WagerBop anticipated that the Michigan Panthers could slide from highly-touted to wisely-doubted during the inaugural USFL season, but we didn’t nearly foretell how fast it might happen.
The USFL’s most popular long-term odds turned into its longest championship betting line in a matter of 3 hours in Week 1. The Michigan Panthers had an embarrassing debut, fumbling on their first 2 series and handing the Houston Gamblers (and underdog gamblers) a rather routine 17-12 road victory.
Top overall USFL draft pick Shea Patterson struggled to spark Michigan’s offense, and backup QB Paxton Lynch had his worst outing as a pro. The final score was only held within 5 points due to a prolonged haplessness from Houston’s offense.
Jeff Fisher, Michigan’s well-hyped head coach, was lousy in his first USFL effort. The Panthers tried a “hybrid” NFL-style offense with some typical college plays mixed in, despite a lack of practice time in which to successfully implement such a scheme. An “NCAA” playbook would have given the Panther offensive line something easy to learn and potentially put Fisher’s mobile quarterbacks in a comfort zone. Meanwhile, the QBs Patterson and Lynch were rotated on-and-off during the Week 1 game, resulting in Patterson’s zippy arm strength not showing up often enough to rescue his team.
Todd Haley’s promising Tampa Bay Bandits have taken the futures favorites’ position at (+340) odds, while Fisher’s team is now merely a 6-to-1 pick to win the first USFL title. Houston is among 4 total teams handicapped at (+600) thanks to the Gamblers’ inability to blow-out the obviously unprepared Panthers, but New Orleans’ 5/1 line reflects an impressive Big Easy edge rush. QB-hunter Davin Bellamy had 3 sacks as the Breakers beat the Philadelphia Stars 23-17 last weekend. Birmingham beat New Jersey 28-24 in an entertaining USFL debut on Saturday night, while Tampa Bay whipped a dull Pittsburgh team 17-3.
The only game to finish with a point-total above its Las Vegas line was the Birmingham Stallions’ 28-24 victory, leading FanDuel Sportsbook to handicap O/U numbers cautiously in Week 2. Rules such as a quickened play-clock and “3-point conversions” prompted a modicum of “Over” betting action on the USFL in Week 1, but other factors are working to keep final scores low as well.
The NFL’s rule of letting the game clock run unabated following 1st-downs gained has been adopted by the USFL. That lends a clock-draining element to sustained drives even when teams are completing play-action passes. Meanwhile, even the USFL coaches who are utilizing NCAA-style playbooks aren’t spending many possessions trying to freshen the tempo just yet. A sugar-huddle offense would be a bridge too far for units who’re still struggling to block basic plays. As a consequence, “faster paced” USFL games are mirroring the NFL in total number of snaps per game.
Any final score can go “Over” a point total line when turnovers occur close to the end zone. But even though USFL teams like Michigan are coughing-up the pigskin every so often, their ball-hawking opponents aren’t taking advantage by putting points on the board. Long INT-returns are rare, and poor blocking results in USFL teams getting knocked-out of field goal range quite often.
Bettors should think twice before touting a USFL team to win a blow-out in April. Even when conditions are ripe for a lopsided final score, the new league’s talented defenses just aren’t allowing it.
USFL Week 2: Betting Odds, Lines, and Best Picks
Michigan Panthers at New Jersey Generals (Friday, April 22)
The USFL’s Generals harkened back to their Herschel Walker roots in more ways than one last weekend, playing football so “conservatively” that fans were reminded of Bill Belichick’s tactics from 2021. The final score of Birmingham 28, New Jersey 24 was deceptive, for although backup-turned-starter Luis Perez had a solid 1st half passing for the Generals, the club attempted to nurse its chances to prevail with 20+ rushing plays in a row beginning in the 3rd quarter. Birmingham scored points toward the start and finish but was otherwise checked by New Jersey’s solid defensive line.
It was refreshing to watch a team step outside “NFL preseason” restraints when coaching a group of minor-league prospect players. Runs, passes, or laterals, it’s no fun when national minor-league play calling and execution reminds viewers of summer exhibition football, with its safe “50/50” play selection. USFL competition can benefit from coordinators thinking outside the box.
Michigan’s HC Jeff Fisher is too old, too demoted, and too stereotyped as a thinker to help Shea Patterson and the Panthers to a successful season. Houston would have only needed a competent offense to blow-out favored Michigan in Week 1, as the Panthers were touted based on Fisher’s ex-NFL stripes and Patterson’s top USFL Draft position, and not due to substantial analytics.
This week, the challenge of a visit to New Jersey could become apparent as the Generals’ steady offense avoids turnovers while the Panthers add to an already ugly T/O total. At tight moneyline odds, Michigan remains a poor bet.
WagerBop’s Pick: New Jersey Generals (-120)
Pittsburgh Maulers at Philadelphia Stars (Saturday, April 23)
A debut loss for Philadelphia at the hands of New Orleans hasn’t kept FanDuel Sportsbook from casting the Stars as hefty (-6.5) point-spread favorites in Week 2. Pittsburgh’s offense was so poor against HC Todd Haley and the Tampa Bay Bandits that the typically aggressive head coach simply ran-out the clock on an easy low-scoring win over their opponent.
However, is a TD-sized point spread a wise offering for a game with just a (36.5) O/U number? Recall that during the XFL’s reboot in 2020, sportsbooks were too quick to label a team deficient without the benefit of so many as 12 quarters of pigskin on the books. Pittsburgh, while the beneficiary of cautious 2nd-half offense from Tampa Bay, still deserves credit for holding Todd Haley’s team to such a pale winning score. While the Over/Under line for Philly and Pittsburgh reflects that reality, the inflated point spread overlooks that the Breakers wouldn’t have had such edge-rushing success against a better-blocking team than the Stars have available at this time.
Given that even high-rolling users tend to prefer quality football over dreck, the fellow “Gamblers” in Houston’s viewing contingent may be more interested in Saturday’s prime-time game than in Friday’s contest. The USFL had scheduled Michigan’s next kickoff to lead-off its Week 2 calendar on Friday night without having foreseen how pitifully the Panthers would debut in front of scant attendance. Saturday night’s game has Birmingham cast as a solid (-165) moneyline pick to win, while the Houston Gamblers (+140) and their 1-0 record haven’t inspired much optimism.
Compared to Fisher’s motley squad in Michigan, Birmingham is viewed as a well-practiced team. However, the Stallions benched starting QB Alex McGough in Week 1 and were lucky to only surrender 24 points after giving up sustained drives throughout 4 quarters. Houston’s offense blew an opportunity to destroy the Panthers by 21+ points, but if there’s an overbearing point of analysis to draw from Houston’s 17-12 win, it’s that Michigan looks the part of a bad professional team with a talented defense, destined to play close games and lose much like the Detroit Lions. Houston’s quarterback Clayton Thorsen was better than his bad stat line in Week 1, and the Gamblers are utilizing an NCAA-style passing attack that could buoy the former NCAA standout.
WagerBop’s Pick: Houston Gamblers (+140)
New Orleans Breakers at Tampa Bay Bandits (Sunday, April 24)
Faithful huddling and a running clock after 1st downs-gained will continue to produce low-scoring USFL games until QBs and WRs start warming to spring’s challenge.
However, if there’s a Week 2 kickoff for which a modest Over/Under line – in this case (40.5) total points for Tampa and New Orleans – is cast too low, it’s for this Sunday.
If the Breakers try to wear out Haley’s team with power, as Philadelphia was worn down in the 2nd half last weekend, New Orleans can only be dealt 1 of 2 outcomes. The long-time NFL skipper will adjust and press the Breakers’ shaky passing game into action, or surrender yards and points while looking for ways to strike back quickly. Tampa Bay will remain mindful that Bellamy could break-up a long drive with a sack or a TFL and a backfield turnover, making it necessary to score on less than 10 plays if possible.
Moreover, at some point, the USFL turnover bug that’s producing so many short fields will break-up otherwise sleepy quarters and boost final scores, even with less than ideal PKs chipping at the egg.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (40.5)
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.