College Bowl Pools: How The Pros Dominate Bowl Pick’em Contests

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If you want to the best chance to win your 2018 college bowl pick’em contest, you need to make smarter picks than your opponents. It’s always going to take some luck to win a college bowl pool, but the smarter your strategy is, the less luck you’ll need to win a prize.

In this post, based on over five years of proven results in thousands of real-world pools, we’ll lay out a three-step framework for maximizing your edge in your 2018 bowl pick’em contest.

Want expert picks for your college football bowl pool? Customized pick recommendations for your pool are ready in our Bowl Pick’em Picks product.

How To Win A College Bowl Picks Pool

Since 2013, we’ve helped thousands of players outsmart their opponents in college bowl pools. In some years, our subscribers have reported winning prizes more than five times as often as expected, thanks to our algorithmically customized bowl pool picks.

Although the analytics we’ve built to deliver that edge are complex, our proven approach is centered around three basic strategy principles:

1. Identify The Bowl Favorites — Objectively

Simply picking the team you think is more likely to win every game is rarely the best strategy for winning a college football bowl pool. One reason why is because you need to take pick popularity into account, especially in larger pools. But we’ll cover pick popularity in the next section.

The other reason why is because humans — including you, your buddy that watches a ton of college football, and even the self-proclaimed “experts” on TV — are almost never the best game predictors, compared to sophisticated algorithmic projections or the betting markets.

For example, through Week 14 of the 2018 NFL season, only one of the 10 human experts listed on ESPN’s NFL picks page was outperforming the Vegas line at picking NFL winners this season. The more seasons you include in these types of comparisons, the worse it looks for the humans.

Human Bowl Pickers Are Biased

When it comes to college football bowl pools, humans also fall prey to irrational biases, false assumptions and misleading information, as usual.

Take this year’s AutoNation Cure Bowl, which features 7-6 Louisiana against 6-6 Tulane. Nearly 70% of players in ESPN’s Bowl Mania game are picking Louisiana to win, perhaps based on its better win-loss record. However, Tulane is favored by 3.5 points in the betting markets, and our data-driven predictive ratings see Tulane as four points better.

Finally, maximizing your edge in bowl pools requires thinking in terms of odds and probabilities, something at which most humans are notoriously bad. For example, exactly what does it mean that two key starters for West Virginia, QB Will Grier and LT Yodny Cajuste, have decided to skip the Camping World Bowl? The betting markets offer the most objective and precise answer. After being as high as a 7.5-point favorite early on, West Virginia was down to being just a 1.5-point favorite on Tuesday.

So if you want to avoid making dangerous mistakes with your 2018 bowl picks, make sure you know the latest betting lines for every bowl game, and get your hands on team ratings from the top performing predictive systems. With that data, you can put together a trustworthy, ranked list of every team based on its odds to win.  

2. Use Bowl Pick Popularity To Identify Underrated Teams

In order to win your college bowl pick’em contest, you will need to get at least one pick right that your opponents get wrong. That’s the only way to finish with the most points.

This critical aspect of bowl pool strategy seems fairly obvious, yet it’s so often misunderstood. In short, how many picks you get right has a lot less to do with your odds to win a pool than most people think. Your goal is not to get some arbitrarily high number of picks correct; your goal is to finish at least one point higher in the final standings than your next-best opponent.

As a result, you’ll almost always increase your odds to win a college bowl pool by exploiting the best opportunities to make unpopular picks. Why? Because if you make a pick that all your opponents think is crazy and you get it right, you’ll gain serious ground in the standings. If you get a pick right and your entire pool made the same pick, you gain nothing.

How To Project Bowl Pick Popularity

Estimating how popular of a pick every team will be in your bowl pool is never an exact science, but with some resourcefulness you can find national pick popularity data published by some of the sites that host college bowl pools.

Using that national data as a baseline, you can then make some adjustments for your specific pool. For example, if you’re in a bowl pool sponsored by a sports bar in Madison, Wisconsin, it’s probably a safe bet that in your pool, Wisconsin will be a more popular pick to beat Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl than than the national pick rate of around 66%.

Identifying Underrated Bowl Pool Picks

Of course, unpopular picks are often (but not always) risky picks, so you need to evaluate the risk of making every possible pick along with the reward associated with getting it right. The most useful approach is to use win odds and pick popularity data to identify teams that fall into either of the following two categories:

  • Teams that are favored to win, but are being picked by less than 50% of the public. We often refer to these teams as “value favorites,” and they are as close as you can get to no-brainer picks. For example, this year Toledo is a 5.5-point favorite in the betting markets in the Bahamas Bowl against Florida International. That point spread implies about a 67% chance that Toledo wins, yet nationally less than 30% of the public is picking Toledo in game winner based bowl pools.
  • Teams that are slight to moderate underdogs, but are being significantly underrated by the public. For example, Iowa State is a 3.5-point underdog against Washington State in the Alamo Bowl, implying win odds of about 40% — decently risky but a legitimate shot. Yet nationally less than 15% of bowl pick’em players have Iowa State winning. So if you pick Iowa State and the Cyclones pull off the upset, you’ll gain ground on about 85% of your opponents if your pool’s pick trends are in line with national averages.

In nearly all types of pools, it won’t make sense to make all of the picks that happen to match these two sets of criteria — especially the underdogs in the second category. However, from a risk vs. reward standpoint, these teams represent your best opportunities to gain ground on your opponents in the pool standings.

Smart vs. Dumb Bowl Upset Picks

It’s also critical to stress that all bowl upset picks are not created equal. With few exceptions, one of the worst things you can do is make a trendy upset pick. Consider the following two teams:

  • Boston College: 13% pick popularity, 3-point underdog vs. Boise State
  • San Diego State: 55% pick popularity, 3-point underdog vs. Ohio

If you want to take a gamble on one of the two teams above, you’d be crazy to pick San Diego State. Both teams are 3-point underdogs, but if Boston College wins you’d gain ground on 87% of your opponents. If San Diego State wins you’d only gain ground on 45% of your opponents.

Using win odds and pick popularity data to avoid mistakes like picking San Diego State is one example of what separates the pros from the Joes in college football pools.

3. Compose A Pick Set With The Right Amount Of Risk For Your Pool

At this point, you know the current favorites and underdogs in the betting markets. You’ve compiled objective predictions for every bowl game. You’ve got pick popularity estimates for every team.

Now comes the toughest and most complex part of getting an edge over your opponents. You need to figure out the exact combination of 41 picks (assuming your pool includes the Celebration Bowl this year) that you should make with each of your bowl pool entries, and potentially add a confidence point ranking to each one as well.

What’s so difficult about this process is understanding the implications of the various characteristics of your specific pool. Factors like the total number of entries of your pool, its format (e.g. game winner or spread, confidence points or not), its scoring system, and its prize structure all play a role in determining which picks give you the best chance to win.

The approaches we use to optimize game-by-game pick recommendations for bowl pools are beyond the scope of this post, and they incorporate so many calculations that computers are required to crunch all the numbers anyhow. However, we’ll go over a few high level guidelines.

Picks For Smaller Bowl Pools

If you’re in a smaller pool (say less than 50 entries), you should focus your picks on favorites and be very selective about taking additional risks. As boring as it sounds, feeling that you need to make a bunch of upset picks is often the kiss of death in small bowl pools. Unskilled opponents in small pools tend to shoot themselves in the foot by making picks that are far too aggressive, and you can often get a solid edge simply by staying conservative. However, it’s usually still worth considering underrated teams if they are only the slightest of underdogs, or perhaps making a calculated bet on a hugely underrated moderate underdog.

Picks For Larger Bowl Pools

In bigger pools the most common mistake unskilled players make is the opposite; their picks are too conservative. Your chances to win a large pool are already quite low, and playing it relatively safe rarely improves them. To maximize your edge in a big pool, you typically need to take multiple gambles on big value picks, even if they’re fairly risky (Iowa State over Washington State is a prime example this year), and hope that most of them come through.

Another way to increase your chance of cashing in a big bowl pool is to play multiple entries, and diversify your risk by making a different set of calculated gambles in each entry.

Picks For Bowl Confidence Pools

In bowl confidence pools, it’s important to understand the relative impact of every game. For example, you may need to assign a unique confidence value of between 1 and 41 points to each pick. That means getting your 28-point pick correct is worth the same as getting all seven of your 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 point picks correct.

As a result, it’s not worth agonizing too much over your lower-confidence picks. Your strategy for your higher confidence picks, and how those picks end up faring, is much more likely to determine whether or not it’s a prize winning year for you.

Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that making a bunch of upset picks all with very low confidence points is a good strategy. Only rarely will you catch enough luck to get most of those picks right, and even in that best case scenario, the payoff in terms of points would still be marginal. Most of the time, you’re better off making a more significant gamble on the very best one or two value upset picks.

Picks For Point Spread Based Bowl Pools

Many players fail to understand the unique dynamics of point spread based pools. One is parity. Sports books are good at what they do, and if your spread pool features up-to-date lines for each game, you’re not going to have much greater than a 50/50 chance of getting most picks right — especially when you have to make a pick for every single bowl game.

(Even the top professional college football bettors only hover around 55-60% long term accuracy, and that’s with the ability to lay off the majority of games and selectively pick their spots.)

Put another way, spreads act as an equalizer between skilled and unskilled players in pools, because when you’re picking against the spread there is a limit to how dumb you can be. One side is never going to be way worse of a pick than the other side. So a monkey throwing darts to make his picks probably has a much better chance to win a spread based pool than to win a game winner based pool.

As a result, pick popularity tends to be a bigger driver of optimal pick strategy in spread pools. If you assume point spreads are efficient, unless you’ve got strong data supporting a particular side, in bowl pools you’re often better off just picking the less popular side.

You should also be on the lookout for stale lines in spread based bowl pools. For instance, your pool may have North Texas +11 in the New Mexico Bowl as a pick option, but the market recently moved to North Texas +8. If you still have time to submit your picks, you’re effectively getting three free points if you pick North Texas in your spread pool.

Do It Yourself Or Get Expert Bowl Pool Picks?

We hope this article has been helpful in explaining some of the key strategies you can use to win more college football bowl pick’em contests. Is it complicated and time-consuming to apply this level of analysis to your 2018 bowl picks? Absolutely. If you’re serious about winning, though, the expected long-term payoff more than justifies the effort.

If you’d rather outsource all of the number crunching to the office pool experts, we’re here to help. We aggregate all the data mentioned in this post (current betting odds, algorithmic game predictions, public picking trends, etc.) and we’ve built algorithms that deliver customized, game by game pick recommendations for all of your college bowl pick’em pools.

You answer a few questions about your pool, we give you the picks that maximize your chance to win. Learn more here: College Bowl Pick’em Picks from TeamRankings.