My favorite part of the sports calendar – the college bowl season – will be underway before we know it. It’s popular these days to bash bowls and support a football playoff. I’m not entirely opposed to a playoff, but only as long as the bizarre and pleasingly awkward spectacle that is the bowl season still survives in some regard. There’s something incredibly pleasing about having a game almost every day for three weeks or so – and more than one on some days. The pairings are often interesting – and regularly unique – and that leads to regular unexpected drama. Great stuff.
From a handicapping perspective bowl games are a little different than other games. They are still football games played by the same rules, so you don’t want to go too crazy looking for differences, but you have to be aware of them. Here are seven factors college football handicappers need to consider that make these situations unique.
More prep time – Typically teams have a week to prepare for a game – five practices or so. For bowl games teams have a month or more to get ready for the challenge. Extra preparation does at least two things. First, it allows for a coaching staff to intimately know and understand what their opponents do, so it makes it less likely that a team will be overwhelmed by a unique offense or defense. As a result, execution becomes more important than schemes in these games. Second, it rewards coaches who are more strategic and creative – they are the ones who can anticipate what the opposing team will be thinking and what they can do to maximize their advantages.
Time to get healthy – The later we get into the regular season, the bigger factor that injuries become. There are the players who miss time as a result of injuries, and just as significantly there are those who are playing at less than full capacity because of bangs and bruises. In both cases the time between games can solve a lot of problems. You still have to be aware of people who are unable to play, but you can be reasonably confident that players who are playing are playing as close to healthy as football players can.
Unfamiliar opponents – Part of what makes bowls so interesting is that they can bring together teams that not only don’t typically play each other, but also that play in conferences that don’t often have a lot to do with each other. That can create a big clash in styles. In conference play we typically see teams of similar styles, philosophies and talent levels meet up. With that out the window in bowl games it can be much more challenging to anticipate what will happen, and individual matchups become even more significant.
Neutral site – Neutral site games happen during the regular season, but not very often. Most bowl games are in neutral sites, though – and some are in sites far removed from where teams play. More than ever, then, you have to spend time handicapping what impact the setting will have by asking questions about such things as the likely size of the crowd, their bias, the style of field and how that compares to what the teams are used to, and so on.
Coaches shuffled around – Between the end of the regular season and the start of bowls every year we see a lot of coach movement. Coaches are fired, others resign, and coaches leave programs to fill openings. Sometimes departing football coaches will stay with their teams through the bowl, and other times they will leave and be replaced by an interim coach – or even the new head coach in rare cases. Sometimes a coach hasn’t been fired or left a program before a bowl game, but everyone in the world knows that a change is imminent after the game is played. There is far more coaching changes before bowls than there ever is during the season, so the likelihood that a coach will have the full cooperation of his team, and that he will be fully prepared, is a bigger factor than ever before.
Odds are posted for an extended period – Odds for regular season college football games are posted for no longer than a week in most cases. That means that bettors don’t have a whole lot of time to consider them, and the movement they can make as a result can be limited. With the lines for bowl games exposed to public opinion for several weeks – and subject to higher than usual betting volume in many cases – looking at line movement and determining why it is significant is more important than in the regular season.
Motivation factors – In you college football handicapping you’ll find that some teams couldn’t possibly be happier about their bowl assignment – just getting to play in a bowl game is a dream come true. Other football teams will be frustrated by where they are playing and what went wrong to lead them to play there. Unmotivated teams can play far worse than expected – though they don’t always. Excited teams can play the game of their lives – or they can be frustratingly flat. Motivation isn’t always a clear puzzle, but it’s a crucial one to consider in handicapping bowl games.