David Letterman launched the “Top 10 list” phenomenon about three decades ago on his late-night talk show. Now, you can’t go 24 hours without seeing a Top 10 list in some format, be it the Top 10 Places to Live (which is lame, because the list begins and ends with San Diego) or the Top 10 Reasons to Get Married (which is a lie, because there aren’t that many) or the Top 10 Reasons to Watch the WNBA (No. 4: Because after peeling off your toenails with pliers, you’ve run out of ways to torture yourself).
Well, with the college football season now just days away from kicking off, allow me the opportunity to cash in on the gimmick by offering my Top 10 Wagering Tips of the Year. (Note: My bankroll remains at $5,605.)
1. HIT THE SPOT: The biggest mistake college football bettors make is they forget the game is played by 18- to 22-year-olds who don’t always listen to authority figures. So a coach can scream until his throat bleeds about focusing only on this week’s opponent, but that doesn’t mean the message will get through. That’s why, more than any other sport, it’s important to study team schedules to isolate potential look-ahead and/or letdown spots. A few to consider this year: A week before rivals Alabama and Florida square off in Tuscaloosa, the top-ranked Crimson Tide play at Arkansas (Sept. 25) while the Gators host Kentucky; Texas hosts UCLA (also Sept. 25) in between games against rivals Texas Tech and Oklahoma; Ohio State has a sandwich game at Iowa (Nov. 20) after playing Penn State and before facing Michigan (both at home); and Utah makes the always difficult trip to Air Force (Oct. 30) a week before hosting Mountain West power TCU in a big revenge contest.
2. BET SMALL, WIN BIG: It’s tempting to plunk down cash on the marquee games every week, especially since these matchups are hyped ad nauseum, but point-spread value is rarely found in such high-profile contests. The good news is there are 50-plus college football games on the board every week, giving oddsmakers ample opportunities to slip up. Invariably, the mistakes involve schools from lesser-known leagues such as the Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences. So don’t ignore the little guys in your handicapping.
3. OUT OF THE BLUE (RAIDERS): The class of the Sun Belt Conference once again figures to be Middle Tennessee State, which won the 2009 league crown by going 10-3 straight-up (SU) and against the spread (ATS), closing with seven straight wins and covers. The Blue Raiders return eight starters, including star QB Dwight Dasher, to an offense that ranked seventh in the nation last year. Because of that and because Middle Tennessee plays just two teams that had winning records last year, the Blue Raiders will be laying some big numbers this fall (especially in conference play). Don’t let that discourage you, though, as MTSU has cashed in nine straight games as a favorite and five straight as a double-digit chalk.
4. DON’T BELIEVE (ALL) THE HYPE: Every summer, without fail, we hear from the so-called experts about how a handful of teams are poised for breakout years. And every fall, without fail, those geniuses end up looking like fools. So tread lightly on squads such as Pittsburgh, Arkansas and North Carolina, which are ranked Nos. 15, 17 and 18, respectively, in the preseason Associated Press poll. I’m particularly leery of Pitt and North Carolina, mostly because coaches Dave Wannstedt and Butch Davis have always crumbled when expectations are highest.
5. HEY, WHAT ABOUT US?: The flip side to No. 4 is teams overlooked by the media. These under-the-radar squads, located in every conference and always possessing a chip on their collective shoulders, generally offer great value as underdogs, especially early in the season. A few of my favorites this year: Cincinnati (new coach Butch Jones was a winner at Central Michigan and QB Zach Collaros was terrific when he subbed for an injured Tony Pike last year); Missouri (the Tigers reaped recruiting rewards after an 11-2 season in 2007, and that talent hits the field this year); and Houston (Heisman Trophy candidate Case Keenum has passed the Cougars to 17 victories the last two years, and they play six winnable road games).
6. SIDELINE UPHEAVAL: There are 22 new head coaches this year. In some cases, the change of blood will result in little to no drop-off from last year (USC, South Florida, Louisville), and some schools may even see a spike in victories (Florida State, Texas Tech, Kentucky). But most (think Tennessee, Notre Dame and Central Michigan) will be going through major rebuilding. Then there are those sideline strollers who barely held onto their jobs and are now perched on the hot seat (Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez). A good wagering rule of thumb as it relates to new and embattled coaches: Either bet against most of these teams early or stay away for a few games.
7. SPEAKING OF NEW COACHES: Bobby Hauck probably has a better shot at winning Megabucks than he does producing a winning record in his first season at UNLV (the Rebels face nine opponents that went to bowl games last year). If you’re looking for the best spot to make money on the local team: Oct. 2 at home versus Nevada, Reno (Hauck went 80-19 in seven years at Montana, where he made beating rival Montana State priority No. 1, and likely has been game-planning all summer for the Wolf Pack). If you’re looking to make money going against the local team, the Rebels play at West Virginia the following week (win or lose against UNR, the trip to Morgantown has “letdown” written all over it).
8. POINT, COUNTERPOINT: Last year, seven Pac-10 teams averaged better than 26 points per game, including five that put up more than 29 ppg, and defenses surrendered a combined 24.9 ppg. The crazy thing is those numbers should skyrocket this year, as seven starting quarterbacks return, including standout passers Jake Locker (Washington), Andrew Luck (Stanford), Matt Barkley (USC) and Nick Foles (Arizona). Moral to this story: Forget about “side” plays, and instead look for opportunities to bet Pac-10 games “over” the total.
9. TRENDING UP, TRENDING DOWN: Some trends to contemplate heading into the season (courtesy of Marc Lawerence’s Playbook magazine): The road team is 16-2 ATS in the last 18 Alabama-Tennessee meetings (the teams play in Knoxville on Oct. 23); Arizona State is 2-10 ATS the last 12 years the week before facing rival Arizona; Florida has cashed in 11 straight nonconference games as a double-digit favorite; and UNLV has cashed in seven straight games prior to facing Hawaii (the Rebels play at San Diego State on Nov. 27 before traveling to the Islands) but is 0-8 ATS the last eight years the week before facing Utah (UNLV opens at home vs. Wisconsin before going to Salt Lake City).
10. AND THE WINNERS ARE: Time to put my money where my mouth is with the following plays on opening night (Sept. 2): USC (-21) at Hawaii ($330); Northern Illinois (+3½) at Iowa State ($110); Ohio State (-29) vs. Marshall ($55); and Utah (-3½) vs. Pitt ($55).
Matt Jacob is a former local sports writer who has been in the sports handicapping business for more than four years. For his weekly column, Vegas Seven has granted Matt a “$7,000” bankroll. If he blows it all, we’ll fire him and replace him with a monkey.