7 motivational factors that affect bowls

It was around 1995 when I first really got turned on to college football bowl season, as I felt it really added a lot to the holiday season. As a bettor, having extra time to handicap and then watch all of the games was extraordinary. Much has changed since, not the least of which is that the number of games more than doubled over the years. In fact, in the ’95 bowl season, there were just 18 games, compared with 40 last year. Of course, with COVID-19 rearing its ugly head in 2020, that number will be smaller, but still, the more the merrier. There was only one game before Christmas in ’95, and believe it or not, only one game on New Year’s Eve.

For as much change has occurred, from a betting standpoint, there are many fundamentals that are the same and will be the same for as long as they have bowl games. Specifically, bowl games are a reward for a winning season (or .500 in many cases). They offer an opportunity for a team to go through a special process and grow together through an extension of their season. More on this later, but that time frame is obviously going to be a lot shorter than usual this year. Bowl games also can be defining in terms of which teams prepared best and took the game most seriously, a surefire indicator of program culture and discipline.

Studying bowl games for the last 25-plus years, I have developed a checklist of key things to consider outside the norm of everyday, every-game football handicapping. I have always believed that bowl games offer the bettor the best chance at success, since the time to prepare is unmatched on the schedule, especially considering the knowledge you have of the teams after 12 or 13 games. It’s not like the beginning of the season when each team’s prospects are defined by question marks at so many positions. Despite the 2020 bowl season being shorter and most teams having played fewer games, handicapping the fundamentals at this time of year is as straightforward as analyzing one team’s stats against another and sprinkling in adjustments for schedule strengths. That part of it is relatively easy. However, oddsmakers have this down as a part of their routine for setting the lines too. Therefore, in order to be better than them, and to achieve the success level of professional bettors, you have to go further. 

Some of you may notice that my number of factors has fluctuated in recent years. It has alternated between six and seven the last few years as I evaluate the results. For instance, a few years ago, I dropped “Star Players in Their Last Career Game” as a factor. Truthfully, with the frequency at which players declare early for the NFL draft, even skipping their bowl game in some cases, the amount of transcendent players for programs has dwindled. In fact, in the last three or four years, I have struggled to come up with more than a player or two who might qualify for this exclusive designation. It was not nearly as prominent a factor in bowl games as it used to be, and if I’m not using the strategy any longer, there was no sense in including it in the publication. Last year I added a factor, “Summary of Season.” I will give you the stats I found that made it worth adding.

For this season, I decided to go back and study the coaching factor more closely in bowl games, and you will be astounded by what I have found. I only wish I would have done this years ago. You will see all of those findings under Factor 3.

Much of the analysis is difficult to quantify, but it can prove to be the difference in whether or not a team shows up for its bowl game. Be careful though, as in most cases, the external factors that can affect a bowl game happen all the way up until kickoff, and early bettors can end up eating their wagers if they were overzealous early. Cases in point: coaching changes, disciplinary suspensions, travel difficulties, and key players choosing to skip their bowl games just days in advance for draft preparation, etc. That last one has had a major impact on the two most recent bowl seasons and figures to be the same in this bowl season of uncertainty.

Again, I call these things my Seven Motivational Factors Checklist for Bowl Games. I’ve developed it by going through my notes from many bowl seasons past. I like to think that this checklist has played a great role in my bowl game success as well as the popularity of publications like this. I fully expect my plan to reap rewards again this season.

So here is my list. Along with the factor, I’ll provide an explanation and some examples from past bowl seasons, along with some games that might be affected by it this year. Usually I have about seven to 10 days to put this information together. Because of the bowl matchup announcements being late and our production schedule being altered dramatically, I had only a couple of days. So please, if you believe in the fundamentals of these factors, be sure to put together your own thoughts as the games approach and follow the news in the days leading up for any pertinent updates. Believe me, there are always unexpected news stories that affect these games. I do not want any of us to use the compacted schedule as a reason for not doing well this bowl season.

1. Excitement level for the game

It’s natural for athletes at different levels to gear up more for some games or opponents than others. This point is exacerbated in bowl games, as some teams are happy to be there, and others are disappointed. Teams playing in a bowl game for the first time or the first time in many years are going to be more excited than those who perhaps underperformed or are going to a bowl below their normal standards. While impossible to quantify this excitement level, let me assure you that if you don’t consider this factor, all the stats in the world are no good to you.

Over the last two years, I have listed 18 games in which I thought there was a clear difference in excitement level. I went 10-8, and quite honestly, I might have gotten a little overzealous last year in going with 10 games. With that in mind, here is a list of games that could be defined by one team’s mindset. See if you agree, and be sure to formulate your own opinions on other games. Again, whether a team really shows up to play is usually the difference in winning and covering.

* LOUISIANA TECH vs. Georgia Southern: Georgia Southern got off to a strong start at 6-2.  Then, after a tough loss to Army, quarterback Shai Werts went out with an injury against Georgia State, and the Eagles proceeded to lose to their rivals and closed the season on a 1-3 skid. It appears Wertz will miss the New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana Tech, which gets the privilege of playing in its home state. It’s hard to imagine Georgia Southern bringing its best effort.

* MEMPHIS vs. Florida Atlantic: Memphis was in the New Year’s Six last year and lost to a strong Penn State team while dealing with a coaching change. It was the Tigers’ fifth straight bowl loss. Obviously they are eager to end that skid. Memphis’ opponent in the Montgomery Bowl is a Florida Atlantic team that has put together two huge bowl performances in a row. However, those wins were on their home field. The atmosphere and interest level of the Owls figures to be significantly less in this one.

* LIBERTY vs. Coastal Carolina: After the season Coastal Carolina enjoyed, with the prospect of a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game lingering until the final weekend, a matchup with Liberty has to be considered a disappointment. I’m sure the Chanticleers wanted a shot at the big boys. Liberty, meanwhile, is still in growth mode and eager to continue proving itself. 

* TULSA vs. Mississippi State: If there’s one recurring theme we heard a lot leading up to the bowl announcements, it’s that the Group of 5 teams feel slighted. There are only three games in which they get a chance to prove themselves against a Power 5 school. The Group of 5 teams are favored in two of them, including this one. Tulsa, playing in its first bowl in four seasons, takes on a Mississippi State team that qualified for a bowl with a 3-7 record. Little went right for the Bulldogs in 2020, so why would that change now against a hungry Golden Hurricane team?

* ARMY vs. West Virginia: Who’s more motivated than a determined soldier? Army initially was left out of the bowl lineup after its ties to the Independence Bowl fell through with Pac-12 teams opting out. Coach Jeff Monken shared his frustration vociferously. In the end, the Black Knights got what they deserved, and they now have a date with West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers had to shift gears after prepping for a 3-7 Tennessee team.

* TCU vs. Arkansas: Earlier I mentioned the mindset of SEC teams carrying awful records into their bowl games. Arkansas is another 3-7 team that, at midseason, seemed like a much better team. It was all a facade as none of the wins were of any real quality; none of the teams the Razorbacks beat finished with a winning record. TCU meanwhile, had a quietly strong season, beating three much higher level bowl teams than Arkansas did. The Horned Frogs probably deserved a better opponent but still should be eager to prove themselves.

* OHIO STATE vs. Clemson: Normally I don’t like to point out motivational differences in playoff games as you’d figure with the stakes so high, there’d be no shortage. That said, bulletin-board material can provide extra motivation, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney provided it for the Buckeyes. His final coaches poll ballot had Ohio State at No. 11. Now, we can all reasonably say that No. 5, No. 6 or even No. 7 behind Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Cincinnati could be debated, but No. 11? Whew, something tells me this will be a point of contention all the way until game time.

* NC STATE vs. Kentucky: The Wolfpack had a nice season, going 8-3 SU and 7-4 ATS. Their reward: a January bowl game! Their opponent: a 4-6 Kentucky team. NC State is another team that deserved better and only a convincing win will prove it.

* INDIANA vs. Ole Miss: Indiana was one of this season’s most pleasant surprises, and the Hoosiers, down their starting quarterback or not, were rightfully deserving of a New Year’s Six bowl game. I understand the bowl committee’s decision better than the Hoosiers seem to, at least from the initial feedback. That said, I can’t think of another bowl team that has a bigger chip on its shoulder this year. Last year coach Tom Allen’s team came close to winning its first bowl game since ’91. This year they figure to get it done.

I’m sure you can come up with some other example of games with reasons to question a team’s motivation.

2. Motivation of the point spread

They may say otherwise, but don’t let the coaches and players fool you. They know the point spreads of these bowl games. Especially in this day of expanding sports betting regulation across the country. Having watched religiously for the last decade or so, I can tell you that ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” show took a huge step forward this season in putting more emphasis on this part of the game. Respect heading into a bowl game means a lot to athletes, and nowhere is the respect level more clearly illustrated than in the point spread. Teams that feel slighted by this number tend to work harder to prepare and prove everyone wrong than those on the opposite side. Be careful, though. It’s not always the motivation of being an underdog that drives a team. Sometimes favorites feel they aren’t getting enough respect. That can be just as powerful.

In 2017, one of my top point spread games was the highest bowl point spread ever. I actually felt that beating that record chalk line would serve as motivation for Florida Atlantic to beat Akron. It did, big time. The Owls clobbered the Zips 50-3.

In 2018, one of my favorite point spread motivation plays was Utah State, a team that had scored 47.2 points per game and outscored opponents by nearly 300 points. The Aggies, at -7, clearly were underrated by oddsmakers against North Texas and blasted the Mean Green 52-13.

Last year, I only went 4-5 in this column, but one that I called was Alabama, which was left out of its usual playoff spot. The last time it occurred, the Tide rolled to a 49-7 win. I figured they would again play with a chip on their shoulder against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. They did and came away with a 35-16 win, coasting on an 8-point line.

So, with that in mind, here are nine point spread scenarios that catch my eye:

* HAWAII could be playing with house money in its New Mexico Bowl game against Houston. Expectations were low for the Warriors this season in what looked to be a complete rebuilding job for new coach Todd Graham. They put together four wins to reach an unexpected bowl game and now find themselves being doubted heavily again, as oddsmakers have established them as double-digit underdogs to a 3-4 Houston team.

* COLORADO is another team that clearly outperformed expectations this season, the first under new coach Karl Dorrell. Playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2016, the Buffaloes are heavy underdogs to Texas. The Longhorns are in very unfamiliar territory, being favored in a bowl for the first time since 2011. Coach Tom Herman’s teams have become well known for their peskiness as underdogs. As huge favorites in an otherwise disappointing season, do they have the fortitude to get it done?

* MISSOURI is another huge underdog in a bowl to a team that is not accustomed to being so well-respected this time of year. Iowa had a solid season but hasn’t been favored by more than 3.5 points in a bowl since Kirk Ferentz became head coach in 1999. How does a team that is usually fueled by lack of respect respond to getting more than their fair share?

* OHIO STATE is in familiar territory, occupying one of the spots in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The Buckeyes are not in familiar territory relative to the point spread. As of Dec. 21, Ohio State was sitting as a touchdown underdog for the first time in nearly 10 years. I already wrote about what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thinks of them. Are oddsmakers providing even more juice?

* NC State won eight games this season, rebounding from last year’s 4-8 record. Surely the Wolfpack would love to finish it off with a bowl win. Kentucky won four fewer games this season than last season, and its fans probably are surprised to see the Wildcats playing in a bowl game. Guess which team is favored?

3) Coaching experience essential

It’s not hard to understand, but some coaches just do better than others in using the extra preparation time for bowl games to cement their game plans and get their teams physically and mentally ready to play. After all, these are the key ingredients to successful coaching. With all of the extras involved with bowl games, the importance of coaching is magnified. In preparation for this bowl season, I took a closer look at coaching in bowl games. I am ecstatic that I did, as I was able to uncover some truly golden betting nuggets regarding first-time bowl coaches and experience differences in bowl games among coaches. 

Since 2015, or the last five bowl seasons, head coaches with an experience advantage in bowl games coached over the opponent have gone 110-79 SU and 111-77-1 ATS (59%).

Here are this season’s bowl matchups with bowl games coached for each coach:

* NORTH TEXAS, Seth Littrell (3) vs. APPALACHIAN STATE, Shawn Clark (1). Edge: NORTH TEXAS by 2.

* TULANE, Willie Fritz (3) vs. NEVADA: Jay Norvell (2). Edge: TULANE by 1.

* UCF, Josh Heupel (2) vs. BYU, Kalani Sitake (3). Edge: BYU by 1.

* GEORGIA SOUTHERN, Chad Lunsford (2) vs. LOUISIANA TECH, Skip Holtz (11). Edge: LOUISIANA TECH by 9.

* FLORIDA ATLANTIC, Willie Taggart (3) vs. MEMPHIS, Ryan Silverfield (1). Edge: FLORIDA  ATLANTIC by 2.

* HAWAII, Todd Graham (10) vs. HOUSTON, Dana Holgorsen (7). Edge: HAWAII by 3.

* MARSHALL, Doc Holliday (7) vs. BUFFALO, Lance Leipold (2). Edge: MARSHALL by 5.

* LIBERTY, Hugh Freeze (5) vs. COASTAL CAROLINA, Jamey Chadwell (0). Edge: LIBERTY by 5.

* LOUISIANA, Billy Napier (2) vs. TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO, Jeff Traylor (1), Edge: LOUISIANA by 1.

* WESTERN KENTUCKY, Tyson Helton (1) vs. GEORGIA STATE, Shawn Elliott (2). Edge: GEORGIA STATE by 1.

* OKLAHOMA STATE, Mike Gundy (14) vs. MIAMI, Manny Diaz (1). Edge: OKLAHOMA STATE by 13.

* COLORADO, Karl Dorrell (4) vs. TEXAS, Tom Herman (4). Edge: NONE.

* WISCONSIN, Paul Chryst (7) vs. WAKE FOREST, Dave Clawson (6). Edge: WISCONSIN by 1.

* MISSOURI, Eliah Drinkwitz (0) vs. IOWA, Kirk Ferentz (17). Edge: IOWA by 17.

* FLORIDA, Dan Mullen (10) vs. OKLAHOMA, Lincoln Riley (3). Edge: FLORIDA by 7.

* MISSISSIPPI STATE, Mike Leach (15) vs. TULSA, Philip Montgomery (2). Edge: MISSISSIPPI STATE by 13.

* BALL STATE, Mike Neu (0) vs. SAN JOSE STATE, Brent Brennan (0). Edge: NONE.

* WEST VIRGINIA, Neal Brown (3) vs. ARMY, Jeff Monken (3). Edge: NONE.

* ARKANSAS, Sam Pittman (0) vs. TCU, Gary Patterson (16). Edge: TCU by 16.

* CINCINNATI, Luke Fickell (3) vs. GEORGIA, Kirby Smart (5). Edge: GEORGIA by 2.

* AUBURN, Kevin Steele (0) vs. NORTHWESTERN, Pat Fitzgerald (9). Edge: NORTHWESTERN by 9.

* NOTRE DAME, Brian Kelly (12) vs. ALABAMA, Nick Saban (25). Edge: ALABAMA by 13.

* OHIO STATE, Ryan Day (1) vs. CLEMSON, Dabo Swinney (15). Edge: CLEMSON by 14.

* KENTUCKY, Mark Stoops (4) vs. NC STATE, Dave Doeren (6). Edge: NC STATE by 2.

* OLE MISS, Lane Kiffin (3) vs. INDIANA, Tom Allen (1). Edge: OLE MISS by 2.

* OREGON, Mario Cristobal (4) vs. IOWA STATE, Matt Campbell (7). Edge: IOWA STATE by 3.

* NORTH CAROLINA, Mack Brown (22) vs. TEXAS A&M, Jimbo Fisher (10). Edge: NORTH CAROLINA by 12.

In bowl games since 2015 that have a difference of at least 10 bowl games coached between the opposing head coaches, the more experienced one is 26-12 SU and 27-11 ATS (71.1%). Here are the games that qualify in this year’s lineup:

* OKLAHOMA STATE, Mike Gundy (14) vs. MIAMI, Manny Diaz (1). Edge: OKLAHOMA STATE by 13.

* MISSOURI, Eliah Drinkwitz (0) vs. IOWA, Kirk Ferentz (17). Edge: IOWA by 17.

* MISSISSIPPI STATE, Mike Leach (15) vs. TULSA, Philip Montgomery (2). Edge: MISSISSIPPI STATE by 13.

* ARKANSAS, Sam Pittman (0) vs. TCU, Gary Patterson (16). Edge: TCU by 16.

* NOTRE DAME, Brian Kelly (12) vs. ALABAMA, Nick Saban (25). Edge: ALABAMA by 13.

* OHIO STATE, Ryan Day (1) vs. CLEMSON, Dabo Swinney (15). Edge: CLEMSON by 14.

* NORTH CAROLINA, Mack Brown (22) vs. TEXAS A&M, Jimbo Fisher (10). Edge: NORTH CAROLINA by 12.

First-time bowl head coaches have really struggled over the last five seasons, going 18-33 SU and 16-34-1 ATS (32%). Here are this year’s games that feature a first-time head coach:

* LIBERTY, Hugh Freeze (5) vs. COASTAL CAROLINA, Jamey Chadwell (0). Edge: LIBERTY by 5.

* MISSOURI, Eliah Drinkwitz (0) vs. IOWA, Kirk Ferentz (17). Edge: IOWA by 17.

* ARKANSAS, Sam Pittman (0) vs. TCU, Gary Patterson (16). Edge: TCU by 16.

* AUBURN, Kevin Steele (0) vs. NORTHWESTERN, Pat Fitzgerald (9). Edge: NORTHWESTERN by 9.

When a rookie coach faces an opposing coach who has been in at least 10 bowl games, the first-timers’ record over the last five years slips to an abysmal 3-14 SU and 2-15 ATS (11.8%). Obviously, these games will need to be considered solely by that angle:

* MISSOURI, Eliah Drinkwitz (0) vs. IOWA, Kirk Ferentz (17). Edge: IOWA by 17.

* ARKANSAS, Sam Pittman (0) vs. TCU, Gary Patterson (16). Edge: TCU by 16.

Finally, the coaching difference really stands out in games that are expected to be tight, as first-time bowl coaches are just 5-18 SU and 3-19-1 ATS (13.6%) over the last five seasons in games with lines in the + 4.5 to -4.5 range. This is the game that qualifies on this powerful angle:

* AUBURN, Kevin Steele (0) vs. NORTHWESTERN, Pat Fitzgerald (9). Edge: NORTHWESTERN by 9.

Having found these potent new angles, I feel the coaching analysis is close to complete. However, I’m sure some readers will want to know which coaches have fared best or worst in recent bowl games.

Naturally, the good list is deeper than the bad list, as the latter struggle to hold on to their jobs. Here’s a quick bullet point list of the success stories:

* Mack Brown (North Carolina): 13-5 SU run (9-9 ATS).

* Troy Calhoun (Air Force): 6-2 ATS in last eight.

* Paul Chryst (Wisconsin): 5-1 SU & ATS.

* Kirk Ferentz (Iowa): 11-6 ATS, including 3 SU & ATS wins in a row. 

* Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M): Four-game SU and ATS bowl winning streak and 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS overall.

* Hugh Freeze (Liberty): 4-1 SU and ATS with Ole Miss and Liberty.

* Tom Herman (Texas): 4-0 SU and ATS, all upset wins.

* Doc Holliday (Marshall): 7-game SU and ATS winning streak was snapped last season.

* Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech): 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in last seven.

* Dan Mullen (Florida): Five straight bowl victories, 3-2 ATS.

* Dabo Swinney (Clemson): 9-3 ATS and 10-2 ATS in last 12; 7-2 ATS in playoffs.

Now the underperformers:

* Jim Harbaugh (Michigan): Four straight SU and ATS losses.

* Clay Helton (USC): Four straight ATS losses.

* Dana Holgorsen (Houston): Brutal 1-5 SU and 0-6 ATS in bowl games since 2012.

* Seth Littrell (North Texas): Three straight losses (1-2 ATS), team allowing 46.7 PPG.

* Nick Saban (Alabama): Just 4-7 ATS in last 11 bowl games. 

While this might be understating it, the coach factor certainly has to be considered when wagering.

4. Distractions

Many things can cause distractions for a team between the final game of the regular season and the bowl. Some come out of nowhere and can affect a team at the most inopportune time. Distractions can come from all sorts of sources, such as coaches leaving or players becoming ineligible for grades or behavior. Case in point, three Oklahoma starters were suspended leading up to last year’s playoff game, and their absence hurt in a blowout loss to LSU. Some teams even partake too much in the local flair, choosing to enjoy the experience a little too much while not adequately preparing for the real reason they are there, a football game. Sometimes teams can get caught up so much in why they are in one bowl game and not another that they can also lose focus. Again, these nuances can come from all sorts of sources, so be sure to keep your focus on the news in the days leading up to the games. Because of COVID-19, it will be more important than ever to know which players are or aren’t playing.

Fortunately, there has been only one coaching change that will affect this season’s bowl games. Let’s get you caught up in case you missed it. Note that last year there were six key coaching changes that affected bowl games, and in the prior year there were five.

* Auburn fired Gus Malzahn, and he will be replaced for the bowl game against Northwestern on an interim basis by Kevin Steele, the defensive coordinator. 

* For about 24 hours, West Virginia prepped for a Liberty Bowl matchup against Tennessee. The 4-6 Volunteers opted out of the game and were replaced by Army. The 9-2 Black Knights originally were snubbed, and coach Jeff Monken left scorched earth in calling out the teams and reasons his team got shortchanged. 

* North Carolina and Miami were among the teams that had players opt out shortly after the bowl announcements. Interestingly, the Tar Heels are playing in their biggest bowl game in many years.

* Undoubtedly there will be teams affected by COVID-19 absences. You’re going to want to follow the situation at Ohio State as the Buckeyes played the Big Ten championship game down some 23 players. The Big Ten was in the process of reviewing its 21-day quarantine policy, which could affect the availability of many of those players for the Sugar Bowl against Clemson.

Distractions don’t always turn out negatively, so be careful how you assess the specific situations. For instance, some teams rally around their new or departing coaches as a show of loyalty. Other teams may use a key injury as a motivational source. 

Several quarterback availability scenarios will play out leading up to the games. Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts was described as doubtful for the New Orleans Bowl. Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz, who has cooled since a red-hot start, is listed as questionable for the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest. Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. was lost for the season a few weeks ago, and NC State’s Devin Leary and Texas-San Antonio’s Lowell Narcisse have been out since mid-October and will not play. On the running back front, prolific Buffalo star Jaret Patterson was listed as questionable against Marshall with a leg injury.

Another situation to watch closely is players opting out. In this season of uncertainty, we’ve seen several teams opt out. However, player opt outs will continue to affect the betting action. In last year’s games, surprisingly, the teams that were struck hardest by players opting out — Georgia and Alabama among them — fared fairly well. That said, in 2018 when West Virginia quarterback Will Grier opted out, the Mountaineers’ line moved 10 points, and they got whipped 34-18 by Syracuse. Unfortunately, this trend seems to be gaining steam. It remains to be seen what effect the minimal prep time between regular-season finale and bowl game will have on this phenomenon. But it’s clear that coaching changes and players opting out can make a hectic time even more so.

5. Regional or home-field advantage

Typically in the bowl season, travel logistics can play a factor for teams and fans. It all affects how a game plays out. Of course, with fans expected to be severely limited and travel arrangements more difficult this season, the regional and home-field advantage factor is a huge question mark. Let’s proceed as if everything is status quo.

Over the last 20 seasons, 33 bowl games have been played at the home field of one of the teams, including two last season. The host teams are 18-15 SU and ATS in those games. In 2019, Florida Atlantic and Hawaii both won on their home field.

The advantage that isn’t always as glaring, and therefore often overlooked, is a regional advantage. There are many examples of teams playing bowl games in their home state, perhaps less than three hours from their campus. The chances for that team to feel as if they are the home team by rallying their fans to the cause are much greater than the opponent, which, along with its fans, has to endure more rigorous travel to get to the game. 

The examples of the latter are many fold. From last year alone, I categorized seven games that had a significant regional advantage. Those teams went 6-1 ATS, advancing the record of bowl teams with those edges on my ledger to 32-21 ATS (60.4%) in their last 53 games. I don’t know what your expectations are for bowl success, but if you play every game in a given system and hit at that rate, you are doing pretty well.

You will find games like this on every year’s bowl card, as organizers do this to increase attendance figures and enhance the experience for the travelers. The trouble for oddsmakers is that this home-field edge is impossible to quantify, and as a result, most bowl games not at a specific home field are treated as neutral games. Therefore, this is an easy spot for bettors to pick up at least a point or two of value on a line.

The list is not as long for this year’s games, so here’s a look at the matchups that qualify as regional or home-field advantage games:

* Louisiana Tech (Regional) vs. Georgia Southern in New Orleans Bowl

* Miami (Regional) vs. Oklahoma State in Cheeze-It Bowl

* Texas (Regional) vs. Colorado in Alamo Bowl

* Wake Forest (Regional) vs. Wisconsin in Duke’s Mayo Bowl

* Oklahoma (Regional) vs. Florida in Cotton Bowl

* TCU (Regional) vs. Arkansas in Texas Bowl

* Georgia (Regional) vs. Cincinnati in Peach Bowl

6. Big line or total movements

I indicated earlier that I am convinced players and coaches know the point spreads in their bowl games. I am not convinced, however, that they follow line moves like actual bettors do. As they say, things like this are best left for the pros. I also implied that it is impossible to quantify the distractions a team faces in its bowl preparations. Perhaps line movements are the best and only way to even think about doing it.

Therefore, while I wouldn’t actually consider a line moving a lot in a bowl game a motivating factor for a team, the move itself should stand as a red flag for you when wondering if some unusual situation might be distracting a team. In general, oddsmakers are sharp enough at this point in the season to set lines that stay steady over the weeks-long period of bowl games. In fact, only 34 of about 831 bowl games over the last 27 years have seen line moves of 4.5 points or more from their opening number, and that includes games in which major player injury or suspension announcements were made after opening. Last year, just three games moved 4.5 or more points off their opening lines, and bettors lost all three, a rarity, as you’ll see below. With the time factor shortened in 2020, we may not see as many moves.

Recreational bettors should consider themselves lucky because the experts are basically paving the road to bowl winnings by telling you which team to bet on. As just mentioned, 34 games over the last 28 bowl seasons have seen line movements of 4.5 or more points. Here is the trend:

In bowl games between 1992 and 2019 that had closing lines more than four points off of their opening line, the team that the line moved toward is 20-13-1 ATS (60.6%).

In most cases, line moves this big are typically caused by some distracting factor, such as a coaching change, suspension or injury, and rarely due to a miss by oddsmakers. In short, with a 60.6% ATS success rate, let the experts interpret the impact that the distraction will have for you.

With so little time between the announcements of the bowl games and the publishing of our Bowl Guide, none of the lines had moved enough as of press time to qualify. Follow this all the way until kickoff.

Concerning totals, there are always a lot more games that move 4.5 points or more off their opening number by game time, but the reason can often be the game-day weather in addition to all of the other circumstances previously discussed. Regardless of the reason, bettors have been right at a 59-44-1 (57.3%) rate on totals moving 4.5 points or more. In the 2019-20 bowl season, bettors drove the totals off their opening numbers by 4.5 points or more in 10 games, splitting them 5-5. Keep an eye on the numbers as you approach game time because the totals  typically make their biggest moves in the hours before kickoff.

7. Summary of season

The new factor for 2019 was called Summary of Season. Quite simply, it is analyzing whether a team underperformed or overperformed expectations for the season. The thought being that teams that have played better than expected are typically more galvanized than those that haven’t. This has to be an obvious factor, though. For instance, if Team A was picked third in its conference and finished second, that isn’t a truly obvious outperforming situation. However, if a team was picked first and finished fourth, or picked last and reached a bowl game, those situations are more dramatic and, therefore, worth noting. 

Here are some teams that did much better or worse than expected, or performed far differently from last season:

Better than expected (teams cited last year went 6-3-1 ATS)

* BYU: 7-6 last season, won its first nine games of 2020.

* Coastal Carolina: Special season, going 11-0.

* Texas-San Antonio: Several publications projected Roadrunners to finish last in C-USA East.

* Miami: Rebounded from 6-7 in 2019 to 8-2 regular season.

* Colorado: Consensus Pac-12 South basement pick.

* Tulsa: Went 4-8 last season, improved to 6-2 and played for conference title.

* Ball State and San Jose State: Surprise conference championship teams will meet in Arizona Bowl.

* Cincinnati: Picked third in AAC by most pundits, went undefeated.

* NC State: Rebounded from 4-8 in 2019 to 8-3 in 2020.

* Indiana: Overtook Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin as expected No. 2 team in the Big Ten.

* Army: Improved from 5-8 to 9-2 this season.

Worse than expected (teams cited last year went 2-2 ATS)

* Texas: Fringe national title contender at outset of season, went 5-3-1.

* Wisconsin: Preseason Big Ten West favorite fell apart after 2-0 start.

Digging further, there are a few betting systems that I was able to uncover by looking at the seasonal records of teams headed into the bowl games. Here’s a look:

System No. 1: Teams that won 0-3 games the prior season and qualified for a bowl game the next are 25-9-1 ATS over the last six bowl seasons when matched against a team not in that situation. 

Qualifying teams for 2020: Northwestern, Arkansas.

System No. 2: Teams that improved by 6-plus wins from the prior regular season are on a 10-5 ATS run in bowl games as underdogs.

Qualifying teams for 2020: None.

System No. 3: Teams that finished .500 by winning their final regular-season game to qualify for a bowl game against a + .500 opponent are on a 21-7 ATS surge (75%) as underdogs

Qualifying team for 2020: Hawaii.

Regarding teams’ ATS records on the season, it seems that bettors do not want to put too much focus on a team’s success that season. It is actually a better fade factor, as teams with worse ATS records have actually proved to be better wagers, going about 52.5% in bowl games since ’92. Going even further …

System No. 4: Teams that are 25% or worse against the spread on the season are 29-19 ATS over the last seasons in bowl games

Qualifying teams for 2020: UCF, Western Kentucky, Colorado, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Ball State, Auburn, Notre Dame, Ole Miss.

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