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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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.”