College Football Betting Tips on What to Look for in the Preseason
Every year the task of evaluating college football coaches, coordinators and players becomes a little easier. Some of it is experience but also the ease in which I’m able to access beat writers, bloggers, and analytics. As recent as five years ago, it was a much more daunting task. Today, the workload is still heavy but the tools I have at the start of my journey are far greater. For example, a quick Google search puts me “in the know” about a small school freshman who is competing for reps with the first team. That’s fantastic information to have. Unfortunately, I’m not the only fox in the chicken coop. With so much widely available information, lines become tighter much quicker but it’s a welcomed challenge.
Every year I begin prepping for college football by learning about first-year head coaches. Some of the hires are fascinating both in the potential for improvement and also disaster. However, what I’ve found is that based on my projections, there are very few if any first-year head coaches that will win at an unexpected clip in Year 1. Yes, there are examples like Lincoln Riley who took Oklahoma to the playoffs his first year on the job. But for every Riley, there are five Mike Sanfords, who inherited a 12-win team Western Kentucky squad and produced a 6-7 record. Finding first-year coaches with long term rebuilding in mind usually pays off more from a betting perspective than a coach who inherits a Heisman-level quarterback and 15 returning starters.
Next are first-year coordinators. Great coordinators move around a lot, usually by running a system that works at a program in desperate need of a fix. In 2017, Houston’s offense ranked sixth in total offense in the watered down AAC despite having a wealth of talent. Enter OC Kendal Briles who runs a system that generates more pace and offense than almost any team in college football.
It’s also important to isolate first-year head coaches and coordinator that possess the opposite background and philosophies of the previous regime. Texas’ Charlie Strong was a perfect example of a radical change not working. Strong ripped through three defensive and offensive coordinators in four years, went 16-21, and was ultimately shown the door. I also like to compare preseason projections of the previous year and grade the team and head coach’s overall performance using a simple A to F grading scale. When grading, I’m looking at a few key things: close wins and losses and whether or not the team was on the cusp of making a jump — extremely vital when said team featured a lot of youth. Last year, Eastern Michigan suffered six straight losses by one score. Close losses are almost always indicative of bad coaching and that generally carries over year-to-year. Miami-Ohio’s Chuck Martin is 1-14 in one possession games making the Redhawks all but un-backable laying more than a field goal. However, close losses may be the result of youth and inexperience. If a team only had three upperclassmen in the entire starting rotation, it’s more likely that the following year those close losses will turn into a few wins.
Next is identifying teams that suffered from mass injuries. Ball State for instance lost its all-conference quarterback and running back and half of its defensive line for the season by Week 4. As a result, they were a glorified high school team the remainder of the season. I also like to make note of “turning point” games. Last year, Vanderbilt started 3-0 and was well on its way to a bowl berth. But in Week 4, Alabama showed up in Nashville and in a rare occurrence, Nick Saban didn’t take his foot off the gas. It resulted in a 59-0 beat down and the Commodores didn’t record another victory until the season finale against woeful Tennessee. Obviously Vandy doesn’t have it easy in the SEC but their inability to get back up off the mat speaks volumes about the program as a whole.
In terms of player evaluation, it all begins with returning starters. If you have an offensive-minded head coach with eight return starters including a quarterback but only three returnees on defense, there is likely no agenda to play conservative, low scoring games. Experience at the quarterback position is a very valuable asset in creating an accurate preseason power number. It becomes tricky when a team’s offense is heavily predicated on running the football. But regardless of the system, the unit protecting the quarterback is of the utmost importance. All-conference quarterback, Heisman-hopeful running back…it doesn’t matter if the offensive line is loaded with unproven underclassmen. Same holds true for defensive lines. I don’t care what their recruiting ranking was, a majority of first-year linemen will struggle in conference play. If I see an underclassmen heavy 2-deep, I know that team will have difficulty stopping the run. Skill position players aren’t a dime a dozen but unless they are extremely special they don’t hold as much weight as what we just discussed.
Linebackers are the most replaceable unit in college football. There are exceptions (see: 2017’s Georgia and Ohio) like when you have three or four all-conference players together for multiple seasons. But the rotation of linebackers has grown and nowadays it’s very common for a defensive end to become an outside linebacker or a free safety to become a nickel back or middle linebacker. It’s rare to see a linebacker play more than 50% of the snaps in a game. Yes, I’ll make note of a team loaded with freshmen, but it’s a rare occurrence and again, the unit can be filled by other position players.
The last part of my preseason analysis is schedules. A very famous gambler once told me it was a fool’s errand to track bye weeks. I’ll go to my grave laughing at that statement. The scheduling of a bye week can absolutely make or break a season. It’s very advantageous to isolate teams that have no bye week (Arizona in 2016 and UTSA is 2017). Every team suffers from injuries. It may not show up on your Don Best screen or reported by your local beat writer’s Twitter feed but an offensive lineman will get hit 70-plus times a game. He needs a break, needs to ice, and more importantly time to recover. Not having that can be a killer, especially for depth-shy teams. I also gather historical data on how coaches perform before and after a bye week. There’s a certain head coach in the Midwest that, with a fairly large sample size, has never lost off of a bye week. On the flipside, I know of a long-tenured coach in the MAC, who regardless of year-to-year talent has a horrific track record with time to prepare. Next is an assessment of schedule by power rating numbers (very effective with Regular Season Win Totals). If a team ranked in the mid-70’s starts the season with a slew of games against far better competition, how do 19-22 year olds respond to being 1-6 and no hope of a bowl berth? On the contrary, if said team faces a more reasonable slate, it’s more likely they’ll have the focus and energy needed to spring a late season upset or two.
Thanks for reading and good luck this college football season!