September is the time in college football for ridiculous matchups. Each year we see countless games between truly elite teams and either mid-level FCS teams or barely competent teams from smaller conferences in FBS. These games are usually played at the home field of the better team, and in almost every case the game is essentially over before it starts. The good teams only play the games because they have to play 12 games, but they don't want every one of them to be tough. The bad teams only play for the paycheck - they typically get paid more for these games than they can make hosting a home game of their own.
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These games can present a real handicapping challenge. It's not typically tough to figure out who is going to win, of course. The spreads in these games are typically huge, though, and it can be very challenging to figure out which side to be on.
Here are seven questions to ask when looking at these massive mismatches:
Is it really a no-hope team?: Most times the lesser team really is hopeless in these situations. Sometimes, though, they are actually quite successful programs that operate out of the public awareness. When Appalachian State stunned Michigan in 2007 few saw it coming, but the Mountaineers had just won their second of three straight national FCS championships. North Dakota State has currently won five straight FCS titles, and they have also won five straight against FBS teams. These are extreme examples, but there are other very strong programs that get no attention at all and need to be respected.
What changes does the good team have to deal with?: Sometimes the good team has scheduled the cupcake team because they know they will be dealing with a lot of changes, and they essentially want a preseason game to work out the kinks. Perhaps they are forced to break in a new quarterback, or they lost a lot of key players to the draft or graduation. Maybe the offensive line has multiple new starters. The more changes they have to deal with heading into the season or the game, the less likely they are to be at their best, and the tougher it will be for them to cover a big spread.
What has the team done in the past in these situations?: If a team has been elite for a long time then this surely is far from the first cupcake game that they have played. By looking back at how they have tackled those games in the past you could have a sense of what might happen now. Does the team focus on getting enough of a lead and then resting their key players? Or do they keep their foot on the throttle the whole way and score as much as they possibly can? Obviously one approach will make it much easier to cover spreads than the other.
What is the action looking like?: These mismatch games aren't the ones that are going to draw heavy early public action. That will go to the marquee games of the week. By looking at where the early action is in these mismatches, then, you can often get a strong sense of what the sharp money thinks of the game.
What is next for the elite team?: A team will approach one of these games very differently if their next game is also an easy one than they will if the next opponent is an elite one. If the next team is also an easy one then they likely won't feel a lot of urgency, whereas if the next opponent is strong the team will likely play hard in this game until they feel like they are ready for the next game.
How are ticket sales?: It is easy now to get a sense of how ticket sales are going for a game, and what the crowd is likely to be like. Look on the team's official ticket site to see if seats are still available and how good they are. Look on sites like Stubhub or Craigslist to get a sense of whether the crowd is likely to be smaller than usual. A smaller, less-enthusiastic crowd could have an impact on the enthusiasm of the home team.
What's the forecast?: The weather is always a potential factor in the fall. Look at the forecast to see if the weather makes it tougher for the good team to score enough to cover the large spread. In rainy conditions, for example, the team might shift to more of a ball protection offense than an aggressive one because passing won't be as successful as it might otherwise be.
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