Among the silver linings of 2020’s delayed start is that the bowl season – especially the “minor” bowl season – feels less like a seasonal exhibition slate and more like a continuation of each team’s schedule, however long or short it happens to have been.
That should make FBS bowls easier to handicap – in theory. We’ve still gotten the typical smattering of surprises as things get going. Georgia Southern crushed Louisiana Tech 38-3 in the New Orleans Bowl, following a bit of country jive straight out of Beautiful Eagle Creek from GaSo skipper Chad Lunsford, whose pregame remarks implied that ‘poor old’ injured QB Shai Werts would limp onto the gridiron to take a ceremonial snap or 2. Werts “limped” out of a dressing room and lit-up the Bulldogs for 199 combined yards and 4 touchdowns. Georgia Southern’s women are all good-looking and they’re all rich, and I guess its coaches are all tricky with the media too.
Then the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors whipped Houston 28-14 in a bizarre “New Mexico Bowl” played in Frisco, Texas. It was Hawaii’s maiden mainland bowl victory in quite a few years, but it wasn’t unpredictable despite the wide point spread in Houston’s favor. The Cougars had a number of NFL Draft opt-outs to stopgap, and underestimated the functional speed of Hawaii’s WRs with the ball in their hands. “Bailout” gamblers have been tied to Hawaii games on too many Saturdays (and Sunday mornings) to count – those who pay attention know that the swift Warriors can go.
Liberty vs Coastal Carolina gave fans of the Cure Bowl the drama of the 2020 postseason so far. But the epic contest in Orlando was also noteworthy from a betting POV. Liberty was exactly 1 heartbreaking finish away from having arrived just as unbeaten as CCU, and had racked-up a 2-1 record against ACC opponents during the season. Still, the Chanticleers were as wide as a (-7.5) favorite over the Flames during the prep week, even though Liberty’s QB, blocking, and skill players were clearly equal to Coastal’s.
It was an (EVEN) bowl scrum with a TD betting line, due to the John Madden Principle. (It’s never as good as you think it is when you win, and it’s never as bad as you think it is when you lose.) Pundits who chirped that “the line between 11-0 and 9-1” was thin were whiffing on the real point. The W/L difference (and disparity in CCU and Liberty’s rankings in various stats) were a pure product of strength-of-schedule and should not have factored-into a handicap of 2 well-matched teams.
Remember, the best sports gamblers aren’t tycoons. They’re janitors. When the sportsbook or betting community makes an error, produces an inaccurate total, point spread. or moneyline, and spills cash on the table, that’s when it’s time to clean up.
Let’s look for lousy lines (and fine opportunities) in the remaining 2020 FBS bowl schedule, leading up to New Year’s Eve and a flowering of Top 25 match-ups.
Alamo Bowl: Texas Longhorns vs Colorado Buffaloes (O/U (64))
The point spread on Tuesday night’s Alamo Bowl has see-sawed at sportsbooks, widening as far as (-13) before settling back to a TD advantage for the Texas Longhorns. O/U lines have been steady in the meantime, but a slight dip followed by a return-to-consensus makes me wonder if casual gamblers aren’t picking the high-side while sharks go deep on the Under.
Texas is awash in opt-outs, most of which have to do with the 2021 NFL Draft and not COVID-19. UT’s roster goes into the bowl missing WR Brennan Eagles, 2 defensive linemen, and 2 safeties. How was Texas ever a 2-TD favorite over a 4-1 Power-5 team like Colorado? Top-tier Big 12 defenses have gone from laughable to respectable, but the Longhorns are gutted up the middle.
Everyone in the conference plays with tempo (it’s practically in the B12 rulebook) but the Longhorns will utilize Sam Ehlinger’s skills in the Read Option to help protect a thin defense. If the Buffaloes grab an early lead, well, CU’s biggest problem is that the passing game isn’t world-class. Somebody’s bound to win 28-19, but even 35-28 doesn’t beat the number.
Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma Sooners vs Florida Gators (+3)
Everyone seems to like the Under in Wednesday afternoon’s Mayo Bowl, in which “can’t cut the mustard” jokes are unfortunately on the table. Wisconsin and West Virginia’s opt-outs can be counted on 1 hand, yet somehow, sharks agree that the teams’ enigmatic offenses will only produce 50 points or less in Charlotte. Conversely, a rash of Cotton Bowl bets on the high side of an O/U in the 70s could be attributable to casual action, because it seems a little deaf to the narrative.
Kyle Trask’s receiving corps has been decimated prior to Wednesday’s bowl game. The Swamp’s top 2 WRs are “preparing for the NFL Draft” (read: making sure they’re healthy through April) and Kyle Pitts, who led the Florida Gators in TD catches this season, is missing too. OU will miss a couple of upper-class studs in the game as well, but the way lines are moving (and not moving) you’d think Florida lost a handful of linemen and special teamers, not several keys to its pass offense.
But it’s probably good to add a few points to a score-forecast in any warm-weather FBS game that could come down to the wire. As in college basketball, a significant % of the point total can come late in either half, especially if both schools have a shot to win in the latter stage. Under (70) isn’t a bad prediction at all but it could always sink via a hair-raising finish in a prestigious setting.
The Sooners make a superior pick ATS, since none of Oklahoma’s pregame issues rise to the level of a star passer losing 3 top weapons all at once, and the subsequent timing and communication problems that will occur. The Big 12 representative’s offense can proceed smoothly from start to finish, and that’s usually bad news for any opponent which can’t respond in kind.
Pick: Oklahoma ATS
Arizona Bowl: San Jose State Spartans vs Ball State Cardinals (-9)
The public has been absolutely right on more than 1 occasion this bowl season, and that might be because our understanding of where an FBS program is (mentally and physically) is less disconnected from the reality on-balance.
It’s easy to get the wrong vibe from lonely, hopeful message board posts and chipper beat-articles listing stats and accomplishments from the season, while a team grows fat and uninterested between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Using the 2020 Arizona Bowl for contrast, yes, the MAC and MWC schools are matched on December 31st, but we’ve seen a lot of both rosters on the field very recently, so we can go with what we know. The weirdness of COVID precautions has cured an endemic weirdness in the FBS schedule, at least this once.
Ball State tailback Caleb Huntley will sit-out the contest, but that can’t be the only reason for a point spread widening from a few points to (-9) over Christmas. Ball State already missed Huntley in the MAC Championship Game, so the modest opening point spread wasn’t based on old info.
SJSU has measured up to every test this season. It’s easy to forget that there’s more than 1 unbeaten G5 team out there, and to be sure, the Spartans’ early fall schedule of Air Force, New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV was forgettable. But the upstarts went on a Mountain West tour-de-force in November and December, whipping Hawaii and Nevada before earning a MWC title with a 34-20 victory over mighty Boise State.
The Cardinals deserve credit for an epic 6-game winning streak and a league title of their own. But the MAC is justifiably ranked below the MWC, and Ball State’s victory over Buffalo wasn’t the sort of game you could replay 3 times and get the same outcome. Senior San Jose State QB Nick Starkel was sparkling against Boise State, and no MAC team rushes the pocket like Boise Blue.
Pick: San Jose State ATS
Texas Bowl: TCU Horned Frogs (-4) vs Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas vs the point spread is a popular holiday pick too, and the Texas Bowl’s line-movement from a TD from TCU to a modest 4-point spread is worth examining. Once again, the principle of viewing 2020’s FBS bowl schedule as an “extended season,” albeit with the minefield of favorites getting dragged-down by NFL Draft opt-outs in less-prestigious bowl settings, comes to mind. Looking at the contest in terms of momentum it should be Texas Christian, not Arkansas, playing the role of the “sexy” sportsbook wager to cheer on at the bar on New Year’s Eve.
Not that the Razorbacks haven’t come a long way in 2020. Sam Pittman took the reins of a program which had spent dark days bottoming-out in the years prior, scaring Texas A&M and Florida in the early-going, fighting epic battles with LSU and Missouri, and producing a heartening 3-7 record. Experienced passer Feleipe Franks has stabilized the QB position for now, and Arkansas appears to be capable of qualifying for bowls in normal bowl qualification scenarios, racking-up victories over the Group-of-5 and buffering against a tough division schedule.
Winning as a favorite is an important step for any rebuilding FBS team. But the Razorbacks shouldn’t be a bowl underdog in 2020, they should be sitting at home. That’s not to say we’re begrudging the student-athletes an opportunity to play. 3-7 teams winning bowl titles would be a riot. However, making a fluke of a bowl bid out to be some thrilling NYE underdog bet could be a matter of wishful thinking. Arkansas is a 2nd-tier football team, losing 100-45 to UGA and Florida in 120 minutes. Pittman’s team backed-into the event by losing to Alabama by 49 points in a game that wasn’t that close, giving-up 15.8 yards-per-carry to a backup Tide RB named Jase McClellan.
TCU’s storyline couldn’t differ more. Horned Frogs were all-but gigged after falling to West Virginia 24-6, but you can imagine sophomore QB Max Duggan having a postgame chat with coaches that mimicked Joe Gibbs’ famous “2 AM” meeting with a green Joe Theismann when Washington’s offense had tanked. The youngster began running with more authority and stepping-into throws downfield, routing Kansas before upsetting Oklahoma State and blowing LA Tech off the field 52-10. Not that Duggan had to do all that much in the latter game, which was dominated by TCU’s solid offensive line and talented stable of running backs. But he produced 3 key TDs vs OSU.
As of Monday, Arkansas had suffered the only Texas Bowl drop-outs due to the NFL Draft, and those include senior RB Rakeem Boyd, who did a lot of the heavy lifting vs aforementioned Razorback opponents. In short, it’s hard to fathom exactly why the SEC team is so attractive.
Bias toward the SEC in Las Vegas? Come on, now.
Pick: Texas Christian ATS
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.