Digesting sandwiches often
lead to college meal tickets

Sep 19, 2006 4:51 AM

A good handicapper doesn’t just look at individual and team matchups. There are other factors surrounding a game that can be equally important to identifying a winning spread cover.

The first week of this college football season saw the Tennessee Volunteers a home dog to No. 9 Cal. The interesting matchup of successful coaches and recent powerhouse programs turned into a completely one-sided outcome. Tennessee jumped to a 35-0 lead on the way to a 35-18 victory.

The Volunteers were off a losing season, one where they missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988. The 2005 Volunteers struggled to beat Memphis and UAB, got blown out by Notre Dame, and lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. In fact, they were 0-6 against the spread at home! Players and coaches were all talking about bringing Tennessee football back to where it belonged, which meant a winning season.

Tennessee dominated Cal, with an edge in total yards 514-336, and an edge in rushing 216-64. Individual matchups for a game like this were skewed, in a sense, because of the emotional energy and focus that a team like Tennessee put into that game.

It was a game where one team gave a super all-out effort. This doesn’t happen all the time, of course, as various circumstances can influence a team’s performance. Even the best teams in pro and college football don’t always have 100 percent focus.

The following week, Tennessee was a 20-point home favorite over Air Force, yet struggled mightily in a 31-30 victory. Several things happened. One is that the Vols were on a high from that emotional opening day win. Two, the team had put so much focus on beating Cal that it left little time to prepare for Air Force’s unique option offense, which is tough to defend even for talented defenses.

Three, Tennessee had a more important game on deck the next week against rival Florida, their SEC opener. That made the Air Force game a difficult "sandwich" spot for UT coach Phil Fulmer. All of these are aspects of handicapping that can give bettors a key edge: It helps to be able to identify teams that are completely focused, and ones that might only be able to give 70 percent or less effort.

Scheduling is also important. A few years ago the Miami Hurricanes had ACC games against Georgia Tech and NC State sandwiched around a Thursday night battle against Louisville of Conference USA. Look what the Miami players were saying the day before that game:

"Louisville is a good team," said then Miami CB Andre Rolle. "But we go in there expecting to shut people out. We’re trying to shoot for a national title."

When told that the Cardinals felt they were ripe for the upset, Rolle said, "They can think what they want. Personally, I don’t think that’s going to be possible."

Wow! You’re not supposed to give fodder for the enemy like that. I wonder what he thought a few days later when Louisville led 24-7 at the half as a 9-point underdog! Notice that before the game Cardinals receiver J.R. Russell had said, "We look at the game as life or death. It’s very important."

Miami appeared not to have given as much attention to this non-conference sandwich game as the visitor.

National TV games, especially for smaller schools rarely profiled, can be a big deal and helps players give an extra motivated effort. Studying individual game matchups are essential, but remember that look-ahead spots and sandwich games can also factor into a team’s focus.