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BTI’s Rants and Ramblings: Are Rivalry Games Actually Tough to Predict?

You hear the argument all the time.  That anything can happen in a rivalry game.  That rivalry games are impossible to predict because emotions are so high, and underdogs are always dangerous in these type of games.  I have certainly heard that argument a bunch from UK fans after I continue to say UK will roll by 14-20 points on Saturday.  But, just to see how accurate that rivalry game unpredictability is, I did a little research.  I took 10 of the most heated rivalries, covering every major conference and a non-BCS rivalry, and looked back to how often the favorite won the game, and how often the favorite covered the spread:

KENTUCKY-LOUISVILLE
2009: Kentucky -13 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2008: Louisville -3 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2007: Louisville -5 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)

2006: Louisville -22 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2005: Louisville -23 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)

MICHIGAN-OHIO STATE
2009: Ohio State -11 (Favorite WON, Favorite PUSHED)
2008: Ohio State -20 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: Ohio State -4 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2006: Ohio State -6 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2005: Ohio State -3 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

USC-UCLA
2009: USC -13 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2008: USC -33 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2007: USC -19 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2006: USC -11 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2005: USC -21 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

ALABAMA-AUBURN
2009: Alabama -10 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2008: Alabama -14 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: Auburn -4 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2006: Aubunr -3 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2005: Aubunr -7 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

OKLAHOMA-TEXAS
2009: Texas -3 (Favorite WON, Favorite PUSHED)
2008: Oklahoma -6 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2007: Oklahoma -12 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2006: Texas -3 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2005: Texas -14 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

PITTSBURGH-WEST VIRGINIA
2009: Even Spread
2008: West Virginia -3 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2007: West Virginia -29 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)

2006: West Virginia -10 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2005: West Virginia -14 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

FLORIDA-GEORGIA
2009: Florida -14 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2008: Florida -6 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: Florida -7 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2006: Florida -13 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2005: Florida -4 (Favorite WON, Favorite PUSHED)

BYU-UTAH
2009: BYU -7 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2008: Utah -7 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: BYU -4 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2006: BYU -10 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2005: BYU -10 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)

CLEMSON-SOUTH CAROLINA
2009: Clemson -3 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2008: Clemson -1 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: Clemson -3 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2006: Clemson -5 (Favorite LOST, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2005: Clemson-3 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)

USC-NOTRE DAME
2009: USC -10 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)
2008: USC -32 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2007: USC -17 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2006: USC -8 (Favorite WON, Favorite COVERED)
2005: USC -12 (Favorite WON, Favorite DID NOT COVER)

Out of the 49 games with a spread, only 10 times did the underdog win the game.  That is a total of 20.4% of those games the underdog won outright.  Now you might ask how that compares to all games played.  Well, I found this article which analyzed all college football games since 1996, and the writer found that the underdog won 24.7% of the time outright.  That means the underdog actually wins LESS in the rivalry games than overall in college football.   

Point is that for fans, a rivalry game does bring more passion and emotion.  We get so worked up over our rival that we expect/assume that the players are the same way.  And maybe the players will say that before the game.  But once the helmet and pads are put on, and you are lined up against somebody, the mental side of the game is (hopefully) the same for Louisville as it is for Akron as it is for Vanderbilt.  The guys hopefully are giving 100% no matter who they play, so the pregame emotion is far more overblown by FANS than it is the players. 

And as the stats show above, weird things don’t happen more in rivalry games.  If anything, they happen less. 

By the way, against the spread, the favorite went 24-22-3.  So Vegas still beats us all.

Article written by Bryan the Intern