With Wisconsin firing Paul Chryst over the weekend, canning college football coaches during the season seems like it’s becoming a trend. Five Power 5 college football programs (Arizona State, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and Wisconsin) have fired coaches this fall, and it’s not even mid-October yet.
Wisconsin hasn’t been an underdog vs anyone other than Ohio State since 2018. Tough business.
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) October 4, 2022
Last season, seven programs – Georgia Southern, LSU, TCU, Texas Tech, UConn, USC, and Washington State – all made coaching changes before Nov. 1. From 2016-20, only six Power 5 coaches were fired before Nov. 1, according to research from Sporting News. Only 12 coaches across the FBS were fired before Nov. 1 during those five seasons.
Several factors may be increasing early season firings. Football rules college athletics, and a good program can benefit the entire athletic department. Division I athletic programs desperately want success on the gridiron. Outside pressure from numerous factors, including big-time donors, can lead to expedited dismissals.
“We’re also in an era where like, I don’t know, 40 schools are not entirely sure what conference they’re going to be in, in three years,” said Matt Brown, who covers college sports as publisher of Extra Points. “This would be the absolute worst time for your team to suck.
“I mean the fact that Boise State has picked now to fall apart for the first time in 15 years is a catastrophe,” Brown said. “There’s more pressure now if you’re in the Big 12 or the Pac-12 or the Mountain West, I think, than there was five years ago.”
Immediately following an early season firing, plenty of narratives emerge. Why wasn’t the coach fired last season? Who are likely replacements? And notably for this article, will the team rally around the interim head coach?
Everybody loves the thought of a team down on its luck coming together and succeeding under new leadership. But is there any value, from a sports betting perspective, in the games immediately after a team fires its struggling coach?
Not in the immediate future
The seven teams that fired coaches before Nov. 1 last season went 23-22-1 against the spread and 13-33 overall after they had interim coaches leading the way. Those programs were 4-3 ATS and 2-5 overall in the first game after their head coaches were let go.
Of the five college programs to fire their coaches this season, only three have played games since. Arizona State, Georgia Tech, and Nebraska are 3-1 against the spread and 2-2 overall. Georgia Tech won outright Saturday, after multiple sportsbooks including BetMGM, Caesars Sportsbook, and FanDuel listed the Yellow Jackets as three-touchdown underdogs at Pittsburgh.
“I’m just so happy for these kids,” interim head coach Brent Key said after the victory. “They’ve been through a lot these last three years. I’m happy for the kids, happy for the coaches, happy for our alumni base that can cheer these guys on.”
Final: Georgia Tech 26, No. 24 Pitt 21. In interim coach Brent Key’s debut, as 22-point underdogs, Jackets walk off field winners over FBS opponent for first time since October 2021.
— Ken Sugiura (@ksugiuraajc) October 2, 2022
Georgia Tech’s win makes teams that have fired coaches before Nov. 1 over the last two seasons 26-23-1 ATS.
Did Georgia Tech rally behind Key, turning Geoff Collins’ firing into motivation? Maybe! But recent history suggests there isn’t a dramatic advantage betting on such teams. Any idea that teams immediately rally under the interim head coach appears more narrative-driven than based in reality.
Value next season?
Interestingly, the seven programs that fired coaches before Nov. 1 last season look fantastic this season. The teams are 24-11 against the spread and 25-10 overall.
Six of those teams have winning ATS records. Texas Tech (2-3) is the only team with a losing record against the spread, and TCU (4-0), UConn (4-2), Georgia Southern (4-1), and Washington State (4-1) have at least four ATS victories.
Three of the seven teams — USC (No. 6), TCU (No. 17), LSU (No. 25) — are ranked in the latest AP Top 25 poll, and Washington State is receiving votes. According to updated season-long projected win totals from TeamRankings, the seven teams are all likely to surpass their preseason win totals. The projections exceed the preseason mark by an average of 1.4 games.
Well, OK. These recent results mean Auburn should fire Bryan Harsin immediately, guaranteeing a strong start to 2023, right?
The sample size is too small to jump to conclusions, and plenty of other factors should be considered when looking at why those seven teams are thriving against the spread.
Transfer portal impact
Could the transfer portal be the reason those seven teams are covering the spread at impressive rates? Large-scale uncertainty across college football makes it challenging for sportsbooks to set lines early in the season.
“I think there’s a ton of truth to that, especially in the first three weeks,” Brown said.
UConn, for example, added Jim Mora as its head coach. He’s a possible difference maker. The Huskies also have 28 players on their roster who started their college careers elsewhere, and they’ve played a pair of massive underachieving teams so far this season in Utah State and Fresno State.
“The reason UConn is probably punching above the spread is because they’ve turned over a fifth of their roster,” Brown said. “They brought in a bunch of transfers of people who can allegedly play college football, and they’re playing against a couple teams that are terrible.”
There’s no denying that transfers have aided several of our seven spotlighted programs this fall.
TCU’s two leading tacklers — Johnny Hodges (Navy) and Mark Perry (Colorado) — are transfers.
Washington State’s leading passer, rusher, and tackler are all transfers. Transfer linebacker Daiyan Henley has been one of the best defenders in college football, recording 44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and one interception through five games.
Cal only crossed the Washington State 45 twice today, both of their scoring drives. Superb effort by the Cougar defense.
— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) October 2, 2022
Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton added former Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease via the portal, and Vantrease has helped the team transition away from a triple-option offense to a spread attack. He leads the Sun Belt with 314.8 passing yards per game.
Those three teams are 12-2 against the spread.
No. 6 USC added three of the 24/7 Sports’ top 10 transfers this offseason, including Caleb Williams at quarterback. Adding a Heisman contender in the portal certainly helped USC get to 5-0, and Williams likely doesn’t transfer to USC without new head coach Lincoln Riley. Riley coached Williams at Oklahoma before they both made the move to Southern California this offseason.
There’s an obvious relationship between turning over a roster through the transfer portal and bringing in a new coaching staff. When analyzing how a team might perform against the spread, especially after a coaching change, roster turnover is a major factor worth considering.
It’s not entirely evident that firing a coach early gives a program that much of an edge in shaking things up, though. Clay Helton was hired by Georgia Southern before the 2021 season ended because USC fired him early last season, which gave him some additional time to prepare for the 2022 season. Most coaches and programs don’t have that opportunity.
“There may be an advantage to hitting the market early, but if you are Nebraska and your top guy is Lance Leipold or Matt Campbell, you can’t get those guys to start Nov. 1,” Brown said. “They are gonna be working until their bowl game or until their regular season is done.”
Easier than ever to exceed expectations?
Last year’s seven early firings show it’s possible to make drastic, beneficial changes in an offseason.
That doesn’t mean bettors should blindly throw money at Arizona State, Colorado, Georgia Tech, Nebraska, and Wisconsin 2023 win totals this offseason, but it’s worth acknowledging that teams can significantly change their outlook in one offseason. Betting odds might not accurately reflect those changes, especially in the opening weeks of a new season.
Roster and coaching uncertainty from season to season poses a challenge for oddsmakers trying to keep up. That may very well create an opportunity for savvy bettors. It certainly has this season.
Photo: Mark Hoffman/USA TODAY