Secretly, I’ve always been fascinated that a group of soothsayers could sit in a room, examine mysterious statistics, and accurately project a college football game’s final score. It doesn’t quite seem possible, and it’s not like there are any Grays Sports Almanacs in real life. Yet, every week, the shadowy oddsmakers of Las Vegas pull it off. It took me a while to realize they weren’t using black magic. There really is a method to the madness.
It’s easy to forget that, somewhere, men in suits are treating college football as a black-and-white science. True fans don’t share the robotic sensibilities required to take an objective look at every game, every week. Emotion and passion drive fandom, and, in turn, our faulty bets. This is the circle of life for anyone making college football picks, and the battle between raw subjectivity and cold, hard facts is usually a losing one.
Through five years of picking winners for The Solid Verbal, my goal has always been to improve from season to season. Things culminated last season when I hit seven straight “locks” and finished the year going 65-percent with my most confident selections. Before karma could strike, I did the smartest thing I could think and wrote down my formula. Enter The Seven Rules of College Football Gambling.
In most cases, these rules aren’t designed to tell you who to pick, but instead, who not to pick. It’s more like a set of filters that I use each week to find potential targets. By no means is it bulletproof, but, without further ado…
Rule #1: Don’t bet road favorites
How do you whittle down a card from 60 or so games per week to two or three confident selections? For starters, you should weed out any team favored on the road.
When we first started picking games for The Solid Verbal, the road favorite was my ultimate kryptonite. I couldn’t resist. The thinking, of course, was that I could get an elite team at a discount, simply because it was playing an away game. That logic works in a vacuum, but not in college football. Not in a world where Landry Jones once existed. To his credit, Jones will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in Oklahoma history, with over 16,000 yards passing and 123 touchdowns, but I’ll always remember the 19 backbreaking interceptions he threw on the road between 2010 and 2011. Those killed me. Someone needs to study how much money he lost bettors during his sophomore and junior seasons.
Around the same time I stopped putting my faith in Jones, I started realizing that picking road favorites wasn’t a winning strategy. The truth is that home field advantage is very real, as are all the uncertainties of taking 18-22 year old kids hundreds (or even thousands) of miles outside their comfort zones. Yes, road games are more difficult. No, perceived discounts aren’t real. Who would’ve guessed? Vegas pays the bills with these lines. It knows exactly what it’s doing.
For my money, I’d rather err on the side of home teams, particularly ones getting points. I always, always, always use this rule as my starting point. If, for some reason, you are insistent upon taking a road favorite, look first at Boise State. Over the last decade, the Broncos have covered 60-percent of the time.
Rule #2: Take the points in a shootout
Life is all about expectations. For example, you shouldn’t walk into a Nic Cage flick hoping for a deep, captivating plot and brilliant acting. Not gonna happen—hell, even Cage is in on the joke at this point. Same goes for action thrillers like Fast Six. If you trusted your $10 to fund anything other than an unrealistic, 27-mile runway scene, then it’s time for a reality check.
College football isn’t much different, and last year’s 70-63 shootout between Baylor and West Virginia served as a great reminder. At that point, in late September, both teams had demonstrated supreme offensive firepower and shaky defenses. The Bears had given up 89 total points to a poo-poo platter of SMU, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe; the Mountaineers had allowed 67 against Marshall, James Madison and Maryland. At kickoff, West Virginia was pegged as an 11-point favorite.
Naturally, the focus in this game was offense. Vegas made no bones about the fact that it was going to be a high-scoring affair and set its over/under at a sky-high 83-points. And given the Bears’ closer-than-expected results against lesser opponents, it seemed the Mountaineers stood an outstanding chance of covering the spread. That logic wasn’t entirely flawed, but it was short-sighted.
Think of it this way: With both offenses being somewhat equal, a bet against Baylor was essentially a bet for West Virginia’s defense. And, in a game where you couldn’t trust either defense, how could you possibly have relied on any favorite to cover a spread?
If you’re fortunate enough to identify a shootout—sometimes it’s harder than you think—don’t worry about how many total points will be scored or, for that matter, which team is favored. As a general rule, if an underdog is getting a touchdown or more in a shootout, you should be taking the points and betting the underdog. If it’s less than a touchdown, take a look at the other factors surrounding the game and decide if it’s even worth betting. Again, have realistic expectations, and use these rules to your advantage. Don’t pull your picks out of thin air.
Rule #3: Beware the worst unit on the field
I learned this one from my friend and co-host Dan Rubenstein, and though he may have invented it only as an excuse to use the word “unit” on a national podcast, it’s an extremely logical concept.
Remember how you shouldn’t trust either defense in a shootout? Whether it’s a shootout or not, every team has at least some kind of weakness. Some are crappier than others, but if you’re forced to pick a game, spend some extra time figuring out which flaw—offensive line, defensive line, quarterback, cornerback, etc.—is the most questionable and bet against it. If it’s a situation where the best unit on the field matches up with the worst, then high-fives all around.
Ideally, you aren’t strong-armed into picking 15 games a week like Dan and I, but if you’re ever in the situation of having a gun to your head on a game about which you know nothing, find the soft spot and bet against it. If you find it, coaches can, too.
Rule #4: Beware the “Let-Down-Look-Ahead” Sandwich
Last October, Notre Dame defeated Stanford 20-13 at home in a come-from-behind, overtime thriller that ended with a controversial goal line stand and left fans asking “Is it safe to root for this Tommy Rees?” Two weeks later, the Irish went to Oklahoma and beat the Sooners by 17-points. It was the program’s biggest win in a decade.
But sandwiched in between was a relatively meaningless blip-on-the-radar against BYU in which Notre Dame was an easy 11-point favorite. In the wake of an emotional win over Stanford with a pivotal contest in Norman on deck, the BYU game could’ve only been more doomed if it took place in Provo. It was the dreaded Let-Down-Look-Ahead Sandwich.
You can see where this is going. After kickoff, the Irish marched down the field and set up Kyle Brindza for the most predictable field goal ever missed. The rest of the game was an exercise in sleepwalking with Notre Dame shutting down its engines after a tenuous first quarter lead. Rees, filling in for an injured Everett Golson, completed only one pass in his final nine attempts, threw one horrible interception, and played as if he’d been tagged by a stun grenade for the entire second half. More egregiously, the Irish made Riley Nelson look like a serviceable quarterback. In the end, Notre Dame barely won, should’ve lost, and came nowhere close to covering the spread.
College football is highly situational. Better coaches with veteran squads are more equipped to handle the ebb and flow of a season, but no team is immune. In terms of picking games, this means you can learn a lot just by researching a team’s schedule. College kids deal with let-downs and look-aheads the same way you handle your last workday before a long vacation. For reference, my friends and I refer to this day as “Operation Shutdown”. So, you get the idea.
What’s this mean for you? Take a look at schedules and situations before blindly putting your faith behind a team that will steal your money. Furthermore, while we’re at it…
Rule #5: Beware the power of the De Facto National Championship
Throughout history, De Facto National Championship games have been far more exciting to watch and, in most cases, just as meaningful as the real thing. Think of them as make-believe Super Bowls for teams whose seasons are essentially over.
In order for these to occur, two conditions must be present:
1) A sputtering underdog, usually with several early season losses, whose remaining motivations include a mid-December bowl invite and/or surviving the season without further injury to the program, players or both.
2) A favorite with a target on its back, potentially in a look-ahead spot.
The aforementioned BYU-Notre Dame game is as good an example as any. BYU entered that contest with a record of 4-3, which included two close losses earlier in the year to Utah and Boise State. Notre Dame, ever the target, was undefeated and, at the time, a darkhorse title contender. You can do the math. BYU played one of its best games of the season and, again, should’ve won.
This situation also describes how Iowa State was able to knock Oklahoma State from a certain BCS Championship berth during the 2011 regular season. Or how a demoralized Arkansas team covered a 13.5-point spread against eighth-ranked LSU to close out the John L. Smith era. It’s not always about a team pulling a monumental upset. Sometimes, a team just finds enough motivation to keep things interesting, and sometimes you can even see it coming.
The moral of the story, again, is to pay attention to schedules and situations on both sides of a matchup. I’m not suggesting you bet a heavy underdog because you’re thinking a De Facto National Championship could take place. Quite the contrary, actually. If you see one of these coming, run for the hills and pick another game.
Rule #6: Only bet on a team if you think it can win
I call this one the Lisa Horne Rule, named affectionately after my friend Lisa Horne from Bleacher Report. Every fall, Lisa and I get into a tense Twitter dispute over a random game with a double-digit point spread. As best I can tell, her logic involves picking underdogs simply because they are underdogs. If that’s your thing, then so be it. America, born from a culture of oppression, looooooves a good underdog story. I’m not trying to be the wet blanket.
But, let’s be real for a second. Teams are only double-digit underdogs because they are notably worse than their opponents, or dealing with injuries, or playing Alabama, or being coached by Charlie Weis. The truth is that most point spreads are at least in the ballpark. The odds of you finding a glitch in the college football Matrix are slim to none.
It’s really a problem of scale. If you’re given a selection of five games and asked to pick the winners of each, it’s not unreasonable to err on the side of the team getting points. But if you’ve got a card of 60 or more games at your disposal and you’re trying to find the best available options, what’s the point in shooting from the hip? With your pick of the litter, there’s no sense in being careless.
Simply put: Don’t pick teams just because they are underdogs; pick them because they might actually win. Don’t bet on Kentucky–despite the hype Mark Stoops is selling–when it hosts Alabama on October 12th. Kentucky is going to get throttled. Do bet on a team like Arizona when it hosts UCLA in early November, because the Cats will have a dynamic offense that can go point-for-point with the Bruins and potentially win. Give yourself the best odds at success by siding with teams that have a legitimate shot.
Rule #7: Assume one Clemsoning per season
Sorry Clemson fans. As described by the Urban Dictionary entry that we posted back in 2011, a Clemsoning is “the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of college football”. Certainly, the Tigers aren’t the first or the last to Clemson away their season with a horrible performance, but they might be the most consistent at doing it.
When it comes to Clemsonings, we only know that one will occur every season. By definition, it won’t happen in a big game.
My prediction: Clemson knocks off Georgia to open its season and goes on a winning streak before laying an egg on the road against Maryland, one week after a huge game against Florida State.