We have seen teams play other opponents in their conference in college football in each week since the start of the season. We are at the point in the schedule, though, here conference games start to become more of a rule than an exception. In many ways football is just football, but there are key ways in which handicappers have to make adjustments when handicapping conference games compared to when picking winners in non-conference contests. Here are four ways in which college football handicappers need to adjust:
Familiarity – The single biggest difference is the familiarity teams have with each other in conference play. Non-conference opponents may have never played each other before, and even if they have then they often haven’t met while the current players or even the coaches have been with the program. When college teams play in the same conference and they play each other every year – or almost every year in some conferences – then there aren’t going to be as many surprises. Opponents will know what to expect, they’ll know what opposing stars are capable of, and they’ll have a good sense of what the opposing coaching staff’s tendencies and preferences are. That makes it easier for them to prepare for an opponent, but harder to catch that opponent off guard. When teams don’t have that first hand knowledge available to them then they have to rely on other things to get prepared – video, scouting, and so on. None of those are as accurate or as valuable as first hand experience. I’m not suggesting that betting games with familiar opponents is more or less attractive than the opposite. I’m just saying that college handicappers have to be aware of the differences between the two situations so that they can adjust accordingly. As a general rule, you could say that the more familiar two football teams are with each other the bigger factor the relative talent of the two teams is because the teams won’t be able to use trickery or the surprise factor to find an edge.
Mismatches are less significant – When a major college football team from a BCS conference plays a weaker team from a mid-major then it can be easy to see a mismatch and to act on it. In many cases like that it’s not unreasonable to assume that there actually is a mismatch. When it comes to conference play, though, it is much harder to find a true mismatch, and it can be easier to get in trouble by assuming there is a mismatch when there isn’t actually one. Football teams that play in the same conference have access to the same basic levels of recruiting, they recruit from the same basic geographic range, and they have the same basic levels of funding for their programs so therefore the same basic resources available to them. Mismatches are still possible in NCAA conference play, but they are far less common than in non-conference action.
Fans are potentially more fired up – A home crowd can be a very big factor in college football – especially in the legendary settings. In many of those stadiums the seats are all going to be full for every game. Still, those fans are going to be far more fired up for a rival that they see every other year than they are for a rival from a smaller conference that they really aren’t scared of and don’t really care about. Home field advantage is big in college football, but it certainly isn’t the same for every game, and in many cases it is bigger in conference play than in non-conference action.
More people betting – For a couple of reasons the betting volume is higher in conference play than in non-conference action. First, by the time conference play rolls around the NFL is underway so more people are paying attention to football, and more of them are looking to get some action on Saturday. Second, conference play generally leads to more marquee games each week, so there is more to draw bettors in and get them excited about college football. The more people that are betting on games each week, the more lines are prone to movement, and the more savvy college football handicappers need to be aware of what the public thinks about games and what impact that attention will have on the lines and the potential for value in the game.