Focus now on team’s interest

Nov 23, 2004 5:49 AM

As college football winds down, sports bettors need to pay attention to the teams more emotionally charged up and those packing it in.

Some schools are fighting for conference championships, possible bowl berths or in beating a hated rival. This weekend, Virginia plays at Virginia Tech, Texas A&M travels to Texas and USC entertains Notre Dame.

Sometimes teams that have poor records this late in the season will not show up to play, or they can show up against a big rival. Sometimes one game late in the season will be a team’s "bowl." A last chance, if you will, to get in a big win to spoil someone else’s season.

Sports bettors need to look carefully on where a team’s focus and interest lies. Is that focus likely to be on the gridiron this weekend or on Thanksgiving turkey?

Other times teams can get so fired up emotionally for a homecoming or rivalry game, that they have nothing left the next game. It can work the other way, too. Teams that lose a big showdown can come back with fire. This has happened to Texas the last five years.

Mack Brown’s teams can’t seem to beat Oklahoma, yet Texas is 21-7-2 against the spread during that span after losing to the Sooners. The mention of Oklahoma’s dominance has become a sore spot for Brown, yet he has been able to get the Horns focused for the stretch run. This fall, since losing to Oklahoma, Texas is 4-2 ATS. That includes a remarkable 56-35 comeback win over Oklahoma State, in which Texas was down 35-7.

Other times, teams can be a little flat after a big win or a tough loss. This has been evident at Purdue, which opened 5-0. The Boilermakers featured a red-hot offense that public and bettors loved to back. But along came a crushing 20-17 loss at home to Wisconsin, blowing a late lead. Since then, a 1-3-1 ATS mark has damaged Rose Bowl aspirations.

Rivalry and revenge spots also can find teams with very different emotional levels. Oklahoma lost two regular season games in 2002. In those defeats, the Sooners were double-digit favorites to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, yet lost both games straight up. Is it so surprising that Oklahoma’s two biggest wins last season were against those teams?

The Sooners flattened Oklahoma State 52-9 and Texas A&M 77-0, covering as 15 and 31-point favorites! This season, both schools gave the Sooners all they could handle in close games, nearly pulling upsets in big-revenge spots. Don’t you think emotion and revenge had something to do with all those games?

Another factor that can rear its head this time of year is interest. Handicappers utilize this angle as the season winds down. Some teams are fighting for BCS rankings, bowl bids and conference championships. Other teams have yet to win a league game or can’t wait for the football schedule to end.

One final factor is coaching. Some teams have already let their coaches go (Florida, Western Michigan), while South Carolina’s Lou Holtz appears to be stepping aside in favor of Steve Spurrier. This can create situations where teams come together to "win one last time for their coach," or an unhappy club can be disinterested and can’t wait for the end of the season.

A year ago, Mississippi State finished up 0-6 ATS. The Bulldogs rode out the final days of longtime coach Jackie Sherrill. The Dogs lost 38-0 to Alabama as a 10-point dog in Sherrill’s last game of 2003. That was the Bulldogs third loss in a row since Sherrill announced his retirement.

Bottom line: Be aware of which teams are motivated, compared to those playing out the string. A good handicapper keeps tabs on all the possibilities and motivations.