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How to Handicap Sports

There is no one-size-fits-all method for sports handicapping. After all, if there were one perfect method that made predicting sports matchups trivial, the sportsbooks offering action on both sides wouldn’t stay in business for too long as everyone would know which side to bet. As long as human beings are playing sports instead of perfectly optimized robots, there will always be factors including talent, emotion, injuries and random luck that will make sporting events unpredictable.

Fortunately, successful sports bettors in Tennessee and around the world don’t need to be perfect when it comes to predicting games. They just have to pick winners a bit more often than they pick losers to turn a profit. And unlike in games of chance like roulette where no amount of study or research will ever give you any idea what the next spin of the wheel is going to produce, studying and researching the various elements of a sporting event can lead you to determining that one side is more favorable than the other. This is the art of handicapping, and it is this practice that can help you earn an edge over the sportsbook.

Sports handicapping Step 1: Breaking down the matchup

The most obvious place to start when it comes to handicapping a sporting event is based on the skills, strengths and weaknesses of each team. You will eventually need to consider other things that we will cover later that could impact the outcome of the game like home field advantage or recent form. But when creating a baseline or starting point, you just want to break down the teams themselves and see how they stack up against one another.

Squad vs. squad matchups

You’ll often hear the sports media talking about a game between “two of the top five offenses” or “the two best defenses” in the league. And while these statistics do potentially paint the picture for what type of game could be in store, it’s important to remember that those two top defenses won’t be going head-to-head. They will be going up against their opponent’s offense.

For example, you could break an NFL or NCAA football game down into the following squad vs. squad matchups:

  • Team A Offense vs. Team B Defense.
  • Team A Defense vs. Team B Offense.
  • Team A Special Teams vs. Team B Special Teams.

And you could break each of these down even further, as an offense vs. defense matchup also contains passing offense vs. passing defense, rushing offense vs. rushing defense, offensive line vs. defensive line and so on.

Take the time to study each of these matchups to look for situations where one team has a clear edge or glaring hole. And the more in-depth you go, the more insight you may gain into a team’s strengths and weaknesses. The Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions might both give up 240 passing yards per game, but maybe the Packers only give up lots of passing yards late in games they are already way ahead in while the Lions do so all game long.

Individual vs. individual matchups

Going even more in-depth into your research, you could break down individual one-on-one matchups. How does a certain cornerback do against wide receivers with similar skill levels and physical traits to the one he is facing this week? How does the player who will be guarding Stephen Curry in tonight’s game do against guards who shoot a lot of 3-pointers?

Train yourself to start looking for these types of things while you are watching your favorite teams. If you notice that the Nashville Predators struggle or thrive against a certain type of offensive player or goaltender, you could use this knowledge when handicapping upcoming games on their schedule.

Sports handicapping Step 2: Accounting for other in-game factors

Once you have broken down the matchup statistically and analytically, you should have a good baseline for how you think the game would go if the teams were playing in a dome at a neutral location. Of course, very few games actually fit this description, so it’s important to adjust your baseline based on these in-game factors.

Injuries and inactives

Just about every sports bettor has at some point placed a bet on a team only to find out after the fact that a key player will be out due to an injury or rest day. In some cases, these changes are unavoidable as a player gets injured in warmups or coaches make game-time decisions that they hadn’t previously discussed in the media. Fortunately, in the long run, these surprise changes will generally even themselves out as some will help you and some will hurt you.

But random late scratches are rare, especially in today’s sports world where sports and team insiders are constantly blogging and tweeting team updates and coach interviews. Remember to do your due diligence checking injury reports and team-related news briefs before placing bets. You should be particularly careful in sports like basketball and hockey in spots when a team is playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

Home field advantage

There are a number of reasons why home field advantage often plays a part in the outcome of sporting events. In addition to the momentum that home teams can build off of having the home crowd behind them, studies have shown that referees often tend to make more calls against the road team, likely driven by a subconscious desire to be cheered instead of booed. Home field advantage is especially important in basketball (with fans so close to the court) and in college sports that have rabid fan bases and young players who are more likely to get rattled by a hostile environment.

Of course, not all home fields are created equal. Some teams have far louder supporters than others. And some teams feed off their home crowd or do a better job of tuning out road crowds than others. When handicapping home field advantage, be sure to consider the specific teams and crowd involved.

Weather

Basketball games, hockey games and other sporting events played in domes don’t have to worry about the effects of weather. When handicapping a baseball game, look for instances of extreme heat or times of day that the sun might affect visibility. Potentially rainy days can lead to rain delays, which could cause a game to be cut short or one to be continued after the delay without the original starting pitchers.

Outdoor football games are played out regardless of the conditions. Rainy days often favor teams that run the ball well, as it is harder for quarterbacks to grip and throw the ball in wet conditions. Cold or snowy weather often favors a home team that is used to practicing and playing in these conditions, especially against a road team that is more accustomed to warmer climates.

Sports handicapping Step 3: Considering the intangibles

Unlike the previous two steps that are more clearly defined and easy to research and account for, intangibles are much more unpredictable. Losing three games in a row might cause one team to play poorly due to lack of confidence and another team to play angry and passionate, looking to turn things around. Similarly, while most teams tend to see a short-term boost when a head coach gets fired midseason, a team that was loyal to that head coach might be dejected by his firing.

It is impossible to predict when a team will have an uncharacteristically strong or weak game with a high level of accuracy. But by calling on your knowledge and observations of specific sports, teams and situations, you should be able to at least identify the potential for intangibles to come into play when handicapping an event.

Motivation and emotion

As mentioned above, trying to determine which team will be more motivated or pumped up for a game is an inexact science. But here are a few examples of a situation where one team might end up playing better or worse than usual:

  • In a best-of-seven playoff series, the Memphis Grizzlies lose the first two games on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. They are returning home for Game 3. Given that no NBA team has ever come back from being down 0-3 in a best-of-seven series, this is an absolute must-win game for Memphis. The Trail Blazers will also be motivated to take command of the series, but in the back of their minds, they know they still have Game 5 and Game 7 at home as well as three opportunities to steal a game on the road. It’s going to be difficult for Portland to match Memphis’ intensity in this one.
  • The Tennessee Titans are a 6-point favorite at home against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 and they lose the game. The Titans are scheduled to play the Baltimore Ravens at home in Week 10, and sportsbooks have made the Ravens a three-point road favorite. After being embarrassed in front of their home fans last week and now being disrespected by the sportsbooks as a home dog, Tennessee won’t have any shortage of motivation to play better against the Ravens.
  • College football players often have a fierce loyalty to their head coach, so when a head coach leaves the program to take a better or higher-paying job elsewhere, it isn’t uncommon to see the team perform poorly in its bowl game. Imagine that one team loses its head coach to another program and the team’s star running back decides to sit the game out to avoid injury in preparation for the NFL draft. With their coach and best player abandoning them, it’s going to be tough for the rest of the team to be at its best on bowl day.

Trap games

Trap games are games on the schedule that you can usually identify in advance as spots in which a team is very unlikely to be at its best. Travel- and fatigue-based trap games are the easiest ones to find in the NBA and NHL. If you see that one team is playing its third game in four nights on the road and the other team is at home coming in off two days’ rest, it’s not too difficult to deduce that the home team should generally have a major advantage in the energy department.

Mental trap games on the other hand often come in situations in which a team might be distracted, making it difficult to perform at the highest level possible. If the Nashville Predators pick up an emotionally draining overtime win over the St. Louis Blues to take over first place in the division, they may still be riding the high of that win and have trouble focusing on their next game against the lowly Los Angeles Kings. Or perhaps the game order is reversed, and the Predators are looking ahead to what they know will be a massively important game against St. Louis on Thursday instead of keeping their eyes on the Kings this Tuesday.

Combining the letdown after a big game and the look ahead to a big game produces the “sandwich game” theory. Experienced bettors know this trap game scenario well, as even the most experienced and talented teams have a hard time avoiding it.

Tennessee sports fans witnessed a perfect example of the sandwich trap game in 2019, when a Week 16 out-of-conference game against the New Orleans Saints was scheduled in between two AFC South deciding matchups against the Houston Texans in Week 15 and Week 17. The Titans knew they’d be playing for the division title in Week 17 regardless of the outcome of Week 16, so they lost focus against the Saints. After taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, Tennessee went on to lose to New Orleans 38-28 as three-point home underdogs.

Final thoughts on sports handicapping

Some people prefer to focus their handicapping efforts heavily on the statistics and numbers, preferring the tangible factors they can logically break down to the guesswork that comes with trying to handicap intangibles. Other handicappers pride themselves on solving the game between the numbers and finding the big upsets before they take place.

A successful handicapping strategy takes all of these things into account, but only you can decide how heavily to weigh each category. If you focus on what you know and enjoy and keep honing your craft, you should be able to find a sports handicapping strategy that works for you.