DFS College Football: Lineup Construction
by Chris Kay and Chris Pacheco
Understanding lineup construction is essential when beginning a new sport and I firmly believe it’s the first thing to know when playing DFS college football. In most sports there are multiple strategies to constructing your lineup. While college football certainly has its nuances, the keys are to focus on upside and your scoring rules.
If you’ve come this far, it’s probably because you’re a DFS NFL player trying to learn a new sport. Welcome to what I consider the most wild and entertaining sport that you can play on FanDuel and DraftKings. This is because of the high amount of scoring, the 128 FBS teams, and the wild offensive systems.
In the NFL this past season, the highest scoring offense was the Green Bay Packers and their 30.4 points per game. Quite an impressive number if you ask me, but not as impressive as college football’s team scoring leader, the Baylor Bears at 48.2 points. In fact, 30.4 points per game would rank the Packers just 56th in the NCAA. The best rushing team in the NFL in 2014 was the Seattle Seahawks, as they rushed for 172.6 yards per game. In the NCAA, the leader was Georgia Southern and their 380 rushing yards per game. The best passing team in the NFL was the Colts with 306 passing yards per contest. In the NCAA, the leader was Washington State (477), a team that averaged 103 passing yards more than the second best team in the NCAA.
I’m sure you get the point by now, but it’s important I stress to you the difference between the NFL and college football. Scoring is high and the offenses are wacky. While there are option attacks, air raids and many more unique offenses in the NCAA, it all comes down to what scores points. This point translates directly to CFB DFS in that to win big, you must find the guys who put the ball in the end zone.
Let’s get started now and focus on FanDuel and DraftKings for our scoring in this article. On DraftKings, there are bonuses for every position. Any player that throws for over 300 yards receives a three-point bonus. Any player that rushes or receives for over 100 yards also gets a three-point bonus. PPR scoring is used on DraftKings. Over on FanDuel, there are no bonuses and you receive half of a point for every reception. These scoring differences will come into play later on.
You absolutely can’t miss that kind of play in cash games
In this unique sport, it’s extremely important to start with the player you either feel the most confident in (for cash games) or the player you feel has the biggest upside (GPP). Each week there seems to be a player that goes off for a huge game, and the obvious goal is to give yourself the best shot at finding that player. While it’s not a guarantee for a player with a top matchup to go off, more times than not Melvin Gordon in 2014 was going to go for 150 yards and a few touchdowns at the very least. You absolutely can’t miss that kind of play in cash games, and unless Gordon’s price was ridiculous, it made sense most of the time to have him in your lineups. In other words, goal number one: locate your stud and build around him.
In order to get a better idea of what “stud” you should pay for (i.e. a WR or a RB), we charted the game logs of the top 20 wide receivers and running backs from the 2014 season, based on receiving and rushing yardage respectively. We want to know: 1) their average scores on FanDuel and DraftKings and 2) their volatility.
Standard Deviation/DK Point
Standard Deviation/FD Point
1) Top running backs outscored wide receivers on both FanDuel and DraftKings.
2) Wide receivers were more valuable on DraftKings than on FanDuel (five point gap). The five point gap stems from a) DraftKings has PPR scoring and b) DraftKings has a bonus for 100 receiving yards. Note that the gap between wide receivers from DraftKings to FanDuel is larger than the gap between running backs from DraftKings to FanDuel. They are more heavily impacted by the differences in scoring systems.
3) The gap between running back scoring and wide receiver scoring on FanDuel was large (five points) and obviously much larger than the gap between running backs and wide receivers on DraftKings (2.7). This is even more apparent when you compare their scoring relative to running backs from a percentage standpoint. Wide receivers averaged 20 percent less points than running backs on FanDuel, but that number shrunk down to 10 percent on DraftKings.
4) Both positions had essentially the same volatility per point on each site.
high end running backs are outscoring high end wide receivers
1) Price always comes into consideration, but in general high end running backs are outscoring high end wide receivers. If you’re torn between a RB stud or a WR stud to form the foundation of your cash game lineups, it might make sense to use the systemic odds as a tiebreaker and side with the running back. This is particularly the case on FanDuel, where the half-PPR scoring broadens the gap between high end RBs and high end WRs.
2) The general market theory seems to be to focus on RBs in cash games (more overall touches and red zone touches leads to less volatility) and WRs in GPPs (more volatility due to chances at big plays but less certainty since they don’t touch the ball as often). Our study shows there was no actionable difference between RB volatility and WR volatility when viewed as a group. As a result, you can throw that general theory out the window. Systemic volatility should not be impacting your decision to start with a stud RB or a stud WR in cash or GPP formats; that’s a decision that needs to be made on a case by case basis. For example, in our first premium strategy article Mike Leone took a look at a defensive metric that may help decide when to target a WR in a GPP.
After plugging in that first player with confidence, it’s important to go hunting for value. It’s likely you spent a pretty decent penny to lock in that first player, so it’s essential to find salary relief. With college football being so deep in terms of players available, there is always a player who is underpriced. This plays back to the point above about the plethora of CFB teams. Due to simple probability each weak there is going to be some sort of injury, personnel change or matchup that results in strong value at the low dollar level. It’s much more difficult for sites to set accurate pricing for each slate as a result than it is in NFL.
While the preceding advice has been pretty general, now it’s time to get a bit more specific by focusing on each site’s scoring system.
On DraftKings, we have to select two quarterbacks and a flex option compared to FanDuel’s one quarterback/zero flex format. Because of the depth of the roster, I don’t feel it’s a must to focus on quarterback immediately. The key is to find the guys who will get the bonuses and exploit it. Let’s go position-by-position to see what I mean.
The quarterback position has many options for both kinds of game formats (cash vs GPP). In cash games, it’s typical to select a high usage passer (think Texas Tech/Washington State) or a high usage runner (think Navy). These are obvious options because of the high likelihood of reaching 300+ passing yards or 100+ rushing yards.
For GPP formats, it’s the quarterbacks who are threats both on the ground and through the air that give you that upside of putting up six extra points on the night from yardage bonuses alone that are valued highly. They also are going to be the guys with high percentages of their team touchdowns. This is going to change from year-to-year, but think Marquise Williams from North Carolina and Deshaun Watson from Clemson for this upcoming season. They are dual threat players who are high usage. The common thing we are going to see among these types of quarterbacks is that they have the ball in their hands not only between the 20s, but inside the 20s. Marquise Williams scored on 64% of UNC’s touchdowns in 2014. Why wouldn’t you roster him in elite matchups with high Vegas totals?
Usage is always the name of the game
The running back position is a little more cut and dry whether it is for cash games or big prize tournaments. Usage is always the name of the game, but never is it more prevalent than here. Whoever you choose, they must be the guy who handles the football around the goal line. I can’t tell you how many times running backs were duds when they ran for 120 yards, but zero touchdowns because they were taken out around the end zone. There is a reason why they call it “pay dirt” boys and girls. Again, keep in mind that CFB DFS is a different game than NFL DFS, and it’s tougher for players, especially running backs, to make value on yardage alone.
In GPP games you can get a little more creative with your roster construction and throw in guys who have the ability to catch passes and run the football, but typically these guys aren’t the biggest of backs in college football. These are the guys who don’t receive as many goal line touches. They are more of the scat backs that have good hands. Unfortunately, running backs at this level typically don’t possess both attributes (hands and size).
At this level, most passing offenses have pretty clear-cut number one targets. Unless there are an abundance of wildly underpriced receiver options, these high usage players are the guys we want to target. There are plenty of teams who have no real depth at this position and don’t care if you know where the ball is going. There are also plenty of offenses that will throw 35+ times (and sometimes up to 60 times). These are obvious teams to target. The more attempts the team throws, the further out in the depth chart you can go, but rarely can you go to the fourth or fifth guy. Don’t get cute. We’re still talking about college playbooks and young quarterbacks that have trouble moving to third and fourth routes in their progression. Whether we’re talking cash games or tournament games, the types of receivers above are whom we are targeting.
On the surface, it seems like the flex position should be reserved for a running back. The almost guaranteed carries they receive is what keeps us rostering them from week-to-week. Even in games when teams are up by three touchdowns, they are running the football. This isn’t always the case for receiver targets when up big. My initial inclination is to only use a wide receiver in the flex in tournament games, or if enough wide receivers are mispriced and there are guys who should play in close games and are high usage. Also, the rushing bonus will always be easier to attain than receiving yardage, and touchdowns on the ground are easier to come by. In fact, during the 2014 season, 29 running backs in the NCAA averaged 100 rushing yards per game, while just 12 wide receivers totaled 100 receiving yards or more per game. There were 32 running backs this past season that averaged one touchdown or more per game (10 games played minimum). At the wide receiver position, only 10 players averaged one touchdown per game or better. This is mostly anecdotal though. Let’s see if the higher yardage bonus and TD likelihood is actually leading to higher and more consistent DK point totals for running backs. To do so, we charted the game logs of the 41st-60th ranked wide receivers (by receiving yardage) and running backs (by rushing yardage) from the 2014 season. We used 41st-60th ranked players to give us a better representation of the types of players that are FLEX options each week. We’re looking for: 1) average DraftKings score 2) volatility 3) floor.
% of Games Under 10 DK Points
While running backs did achieve the 100 yard bonus more often, it did not translate to a higher average score (DK Average), less volatility (DK SD/Point) or a higher floor (Percentage of Games Under 10 DK Points). In fact the wide receiver results across the board were virtually indistinguishable from the running back results outside of the bonus percentage.
There’s no systemic edge at the flex position in choosing a running back over a wide receiver or vice versa, regardless of game format (cash or GPP). This puts a bigger emphasis on micro criteria such as matchups, player salaries, etc. on a weekly basis.
The tight end position is a thin one, which makes it pretty easy to explain as a position whether it is on DraftKings or on FanDuel. You can pay for the best talents, or you can go cheap as possible and simply punt the position, hoping for a TD while you apply savings to the rest of your roster. Of the top 100 player catch totals in 2014, only two came from tight ends, and only one is returning (Jonnu Smith of Florida International). Of the top 100 player touchdown totals, seven were tight ends, and two are returning (Smith and Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech). So of course, Smith and Hodges are going to be expensive options, but there are also a few others to choose from. This early pre-season list includes the following: Evan Engram (Ole Miss), Cam Serigne (Wake Forest), Hunter Henry (Arkansas), and Austin Hooper (Stanford).
The inconsistent usage of players at this position in college systems is just too low to spend money on other than those six tight ends
The inconsistent usage of players at this position in college systems is just too low to spend money on other than those six tight ends. The best guys at this position to target, when cheap, are red-zone threats and tight ends in ideal offenses. These are obvious characteristics to target, but these players don’t produce week in and week out and that’s why they’re cheap. Typically I find these two types of cheap targets in safer offenses that have no star receiver. Two off the top of my head are Josiah Price from Michigan State and David Grinnage from North Carolina State. Both have chemistry with their quarterbacks and are relied upon in the red zone. Price caught six touchdowns out of 26 catches, while Grinnage caught five touchdowns out of 27 catches. They’re not going to accrue points from yardage, but from picking the right matchup that leads to one of those five or six touchdowns on the season.
There are enough similarities to run with the basic strategies listed above for DraftKings on FanDuel, but the biggest of differences comes at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Touchdowns are the name of the game, and no longer is yardage looked upon as an extremely sexy stat. While the yards are nice, there aren’t enough yards to make up for a two-touchdown game from a quarterback.
On FanDuel, I’m going to add the star and value plays to my squad and then immediately target quarterbacks. Find the high Vegas totals for each game and find the talented quarterbacks who have the talent and have a nice Vegas total. Dual threat quarterbacks are valued here more than every passer besides the high volume, Washington State type quarterbacks (60 passes a game).
The focus at the wide receiver position turns from possession receivers on DK to high yards per catch guys and/or goal line threats on FD
The focus at the wide receiver position turns from possession receivers on DK to high yards per catch guys and/or goal line threats on FD. This is due to the drop from a full point per reception to just half of a point. Typically this means we’re looking for the bigger receivers who make plays downfield. While slot receivers who garner plenty of targets are good plays, they have to be able to make plays in the open field to either score or gain high yardage numbers to be great targets. Here’s a good example:
Wide receiver on DK – 10/95/1 – 25.5 fantasy points
Wide receiver on FD – 10/95/1 – 20.5 fantasy points
As you can see, receivers lose a substantial amount of points because of the half point PPR scoring. They have to make it up on yardage or by scoring another touchdown in this scenario.
To recap, here are some basic tips to get you started in your foray into DFS college football:
1) Build around a stud in cash games. High priced running backs on average outscore high priced wide receivers, especially on FanDuel, giving them the edge if all else is equal.
2) Volatility among running backs and wide receivers is surprisingly similar. Don’t make the mistake of focusing only on running backs in cash games and wide receivers in GPP by assuming otherwise.
3) On DraftKings, yardage becomes more important for quarterbacks, especially those of the dual threat variety, as they can rack up bonus points at 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. The two QB format also allows you to spread your risk at the position and be more value conscious.
4) When filling out your FLEX spot on DraftKings, don’t have any preconceived notions over whether it should be a running back or wide receiver, regardless of format. Mid-tier RBs and WRs on the whole average similar amounts of points per game with similar volatility. Let price, projected volume, matchup and other micro factors for that week dictate your choice.
5) On FanDuel, QB is a bit more of a priority and our focus moves from being yardage based to honing in on QBs from good teams in games with high Vegas totals.
6) Go big or go home at the tight end position. There are only a handful of heavily involved tight ends worth paying up for. Outside of them, simply punt the position with a cheap option who can be used in the red zone on a team with a high projected point total.