While it may seem like the norm now, this is only the fourth college football season in which we have the College Football Playoff. Prior to that, we only had a single championship game decided by the BCS formula. The BCS combined the coaches poll, the Harris poll, and six different computer ranking systems. The final calculation was then made the same way your buddy decides to make blackjack decisions after his ninth beer: nobody knows.
So the powers that be decided to make a big change. Rather than use a combination of computer systems and polls, they would use a committee to decide which teams were most deserving. So now the “eye test” and other human factors would be more relevant to the discussion and other mathematical factors would lose importance or be forgotten altogether.
One of those mathematical factors is margin of victory. Teams that were able to blow out teams were seemingly given a boost from the computers, after all the number of points you score and allow matters. A 14-point win on the road is clearly more impressive than a 3-point win on the road. But is there really that much difference in a 30-point blowout or a 50-point blowout?
My theory is that this change of playoff selection has given teams less incentive to run up the score on their inferior opponents. By using the Bet Labs data, I’m easily able to see that the data supports that theory although I would be hesitant to say that it confirms anything.
The first thing I decided to do was look at teams that were more than 30-point underdogs. These are the games where we are clearly expecting a blowout, it’s just a matter of how much. I then split these dogs into two eras: the BCS era and the playoff era. The chart below shows how these huge dogs have fared in both playoff formats.
|BCS Era||Playoff Era|
|>30 Point Dogs||244-260||182-131|
You can clearly see a contrast in the results. Although to be fair, a lot of the success in the Playoff Era has come in the first half of the 2017 season:
College football underdogs of more than 30 points have covered 73.1% of the time this season. pic.twitter.com/yZHwKc0VvK
— Bet Labs Sports (@Bet_Labs) October 6, 2017
Is it possible coaches and teams are dialing it back when up late in games? The data seems to suggest it’s plausible. Without the incentives of margin of victory to boost meaningless wins, big underdogs could have some value going forward.
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