POWER RATINGS: The Key to Handicapping Success


So you’re handicapping this week’s big X University game at Y-State, huh? Looks like the current Vegas line is XU – 8.5. So you start looking on the Internet, reading the newspapers and tout journals, calling every free pick line you can find (after all, it is the LOCK of the year!), etc. In all your research, you find that XU has covered 6 of 8 as greater than a touchdown favorite on the road, that Y-State is 1-4 ATS at home this year, XU has won the last four games in this series by an average of 24.1 points (they haven’t played in six years, but who cares?), and that no school whose name begins with ‘Y’ has beaten an ‘X’ team in the last 27 years! Sounds like the game of the year to me…It’s a gimme!

…Final Score: YSU 20, XU 17.

“What went wrong?” you wonder to yourself Sunday morning as you look over your largely depleted bankroll. “How could all that information prove so worthless?” In all your research, all of your poring over trends and systems, you forgot to ask yourself one simple question: WHICH TEAM IS BETTER?

Don’t feel bad – we all get caught in the trend trap every once in a while. However, the best gamblers know that accurate handicapping begins with power ratings. What are power ratings? Simply put, power ratings are numbers that compare the strength of teams relative to one another. In other words, who’s better, and by how much. Please note the difference between the words ‘rating’ and ‘ranking’. A ‘ranking’ is only concerned with who’s better. A ‘rating’ on the other hand, considers not only who is better, but how much better are they?

There are many different rating systems out there, the most popular (but not necessarily the most accurate) are the Sagarin Ratings, published fairly regularly in USA Today. It seems there are as many rating systems out there as there are handicappers. It’s not important which rating system(s) you use when you start handicapping a game, as long as the system has proved to be somewhat accurate in the past.


You should be looking at a teams rating, their previous strength of schedule (if available), and their opponent’s rating. Some of the rating systems are designed such that subtracting the underdog’s rating from the favorite’s rating should give you a starting pointspread, but some are not set up to be used in this manner. I generally stick with those systems where I can derive at least a rough estimate of the projected pointspread (i.e. Sagarin’s Ratings).

I start my handicapping by writing down my projected pointspread for every game on the board. (I know this seems like a lot of work – and it is – but if you only handicap a few games, there is a good chance that you will miss an opportunity to jump on a favorable line.) I then take my projected pointspreads and compare them to the Vegas lines. I am looking for a difference of 5 or more (in football anyway) between these two numbers. I cross out all the games where my line is within 5 of the Vegas line, and I generally won’t bet them no matter what other information is out there. This process generally leaves me with a fairly manageable number of games to look at.

OK – so then I look at the trends, right? Not yet. Then I go to team statistics and compare one team’s strengths with the other team’s weaknesses and vice-versa (for example, I won’t bet on a football team that makes its living on the ground game playing against a team with a top-rated run defense – fairly simple logic). I pore over these numbers for a long time.

Now, on to the trends and systems, huh? Nope, there’s still injury reports to look at, weather forecasts to check out, and so on. By examining all the details, I usually end up eliminating game after game from my “hit” list. By the time all is said and done, I may only end up with five or six games per weekend, BUT, I always feel good about my picks, knowing that I have done my homework and played only those games with favorable lines. After all, that’s how you win.

OK – if you’ve suffered through all this, you are free to examine all the trends, systems, and angles you wish. At this point, though you shouldn’t be adding any games to your list. If there are some powerful, relevant trends against the selections you have already made, cross them out. Remember, accurate handicapping starts with one question: which team is better, and how much better are they?


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