College Football Handicapping Myths

Pretty much every regular sportsbettor has, at one time or another, found themselves gambling on college football. It's one of the most popular draws in the industry. The thing with ubiquity, though, is it has a way of giving way to falsehoods—misconceptions aimed at coaxing bettors into bad beats. Identifying these wannabe strategies is fairly easy. You just have to know what to look for. Let's outline some of the biggest fallacies of college football betting so you're not ever caught off-guard or drawn into an uninformed wager ever again.

Myth No. 1: College Foot Is Just Like The NFL

This is a common one. People think that they can take the same approach they use to bet on the NFL and apply it to college football. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The rules and scoring structures are similar, verging on identical. But the real relationship ends with the sport they're playing. College football is not professional football. Nor is supposed to be.

Think about it: There are 32 NFL teams at present. There are more than 10 times that many college football programs across all divisions and conferences that will appear on sportsbooks at some point during the regular season. The talent in the amateur pool is so much more diluted. You're not dealing with the best of the best. 

Even if you isolate just the cream of the crop, you're still coming into contact with, say, 100 schools. And that means the talent will remain subject to suboptimal members and, thus, an inferior level of competition.

Smart bettors will use this to their advantage. They know it's easier to bet moneylines, because the gap between collegiate powerhouses and Average Joes is so pronounced—unlike in the NFL, where it's demonstratively smaller. When Alabama is a heavy favorite over a school like Ohio State, you can rest assured you needn't account for the straight-out upset factor. There is no "Any Given Saturday" effect in college football. Indeed, upsets happen. But they're on a smaller scale.

The trade-off of this chasm in talent is felt when looking at spreads. Whereas a heavy NFL favorite might enter the game as a -13.5, a collegiate favorite can often be a -28 or even higher. A perennial powerhouse like Alabama will go into a game as multi-touchdown heavyweights almost every week. That seldom happens to NFL teams like the New England Patriots.

Differences exist when looking at over/under wagers as well. It is much easier to score in college football, because defenses are dealing with a finite level of talent. The same can be said on offense, but generally speaking, it is easier to complete big plays than it is to prevent them.

Over/under marks for college football games are typically higher than most NFL competitions as a result. Granted, a lot depends on the teams who are playing. A top-notch defensive squad will drag the over/under down quite a bit. But you cannot assume in college football that the two participating teams are operating on anything close to even ground on either side of the ball.

Does it happen? Absolutely—especially when a top-25 squad takes on another fellow top-25 unit. For the most part, though, college football features a more concrete pecking order. And while this can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the wager you're trying to make, merely recognizing this divergence from the NFL's own hierarchy puts you ahead of the curve relative to many other bettors.

Myth No. 2: You Can Be An Expert On All Conferences

This myth sort of dovetails with the "College football is just like the NFL" fairy tale.

Many bettors find themselves focusing on the entire NFL throughout the course of the season. It doesn't matter whether they're looking at moneylines for the Seattle Seahawks or championship stakes for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are equipped to make both big- and small-time decisions on every team.

That's the luxury of focusing on a league that consists of only 32 squads. College football is different. It is divided up into three sectors: Division I, Division II and Division III. There are then several conferences scattered and grouped through each division. From there, you will have between six and 15 teams making up each conference. 

See how quickly the numbers rise here?

It is impossible to be an expert in all college football tilts. Even sticking to a single conference, let alone a single division, qualifies as an immense chore. Add another conference that has an additional dozen teams or so into the equation, and you're suddenly finding yourself with too grand of a focus.

As a general rule, you should stick to no more than one, maybe two, conferences for your most frequent bets. You definitely should not be trying to extend your knowledge to 30-plus teams as if this is the NFL. College football has more turnover and stylistic overhauls. It becomes harder to gauge the ebbs and flows and general penchants of a program when it won't ever have its best players on the field for more than three or four years at a time.

Limiting yourself to a conference or two—and by extension, no more than two dozen teams—affords you more flexibility to do research and become an expert on your current craft. You're free to journey a little bit outside your comfort zone for Bowl games and the BCS playoffs. These events usually leave you with ample time to stage some from-scratch preparation.

However, there are limits even to this exception. You should not be investing in obscure Bowl games that feature teams you have never heard of. That's a recipe for disaster. College football has dozens of Bowl championships each and every year. You're best suited zeroing in on the most meaningful ones rather than participating in a fourth- or fifth-tier contest that will not include a single top-100 school.

Myth No. 3: Momentum Does Not Matter

As far as myths go, this one is pretty reasonable. Since the talent gap is college football is so much larger than in the NFL—along with most other professional sports—it makes sense that people would think it's stupid to read anything into winning streaks.

Momentum bets, after all, are usually reserved for underdogs. You know the teams we're talking about. They might be a fringe top-25 squad or a program that comes out of nowhere to knock off a ranked team or two. 

In the NFL, you might adjust your single-game bets to reflect more favorable views of this streaker. In college football, though, there is a tendency to not treat their subsequent games any differently—particularly if they're going up against another top-shelf opponent.

Don't fall into that trap. Winning streaks in college football absolutely matter. Games are being played on a weekly basis, so one of them means a whole lot relative to the sample size you have to work off. A hot stretch that spans two, three or even four weeks may amount to just a handful of games, but it infers another level of consistency. So the teams that end up on these streaks definitely deserve to be taken seriously.

This doesn't mean you should pick Kent St. to beat Alabama just because the former has rattled off a couple of impressive victories. But it does mean that you should dig deeper into Kent St.'s situation.

One sign to look for: The number of upper classmen that teams on a tear are deploying each week. If they have a roster loaded with experience and they're starting to peak, it's not all that unreasonable to deem their performances sustainable. Players at the collegiate level tend to improve with exposure. They're not aging out of their primes; they're only entering them. So yes, an underdog can come out of nowhere to be a major irritant.

Semi-favorites fall under this category as well—especially as you enter Bowl Season. Let us say that Boise State has been fighting to stay in the top 25 all season and starts to put things together toward the end of the year. You know they won't make the BCS playoff bracket, but it's possible they are green lit for one of the other major championship tilts against a team that will, in turn, enter as the decided favorite.

Instead of gravitating instantly toward Boise State's opponent, you'll want to take a deeper look at the matchup. What about Boise State's recent hypothetical run has appeared out of character? Which teams have they beaten? How large is the spread they are facing? If they wind up being a viable bet, you'll know. We're not here to lay out a concrete formula, because you'll just know. 

Myth No. 4: Betting Against The Public On Large Spreads Is Always A Good Idea

Fading favorites is a strategy many bettors place stock in. College football has room for these kinds of plays as well. With that being said, you shouldn't be fading favorites as often as you would in the NFL or even the NBA and college basketball.

As we've talked about already, definitive upsets are harder to come by in college football. The pecking order is so often set in stone. Heavy favorites almost never lose. Nor do they fail to cover a higher-than-normal percentage of obscenely large spreads.

It is not hard to spot these traps. Let's say a powerhouse like Alabama is a -28.5 favorite over Baylor. Indulging this "Always fade the monstrous favorite" strategy would dictate a bet in Baylor's favor. But four-touchdown differentials are not all that uncommon in college football. If the gap in talent is large enough between a ranked team and unranked team, there's an okay chance the former will have no trouble covering.

The reason college football is like this? Well, it's manyfold.

First and foremost, coaches aren't as inclined to rest their best players as their lead balloons. It can happen, sure. For the most part, though, they're going to roll with the same quarterback all game. So if Alabama jumps out to a 35-point lead over Baylor by the end of the second quarter, the head coach isn't just going to pull his starters.

In some cases, yes, this can happen. But even then, the spirit of college football, which remains a developmental sport, doesn't invite the coaches to change their play style. A team that has pulled its starters while up by 35 points will not necessarily turn to clock conservation. Coaches will let their second-stringers chase big-yardage plays on offense. They will encourage aggressive blitzes on defense. Their players are trying to earn a spot at the next level, begin their collegiate career on a high note or, for upper classmen, they're trying to finish it off in style. The transience of college football, in which you know even the top players won't stay more than a couple of years, promotes maximum effort from everyone on the depth chart.

Playoff contests and Bowl Games are the lone exception. College teams are still less likely to pull their best players, but when the stakes are higher, they won't hesitate playing a more conservative style to protect a lead. 

Of course, this is usually reflected in the spread. Oddsmakers won't publish massive lines even in favor of the best teams. But if you come across a playoff or Bowl Game matchup in which one team is a three-touchdown favorite or something over its opponent, feel free to enact this strategy. Otherwise, your bets should, as always, continue to be based off matchups rather than cheat-code formulas.

Lessons Learned About College Football Betting Myths

  • Do adequate research on a college football betting strategy before putting it into practice; no one tactic is idiot-proof, and many more are just unproven baloney
  • College football is not like the NFL; the gap in talent between the worst teams and the top programs is far more noticeable, which means you should adjust your betting practices accordingly
  • Don't bother trying to be an expert in all college football conferences, because there are far too many; try instead to limit yourself to a conference or two so that you can really own it
  • Momentum for underdogs does matter in college football, so don't throw recent hot stretches out the window when evaluating championship bets and single-game wagers—especially when you're closing in on Bowl Season
  • Limit the number of times you fade favorites in college football, as super-large spreads do not always equate to opportunity; this strategy is flawed year-round at this level, but if you're going to implement it, you're better off breaking it out during Bowl Season, when the stakes are higher