USFL pigskin has done a lot to improve its product over the course of an inaugural campaign. The decision to host all regular-season games in Birmingham has helped USFL rosters focus while keeping costs down, a move that boosts the motivation and mental health of players who’ve seen too many minor pigskin leagues lose money and implode after a single season. The brand’s special teams began the year as an absolute joke and then blossomed, with multiple kickers nailing 60+ yard field goals. Any trepidation over mind-numbing parity has been erased as a solid quartet of contenders emerges.
But there’s nothing any organization can do when bad circumstances and unlucky timing combines to produce a dull-as-dirt weekend schedule. There isn’t a lone Week 10 USFL game that will mean anything in the standings or in seeding for Canton, Ohio’s postseason rounds – in fact the USFL’s standings are so clean-cut that both Week 11 match-ups have already been booked.
There’s very few “pride” factors motivating USFL players and coaches to win this weekend. Players who haven’t impressed NFL (or CFL) scouts already will probably not turn the tables with a single week’s performance. New Orleans brought a merciful end to the league’s most meaningful (and its most lopsided) regular-season rivalry by spanking Tampa Bay for the 2nd time in Week 9. This weekend’s kickoff between Philadelphia and New Jersey isn’t a rubber match, as the clubs have met only once, and neither will next Saturday’s playoff game between the same 2 teams be a “rubber match” even if the season-series is technically tied 1-1. Reserves will litter the USFL gridiron in Week 10’s bouts.
How can viewers get their weekend football fix with such a dreary ledger of “exhibition” games? Penny gambling is always a fun solution, but you don’t want to lose your pennies in the process. It feels best to begin by looking at the new league’s Over/Under lines in Week 10, in which Las Vegas handicappers appear to have made a macro-adjustment in O/U markets without knowing why they’re adjusting.
New Jersey Generals vs Philadelphia Stars (Saturday, June 18)
Nickel-and-dime pro football broadcasts run a risk of becoming ads for themselves, like when a USFL announcer says, “Stay tuned for more of today’s highlight-reel battle, in which we think a team might actually score in the 3rd quarter!” (An ice-hockey parallel occurred when ESPN hired a jackass to shout play-by-play over its Roller Hockey International broadcasts, shedding tears of ecstasy as beer-league level teams played to 21-8 finishes in front of 200 sleepy beach bums at a time.) But if there’s a cringe element to this week’s slate of USFL kickoffs, it’s not anyone’s fault. Not only have the USFL standings and schedule created a “perfect storm” of meaningless kickoffs in Week 10, but Saturday’s “marquee” bout between the favored New Jersey Generals (-135) and the Philadelphia Stars, a likely setup for boring, vanilla play-calling as the teams prepare to meet again in a playoff semifinal game.
The Generals’ (-2.5) point spread calls into question whether a complacent lineup would be all that jazzed-up about galloping downfield for a winning field-goal with seconds left on the game clock. Though on the flip side of the same point-spread betting angle, there’s bound to be a distinct “NFL preseason” vibe (or perhaps an FBS spring-game vibe) late in Week 10’s games.
Faithful watchers of summer pigskin (God bless us all) know exactly what that means. In a tied 4th-quarter scenario, Philadelphia head coach Bart Andrus could forbid his defense’s best looks to prevent showing Week 11’s opponent anything useful, and allow a backup New Jersey running back to grind-out enough yards for former Alabama PK Austin Jones to kick a (literal) go-to-bed field goal.
Better chances vs the bookmaker can be found via the prevailing O/U point-total line of Over/Under (41.5), since USFL odds-makers have forgotten that the trend of surprise “Over” outcomes has been sparked by ball-hawking defensive backs, in addition to sloppy minor-league offenses prone to catastrophic turnovers near their own end zones.
Saturday’s early game, by contrast, will feature nothing if not a ton of relatively safe hand-offs. The only way New Jersey vs Philadelphia racks-up many points-off-turnovers is if RBs fumble the ball often. New Jersey’s stable of rushers has been relatively sure-handed, while Philly’s tailback Matt Colburn II has had more than “II” bobbles on the season, but will probably see limited duty in Week 10.
WagerBop’s Pick: Under (41.5)
Birmingham Stallions vs Tampa Bay Bandits (Saturday, June 18)
Birmingham’s newest minor-league brand lost a game for the first time last weekend, dropping to 8-1 on the season due to a surprise performance from the Houston Gamblers. Birmingham’s offense was terrible in the Red Zone, and didn’t really get rolling between the 20-yard lines until late in the 3rd frame. Houston scored to take a 17-12 lead before the Stallions could build on their success, then stopped the Stallions in the Red Zone again (imagine that) before picking-off J’Mar Smith to seal a 17-15 upset victory.
Smith’s shaky series in passing scenarios has helped Tampa Bay to (+135) underdog odds to beat the Stallions on Saturday, in another game with a USFL-standard (41.5) Over/Under line. But behind the scenes, Stallions skipper Skip Holtz might be glad that the club finally lost a contest prior to the USFL playoffs kicking-off in Canton.
Perfect records can take a costly toll as consecutive wins approach double-digits. NFL fans recall the New England Patriots of Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss legend threatening to win 19 times in a row, only to fall short of the Pats’ previously record-setting output on offense throughout the cursed campaign’s winter months, then finally lose the Super Bowl to Eli Manning and New York in crazy fashion.
It’s ironic that Houston knocked Birmingham into the L column, since Space City’s FBS fans can remember Tom Hermann’s final Cougar squad losing to Navy unexpectedly after winning a whole bunch of times in a row to begin a potentially “perfect” season. The Patriots of 2007-08 didn’t get to rebound by winning any subsequent games, but Hermann’s college team certainly did. Now that the heavy load of “perfection” pressure has been lifted off of the Birmingham Stallions, should FanDuel users expect the team to make a statement in its final regular-season outing?
Tampa Bay has fielded a disappointing sad-sack of an offense under NFL offensive “guru” Todd Haley. That could point to another tight score and potentially a close margin-of-victory this Saturday, except that the downtrodden Bandits were just eliminated in Week 9, finishing 0-2 against the superior New Orleans Breakers. Meanwhile, the Stallions may not have momentum after losing last weekend, but don’t forget that Birmingham has been the only team to enjoy home-field crowd support in the USFL’s single-venue debut. Saturday’s scrum could easily produce the vibes of a “Senior Day” as local ticket-buyers pay tribute to the latest “pleasant surprise” in Alabama sports.
Stallions fans originally showed up out of curiosity, only to find they had a #1 playoff seed on their hands. The “home team” won’t want to disappoint those folks Saturday, even if Birmingham’s coaches call for 12 hand-offs in a row. Especially since USFL games are moving away to Ohio in short order.
WagerBop’s Pick: Birmingham Stallions ATS (-3.5)
Pittsburgh Maulers vs Michigan Panthers (Sunday, June 19)
Could this Sunday’s Pittsburgh Maulers vs Michigan Panthers scrum be the dullest, dreariest game played on national TV in 2022? WagerBop could imagine last-place USFL teams with “nothing to lose” going out and having an unpredictable barn-burner for the heck of it, except that the experience of watching poor teams from other recent minor-league incarnations gives handicappers clear evidence to the contrary. As cynical as it sounds, the coaching staffs of “Pittsburgh” and “Michigan” are simply stuck in Birmingham for another weekend, likely impatient to get 2 embarrassing seasons over with.
But as usual, there’s an opportunity for gamblers hidden in the muck of a snoozer match-up, since bookmakers can’t spend as many hours on games that few people will wager on.
Put very simply, out of all the USFL games to garner a slightly-higher (42.5) O/U in Week 10, why on God’s green Earth would it be Maulers vs Panthers?
WagerBop’s Pick: Under (42.5)
New Orleans Breakers vs Houston Gamblers (Sunday, June 19)
New Orleans offers the fastest-rising commodity in the USFL, having swept South Division-rival Tampa Bay by a fantastic combined score of 51-9 to arrive in the postseason as a (+350) wager to lift inaugural USFL hardware. But we’re not sure that the New Orleans Breakers deserve a (-160) favorite’s moneyline to win Sunday’s late game, given the “preseason” scenario for New Orleans, combined with Houston’s upbeat locker-room vibe after a successful outing in Week 9.
The Breakers’ defense is something like a “poor man’s Arizona Cardinals” unit, which looks great when LBs are allowed to “scrape” and run around causing turnovers, but not when unable to win the line-of-scrimmage. If Houston tailback Mark Thompson comes out determined to stake the Gamblers to another lead and potential spoilers’ upset in Week 10, opposing QB Kyle Sloter won’t be able to help bring the Breakers back … he’ll be in a headset preparing for more-important games to come.
WagerBop’s Pick: Houston Gamblers (+135)
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.