There can be no avoiding rivalry matchups when betting on college football. They happen often and, many times feature primetime schools that demand your attention and investments. Some bettors treat them like every other game. That's fine. But others like to follow slightly different rules for these tilts. And that's fine, too. We have some tricks of the trade and tips for you to consider so you can decide which approach is best for you.
What Constitutes A College Football Rivalry Game?
Many make the mistake of thinking a college football rivalry must include two top ranked teams vying for the same playoff spot or recognition. This is not true.
Rivalry games can absolutely happen within this context. But they more so refer to two schools with a history that includes one another. They're usually schools from the same conference, and they don't need both sides to be good or playing for anything at all so much as they need engagement from the student body.
Consider Penn State and Ohio State. They have been rivals for decades. And yet, they're not always on equal footing. There have been years in which Penn State is bad and Ohio State is exceptional, and vice versa. Their matchups dwindle in importance when there aren't any tangible stakes involved, but no matter where either squad sits in the standings, they will both always be trying to beat the other and earn bragging rights.
This might sound trivial, mostly because it is. But that only describes sports in a nutshell. Competition breeds rivalries, both minor and marginal. And these rivalries absolutely have an impact on how two teams play. By extension, then, they almost always must affect the way you approach your bets.
Home-Field Advantage For Rivalry Games
Sports bettors tend to flock toward the team that is playing host to its rival. Home-field advantage matters more in football than it does in any other major North American sports, so why would that change here?
College stadiums and fanbases in particular are tough to crack. Where an NFL team's attendance might ebb and flow with the quality of their on-field products, college fanbases are more intense—more unconditionally present and allegiant. They consist of current students who root for their team by association through thick and thin, as well as former graduates who stick with their alma mater no matter what.
All of which adds up to extremely hostile environments that feature anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000-plus fans, the majority of which will be rooting for the home team. So you can understand why said school's moneyline and spread would look so appetizing—particularly if they're being peddled as odds-on favorites.
This doesn't mean you should blindly invest in home teams. It still matters where both teams are in the standings and what they're competing for. A clearly superior Ohio State outfit cannot be written off just because it is playing on Penn State's turf.
At the same time, there is equal risk involved when assuming the favorite pulls out a cover no matter what. And it doesn't just have to do with where the two teams are playing. As we're about to unpack, the stakes—or rather, lack thereof—can end up leaving a dent in the outcome.
Fading Favorites In Rivalry Games
One of the more popular strategies for college football rivalry games is fading favorites—a betting theory that applies to more than just this one sport.
For the most part, when fading favorites, you are investing in the spread for a heavy underdog or avoiding the game altogether. The thinking here is that the benchmark differential has become so large, the contest either isn't worth your time and money or it has ballooned to the point that it actually dissuades faith in the favorites.
For college football rivalry games specifically, fading favorites is strictly an investment in the underdog. You aren't just passing over the competition entirely, because so many amateur games are subject to large spreads.
That, for the record, is something you must account for. In the NFL, if the New England Patriots are a -14 favorite over the New York Jets, that might be a large enough spread for you to fade. In college football, however, a 14-point spread isn't all that huge. That's how big the gap is in talent for certain schools. So if you're trying to fade a hypothetical favorite like Ohio State, you probably need a four-touchdown spread or something similar.
This approach will still tickle some the wrong way. After all, if Ohio State is enough of a superpower, laying a -28 over a clearly inferior Penn State squad won't seem too enormous. Maybe Penn State is particularly bad that year. Maybe Ohio State is playing at home, where it has been unbeatable. Maybe Penn State is dealing with a major injury. Maybe the circumstances are a combination of all three.
Whatever the case, this is where the spirit of the rivalry game itself comes into play. You know Penn State is going to be preparing for their matchup with Ohio State using a little extra juice because these two sides count themselves as an arch nemesis of the other. The Nittany Lions, despite being a non-factor on the national stage, could then end up playing the Buckeyes, a real juggernaut, to something that bears resemblance to a gridlock.
Many bettors even live to pounce on weaker underdogs. For example, if Penn State enters with a 1-5 record to Ohio State's 6-0 record, and they're laying a +21, gamblers may see that as a unique opportunity to fade the favorite. They are not only banking on the rivalry game bringing out Penn State's best, but they're also assuming Ohio State won't game plan for their rivals as seriously because they're not meaningful threats in the standings or national-rankings poll.
Working this side of the fence is risky, but it can work. Your pre-game studying should carry on as per usual, with an emphasis on how these two schools have matched up over the past one to three years. If the games have been relatively close to even with the forecasted underdog playing out a rough stretch overall during that time, you might consider fading the favorite.
And by the way: Moneylines are typically a no-go with this method. Sure, a +1,250 for Penn State winning out right might seem enticing. But there's a reason why they are being underdogged by that much. By investing in that line, you are setting yourself up for a larger potential return, but you're also boxing yourself into a single unlikely outcome—a massive upset.
Sticking with the spreads affords you more flexibility. Your pick doesn't need to win. It just cannot lose by more than the allotted spread.
Investing In The No-Stakes Candidate
One last side of this argument to consider is blanketed investments in the teams with less to lose in the big picture. We've already touched upon this a little bit by discussing underdogs, but this is, by and large, a separate method.
Let's say Ohio State needs a victory over Penn State to keep their college football playoff candidacy alive. Let's also say Penn State is entering after having won just two games all year. Conventional logic would dictate that Ohio State will take care of business with everything on the line.
Except, that's not always the case. This isn't the NFL. Penn State will not be benching their best players to improve their draft-pick positioning. They'll still want their top guys getting as many reps as possible.
Equally important, Penn State's players aren't going to roll over just because. They're not getting paid beyond scholarships for their participation—a whole other issue on its own. They are not as concerned with avoiding injury to cash big paychecks. If anything, some of them are hoping to play their best and eventually land those paychecks in the NFL or another pro league. And if they're not on that level, then they will undoubtedly be playing for pride—for the right to say they functioned as the spoiler to Ohio State's championship hopes.
This isn't superficial motivation. It's real. Many of Penn State's players could be seniors. This could be one of their last hurrahs. And their younger teammates will follow suit in their honor. The emotional juices will be running high.
Do not discount these factors when facing a similar situation. This isn't to say you should be taking Penn State to win outright. Once more, they will have theoretically only racked up two wins and enter as major underdogs for a reason. But it is enough of an incentive to consider fading Ohio State's spread. You'll still want something more than a two-touchdown advantage. Anything that large or higher, and Penn State should be viewed as a viable against-the-grain option.
Risks Of Betting On College Rivalry Game
Whether you're dealing with two really good teams, one really good side and one not so good side, or two suboptimal programs, the primary risk incumbent of rivalry games doesn't change: Unpredictability is more of a clear and ever-present danger than usual.
Perhaps this comes across as a broken record. The whole concept of sports betting is subjected to many different avenues of the unanticipated and ambiguous. But rivalry games exacerbate that uncertainty. Just think of all the questions you have to ask yourself:
Does it matter that the favorite has a much better record than the underdog? Does it matter that the underdog is playing at home? Or does it matter that the favorite is the home squad? Is a heavily favored Ohio State team less likely to cover against Penn State if they have nothing to play for? Is Penn State more likely to keep things close for that same reason? Are these two teams so close in skill level and record it doesn't even make sense to play the spread?
These questions only just begin to cover the risks ingrained with betting rivalry games. And they come in addition to the abnormally high amount of uncertainty already baked into college football games in general.
Big spreads, for instance, are so common at this level that it can be difficult to decipher what projected differential warrants fading a favorite. And home-field advantage is so crucial that it can be even harder to decide when it makes sense to show any love to a road squad whether they are a favorite or underdog.
Make sure you're covering all your bases before submitting a sportsbook ticket or committing to a theory. Remember: All of the aforementioned strategies are hardly beyond reproach. They can backfire. The key is to implement them properly, which becomes possible when you're on the lookout for all the different types of scenarios we just unpacked.
Lessons Learned About Betting On College Football Rivalries
- Rivalry games do not extend to only two ranked teams or above-average squads; they're simply contests in which both opponents have a high-profile history, play in the same conference or have a track record for not liking one another
- Betting on the home team is the most popular strategy when wagering on college football rivalries, particularly when the underdog is the school playing host
- Fading favorites is another popular approach, but unlike NFL games, you should be looking for spreads that declare the better team a three-touchdown winner or higher
- Avoid moneylines when fading favorites in rivalry games, since these wagers only limit you to one overwhelmingly unlikely outcome; betting spreads allows much more room for error (i.e. an underdog's loss)
- Invest in no-stakes bets at your own risk and typically for small cash amounts, as a favorite or underdog having nothing to play for can impact their approach to a rivalry game in a number of ways, both for better and worse