College Bowl Pool Strategy: How The Pros Dominate Bowl Pick’em Contests

Want to maximize your edge to win your college football bowl pick'em pool? Our 2020 strategy guide explains how to make the smartest picks.

Bowl Picks Strategy

Dabo Swinney knows how to consistently winning in December and January (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire)

To give yourself the best chance to win your 2020 college bowl pick’em contest, you need to have a smart strategy for making your picks. It’s always going to take some luck to win a college bowl pool. However, the smarter your strategy is, the less luck you’ll need to win a prize.

Our approach to winning bowl pick’ems and bowl confidence points pools has been proven across thousands of real-world contests over the past five years (and thousands more regular season college football pick’ems). As of 2020, our premium subscribers have reported a bowl pool prize win rate 60% higher than you would expect given the size of their respective pools.

Although the analytics we’ve built to deliver that edge are complex, the basic strategy boils down to the three core principles we will review in this post.

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Strategy 1: Objectively Identify The Bowl Favorites

Picking the team you think is more likely to win in every bowl game is usually not the best strategy to win your pool. One reason is because you also need to take pick popularity into account, especially in larger pools. (We’ll cover that angle in the next section.)

Making accurate game predictions is still very important, of course. And if you’re like most people, you should think twice about trusting yourself in that department. Over the long term, humans — including you, your buddy that watches a ton of college football, and even the self-proclaimed “experts” on TV — are rarely the best college bowl game predictors, compared to good computer predictions or the betting markets.

Human Bowl Pickers Are Biased

Let’s take the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl between 12-1 Boise State and 7-5 Washington as an example. Boise State was ranked in the AP Poll entering the game; Washington State was not. And Boise State had a much better win-loss record. Unsurprisingly, over 80% of players in the ESPN Bowl Mania contest took Boise State to win.

However, Washington was a 3.5-point favorite in the betting markets. Our data-driven predictive ratings had Washington as 4.8 points better on a neutral field.

How is that possible? Human pickers were not very good at accounting for the difference in the schedules those teams faced; the Pac-12 was a tougher conference than the Mountain West. The win-loss records favored Boise State, 12-1 versus 7-5. A team’s record, though, is less predictive than other metrics like point differentials and schedule strength. Washington had lost a lot of close, competitive games. Add in a dose of Washington coach Chris Petersen stepping down after the game, a narrative with an often overrated impact that tends to be blown out of proportion by the media, and the public was way off the betting market on this game.

Washington won 38-7, so only a small percentage of the public earned wins on that game. But it was not an upset in the betting markets.

Strategy 2: Use Pick Popularity To Identify Underrated Bowl Teams

To win a college bowl pick’em contest, you need to get at least one pick right that your opponents miss, or score higher than everyone else in your pool in terms of confidence points.

This critical aspect of bowl pool strategy seems fairly obvious, yet it’s often ignored when it comes to pick strategy. Achieving some arbitrary number of correct picks (30, 35, whatever) or points does not guarantee you a win in a college bowl pool. The only way you can win is to finish at least one point higher than everyone in the final standings.

As a result, you’ll almost always increase your odds to win a pool by identifying opportunities to make or prioritize unpopular picks. Why? Because if you make a pick that most of your opponents don’t make, and you get it right, you’ll gain serious ground in the standings. On the other hand, if you get a pick right and your entire pool made the same pick, your odds to win the pool haven’t gone up at all.

How To Project Bowl Pick Popularity

Estimating how popular a pick every team will be in your bowl pool is never an exact science, but with some resourcefulness, you can start by finding national pick popularity data published by some of the sites that host college bowl pools. Ideally, you should compare pick popularity data from multiple sites, because individual sites can be at least somewhat flawed.

For example, ESPN’s popular Bowl Mania game shows you national pick popularity percentages for each team when you enter your picks. However, ESPN’s pick popularity data is skewed by a number of factors, such as various “auto-fill” options for less serious players that are offered in the user interface. So ESPN’s pick percentages may not represent how your specific bowl pool opponents are likely to pick games — especially if your pool consists of more sophisticated players.

(We collect pick popularity data from multiple sources to reduce the impact of such biases, and publish our composite popularity numbers in the Data Grid feature of our Bowl Pick’em Picks product.)

Using national data as a baseline, you can then make some adjustments for your specific pool. For example, let’s say you’re in a bowl pool sponsored by a sports bar in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s probably a safe bet that Wisconsin will be a more popular pick in your pool than they are nationally.

Identifying Underrated Bowl Pool Picks

Of course, unpopular picks are often (but not always) risky picks like underdogs, so you need to evaluate both the risk and the likely reward of every bowl pick decision. One useful approach is to identify teams that fall into either of the following two categories:

Favorites that are being picked at a rate significantly lower than their odds to win

We often refer to these teams as “value favorites.” They are as close as you can get to no-brainer picks in a pool contest, as the more likely winner is also the underrated team. For example, in 2019, Tulane was a 7-point favorite in the Armed Forces Bowl against Southern Mississippi. That point spread implied win odds of about 70% in Tulane’s favor. Yet, only about 60% of the public were picking Tulane to win in game winner based bowl pools.

That’s not a huge difference, but it’s a great reason to stick with a team like Tulane, who was a relatively undervalued favorite.

Slight to moderate underdogs that are significantly underrated by the public

In bowl pools, you have to get picks right that others miss, while not getting too many picks wrong yourself. In most cases, the favorites will be more heavily picked by the public, and the key in differentiating your entry can be to find slight underdogs who have a solid chance of winning (40% or better) but are extremely unpopular choices.

It will rarely make sense to make a lot of value gamble picks where you take the underdog, unless you’re either in a huge bowl pool or your scoring system gives big point bonuses for upsets. Still, from a risk vs. reward standpoint, value favorites and value gambles represent your best opportunities to differentiate your bowl pool entry from the your opponents in the most intelligent way.

Smart Bowl Upset Pick Strategy

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 in a college bowl pick’em pool is to make a trendy upset pick.

Consider the following two teams from 2019:

  • Iowa State: 16% pick popularity, 3.5-point underdog vs. Notre Dame
  • Boise State: 56% pick popularity, 3.5-point underdog vs. Washington

If you wanted to take a gamble on one of the two teams above, you’d be crazy to pick Boise State. Both teams were 3.5-point underdogs in the betting markets, and therefore equally risky picks according to one of the most trustworthy metrics. But an Iowa State win would have gained ground on around 85% of your opponents. A Boise State win wouldn’t even gain ground on half of your pool.

Strategy 3: Compose A Pick Sheet Appropriate For Your Pool’s Characteristics

Now comes the toughest and most complex part of getting an edge over your bowl pool opponents. If you’re in a typical bowl pool, you need to figure out the exact combination of 30+ picks that you should make, and potentially add a confidence point ranking to each pick as well.

What’s so difficult about this process is understanding the strategy 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), its scoring system (confidence points or not, upset bonuses or not, etc.), and its prize structure all play a role in determining the specific combination of picks and confidence point rankings that will give you the best chance to win a prize.

We’ve built technology to evaluate all these factors, since the computation involved in getting to the right answer is beyond the scope of back-of-the-envelope math or spreadsheets.

However, here are a few high level guidelines if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer:

Pick Strategy 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, picking a bunch of upsets is often the kiss of death in small bowl pools. Unskilled opponents in small pools tend to shoot themselves in the foot by getting too cute and making picks that are far too aggressive for this pool size. That means you can often get a solid edge simply by staying conservative.

Sure, some upsets are going to happen that you will miss. But with around 40 games to pick, the cumulative risk/reward strategy of staying extra conservative often pays off. It may still be worth considering highly underrated teams if they are only the slightest of underdogs, or perhaps making one calculated bet on one hugely underrated moderate underdog — just don’t go overboard.

Pick Strategy for Larger Bowl Pools

In bigger pools, unskilled players commonly make the exact opposite mistake; their picks are too conservative. Your chances to win a large pool are already quite low, and playing it very safe rarely improves them. To maximize your edge in a big pool, you typically need to take multiple gambles on value picks, even if they’re fairly risky, 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; you can diversify your risk by making a different set of calculated gambles in each entry. Our Bowl Pick’em Picks product makes recommendations for playing up to three different entries in the same pool.

Pick Strategy for Bowl Confidence Pools

In bowl confidence pools, it’s important to understand the relative impact of every game. For example, you probably need to assign a unique confidence value of between 1 and 34 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. Instead of making a bunch of low-confidence upset picks, for example, think about concentrating your risk on a smaller number of bigger bets on the best value picks of the 2020 bowl season.

Pick Strategy for Point Spread Based Bowl Pools

Many players fail to understand the role of the point spread as the great equalizer in pools. If your bowl pool features up-to-date point spreads for each game, you’re not going to have much better than a 50/50 chance of getting most picks right.

(For reference, top professional college football bettors only hover around 55-60% long term accuracy against full-game point spreads, and that’s with the ability to lay off most games and selectively pick their spots.)

When every single pick you make is relatively low confidence, pick popularity becomes a bigger driver of optimal strategy. In cases where the public heavily favors one side, you’re usually better off picking the other way.

You also always want to be on the lookout for “stale” spreads — that is, games where the current point spread in real life is different than the spread in your pool, often because of line movement because of player participation news. Those “free points” can give you a solid edge over opponents who aren’t diligent enough to look for them.

Want Expert Help with Your 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 2019 bowl picks? Absolutely. If you’re serious about winning, though, the expected long-term payoff can easily justify the effort, especially if you’re playing for some solid prizes.

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 (up to date betting odds, algorithmic game predictions, public picking trends, etc.), and we use that objective data to deliver customized, game-by-game pick recommendations for your college bowl pick’em or confidence point pool. It’s all in our Bowl Pick’em Picks product.

It’s still going to take some luck to win in any given year, but over the long term, our unique technology and approach has proven to deliver an edge.

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Since 2017, TeamRankings subscribers have reported over $1.7 million in winnings using our data-driven bracket pool picks.

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