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Stats Can Lie

   by Scott Spreitzer - 11/08/2006

When we reach the final weeks of the college football season, a lot of bettors decide that it's safe to use statistical averages to evaluate teams.

They'll say that a team is averaging 220 rushing yards per game, or a defense is allowing 250 passing yards per game. Then, they'll make their selections based on these averages.

This is one of those things that works often enough just to get you in trouble. You win some games, and you start to think that these stats are the key to understanding who wins and covers.

Stats are only relevant to the degree that they help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of a team. Sure, this is vital. But, it's not the whole picture. And stat averages in particular can send you off in the wrong direction very easily.

Some quick examples:

*Stat averages compiled against a difficult schedule don't tell you what a team will do against a soft opponent.

*Stat averages compiled against an easy schedule don't tell you what a team will do against a tough opponent.

*Stat averages compiled in good weather don't tell you what a team will do in poor weather.

*Stat averages compiled with a starting quarterback don't tell you what a team will do with the backup quarterback.

*Stat averages compiled against fresh defenses don't tell you what a team will do later in the season when defenses start to wear down.

*Stat averages compiled early in the season with an inexperienced quarterback don't tell you what a team will do if the youngster starts to learn the ropes and gain confidence.

*Stat averages compiled before a head coach is fired don't tell you what a team will do after the news breaks that he will no longer be with the team after the season.

I think you get the point by now. If you're using stat averages without making these mental adjustments, you're going to be constantly scratching your head while watching your picks lose. You thought a team had a great defense because of the stats, but now a top notch offense is moving at will and lighting up the scoreboard. You thought a team had a poor offense, but they changed quarterbacks and the backup turned out to be a much better player than anticipated.

I strongly suggest that you log statistics on a game-by-game basis, or at least find a website that will break things down for you in this manner. This allows you to do the following:

*Chart the progression of offenses and defenses during the season. Actually, with defenses, this can be regression because some get worse through attrition later in the season.

*Break down how each team has done vs. strong or weak opponents. Then, apply those insights into how they'll do against this week's opponent. This is much better approach then using averages unless the team you're studying is playing an average opponent.

This approach will give you a much deeper understanding of college football teams. Stat averages are an appealing shortcut at first glance. But, once you've tried these other methods, you'll see that averages are just statistical mud. They muck up the process rather than providing a clean path to success.

Don't forget to factor in the weather in these late season games. I talked about that a few weeks ago. Some teams have already played some bad weather games that have created misleading stats. Well, those stats will be misleading if they've got good weather this week. If the weather is bad again, those boxscores will give you a great sense of how teams handle unfriendly conditions.

In the final weeks of the season, you should be trying to determine the following in every game you handicap:

*What are the true strengths and weaknesses of each team?

*Are either of these teams better or worse than the public realizes because the stat averages are misleading?

*What are the motivations for a peak performance from either team this weekend?

*Are there possible distractions that would lead to a unfocused performance from either team?

*How will the weather conditions hurt or help the offenses drive the field to find the end zone?

If you're serious about picking winners, you can't take shortcuts. There are no shortcuts to the winner's circle.

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