NCAA LogoAn understanding of the NCAA football lines and odds put up by sportsbooks is key to success in college football betting. This is true for every sport, of course – reading the numbers used by bookmakers to offer wagers means interpreting the lines and odds in the context of the sport itself.

Taking a look at a bookmaker’s odds without being familiar with how they’re presented and how to interpret them, they look like little more than random numbers and letters.

The two basic forms of NCAA lines and odds are covered in detail below. Understanding these two forms of representation is important before a bettor looks at a list of a bookmaker’s options.

Point Spread Basics

The point spread is one of the most-used methods of presenting a college football game’s outcome. “The spread,” as it is known, is a number used to separate a likely winner from a likely loser. Because each spread indicates a favorite and an underdog, it is used to place a bet on either team and gives each side a more or less equal payout.

Put simply, a wager on the team favored by the point spread will cost more to win (a smaller amount) than a wager placed on a winning underdog. The philosophy behind a point spread is simple – it is intended to attract business from both sides of a contest. This equality among wagers presented by a bookmaker ensures their profits.

Point Spread Example

UCLA -3.5
Arizona State +3.5

In this example, bettors learn a lot about a game from just a few symbols. We learn that Arizona State is both the home team and the underdog – underdog status is indicated in point spreads with a “+“ symbol. We know ASU is the home team because it appears beneath UCLA.

We can also see exactly what it will take for a wager on each side to win. A successful wager on UCLA requires that the team win, but also that it win by 4 points or more, indicated by the number (the point spread) next to their name. A successful wager on Arizona State requires that the Wildcats win outright or lose by fewer than 4 points.

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Moneyline Basics

Moneyline-based wagers are not nearly as common as point spreads in the world of NCAAF wagering. Since they do exist, it’s important for bettors to learn how they work. Like the point spread, a moneyline is shown using a symbol and a number for both teams in a given contest. The trick is to understand how moneyline wagers differ from point spreads, though they use similar symbols to represent the wager.

Moneyline Example

Texas Tech -120
Oklahoma State +130

Unlike the point spread layout, a moneyline uses a “+” symbol to indicate a favorite, and a “-“ to indicate an underdog. The number shown next to the = or – symbol tells bettors the payout and cost of both wagers. In the example above, Oklahoma State is favored over visiting Texas Tech. Bettors who wager on Tech will win a $120 payout for a $100 investment. On the opposite side, in order to win $100, bettors that take the Cowboys will have to wager $130.

The moneyline is a simplified system for indicating favorites and underdogs as well as the financial cost of all wagers. The numbers chosen use increments of ten in order to improve the ease of bet-scaling.

Line Movement

Remember that all odds representations are a crap-shoot, even for the pro handicappers working for bookmakers. The educated guesses produced by the bookmakers’ staff can only hint at the actual likely outcome of a given NCAAF game. Because the initial odds shown for a contest are highly subject to change, it’s important for college football bettors to know why this change happens and how it can affect their outcomes.

The gambling public changes its mind quite often, depending on the sport in question, and the action of sports bettors is likely the single biggest factor in line movement for all sports. Yes, the bookmakers understand how the betting public think, but even these predictions are difficult. As the betting public lays money on one side more than another, sportsbooks will move the line to attract bets on the other side. It is a kind of balancing act.

Pretend, for example, that this year’s CFP finds Florida State facing Alabama for the national title, and the early line has the Seminoles as a 6-point favorite. Then comes the flood of Alabama and SEC-fan wagers, which for the sake of this argument heavily favor the Crimson Tide. This large volume of wagers on one side throws off the balance for the book in question, so they change the spread a little more in favor of Florida State in order to drive up wagers on that side and balance their books.

This is just one example of why a line can move; the reason for the motion doesn’t matter. For NCAAF betting fans, the trick is to know how to wager based on this motion. For example, a wager on a clear favorite makes more sense early in the week, before the lines have moved to encourage action from the other side.