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College Football Experience

   by Bryan Leonard - 09/13/2008

We are smack in the middle of the early part of the college and pro football schedule. A key handicapping factor this time of year is experience on the field. College football teams that are returning a lot of starters on one side of the ball can have a significant advantage over and opponent.

A good example is Nebraska, playing well for new coach Bo Pelini. There is a ton of returning experience on both sides of the ball, including QB Joe Ganz. New coaches with few returning players are at a greater disadvantage in rebuilding the program in their image.

A year ago Boston College was similar to Nebraska this season: A new coaching staff, but loaded with returning veterans. In 2007 a lot of people might have been concerned about a brand new coach coming in at BC with Jeff Jagodzinski. However, the new coach inherited a loaded team, with 7 starters back on offense and 10 on defense! That included a talented defense, a senior starting QB in Matt Ryan (now in the NFL) and excellent RB depth with seniors Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth. Notice that BC starter 2-0 SU/ATS averaging 37 points on offense. And that was against some fairly good defenses in Wake Forest and NC State.

Having continuity and familiarity on offense is so important, especially this time of the year. I recall two years ago that Akron, my alma mater, was in a similar situation. The Zips were off a confidence-building bowl season and were fortunate to return eight starters on offense, including dynamic quarterback Luke Getsy and their top-six offensive lineman. Despite opening against Penn State of the Big 10 and NC State of the ACC, Akron pulled an upset, topping the Wolfpack as a +8 dog.

It's particularly important in college with players only performing a few years before graduating. Akron's veteran offense led the way in a stunning 20-17 upset win at NC State that season. Notice that the Zips had the edge in offensive yards 412-290! That's a significant advantage. When trying to find underdogs that might be able to hang in and get a cover or an upset, teams with a lot of returning starters can help provide that edge early in the season.

That was the case with Boston College a year ago, as the Eagles veteran offense has cranked out 142 yards rushing and 275 yards passing per game, while the stout defense allowed just 29 yards rushing per contest! It’s often tough to look at last year’s stats with college football because so many teams graduate key players. However, for those teams that are stocked with experience, it is possible to get a good sense based on what happened a year ago.

It's easier to keep talent together in the pros, of course, which is why returning experience is more of a useful handicapping tool in college football. One of the biggest early upsets of the college football season last year was South Florida winning at No. 17 Auburn, 26-23. Notice that South Florida returned 9 starters on BOTH sides of the ball, including their starting QB. South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt said after the game, 'I know when we've accomplished something. I don't need anyone to tell me.'

By contrast, think back three years ago. Cal was coming off a terrific 2004 10-2 season. However, almost everyone was gone, including the quarterback, the top receivers, top running back and several starters on the offensive line. In 2005, inexperienced Cal was overvalued by oddsmakers and finished 3-7-1 against the spread.

So experience can work two ways in handicapping: Teams that have plenty of it on one side of the ball (or both), and those that lack it in some key area. Compare returning experience (or lack of it) to see if teams are overvalued in September against the number.

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