As I mentioned last week, just about every sports bettor on the planet understands, and bets on, pointspreads. In that column, I covered moneylines and the value they occasionally presented. This week I want to discuss game totals, although I realize many more bettors already utilize them than do moneylines.
Arguably, there is no simpler bet than the game total. Simply add the score of the two teams together (including Overtime) and if it is higher than the posted total, the Over wins. If it is lower than the posted number, the Under wins. It doesn’t get easier than that. However, unlike pointspreads, many new bettors have difficulty predicting outcomes for totals, either from lack of experience or just lack of knowledge.
Most bettors are fans and fans like points so the Over is always a popular choice for recreational bettors. This results in the totals typically moving up over the course of the week. However, professional bettors know this and bet enough Unders to keep bookmakers honest and the posted totals fair. A simple rule for betting totals though is to bet the Over early in the week and the Under late. This won’t always work but if you track this rule over any length of time, you should see it holds up as a general trend.
There are other reasons that the Over is popular. One is the Overtime rule in college football. There is no limit to the number of points that can be scored with the NCAA’s shoot-out overtime rules. Teams can play to a 7-7 tie through the first four quarters and then put up 45 in Overtime to make the Over a winner. If the game is close in college, your Over bet always has a chance. Another factor is that with the Over, you can know your bet will be a winner early in the game (but remember games must go 55 minutes for wagers to have action, as Wisconsin bettors will never forget after this year!). If you had the Over in the Saints-Redskins game in Week 6, you know what I mean. The posted total was 46 and the two teams had 50 before the break! You could now relax and enjoy the second half, knowing you were going to cash a winner as long as the game wasn’t interrupted by an act of God. Under bettors never have the same luxury of knowing there bet is already a winner at Halftime. However, none of the reasons that make the Total popular can help you pick winners. Keep this in mind.
Now lets look at some likely outcomes for totals. With spreads, we all know that 3 and 7 are key numbers (for more on this you can read issues 6 or 25) and to a lesser extent, so are 1, 4, 6 and 10 but with totals I am surprised how few bettors realize there are certain important totals to be aware of. I will readily admit that there are no key totals in the same vein as key spreads but it may surprise you to know that a total of 27 points has landed in 7 of the 104 NFL games played so far this year. Here is a breakdown of the most common totals so far for the 2002 NFL season. (Note that the average so far this season is 44.8 points per game but the median is only 41).
27 7 times
38 6 times
29, 39, 47, 51, 55 4 times each
30, 33, 35, 57, 70 3 times each
It is easy to see that many of these numbers are combinations of touchdowns and field goals. 27 can be the combination of 3 TDs and 2 FGs, 38 is 5 TDs and 1 FG, etc.
However, there are two numbers that stand out historically that are not on this chart. For the last 10 years, both 37 and 41 have landed over 4% of the time in the NFL, making them the most likely outcomes (so is 30 but it is not a commonly posted total as are 37 and 41). 37 is a likely score as it the combination of 4 Touchdowns and 3 Field Goals (obviously there are other combinations as well with 2-point converts and safeties possible). 20-17 is a very common score, but 27-10 or 24-13 will get the same total just as easily. 41 is a likely score because it is the combination of 5 Touchdowns and 2 Field Goals. 21-20 anybody? My point is that most bettors quickly recognize the value in laying 2.5 points instead of 3, but not many recognize how much better Under 41 is compared to 40.5. Spend sometime working through combinations of TDs and FGs and you will quickly see where other key totals (38, 40, 43, etc.) lie. This will help you spot value in shopping for totals.
Now, lets talk about handicapping totals. While I readily admit I don’t have any magic systems or formulas for totals, perhaps I can give some direction on where to start looking. One simple system many bettors use is a simple average of the points for/against for each team. For example, this past Monday Night game has the Colts at the Steelers. The Colts games were averaging 40.8 points. The Steelers games were averaging 44.4. In the most basic system, a projection would be 42.6 points. The system can be refined to break it down for home/away, indoor/outdoor, grass/turf trends etc. More advanced systems may take league averages into account. For example if team A scores 28 points per game and Team B gives up 26, the prediction looks to be 27 for Team A. But if league scoring average is only 24 points, this would be a match-up of an above average offense and a below average defense. Thus the prediction should be higher, right? One method is to start with the league average and add or subtract to it based on team stats. In this case, the league average is 24 and you could add 4 points for team A being 4 points above average on offence and add 2 points for team B being below average on defense for a predicted score of 30. Do the same thing for team B and you have a predicted game total. Play around with these ideas and hopefully you will find a system that works for you. Be sure to let me know if you come up with anything magic!
One caveat – always be sure to check the weather for any total you bet. Bookmakers take weather into account and so should you. Rain and snow aren’t as big of factors as many people make them out to be as defenders are just as likely to slip as offensive players and one or two big plays can drive a total way up. Wind on the other hand is underrated (in my opinion) and forces teams to run more. This can eat up the clock and help lower total scores.
In summary, the total is a very important part of a bettor’s arsenal and one that not enough people take advantage of. Spend some time looking through the totals of all the NFL games and you will surely find some betting opportunities. I know the professional bettors sure do.
Unfortunately I had Kent (Bodog’s top bookmaker) out late last night drinking Pisco Sours at a local Peruvian restaurant, Macchu Pichu, that is kind of famous here in San Jose, and he hasn’t checked in yet. His Line Move of the Week will have to wait until next week. Be sure to try one if you ever get the chance, they are tasty but very potent!
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Good luck with your wagers!
Rob Gillespie is President of Bodog Sportsbook & Casino
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