College Football Handicapping: Conference Size Changes
by Trevor Whenham - 8/26/2011
It’s time for some pretty big changes in college football, which is something you are likely aware of by now. In a move that could only make sense in the brilliantly illogical world of college football, the Big 12 will have 10 teams this year (and fewer next year, it seems), while the Big Ten has 12 teams. The Pac-10 has also become the Pac-12.
Inevitably the change in the makeup of those three conferences will have a significant impact on this season for college football handicappers. While we have seen changes before, it has been awhile since we have seen so many changes all at once.
While each conference is going to play out a little differently, and we’ll have to wait until the conference season starts to really see how things turn out, there are a few general things that sharp bettors will want to keep in mind:
New opponents - This year there are going to be a lot of games featuring teams that have never played each other before, or at least haven’t done it recently or often.
For Nebraska, Colorado and Utah virtually every conference game will be a new experience. It’s not just that they won’t have played the opponent before, but they won’t have traveled to the city or visited the stadium. It will all be new, and a lot of young college teams aren’t at their best when things are new.
There are a lot of factors that can easily be overstated and overcompensated for, but I don’t think that this is one of them. That doesn’t mean that these three teams are going to fail to live up to expectations or have a bad year. It just means that you really need to be aware of the impact of the ongoing new experiences for these teams as the season progresses to see if the teams are handling it well or if they are struggling. It’s also important to remember that most of the opponents that visit these three teams will have never done so before, and the fans are likely to be particularly vocal if they are welcoming a strong opponent for the first time.
So much of conference handicapping has to do with looking back at how teams have matched up in recent years, but we won’t have that to fall back on this year.
Conference championship - Teams in the Pac-12 and Big Ten will be dealing with a conference championship game for the first time. Colorado and Nebraska are the only exceptions, and for the Buffaloes concerns about a championship game really won’t be relevant.
The rest of the teams will have the chances of making the conference championship game looming for the first time. Adding this extra game can have a few different impacts on teams as the season progresses.
For starters, teams that didn’t have a lot to play for outside of pride in past years -- they had a bowl game locked up but weren’t going to the BCS -- could have a shot now of making the big game. That could lead to more desperate, passionate play down the stretch. If a strong team already has one loss but has secured a spot in the conference championship game with a game or two left to play then chances are low that they will play with full intensity to close out the regular season when they have the conference championship game to look forward to. That’s always a factor in conferences with championship games, but it could be even more of a factor this year when teams are dealing with it for the first time.
Uneven schedules – It’s clearly very difficult to create two divisions that are basically equally competitive. For proof of that you can look at pretty much every conference out there -- most seem to have one division that is much stronger than the other. That is also the case with the Big Ten and especially the Pac-12 this year.
The more unbalanced conferences are the less you can rely on team records to indicate the strength of the teams in those conferences. Teams in the weaker conference are going to get cheap wins against bad teams while teams in the strong conference could lose to strong teams while still playing very well.
Attaching meaning to records is generally always a bad habit, but in the two expanded conferences this year you’ll especially want to avoid doing it.
The A&M factor - Texas A&M is not doing a lot to make friends. They have now officially told the Big 12 they intend to leave the conference, and that was only after playing out a very public courtship with the SEC.
It’s not a move that is very popular in Big 12 country, and the conference’s collective ego has already taken a big hit this offseason. That all means that A&M is going to be viciously under attack by visiting crowds every time they play this year.
The Aggies have a chance to be a pretty good team, but the hostile crowds could be a much bigger factor than normal. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on once conference play rolls around.
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