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NFL Handicapping vs College Football Handicapping

Some fans are so obsessed with watching the NFL that they completely overlook college football. Others favor watching college football and avoid the NFL. Most football fans, however, watch both. They may prefer one or the other, but they don’t view them as mutually exclusive. The same is true for most serious football handicappers.

This is because they know that the NFL and college football both provide opportunities for making money. They also know that there’s no need to specialize in one or the other, because most handicapping techniques work equally well for both. Anyone who has what it takes to bet on the NFL also has what it takes to bet on college football.

A lot of football bettors don’t realize this. They assume that it’s better to specialize, so they focus their efforts on just variation of the sport. While we understand where these people are coming from, it’s not an approach we recommend taking. For the best chance of making money from football handicapping, don’t limit yourself in this way.

Be cautious. Recognize that there are a lot of similarities between the NFL and college football, but that there are also a few very significant differences that will affect you from a handicapping perspective. Understanding these differences is crucial to your success.

In this article, we look at the five differences between the NFL and college football that have the most impact on us as handicappers. We also offer some useful advice on how to deal with these differences. Our goal here is to ensure that you can handicap each variation of football effectively. You’ll be able to take full advantage of all the betting opportunities they have to offer.

Number of Betting Opportunities

There are 32 teams in the NFL. They each play 16 games during the regular season, for a total of 256 games. Then there are ten games in the playoffs, and the Super Bowl. That gives us 267. If we really wanted to, we could also include the NFL Pro Bowl for 268. That’s a lot of games to bet on, and we have several betting options for each game. When we also factor in future markets such as season win totals and conference winners, it becomes obvious that the NFL presents a LOT of betting opportunities.

College football presents even more though.

The NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is the highest level of college football in the US. It attracts the most attention from fans and bettors alike. There are other divisions and sub-divisions too, but we’ll focus on just the FBS for now. It’s all we need to illustrate the point we’re trying to make here.

The FBS consists of ten separate conferences.

  • American Athletic Conference
  • Atlantic Coast Conference
  • Big 12 Conference
  • Big Ten Conference
  • Conference USA
  • Mid-American Conference
  • Mountain West Conference
  • Pac-12 Conference
  • Southeastern Conference
  • Sun Belt Conference

Each one of these conferences consists of ten to fourteen teams. There are also four independent teams that are part of the FBS, but are not associated with any of the ten conferences listed above. Altogether there are 128 teams in the FBS. With each one playing around ten to thirteen games each season, the 268 games in the NFL pales in comparison.

Just like with the NFL, college football provides us with several different betting options to choose from, including a decent futures market. Let’s face it, the number of betting opportunities in college football almost makes what the NFL has to offer look limited.

So, how does this affect us as handicappers?

The additional betting opportunities in college football has its pros and cons. With more opportunities, we theoretically have a greater chance of finding value in the betting markets. We should always be able to find at least a few games where we can identify an attractive wager or two.

However, it’s not realistic to think that we can go through the entire college football schedule each week. Yes, there are bound to be some nice opportunities in there somewhere, but who has the time to study dozens of games on a weekly basis? No one; at least no one would be able to study them thoroughly enough to find value. We have to accept the fact that we’re not going to be able to take full advantage of every single opportunity that college football presents.

This doesn’t mean that we have to ignore ALL the betting opportunities in college football. We obviously want to benefit from the value that’s on offer in the markets. It just becomes even more important to be selective.

One of our top football betting tips is to focus on the quality of your wagers rather than the quantity of them. This is something that applies regardless of whether you’re betting on the NFL or college football. In fact, it applies to any sport you choose to bet on. That’s why we repeat this piece of advice time and time again throughout our sports betting guide. There are certain messages that we like to make absolutely sure we get across to our readers, and the importance of being selective is one of them.

Being selective when betting on the NFL just means not betting on every single game each week, and not placing too many wagers on the games that we do bet on. Being selective when betting on college football is a little more involved than that.

We must choose a limited number of conferences and/or teams to follow.

It’s not too difficult to follow all 32 teams in the NFL. Sure, most of us know more about some teams than we do about others. But we also tend to have at least some idea about the overall quality of every single team. We generally know which teams are the strongest in any given season, and which teams are the weakest. We also know which teams are in good form at any particular moment, and which teams are going through a tough patch. We’ll typically be aware of any teams that are missing key players through injury, and be able to gauge the likely impact of that.

We can hold most of this basic information in our heads. Providing we pay attention to what’s going on in the NFL, we’ll always know enough to be able to look through the weekly schedule and select a few games that could potentially provide profitable betting opportunities. After investigating these opportunities a little bit further, we can start planning out our wagers.

Trying to follow the FBS is a different prospect entirely. We certainly can’t hold all the information we need to know in our heads. Not for 128 teams across ten different conferences. So we have to be selective in terms of the teams and conferences that we choose to follow. This way we can make sure that we know as much as possible about the teams we’re focusing on.

So, how many teams should we direct our attention to? Unfortunately, there’s no magic number here. Some handicappers like to focus on just a single conference, while others prefer to focus on two or three. Some may follow the whole Power Five. It’s ultimately down to you to decide how many teams and conferences you can keep track of effectively. Just make sure that you don’t overextend yourself.

Remember, your goal is to know as much as possible about each team that you’re following. If you have a limited amount of time to dedicate to your handicapping, it’s better to play it safe and maintain a narrow focus. You can always expand it later.

Quality of Teams and Players

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the NFL and college football is the overall quality of the teams and players. Naturally, the standard at professional level is notably higher than at college level. We don’t expect you to be surprised by this, but we do want to make sure you know what this means from a handicapping perspective.

Too many people assume that it means very little at all. The pros play against the pros, and college teams play against other college teams. So the fact that the quality is higher at pro level doesn’t affect things at college level, and vice versa. There’s plenty of logic to this, but it’s not really the point. We’re not interested in how the difference in quality affects the teams per se, we’re interested in how it affects our ability to handicap games. And there’s one way in particular that it really does affect us.

In college football we have to deal with less consistency and less predictability.

This shouldn’t surprise you either. College players are just kids after all, and they’re still learning the ins and outs of how to play the game. It wouldn’t be fair to expect them to show the same kind of consistency as the pros. Don’t get us wrong. We recognize that some college teams and players ARE consistent, but there are many teams and players that ARE NOT. It’s perfectly normal for even the best college players to look amazing one week and terrible the next. Mistakes are common, and that makes it harder for us to predict how teams and players are likely to perform.

Now, football is an unpredictable sport even at the professional level. So we never know exactly what’s going to happen. Betting on it would be a whole lot easier if we did, but we must always be prepared for the unexpected. Upsets can and do happen, but it’s fair to say that performance levels in the NFL tend to be a lot more consistent than in college football. This is the general rule at least. Some teams and players go through periods when they are wildly inconsistent, but this is not the norm. Although we get taken by surprise sometimes, we get what we expect more often than not.

Does this mean college football is harder to handicap?
In some respects, yes.

The general lack of consistency at the college football level makes it harder to assess just how good the teams and players are. It also makes it harder to identify any clear strengths and weaknesses. The stats are not quite as meaningful, especially over short periods, which means we can’t trust them to the same extent. Statistical analysis is still useful, but not as useful as for the NFL.

Despite these difficulties, we’re far from being convinced that college football is harder to handicap overall. The lack of consistency does present us with some problems, but they’re not impossible to overcome.

While we’re on the subject of quality, there’s another important point we need to make. The gap in quality between the best and worst teams is much bigger in college football than it is in the NFL, primarily because the NFL specifically tries to maintain parity. This is just one more thing that affects us as handicappers.

Let’s go back a step for a moment. We just mentioned how performance levels in the NFL are more consistent than they are in college football, and this makes the professional game a little more predictable. Let us clarify things for you. It would be accurate to state that the professional game is more predictable within a certain range. Most teams and players will generally perform somewhere between 70% and 100% of their maximum potential. In college football, the range is much bigger.

Because the gap in quality between the best NFL teams and the worst NFL teams isn’t that big, even small differences in performance levels can have a significant impact on a game’s outcome. If a favorite for a game performs just a little below their best, the underdog will always have a chance. This is why we actually see underdogs win more often in the NFL than we do in college football, proportionately speaking.

An underdog winning in the NFL is hardly a MAJOR upset, as it happens frequently.

In college football, there are lots of games where the underdog has virtually no chance of winning. Big favorites CAN still be beaten, and there have been some monumental upsets throughout college football history, but it’s a much rarer occurrence. When one of the top teams is playing one of the smaller teams, the end result is almost set in stone before the game even starts.

It’s not uncommon to see teams win by 40 points or more in college football. This virtually never happens in the modern NFL, as the majority of games are at least reasonably competitive. So although there’s less consistency in college football, there are many more games where we can safely assume which team is going to win. The top teams can perform way below their best and still win against the smaller teams.

You might think that betting on games where the favorite is almost guaranteed to win is easy, but it’s not. There’s almost never any value in backing a big favorite on the moneyline in college football, because the odds are ridiculously low. Although we’re very likely to get a payout, when the odds are something like -3000 it’s not really worth taking a risk. Putting $100 down to win $3 is not very appealing.

We still have point spreads and totals to consider too; it’s not easy to find value in these lines either. Dealing with the big spreads and high totals that are common in college football is a real challenge. Don’t worry though, because as always we’re here to help. We’ve written the following two articles which offer some useful advice.

Mental Strength & Experience

One of the most important things we need to do when betting on football is to consider all the different factors that can affect the outcome of a game. A lot of handicappers focus on just one or two key factors when making their betting decisions, but we don’t really like that approach. It’s too limited in our opinion, whereas considering ALL the relevant factors helps us to form more rounded and balanced views. Our assessments tend to be more accurate this way, and our judgements more informed. This ultimately leads to better decisions.

The difficult part of looking at so many factors is in trying to determine the value of each factor. Making decisions based on just a couple of factors is much easier in this respect, as obviously each factor is going to carry a lot of weight. When assessing a wide range of factors, we have to think carefully about which factors are likely to have the biggest impact. For example, we must decide whether a team’s recent form tells us more about their chances of winning an upcoming game than their overall record for the season. Or whether their strong offensive line will overcome the fact that they have a couple of their top defensive players missing due to injury.

Whether you are betting on the NFL or college football, many of the factors you’ll assess will be the same. However, some factors are far more valuable for handicapping NFL games than for handicapping college games, and vice versa. For example, we give more weight to home advantage in the NFL than we do in college football.

Please Note:
Home advantage used to be MORE important in college football, not less. But, for a variety of reasons, home advantage doesn’t count for much in college football anymore.

Two factors that are especially important at college level, but less so at professional level, are mental strength and experience. Although we do have to consider these factors when handicapping the NFL, they don’t tend to have a huge impact on our betting decisions.

Some professional teams and players do have better mental strength than others of course, and this can definitely give them an edge. Other teams have more experience on their roster than others, which can also be an advantage. The overall impact is not especially significant though, because teams don’t differ that drastically. Entire teams don’t generally lack in mental strength and nearly all teams have at least some experienced players.

Mental strength and experience are MUCH bigger variables in college football.

Obviously, all college football players have less experience than the professionals. They usually also don’t have the same degree of mental strength. This doesn’t mean that all college football players are mentally weak and inexperienced though.

What it does mean is that differences in mental strength and experience can be more substantial from one team to the next. It’s not uncommon for us to see teams that have a lot more experience and considerably more mental strength than their opponents. Because of these substantial differences, the impact of these two factors becomes far more significant: in some scenarios at least.

Rivalry games are a prime example of this. Fans always seem to have high expectations for their favorite college teams. In the big rivalry games, it’s multiplied several times over. These games REALLY matter, to everyone involved. There’s often a lot of hostility between big rivals in college football, and that hostility extends beyond the players. It’s felt by the coaching staff, the fans and pretty much anybody associated with the relevant schools. Even entire towns can be affected by it. Rivalry games are must-win games, it’s as simple as that.

Can you imagine what that kind of pressure does to a group of young players? It’s going to help them get fired up for sure, so they’ll have no problem with being motivated. But the weight of expectation on their shoulders can really get to them. While some teams and players seem to thrive under intense pressure, it causes other teams to struggle. Especially those who have less experience, and have not yet developed the mental strength required to deal with such situations.

That’s why assessing the mental strength and experience of college players is very useful to us. It’s useful when betting on any game to some extent, as there’s always some degree of pressure and expectation to cope with. When betting on rivalry games, bowl games and any other major games, it takes on even more importance. We could even argue that mental strength and experience are THE most important factors to analyze for these games.

Now, assessing how much experience a team has is pretty straightforward. We just have look to how long each player has been on the team, and how much game time they’ve had. Assessing the mental strength of a team is more difficult though. Here are some tips to help you with this.

  • Look at how well (or badly) teams and players react to setbacks during games
  • Study results following big wins or big losses
  • Consider a coach’s experience and relationship with his players
  • Read/watch player interviews
  • Follow players on social media

Even the best college football teams suffer in-game setbacks from time to time. We can learn about a team and its players by seeing how they react to such setbacks. If they tend to recover their composure well and stick to their normal game, that’s a great sign of mental fortitude. If they have a tendency to collapse when things don’t go their way, then that’s a sign of weakness.

We can also learn a lot by looking at how teams and players react to big wins and big losses. For example, let’s say a team suffers an unexpected loss right after recording a big victory. That tells us that they might suffer from some collective complacency, which is a possible indication of mental weakness. If a team collapses after a big loss, and plays badly for weeks, that can also indicate mental weakness. Teams that continue to play well after winning big, or bounce back after losing big, have clearly demonstrated some mental strength.

Evaluating a coach’s experience and his relationship with his players is a useful exercise. It’s not always clear what kind of effect he has on the mental strength of his players, but we can gain at least some insight from doing this. We can also get a glimpse into players’ minds by watching or reading any interviews they give, and following them on social media. Essentially, we’re just trying to get to know the players better, to learn as much about them as we can.

Media Coverage & Availability of Information

The NFL and college football are both covered extensively in the popular media. However, the NFL receives significantly more coverage overall. Every single team, and every single game, is given an enormous amount of attention.

This is one of the big advantages of betting on the NFL. More coverage means there’s more information readily available for us to absorb and dissect. Information is power when it comes to handicapping, so the more of it we have the better. Between television, the written press and the internet, we have seemingly endless sources of information to choose from. Whether we want stats, game reports, analysis, expert views, injury reports or anything else, it’s all there for us to take advantage of.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that coverage of college football is lacking, but we certainly don’t have access to quite as much information. Although the biggest college football teams receive plenty of attention, both locally and nationally, it’s simply not on the same scale as the attention given to the NFL teams. Some of the smaller teams, and “less important” conferences, get very little coverage on a national scale. If any at all.

Do NOT let this deter you from betting on college football.

So you have to work a bit harder to find the information we need when handicapping college football. Is this a good reason not to bother? Absolutely not! Handicapping isn’t supposed to be easy, so you should already be prepared to put in the time and effort. You’re just going to have to put in a little more when it comes to betting at college level.

All the information that you need is still out there. There’s not quite as much of it, and it’s not so readily available, but it IS there. You might have to rely on local media rather than national media for some it. And you might need to be smarter when it comes to finding other resources to use. It might be more difficult to get the information you need, but it won’t be impossible.

The disparity in media coverage creates an interesting quirk in college football. In the NFL, there’s no such thing as an obscure game. Every single game can legitimately be considered high profile. A game between two especially popular teams will obviously be more high profile than a game between two less popular teams. And a game where there’s a lot at stake will have a higher profile than a game with nothing riding on it. Since every game generates interest for one reason or another, there are no irrelevant teams in the NFL.

Although we don’t really like to label any college team as irrelevant, the fact is that some teams are considered to be exactly that. They have very few faithful fans and the fans they do have either have a connection to that school or live in the same general area as the school. These teams typically get little to no media coverage. As disappointed as that can be for those teams, it is reality. Only the top college teams attract widespread interest.

The result of this is that we DO see obscure games at college level. Betting on these games is an entirely different prospect to betting on any NFL game, and even to betting on a high profile college game. It’s important to understand this when handicapping college football, so we’ve written the following article to explain things in more detail.

Accuracy & Movement of Odds and Lines

We already mentioned that the NFL receives significantly more media coverage than college football. It therefore stands to reason that more people follow the NFL than follow college football. As great as college football is, it’s still behind pro football in the popularity stakes.

The difference in popularity between the two forms of football affects us from a handicapping perspective just as much the disparity in media coverage. In fact, it arguably affects us even more. It has a direct impact on the odds and lines available at bookmakers and betting sites, and those odds and lines are very important to us for obvious reasons.

Why are the odds and lines affected?
Because of the volume of betting.

The NFL isn’t only more popular with football fans, it’s also more popular with football bettors. The volume of betting activity on the NFL exceeds the volume on college football by a sizable margin. As a result, the bookmakers pay far more attention to their NFL odds and lines. With the amount of money they have coming in, they have to ensure that their odds and lines are as tight as they possibly can be. They also have to adjust them more frequently based on the wagers they’re taking.

Now, let’s be clear here. There’s still A LOT of betting activity on college football. So it’s not like the bookmakers neglect their college lines completely. They just don’t put quite so much time and effort into their accuracy, and aren’t as quick to adjust them. In theory, this makes the lines a little bit easier to beat. They’re typically slightly softer than the NFL lines too, giving us a greater chance of finding value.

Don’t start thinking that you should devote all your time and energy to handicapping college football because it’s so much easier to beat the bookmakers. We said it’s a LITTLE easier, that’s all. The bookmakers aren’t stupid, and if they thought they were giving away easy money, then they’d simply stop offering college lines.

So, how can you use this information to your advantage? Think carefully when selecting which teams and conferences you want to follow when betting on college football. Realize that the bigger teams and conferences attract the most betting activity. The smaller teams and conferences attract less, so the bookmakers pay even LESS attention to their odds and lines there.

If you want to take full advantage of the softer odds and lines in college football, then focus on the smaller teams and conferences. You might even want to think about looking beyond the FBS. If you can become a genuine expert on teams and conferences outside the FBS, you’ll stand a very good chance of beating the bookmakers.

That’s almost the end of this article, but there’s one more point to make on the subject of betting volume. Most of the betting activity on the NFL comes from recreational bettors who aren’t serious handicappers. They tend to be quite predictable in the way that they bet, and the bookmakers are fully aware of this. They set their odds and lines accordingly, which means there’s often value to be had by going against the majority. This is something we discuss in more detail in the following article.