Depth in NCAA separates
elite from upstart

Aug 15, 2006 3:27 AM

An area of college football dynamics that’s important to understand is depth. This doesn’t refer to how many star players a team has, but whether a team is stocked or thin with above-average players at a lot of positions.

Large schools with a long tradition of winning are usually heavy with depth. These would include colleges such as Tennessee, Florida State, Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State and defending national champion Texas. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent. Athletic budgets and scholarships allow them to stock their teams with depth.

This gives them an edge when players get hurt and they have a quality reserve to plug in. If a smaller school that likes to run the ball has two talented offensive linemen that get hurt, limited depth could severely alter their offensive production. This is something to keep in mind over the next month, because each August and September some lesser known schools will surprise with strong starts.

Vanderbilt of the SEC fit that mode a year ago. The Commodores had a veteran team that exploded to a 4-0 September behind QB Jay Cutler, now in the NFL (Broncos). However, this is not a powerhouse football program with a winning tradition. Vandy proceeded to lose seven in a row, going 2-4 against the spread after that start. The Commodores fell to Middle Tennessee State and Kentucky as double-digit favorites, and got swamped by SEC powerhouses LSU (34-6) and Georgia (34-17), failing to get the cover each time. A lack of star power and quality depth aided the Commodores’ decline.

Most schools don’t have the gridiron tradition to attract lots of talent, hence they often lack depth. In recent years, these schools would include Northwestern, Kansas, Indiana, Illinois and Duke. In August and September, small school teams can give the appearance of being competitive. Once October and November roll around, these schools begin to play much worse both straight up and against the spread.

Keep this in mind over the next few weeks if you think a team may be overrated.

It could be that they are playing above their heads because everyone is healthy in September. But football is such a violent, physical game, players get banged up with injuries. Either they miss playing time or are not at 100 percent. Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops significantly when compared to big-name schools. They can’t plug in equally effective players as the starters get banged up.

Wyoming was a good example of this last season. The Cowboys were very competitive through the first week of October, starting 4-1. They upset Air Force and Ole Miss, while covering in a loss at Florida and were 5-0 ATS.

Lack of depth was late evidence as the defense allowed 34 or more points in its final four contests. Wyoming went 0-6 ATS the final six games.

Oddsmakers aren’t always up on these shifts, either. A few years ago Kansas lost 27-16 at Colorado as a 25-point dog and then pulled a 34-31 upset at Texas Tech as a +13 road dog.

Oddsmakers adjusted, assuming Kansas was better than expected. The Jayhawks hit a tough Oct/Nov stretch featuring games against Oklahoma, Kansas State, Nebraska and Texas.

Kansas went 1-6 ATS to end that season, losing consecutive games by scores of 51-7, 59-0 and 49-7. One year ago Indiana started 3-2 SU and 3-0-1 ATS. Then the Big 10 schedule kicked into full gear. The thin Hoosiers finished 0-6 SU, 0-5-1 ATS.

This is why injury reports are so important for analyzing and handicapping games. If famous schools wind up losing several players to injuries, they may have the depth to not miss a beat.

However, it’s not uncommon to see small schools slide.