Conference Strength Key in Bowl Game Handicapping
by Robert Ferringo - 12/21/2006
(This is a portion of an article running in the current edition of Every Edge Magazine.)
Never try to stiff a working girl in San Juan - she knows what real American money looks like. Never try to convince a cop that it wasn't yours - you'll look less foolish when you show up on "Cops". Never lie to your mother or mother-in-law - they're women, they know.
There's some free advice for you. After all, it is the Christmas season and I'm in a giving mood. That's the spirit, right? I'm fulfilling my moral obligation as good Christian and red-blooded American by helping my fellow man.
But it's not just the Holiday season. It's college bowl season, that mystical time of covers and Christmas trees, Hail Mary Passes and Hanukkah, onside kicks and Kwanza. So to be a good sport I've got one more religiously ambiguous nugget for you: one of the simplest, yet most telling factors in handicapping college bowl games is conference strength.
Motivation, senior leadership, physical superiority, coaching, skill positions, common opponents, offensive-defensive match-ups, injuries, distractions, weather, past bowl performance and public perception all should be considered. But a basic and effective system involves three questions - what conferences are the teams from, how well did they play within their conference, how did their conference perform against others?
Sounds simple, but how do you determine how strong a particular league is? Given the regional and emotional biases involved, it's a difficult question. There are complicated statistical systems - similar to those used to calculate the RPI in college basketball and the ones that calibrate launch timings on nuclear weapons - that can break down conference strength. But I feel like those can convolute the issue because statistics are relative to the competition that a team faces. Stats also eliminate intangibles like momentum and emotion.
So let's keep it simple. There are 32 games featuring 64 programs during this month-long football smorgasbord. In order to predict how each BCS conference will perform we'll look at two straightforward numbers. First, I've complied the records of the Big Six in regards with how they fared against the spread in their nonconference games in 2006. Then I included their performances ATS in the past five year's worth of bowl games. Here are the results:
|Conference||Nonconference Record||Recent Bowl Record|
The first thing that jumps out at me that the ACC, due in part to its recent success and the impact that has on public perception, could be ripe for a precipitous fall this December. The ACC is generally one of the highest regarded conferences in the land. But this season inconsistency and ineffectiveness have reigned, as these teams haven't lived up to their reputation. Look for that to carry over into their bowl match-ups.
A second league that the chart pegs as one that sharp bettors should be looking to fade could be surprising to some. However, a pair of professional handicappers that I interviewed about this subject singled out this underachieving conference.
"You look at the bowl games and see most Big Ten teams are not favored," said one of our anonymous handicappers. "Yet many people hold them in such high regard."
"The Big Ten is overrated, in my opinion," said Jason, our second handicapper. "It's a top-weighted conference," he added, referring to Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Big 10 secured six bids this year, with Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota also hitting pay dirt.
"Penn St, Purdue and Minnesota - not one recorded a victory against a team with a winning record from out of their conference," Jason said. "These three teams just beat up on the rest of the awful Big 10 and the cupcakes they scheduled outside their conference. When they played winning teams from Division I-A conferences they lost and proved they couldn't compete."
Besides the fact that the ACC and Big 10 are probably overrated, this chart points out that the Big East may be the most underrated conference in the country. Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia are as strong a triumvirate as any in the land and received a lot of national love. But what about Cincinnati and South Florida? Those are two quality teams that scored wins over the Big Three this season and could be a bit undervalued right now.
Also, what about the always-under-the-radar Pac-10? Besides USC, the East Coast Bias has swallowed the success of the other teams from the Left Coast. The top six squads from the Pac-10 went 10-4 ATS in a challenging nonconference slate. Also, the entire conference is 26-22 SU and 37-10 ATS (78.7 percent) in the underdog role since the start of the 1997 bowl season. Clearly there is value there.
Can Florida beat Ohio State for the national championship? Can Wake Forest hang with Louisville? Was I supposed to pick up a gift for my father-in-law or was my wife going to do it? These are all outstanding questions for this holiday-bowl seasons. Hopefully, these stats and insight will help provide you with answers for your betting questions. I'll leave figuring out the in-laws to you.
Besides a critical analysis of conference strength, here are a few more tips that you may find useful this bowl season:
Always play against public teams. This is academic. Football factories like Notre Dame and Alabama beg for public action. The result is a 1-9 ATS mark over their past 10 combined appearances. Squares love "name" teams, and as a result the numbers against them get heavily padded.
"Sharps usually get pinned up against the public in betting," said a Bodog bookmaker. "If you know your players are going to be the public team then you can shade the line because the sharps will usually take the dog in those cases. This will help you balance the action. As risk managers, knowing your player base is crucial."
Southern California and Penn State are potential targets for the theory. Both are traditional powers, but neither has the overall talent of recent years.
Diagnose the disinterested teams. For some programs a bowl game is an reaffirmation of their bloodlust during the regular season. For others it's a medium for proving that, "Yes, we really are that good." Yet for others, the Dow Chemical Humanitarian Bowl is a disappointment, and playing in a bowl below their perceived stature is viewed as an insult. But this level of hubris often leads to a flat or uninspired performance.
An example is Georgia Tech last season. They were 7-4, ranked No. 24 in the country, and ready for a serious bowl invite with requisite payday. They received a date with Utah in San Francisco at the Emerald Bowl. The result was a 38-10 pounding at the hands of the underdog Utes.
On the flip side, look for teams seeking redemption. Schools that lost their bowl game the previous year and are posted as an underdog the next season cover the spread at a 59-percent rate. See: the Yellowjackets. They are 7.5-point dogs against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Don't forget about home cooking. Home-field advantage is of critical importance in college football. There is no substitute for confidence that familiarity breeds, accentuated by the raw emotion pumped into the players from their supporters. That edge obviously carries into bowl games - but only to a certain extent.
Over the past three seasons there have been 12 bowl games in which one school was playing on its home turf. Those teams have gone 8-3-1 ATS. However, teams playing in their home state are just 15-14 ATS. Also, the designated "home team" have gone 51-32 (61.4 percent) over that period.
Identify the must-have holiday trend. Traditional betting logic was always to play the underdogs before New Year's and the favorites after. According to research by renowned handicapper Andy Iskoe, between 1991-1998 underdogs in the month of December covered the spread at just over 54 percent. Yet, the favorites in the month of January responded with a 41-22-1 mark (65 percent).
Clearly, playing the puppies before New Year's and carrying the chalk afterward was a solid gambling guideline. Well, the books have adjusted and now the value is the other way. Over the past three seasons favorites before Christmas are 16-1 straight up and 12-5 ATS (70.6 percent). Conversely, the chalk is just 36-31 SU and 25-41 ATS (37.9 percent) after Santa makes his way down the chimney.
That's it for now as I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Carpe diem, my friends. And good luck.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and the lead writer for Doc's Sports. You can purchase his weekly plays here.