The bright 2-to-1 odds on Birmingham to win the USFL’s inaugural title must be viewed in light of the team’s special home-town motivational edge as well as impressive 7-0 record. Sportsbook speculators who’ve been wagering long-term picks on the alternative New Jersey Generals, New Orleans Breakers, or Philadelphia Stars could be hoping that when the league travels to Canton for its short summer playoff round, the Stallions won’t be readily able to adapt to new circumstances. After all, each opposing team in the 4-team playoff bracket will have plenty of “away game” experience, while the Stallions, rather weirdly for a front-running team, won’t have a single “road” win.
There is, of course, no argument that “home” and “away” is nearly as meaningful as usual while the USFL draws so few live spectators to its scrums. TV audiences who aren’t wearing hometown glasses are asking questions about the Birmingham Stallions’ true value as a favorite, as evidenced by Birmingham’s futures line at FanDuel Sportsbook lengthening slightly to (+175) in spite of yet another victory in Week 7. That could be because of Birmingham’s faltering win over the hapless Pittsburgh Maulers last weekend, in which the contest was still tied late in the 3rd quarter. Or is it because just about any “perfect” team is a betting risk when headed into unfamiliar waters?
The USFL’s first season is also producing a very weird regular-season standings race that will include more joy than disappointment at the finish line. The Panthers, Maulers, and Gamblers are mathematically-or-otherwise out of the playoff hunt with 1-6 W/L records. North Division-leading New Jersey’s winning streak of 6 games rivals Birmingham’s 7 victories in a row, helping the Generals to (+200) odds to win the inaugural USFL title game in Canton next month. The New Orleans Breakers of the South Division had problems beating the Panthers in Week 7 but still ascended to 5-2 on the season, with the Breakers garnering (+300) championship odds. Philadelphia (+700) could have better chances to catch New Jersey than the Breakers possibly have of catching the red-hot Stallions. Todd Haley’s 3-4 Tampa Bay Bandits (+1600) could be the team left out.
But in other words, 4 out of 5 of the USFL’s current playoff hopefuls are bound to make it to Ohio for intra-division semifinal playoff games. We’re used to seeing teams in 8 or 12-team competitions advance or lose out by happenstance, luck, or a combination of tie-breaking formulas. In the USFL’s first season, the contenders just need to keep playing well, and nobody will get hosed out of a nice playoff berth on a neutral gridiron. In fact, it may necessitate a collapse from any of the USFL’s current quartet of favorites-to-qualify for Tampa Bay to rise and grab a playoff bid.
That is, unless the Bandits can discover an offense on short-order… .
Week 8 USFL Moneylines, Spreads, Totals, and Recommended Picks
New Jersey Generals vs Pittsburgh Maulers (Saturday, June 4th)
Go to The General, and save some money-lines! The New Jersey Generals have won 6 games in a row, and became the latest USFL club to stifle Tampa Bay’s struggling attack in a 20-13 Week 7 victory. Nonetheless, wide “year-one” USFL point-spreads such as New Jersey (-8.5) over Pittsburgh illustrate that bookmakers are willing to handicap the league disparately in spite of a very small sample size of outcomes, and no “historical” rivalry ledgers to speak of.
The winning streak is comparable to Birmingham’s 7 victories in a row. Luis Perez, the “YouTube quarterback,” is playing well enough to helm a winning team with a fierce, play-making defense. But could Pittsburgh be the “sneaky” pick-to-cover in Week 8 after looking alive vs the Stallions? The Maulers indeed played their best pigskin of the season last weekend … for about 3 quarters.
Birmingham fell behind the Maulers 10-6 before rallying to tie the score late in the 3rd frame. Pittsburgh coaches are rightfully criticized for cautious play-calling decisions and tactics. But the emphasis on hand-offs has at least begun to help Pittsburgh tailback Madre London and the Mauler offensive line finally get something going. London is gaining 4.4 YPC and shined against a 7-0 team. If the Maulers block like they did against the USFL’s best last week, then Perez’s offense may simply not be explosive enough to win by double-digits.
WagerBop’s Pick: Maulers ATS (+8.5)
Birmingham Stallions vs New Orleans Breakers (Saturday, June 4th)
WagerBop could have a merry time gloating of our warning about New Orleans QB Kyle Sloter earlier this year. Sloter was hailed as the new league’s bright upcoming star after manufacturing NFL-level stat lines in a couple of early-season games. But since then, skipper Larry Fedora’s team has struggled to block and execute consistently on offense, to the point where Sloter has been rotating with backup QB Zach Smith to try to produce some spark in the dual-threat game.
That means there’s more than just a superior W/L record behind the homestanding Birmingham Stallions’ (-3) point spread for Saturday, though odds-makers don’t trust the Stallions to win big after last week’s episodes.
New Orleans is slightly overrated on defense, while it was Birmingham’s lack of ability to finish drives and not a bad defensive effort that plagued the unbeaten favorites for 3 frames against Pittsburgh in Week 7. Overall, Birmingham’s QB J’Mar Smith has spanked other signal-callers of the new USFL, and his sparkling touchdowns-to-INTs ratio makes Birmingham more than a 3-point favorite against a “Big Easy” (read: fellow Birmingham) contender w/ more sizzle than steak.
WagerBop’s Pick: Stallions ATS (-3)
Philadelphia Stars vs Michigan Panthers (Sunday, June 5th)
Whenever the Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Cris Carter opines that “drafting a Super Bowl quarterback is a pipe dream,” he isn’t claiming that Super Bowl legends like Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Tom Brady were mere optical illusions while starring in the Greatest Show on Earth.
Carter’s point is rather that it defies common sense (and business sense) for last-place teams to dream of signing the perfect QB, offensive tackle, and wide receiver to produce a world-class aerial circus, when a majority of NFL teams are working with exact same goal in mind for decade upon decade. Baltimore and San Francisco have shown that it can be easier to build a great running game and a tough defense in a league in which most clubs are focused on scoring through the air.
In other words, it’s harder to swim downstream with the current than it is to swim against-the-flow in such a crazy landscape as American pigskin. But the Philadelphia Stars, solid (-230) moneyline favorites over the Panthers on Sunday, have simply swum faster in the same channel. Philly was threatened with becoming the “North Texas” of the USFL, a team with a competent defense, a fine passing attack, and a subpar/neglected ground game. The nadir came in Week 3 as Philadelphia was held to 31 rushing yards on 10 attempts in a 24-16 loss to New Jersey. It wouldn’t have been easy for the otherwise-talented Stars to develop a more-physical game of pigskin in mid-season, given that the USFL is a league in which almost every team is tasked with out-muscling an opponent to win games that include few TD passes. Philadelphia has done it though, improving on the ground to a marked degree. Stars tailbacks rushed for over 5 yards-per-carry in a competitive Week 5 loss to unbeaten Birmingham, and then Philly just destroyed Tampa and Houston’s front-7s when on the run.
Philadelphia’s balanced offense is bad news for the hapless Michigan Panthers (+5.5) in Week 8, and makes RB Paul Terry of the Stars a terrific “sleeper” pick on Daily Fantasy Football draft boards and in individual player prop-betting odds.
WagerBop’s Pick: Stars ATS (-5.5)
Tampa Bay Bandits vs Houston Gamblers (Sunday, June 5th)
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about USFL point-totals this week. That’d be hard to do after watching odds-makers embarrass themselves by overlooking simple aspects of O/U handicapping.
WagerBop’s hypothesis early in the USFL season was that there was no way Over/Under lines on the nascent league should be sinking into the mid-30s as they were, since the reckless play of QBs and pass-interception impetus of USFL cornerbacks looking to make their mark would continue to produce turnovers and short-field chances for opponents, helping to cancel-out the limited effectiveness of United States Football League QBs in producing TD drives.
Sportsbooks, driven by analysis of offensive stats that seemed to promise nothing but low-scoring snoozers on the horizon, refused to handicap USFL games in the 40-to-50 point total range until the league went nearly 3 weekends without a final score totaling under 41 points. Wacky turnovers and short fields can lead to as many “Over” betting outcomes on low-balled O/U lines as the TDs scored by explosive, but responsible NFL teams.
As an example, the New Orleans Breakers and Michigan Panthers combined for well under 500 yards of total offense in Week 7’s overtime contest. Odds-makers seemed to have successfully predicted a 40-ish point total as New Orleans held a 17-12 lead in the 3rd quarter. A fumbled kick return recovered by Michigan precipitated a wild final frame in which 25 total points were scored, and an eventual 31-27 victory for the shaky Breakers following a 60:00 deadlock.
None of those angles justify the sportsbook’s optimistic (44.5) O/U line on Sunday’s afternoon game between the Tampa Bay Bandits (-230) and Houston Gamblers, a game that appears destined to be a conservative punt-fest, and yet has been handicapped “with the current” (remember how hard that can be, bookies?) following so many larger-than-expected USFL scores on the wheel. Houston’s defense is shaky enough that Tampa’s running backs should look better in Week 8, which is good for Tampa’s chances to win, but could prompt a low final score as the Bandits drain game-clock on long drives and then slow to a crawl in the Red Zone. Houston’s passing game is ranked worst in the USFL, giving the Gamblers few prospects to take over if Tampa builds a small lead first.
Whoever feels like betting “Over” (44.5) points and then watching Todd Haley’s blank, implacable stare as the Bandits slowly plod for field goals, be our guest. But almost all of Tampa Bay’s victories have involved early Tampa leads and dull 2nd halves, just like this one is likely to.
WagerBop’s Pick: Under (44.5)
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.