With the legalization of sports betting expanding to new states every year, more and more college football fans are beginning to wager on the sport they love. The problem? Not everybody knows what they're doing. It's fun to gamble on the favorite or pick the local program in a big game, but it's even better to actually win.
With this inaugural college football guide, newcomers -- and possibly veterans who need a refresher -- will have an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of betting on the sport, including best practices when picking spreads and totals, whether trends are a good indicator of future success and simply how to have as much fun as possible without depleting your bank account.
After all, if you win money along the way, that would be pretty good, too.
College football betting basics
What can you bet in college football? While sportsbooks will offer prop bets on players and game-time situations during the season, those are more difficult to master. Particularly if one does not understand the basics. The bread and butter of college football betting still consists of three areas: the point spread (or "spread"), the total and the money line.
The spread: The most popular bet, the spread is the number of points given to a team to handicap a game with two equally likely outcomes. For example, Nebraska (-12) faces Northwestern (+12). The 12 points is the spread with Nebraska listed as a 12-point favorite and Northwestern a 12-point underdog. In this scenario, Northwestern is spotted 12 points, beginning the game with an imaginary 12-0 lead.
If you bet Nebraska -12, it needs to win the game by at least 13 points for you to win your bet. If you bet Northwestern +12, the Wildcats need to either win the game outright or lose by 11 points or fewer to win your bet. If Nebraska wins the game by 12 points, it's called a push, and your bet on either side of the spread is refunded.
The total: This represents the total points scored in the game. The total for Nebraska vs. Northwestern is 50.5 points. So, do you think more than 50.5 points will be scored or less? If you think more, you bet Over 50.5. If you think less, bet Under 50.5.
The moneyline: This is the simplest bet as you can pick who will win the game outright. However, each bet comes with odds attached given oddsmakers believe it is more likely Nebraska beats Northwestern than the other way around. If you want to bet Nebraska, you will do so at -475 odds. If you believe Northwestern will win, you can bet it at +360 odds. Those odds are based on a $100 bet. For Nebraska, -475 means you have to bet $475 to win $100. For Northwestern, +360 means you would win $360 if you bet $100. You are paying a price given the likelihood of your chosen outcome occurring.
Odds: Moneylines are not the only bets with odds attached to them. Spread and total bets have odds as well. Continuing our example, Nebraska -12 is listed with (-110) attached. Northwestern +12 has (-110) also, as do both sides of the total. This is called the "juice" or "vigorish" (a.k.a. "vig"). Essentially, it's how much the sportsbook charges you for the ability to make the bet. While -110 is standard, the odds can fluctuate for spreads and totals as low as +100 (even odds) or usually no higher than around -130. Like the moneyline, with -110 juice, you have to bet $110 to win $100, but the other factor you must consider is called implied odds.
To put it another way, how often do you have to win a particular bet to make money? The math is simple. If the odds are a negative number, remove the negative and add 100 to that number. Then divide the original odds by the new number. So, for -110, we add 100 to 110 to get 210. We then divide 110 by 210 to get 52.38%. That means you have to be correct 52.38% of the time to make money on that wager. If the juice is a positive number, the process is slightly different. Using Northwestern's money line of +360, we again add 100 to the 360 before dividing 100 by the new number. So, it would be 100 divided by 460, which equals 21.74%. Northwestern needs to win the game 21.74% of the time. Those are its implied odds.
"But, Tom, if I add up the implied odds of all these bets, don't they equal more than 100%?" Yep! That's how the casinos and sportsbooks make money! So, have fun betting, but if you want to make money in the long run, pay attention to the implied odds.
Now that we've gotten the education out of the way, let's get to some of the fun stuff.
Should I bet favorites or underdogs?
In a simple world, favorites would cover half the time, and underdogs would cover the other half with the occasional push here and there. But the world is not simple, and while sportsbooks have algorithms to calculate the most likely outcomes, humans still place the bets. Humans have tendencies.
In short, people prefer betting favorites compared to underdogs. It makes sense. Those placing bets wanting to win, and the favorites are considered the better teams. So, why would you bet on a worse team? Well, it doesn't exactly work that way.
Over the last five seasons (since 2017), underdogs have gone 1,985-1,955-66 against the spread (ATS). This does not mean you'd have won money if you bet every underdog (it's only a .503 win rate, and remember what I just taught you about implied odds?), but it is an example of how the betting public can skew results.
When it comes to deciding on betting favorites or underdogs, bet the side you think is most likely to win that particular game.
Most successful favorites (min. 20 games)
1. Utah State
5. Notre Dame
8. Texas A&M
9. Central Michigan
Most frequent favorites
|Team (Games as a favorite)||Record||Cover rate|
1. Alabama (68)
2. Clemson (65)
3. Georgia (62)
4. Oklahoma (60)
5. Ohio State (59)
6. Wisconsin (54)
6. Appalachian State (54)
8. UCF (53)
9. Notre Dame (52)
10. Oklahoma State (51)
Most successful underdogs (min. 20 games)
4. Iowa State
5. Eastern Michigan
7. Arizona State
Most frequent underdogs
|Team (Games as an underdog)||Record||Cover rate|
1. Texas State (49)
1. Kansas (49)
3. Bowling Green (47)
4. UNLV (45)
4. Rutgers (45)
4. East Carolina (45)
7. Illinois (44)
7. Rice (44)
7. UTEP (44)
7. Akron (44)
OK, what's the secret?
Sadly, there isn't one. There is no fool-proof way to know which team to bet for any given game, but if you look at the charts above, there are some hints you can take away. For instance, when looking at the teams that have been favored the most often, do you notice a trend in the teams that perform the best?
Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State have covered at least 54% of the time as favorites since 2017. All of them had excellent defenses in that time. The best teams in the country will be favored more than everybody else (duh!), but nearly all of them can score points. That's how they win games. But to win games and cover spreads, you must also stop your opponent from scoring. So, while it's not a rule, I try to avoid betting a favorite with a bad defense.
As for underdogs, I like teams that do a good job taking care of the football on offense while playing good defense. Those kinds of teams make a habit of sticking around in games, which leads to outright upsets and spreads being covered.
Is the over or under a better bet?
It's no different than favorites and underdogs. People are more likely to bet the over because it's more fun for the average fan to watch games and root for points to be scored as opposed to cheering on defenses. Sportsbooks understand that and adjust the totals to account for it. That's why the under has gone 2,045-1,910-54 since 2017 for a winning mark of 51.71%. Let's took a look at the key teams to know with data dating back to 2017.
Best 'over' teams
|Team||'Over' record||'Over' rate|
3. Oregon State
5. North Carolina
T9. Louisville, Ohio State
Best 'under' teams
|Team||'Under' record||'Under' rate|
1. San Diego State
3. South Alabama
4. Iowa State
7. Mississippi State
10. Kansas State
OK, what's the secret here?
Like betting spreads, there's no surefire way to win betting totals; if there were, sportsbooks would quickly adjust. Still, there are stats worth reviewing. For example, typically, teams that run more plays per game play in higher scoring games and vice versa.
Red-zone efficiency is another telltale sign. A lot of offenses drive down the field, but once they get inside the 20, they struggle to finish drives as defenses tighten up, and there isn't as much room to exploit. Also, look to see how defenses do in the same situation. If you've got a game featuring two teams that are strong in the red zone on offense facing defenses that are bad in the red zone, there will probably be a lot of points scored! If it's two bad offenses and two good defenses, consider the under!
Again, sportsbooks are aware of this, too, but when you see a game with a notably high or low total, remember it was set that way for a reason. Don't overthink it. And remember: There are no easy answers. Before placing a bet -- whether spread, total or moneyline -- do as much research into the teams as possible and then make what you think the best play is based on what you know. After that, it's out of your hands.
Do trends matter?
Not nearly as much as some will have you believe. Trends don't have much -- if any -- predictive value, but they can be used to better understand why certain events happen. For instance, you might that a team has gone 6-2 ATS in its last eight home games. That's great, but does that make it an incredible home team, or have its last eight home games been against nobodies? The trend alone doesn't tell you that. You have to dig deeper for the context.
Sample sizes are important. Instead of going 6-2 ATS in its last eight home games, if a team was 30-10 ATS over its last 40 home games, that's worth consideration. This team may have an advantage playing at home that the books aren't considering.
One such trend I've long screamed about is betting the under in games between service academies (Air Force, Army and Navy). All three use option offenses and run the ball often. This leads to fewer plays in their games than in typical contests and fewer overall possessions. As a result, there are fewer scoring opportunities.
This helps explain why the under has gone 41-9-1 in the 51 games between the three teams since 2005. That includes eight straight unders with it hitting in 23 of the last 25 such games. Still, the trend is on borrowed time, even as reliable as it has been. For years, books set the total for these games in the mid-40s to mid-50s. The last five meetings have seen the total set between 36 and 39.5. As they always do, the sportsbooks are adjusting.
Any other tips?
Avoid parlays. If you pay attention to commercials and promotions for sportsbooks and sports betting apps, you'll notice how they are constantly pushing parlays on you. They do this for a reason: It's difficult to pick one winning bet consistently, and parlays add many more layers of difficulty. They sell the large payouts, but the payouts are that large for a reason: The sportsbook seldom has to pay them.
Think of it like this: Let's say you have a genuine 50% chance to win any single bet you place. If you're betting a four-leg parlay with 50% odds on each leg, there's only a 6.25% chance to win the parlay. And the odds you get will not reflect that unlikelihood.
The "juice" we mentioned earlier is applied to every leg of a parlay. The prospective payout is much higher than a standard bet, but so is the juice you're paying. Given you're far more likely to lose a parlay than a single bet, you're paying more juice for a less-likely outcome. That's a lose-lose.
Have fun. This is the most important piece of advice I can give you about betting on college football or any sport. There has been a lot of math in this betting guide; don't let it overwhelm you. As long as you're enjoying it -- and only betting amounts you're comfortable with potentially losing -- that's all that matters. If you want to bet parlays, do it! It's fine, I won't judge you (too much)!
Remember, the overwhelming majority of sports bettors lose money in the long run. Yes, even your friend who claims they always win. It's in the design. As long as you're enjoying it, go for it. Most hobbies cost money, and sports betting is no different. If you do turn out to be some kind of super gambler, remember who introduced you to college football betting, and return the favor.