College Football Handicapping: Crucial Early Games
by Trevor Whenham - 7/31/2013
Teams that head into a college football season highly-ranked are subject to almost endless hype and impossible expectations. For bettors, the key is to be able to quickly cut through the hype and get an early sense of what the team is really going to be capable of. Only by doing that can you have any chance of finding real value on heavily-bet teams. It can be tough to assess a top-level team when they open against weak opponents. Here are five top-level teams this year, and the games early in their schedule that will be most telling about how strong they can be expected to be:
vs. Virginia Tech, Saturday, Aug. 31, 5:30 p.m. ET
They have won two National Championships in a row and three of the last four. Needless to say, the Tide know how to perform at a high level. This year the expectations are as high as ever — the team is 3/1 to win the National Championship at Bovada,, and no other team is below 13/2. The reputation of the team and their ridiculous talent fuels the low odds and makes it sure that you won’t find value betting on them. You could find value betting against them, but only if they aren’t as good as they appear. They play a tough schedule this year, starting with the Hokies. If the two teams play to capabilities, then the Tide will roll in this one. What we need to be on the lookout for, though, is any signs of complacency. Are there chemistry issues with the team? Do players give less than their full on multiple plays? It’s highly unlikely that the Tide will lay a complete egg, but even small chinks in the armor could fester and prove valuable later in the season.
at Virginia, Saturday, Sept. 7, 3:30 p.m. ET
With Chip Kelly gone, the Mark Helfrich era starts at home in a non-contest against Nicholls State. While a trip to Virginia shouldn’t be that scary, it is much more significant of a test. This is a chance for the Ducks to make a real statement — shutting down the Cavaliers and racking up a million points. If the team looks tentative or isn’t at their best here, though, then there could be some concerns later in the schedule in huge, conference-defining games against UCLA and Stanford.
at Cal, Saturday, Sept. 14, 7 p.m. ET
The Buckeyes are coming off a meaningless undefeated season. They are heavily-hyped this year, with a schedule that doesn’t get much respect and a strong Heisman contender in Braxton Miller. There is a chance that the team will be reading its headlines too much and will lack focus early on. There are also plenty of distractions on the team — most notably the disciplinary issues of late. The Buckeyes should be dramatically better than Cal at this point. With a new coach, though, the Bears will have nothing to lose and will be fired up. The first two opponents for the Buckeyes — Buffalo and San Diego State — will hardly be a test, so this is the first chance to see if this team is ready to be the national contender that people think that they are.
vs. San Jose State, Saturday, Sept. 7, 11 p.m. ET
It’s hard to know what to expect of the Cardinal this year. They could be even better than last year, or they could take a step backwards. There have been some changes and some outstanding talent lost. While depth isn’t nearly the issue it once was for the team, chemistry will be a concern. Also a concern is whether Kevin Hogan can take a step forward after a very promising first year as the starting quarterback. For a team with a lot to overcome, this is a tough game to start with. San Jose State QB David Fales is a hot commodity who could go high in the first round in the upcoming draft if he plays as well as expected this year. He’ll be hungry to make a statement, and he’ll test this Stanford team if they aren’t on their game. This will be an excellent indicator of where Stanford is at and what to expect this year.
vs. Alabama, Saturday, Sept. 14, 3:30 p.m. ET
Johnny Football is getting just a little bit of attention these days. Every tweet and every outing is carefully dissected and criticized. He’s the most visible, controversial player in college football, and it’s not even close for second. It’s only going to get worse, too — just this week he has been the focus of feature coverage by both ESPN and Sports Illustrated. It’s almost impossible for any player to stand up under this scrutiny, never mind one who was just hoping he would be able to get some playing time at this point last year. Can Manziel recapture last year’s magic even though he has lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury? Or will he struggle while playing under the sport’s brightest spotlight? Last year he defined his season and his legacy by beating Alabama. Now he gets to play them again at home, The Tide won’t let Manziel sneak up on them this year, though. This will be a very good indicator of where the Aggies are at — on the field and mentally. They can lose this game and still impress as long as they keep it interesting.
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