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Triple-option academies have long been absurdly great underdogs

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Expecting to just blow out Army or Navy? Gambling data isn’t on your side.

Army vs. Michigan 2019 Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Since 1995, the three FBS military academies — Air Force, Army, and Navy — are a combined 41-11-1 against the spread* as underdogs of more than three touchdowns (21.5 points or more), according to Odds Shark’s database.

Most recently, Army took 29-point favorite Oklahoma and 22-point favorite Michigan to overtime in consecutive years, while 2018 Navy covered against Notre Dame and UCF. The popular advanced analytics agreed with the big spreads before kickoff ... and yet the trend held steady.

If you took the military underdog to cover all 53 of those spreads, you’d have beaten Vegas a hilarious 78.8% of the time. It’s hard to imagine there’s a much stronger trend with historical backing like this one. Just for reference, beating the sports book a mere 55 percent of the time would be considered really, really excellent.

The trend applies with smaller spreads as well, albeit to lesser degrees. Army and Navy are a combined 39-20-1 against the spread over their last 30 games each as ‘dogs by more than two touchdowns, a 66.1% cover rate.

The point is: these teams are great underdogs against Power 5 heavyweights.

* Add new-to-FBS Georgia Southern, 6-2-1 against 21.5-point spreads since 2011, if you want. And Georgia Tech only faced one spread of 15 or more points during Paul Johnson’s tenure, but did cover against FSU that day.

One reason simply boils down to time.

Sports book power rankings don’t always account for tempo. These teams use option-heavy, run-first offenses that drain the clock, control the ball, and limit chances for the more talented team to score. No matter how good an opponent is, it likely can’t score its typical amount of points if it has one or two fewer possessions than usual.

Time of possession is one way to show the difference — at least one academy is usually in the top 20 there, and in 2017, all three were in the top seven — but there’s are more concrete metrics.

For example, between 2008 and 2017, Army only once finished lower than #6 in fewest opponent snaps faced per game. Air Force and Navy have also frequently ranked in the top 20 at limiting snaps spent on defense. The academy offenses, meanwhile, usually rank around the middle.

The best example, even though it wasn’t a huge spread game: when 2016 Notre Dame had the ball only six times all game and lost to Navy, the first time a team had only six possessions since ... 2008 NIU lost to Navy.

Another is somewhere between tactical and psychological.

Depending on whether you root for or against option-heavy teams, coaches are either paranoid or justly concerned about flexbone offenses injuring their defenders.

So if you’re a top-25 team with later games to worry about, why leave your best defenders in for 60 minutes against an opponent you wildly out-talent and greatly outweigh, considering you’re likely up by two or three touchdowns in the third quarter? Get a comfortable lead and get out of there.

And nobody wants to be the team known for putting 70 points on a bunch of future American soldiers.

Players and coaches at Power 5 bluebloods make it clear they think highly of the academies, from pregame quotes through the common tradition of standing alongside the academy during its postgame song. So I don’t think they view these games as the time for running up the score, once a win is assured.

“It’s almost tough to get motivated to go against these guys,” Michigan’s Chase Winovich said in 2017, two years before his successors struggled against Army. “The same rallying cries that you might be able to say, ‘Let’s go get these guys!’ I don’t know, it’s weird. It’s different. You don’t want to disrespect them, because they’re very honorable and noble individuals for signing up to do that.”

From Navy-Ohio State 2009:

It was [Ohio State head coach Jim] Tressel who insisted that the Buckeyes form a line and shake hands on the field with the Midshipmen after the 2009 game. It was also Tressel who stood at the end of the line, shook hands and thanked each Mid player for his service.

James Franklin before Penn State played Army in 2015:

I think the triple option puts stress on everybody. It always does, not just because of the scheme that they run, but also the style of play and the fact that you only see it maybe once every couple of years and things like that. It also think it aligns really well with the type of kids that they have.

You’re talking about a group of young men and women at the service academy that are willing to die for something they believe in. Now you take those same people and you put them on a team, and it’s that type of commitment and that type of sacrifice, you better be ready. You better be ready for a battle.

(One exception: the numbers normalize in conference games. Air Force and Navy have those, and those are more likely to be heated battles, rather than games viewed by the favorite as celebrations of America. But you’re unlikely to see many huge spreads in conference games anyway.)

This isn’t to discount the academies’ merit on the field.

They’ve scored their share of outright upsets. Navy’s beaten Notre Dame four times from 2007 onward, and that’s a straight-up rivalry the Irish are fully invested in winning. Plenty of these games are close simply because they’re close, not because of patriotic goodwill.

It’s all the same to the person picking the academy to cover the spread, though.