We are nearing the end of the college football season. That means one fantastic thing – rivalry games. The most storied NCAA programs save their most hated opponents for the end of their football schedule. That makes for spectacular spectating. It also makes for very interesting sports handicapping. In some ways these games are just the same as any other football game – you still have to move the ball down the field and get it in the end zone more often than your opponent does. In some key ways, though, rivalry games are different, and they need to be looked at differently than other games. Here are five ways the games are unique and in which they can affect your college football handicapping. Before we get to those, though, we should be specific – I am not talking about games between fierce conference rivals, or teams that have played tough games against each other for the last couple of years. I am talking about historic series against hated opponents that have been played for decades – the Big Game, the Iron Bowl, the Civil War, the Holy War, Bedlam, and so on. These are blood games. If a team struggles all year but wins their rivalry game the fans will be happy.
Motivation – In most college football games you have to spend at least a little time thinking about motivation. Some teams will care more about games than other games, they will play their starters a little longer, and they will give more of themselves in pursuit of a win. Successful sports handicappers are one part amateur psychologist because they have to assess where the motivation lies, and what that means for the potential outcome of the game. In rivalry games, though, motivation is totally irrelevant. No matter how badly a season is going for a team they are going to be fired up for this game. College freshmen are playing in their first rivalry game after hearing about it for years. Seniors are getting their one last shot at winning the game that matters most. Everyone wants a big piece of it. Assuming anything other than 100 percent from each team in these games is foolish.
Pressure – The pressure for teams will often never be higher than it is for these football games. Coaches can keep and lose jobs based on these games. Not only that, but since the big rivalry games are usually at the end of the season there is often much more on the line than just a win – conference and even national titles are often won or lost in these games. The ability of football players and coaches to handle this pressure and turn it into a positive influence will have a major impact on the outcome of the game and how you may choose to bet. Handicappers need to spend more time than normal, then, looking at what effect the pressure is likely to have on teams, how much experience they have playing under intense pressure, and which team is likely to do better in the circumstances. For example, if a coach is in his first year with a team and came from a smaller program then there is a very good chance that he has no idea what he is actually getting into in these games.
Home field advantage – It might seem contrary, but I firmly believe that home field advantage is far less of a factor in these games than it is in a typical college football game. Sure the crowd is going to be as big as it can be and it will be loud and hostile. There are two factors to consider, though. First, more opposing fans will travel to this game than any other, so there will be more of a friendly influence in the crowd here than is typical in road games. Second, both football teams are going to be so fired up and focused for this game that a lot of the typical causes of home field advantage are nullified. Rivalry games are about the rivalry, not the location.
Underdogs – I tend to like underdogs at the best of times. Underdogs are especially attractive in a lot of circumstances in rivalry games, though. Public attention is focused on these games more than in a typical college game. The more public action there is, the more likely that the favorite is drawing heavy betting action. Oddsmakers know this, so they are going to compensate for that when they set the odds. As a result, favorites are often giving up a couple more points in rivalry games than they would if this was just another game.
Understand the history – You can’t live entirely in the past in rivalry games, but you need to know and respect what has gone on in the past. For example, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have met for Bedlam 104 times, with Oklahoma winning in 80 cases including the last seven. That doesn’t mean that Oklahoma is sure to win this year, but it does have implications in the pressure the teams will feel, how relaxed the teams will be, the tone of the fans for both sides, and so on and that can influence your college football handicapping.