The Ten Commandments for Betting the Bowls

by Andrew Iskoe of Logical Approach

Several millennia ago, according to theological scholars, an event took place that has shaped mankind up to this very day. It seems one of the leaders of the people in that long ago time was summoned to the summit of a mountain where he was miraculously handed some tablets from an unknown source. There was no videotaping equipment in that day, nor other technologically advanced tools, to permanently record exactly how this all occurred and what exactly was on those tablets but there have been rumors that there may have been more than one set of what have been come to be known as the Ten Commandments. Though in the minority, some scholars do suggest that there may have been another less publicized tablet that contained thoughts directed at endeavors other than spiritual. Painstaking research has been conducted over many years and we have what we now believe to be the divine words and wisdom, preserved through countless generations, directed towards college football. We present the Ten Commandments for betting and beating the College Bowls.

I. Thou shalt look to pick the straight up winner of the game.

This may seem obvious but let’s examine, for a moment, why this statement is so important. It’s very common for handicappers and players to become overly preoccupied with the pointspread. But how often does the line matter? Actually, the line only matters when the Favorite wins the game but fails to cover the pointspread. The line does not matter when the Favorite wins and covers and when the Underdog wins outright. Since 1991, the team that won the game also covered the pointspread 73.5% of the time. That’s almost 3 games in four over more than 5,200 games. But the percentage is even higher in Bowl games. Since the 1991 season almost 150 Bowl games have been played and the line has come into play barely 11% of the time. That is, in 88.7% of all Bowl games played over the past eight Bowl seasons, the winner of the game has also covered the pointspread. So your first objective is to not be obsessed by the line. Rather, look for the team you think will win the game straight up.

When playing an Underdog you should also consider the Money Line under certain conditions. Money Line wagers do not involve points but rather require your team to win the game straight up. When playing an Underdog on the Money Line you receive odds such as +140 or plus 2 to 1, etc. Here are some statistics to guide you. Double digit underdogs (those getting 10 points or more) win straight up only 25% of the time. Thus if you can get at least 3 to 1 on your double digit dog you are getting a fair shake. Keep in mind that the average line for Bowl Underdogs is roughly +6 so the number of double digit dogs is not great (about one Bowl game in six features a double digit line). Surprisingly Underdogs from + 7 to + 9 ½ win at about the same one in four rate and you occasionally will get 3-1 or better in that price range. About one Bowl in seven falls within this pointspread range. An acceptable Money Line range appears to be from + 3 ½ to + 6 ½, or greater than a field goal but less than a touchdown. Underdogs in this range win about one game in three so getting at least 2-1 on these Underdogs can provide value. About one Bowl game in three falls within this pointspread range. Finally the small underdog, up to + 3. These puppies win only about two games in five so you would need at least 3-2 (+ 150) odds to consider these small Underdogs for a money line play. It is extremely important to shop around for money lines since prices can and do vary widely, much more so than straight pointspreads.

II. Thou shalt honor the Underdog in December, but favor the Favorite in the New Year.

A common misconception amongst many handicappers is that you can profit over the long term simply by blindly playing the Underdog. After all, when you play the Underdog three things can happen and two of them are good. The Underdog can win the game outright and obviously cover the pointspread or the Underdog can lose the game straight up but by less than the pointspread. As we saw in Commandment I, this has not occurred often during the past eight Bowl seasons. Of course the bad thing that happen is when the Underdog loses by more than the pointspread. Yet our research has uncovered a very interesting phenomenon during the past eight seasons. Underdogs have slightly outperformed Favorites in Bowl games played in December, compiling a mark of 54% Against the Spread (ATS). That produces only a very small profit but still beats betting the Favorite. Yet once the New Year is ushered in, Favorites have been awesome. Over the past eight seasons January Favorites have gone 41-22-1 ATS, or 65%. Usually these games are on New Year’s Day and feature the best teams from the regular season just completed. In years past these have been referred to as the Major Bowl games (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta) and the almost-major Bowls (such as the Gator and Citrus Bowls). In most cases the lines are very competitive and the teams will have generally won 8 or more games during the regular season, usually 9 or more. The teams are excited about playing on New Year’s Day (or a day or two later) and are more likely to play true to form.

III. Thou shalt strongly consider Underdogs seeking redemption.

Bowl games afford a team an opportunity to share the national athletic spotlight for a few hours during the holiday season. Often, especially in the minor Bowls, football fans are tuned in to only one game. In the case of New Year’s Day, the starting times of games are staggered so even then certain Bowls will have the spotlight to themselves for at least some period of time.

Teams like to make the best of their time in the spotlight – to put their best foot forward one might say. In the case of a team that lost the previous year in a Bowl game the opportunity to erase the bitter taste of a Bowl defeat that has lasted a year can be a powerful motivator for a good effort. Especially when the team seeking to reverse a defeat is made the Underdog. Historically, such teams have covered the spread at a 60% rate. Several teams meet this condition in 1999. Arkansas, BYU, Mississippi State, Oregon, Syracuse, Texas A&M and Washington are all Underdogs that lost in a Bowl game last year.

IV. Thou shalt respect the running game.

Despite the many changes in the game of football, the ability to control the line of scrimmage has always had a strong correlation to success both straight up and Against the Spread. Controlling the line of scrimmage is best evidenced by the ability to run the ball on offense and to stop the run on defense. Historically, teams that outrush their opponents cover the pointspread in excess of 60%. There are many reasons why such a strong correlation exists, including the obvious one that a team that has the lead is more likely to run the ball in the end stages of a game than to prolong the game by attempting passes.

There has been a tendency in recent years for Bowls to be high scoring, especially the minor Bowls. A part of the reason why this is so is because one or both teams lack a strong running game to be able to control the clock and protect leads late in games. Often that’s the difference between a 9-2 record and a major Bowl bid and a 7-4 log and a minor Bowl appearance.

One indicator that has been successful over the long term has been simply average yards per rush on offense. The team having the better rushing average has covered over 55% of the time in all Bowl games dating back to the mid 1980s. In recent years the success rate has faltered a bit but it is still a good indicator of pointspread success in general, not just in Bowl games.

How important is the rushing game in Bowls? Consider that in the more than 140 Bowl games played since 1991 the team gaining more rushing yards in a Bowl game has covered at better than a 79% clip. Compare that to the 51% ATS success rate enjoyed by the team gaining more passing yards. The team that has the better average yards per rush in a Bowl game (not necessarily the same team that gains the most rushing yards) has covered at slightly under a 75% rate. THAT’s how strong the rushing game is!

V. Thou shalt avoid the disinterested or disappointed favorite.

Not every team that goes to a Bowl is excited about the opportunity. Whereas in days gone by a trip to a Bowl game was a reward for a very successful season, times have changed. Years ago there were many less Bowl games. In order to be invited to a Bowl game a team pretty much needed to win a minimum of 7 and often 8 games. Nowadays it takes only a 6-5 record for a team to become “Bowl eligible.” Mediocrity is hardly worth rewarding but with 23 Bowl games there are now 46 slots to fill. 40% of all Division I-A teams will be going to Bowl games this season. Interestingly, perennial powers Notre Dame, Ohio State, UCLA and USC are all staying home because of disappointing seasons. Yet there are always teams that do go Bowling that may not look upon the experience as a reward and often give a very lackluster effort. Such teams, especially when favored, present outstanding opportunities to play against. A pair of Bowls from last season serve to illustrate this point very well.

Kansas State, undefeated for most of the season and eyeing a BCS Bowl before losing in the Big 12 title game to Texas A&M was overlooked by the BCS and invited instead to the Alamo Bowl. This was clearly a snub after the Wildcats had played in the Fiesta and Cotton Bowls the two previous seasons. Their lack of interest was obviously ignored by the bettors who drove KSU from an 11 ½ point opening favorite to a 13 ½ point choice. Their opponent was Purdue, themselves perhaps disappointed by a repeat trip to the Alamo Bowl (which they had won the year before) accepted their fate as an 8-4 team and one that was just getting used to being in a Bowl (their Alamo Bowl visit the year before was the program’s first Bowl game in over a decade). Purdue not only covered the generous double digits but won the game outright, 37-34.

USC was another team that was not enthused about playing in their Bowl game, even despite a two season absence from any Bowl. They were favored by 16 points over TCU, a program that had been to just two Bowl games in the past twenty years. The program was on the upswing under new coach Dennis Franchione and was excited to be in the Sun Bowl, even though it was being held in their home state. Of course, TCU pulled the upset, totally outplaying USC and winning 28-19.

Almost always these will be in the pre-January games, but every so often a New Year’s Day participant might be disinterested. Perhaps this Bowl season the Florida Gators will not be enthused about playing Michigan State in the Gator Bowl. For most of the season the Gators were on track for a possible berth in the National Championship game. Losses to Florida State and Alabama (in the SEC title game) may have dampened their enthusiasm for playing in what they may well consider ‘just another Bowl game.’

VI. Thou shalt recognize negative momentum.

Teams that go to Bowl games have generally had pretty good seasons. It can be argued that a 6-5 season is hardly ‘pretty good’ but such teams nevertheless are needed to fill Bowl berths. But what about teams that have ended their ‘good’ regular seasons on a sour note? Or two? Or more? Consider teams that have lost two or more consecutive games at the end of the regular season. Our research revealed some very interesting results that differed depending upon whether the team with that negative momentum was made the favorite or the underdog in their Bowl game.

It can be argued that a team that has lost two or more games can look at its Bowl game in one of two ways – either it’s a chance to end the season on a positive note and make amends for a disappointing finish to what had been a very good season (after all, even a 6-5 team was 6-3 or better before their end of season losing streak). Or, such a team might not be interested in continuing what had been a promising season but which had turned sour down the stretch. Often such a team that is made the Underdog in this situation is a team that had overachieved during the regular season and looks upon this Bowl game as a reward and chance to show they really are an improved team. A Favorite in this spot is more apt to be a team that had higher aspirations but whose late season collapse relegated that team to a much lesser Bowl than had looked likely before the losing streak set in. The results over the past couple of decades seem to support these contentions.

Favorites entering their Bowl game off of two or more consecutive losses are a paltry 5-14 Against the Spread over the past 20+ years. That’s just 26% ATS. Underdogs have fared better, although they’ve not excelled. Underdogs off of two or more straight losses have gone 20-15 ATS (57%) over the past 20+ years.

For the current Bowl season note that these Favorites have lost two or more consecutive games to end the regular season: Penn State, Texas and Florida and would qualify as ‘Play Againsts’ under this theory. These Underdogs have lost two or more straight games to end the regular season: BYU, Syracuse and Mississippi. That trio would be teams that have historically fared well when playing ‘on’ in their Bowl game. With six teams having lost two or more games prior to their Bowl game this season has the greatest number of Bowl teams with negative momentum in more than twenty years!

VII. Thou shalt honor the history of the opposing coaches

There are coaches and there are Big Game coaches and Bowl games are certainly Big Games. Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden have fashioned outstanding Bowl game records over the years. Lou Holtz, while at Arkansas and Notre Dame, did likewise. On the other side of the ledger West Virginia’s Don Nehlan and former Michigan State coach Nick Saban (now at LSU) have compiled poor Bowl records over the years. It is important to study the records of both a team and its head coach in recent Bowl appearances to perhaps uncover some edges not readily visible. Some coaches place great emphasis on winning a Bowl game once the bid is accepted. Other coaches look at a Bowl as an opportunity to prepare for next season, especially if it is a minor Bowl without any national ranking implications. Surfing the Internet during the four to five week period following the end of the regular season and the Bowl game can provide the insights into how a coach is approaching their upcoming Bowl. And don’t assume that a coaching change following the end of the regular season is a negative. Recent history suggests otherwise. Often a new coach can use a Bowl game, often his first game as head coach, as a motivational and recruiting tool. What appears to be a disadvantage – a coaching staff in partial or full disarray – is often the opposite. Most coaches are aware, especially in the minor Bowls which are more spread out than the many Bowls all being played on New Year’s Day, that their Bowl game is the center of attention in the athletic world for several hours. Every Bowl game is telecast on cable or network television. That’s a powerful recruiting tool. But not all coaches see it that way. The preference is to look to back a team whose coach is more interested in winning THIS game than in using the game as an extra practice session for next fall.

VIII. Thou shalt consider Conference strength

Conference strength seems to go in cycles. Last Bowl season saw the Big Ten conference excel in Bowl games, winning all five Bowl games in which conference members participated. They covered in four of those games and had two upset wins by Underdogs (Purdue and Wisconsin). Perhaps that Bowl performance signaled the re-emergence of the Big Ten as college football’s best conference. With 7 of their 11 teams headed to Bowls this season it’s hard to argue the point. Three of those teams are Underdogs this Bowl season – Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. Contrast the performance of the Big Ten to that of the Pac Ten. In last year’s Bowl season Pac Ten teams were 1-4 both straight up and Against the Spread, including three straight up losses as Favorites (Oregon, UCLA and USC). Perhaps the conference’s dismal Bowl showing was a foreshadowing of the significant decline in the Pac Ten’s fortunes during the 1999 regular season in which the conference was abysmal. Amongst the lowlights in 1999 included several losses by Pac Ten teams to members of the WAC, Mountain West and Big West conferences. Pay attention to conference results in the early Bowl games as often they are accurate barometers of how the better teams will do in later Bowls. Also, make a note of strong or weak performances by a conference during the Bowls. Those results might give you an added edge next season when interconference play takes place in September.

IX. Thou shalt review games against common opponents

It’s quite common for both teams in a given Bowl to have faced one or more foes during the regular season. By examining those games against a common foe, or foes, conclusions can be drawn as to whether or not the right team is favored. More than just the final score should be compared. Look closely at the rushing and passing statistics to see if one team struggled while the other team succeeded in the same aspect of the game against the same opponent. In the very first Bowl game, for example, the Las Vegas Bowl, both Utah and Fresno State faced Colorado State this season. Fresno State won at home 44-13 while Utah lost on the road 31-24. Fresno State managed just 11 first downs against CSU and was outgained by 39 yards but committed 5 turnovers to just 1 by CSU. Utah outgained Colorado State by over 100 yards in a game in which neither team lost a turnover. Fresno State was successful in running the ball against Colorado State. Utah was not. The offshore line has Utah favored by 6 ½ points. Perhaps that is a bit too many based upon their respective performances against their one common foe.

X. Thou shalt consider experience and other intangible factors

Experience is a positive factor when handicapping the Bowls for many of the reasons previously discussed. Especially having an edge in experience over your opponent. Historically, Underdogs with more recent Bowl experience than their favored opponents have cashed at better than 60%. Experience is often related to the current strength of a program. Additionally, experienced teams are better able to handle to off-the-field activities that surround Bowl games and are more likely to be able to ‘get down to business’ once the practice sessions begin and the game gets underway.

That’s what makes this year’s Sugar Bowl, the game for the mythical National Championship, so intriguing from a handicapping perspective. Virginia Tech has the edge in most of the key stats and has performed significantly better against the three foes both the Hokies and Florida State have faced – Clemson, Virginia and Miami. If Bowls were decided simply on the basis of stats then a strong argument can be made that Virginia Tech should be the Favorite. But the experience factor is clearly on the side of Florida State. The Seminoles have already won a National Championship this decade and lost to Tennessee in last year’s National Championship game. Florida State is making their 18th consecutive Bowl appearance. They’ve won 14 of those games and tied another. They are 10-6-1 ATS in those games. But Florida State’s two Bowl losses have come in the past three seasons. Virginia Tech has built a solid program during the 1990s but will be starting a freshman QB, Michael Vick. They are making their seventh straight Bowl appearance and have had mixed results when stepping up in class as they are here.

We’ve covered quite a bit of ground in deciphering these Commandments and there will be games in which there will be conflicts. There is still no hard and fast rule that covers sound judgement but if you pay attention to these Commandments, and heed their advice and warnings, you should have a profitable Bowl season.

Perhaps by reviewing these Commandments very carefully you will be on the right side of this year’s National Championship game. Hopefully that game will cap a very successful Bowl season for you. At the very least you will be armed with some facts and concepts that should serve you well into the next millennium. For now, best wishes for a Happy Holiday season and a prosperous and enjoyable Bowl season. Let the Bowls begin!

Andrew Iskoe is a writer, handicapper, researcher and lecturer living in Las Vegas and also co-hosts a daily radio show dedicated to sports wagering. He is a frequent guest on many sports handicapping shows across the country and publishes weekly Football Newsletters and other handicapping resources and provides consulting services in all major</td>

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