Betting bowl games successfully is perhaps more difficult than it has ever been. We always have had to handicap player motivation, coaching changes and other variables. But now, the sport has added the transfer portal and draft status caution to the equation.
"I never heard a bowl game described as an 'exhibition' until a few years ago," professional bettor Jay Romano told ESPN. "Bowl games were always considered postseason games. But now there's a growing narrative that these games mean a lot less and that definitely has impacted the handicapping."
Personally, I now abstain from all bowl pools. There is no way I can lock in picks now on games over the next few weeks when news is constantly surfacing and lines are drastically changing. However, I am still willing to bet individual games. It just requires a unique skill set.
"It's a cross between the NFL preseason and NBA," SuperBook oddsmaker and Las Vegas veteran Ed Salmons told ESPN, alluding to the importance of tracking a player's unexpected non-injury absence. "If you find out first, you have a bet with a ton of value." That's because the bowl season features greater market volatility than the regular season, thanks to line moves as high as 10 points.
Twitter is a critical tool that nearly all handicappers and oddsmakers incorporate, tracking national writers and beat reporters who will tweet valuable tidbits at random times. That includes various observations and quotes from practice, which can help gauge motivation and other data points. Also, don't be afraid to watch clips from local TV station websites. Much like the NFL preseason, coaches are less transparent with certain information.
"It's complicated and hard work," BetMGM vice president of trading Jason Scott told ESPN. "However, traditionally we do see decent results with plenty of dogs winning."
Ultimately, it's a soft market. That can be a great thing for bettors but it can also be a negative if you prioritize the wrong information and the market moves against you. My advice is to proceed cautiously and don't be afraid to wait for in-game wagering. You'll know who's sitting out and after a few possessions you theoretically will have a better feel for each team's mindset and preparation.
Cincinnati vs. Louisville (-2, 39)
Saturday, 11 a.m. ET on ESPN, Fenway Park, Boston, Massachusetts
This game is the bowl season in a nutshell. Both teams will turn to interim head coaches and backup quarterbacks, thanks to numerous players sitting out. Louisville quarterback Brock Domann has looked pedestrian in limited time in place of Malik Cunningham, and I am doubtful that improves. Cincy has more key players available, and I like the Bearcats to win this game.
Pick: Cincinnati +2
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl
Florida vs. No. 14 Oregon State (-8.5, 53)
Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN, Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada
The Gators are big underdogs, though this matchup under normal circumstances would probably be a pick 'em. That's because Florida will be without at least 20 scholarship players, including star quarterback Anthony Richardson. Florida will instead turn to QB Jack Miller III, who will make his first career start. Meanwhile, all signs point to Oregon State having a full roster and eager to take down an SEC foe for its 10th win, a level the school has reached only twice. Perhaps I am too late to the party, but I will still back the Beavers, who I expect to lean on their smashmouth offense. However, of all my plays, this has the least confidence because of the high point spread.
Pick: Oregon State -8.5
Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented by Stifel
Washington State vs. Fresno State (-3.5, 53)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC, SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California
I see this matchup significantly favoring Fresno State and its passing attack, which has been a weakness of Wazzu's defense all season. Also, the Cougars lost both coordinators to new jobs so for this game the receivers coach will call pass plays and the offensive line coach will handle run plays. I cannot imagine this works that effectively. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have won eight straight games and want to send quarterback Jake Haener out a winner and notch the school's 10th win.
Picks: Fresno State -3.5
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New Mexico Bowl
SMU (-4, 64) vs. BYU
Saturday, 2:15 p.m. ET on ESPN, University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
A game involving the Mustangs and Cougars may need a Wildcat. That's because BYU might be relegated to a fourth-string quarterback. Starter Jaren Hall is doubtful and the rest of the depth chart is hampered by injury and the transfer portal. Both defenses are bad, but SMU will at least have regular quarterback Tanner Mordecai, although he will be without his top wideout. However, that should not matter against this horrendous BYU defense, which ranks 116th in efficiency.
Pick: SMU -4
Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl
Louisiana vs. Houston (-7, 57.5)
Friday Dec. 23, 3 p.m. ET, Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana
I honestly see this as a coin flip game. The Ragin' Cajuns should have a home-field advantage in Shreveport and bring a solid defense against a Houston offense that has been a roller coaster all season. For example, Houston lost outright as a 13-point favorite in its last game. Also, the Cougars rank 100th in defensive efficiency, so Louisiana should be just fine on offense.
Pick: Louisiana +7