Dealing with Big Spreads in College Football
Football games tend to be more unpredictable at the college level than they are in the NFL. Why? Because there’s a much bigger gap in team quality. The weakest teams in the NFL are rarely so bad that they have no chance at all of causing the strongest teams some problems. The weakest college teams, however, are typically WAY behind the strongest.
When a good college football team from a top conference meets one of the poorer teams from a “lesser” conference, the gap in quality is huge. And we really do mean huge. It’s basically a complete mismatch, to the extent that matchups such as this are seldom worth watching in our opinion. The chances of an upset are incredibly slim, and watching a vastly superior team absolutely demolish their opponents is not our idea of entertainment. As true football fans, we prefer watching more competitive games.
We prefer more competitive games as football bettors too. Although they’re obviously harder to predict, in our experience they tend to offer better value. Games that are tough to call are where our expertise and knowledge are most likely to give us an edge over the bookmakers. Believe it or not, the more predictable games actually present the bigger challenge.
This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When it’s easy to predict what’s likely to happen, it’s much harder to find value in the betting markets. If an outcome is practically guaranteed, the bookmakers are going to offer VERY low odds. Complete mismatches in college football are a prime example of this. The favorite is so likely to win, that backing them to do so is simply not worth it. The moneyline odds are always too low to offer any real value.
Of course, that still leaves us with the point spread to consider. But when there’s such a disparity between the two teams, the spreads can get very high. We rarely see spreads get near 20 points in the NFL, and the all-time biggest is just 27 points. Compare that to the all-time biggest college football spread which is an astonishing 70.5 points.
Spreads that large aren’t common, but they do happen. What is common are spreads at the 30+ point range, especially towards the beginning of the season. This is when the top teams typically schedule games against much weaker opposition, partly to make up for the fact that college football has no preseason. They essentially use these games for practice, which means they’re hard to assess from a betting perspective.
We obviously know which team is better and which has a greater chance of winning, but that won’t really help us. We need to determine by how many points the stronger team is likely to win by, so that we can decide whether to back them or the underdog to cover. This is a lot more challenging than you might think.
In this article, we look at five key factors that are especially important when betting on these mismatches. Combined with the rest of our general advice for betting football point spreads, this information should help you deal with the big spreads that are so common in college football.
Public Opinion & Line Movement
Public opinion virtually always plays some kind of role in shaping the odds and lines for football games, as the bookmakers typically factor in what the majority are thinking and likely to bet on. Bookmakers know that they can make their lines less appealing to recreational bettors without actually deterring them from putting their money down.
This is why the most popular teams in the NFL are often bigger favorites than they technically should be, and why the totals lines are often a little higher than they should be. Recreational bettors love to back the popular favorites, and they love to back the over.
The same principle applies in college football, and public opinion can be especially significant when looking at mismatch games with a very big spread. If the favorite is one of the most popular college teams, then they’re likely to be backed by the public regardless of what the spread is. Knowing this, the bookmaker will probably inflate the spread more than normal.
Note we said “can” here. Please don’t think we’re suggesting that you should ALWAYS back the underdog against a popular favorite when the spread is big. That way of thinking could be disastrous. There’s still a chance of the favorite covering even when public opinion pushes the spread especially high, so you can’t simply assume that the value lies with the underdog.
What we are saying is that there’s MORE LIKELY to be value in the underdog when the favorite is a very popular team. Keep this in the back of your mind, but realize that it’s only a very loose rule.
We should also point out that public opinion doesn’t just affect the opening lines. The way the majority bet will also affect how a line moves as the game gets closer. If the betting public are committed to backing the favorite despite a big spread, then the spread will probably get even higher. Again, this can create some value in backing the underdog. That’s why it’s a good idea to watch for line movements, and use them to help shape your view of where the value might be.
Quality of Favorite’s Defense
If a football team is up against a big spread, then it’s sensible to focus on the quality of their offense when assessing their chances of covering. The better their offense, the better their chances of scoring a lot of points. The better their chances of scoring a lot of points, the more likely they are to cover.
There’s definitely SOME logic at play here, but it’s important to remember that we’re not concerned solely with how many points the favorite will score. The size of their winning margin relies heavily on how many points they allow to be scored. Having an excellent offense means very little if their defense is weak.
This should go without saying really. A golden rule of football betting is to always analyze all the factors that are relevant to what you’re betting on. This is the only way you can make sure you are forming balanced views on the likely outcomes. Your views have a much better chance of being accurate if you are considering more than just one or two factors.
The quality of a team’s defense is just one factor that will influence their ability to cover the spread, no matter who their competition is. If they have a rock-solid defense to go with an impressive offense, then covering a big spread shouldn’t present a problem. If they have any major defensive weaknesses, however, then it’s possible that they’ll allow too many points to win by a large enough margin.
One of the best ways to analyze a team’s defense is to look at the statistics. Stats such as points per game allowed, yards allowed per game, number of tackles and number of interceptions can all help to paint a picture of a team’s defensive capabilities. Be careful not to read TOO much into the stats alone though, as they can be a little misleading at the college level.
We cover this in more detail in our article explaining how NFL handicapping compares to college football handicapping. For now, it’s just important for you to remember that you can’t rely solely on stats when analyzing a team’s defense.
Not only are the top college football teams more prone to big spreads, they are also the teams that receive the most media attention. This makes analyzing their defense much easier. Since their games are often televised, it’s possible to watch the games for yourself to determine how well they play defensively.
In addition to that, it’s possible to read some of the reports written exclusively about their games. Studying football forums and fans blogs is also an option. This kind of analysis and study is also useful for analyzing coaching tendencies, which is the next factor you need to consider.
Coaching Tendencies & Team Expectations
Understanding how the coaches tend to approach games can be extremely helpful when dealing with big spreads in college football. Coaches of the top teams will usually favor one of the following two approaches when facing much weaker teams.
- Keep pushing hard throughout the entire game
- Ease up once the game is effectively won
When a team is encouraged by their coach to show their opponents no mercy and maintain their intensity right until the end of a game, they’re that much more likely to cover a big spread. When a team is instructed to score enough points early on to guarantee a win and then take it easy, they’re less likely to cover a big spread. This is pretty obvious stuff, but many bettors pay no attention to coaching tendencies at all. Please don’t make that mistake yourself, as you’ll be ignoring a useful indicator.
It doesn’t hurt to also look into the coaching tendencies of the underdogs. Some coaches will approach mismatches with a “nothing to lose” attitude, and encourage their teams to just go out and do their best to cause an upset. Every once in a while, teams pull off a shocking win, but more often than not they get crushed.
Other coaches will approach mismatches with the sole intention of keeping the score as low as possible. They’ll set their team up very defensively, and instruct them to frustrate their superior opponents as best they can. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will lead to a respectable scoreline, but it will usually give the underdogs a slightly better chance of covering the spread.
This point applies specifically to the coaches of top teams. The way they choose to approach mismatches won’t necessarily come down to their personal preferences, but rather the expectations that are placed upon them. If a team is expected to achieve big things in a season, and have a shot of making the playoffs, then they’ll want to impress the selection committee.
Winning games isn’t always enough to do this, but dominating games and crushing opponents can be. So, as a general rule, teams with high expectations are more likely to give it their all and win by as many points as possible. As such, they’re also more likely to cover a big spread.
Strength in Depth of Favorite
A lot of top teams will protect their most important players in mismatch games. Once it looks like they’ve locked in a victory, they might be inclined to bench a few of their better players to reduce the risk of injury or fatigue. Depending on the quality of the backup players, this can have a significant effect on their chances of covering a big spread.
Very often, the backup players at a top team will be a lot more talented than the first choice players of their opposition. So even when they come in to replace the starters, the team will probably still have an excellent chance of recording a sizable victory. However, not all of the big college teams can boast real quality right through the roster. When teams that don’t have great strength in depth start rotating players, it can lead to a drop-off in overall performance.
When assessing the chances of a college team covering a big spread, it’s therefore advisable to ask the following questions.
- How often are the starters rotated with the backup players?
- At what stage of the game are the backup players typically introduced?
- How good are the backup players?
- How much game time have they had in the current season?
- How much game time have they had in previous seasons?
- Have performances suffered in the past when the backup players were introduced?
It may not be possible to find the answer to all of these questions, but we ask you to try your best. It will benefit you to understand a team’s strength of depth, and have some idea of how player rotation is likely to affect them.
Status of the Underdog
The underdog in college games with big spreads will typically be a relative unknown. Unknown doesn’t automatically equal incredibly weak though. Some of the lesser known teams are stronger than most people think. Still not as strong as the biggest teams, of course, but perhaps strong enough to avoid being dominated by their opposition.
Now, most games that appear to be complete mismatches are exactly that. Sometimes, however, the gap between the two teams isn’t as big as everyone assumes. WARNING: it’s dangerous to ignore the status and quality of the underdog entirely. Many bettors focus only on how good the favorite is, and don’t pay any attention at all to the underdog, but this is a very limited approach that can lead to bad betting decisions.
Remember the golden rule we referred to earlier? It’s important to analyze ALL the factors that are relevant to what you’re betting on. When you’re betting on whether or not a team will win by a specific margin, one of the primary goals is to determine exactly how much better they actually are compared to their opponents. So it’s safe to say that the quality of those opponents is definitely a relevant factor and one that must be taken into account. Assess the underdog just as closely as you assess the favorite, as this will give you a much better chance of deciding which team is most likely to cover.
Since complete mismatches are common in college football, big spreads are common too. Some people choose to avoid them, which is often the best thing to do. As we’ve explained, they don’t represent the best betting opportunities that football has to offer.
However, the fact is that betting on the big spreads in college football CAN be profitable. Providing you take a measured approach, and consider all the factors that we’ve discussed in this article, there’s no reason why you can’t regularly make the right calls. Just be very careful about making assumptions, and try to look at each game individually.