For years the major conferences in college football were relatively stable, but now it seems we can’t go a single year without significant changes to the alignment of at least one conference and often more. Every time the NCAA conferences are tweaked or shaken up college football handicappers have to come to terms with the new reality. Sometimes those changes are not significant, but other times they very much are. Here are five factors for college football bettors to consider when attempting to determine the impact of a conference change from a wagering perspective:
Levels of competition – This should be the obvious starting point. Not all conferences are created equally, so you need to determine whether the new conference for a football team is generally going to be easier or harder than the one the team just left. If a school is making a move from a minor conference to a BCS conference then the answer is probably obvious, but it is just as important to evaluate when a school moves from one major conference to another. There are many questions sports bettors ask in order to make winning picks. It’s important to look beyond the elite teams in either conference as well? How strong is the average team in the conference? How about the worst teams in the conference? Are the schools in the new conference able to recruit more or less effectively? What impact will that have on the field? The general public will make some basic assumptions here, so the more accurate you as a college football handicapper can actually be in your assessments the more meaningful and useful they will be for you.
Styles of play – It’s quite possible that the levels of play could be relatively similar but the styles of play could be very different and very challenging. The SEC plays a faster style than the Big Ten, for example, while the Big Ten is generally more physical and smash mouth than the SEC. The Big 12 has a lot more aggressiveness offensively than the ACC, but isn’t always known for defensive discipline. If a conference team is moving to a conference with a very different style of play than they are used to then it could be an adjustment both for them and their new opponents.
Impact of rivalries – Rivalries are a massive part college football, and they can have a big impact on games and how they are played. The unfortunate side effect when a team leaves a conference is that they often leave some big rivalries behind. Whenever you are looking at a change of conference, then, you need to consider the key rivalries the football team had. Are they still going to be playing those rivals? When Utah moved to the Pac-12 they still continued to schedule their massive rivals from BYU for the extremely heated Holy War. If they don’t continue those rivalries then what impact will that have on the team? Are there natural rivals in the new conference that could be the start of intense rivalries? Are rivalries a particularly significant part of the history of the school, or are they a school without major rivals?
Impact on travel – Travel can have a big impact on college football programs because the athletes often aren’t used to the demands of the travel. Sometimes a move of conferences can have a very big impact on the amount of travel a football team is going to have to do – as in TCU’s move to the Big East, for example. This is a particularly significant factor if a school is going to have to travel outside its own timezone several times a season, or if it will be traveling to climates that are potentially very different than what they are used to. In the first year after a move this is particularly significant because not only are teams forced to deal with the changes we have talked about but they also are going to be visiting most of the schools they play for the first time. That means new facilities, new accommodations, and new routines. Players and coaches are creatures of habit, so this can have a big impact on a team in the short term.
National pressure – There are some moves that are very high profile, and others that barely register on the national radar. The more attention a move gets the more you have to worry not just about what the impact of the move is going to be, but what the public perception of that move is. The more attention a move gets the more pressure a team could feel nationally as a result of the move, and the more you have to consider the impact of the sports betting public’s feelings on the lines the team faces. Some college football teams are much better suited to dealing with that pressure than other schools. The birth of the Pac-12 provided a perfect example of how national pressure can be different. All eyes were on Utah when they moved because they had been so successful while outside of the BCS structure and people were very curious about how they would fare in the big leagues. Colorado joined the conference at the same time, but it had been a long time since they had been relevant or interesting nationally, so the public really didn’t seem to care about the move they were making. As a college football handicapper, you had to be far more concerned, then, about Utah and the impact of the public attention than you did about Colorado.