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Doc Sports CFB Handicapping

Option Teams Paying Off For Backers

by Robert Ferringo – 09/29/2008

The Option Offense in football is one of the most venerable and classic nuances of America’s New National Pastime. The Wishbone. The Wing T. The Single Wing. The very thought of The Option brings one back to Yesteryear, Better Days and Days of Yore. Those were simpler times – The Option reflects that – and a Golden Time when speakeasies, jazz, hard work and racism were at the fabric of American Society.

Flash forward several decades to the year 2008 and The Option is still all the rage. I’m not talking about any pansy-ass Spread Option or Read Option attacks where quarterbacks can actually throw the ball more than 10 yards. I’m talking about smash-mouth, hard-core, run-the-ball-down-your-throat-60-times-a-game Option offenses. This seemingly antiquated offensive philosophy may not be sweeping the nation but it’s sweeping the board, as some of the most profitable teams in the country are currently working the old-school attack.

Georgia Tech (3-1 straight-up, 3-0 against the spread), Navy (3-2 SU, 2-2 ATS), Air Force (3-1 SU, 3-0 ATS), and Vanderbilt (4-0 SU and 4-0 ATS) have combined to go 13-4 overall and a sensational 12-2 ATS so far in the 2008 season. Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech are currently – and stunningly – among the league leaders in the SEC and ACC, respectively, and are two of the biggest surprises in the early goings. And all of this has been done using an offense that’s been around since Calvin Coolidge’s time and that’s run every weekend at Pee-Wee Football games.

The success of The Option really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise since it encapsulates the basics of winning football: running the ball and being more physical than your opponent. Navy is currently No. 2 in the nation in rushing offense and is moving the ball at 6.1 yards per clip. Georgia Tech (No. 5) and Air Force (No. 6) are also in the Top 10 and Vanderbilt is No. 26. Only Tech hasn’t held the ball longer than its opponent and only Vanderbilt is converting less than 43 percent of its third downs.

Move the chains and smash your opponent in the mouth. Repeatedly. That sounds like the foundation of Winning Football. And to this point it has been.

But if all The Option entails is running the ball and throwing about a dozen times a game, why can it not be stopped?

Of the roughly 120 teams in Div. I football, slightly less than 10 percent run a true Option attack. The novelty of this style of offense is also a secret to its success. Because opponents may only see one option team a year they are often unprepared for the style of football that it begets. It can be frustrating for teams who are used to controlling the ball and the tempo of the game. Option teams feed into that and use that annoyance and frustration against their opponents. Besides that, The Option can be difficult to stop for some teams simply because of matchup problems. If you have a substandard rush defense, have a D that is built for speed, or have an undersized front seven then you are going to have a l-o-n-g day trying to slow down the trained tramplers that will be coming at your 40 to 60 times per game.

From the perspective of the oddsmakers and the bettors, teams that run the option in football are handled a bit like schools the run the Princeton Offense in college basketball: they are always undervalued by a general public that is underwhelmed watching these teams play. The Option is boring. It’s gimmicky. It can’t possibly hold up or keep up with the aerial assaults that represent football in the 21st Century. Right? Hardly. As a result of a natural bias of Squares to backing high-scoring, soft, pass-happy teams that put up a lot of stats and score a lot of touchdowns, oddsmakers always have to give Option teams more points than they deserve just to get someone to bet on them. The result is outstanding value and a profitable ATS approach.

Further, these teams that run The Option are much more stable and predictable than their pass-happy counterparts for a variety of reasons. First, fumbles are much less common for option teams than interceptions are for passing teams. Next, sacks are another momentum-altering play whose effects are minimized by running the option. Finally, the amount of possession changes is, statistically, smaller than the number of changes in a contest between “normal teams”. That means that games are “shorter” and that less scoring opportunities means fewer points. And when you’re getting a load of points the odds of that cushion holding up increases exponentially.

Navy is 50-21 ATS in its last 71 road games and has covered nine of 12 games overall. Air Force has covered 10 of 11 teams dating back to last year. Georgia Tech is in its first year of the option, but Paul Johnson was the architect of Navy’s success so I would expect similar production. Vanderbilt will likely come back down to earth against top-level SEC competition that can control the line of scrimmage. But overall I still think they can earn ATS for the rest of the year and, perhaps, in their bowl game.

So if this is all general knowledge, then why doesn’t everyone just bet on Option teams? Well, I’m not sure. That said, the oddsmakers will eventually sharpen up their numbers on these teams as expectations rise and fall. Also, these teams usually lack the depth of more “talented” teams, and as the season wears on playing such a harsh, physical style of football can wear down its users as much as its opponents. Finally, later in the year teams are likely more prepared and have done more study of these Option teams. Weaknesses can be found in the unique style that every Option team has.

What is old is new again. And while betting against The Option shouldn’t be an option for sports bettors, choosing to get behind this early season trend might be the best decision a gambler could make.

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