Why the Point Spread Hasn’t Mattered When Betting Bowl Game Underdogs


Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Shaquem Griffin and McKenzie Milton

Dec 12, 2018, 09:45 AM EST
  • Bowl game underdogs win games outright at a much higher clip than they do during the regular season.
  • Here's how bettors can take advantage of this trend that's been reliable over the past 40 years.

Bowl season (most of it, anyway) pits college football’s best teams against one another. It seems like the perfect time to take underdogs with the points, figuring the dog can keep it close given the relative talent and ability of each team is pretty even.

But that just hasn’t been the case during bowl season. Underdogs usually win outright, or lose and don’t cover the spread. Let me explain.

The Four Results of a College Football Bet

There are four possible results when betting college football games against the spread.

  • The favorite wins and covers the spread
  • The favorite wins, but doesn’t cover the spread
  • The underdog wins the game outright (which means it also covers the spread)
  • A push (favorite wins by the exact point spread)

During the regular season, underdogs win 24% of games outright. In bowl season, they win about 37% of the time.

We have 457 bowl games in our Bet Labs database, which goes back to 2005. In those games…

  • 171 underdogs won outright (37.4%)
  • 68 underdogs covered but lost the game (14.8%)
  • 218 favorites won and covered (47.7%)
  • 6 games pushed

Since 1980, using KillerSports.com, the results from 784 bowl games are similar (excluding pick’ems and pushes):

  • 303 underdogs won outright (38.7%)
  • 127 underdogs covered but lost the game (16.1%)
  • 354 favorites won and covered (45.2%)

In 25,371 regular season games since 1980 (excluding pick’ems and pushes)…

  • 5,553 underdogs won outright (22.8%)
  • 6,241 underdogs won but lost the game (25.6%)
  • 11,806 favorites have won and covered (48.6%)

In bowl games, the point spread comes into play (the underdog covering but losing) about one in every seven games. During the regular season, it’s about one in four.

But the Teams Are Better and the Spreads Are Smaller … Right?

You can’t just use winning percentages in this exercise, because there are more 20-plus-point underdogs during the regular season that have little chance of winning outright. You rarely see a bowl game spread that high.

It still works, even with a betting spin. Betting moneyline underdogs has been profitable in the past 13 years. (For those unfamiliar, you’ll get a bigger payout if you bet an underdog to win outright. Oklahoma beating Alabama straight-up pays 4-1 — $100 to win $400 — while betting the Sooners +14.5 is around even money — $110 to win $100.)

Blindly betting every dog straight-up in a bowl game since 2005 has yielded a 6.8% ROI and +31.4 units.

But this trend isn’t reliable every year. It’s had good ones and bad. And it in part relies on one or two big underdogs to cash each year to be profitable.

Why Does This Happen?

The easiest explanation is motivation, but I don’t know if it’s the complete one.

Point spreads are largely derived from power ratings based on a team’s entire body of work. They don’t fully account for whether or not a team wants to be in Shreveport, La., the day after Christmas.

If a big favorite just doesn’t show up mentally, it can easily lose outright.

But the fact that the numbers look similar from 1980 and from 2005 make the motivation argument shakier.

When there were just 15 bowl games in 1980, every team should have been motivated. It was a big deal to play in the postseason, much different from today, with 40 bowl games on the slate.

Are There Specific Types of Dogs to Target?

Yes and no. You can cherry pick more profitable trends by moving the spread by half a point or a point.

Generally, betting Group of 5 teams in this spot has been successful, and even more successful when they play a Power 5 team.

But the real money has been made with big underdogs.

The units are buoyed by some big underdogs cashing — Oklahoma over Alabama in 2014, UCF over Auburn last season and Baylor in 2014, Louisville over Florida in 2013. They were all 4-1 or better to win outright.

What Should I Take Away From This?

Like I mentioned, this trend has had good and bad years. It’s been profitable in three of the four College Football Playoff years, since the playoff has created a perceived lack of emphasis on other bowl games. But here are some key takeaways:

1. No favorite moneyline parlays. Tying a handful of big favorites in a moneyline parlay for an even-money payout is becoming an increasingly popular betting option, but it doesn’t make sense in bowl season. If you really like the favorite, bet on it to cover.

2. No teasers. You should never tease college games anyway because of the scoring variance, but especially during bowl season. You need to hit 72.3% of legs with a 6-point teaser to be profitable, and bowl underdogs have only hit 67.7% of the time since 1980. Favorites hit at 68%.

3. Sprinkle some Christmas cash on an underdog moneyline. That’s the point of all this, right?

If you like an underdog this bowl season, don’t be afraid to throw some change on that team to win outright.

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