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Football Match-up Madness

   by Bryan Leonard - 08/29/2008

When handicapping football, I like to find match-ups that one team can exploit over another. This could be a strong offensive line against a small D-line, a fast set of wideouts against a weak secondary, or a bad coach against a great one. Looking for edges against the Vegas numbers mean looking for edges on the field that one team can take advantage of.

NFL preseason offers ample opportunities to assess strength and weakness of teams, particularly through injuries and depth. With college football it’s a bit different as there is no preseason, meaning we rely on written assessments before the season, plus what we see the first few games.

For instance, last season I had underdog South Carolina as my SEC Game of the Year. The previous year Georgia left Columbia with an 18-0 shutout victory over the Gamecocks. Teams looking to avenge a shutout loss from the previous year are an excellent pointspread proposition. South Carolina under Steve Spurrier is a terrific road team. They went 6-1 straight up with the one defeat by a single point at eventual national champion Florida.

In addition, the previous time they visited Georgia they did so as a 17-point underdog, only to lose by just a 2-point margin. I didn't put any stock in South Carolina's opening day win last season, where they struggled against Louisiana Lafayette. Starting QB Blake Mitchell (suspension) didn't play, along with several other key players. When those guys are on the field, the Gamecocks can match up with just about any team in the nation.

Spurrier was also not too pleased with his team's effort. 'We had a lot of guys out there that didn't play with the effort that's necessary for us to ever be a contender. I guess you could call us pretenders right now. The way we played the other night was embarrassing at times. I apologize to our fans again. I've apologized every year I've been here, I might as well apologize again.'

Before last season started the 'Ole Ball Coach' was very upbeat about his team, claiming that they had a real shot at competing for the conference title this year, so he was asking for a superior effort. While head coach at Florida Spurrier was 11-1 against Georgia. And this Georgia team was very young. All in all, the match-ups favored South Carolina, especially at QB. I wrote, 'Look for South Carolina to take this one to the wire and surprise the Bulldogs.' Underdog South Carolina never trailed and won the game, 16-12. Georgia's young offense was 3-of-18 on third down!

In the NFL, I recall an early season one-sided game with respects to match-ups, with the Steelers taking on the Browns. In my analysis I noted, 'This is a tough spot for the home team. The Cleveland offensive line had nothing but problems and changes during preseason. Browns center LeCharles Bentley is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning he will miss at least the first six weeks of the season. Right tackle Ryan Tucker is suspended for the first four games of the season because of steroid use.

'There is also no QB experience with young Charlie Frye and Brady Quinn, then a rookie. Now they had to face DC Dick LeBeau's blitzing, attacking zone-blitz defense, which should cause some havoc. It's going to be difficult for the Browns to establish a running game, which means the young QB will have to carry the offense against a strong defense that was No. 11 in the NFL last season.

'Cleveland's defense also has plenty of problems, as they've been mainly addressing the offense in the draft the last two years. Pittsburgh has great balance with QB Ben Roethlisberger, TE Heath Miller, fast RB Willie Parker and a ton of quality wideouts. Pittsburgh is 18-8 SU, 16-10 ATS on the road the last three years and 7-0 SU, 6-1 ATS their last 7 against the Browns.' The match-ups all favored the Steelers and the result was no surprise, a 34-7 rout. Pittsburgh had a 206-46 edge in rushing and won the turnover battle 5-1. There are a lot of ways to handicap games, and individual and team match-ups are one of the most challenging -- and lucrative.

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