Rivalries, revenge and Turkey Day upsets add emotion to the equation
by Jim Feist
November football presents some unique situations for sports bettors. It’s the middle of the NFL campaign, where a lack of depth or road travel can begin to wear teams down, and in college football it’s a time for revenge and rivalry games. Early season college football features a slew of non-conference games where many teams know little about the opponent and have no history. October begins conference play, and in November you have conference title races at stake as well as rivalry games, all of which bring emotion into the handicapping equation.
Oklahoma, for instance, played Tulsa and Ball State early this season, sandwiched around an interesting matchup with Florida State (where they won 23-13 in impressive fashion). Still, there’s not much history playing Florida State, other than a blowout win in Norman a year ago. But look at the Sooners’ schedule down the stretch: four games in five weeks against teams battling for bowls, including a showdown with rival Oklahoma State. That will be a battle between two of the top offenses in the country.
There is a long history between the teams, battling for the pride of Oklahoma. Last year’s meeting was a thriller, a 47-41 Sooner win with 588 yards over the No. 9 Cowboys, who were a 3-point home favorite. Oklahoma QB Landry Jones matched the school record with 468 yards passing and threw two long touchdown passes 29 seconds apart in the fourth quarter. The victory was key to the standings, as it forged a three-way tie atop the Big 12 South. Oklahoma then got invited to the Big 12 title game, while Oklahoma State did not. Think the Cowboys will remember?
“We certainly would have liked to have taken advantage of the opportunity we had,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said after that loss. “We just didn’t take advantage.” You can be sure the players in 2011 will remember that game as they will watch the game film—and recall the frustration. All of which can add extra dimensions for handicappers, such as revenge, postseason play, or a major rivalry game.
Late season college football means heated races for bowl berths, plus rivalries that span decades. These games can have far more importance for players than September/October contests. USC/UCLA, Florida/Florida State, Georgia/Georgia Tech and Auburn/Alabama bring out extra intensity and emotion.
Remember Alabama and Auburn last season? Alabama was the defending champ, but blew a 24-0 lead and No. 2 Auburn rallied for a stunning 28-27 comeback on the way to winning the national title. Alabama Coach Nick Saban was not happy afterward, saying “We didn’t finish the game. When you play good teams, you’ve got to play for 60 minutes. There are a lot of lessons to be learned about finishing games and doing things correctly.” You can bet emotions will be heated as they clash this month in the rematch.
In 2009 Alabama celebrated a championship season, but you might not remember that they had to battle rival Auburn to stay unbeaten and barely won, 26-21, as 10-point chalk. Then they upset rival Florida for a chance to advance to the national title game.
2007 is remembered as the Year of the Upset in college football. Pitt got fired up to play West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl and won as a +28 dog, while Missouri knocked off unbeaten Kansas. Texas and Texas A&M will be clashing this month and one recent season unbeaten Texas was a 27-point favorite as the Aggies had one of the worst defenses in the nation, but A&M played an inspired game, leading in the third quarter and down just 34-29 going into the fourth. The maligned Aggie defense played well and A&M finished with an edge in yards over No. 2 Texas, 398-336. They hadn’t played tough defense all year – until rival Texas showed up.
Athletes might not always admit it, but playing on national television can help raise their games a notch, such as Thanksgiving week and showdown tilts. There have been many memorable upsets, too. Here is a list of the biggest college football upsets of all time:
2007 Stanford (+42) tops USC, 24-23
2007 Syracuse (+39) at Louisville, 38-35
1985 Oregon State (+36) tops Washington, 21-20
1985 UTEP (+36) over BYU, 23-16
1998 Temple (+35½) beats Virginia Tech, 28-24
2007 Appalachian St (+35) at Michigan, 34-32
1972 Missouri (+35) beat Notre Dame, 30-26
1974 Purdue (+34) at Notre Dame, 31-20
1992 Iowa State (+29) over Nebraska, 19-10
1969 San Jose State (+29) at Oregon, 36-34
1995 Northwestern (+28) over Notre Dame, 17-15
2007 Pitt (+28) tops West Virginia, 13-9
1942 Holy Cross (+28) beats Boston College, 55-12
2007 was a historic year, nearly monopolizing the list, with four of the biggest upsets ever, including the top two. One thing that stands out is the number of “public teams” like Notre Dame, Nebraska and Michigan that got upset. This is an example of how oddsmakers have to add points to public teams, as well as how smaller schools can get fired up to face big-name schools.
It is not always a plus to be one of the top teams in the polls as opponents can be gunning for you. Many are familiar with No. 1 Ohio State going down in 2007 as Illinois surprised them, 28-21. Few recall that a year earlier Ohio State was also No. 1 in the nation and as a 25-point favorite at Illinois the Buckeyes had to hang on for dear life in a 17-10 win. The Illini was gunning for No. 1 for a signature win.
In a sense, it was Illinois’ bowl game with their season winding down, so they played all out. That same day, No. 2 Michigan had to hold on as a 32-point favorite against Ball State, a 34-26 win, two games that nearly disrupted their No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Not only can the opponent be fired up, but the big favorite might not be taking the game seriously. Four years ago Boston College got to No. 2 in the polls at one point, their highest ranking since 1942. You’ll notice on the upset list above that the BC Eagles are on there.
In November of ’42, BC was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation, closing in on the school’s first national championship. In the final tune-up before the bowls, BC played a 4-4-1 Holy Cross team and was a 4-TD favorite. Yet, it was a rivalry game and fired-up Holy Cross flattened the No. 1 Eagles 55-12 in one of the biggest upsets ever. Rivalries and emotion can force bettors to take a closer look at hungry dogs, along with high-profile games. Don’t downplay emotion at this point in the football season.