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College Rivalry Handicapping
by Scott Spreitzer - 11/18/2008
We're coming up on the big rivalry games in college football in these next few weeks. The Big Ten actually finishes their season this Saturday with its standard slate of rivalry finales: Michigan/Ohio State, Illinois/Northwestern, Indiana Purdue, and company.
I think the public tends to make mistakes when it comes to rivalry games. They often zig when they're supposed to zag. There are some time-proven rules of thumb that will work more often than not. Nothing works all the time in handicapping. You're trying to pick more winners than losers over the long haul. What I outline today will put us in position to do just that.
Probably the most solid strategy of all is to take home underdogs in rivalry games. No matter how poorly the season has gone, a team will get up when its hated rival comes to visit. I've found that the favorites tend to take these games too lightly. They know they're the better team (or they wouldn't be road favorites!). They assume it's going to be easy. And, watching game films from the past few weeks doesn't change their minds. Once the game starts, they're a step or two slow in an all out war.
The public tends to back favorites here because...well, the public almost always backs favorites! They see the "superior" team at what looks like a short price, and they figure it's a sure thing. They'll also play road favorites in parlays and teasers because they seem so inexpensive. It costs them big time when the dogs rise to the occasion and pulls the upset.
Many home underdogs won't be going to bowls. This is their bowl game. Because it's at home, preparation is as easy as it's going to be. You'll get the very best efforts from mediocre teams when they're home underdogs in rivalry games. Be sure you're looking for spots like this in the rest of 2008.
Some home underdog upsets from 2007: Indiana beat Purdue, Texas A&M beat Texas, Auburn beat Alabama, and Stanford beat Cal.
*SMALL TO MEDIUM ROAD DOGS
If two teams are relatively evenly matched, then the rivalry will make it a true equalizer. How many rivalry games have you seen over the past several years where the game wasn't decided until the final seconds? Dogs are obviously the value side in thrillers like that, whether it's a home dog or a road dog. These games are coin flips in terms of the straight up winner.
Again, the public will back the favorites here because the prices seem so cheap. They're thinking "I've got the better team. I've got home field. And these guys will be in the mood to kill their rival!"
It sounds great, but it's just not the truth. It can be very hard to determine who the better team really is in college football to begin with, particularly when you start breaking down the talent matchups. Home field doesn't matter as much as people think when the visitor comes in motivated. Road favorites are go-against because they come in overconfident. Short road underdogs come in with an "us against the world" mentality. That's something handicappers love to have in their favor.
*CONSIDER BIG HOME FAVORITES
I'm almost never an advocate of laying big points in college football. I have to consider it in rivalry games because of what I've seen in recent years. Many overmatched underdogs enter the game with no hope, and therefore no fire. They talk all week about wanting to make a statement against a long time rival. Deep down inside, they don't believe anything they're saying.
Some big favorite covers you might recall from last year:
*Illinois (-14) jumped ahead of Northwestern 14-0 in the first quarter on the way to a 41-22 victory.
*Oklahoma (-17) jumped ahead of Oklahoma State 28-10 in the first half on the way to a 49-17 victory.
*Florida (-14) jumped ahead of Florida State 14-3 in the first quarter on the way to a 45-12 victory.
*Navy (-14) jumped ahead of Army 24-3 in the first half on the way to 38-3 victory.
What's funny here is that this is where the public starts betting underdogs! They figure the big dog will be insulted by the high price, and will come out breathing fire against an opponent they hate. That does happen occasionally. Too often you see results like those above though. The dog is beaten mentally before the game even starts, and the favorite has fun running up the score.
This year, zig when you're supposed to zig! Take the points in the competitive games and let the results fall where they may. When the dust has settled, you're very likely to have more winners than losers. Consider taking some dogs on the moneyline too because these games aren't priced as coin flips when they really are. In the games with big home favorites, dog players should just pass entirely. There will be some covers where the favorite plays flat. Too many times the road dog will return home with their tails between their legs. You can consider taking favorites in those spots based on recent history.
Best of luck handicapping and betting the rivalry games through the rest of the month. Here in Las Vegas, EVERY weekend is RIVALRY weekend because gamblers vs. sportsbooks is the best battle going!