Autumn is the season for football. Sure, both the college and NFL regular seasons extend into the winter, but the Fall is when things get underway. Most handicappers that love the game will wager on both the NCAA and NFL contests, but while they may technically be the same sport, there are some fundamental differences between legally betting on them both.
For years, the National Football League was the main event at the sportsbooks, attracting far-and-away more action than any other league or sport. However, in recent years, college football has been closing the gap, with more and more handicappers preferring the amateur version of the game every year.
NCAA football is appealing due to the massive weekly schedule of matchups, the high-scoring nature of the collegiate product, and the volatility of the young athletes’ performances, which make gambling more exciting. In the NFL, teams are more closely matched talent-wise, the defenses are remarkably better, and the competitors are more proven commodities from which we know what to expect, for the most part.
Which of these options is superior depends on the bettor themselves, and what they prefer. In this article, I’m going to discuss some of the primary differences that handicappers must account for when betting on the contests in either league. Because no matter which form of football you ultimately wager on, it’s crucial to your success that you don’t approach them both the same way.
Accuracy of Betting Lines
One of the primary differences between the college and professional football leagues that I’ll be talking about throughout this article is the number of games that the NCAA provides per week. This increased volume has numerous consequences, one of which is more betting lines that can be exploited. Sportsbooks have 128 Division I college teams to handicap each week versus only 32 in the NFL.
John Avello, who works as a bookmaker at the Wynn sportsbook in Las Vegas, says “You can find an edge there, and that is what gamblers do. We are hard to beat when it comes to the NFL.” When the oddsmakers have a smaller slate of games to handicap, they create lines that are scarily accurate, which can be challenging to beat consistently as a gambler.
When you’re legally betting on college games, the bookies will pay the bulk of their attention to the major programs and biggest matchups each week. That still leaves tons of contests with gambling odds that may be highly exploitable. If you happen to specialize in or have extensive knowledge of a middling program, you could potentially know more about how they’ll perform than the sportsbooks.
Talent Gaps in Matchups
Something you see in the college games that never happen in the NFL are massive mismatches in contests. The worst team in the entire league might be 15-point underdogs maximum when facing a premier opponent. Underdogs are possible, even if unlikely, in any given week; after all, one-hundred-percent of the athletes involved are pro-caliber athletes.
With 128 Division I NCAA programs, you’ll frequently find squads full of top-tier talent, eventually destined for the pros, playing against schools that are drastically overwhelmed. They may not have a single future NFL player. The big-time programs schedule these opponents early in the year to act as a kind of preseason, and in the middle of the year as an active bye week of sorts.
When these elite squads square off against weaker schools, you’ll frequently find point spreads in the 20’s and 30’s, if not higher! Some handicappers have even invented betting systems meant to exploit the infrequency of upsets by legally wagering on heavy favorites on the moneyline to slowly amass a larger bankroll.
Volume of Opportunities
The most successful handicappers are remarkably discerning when it comes to picking games on which to gamble. They’ll search for a specific set of conditions or for lines that possess enough value to be worth the risk. The only way to win money long-term through legalized sports betting is to accurately predict the likelihood of both teams winning, then only buying odds that have a lower implied probability than that prediction suggests.
When gambling on the National Football League, there may be weeks in which none of the odds are worth betting, if you’re following a strict system. Applying betting systems to the college game will almost always return matchups worth wagering on.
For example, earlier I mentioned a moneyline betting strategy involving picking monumental favorites exclusively. The way the method works is by only wagering on 20-to-25-point favorites, and taking them to win straight up since these teams win roughly 95% of these mismatched contests. You might think that’s a relatively rare set of circumstances, but in college, there are 4.5 of these matchups per week, on average!
One of the reasons NFL odds are so much harder to beat is because the performances of athletes that reach that level are mostly consistent. Sure, players have good games and bad games, but they rarely deviate wildly from week to week. They’re definitely less susceptible to let-down games or looking past their next opponent.
The fact of the matter is, coaches and general managers at the highest level of the sport won’t tolerate such inconsistencies. Part of becoming a pro is being able to focus and remain a productive member of the roster regardless of road games, weather, pressure, or any other external variables.
In college, most coaches can’t be as picky when filling their rosters. Plus, college-aged athletes are less mature and more affected by emotional factors. Handicappers will frequently search out scenarios in which a school is either coming off a significant win/loss, facing a hated rival, or facing a decent middling team one week before a contest with serious implications.
The reason they target these situations is that college athletes often fall prey to let down games, or looking past opponents. A program coming off a massive upset win over an elite school or rival will frequently follow that performance up with a disappointing loss in the very next game.
This also tends to happen to squads with championship aspirations. If they have a showdown with significant post-season implications in two weeks, the matchup that week is a favorite choice for a potential upset. Whether you prefer the consistency of the pro game or the volatility of the amateurs, you must consider these possibilities when handicapping football.
Proven vs. Unproven Athletes
The earliest weeks of the football season are always somewhat tricky for handicappers. In both the NFL and NCAA, it’s hard to know how a team will perform before you have hard stats and data telling you whether they’re a quality squad or not. In both cases, you usually have to use numbers from the previous season mixed with educated guesses based on roster moves and subjective information.
Both leagues see teams undergo tons of roster turnover from year to year. The difference is, when breaking down the pro game, you typically have some useful background info on all of the players. You may not know how they’ll age or mesh with their new organization, but they’re generally a known quantity.
NCAA teams have an incredible amount of roster churn due to the nature of college itself. Players can only stay with a program for four or five years, depending on their eligibility and whether they redshirt early on. The best teams in the country also lose numerous starters every year who go pro.
This makes the earliest games in the college season particularly challenging to predict. You can research the number of high-level recruits coming into the program and read notes from the preseason practices, but you still don’t know how they show up on gameday until they’ve done it. However, this can work to your advantage as well, since the oddsmakers don’t have any assurances either.
When legally betting on football, the factors you must consider to predict how a matchup will play out accurately can be considerably different. In the NFL, teams tend to be more well-rounded. Gimmicky systems don’t work due to the speed of defenses and their ability to diagnose what’s happening quickly. That’s why the wildcat offense only worked for one season. Once defenses figured it out, they could shut those plays down just about every time.
A pro-style offense consists of taking snaps from under center, making more than one read as the quarterback, and calling a variety of plays. There are some college teams that run pro offenses, but they’re mostly major programs which attract lots of future NFL players.
Tons of NCAA squads run offenses that could never sustain any level of success at the highest levels of the game. But because there are only so many quality defenders at the collegiate level, these systems work exceptionally well. I’m talking about spread offenses where QBs take every snap from shotgun, flex wing playbooks that run almost every down, and air raid systems that throw every play.
When handicapping NFL games, you break down the systems franchises run by looking at their percentages of run or pass plays called, how often they utilize certain formations, and their pace of play. There is some variance there, but for the most part, every team is well-rounded and able to execute many different game plans.
College programs will install a style of play, recruit athletes who fit the system and never deviate from the way they play. When legally gambling on the college contests, you need to predict how the different styles will mesh on the field.
Does the defense have the athletes to slow a running QB who can run and takes every snap from the shotgun with four wide receivers? What about the linebackers to slow a flex wing school? In the NFL, matchups are dictated by individual players and the play calling. In college, they’re about entire play styles.
The Wrap Up
The football played in both the NCAA and the NFL have more in common than they do differences. The field is the same, the ball is the same, as are the majority of the rules. But while there are many similarities, their fundamental differences are enough to make handicapping the leagues completely unique experiences.
The underlying factor that’s responsible for the bulk of the differences is the number of teams that participate in Division I college ball. With 128 programs, every week of NCAA football provides a vast slate of legal gambling opportunities. This allows bettors to employ specific gambling systems and strategies since there are almost always matchups that fit the desired scenario.
Furthermore, the wealth of options means more exploitable betting lines, as oddsmakers can’t possibly dedicate their highest levels of attention to every contest. Instead, they focus on the primetime games played between the major programs, leaving tons of value out there to be discovered by hard working handicappers.
Between the NFL’s popularity and comparatively tiny pool of competitors, the sportsbooks can set odds that are incredibly difficult to beat on a regular basis. The bookmakers are frequently right on the money with their betting lines, making it a challenge for even the best sports gamblers to make profitable picks.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible, only that it takes more work, higher expertise, and patience. Winning bettors have to be extremely picky with the games on which they wager, just grabbing the best value plays. With the NCAA, the volume of contests means there should always be quality plays over the weekend.
Whichever version of football you prefer, I suggest you spend time developing your handicapping skills with that league before branching out and attempting both. The associations have different metrics to follow and factors to consider when predicting future wins. Take your time learning to win at one, and you’ll have a much stronger foundation when it’s time to branch out to the other.