Handicapping Nuetral Site College Football Games
by Trevor Whenham - 9/1/2010
Neutral site games - one of the unique challenges of handicapping college football. Neutral site games are rare enough that we have to take special note of them, but common enough that we can’t just ignore them entirely. As you try to tackle the challenge of figuring out how to deal with these games, here are six questions to ask:
Is it really neutral site? - Not all neutral site games are really true neutral site games. When Boise State and Virginia Tech play on Monday, for example, it won’t be on either of their campuses, but one team has a clear edge - Washington, D.C. is a heck of a lot closer to Blacksburg than it is to Boise. That means that while neither team will be playing in their comfortable home settings, the fan base is going to tilt heavily towards the Hokies. You can’t always rely just on geography, though. In Week 1 Texas will travel to Houston to play Rice, but the game will be in Reliant Stadium instead of at Rice’s home field. At first glance it might seem like Rice would have the edge because they are still in their home city. Clearly, though, Texas is a much more popular program with many, many more fans, so it’s likely that the Longhorns will have a significant crowd edge - to the extent that it might feel like they are playing in Austin.
Which team will travel better? - If the game is truly a neutral site situated a good distance from both schools then the next question is which team is going to have more fans follow them to the game. Some schools travel very well, while the fans of others prefer to stay at home. If one team is likely to have significantly more fans in the stands then they could have a solid edge in the game.
How big is the crowd likely to be? - The size of the crowd can have a big impact on a game. Generally games that are held in neutral sites are thought of as events and they are expected to draw big crowds. Teams rarely play in smaller fields than their own. Sometimes, though, the attendance at a game doesn’t meet expectations. A smaller crowd will obviously decrease the impact of the crowd, and can lessen the impact of that crowd on the outcome of the game.
How well has the team done in the past in neutral site games? - Teams rarely play more than one neutral site game a year during the regular season. Almost all bowl games are neutral site games as well. While that doesn’t allow for a large sample size when it comes to determining how a team likes playing at neutral sites, it can be enough to notice real trends - like if a team just doesn’t play well in these games, or if they have had a history of rising up and playing particularly well in these unique games.
How well has the team done on the road? - The team’s road record can give the best insight into how a team is likely to fare in this neutral site game. It’s easy to over-think neutral site games, but at their heart they are just a road game for both teams. If one team is a particularly strong road team while the other struggles when they are away from home then the good road team might have an edge. Teams struggle playing on the road in part because of the crowd, but the fact that they have to travel and break their routines is at least as significant a factor, and that will be an issue in any game played away from home. If a team is particularly strong when they play on the road in hostile stadiums then it’s quite likely that they will be even stronger in neutral site games because the impact of the crowd will be less.
What’s at stake? - Neutral site games are often planned well in advance, and have been planned with some purpose in mind - if there wasn’t an extra reason for the game to be played then people wouldn’t care about it, and it wouldn’t likely be played in a neutral site. Virginia Tech and Boise State, for example, is set up to be a clash between teams with National Championship aspirations that both teams have been thinking about since the second last season ended. The stakes can’t be higher because the aspirations of one team will essentially come to an end at the final whistle. In that case the impact of the location of the game is likely to be less than it might otherwise be because the teams will be so focused on this game and so prepared for it that outside influences will be decreased. Generally, the more a team has at stake, and the more likely they are to be laser-focused on the game, the less significant the location is likely to be in the outcome of the game.
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