College Football Handicapping: Neutral-Site Games
by Trevor Whenham - 8/27/2014
One of the intriguing features of the first few weeks of the college football season is the host of nonconference neutral-site games that hit the schedule. They are often times more of a cash grab than anything else, but they can also provide intriguing matchups between teams we don't typically see play each other. When you are handicapping these neutral-site games, here are three factors to keep in mind:
How neutral is neutral? Not all neutral-site games are particularly neutral. Sometimes the game will be much closer to one team's home than the other or closer to a significant alumni base that will attend the game. Some teams have a much more national fan base than others or have fans that will travel better than their opponent's. In other words, sometimes a neutral-site game can effectively be a home game for a team.
Is there a history of neutral site games? What has happened in past years in college football has a limited relevance in the current season because of how quickly things change. One exception, though, can be if teams have been particularly strong or particularly weak in neutral-site games under the same coaching staff.
What has changed for the team? Since these games are early in the season, and are often a game that teams are particularly focused on, it can be a big test for the team and a good indicator of what we can expect from the team going forward. If a team has faced key changes in important positions then they might not be up to the challenge they are facing. The public may also have misjudged the team because the reputation of the squad doesn't match the new reality after the changes.
Looking at this year's offering of neutral-site games in the first three weeks of the year, here are six that stand out as particularly interesting:
Boise State vs. Ole Miss, August 28: Ole Miss faces some pretty serious expectations this year because this is the year when their massive recruiting haul of two years ago should really start to pay off. As the second biggest game of the first real day of the season, there will be plenty of eyes on the game. It will be a chance to make a statement for both teams. It's also a big chance for the new regime at Boise State to prove that they can make a smooth transition, and that they shouldn't be forgotten just because they are outside of the Power 5 conferences.
Colorado State vs. Colorado, August 29: This is far from the highest-profile game of the week, but the rivalry game is worth watching nonetheless. The opinions of what is in store for Colorado this year vary widely. No one expects them to win the division, but I have seen everything from third to last in predictions. This will be a good chance to see what the Buffs can do under some pressure and if there are good reasons to be much more optimistic about this team than I am heading into this season.
West Virginia vs. Alabama, August 30: West Virginia is not going to be a particularly good team, but they are going to be able to do a few interesting things offensively nonetheless. Of course, no one will care about them. There seems to be a perception out there that the Tide is vulnerable this year - at least compared to the powerhouse they have been. A lot of that has to do with skepticism around the fit of Lane Kiffin, the man who has torched everything he has touched in football. This shouldn't be a hugely-challenging game for Alabama, but it is a chance for them to ease the minds of the skeptics and show they are in charge - or to send bettors into a frenzy with a poor performance.
Florida State vs. Oklahoma State, August 30: Not hard to figure out the appeal of this one. The defending national champions, who have another loaded roster, are making their debut. It comes against a respectable team but one that shouldn't be nearly good enough to make this one too interesting. Will Florida State be focused and dangerous - just like they were all of last year? Or will they have spent too much time in the offseason reading their own headlines and enjoying the fruits of their success? This is our first chance to get out of our own heads and see firsthand what Florida State is really capable of.
Wisconsin vs. LSU, August 30: These programs are both coming off of respectable seasons, though neither was quite as strong as they hoped. Now they are both facing some change and uncertainty at quarterback. In Wisconsin incumbent Joel Stave, who had started 19 games, has been beaten out this year by Tanner McEvoy, a junior who has played wide receiver and actually started at safety three times last year. It's a high-risk choice, but it signals that Gary Andersen isn't afraid of doing anything if it makes the team better. We'll see here whether that choice was courageous or foolish. At least Andersen has made a choice. LSU has not yet said who will be starting in place of Zach Mettenberger, and it seems at least possible - if not probable - that they will not name one before game day. As the saying goes, when you have two quarterbacks you might as well have none. Both of these teams are rated in the Top 15 heading into the season. It's quite possible that neither deserves it, but only one will be ranked that high after this game.
UCLA vs. Texas, September 13: This will be the third game of the Charlie Strong era, but the first against a high-profile, likely highly-ranked team. Last year Texas was brutal. A total embarrassment. Strong's early days have not been exactly smooth, but none of that will matter if he wins. If he struggles here, though, then the pressure will intensify. For UCLA, a team with playoff potential this year, it will be their first big test and a good way to sharpen up for what will be a very tough conference schedule.
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