We constantly hear about the importance of returning players in regard to college football betting. The biggest reason why Boise State is so good this year is because virtually all of their players have played together before. Why are Florida and Texas struggling in the face of major expectations? Well, a major loss of personnel starting at the quarterback hasn’t helped either team.
The number of returning players a team has can be a significant tool for handicappers. A team with a large number of returners may be able to stand up well against a much more talented but less experienced team. When two college football teams that are similarly talented and well matcher, the one with more experience will often have an edge.
There are obviously some positions that benefit more from experience than others. The most obvious is the quarterback – if he isn’t used to the speed of the game and complexity of college playbooks then he’s going to struggle. Both lines benefit from experience as well – experienced offensive linemen know how to protect their quarterback, and it takes defensive linemen a while to learn how to get past that protection. The secondary is also easier to beat the less experience they have. Some positions aren’t affected nearly as much by experience. Running backs, for example, can often come out of the gates running – especially if they don’t face a heavy blocking burden.
While the power of returning players is something handicappers won’t want to lose sight of when making sports picks, it’s also important to remember that the power of the advantage definitely diminishes as the season progresses. The more games a team has played, the more experience the players have, so the less the lack of experience matters. Rocket science, huh? The trick, of course, is trying to figure out when a team has gained enough experience that you no longer have to discount them. Figuring that out is more of an art than a science, but here are five things to look for when you are trying to do so:
Consistent improvement – Young college football players have a whole lot of improving to do to become the players they will eventually be. There will be bumps along the road, but if they are showing significant progress then you know they are moving in the right direction. As a rule of thumb, I look for a player to have shown solid statistical progress in three of four consecutive games – as long as those games are against reasonably solid competition. There is nothing specific I look for – just signs that the player is figuring things out.
Handle big situations well – To varying degrees every teams faces significant games. It could be a huge rivalry game, or the first nationally televised game, or a game in a hostile environment or against a top level opponent. The better a young player performs the first time they face a situation like that, the more confident you can feel in the way they are adjusting to college ball. Conversely, if a young team crumbles under the weight of a situation like that then it still makes sense to compensate for their youth.
Shine against outmatched opponents – If the young team matches up against a significantly outclassed opponent – like a good BCS team against an underwhelming FCS team, for example – then you would expect the better team to roll to an easy victory. If the young team doesn’t then that’s a clear sign that the transition could take a while, and that you could be right to continue to discount the team because of that youth.
Coaches taking risks – With a few notable exceptions coaches don’t like to gamble. Some coaches – like Joe Paterno – will go to great lengths to avoid taking any risks at all. That means that they are only going to call plays or endorse approaches that they feel confident has a good chance of success. If it seems like a coach is getting very aggressive in calling plays with his young team then it is a pretty good sign that they team is advancing well. If the coach trusts his team then you can, too. On the other hand, if a coach is being abnormally simplistic and conservative then the team likely isn’t ready for the big time, and they shouldn’t yet be trusted.
Playing above expectations – This one is simple, but is so important that it needs to be said. Simply put, if a young football team is playing better than people widely expected them to then that’s a good sign that they are handling their inexperience well. The best way for college football bettors to gauge this is by looking at if and how they have covered spreads – if the team has been covering spreads consistently and by wide margins then they are exceeding expectations.