College Football Bowl Pick’Em Pool Strategy: Use Odds, Game Theory To Make Winning Picks
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images. Pictured: Penn State linebacker Curtis Jacobs.
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by PoolGenius, a site that uses advanced analytics in an effort to help people win more sports pools. Since 2014, PoolGenius subscribers have reported winning college bowl pools nearly 80% more often than expected, based on the size of their pools.
There’s always luck involved in winning a college bowl pick’em pool.
With around 40 bowl games to pick in 2022, skilled players don’t have the advantage of picking hundreds of games over the course of a full NFL or college season. The fewer events you need to predict, the more likely it is that someone randomly gets lucky and wins the pool.
Still, that fact doesn’t render strategy irrelevant. Over the long term, luck evens out, and making optimal picks for your college bowl pool will always give you the best chance to win.
Winning bowl pool strategy boils down to a few key factors, and if you’re disciplined enough to let them guide your picks, you’ll have a leg up on your bowl pick’em opponents.
Get Picks Now: Bowl Pick’em Picks from PoolGenius
1) Use Objective Win Odds Data
Don’t trust your instincts, poll rankings or that guy you just met at the sports bar when it comes to assessing a team’s chances to win.
Year after year, humans fall prey to bowl prediction pitfalls like putting too much stock in a team’s win-loss record or overvaluing a team’s performance in one or two widely-watched games.
Instead, do your research to reference betting market odds and smart computer projections for each game, which are far more objective methods for evaluating each team’s chance to win.
2) Follow Betting Line Movement
Factors like players opting out of bowl games and postseason coaching changes have only gotten more prevalent in recent years, and they can have big impacts on a team’s win odds to win its bowl game. (We explore this topic more deeply in our full bowl pick’em strategy guide.)
For example, last year, LSU opened as a 3.5-point favorite over Kansas State in the TaxAct Texas Bowl. By kickoff, Kansas State was a 9.5-point favorite and won the game by 22 points.
Putting in the time to follow breaking news and line movement up until the very last minute can give you a big edge over “set it and forget” players who aren’t willing to put in the same work — especially if your pool allows you to change picks up until kickoff.
3) Use Pick Popularity To Find Value
Even if you do use betting odds as the basis of your bowl game predictions, just picking all the favorites usually won’t maximize your edge.
When you’re competing in a pool against lots of other people, you can only get the best score if you get at least one pick right that your opponents get wrong. To do that, especially in bigger pools, you need to make some degree of contrarian picks.
That doesn’t mean you should go crazy picking upsets. But you do need to identify the smartest opportunities in the 2022 bowl slate to pick a winner that is also not a super popular pick amongst your opponents.
Teams like East Carolina (79% win odds, 72% estimated nationwide pick popularity in bowl pools) and Clemson (72% win odds, 62% popularity) are examples of relatively unpopular favorites this year.
Meanwhile, Kansas State (42% win odds but only 20% pick popularity against Alabama) could be an intriguing upset pick in larger pools where you need to get a bit riskier to maximize your odds to win.
Big pool hosting sites like ESPN publish aggregated pick popularity data from their users, and you can use that data as a proxy for your pool — or adjust it as you see fit.
4) Take The Right Amount Of Risk
The toughest part of manufacturing an edge in bowl pick’em contests is knowing exactly what mix of favorites and upsets you should pick. You also may need to add a confidence point ranking to each pick you make.
You can’t play it totally safe, but taking too much risk will torpedo your odds to win the pool.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. The possible combinations and options are so numerous that we had to build technology to determine the right answer for various types of bowl pools.
But we can summarize the driving factors to keep in mind:
Pool Size: In smaller pools, it pays to stay more conservative and not pick too many upsets. If you need to beat many opponents, though, you have to take more calculated gambles.
Pool Format: In game winner-based pools, you should be able to find a lot of underrated teams. Point spreads act as the great equalizer, though. If the spreads in your bowl are efficient, then every game is effectively a 50/50 tossup, and contrarianism gains importance.
Scoring Structure: If every win is worth the same, making unpopular picks (e.g. upsets) is the only way to differentiate your pool entry. In confidence point pools, however, you can focus more on assigning a lot of confidence points to undervalued favorites.
Prize Structure: If your pool is winner-take-all, a “great but not exceptional” final score is unlikely to yield a prize, so you can’t be too conservative. In a prize structure that awards many top finishers, you probably want to opt for the more conservative option in any close calls between favorite and underdog picks.
Expert Picks From the Bowl Pool Pros
We hope this article has provided a useful explanation of the foundations of winning college bowl pool strategy. It’s complicated and time-consuming to get an edge, but the expected long-term payoff can easily justify the effort.
If you’d prefer to outsource all of this analysis and number crunching to the sports pool experts, check out our Bowl Pick’em Picks product at the link below.
Get Picks Now: Bowl Pick’em Picks from PoolGenius
Note: The team behind PoolGenius also offers algorithmic college bowl betting picks and (new for 2022) staff betting picks for the bowls. During the 2022 regular season, college football staff picks went 21-12 against the spread for +7.3 units of profit.