We’re heading into conference championship weekend – including the first Big Ten championship game ever. In most ways conference championship games are just like other games – or at least other games with a lot at stake. In some key ways, though, these games are different. Smart bettors will recognize these differences and look for ways to exploit the odds. Here are six of those ways:
Neutral site – In most cases the conference championships are played on neutral sites. This is a reasonably rare situation in college football, and it will be the first neutral site game for most teams. Neutral site games throw both teams out of their comfort zone to some extent, so they can be interesting. The most important thing to remember, though, is that not all neutral site games are truly neutral. Often times one team will have a distinct edge – the site could be much closer to them, or they could have played in the field before, or the crowd will be significantly made up of their fans. Neutral site lines typically won’t include the standard home field advantage of about three points, so if a team has something near to a home field advantage despite the neutral site then there could be value to be had.
Rematches – Conference championships can create a unique situation for college football – a rematch in the same season. Thanks to divisional games in the NFL we’re very used to rematches there, but we don’t see the same thing here. The NFL teaches us how hard it is for one good team to beat another twice in a row, so some of the lessons we have learned over the years in the NFL can be useful to us here.
High stakes – Almost every year there is at least one team that is playing in the conference championship game with a chance to head to the national championship game if they win. That adds an extra level of intensity to the game for those teams. Not all teams handle that pressure the same way. We’ve seen some teams in the past that have really excelled in the face of that pressure, and others that have thrown a huge season away at the last moment. Assessing how teams handle intense stress is a key part to assessing these games. That’s especially significant when the team in question comes from the much stronger conference and are heavy favorites as a result. It could be easy for a team lacking in discipline to look past the current game towards the big prize on the horizon.
Nothing to lose – On the flip side of the last point we have teams that truly have nothing to lose. Often in the major conferences we get teams that are lucky to be in the game – ones that don’t really belong but get in because of the conference structure – and they know it. Those teams know that they have absolutely nothing to lose. If they lose the game then they are doing just what was expected anyway, so they can afford to let it all hang out and take some risks. Teams with nothing to lose can be very dangerous – especially if their opponent takes a win for granted.
Injuries – Teams have already played 12 games by the time they reach the conference championships, and they have typically done that in about 13 weeks. The players are banged up and ready for a break, so this extra game creates an additional demand on the bodies and minds of the players. The further you get into the season, the more attention you have to pay not only to who isn’t playing for teams, but who is playing but isn’t at full health.
Coaching experience – Because of all of the factors that we have talked about coaches play a bigger role than normal in these games. Players have to be well prepared for these games, and they have to be disciplined and focused through the games. When all other things are equal, then, college football handicappers should realize that the team that has been in these games before and knows what to expect probably has an edge.