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 football are usually heavy with depth. These would include Tennessee, Florida State, Notre Dame, USC, Nebraska and Texas. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent and have athletic budgets and scholarships that allow them to stockpile their teams.
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.
Last year, the Air Force defense was racked by injuries. The Falcons gave up 20 and 25 ppg in 1999 and 2000, but the injuries and limited depth caused them to give up 32 ppg in 2001. Air Force went 1-1 ATS to start the season, but went 2-7 ATS down the stretch.
Most schools don’t have the gridiron tradition to attract lots of talent, hence they often lack depth. In recent years, they include Duke, Northwestern, Kansas, Vanderbilt, Indiana and Arizona State.
What can happen is that in September, small school teams can give the appearance of being competitive, but as October and November roll around, they begin to play much worse, straight up and against the spread.
It’s partly because everyone is healthy in September. But football is such a violent, physical game, players get banged up with injuries and either 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.
Kansas was a good example of this last season. The Jayhawks were very competitive through the first week of October. 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.
The linesmakers adjusted, assuming Kansas was better than expected, as the Jayhawks hit a tough October/November stretch that included Big 12 matchups against Oklahoma, K-State, Nebraska and Texas. Kansas went 1-6 ATS to end the season, covering only in the season-finale against Wyoming.
The lack of depth was evident as Kansas lost consecutive games by scores of 51-7, 59-0 and 49-7.
Already this season we’ve seen teams such as Missouri, Cal and Duke pull early-season upsets. Are they for real or will their lack of depth begin to catch up with them? Duke: The Blue Devils may already be wilting.
Duke opened the season with a 23-16 upset of East Carolina as a two-TD underdog. That win ended a 23-game losing streak that stretched back to 1999. But the Devils were pounded by Louisville 40-3 and lost to a poor Northwestern bunch.
Duke is currently in the middle of a road trip where they play four of five games away from home. Duke went 1-1 ATS to start last season before going 1-8 ATS down the stretch. They won’t go winless this season, but they may have a similar slide to end the season with limited depth playing a role.
Missouri started the year 2-0 SU/ATS, led by talented redshirt freshman QB Brad Smith. Smith had 152 yards passing and 138 yards rushing in a 33-20 upset of Illinois as a +7Â½-point dog. But Missouri was routed 51-28 at Bowling Green as a favorite and October brings a three-game stretch against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech. Even with the upset of Illinois, Missouri is 2-18 SU and 7-13 ATS as a dog since 1999.
California was 1-10 SU, 3-8 ATS last year, but has a new attitude under first-year coach Jeff Tedford. Cal went 3-0 SU/ATS, outscoring teams by a 50-19 average before losing to Air Force. Tedford has the reputation as an offensive wizard, and Cal is averaging over four more touchdowns per game than last year (18 ppg in 2001).
Cal pulled the biggest surprise of the season with a 46-22 shocker at Michigan State as a two-TD dog. Cal hasn’t had a winning season since 1993, but if injuries and limited depth don’t play havoc with them, the Bears may end that losing skid.
This is why injury reports are so important for analyzing and handicapping games. If a famous football school loses several players to injuries, they may have the depth to plug in and not miss a beat.
It’s common to see small schools with less depth go on a SU and ATS slide after the first month of the season.