The Safest Bet in Sports

I’ve promised that I would never place a 100% win probability on any game on this site, and that will always be true here. My goal is to determine the likelihood of outcomes and identify the safest picks. But what makes a pick safe? When it comes to sports, especially at a non-professional level as is the primary focus here, there really doesn’t appear to be a truly safe pick. But when a specific match-up features the same result, year after year, it becomes difficult to believe that a different outcome will occur in the next event.

This week, Michigan State plays at Michigan. This will be the 11th meeting in which Mark Dantonio is the Spartans head coach. In the previous 10 meetings between these two teams, against the spread, he is 10-0. His team covers when they’re favored and when they’re underdogs. Home or away; doesn’t matter. Here’s what I’m talking about:



Sources for graphics above:

I include the 2nd graphic to show that the line opened at Michigan -4.5, which MSU did cover. The first graphic shows that the line closed at Michigan -3.5, which MSU did not cover. At that point we’re really splitting hairs though; this streak is truly incredible.

The opening line for this game on October 7th is -12.5 in favor of Michigan. I’m not saying this is a guaranteed cover for MSU, but I mean…10 in a row? Something is going on here that the Vegas oddsmakers have failed to recognize for a decade. Will this year be any different? I wouldn’t bet on it.


Bracket Guidelines

I thought about writing a full preview of the bracket, complete with match-up breakdowns and identifying the most likely contenders. Upon researching however, I found that everything I planned to include is already out there for consumption; I would not be adding any value by piling on with yet another opinion. Instead, the goal of this preview is to provide a guide on how to set up your bracket to put it in position to win an office pool. Will this guarantee that your bracket will win? Absolutely not. The idea is to get out of your own way and focus on the important aspect of the bracket: identify teams which are most likely to advance. I have a few rules I like to keep in mind when filling out a bracket, and I only go against them when I have a really good reason for it.

  • First, set up your bracket with the 1 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16 and the 2,3, and 4 seeds advancing to round 2. Historically, these seeds have had at least an 80% success rate in these games, and there is a considerable drop-off from the 4 seed to 5 seed in round 1. If you have a good reason to go against a couple of these, go for it. Otherwise leave these as they are and move on.
  • Protect the king. Think of each round of the bracket like a group of chess pieces. The king is the most important; you must protect it at all costs. This is your eventual champion, and it is important to not voluntarily drop a potential champion in the first weekend. Historically, there is a 91% chance that the eventual champion is a 1,2,3 or 4 seed, which is why the first rule is to keep all of them at least one round. Similarly, think of all the latest rounds as the more valuable chess pieces and the 1-win teams as pawns. Upsets are fun to pick, but if you only have that team getting to the round of 32 at the expense of a team that could make a deep run it isn’t worth it.
  • A coach shouldn’t be picked to go more than 2 rounds further than their current best round. For example, if a coach has never taken a team to a Final Four, his current team should not be picked as a national champion. Similarly, if this is a coach’s first tournament appearance, his team should not be picked beyond the 2nd round (ignore play-in games). This is not a cover-all-scenarios rule; there certainly have been exceptions. But in general, it’s a good idea to keep a coach’s track record in tournaments in mind.
  • Be aware of recent injuries to key players. If a team has gone through most/all of the regular season with injuries, then this can be ignored as we have a good sense of what that team is already. A player who has been sidelined since early February or later should be factored in.
  • Superstar players can take over a game. Look at the list of Naismith semifinalists and all-conference 1st team players from the power conferences. Teams with multiple players on these lists are more likely to advance than teams with no players on these lists.
  • Veteran players with tournament experience. Teams with a lot of players who have played in tournament games will tend to perform more consistently to or even above their expectations. The first-timers are more likely to falter under the brighter lights.
  • High win percentage away from home. Teams that struggled on the road or at neutral sites during the season won’t all of a sudden figure it out at tournament time.
  • Capability to blow out teams. If a team struggled to put away bad teams during the season, they are ripe for an upset in the tournament. Look for upsets of teams who weren’t able to crush anybody during the regular season.
  • Strong record in close games. The tournament is full of them, so pick teams who tend to fare well in a tight match-up.

Metrics are important, but I’d tend to shy away from them unless they have a proven success rate over time. If you have something that you think is time-proof, test it out on the Algebracket over multiple years.

I’ll post my own bracket as soon as it is complete. Good luck out there!



College Football Divisional Overhaul

College football expansion/realignment has been discussed nearly every off-season for the past decade. The latest wave involves the Big XII (which currently consists of 10 schools) and their future plans for expansion. Schools that are not currently members of another Power 5 conference are mentioned as candidates to join the Big XII. This list includes Houston, BYU, Boise State, Memphis, Colorado State, Central Florida, South Florida, Cincinnati, and Connecticut. The pros and cons have been weighed for both sides; the conference can expand their media market footprint and thus bring a stronger hand to the negotiation table when it comes time for new TV contracts (the current Big XII contract runs through 2025, but expansion could trigger negotiation of a more lucrative deal), and the schools that are invited to move up could increase their TV revenue ten-fold. The downside might be a watered down share of the contract for current members as well as a less appealing overall strength of schedule.

The implications of expansion have been discussed at length many times over, so I want to approach it from a different angle. The Power 5 conferences (and Notre Dame) consist of 65 teams which compete for a spot in the 4 team College Football Playoff. Technically, the rest of FBS is eligible for a berth in this playoff, but it is an unwritten understanding that this will never happen without very extenuating circumstances. The entire FBS would be better off if the Power 5 teams broke away to form their own division, and the rest of FBS merged with the FCS. Here’s what that would look like.

The New Division: 4 Conferences of 16 Teams

Step 1 of creating a new division of college football is to determine who is included. Currently there are 65 candidates; a team that isn’t in the Power 5 by now has missed their chance (the divisions are fluid long-term; transitions in future years are inevitable, but this article is only looking at a theoretical starting point). Only 64 will be included, so who gets left out? I’ll get to that in a minute. First up, the 4 conferences: ACC, Big Ten, PAC12, and SEC. The Big XII and Notre Dame will be split amongst the 4 remaining conferences as follows:

Teams to ACC: West Virginia and Notre Dame; 16 total

Teams to Big Ten: Texas and Oklahoma; 16 total

Teams to PAC12: Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State; 16 total

Teams to SEC: Baylor, TCU; 16 total

Remaining: Iowa State

This doesn’t necessarily mean Iowa State is left out of the new division, however they are on the very short list of candidates. Other candidates to consider: Texas Tech and Rutgers. Why these teams? It comes down to fitting in with their peers. First, they are each geographic outliers, which has led to complications forming a rivalry. Sure, Iowa State has a natural rivalry with Iowa (which will ultimately be their saving grace), but what about Texas Tech and Rutgers? Do either of these schools have a reciprocated rivalry within the new division? Texas Tech is at best a secondary rival to Oklahoma State, and at best tertiary to any other Texas team. Rutgers doesn’t have a rivalry with anyone; they are a misfit in the Big Ten already so their absence would go unnoticed. To avoid getting into a diatribe on any of these teams, I’m going to affirm the move of Texas Tech to the PAC12, move Iowa State to the Big Ten, and push Rutgers down to the lower division. This allows each of these 3 to remain amongst their natural peers.

The New Division splits up very nicely, preserving traditional rivalries and prioritizing geographic proximity:


North East East East
Boston College Illinois Arizona Alabama
Louisville Indiana Arizona State Auburn
Notre Dame Maryland Colorado Florida
Pitt Michigan Kansas Georgia
Syracuse Michigan State Kansas State Kentucky
Virginia Ohio State Oklahoma State South Carolina
Virginia Tech Penn State Texas Tech Tennessee
West Virginia Purdue Utah Vanderbilt
South West West West
Clemson Iowa California Arkansas
Duke Iowa State Oregon Baylor
Florida State Minnesota Oregon State LSU
Georgia Tech Nebraska Stanford Missouri
Miami FL Northwestern UCLA Mississippi State
North Carolina Oklahoma USC Ole Miss
North Carolina State Texas Washington TCU
Wake Forest Wisconsin Washington State Texas A&M



Each conference will be two 8 team divisions. Their schedules will include 7 games against the rest of their division and 3  cross-divisional games within their conference. Two non-conference games will allow for at most 1 game against a team from the lower division (in order to preserve long-running rivalries like Colorado/Colorado State, Utah/BYU, and Notre Dame/Navy). The 10 conference games will feature at most 5 home games, but will allow for neutral sites where both teams agree (e.g. Texas/Oklahoma, Florida/Georgia). Neutral site games do not count against the 5 home game cap.

The season will feature 12 games for each of the 64 teams. The 12 game schedule will allow for at most 6 home games (i.e. 1 non-conference home game per year); the remaining 6 can be set up as road or neutral sites, so long as the 6 home game cap is not violated. This ensures a competitive balance among the 64, and removes the ridiculous claim that a team needs 7 home games to “balance their budget.” Plus, bonus home games can be earned in the post-season (details below).

The season would be played over a 13 week span from the last Saturday in August to the Saturday before Thanksgiving (in 2016 this would be August 27 through November 19) with one bye week; all games are on Saturdays. One exhibition game is allowed two weeks prior to the start of the regular season. This can be played against a team from any division level and does not count towards the regular season record and is not used in any tiebreakers or rankings.

Post-season games

Each division winner will play in their conference’s championship game Thanksgiving weekend on the campus of the team with the better conference record (tiebreakers applied as necessary). The four conference champions will play in a 4 team playoff, with semis again at home sites two weeks after the conference championship games. The national championship would be played New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl.

The Expanded FCS Division

The teams outside the 64 in the new division would join the current FCS division and abide by their rules. Less money coming in the door from TV revenue is a likely consequence, but reduced scholarship obligations and long-distance travel costs would lessen the financial burden currently facing most non-Power 5 programs. Additionally, this would finally enable the Boise States of the world to compete for a national championship.

Final Thoughts

I would love to see college football take this route because it provides everyone with a more level playing field amongst their peers, cuts down on low-quality matchups, and moves post-season games to home sites. Additionally, it creates more interest in the FCS level, as fans of teams in the new division could adopt their local FCS team in a similar fashion to minor league baseball. The financial burden on the new FCS teams would be substantially reduced, lowering the pressure on those teams to meet unrealistic expectations against teams with exponentially more resources.

Unfortunately this will likely never happen, as smaller schools would rather hold out hope of eventually being called up to a major conference and receiving their windfall of TV revenue. The Big XII needs to be very careful with their selection of new teams, but most importantly they need to be accommodating to their most high-profile teams so the conference has a future. If Texas and/or Oklahoma leave, the Big XII is done as a major conference. The best-case scenario for the Big XII is that the College Football Playoff expands beyond 4 teams so their conference may be granted an auto-bid. Four playoff teams for five major conferences is not sustainable, but whose hand will be forced first?

Where should they play?

*Disclaimer: This exercise is entirely hypothetical. I’m not suggesting a mass-relocation of teams should be done or is even remotely feasible. This was merely to appease my own curiosity.

When news broke that the St Louis Rams were moving back to Los Angeles and the San Diego Chargers may soon follow suit, it raised questions of why are they moving, and specifically why are they moving to Los Angeles. The short answer is that LA has a much larger population and thus would be better suited to support an NFL team than virtually any US city, let alone St Louis or San Diego. Going from zero teams to two may seem like a bit of an over-correction, but LA is so much larger than every US city save New York (who hosts multiple teams in all four leagues) that it makes sense that they may host two teams from the NFL (more precisely, they should only be adding one team to their metro-area. More on that later).

I was curious whether or not all of the 122 major pro sports teams (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) in the US and Canada are properly distributed, so I did some analysis based on metro-area populations (according to Nielsen as of early 2015) and discovered that the teams are distributed quite well according to population, but there are a few exceptions. First, let’s run through the numbers:

  • 48 different metro-areas have at least 1 team (41 US, 7 Canada)
  • 31 different metro-areas have at least 2 teams (30 US, 1 Canada)
  • The largest metro-area without any teams is Hartford & New Haven, CT (the Whalers never should have left!), which sees 16 smaller metro-areas with teams, five of which (Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Buffalo) have two teams.
  • The smallest multi-team metro-area is Buffalo at just under 1.6 million people. The smallest US metro-area with a team is Green Bay-Appleton (1.1 million) and the smallest in Canada is Winnipeg (just over 1 million).
  • 33 teams would need to be re-located to efficiently distribute them across the metro-areas.
  • The Bay Area (SF/Oakland/SJ) loses the most teams (from 6 down to 3).
  • The smallest metro-area to become a multi-team market is Sacramento.
  • 75 metro-areas would have at least one team.

The full chart shows more detail, including population and which teams move where. Here is a quick-glance summary of changes:

Rank US Rank Can. Rank Metro-area State/Prov Total Should have
1 1 New York NY 9 9
2 2 Los Angeles CA 7 7
3 3 Chicago IL 5 4
4 1 Toronto-Hamilton ON 3 4
5 4 Philadelphia PA 4 4
6 5 Dallas-Ft. Worth TX 4 3
7 6 San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose CA 6 3
8 7 Boston (Manchester) MA 4 3
9 8 Washington, DC (Hagrstwn) DC 4 3
10 9 Atlanta GA 3 3
11 10 Houston TX 3 3
12 2 Montreal QB 1 2
13 11 Phoenix (Prescott) AZ 4 2
14 12 Detroit MI 4 2
15 13 Tampa-St.Pete (Sarasota) FL 3 2
16 14 Seattle-Tacoma WA 2 2
17 15 Minneapolis-St. Paul MN 4 2
18 16 Miami-Ft. Lauderdale FL 4 2
19 17 Denver CO 4 2
20 18 Orlando-Daytona Bch-Melbrn FL 1 2
21 19 Cleveland-Akron (Canton) OH 3 2
22 3 Vancouver-Victoria BC 1 2
23 20 Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto CA 1 2
24 21 St. Louis MO 2 1
25 22 Pittsburgh PA 3 1
26 23 Portland OR 1 1
27 24 Charlotte NC 2 1
28 25 Raleigh-Durham (Fayetvlle) NC 1 1
29 26 Baltimore MD 2 1
30 27 Indianapolis IN 2 1
31 28 San Diego CA 2 1
32 29 Nashville TN 2 1
33 30 Hartford & New Haven CT 0 1
34 31 Kansas City MO 2 1
35 32 Columbus OH 1 1
36 33 San Antonio TX 1 1
37 34 Salt Lake City UT 1 1
38 35 Milwaukee WI 2 1
39 36 Cincinnati OH 2 1
40 37 Greenvll-Spar-Ashevll-And NC 0 1
41 38 West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce FL 0 1
42 39 Austin TX 0 1
43 4 Kitchener-London ON 0 1
44 40 Grand Rapids-Kalmzoo-B.Crk MI 0 1
45 41 Las Vegas NV 0 1
46 42 Norfolk-Portsmth-Newpt Nws VA 0 1
47 43 Birmingham (Ann and Tusc) AL 0 1
48 44 Oklahoma City OK 1 1
49 45 Harrisburg-Lncstr-Leb-York PA 0 1
50 46 Greensboro-H. Point-W.Salem NC 0 1
51 5 Edmonton AB 1 1
52 47 Alburquerque-Santa-Fe NM 0 1
53 6 Calgary AB 1 1
54 48 Jacksonville FL 1 1
55 49 Louisville KY 0 1
56 50 Memphis TN 1 1
57 51 New Orleans LA 2 1
58 52 Buffalo NY 2 1
59 53 Providence-New Bedford RI 0 1
60 7 Ottawa-Gatineau ON 1 1
61 54 Fresno-Visalia CA 0 1
62 55 Wilkes Barre-Scranton PA 0 1
63 56 Little Rock-Pine Bluff AR 0 1
64 57 Richmond-Petersburg VA 0 1
65 58 Albany-Schenectady-Troy NY 0 1
66 59 Mobile-Pensacola (Ft. Walt) AL/FL 0 1
67 60 Tulsa OK 0 1
68 61 Knoxville TN 0 1
69 62 Ft. Myers-Naples FL 0 1
70 63 Lexington KY 0 1
71 64 Dayton OH 0 1
72 65 Wichita-Hutchinson Plus KS 0 1
73 66 Charleston-Huntington WV 0 1
74 67 Roanoke-Lynchburg VA 0 1
75 68 Green Bay-Appleton WI 1 1
76 69 Flint-Saginaw-Bay City MI 0 0
77 8 Québec City QB 0 0
78 70 Tuscon Sierra Vista AZ 0 0
79 71 Des Moines-Ames IA 0 0
80 72 Spokane WA 0 0
81 73 Omaha NE 0 0
82 74 Springfield MO 0 0
83 75 Toledo OH 0 0
84 76 Honolulu HI 0 0
85 77 Columbia SC 0 0
86 78 Rochester NY 0 0
87 9 Winnipeg MB 1 0

To determine which teams change locations, I tried to apply at least one of the following criterion to each team:

  • Shortest possible distance of move
  • Move the metro-area’s least popular/newest team(s)
  • Add the likely most-popular sport to the recipient metro-area

Towards the bottom of the list I ran out of teams to match these criteria effectively, so had to just randomly assign to complete the moves.

It may seem like some of these metro-areas are too small to successfully host a team, but I’d argue that an area that only has one team will rally that much harder behind them, especially when the team is successful (see: Green Bay). It is easy for an unsuccessful team in a multi-team area to be forgotten, but when the team is the only show in town they’re not going to be ignored.

There were several surprising discoveries from this exercise:

  • The Bay Area has way too many teams. They’re close to being large enough to host four, but six is really excessive for their population.
  • Flint, MI is the largest metro-area that would not get a team.
  • Montreal is nearly large enough to host 3 teams; currently has just one.
  • Hartford really should have a team; they’re almost big enough to justify two teams.
  • Green Bay would be the smallest metro-area with a team. The Packers can stay!
  • The current distribution has about 201 million people in metro-areas with a team, with an average of 1.819 million people per team. The hypothetical distribution has about 245 million people in metro-areas with a team, with an average of 1.968 million people per team. The hypothetical gets not only more people living in a pro sports town, but also gets more people per team in these locations.

Please feel free to pose questions and suggest changes to which teams re-locate and where they should go.