Submitted by Jim Feist on Saturday, October 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
by Jim Feist
College and pro football offer a variety of great match-ups every weekend. A good handicapper, though, doesn't just look at individual and team match-ups. There are other factors surrounding a game that can be equally important to identifying a winning spread cover, such as scheduling and road travel.
For instance, both Iowa and Iowa State regularly open the season against smaller schools before they played each other in their annual Big 10/Big 12 state rivalry game, a classic look-ahead spot. Last month the Hawkeyes failed to cover in the opener against Miami of Ohio. Then with their Big 10 opener on deck, Iowa faced North Dakota State in a classic look-ahead -- and lost 23-21 as a 2-TD favorite.
In recent early season games Iowa didn’t look sharp in games against Northern Illinois and Missouri State (0-2 ATS), while Iowa State lost has a 9-point favorite to Northern Iowa. Clearly the rivalry game on deck was more important than the openers, with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz even admitting he rested players in the second half.
A similar scheduling instance is a sandwich spot, with two important games surrounding a less than stellar matchup. Alabama comes off a pair of SEC matchups with rivals Georgia and Mississippi State -- sandwiched around a game against UL Monroe. Think Nick Saban cares about having his starters go all the way against Monroe? Maybe if it was a revenge spot. Monroe actually upset Saban and Bama back in 2007, 21-14 as a +24 dog. Luckily for Monroe they didn't play the Tide a year later. That 2007 upset was a look-ahead spot for Bama, with rival Auburn on deck.
Several teams have already had super-long road trips. Boston College and Georgia Tech opened the season in Ireland, while Cal and Hawaii opened in Australia. Hawaii then turned around and flew to Michigan the next game, a 63-3 loss as a +38 dog. Thanks a lot, Mr. Schedule-maker. You have any more bright ideas?
Three years ago USC opened the season at Hawaii, crossing several time zones, then came home and lost to Washington State as a 16-point favorite, 10-7. The year before USC failed to cover in a trip to New York to play Syracuse, then had to fly 3,000 miles back to the West Coast to play at rival Stanford. As an 8-point favorite the Trojans looked out of sync on offense and out of gas all around in a 21-14 Cardinal upset. Oh, and those were their first two road games of the season, so the schedule-maker wasn't kind to the Men of Troy.
Another recent season in September saw Cal of the Pac 10 travel 3,000 miles across the country to face Maryland. As a double digit dog, Maryland jumped out to a 21-6 halftime lead and held Cal without a TD until late in the game of a 35-27 upset. It really wasn't that close. For three quarters, California appeared to be sleepwalking, which can happens when you have a noon kickoff, which translates to a 9 a.m. start time on the West Coast.
The Maryland offense erupted for five touchdowns after having only four in the first two games combined. Maryland was coming off a 10-point loss to unheralded Middle Tennessee State. After rushing for 391 yards in a 66-3 thrashing of Washington State, Cal was held to just 38 yards on 23 carries. Think scheduling had anything to do with that upset? "We weren't ready to start the game," said the Cal quarterback. Another player admitted, "We were playing a little sluggish."
As a footnote, the next week Cal flattened Colorado State, 42-7. Those examples encompass so much of things beyond match-ups in college football: scheduling, emotion, revenge, even respect.
That can also set up interesting rematches the following season. When Auburn had that miracle TD to upset Alabama on the final play, the next season the Tide covered a 10-point favorites in the rematch, scoring 55 points. Texas smoked UCL in recent revenge game, 49-20, after which one player remarked, "I know we all had a bad taste in our mouth from last year's loss to these guys. That's not a fond memory."
All of these aspects of handicapping can give bettors a key edge: Being able to identify teams that are completely focused, bad scheduling spots, and bounce back opportunities. Studying individual game match-ups are essential, but remember that other factors equally important can surround a game, including look-ahead spots, sandwich games, and factors that can influence a team's focus.