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Vegas And The SEC: Just How Accurate Are Those Opening Lines?

Here at we’ve been known to travel out to Las Vegas on occasion in order to chat with various bookmakers about the lines that they set.  If you’ve read this site for any length of time, you know that we’re told just about every summer by just about every oddsmaker who’ll talk that:


1.  The line is set purely to bring in equal amounts of cash on both sides.

2.  The line is set with Las Vegas gamblers in mind.  The casino companies don’t care what deal you get from Vinny the Nose in Valdosta.  They make money off what people spend in their sportsbooks.

3.  For that reason, West Coast schools often get a little more love when it comes to setting the opening lines.  Ditto Big Ten schools with their enormous alumni bases.  Simple math and geography suggest casinos are more likely to be visited by Ohio State and UCLA alums on a fall Saturday than they are by Western Kentucky grads.

4.  Big names get a little bump, too, because they’re big names.  “Softcore” gamblers are more likely to throw money at some school they’ve heard of so big-time, traditional programs like Alabama, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma often see their lines fudged a point or two.


All that said, many fans still believe that the opening line set by Las Vegas Sports Consultants — and many Vegas’ books start with that company’s number — is truly a prediction of who will win a game and by what margin.  Whenever we write a piece trying to explain that that’s not what the books are doing and that they’re simply trying to make money based in large part off local gamblers’ perceptions of teams (re-read points 1-4 above), we always get a number of responses asking us something akin to this: “Then why are those numbers so often right?”

Honest answer?  They’re not so often right.

We’ve gone back and looked at the 31 SEC versus SEC games played so far this season.  In those games, the favored team actually covered 16 times (there was one “pick ‘em” game).  Only nine times out of 31 SEC contests did the opening line come within seven points of the final margin of victory.  That means just 29% of the lines have come within a touchdown of the actual margin.

But we remember when the guys in Vegas do come close.  Out of those 31 contests, just once has the final margin matched the opening line.  South Carolina opened as a 21-point favorite over Kentucky and won 38-17.  That’s it.  But you can bet a whole lot of people said, “Man, those guys really do know what they’re doing!” on that weekend.

Well, they do and they don’t.

They know how to set the line — based on public perception and who’ll be gambling in Nevada — in such a way as to bring in equal dollars on both teams and insure a bigger payday for themselves.  They don’t know who’ll win and by what margin… at least not according to their opening lines.  Then again, the folks in Vegas have never made that claim.  They’ve told us over the years what they’re up to and most gamblers know it as well.

But for those folks out there who still think the Las Vegas line is an accurate predictor of what will happen on a given Saturday, here’s a record of all the SEC action so far in 2012:


  Game   Opening Line   Final Score   Favorite Covered?   Line Within 7 Points?
  USC at VU   USC -8   USC 17-13   No   Yes
  Aub at MSU   MSU -2   MSU 28-10   Yes   No
  UF at A&M   A&M -2.5   UF 20-17   No   Yes
  UGA at MU   UGA -3.5   UGA 41-20   Yes   No
  Ala at Ark   Ala -13   Ala 52-0   Yes   No
  UF at UT   Pick ‘Em   UF 37-20   No Favorite   No
  UK at UF   UF -23.5   UF 38-0   Yes   No
  MU at USC   USC -9   USC 31-10   Yes   No
  LSU at Aub   LSU -18.5   LSU 12-10   No   No
  VU at UGA   UGA -16   UGA 48-3   Yes   No
  Ark at A&M   A&M -11.5   A&M 58-10   Yes   No
  UT at UGA   UGA -15.5   UGA 51-44   No   No
  USC at UK   USC -21   USC 38-17   Push   Yes
  UM at Ala   Ala -33   Ala 33-14   No   No
  Ark at Aub   Aub -10.5   Ark 24-7   No   No
  MSU at UK   MSU -14.5   MSU 27-14   No   Yes
  LSU at UF   LSU -2.5   UF 14-6   No   No
  A&M at UM   A&M -8.5   A&M 30-27   No   Yes
  UGA at USC   USC -2.5   USC 35-7   Yes   No
  VU at MU   MU -6.5   VU 19-15   No   No
  Aub at UM   UM -1   UM 41-20   Yes   No
  Ala at MU   Ala -17.5   Ala 42-10   Yes   No
  UF at VU   UF -8.5   UF 31-17   Yes   Yes
  UK at Ark   Ark -16   Ark 49-17   Yes   No
  USC at LSU   LSU -4   LSU 23-21   No   Yes
  UT at MSU   MSU -1.5   MSU 41-31   Yes   No
  LSU at A&M   LSU -3   LSU 24-19   Yes   Yes
  Aub at VU   VU -9   VU 17-13   No   Yes
  USC at UF   UF -3.5   UF 44-11   Yes   No
  Ala at UT   Ala -18.5   Ala 44-13   Yes   No
  UGA at UK   UGA -27   UGA 29-24   No   No



If the line is set at a point spread that will generate a balanced book (rule 1 above), isn't that, by definition, a consensus of where the money thinks the result will be?  Granted the alumni base may put so much money on the homer school that it will skew the lines by the 1-4 points to get betting equilibrium, but for the remaining schools wouldn't it be close?


On the lines that move a lot between the open and the final line, is that a meaningful signal for whether a line gets covered?


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