Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Nov 2005
by Russell Levine
LAS VEGAS -- Picture a perfect setting for college football and the scene probably involves fall foliage, marching bands, tailgate parties, and fans wearing school colors, singing fight songs, and strutting to the stadium en masse.
Or perhaps it involves expatriate alumni gathering at the sports bar to watch the game and revisit a slice of the campus life. Drop into a sports watering hole in New York on a Saturday afternoon and you're likely to find packs of fans dressed head to toe in school colors, cheering their teams. The devotion to the school is driven by a shared experience and an attachment to the traditions that run so deep in college football.
The idyllic setting one imagines probably does not, however, include winding lines of anxious gamblers busily filling out their betting slips, waiting for the chance to slap their money down before the first game kicks off at 9 a.m.
But if you watch college football here in Las Vegas, that's exactly the scene that materializes -- and it's driven by a devotion to a sometimes hidden aspect of the game that has made football, both college and the NFL, America's true national passion.
That aspect is gambling, whether it's a bet with the local bookie, an office pool, a parlay card found in a fraternity house, an offshore Internet account, or here, in the casino sports books. Only in Nevada can one legally gamble on professional and college team sports, and it's done in nearly every casino on the Las Vegas strip.
The NCAA treats gambling as a profane word, and the NFL pays lip service to discouraging the practice (the league has turned down Las Vegas advertisements during Super Bowl telecasts). But both organizations know their sports' popularity would not be nearly what it is without the willingness of millions of people to put a little something down on a game each weekend.
That is because football, by its nature, is the perfect gambling sport. Thanks to the point spread, which to a large degree transforms a game of skill into a game of chance, either team is an attractive proposition, even in the mismatches that dot the college schedule with such regularity.
Football is never far from the minds of many of the tourists who wander the Strip. On a fall Saturday, one finds packs of fans wearing jerseys, hats, and school t-shirts. Everywhere you turn, the day's biggest games are playing on big-screen televisions. Score updates flash across the giant, neon casino marquees. All in all, it's not that different from the atmosphere you'd find in a campus sports bar on a big-game Saturday.
But inside the sports book, the scene is somewhat different. Crowds envelop the big screens to follow the game, but the spread is never far from their minds. When Tennessee staged its second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, you could palpably sense the crowd regaining interest in what had been a ho-hum contest as Tennessee, a 8.5-point underdog, put itself in position to cover the spread before eventually losing 41â€“21.
The NCAA has in the past supported proposed legislation to ban legalized gambling on college sports. That legislation, supported by Senator McCain of Arizona, among others, has so far failed to gain traction in Congress, and although NCAA officials have been publicly disappointed, deep down they probably know that the continued existence of legalized sports gaming in Nevada is good for the sport.
Any form of gambling has the potential to threaten the integrity of the game if it invades the locker room or coaching box. NCAA history is dotted with embarrassing point-shaving scandals and other black eyes in basketball and football, most recently at Boston College and Northwestern.
But continued legalized gambling in Nevada has helped to expose far more gambling scandals than it has created. The casinos monitor betting on games so closely, in fact, that any unnatural move in the point spread -- heavy money on one side or the other causes the pointspread to shift in an effort to equalize the betting on both teams and ensure a win for the house -- can spark an investigation. Abnormal betting patterns helped to expose a basketball point-shaving scandal at Arizona State in the 1990s.
The NFL, too, takes measures to ensure the accuracy of its point spreads. Teams are fined if they fail to provide timely, accurate injury reports. One of the major purposes of such reports is to protect the integrity of the point spread and prevent teams from withholding injury information that enterprising gamblers could be tempted to pay for.
The other reason the NCAA should abandon its efforts to end legalized gambling on its games is that Nevada sports betting represents but a small fraction of the wagering that goes on in college sports. Eliminating it would do very little to slow the overall amount of betting, and would only force more gamblers to seek other options for placing their bets -- options that may not include the careful spread-monitoring done by the Nevada casinos.
Plenty of ink has been spent debating the pros and cons of legalized sports wagering, but the NCAA knows -- as the NFL certainly does -- that it should leave wagering alone because it helps drive interest in the sport.
One look around the Vegas Strip on fall Saturday tells you that. Those who come to cheer their teams do so for their own victory.
Hat-tip to reader Devin McCullen for this week's JLS Trophy winner, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Schiano earns the honor for a sequence in the Knights' loss to South Florida Saturday. The Bulls were leading 28-14 and faced a 4th-and-1 from the Rutgers 33-yard line. USF sent out the punting unit, but let the play clock expire, presumably to give themselves more room to punt without kicking the ball into the end zone.
That's when Schiano got tricky. Figuring that USF wanted those five yards, he decided to decline the penalty and force them to kick from the 33. Only USF responded by going for it -- and picking up the first down, leading to a lead-stretching field goal.
Any coach in Schiano's situation would prefer the opposition to punt rather than go for it on 4th-and-1. The penalty would have made it 4th-and-6, a sure punting situation, but Schiano gave USF another chance to rethink its own decision, and this time the Bulls made the correct call to go for it, and opportunity they were only given by the Rutgers coach.
1. Southern Cal (1): UCLA game doesn't look so scary anymore.
2. Texas (2): The fact that Texas doesn't have to scoreboard watch coming down the stretch can only help the 'Horns.
3. Penn State (9): Never let Wisconsin in the game.
4. Miami (Florida) (5): How much do those missed field goals vs. FSU hurt now?
5. Alabama (6): I know the offense has been awful without Prothro, but they deserve this spot for now.
6. Notre Dame (4): I may have been a touch over-enthusiastic about them, but I think the Weis factor helps make up for the shaky defense.
7. LSU (8): Can't really take much from the App. State game.
8. Georgia (10): Shockley should be back this week.
9. Virginia Tech (3): Ugly. But this still feels like the right landing spot.
10. Ohio State (11): Defense is really playing well.
11. Oregon (13): That's a good win with the backup QB.
12. Auburn (15): I like their chances vs. 'Bama.
13. Florida (12): Not sure they deserved that win vs. Vandy, but they'll take it.
14. UCLA (7): Played with fire for too long, finally got torched.
15. West Virginia (18): Another weekday nighter this week for the Big East's BCS hope.
16. Texas Tech (21): Reluctantly.
17. Florida State (14): Revenge of the Amato strikes.
18. Michigan (19): DNP.
19. Wisconsin (16): Looks like no Big Ten title swan song for Barry.
20. Fresno State (20): Grudge match with Boise up next.
21. TCU (22): Wins Mountain West in first year in league.
22. Georgia Tech (22): At UVA, at Miami, vs. Georgia next three weeks.
23. Louisville (NR): Unstoppable at home, shaky on the road.
24. Colorado (NR): Barnett may have done one of his best jobs this year.
25. Northwestern (NR): Nice job coming back from poor performance vs. Michigan.
Dropped out: Boston College (17), Cal (24), Rutgers (25)
Games I watched: Bits and pieces of lots of 'em. I was at the sports book!
Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun
35 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2005, 10:33pm by CaffeineMan