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Jim Feist Thanksgiving Week Handicapping Tips

Turkeys, Turnovers and Upsets!

Jim Feist

Jim Feist

It’s Thanksgiving week, which means the middle of the NFL campaign while winding down the college football regular season.

Late season college football means heated races for conference titles and bowl berths, plus rivalries that span decades. These games can have far more importance for players than September/October clashes. Oklahoma/Ok-State, USC/UCLA, Florida/Florida State, Georgia/Georgia Tech and Auburn/Alabama bring out extra intensity and emotion.


We all recall Alabama celebrating a championship last season, but you might not remember that they had to battle rival Auburn to stay unbeaten and barely won, 26-21, as 10-point chalk. Then they upset rival Florida for a chance to advance to the national title game.

Remember all the upsets late in 2007? Pitt got fired up to play West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl and won as a +28 dog, while Missouri knocked off unbeaten Kansas. Five years ago unbeaten Texas was a 27-point favorite at rival Texas A&M. The Aggies had one of the worst defenses in the nation, but A&M played an inspired game, leading in the third quarter and down just 34-29 going into the fourth. The maligned Aggie defense played well and A&M finished with an edge in yards over No. 2 Texas, 398-336.

Athletes might not always admit it, but playing on national television can help raise their games a notch, such as Thanksgiving week and conference title tilts in December. There have been many memorable upsets, too. One holiday season there were 12 college and pro football games played Thursday and Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, and the underdog was 11-1 against the spread. Five dogs won straight up, including Colorado as a 10-point dog smashing Nebraska 62-36, the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.

2007 might be remembered as the Year of Upsets in college football: Michigan losing to Appalachian State, Louisville losing to Syracuse, No. 1 LSU losing in three overtimes to Kentucky, USC losing to Stanford as 42-point chalk and No. 1 Ohio State losing at home as a 15-point favorite to Illinois all shocked and muddled the BCS picture. Here is a list of the biggest college football upsets of all time:

2007 Stanford (+42) tops USC, 24-23
2007 Syracuse (+39) at Louisville, 38-35
1985 Oregon State (+36) tops Washington, 21-20
1985 UTEP (+36) over BYU, 23-16
1998 Temple (+35½) beats Virginia Tech, 28-24
2007 Appalachian St (+35) at Michigan, 34-32
1972 Missouri (+35) beat Notre Dame, 30-26
1974 Purdue (+34) at Notre Dame, 31-20
1992 Iowa State (+29) over Nebraska, 19-10
1969 San Jose State (+29) at Oregon, 36-34
1995 Northwestern (+28) over Notre Dame, 17-15
2007 Pitt (+28) tops West Virginia, 13-9
1942 Holy Cross (+28) beats Boston College, 55-12

2007 was a historic year, nearly monopolizing the list, with four of the biggest upsets ever, including the top two. One thing that stands out is the number of “public teams” like Notre Dame, Nebraska and Michigan that got upset. This is an example of how oddsmakers have to add points to public teams, as well as how smaller schools can get fired up to face big-name schools, such as Toledo winning at Michigan this season.

It doesn’t always help to be one of the top teams in the polls as opponents can be gunning for you. Everyone is familiar with No. 1 Ohio State going down in 2007 as Illinois surprised them, 28-21. Few recall that a year earlier Ohio State was also No. 1 in the nation and as a 25-point favorite at Illinois, the Buckeyes had to hang on for dear life in a 17-10 win. The Illini was gunning for No. 1 for a signature win.

In a sense, it was Illinois’ bowl game in 2006 with their season winding down, so they played all out. That same day, No. 2 Michigan had to hold on as a 32-point favorite against Ball State, a 34-26 win, two games that nearly disrupted their No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Not only can the opponent be fired up, but the big favorite might not be taking the game seriously. After the Ball State game, Michigan quarterback Chad Henne said, “I think that is a lot of the reason why we weren’t focused. Coming into the game, people were reading too many press clippings.”

Three years ago Boston College got to No. 2 in the polls at one point, their highest ranking since 1942. You’ll notice on the upset list above that the BC Eagles are on there.  In late November of ’42, BC was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation, closing in on the school’s first national championship. In the final tune-up before the bowls, BC played a 4-4-1 Holy Cross team and was a 4-TD favorite.

Yet, it was a rivalry game and fired-up Holy Cross flattened the No. 1 ranked Eagles 55-12 in one of the biggest upsets ever. Pitt did something similar three years ago when they stunned rival West Virginia, 13-9. Those are good example of how rivalries can force bettors to discount point spreads, or take a closer look at the dog, not to mention high-profile games this time of the year.

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