College Football Conference Odds: Using Variance To Pick Better Longshots In Futures & Win Totals

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Written By Brett Gibbons | Last Updated
CFB conference odds

Variance is an often-overlooked aspect college football betting. Below, we’ll dive into what variance is and how it impacts college football conference odds to hopefully make smarter bets for the 2023 CFB season. A “Variance Score” metric is also provided to help guide you through which conferences should have the most parity, increasing the chance of a longshot emerging in 2023.

In Week 11 of the 2022 college football season, the Mid-American Conference played six weeknight games. Of those games, endearingly dubbed “MACtion,” four of them finished within 10 points and half finished within one score. Northern Illinois freshman Justin Lynch – younger brother of former Heisman contender Jordan and who played just three snaps the week before – rushed in a go-ahead touchdown with just seconds left on the clock to beat Western Michigan. The wild nature and consistent close games make MACtion one of college football’s most beloved TV products.

But how is it that this group of 12 small schools in towns like DeKalb, Illinois, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, manage to put on that good of a product each year? How is it that through sleet and snow and fog, Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November are appointment television?


Variance Score and College Football Conference Odds

It’s late June, which means I’m really diving into the nitty gritty for the upcoming college football season. Win totals are out for every team and more books are beginning to trickle out division odds and conference odds for the Group of Five leagues. Oftentimes, I prefer betting the smaller conferences due to a lack of information readily available.

ConferenceVariance Score
Big Ten103.63
Mountain West39.28
Big 1239.24
Sun Belt27.64
Conference USA20.42

What Is Variance Score?

Parity. I’ve pulled numbers to calculate Variance Score between conferences, but it’s an observable phenomenon. How big a gap is there between the top of the conference and the bottom? In this instance, I used aggregate preseason power ratings from multiple sources like SP+, FPI, etc., to calculate variance.

In the data above, higher Variance Score means a larger gap between the top and bottom of the conference; therefore, there is less parity. Lower Variance Score means a tighter gap between teams and, therefore, more parity.

Take, for example, the conference with the lowest Variance Score, the MAC (17.41). The last teams to repeat an appearance in the conference championship game from either division were Bowling Green and Northern Illinois from 2013-15, both of whom happened to have nationally-prolific quarterback play in that stretch. Every team except one (Eastern Michigan) has made the MAC Championship Game at least once since 2015.

How Does Variance Score Impact CFB Conference Odds?

If the Variance Score in a certain conference is really low, then there’s more parity and a higher weekly probability of close games and upsets. Teams leading conference odds tables like Toledo in the MAC () become less certain of a bet because the gap between them and the fifth-best MAC team (Eastern Michigan) is less than a touchdown.

Variance Score can be a helpful handicapping tool when assessing CFB conference odds. Let’s take a look at current MAC odds:

College Football Conference Odds: The MAC

Toledo and Ohio are a clear one-two favorite. The next tier consists of Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, and Miami. Central Michigan and Northern Illinois fall in before we get into real longshot territory. The pricing of conference futures here looks similar to most other conferences like the Big Ten or Pac-12.

The difference is, the Big Ten (103.63) and Pac-12 (109.34) have nearly TEN TIMES the Variance Score of the MAC.

Neither Toledo nor Ohio project to be more than a two-touchdown favorite over any in-conference opponent this season; for the Bobcats, they project not to be favored by more than 10 against any in-conference opponent. Because of that, these two teams expect to play in more one-score games than any other conference favorite.

Close Wins And Regression To The Mean

Chances are, if you posted a really good record in one-score games one year, you’re bound to regress to the expected mean the next year. According to Phil Steele, 67.8% of teams that had two net close wins had the same or weaker record the next year. Of those who had four or five net close wins, 83.2% (!!!) had the same or weaker record the next year. “Net close wins” refers to the gap between close wins and close losses; for example, a 4-1 record in one-score games falls under three net close wins.

Last season, Ohio went 3-0 in one-score games during the regular season and finished 10-4. They also went +12 in the turnover department and finished No. 7 in the “luck” metric, per TeamRankings. Should one or two 50/50 bounces in each game go the opposite way, Ohio could well have finished 5-7 and missed out on the MAC Championship Game and a bowl.

Since MAC teams play in more one-score games than other conferences, due to having the lowest Variance Score in-league, there’s a greater uncertainty of outcome even for their top teams.

Fourth Downs And Wins

Fourth down go-rate is a hot topic in modern football. ESPN’s Bill Connelly did a brilliant article on what he dubs “fourth down profit.” In essence, how many points per game did a team net by successfully converting fourth downs?

In the extreme cases like West Virginia, SMU, Maryland, and Texas Tech, teams were able to swing nearly a touchdown or more by converting fourth downs, on average.

Take, for example, two Mountain West teams: Wyoming and Air Force. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl‘s unwillingness to go for it on fourth down cost the Cowboys 1.4 points per game, on average (second-worst nationally). Conversely, Air Force’s fourth-down success rate earned them 5.7 points per game over their opponent, on average. That’s a 7.1 point swing between the two team’s tendencies.

The Mountain West has a conference Variance Score of 39.28, fifth-least. Air Force projects to play in seven one-score spread games this year and Wyoming, five. With upwards of a potential 7.1-point swing in just fourth down success makes all the difference when considering either Air Force or Wyoming to win the Mountain West.

Applying Variance Score to CFB Conference Odds

Going back to the Pac-12, placing a futures bet on Washington State () to win the conference would be considered a longshot. My numbers project them for just 5.1 regular season wins (RSW) and they sit between 14-20 power points off the top of the Pac-12 (USC, Oregon, Utah, Washington). For the Cougars to win the conference in 2023, they would need to consistently out-perform their projections by 14-20 points. Just four games this season project to be a single-score spread (<7.5 points) and five within 10 points.

Compare that to, say Ball State, who has relatively equal longshot odds to win the MAC this year (). However, the Cardinals sit just 8.4 power points off the conference leader, Toledo, and less than a score off the other leaders like Ohio and Miami. Instead, Ball State could simply benefit from turnover luck once or twice a game and be in the running, only needing to out-perform projections by one touchdown weekly. All eight of Ball State’s MAC games are projected to be a one-score spread.

So, if you’re deciding between two equal longshots to win their conference, which one are you taking? The team that needs to over-perform by almost three scores weekly? Or the one who needs occasional MACtion luck to bounce their way?

Variance Score And Win Totals

The same logic applies to win totals. I project Middle Tennessee to win 6.1 games in 2023 and their win total is . My projection is close to the number on the book, but if I had to make an over/under bet I would confidently choose the under.

Conference USA has the second-lowest Variance Score of any conference (20.42) and Middle Tennessee closed 2022 with a +12 turnover margin. They’re projected to have one-score spreads in seven of their games this year and nine project to be under 10 points. Even a slight regression in turnover luck might swing three of those games away from the Blue Raiders.

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