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by Scott Spreitzer - 11/30/2006
We've got a very interesting set of college football conference championship games coming up this weekend. It's an absolute certainty that nobody anticipated this set of matchups in the major conferences.
It's not like there are one or two surprises. Virtually no preseason favorites are still alive in their conferences. Florida was supposed to win the SEC East, and they did. Otherwise, it's a collection of teams that haven't played in this kind of atmosphere recently, or ever.
How do you handicap games like this? Remember the fundamentals:
*DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Study the defensive strengths and weaknesses of all the teams involved. The general public is prone to fall in love with offenses. This warps the line in the direction of high scoring teams. Postseason football has made it clear that good defenses are undervalued in big games. Be sure you know which teams are best against the run, which teams are best at forcing turnovers, and which teams are best at clamping down in the red zone and keeping teams out of the end zone.
The cast of "usual suspects" that typically play in these championship games were often very strong in these areas. It's not that the big time programs forgot to play defense this year. It's that many other teams have improved so much on that side of the ball that they put themselves in position to climb the ladder.
*RUNNING GAMES WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS: After looking at the defenses, look at the running games. Once again, this is because of openings in the Vegas pointspreads created by public perception. The public loves quarterbacks who post big numbers that help their teams run up the score. This typically isn't how championships are won. They are won on the ground.
You see, running the ball is the safest way to move the chains and work your way toward the end zone. Passing teams put up a lot of points, but it's with a high risk method that's prone to break down under pressure. Passing teams also have trouble running the clock with a lead. Running teams can play defense with their offense just by taking time off the clock during their drives.
Which style of football would you trust most to avoid turnovers? Which style of football would you trust most with a lead and 10 minutes to go in the game?
*SPECIAL TEAMS CAN BE A TIE-BREAKER: We've all seen countless big games come down to special teams play. Both offenses are good, both defenses are good, and the straight up win and pointspread cover ends up coming down to which team properly executes field goals (or doesn't), and which team busts a long run on a kick return (or doesn't).
The day after Thanksgiving, LSU and Arkansas were about equally productive on offense in their SEC matchup. LSU won and covered thanks to a kick return TD. We're may see at least one conference championship decided in similar fashion. Be sure you know which teams have confidence in their field goal kicker and which teams have the kind of athletes that can bust a long return.
*STUDY WHAT EACH TEAM HAS DONE VERSUS BOWL CALIBER OPPOSITION: It's very important that stat handicappers look at the right numbers when evaluating a conference championship game. You can't be swayed by how impressive some teams were when they blew out patsies. This is the one thing that tricks the public more than anything.
Team A will call off the dogs with a 30-point lead.
Team B will call off the dogs with a 40-point lead.
The public will decide that Team B is the better team, even though the teams are basically even. In championship games, and in bowl games down the road, there are a lot of games matching teams who are basically even. They don't have even stats because of how their coaches handle blowouts, or because one team has better backups in garbage time. This doesn't matter when it's starters versus starters with a trophy at stake.
Keep this statistical pollution out of your analysis by focusing on how the teams have done against bowl caliber opposition.
*LOOK AT STYLES OF PLAY WHEN PICKING TOTALS: When championships are on the line, styles of play tend to magnify each other. Two up tempo teams will get into very high scoring shootouts. Two run-based defensive teams will get into very low scoring wars. The Vegas totals tend to underestimate things on the extremes. They'll post high totals in the shootouts, but they'll still be too low by 10-14 points. They'll post low totals in the wrestling matches, but they'll still be too high by 10-14 points.
See if you can uncover some winning possibilities along these lines with Over/Unders in the upcoming championship games.
When it comes to handicapping the most important college football matchups, the bottom line is this: America's smash mouth handicapper is telling you that smash mouth football wins championships!