The USFL kicked off Week 1 last weekend as bettors got their first glance at the newest version of spring football. The product on the field met my expectations, mixed in with a few surprises. The most popular angle embraced by the general public was to blind-bet all four games to go under the total. The low-hanging fruit paid off as three of the four unders cashed, as many teams rotated quarterbacks and used the first game as an evaluation.
Teams averaged only 17.6 points per game, which can be slightly misleading because kickers struggled mightily in the opening week. There were eight missed field goals across all four games. Even with the kicking challenges, the offenses are still a work in progress. USFL teams gained 4.3 yards per play, a full yard less than the NFL teams that have become staples of our fall Sundays and the foundation of betting culture.
The execution will improve as the season progresses, but bettors should expect it to be a slow build. Teams with consistent quarterback play and aggressive play-callers will be at a strong advantage. Here are two other quick observations bettors should keep in mind, followed by the breakdown of my two best bets for Week 2 of the USFL.
Conditioning was a factor for the defenses: The 24-point fourth quarter that made Saturday night's opener so exciting was fueled by the power running game. Both defenses were completely gassed, as New Jersey head coach Mike Riley ran the ball unmercifully. The Generals dialed up 24 consecutive rushes before their predictable play-calling ultimately cost them the game. New Orleans and Michigan also had significant success running the football in the second half. It's hard to predict when the defenses will get their legs under them, but it's possible teams emphasize the running game even more in Week 2.
Quarterback pressure was a game-changer: New Orleans' defense was the sole reason it escaped with a 23-17 win over Philadelphia. The Breakers had a pick-six, six sacks and constantly wrecked a Stars offense that was very efficient when QB Bryan Scott wasn't running for his life. The four teams that won combined for 15 sacks while the losing teams only registered a total of four. In a league that lacks solid quarterback play, the ability to get pressure is more valuable than ever.
Week 2 best bets
Birmingham Stallions vs. Houston Gamblers (+3.5)
QB J'Mar Smith rallied the Stallions for two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a thrilling 28-24 victory. This week he faces a much bigger challenge. Projected to be one of the toughest defenses in the USFL, the Gamblers lived up to the hype by holding Michigan to 12 points in their Week 1 victory. They were particularly dominant in the first half, shutting out the Panthers and causing multiple turnovers. They faded late like most defenses, but still got big stops in high-leverage situations to secure Houston's first win.
Birmingham's offensive line struggled against New Jersey until fatigue caught up with the Generals. I expect the Stallions to be overwhelmed against a Gamblers defense that racked up three sacks and three takeaways last week. The Gamblers can match up Jamar Summers, one of the top cornerbacks in the league, on WR Osirus Mitchell and force Birmingham to rely more on a rushing attack that produced only 3.3 yards per rush. Smith was a second-half hero last week, but I am not buying the Birmingham offense. He finished the game completing only 11-of-21 passes for 156 yards. Smith has the ninth-best completion percentage in an eight-team league.
Houston's offense will have to show more, but I believe this is the perfect opponent to do it against. Houston was brutal on third downs (4-of-17), but most of its issues came in the second half when head coach Kevin Sumlin surprisingly shifted play-calling toward the passing attack. RB Mark Thompson averaged over five yards per rush and should run all day on a Stallions defense that allowed 222 yards rushing to New Jersey. The Gamblers' ability to produce offense by simply handing the ball off in this matchup makes them a live underdog. Their defense faced the highest amount of plays of any unit in the league (79) and still only allowed 12 points. A strong defense coupled with a successful running game is everything I want to see in a dog. Capturing the key number of 3 is just gravy. Take the Gamblers with the points.
New Orleans Breakers (+2.5) vs. Tampa Bay Bandits
Tampa Bay has been a popular pick in the futures market due to the QB-HC tandem of Jordan Ta'amu and Todd Haley. This is the perfect time to capture an edge based on the market currently overrating them. The Bandits 17-3 win over the Maulers left me underwhelmed with both teams. The Tampa offense showed flashes, but Ta'amu threw two interceptions and was heavily reliant on this tight end. His 5.8 yards per attempt rank seventh in the USFL.
The New Orleans defense was the most dominant unit in the league during the first weekend. It had six sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown, and a special teams safety on a blocked punt. It will have Ta'amu under pressure all game, and without the threat of a capable rushing attack, New Orleans edge rusher Davin Bellamy will wreak havoc. After one week, Tampa Bay has the worst running game in the league, mustering just 64 yards and 2.1 yards per carry. Tampa's projected high-powered offense without a running game or a vertical passing threat should be easy work for the Breakers' defense.
New Orleans' offense is top three in yards per play (4.9), rushing yards (171) and total yards (326) after one week. It was able to finish drives late in the game behind RB T.J. Logan, who leads in the league with 181 all-purpose yards. The Breakers converted 2-of-3 fourth downs, giving me confidence that they can make enough plays in the fourth quarter to upset the Bandits on Sunday. Bet the Breakers with the points, with a small stake on the money line.