Betting Notre Dame-Navy: Why Do Service Academies Overperform as Big Underdogs?

Betting Notre Dame-Navy: Why Do Service Academies Overperform as Big Underdogs? article feature image

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Ken Niumatalolo

  • Army, Navy and Air Force have had great success against the spread as big underdogs since 1980.
  • Their option offenses are likely a reason, since they can control the clock and limit opponents' possessions. That makes it harder to cover a big spread.
  • Navy plays Notre Dame (-23.5) on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on CBS).

Since 1980, the service academies haven’t pulled off many big upsets. Army, Navy and Air Force are just 1-102 straight up as underdogs of more than 20 points.

But here at The Action Network, we’re more concerned about against the spread (ATS) results. And boy have the service academies been stellar ATS in those 103 games.

Since 1980, as underdogs of more than 20 points:

  • Navy: 33-14 ATS
  • Army: 26-15-3 ATS
  • Air Force: 9-3 ATS

All together, that’s a 68-32-3 record against the closing number, good for almost 70%.

This weekend, Navy plays Notre Dame (8 p.m. ET on CBS). The Irish are 23.5-point favorites.

This situation doesn’t happen as often as it did in the past since the service academies have improved, but as underdogs of more than 20 points they’re still 10-2-1 ATS since 2009 and 19-6-1 since 2005, per our data at Bet Labs.

Why Is This Trend So Reliable?

All three service academies run the triple-option.

And even though they didn’t adopt it in the early 1980s, all three have been running the ball far more than passing for most of the last 40 years (save for Navy in the early 1990s and Army in the early 2000s — maybe that’s why the Black Knights lost six straight ATS in this spot from 2003 to 2005).

Paul Johnson brought the triple-option in its current form to Navy in the early 2000s.

The triple-option shrinks the talent and size gap against better teams with bigger players. And it’s a way to limit an opponent’s possessions, adding more variance to a game that can already be pretty random on any given Saturday.

Look no further than last month, when Army took Oklahoma to overtime as a 29-point dog. How’d the Black Knights do it? They limited the Sooners’ possessions.

Oklahoma had just seven drives against Army. Seven! The Sooners have averaged 13.33 drives in their six other games.

Look at those touchdown drives for Army. Long, painstaking. It went 13 of 21 on third down and 4 of 5 on fourth down.

Even if Oklahoma scored a touchdown on all of its drives, it would have won 49-21 and not covered the 29-point spread.

That game wasn’t a one-off, either. Since 2010, at least two of the service academies have ranked in the top 5 in fewest defensive possessions per game every year.

Any Other Causes?

Defending the triple-option is probably like trying to tackle Jell-O, if that Jell-O was also taunting you because you couldn’t stop it.

It moves and shifts its shape, and when you think you’ve wrestled it down, it’s an extra five yards down the field in a manageable third-down situation.

Not only does it kill time, it isn’t something most programs know how to defend because they never see it and don’t have much time to prepare for it.

Another possible cause that can’t be quantified but should be considered: What coach would run up the score on America’s future military leaders?

Win, avoid injury, shake hands and go home. Don’t beat Army, Navy or Air Force by 60, even if you can.

Will It Happen Again on Saturday?

Navy is 23-15 ATS against Notre Dame since 1980, and has covered four of five and seven of 11.

But Navy has really struggled this season. It’s 2-5 and ranks 100th in S&P+ — the Midshipmen have never finished outside the top 100 since Football Outsiders began tracking it in 2005.

Navy has a -9.6 ATS margin, fifth-worst in the country. Oddsmakers haven’t been able to keep up with how bad the Middies have been.

But I’ll say that yes, it will happen again. Navy limits Notre Dame’s offensive possessions and stays inside this big number.