College Football Betting Strategy: Why the Point Spread Hasn’t Mattered in Bowl Season

College Football Betting Strategy: Why the Point Spread Hasn’t Mattered in Bowl Season article feature image
Credit:

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Sam Ehlinger

College football bowl season features 78 of the best teams in the country, and the pairing process is (sort of) designed to match teams evenly.

So bowl season seems like a good time to back underdogs against the spread, right? The dog can keep it close given the team shouldn’t be that much worse than its opponents.

But bowl season is actually the worst time to take underdogs against the spread.


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Dogs usually either win the game outright or lose and don’t cover the spread. That makes moneylines a better bet if you like the dog and laying points the best option if you like the favorite.

The point spread comes into play in about 1 in 7 bowl games. In the regular season, it’s about 1 in 4.

Let me explain.

The Four Results of a 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 the underdog covers
  • 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 23% of games outright. In bowl season, they win more than 36%.

The KillerSports database has 950 bowl games dating back to 1980 (excluding pick’ems). Only in about 14% of those games has the dog lost the game but covered the spread — 1 in every 7 games.

In the regular season, there’s a much more even split — the favorite wins but the underdog covers about 26% of the time — about 1 in every 4 games.

 

Wait. But the Teams Are Better, So the Spreads Are Smaller

Yes. The point spreads are smaller. There are very rarely massive lines in bowl season where the dog has virtually no chance of winning outright.

If you’re comparing field-goal underdogs to a sample of all underdogs, of course you’re going to get more outright wins with the former than the latter.

However, it still holds up when you incorporate a betting spin and ROI.

Our Bet Labs database has every bowl game since 2005, and blindly betting bowl underdogs on the moneyline has resulted in an 8.4% ROI and +43.38 units.

Why Is This the Case?

The easiest explanation is motivation, though it’s impossible to figure out who won’t show up.

And point spreads are based on power ratings derived from season-long performance and other outside factors, not a blind stab at motivation.

So the market didn’t make Georgia an underdog to Texas in the Sugar Bowl last year, but the Bulldogs didn’t show up, and the Longhorns ran them out of the building.

However, it’s just too hard to pinpoint which teams will mail it in. Everyone thought Auburn had given up on its season before walloping Purdue 63-14 in the Music City Bowl.

Other possible explanations could be scheme related — Washington State’s Air Raid has usually flopped in bowl games. Or sometimes a conference turns out to be wildly overrated, and a team is power-rated too high because it beat up on a league we all thought was a little better.

But I’m Not Advocating for Betting Underdogs Blind…

This isn’t a foolproof trend year to year, which is why I’m not advocating blindly betting underdogs. It’s been profitable in five of the last six years but is 7-7 over the last 14.

Here is the moneyline record for underdogs each year since 2005.

The units won are also buoyed by some big moneyline underdogs cashing — Oklahoma over Alabama in 2014, UCF over Auburn (2017) and Baylor (2014) and Louisville over Florida in 2013. Those all paid north of 4-1.

But even with small underdogs, it’s been profitable.

So What Can I Take Away From This?

  • No moneyline favorite parlays: The Alabama-Utah-LSU-style moneyline parlay that pays even money is getting more popular across all sports. But if you really like a favorite in bowl season, just lay the points.
  • No teasers: This is always true in college football, but especially in 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%.
  • Don’t be afraid to take underdogs on the moneyline: That’s the point of all this, right? Find some dogs you like and don’t be afraid to fire on the moneyline instead of grabbing the points. Play into variance. You’ll be glad you did.