Strategy guide for Capital One Bowl Mania on ESPN

From the Celebration Bowl to the College Football Playoff, you can't approach Capital One Bowl Mania without a sound strategy. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Capital One Bowl Mania is back, with the first of 41 games to be placed in confidence order set to kick off on Dec. 16. If you've played College Pick 'em then you know the drill, but while the contest is fundamentally the same, the strategy is different.

Bowls present unfamiliar challenges for coaches and players in terms of the timing, the stakes, the matchups, the venue and more. To help you sort it all out, we'll be providing a Bowl Mania Cheat Sheet, updated with risers and fallers throughout the bowl season. But to start, here's a look at some of the basic principles of Bowl Mania strategy that we'll be drawing on to make our picks.

Use the spread

The spread isn't just for gamblers. The betting market is always subject to change, but at any given point actually reflects expert expectations better than any other published material. That three-point favorite is favored for a reason. Respect it. And make that your starting point. Your very first move should be to arrange the games in point spread order, with the heaviest favorites at the top, then adjust from there. You can find updated odds throughout the bowl season here.

Disappointment or delight?

How well or poorly a team prepares for and plays in a particular bowl is often a reflection of how the team feels about its bowl assignment. College football is unique among major sports in that teams compete for something other than the sport's overall championship during the postseason. That "something" is different from bowl to bowl, and each game's prize is not always valued equally by the combatants. In fact, the college football postseason is the only situation in the major sports where one team that views a game as a meaningless exhibition might be pitted against an opponent that views it as a championship-type opportunity. While most of the time the disparity isn't quite that dramatic, your aim is always to see the game through the team's eyes.

Does a berth in this game jive with the team's preseason goals? What about the team's goals in November? If the preseason No. 1 team stumbles to an 8-4 record and winds up in some chilly bowl outpost playing some newly established game with a silly corporate name, chances are the team isn't that fired up about it. Florida State, for example, is certainly proud to keep its record 36-year bowl streak alive, but the Seminoles are accustomed to more prestigious bowl assignments than Shreveport against a Conference USA also-ran. New Mexico State, meanwhile, hasn't bowled since 1960 and is breaking the nation's longest postseason drought. No assignment, even to the least prestigious bowl out there, would be a disappointment to the Aggies.

'In it to win it' or 'Just happy to be there?'

While situations such as Florida State's are nearly always red flags, a team (such as New Mexico State) being thrilled with their bowl assignment doesn't always give us the green light. For some teams, just making a bowl game is the goal, often to the point that winning it becomes secondary. For others, winning it is central to viewing the season as a success. Often it's a matter of emphasis.

The UAB Blazers authored a remarkable rags-to-riches story this year, posting an 8-4 record after not even having fielded a team the past two years. Their prize is a trip to the Bahamas, and it would be very difficult for the coaches to treat it like anything other than a well-deserved reward.

Other programs, such as North Texas, have specifically built winning a bowl game into the team goals. Unlike many programs, nobody at North Texas ever talks about making a bowl game. Winning it is the stated goal, and when the coaches are consistent with that emphasis, as Seth Littrell's staff has been from the beginning, results are more likely to follow. "Happy to be there" is certainly better than "disappointed to be there," but it's not enough. Even among non-disappointed teams, we need to know who is content with the accomplishment and who is hungry for more.

Skeleton crew

There are always a handful of bowl teams playing under the direction of an interim head coach, and every such situation is different. Some teams have the full staff on board except the departed head coach, while others have also lost coordinators and other key assistants and are trying to prepare for the game with a shorthanded staff that has everybody in unfamiliar roles. How the team feels about the situation and how it responds to the interim boss are also keys. In some cases a new coach has already been named, and in some the future is still uncertain. Sometimes a totally lame duck staff is coaching the bowl game, and sometimes most of the assistants doing the coaching are going to be retained. The goal is always to get a read on who's checked out and who's all in.

New scene or old hat?

Experience and familiarity are major factors. Opposing teams will often have widely contrasting levels of experience with a bowl's schedule and timing, the venue, the opponent and the bowl preparation process in general. Utah's Kyle Whittingham is 10-1 in bowls, so clearly he's hitting the right notes in both motivation and preparation. Utah State's Matt Wells has coached in plenty of pre-Christmas bowls, but an assignment as late as this year's Dec. 29 game is uncharted waters and will require different logistics and practice plans. Both Army and Navy have drawn opposing coaches who are legendary for their skill and experience defending option football, which negates the edge of unfamiliarity the service academies often enjoy in the postseason.

All hands on deck

The time off between the end of the regular season and the bowl date allows teams to heal up. New contributors also emerge in bowl practice. We want to know which teams benefited from the time off the most and are likely to be fresh. Some rosters will be in the best shape they've been all year, while other teams will be missing key players who played a huge role in the team's success. Auburn star Kerryon Johnson wasn't close to 100 percent in the SEC Championship game and it showed. If he's back at full speed it will be a big boost for the Tigers. Meanwhile, West Virginia's trip to Dallas will be just the team's second game without injured quarterback Will Grier. Be sure to monitor the inevitable rash of bowl-season suspensions that occur for academic and disciplinary reasons.

These are a few of the key factors we'll be dialed into as we handicap the bowls throughout the next three weeks. Look for the cheat sheet later this week, and we'll update it as new information emerges and our reads are refined.