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How Often Do Underdogs Win Outright?

I am doing my radio show circuit this summer and whenever I talk about Alabama, I think back to last year and how expectations were somewhat low for their team heading into the year. They were coming off a 7-6 season and had 4 games they figured to be a good sized underdog in. They had to play the defending national champs (LSU) in Death Valley, the preseason #1 team of 2008 (Georgia) Between the Hedges, the defending SEC East champ (Tennessee, #18 preseason) and the ACC preseason favorite (Clemson, #9 preseason) all away from home. Even the most optimistic Tide fan probably hoped for a split of those 4 games. As it turns out the Tide won all 4 and at the end of the regular season they were 12-0 and #1 in the country.


That got me to thinking, “How often do underdogs win outright?” Naturally there are different levels of underdogs and if you know me by now, you know that I will head to my computer and get all the details. There has been a lot of college football played since 1996, 12 years worth of it. If you count each FBS team playing a game (so 2 teams each game) in that span there were 16,753 different games of data for me to analyze.

Let’s look at the biggest favorites and you will see that Las Vegas does its job well picking out big favorites. Since 1996 there have been 382 teams that have been favored by OVER 31 points in a game. Of those 382 only FIVE have lost the game straight up. The biggest upset ever was when Stanford (+41) upset USC in 2007 and showing what a weird year that was the 2nd biggest upset ever was also in 2007 when Syracuse (+37) beat Louisville. The other 3 huge upsets since 1996 were: Temple (+35.5) over Virginia Tech in 1998, Central Michigan (+35.5) over Western Michigan in 2000 and North Texas (+32) over Texas Tech in 1997. Basically if your team is installed as an underdog of 31 points or more in a game, they have a 1.3% chance of winning or 1 out of every 76.6 teams in that role actually win the game.

Now let’s look at the chances of your favorite team winning if they are installed as an underdog of 24.5 to 31 points. Since 1996 there have been 617 teams that have been favored by 24.5 to 31 points in a game. You would expect the underdogs would have a better chance of winning outright than the above teams and naturally they do. In that span 24 teams that have been favored by that margin have lost straight up in a game with two such upsets last year. Wyoming was +27 when they upset Tennessee on the road and Oregon St was +25 when they upset USC at home. The amount of upset did not go up as much as I thought they would as upsets occurred only 3.9% of the time or 1 out of every 25.7 games.

You would figure that the percentage of upsets in the 17.5 to 24 point favorites level would go up drastically from that 3.9% in the previous category. Since 1996 there have been 1,013 teams that have been favored by 17.5 to 24 points. I am still a little surprised that there were only 71 upsets in this level of favorites over the 12 years span. That is just 7% upsets which comes out to 1 upset loss for every 14.3 teams that are favored by 17.5 to 24 points. Last year there were 9 such upsets which included Ole Miss over Florida, UNLV over Arizona St, Eastern Michigan over Bowling Green, Syracuse over Notre Dame, Army over Tulane, Hawaii over Fresno St, FIU over Toledo, New Mexico St over Nevada and Arkansas St over Texas A&M.

I will start breaking it down into smaller categories as we continue to go down in level of favoritism. The next category to look at are teams that are favored by 14.5 (more than 2 TD’s) to 17 points. Since 1996 there have been 650 teams that have been favored by 14.5 to 17 points in a game. Of the 650 teams favored by this amount 88 have lost the game outright. That is close to double the odds as the category above as 13.5% of the teams favored by 14.5 to 17 points lose outright and an upset occurs 1 time for every 7.38 games played in that level. There were only 7 such upsets last year including Buffalo over Ball St in the MAC title game.

The next level down that I will look at is the 10.5 to 14 point category. From 1996 – 2008 there were 1,146 teams that were favored by this level. Of those 1,146 games there were 242 upsets which was 21.1% of the time. That still means that roughly 4 out of every 5 teams favored by 10.5-14 points wins the game with an upset occurring once every 4.7 times.

From 1996-2008 there were 1,056 teams that were favored by 7.5 to 10 points and of those 1,056 teams there were 279 upsets which was almost the same results as the favorites from 10.5 to 14. That means that 26.4% of the time a team was favored by 7.5 to 10 points they lost outright and that translates into 1 upset every 3.78 games.

Since 1996 there have been 1,930 teams that have been favored from 3.5 to 7 points. These are teams that are expected to win the game but the game should be close. The last time we tightened up the category the upsets went from every 4.7 games to every 3.8 games. Should we expect 1 in every 2.7 games here? Since 1996, 658 of the 1,930 teams that were underdogs of 3.5 to 7 points have pulled outright upsets and that translates into 1 every 2.9 games or 34.1% of the time.

Now we get to the category that will tell us if Las Vegas knows what they are doing. Games where a team is favored by 3 points or less. These games are basically toss-ups but Vegas favors one team and makes them the favorite. What percentage of teams pull minor upsets as underdogs of 3 points or less? As I type this I do not know the answer but I will guess 45% of them. Now let’s go to the computer. Since 1996 there have been 1,269 favorites of 3 points or less. My 45% guess would have 571 minor “upsets”. The actual answer is 621 “upsets” by teams that are underdogs of 3 points or less which comes out to be 48.9% and that shows these games are definitely toss-ups!

As I type this I am thinking that 3 point games should have a much higher % of the favorite winning so let’s take a closer look at just those games. There have been 426 games in which a team was favored by 3 points by Las Vegas over the last 12 years. How many times does that team win outright? The answer is 228 times or just 53.5% of the time. That is 228 times the favorite has won and 198 times the underdog has won which means the underdog is almost as likely as the favorite to win the game when the line is exactly 3 points.

Here is a quick chart showing the chances of a team winning outright depending on where Las Vegas sets the line.

Favorite of # of GMS Lost Outright %
31+ pts 382 5 1.3%
24.5-31 617 24 3.9%
17.5-24 1013 71 7.0%
14.5-17 650 88 13.5%
10.5-14 1146 242 21.1%
7.5-10 1056 279 26.4%
3.5-7 1930 658 34.1%
3 or less 1269 621 48.9%
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  • Cadco58

    do you think the stats are the same for the NFL games??

  • http://www.philsteele.com Phil Steele

    No the NFL would be a completely different animal since the spreads between games are much closer as well as the talent pool. Let’s face it you don’t get too many mismatches like Georgia St-Alabama in the NFL but tell that to the Jets last night. Thanks, Phil

  • Cappinggold

    Excellent info here Phil. Do you have a home/away breakdown on these spreads?

  • Cappinggold

    Excellent Info here Phil. Do you have a breakdown on those spreads with home/away?