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by Scott Spreitzer - 11/16/2009
We’ve had a very strange season in college football thus far. Handicappers have had to make serious adjustments in how they perceive matchups on the field. That’s really going to become important as we approach the conference championship games, the bowls, and all the big BCS games in the postseason.
I believe the single biggest factor shaping college football this season is the fact that defenses have largely figured out how to slow down the spread offense. Production is way down this year, particularly with the best teams in the six BCS conferences. There are still some mid-major teams who are putting up big numbers vs. their very soft schedules. If you play a real schedule, your production is down this year.
For the past several seasons, success on the field was largely a product of the system a team was running. A spread offense with a smart quarterback was going to score points. They were going to score points easily, seemingly at will! They were going to “spread the wealth” amongst a lot of talented players too. That was the whole point of the “spread” attack. Defenses couldn’t account for all the different weapons, so quarterbacks threw to whoever was most open or in best position to make a big play. If everyone was covered, the quarterbacks themselves would take off for big yardage. Those plays are way down this year too. Nobody’s talking about Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow being virtual running backs at quarterback any more.
I talked a few weeks ago about how increased blitzing has helped slow down the spread. There are other contributing factors I’m seeing as well. I don’t want to go into those too much because Vegas oddsmakers haven’t figured this out yet! The lines are still too high for the teams who used to pile up points in the spread offense. The totals are too high too (except for the up tempo teams in mid major conferences, some of their totals are still too low!). We have to handicap differently now when anticipating a matchup between two teams. What worked in 2008 can’t possibly work in 2009 because the nature of the cat-and-mouse game between offenses and defenses has changed so much.
Instead of looking at the “systems” that teams are running, we need to look for offensive gamebreakers. Defenses have figured out the systems. They’re neutralizing most everything that’s being thrown at them (particularly the best defenses against the shakiest quarterbacks). So much is now cancelling each other out in the matchups that it often comes down to which team can break the tie with star athlete making a huge play.
It might be a running back who’s going to get you a couple of very long runs during the course of the afternoon.
It might be a pass receiver who can get behind everyone and go deep, or who’s still fast enough to fly up a seam in the defense after a short catch and sprint to the end zone. This type of play is much more rare this year than last. But, it’s that rarity that suggests the star receiver is a gamebreaker. He’s still finding ways to score!
Occasionally it’s still a quarterback. Tebow and McCoy aren’t having the impact this year that they did last year. A guy like Jeremiah Masoli of Oregon just overwhelmed USC a few weeks ago because they couldn’t account for all the things he can do. They spent the day chasing him into the end zone and watching him flip the ball to the ref.
As you watch the games this weekend, and through the rest of the regular season, focus very closely on this particular element. Which teams still have gamebreakers? Which teams don’t have anyone special who can make a big play? You’ll be stunned at how many bowl teams don’t really have big play talent. They’ve been grinding out wins in mediocre conferences. Frankly, I’m surprised at how many teams in the top 25 rankings don’t have much big play talent his year. Many are winning with defense and field position. Word spread quickly about how to slow down the best offenses!
A lot of late season Las Vegas pointspreads are going to be close to pick-em because there’s so much parity this year once you get past the top handful of teams. And, those pick-em games will literally be decided by just a few plays here and there. It’s our job to figure out who’s going to make those plays! If you’re developing that mindset now, you’ll have great handicapping success in all the big matchups that are still ahead. College football has changed, and we the bettors, have to change with it!