American pigskin bloggers have been too focused on the USFL’s poor live attendance through a 3-week span of a dozen kickoffs, thanks in part to the time-honored tradition of reporters going out of their way to trash any new league that could eventually threaten the NFL’s weekend dominance.
Maybe that’s why the media has whiffed on the biggest early storyline in the USFL. The Birmingham Stallions appear to have more staying power than Birmingham’s recent minor-league efforts, and stand at a perfect 3-0 with co-leading (+230) futures odds to win the inaugural USFL championship in 2022. What’s more, the Stallions are the only team in the new/old pro football league who can build home-field momentum in any circumstance.
The Birmingham Stallions are beginning to draw crowds of thousands in what had been an extremely TV-oriented and scantly attended live product in the Alabama town. That’s no surprise given the club’s success out of the gate. But because of the prevailing and simplistic headlines about “bad USFL attendance figures” in Birmingham, even sportsbook odds-makers were too quick to dismiss the Stallions’ potential edge as the brand’s ONLY home team.
The New Orleans Breakers are the USFL’s co-betting favorite at identical (+230) odds. Larry Fedora’s team isn’t the kind of “high ceiling, low floor” operation that reigned in Big Easy back when “Marvelous” Marcus Dupree was the starting running back. Like the bets on Everton to avoid relegation in the English Premier League, drawn at fairly short odds in February for a table outcome that may, in fact, not happen, New Orleans Breakers’ championship futures picks are based on the idea that New Orleans will be more successful in the future. For now, the Breakers came up short against Birmingham’s “home team” in Week 3, and gave up a costly minus-territory sack that produced one of the weirdest penalty-calls ever. The instant punch-line of USFL referees flagging Scooby Wright for a “sexual gesture for grabbing his private parts” is a touch of real irony.
USFL officials have tried to let players play for the most part, in addition to allowing free-spirited celebrations on the field even prior to TD and field-goal drives finishing with points-scored. The league’s logic is that with a highly-limited preseason practice schedule and the subsequent rash of turnovers and missed blocks, the USFL’s prime-time product is providing enough bloopers by itself.
Penalties from series-to-series would simply make things worse for the viewer. In fact, competition in the American sports economy – soon to be rocked by an explosion of interest in Christian Pulisic and the USMNT – may force the NFL to eventually copy minor-league brands in allowing just a little more tearing, trampling, and end-zone clowning on Sunday afternoons, so long as players learn never to impact another player in the head.
Viewers all agree that the NFL’s more “enthusiastic” referees make for a dreadful 4-hour viewing experience, and penalties for celebrations are among the least-popular rules in sports when polled across all cultures. You can get away with a lot more on a USFL field than on a Varsity, NCAA, or NFL gridiron in 2022. The league merely frowns on its championship hopefuls getting a jump on “handling the hardware.”
USFL success stories end with its co-favorites at this time, unless you count 5-to-1 Tampa Bay as a true title contender. New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Houston are failing to get much traction in championship bets-drawn at (+750), (+800), and (+1100) respectively, in spite of New Jersey’s defense playing well again in a 24-16 win over Philly. The Philadelphia Stars’ injury woes at QB are expected to worsen the club’s issues.
Jeff Fisher’s “Michigan” squad (what are USFL team “cities” but branding exercises at the moment?) has started so badly that the Panthers managed a 24-0 snoozer victory in Week 3 without impressing many gamblers. Paxton Lynch started for Michigan in a flailing attempt to spark the 0-2 brand, but the former Northern Illinois phenom immediately went down with injury. Shea Patterson, the game’s embarrassed “backup” who was drafted #1 overall by the Panthers, passed for less than 100 yards. The team’s only saving grace was that the opposing Pittsburgh Maulers are a bad offensive club with questionable coaching. Pittsburgh is becoming known as the most boring team in the USFL, thanks to play-calling straight out of the Steel Curtain-era NFL, with a few typical Arena and Canadian Football League foibles thrown into the toxic mix. The Maulers can’t get into a rhythm in the passing game thanks to bizarre, conservative tactics at midfield, where the Maulers’ head coach Kirby Wilson has been way too quick to order long field-goal attempts in a league marred by poor place-kicking.
USFL coaches may think they’ve got an edge if only their team could upgrade its special-teams scoring, a weak point in the organization so far. But there’s no significant prize for developing a good kicking game by Week 6 if you’re 0-5 and mired in the cellar. Wilson needs to get practical, or his Maulers will be practically dead.
Week 4 USFL Match-Ups, Odds, and Picks
Fri. May 6: Michigan Panthers vs Philadelphia Stars
Some sportsbooks have passed on offering point spreads on either of the USFL’s first 2 contests in Week 4, each time for a different rationale.
There is no lopsided handicap of Michigan’s game. In fact, the Panthers and Stars are each standard (-110) moneyline picks in a classic “pick’em” scenario. Both teams are badly bruised behind center, causing the O/U point-total line to sit at a lowly (36.5). But the Stars are facing bigger immediate problems as a pass-happy team now saddled with the task of running on 1st down. Michigan massacred the Mauler rush attack in a 24-0 victory last weekend, marking the former team’s run defense as the only strong suit of Fisher’s current club. Panther QB Shea Patterson is likely to play a little better now that the threat of replacement isn’t a hanging anvil.
WagerBop expects Michigan to sit near the USFL cellar by season’s end. But look for Philadelphia to peck-and-poke while the Panthers play more physical football on Friday, which should get Patterson’s team to 2-2 while the Stars draw less than “pick’em” odds in Week 5.
WagerBop’s Pick: Michigan Panthers (-110)
Sat. May 7: Pittsburgh Maulers vs. New Jersey Generals
FanDuel’s ostensible reason for leaving a point-spread out of Saturday’s first game is that Pittsburgh is a very bad team, standing at 0-3 with a 24-point shut-out loss in Week 3 and a (+340) or longer than 3-to-1 moneyline to defeat talented New Jersey (-430) in Birmingham. However, it’s actually more common for bookmakers to pass on a moneyline, not a point spread, when contests are expected to be blow-outs, i.e. Alabama or Georgia taking on Vanderbilt. Interesting odds make for interesting choices, like whether to parlay the North Division leading Generals or pick the cheaper, high-reward line on a big (or maybe not-so-big) USFL ‘dog.
Point-total lines as low as Over/Under (35) total points may not be exaggerated enough given the Maulers’ conservative tactics, and the fact that New Jersey’s option ground game has been working far better than its wide-open passing looks under part-time QB Luis Perez.
WagerBop’s Pick: Under (35.5)
Sat. May 7: Birmingham Stallions vs Tampa Bay Bandits
Almost no coronavirus era live-sports “bubble” produced a scenario quite like the Birmingham Stallions enjoy in 2022. Some analysts think “exclusive” fan support has already buoyed the Stallions, who broke open a defensive battle to beat the New Orleans Breakers 22-13 in Week 3. The angle is finally showing up in Las Vegas odds, which cast unbeaten Birmingham as a (-3.5) point-spread favorite over Tampa Bay this Saturday.
Not that the Tampa Bay Bandits aren’t fresh off the most exciting win in the brief history of the modern-day USFL, a 27-26 shoot-out triumph over the Houston Gamblers. QB Jordan Ta’amu is coming into his own as was expected, and the respect for Birmingham’s emotional high as the league’s flagship brand (and the only lineup with so many as 100 hometown fans in the stands) is overwhelmingly apparent in the Stallions’ (-175) moneyline odds.
Regardless, it’s a bad idea to bet against a Todd Haley offense that’s beginning to find its form.
WagerBop’s Pick: Tampa Bay Bandits ATS (+3.5)
Sun. May 8: New Orleans Breakers vs Houston Gamblers
Are we right back to the XFL 2.0’s brief era of silly point spreads? The New Orleans Breakers (-4.5) have scored 70 points, the 2nd-highest total among USFL teams, while Houston’s defense has allowed even more on the season. But there is no definable excuse for casting the Gamblers as heavy underdogs after the Space City franchise took part in the best minor-league game in recent memory last week. At the very least, USFL bettors should give the high-side of a (41.5) Over/Under total a look-see, prior to what could easily become another barn-burner.
WagerBop’s Picks: Houston Gamblers ATS (+4.5) and Over (41.5)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.