Last week here at SBR, I examined when you should bet against ranked teams on college football odds. This week, it's a look at if it's smart to bet on those small-conference games. And the short answer is: heck yes! This is relevant to NCAA basketball too.
You Can Out-Homework The Sportsbooks
Think of sportsbooks as a seasonal business in a way much like, say, a cottage your family might have rented each summer when you were young. Obviously the busiest stretch for books is late August through early February. That's the start of college football season through the end of the Super Bowl.
There are 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of college football (about triple that in college basketball as it's much easier and cheaper for a school to field a basketball team than a football squad). There are 65 schools that are classified as Power 5 teams: 14 in the ACC, 10 in the Big 12, 14 in the Big Ten, 12 in the Pac-12 and 14 in the SEC. You also have to include Notre Dame, which is an independent in football but also a pseudo-member of the ACC. That 65 number could change as early as this later this month if the Big 12, as expected, expands by two teams and adds non-Power 5 schools such as BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis or UConn. It could expand by as many as four.
By early October each year, the Power 5 schools are all playing each other -- with occasional exceptions -- in conference play. Thus that leaves a few dozen games involving non-Power 5 schools where you could potentially find an advantage.
Now let's get back to the busy season in sportsbooks. The oddsmakers there only have so much time in the day and also have to focus on NFL games, late-season baseball and early-season NHL and NBA. So they are naturally going to focus less on the non-Power 5 college football games than, say, a Big Ten matchup between Michigan and Ohio State or a major non-conference game between USC and Alabama. Those latter two do open the season against one another at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 3. The defending national champion Tide are 10.5-point favorites on college football odds vs. the Trojans. You can find plenty of coverage on that.
My recommendation is to specialize on one non-Power 5 conference to get an information advantage over the sportsbooks. For example, I went to a Mid-American Conference school so I follow those conference games pretty closely. So I already have an opinion and background on Week 1 games involving MAC schools like Ball State at Georgia State (-3.5), Toledo at Arkansas State (-3.5), Texas State at Ohio (-21) and Northern Illinois at Wyoming (-10.5).
I also know that MAC schools did well at times against foes from the Big Ten last year. Sure, the Big Ten was 11-2 overall but the average score was just 30.7-17.2 in those games so MAC teams covered many of them. The team with the best cover percentage in all of college football last year was Toledo, which was 9-2-1 ATS. Just so you know, it beat visiting Arkansas State 37-7 last year as a 4-point favorite. The Rockets also upset SEC school Arkansas. MAC schools Bowling Green (10-4 ATS), Central Michigan 9-4 ATS) and Ohio (9-4 ATS) were also among the best ATS teams in the country in 2015.
If you limit your betting to one non-power conference, you likely can find pertinent injury or other information that sportsbooks might have overlooked and find "weak" lines on college football picks. Everyone has access to the major sites that list injury reports for all schools, but if you check out local papers or school game notes, there's often extra information in there. You might even find a weather advantage in terms of a total.
There is one case where the books are right on top of a small-conference game: if it's the last scheduled game of a busy night (so usually Saturday). That's because bettors often wager on that game to recoup some lost money from earlier in the day or to keep momentum rolling into the NFL Sunday. Whenever Hawaii of the Mountain West Conference plays a home game it's usually the latest-starting game because of the time difference. Thus I would proceed with caution on those as the books have their ears up on that one because it will take an unusually large amount of action.