Analyzing Coaching Trends, Mismatches and History in College Football Bowl Games

Analyzing Coaching Trends, Mismatches and History in College Football Bowl Games article feature image

USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Tom Herman and Urban Meyer

  • Coaching plays a big part in handicapping bowl games, whether it's about history, motivation or tactical prowess.
  • Ken Barkley dives into some interesting coaching nuggets bettors need to know for bowl season.

The college football season is pretty distinctly broken into three parts — non-conference play in the regular season, conference play, and bowls.

The process of betting and evaluating/handicapping teams during these parts actually can differ quite a bit from the other two parts of the season. History, for example, plays almost no part in non-conference play (and should probably be ignored), but in conference play, the coaches and coordinators may have played enough that there are reliable trends. Those trends can turn into adjustments to your numbers, which can be profitable.

In bowl season, there are so many more factors to consider than in handicapping the regular season. Players leaving early for the NFL. Talent differences. Motivation.

Another big one is coaching. There’s much more time off to prepare, so coaches who are excellent at game-planning and using time off effectively will have an advantage over coaches who are not.

Coaches also change jobs, or are coaching in their final game (while also assembling a staff at their new job and recruiting), so there are motivational angles there (and in general, motivational angles aren’t great, but here they must be considered).

Coaching is what we’ll be talking about solely here, so let’s start by identifying the coaches in all of the bowl games this season, and their records ATS going back to 2005 (when our Bet Labs data begins).

Obviously, a lot to digest there, and if you’re a casual football fan, some of these names may look like total strangers.

“Wait, they’re coached by WHO? That sounds like the guy who lives down the street.” Don’t worry. If the table isn’t your thing, or you want someone else to do the analysis for you, that’s kind of what we’re here for.

Here are some coaching records that stand out, and the matchups this bowl season with those statistics in mind:

In his final game, Urban Meyer brings with him an incredible bowl-game reputation.

Meyer’s plan right now is to coach the Rose Bowl against Washington, and then let Ryan Day take over (although I imagine they’ll be some kind of hand-off in the prep for the game as well, and Day is taking over recruiting now).

It will be interesting how this bowl prep is different than the others, because Meyer is as close to reliable as there is in these situations: 9-3 ATS with a 47.5% ROI. With Utah, there was the dominant Sugar Bowl over Alabama, then with Florida and Ohio State, national championships. For more on Meyer’s betting accolades, Stuckey did a full breakdown here.

It’s interesting that his opponent in this year’s game, Chris Petersen, is just 6-6 ATS in bowl games. It’s possible that Petersen’s reputation as one of the best college football coach leads to an inflated vision of his team in the market. I won’t give Petersen’s record too much criticism though, since the last two years his team played Alabama in a CFP semifinal, and a loaded Penn State team in the Fiesta Bowl (which may have been among the best in the country in reality). Tough draw.

Tom Herman’s success as an underdog? It carries over to postseason play, too.

We are all well-versed in how Herman does when he’s an underdog. It might be the most well-known trend in college football. And while Herman doesn’t have the data points that Meyer and Petersen do, it’s been profitable to back the Texas coach thus far. With Houston a few years ago, he won outright as a 7-point underdog against Florida State in the Peach Bowl, then last year, as a 3-point dog to Missouri, the Longhorns won outright by 17.

This year, Herman may have met his match, though. Kirby Smart is 3-0 ATS in just two seasons with Georgia, as his Bulldogs covered in both the CFP semifinal and title game last year.

Texas is currently an 11-point underdog against Georgia on New Year’s Day (and about +350 on the moneyline).

Mike Leach is awful in bowl games, but still favored.

This was an interesting contrast between the coaching trend and the market. Leach is one of the worst coaches in our database in bowl games — 1-7 ATS, including 1-3 at Washington State. Last year, as a 1-point underdog, his Cougars lost by 25 to Michigan State. The year before, they lost outright as a 10-point favorite to Minnesota.

But the market is indifferent to such things. Washington State, after its magical run (which ended abruptly in the Apple Cup), is a 3.5-point favorite against a good Iowa State team on Dec. 28.

It’s quite possible that there is some recency bias here, with Iowa State struggling so mightily in the late-scheduled finale against Drake (winning by just three points). Bettors may have a very negative impression of the Cyclones despite how they looked for a large portion of the season.

And like I’ve said previously, there are so many differences between November regular-season games and bowl games, including the time to prepare. Matt Campbell (who is NOT headed to Ohio State), is 2-2 ATS in his career, and in his only bowl appearance with Iowa State, last season, they won a dramatic Liberty Bowl as a 1-point dog against a very good Memphis team.

On the surface, this seems like a coaching matchup which should at least merit further analysis, to see if there are other angles or raw numbers which favor the Cyclones against a coach who has been so bad in these spots.

NIU’s Rod Carey has the longest 0-for streak ATS among FBS coaches.

Carey is 0-5 ATS in bowl games, all with Northern Illinois, but all five games have a familiar thread: his team has never been favored. His team typically has tried to punch above it’s weight, only to get dump-trucked.

Northern Illinois has lost to Duke by 22, Boise by 48, Marshall by 29…you get the idea. But after a dramatic MAC Championship win over Buffalo, he may yet get his chance to finally be favored in a bowl game after all.  His Huskies are just a 1.5-point dog to UAB with two weeks until the game.

For the Blazers, this is all new territory. The team has never made back-to-back bowl games. In fact, this is only the program’s third bowl appearance EVER.

Against a MAC team last year, the upstart Blazers under Bill Clark did not fare well, losing 41-6 as a 7-point underdog to Ohio.

These are two programs dying for a bowl win, and one of them will finally get it.

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