College Football Point Spreads

College Football Betting: The Point Spread

By Loot, NCAA Football Handicapper,

The point-spread is what governs standard football betting. The great majority of college football wagers take place along the lines of the point-spread, where a favored team must win by a certain number of points, while the underdog team can lose by up to a specific number of points–and still be a winning bet.

Also known as the “spread,” the point-spread is a handicap, being that teams are rarely equal. Sometimes you will see a “pick-’em” spread where you must simply pick a winner. The great majority of college football games, however, have a spread with points that you need to account for.

Sometimes, the world of football betting seems intimidating to an outside observer. They hear things like “point-spread” and figure it’s more gambling mumbo-jumbo. It’s actually one of the more simple things to grasp in the world of gambling. Let’s look at an example:

Arkansas (+7) vs. Alabama (-7)

First off, the team with a plus-sign is always the underdog, with the team showing the minus-sign always being the favorite. In addition, in all football match-ups, the home team is always listed last. Alabama, therefore, is a home favorite by 7 points in this game. What does that mean? Look at it like this: Before the game even starts, they’re already down by 7 points.

In other words, Alabama must win by more than 7 points for a bet on them to be considered a winner. Arkansas, conversely is “getting” 7 points. Obviously, if Arkansas won the game outright, that would be a winning bet. But at +7, they can lose the game by up to 7 points and still represent a winning bet. If Alabama wins by exactly 7, all bets are returned. It’s considered a “push.” Let’s look at a point-spread that has a half-point in it, as they often times do:

UCLA (+20.5) vs. USC (-20.5)

When point-spreads fall on a half-point, there must be a winner or a loser. There can be no “pushes.” In the above game, USC is the favorite, hence the minus-sign, with UCLA’s underdog status represented by the plus-sign. USC at -20.5 must win the game by 21 or more points for a wager on them to be a winning bet. UCLA, meanwhile, can either win the game outright or lose by under 21 points for a bet on them to be a winner. See, it’s really not that difficult.


It amounts to a heads-or-tails type wager, a binary bet with only two possible outcomes. But the bookies would go broke really fast if there wasn’t something in it for them, hence the “vigorish.” In most football straight bets like this, one must bet $110 to win $100. There are some books that offer “reduced juice,” and offer lines at -105, where you must only bet $105 in order to win $100.

The bookie is not usually concerned in the outcome of the game. The point-spread is designed to get roughly an equal amount of wagers on both sides. In that event, the bookie is making money off the vigorish, regardless of which team wins. If everyone is betting $110 for every $100 they stand to win, an equal amount of bets on each side stands to earn a profit for the bookie regardless of who wins.

So while the point-spreads are often times very accurate, they are not meant to represent some supreme expression of a game’s probability of outcomes. The point-spread is created to provide equal appeal for potential backers of both sides of the bet. It’s not like some abstract mathematical expression handed down from the heavens. So what does that mean?

You might have a different number in your head. After all, as a bettor, you’re not interested in having an equal amount of money wagered on both sides. You’re just trying to win a bet. And some point-spreads are in fact weak. A lot of things figure into making a point-spread and not all of them are terribly pertinent to deciding the outcome of a game.

Teams like Notre Dame, for example, have a nationwide fan base. Therefore, people bet more on the Fighting Irish. There’s a little bit of hype surrounding them, so bookies need to go a little above and beyond to get people to bet on the opposing side. It’s no wonder why Notre Dame has one of the worst records against the spread in all of college football in recent years.


In point-spreads, the favorite is always represented with a minus-sign, with the underdog having a plus-sign.

If you selected a favorite, you are “giving points.” If you took an underdog, you are “getting points” or “taking points.”