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Here’s why ‘train wreck’ USC is favored over No. 3 Utah

Here’s why ‘train wreck’ USC is favored over No. 3 Utah

A Mandalay Bay employee takes a bet at the sports book in Las Vegas, where millions of dollars are gambled each week in the fall on college football.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Like his peers who establish point spreads at Las Vegas sports books, Jay Kornegay relies on his own power-rankings system.

So Kornegay, race and sports director of the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, was asked why in the world he and his buddies have made USC a stunning 3 1/2-point favorite over Utah on Saturday at the Coliseum.

Didn’t they consider that former USC coach Steve Sarkisian has been dismissed after his alcohol missteps? Didn’t they see criticized Athletic Director Pat Haden fall ill last week at Notre Dame? Don’t they know USC (3-3) is unranked and that No. 3 Utah (6-0) aspires to become college football’s champion?

“Well, jeez, if you put it like that …" Kornegay said.

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He kids.

Kornegay and Jay Rood, the race and sports director of MGM Resorts’ multi-book operation along the Strip, know exactly what they’re doing and have no intention of backing off their logic-based spread.

“In this spot, people see a ranked team versus an unranked team that’s gone through some adversity and … just about every parlay ticket we’ve taken has Utah,” Rood said.

“People think this is a tailspin for USC, but I don’t see it as a tailspin. They just need to stabilize a bit. They have the No. 1 recruiting class, NFL talent all over the roster. All it takes is the coaches to say the right things and to put the guys in the right spots, and that team can play with anyone in the country.”

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People think this is a tailspin for USC, but I don’t see it as a tailspin. They just need to stabilize a bit.
Jay Rood

Sucker bet? Rood groaned at the term and answered, “They think it’s value.”

Rood just this week profited from bettors relying on their own feel, as they loaded up on the idea that the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field could not lose Game 3 or Game 4 of the National League Championship Series to the New York Mets, which they did in New York’s sweep.

On Thursday night, unranked UCLA was a 3 1/2-point favorite at the Rose Bowl over No. 20 California, and the Bruins cruised to a 40-24 victory.

“If you want to know why books tend to do good, it’s because people bet that way,” Rood said.

Rood and Kornegay say neither of them consider college football rankings when they set their point spreads.

For Rood, points of emphasis are time of possession, turnover ratio, defensive numbers against the run (yards per carry) and how a team runs the ball at home and on the road.

Kornegay’s rankings assess a team’s efficiency: yards gained, yards allowed, opponents faced, how the quarterback is playing, third-down conversion success.

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Rood said his rankings show Utah in an effective dead heat with USC, and when home-field advantage is factored in, the Trojans leapfrog the Utes.

Usually every season an unranked team in college football is favored over a ranked foe, Kornegay said, and another powerful factor in setting the line is knowing that the most astute bettors, known as “the sharps,” are considering the same type of data.

“Vegas looks at power rankings, period,” Kornegay said. “It doesn’t look at the train wreck in Southern California, or the record of Utah.

“Despite their record and the difficulties … you could make the argument the Trojans are more talented than Utah.”

Utah impressively beat Michigan, but both bookmakers dismissed the victory over a struggling Oregon team and noted that Cal nearly won in Utah despite five interceptions.

But Utah has its eyes on the prize of a national title and USC’s season is in the trash heap, right?

“The players and the rest of the staff don’t want to look like they’re throwing in the towel,” Rood said.

“Realistically, you can turn that around and that could work against Utah. The Utes are going to start sweating every play. Every turnover is going to be compounded as a bigger mistake in their mind, because they know what the prize is if they continue their roll, and what they’re going to lose if they don’t.

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“USC will be the much, much looser team.”

Kornegay’s point spreads have been beaten before, of course, but he said he’s remaining true to a system that accounts for the fact that a sophisticated gambler will appear at the betting window with a briefcase of cash for a six-figure wager.

“I bet the sharp bettor is on USC,” Kornegay said. “My rankings are not without flaws. It could easily happen that Utah wins and everyone says, ‘See, Vegas is wrong.’ ”

That, of course, will only generate more business.

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire


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