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Not All Games Are Created Equal

   by Al McMordie - 11/14/2010

November means college football rivalries! Many rivalry games can mean far more in importance than other games during the season. Some teams having mediocre seasons can make all the disappointment go away in three hours on a Saturday afternoon by sticking it to a state or conference rival.

Michigan State and Michigan have already battled this season. The Spartans intercepted three of Denard Robinson's passes -- one in the end zone, one just outside of it -- and scored 24 unanswered points to break open a close game in a 34-17 rout of the Wolverines. How important was it? For the first time since 1965-67, Michigan State won three straight in the series.

"Maybe someday the little brother believes he can compete with the big brother," said Coach Mark Dantonio, who was stung in his first season at Michigan State by the Wolverines.

"It's pretty big," Spartan star linebacker Greg Jones said. "Especially after my freshman year, losing that lead and the comments that were made. That's the worst feeling you could have. Nobody wants to hear that.”

Now, Michigan State was unbeaten at the time, but notice how the coach and one of the players were still remembering blowing a lead to the Wolverines four years ago! Other times, teams having a terrible season can put all their eggs in one rivalry basket to have a great memory from what would otherwise be a forgettable campaign.

Pitt is zeroing in on a Big East title this month, but UConn used home field and extra motivation to stun the Panthers last week, 30-28, their first conference defeat. The Huskies had averaged just 12 points in their previous three games while going 1-2 SU/ATS, but looked like a very different team against the Panthers.

It was a combination of several emotional factors coming together: home field, a national TV audience, and the chance to knock off a conference front-runner. The Huskies were also 4-4 coming in, so they needed a win to have a chance at making a bowl. Rivalry games and meaningful battles like this can force coaches and players to do unorthodox things. In that game, UConn Coach Randy Edsall decided to gamble. On a fourth-and-1 from the UConn 19 with 2:50 left, Edsall called timeout and decided to go for it deep in his own end. RB Jordan Todman, who blew up the Pitt defense for 222 yards on 37 carries, gained four, and proceeded to run out the final four minutes to preserve a huge win for the Huskies. "When you have confidence in your offensive line and the running back, it makes the decision easier," Edsall said. "I just wanted us to control our own destiny.”

That’s the thing about conference rivalry games late in the season: previous stats, matchups and handicapping dynamics don’t always apply, with new variables taking center stage. When analyzing games from a handicapping point of view, one must think outside the box at times, as Coach Edsall did on fourth and one.

And this can present opportunities to play on a team or against one. For instance, one season I had my Big 10 Game of the Year on Penn State when they were 4-point dog to Michigan State. It was more than just matchups. Michigan State was off a big win over conference rival Wisconsin 49-14, as a dog, and likely to be emotionally flat. Michigan State actually fell into a 42-104 against the spread angle off an upset win as a +6 or more dog. I was not shocked to see underdog Penn State thoroughly dominate play in a 37-13 win as the sloppy Spartans were not focused, turning the ball over five times. In addition to a play against Michigan State, I also noticed that Penn State was in a 14-5 ATS revenge angle. There were far more than stats featured in that game – revenge and emotion were enormous factors in Penn State’s favor.

Keep this in mind over the next few weeks with emotional/rivalry games taking place like Michigan/Ohio State, Army/Navy, Texas A&M/Texas, Oklahoma State/Oklahoma, USC/UCLA and Auburn/Alabama. Think twice-beaten Alabama would like to stick it to Auburn, the team getting all the headlines of late?

One time I recall Vanderbilt players, during the week of the rivalry game with Tennessee, refer to the fact that the Vols had shut them out the previous three years. In fact, the players were angry, adamantly deflecting suggestions that they had packed in the season. The Commodores’ veteran offense had a great chance to end that drought against a Tennessee defense that had slipped down the stretch. Again, there was a revenge angle present for Vandy, though not on beating up Tennessee, but simply playing hard and putting the ball in the end zone…and they did, exploding for 33 points in a 37-33 defeat, but an easy cover as a two-TD dog.

These are great examples why analyzing stats only goes so far in the world of professional handicapping. Angles, revenge, rivalry games and other situations also play significant roles late in the college football campaign. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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