Sports

Betting: Getting a handle on college football futures

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Boise State won 11 regular-season games in 2010. Can the Broncos do it again?
Photo: Charlie Litchfield/Idaho Press Tribune/AP
Jeff Haney

More than 50 years after Bert Bell popularized the expression “any given Sunday,” it continues to carry more weight than any mere marketing slogan. In any NFL game, even a team installed as a big underdog stands a decent chance of winning outright. You cannot say the same for college football.

That’s the most important consideration for handicappers making their predictions for football teams’ regular-season win totals this time of year. An NFL team that’s a 10-point underdog typically has about a 15 percent chance of winning the game. But a big underdog in college football, where point spreads routinely exceed 30 points in mismatches, can have something on the order of a 1 percent chance of winning outright. As a result, I’ll gladly assign heavy college favorites a 97 to 99 percent chance of winning a particular game.

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Haney appears Mondays on The Chris Andrews Show, ESPN Radio 1450-AM, Reno. Connect with him at sophisticatedmaniac.com

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the schedule of Boise State, a BCS title contender. The toughest of Boise’s 12 regular-season games figures to be its opener at Georgia. The early Las Vegas line has Boise as a 6-point favorite. In college football, after accounting for the “vig,” or bookmaker’s cut of the action, a 6-point favorite carries a money line of about minus 200 (risk $2 to win $1), which translates to a 67 percent chance of winning the game outright. So I award Boise .67 of a win—it’s a cumbersome phrase, but the best way to analyze the regular-season victory proposition.

Next, pencil in projections for each of Boise’s remaining games using the same method. I give Boise a 99 percent chance of beating weaklings Toledo, Colorado State, UNLV, Wyoming and New Mexico. I make Boise 97 percent to beat Tulsa, a 95 percent choice against Air Force, a 93 percent choice against San Diego State and Fresno, and an 83 percent selection against Nevada and TCU.

Adding those percentages—.67 plus .99 plus .97 and so on—yields a projected total of just over 11 wins for Boise. (I got 11.06.) Last year, oddsmakers set a total of 11 wins for Boise in the 2010-11 season, minus 160 on the “under” and plus 140 on the “over.” If I find a similar line this year—over 11 at a “plus” price—I’ll fire in a wager on the “over.”

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