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Handicapping Conference Action

   by Scott Spreitzer - 09/25/2006

We're coming up on the final Saturday of September, which signals the unofficial start of conference action across the country.

Of course, some of the teams in bigger conferences have already played a league game or two. They've learned in the past that it's better to spread things out than to try to play eight physical games in a row through October and November. So, many SEC and ACC teams start early and save some cupcakes for later. But the majority of games this weekend, and on every weekend the rest of the way will be conference showdowns.

With that in mind, I thought I'd put together some tips you can use that apply specifically to conference action.

*First and foremost, remember that you're trying to navigate choppy waters. Very few teams are so strong physically and mentally that they can run the table against Las Vegas expectations in league play. Very few teams are so weak that they just get squashed week after week. Even the bad teams that lose big will cover some spreads because the lines are so high.

As a result, you can't try to play streak or momentum in college action. Don't say to yourself, "Well, these guys have covered three league games in a row, I'm going to load up!" They might win that fourth. But more often than not, the lines get too high just as the team is about to lose some intensity.

Conversely, don't lay a huge number against a bad team just because they've lost a few blowouts in a row. These teams will cover spreads in the middle of conference action because opponents consider them a virtual bye. Out of the blue, some winless team will scare the heck out of a respected program because the favorite had a brain cramp.

*Because you know in advance the waters are going to be choppy, you need to outline expectations ahead of time about which games will bring peak intensity, and which will be mini-vacations. Different teams have different priorities. Conference powers will try to peak for the other powers, but will take their foot off the gas against lower rung teams. Cellar dwellers have one or two traditional rivals that they get up for. Some mid-level teams will play up or down to their competition (pulling upsets off of powers but getting upset by patsies). Others tend to bully the patsies, while getting routed by the powers.

Remember to look for choppy waters! Review how each team has performed for their current head coach in past seasons in league play. It's just not that hard to find how programs prioritize their slate or which category those mid-level teams fall into.

*Defenses tend to wear down over the course of a season. They're at their fastest and sharpest in September. They're banged up and worn out by November. We've even seen a lot of soft defensive efforts in bowls for many years even though the kids had a month off to prepare. Believe it or not, it takes longer than a month to recover from getting banged around every week in the Fall!

One of the best hidden factors for picking winners in the latter stages of conference play is looking at the depth of defenses. Those who are best suited to handle the ravages of a season will cover spreads down the road. Those who are small physically and lack depth will get steamrollered by physical offenses. When you add this dimension into your other handicapping, some great situations open up. You can go against teams with soft or fading defenses on those weeks when you know they won't be motivated. You can apply this to totals as well, playing 'Unders' with the deep defenses and 'Overs' in games involving two worn out stop units.

Finally, keep an eye on the big TV games. We've seen some pretty strong tendencies toward underdogs and 'Unders' in these matchups the past few years. That's particularly true in early conference action when the defenses are fresh. Be sure to shade your action in that direction this week and through October. Then look for letdowns the week after any team has a huge result on national television.

That should help you put the fundamentals of Smash Mouth handicapping to work in conference play this season.

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