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Changing Perceptions and an Open Mind

   by Al McMordie - 10/25/2004

Sports handicappers examine games and betting lines from many different points of view, such as statistical, fundamental (comparing the teams' relative strengths and weaknesses), and situational analysis. Naturally, statistics are based on raw numbers that each team has accumulated up to the current point in the season. One important thing to understand, however, is that things change.

Take a look at Mississippi State. First year coach Sylvester Croom had the unenviable task of taking over a Bulldogs program that had fallen dramatically the last few seasons. The talent level was thin and this was evident when Mississippi State lost at home to Division 1-AA Maine, 9-7. There was no pointspread on that game, and it slipped by many on a national scale. However, things changed this past weekend in Starkville when the Bulldogs upset Florida 38-31 as a 23-point underdog. Suddenly, Croom appears to be the right man for Mississippi State job, and the perception is that his players are beginning to absorb his teachings. And just as suddenly, Florida coach Ron Zook and his entire staff were notified that they wouldn't be retained beyond this season. But I put forth the idea that we should not have been surprised. Notice that two weeks ago Mississippi State’s running game began to break out, with 225 yards rushing (5.3 yards per carry) against a good UAB club. Then last week, that strength exploded again on unsuspecting Florida as the Bulldogs rushed for 253 yards and, once again, 5.3 yards per carry.

I’m not suggesting that Mississippi State has the stuff to make a run in the SEC. Their defense is still awful and a winning season is unlikely. But my point is, this is not the same Mississippi State offense we saw in September. It has evolved, for various reasons, for the better. They have a ground attack, a mobile QB and, of course, oodles of confidence (which can’t be said of the shell-shocked Florida defense).

Changes take place like this for many reasons. Sometimes a team is missing key players because of injuries in September, then gets better. Other times, talented freshmen and sophomores come aboard and change the dynamic of a team. Oklahoma, for example, has been a pass-happy offense much of the time under Bob Stoops, but they’ve become a sensational balanced offense this season because of talented freshman running back Adrian Peterson. This might hurt quarterback Jason White’s chances of winning another Heisman, as he’s asked to throw a lot less, but it makes the Sooners better than last year’s team. And then, sometimes, a new coach or coordinator comes in yet it can take a while for players to grasp the new changes. A smart bettor is able to keep abreast of subtle shifts in teams' performances throughout the season.

Here's another example: Walt Harris' Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt struggled offensively earlier in the season with key losses at QB and WR. But notice under Tyler Pafko, the Panthers' offense has improved in October. They had 171 rushing yards in a 20-17 win over BC as an 8-point dog, and then had 318 passing yards in a 41-17 rout (and cover) over Rutgers as a 5-point favorite. So, it’s important to look at stats for the entire season, of course, but also look carefully at what teams have done lately.

This has happened in the NFL, too. The New York Giants were not expected to have a good season and looked lifeless in an opening day defeat by the Eagles. But since Week 1, they’ve gone 4-1 SU/ATS under first-year coach Tom Coughlin. It’s clear he’s getting through to his troops, though that wasn’t evident in Week 1 or this past Sunday. The Jaguars, too, have been better than expected, while the Chargers have been competitive thanks to a more wide-open offense. The San Diego defense is still poor, however, and if you like to play totals, notice the Chargers are 4-3 'over' the total. With a strong offense (4.4 yards per rush) and a pass defense that is allowing 264 yards per game, they may continue to be worth a look 'over' the total, especially against good passing teams. Again, an astute handicapper doesn’t remain locked into his opinions all season. Rather, he carefully looks for small adjustments each week that can help him better predict if the side or total offers value. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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