When it comes to betting on football, betting the point spread is by far the most common. A distant second would be betting the total. Totals aren’t attractive to more casual football bettors as sides because people like to think about games in terms of winners and losers. In many cases, though, totals can present more opportunities for value than sides can. If you are a bettor willing to do a bit of homework and experimentation then you should really check out totals.
As we get ready for the upcoming football season, here is a look at three things to consider in your football handicapping as you explore totals:
Public tendency – Unsophisticated football bettors are pleasantly predictable – all other things being equal they are going to tend towards backing the favorite and the over. By being aware of this tendency and adjusting accordingly more sophisticated sports bettors can gain an edge. It’s not as simple as just playing the under and counting your cash, though. In some cases a high total is obviously justified, and oddsmakers can’t afford to make the totals too high or they expose themselves to the under. The most important thing here is to be able to determine what games the public is going to care about, bet actively on, and be drawn to the over. For example, when the Patriots play the Colts there are two very public teams on the field and two very popular, highly respected and successful quarterbacks on the field, so public betting is going to be at high volumes, and the over is going to be seeing heavy action. In a case like that you can assume that the total is likely set higher than it would be in perfect situations, and you might look at the under for value. On the other hand, a Tuesday game between Louisiana Tech and Troy isn’t even going to register on the public consciousness, so there is no reason to assume that the over has been adjusted at all. When you are looking at games that will have the public heavily involved your decision really comes down to three options, and you have to strongly consider all three – you can assume that the betting public hasn’t forced an overcompensation from oddsmakers and still take the over, you can take the under because there seems to be real value in the under because the tendency that exists to go low is complemented by the inflated total, or you can pass on the game because the public action has made the total unattractive. The third choice is probably more important than the first two for successful football bettors – you can’t lose money on bets you don’t make.
Adjust your necessary range – When you are betting a total you need to make sure that the edge you have is significant, and that it makes sense for the style of game that is possible. In the NFL, for example, when two defensive teams that lack explosive offenses meet on the field it’s not uncommon to see a total in the range of 35-37. If you have considered the game and predicted the outcome and your predicted score is three points higher or lower than the total then you might be willing to make the bet because you see good value there. After all, your score differs from the total by about 10 percent of the total and that’s significant. In college football on the other hand, two explosive offenses can face a total in the range of 65-67 or even higher in some cases. In a case like that a difference between your predicted total and the posted total of three points likely wouldn’t represent any value because it’s just two small for comfort – these teams can score three points in their sleep. In a case like this you might not want to make a bet unless your perceived edge over the posted total is a touchdown or more. It all comes down to one simple idea – there is no point making a bet unless through your handicapping you see you are clearly getting the best of it, and determining whether you are getting the best of it depends more on the circumstances of the game than anything else.
Total margin – When you are playing football totals the concept of total margin can be very powerful. Total margin is a season-long calculation of how much a team goes over or under the total on average all season. In any game you can calculate the total margin of a team by taking the combined score of the two teams and subtracting the posted total from the oddsmakers. The result is the total margin. For example, if the final score in a game was 24-17 and the total was 35 then the total margin for the teams in that game is +6. As the season goes along you can add all of those total margins from the individual games together and find the average, and what you are left with is a powerful number. If a team had total margins of +6, +4, +11 and -7 then their total margin for the season to date would be +3.5. A football team that consistently goes over the total will have a positive total margin because they consistently score more points than the total, and vice versa. So why is this so useful? By looking at the total margin of a team you can see whether their performance is sustainable, or whether they are likely due for a correction. For example, between 1993 and 2005 the highest total margin a team had for a season was +8.6, and the lowest was -7.4. It’s not that common to see a team finish a season higher than +4 or lower than -4. If you calculate the total margin for a team after eight games, then, and find that they are at +13 you can be all but certain that that performance isn’t sustainable, and that they are likely going to be going under some totals down the stretch to get that total margin down to a reasonable, sustainable number. That doesn’t mean that you should blindly bet them on the under next time out, but it does mean that the under is much more likely than it might seem. This is particularly powerful because the more a team consistently goes way over or way under the total the more the media will write about their performance, and the more that the public will bet that they will keep doing it. In other words, it’s a great time to be contrary. A great example of this is the 2007-08 Patriots – the team that went undefeated in the regular season. They were obviously a very public team, and they scored like crazy. After 12 games they had gone over 10 times, and their total margin was +7.2. That means that they were exceeding the total by an average of more than a touchdown per game – likely too high to be sustained. They went under the total in their next three games to drop that total margin to a much more reasonable +4.2. Football bettors who were aware of the situation with the total margins were poised to cash in on that late season downward adjustment.