ind the most popular teams and then bet against them? This seems like a logical way to make money, on the assumption that betting sites will make their lines favor popular teams, to balance out the fact that they get a lot of dumb money on those teams.
Here is every team that is at least 10 games over .500 against the spread over the past decade, according to Phil Steele.
The list contains a few we would expect, like Oregon, Oklahoma State, Stanford and Duke. They have had a lot of success, but don't have traditionally massive football fan bases.
And then there's that team on the top: Ohio State. The Buckeyes might have the largest fan base in college football, full of loyal supporters likely willing to plunk down bets on their team. The fact that Ohio State has the best record against the spread creates a couple possibilities:
- Betting lines do not move in anticipation or response to betting on popular teams; or
- Betting lines do price in the popular team dynamic, but this pricing has not been enough to keep Ohio State from covering 60 percent of the time.
Regardless, the betting sites have likely taken a bath on the Bucks in the past decade and, to a lesser extent, Oklahoma and Florida.
And the surprising aspect about Ohio State's record is that it was largely acquired under Jim Tressel, who was 42-21 against the spread in his last five years, despite a reputation of playing close to the vest and only doing just enough to win a game. That might have been true in the first part of his career in Columbus, but it wasn't accurate when he had Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor.
So how about the teams that are at least 10 games under .500 against the spread?
Is this going to be full of nationally popular teams who don't cover because their fans bid up the betting lines by placing emotional bets?
We have to get down to the fifth spot to find an exceptionally popular team, and then we have several SEC teams. The two Power 5 teams with the worst records against the spread over the past decade are Pac-12 schools with lukewarm fan support. There may be some money to be made in betting against certain popular teams, but the worst teams against the spread fall outside of that category.
And finally, let's take a look at popular teams in the aggregate.
To get a rough approximation of the category of popular teams, I'll use the valuation from The Wall Street Journal. That seems more reliable that Nate Silver's ill-fated effort in 2011, which concluded (among other things) that Georgia's fan base is only two-thirds the size of Georgia Tech's, an amusing statement for anyone who has attended when Georgia plays "at" Georgia Tech.
Four of our potential public teams are over .500, while six are under. In the aggregate, these 10 have posted a .503 winning percentage against the spread over the last decade. Based on that, there are a couple potential conclusions:
Either way, the evidence shows that basing a betting strategy on going against popular teams won't work. The concept makes sense in theory, but it isn't borne out in practice.