by Jim Feist
An area of college football handicapping dynamics that's important to understand early in the season is depth. This doesn't refer to how many star players a team has, but whether a team is stocked or thin with above-average players at a lot of positions. Large schools with a long tradition of winning football are usually heavy with depth.
Notre Dame took on a retooling Texas team in Week 1 and flogged the Longhorns from start to finish. Notre Dame even lost running back Tarean Folston, its top returning rusher from last season. He tore the ACL in his right knee in a 38-3 victory. The Irish still had 527 yards, including 214 rushing. Folston's injury makes C.J. Prosise the Irish's No. 1 running back and creates playing time for freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Now they have to replace their starting QB, who was injured in Week 2, now done for the year.
The lists of team that have excellent depth would include Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Alabama and defending national champion Ohio State. For the most part, these teams have little trouble recruiting a lot of talent and have athletic budgets and scholarships that allow them to stock their teams with depth.
This gives them an edge when players get hurt and they have a quality reserve to plug in. If a smaller school that likes to run the football has two talented offensive linemen that get hurt, limited depth could severely alter their offensive production. This is something to keep in mind over the next month, because each September some lesser known schools may deceive with strong starts.
A year ago Ohio State overcame injuries to quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett on the way to winning last year's national championship. And who started the opener against Virginia Tech this season? Cardelle Jones, last year’s No. 3 starter, the same kid who went 3-0 SU/ATS to end last season for the Buckeyes. The team the Buckeyes beat in the opener, Virginia Tech, lost starting QB Mike Brewer, who played well against the champs before getting hurt. After breaking his collarbone in a 42-24 loss to No. 1 Ohio State, Brewer will miss four to eight weeks. He was replaced by Brenden Motley, a mobile quarterback who isn't nearly as polished a passer as Brewer.
Most schools don’t have the gridiron tradition to attract lots of talent, hence they often lack depth. In recent years, these schools would include Duke, Indiana, Syracuse and Memphis, along with schools from conferences like the MAC and Conference USA. What can happen is that in September small schools can give the appearance of being competitive, but as October and November roll around, they can begin to play much worse, straight up and against the spread.
Keep this in mind over the next few months if you think a team may be overrated. It could be that they are playing above their heads because everyone is healthy in September. But football is such a violent, physical game, players get banged up with injuries and either miss playing time or are not 100%. Schools lacking depth are at a big disadvantage as the talent level on the bench drops when compared to big-name schools. They can't plug in equally effective players as the starters get banged up.
BYU opened the season with a rousing comeback at Nebraska, winning with a backup quarterback. Freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum replaced Taysom Hill and threw a 42-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Mitch Mathews as time expired to give the Cougars a 33-28 victory at Nebraska. Mangum isn't a typical freshman. He graduated from high school in 2012 and returned three months ago from a Mormon mission in Chile, so he’s already 22 years old.
Pitt has already had to deal with the loss to star RB James Conner, the reigning ACC player of the year, done for the season. The Panthers will have a difficult task trying to replace Conner, who rushed for 1,765 yards and set an ACC record with 26 rushing touchdowns last season.
Clemson lost its top receiver from last season in Kevin Williams who sustained a small fracture in his neck. in a 49-10 rout of Wofford. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Williams “might not be able to play the rest of this year.” Williams' injury has forced Germone Hopper to inherit a starting role.
Depth has been a problem for Iowa State of the Big 12 the last two years. The Cyclones have been two a pair of bowls under Paul Rhodes, but the last two years injuries have decimated the defense and they haven’t had the replacements on the depth charts. But early in the season, Iowa State has played its best football, including an upset of rival Iowa last year and three of the last four.
A few years ago I recall Kansas lost 27-16 at Colorado as a 25-point dog and then pulled a 34-31 upset at Texas Tech as a +13 road dog. Oddsmakers adjusted, assuming Kansas was better than expected, as the Jayhawks hit a tough October/November stretch that included games against Oklahoma, K-State, Nebraska and Texas. Kansas went 1-6 ATS to end that season. The lack of depth was evident as Kansas lost three straight by scores of 51-7, 59-0 and 49-7.
This is why injury reports are so important for analyzing and handicapping games. If a famous football school loses several players to injuries, they may have the depth to plug in and not miss a beat. However, it's not uncommon to see overvalued small schools with less depth go on a straight up and spread slide after a good start to the season.