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Who Really Cares?

   by Bryan Leonard - 11/10/2007

I'm not trying to be flippant, but a question that handicappers need to ask this time of year is “Who Really Cares?â€쳌 Ask it to certain college and NFL teams, that is. We are at that point in the college football season where some teams are fighting for conference titles, winning seasons, and potential bowl berths. Of course, other teams are already out of it, guaranteed a losing season and possibly even knowing that their coaching staffs will be let go soon.

There’s been no better example than Nebraska of late, with a defense that seems to have packed it in. Two Nebraska players recently debunked a television report saying that Husker coach Bill Callahan told the Nebraska football team that he had been asked to resign. One player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Callahan told the players that “people in the state are expecting me to resign.â€쳌 Whether it’s true o not, the real concern for handicappers is that rumors are swirling. Are players concentrating 100% on the field and in practice? Are the coaches looking over their shoulders rather than focusing on the task at hand? The Huskers had the most embarrassing losses in school history, a 76-39 defeat to Kansas, so one has to wonder.

The other concern is winning seasons, conference titles and bowl bids. Some teams have not shot at any of those and can start going through the motions. Other teams can be supremely motivated for any one of these prizes, or all of them.

I recall a year ago Oregon State was a great example. They had a winning record that needed just a few more wins for a winning season. The whole team, and the whole stadium, was motivated with USC coming to town, the dominant Pac 10 power the last few years and No. 3 team in the nation. The Beavers were fired up for the game and pulled off the upset as a dog, 33-31.

However, on the other end of the spectrum has been a team like Michigan State the last few years. They’ve often been walking zombies, starting hot but finishing ice cold. The Spartans had a lazy loss in a 46-21 defeat at Indiana, one of the last under John L. Smith before he was fired. Even more stunning was that Michigan State was a favorite again in that game, putting them on a 2-7 against the spread run!

Teams on the winning-season bubble right now at Vandy, Georgia Tech, Michigan State (again), Indiana, Northwestern, Rutgers, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Navy, Fresno, and Oregon State.

Handicapper and oddsmakers must make adjustments on whether certain teams care or not. Some pro players and coaches are not going to be with the same team next year, so they are fighting for jobs, either with their current team or when a future employer comes calling. There is a huge difference between a team that is motivated to play hard, and ones that are far less motivated.

Ask yourself each week: Are teams rallying around the coach? Or have they packed it in? Quotes from players and coaches can provide clues, as well as statistic, especially defensive ones. Teams that are playing hard, even bad teams, can put up a fight defensively each week, while dead teams will get run over often. Teams that care the most win more often than not on the field and ATS.

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