Betting Against NCAAF Ranked Teams?

College football is one of the most difficult sports to bet on. It houses hundreds and hundreds of teams, and the statistical data available for each one pales in comparison to the NFL's tools. College football is also more predictable from a powerhouse landscape, which is oftentimes reflected in large spreads that can be difficult to decide on. That has invariably opened the door for the "Betting against ranked teams" strategy. What is it? And is it right for you? Let's find out.

What Does 'Betting Against Ranked Teams' Mean?

Gambling against college football's ranked teams entails placing a wager that predicts unfavorable outcome for one of the country's top 25 programs.

These roughly two dozen squads make up the ranked sector of college football, and they are almost always heavily favored entering their weekly games unless they're playing one another. Most of the time, they win, hence their pole position. But betting against ranked teams doesn't traffic in moneylines. You care more about the spreads, which you're hoping in certain instances are so large that the favored teams in question just don't cover them.

Let's say a juggernaut like Alabama is facing off against Kent State, and that Alabama is laying a -28.5. That four-touchdown spread is enormous. Alabama could still win big and not cover it, either because they took their foot off the gas, or because Kent State's offense or defense winds up being friskier than advertised. 

Recognizing this, you would invest in Kent State at +28.5, in hopes that they keep the game closer than expected. You're free to bet on Kent State's moneyline as well, but you run into two problems here.

First and foremost, the moneylines sometimes aren't offered for these types of matchups. That's how dominant ranked teams—particularly inside the top five—tend to be. Potential upsets are so far out of the question, many sportsbooks won't want to bankroll the returns on them. Too many people, for example, would constantly throw $100 down on a +2,500 line for Kent State just for giggles. And while sportsbooks would come out on top 99 times out of 100, the one time an upset occurs would prove costly.

This also dovetails with the second issue of betting underdog moneylines: It is more often than not pointless. You might come out on top once every 100 wagers or so, but single-game returns, even at their peak, are not worth that. 

Working the spreads is more calculated. You're only looking at returns, for the most part, in the -110 to +110 range, but near-even money isn't a bad profit. Most importantly, you're accounting for the very likely event of the underdog losing, which gives you a better chance of hitting on the wager in general.

Benefits Of Betting Against Ranked Teams

This strategy is about maximizing your profits in a collegiate football landscape that does not invite much variety.

Indeed, there are hundreds of teams technically competing for the same thing. But they're really not. The same handful of squads remain on a dominant treadmill, sometimes for decades. And the margin between powerhouse schools and dark horses is so large that it creates this competitive imbalance that can be difficult for bettors to make money off of.

Just take our point about moneyline examples from before. You'll never get a decent return when betting on a heavyweight favorite unless they're playing another one of top 25 teams. In some extreme but no uncommon instances, you'll have to bet $1,000 just to win a $100.

Conversely, funneling cash into the underdog's moneylines is most useless. Sure, the odds are lucrative on the surface. But Kent State at a +2,500 to beat Alabama is mostly pointless. They're losing that much every time, no matter how poorly Alabama plays.

Using abnormally large spreads against the favorite in question is your best hope at leveling the playing field. In this example, you know Alabama is going to dominate. But by how much will they win? Four touchdowns? Five touchdowns?

That differential sounds ridiculous. And yet, it's what most people expect from a perennial superpower like them. That will be reflected in the spread, and while Alamba could very well cover, say, a 35-point spread, holding them to such a high bar does limit their margin for error. They could play fantastic football at both sides and still only win by three touchdowns. 

All of which is where the appeal of this betting theory comes in. It remains rooted in the fact that even the best squads will take their foot off the gas late in games. Alabama could throw in their backup quarterback for the fourth quarter if it's up by a bunch of touchdowns. Or they could commit to running the ball, which would take time off the clock but may not do much for their point total or win differential.

This theory also subscribes to the time-old assumption that the best teams in college football have a target on their back. Kent State knows they are not supposed to beat Alabama. That could incite a certain level of defiance in them. They may be more locked in than usual—definitely more engaged than they would be against another footnote program like UTEP.

Oddsmakers seldom account for this factor, mostly because they can't. But if you're Alabama, you've definitely thought about it. Going up against every team's best can be exhausting. This doesn't necessarily mean you'll blow the game entirely, but it could mean you won't be able to clear a four-touchdown margin.

In the end, that's all this approach is supposed to be. And when it can ensure bettors near-even-money returns as opposed to the stinky moneylines they'd otherwise be working, it's hard not to see the appeal or the merit. You technically bet against a powerhouse while still expecting them to win. What's not to like about that?

Dangers Of Betting Against Ranked Teams

Like all betting strategies, this one is not faultless. Gambling against ranked teams when they're posting large spreads has two decided downfalls.

First and foremost, the criteria for what even qualifies a ranked team for its position remains fuzzy. There are no concrete formulas that go into it. A selection committee is responsible for assembling the 25 and updating it on a weekly basis, just like they're responsible for picking the playoff bracket.

This doesn't matter too much when looking at the tippy top of the order. But it can create some problems as you go deeper into the top 25. A 20th-ranked team could technically be 10 spots or more too high. And that matters as you are sussing out ranked squads to bet against.

In the above instance, that works in your favor. But you have to spot that market inefficiency first. More importantly, this could betray you when teams that aren't ranked come into play. A 15th-place team could have a 10-point advantage over a team that profiles as a top-35 squad. It doesn't necessarily make sense to invest in the underdog here when the spread is that small. 

Basically, you want to zero in on the biggest projected scoring margins and go from there. Don't just consider every non-top-25 team an underdog and every spread they're laying a worth investment.

The other thing to keep in mind when betting against ranked teams is that the favorites could, in fact, end up blowing their competition out of the water. We talk a lot about teams resting their best players when they build up huge leads. But that doesn't happen as frequently in college football.

Unlike with NFL teams, collegiate programs aren't worrying about preserving veterans and expensive investments. They care about winning as much as possible right now. They're not playing the long game. They know players will be with them three or four years at a maximum. They won't see a need to rest a top quarterback.

It works the same way when looking at their age. Coaches aren't trying to conserve the energy of someone in their late teens and early 20s. They have quicker recovery times. Plus, in many cases, coaches and coordinators want to get their youthful guns as many reps as possible. Quarterbacks specifically are contending for Heisman trophies and futures in the NFL. Every skill position player will want to pad his stats for a resume that will come in handy when looking at options beyond college football.

The offshoot of this can be impactful to your betting tendencies. Alabama will not just loosen their chokehold over Kent State if they go up by four touchdowns. They might, sure. But it's not a guarantee, which would make it exponentially harder for the underdog, in Kent State, to cover their end of the enormous spread. 

Lessons Learned About Betting Against Ranked Teams

  • These wagers entail you picking against the spread of a top-25 team when they play a decided underdog
  • Make sure these underdog spreads are adequately huge before investing in them; anything under a +20 or so probably isn't worth your time
  • Don't just pick any top-25 squad or underdog as your target; you need play the matchups as well, just like any other game
  • Be wary of the risks involved—particularly when it comes to college teams usually opting against rest for their top players when they build monstrous leads
  • Steer clear of underdog moneylines as part of this process unless the two teams are closer to even ground than not; rolling the dice on anything more than a +500 or maybe +750 is probably a lost cause.