the higher point totals than previously expected.

In Petersen’s tenure, UW has gone over the total 24 times, under 29 times, and hit it exactly once. For the purposes of this article, I will write that as 24-29-1, but remember that going under does not represent a loss, even though the format is the same as an overall record. That record translates to hitting the under 54.7% of the time, which is a fairly high number over a significant number of games.

If you dig deeper, the under trend starts to pop up time and again. The Huskies are 16-20-1 in Conference games and 8-12-1 as an away team. There are a few situations in which UW tends to hit the over- 19-16-1 after a win, 13-11 as a home favorite, and 21-19-1 as a favorite overall. Those aren’t overwhelming numbers, but it’s not as if the Huskies go under the total week in and week out.

Remember the questions I raised earlier about UW’s tendencies against highly rated opponents? They are even more relevant in this section. As an underdog, UW is 3-10, going under 76.9% of the time. As an underdog on the road, it’s even more extreme- 1-6 (85.7% under). While the situation is a bit different, they are also 4-10 coming off of a loss.

Maybe I’m reading too much into those numbers, but each situation seems to be a time when UW has its back against the wall. Playing a team that is perceived to be superior (especially on the road), or coming off of a loss, Petersen’s teams have almost always kept the overall score low. Part of that number probably has to do with solid, consistent defense, which has been a staple of Petersen’s tenure. Another element is likely the frustrating performance of the offense in big games away from home. The 16-13 loss @ Boise in 2015, the 24-7 Peach Bowl loss to Alabama in 2016, and last year’s aggravating 13-7 loss @ Arizona St. The 2016 loss to USC, while at home, shares many of the same characteristics.

Altogether, the oddsmakers do a good job adjusting to trends on the fly. In almost every category, the Huskies have fallen in the sweet spot that Vegas prefers- not so good that you have to back them, but not so bad that you have to short them. The one area where the trend seems more persuasive is the team’s total point output in difficult games- away from home, against top opponents, or both. The results so far have lined up with what fans can observe in the play on the field, which makes the argument even more persuasive. If you were going to put money on the Dawgs early next year, it might be smart to bet the under out of the gate against Auburn. Of course, if Vegas is doing its job, it will account for this trend soon and the advantage will dry up.