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Meaningful Games + Strong Defenses = Unders

   by Bryan Leonard - 12/01/2008

We are at that point in the season where games are meaningful for some teams and meaningless for others. Conference titles are at stake, along with approaching championship games, such as in the Big 12, SEC. Ball State and Central Michigan of the MAC recently played a huge game with MAC title game implications on the line. Despite a 31-24 final score, it sailed under the total by double digits.

Oregon State has been clawing its way toward a possible Rose Bowl berth, and used defense to upset Arizona, 19-17. The total on the game was 56! Defense can rise to the surface late in the season with so much at stake.

Remember last season when Kansas had a strong defense and loads of motivation, with a 10-0 start and all kinds of BCS and Big 12 title hopes. Notice their defensive effort down the stretch: allowing 24, 10 and 14 points in three straight conference games (2-1 under the total). The effort on defense was intense.

That same season in the Big 12 we saw a monster defensive effort when Oklahoma headed to Colorado. The Buffaloes were on a mission after a 2-10 season while playing well. Into town comes unbeaten Oklahoma, dreaming of a national title. That game sailed under the total in a strong defensive effort by both sides.

It’s easy to tell when teams are out of it and likely to give a less than stellar effort. And you can tell when teams are hungry. I used this handicapping angle when Boston College and Virginia Tech hooked up on national TV in 2007. Virginia Tech was home, with only one defeat, and riding a 5-game streak. You knew their always-great defense was going to show up.

Boston College had even more to play for, with a perfect 7-0 record, a No. 2 national ranking and a defense allowing 16 ppg. In my analysis of the game I noted, “While QB Matt Ryan has gotten the majority of the press it’s the Eagle defense that deserves the kudos. Boston College ranks 29th in the country in scoring defense and is #1 against the run. They held Georgia Tech’s and RB Tashard Choice to just 2.3 yards per carry. Virginia Tech enters this game ranked #90 in the country in running the football, so we don’t see the Hokies doing too much damage on the ground. Especially when you consider that freshman QB Tyrod Taylor has a high ankle sprain and may not play. His mobility has been a major reason for the VT offensive resurgence.

The likely starter will be Sean Glennon who owns a career touchdown to interception ratio of 16 to 13. Glennon isn’t known for his mobility with a negative 104 career rushing yards. BC has padded their numbers offensively against bad defenses. The only quality stop unit they faced was Georgia Tech. The Eagles were held to 24 points in that 10 point victory. The last two meetings were dominated by the defenses. Boston College won last year 22-3 in a game with a combined yardage total of 445.

“The previous season the Hokies won 30-10 right here in Blacksburg. In Virginia Tech’s last eight home games they held the opposition to a combined 40 points, just 5 points per game! With so much at stake between these top ten ranked teams and with upsets all over the national rankings, we expect a very conservative game plan from both coaches.â€쳌

The under came in with ease, even with BC scoring 14 points in the final two minutes, a 14-10 game. See what was happening? Great defenses and intense motivation on both sides are common this time of the season. It can also happen in the NFL. Last month the Steelers played 4 straight games against teams fighting for playoff positioning, the Giants, Redskins, Colts and Chargers. The result: 3-1 under the total. A 21-14 loss to NY was a slugfest, along with an 11-10 win over San Diego, a team fighting for its playoff life. You will see plenty more opportunities this time of the year with strong defenses with a lot at stake. And as is often the case, great defenses can trump great offenses when the intensity is high.

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