December 18, 2019 - by Jason Lisk
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 07: LSU Tigers Quarterback Joe Burrow (9) passes the ball as Georgia Bulldogs Linebacker Monty Rice (32) pressures him during the SEC Championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the LSU Tigers on December 07, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.(Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire)
This post lays out our data-driven picks for a 2019 college bowl confidence points pool, ranked from 1 (least confident) to 41 (most confident) based on the number of confidence points that we assign each pick.
Confidence points pools are one of the most popular types of college football bowl pool formats. In fact, last year, over half of all pools entered by subscribers using our Bowl Pick’em Picks product involved confidence points. And for pools picking game winners (as opposed to against the spread), confidence points pools made up 63% of the pools our subscribers entered.
Read on to find out how we apply objective predictions and game theory to construct a pick sheet that maximizes your odds to win a game winner based bowl confidence pool in 2019.
It always takes some luck to win a college bowl pool against lots of opponents, but the smarter the pick strategy you use, the less luck you need. And over the last five years, our premium subscribers have reported winning prizes in bowl pools 60% more often than expected, given the size of their respective pools.
From a pick strategy perspective, confidence points pools present a complex format, since they have many more potential options for constructing a pick set than just picking the winner of every game. (For a general primer on bowl pool strategy, you should read our free college bowl pool strategy guide.)
Many pool participants just go through and rank teams in order of the games they are most confident in. But simply ranking games you are personally most comfortable with, without considering other factors like betting odds and pick popularity, will rarely give you the best chance to finish in the money.
The better (and proven) approach, which we employ, involves gathering objective game predictions from the betting markets and computer models, and then using national pick popularity data to identify underrated teams that present the best opportunities to differentiate 2019 your bowl pool entry.
Finally, we use the algorithms we’ve developed in our Bowl Pick’em Picks product to customize confidence point picks for specific types of pools based on their size and other characteristics. For the purposes of this article, we’ve used a 100-entry bowl confidence pool as a reference, and here’s one interesting pick that immediately surfaced.
Michigan State, playing against Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl, comes in as our No. 32 confidence point pick recommendation for our reference 100-entry pool.
If you just ordered your picks by objective win odds (Michigan State has about a 65% chance of winning the game), then the Spartans wouldn’t rank quite so high, as they are only around the 19th or 20th most likely bowl team to win in 2019.
So why does Michigan State move up our recommended confidence picks list for a 100-entry pool? It comes down to how many points you can gain by backing favored Michigan State, compared to how the rest of your pool will fare if Michigan State wins. (Note: If you are in a pool made up of Spartan alumni, this advice may not apply, as Michigan State will likely be a much more popular pick in your pool!)
In most bowl confidence pools nationwide, we estimate that the public will take Michigan State around 58% of the time in this game. For comparison, in the other four bowl games where the favorite has win odds similar to Michigan State, the public is taking the favorite 71% of the time, on average.
So Michigan State is not only the favorite to win, but is also a relatively rare underrated favorite (65% win odds compared to only a 58% national pick popularity). That profile makes the case for an educated bet, and causes us to bump up Michigan State’s confidence point ranking a bit in our pick sheet.
Again, that’s not because we are more confident than the betting markets that Michigan State will win; we’re not. It’s because compared to other similarly risky picks, your reward for Michigan State winning (in terms of boosting your position in the pool standings) should be the highest of the 2019 bowl season, and we want to exploit that opportunity with a calculated bet.
That’s just one example, of course, and optimizing picks for the entire 41-game bowl slate involves analyzing all the unique characteristics of the 2019 bowl season.
For example, last bowl season featured only two games where a team was favored by more than 10.5 points, and several popular upset picks happened. This bowl season, though, six teams are at least 10.5 point favorites. That dynamic means that someone who uses the same upset-heavy strategy that may have won them a prize in 2019 may take on way too much risk this year.
We want to be smarter than that, and only take the risks that make the most sense this year, given what win odds and pick popularity data is telling us.
Optimal picks for a 100-entry pool will typically fall in between the extremes of playing it very safe and taking a ton of risks. You are already a relative long shot to win a pool with 100 entries in it, and taking some calculated risks on underrated teams is usually necessary to increase those odds.
(If your pool is smaller than 100 entries, you will want to dial back some of the risk you see in the picks below, e.g. by having fewer underdog plays. If you are in a larger pool, you probably want to increase the number of value gambles you make. Whatever your specific pool situation, our Bowl Pick’em Picks product provides customized pick recommendations that give you the best chance to win.)
Here is every pick our system is recommending this year for a 100-entry pool, starting with the highest confidence point ranking (41) and going down to the lowest confidence point ranking (1). Win odds and popularity data are current as of Tuesday, December 17.
Win Odds: 75% (No. 7 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 58% (No. 29 of 82)
Ohio does not have the highest win odds for this bowl season (that honor right now goes to Central Florida, favored by 17.5 points in the Gasparilla Bowl). So why do they top our list?
You can see our analysis of Ohio as a value favorite in our 2019 bowl value picks analysis post, so we’ll focus on the dynamics of what makes them a recommendation near the top of the confidence points list. Ohio has solidly high win odds (7th best in the field this year by our projections), but are only the 29th most popular pick in bowl pools. In fact, Ohio’s 58% public pick rate means that a significant number of bowl pool entries will either pick against Ohio, or pick them at lower confidence.
So not only is Ohio is only one of the least risky picks of the 2019 bowl season, they are also one of the most underrated by the general public. From a risk vs. reward standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Win Odds: 71% (No. 16 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 53% (No. 37 of 82)
We also broke down Texas A&M versus Oklahoma State in our value picks post, and some of the same rationale for the Ohio pick applies here. The Aggies have slightly lower win odds, and slightly lower popularity. In fact, the public is treating this as close to a toss-up. We like the value proposition of a 7-point favorite being treated as a coin flip by most pool players.
Win Odds: 65% (No. 27 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 44% (No. 49 of 82)
Yet another strong value pick, and this is one where the public is actually picking the underdog Boise State Broncos more often than not. So it’s a “not-really-an-upset” pick where we get to go against the majority of the public. It’s easy to see why the public is all over Boise State. They are ranked, and 11-1, while Washington finished the year at 7-5. But Washington is properly power rated higher, playing the much tougher schedule, and having bad luck in close games (0-4 in one-score games this year).
In smaller pools, maybe you don’t go quite this high with Washington, but in larger pools, this is the kind of pick you need to hit to increase your odds of winning the whole thing.
Win Odds: 67% (No. 19 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 50% (No. 41 of 82)
Another game, another favorite that has a worse record than the team they are favored against, thanks to playing the tougher schedule. In this case, it is Mississippi State playing in the SEC West. The public is again treating this as a toss-up game while the Bulldogs are favored by 4.5 points. The Washington and Mississippi State selections are both taking a little more risk in terms of confidence point assignment, but still picking the favorite, in cases where the public is quite willing to go the opposite direction.
Win Odds: 82% (No. 5 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 76% (No. 15 of 82)
Our first “big” favorite in the confidence points ranks, Louisiana gets the highest spot amongst the double-digit favorites because of relative value. This game comes late in the bowl process (it’s the final game before the title game) and a decent enough chunk of the public is willing to pick Miami of Ohio as two-touchdown underdogs that you can still make a final push for points here at great odds.
Win Odds: 71% (No. 13 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 61% (No. 27 of 82)
Tulane moves into this spot based on the combination of pretty good win odds and still providing value, as 39% of entries look to be selecting the underdog, Southern Miss.
Win Odds: 87% (No. 1 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 87% (No. 8 of 82)
Central Florida has the highest win odds of any bowl team this year, playing just a few hours away in the Gasparilla Bowl. There’s a slight concern that they won’t be as motivated after playing Auburn and LSU in the last two bowl games. But they are such a large favorite that they aren’t going to fall too far down the list.
Based on pick popularity, this looks to be a neutral play, on average, on Central Florida. Some opponents will have them in one of their top confidence points spots, while plenty of others will have them lower than this on their rankings.
Win Odds: 87% (No. 2 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 91% (No. 3 of 82)
Florida is a heavy favorite against Virginia in the Orange Bowl, and our projections like them even better than the implied win odds from the betting markets. They are also a very popular choice. We are fairly neutral on them here, with Florida coming in higher on some confidence points lists.
We also want to take this opportunity to point out something about how many big favorites we have used in the confidence points list so far. Last year, the winning entries in 100-person pools on ESPN averaged using 3.5 of the top 6 largest favorites among their 12 highest confidence points plays. None of them used all six in those 12 spots.
In small pools, you should probably have all five games this year with at least 80% win odds for the favorite among your top 12 choices. But as we get to a 100-person pool, you need to take on more risk and diversify from the crowd.
For our entries, that means rolling with Louisiana, Central Florida, and Florida near the top, mixing in more value favorites from the next tier of win odds, and potentially “fading” (in terms of relative confidence point assignment) some of the other higher win odds games where the favorite is extremely popular with the public.
Win Odds: 70% (No. 17 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 66% (No. 23 of 82)
Miami has been an inconsistent team this year, taking some bad losses (at Duke, Georgia Tech, at Florida International) and adding some nice wins (Virginia, Louisville by 25, at Florida State by 17). So it’s understandable that some pool players are willing to go with the upset here. But Miami is a superior team to Louisiana Tech, who went 9-3 against one of the ten easiest schedules in FBS. Our predictive ratings have Miami as 11.9 points better on this one on a neutral field. The line is accounting for this game being in Louisiana, but we still like Miami as a value here.
Win Odds: 65% (No. 23 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 58% (No. 30 of 82)
We already discussed Michigan State some above. Here, we’ll note that Michigan State is 6-6 but were 0-4 against teams in the top ten of our predictive ratings. Wake Forest, meanwhile, only played one team in the top 40 of our ratings, a 52-3 loss to Clemson. This game is played in the cold in New York City, and the Big Ten is 5-1 against the spread in the six previous Pinstripe Bowls they have participated in before this one.
Win Odds: 60% (No. 31 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 52% (No. 39 of 82)
Air Force is a little riskier than Texas A&M, Washington, and Mississippi State, but are still being picked as a toss-up while being the favorite.
Win Odds: 74% (No. 10 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 76% (No. 16 of 82)
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This recommendation has been changed based on news. Less than 24 hours before the bowl game, news broke that two starting receivers and a defensive starter for Florida Atlantic are suspended for academic reasons, and other starters could miss due to injury. As a result, the point spread jumped from SMU favored by only 3 points to now favored by 9 points, making them one of the bigger favorites of bowl season. Florida Atlantic is no longer a good value gamble, and SMU becomes the confidence point play here.]
Win Odds: 85% (No. 3 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 91% (No. 2 of 82)
Appalachian State is another team playing with a new coach, after Eli Drinkwitz left for Missouri. This is the second straight New Orleans Bowl for App State, and they are large favorites against UAB (who coincidentally, just got destroyed by Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA title game). No contrarian value here, but App State is a big favorite.
Win Odds: 36% (No. 59 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 13% (No. 77 of 82)
Our second outright upset pick so far has featured some news this week regarding one of the teams and their starting quarterback.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Utah State quarterback Jordan Love was cited for marijuana possession along with two other teammates. Love, who has had a disappointing season, had already announced he was turning pro after the bowl game. The line has moved downward this week, and after opening at 8 points, is now at 6.5 points with this news, though all the players involved have been cleared to play.
Meanwhile, Kent State has made their first bowl game since 2012, and only their third ever, after a three-game winning streak to end the regular season. With Utah State being the sixth-most popular choice so far among bowl teams, but Kent State having a realistic chance for the upset, this is a risk worth taking in large pools.
Win Odds: 75% (No. 8 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 76% (No. 16 of 82)
Utah is a fairly valued, solid favorite, which is relatively uncommon. Last bowl season, underdog Texas beat Georgia, while Utah lost as a favorite to Northwestern last year in the Holiday Bowl. While that may be seen as a negative, it could also motivate Utah to play better in this bowl game, even after the disappointment of losing the Pac-12 title game and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
Win Odds: 49% (No. 42 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 36% (No. 59 of 82)
Here’s an interesting one. So far, the public is picking LSU/Oklahoma (and presumably because of LSU) at a nearly 2-to-1 rate in the title game. But either Clemson or Ohio State would have a solid chance of winning that game, regardless of which one it is. So that’s where the value lies.
Win Odds: 58% (No. 34 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 52% (No. 38 of 82)
Wisconsin is the favorite in the Rose Bowl, and is being slightly underpicked right now. With that being the case, they are worth a moderate confidence point gamble to go against nearly half the public.
Win Odds: 67% (No. 20 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 67% (No. 22 of 82)
Illinois had an unexpected year to reach a bowl game, highlighted by a win over Wisconsin. California also put together some key wins (at Washington, vs. Stanford) to get to a bowl game. The odds are in Cal’s favor in this one, so our recommendation is to just go with the favorite at a moderate value here.
Win Odds: 61% (No. 28 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 58% (No. 31 of 82)
It’s a Western showdown in the First Responder Bowl. Right now, we are leaning toward the favored Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky at another moderate value play.
Win Odds: 56% (No. 38 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 50% (No. 40 of 82)
Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney have been great in bowl games of late, covering the spread in 8 of the last 9 they have played, including going 6-1 in Playoff games. This one is close to a pick’em, but Clemson is the slight favorite, and Dabo has already been cashing in the disrespect card for the defending champions after they were seeded third for the playoff.
Win Odds: 83% (No. 4 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 94% (No. 1 of 82)
LSU is a pretty heavy favorite in the other playoff semifinal. They also have the highest pick popularity of any bowl game this year. Because of that, we do not have them higher in the confidence points rankings for a 100-person pool. It’s a modest value fade in terms of confidence points, but it’s also still too risky to pick the outright upset in this one.
Win Odds: 34% (No. 62 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 16% (No. 73 of 82)
Notre Dame is the favorite in this one, but Iowa State has a realistic enough chance that it’s worth a value gamble on a team that the public is picking only 16% of the time.
Win Odds: 58% (No. 32 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 57% (No. 32 of 82)
Kansas State opened as the slight favorite, but the line moved in Navy’s favor within a day, and has been holding steady at about Navy -2.5 since then. The Midshipmen and their triple option attack have been a good bowl bet of late, going 4-1 straight up and 5-0 ATS in their last five bowl games.
Win Odds: 58% (No. 33 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 57% (No. 33 of 82)
This one falls in the same range as Navy, with BYU as the slight favorite with fair pick popularity as a favorite. Hawaii will play this one at home, just like last year (when they lost to Louisiana Tech).
Win Odds: 38% (No. 57 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 25% (No. 64 of 82)
One of the wildest college football stories of the year was Liberty coach Hugh Freeze coaching from a hospital bed in the press box in the season opener because of back problems. The former Ole Miss head coach dialed up the right numbers to get Liberty to a bowl game in Orlando. Liberty is a solid underdog in this early bowl game, but with Georgia Southern being overrated by the public and our value bets elsewhere, this one makes the list as an upset pick.
As an illustration of how our system can and does change as data comes in, this one was a 5-point confidence play on Liberty on Tuesday. But with a line movement in Liberty’s direction (from Ga Southern -5 to -4 overnight) and the pick popularity dropping slightly, Liberty moves to a bit more value and jumps an additional 12 spots.
Win Odds: 61% (No. 29 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 62% (No. 28 of 82)
This is the last year Belk will be sponsoring this bowl game in Charlotte, and we will miss them. What better way to close it out than an Appalachian battle between the Hokies and Wildcats? Virginia Tech got off to a slow start this year, but took off with quarterback Hendon Hooker, going 6-1 in games he started. That’s why Virginia Tech is the favorite in this one despite Kentucky having slightly better overall numbers.
The Hokies’ only loss with Hooker came in the finale against Virginia, which cost the Hokies a chance to play in the ACC title game. We’ll stick with the favorite in this one.
Win Odds: 69% (No. 18 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 75% (No. 18 of 82)
Georgia returns to the Sugar Bowl for the second straight year, where they again play a Big 12 opponent as the favorite. Last year, they came out flat and lost to Texas. We’ll stick with Georgia here to rebound in their matchup against a hard-nosed Baylor team, in what looks like a defensive matchup. But we’ll do so at lower confidence points than some entries, given Georgia’s high pick popularity.
Win Odds: 35% (No. 61 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 21% (No. 70 of 82)
Florida State fired head coach Willie Taggart earlier this season, then did enough to get bowl eligible (including a big road win at Boston College the week after Taggart was fired). They are a solid underdog to Arizona State in the Sun Bowl. But the public is down enough on the Seminoles that they are worth a value gamble here against a team that is not rated much better than them.
Win Odds: 71% (No. 14 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 78% (No. 14 of 82)
Wyoming had a weird year. It started with a win over Missouri. They then went only 1-4 against the other bowl teams from the Mountain West, but they happened to catch all four losses on the road, and most were close games.
Georgia State, meanwhile, got the big win over Tennessee to propel them toward a bowl game, but lost three of their last four games to close the year. We’ll stick with favored Wyoming in this game played in Arizona, with a confidence points dock due to high popularity.
Win Odds: 78% (No. 6 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 90% (No. 4 of 82)
Pittsburgh is one of the most popular bowl picks this year going against Eastern Michigan in Detroit. We are not picking the outright upset here because it’s still too risky, but this placement also means we are fading the Panthers compared to where the majority of entries will likely have them. The public is overconfident about Pittsburgh, and with this strategy, an Eastern Michigan upset would hurt the average player much more than it would hurt us.
Win Odds: 29% (No. 71 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 12% (No. 78 of 82)
Alabama already has had two defensive starters decide to sit out their bowl game against Michigan, now that the Crimson Tide are eliminated from playoff contention. This is also the rare bowl game with no stakes for the program, as it is the first time they have missed the playoff field since it began in 2014.
Michigan is certainly a longer shot to pull the upset, but since they are the fifth-least picked team in bowl pools right now, it’s an upset call worth mixing in for this size pool. For smaller pools, it would not be the case.
Win Odds: 55% (No. 38 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 54% (No. 35 of 82)
Can we place maximum confidence points that the Battle of the Bands will be worth the price of admission? North Carolina A&T has won twice before in the Celebration Bowl against Alcorn State, so we’ll stick with the slight favorite in this one. If your bowl pool doesn’t include this game, then just move everyone down a spot until you get here.
Win Odds: 29% (No. 68 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 13% (No. 76 of 82)
Memphis is another very unpopular choice to pull the upset in the Cotton Bowl, and former head coach Mike Norvell is taking the Florida State job. But as we noted above in the Florida Atlantic game, teams that have coaches who left the program haven’t performed poorly as a group in bowl games, so there may be some irrational public bias in that regard.
At this level of the confidence rankings, individual games exert a significantly lower impact on your final score than the top confidence point picks, so it’s also important to realize that this isn’t really a giant upset call from a pick strategy standpoint.
Win Odds: 73% (No. 10 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 82% (No. 12 of 82)
We aren’t quite ready to pick the upset here, though it would not be outlandish to do so.
You can view these single-digit entries as games that could really swing either way in our recommendations with subtle changes in win odds and pick popularity, and if you like one side of a game, going with the other option isn’t going to have that much impact on the optimal play.
Win Odds: 44% (No. 46 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 38 % (No. 57 of 82)
Florida International stunned Miami in their next-to-last game, getting them to bowl eligibility to play in this one. This one is another example of how slight line changes and win odds alterations can change picks. At 60% win odds, it was Arkansas State that was the lower value confidence pick, but when the line shifted slightly so that Arkansas State’s odds dropped to 56%, the recommendation went to the underdog as the upset became more likely.
Fun bonus fact: every single game involving Arkansas State this year featured at least 52 total points scored.
Win Odds: 73% (No. 9 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 84% (No. 11 of 82)
The Bahamas Bowl kicks things off on Friday, and if you haven’t read the Reddit thread from a couple of years ago detailing what it is like to attend this bowl game in person, it’s worth it. Which team will be better able to handle the heat in Nassau, the lack of guards paying attention, and fans walking up to them on the sideline? Who knows, but we’ll stick with Buffalo as the favorite, with a confidence point fade for high popularity.
Win Odds: 64% (No. 25 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 69% (No. 20 of 82)
San Diego State went 9-3 this year, and only gave up 54 total points in their three losses; they actually never gave up more than 23 points all season, quite a stat. The Aztecs were shut out last year by Ohio, another MAC team, in their bowl game. Our pick here will stick with a bounce back against Central Michigan this time around, but at lower confidence points based on popularity.
Win Odds: 39% (No. 53 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 32% (No. 62 of 82)
Temple gets to take the short trip to Washington D.C. for the Military Bowl matchup with North Carolina. The Owls gave Memphis their only loss so far and barely lost on the road at Cincinnati while finishing 8-4. We’ll go with the underdog here in a low value upset call.
Win Odds: 28% (No. 72 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 14% (No. 74 of 82)
Boston College is yet another underdog with a different head coach for the bowl game, that seems to be getting undervalued by the public. They are a longer shot to beat Cincinnati, but the Bearcats were in striking distance of getting a Cotton Bowl bid just a month ago. Based on very high pick popularity, Cincinnati is likely to be a higher-value confidence point play in many entries, and we’ve got the fade on. (Keep in mind that the effective difference between picking the favorite or underdog at this very low confidence level is minimal anyway.)
Win Odds: 43% (No. 48 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 37% (No. 58 of 82)
USC gets Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. With Iowa being slightly overvalued by the public in a game expected to be pretty close, we’ll make the smallest of all bets on USC.
Win Odds: 53% (No. 40 of 82)
Projected Pick Percentage: 54% (No. 36 of 82)
This one is about as close to a toss-up as you can get. Tennessee is the very slight favorite and is also being picked slightly more often than half the time. So it’s not a game we want to take a big stand on.
Before we sign off, remember that breaking news, changes in betting odds, and shifts in public picking trends can and will impact the calculus of optimizing picks for your bowl pool. As a result, it’s always best to wait as long as you can to submit picks for your bowl pool, so your pick process can incorporate the latest information on teams.
The picks outlined in this post were based on information as of Tuesday night, December 17. To get updates based on today’s data, make sure to set up your pool in the My Pool Picks section of our Bowl Pick’em Picks product, and you can generate customized picks based on all the latest information.
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