December 18, 2019 - by Jason Lisk
Texas A&M shows up on our value list for 2019 bowl games (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire)
In this post we identify high-opportunity picks that will help you increase your odds to win your 2019 college football bowl pick’em contest. From underrated favorites to sleeper upset picks, the 16 picks we mention in this post are all being significantly underrated by bowl pool players nationwide.
Especially if you’re new to our site, we recommend you read our college bowl pool strategy guide for a deeper explanation of the logic behind our proven, value-driven approach to bowl pool picks.
But if you’re short on time, here’s the brief summary. We’ve analyzed all 41 bowl matchups this year, and identified every game where picking trends in college bowl pools show a significant public bias against a particular team, compared to what objective measures like betting market odds and leading computer projections are implying.
With 41 bowl games to pick in 2019 (including the FCS Celebration Bowl), there are plenty of opportunities for bowl pool players to fall prey to sub-optimal decision making when it comes to making their picks. The reasons why can vary, but as an example, we usually see at least a few of the following scenarios every year:
Those are just a few of the dynamics that can give educated bowl pool players the edges they need to win bowl pick’em contests far more often than expected. From a risk vs. reward standpoint, undervalued teams — whether they are underrated favorites or unpopular underdogs that have a legitimate shot at pulling off an upset — represent the best opportunities to gain ground on your opponents in the pool standings.
We’ve done all the legwork to identify the best value picks of the 2019 college football bowl season, including:
(*As an example, pick popularity data from ESPN’s Bowl Mania game is skewed by various “auto-fill” options the game promotes to users. As a result, ESPN’s data is less likely to accurately reflect pick popularity trends in a smaller, private bowl pools not hosted on ESPN, so we adjust their data to counteract that skew.)
The output of this process is a subset of picks that we group into two categories: Value Favorites and Value Gambles. As of post time, there are a total of 16 college bowl games in 2019 that make the cut.
When a team is favored to win by objective measures, yet is being picked by the public at a significantly lower rate than their odds to win, that’s as close to a no-brainer pick as you can get. So these Value Favorite picks should feature prominently in most bowl pool pick strategies.
Definitely think twice about picking against these teams, since there’s almost nothing worse than making a risky upset pick that is also a trendy and popular pick. And in confidence point pools, these picks are usually great candidates for calculated, value-driven bets (i.e. by assigning them more confidence points than their win odds might otherwise warrant).
Texas A&M gets to play a game about an hour away from College Station when they face Oklahoma State in the Texas Bowl. A&M is a 7-point favorite in the betting market, giving them just north of 70% win odds. The public is treating this one as closer to a toss-up, though, picking the underdog Cowboys almost 50% of the time.
Oklahoma State does have eight wins (versus seven for The Aggies), and also won a bowl game as a big underdog against an SEC team last year. Those factors could be contributing to their high pick popularity this year, and helping create the value on Texas A&M.
The Aggies have lost five games this year; those five losses were to Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, and LSU. Those teams include three of the top five teams in the final playoff rankings, plus Alabama with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback. That’s a big reason why, based on schedule strength and adjusted scoring margins, our predictive ratings have Texas A&M at No. 18, compared to Oklahoma State at No. 32.
With the public basically split on this one, it’s a great opportunity to avoid a trendy upset pick and gain solid ground if the one-touchdown favorite wins.
Boise State enters the Las Vegas Bowl at 12-1, and is ranked 18th in the latest AP Poll. Washington, on the other hand, was one of the preseason Pac-12 favorites along with Oregon and Utah. But the Huskies struggled to a 7-5 finish, and head coach Chris Petersen (who used to coach Boise State) is stepping down after this bowl game, citing stress.
Washington, though, is the betting favorite in this one (by 3.5 points) and has around 60% win odds. That is in line with our predictive power ratings, which also see Washington as the favorite. Why? Because Washington faced the much tougher schedule, and the difference in win-loss records between these two teams can be further explained by their results in close games, which are often influenced by random luck. Boise State went 4-1 on one-score games, while Washington went 0-4.
The public is treating Boise State as the favorite in this game, picking them an estimated 56% of the time. That’s probably not a total shock, considering you have a ranked 11-1 team facing a 7-5 opponent that underperformed preseason expectations.
But how have favorites who have inferior win-loss records done in bowl games? There have been nine bowl games over the last five years where a favorite in the betting markets had at least two fewer wins and two more losses than their opponent. Those betting market favorites went 7-2 overall in that stretch.
In other words, you should generally trust the oddsmakers when they make a team a favorite who has a notably inferior win-loss record. It’s the rare case of being able to pick the lower risk AND higher reward option.
We will go from talking about Boise State to talking about the game at their blue turf field for the next bowl value. Ohio (6-6) and Nevada (7-5) face off in a game where Ohio is a 7.5-point favorite, which ties them for the seventh-largest point spread of this year’s bowl games.
This is another game where the public is demonstrating some bias toward the team with the better record, while the team with the worse record is actually favored. We estimate that the public is taking Ohio only about 58% of the time, giving you solid value on one of the larger favorites of the 2019 bowl season.
Ohio went 2-4 in close games, and also lost 20-10 on the road at Pittsburgh, so their record is somewhat deceptive. Just as importantly, Nevada’s record is disguising their performance. Nevada is the lowest-rated team in our predictive ratings in 2019 to reach a bowl game, as we have them ranked at a woeful No. 119 (out of 130 total teams).
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl has produced plenty of upsets over the years, and the MAC team (which Ohio is) has not performed well in Boise the last two years, losing by a combined 54 points. Those factors may be in the collective public’s mind here. But those last two MAC teams were underdogs, which is not the case for Ohio here, and our predictive power ratings favor them by even more than the point spread implies.
Even with factors like travel and playing in Boise likely baked into the line, there is plenty of value here on Ohio against a team that has struggled often in 2019.
Speaking of teams that are favored despite a worse record, 6-6 Michigan State is favored by 4.5 points in the betting markets over 8-4 Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Our models give Michigan State a 65% chance of winning this game, while the public is taking the Spartans only about 58% of the time. To illustrate why this is a value, in the three other bowl games (besides the aforementioned Washington game) where our projected odds are most similar to Michigan State’s, the public is taking the favorite about 80% of the time.
Again, the oddsmakers have the “worse record” team favored likely because of factors like a much harder schedule strength, and the public is giving the underdog enough credit to provide some value in sticking with the favorite. While it’s true that Michigan State went 0-4 against teams ranked in the top ten of our predictive ratings, Wake Forest lost to Clemson 52-3 in the only game they played against a top ten (or for that matter a top 30) team this year.
In addition, Big Ten teams have won the last three Pinstripe Bowl games played in the Bronx, with Wisconsin crushing Miami last year. The Big Ten is 5-1 against the spread since starting to come to this bowl game in 2013, and the Spartans will not be at a climate disadvantage in this atypical bowl game played in cold, northern weather. They look like a solid value pick in this game.
Here are other teams that qualify as Value Favorites for the 2019-2020 Bowl Season:
All underdogs are not created equal. If you’re going to take a risk on an upset pick, you almost always want to focus on highly underrated teams that have a legitimate shot to win, and avoid trendy upset picks or teams that are simply incredibly risky picks. Put another way, you do not have to get a wild and crazy upset pick right to win most bowl pools.
On account of their risk, the picks below are not appropriate for all pools — and especially not for smaller pools. But if you’re in a very large bowl pick’em contest (where taking some calculated gambles on highly unpopular picks usually increases your odds to win) or your pool offers huge bonuses for picking upsets, these are the picks to consider this year.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: 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.]
Florida Atlantic went 10-3 this year, after an 0-2 start with losses to Ohio State and Central Florida. SMU started the year 8-0, and had aspirations of going to the Cotton Bowl entering November, before losing to Memphis and Navy.
Florida Atlantic also gets to host the SMU in this bowl game. How much of the public do you think realizes this is a true home game for Florida Atlantic, or knows anything about the school?
As a result, the point spread in this one is just three points in favor of SMU. Florida Atlantic has a realistic 43% chance of pulling the mild upset, yet less than 25% of the public is picking the Owls in this one. For some perspective, there are four other bowl games where the spread is a field goal, and the public is picking the underdogs to win those other matchups 45% of the time, on average, compared to just a 25% pick popularity for FAU here.
We should say a quick word about head coach Lane Kiffin leaving Florida Atlantic to take the Ole Miss job. The Owls have hired former Florida State coach Willie Taggart to run the program, while defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer will serve as interim head coach for the bowl game. While a coach leaving may cause people to shy away from picking a team, the historical data simply doesn’t support aggressively fading such teams.
Over the last decade, 46 bowl games have involved a team with a different coach for the bowl game (because the coach left or was fired). The team with a new head coach for the bowl game is 26-20 straight up and 25-20-1 ATS over that span. In short, the coaching change news is public information and already “priced into” the current, market-driven point spread, and FAU is still undervalued.
The big news here is that Utah State quarterback Jordan Love and two other teammates were arrested for marijuana possession less than a week before the game, though the school has announced that they will play in this game. In addition, Love, who didn’t have a killer season (17 TDs and 16 INTs) after a great 2018, has already declared he will enter the NFL draft. So there are some questions about whether Love and his teammates are properly focused for this bowl game on Friday night.
Utah State opened as an 8-point favorite, but the line had already moved downward to 6.5 points before the news of Love’s arrest. It continued to trend downward, with the line moving to Utah State -5 as of Tuesday afternoon, then bouncing back to -6.5 on Wednesday morning after the announcement that Love will play.
The public is largely giving Kent State little chance in this one, only picking less than 15% of the time. That’s the sixth-lowest pick percentage for any bowl team. But more than six other bowl games this year that feature bigger, double-digit underdogs. The Golden Flashes are a definitely a pretty risky upset play, but have around a 35% chance of pulling off an upset here according to our projections (though it’s worth noting that betting market implied win odds are a but less optimistic).
Kent State played a tough non-conference schedule and took their beatings early, when they lost to Arizona State, Auburn, and Wisconsin by an average of 37 points. But the Golden Flashes improved throughout head coach Sean Lewis’ second season, and closed the year with three straight wins. That streak has them in their first bowl appearance since 2012. In fact, it’s only the third bowl game in school history. It’s always hard to judge motivations of teams entering bowl games, but Kent State looks like the team more likely to be excited to play in this one.
Here are some other teams that qualify as Value Favorites for the 2019-2020 Bowl Season:
Maximizing your odds to win a college bowl pool is all about taking calculated risks, and the teams above all offer risk-vs-reward profiles that deserve consideration.
It’s all but guaranteed that not all of these picks will win, including the value favorites, but that’s to be expected. The main point is that making and prioritizing value-driven picks usually puts you in a great position as long as some or most of them come through. It won’t happen every year, but it’s a proven strategy for success in the long term.
Just keep in mind that we are not suggesting you make all of these picks above, especially the Value Gambles. The best picks for your specific college football bowl pool depend on multiple factors, including the number of entries in your pool, whether or not it uses confidence points, and its prize structure.
To get the game-by-game pick recommendations that maximize your chance to win a prize this year, you should use the “My Pool Picks” section of our Bowl Pick’em Picks product, which takes your pool’s specific characteristics into account as it creates an optimized pick sheet for you.
As a final reminder, also remember to wait as long as you can to generate or update customized picks for your pools before you submit them, since bowl information can and will change the closer you get to your pick submission deadline. After this post is published, for instance, key players for several teams could announce that they are sitting out bowl games to get ready for the NFL Draft, and those decisions could potentially change betting lines and predictions for some games. But even if some of the information in this post may be out of date, our Bowl Pick’em Picks product automatically grabs recent data when it generates customized picks for you pool.
Best of luck in all of your college bowl pools in 2019!
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