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Football Schedules and Sandwiches

   by Jim Feist - 09/19/2012

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, both Iowa and Iowa State opened the season against smaller schools one week before they played each other in their annual Big 10/Big 12 state rivalry game, a classic look-ahead spot. Iowa stumbled as a double digit favorite against Northern Illinois, squeezing out an 18-17 comeback win, but not even close to a cover.

A year ago both failed to cover in the same situation. Iowa State barely beat Northern Iowa as 10-point chalk while Iowa rested the starters a lot in a rout of Tennessee Tech but failed to cover as 40-point chalk.

Clearly the rivalry game on deck was more important than the openers, with Kirk Ferentz even admitting he rested players in the second half. A similar scheduling instance is a sandwich spot, with two important games surrounding a less than stellar matchup. South Carolina, for instance, hosted Navy, a non-conference game surrounded by two SEC games (Georgia, Vanderbilt) on their schedule this September.

Several teams have already had super-long road trips. USC failed to cover in a trip to New York to play Syracuse, then had to fly 3,000 miles back to the West Coast to play at rival Stanford. As an 8-point favorite the Trojans looked out of sync on offense and out of gas all around in a 21-14 Cardinal upset. Oh, and those were their first two road games of the season, so the schedule-maker wasn't kind to the Men of Troy.

Two years ago Pitt opened the season at Utah and Cincinnati headed way out to Fresno, a 28-14 defeat getting only 234 total yards. This is where schedule-makers get the complete attention of oddsmakers.

Four 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 then 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.

That can also set up interesting rematches the following season, such as Texas/UCLA last year (UCLA embarrassed the Longhorns in 2010). When Maryland and Cal played the rematch the next season, this time Cal had home field, so the Terrapins were the team traveling 3,000 miles. They looked very 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," one Cal player admitted, hinting at revenge.

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 in 2011 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.

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. 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.

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