If a college football game is a book, the score is printed on the cover. And we’ve all heard that expression about never judging a book by its cover.
Seasoned bettors and handicappers understand the importance of taking a deep dive into the box score. To fully understand what transpired in a game, don’t look just at the surface-level results and start to make distinctions. That could negatively impact your thoughts for upcoming games.
It won’t always be the case, but final scores can lie. Sometimes that blowout can be seen clearly in the box score with huge yardage advantages. Sometimes that upset is as legit as possible with an underdog that rose up and played better than the opposition. However, games often play out a certain way because of variance, weather, turnovers, injuries or other things that “28-21” or “31-17” can’t tell you.
We have no great examples from Week 0, but you can bet we will have some in Week 1. And the purpose of this piece is to explain why you want to do everything in your power to look at the “how” and the “why” instead of just the “what.”
To avoid overreacting to one game or a short window of the season, I’ll use the box score to find out what happened and see why it might not have played out close to my expectation. I then use that information as one step in updating my College Football Power Ratings to ensure I am being as level-headed as possible.
Because the 2020 season was unique with COVID-19 and opt-outs, let’s go back to 2019 to see examples of why this exercise is so important and something that college football bettors of all bankroll sizes and skill levels should do if they want to take sports betting seriously.
I’ve cherry-picked Week 5 of the 2019 season. By that point, teams had worked out some of the early-season kinks, but we were still finding out a lot about these programs and how they would perform over the season. Early in the season is a good time to do this because college football is fresh and exciting and bettors are more likely to overreact to a data point because all eyes are on the games.
We had multiple examples of games that illustrate why doing your homework with box score study is so important. Here are a couple:
Miami (Ohio) 34 (+ 2.5), Buffalo 20
This is one of the most obvious examples of why box score study is so important. Buffalo was a short road favorite against Miami in Oxford, Ohio. The RedHawks certainly had a puncher’s chance based on the line, and an outright Miami win was hardly the most surprising development in Week 5.
The box score tells a different story. The Bulls outgained Miami 398-265. Alarm bells should be ringing in your head that the RedHawks scored 34 points with just 265 yards of offense.
The Bulls had 5.8 yards per play compared with just 3.6 for the RedHawks. How does this game become a two-touchdown win for the underdog with such a ghastly offensive performance?
Turnovers. Buffalo was -4 in turnover margin and committed all four of the game’s giveaways. Miami had scoring drives of 14, 46, 0, 4, 39 and 67 yards.
The AP headline read “Bester, Gabbert lead Miami (Ohio) past Buffalo 34-20.” Jaylon Bester had 24 carries for 107 yards. Brett Gabbert was 8-for-17 passing for 120 yards. Between the score and the headline, one would assume the Miami offense had a strong day leading to an upset win. That was far from the case.
Not doing your due diligence with a game like this could cause problems down the line. Penalizing Buffalo for this performance is not the right course of action. Turnovers dictated the game. A team that outgains the opposition by more than 2 yards per play will win far more often than it will lose. You wouldn’t want to overreact here because the statistical profile of this game suggests Buffalo not only would win most of the time but would win big in a game that was lined below a field goal.
Notre Dame 35 (-10.5, 46.5), Virginia 20
Box score study can also apply to totals betting. The Virginia-Notre Dame game included a line move down from 51 to 46.5. The teams combined for 660 yards of offense, with 4.7 yards per play for the Cavaliers and 5.2 for the Irish. Those aren’t exactly numbers that get us up into the mid-50s in points.
Virginia had five turnovers, including a strip-six that put the game on the brink of going Over late in the third quarter. Another Virginia fumble led to a 7-yard touchdown drive after a 58-yard return.
A lot of sharp, significant Under money came in and got burned by variance and turnovers. Those things happen a lot during a college football season, and understanding why games finished the way they did will help you not only avoid falling victim to what happened in the moment but could also give you the chance at some good line equity against those who overreact to what they’ve last seen.
Important Elements in a Box Score
This sounds really obvious, but turnovers will dictate a lot of games. If you see a big discrepancy one way or the other, take note of it. Not only does it matter when a team loses as a favorite with a -3 turnover margin, but think about how you would react if a favorite is -3 in turnovers and still wins and covers comfortably.
The latter would seem to be a sign of how good that team is and how poor the other team is. We’ve seen games in which a team has won and covered despite a big turnover differential. Those games certainly stand out.
You’re bound to look at certain results and ask, “How did that happen?” The answer is usually turnovers.
Not only is the raw number important, so is looking at the play-by-play to see where the turnovers occurred. Did a team squander a scoring opportunity by throwing a pick in the end zone? Did the defense force a punt that the returner fumbled to set up the opponent? Not all turnovers are created equal.
This is a multi-layered statistic. You have to look at the game state when evaluating this metric. If it was a blowout going into the fourth quarter and one defense sat back in prevent while the other offense marched down the field to put cosmetic touches on the scoreboard, it could narrow the YPP gap. You don’t want to consider that very much.
Another wrinkle to this stat is to note the difference between running plays and passing plays. College football is a bit different from the NFL in that big runs happen more frequently, but it is still easier to move the ball for big chunks through the air than on the ground. A team might lower its yards-per-play mark by sitting on the ball and running it in the fourth quarter. Context matters a lot when evaluating a team’s performance via metrics.
Red zone efficiency
Most traditional college box scores don’t have this the way the NFL does, but you will find situations when a team marched up and down the field but suffered from missed kicks or turnovers on downs. If it moved the ball but had a bad day in the red zone, you might not want to punish that team too much — unless, of course, it has been an ongoing problem.
Big discrepancies in third-down success are also a great indicator of why a game played out as it did. Converting third downs also means the offense gets to stay on the field, so the opponent’s offense remains on the sidelines. Scoring on offense is much easier than scoring on defense.
We can also look at third-down conversions another way. A team that had been converting 33% of its third-down attempts might go 11-for-18 in an upset win. Should we really expect that to happen again in the next game? Identifying regression to the mean is a very powerful tool in a bettor’s arsenal.
As another season begins, getting into the practice of looking through box scores will help you tremendously in the long run. Applying context to the game results will prevent you from overreacting. Keep an eye on the betting markets when you get a game with a really misleading box score. Line movements happen frequently on those games, and you can get ahead of the market and find some good numbers by being observant and prepared.