Handicapping fundamentals:
Reading between lines

Sep 14, 2004 12:30 AM

Many football handicappers will say that the real truth in examining games is in the details. Anyone who expects to be successful had better learn to read between the lines to determine how or why teams are winning and losing both straight up and against the spread.

This is a venture that goes far beyond statistics and is one that can sometimes be misleading. For instance, one analyst may say that turnovers are the most important stat. Some may emphasize the importance of home field, while still others may find individual and team matchups as their handicapping bread and butter.

These are certainly important points, but one factor usually doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s important to expand your thinking when analyzing football contests.

Any bettor who wants to take advantage of edges will have to learn to read between the lines to determine why teams are successful SU and ATS. The keys to winning and losing are in the details, and one must know what to look for. For example, in college football’s opening week, Texas Tech squeaked by SMU 27-13 as a 25-point favorite.

The dog got the cover, but did SMU earn that cover by playing improved defense from 2003? Not really, says the boxscore. Texas Tech had 530 total yards, including a whopping 481 passing yards and SMU turned the ball over three times. Texas Tech averaged 475 yards passing and 42 points a year ago — so the passing yards were consistent with last year, but point production was way down.

Why? The stats suggest the Red Raiders should have scored 42 against SMU, which would have given Tech the cover in a 42-13 game (they beat SMU 58-10 last season).

So what happened? Digging beyond the stats we find that the Texas Tech kicker missed a field goal and an extra point early in the game. Coach Mike Leach benched his kicker and decided to go for it on every fourth down inside the SMU 40 (seven times).

Looking at the score suggests an improved SMU defense and a stumbling Texas Tech offense working in a new QB. Examining the stats and finding out the reasons why things took place paints a different picture, which is essential from a handicapping perspective.

Other factors, too, can influence a team’s performance from week to week or season to season, such as injuries, weather and coaching changes. Nebraska had a remarkably improved defense a year ago when coordinator Bo Pelini came on board (he’s since left for Oklahoma). This season the Huskers are changing their offensive philosophy under first-year coach Bill Callahan, from mostly running to more passing. This makes comparing stats and matchups with respect to sides and totals on the Huskers very different from last season.

A combination of other factors can play a role, as well. A team that gains 80 percent of its offense through the air might get beat against a lesser opponent if the game were played in high winds. Sometimes a team might not be very good statistically over an entire season. A bad first-half of the year could turn into a very strong team down the stretch.

Emotion can be significant, especially in college football, where coaches are more likely to give fiery speeches to their young players than in the pros. Many college teams have games circled on their schedule, looking to avenge an embarrassing defeat from last fall. So remember, stats are a good starting point, but successful handicappers dig deep and weigh many different pieces of information to find value and edges. Expanding your critical thinking helps you get better in life and at the betting window.