Hard to believe but it is College Bowl game time again! Late December is a great time to be a football fan, and it can be an even better time to be a football handicapper. Hopefully, by this time in the year, the bettor is playing with the books’ money and hoping to build on that bankroll in games nearly every day throughout the holiday season. It can be an exciting few weeks, but on the other hand, it can also go south in a hurry. Therefore, as with any other sports wagering, it is important to develop consistent strategies, the recipes for long term success. So, for the College Bowl Games, how does one come up with the recipe, the right mix of favorites and dogs, overs or unders, etc? What exactly should be looked at in handicapping the bowl games? It’s not an exact science, but in my experience, there are four key factors that can lead to consistent success. They focus centrally on key statistics and motivation. Below is a detailed explanation of each factor, including why it is so important, and a reflection from some of the games that proved so a year ago. Following the explanation of the key bowl game factors, we’ll reveal some historical trends surrounding each individual bowl game series. We’ll also touch upon some general performance records by favorites and underdogs, by line placement, and finally by conference. All of it should prove to be a great resource to refer back to when bowl bids are announced at the end of the season. So without further ado, enjoy the analysis.
4 Key Factors for Handicapping College Bowl Games…
1) YARDS PER PLAY
The yards per play statistic (YPP) is important for handicapping any football game, but it looms even larger in bowl games. Basically, YPP is a measure of team efficiency, both offensively and defensively. Obviously on offense, the higher the YPP the better, and on the defensive side, vice-versa. The differential of these two is what separates the dominant teams from the good teams. From a game by game standpoint, YPP figures can be skewed somewhat by big plays. Over the course of the season however, the numbers tend to level out. Therefore, by the time the teams reach their bowl games, the YPP differential can give an excellent indication of overall strength. Usually the team with the highest YPP differential has the ability to control the line of scrimmage and consequently, a great chance of winning and covering. The perfect example of this came in last season’s Orange Bowl, where USC beat Iowa 38-17, as a 4-1/2 point favorite. USC, arguably college football’s best team at the close of the season, finished ranked first nationally in YPP differential with a +2.54 total. Iowa had a respectable +.96, but it was evident that the Hawkeyes couldn’t match up with the powerful Trojans. Sometimes you need to look no further than this simple but effective YPP calculation when handicapping a game. For the record, the teams with the best YPP differential in 2003 are: Oklahoma +2.7, USC +2.2, LSU +2.1, Minnesota +2.0. The bowl teams with the worst YPP differentials are: Fresno St -.6, Houston -.3, UCLA -.3, Georgia Tech -.2.
Teams riding a winning streak have historically been successful plays in bowl games. They have found what has worked, are playing with confidence, and generally it takes a strong effort by their opponent to stop the streak. This of course evens out if both teams are playing well, which is often the case in bowl games which try to attract the best matchups available, such as in the Orange Bowl game above when both Iowa and USC came in riding winning streaks. In last year’s bowl games, there were several games where a team riding a hot streak was matched up against an opponent which struggled to end the season. Among the ATS winners in those scenarios were Boise State, which beat Iowa State 34-16 in the Humanitarian Bowl, and Tulane, which won at Hawaii 36-28. Both two schools were among the hottest in the nation as far as ATS results were concerned, and they both carried that momentum through their bowl wins.
The HOT teams coming into the 2003-04 Bowl Games:
• North Texas: 8-0 SU 5-3 ATS in its last eight games.
• Boise State: 10 wins in a row, 6-1 ATS L7
• New Mexico: The Lobos are 7-1 SU 6-2 ATS in their last eight games.
• Miami Ohio: A nation’s best 12 game winning streak 9-3 ATS in that span.
• Navy: 6-2 SU in its last eight and has covered seven straight games.
• Texas Southern Miss: Six game winning streaks, 5-1 ATS run for each.
• Utah: 8-1 SU run, 9-2 ATS overall.
• West Virginia: Won its last seven games but meets Maryland who was 9-1 SU in its last 10.
• Michigan and USC meet in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines have won and covered six straight, USC eight straight.
• Mississippi: Closed the year on a 7-1 SU ATS run.
• LSU: Seven game winning streak and 6-1 ATS in that span.
The effect of a team on losing streak going into a bowl game has proved to be of lesser importance, particularly when facing another struggling team or one that isn’t streaking either way. These teams have had several weeks to regroup, and often they are afforded a few more points on the spread than truly deserved. For instance, Fresno State went into the Silicon Valley Classic against Georgia Tech on a 1-5 ATS stretch. They were installed as a 3-1/2 point underdog and eventually finished +6-1/2 as the public loaded up on a mediocre Yellow Jackets team. The motivated Bulldogs won easily 30-21.
The COLD teams coming into the 2003-04 Bowl Games:
• Virginia Tech: 2-4 SU 1-5 ATS in its last six games
• UCLA: 0-4 SU ATS run to close the regular season.
• Auburn Wisconsin: 2-3 SU 1-4 ATS, 1-4 SU 2-3 ATS in their last five games, respectively.
• Miami: 3-2 SU but just 1-4 ATS in its last five games.
• Georgia Tech: Faded with a 1-3 SU ATS stretch.
3) BOWL PLACEMENT
Often a team’s motivation in a bowl game hinges upon their satisfaction with the bid it received. Some teams are elated with where they are playing while others may feel they’ve been robbed. It can lead to unexpected levels of performance when game time comes around, particularly in higher spread games. Simply, a team’s motivation can play a huge role in how it performs in a game. Take a look at some of the interesting motivational factors that arose before last season, and how they turned out. Think about situations like these before handicapping the 2003-04 bowl games.
• Louisville was the clear favorite in the minds of the preseason prognosticators’ not only for the Conference-USA title but also possibly for a BCS spot. Five losses later, they were left facing Marshall from the MAC in the low profile GMAC Bowl. Result: Easy win for Marshall, 38-15.
• Oklahoma State earned its first bowl bid since ’97 by winning one of the biggest games in school history: a 38-28 decision over rival Oklahoma in the season finale. Result: The Cowboys rode that momentum en route to a 33-23 Houston Bowl win over Southern Miss.
• Nebraska, accustomed to playing high profile bowl games and national championships, was left to battling Mississippi for Independence Bowl bragging rights after a 7-6 regular season. Result: Mississippi, thrilled with the bid and matchup, beats the Cornhuskers 27-23 as a 6-1/2 point underdog.
• Kansas State, whose only two losses were by a total of seven points (to Colorado Texas), disappointedly accepted a bid to the Holiday Bowl against an 8-5 Arizona State team. Result: A deflated KSU team wins, but comes nowhere near close to covering the 17 point spread.
• Oregon somehow turned a 6-0 start and top 10 ranking into a Seattle Bowl appearance against 6-6 Wake Forest. Result: An obviously insulted Oregon team was beaten soundly by Wake Forest 38-17, and finished the year at 7-6.
• Despite losing four games in the regular season, Florida State “earned” a BCS bowl bid via its ACC Championship. The overrated Seminoles’ reward was a Sugar Bowl date with 12-1 Georgia, a team in the top 10 nearly all year. Result: A superior Georgia team beats FSU 26-13, with the score really not giving a fair indication of the dominance by the Bulldogs.
• Oddsmakers installed 12-0 Ohio State as a 13 point underdog to defending national champion Miami in the BCS title game. Ironically, the Buckeyes defense yielded only 13.25 ppg. Result: In one of the most exciting national championship games ever, Ohio State upsets Miami 31-24.
Some of the motivational stories to look for this year include:
• First time in a long time: Missouri, Kansas, Michigan State, Navy, Memphis, Tulsa, Bowling Green, and Miami Ohio are all making their first bowl game appearances in a significant period of time. These types of teams can either be overwhelmed by the opportunity or they can thrive under the pressure to prove they belong.
• Familiar foes: Two bowl games feature matchups of teams that are very familiar with one another. Miami and Florida State play in the Orange Bowl, and Maryland and West Virginia meet in the Gator Bowl. Both Miami and Maryland have dominated the recent action in the series’, but the stakes are raised a bit with bowl bragging rights on the line.
• Home sweet home: Six of the bowl games involve teams that could more or less consider the bowl a “home” game. LSU, USC, Miami, TCU, Hawaii, and Fresno State all get a boost playing in familiar surroundings and in front of what should be a partisan crowd.
• From rags to riches: Utah, Navy, Tulsa, and Kansas come off particularly tough seasons in 2002 to earn a bowl bid this year.
• From riches to rags: Auburn, NC State, Virginia Tech, UCLA, and Miami are all teams that could have, or should have been playing for higher stakes at this point in the year. Either they didn’t fulfill early season expectations or they faded heading down the stretch.
4) KEY GAME MATCHUP STATISTICS
Past successes have taught me that the stats, situations, and trends can’t be ignored. Of the three previous factors, only the YPP is measurable. The successful handicapper should have a complete arsenal of statistics that provide strength indications for every team. Although it’s not advocated, some professionals use statistics as the entire basis for their selections. They are better used a supplement to a sports bettor’s knowledge and handicapping strategies. Some of the more advanced type of statistics used include Super Situations, Game Estimators, Situational and Matchup Power Trends, Line Movement Analysis, Common Opponent Records, and Series Histories, all of which are included as part of the in-depth analysis found on the FoxSheets.
Historical Bowl Trends
General Line Placement Trends (since ’92):
• Underdogs hold a slight ATS edge in bowl games, 108-95, 53.2% with 5 games that have PUSHED.
• Favorites own an edge in straight up wins, 128-84, 60.4%.
• Underdogs who won ATS are also 84-24 SU, giving merit to Money Line wagering.
• Double digit favorites are 14-19-2 ATS, 42.4%.
• Favorites of 3 points or less are just 26-35 ATS, 42.6%.
• The best line range to bet on favorites is 6.5-9.5. They are 35-22-1 ATS (61.4%) in that scenario.
STRONG bowl team performance trends:
• GEORGIA is on a 5-1 SU ATS run in its last six bowl games.
• OLE MISS is 5-1 SU ATS in bowl games since ’92.
• MIAMI is 5-1 SU ATS in its last six bowl games, with all five wins coming by double digit margins.
• BOSTON COLLEGE comes into 2003 on a 5-1 SU ATS bowl run.
• BOISE STATE is 3-0 SU ATS in its three previous bowl games.
• WISCONSIN is 7-1 SU 6-2 ATS in its last eight bowl games.
WEAK bowl team performance trends:
• OHIO STATE, despite winning last year, is 2-8 ATS in its last 10 bowl games.
• LOUISVILLE is 1-5 SU ATS in its last six bowl contests.
• ARKANSAS is 1-6 SU 2-5 ATS in its last seven bowl games.
2003-04 BOWL TRENDS
• NEW ORLEANS BOWL: North Texas vs Memphis (-4.5, o/u 48.5) – 2002 result: NORTH TEXAS 24, CINCINNATI 19: North Texas has represented the Sun Belt in each of the two previous New Orleans Bowl games. The Eagles are 1-1, both SU ATS, in those contests.
• GMAC BOWL: Louisville vs Miami Ohio (-13, o/u 70) – 2002 result: MARSHALL 38, LOUISVILLE 15: The 2001 GMAC Bowl game was the highest scoring bowl game ever as Marshall beat East Carolina 64-61. The underdog owns a 3-1 SU ATS record in this bowl game previously known as the Mobile Alabama Bowl.
• TANGERINE BOWL: Kansas vs NC State (-10.5, o/u 62) – 2002 result: TEXAS TECH 55, CLEMSON 15: Both installments of the reincarnated Tangerine Bowl have gone OVER the total, and both have been blowouts.
• FORT WORTH BOWL: Boise State (-8, o/u 59) vs TCU – The inaugural Fort Worth Bowl will be played this year. Ironically, the host University is one of the game participants. Boise State is 3-0 SU ATS in bowl games the last three seasons.
• LAS VEGAS BOWL: New Mexico vs Oregon State (-4, o/u 52) – 2002 result: UCLA 27, NEW MEXICO 13: UCLA became the first favored team to win SU ATS in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Overall now, in the last five lined Las Vegas Bowl games, the underdog has gone 4-1-1 ATS.
• HAWAII BOWL: Houston vs Hawaii (-10, o/u 71.5) – 2002 result : TULANE 36, HAWAII 28: After a one year hiatus, the Christmas Day bowl game in Hawaii returned. The underdog has now covered four in a row and Tulane became the third largest underdog (14-1/2 points) in the past decade to win a bowl game.
• MOTOR CITY BOWL: Northwestern vs Bowling Green (-8, o/u 55) – 2002 result: BOSTON COLLEGE 51, TOLEDO 25: Toledo and Marshall were the only teams to represent the MAC over the past five years. Including the 2002 loss, the MAC is 4-1 SU ATS in this game.
• INSIGHT BOWL: California vs Virginia Tech (-2, o/u 55) – 2002 result: PITTSBURGH 38, OREGON ST 13: The most significant trends that have formed from the Insight Bowl are that it is usually a blowout (average winning margin: 19.7 ppg), and that is usually high scoring (5-2-1 OVER in the last 8).
• CONTINENTAL TIRE BOWL: Virginia (-2.5, o/u 52) vs Pittsburgh – 2002 result: VIRGINIA 48, WEST VIRGINIA 22: Last year’s game was the inaugural Continental Tire Bowl, and the first bowl game ever played at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte. Virginia won that game as an underdog.
• ALAMO BOWL: Michigan State vs Nebraska (-2.5, o/u 52) – 2002 result: WISCONSIN 31, COLORADO 28: The Big Ten team is 7-1 SU ATS in the last seven games of the Alamo Bowl since the format changed, matching representatives of the Big 12 and Big Ten.
• HOUSTON BOWL: Navy vs Texas Tech (-13.5, o/u 72) – 2002 result: OKLAHOMA ST 33, SOUTHERN MISS 23: Last year’s game was the first of this bowl series played at Reliant Stadium, as it replaced the game formerly known as the GalleryFurniture.com bowl. OVERS are 2-1, the favorite/underdogs are split 1-1 with last year’s game resulting in a PUSH.
• HOLIDAY BOWL: Washington State vs Texas (-7.5, o/u 59.5) – 2002 result: KANSAS ST 34, ARIZONA ST 27: Including last year’s easy Arizona St spread win, the last four double digit underdogs in the Holiday Bowl have covered. Also, the Pac 10 team has won ATS in the last five Holiday Bowl games, all as an underdog.
• SILICON VALLEY CLASSIC: Fresno State vs UCLA (-4, o/u 45) – 2002 result: FRESNO ST 30, GEORGIA TECH 21: Fresno St has been in four straight Silicon Valley Classic games. The favored teams are 0-4 SU ATS, and all four games went OVER the total.
• MUSIC CITY BOWL: Wisconsin vs Auburn (-2.5, o/u 47) – 2002 result: MINNESOTA 29, ARKANSAS 14: The team representing the SEC has lost SU ATS in all five previous Music City Bowls. The underdog has covered the last four.
• SUN BOWL: Minnesota (-2, o/u 60) vs Oregon – 2002 result: PURDUE 34, WASHINGTON 24: The Sun Bowl could legitimately be renamed the underdog bowl, as the dog has covered the last EIGHT games!
• LIBERTY BOWL: Utah (-2, o/u 45) vs Southern Miss – 2002 result: TCU 17, COLORADO ST 3: The Liberty Bowl has been one of the lowest scoring bowl games over the past decade. Consistently burdened by total in the 60’s and miserable weather, this game has gone UNDER in 10 of the last 11!
• INDEPENDENCE BOWL: Missouri vs Arkansas (-2.5, o/u 54) – 2002 result: MISSISSIPPI 27, NEBRASKA 23: The SEC representative in the last eight Independence Bowl games is 7-1 SU 6-2 ATS. The underdog has covered the last five games.
• SAN FRANCISCO BOWL: Boston College vs Colorado State (No line as of press) – 2002 result: VIRGINIA TECH 20, AIR FORCE 13: San Francisco’s Pac Bell Park hosted its first bowl game ever last season, an UNDER an underdog cover. Boston College is 5-1 SU ATS in its last six bowl games.
• OUTBACK BOWL: Iowa vs Florida (-3, o/u 47) – 2002 result: MICHIGAN 38, FLORIDA 30: The UNDER and the SEC are each 5-2 ATS in the last seven Outback Bowl games.
• GATOR BOWL: West Virginia vs Maryland (-3, o/u 48) – 2002 result: NC STATE 28, NOTRE DAME 6: Not counting the 2002 New Year’s Day Gator Bowl in which Florida State beat Virginia Tech 45-17 in a pick em’ game, the favorite is on a 6-0 SU ATS run in the last six Gator Bowl games.
• CAPITAL ONE BOWL: Purdue vs Georgia (-3, o/u 43.5) – 2002 result: AUBURN 13, PENN STATE 9: In this bowl game, formerly known as the Florida Citrus Bowl, the underdog has covered four of the last five. The OVER is also 5-2 in the last seven.
• ROSE BOWL: Michigan vs USC (-6.5, o/u 57) – 2002 result: OKLAHOMA 34, WASHINGTON ST 14: The favorite in “the Grandaddy of them all” has won two in a row SU ATS after losing the previous five ATS.
• ORANGE BOWL: Florida State (-1, o/u 46) vs Miami – 2002 result: USC38, IOWA 17: The Orange Bowl has been one of the most lopsided bowl games over the past several years with just one of the last seven games being decided by a single digit margin. Favorites are on a 5-1 SU ATS stretch in the Orange Bowl.
• COTTON BOWL: Oklahoma State vs Mississippi (-2.5, o/u 59) – 2002 result: TEXAS 35, LSU 20: The UNDER has been the most consistent winning wager in this bowl game, converting in six of the last eight games.
• PEACH BOWL: Clemson vs Tennessee (-6, o/u 47) – 2002 results: MARYLAND 30, TENNESSEE 3: The representative of the SEC in the Peach Bowl has compiled a 4-2 SU ATS record over the last six years, but the two losses have come in the most recent games.
• FIESTA BOWL: Kansas State (-6.5, o/u 43.5) vs Ohio State – 2002 result: OHIO ST 31, MIAMI 24: Amazingly, the team with the better straight up record has won seven Fiesta Bowl games in a row, both SU ATS.
• HUMANITARIAN BOWL: Tulsa vs Georgia Tech (-8, o/u 49) – 2002 result: BOISE ST 34, IOWA ST 16: The favorite has covered three straight games in this bowl series and the OVER is 4-2 in the history of the Humanitarian Bowl.
• SUGAR BOWL: LSU vs Oklahoma (-5.5, o/u 46) – 2002 result: GEORGIA 26, FLORIDA ST 13: The favorite has dominated the recent action in this game, winning the last seven straight up and going 6-1 ATS in that span.