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Three Stats I use when Handicapping College Football Games

No matter which way you look at it, correctly picking an OVER/UNDER or ATS pick in college football is tough – really tough. You can: use dozens of different stats, go off intuition, listen to your best friend’s bad advice, follow the “sharp money” or simply side with your favorite team. No matter what the strategy, wins are not easy to come by in college football.

I have been recreationally betting on college for a few years now, becoming more knowledgeable each year about the importance of coaching, key returning players, strength of schedule, and I’m still learning about things like weather and how it affects choosing a team to cover a spread and more importantly how it affects taking an OVER or UNDER on a game.

I do, however, have a set of stats that I look at to handicap every game on the slate in search of an edge.

Here are the three I think can really help hone in your handicapping process:

No. 1: Pass Rush

This is probably one of my favorite stats to use in all of football and not just because I secretly wish I could have been a pass rusher myself but because I want to know which teams are going to give quarterbacks hell. And to coincide with that, which teams have strong offensive lines that can withstand the pressure or weak offensive lines that will just fall apart. 

To me, if you look at the essence of a team, the foundation lies in its pass rush and offensive line. Those are the pillars and everything falls into place after that.

One team I have bet on frequently this season is the SMU Mustangs. Why? Because of their “get off me, you’re annoying!” pass rush. They are 8-0 SU on the season and 6-2 ATS. Yes, they have an explosive, high-powered offense but they also have the defense to back it up. They are currently ranked second in the nation in team sacks, averaging 4.5 per game, and they’ve faced teams with some of the worst quarterback protection in the country.

Does this correlate directly to covering spreads? Not necessarily, as we saw in the SMU at Houston game. Houston’s QB was sacked seven times and yet the Cougars only lost the game by three points to cover the +12.5-point spread. That said, it could still be a good indicator as to which team holds more strength.

No. 2: Points Per Game

To me, it’s important to know if teams can score. This stat can help you decide on whether or not you want to pull the trigger on an underdog or the OVER.

Northwestern, for example, is a bit of a favorite for folks to bet on and I believe it’s partly because of how well they performed last season. In 2018, they lost to Michigan by three and beat solid teams like Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. This season, though, they are 1-6 SU and 2-5 ATS. They’re top 30 in total defense, top 40 in opponent’s yards per play and top 30 in opponent’s red-zone scoring … but they have no offense and they can’t score.

The Wildcats are dead last in points per game, averaging only 10.7 points this season. I know we love taking a team with a good defense but the question becomes, if they fall behind, can they catch up? For the Wildcats, the answer lately has been no.

The same goes for betting totals. If I’m taking an OVER, I want to see two teams able to put up a lot of points or defenses allowing a lot of points. Take the North Texas at Southern Miss matchup from Week 7. At the time, these two teams were averaging 33 and 28 points per game on offense, respectively, while both were allowing an average of 30 points per game on defense. The total for that game was 59 and they ran up the scoreboard 45-27 for an easy OVER.

No. 3: Yards per Game

I use this stat frequently in conjunction with yards per attempt or yards per play because I believe each can tell a different story. To me, yards per game shows a team’s coaching style on offense (are they a run-first team or pass-first team) and their strengths/weaknesses on defense. Yards per attempt/play shows how effective that coaching style is.

For example, we all know Wisconsin is a run-heavy team and they’re pretty good at it. They are 24th in the nation in rushing yards per game (217), and 37th in yards per attempt (4.9). When it comes to passing, however, they are ranked 101st in yards per game (195). They don’t throw as often as they run, but when they do, they are effective, ranking 33rd in yards per pass attempt (8.0).

These numbers are important for me because I want to know if a team is strong offensively and whether or not their opponent can defend against their offensive strengths. These stats help me determine just that.

One of my worst picks of the season was Temple +11 at home against offensive powerhouse UCF. The Knights are second in the nation in total yards per game and ninth in total yards per play. They proved to be too strong offensively, outscoring the Owls 63-21, leaving me in a “WTF was I thinking taking the points” situation. Temple ranks 85th in total yards allowed per game. Though they are better in opponent’s yards per play (45th), it was too much of a passing game for Temple to keep it close.

This also goes back to my second point. Temple averages only 23.6 points per game. They were in it at the half, behind just a single touchdown 28-21, but then UCF unleashed in the third quarter, scoring 28 unanswered points, and Temple just couldn’t catch up.

These are not meant to be sole indicators for choosing a side for a game but, rather, additional pieces of information to add to your handicapping toolbox. What I always recommend to new bettors who would like to study games on their own is to determine the stats that they (1) understand the most and (2) deem most important in a football game. From there, collect a sample size and adjust accordingly.

As recreational sports bettors, we don’t have the computer models or the time that pro bettors do, so we have to make it as easy on ourselves as possible. It’s one thing to read statistical information, it’s another to correctly interpret that data for decision-making. Hopefully, these stats can give you a bit more confidence when you’re picking a side.