Understanding how to bet it is important as college football grows from a regional sport into a more national sport. It’s unique in many ways compared to its NFL counterpart, and given that, it’s paramount in finding edges and recognizing key points of differentiation.

At Campus2Canton, we want to help people understand the basics of betting and how to avoid making mistakes.

Reading Lines

Example Game:

Game Spread Money Line

Oklahoma   -2.5 (-110)       -125

Texas +2.5 (-110)     +120

Reading Odds:

When determining the favorite in a game, the team with the negative (-) number is favored, and the team with the positive (+) number is the underdog. Using the example above, this tells us Oklahoma is favored by 2.5 points.

To bet on Oklahoma, the favorite, to win by 2.5 points, the odds are -110. This means to win $100, you have to risk $110. This number can and will vary depending on how much action (bets/betting amount) is placed on a singular side. For example, if people like Oklahoma to win this game and bet more on Oklahoma at -2.5, the odds may go to -115 or -120. After a certain amount of value is placed, the number will eventually move, and Oklahoma will become a 3-point favorite. 

Terms to Know in Context

Spread: This is the expected amount a team is expected to win (or lose) by based on the respective sportsbook’s handicap or projections.

When betting on the favorite, to win a bet on the spread bet like the one above, Oklahoma would need to win by more than 2.5 points. 

When betting on the loser, Texas would need to not lose by more than 2.5 points. A three-point margin of victory in this game for Oklahoma would mean that a -2.5 Oklahoma bet wins and a +2.5 Texas bet lost. For example, a final score of 24-21 with an Oklahoma win.

If the game is projected to be an even contest, the spread will be reflected as a PK (or pick’em). This would imply teams have equal odds to win and both may be represented as PK -110.

Moneyline: This is a pick (without points) on who will win a matchup. If Oklahoma wins by 1 point, the moneyline is a winner, but the spread pick is a loser. 

The odds on a moneyline win are worse for favorites than picking against the spread. This is because Oklahoma winning by more than 2.5  is less likely to occur than Oklahoma winning outright (a one or two-point victory is a loss). Therefore the bettor gets better worse odds. Betting $100 on the -125 moneyline only returns $80.

In close matchups, betting on the moneyline for a favorite can make sense, even if the odds are worse. It generally is a reduction of risk, albeit at a cost to the upside and payout.

However, a common theme when betting the moneyline is picking the underdog. If you feel that Texas can beat Oklahoma, betting $100 on a Texas win returns $120.

Why College is Unique

Analyzing Spreads and Variance

There will soon be 133 Division I FBS teams in the country, and given the talent disparity between teams 1 and 133 (or even 1 and 10), the lack of parity exacerbates variance on a game-to-game basis.

Let’s compare college spreads to the NFL to emphasize how much strategy in betting games can differ between the two leagues:

The most likely margin of victory (or key numbers) in each sport are both 3 and 7. Makes sense, a field goal and a touchdown (+ extra point) in single digits. *The majority of key numbers are variants of 3 or 7, as that’s the most likely outcome of a scoring play for teams.

The number of games that end with the two most common margins of victory between the NFL and college football (NCAAF).

These results, to someone who bets NFL exclusively, might be shocking. 24.3% of NFL games are decided by 3 or 7, while only 16% of college football games fall within the same margins. A 9% difference between the two key numbers, with a 6%+ difference between 3, the keyest of key numbers

Expanding further, the top five key numbers in the NFL (3, 7, 6, 10, 14) make up 41.9% of the margin of victories. However, the top five key numbers for FBS football (3, 7, 10, 14, 4) account for only 28.5% of margins. Variance in the margin of victory is much greater when looking at college football. To reach a similar outcome of key numbers, the top nine for FBS scores equates to 41%, nearly double that of the NFL.

Games are Higher Scoring

National pundits and NFL-centric fans often refer to college football as an “unwatchable” product due to its horrendous defense, lack of parity, and inability to escape beyond the regionality of the sport. It’s an opinion. One I don’t agree with. But an opinion nonetheless.

One thing is true. Defense is played at a lower level in college football. Games are substantially higher scoring, with totals often approaching the upper 60s and 70s. The most common FBS game total is 55 points, compared to the NFL’s 44. On average, college games score almost 10 points (9.6) more than NFL games, and given that, it makes the variance even greater.

The top 20 most common game totals account for 47.1% of the overall number of college football finishes. In the NFL, that number is 60.0%. A 13% difference between these two, emphasizing a couple of different factors. First, there is substantial variation by conference. Using this study done by PFF in 2021, it’s easy to identify which conferences score more on average. 

A handful of factors drive this, including differences in play style, weather, and quality of defensive athletes. The two lowest-scoring conferences, the SEC and Big Ten, are generally graduating the most defensive players to the NFL. It’s important to keep in mind, for betting purposes, which games and conference matchups are consistently lower scoring. Applying the logic outlined above in our average game total chart to each conference ignores the bigger picture.

The Golden Rule

With variance in both in-game totals and margin of victory, it’s important to understand how that should impact our betting patterns. 

First, and this to me is the Golden Rule of college football betting – STOP BUYING POINTS!

Buying points means getting a better number (against the spread or in total) but at a reduced payout. For example, if the spread is -9 and you want to get -8.5, it may cost you 10 or 20 cents to get the number you want. This would mean the odds may move from -110 to -120 or -130, reducing your payout with potentially higher odds of hitting your bet. Generally speaking, each half-point bought is worth about ten cents, but when it comes to key numbers like 3, 7, or 10, it may cost 20 or more cents.

However, as we demonstrated above, only 28.5% of margins are decided within the top five key numbers. This means over 72% are outside of this. Trying to buy to be inside of a key number (-3 down to -2.5 for example), doesn’t move the needle nearly as much as one would think. This goes hand-in-hand with what we know about game totals as well, with scores consistently hitting the 60s or 70s at a substantially higher rate compared to their NFL counterparts. 

The obvious caveat here is that this makes alternative lines more attractive for the same reason. A team favored by 7 could win by 14 or 17 points, often in more circumstances than the NFL because there’s so much variation between team, player, and power five / group of five conferences. Playing an alt line substantially improves payouts as well.

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