College Football Handicapping: The Experience Factor
by Darin Zank - 9/9/2011
We all know, or at least we should know, that three key factors go into handicapping college football games: talent, coaching and experience. Talent and coaching can go a long way toward a team's success, both in winning games and covering pointspreads. But there's also something to be said about experience, and handicappers should take this intangible into account. Phil Steele certainly does.
Steele, as most of you probably know, puts out the Bible of college football betting each season, his yearly preview guide that covers every FBS team. As part of his analysis he compiles an NCAA experience chart, which ranks teams based upon the number of returning starters, the percentage of returning lettermen and the number of career starts along the offensive line, among other things. It's certainly a handy chart, and something I refer to all the time when handicapping college football games. What I'm looking for mainly are mismatches, where teams that rank high on the experience chart are going up against teams that rank low. Last week, the opening weekend of this season, it pointed me in the right direction on a couple of games.
Examples from Week 1
The best example from the opening weekend of action was probably the game that matched defending National Champion Auburn against Utah State. The Tigers ranked dead last on Phil Steele's experience chart, with just six returning starters and a total of 15 career starts along the offensive line. The Aggies, meanwhile, ranked 24th, with 14 returning starters and 90 starts along the O line. Auburn was favored by 24 points, but looked like a team going through some growing pains, especially on defense. The Tigers never even led in the game until they scored with 30 seconds left to win, 42-38, and those of us who had backed Utah State had ourselves an easy cover.
Also last week, Northwestern, which ranked second in experience points, with 15 returning starters and 137 starts along the offensive line, was a five-point underdog at Boston College, which ranked 59th in experience, with 14 returning starters but just 50 starts on the O line. And even without sparkplug QB Dan Persa the Wildcats came away with a 24-17 upset victory.
And Ball State, No. 12 on the experience chart, upset Indiana, which ranked 103rd in experience, as 4.5-point road underdogs.
Overall, the top 12 teams on Steele's experience chart (Northwestern, Tulsa, Toledo, Rice, Miami-Ohio, UCLA, UL-Monroe, Temple, BYU and Ball State) went 5-5 against the pointspreads last week. We're throwing out SMU and Texas A&M, Nos. 1 and 8 on that chart, because they played each other.
On the other end of the spectrum the bottom 10 teams on the experience chart (Florida Atlantic, Fresno State, UTEP, Georgia Tech, Ohio, TCU, Memphis, Iowa, Louisville and Auburn) went 2-8 ATS on opening weekend.
As for this weekend in college football several games stand out when taking experience into account. Friday night Florida International, No. 28 on the preseason experience chart, is a four-point underdog at Louisville, No. 119 on the chart; Saturday No. 16 Mississippi State is favored by 5.5 points at No. 120 Auburn; No. 22 Colorado is a 6.5-point home underdog vs. No. 96 Cal; No. 20 Air Force is a 1.5-point home dog vs. No. 116 TCU; No. 10 Temple is favored by 15 points at No. 91 Akron; No. 1 SMU is an 18.5-point favorite over No. 113 UTEP; No. 11 BYU is getting seven points at No. 77 Texas; No. 21 Western Kentucky is getting 9.5 points at home vs. No. 108 Navy; and No. 15 Vanderbilt is favored by 2.5 points at home vs. No. 87 Connecticut.
Of course, the level of experience changes during the course of a season, and injuries play a part, so while experience is a factor in handicapping games, especially early in the season, adjustments will have to be made.
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