How to Pick College Football Bowl Games

January 18, 2011

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.

BBVA Compass Bowl Preview

January 7, 2011

Kentucky (6-6) and Pittsburgh (7-5) meet tomorrow morning in the BBVA Compass Bowl.* In a bowl season that included such gems as Ohio vs. Troy, Toledo vs. Florida International, and Army vs. SMU, there’s a pretty serious case to be made that this is the worst game of the bunch. No other bowl can compete with the sucktitude that this bowl offers: mediocre teams, unmotivated players, suspended starters, fired coaches, sponsors no one’s heard of, and domestic assault charges. On the plus side, the game is on at 11 am and it’s something to watch before the NFL playoff games. So there’s that.

* From Wikipedia: “BBVA Compass is a Southeastern and Southwestern financial holding company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with US$65 billion in assets.” Now you know.

Kentucky finished 6-6 this season and owns one quality win – a 31-28 upset victory over SEC East champion South Carolina. They also played Auburn tough in a 37-34 loss, so they are definitely capable of playing quality football. This story should sound familiar. The Wildcats have finished either 6-6 or 7-5 in each of the five seasons since 2006. I find this astounding. That’s five consecutive years of consistent mediocrity. They’re like the According to Jim of college football teams. According to Jim somehow lasted eight seasons despite being a completely mediocre and forgettable sitcom. That kind of extended mediocrity is not easy – you almost have to have a commitment to doing just enough to be average in every way.

Of course with that said, you have to question the Wildcats’ motivation. Here are the Wildcats’ bowl destinations in the last five years: Nashville, Nashville, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham. That’s five years of traveling to bowls that are closer to Lexington than any SEC team save Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It was probably fun the first time, but I feel like my reaction to another close bowl bid would be “Seriously? We have to bus to the game again?” In their defense, they have won three of four games (losing only to Clemson last season), so maybe I’m way off-base here. But a team can finish .500 and go to weak bowl games only so many times before it starts to wear on them.

Kentucky’s senior starting quarterback Mike Hartline was suspended for this game after a DUI arrest in early December. However, backup quarterbacks Randall Cobb and Morgan Newton are not typical backups. Cobb is a quarterback-turned-star wide receiver who the Wildcats like to put in the Wildcat formation.* Newton is a sophomore in line to be starter next year after Hartline graduates. He only saw action in three games this season in mop-up duty, but started eight games for Kentucky last season after Hartline broke his collarbone. He performed fairly well and led the Wildcats to a 5-2 record in their last seven regular season games just to qualify for a bowl game. In short, the Kentucky offense won’t suffer much without Hartline.

* Cobb’s stats this season are fantastically diverse: 5-10 passing for 58 yards and 3 touchdowns, 52 rushes for 401 yards and 5 touchdowns, and 79 catches for 955 yards and 7 touchdowns. Now that is what you call a dynamic player.

Besides the quarterback injury, Kentucky is basically the same team they have been since I can remember – a solid offense and a terrible defense.

Pittsburgh finished the season with a rocky 7-5 record. Like Kentucky, they are the same team that we have come to expect. The Panthers have a solid defense, a questionable offense, and underachieved for the 19th consecutive year. The Panthers opened up 3-0 in the weak Big East and needed only to win three of their last four games to earn a BCS berth. After a loss to Connecticut, Pitt needed to beat rival West Virginia at home in the Backyard Brawl to win the conference. As a three-point favorite, they failed to win in spectacular fashion, fumbling the ball six times (losing three) and throwing an interception in a 35-10 loss. Typically, I would say that they will be unmotivated in this game after blowing a potential BCS bid, but a team that loses by 25 in a rivalry game at home that they need to win to qualify for a BCS game was not going to be motivated in the first place.

Then there is the matter of the Pitt coaching carousel. After another disappointing season, Pitt fired career underachiever Dave Wannstedt. Probably a good move in the long-term, but in the short-term, Wannstedt was a player’s coach and this year’s players were stung by the firing. The school hired Miami-Ohio’s head coach Mike Haywood on December 16 and promptly fired him on January 1 after he was arrested on New Year’s Eve for allegedly assaulting his baby’s mama in a custody dispute.

This coaching carousel prompted a Pitt fan at the forums to post “Pitt is an absolute mess right now. I’m hearing rumors of players threatening not to play at all.” Well then.

The best thing that either one of these teams has going for them is that somebody has to win. I think it will be Kentucky by default. Pitt is not a particularly good team in the first place. Now they find themselves in Birmingham when they were practically a shoo-in to win the weak Big East Conference’s BCS bid as late as mid-November, while simultaneously trying to not be distracted as the school attempts to break the record for most coaches in a 5-week period. This could be the first time that a bowl team that lost their starting quarterback to a DUI is the more focused team, but I think that will be the case. Kentucky wins 20-10.

Orange Bowl Preview: Stanford vs. Virginia Tech

January 3, 2011

This Orange Bowl matchup is a little disappointing to me. Not because there’s anything wrong with the matchup – I think it will be a very good game – but these were two under-appreciated teams that I liked all year. Stanford finished 11-1 (only losing on the road to #1 Oregon) and have the best quarterback in the nation in Andrew Luck, yet they’ve been tragically undervalued all year. They finished 4-0-1 against the spread in their last five games and those four weren’t even close – they beat Washington 41-0 (favored by 7), Arizona 42-17 (favored by 7.5), Cal 48-14 (favored by 6.5) and Oregon State 38-0 (favored by 14). They were unfortunate to have to play the Ducks on the road this year; if that game was in Palo Alto, there’s a very good chance Stanford is in the national championship game. I can’t help but think that if the Cardinal’s jerseys said “USC” on them, they wouldn’t be nearly as disrespected. Luck leads one of the best offenses in the country and the Cardinal defense – which was shaky early in the season in giving up 52 points to Oregon and 35 to USC – buckled down at the end of the season, giving up only 45 points in their last five games combined.

Meanwhile, the Hokies have quietly put together a very good season following the early debacle against James Madison. Like Stanford, they’ve been undervalued all year. Whereas Stanford has been hurt by the name on their jerseys, Virginia Tech has been hurt by that one game against James Madison. The Hokies won their last 11 games and covered the spread in 10 of those games. Only Georgia Tech (14 point underdogs) lost to the Hokies by single digits (28-21). Although the Hokies’ defense is slightly below their typical very-high standard (giving up 33 points to Florida State backup E.J. Manuel!), they are still much better than average. And notoriously unpredictable QB Tyrod Taylor has been fantastic this season after the shaky start.

All this is to say it’s unfortunate that the Cardinal and Hokies are playing against each other: I would pick either to beat any other team in the BCS not named Auburn or Oregon. I’d typically pick the Pac-10 team over the ACC without thinking twice because of the quality of competition, but the Pac-10 has been outrageously bad this year.* Virginia Tech’s competition tells us something though – the two best quarterbacks that the Hokies faced were Boise’s Kellen Moore and NC State’s Russell Wilson. In those two games, the Hokies gave up 33 and 30 points (although they did pick off Wilson three times). Luck is better than both Moore and Wilson and I’d guess that the Hokies will struggle to contain him.

* Quick trivia question: which conference has the worst record in the BCS? It’s not the Big East – that’d be way too easy and not deserving of an asterisk at all. No, it’s the ACC – by far. ACC teams have gone 2-10 since the BCS was created in 1998 (Florida State beat then-Big East member Virginia Tech in the 2000 championship game and Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl). Incidentally, the Big East (6-7) actually has a better BCS winning percentage than the Big 12 (8-10) and Big Ten (10-12), although the latter two conferences obviously played stronger opponents. The SEC has faired the best at 14-5 while the Pac-10 is 8-5.

On the other side, the Hokies have the sometimes dynamic but always terrifying Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. The ninth or tenth-year senior (I forget how long exactly he’s been there, but I’m pretty sure it’s been the entire decade) has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Hokies fans for his tenure as Virginia Tech’s quarterback. After passing for 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions combined in his first three years, Taylor has stepped it up with 23 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions and a career-high 60.6% completion rate. Taylor has been especially terrific in his last eight games, throwing for 15 TD passes (including three games of three TD passes each) and only one interception.

All things considered, we have two great offenses and two good defenses. I expect both quarterbacks to perform well so it comes down to a tiebreaker question: of the following two statements, which makes me feel more comfortable?:

A. “And Stanford will get the ball back with two minutes left down by four with no timeouts left. Let’s see if Andrew Luck can work some magic.”

B. “And Virginia Tech will get the ball back with two minutes left down by four with no timeouts left. Let’s see if Tyrod Taylor can work some magic.”

Yeah, I just can’t shake my Taylor fears. Stanford wins 34-27.

January 2, 2011

Just stumbled upon this gem of a website – I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this official BCS website before, but it’s really something special. Let’s follow my thought process step-by-step as I slowly devolved from an innocent web surfer to a brainwashed BCS supporter:

1. Wait a second – did I just click the wrong button? I meant to go to and this is clearly Something’s a little off though…

2. Checking web address…yup I guess this is – “News, highlights and insights into the Bowl Championship Series.” Insights into the Bowl Championship Series? This is starting to feel not very fair and balanced at all…

3. Oh that’s right, ESPN bought the rights to air the BCS bowl games. That’s probably going to take a while to get used to, especially since I’ve clicked over to ABC for 81 consecutive Monday Night Football games before remembering that it’s now on ESPN. I suppose this website is understandable so far – of course they’re going to want to protect the five bowl games that they drastically overbid on…

4. Good god! ESPN is in on this BCS thing too! I used to think a playoff was an inevitability, but now we have the NCAA, BCS conference commissioners, AND ESPN working together? We’re never going to be able to topple that cartel – those are the same groups that orchestrated the JFK assassination and faked the Moon Landing!…*

* Look it up – that’s a FACT.

5. Well this isn’t so bad, these all look like legitimate news stories. Hey, Jordan Todman’s declaring for the NFL draft! Scrolling…wait….

6. Follow “Every Game Counts” on Twitter and Facebook? This is starting to get weird. What kind of douche would actually follow this on Facebook?…

7. 15,641 fans!!! And one is my friend?!?* I haven’t been this sad with America since I got over Bieber-mania…

* Facebook…DELETE!

8. Tagline on the Facebook page: “The Best Regular Season in Sports.” Wait – wasn’t College GameDay at the horrendous Ohio State/Penn State and Illinois/Northwestern games on consecutive weeks in November? Who gets to judge what the best regular season is? So confused…need to get off this page…

9. Scrolling down…Oregon State’s Mike Riley gives us a quote: “I like the bowl system. I like the opportunity for a lot of teams to have a successful season and to get a chance to go to a bowl game. We don’t need to limit that to whatever the playoff deal is.” Well then…

10. The “Welcome” box is down on the bottom of the page – is that a bad sign? Are they trying to hide something?

11. From the “Welcome” box: “The BCS is a five-game showcase of college football. It is designed to ensure that the two top-rated teams in the country meet in the national championship game, and to create exciting and competitive matchups among eight other highly regarded teams in four other bowl games…It has been undeniably successful in achieving those goals.” Yup, that was a bad sign. There seems to be a hierarchy of indoctrination here – lead with legitimate news and hammer it home with ass backwards doublespeak. If I remember right, that was Kim Jong Il’s strategy – start with some nice social welfare programs and, before you know it, it’s not so crazy that the President just captured a movie actress and director from South Korea while the people starve. And yet it seems to be working…

12. Scrolling back up…here’s some News and Notes tucked away in small print in the corner. Why is the font so much smaller? This might be another bad sign…

13. First article under this section: “For 98.3 Percent of Players, Any Bowl is Final Euphoria.” Yup, small print was a bad thing. Although I am impressed with the very specific number behind what I can only assume was an extremely in-depth scientific study. My favorite line from the article: “When considering changing the system, advocates need to remember this is college athletics, a consideration seemingly lost when it comes to a number of topics, including paying players, transferring conferences, TV contracts, etc.” Oh, you mean the same college athletics that end in a tournament in every other sport on every other level?…

14. Other highlights from the “News and Notes”: BCS Plan: Everybody’s got One and Football Playoff a Mistake?…my head’s starting to hurt…I feel some change coming on…

15. Must protect the sanctity of the regular season…the BCS uber alles…suddenly excited for the Ohio State/Arkansas game…Brent Musberger isn’t insane…

New Years Day Bowl Previews

January 1, 2011

Happy New Year’s Day to everyone! A fairly exciting slate of games (finally!) highlighted by the TCU/Wisconsin Rose Bowl matchup later this afternoon. Here are my predictions:

Ticket City Bowl: Texas Tech vs. Northwestern

My picks: Northwestern +8, Over 62, Texas Tech 21 confidence points

In the day’s first game, 7-5 Northwestern, missing their starting quarterback Dan Persa, takes on 7-5 Texas Tech, which underachieved all year. No wonder the game ended up on ESPNU. Texas Tech is a heavy favorite in this game, almost entirely because the Wildcats’ Persa is out, but I’m not buying into that for two reasons: 1. backup freshman QB Evan Watkins isn’t terrible; and 2. the Big 12 has really turned their bowl season into a fiasco. Watkins is no Persa, but he’s just not bad enough to make two otherwise evenly matched teams that different. Big 12 teams are now 1-4 in bowl games – Oklahoma State is the only team that has bothered to show up. I’ll take Texas Tech to win, but just barely: TTU 38-35.

Capital One Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State

My picks: Michigan State +9, Michigan State 1 confidence point

In keeping with my new motivation theory, I’ll stick with Michigan State here. I’m just not all that impressed with this Alabama team – only 5-3 against bowl teams, and of the top four teams they faced (Arkansas, South Carolina, LSU, Auburn), they only beat Arkansas. Plus, I can’t imagine how Alabama gets up for this game after being ranked #1 for the first six weeks of the season and blowing a 24-point lead against Auburn in the last game of the season to cost them a berth in the Sugar Bowl. And lest we forget what happened last time Alabama came into a bowl game unmotivated as a heavy favorite – Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and never looked back in pulling the biggest upset so far by a non-BCS team in a BCS game.

Meanwhile, I think the Spartans are underrated. Style points are certainly not their forte, but they get the job done: 6-1 against bowl teams this season. With the exception of Utah, no team that has been in the top ten this year has been doubted as much as the Spartans. I think they play with something to prove and pull the upset. Sparty 21-17.

Capital One Bowl: Florida vs. Penn State

My picks: Florida 25 confidence points

This would have been a fantastic matchup ten years ago. Now we have powerhouse Florida on a down year and Penn State, which seems to make a New Years Day Bowl every year despite having at least three losses.* My first instinct was that Florida would dominate in Urban Meyer’s last game. Upon further reflection, I’m not so sure. It feels to me like he’s sort of abandoning them.** I think the Gators come out motivated, but not as much as people think. That and the Gators’ offense shouldn’t be favored by seven over anybody. I think Florida slips by a not-very-good PSU team 21-17.

* Nittany Lion fans have to have a weird relationship with Joe Paterno. Having a coach with that reputation is both good and bad. Bad because he clearly can’t perform as well as he used to, and the Nittany Lions haven’t been a legitimate national title contender for years. Good because, with this recognition, no matter how rough of a season PSU has, they get a better bowl game simply because of JoePa’s name recognition. Weird situation; of course no PSU fan can really utter these words, lest God strike them down.

** Anyone else hoping that Urban Meyer becomes the Brett Favre of coaching retirements? I sure hope a couple USC players fly to Gainesville at some point next season begging Meyer to come out of retirement and save them from Lane Kiffin.

Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Michigan

My picks: MSU -4, MSU 31

Michigan is the most overrated team in college football this year. How do I know this? They are 0-8 against the spread in their last eight games. That’s staggering. Denard Robinson has two good games to start the season that the public seems to remember and it turns into an early Christmas present for degenerate gamblers everywhere. Mississippi State finished 8-4, but their four losses were to top ten teams Auburn (by three), LSU, Arkansas (in two overtimes), and Alabama. The fact that the Bulldogs are way better than people think and Michigan is way worse makes this an easy play.  MSU wins 31-10.

Rose Bowl: TCU vs. Wisconsin

My pick: TCU 16 confidence points

The most intriguing game of New Year’s Day by far. No one knows what’s going to happen this game. That doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion on it. Afterwards, half of the people will get to say “I told you so” while the other half will have to shrug and agree. But that’s going to be 20/20 hindsight – everyone is just guessing. I could make arguments for either side:

Why TCU will win: unlike other non-BCS teams, this team is really fast; they are a non-BCS team in conference name only; Andy Dalton is a big-game quarterback and would have been invited to the Heisman ceremony if Kellen Moore didn’t exist; Wisconsin hasn’t faced a defense this good yet

Why Wisconsin will win: TCU hasn’t seen anything like the speed and raw power of the Badgers’ offensive line and rushing attack; the Badgers are peaking now while TCU peaked a little too early in the season; even if TCU plays tight in the first half, the Badgers will gradually wear the Horned Frogs down with superior depth

I buy a little bit of both arguments, so I’m not going to pretend I know any more about this game than anyone else. I’m going to go with TCU in this game because I think Wisconsin’s offense is a bit overrated because Bert Bielema is a bully that runs up the score. Before the Badgers put up the PlayStation-like scores of 83-20, 48-28, and 70-23 to close the season, I don’t remember anyone talking about how amazing the rushing attack was. Good yes, but great no. And that makes sense, because even after rushing for 1,024 team yards in their last three games, they finished only 12th in the NCAA with 247.3 yards per game. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that TCU’s rushing defense is infinitely better than anything Indiana, Michigan, or Northwestern provides. TCU pulls out the victory 24-21.

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Connecticut

My picks: Connecticut +15, Oklahoma 33 confidence points

Another motivation pick. Connecticut has heard a solid month of analysts saying they don’t deserve to be there. Oklahoma has heard the same thing. Sure, it’s a BCS game, but I don’t think that inspires the Sooners as much as it would other teams. After being in a BCS bowl six of the last eight years, I think Oklahoma will have a “been there, done that” attitude and will be a little bummed about playing in the worst of the BCS games. And as we’ve seen, the Big 12 kinda sucks.

Of course with all that said, motivation can only take a team so far against a far more talented team. Oklahoma wins, but doesn’t cover, 35-21.

Rethinking the motivation factor

January 1, 2011

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.