A common refrain from bettors during the college football bowl season is that success is “all about determining which team is more motivated.” Sure, with teams exceeding expectations or missing expectations and then coaching changes and player opt-outs, finding winners is as easy as identifying the team that has been motivated to practice and prepare for the game and then playing harder when the game starts. Easy!
The problem with this approach is that determining what players and teams are more motivated than another team is easier said than done. In fact, it is quite difficult to assess motivation. Are you watching both teams in practice? Are you inside the dorm rooms logging in the number of hours the players are studying tape in their free time? Are you inside the mind of the players to assess how hard they plan on playing?
Motivation is always important. Handicapping relative distinctions in motivation is commonplace. Yet teams with nothing at stake often shock teams who are motivated to win a game to clinch a playoff or achieve a milestone. It happens all the time. With motivation comes expectations, and with expectations comes pressure. Some teams do not perform well under pressure.
Making the handicapping motivation game even more difficult is that the bettor has to filter their determination in relation to a point spread. What ifs the oddsmakers have already accurately accounted for the motivation distinction between the two teams? If so, then the bettor banking on motivation is venturing into a bad risk.
Texas Tech was supposed to be not motivated to play in the Liberty Bowl on Tuesday. The administration fired head coach Matt Wells last month. New head coach Joey McGuire had yet to take over the program coming over from Baylor. The Red Raiders were on a two-game losing streak playing for an interim head coach in Sonny Cumbie who accepted the job to become the head coach at Louisiana Tech. It could have been easy for the coaching staff and the players to go through the motions facing an SEC team in Mississippi State. Bulldogs head coach was probably working overtime to prepare for the game, as well, since he once coached at Texas Tech for years before he was dismissed for alleged mistreatment of a player who later went to court. Yet, even with all that backstory, Texas Tech upset Mississippi State, 34-7, as a double-digit underdog.
The problem with handicapping based on motivation is that pure guesswork. A bettor would be just as successful flipping a coin than guess what is the mind of the coaches and players. Here are some familiar examples of a bettor guessing at motivation but it can be refuted with a basic counter-hypothesis.
Motivation: "Team X is playing in the near campus which will basically turn into their home stadium. Team X is ecstatic to be back in a bowl game and their fans will show out in massive numbers, providing a major jolt of intensity, and probably the biggest fan advantage of any bowl game this year."
Counter-Motivation: "Team Y's campus is only about an hour farther away than Team X. They would love to pull the upset in Team X's home state, especially as an underdog."
Motivation: "Team X is ecstatic to be in this game and I feel like Team Y are disappointed about how their season ended. Put those motivations in a blender and mix them all up and Team X wins!"
Counter-Motivation: "Team Y closed out their regular season with an upset loss. Their head coach is using this game as a launching pad for next season with a quarterback competition to be played out in the game."
Motivation: "Team X is ecstatic to be playing in this bowl. Team Y doesn’t care about this game at all and is dealing with a substantial number of opt outs. This would be the biggest win of Team X's head coach career and I think his team doesn’t just keep it close, I think they win this game outright. The previous game hangover is real for Team Y, take Team X to cover and win outright if you want to sprinkle some money on the money line."
Counter-Motivation: "Team Y's head coach hates Team X's head coach. He will do everything possible to ensure his team does not get embarrassedopt-outs second time in a row. The opt-outs provide the opportunity for Team Y to employ the 'next-man up' mentality while giving playing time to the talented younger players."
Motivational differences often become clearer with the benefit of hindsight. Given all the intangibles and circumstances involved in a postseason bowl game, banking on handicapping motivation difference in these bowl games is pure guesswork. At least when the oddsmaker guesses, they have the built-in advantage of the vig. If the bettor is guessing, they are probably losing.
Good luck - TDG.