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Why Navy’s a smart spread pick against Notre Dame, even this year

A lot of history says the Midshipmen are likely to cover 24 points.

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Notre Dame is favored by 24 against Navy on Saturday in San Diego. That’s a lot, but it’s a reasonable spread. Advanced stat S&P+ projects the Irish to win by 23.5.

The Irish are a College Football Playoff frontrunner. The Midshipmen are 2-5, having one of their worst seasons in a while. The Mids have gone just 1-6 against the spread, while the Irish have gone 4-3 against it.

While that all makes it sound like Notre Dame wouldn’t be a bad spread pick, the historical smart money advises betting on Navy +24.

When the triple-option service academies are huge underdogs, they almost always cover. It’s one of the surest things in college football betting.

The numbers, after Army almost beat Oklahoma earlier in 2018:

Since 1995, the three FBS military academies — Air Force, Army, and Navy — are a combined 36-11-1 against the spread as underdogs of more than three touchdowns (21.5 points or more)*, according to Odds Shark’s database.

If you took the military underdog to cover all 47 of those spreads, you’d have beaten Vegas 76.5 percent of the time.

Just for reference, beating the sports book a mere 55 percent of the time would be considered really excellent.

The trend continues with smaller spreads as well, albeit to lesser degrees. The point is: these teams are great underdogs against Power 5 heavyweights.

There are a few likely contributing factors. One is just time, as the flexbone option includes little passing and keeps the clock moving, shortening games. Sometimes, opposing coaches are passive on defense, because they don’t want a barrage of cut blocks to destroy their players’ knees. And teams have indicated before they don’t really feel like running up the score against a bunch of future U.S. service members.

Navy usually covers against Notre Dame, despite often being a big dog.

In the teams’ last 20 games, going back to 1998, Navy’s just 4-16, with all of those wins coming in the last decade. The Midshipmen have been underdogs every single game, according to the Odds Shark database. They’ve been worse than three-touchdown underdogs five times and covered four of them.

In total, Navy’s 12-8 against the spread in its last 20 against Notre Dame.

This is a serious rivalry game, and Notre Dame has incentive to try to look as impressive as possible for the Playoff selection committee.

That doesn’t sound great for Navy, admittedly.

But the Mids usually get up for this game themselves.

The last five years have yielded three one-score games and no margins wider than 17. Notre Dame hasn’t pulled off a rout since 2012, when it won 50-10.

And this is a pretty respectful rivalry. Notre Dame might not try to run it up.

That sounds silly, but it tracks with their history. The universities have helped each other out in times of mutual vulnerability, and they’ve always been publicly friendly to each other:

“If there’s any relationship that we have in athletics that has really held up over the years, it’s the Navy,” Hesburgh added then. “People said, ‘Well, Navy has a terrible team,’ and I said, ‘I hate to be winning all the time, but there were days when they won back in the glory days.’ It has always been cordial.”

There are also football reasons to think Navy might be able to hang around.

The biggest one is that Notre Dame’s rush defense has looked vulnerable. The Irish have an excellent defense overall, but they’re a bit better against the pass (12th in S&P+) than the run (21st). Parsing it further, they’re 11th in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness allowed, meaning they don’t give up long running plays. But they’re a mediocre 55th in Rushing Marginal Efficiency allowed, which is what a triple-option team like Navy is really after.

The Midshipmen want to kill the Irish with a million four-yard runs, and maybe they can. Pitt gave that a decent go two weeks ago, when the Panthers had a 17-play, 88-yard touchdown drive and likely would’ve beaten the Irish if not for a couple of missed field goals.

I’m not advising you to risk your hard-earned dollars on a 2-5 team beating a potential Playoff team.

I’m just saying Navy has a good chance to keep it close.