Vanderbilt's strong starts may be smoke and mirrors

Sep 17, 2013 3:00 AM

An area of college football dynamics that’s important to understand early in the season 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 Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Nebraska and defending national champion Alabama. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent and have athletic budgets and scholarships that 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 football has two talented offensive linemen who get hurt, limited depth could severely alter their offensive production.

This is something to keep in mind over the next month, because each September some lesser known schools may deceive with strong starts. Kentucky and Vanderbilt of the SEC fit that mode recently.

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 Duke, Indiana, Syracuse and Memphis, along with schools from conferences like the MAC and Conference USA.

In September small schools can give the appearance of being competitive, but as October and November roll around, they can begin to play much worse, straight up and against the spread. Keep this in mind over the next few months if you think a team may be overrated.

It could be 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 and either miss playing time or are not 100%.

Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops 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 in recent years.

Oddsmakers aren’t always up on these shifts. A few years ago I recall 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, as the Jayhawks hit a tough October/November stretch that included games against Oklahoma, K-State, Nebraska and Texas. Kansas went 1-6 ATS to end that season. The lack of depth was evident as Kansas lost three straight by scores of 51-7, 59-0 and 49-7.

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. However, it’s not uncommon to see overvalued small schools with less depth go on a straight up and spread slide after a good start to the season.

Jim Feist, author and leader in sports information for over 40 years, hosts TV’s Proline as well as running National Sports Services since 1975. Follow him on twitter: @JimFeistSports . Reach him at [email protected]

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