One of the many things that makes college football both unique and so very interesting to handicap is the mass turnover each year caused by graduation and early departure for the NFL. The best football team in the country one year can be forced into a massive rebuilding project the next year if things work against them. You just don’t get change like that in other major sports.
When players are lost to graduation or early departure – especially high profile spots like quarterback and running back – the betting public has a tendency to panic and fear the worst. In some cases that panic is warranted, but more often it really isn’t as bad as it seems. Each football team is different, but in general terms from a betting perspective there are some positions that are a real concern when a player is lost, some that can be an issue but aren’t always, and some that typically aren’t a big problem. Here’s a look at the positions that fit into each category:
Secondary – If a football team is playing an opponent that can pass effectively then having an inexperienced secondary is almost certain to be a big problem. Corner backs make a huge transition from high school to college. Opposing receivers are bigger and faster. More significantly, though, they are running far more complex routes, and they are doing it with much more precision. In high school football corners can survive and thrive based entirely on their athleticism. In college that often isn’t enough, and even an average quarterback is able to exploit the weakness. The problem with the secondary is that they are out alone for much of the game, so it is very hard for a team to protect and support them without creating another major weakness for a team to exploit.
Offensive line – There are two things that are more crucial than anything else in determining how effective an offense can and will be – whether the quarterback is protected, and whether the running game is effective. Both of those obviously fall squarely on the offensive line. Young offensive linemen probably aren’t strong enough to stand up to veteran defensive linemen, and they aren’t going to be as effective at spotting and countering the trickery of the defensive linemen.
Defensive line – If a defense can’t pressure the quarterback and can’t stop the run then they aren’t going to be able to do anything effectively. As with the offensive line, young defensive linemen aren’t going to be as strong as veteran offensive linemen, and they aren’t going to have the moves developed to get into space and cause troubles. All of these positions should be of major concern to football handicappers.
Quarterback – Some people will be surprised that the QB isn’t under the earlier category. The public certainly puts him there. In a lot of cases, though, it just isn’t the case. Unless an offensive relies heavily on timing and perfectly placed passes – which is almost never the case in college – then a team is going to be able to adapt and find ways to make it work even if their QB is a big step down from what they once had. Unlike the positions in the major concern category the QB can survive and thrive as long as he has good pieces around him to pick up the slack.
Linebackers – Linebackers are obviously very important. They aren’t as handicapped by a lack of strength early on, though, and they can be helped out significantly by a strong defensive line in front and a strong secondary behind them. Young linebackers with strong instincts have a better chance to succeed than other positions.
Tight end – This one depends on the team and the system they run. If the offense uses the tight end as an emergency option for the QB, or if he has a big blocking role, then the loss of a veteran starter can have a huge impact. If the tight end doesn’t factor into offense heavily, though, then it’s obviously not a big deal.
No reason to panic
Running back – There are obviously some running backs that are better than others, but it is a much easier position than others in college football to find a replacement that can be effective from the start. It’s probably the position in which a young player can be most effective from the start. Teams typically have a lot of running backs on the roster, so the lost starter can often be replaced by a committee with reasonable effectiveness.
Receivers – If a receiver is athletic and able to run a route then he can be reasonably effective from the start. The advantage here is that receivers have fewer responsibilities outside of running their routes than a lot of positions do. A team would obviously rather have an effective, experienced receiver, but they can make do without better than they can at most other positions. Smart college football handicappers understand this hierarchy of importance and utilize it in making their wagers.