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Sandwiches and Scheduling
by Jim Feist - 09/21/2010
College and pro football offer a variety of great match-ups every weekend. A good handicapper, though, doesn't just look at individual and team match-ups. There are other factors surrounding a game that can be equally important to identifying a winning spread cover, such as scheduling and road travel.
For instance, last week Texas has a non-conference game against Wyoming schedule right before opening Big 12 play. The Longhorns had a slow start and failed to cover. Coach Mack Brown said he was frustrated by the stalled drives and struggles to score in the first half. Several teams have already had super-long road trips, like Pitt opening the season at Utah and Cincinnati heading way out to Fresno, a 28-14 defeat getting only 234 total yards. This is where schedule-makers get the complete attention of oddsmakers.
Two years ago September in college football saw Cal of the Pac 10 traveling 3,000 miles across the country to face Maryland. As a double digit dog, Maryland jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead and held Cal without a TD until late in the game of a 35-27 upset. It really wasn't that close. For three quarters, California appeared to be sleepwalking, which can happens when you have a noon kickoff, which translates to a 9 a.m. start time on the West Coast.
The Maryland offense erupted for five touchdowns after having only four in the first two games combined. Maryland was coming off a 10-point loss to unheralded Middle Tennessee State! After rushing for 391 yards in a 66-3 thrashing of Washington State, Cal was held to just 38 yards on 23 carries. Think scheduling had anything to do with that upset? "We weren't ready to start the game," said Cal quarterback Kevin Riley. Another player admitted, "We were playing a little sluggish."
As a footnote, the next week Cal flattened Colorado State, 42-7. Those examples encompass so much of things beyond match-ups in college football: scheduling, emotion, revenge, even respect. After the game one Maryland player was angry about how people were downplaying ACC football. Did you notice Maryland and Cal played a few weeks ago in the rematch? This time it was at Cal, so the Terrapins were the team traveling 3,000 miles, and looked sluggish in a 52-13 Cal rout. "We wanted them to know what Cal football was all about. We wanted to jump on them early," RB Jahvid Best said.
Cal was involved in a pair of similar games in 2006 and 07. Tennessee was a home dog to No. 9 Cal and the Vols jumped to a 35-0 lead on the way to a 35-18 victory. The Volunteers were off a losing season, one where they missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988. Players and coaches were all talking about bringing Tennessee football back to where it belonged.
Tennessee dominated Cal, with an edge in total yards 514-336 and an edge in rushing 216-64. Individual match-ups were skewed, in a sense, because of the emotional energy and focus that a team like Tennessee put into that game, plus the long road trip for Cal. The two teams met again last season at Cal and the Golden Bears won and covered, 45-31. The schedule hurt both road teams. Motivation was a factor, too, with Tennessee rebounding from a poor 2005 season and Cal out for revenge in 2007. This doesn't happen all the time, of course, but even the best pro and college football teams don't always have 100 percent focus.
Staying with Tennessee for a moment, what happened AFTER those games? Back in 2006, the Vols were a 20-point home favorite over Air Force, yet struggled in a 31-30 victory. Several things happened. One is that Tennessee was on a high from that emotional opening day win. Two, the team had put so much focus on beating Cal that it left little time to prepare for Air Force's unique option offense, which is tough to defend even for talented defenses. Three, Tennessee had a more important game on deck the next week against rival Florida, their SEC opener, making the Air Force game a sandwich spot.
After getting whipped by Cal in 2007, the Volunteers were not in a good mood when playing the next week, and they covered by double digits in a 39-19 win over Southern Miss. All of these aspects of handicapping can give bettors a key edge: Being able to identify teams that are completely focused, bad scheduling spots, and bounce back opportunities.
A few years ago the Miami Hurricanes had ACC games against Georgia Tech and NC State sandwiched around a Thursday night battle against Louisville. Look what the Miami players were saying the day before that game: "Louisville is a good team," said then Miami CB Andre Rolle. "But we go in there expecting to shut people out. We're trying to shoot for a national title." When told that the Cardinals felt they were ripe for the upset, Rolle said, "They can think what they want. Personally, I don't think that's going to be possible."
You're not supposed to give fodder for the enemy like that. I wonder what he thought a few days later when Louisville led 24-7 at the half as a 9-point underdog. Before the game Cardinal WR J.R. Russell said, "We look at the game as life or death. It's very important." Miami appeared not to have given as much attention to this non-conference sandwich game as the visitor. Studying individual game match-ups are essential, but remember that other factors equally important can surround a game, including look-ahead spots, sandwich games, and factors that can influence a team's focus.