There is no bigger single factor in handicapping college bowl games than motivation. That sounds like a bold statement, but it is absolutely true. The usual suspects are important – matchups, the caliber of the coaching, the talent levels, the schemes and so on – but none are as important as how ready and eager the teams are to be in the game, and how that has affected their preparations. Bowl games are entirely unique in North American sports because teams take off a long time – often more than a month – in the middle of their seasons to prepare for them. If a team lacks motivation then that time off can be brutal for them, and it can have a massive impact on the field. Here are eight factors for college football handicappers to consider when trying to determine the motivation level of teams heading into their bowl games:
Coaching status – The time between the regular NCAA football season and the bowl games unfortunately corresponds with the biggest period of coach movement in the sport. Teams that have struggled fire their coaches, and coaches that have had success look to move up the ladder to a more significant program. That means that a lot of football teams go into their bowl preparations facing a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in their coaching staff. Some teams have already had their team fired, and are working with an interim coach or with the existing coach remaining as a lame duck until the bowl game ends. Some teams – especially successful teams from minor conferences – will find that their coach has been stolen from them by a bigger school. Successful college football teams may have kept their head coach but have seen their top coordinators move on to other places. Whenever you look at a team heading into a bowl it is crucial to look at how the coaching situation may have changed. You’ll also want to look at how the team has responded to the changes. Some teams will react negatively – like they have been betrayed by the situation – and that can have a big impact on their bowl game.
Is this where the team wants to be? – There are obviously some college bowl games that are more attractive to sports bettors than others. If a team is heading into a game that isn’t where they want to be then they could struggle to be fired up for the game. Perhaps they feel like they should have been selected for a better bowl, or maybe the destination isn’t a particularly exotic one for the team. The time of the game could also be an issue – it’s more exciting to be playing in a bowl game on January 1 than December 17.
Are there key seniors saying goodbye? – If a football team has been led by key seniors for a long time – particularly someone like a quarterback or a high profile defensive player – then the team could really be motivated to send the player out on a high note. The player could also be particularly motivated to play well both to end their college career well and to give the NFL scouts one last favorable game impression.
Are they healthy? – The biggest advantage of having a month off before a game is that it is a great chance to get healthier. Has the team been able to welcome back a lot of players that were missing, or to return banged up players to full strength? It is quite possible that a team in a bowl game will be significantly different than they were at the end of the season if health had been a factor.
Who are they playing? – This seems obvious, but it is crucial to consider here. It is much easier for a team to get fired up playing a perennial top 25 program than it is to play a lousy team from an obscure conference.
Has the preparation time been smooth? – Some college teams will have a very smooth and easy time between their regular season finale and their bowl game. They will just go about their business without any distractions. Other teams won’t have nearly that much harmony. If players are transferring or being suspended, coaches are facing controversy or scandal, or the media is focusing intensely on divisive stories then it could be very hard for the football team to remain focused and unified.
Is there a rivalry between the teams? – There are some opponents that teams get fired up for regardless of the circumstances. Michigan and Ohio State would play a barn-burner regardless of whether the teams were 11-0 or 0-11 going into the game. Against opponents that don’t have a rivalry of any sort, though, it could be harder to get fired up and excited. It’s important to look at things like geography, history, or coaches common to both teams to see if there could be a rivalry that could help teams get focused. Rivalries can be built out of thin air, too, if one team makes a statement or takes an action that incites the other team in the weeks leading up to the game.
What are teams hearing from the media? – Coaches always say that they pay no attention to the media and what they are saying. That is almost never true, and even when it is the players still read and hear what is being said. That means that the media can have a big impact on how teams are feeling heading into a game. If they are being very negative about a college football team that could serve to either motivate the team or discourage them depending on their mindset and the other factors we have already discussed. On the other hand, a team could easily come into a bowl game cocky and under-prepared if the media seems to think that a game is a mismatch. As a college football handicapper you can use this.