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Bowl Handicapping Tips
by Scott Spreitzer - 12/29/2008
There used to be an old rule of thumb for college football bowl handicapping that went as follows:
*Take the Underdogs in the early bowl games.
*Take the Favorites New Year's day and later.
The theory was that favorites playing in the earlier games would lack motivation because they received "disappointing" invitations based on their full season goals, but the marquee games would see peak intensity from the favorites, allowing them to play their best games.
This approach worked well for many years, particularly the part about early dogs.
Of late though, several changes have created monkey wrenches:
*The number of bowl games has increased dramatically, which has resulted in several non-deserving teams getting bids. Some early underdogs are so bad that they can't even cover spreads against flat favorites.
*Some lesser bowls have moved to late in the schedule, meaning there are games after January 1st where the favorite could care less about the minor bowl they're playing in.
*Many of the favorites in the marquee bowls are now disappointed that they aren't playing for the national championship. Instead of being excited about a trip to the Fiesta, Orange, or Sugar Bowls, they're just as flat as many of the early favorites used to be. This is one of the biggest strikes against the BCS system. It's turned famous bowl games into non-events in the minds of some college athletes.
We haven't seen a complete turnaround from the old rule of thumb. But we're seeing more early favorite covers, and more late dog covers.
With all of that in mind, here are some tips to follow as you handicap the marquee games coming up in the college bowls.
*Look for spots to go against favorites who are disappointed about not playing in the championship game. I'm not saying they'll all be flat. Some definitely will be based on what we've seen in recent years.
*Look to take teams, as dogs or favorites, who lost their last regular season game. You'll recall last year that Kansas lost its regular season finale to Missouri before rising up to beat Virginia Tech in a bowl game. West Virginia was stunned in its season finale against Pittsburgh but won big as a dog against Oklahoma. Really, in ALL bowl games, a chip on the shoulder is a good thing.
*Be wary of teams who won a very important game the last time out if they're NOT playing for the national championship. In those examples above, Virginia Tech won the ACC championship game before falling to Kansas and Oklahoma won the Big 12 championship game before falling to West Virginia. Teams who just climbed a mountain may lack 100% intensity. That's a really big deal when their opponent brings 100% intensity!
*Look to go against turnover prone teams. Some entries managed to overcome poor execution all season because they played in a weaker conference. That's going to blow up in their face when they step up in class. You saw that will mistake-prone Illinois last year in the Rose Bowl against USC. You have to play clean football in the big games.
*Pay attention to strength of schedule when evaluating a matchup. Hawaii was a pretender last year who had gone undefeated against a very weak schedule. Georgia was from the tough SEC. It was a mismatch at the point of attack and in terms of big game experience. See if you can find some parallels this year in the remaining bowl games.
*Use early bowl results to give you a better sense of how the conferences stack up against each other. ESPN does a good job of posting the won-lost records straight up for all the leagues. Make sure you're looking at pointspread performance too. You'll often find that the champions of overrated conferences don't perform well in their biggest games. They're stepping up in class without realizing how steep the stairway is! On the other end of the spectrum, the public is often caught unaware when a conference takes a big step forward.
*Speaking of the public, remember that the public almost always bets favorites on game day. If you like the favorite in a game, you may have to bet early to make sure you're getting value for you money. If you like an underdog, let the public lift the line before you step in.
I can't go into too much detail about particular games because I have to protect my own selections. I can assure you these are among the key strategies I've used to determine my personal early bets, and they'll play a big role in helping finalize the rest of my bowl wagers.
Personally, I'm looking forward to several of the big games still ahead. Do the work I've outlined, and you will be too!