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College football Betting 101: Importance of capping QB changes
By Jason Logan

College football season is creeping closer and closer, and with that NCAAF bettors are beginning to rev their handicapping engines in preparation for Week 1 and beyond.

In order to help you focus your energy on the most important components of college football capping this summer, we’ve asked some of Covers Experts top handicappers to share what they do when preparing for the NCAA pigskin season.

Part I on this Betting 101 series focuses on handicapping teams with new starting quarterbacks – the most important position on the field when it comes to covering the spread and deciding the Over/Under.

Capping college QBs

Swapping out quarterbacks can be the beginning of a long, long season for some teams. Or it can signal the start of something big, like with Florida State and then-freshman Jameis Winston last season.

No one expected the Seminoles’ new QB, taking over for long-time passer and first-round NFL draft pick E.J. Manuel, to lead FSU to the national title as well as become just the second freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. But, here we are, with Winston and Florida State set as a 3/1 favorite to win a second straight NCAA championship.

Much like starting pitchers in baseball, no player in football can make or break your bets like the quarterback, which is why many sharps start their college football prep with those teams undergoing a changing of the guard under center.

There are a few different situations teams can find themselves in when ushering in a fresh-faced No. 1: Standout freshman, promoted backup, transfers, and a bare cupboard.

“Like the NFL, a QB change from one season to the next can be a significant one,” says Covers Expert Art Aronson of AAA Sports. “Is it a freshman taking control of the team for the first time, or is it a transfer?

“However, unlike the NFL, a lot of the time a college team won’t see a big dropoff in production due to the overall ‘system’. My advice is to look at each quarterback change on its own, and not generalize.”

Here’s an example of some teams going through these new QB situations and how bettors should treat them during the early schedule:

Standout freshmen

Top-tier programs recruit the biggest and best from the high school ranks, and following in the footsteps of Winston at FSU and Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M – two freshman Heisman winners – is LSU’s redshirt freshman QB Brandon Harris.

Louisiana State is replacing Zach Mettenberger, who threw for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013. Those are some big shoes to fill, but Harris looks to be the favorite to win the starting job. Reports from Tigers camp have done nothing but praise the dual-threat QB, who could take college’s toughest conference by storm – much like the way Manziel did in the Aggies’ first year in the SEC.

Looking at LSU’s national title odds (20/1) and odds to win the SEC title (6/1), the expectations aren’t as high for the Tigers as they are for other SEC rivals, like Alabama, Georgia or even Auburn. That could open the door for some early value, especially if the market reacts negatively when Harris is named starter.

Promoted backups

Staying within the SEC, the Georgia Bulldogs bid farewell to four-year starter Aaron Murray last season – but not the way they wanted to. Murray suffered a torn ACL in November, just one of the numerous injuries UGA dealt with in 2013.

However, Murray’s injury opened the door for his would-be replacement to get some SEC experience before officially taking over in 2014. Hutson Mason started the final two games of the season, passing for a combined 619 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.

Mason enters this season with a loaded roster behind him, including weapons like WR and Star Wars nerd Chris Conley and RB Todd Gurley. The expectations are high for the Bulldogs, but Mason isn’t your usual promoted backup and should adjust to the No. 1 spot quickly.

Transfers

Cam Newton, who played junior college ball at Blinn College after a brief stint at Florida, transferred to Auburn for the 2010 season and had one of the greatest single seasons in college football history.

Newton earned the Heisman en route to a national title for the Tigers and was selected as the first-overall pick in the NFL Draft. Now, Newton is the extreme case when it comes to transfers. But we’ve also seen graduate QBs – not needing to sit out a year – make an instant impact at their new school, like Russell Wilson’s move from North Carolina State to Wisconsin for the 2011 season.

This year, Alabama is hoping for some transfer magic with former Florida State QB Jacob Coker taking over the Tide for graduated A.J. McCarron, who not only piloted Bama to two national championships, but brought sideline eye candy to every game thanks to girlfriend Katherine Webb.

Who knows if Coker can compete on McCarron’s level when it comes to gal pals but he has quite the buzz growing in Tuscaloosa and tops ESPN’s list of the Top 50 Breakout Player in college football this season. He has more than enough help with Alabama surrounding the 6-foot-5, 230-pound prospect with the best talent in the country.

However, the Crimson Tide are among the most popular teams in college football and garner similar support at the sportsbook, which can inflate Alabama’s lines. Those spreads may be a little too much for Coker as he adjusts to his new targets and life in the SEC.

Bare cupboards

Sometimes a star quarterback’s departure leaves a massive crater in the depth chart that can’t be filled overnight. This happens more often to smaller schools than power-conference members due to recruiting prowess.

Often times, the team’s offense and entire identity are built around those arms, who usually stay for three, four and five years at these outlining schools. Once they go, programs are forced to start from scratch or rebuild their entire playbook. And if there is no proven QB to take over the No. 1 spot, this transition can be devastating.

Central Florida finds itself in this situation with star quarterback and Heisman finalist Blake Bortles jumping to the pros with no reliable replacement for the Knights. Head coach George O’Leary hasn’t shown his hand as to who will be his Week 1 starter, with sophomore Justin Holman as the only QB with any regular season snaps on his resume.

Northern Illinois is another team absorbing a big loss at quarterback with option God Jordan Lynch burning up his eligibility. That leaves second-year head coach Rod Carey with four choices at QB – freshman Landon Root, junior Matt McIntosh, and sophomores Anthony Maddie and Drew Hare.

As the old football adage goes, “If you have three starting QBs you don’t have any,” and NIU’s running game is a bit banged up entering 2014. So whichever passer makes the grade, they could start the season with the bulk of offense on their inexperienced shoulders.