College Football Expert Betting Advice: Handicapping Neutral-Site Games
Starting with Miami and Florida's college football season opening showdown in Orlando, the opening weeks of the college football season will be marked by the novelty neutral-site games that are scheduled in a hope to, ultimately, sell more tickets and make more money. The selection of games perhaps isn't quite as electric as it has been in some years. Alabama, for one, always plays an early-season neutral-site game, but their matchup in Atlanta against Duke isn't exactly going to get the blood pumping. But Oregon and Auburn in Dallas is fascinating, Boise State and Florida State in Jacksonville is worth a look, and the battle for Carolina supremacy between North and South in Charlotte will have plenty of hatred involved. Even if the slate of neutral-site games isn't going to draw as much attention as it does some years, it is still important to think about what makes these games different and how bettors need to adjust to bet on them effectively.
Here are three big things to keep in mind when handicapping these games:
Is the neutral-site game really very neutral?: We call these games neutral-site games by default if they are played outside of the home stadiums of the two squads. But obviously they are sometimes more neutral than they are in other cases. There is an obvious example this year. Tallahassee is about 160 miles from Jacksonville on the I-10. Boise is more than 2,500 miles from Jacksonville on the I-80. While neither team is technically playing at home, the travel to the home of the Jaguars is just a little bit easier for Florida State than it is for Boise State. The Broncos will have their share of fans - it's a pretty good excuse for a trip to Florida for residents of Idaho and alumni of the school. But the Seminoles are obviously going to have a significant advantage in fan support. They also are going to have a much easier logistical hurdle to overcome for the game - travel will be painless, and the weather is exactly what they are used to. This is a neutral-site game on paper, but you pretty much have to consider it a Florida State home game when you are handicapping it. That doesn't mean that the Seminoles are sure to win by any means - they have proven the last couple years that they are capable of losing any game. It just means that geography is a different consideration than it might seem. On the other hand, when South Carolina and North Carolina meet in Charlotte, they will both be just a couple of hours from their own campuses, and fans from both schools will be out in full force. This is truly a neutral-site game - even if it is played in a city in North Carolina.
Will the location be a distraction?: Alabama plays a big kickoff game every year - in Atlanta or Dallas in recent years. And they play a playoff game or two every year. The majority of players on the team are numb to fancy stadiums by this point. It's just another place to play for them by now. When Duke lines up against the Tide in the fancy new shrine to football in Atlanta, though, they will not only have to overcome the nerves of playing a football superpower that totally outclasses them, but they will also have to deal with playing in a stadium unlike they are used to. It will be a big deal for players from a school like Duke that doesn't typically play at the top of the sport to be in such an incredible stadium. It's not ultimately going to be what decides the game, but if one team cares more about the setting than the other, it could have an impact - and anything that could have an impact needs to be considered.
Does anyone care?: We have to look at neutral-site games differently than other games in part because they are typically matchups with a bit of novelty surrounding them. We are very hungry for college football action after a seemingly endless offseason. However, when so many top programs are playing Cupcake State University in their opener and are favored by 79 points, these more impressive matchups draw more attention than most games. But not all neutral-site games are created equally. Alabama's opener is always going to draw attention, but even it will draw much less against Duke than it has in recent years against more impactful programs. And some games just won't get people excited no matter where they are played. Given where the programs are right now, for example, North Carolina could play South Carolina on the surface of the sun and casual sports fans would barely pay any attention at all. And it's the casual sports fans that we need to pay attention to in these spots. The interest they have in the games will determine how the lines are set, how they move, and ultimately where we should start our search for betting value.
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