Now that the real fun begins, here are five things college football bettors must know before placing any money on this winter’s bowl games.
You have to handicap motivation
The biggest difference between handicapping a college football game on a regular Saturday and a bowl game is trying to find a motivational edge. It’s the most important part of handicapping a bowl game because some teams are excited about playing in a bowl game while others wish they were done after the 12th regular season game.
It’s vital to identify the teams whose season-long goal was to make a bowl game and will be excited for the opportunity to extend their season regardless of the circumstances.
To find the motivated teams, I usually try to pick out programs that were expected to win between five and seven games. Those programs probably had a goal before the season to make a bowl game and they are going to take the matchup very seriously.
A program like California is a great example of that. Second-year coach Justin Wilcox got his team to seven wins and is trying to build a team with a strong defensive identity. Making a bowl game and winning it would be huge for the future of the Golden Bears.
I also look at programs that probably aren’t excited about the bowl game they landed in because they had higher aspirations before the season. The team that sticks out to me this bowl season is Auburn, who earned a trip to the Music City Bowl against Purdue.
The Tigers, who planned on being in the College Football Playoff, have no interest in playing in a meaningless bowl game on December 28.
Keep teams like Cal and Auburn in mind as you bet on teams who are happy to be in a bowl and fade the programs that fell short of their preseason goals.
Monitor the coaching situations
It’s the time of the year where coaching searches are in full gear, and several notable programs from around the country have already nabbed a hotshot coach from a Group of 5 school.
Two examples of this are Texas Tech hiring Utah State’s Matt Wells and Louisville naming Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield as their new head coach.
It would be ideal if Wells or Satterfield could stay on with their previous programs and coach them to a bowl victory, but they have to get to work with their new schools due to the early recruiting signing period being later in the month.
This will leave programs like Utah State and Appalachian State with an interim coach for their bowl game. The line in Utah State’s bowl game against North Texas has moved from Utah State as an 11-point favorite down to Utah State -7.5.
The coaching change is likely the main reason for the adjustment.
While I wouldn’t blindly bet against teams like Utah State and Appalachian State, I’d also be cautious to bet on them without their regular coach.
We also have two noteworthy cases of legendary coaches announcing that they will retire after the bowl game. Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer will coach the final games of their careers this bowl season.
The easy narrative to use as you handicap those matchups is to bet on Tech and OSU’s players being focused and motivated as they try to send their coaches out with a ‘W.’ That’s a reasonable thought process, but there are other things to factor in those games before making an official bet…
Don’t overrate players sitting out
The latest bowl game trend is NFL-caliber talent wisely sitting out of non-College Football Playoff bowl games. Plenty of fans and pundits hate it, but it’s hard to blame a player for thinking about their best interest as they plan their future.
The controversy started when LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey both skipped their respective school’s bowl game in a bid to get healthy and prepare for the NFL Draft. Both players ended up being selected within the top ten of the 2017 draft.
How’d their replacements play?
The backup for Fournette was five-star recruit Derrius Guice, who rushed for 138 yards against Louisville in their bowl game, while Bryce Love stepped in for McCaffrey and ultimately ended up becoming the Heisman Trophy runner-up less than a year later.
The lesson is not to overreact and bet against a team just because a player is going to sit out. The drop-off between the starter and backup could be very minimal unless it’s a quarterback.
Don’t be afraid to pick against a conference
Every regular season, there’s a conference that struggles to consistently win football games. Their issues often translate to losses in bowl games, which opens up a prime opportunity to make money.
Last year was a season to forget for the Pac-12.
They had a lackluster regular season and didn’t produce a single College Football Playoff contender. Once bowl season started, the conference ended up with a 1-8 straight-up record, going 2-7 against the spread during the postseason.
Unfortunately for the Pac-12, they had another disappointing season, so be ready to fade the “Conference of Champions.” The ACC is also another candidate that could be on the verge of having a horrible bowl outing.
My strategy will be to see how teams in those conferences perform early in the bowl season. If they fail to win and cover the number, I’ll look to bet against the other programs in the conferences for the remaining bowls.
The point spread usually doesn’t matter in bowl games
A college bowl game is usually a high variance event because it’s basically an exhibition. Motivation, coaching changes and other factors lead to a lot of unexpected results.
Last season, the point spread mattered in only four of the 40 bowl games. This meant the favorite won without covering the spread on only four occasions.
In the other 36 games, the favorite ended up covering along with winning straight-up or the underdog won the game outright. There were 16 instances where the underdog didn’t need the points and won the game on the field.
If you feel strongly about an underdog covering, make sure to put a portion of your bet on the moneyline — it proved to be a profitable strategy last year.