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RBR Vice: So, Just How Good Was Vegas In 2014?

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Last week we looked at the early season totals as predicted by some offshore books. This week, we'll see how accurate the sharps are.

Bright lights; false hopes.
Bright lights; false hopes.
Joern Pollex/Getty Images

<legal throat clearing> This year, because I feel like it, we're going to cover odds & parimutuel sports betting a little bit more. There are some interesting observations gained from looking at numbers generated by an industry whose sine qua non is generating numbers, teasing you with numbers, then making billions of dollars off of human beings disregarding numbers and betting on emotions. With that in mind, remember that these discussions are for entertainment purposes only. Thanks to Jack Abramoff (him?!,) whose eLottery group (working with "family" groups, but funded by territorial-based casinos and states lotteries) pumped millions into Congress and gained the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, we are denied the harmless fun of sports betting outside of four places: Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana (although, Gov. Chris Christie and others are desperately attempting to make it so in New Jersey to revitalize the Atlantic City strip.) And, though you and I, as law-abiding indentured taxpayers citizens may eschew a $400 billion dollar online casino market, many more do not. So, again, this is for entertainment purposes only. </legal throat clearing>

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Glossary & How To Interpret Totals

Last week we shared the predicted season totals for SEC football teams. Those numbers make for some fascinating reading, provided you understand the essential terms and rules we're working with.

The first thing to know is that season totals are exclusive of bowls and post-season appearances - twelve regular season games only, folks. Thus, when a game is cancelled (such as the bizarre deluge in the Florida vs. Idaho game last season,) it renders that totals bet null and void.

The second thing to understand is the concept of a "total" - that is, what we are betting on exactly. Everyone pretty well understood the totals, expressed for instance as "Alabama 9.5." That means that the the bookmakers expect the Crimson Tide to win somewhere between 9 and 10 games. That is simple enough.

In the case of fractional totals, you may rightly ask, "well, Alabama's total sits at 9.5. Which does Vegas think is more likely though, nine wins or ten wins?" That is an excellent question which leads us to the concept of "a money line."

The below is probably the best explanation of a money line, a concept better illustrated than explained:

Money lines can often appear to be quite imposing, but once the essentials behind money lines are understood, they are just as easy, if not easier, to use as the point spread. While the point spread is concerned with who wins and by how much, the money line is solely interested in who wins.

The money line is used for a number of things where a point spread becomes irrelevant, such as boxing, tennis, and auto racing, as well as baseball, hockey, and soccer [and, in this case, a season win total.]

The difference between money line odds on the favorite and the underdog will normally increase as the likelihood of the favorite winning increases. The difference between the two will continue to climb as the disparity between the favorite and the underdog increases.

In a boxing match it would not be unusual to see odds such as:

Joe Louis -700
Ray Leonard +550

In this instance, those betting on Joe Louis are being asked to risk $700 to win $100, while Ray Leonard backers are risking $100 to win $550. In money line betting, the bookie realizes that more people are going to wager on the favorite, and can only hope to have enough wagered on the underdog to cover their potential losses on the favorite.

Finally, there is the concept of "even money," one which you are familiar with from everyday conversations. In this context, it means that for any given bet, such as Mississippi State winning fewer than seven games, that either of the binary outcomes are equally likely. Let's say you think State is going to go 6-6. You refer to the season totals to find that proposition, but you see that under seven wins as you predict is neither favored nor an underdog, rather it is listed as "even."  You place a $100 wager on MSU to win fewer than seven games. If the Bulldogs do finish 6-6 as you thought, you break even: bet a hundred to make a hundred (we're ignoring the "juice" or "vigorish" concept for a later edition.) Therefore "even money" is exactly the sort of bet everyone makes at the office or home every day and one you've been making since you were six years old. ("I'll bet you "$20 you won't have the laundry folded before I get home." "I'll bet you $50 the boss' incompetent son gets that promotion.")

Summed up: The positive and negative numbers set inside the parentheses below express which outcome is the "favorite" and which is "the underdog" with respect to season win totals. So, for Alabama, the Tide winning more than 10 games was the favorite outcome; with a bettor needing to stake $150 to win back $100. Meanwhile, the "underdog" here was Alabama failing to reach 10 wins on the season. Had you placed a $100 bet on Alabama winning fewer than 10 games, and the Tide hypothetically finished at 9-3, you would be $120 richer.

Make sense? Good. If you'd like more illustrations and a decidedly SEC East interpretation of some of this season's predicted win totals, Rocky Top Talk has a good Vol-centric article on their site.

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How Good Was Vegas In 2014?

With that in hand, let's go ahead and take a look at Bovada's season totals as released on August 27th, 2014, the last day the totals were updated.

The first number is the projected win total. The second and third numbers (set in parentheses) are the money lines for over or under the total. The positive or negative number for each side -over or under projected wins, will tell you which outcome was favored. The magnitude of the money line will tell you how much of a favorite or an underdog each proposition was.

Alabama

10.5 (-150/+120)

South Carolina

9.5 (-125/-105)

Georgia

9.5 (-125/-105)

Auburn

9 (-135/+105)

LSU

9 (-125/-105)

Ole Miss

8 (-115/-115)

Missouri

7.5 (-135/+105)

Florida

7.5 (-140/+110)

Mississippi State

7.5 (-130/EVEN)

Texas A&M

7 (-135/+105)

Vanderbilt

6 (+155/-190)

Tennessee

5.5 (-135/+105)

Arkansas

4.5 (-130/EVEN)

Kentucky

3.5 (-180/+150)

Alabama 10.5/over (11-1, 1st West, SEC Champions)

The thing that jumps out at you about Alabama is not that Vegas pegged the Tide at 10.5 wins, it's how heavily favored the Tide was (-150) to exceed that mark. Ultimately, the bookmakers were correct, as Alabama went 11-1 in the regular season despite four games being decided by one score in which the Tide went 3-1. Oh, and three of those games were on the road. Over.

South Carolina 9.5/over (7-5, 5th East)

Vegas also jumped aboard the preseason Gamecock express. A look at the money line tells a clear picture here. The book had it close to even money that South Carolina would win nine games or fewer (-105.) The abiding favorite, however, was that the Gamecocks had as good a shot to reach Atlanta as did their nemesis Georgia (-125.) Had you bet the under here, it would have been a safe but boring bet -- the wheels fell off in the season opener versus the Aggies and the defense imploded weekly in this disappointing year. Under.

Georgia -9.5/over (9-3, 2nd East)

Just like you can pencil Alabama in for 10 wins a season, so too can you pencil in the Dawgs for about 9-10 a year. Apparently the actuarials agreed, as UGA had the exact odds as division-mate South Carolina. Almost even money said UGA would fail to meet expectations, but the favored bet was UGA would make the short drive to Atlanta from Athens. The Dawgs went 9-3 in the regular season, 6-2 in the SEC with unforgivable losses to South Carolina and an awful Florida team. Under.

Auburn -9/over (8-4, 4th West)

Another trendy preseason pick, the Tigers were expected to be an elite team. The money line heavily favored the Tigers reaching ten wins, while it was almost even odds that Auburn would fall below a nine-win campaign. The Gus Bus came through with solid mediocrity en route to an 8-4 campaign highlighted by a despicable home loss to the woebegone Aggies -- a game decided by a buttsnap, no less. (This may be the best sentence I've ever typed for RBR, by the way. I'm still laughing.) Under.

LSU -9/over (8-4, 5th West)

Can't spell Les Miles without two ells, and Vegas threw in the third for good measure. Having an unreliable receiving corps and an unsettled quarterback will do that. Still, the books were more sanguine on LSU winning 9+ (-125) than they were winning 8 or fewer (-105.) That these totals were so close in magnitude tells you the oddsmakers pegged LSU as just about a 9-win team, which is their historic average the past decade or so. Under.

Ole Miss -8/even (9-3, 3rd West)

The Rebels were an interesting case. While we've seen cases of "even money" for a team to finish above or below certain totals, but here, the oddsmakers basically threw their hands up with the Rebels setting the money line for either probability at -115. The Rebels didn't let anyone down either; from playing world beaters versus Alabama and Mississippi State to looking like a JV team versus TCU and Arkansas, Ole Miss was all over the place. Over.

Missouri -7.5/over (10-2, 1st East, SEC Runner-Up)

While average football fans may overlook Gary Pinkel, the line did not. Mizzou was pretty heavily favored to win more than 7.5 games (-135.) This was a safe stake for most folks, even if we didn't anticipate the Black and Gold Tigers to be back in Atlanta. This may have been the safest bet on the board in a down SEC East. Over.

Florida -7.5/over (6-5, 3rd SEC East)

This wound up being "no bet" owing to the postponement of the Idaho game, which was eventually cancelled. However, it was mathematically impossible for the Gators to exceed the favored 7.5 regular season wins (-140/+110) so we'll call this one under.

Mississippi State -7.5/over (10-2, 2nd West)

With 7,291 returning starters and upperclassmen (citation needed,) the Bulldogs were expected to have a big season, and they did not disappoint. The under was only even money, while the money line heavily favored a good year in Starkville (-130.) Mississippi State was the No. 1 team in the country for a while, and it was not an illusory ranking either. Despite losing two of three to Alabama and Ole Miss (both road games,) the Bulldogs won ten regular season games and at times looked like the scariest team in the country. Over.

Miss State

TAMU 7/over (7-5, 6th SEC West)

We didn't address above what happens in the case of a tie, such as the Aggies hitting exactly seven regular season wins. This is known as a "push." The money line still favored 7+ wins (-130,) although under seven wins was also a nominally winning bet. Despite some early season buzz from destroying South Carolina, it just was not Texas A&M's year. We all knew that the Aggies were in trouble sans Johnny Manziel and a talented but nearly all-Freshman defense. We just didn't know the magnitude of the problem in College Station, as A&M went 3-5 in-conference. Under.

Vanderbilt 6/over (3-9, 7th East)

This was as extreme a money line as last season offered: You either won big on the under (+155) or lost almost two-to-one if you took the over (-190.) Derek Mason had a miserable season in Nashville, going 0-fer the conference and finishing 3-9 on the year. Under.

Tennessee -5.5/over (6-6, 4th East)

The Vols' odds (-135/+105) mirrored those of Texas A&M, meaning the book expected Tennessee to get bowl eligible, while it was almost even money that UT would not hit that mark. The reason, one has to assume, is the schedule: last season's slate featured two solid mid-major non-cons (Arkansas State and Utah State) and a road trip to Norman, all on top of the standard SEC schedule which featured Alabama. Still, the Vols hit six regular season wins in a good coaching job by Butch Jones, taking this one over.

Arkansas -4.5/over (6-6, 7th West)

Vegas, like most of us, saw the potential for Arkansas to improve, even if would not mean very many more wins in the ledger (-130.) Still, with a questionable secondary, lack of a true passing option or an outside threat, coupled with a slow rebuild in the mold of a power run team, it was just about an even proposition that the Hogs could tank, too. Under was looking like a safe bet until Arkansas caught fire in the second half of the season, propelling the Hogs to serious momentum in 2015. Over.

Kentucky -3.5/over (5-7, 6th East)

Like Vanderbilt, the money was all over the place on the Wildcats. The book had UK a prohibitive favorite to win four or more games (-180) with a massive +155 underdog bet on the under. Still, had the Wildcats not pulled the upset over South Carolina, and had Vandy not been quite so pitiful, you'd have made a nice penny off the generous money line. Still, no matter how bad Kentucky is, it's not historically "Vandy-bad." Over.

To sum up, the money lines were adjusted in favor of teams underperforming (6-8 under,) while the magnitude of favored "over" totals greatly enriched Vegas. The safest bets were that up and coming teams (Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi teams) would get there, and that the bottom (no matter how bad,) wouldn't be that bad. Last season tended to favor ascendent teams rather than established ones with name cache and previous success (South Carolina, Georgia, LSU.) Sure, there were outliers (such as Alabama hitting over 10.5) but if there were trends at all, those were the ones at play. This year, however, as Vegas predicts a downward trajectory for the SEC, (e.g., Alabama and UGA totals set at 9.5 and 9, respectively) over totals are a bit more generous (lookin' at you, Texas A&M, South Carolina) and represent good value for the rebuilding middle of the conference.