The 2016 college football season begins in just over three weeks when Cal and Hawaii square off in Sydney, Australia, on Aug. 27. Those teams won't be ranked but when should you lean against Top 25 clubs on college football odds.
Non-Conference Schedules Changing
The College Football Playoff appears to have changed things fairly significantly when it comes to non-conference scheduling by the Power 5 programs: those in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and also Notre Dame. Now teams are starting to schedule at least one marquee non-conference opponent to boost strength of schedule. And some schools/conferences are no longer scheduling FCS foes. That's too bad for FCS schools as they get big paychecks to get steamrolled in those road games, but it's much better from a competitive standpoint in the FBS.
Also keep in mind that just a few years ago all the Power 5 conference teams had four non-conference games to schedule. However, the Big Ten this year is the latest to go to a nine-game conference schedule. The Big 12 (the only Power 5 league where every team plays every other one in the conference; although that could change as early as 2017 if the Big 12 expands as expected) and Pac-12 have been doing that for a little while. That leaves the ACC and SEC as the only two Power 5 leagues playing eight games.
The ACC actually approved a nine-game conference schedule four years ago but then changed its mind when Notre Dame agreed to join as a pseudo-member and play at least four ACC teams a year and sometimes five. The Irish are full ACC members in the other sports. That said, the ACC might be forced to change soon to nine games thanks to its recently announced creation of the ACC Network with ESPN that begins in 2019. I think ESPN will push the ACC to go to nine games for better product offerings on the ACC Network. The ACC already has announced it will expand from 18 to 20 regular-season conference basketball games in 2019 to provide more content for the new ACC Network.
I am telling you all this because I believe on average you can find better value betting against Top 25 teams in non-conference games and now those options are shrinking.
Regular Polls Mostly Irrelevant
Let's talk about the polls. The Associated Press Top 25, as voted by the media, and the USA Today Top 25, as voted by the coaches, are little more than talking points in the era of the College Football Playoff. The first USA Today poll should be out very soon, while the AP Top 25 is scheduled to be released on Sunday, Aug. 21. The College Football Playoff committee smartly waits until around midseason until releasing its Top 25 and it's all that matters now. This year the first poll will come out Nov. 1.
But for this story, let's use the AP Top 25. The betting analytics site Sportsinsights.com ran a study before last season on wagering against ranked teams since 2005. It showed that doing so resulted in a 1495-1465 against the spread record. So not a huge win. But then it changed the dynamic of the study to only betting against Top 25 teams between 15 and 25. And that showed a record of 672-617.
Now, obviously teams ranked lower in the polls are presumably not as good as those higher. And you should be aware that media types have a bias. They only see games in their area or conference. When they vote for the Top 25, it's usually by simply going off scores from the previous week.
My two recommended times in betting against ranked teams on college football odds -- and I'm not including against other ranked foes -- is Week 1 and a "sandwich" game. In the opening week, no one is really sure what teams are. There's obviously a lot of turnover in college football with graduations, transfers, etc. Last year in Week 1, three ranked teams lost and they were all either on the road or in a neutral-site games. A handful of other ranked teams failed to cover in road games. A coach can't simulate playing in a road environment during practice.
So some potential ranked danger I see Week 1 this year (I'm assuming these first teams listed will be ranked and a couple of opponents might be) would be Boise State at Louisiana Lafayette, UCLA at Texas A&M, LSU vs. Wisconsin in Green Bay, Clemson at Auburn, and Notre Dame at Texas.
The other scenario I love to bet against ranked foes on college football picks is a "sandwich game." The best example I can give you would be in the SEC. Those schools generally play a cupcake very late in the season to get a break from conference play only to turn around and then face a very tough SEC foe to close the regular season. For example, LSU this year plays at Arkansas on Nov. 12, then hosts South Alabama before finishing up on Thanksgiving at Texas A&M. I'm liking South Alabama already.
The final non-conference game for a ranked team in the other Power 5 leagues is often worth looking at because those schools will be looking ahead to the grueling conference schedule. Last year, for example in Week 4, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan State both hosted Mid-American Conference teams and failed to cover ahead of the start of Big Ten play in Week 5.