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Handicapping NCAA FB Down the Stretch

   by Scott Spreitzer - 12/01/2008

The last two years, favorites have ruled the day in college conference championships to an extreme degree. Remember what happened last year?


BIG 12: Oklahoma (-3) beat Missouri 38-17

ACC: Virginia Tech (-4.5) beat Boston College 30-16

SEC: LSU (-7) beat Tennessee 21-14 (a push!)

MAC: Central Michigan (-3) beat Miami of Ohio 35-10

CUSA: Central Florida (-7.5) beat Tulsa 44-25

That's a 4-0-1 ATS record for favorites, with the covers coming by 18, 9.5, 22, and 11.5 points. All four covers were by more than a touchdown. Three of the four were by double digits. The general public loves betting favorites, and cleaned up on these games. Many old school bettors who always take underdogs in "big" games got spanked.

Here's what happened two seasons ago:


BIG 12: Oklahoma (-3) beat Nebraska 21-7

ACC: Wake Forest (+2.5) beat Georgia Tech 9-6 (underdog!)

SEC: Florida (-3) beat Arkansas 38-28

MAC: Central Michigan (-3.5) beat Ohio 31-10

CUSA: Houston (-5) beat Southern Miss 34-20

At least we saw one underdog cover. Favorites were 4-1 ATS, but the cover margins were a more tame 11, 7, 17.5, and 9.

Of course, the BCS national championship games have also gone to the favorite in college football the last two years (Florida and LSU crushing Ohio State).

What is it about the word "championship" that brings out the best in favorites?

*Hey, who's going to be flat for a conference championship game? It can happen if a team has already locked up a spot in the BCS championship (rare, but Oklahoma lost a Big 12 Championship game to Kansas State when they had sewn up a spot in the big one). For the most part, you're going to get peak intensity from both teams when something important is at stake. If the superior team isn't distracted, one of the best reasons to bet underdogs disappears.

*The nature of football causes victory margins to spread out in very important games. That doesn't mean the superior team is really 14-21 points better. It just means they got a lead, then the trailing team had to go to desperation measures to catch up. More often than not, desperation measures blow up! The wreckage is on the scoreboard. When the desperation measures work you have a 35-31 or 41-38 thriller.

*Top college teams are getting savvier about shortening the game once they're ahead. Even before a rules change this year made that easier, the very best were copying the NFL strategy of moving the chains and grinding out the clock with an advantage. That makes it more difficult for a dog to get back in the game because they have fewer possessions to make anything happen.

Basically, for underdogs to cover, there has to be a blown line where the wrong team was favored, or the favorite has to come in overconfident or flat because a bigger game is up next, or the desperation measures have to work in the second half. That does happen sometimes. The last two years are a bit extreme. I don't think favorites will enjoy an 80% success rate going forward. I do think you'd better have some GREAT reasons to take an underdog though!

These are the fundamentals you should be looking at when handicapping championship games.

*Who's going to own the point of attack? That team is the right side as an underdog or an inexpensive favorite. If there's not a clear edge, the dog probably makes some sense. There's usually a clear edge though. Be sharp enough to find it!

*Who has the lower risk approach on offense? Turnovers often influence championship games because the higher risk approach runs into trouble. The announcers will keep saying "turnovers will kill you" without explaining that passing the ball 40-50 times a game leads to turnovers! Look to back balanced teams who know how to protect the ball.

*Who has played better away from home during the season? Some teams won their divisions by being dominant at home and catching some schedule breaks on the road. You want to back a team that can win away from its home field. The only exception is in C-USA, where the better team hosts the game. Evaluate their home results vs. their toughest opponents for guidance.

*Don't be afraid to lay points if it's justified.

All of us living in Las Vegas have a natural tendency to back off favorites. The public goes broke because they bet too many favorites. Professional bettors make their living by NOT doing that! There are some instances where it's justified in all sports though. If you're getting the superior team at a very cheap price, it's silly not to take advantage. Do the extra work to confirm your edge, then bet your edge whether it's on the dog or the favorite. The public loses over the long haul because they don't do the work.

As you're watching the games this weekend, be sure you're evaluating each team in terms of their bowl potential as well. Don't just root for your bets. Study all 10 teams very carefully so you can win even more money in a few weeks!

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