Primer for Bowl Game Handicapping
by Robert Ferringo - 12/09/2008
Surprising upsets, a wide-open title race, and rivalries that still make folks seriously consider burning down their neighbor's house; yup, we are once again immersed in an exhilarating season of college football. However, as you read this sentence, in some dark, dank cubicle, some sanctimonious sportswriter is banging away at his crusty keyboard. He is spitting and muttering as he cranks out the obligatory College-Football-Needs-A-Playoff story.
It has become a rite of The Season, like turkey fryers burning down trailer parks at Thanksgiving or inappropriate advances at Christmas parties. But these pharisaical scribes are merely the tip of the sword in the movement to incorporate playoffs into the college game. Everyone from drunken fans and sex-crazed boosters to self-important sponsors and offshore sportsbooks has backed the idea of a winner-take-all tournament. The aim, simply stated, is to crown an undisputed national champion each year in the most exciting and profitable way possible.
"I realize this is a very complex issue for some and maybe I don't know all the factors and logistics surrounding a playoff system, but I'm in favor of it," said Jay Kornegay, former Executive Director of Racing and Sports for the Las Vegas Hilton. "They've made tremendous progress with the BCS system, but it still lacks a true playoff format. It's better than what we had in the past but still leaving us questions and 'what ifs' after the championship game."
"I believe everyone knows if we did institute a college football playoff system what the implications would be on TV ratings, sponsorship, money and interest," Kornegay added.
There's the magic word: money. Since the BCS Committee has the business savvy of South American slave traders and the moral compass of an oil executives, it's clear that money will remain a factor in how college crowns its king. It was certainly a factor in the formation of this season's newest bowl game, dubbed the BCS National Championship Game.
The 34th bowl game, up from 29 just a year ago, will be held on Jan. 8, 2009 at Dolphins Stadium in Miami and will pit the Sooners of Oklahoma against those wily Gators of Florida. And while The Powers That Be will pimp their euphemistic nomenclature - The BCS National Championship Game - this game leaves us in exactly the same predicament we've been in for nine years and is just another vehicle for the BCS Hype Machine.
The good news is that while this bowl game may not completely guarantee a consensus national champ, - what if Oklahoma wins and Texas blows out Ohio State? - having a "Title Game" guarantees another potentially large payout for gamblers and sportsbooks.
While the current BCS system may be shakier than a Middle East cease-fire, college football is a unique animal in the gambling world precisely because of its peculiar postseason. The holiday bowl season offers a month-long orgy of marketing and violence unrivaled by anything on the sports calendar. It's the optimum occasion to fleece your co-workers into sucker bets on their alma maters. And if there's a better cure for a New Year's hangover than a backdoor cover I have yet to find it.
There is a plethora of factors that distinguish bowl games from conference play. Everything from the schedule and preparation to the emotion and motivation is incomparable. Even the professional oddsmakers I have spoken with on the subject admit that books approach bowl lines from a different angle than they do regular season games.
"Some teams lack motivation if they feel they deserve a better bowl game or they just missed out on a BCS game by losing down the stretch," said Kornegay. "Marquee conference games have emotion on both sides - you never have to worry about a lack of it. You tend to look at those games as 'regular' games. ... (But) emotion plays more of a part in bowl games."
Besides emotional keys, the bowl schedule has a significant impact on players and coaches. From September through November schools generally play every Saturday. But because the regular season ends in late November and bowl games aren't played until mid-December or early January teams can go weeks or even a month without playing live. For instance, Ohio State will once again have the longest drought between games with a full 45 days resting between their 42-7 thrashing of Michigan on Nov. 22 and their likely thrashing at the hands of Texas on Jan. 5. Hell, that's longer than Noah was at sea.
An oddsmaker at Bodog believes that the jigsaw slate of the holiday bowl season offers sportsbooks a significant advantage. "We have time on our side," he said. "We can analyze the line moves and post a stronger opening line, and we can stay one step ahead of the players."
Not so fast, my friend. The casinos are always one step ahead of the bettors, but there are ways that seasoned gamblers can utilize the extra prep time.
First, the books pushed their lines out the door the day after the bowl pairings were announced. However, there is a virtual eternity between when the lines are posted and kickoff, and any number of things that favor the savvy bettor can shake down. And while the books have to take action during this time (they rarely ever pull a line this time of year, even for an injury or suspensions) the gambler can lie in wait like a patient prowler.
For example, the fall semester comes to an end in mid-December for a majority of schools in the country. That means that if some key members of a team haven't been keeping up with their grades - and I've already heard rumblings that this might be an issue for Notre Dame and Boise State - then those early lines will look like a joke by the time the teams actually take the field.
Second, staying ahead of the curve is especially crucial if you plan on backing a favorite in an early bowl game. Since square bettors overwhelmingly play the chalk, you need to put yourself in position to pounce on those early lines faster than Maurice Clarett can say, "Gotta get my Goose on!" If you like a favorite, don't hesitate. Don't mull. Just throw your stones and lay your wager. Quickly.
If eating the chalk isn't your thing, you can turn the intricacies of the bowl schedule in your favor by remaining patient. Underdogs have been the money play over the past three years, posting a respectable 47-40-1 mark (54.0 percent) against the spread. Since we've already noted that the general public loves playing the favorites, the extended time between games allows "dog-catchers" to wait out line movements and strengthen their earning potential as the lines take a constant pounding on the favorites.
A perfect example this year is the Alamo Bowl between Missouri and Northwestern. Missouri has the more renowned program and has been much more of a public team this year. Hence, they are going to get all the action. So if you happen to like Northwestern, then you can simply wait for nearly 20 days until the Dec. 29 kickoff and catch all the points you could want. This line opened at Missouri -10 and it is already Missouri -13. This is one of the more overt moves, but even a point or a half-point here or there can have a fantastic impact on your bankroll.
Finally, a seasoned gambler is always on the prowl for highly profitable middling opportunities. Since the gap between posted bowl lines and kickoff for bowl games is wider than the one in Madonna's teeth there is always the increased probability that you'll find a game on which you can bet both sides and play for a big payday.
As we launch further though the bowl season I'll discuss handicapping things like motivation and matchups. But for now these simple concepts - taking advantage of early lines, particularly for favorites, waiting out your underdogs, handicapping off-field situations, and looking for potential middling opportunities - are some tricks that even the greenest of bettors can take advantage of to help them stay ahead.
Carpe diem, my friend. And good luck.