One of the main theories on predicting bowl games takes into consideration how much motivation a team has coming into the game. Typically this is when a team narrowly misses out on a BCS or national title game. Think Boise State this year falling to the MAACO Bowl this year after missing a last second field goal against Nevada that would have sent them to the Rose Bowl or Alabama in 2008 after their loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game cost them a berth in the National Championship. It shows up in more subtle ways too – think every team in the preseason top 25 that finished 6-6 or 7-5 and ended up in a bowl with a sponsor that 94% of the country has never heard of.
Prior to this season, I generally discounted the motivation factor in bowl games, mostly because I usually do not bet on the spread in the individual games and only enter into a few straight-up pools. My theory was that I couldn’t afford to lose the confidence points that I’d forsake if a heavy favorite ended up winning and I bet on the underdog to win. After my bowl pool picks went into the garbage yesterday, I may have to rethink this strategy.
Yesterday, SMU was upset at home by a weak Army team. The Mustangs’ starting quarterback (and a few other players) expressed dismay at not being able to travel anywhere for a bowl game. Despite this red flag, I picked SMU to win because I thought they were a far better team that Army. Sure enough, SMU came out flat: their first half drives ended with a fumble (returned for a TD), missed field goal, interception, interception, punt, out on downs. They fell down 16-0 at half and couldn’t recover in a 16-14 loss.
Later that night, I unfortunately witnessed the Nebraska/Washington debacle.* As a parting gift, the Big 12 sent the Huskers to the Holiday Bowl – fifth in the Big 12 pecking order, despite coming up only a field goal short of winning the conference. There, they were matched up with 6-6 Washington, which had been destroyed by the Huskers 56-21 earlier this year in a game that single-handedly sent Jake Locker’s draft status from potential number one overall pick to a late first-early second rounder. Unsurprisingly, the Huskers barely seemed to care about this one, coming out flat in the first half and even flatter in the second half. Washington’s domination was both extremely surprising and extremely unsurprising. Surprising because it would be something way short of an understatement to say that the Huskers are a way more talented team. Unsurprising because I don’t recall a single bowl game in Husker history where the fans were more apathetic about the result than this one; we shouldn’t be shocked to find that the players felt the same way.
* Brett Favre is impressed by how fast Taylor Martinez went from Big Man on Campus to walking train wreck in less than three months.
Finally, we have Central Florida’s 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. My thoughts on Conference USA are plenty clear so I found this game a bit shocking. What I missed is that this was another one of those subtle motivation games. Although Georgia won four of six to become bowl eligible, I missed the bigger picture – this was a Bulldog team ranked in the Top 25 to begin the season that was projected to win the SEC East as late as October 29th. Of course they weren’t going to care about competing with UCF, a team far inferior, talent-wise.
Three games, all of which I (and the vast majority of the public, I assume) placed high confidence amounts on. Hindsight being 20/20, three outcomes that look somewhat obvious in retrospect.
So what’s the common theme with these games? I’ll use an NCAA Tournament analogy. Previously I equated these upsets to a 14 seed beating a 3 seed or a 15 seed beating a 2 seed. Sure, it’s pretty amazing if you pick the upset, but the potential points to be lost if the higher seeded team moves on is too much, especially if they advance all the way to the Elite Eight or Final Four.
In reality, the motivation factor makes these more like a 12 seed versus a 5 seed. Most fans are familiar with this upset – since the tournament expanded to 64+ teams in 1985, at least one #12 seed has beaten a #5 seed every tournament except for 1988 and 2007. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is this: often a #12 seed is a high-major team that rallied to make the tournament or a mid-major with something to prove; on the other hand, the #5 seed is often a top ten team that peaked too early and limped into the tournament or an overrated high-major team that received a high seed based mostly on the strength of their conference. The #12 seed tends to come in more motivated and the underperforming #5 seed struggles in the upset. Sound familiar?
Now it’s pretty much a given that at least one #12 seed will be a #5 seed each year, just like it’s a given that at least one really motivated football team will be an underachieving team in a bowl game. The much harder part is picking which #12 seed will win.* After all, it doesn’t much matter that you’re aware of an important trend if you can’t capitalize on it.
* This can get pretty annoying, as it was this year when I picked Utah State and UTEP to win as #12 seeds. Both lost, but #12 Cornell beat #5 Temple, in a game I was sure Temple would win.
Here’s a list of games this year that have some element of the motivation factor for any number of reasons (undermotivated teams listed first):
Boise State vs. Utah
Hawaii vs. Tulsa
Oklahoma State vs. Arizona
SMU vs. Army
Nebraska vs. Washington
Georgia vs. Central Florida
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Oklahoma vs. Connecticut
There may be others, but these are the ones that stand out to me. I picked each of these favorites by 20 or more, with the exception of Alabama (I picked Michigan State in a small upset). So far, the undermotivated team has blown out the underdog twice (Boise and OSU), been blown out once (Hawaii, playing at home once again), and lost three close games (SMU, Nebraska, and Georgia). This illustrates the trouble with these games – no one wants to give up the points and look stupid within minutes of the opening kickoff when the upset pick gets blown out. The Tulsa/Hawaii outlier aside, there’s usually two possible results: the favorite dominates or the underdog eeks out a victory. Amazingly, in these six games that the unmotivated team was favored by at least a touchdown, the favorite either covered or lost straight up.
So here’s my strategy on these games in confidence pools going forward.* I’ll talk a big game now, 350-some days until next year’s picks are due, but let’s be honest: I’m not going to have the guts to check the box next to a double-digit underdog to win straight up next year. Instead, I’m going to forsake the so-called easy points and drop these favorites down in my confidence point list. Whereas before I was concerned about giving up easy points, in reality, I think there’s more to be gained than lost in these games. A majority of people pick these games for 30+ points, so I’m not actually going to gain on them by doing the same. Sure, when the picks do come through, my opponents will get 30-some points and I’ll get 10 or so. But I’ll still have chances to get the 30-some points back in other games. The 111 points I lost on Hawaii, SMU, Nebraska, and Georgia, I’ll never get back.
* And they get a big STAY AWAY from me as single bets.