How To Win A College Bowl Pick’em: 5 Strategy Tips To Outsmart Your Opponents
December 5, 2016 - by Tom Federico
We and our trusty computer models have been working hard to identify top picks and strategies to help our users win bowl pick’em contests in the 2016-17 season.
If you appreciate the objective analysis highlighted in this post, please make sure to check out our premium services:
What It Takes To Win A Bowl Pick’em Contest
It takes some luck, of course, but the better strategy you have, the less luck you need to win.
Below is some high level strategic advice for maximizing your odds to win a bowl pick’em contest.
We’ve been doing this for many years with great results. With the right approach, you can consistently outperform your competition.
1. Evaluate The Landscape
Every year’s slate of bowl games features different dynamics. Some years involve many bowl games between closely matched teams, while others feature a decent number of lopsided games.
As a general rule, 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 competitors) are making picks.
A good practical starting point is to separate all 84 bowl teams into seven or eight groups according to their chance of winning. You can use recent betting odds or our algorithmic game predictions to do that kind of segmentation.
2. Hunt For Value
Winning a pick’em contest isn’t only about picking winners. To maximize your odds, you need to uncover opportunities to pick against popular favorites with the odds in your favor, or to take on a little risk in exchange for a big reward.
When it comes to office pools, we generally define “value” by comparing a team’s odds to win to the overall percentage of the public that is picking that team to win.
Sites like ESPN and Yahoo! often publish user pick distribution information for their respective bowl pick’em contests, so go look at all that data, and make a list of games that fit a couple key situations:
- Teams that are solid favorites according to betting odds or our predictions, but are being picked by smaller percentage of the public. For example, LSU has about a 60% chance to beat Louisville in the Citrus Bowl, but only about 40% of bowl pick’em entries nationally are picking LSU to win.
- Teams that are only slight underdogs, but are being seriously underestimated by the public. For example, Kansas State is currently only a 2-point Vegas underdog vs. Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl, yet a meager 25% of bowl pool entries nationally are picking Kansas State.
Keep in mind that there is almost always going to be value in picking long shot upsets; almost nobody overestimates the odds for a huge underdog like Washington to beat Alabama.
The problem is, long shots rarely win, so it’s often better from a risk/reward standpoint to focus on teams with a more realistic shot.
3. Match Overall Pick Risk To Pool Size & Dynamics
Once you’ve got your list of most likely winners and promising value picks on hand, you need to match the level of risk inherent in your picks to your pool size.
This is probably the most important strategic decision you will make.
All else being equal, if you are in a pool with only your mom, dad, and sister, it’s stupid to go crazy making tons of upset picks. On the other hand, if you are competing against 2,000 co-workers and decide to only pick public favorites to win, you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage by being too conservative.
In practice this is a difficult thing to assess, because it’s hard to know intuitively what the optimal risk level is for your specific office pool.
In years past, we spent a lot of time doing this level of evaluation for our premium college bowl pick recommendations. Finally, we invested the time and resources necessary to engineer sophisticated algorithms to do all the necessary analysis and computation, and our Bowl Pick’em Picks product was born.
If you prefer to have a go on your own, here are some basic guidelines:
- If you’re in a smaller pool (say less than 100 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, and 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.
- In bigger pools, the most common mistake people make is being too conservative. They’ll choose mostly public favorites, then replace some of their lower-confidence selections with upset picks. A strategy like this is more suited for saving face (i.e., avoiding a bad score) than for maximizing your chance to win a big pool. You probably won’t do poorly, but you almost certainly won’t win, since for the most part your most important picks look like everyone else’s. So don’t be afraid to make some informed gambles.
4. Make Your Important Picks Count
Let’s build off that last point. Typical bowl pick’em scoring (where you assign 1 to 42 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 diddly 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 strongly against you.
As a baseline, you have a 1% chance to win that pool (1 in 100). Even if smart picks and strategies help you quintuple your chance of winning — a huge impact — your odds to take first place would only improve to 1 in 20. In other words, 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.
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.
In short, you need to be comfortable with two facts:
- You’re probably not going to win your bowl pick’em pool this year.
- In bigger pools especially, increasing your odds to win means making decisions that also increase the odds of a “crash and burn” outcome.
If you understand those things, and play bowl pools year after year with a cool head, and don’t overreact by abandoning a solid strategy when it just happens to have a really bad year, you should have success in the long run.
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 42 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!