Determining college football’s true home-field advantage

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Steve Makinen is our main numbers guy here at VSiN, and his weekly best bets are a “greatest hits” compilation of system matches, betting trends analysis, and his proprietary power ratings, which can only be found right here at VSiN.com. Follow up with Steve’s weekly content, which is linked in the explanations for his picks.

 

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I get as many requests from readers to update this article as anything else I do each year. And I know why. One of the most important and debated factors in handicapping college (and pro) football games is in determining how much weight to be given to home-field advantage. The numbers have varied greatly in recent years, what with empty or partially filled stadiums because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that we’ve had a few years in the “return to normal,” has anything changed? In my opinion, there’s never a bad time to revisit the subject of home-field advantage, and specifically, what it is worth from a quantitative perspective.

A few of the things I set out to find when breaking down my data over the last 3-1/2 seasons in college football were 1) Has home field advantage picked up since COVID stopped wreaking havoc on football? 2) Have oddsmakers adjusted appropriately for any changes? 3) Have any specific teams at the various levels of football set themselves apart in terms of home field performance.  

In my own history of oddsmaking, and since in doing the strength ratings for VSiN, I have always found that one of the most important factors in analyzing teams’ strengths in football, or any other sport for that matter, is determining how much home-field advantage to assign.

I remember many years ago always hearing that “3 points” should be the typical HFA. I also know that there are handicappers that do it from a general sense, issuing a standard 2-3 points depending upon how much they value that particular factor. Others, such as myself, develop team-specific home field edges, assuming that there are naturally tougher environments than others across the football landscape. For that latter group, I am here to help in your quest to determine which teams deserve the most home-field advantage points in college football.

Let’s face it, we almost have to do the team-specific method as bettors because there are many reasons why certain teams have a more definitive home-field advantage than others. Among these are weather, field surface as it fits the roster, crowd capacity/enthusiasm, confidence level of a team, and perhaps even distractions available to a visiting team while there. The degree to which these factor into play can also waver from season to season based on how a team is faring. I am 100% positive that there is no way that every team’s advantage is the same. Judging home field edges as equal across the board can lead to mistakes and either missed or lost betting opportunities. I am also 100% sure you will be convinced after I share my quantified performance results.

To determine which teams hold the best true home-field advantage in college football, I have taken the teams’ game logs at home since the start of the 2020 season, or essentially the last 3-1/2 seasons. I compared their average power rating in those games to their opponents’ average power rating, using my actual logged numbers during that span for every game. This margin would be considered the amount they should have won or lost by when meeting on a neutral field or the expected margin. I then compared this amount to the actual point differential that the team accumulated in those games. Obviously, the teams that had a greater actual differential than expected differential played the “best” at home. For college teams, the margins went as high as +10.7 for Louisville out of the ACC to -5.0 for Akron of the MAC.

Of course, no one would ever assign a home-field edge of 10.7 points to Louisville, as that would be a stretch. However, the Cardinals are worthy of your betting consideration when oddsmakers don’t give them the respect they perhaps deserve when playing as hosts. Just this year, they are 4-0 SU and ATS at home, and I have tailed them at least twice with my Best Bets this season in that spot.

The next home game for Louisville is Saturday, November 4, vs. Virginia Tech, and my power ratings are indicating that oddsmakers have not assigned enough edge to head coach Brian Brohm’s team. Alternatively, there is no way that those setting the lines could penalize Akron when it plays at home, but to give them the full credit of 3 or more points would also be too much. That said, Akron did come up with a home win and cover earlier this week in MAC-tion versus a downtrodden Kent State team.

In general, I believe most bookmakers will assign an average of about 3.0 points in a college football game to a home team. In this study, I found that the true college football number is closer to 2.2 for the last 3-1/2 seasons, with that number trending back upward towards 2.5 for a second straight season. In fact, at this point, I have adjusted all of my college home field ratings, and they average 2.5 points. This number takes into account the fan-less 2020 season.

One important thing to note, I don’t specifically assign the home field ratings in accordance with the order of the True Home Field Rating, as I also give strong consideration to the straight-up and ATS records, as well as the perceived difficulty of playing at a particular stadium. In recent years of this study, I have found that single games where a team won or lost big have tended to falsely impact the overall ratings. That said, new for 2023, I have removed the best and worst point spread losses for every team during the 3-1/2 year span from the calculations. These results are still noted in the SU and ATS records, but they didn’t factor into the formulas.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the other highlights I have found from my college home field advantage study, then stay tuned next week as I do the same exercise for road field performance.

College Football Home Field Advantage Study Highlights

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Steve Makinen
As one of the original founders of StatFox, Steve Makinen has been in the business of sports betting and data analysis for almost 25 years now. In his time in the industry, Steve has worked in a variety of capacities on both sides of the betting counter, from his early days of developing the StatFox business, to almost a decade of oddsmaking consulting for one of the world's leading sportsbooks, to his last seven years as Point Spread Weekly and Analytics Director with VSiN. Steve has always believed that number crunching and handicapping through foundational trends and systems is the secret to success and he shares this data with VSiN readers on a daily basis for all of the major sports.