College football season got going with a handful of games over the weekend, but the vast majority of the country kicks off this week. As you start your handicapping, don’t forget a few keys that make the sport unique, and can be the difference between cashing and tearing up losing tickets.
No sport has more lopsided scheduling than college football. Teams make their own non-conference slate and have different motivations. Some are after money; some are after easy wins; some (but not many) want to test themselves against the best competition they can find. Then conference play starts, and the scheduling discrepancies continue. Take Wisconsin, for example: the Big Ten is arguably the most top-heavy conference in the nation, but Wisconsin is in the much weaker West division. This year, that means they won’t face Big Ten-heavyweights Penn State or Ohio State in the regular season. Wisconsin’s only challenging out of conference match-up is at BYU on September 16. There will be reasons to be skeptical if they are unbeaten — or close to it — leading into the Big Ten championship game.
On the flip side, Big Ten rival Michigan State plays Penn State and Ohio State, and will be tested in non-conference play by both Western Michigan and Notre Dame. When we get into the later part of the season, the Spartans could easily be better than their record suggests.
Elsewhere, keep an incredulous eye on Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, USC, and Oklahoma, who all have soft slates, but give some leeway to Illinois, Purdue, and Syracuse, who have tough roads to hoe.
The only constant on NCAA football rosters is turnover; the biggest thing that stays the same from year to year is the coaches. Though Nick Saban (Alabama), Urban Meyer (Ohio State), and Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) are all winning games at ludicrous rates, their success against the spread — Saban 54.8% ATS, Meyer 53%, Harbaugh 50% — is much less impressive.
Knowing which coaches cover consistently is a valuable tool for handicappers. In two years at Tulsa Philip Montgomery’s overall record is 16-10. However, for betting purposes, the Golden Hurricane have gone an even better 16-9-1 (64%) in that span. During the nine seasons David Cutcliffe has been at Duke, the Blue Devils are 52-61 straight up but 63-45-2 ATS (58%). And since taking over for Harbaugh at Stanford, David Shaw has been a great bet, posting a 51-30 record ATS (62.9%) to go along with a 64-17 straight-up record.
There is no question that being at home increases a team’s chances of winning. That said, some teams get more of an edge than others. Fbschedules.com did a deep dive on this topic in June and the results can be helpful. On average, teams have a 20% better win percentage at home than on the road. Arkansas State had the most drastic numbers, winning at a 77% clip at home, and 38% when traveling. On the flip side, Duke has had virtually no advantage at home versus on the road over a 123-game span. Kansas, Utah State, and Cal all saw huge differences home and road, while Northwestern, Bowling Green, and Texas got little out of playing in front of their fans.
Don’t lock in the same advantage for every school; it simply is not a uniform edge.
Featured photo: Stanford coach David Shaw. (By Cynthia Yock CC License.)
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