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Handicapping the Bowls

   by Scott Spreitzer - 12/07/2006

Anybody who's handicapped college football for most of their lives knows that underdogs are generally the way to go in bowl games.

They don't cover every game. But they cover more than half the time. Some years they cover A LOT more than half the time.

In fact, last season, underdogs went 15-4 ATS against the game day lines in what are generally conceded to be the top 20 bowl games (there was one pick-em game). There were a couple of games that landed close to the number, so it was possible to lessen the damage a bit if you were a favorite player who could shop for lines or buy points. If you were a dog player, you had no trouble finding numbers that would make you big money.

There used to be a rule of thumb before the BCS process began that said you should take all the dogs in the minor bowls in December, but then take the favorites on New Year's Day and beyond. Teams favored in minor bowls were often disappointed about not playing in a better game, and that lack of intensity cost them. On New Year's Day, the better teams would go all out against each other, and the superior teams would take care of business.

Once the BCS began though, the number of "meaningless" games has actually increased. Only the mythical championship game truly matters. So, it's possible to have conference champions who have trouble getting fired up for marquee matchups in showcase bowls. You saw SEC champion Georgia lose as a favorite last year to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. Combine that with the general increase in competitive balance across the sport in recent years, and you're going to find some great underdog possibilities in every bowl slate.

Why do underdogs offer such value? Several reasons:

*The public always loves betting favorites, which often puts a couple of free points in the mix for dog players.

*The team that's perceived to be superior in a matchup has more trouble getting motivated for an "exhibition" game than the team that's perceived to be inferior.

*The team that's perceived to be inferior is much more likely to install trick plays or come up with creative strategies in a game like this. The superior teams figure they can just win by doing what they always do.

*There's much more competitive balance in college football than the wagering public realizes, and more than the players themselves realize when they play someone from another part of the country.

*Some teams create the illusion of dominance during the regular season by running up the score at home against bad teams. They're not playing a bad team in the bowl game, so they suddenly look mortal on a neutral field.

Here's a listing of some bowl underdogs that not only covered their spreads last year, but won their games outright.

* Nebraska (+10) beat Michigan 32-28 in the Alamo Bowl

* Wisconsin (+10) beat Auburn 24-10 in the Capital One Bowl

* LSU (+7) beat Miami 40-3 in the Chick Fil-A Bowl

* Tulsa (+7) beat Fresno State 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl

* Virginia (+6) beat Minnesota 34-31 in the Music City Bowl

* West Virginia (+6) beat Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl

We're not talking about field goal games going either way. We're talking about teams getting at least six points all winning outright. Of course, you probably remember that Texas (+7) beat USC 41-38 for the national championship. That long held theory of taking the favorites in games that matter most may have gone by the wayside too.

This brings up another point. Playing underdogs on the moneyline makes a lot of sense in college bowl games. In the top 20 bowl games last year, dogs went 10-9 straight up (one pick-em game). If the moneyline isn't paying much of anything, going 10-9 will make you money on the dogs. When a pair of 10-point dogs wins outright, and six teams getting six points or more are winning, the payoffs are huge!

Should you just throw handicapping out the window and bet all the dogs this year? Well, I’m a handicapper, I'm not going to endorse that! I would be surprised if dogs approached 80% success again this year. But, I can tell you that I've begun my hanicapping looking in the direction of underdogs.

I'm looking to go against:

*Favorites who are disappointed about the bowl they're going to.
*Favorites who won their regular season finale, particularly if it was a big game.
*Favorites who have vulnerable defenses.
*Favorites who were inconsistent (or worse) in road games.

I'm looking to take:
*Underdogs with versatile offenses
*Underdogs who lost their regular season finale, particularly if it was a big game.
*Underdogs with at least average (and preferably good) defenses
*Underdogs who covered spreads on the road.

You never know for sure what's going to happen in college football. Maybe the favorites will bounce back strong this year and win some blowouts. I don't think that's likely. I think all of the tendencies that favor underdogs in the big picture will still be in play this year. I'm expecting dogs to cover 50-65% of the time in the next month of bowl action. I strongly advise you to shade your action in that direction.

Be sure you like a favorite for the right reasons if you're going to lay the points. If you already like a dog, think about the moneyline payouts for a straight up victory. History is speaking loud and clear when it comes to bowl games.

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