One of the biggest monkey wrenches that messes up sports handicappers is the tendency of some teams to "Milton Berle" it, while other teams do the opposite and bully outmanned opponents.
What am I talking about? Let me define the terms, then I'll go over how this can derail stat handicappers, power rating handicappers, trend handicappers and anyone else trying to pick winners.
Most of you probably know that Milton Berle was "Mr. Television" about a half a century ago. He literally created a market for television sets with his weekly variety show. What's less well known by the public, but very well known in "showbiz" circles, was that "Uncle Miltie" was blessed with a very special "endowment". You know what I'm talking about? Yes, THAT'S what I'm talking about.
At least five separate sources I've read have quoted eye witnesses as likening Milton's manhood to an "anaconda". Berle was a showbiz legend for decades. Stories have been told time and time again about "challenges" that Berle never lost. He'd be in a steam room, or a country club locker room, or a men's room and somebody would come up and say something like:
"Hey Mr. Berle, I hear you got a big one. Betcha mine's bigger."
Berle would take the bet, then ask the challenger to present first. As the story has gone in show business lore: Berle would smirk, then take out just enough to win.
You see, Berle never showed the whole thing. Nobody knew the true size and scope of the "anaconda". Berle was undefeated for life, but never won a rout. Spectators trying to estimate the true size of Berle's advantage were never able to do so.
A lot of sports teams are like that. And a lot of sports teams are the opposite of that. The sport where this is the biggest issue is college football because the schedules are short and varied.
*There are teams who are actually very good, but they just do enough to win most weeks. They don't run up the score. They focus on the rushing game and defense in their efforts to get the job done. This is one reason Rutgers was underestimated in the Big East this year. They didn't beat people badly...they just beat people.
*There are teams who are good, but they run up the score at every opportunity. The head coach doesn't call off the dogs until the team has topped 50 points. Many run variations of the spread offense that are tough for lesser teams to defend. Combine those things and the bullies rack up some big stat games and some huge final scores.
Imagine teams who are dead even in true ability, but represent each of those categories. If they played the same schedule over the course of a football season, you might see stat averages in this neighborhood:
*Berle: average final score of 27-17, average yardage edge of 370-250 *Bully: average final score of 38-20, average yardage edge of 480-300
Now, remember, these teams are dead even in true ability. If they play each other, the game would go down to the wire because that's what happens when even teams play. In the stats though, the bullies look much better. They've got an edge in scoring differential of +18 to +10, and an edge in yardage differential of +180 to +120.
The public tends to believe what they see on the scoreboard rather than making adjustments for styles of play. Las Vegas oddsmakers tend to base their lines on public expectations. So, when these styles play each other, the bullies are favored by at least a touchdown (often more). But the games typically go right down to the wire. In "big" games, the bullies can end up on the short end of the stick because the wide-open offenses that are best at running up the score are also turnover prone. Turnovers kill you in big games.
If you're a stat handicapper, you can't just rely on the yardage edges and plug in your usual formulas. You have to adjust for the "air" in the bullies' stats. You also have to be aware that teams in the Milton Berle model have more than they're showing.
If you're a power ratings handicapper, you have to avoid the tendency of inflating the bullies into places they don't belong. If you're not careful, you'll have somebody like Hawaii in your top ten because they keep routing WAC weaklings. If you currently have Boise State, BYU, Louisville, and even somebody like West Virginia in your elite class...be sure you're not overreacting to blowouts. What did those teams do when the other guys didn't blink? Do those results suggest top ten material?
If you're a trend handicapper, you have to make sure you're separating the results into the right kind of categories. Hawaii may be great as a favorite vs. certain calibers of opponents, or in certain price ranges. They weren't great as favorites versus Purdue or Oregon State in their last two games of the season. The Milton Berle teams may be lousy as double digit favorites, but very strong in games that are within a touchdown of pick-em either way.
Again, there aren't many "perfect" examples of what we're talking about here. But, I think you'll find it's one of the hidden elements that helps explain a lot of what goes on in the world of sports:
*The Indianapolis Colts have been a bully in the Peyton Manning years, running up the score on inferior teams. In the playoffs, they've had horrible results against Milton Berle teams like New England and Pittsburgh who emphasize defense and moving the chains on offense. Indy had a really bad team this past Sunday against conservative Jacksonville, which is a variation on the same theme.
*In college hoops, Duke in the JJ Redick era was a great example of a bully. Teams who emphasize three-point shooting or a fast tempo often post inflated scores versus weaker teams. Basketball squads that emphasize inside play and rebounding win by smaller margins. Match up those styles in March Madness, and Milton Berle strikes again.
*In the NBA, the Dallas Mavericks represent a franchise that used to be a bully, but realized they had to be a Berle to make a run at the championship. They made the finals last year using San Antonio's disciplined percentage model rather than what had been a more wide-open style reminiscent of the Phoenix Suns.
What about college football? We'll be discussing that and a lot more in MAJOR WAGER'S BOWL PREVIEW SERIES that will be kicking off in a few days. The first bowl game isn't until Tuesday, December 19th. We'll be providing comprehensive previews of all the bowls at least a few days in advance to give you time to analyze each match...and to post your thoughts about the games in the threads.
You're probably aware that underdogs have a GREAT recent history in bowl games. This Milton Berle effect is one of the big reasons why. Teams who have inflated their stats during the regular season find that more difficult to do on a neutral field against a bowl caliber team. They're favored because the public (and even some sharps) think they're a dynamic team that can impose their will on a game. Many underdogs win outright by simply smirking, then doing what it takes to get the job done.
I wanted to make you aware of this storyline before the previews got rolling. History says we'll see more examples of this phenomenon in the next month - possibly in some of the bowls sports fans are most looking forward to.