College Football vs. NFL: Four Differences for Bettors
If you’re used to betting on the NFL, betting on college football can be a little intimidating. The betting card is much longer, some of the spreads are massive, and you may not have heard of half the schools you see listed. To demystify the college game, we’ve broken down some of the key differences between betting on college football and the NFL.
College Football Is Much More Volatile
NFL players are professional athletes. Regardless of their talents, college football players are 18 to 22-year-old university students who have significant distractions and are more likely to be affected by their emotions.
Just because a college team was excellent last week doesn’t mean they won’t fumble the ball 93 yards this week. The best teams in college football control this volatility, but even they aren’t immune. You are going to see things that just don’t happen in professional sports.
NFL Teams Are More Closely Matched
The biggest difference between college and NFL football comes from the way talent is distributed among teams.
The NFL holds a yearly entry draft, during which the most promising players are distributed to the least successful teams. College football does not have a draft and, when it comes to talent distribution, the opposite is true: the most talented players are drawn to the most successful programs, and vast gulfs of talent emerge over time.
When the best team in the NFL squares off against the worst team, there isn’t a huge difference in terms of the talent you see on the field (regardless of what you think of the Browns). When the best team in college football squares off against even an average team, things can quickly start to look like a “boys vs. men” matchup.
Betting on college football requires you to be comfortable with much bigger spreads than those you’ll see on NFL games.
The biggest spread in NFL history comes from a 2013 game between the Denver Broncos and the Jacksonville Jaguars, which opened at 28.0 points – a huge anomaly. Most weeks, you won’t see an NFL spread bigger than 13 or 14 points. By comparison, week 11 of the 2017 college football season saw four games with spreads larger than 28.0 points. The 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide, alone, were favored by more than 28.0 points five different times (including being 42.5-point favorites in one game) and they covered two of them.
Betting on college football requires you to get comfortable with much bigger spreads than NFL betting. Remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean games are less predictable – there’s just a much larger skill delta between NCAA teams.
College Teams Are Less Consistent Over the Years
College football teams lose roughly a quarter of their roster every single year. Between graduations, players leaving for the NFL, transferring schools, becoming academically ineligible, or simply quitting football, it’s an ever-changing cast of characters at even the top college programs.
Coaching is also a revolving-door in college football, as coordinators and head coaches are fired, hired away, promoted, demoted, and endlessly turned over. While the NFL isn’t exactly a bastion of stability, you can (for example) have the same quarterback for more than four years.
One of the best metrics for success in college football is returning production: it’s not how well a team performed last year, but how many of that team’s core players are back on the field this season.
The turnover in the college game creates year-to-year shifts in team quality that can, at times, be startling. A team that was 10-2 last year might go 4-8 this year. A team that was 4-8 last year may become a favorite for a playoff berth this season. Betting on a team based on how they performed last year is, to put it lightly, inadvisable. Sportswriters love to construct pre-season ranking for college ball – but they’re not something to put your money on, and it pays to be cautious with futures bets.
This reality also means that one of the best metrics for success, particularly early in the season, is returning production: not how well a team performed last year, but how much of that team’s core is back on the field this season. Regardless of how well they played last year, returning players bring a sense of predictability and experience to teams. Look for teams fielding a lot of dependable juniors and seniors to out-perform squads of highly-touted freshmen and sophomores.
NFL Coaches Rely on Similar Playbooks
In the NFL, most teams play a broadly similar offense, and defensive strategies are similarly consistent. In college football, there is enough variation between teams to make strategies unrecognizable from each other.
Some teams play with extraordinarily complicated and innovative playbooks, and some teams play with antediluvian schemes handed down from the 1876 Yale Bulldogs. Some teams run plays and score points at a furious pace, and some teams prefer to take things slow. This creates volatility, as teams have to defend wildly different playbooks every week.
Understanding how different styles of play interact with each other is critical to making good bets on college football. Building familiarity with college teams takes some time, and the constant turnover of coaching staffs results in a constant evolution of strategy that can be hard to keep up with.
College Football or NFL: Which to Bet?
With the unpredictable nature of college football, you might conclude that it’s much easier to wager on and profit from betting on the NFL. While we won’t deny that crafting a successful college football betting strategy can be challenging, it’s well worth the effort in terms of potential return on investment.
With so many games each week, it’s much harder for the oddsmakers to accurately handicap every college game. If you’re willing to take a chance on some more obscure matchups, it’s easier to find value on college lines than those for the NFL. That said, if you’re looking for predictably, NFL powerhouse teams tend to be safe bets.
Choosing between betting on college or professional football comes down to personal preference. We recommend trying your hand at both with insights from the football articles in our sports betting how-to guides.
As always, remember to bet within your limits and enjoy the action this football season!