Last year, I wrote an article detailing the five things bettors need to know before betting on bowl games. All five concepts still apply to this season’s bowl games, so here’s a review — with relevant examples from this season’s action included.
1. You have to handicap motivation
The most important part of betting on bowl games is trying to find the motivational edge for a team. Some teams are happy to be playing in a bowl game because it was their preseason goal to play in one. Other teams were hoping to play in a more prestigious bowl — or the College Football Playoff — and could be worth a fade.
A team I expect to be motivated is Louisville. They bounced back from a disastrous 2018 campaign by recording seven wins under new coach Scott Satterfield. Getting over six wins was a huge accomplishment, and I can see them having a strong effort against Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl.
Two programs that might not be motivated are Utah and Georgia. Both teams lost in their conference title games, and both teams now know a win would’ve likely got them in the College Football Playoff. Last season we saw Michigan and Georgia falter in bowl games after they lost control of their Playoff fate late in the season. So this year, I’m going to look at fading Utah against Texas in the Alamo Bowl, and Georgia against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama is another program that might be close to phoning it in, as they have a Citrus Bowl date with Michigan on New Year’s Day. The Crimson Tide have participated in the previous five Playoffs, and they would’ve been in this season’s conversation if they beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl. I question how much Alabama will care about this game, and Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh would love a bowl win to give him positive momentum going into the offseason.
2. Monitor the coaching carousel
There have already been multiple coaching changes throughout college football with several Group of Five coaches receiving promotions to Power Five schools, which means they won’t be coaching in their previous school’s bowl game.
FAU will be without Lane Kiffin, who departed for Ole Miss, while Appalachian State lost first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz to Missouri.
The most notable move so far has been Florida State hiring Memphis’ Mike Norvell. Memphis is the Group of Five’s representative in the New Year’s Six, but Norvell won’t be there when the Tigers play Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.
Another coaching situation of note is the soon-to-be change at Washington, where Chris Petersen recently announced that he’s stepping down — although he’ll still coach the Huskies in the Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State. Washington DC Jimmy Lake has already been named the coach in waiting, so I wouldn’t expect a drop in the Huskies’ play with their next head coach already on staff. If anything, there will be extra motivation for the Washington players to play well and win for Petersen in his last game.
3. Don’t overrate players sitting out
Players choosing to sit out bowl games to eliminate health risks and prepare for the NFL Draft has been college football’s latest trend.
But when it comes to handicapping bowl games, evaluate player absences on a case-by-case basis. That’s because the difference between a starter and backup might not warrant a big line move, and you could find value betting on the team.
The exception is when it comes to quarterbacks. When West Virginia QB Will Grier skipped last year’s Camping World Bowl against Syracuse, the line ended up moving 10 points from West Virginia -7 to Syracuse -3. ‘Cuse went on to win that game 34-18, so stay away from teams that are missing their starting signal-caller.
4. Don’t be afraid to pick against a conference
The strategy here is to watch how teams in different 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.
Last year, Pac-12 teams were 3-4 in bowl games and 1-6 against the spread. MAC programs were 1-5 straight-up and 2-4 against the spread, while members of the AAC were 2-5 in the W-L column and 1-6 against the spread.
You can also look to back teams if their conference starts off well. The Big 12 was 4-3 outright in bowl games and 6-1 against the spread last season.
5. The point spread usually doesn’t matter in bowl games
Last season there were 39 bowl games that were completed, including the three College Football Playoff games. The First Responder Bowl between Boston College and Boise State was called early due to weather.
In those 39 games, the point spread only mattered five times. This means the favorite won and covered or the underdog won outright in 34 of the games. There were 16 instances where the underdog won straight-up.
This isn’t just a small sample size, as the spread didn’t matter in 36 of the 40 bowl games in 2017-18.
The lesson here is that bowl games are high variance, and if you like an underdog to cover, make sure to bet a portion on the moneyline for a larger payout.