How Oddsmakers Handle the Bowls

With Nick Bogdanovich


The college football bowl season starts this Saturday with a Tripleheader that features:

  • The NEW MEXICO BOWL, featuring UTEP and BYU
  • The HUMANITARIAN BOWL, with Fresno State and Northern Illinois
  • The NEW ORLEANS bowl, matching Ohio and Troy

It's not exactly a dream schedule in terms of TV viewership. But, that's at the heart of the challenge that faces oddsmakers. How do you post numbers that can make your employers money in games involving teams that most bettors haven't seen much on TV? Are you trying to take a position against the squares (the general public)? What if they don't get involved in these early games? Are you trying to beat the sharps (professional wagerers)? How can you anticipate whether the Wise Guys will prefer Fresno State or Northern Illinois? Or, Ohio or Troy?

The high profile games are easy. Those will take care of themselves. Auburn/Oregon in early January will be much like a Super Bowl in terms of betting action. Either the line of Auburn -3 will split the action and secure a vigorish profit. Or, the public will get one-sided on the game, and sportsbooks won't have any problem rooting against the public because that pays off over time much more often than not.

TCU/Wisconsin, Ohio State/Arkansas, Stanford/Virginia Tech will be more of the same but on a lesser scale. These teams are on TV all the time. Oddsmakers know them inside and out. They know the betting patterns of sharps and squares with these teams. The sportsbooks are very likely to make money in each of those games individually, or over the sum of all big games once they've played themselves out.

Troy/Ohio, Hawaii/Tulsa, Florida International/Toledo, or even games like East Carolina/Maryland or Northwestern/Texas Tech that involve better known programs can cause headaches because it's tough anticipate the flow of action on the field and at sportsbook windows. These teams aren't on TV all the time. The public hasn't established preferences. Sharps may have skipped many of these teams entirely as well. A significant percentage of the postseason card represents uncharted territory. Oddsmakers HATE uncharted territory!

Also causing headaches during the bowl stretch:

COACHING CHANGES. Some programs will have interim coaches during the bowls because their head mean either resigned to take another job, or was fired because 6-6 or 7-5 just isn't good enough. Sometimes players respond very well to a change. If the head coach was popular, you'll see a very flat performance from kids who feel like it's their fault he was fired. How does an oddsmaker capture all of that in a number he puts up on the board?

MOTIVATION. It's not uncommon to see several bowl games a year where one of the team just doesn't show up mentally. They say the right things to the media. They have fun with the bowl week festivities. But, once the game starts, it's just not something that gets their juices flowing. They wanted to go to a better bowl. They ended the season with a huge rivalry win but now can't get up for a relatively no-name opponent. Their head coach HASN'T been fired yet and they thought he would be. This may affect up to a third of the games some seasons...and it's very difficult from a distance to anticipate when and where it's going to happen. And, even if you can't post a number that's far out of whack with expectations because that would leave the books unbalanced.

SUSPENSIONS. This has become a very big issue in recent seasons as schools have become much more aggressive about self-reporting issues. Players get drunk and misbehave. Players get into fights on campus. Report cards come out, and coaches realize that a few star players hadn't been pulling their weight. In this case, the headache for oddsmakers isn't about putting up numbers initially, it's about adjusting on the fly when news breaks. Recent history has shown sportsbooks taking the worst of it with these breaking stories, but reducing the damage by acting as soon as they see sharp money hitting from out of the blue.

WEATHER. Some of the bowl sites have drifted far enough North that cold weather becomes an issue in games matching Southern teams. Also, rain can wreak havoc in the Bay Area, or down in Florida. We've had some bad wind in the Las Vegas Bowl, and occasionally other spots. Oddsmakers have to keep an eye on the wires for news of suspensions...and an eye on The Weather Channel to make sure they're not caught flat-footed by sharp money that anticipated last second weather changes.

CONFERENCE STRENGTHS. Oddsmakers are usually confident in their ability to figure out who the best or worst conferences are in a given year. But, history shows that at least one league jumps up and surprises them for better or worse. The SEC had a long stretch of high volume success for a few years there because oddsmakers and the market didn't realize the depth of improvement. The Mountain West also cashed some tickets. Other leagues have taken turns with off years. There's just not enough of an in-season sample size to have everything pegged exactly right. And, since ALL bowl games are interconference games, a misread can cause serious problems in multiple spots over the course of a few weeks.

As I've said to you before...every challenge an oddsmaker faces is an opportunity for YOU to make some money. If every Nevada pointspread was perfect, you'd have to pass every game. Bowl lines are far from perfect. If you're willing to do the work, you'll be able to pinpoint some very strong money making opportunities.

Let's use my prior list as a road map for your strategy the next few weeks.

  • Read newspaper reports on the web from cities where college teams have been affected by COACHING CHANGES. Are the players in shock? Are the players relieved? Do the players love the assistant who's been named an interim coach? It's not hard to read between the lines in terms of enthusiasm. I predict we'll see at least one great performance from a team with an interim coach very soon. And, at least one blowout loss from a team that just wants their season to be over.
  • Study late season results to determine MOTIVATION. Which teams closed the season well and are looking to make a statement for the program? Which quality teams are in bounce back spots after a stunning rivalry loss? I love getting good teams with a chip on their shoulders at cheap prices. On the other end of the spectrum, who slumped in November and backed into a bowl game. Teams like this rarely get their problems fixed until the next season.
  • I won't advise you to "bet the news" on SUSPENSIONS unless you happen to be in a sportsbook when a story breaks. Sharps will beat you to the punch and get the best numbers. Nobody gets rich betting way after a market has already moved.  I will encourage you to look for patterns with certain teams though. A series of off-the-field issues is often the sign of a lack of interest or focus on a bowl game. Programs and coaches who have a history of clean slates are often very good bets in bowl games. That's a pretty good rule of thumb. Renegade programs are bad bets in bowls because they've recruited players who can't handle a month off without getting into trouble. Squeaky clean programs are good bets in bowls because they're well coached and spend their prep time getting ready for the game.
  • Obviously you should be on top of the WEATHER. This is an area where you can match the sharps or beat them just by reading advance forecasts in the bowl cities. Pay particular attention to parts of the country that have had weather issues in the past. And, don't forget to add New York City into your mix because of the bowl game at Yankee Stadium this year (matching Kansas State and Syracuse on Dec. 30th).
  • Pay very close attention to early results to get a read on CONFERENCE STRENGTHS. It's amazing how often trends that start in the first few games hold up the whole way through. The Pac 10 had a disappointing campaign last year. Those early losses by Cal and Oregon State to Mountain West teams Utah and BYU set a tone for what would later be big disappointments for Arizona against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, and Oregon against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

I'll talk more about bowl strategies in the coming weeks. We're still two weeks away from the New Year's Day games (a holiday sixpack highlighted by TCU-Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl). The BCS Championship game won't be played until Monday January 10th, 2011. I hope the keys we discussed today will help get you started as you study the full schedule. Beatable lines are out there. I'm confident you'll be able to find them.

If you want some help, you can sign up for my personal service and start cashing tickets immediately!

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