Outside factors can turn a good play into a great play

Oct 3, 2017 3:00 AM

College and pro football offer a variety of great match-ups every weekend. A good handicapper, though, 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, such as scheduling and road travel.

For instance, last month UCLA had a difficult road trip, favored at Memphis despite a 3,000 mile trip. It was also an early start, which meant it was 9 a.m. Pacific time when the Bruins took the field. Three-point favorite UCLA didn’t even win the game, losing 48-45 with two turnovers and offense while the defense surrendered 398 yards passing, 162 rushing.

Iowa and Iowa State regularly open the season against smaller schools before they play each other in their annual Big 10/Big 12 state rivalry game, a classic look-ahead spot. Last month Hawkeyes won the annual meeting in a thriller, 44-41, then were in a classic sandwich spot the next week against North Texas, with its Big 10 opener on deck against Penn State – which was also a revenge game after getting blown out by the Lions last year, 41-14. Iowa failed to cover against North Texas as 19-point home chalk.

In 2016, the Hawkeyes failed to cover in the opener against Miami of Ohio before meeting Iowa State. Then with their Big 10 opener on deck, Iowa faced North Dakota State in a classic look-ahead – and lost 23-21 as a two-TD favorite.

In recent early season games Iowa didn’t look sharp in games against Northern Illinois and Missouri State (going 0-2 ATS), while Iowa State lost has a 9-point favorite to Northern Iowa. Clearly the rivalry game on deck was more important than the openers, with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz even admitting he rested players in the second half.

Last season Alabama had a pair of SEC matchups with rivals Auburn and Mississippi State – sandwiched around a game against Chattanooga. Think Nick Saban cared about having his starters go all the way against Chattanooga? They didn’t show much in a 31-3 victory. Maybe if it was a revenge spot he might have reacted differently. UL-Monroe actually upset Saban and Bama back in 2007, 21-14 as a +24 dog. That 2007 upset was also a look-ahead spot for Bama, with rival Auburn on deck.

Several teams have already had super-long road trips. Ole Miss had to fly to Cal and as a 7-point favorite lost, 27-16. Last year Boston College and Georgia Tech opened the season in Ireland, while Cal and Hawaii opened in Australia. Hawaii then turned around and flew to Michigan the next game, a 63-3 loss as a +38 dog. Thanks a lot, Mr. Schedule-maker!

Four years ago USC opened the season at Hawaii, crossing several time zones, then came home and lost to Washington State as a 16-point favorite, 10-7. The year before USC failed to cover in a trip to New York to play Syracuse, then had to fly 3,000 miles back to the West Coast to play at rival Stanford. As an 8-point favorite the Trojans looked out of sync on offense and out of gas all around in a 21-14 Cardinal upset. Oh, and those were their first two road games of the season, so the schedule-maker wasn’t kind to the Men of Troy.

All of these aspects of handicapping can give bettors a key edge: Being able to identify teams that are completely focused, bad scheduling spots, and bounce-back opportunities. Studying individual game match-ups are essential, but remember that other factors equally important can surround a game, including look-ahead spots, sandwich games, and factors that can influence a team’s focus.