In a normal year, the college football bowl season is crazy and unpredictable. This could be the most chaotic year ever, and Nick Saban facing off with Cinderella is only a small part of the big picture.
With a dizzying number of high-profile coaching changes, more star players opting out to declare for the NFL draft and the lingering uncertainty of COVID-19, the bowls are overflowing with challenges for oddsmakers and handicappers.
“Betting the bowls can be treacherous,” said Dan Saley, a Las Vegas professional bettor who specializes in college football. “This is a different kind of animal. Are the players excited to be there? Who’s sitting out, and who’s on the coaching staff? You have to look at the situations completely. Be cautious and know your info.”
Soon after the College Football Playoff bracket was set Sunday, the rest of a super-sized bowl lineup fell into place. There are 43 bowls plus the national championship game.
“Speaking as a bookmaker — hell, no, there’s not too many bowls,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said. “I love the bowl season. There’s a bunch of really good matchups.”
Forget the idea that only three matchups matter — the semifinals and the title game — because that’s far from the truth. When money is on the line, no game is meaningless, and more action is always better for bettors and bookmakers. After all, who goes to a buffet and complains about too many food options?
The playoff matchups on New Year’s Eve serve as the prime rib. No. 1 Alabama is a 13.5-point favorite against No. 4 Cincinnati, the aforementioned Cinderella crashing the Power 5 party. No. 2 Michigan is a 7.5-point underdog to No. 3 Georgia, which dropped two spots after its first loss. Saban is back on top, at least for now, after the Crimson Tide rolled over the favored Bulldogs 41-24 in the SEC championship.
“Every which way, Georgia got beat,” Andrews said. “I was completely shocked by that. I think Michigan will attract some money. If Alabama comes with their best, they should beat Cincinnati and cover, but Alabama has not been that good consistently.
“It should be a tournament, not an invitational. It’s ridiculous. But this is the way the committee kind of had to do it. I think these are the four teams that deserve to be in and they were seeded properly.”
An expanded playoff eventually will be a positive change, but there’s no need for eight teams this year. The bowl season, which kicks off Dec. 17, is full of handicapping riddles and mystery angles to analyze. I mostly play underdogs in college football, but some small favorites are featured in five of my early best bets.
FRISCO BOWL, Dec. 21
Texas-San Antonio (-2.5) over San Diego State:
The Aztecs’ smoke-and-mirrors magic show finally got exposed in a lopsided loss to Utah State in the Mountain West title game. San Diego State’s motivation would seem lacking, and the location of the game favors the 12-1 team from Texas. The star of the show should be the Roadrunners’ Sincere McCormick, who has rushed for 1,479 yards and 15 touchdowns this season.
QUICK LANE BOWL, Dec. 27
Western Michigan (pick) over Nevada:
This coaching change did not make headlines, but Jay Norvell left Nevada on Monday for Colorado State for some odd reason. The Wolf Pack opened as 6.5-point favorites before the Norvell news, and even worse are the rumors that star quarterback Carson Strong is considering opting out of the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. Norvell’s absence could be overcome, but Strong is worth at least six points to the spread.
With this game in Detroit, all signs are pointing to Western Michigan going off as the favorite. The Broncos, who upset ACC champion Pittsburgh in September, boast an explosive offense led by quarterback Kaleb Eleby.
Nevada is in a negative situation, and Fresno State of the Mountain West might be facing even more difficult preparations for UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 18. The Bulldogs lost coach Kalen DeBoer to Washington, and quarterback Jake Haener is transferring. In many bowls, statistical analysis takes a back seat to situational handicapping.
ALAMO BOWL, Dec. 29
Oklahoma (-4) over Oregon:
Three days after Utah blew out the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game, the Hurricanes swept in and took away coach Mario Cristobal, who’s leaving Oregon for Miami. How many players will follow Cristobal out the door? Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux declared for the NFL draft, in which he could be the No. 1 pick, and is not playing in San Antonio.
“Bowl games are historically a different type of handicap due to their uniqueness,” said handicapper Paul Stone, a VSiN contributor. “There are a number of games featuring coaching changes where one of the teams has an interim head coach and fewer assistants.”
A similarly problematic situation faces the Sooners after coach Lincoln Riley left for USC. However, Oklahoma is in a more stable spot due to Bob Stoops returning from retirement to coach the bowl and Brent Venables, who was Clemson’s defensive coordinator, being named the next coach. Stoops is not coming back to lose this game to a lame-Duck team, so to speak.
MUSIC CITY BOWL, Dec. 30
Tennessee (-3) over Purdue:
The Boilermakers’ top two players, defensive end George Karlaftis and wide receiver David Bell, declared for the draft and are not expected to play. Purdue won eight games behind a hot quarterback, Aidan O’Connell, but Bell was the Big Ten’s top receiver. The edge goes to first-year coach Josh Heupel and his Volunteers in Nashville.
Stone, who bet Tennessee at pick-’em Sunday, said, “I like what Heupel has done this season and think the Volunteers may win in their home state even if Purdue has its full complement of players.”
FIESTA BOWL, Jan. 1
Notre Dame (-2) over Oklahoma State:
Brian Kelly stunned everyone by taking the big money and running for the LSU job before quickly developing a Cajun accent. Marcus Freeman, promoted from defensive coordinator, was introduced Monday as the head coach. Freeman is a motivator who will have the Fighting Irish (11-1) excited to play on New Year’s Day.
It’s difficult to predict how the Cowboys will rebound after getting upset by Baylor in the Big 12 title game, which was not one of coach Mike Gundy’s career highlights. Oklahoma State’s offense is inconsistent, and Gundy’s team figures to be emotionally flat against a fired-up opponent.