Expert NCAA Handicapping Advice for College Football Neutral-Site Games
The opening couple of weeks of college football comes as a relief to fans and bettors dealing with a long case of withdrawal. But they bring plenty of handicapping challenges with them - new coaches, new QBs, and all sorts of other changes. And, uniquely, those first few weeks also include neutral-site games. These types of games are growing in frequency as stadiums that don't have a team of their own are willing to pay big money for games, and TV is looking for high-profile spectacles to launch their broadcast season. Every time these games come along they present a handicapping challenge for bettors. They aren't entirely different from any other game, but there are a few differences that you need to be aware of, and to compensate for without overreacting, if you want to come out on top.
Here are four questions to guide your betting decision when you look at these games:
How neutral is the game, really?: There is a painfully obvious example of this this year. When you see the Washington and Auburn showdown on paper your first reaction has to be that you have the class of the Pac-12 and a potential playoff team against a team that wants to break through in the SEC and has a ceiling of a playoff appearance as well. It's an interesting game - very interesting. But then you have to factor in the location. Washington rarely plays good teams in nonconference play, and they rarely travel very far to play the weak games they play - if they leave home at all. Now not only are they playing an elite SEC squad in their opener, but they are doing it in Atlanta. You don't have to be a cartographer to know that Atlanta is a heck of a lot closer to Auburn than Washington and that the Tigers will not only have much easier travel and much smoother time zone adjustments but also likely a much more sizable friendly crowd as well. This is a neutral-site game, but it is much closer to an Auburn home game than a Washington one, and that has to be figured into your calculations. On the other hand, a game like Colorado vs. Colorado State in Denver is very manageable for both teams, and the setting doesn't provide a real edge. And while Alabama has a big advantage wherever they play, playing Louisville in Orlando doesn't accentuate that edge.
Will the location be a distraction?: After a while, most stadiums are just stadiums. But sometimes there are settings that teams can play in that will be unlike what they are used to, and the significance of the location can serve as a distraction. That can happen when teams play in AT&T Stadium in Dallas because of the ridiculous size of the place. Playing in the brand-new building in Atlanta could be a distraction for Auburn and Washington. And stunt locations like baseball stadiums or Nascar tracks can always be too much of a spectacle. When the location could matter the team that is more experienced - in general or with the setting in particular - could have an added edge. Games in exotic international locations can also be a big distraction on this front if they appear on the calendar early on as well.
Is the location more of a distraction for us than the players?: In 2016 Wisconsin played at Lambeau Field against LSU. Leading up to the game, the big media storylines weren't about how the programs matched up or the stakes of the game so much as they were about whether one of the teams would do a Lambeau Leap after scoring. The location felt like a much bigger deal to the media than it did to the players, who played one heck of a football game to kick off their seasons. In unique settings like that, or in the Tennessee and Virginia Tech game played in the middle of a massive Nascar track, the media can get carried away and make the setting seem like far more of a story than it really needs to be.
Does anyone really care?: If a tree falls in a forest and no one ever goes to that forest anyway, will anyone care? Alabama opens with a neutral-site game every year, and it always is significant - it's Alabama, and it is usually against a very good team. But Eastern Michigan could open on the moon against a select squad from Uranus and only a few hardcore fans would even notice. The impact of neutral-site games is every bit as much how the fans respond to them as the players, so the public gravitas surrounding a game is definitely a key part of evaluating any of these games.
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