Betting on college football bowl games might be the single most unique experience in the sports betting world, especially if we are only talking about the major sports. Bowl games have a ton of added angles and interesting talking points that are very hard to specifically quantify, making the betting experience anything but cut and dry.
Understanding the ins and outs of these different angles and what to watch out for is key when handicapping these games.
Who Are We Betting On?
One of the hardest things to figure out when evaluating these games is just how similar these teams will be to the teams that we saw on Saturdays for most of the year. There are not a ton of games a year that we see outside of bowl games that don’t have to deal with coaching drama, players sitting out due to transferring or entering the NFL draft.
Even when we see teams make it to the game relatively unscathed, you never know if the team is coming to the bowl game for a fun vacation or to end its season with an exclamation point.
While you cannot ever try to give these motivation tactics a true value, you still have to consider them and make your best guess, because they will have an impact on the outcome of the game.
Understanding the motivation is really tough, and so is just trying to find injury information from a lot of teams that have no reason not to keep things under wraps until game time rolls around.
As declaring for the draft and skipping the bowl game has become more popular, I have noticed that more players are going out of their way to announce whether or not they will play well before the game comes around, but there are still plenty of players that are question marks all the way up until game time.
If you want to try and take advantage of news of players sitting out when bowls get announced, I suggest looking out for good lines that you already like against teams with more top-end talents, particularly at QB. The number of these situations varies every season, but there are typically a few lines every year that really end up moving significantly by the time the game starts due to injured or sitting players.
You don’t want to just guess completely and blindly bet against teams with players likely to sit, but you should be aggressive on the other side of those lines if you like them under the assumption that both teams are fully healthy.
After the opening line, staying up to date and keyed into beat reporters and teams as much as you can could really give you a lot of value if you want to really key in on an injury situation. For example, if you think that Auburn’s QB might sit out and you think the line will move five points if that is the case, set up an alert for a prominent Auburn beat reporter and jump on that news before the bookmakers reset the line or shut it down.
There are always storylines surrounding teams heading into the bowl games, but that doesn’t mean that they are always correct. The best thing that you can possibly do to identify potential motivation is just look into interviews and quotes to make sure that they are saying all of the right things.
There are plenty of times where you can tell that a team may be more happy to be there than excited to compete one final time.
A few things that I look out for is coaching storylines, preseason expectations, recent play and team morale. Coaching storylines are generally the most overrated for me when it comes to coaches leaving unless they have a play-caller that is no longer with the program, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Coaches that stick around after landing a bigger job don’t usually slip at all, and if they do, there will be a lot of rumblings about their focus before the game even starts.
Preseason expectations and current team morale are huge when evaluating motivation because it generally tells us what we can at least assume. Some programs have aspirations to get to a bowl game; others want to win one; some want to be over .500, and others want a 10-win season.
All of these things matter and one of my favorite recent trends is aligned with a common notion. Teams that are 6-6 cover at over 60 percent since the start of the century, and its because playing the motivation angle with a team fighting to get over .500 is relatively easy.
Sometimes you will see teams that fall flat based on their expectations not play well or play hungry in bowl games because they just don’t have the same drive. In 2018, both Michigan and Georgia were great examples of this against Florida and Texas, respectively.
Both Florida and Texas were on missions to regain their footing among college football’s elite programs after a great season for their programs, while Michigan and Georgia were both a game away from being in the College Football Playoff only to lose and get left out.
Michigan, in particular, had multiple elite talents sit out, which is another red flag simply because when multiple team leaders are foregoing the game, what does that tell you about how motivated the team is to win the game? It’s not a good sign.
Be Aware of the Coaches
I am not a huge fan of a lot of subjective trends that are constantly thrown out in sports betting, but there are a few bowl game trends that tend to repeat themselves. Most important for me is how good are certain coaching staffs at running the pre-bowl prep and how that translates to covering the spread and just winning games.
Bowl prep is very different, and for a lot of teams, it is a great chance to get additional practice before spring football and a great chance to see young players get a lot of reps because you do have multiple weeks to prepare in most cases. Some coaches are more worried about that development than they are about installing a gameplan to beat UAB in two weeks, and that’s just fine, but sometimes that shows in their bowl records.
I have also heard of significant differences in how these trips are treated by different coaching staffs, and it does often lead back to motivation. For some teams, this is an opportunity to play one more game and to get better, while other coaches allow the players to go have fun in a new place for a week.
It’s not easy to find out who those coaches are, but their overall bowl record can give you a reason to look a little deeper.
Conference Strength Matters
Before going into bowl season at all, evaluate every single conference and team and think about how you expect each team and conference to look. More often than not, almost all of your opinions of a conference have to come from watching a team play strictly against their own conference because of the lack of big non-conference games.
Don’t overreact, but be very fluid in your beliefs early, as these early games can provide late value. Lines very rarely react to, “Oh, well, the first three favored SEC teams all lost, so we are going to drop this SEC team’s line by three.”
I think that they should move more than they do because we have so few out-of-conference data points to work with.
If one conference starts off playing much better than you expected, reevaluate how you think about the other teams in the conference. Sometimes your opinion won’t change, but evaluating these data points early can tell us a lot more about the strength of the Pac-12 vs. the Big Ten than the week 2 Purdue vs. California game that was the only current crossover on the board in a given year.