College Football Handicapping: How To Handicap Conference Realignment

Big 12 Football
This will be the last year of the Texas Nebraska Rivalry
Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and Boise State will all have one thing in common this year – they will be lame ducks in their current conferences as they prepare to move to new, presumably greener pastures for the 2011 season. The amount of conference shuffling wasn’t nearly as much as it had the potential to be, but it’s still far more than we are used to – especially in the major conferences. When 2011 rolls around the Pac-10, Big Ten, and Big 12 are all going to look significantly different next year than they will this year. The Big Ten and Pac-10 will have three new teams between them, and will be split into divisions for the first time. They’ll both likely have conference championship games to worry about for the first time. The Big 12 is moving in the opposite direction – the departure of two teams will likely mean the end of divisions, and will certainly mean the end of the conference championship game.

We have a year to get used to the changes, and to figure out what kind of impact they are going to have on us as college football handicappers. In the mean time, though, one thing we have to consider is what kind of an impact being lame ducks is going to have on the four teams involved. For the most part, the impact isn’t likely to be massive. The teams ended the season last year expecting to play their next season in their conferences, and that’s just what they will do. There are at least four ways, though, that the outlook and approach of teams could change as a result of the impending changes. Each of those ways could have an impact on lines, game outcomes, and betting strategies:

Rivalries will be more intense – There are rivalries that are played outside of conferences, but they are more difficult to schedule, and lack some of the intensity of conference rivalries because the stakes inevitably aren’t as high. Some of those current conference rivalries, then, could be particularly intense this year before things change. Utah and BYU hate everything about each other, and they both should have good teams again this year, so the November 27th Holy War should be even more ugly and intense than it usually is. The same can be said for Nebraska and Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado, and Boise State and Idaho.

Teams could be determined not to have the conference won by departing teams – Big 12 teams are not going to be happy with Colorado and especially Nebraska. WAC opponents have to be frustrated by being deserted by the team that brings them some measure of credibility. Mountain West teams will have some combination of resentment and jealousy directed towards the Utes as they move on up. Teams in those conferences will be particularly motivated to make sure that the last year in the old conferences isn’t a particularly memorable one. That could provide an extra motivation for the teams that face the departing squads. Utah and Boise State are positioned to win their conferences, and Nebraska could win their division, so teams that are capable of standing in the way of those goals will be working hard to do so.

Teams could enjoy a recruiting boost right away – The most obvious team we are talking about here is Utah. For years they have been a very competitive team, but they haven’t been able to compete with the major conference teams on the recruiting front. They have recruited in the territories of their future Pac-10 rivals, but they haven’t been relevant in the races for top players. That will obviously change once they move on to their new surroundings. Suddenly they are not only a major conference team, but a major conference team positioned to be very competitive in a conference that isn’t particularly competitive. The Utes have already enjoyed a boost to their recruiting efforts – players that they weren’t pursuing contacted them after the move was made. The first benefits of that change could be felt this year.

Teams could be altering style in preparation for new conference – Nebraska recently has not been a great stylistic fit with the Big 12. The teams at the top of that conference have succeeded with a free flowing, explosive offensive style. That has never been what Nebraska has done, and they haven’t done a great job of doing it recently. They are much more naturally suited to the more physical, methodical approach of the Big Ten. Though Nebraska is obviously going to focus on winning as many games as they can this year, they aren’t going to do it at the expense of continuing to build a program that can compete in the Big Ten over the long term. That focus on the long term could create some matchup problems in the short term.

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