With College Football, It Pays to Be a Smart Spread Shopper

Think that spreads everywhere are equal? Think again.
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We were 8-1 last week with one tie (

Brigham Young University

), to bring our season record to 35-27 (56%). We will use last week's results to launch our handicapping lesson this week.

In two of the games we picked,

Tulsa

, plus 14 1/2, and BYU, minus 7, different point spreads were available in different locations. Tulsa was plus 14 at some locations and BYU was minus 7 1/2 at some locations. If we were forced to use a location where Tulsa was only plus 14, we would have pushed (tied) on that game. If we were forced to use a location where BYU was minus 7 1/2, we would have lost that bet. Our record could have been 7-2-1. That's still a great weekly record, but one that would have reduced our season record from 35-27 to 34-28, which, though it doesn't seem like a large difference, would reduce our season winning percentage to 54.84% from 56.45%. If we had two other weeks during the season where a certain location's point spread took away one win and created another loss, we would have been 32-30 on the season, and our win percentage would have been down to 51.6% -- a percentage that would have resulted in losing money over the course of the season, since 52.5% is the "breakeven" level.

The lesson: Shop, shop and shop some more. Have more than one location from which to get a point spread (line) and make a bet. An extra 1/2 point may make the difference between a winning season and a losing season. When I write this column on Thursday, I use the "best" line available to me in Las Vegas to make my selections. Most of the time, the lines have not moved by the time this article is posted on

TheStreet.com

, at about 4:00 p.m. on Friday.

But on Saturday morning and afternoon, there is a lot of line movement, usually in response to games being designed as a "lock of the year" or "lock of the month" by so-called professional handicappers -- known as "scamdicappers" in my book -- since there are no "locks" in college or professional sports. I would estimate that of the games I select on a weekly basis where the line moves between the time I select the game and Saturday, I would get a worse line on Saturday 70% of the time and a better line 30% of the time. Thus, my recommendation is to make the bet earlier, rather than later -- particularly if the game is on a key number (within a 1/2 point of 3 or 7) that you don't want to miss out on. The only exception to this rule is if you are betting against one of the "public" teams the top 10. In that event, you will probably get more points on Saturday than Thursday if you are betting on the underdog.

This Week's Picks

Air Force (minus 14 1/2) over Army

This game will illustrate the huge disparity in the coaching abilities of Fisher DeBerry and Bob Sutton. In its last seven games in Colorado Springs,

Army

is 0-7 against the spread, or ATS. The Falcons defense is good this year, while the Army defense is porous. On offense, the Falcons have a huge speed advantage over Army, and both quarterbacks for

Air Force

throw the ball better than Army's Joe Gerena. Air Force has two excellent running backs in Qualario Brown and Scotty McKay. Army has been outscored 71-24 in fourth quarters this year and was shut out by

Southern Mississippi

in its only game on grass this year. In the thin air of the Rockies, Air Force will wear down this Army team and will pull away in the fourth quarter. The Falcons have won the last two games against Army by scores of 35-7 and 24-0, respectively. Fisher DeBerry thinks that the

Commander-in-Chief Trophy

is more important than a league title and will have this team sky high for the Cadets.

Duke (plus 12) over Clemson

As readers of this column know, the Blue Devils are one of our favorite betting teams. Last week, we had the Blue Devils plus 10 against

Maryland

. We did not need the points, as

Duke

won the game straight up, 25-22. Although Duke is 0-9 straight up in its last nine visits to "Death Valley," it's 8-2 against the spread in its last 10 games against

Clemson

. The Tigers have been limited to less than two touchdowns on four occasions this season. We respect the coaching ability of Tommy Bowden and the considerable skills of the Tigers quarterback combo of Brandon Streeter and Woody Dantzler; however, Duke quarterback Spencer Romine, who was injured for part of the season, has taken to head coach Carl Frank's Florida-style, "fun and gun" offense like a duck to water. Last week, Romine threw for 404 yards. We are on Duke again this week, safe in the knowledge that even if Duke can't win this game, we have a 12-point cushion, including the real possibility of a backdoor cover.

Central Florida (plus 11) over Auburn

Auburn

is a hurting team this week. It has significant injuries in its offensive line, and its starting quarterback, Ben Leard, suffered the third severe concussion of his career. Until Tuesday of this week, Leard was suffering from headaches and a sensitivity to light. Yet the Auburn "trainers" have cleared him to play! So much for the concern about the student-athlete. Even if he starts, we do not expect Leard to finish the game. Auburn is averaging only 18 points a game this year and only 219 yards of offense. While

Central Florida

is not as good a team as it was last year with Daunte Culpepper as its starting quarterback, it hung tough "between the hedges" in a game with

Georgia

earlier this year, finally succumbing 24-23. Last week, Central Florida thrashed

Eastern Michigan

31-6. The Tigers defense is excellent this year, and that assures that we will have a low-scoring game. In such a game, the 11 points we're getting should be enough to get the ATS victory.

Minnesota (plus 14) over Penn State

Although

Penn State

is clearly the superior team, we think it's somewhat overrated. Penn State is winning games by creating turnovers with its stellar defense, while its offense continues to sputter. For an unfathomable reason,

Minnesota

is playing better this year in its away games on grass than it is in its home games. Minnesota has beaten

Illinois

and

Northwestern

on the road and has lost three home games against

Purdue

,

Wisconsin

and

Ohio State

by a total of 11 points. Unless the Nittany Lions cause the Gophers to turn the ball over, we don't think Penn State's offense can score enough points to cover this spread. Minnesota's defense has been very solid this year, and Penn State has had some trouble with mobile quarterbacks. Gopher quarterback Billy Cockerham and star running back Thomas Hamner will be able to break some runs against Penn State, and we think that Minnesota will stay within two touchdowns of the Nittany Lions.

Texas Tech (minus 2 1/2) over Iowa State

The point spread on this game opened with

Texas Tech

as a 5 1/2-point favorite, with the "wiseguys" taking the underdog and betting the game down to 2 1/2. We admit that we are puzzled by this move, despite

Iowa State's

gutsy performance against

Texas

last week and the Texas Tech's "no show" performance last week against

Missouri

on the road. The Red Raiders are inconsistent, but they are 30-15 ATS as a favorite at home in their last 45 games and, perhaps more importantly for our analysis, are 34-21 ATS in games following a loss. Prior to this year, the Cyclones were 0-16 straight up (3-13 ATS) in conference road games. The Cyclones have major injuries at the linebacker position, and we think the Red Raiders will exploit that weakness. Laying less than a field goal at home is too tempting to pass up.

Cincinnati (plus 1) over Louisville

The first team to score 40 points wins this game, and we think that will be the Bearcats. Last year,

Cincinnati

was beaten by

Louisville

by a score of 62-19 in a game that Cincinnati's quarterback Deontey Kenner missed because of a separated shoulder. Cincinnati is 6-1 ATS this year, and it scored 52 points last week at

Miami of Ohio

. Against the formidable defenses of Southern Mississippi and Ohio State, the Bearcats gained 539 and 525 total yards, respectively. The Bearcats also beat Wisconsin straight up earlier this year on this field. The Louisville offense is one of the best in the country this year, and the pro scouts are drooling over the Cardinals' quarterback John Redman. But Louisville's defense has given up big yardage every game. This is Louisville's 10th game in a row without a bye, and the team is bound to be tired. Revenge is a powerful motivator, and we think the Bearcats will use that motivation to win straight up on their home field.

San Jose State (minus 2) over Hawaii

Although

San Jose State

is 0-3 in its last three games, it did beat

Stanford

earlier this year. In two of those three losses, the team did not have Deonce Whittaker, its star running back, in the game. Hawaii is 5-3 this year, but prior to the arrival of head coach June Jones, the Rainbows lost 24 straight conference games on the mainland. As evidenced by the fact that both

Rice

and

Texas Christian University

beat Hawaii in the islands in their last two games, opposing coaches are beginning to figure out how to defend against the run-and-gun Hawaii offense. The Spartans have a good quarterback in Chris Kasteler. In the two teams' last three meetings, San Jose State has won by margins of 21, 24 and 28 points. Once again, we are laying less than a field goal at home and think we'll get a good effort from the Spartans in their final home game.

Arizona-Washington (over 59)

Believe it or not, this is a weather play. It's going to be hot in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday.

Washington

has fumbled the ball 24 times in six games this year. Turnovers equal points. Both these teams have good offenses and lousy defenses. Washington is averaging 29 points per game and is giving up 27.

Arizona

has scored an average of 29 points per game and has given up 30. The defensive averages include teams that are not as offensively prolific as these teams are. The total of 59 is what you would expect based on the statistics of these teams, but we think the number will be exceeded since each team will feel compelled to put points on the scoreboard and the heat will wear down the defenses in the fourth quarter. The hot weather will also cause sweating, and the ball will become slippery; thus we think we will get more turnovers than usual, and more points will be scored than the oddsmakers anticipate. We looked at a play on Arizona (minus 4) in this game because of the Huskies propensity to turn the ball over, but Arizona is such a lousy home favorite (14-19-1 ATS in the last seven years) and Washington is such a good conference underdog (20-9-1 ATS since 1991) that we have decided to pass on that play.

Colorado (plus 16) over Kansas State

We have previously chronicled

Kansas State's

stellar point spread record at home over the last few years, including 6-1 ATS this year. However, we're compelled to take

Colorado

plus the points this year based on a number of factors. First, last year, when the Wildcats had a better team than this year, they could only manage a 16-9 victory in Boulder as 14 1/2-point favorites. Second, last week against

Oklahoma

, the Buffaloes showed some spunk, defeating the Sooners despite being 4-point underdogs. In that game, Colorado quarterback Mike Moschetti accounted for 446 yards of total offense. Third, while Gary Barnett was at Northwestern, his teams were 24-16 ATS in road games. Colorado believes it can win this game and salvage a Bowl bid. We think that this will be a close game and that the Wildcats will not be able to pile it on in the fourth quarter as they normally do to the weaker teams they play.

Barry Lieberman is the general counsel for a Las Vegas gaming company and an associate of James Padinha. He's been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years.