How Often Do 5-Win, ‘Bowl-Motivated’ CFB Teams Cover, Win Outright in Final Game?

How Often Do 5-Win, ‘Bowl-Motivated’ CFB Teams Cover, Win Outright in Final Game? article feature image
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Emilee Chinn/Getty Images. Pictured: Maryland Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.

Every year, there’s a popular college football betting narrative ahead of Thanksgiving — five-win teams will be more motivated to get to six wins so they can get bowl eligible.

I’m inherently skeptical of motivational angles in sports betting, because they’re so hard to pick and choose. Motivation exists. We just have no idea when and for whom it will show up.

So, do these teams cover spreads and win outright more often? To my surprise, slightly more often than not, though the sample is small and not predictive in any way. And like most things in sports betting, the margins are razor-thin.

I used our Bet Labs data to look at all teams from 2005-2019 with winning percentages between 41% and 49% entering their 12th game of the year. That narrows it down to 5-6 teams. I left out 2020 because the COVID-shortened season wrecked this query.

These “bowl motivated” teams since 2005 are 113-102-3 against the spread (52.6%) — break-even with the vig.

Most of the ATS success has come from favorites. Underdogs were about break-even. That makes some intuitive sense — the team

  • Favorites: 52-41-2 (56%)
  • Underdogs: 61-61-1 (50%)

Any Different in the Second Half?

What about in the second half? Do players give that last push to make sure they put the game away and get bowl eligible?

The results are pretty similar to the full games: 107-98-11 (52.2%) against the second-half spread.


What About Moneylines?

It’s also worth looking at how these teams fared straight up, because players and coaches need to win games to get bowl eligible; not simply cover spreads.

To my surprise, they’ve fared OK. These five-win teams are 109-109; underdogs have buoyed the ROI and units won.

Yet, as with a lot of these underdog moneyline analyses, the results are boosted by a few huge wins.

Georgia State beat Georgia Southern as a 10-1 moneyline dog in 2015 to get bowl eligible. Remove that result and the ROI is close to 0 percent.

Like with many popular betting angles, the market either accounts for it pretty well or the edge doesn’t really exist.

So don’t bet teams with motivation blindly this weekend, but also don’t dismiss them or think the market is overvaluing them.

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