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More on WHY Penn State was such a huge underdog


Can’t sleep in the Dairy State…


I wrote about Penn State’s historic underdog status as the preview for Saturday’s game. It became the major storyline afterwards when the 24 1/2-point Nittany Lions stunned Wisconsin, 31-24, Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Figured I’d go a little more in-depth as to the why Penn State was such a big underdog…


It had nothing to do with, as Bill O’Brien tried to insinuate, what the media thought. (Although I’m sure many publications’ beat writers and columnists do indeed publish predictions, I haven’t done it — not that there is necessarily anything wrong with doing so). Lines are set by professional oddsmakers who at first use a formula. After that, the betting public sets the line based on where they are putting their money.


Here is how’s Steve Merrill explained the PSU-Wisky line in an email to me:


“The early money has actually come in on Wisconsin this week, pushing the line from -23 to -24 and now -24.5 in some spots.  4 is a very key number, that recent move is significant.  I use several different sets of power ratings and most make Wisconsin about a -24 point favorite, so the line looks accurate.

Oddsmakers are also forced to set a high line because Wisconsin has been a pointspread covering machine this season.  They failed to cover the line for the first time all season last week, but are still 9-1-1 ATS (against the spread) this season.  More importantly, head coach Gary Anderson was an incredible 11-1-1 ATS last season as Utah State’s head coach with his only pointspread loss coming by 1 point as a 37-point favorite.  This year his only ATS loss was last week by just 2.5 points as a 13-point favorite.

Overall, Anderson is an amazing 20-2-2 ATS (against the spread) that pasttwo seasons as a head coach, so it appears he makes an effort to cover the pointspread.

I remember a similar situation back in the 1990’s with Bill Snyder at Kansas State as he always found a way to cover big numbers as well. Different theories on why this happens. Maybe he wants to help the alumni win their bets or maybe he feels winning by more than the pointspread is seen as a better victory (above average) by the computer systems that do the BCS rankings.  Either way, Gary Anderson’s current pointspread record the past two years (with 2 different schools) is amazing and it makes it risky to go against him as a favorite.”


Here is Merril explaining the “power ratings” as well as a more general peek at how lines are set:


Power ratings are a numerical ranking for each team, then you factor in approximately 3 points for home field advantage, so this would get you a pointspread for the game.  For example, if PSU is rated 10 and Wisconsin is 31 in a set of power ratings, then Wisconsin would be a 21-point favorite on a neutral field, 24 at home, or 18 on the road.

I use several different sets of data for my different power ratings such as statistics, scoring margins, strength of schedule, etc. to come with a numerical rating for each individual team.

Power ratings are the main way oddsmakers set the pointspread, and then they factor in home field, injuries, weather, matchups edges, etc. to fine tune the final pointspread number.“



More on Wisconsin’s propensity to “cover” from David Pemberton, the director of specialty games at the Rio Hotel:


“Wisconsin, I hate to say, but I think they like to run the scores up and they really try to pile it on whereas some other teams, once they get a big lead, they kind of stop and take it easy in the third and fourth quarter when the game is out of hand. But it’s like Wisconsin j’ust keeps going.  We had two games earlier this year when they were a (44 ½)-point favorite and they won by 45 and another 48. They just never really like turn it off and stick into ‘coast’ and say, ‘OK, we got the game in hand.’ They just keep on going.”



One last voice from Vegas, that of Jay Kornegay of the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook:


“For us, it’s just a number. We look at a game and say, ‘Hey, that’s what power ratings rate.’ And we have it at 24 1/2 right now on it. But the teams don’t matter, it’s all objective — it could be Arkansas State and Western Kentucky. I know it’s a big-time news out there.”



Finally, what O’Brien said about the betting line on Tuesday during his weekly press conference. At that point, as you’ll see below, he said he both didn’t know about the pointspread and wasn’t going to use it as motivation for his team.


He either was lying — or he had a dramatic change of heart in the ensuing 72 hours.


First, I asked him a general question about how he finds motivation for his team on a week-to-week or game-to-game basis (I — erroneously, as you’ll see below — figured he’d never get close to being caught answering a direct question about the betting line):


“Certainly from a week‑to‑week basis, there are always different things that may come up within your team or outside of your team maybe on the other team or things like that that you may use to talk to your team about.  But, again, it comes down to what the keys to the game are, and being focused on those and making sure everybody understands their role in the gameplan.”


Later on, another reporter asked O’Brien specifically about the pointspread. I wrote his answer in my Saturday story, but here it is again. It bares repeating because, after the game, O’Brien (and his players) were rather upfront about how much they talked about the Vegas line and how much they used it as fuel against the Badgers.


O’Brien on Tuesday:

No, I wasn’t aware of (the 24-point underdog status).  You know, I’m aware that we’re probably an underdog.  We’re 6‑5, and they’re 9‑2, but I didn’t know it was a 20‑point underdog.  No, that wouldn’t be‑‑ now, if somebody from Wisconsin came out and said we’re going to beat these guys by 24 points, then maybe we’d use that.  But certainly not Vegas.”




Enjoy your win, Penn State fans. Will surely make the looooooooong wait (exactly nine months this year) between games feel that much sweeter.




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Author: Chris Adamski

Chris Adamski joined Trib Total Media's Steelers coverage team in 2014 after spending two seasons on the Penn State football beat for the Trib. Before that, he had worked in Pittsburgh sports media for more than a decade, extensively covering the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Duquesne and the WPIAL.

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