We’re at the time of year in both college football and the NFL where hype is out of control surrounding some teams. Football teams that have gotten out to hot starts – whether expected or not – can do no wrong in the eyes of the media and the betting public. As you know if you have spent any time at all watching sports, though, not all teams live up to their early season hype. Some don’t live up to it in truly spectacular fashion. Our job as sports bettors is to try to tell the difference between the teams that are as good as advertised, and the ones that have sucked people in only to eventually break their hearts. Here are five questions to ask yourself as a football bettor as you try to determine which teams are which:
Who have they played? – This is the biggest trap that sports bettors fall into. They get all excited because a team gets off to a hot start and pile up a bunch of points or play stellar defense, but they forget to consider who the opponents were. Maybe those wins came against a hopelessly outmatched opponent. Or maybe they were against good teams, but ones that don’t play well on the road. Or maybe the opponents were suffering from injuries to key players, or were adjusting to new football coaches or new schemes. The actual final score in a game tells very little of the story of what has gone on, and until you plunge deeper and get a sense of what has actually happened you just aren’t working with enough information to know if a team should be hyped or not.
Were the matchups particularly favorable? – Further to the last point, what you really need to look at is the matchups in the early games. Is the hyped team a pass-heavy team that was facing a team with a defective pass rush or an inexperienced secondary. Are they a football team with a large defensive line that was able to contain and control the opposing undersized offensive line and running backs? Do they have a relentless blitzing approach that rattled a young opposing quarterback? If there is a matchup issue that clearly contributed to the hot start and therefore the hype then it is crucial that you identify it. If the mismatch is one that is likely to continue then the team might be worthy of the attention. If it’s just a quirk of scheduling that positioned the game or games that best suit their style early in the schedule, though, then you might have spotted a situation where the sports betting public’s affection is unwarranted.
Has the hype been fueled by one player performing extraordinarily well? – I want to talk in more general terms than specific, but one example here is just too good to ignore. Michigan has been red hot out of the gate and is already ranked 20th in the country. Denard Robinson is at the top of Heisman boards as he has set records and then broke his own records. They have beaten two reasonably legitimate programs and shown a lot to like in those games. The problem, though, is that Robinson has been a one man wrecking crew – against Notre Dame he accounted for 502 of Michigan’s 542 total yards. As incredible and unstoppable as he has been, it’s hard to believe that he can keep up this pace all year because he is taking a serious beating, and because opposing defenses will start to craft strategies to answer for him more effectively. Beyond Robinson, Michigan’s running game has struggled – he is the offense essentially. If and when Robinson falls back to earth it’s quite likely that Michigan will, too. The less a hot start is built around one player, or even just a couple, the more likely that it is sustainable.
What’s the coaching status? – Often times we see a football team with a new coach jump out of the gates quickly. They are excited by what they are learning, and they are filled with adrenaline and a desire to please, so they play very well. There is always new optimism around a new hire, so that combined with a hot start can get hype running at high levels. More often than not, though, that hot start can’t be sustained. Changing systems and approachss isn’t easy and growing pains are inevitable. If the hype is surrounding a team with a new coach I am always skeptical, and my skepticism is rarely unfounded.
How do they differ now from preseason perception? – Every so often a team in the NFL goes from worst to first in a single year – or at least pulls off a semi-miraculous climb in the standings. the media and the public love those stories – so much so that they want to see them happening all the time. The problem, though, is that a majority of the time a football team that was bad last year and hasn’t done much about it isn’t likely to be great this year – no matter how they do in their first couple of games. If a team was pretty universally viewed to be an also-ran before the season but then they pick up a couple of impressive early wins you need to be especially sure in your football handicapping that the current reality differs in a meaningful way form the preseason perception of the team before you get too excited and buy into them.