How To Win A College Bowl Pick’em: 5 Strategy Tips & Advice
December 15, 2017 - by Tom Federico
As we do every year, we’re applying proven strategies to help our customers win bowl pick’em contests during the 2017-18 bowl season. In this post, we’ll outline 5 high level tips to improve your odds to win a bowl pick’em pool.
Last year, customers using our premium bowl picks (which apply all of these strategies, and more) took first place in bowl pick’em contests five times as often as expected.
Bowl Pool Picks Strategy Tips
It takes both luck and skill to win a college bowl pool in a any given year, but the better strategy you have, the more you will win over the long term.
With the right approach, you can consistently outperform your competition, and become a force to be reckoned in your annual bowl pick’em contest.
Here’s a research-based framework for how to approach putting together your bowl pick sheet:
1. Identify & Segment The Favorites
Every year’s slate of bowl games features different dynamics. For example, in the 2017-18 bowl season, betting odds expect only two teams (Florida State and Florida Atlantic) to win their bowl games by more than 10 points (based on lines as of Friday Dec 15). Last year, there were nine teams in this category.
Typically, the more games there are that are expected to be close, the more opportunities there will be to find inefficiencies in how the general public (i.e. your bowl pool competitors) are making their picks.
A good practical starting point is to separate all 78 bowl teams into rough tiers according to their chance of winning. You can use recent betting odds / point spreads or our algorithmic college football game predictions as an objective measure of each team’s win odds.
The main point here is to use reliable and intelligent data to estimate each bowl team’s odds to win — NOT inferior predictors like a team’s win-loss record (which ignores schedule strength and margins of victory), whether a team is ranked in the AP Poll or not, or a school’s “brand” as a football team.
For example, West Virginia has a rich and well-respected history as a football program, but they are a 7-point underdog against Utah this year in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
2. Identify Underrated Teams
Winning a bowl pick’em contest isn’t only about picking winners. To maximize your odds to win, you often need to figure out the smartest opportunities to pick against the crowd.
You can unearth these “value picks” by comparing two metrics:
- A team’s odds to win
- The percentage of entries in your pool that you expect will pick that team
Sites that host bowl pick’em contests like ESPN and RunYour Pool often publish pick popularity information based on overall user picks in their games. So go collect all that data (or just use our Bowl Pick’em Picks product, where we’ve done all that work for you), and make a list of games that fit a couple key criteria:
- Teams that are solid favorites, but are being picked by less than 50% of the public. For example, Ohio is a 7.5 point favorite against UAB in the Bahamas Bowl, but only around 20% of bowl pick’em entries nationally are picking Ohio to win.
- Teams that are only slight underdogs, but are being seriously underestimated by the public. For example, Washington is only a 2-point Vegas underdog vs. Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, yet only 19% of bowl pool entries nationally are picking Washington.
Keep in mind that there will usually be more teams that meet the second criteria listed above than the first. More often than not, the public overrates favorites and underrates underdogs, but that’s not always the case, especially in bowl pick’em contests where many players may not be familiar with all the teams playing (e.g. the case with Ohio this year).
3. Match Overall Pick Risk To The Characteristics Of Your Pool
Once you’ve got your list of most likely winners and promising value picks on hand, the hard work really begins.
Somehow, you need to translate all of that great data into a specific set of 40 bowl picks that will maximize your odds to come in first place in your pool. Getting to the best answer is an extremely challenging problem, because there is no single set of “best picks” that fits every situation.
Rather, the picks that maximize your edge in your college bowl pool will depend on factors such as:
- The format (pick game winners or against the spread? Pick all games or only some games?)
- The scoring system (confidence points or not? bonuses for picking upsets or not?)
- The total number of entries (are you playing against 20 other people…or 200?)
In years past, we spent hundreds of hours collecting data and doing complex math to come up with our official college bowl pick recommendations for our customers. Finally, we invested the time and resources necessary to engineer algorithms to do all the necessary computation, and our Bowl Pick’em Picks product was born.
If you prefer to make picks on your own, however, here are some basic guidelines:
- If you’re in a smaller pool (say less than 50 people) and feel confident about 1-2 upsets, you can go ahead and make those picks, but make sure they are teams being underrated according to national picking trends. Focus the rest of your picks on favorites — or maybe a few more very slight underdogs that are highly underrated. If some of your upsets come through, you should have a decent shot to win. But in general, submitting a pick sheet that is too risky overall and contains too many upset picks is often the kiss of death in small pools. It may not be sexy, but picking almost all favorites and letting your opponents shoot themselves in the foot by getting too cute with their picks can be a great strategy in small pools.
- In bigger pools the most common mistake people make is the opposite, being too conservative. They’ll make some upset picks, but maybe no more of them then they would have made in a smaller pool. Or in confidence pools, they’ll keep their high confidence picks on favorites while making a bunch of lower-confidence picks upsets. Your chances to win a large pool are already quite low, and playing it relatively safe rarely ever improves them. To increase your edge in a big pool, you typically need to take some big (educated) gambles — say, picking an undervalued underdog like Washington with 30+ confidence points — and hope that they come through.
Finally, when talking about making more upset picks in bigger pools, it’s critical to stress again that all upset picks are NOT created equal. In most cases, the worst possible thing you can do is make a “trendy” upset pick — that is, a pick that isn’t expected to win, but that a relatively high percentage of your pool is picking. Those are high risk, low reward gambles — yuck.
4. In Confidence Pools, Make Your Important Picks Count
Typical bowl pick’em scoring (where you assign 1 to 40 confidence points to each pick) means that getting your 28-point pick correct, for instance, is worth the same as getting your 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 point picks all correct.
So it’s really not worth it to agonize over your lower-confidence picks. They don’t mean much compared to optimizing your top picks to maximize your chance to win your pool.
That same logic applies to making lots of upset picks, but giving them mostly low confidence, which is usually a fairly worthless strategy. If you make 8 big upset picks and get 6 of them right, that’s a once in a lifetime performance.
But if you gave most of those picks low confidence ratings, your reward for such spectacular picking is minimal, and it’s unlikely to make a huge impact on helping you win you pool.
In general, it’s better to make bigger bets on a select few upset or value picks that offer the highest risk/reward tradeoff, than the opposite.
5. Manage Your Expectations
Will you probably win your 100 person pick’em contest? Of course not. The odds are stacked against you.
As a baseline, you have a 1% chance to win that pool (1 in 100). Even with the best possible advice and analysis, you should still be thrilled to win a 100 person pool every 15-20 years or so. Given the payout structures of most pools, that would also result in a fantastic long term return on your investment in pool entry fees.
With that point as context, if you’re generally following the advice in this email, don’t beat yourself up if things don’t work out in a given year.
As long as you understand the dynamics of playing in office pools, and continue to play in bowl pools year after year with a cool head and a solid data-driven strategy, and don’t overreact by abandoning a solid strategy when it just happens to have an off year, you should have great success in the long run. Our approaches have proven that.
We Can Help You Make The Smartest Bowl Picks
The information above will help you formulate an effective strategy for increasing your odds to win a bowl pick’em contest.
However, if you want to save yourself the time and effort of evaluating 40 unique matchups and trying to figure out which favorites and upsets you should pick to get the maximum edge in your specific pool — we can do all the number crunching for you.
Enjoy the bowl games and have a happy and safe holiday season!
Note: All betting lines mentioned in this article are as of Friday morning, December 15, 2017.