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Thoughts on the 'Look-ahead'

The role of the upcoming opponent in a handicapper's mix of components to consider

by Chuck Sippl |  Published: Oct 18, 2005


There are differing thoughts in professional handicapping circles regarding the phenomenon known as the "look-ahead" concept. Some handicappers make a team's upcoming opponent a prime component of their handicapping mix. I believe the look-ahead idea is neither as prevalent nor as important a factor as many bettors think.

In the first place, it is dangerous for sports bettors to impose their own psychological imperatives or priorities on football teams. Coaches and players have their own agendas and priorities that might not be exactly in tune with yours. Second, the personality of most football coaches includes a significant dose of insecurity (sometimes paranoia), because the performance of their teams is subject to constant scrutiny and criticism. They tremble at the thought of blowing any game in which their team is considered a big favorite. And third, on teams with high-quality depth, the backups relish their extra opportunities to perform, and they go all-out to impress coaches, family, and friends.

Also, just because a team doesn't play well prior to a big game doesn't necessarily mean it was looking past that particular opponent. That notion is often a post-result rationalization floated by bettors for wagers that didn't work out. Sometimes that foe might be stronger than you give it credit for being. And a team can be distracted for reasons of which you might not be aware, such as illness, a player fight in practice, an internal investigation of eligibility or rules violations, or discipline by coaches that players believe is unfair. I could go on and on. In my mind, too many handicappers are eager to jump to simplistic conclusions in explaining a weak performance by a team in the contest prior to a key game.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the look-ahead factor does not exist. I'm just saying that the concept is usually neither so dominating nor as widespread as many people think. Let's take last year's game between powerful Texas and North Texas of the low-echelon Sun Belt Conference as an example. The contest was the season opener for both teams. Many handicappers thought there might be a significant look-ahead factor involved on the Texas side that might help underdog North Texas, which was getting 26 points and was returning a very experienced offense, including a senior quarterback and the national rushing champ from its 2003 team that went 9-4. Texas had a huge game coming up the following week at Arkansas, which had pulled an upset the year before in Austin, beating the Longhorns 38-28 as a two-touchdown underdog, and then rubbing it in during their post-game celebration.

According to the logic of handicappers who emphasize the look-ahead angle, Texas had every reason to hold back plenty against North Texas, staying "vanilla" on offense and holding out any players with minor injuries for the trip the ensuing week to rowdy Fayetteville.

Things didn't turn out that way, as Texas beat North Texas 65-0, leading 44-0 at the half and nearly covering the entire 26-point spread with a 24-0 first quarter. So much for the look-ahead. By the way, Arkansas, laying 20.5 points that week to its own outclassed foe of New Mexico State, won 63-13.

Here are a few of my thoughts concerning the value of the look-ahead in handicapping:

The look-ahead angle is very rarely substantial enough to be considered as the primary reason for a substantial wager on a game. The look-ahead concept is usually a bad angle to count on in season openers when just about all players are fired up for "real" action after long training camp grinds. Underdogs are far less likely to look ahead to an upcoming game than favorites (if you look past a superior opponent, you have very little chance to win), unless the underdog is so badly outclassed that it virtually concedes the blowout, holding out some key players in order to have a better opportunity to get a win the next week against a weak foe.

However, as I wrote earlier, there are a few times when the look-ahead should be considered among other handicapping factors. Always remember that coaches set the tone. When they devote the majority of their practice to preparing for the ensuing opponent rather than the upcoming opponent, their players can get the idea that they can beat the upcoming opponent without a top effort. This generally is not a good idea for players to get in a violent, collision sport such as football. When coaches tell backups to be ready for early action and tell starters they'll play only part of a game, they run the risk of sending a dangerous message that passes throughout the team. When coaches hold out important players who are healthy, opponents very often will interpret such a move as arrogance and will play all the harder.

Lastly, in the NFL, many teams have developed a personality in which they have extra focus on divisional games, not merely because those games end up being important in the season-ending tiebreaker system, but because players' grudges and revenge motives tend to build up during repeated meetings over the years. However, keep in mind that such extra focus on divisional games is often reflected more frequently in the game after facing a division rival than before. There are numerous publications containing NFL pointspread logs in which you can investigate such tendencies to your heart's content.

Chuck Sippl is the senior editor of The Gold Sheet, the first word in sports handicapping for 49 years. The amazingly compact Gold Sheet features analysis of every football and basketball game, exclusive insider reports, widely followed Power Ratings, and a Special Ticker of key injuries and team chemistry. If you haven't seen The Gold Sheet and would like to peruse a complimentary copy, just call The Gold Sheet at (800) 798-GOLD (4653), and be sure to mention you read about it in Card Player. You can look up The Gold Sheet on the web at