Nine weeks into the 2011 college football season Stanford was 9-0, quarterback Andrew Luck was running away with the Heisman race, and the team looked like they had a real shot at playing for the national championship. There was really only one thing standing in their way – a home game against Oregon. The Ducks had lost their opening game of the season but were still among the best teams in the country. The football game essentially decided the Pac-12 champions, so it was broadcast at night on national television and enjoyed a high profile and a whole lot of hype. Stanford got crushed. It was ugly. The Ducks asserted themselves early on, and it never felt like the Cardinal were good enough to compete. The fans were deflated, and the college football team’s mental state visibly degraded as the game proceeded.
Every year there are a few high profile NCAA teams that suffer losses like Stanford did. They lose games that everyone is watching, they do it in humiliating fashion, and the loss is a serious and perhaps fatal blow to their biggest aspirations for the season. Unless the loss comes in the last game of the year these teams have to regroup and play again the next week. For handicappers that next game is a real challenge. Are they going to come back strong, looking to prove that they are better than they looked and that they still deserve attention and championships? Or are they mentally defeated and likely incapable of doing anything other than feeling sorry for themselves? Here are six questions for college football handicappers to ask to help determine which is more likely:
What is the state of their season? – When a NCAA football team loses a big game it might seem like their season has ended in the short term. Once the team has a chance to take a step back and evaluate what’s really going on, though, they will often realize that things aren’t as bad as they seem and the season isn’t lost after all. Their path to the promised land might not be as easy as it was, but if they still have some hope then their coaches still have something to rally around.
How did they lose? – Sometimes a team loses just because they weren’t ready for the game. They were overwhelmed by the moment, or they were too cocky, or they thought they could rely on the edge that they had. Those situations aren’t particularly concerning. the coaching staff could get the football team back on track and ready to perform again, and they can use the game as a lesson on what they need to do – and not do. What’s a far bigger concern, though, is when a team lost because the opponent found holes in their team that hadn’t been found before and exploited them. Perhaps they were able to shut down a potent running game, or figure out how to pass against a secondary that was previously unbeatable. Once a football team figures that out the rest of the teams that follow on the schedule have a better idea of how to beat the team as well and that should make sports bettors cautious.
Are they healthy? – Often times a big loss like this will exact a physical toll. Players will be hurt and miss games after the loss. Because of the intensity of the game you’ll also often see players come out of it more banged up and hurting than they normally would be. It’s important to get a good sense of the physical condition of the football team heading into their next game because nothing can deflate a team more than physical pain to go with their mental pain.
How strong is the grip of the coach? – When a team suffers a setback like this the coach really earns his money. If the coach has a firm grip on the team he should be able to get the refocused, use the game as a learning opportunity, and be ready to play well next time out. If the coach isn’t as effective, though, then things could really get out of hand. The trick, then, is to figure out if the coach is stable. Is his job secure? Was he popular and successful before this season? Has he had a lot of success in his career? Are most of the players on his football team guys he has recruited, or is it an inherited team?
Who do they play next? – The easier the next opponent is, the less effective the team needs to be in their next game to come out on top. This isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. After a huge loss it can be really hard for a team to get fired up for a weak opponent, so the risk of a letdown is significant. You can also have problems in the other way as well – if the next game is a big rivalry game then the team might not have the emotional energy to get mentally committed to the next game and prepared like they should be. That’s what happened to Stanford. They played their huge rivalry game against Cal the week after the Oregon loss. They won the game, but it was far closer than it should have been and they didn’t come close to covering the huge point spread. They just didn’t look like they were present for the game – they just didn’t care. Instead, they relied on their skill edge to be enough. It was, but only barely.
How is the public reacting? – The reaction of the sports betting public is significant here, and it can be gauged effectively by the media response. If the media was positive about the football team before the game but is very negative after the game then the public is likely to be negative as well. That was the case for Stanford. After the loss the Cardinal plummeted in the polls, Luck’s Heisman campaign was badly damaged, and the team was suddenly only barely relevant nationally. When the betting public is negative about a team they are almost certain to overreact. If as a serious college football handicapper,you still like the team despite the setback then this is a place where you can find serious value.