How to Pick College Football Bowl Games

As promised, here is my wrapup column with all the lessons I learned throughout bowl season. Timely, I know. This guide would have been extremely helpful a month ago.

However, if I don’t write these down, I won’t remember them next season. This way, I’ll only have to remember to look at my blog archives. I will almost certainly forget to do that, but there’s always a chance that I remember.

Some of these are rules that we were all well aware of before the games, but were emphatically reassured with this season’s games. Others are somewhat new thoughts. In no particular order, here are eight lessons I learned from this year’s bowl slate:

1. Do not bet against the SEC in the National Championship Game

Yeah, we already knew this one. SEC teams had won four straight BCS championships heading into this season. But Auburn really hammered this point home with their victory over Oregon.

In many ways, this was the SEC’s biggest challenge to their supremacy. The previous four titles came against the Big 12 and Big Ten. This was the Pac-10’s first crack at the SEC. The Pac-10 is widely viewed as the second fastest conference after the SEC, and Oregon dominated that conference like no team since USC six years ago. Though Auburn finished undefeated, they were viewed as one of the weaker SEC champions of recent times because of their propensity to do juuuust enough to win games. If a team was going to end the SEC’s reign of dominance, this was the year.

It was not to be. Oregon only lost by a field goal, but the difference was apparent. Auburn and Oregon were both fast, but only Auburn was big and fast. From now on, don’t pick against the SEC in the championship game – wait until another conference shows that they can compete with the best the SEC has to offer.

2. Trust the good SEC teams, but not the average SEC teams

The five best SEC teams to make bowl games (Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, and Mississippi State) went a combined 4-1 with 3 blowouts. The next five teams (South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky) went 1-4. Last year, SEC teams that finished 8-4 or better went 3-1 in bowl games; teams 7-5 or worse went 3-3.

Between 1998 and 2008, SEC teams that entered bowl games with 8-4 records or better went 31-24 (.564). Teams with 7-4 or worse records went a 18-10 (.643). Way too small of a sample size? Absolutely. But it’s worth keeping an eye on. For many years, the strength of the conference was in the middle – the conference won only two of the first eight BCS titles. Since then, the conference has become top-heavy with the best schools getting the best recruits and coaches. It would surprise no one if the SEC became a conference of haves and have-nots like the Big 12 or Big Ten.

If so, watch out for the 6-6 and 7-5 schools in bowl games. If 6-6 SEC teams continue lose to mediocre teams from the Big East, Conference USA, and ACC, you might as well throw the “always bet on the SEC” rule goes out the door.

#3. Watch out for unmotivated teams

My full post on this is here. In that post, I identified the eight games this season with an unmotivated team that was favored by a touchdown or more. The games resulted in four blowouts for the favored team and four straight-up wins for the underdog.

In my original post, I compared these games to the 5 vs. 12 games in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Often in these games, you have an underdog that enters the game with something to prove versus a favorite that finds themselves in a less desirable bowl game because of a poor finish to the season. The lesson: beware of putting high confidence values on these teams in pools. It’s a pretty empty feeling when you know within the first five minutes that a team you put a high value on didn’t bother to show up for the game.

#4. Conference USA sucks

I know, I know, Central Florida beat Georgia after I swore up-and-down that a Conference USA team couldn’t beat a BCS conference team. In my Military Bowl preview, I pointed out that since 2005 Conference USA teams were 0-10 against BCS conference teams in bowls (0-11 after East Carolina was pummeled by Maryland).

Finally, C-USA champion Central Florida ended that streak with a 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. Call me crazy, but I’m not impressed. I watched parts of the Liberty Bowl and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team care about winning as little as 6-6 Georgia did in that game. And the C-USA champion still barely slipped by.

SMU, Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UTEP all showed how overmatched mediocre teams from C-USA are against mediocre teams from other conferences. It might be okay to bet on a really good C-USA team, but resist the urge to pick 7-5 and 6-6 teams. And I’m well aware that Tulsa destroyed Hawaii, which brings me to my next point…

#5. Don’t trust Hawaii at home in bowl games

In this post, I listed Hawaii’s performance at home in bowl games since 1999. Long story short: you never know what you’re going to get with the Warriors at home in bowl seasons. They win games that they’re not supposed to and lose games that they’re heavy favorites in.

#6. Do stick with teams you like in the season and don’t over-think match-ups

If I made a list of teams that I really liked after the season, it would have included these teams: Stanford (maybe the best team in the country by season’s end); LSU (they just win baby); Boise State (drastically undervalued after losing to a very good Nevada team on the road); Notre Dame (ended season on a hot streak); and Nevada (see Boise State). The list of teams I didn’t like included: Kansas State and Georgia (both burned me late in the season); Michigan (0-8 ATS in their last eight games); Nebraska (peaked way too soon); and South Carolina (insanely overrated based on win over Alabama).

Then the matchups got in the way. I picked all five of those teams I liked, but for various reasons, only put 29, 17, 26, 18, and 24 confidence points on them because I was scared of their matchups. Amazingly, I picked Kansas State (28), Georgia (30), and Nebraska (34) for waaaay too many points because I thought they fell into favorable matchups. I also only picked a solid Florida State team for 14 against the South Carolina team that I thought was overrated. In the Michigan game, I did pick Mississippi State for 31, so at least I followed my instincts once.

The moral of the story? Stick with teams you like and teams you don’t like. Don’t let unfavorable matchups sway you from teams that you liked during the season. And definitely don’t let favorable matchups trick you into picking teams that just aren’t playing all that well.

7. Sun Belt > MAC

For some reason, the NCAA likes pairing up these two conferences against each other. Maybe it’s a conspiracy to keep these also-rans away from other teams. Whatever the reasons, I’m sure the bowls that have to host these teams absolutely love it.

The standard theory is that the Sun Belt is the worst conference in the country. This is wrong – the MAC is worse. Even picking up the scraps that SEC and ACC teams leave behind in the fertile recruiting territory in the South, Sun Belt teams are still way faster than MAC teams. Sun Belt and MAC teams have met in bowls five times in the last three years. Each time, the MAC team had the better record. They have gone 2-3. Their only two wins were 11-2 MAC champion Central Michigan over 9-3 Troy in double overtime last year and 9-4 MAC champion Miami over 6-6 Middle Tennessee this year.

The very best MAC teams might be better than the top Sun Belt teams. But if the team’s records are within a game of each other, trust the speed of the Sun Belt.

8. Some coaches get their teams up for bowl games; others fail miserably

The Missouri/Iowa game was a good microcosm of this theory. I read an argument on a message board on this game. Angry poster #1 argued that Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz gets his guys up for bowl games and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel struggles to do the same. Without doing any research, this seemed correct based on my memory. Then angry poster #2 pointed out that, before this game, Ferentz was 5-3 in bowl games and Pinkel was 4-3. Well great, now I didn’t know what to think.

Turns out, angry poster #1 was emphatically right. Of Ferentz’s three losses, only one was a blowout (the 2002 Orange Bowl to a USC team that would win the next two national titles). The other two were to Florida in 2005 (31-24; Florida won the national title the next year) and to Texas in 2006 (26-24; Iowa was 6-6 and Texas was 10-2). Pinkel’s three losses came in a 35-13 beatdown against Navy last year, a 39-38 loss to Oregon State in the 2006 Sun Bowl, and a 27-14 loss to Arkansas in the 2003 Independence Bowl. Really, the only bowl game that Missouri has looked impressive in is when an 11-2 Tiger team dominated an 8-4 Arkansas team 38-7 in the 2007 Cotton Bowl.

Records aside, not all bowl performances are created equal. In retrospect, I might still have picked Missouri, but not for 23 confidence points against a team that has historically always been ready to play. Same with Fresno State; as I pointed out here, Pat Hill has struggled getting his team ready for bowl games. For some reason, I picked them anyway. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Northern Illinois beat them 40-17 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicates.

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