Football is football from a macro perspective. Be it college or pro, it’s 11-on-11, 100-yard field, 60-minute game. A quick glance at an odds board, however, and the differences between the college and pro game become evident. Double-digit spreads are far more prevalent in college, and the disparity between totals is even more pronounced, as college totals are notably higher on average — and substantially higher at the top end. Why is that?
The NFL has 32 teams. That means the best football talent in the world is divided relatively evenly across just 32 rosters. It’s a vastly different story in college football, with 130 FBS programs and 770-plus schools that field teams. This leads to a significantly greater number of games that feature a higher variance in totals due to stylistic or class differences.
On the stylistic front, look no further than the air attack of the Big 12, contrasted with the more traditional brand of football played in the Big Ten. Whereas myriad early-season matchups pitting the LSUs and Alabamas of the world against the South Dakotas and Northwestern States only serve to underscore the massive divide between the top and bottom of the college ecosystem.
The talent gulf is not nearly as wide in the NFL, the reason why it’s seldom that an NFL game features the crazy high scoring that is regularly seen in college football. Understanding these intrinsic structural differences is essential to handicapping college and pro totals. Games can and often do go low in the NFL. Games can regularly go extremely high in college.
As important as structure, though, are the rule differences that have a huge impact on totals. The most notable of these are first-down clock stoppages (only in college), overtime rules (drastically different between college and pro) and the difference in extra-point distances — all of which serve to push college totals up and harness the variance of NFL totals.
While all of those elements impact scoring — college teams can run more plays due to the constant clock stoppages, and the 33-yard extra point takes points off the board in the NFL — none is more impactful than the respective overtime rules. In the NFL, overtime is 10 minutes and the first touchdown wins the game. If the team that has the ball first kicks a field goal, the other team has an opportunity to possess the ball. That means there can’t be more than nine points scored in OT — and only in outlier scenarios. In most cases, there will be three or six points scored in overtime.
College overtime rules, conversely, have no cap on the number of possessions or number of scores teams can amass. And as opposed to NFL overtime, which begins with a normal kickoff, college OT commences with one team beginning at the opposing 25-yard line, thereby facilitating scoring. The result is frequent fireworks in games that go to OT. A total of 21 games went to overtime from Weeks 1-10 in 2019, resulting in an average of over 13 additional points per game.
All of this, of course, is typically factored into the lines — particularly in matchups with lower spreads, as games pitting evenly-matched teams lend to a higher probability of overtime. It is therefore important that bettors incorporate all available information into their handicapping in order to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves.