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Against All Odds: Bowl Season Recap

With only one college football game remaining in this strangest of all seasons, let’s check the #math on bowl season

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff-Champions Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans’ football season came to an end a few weeks ago when the university and team decided not to potentially accept an offer to play in a post-season bowl. The Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix, (previously known as the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, among other names) was canceled at the last minute due to a lack of available teams. I can only assume that MSU could have played in this bowl if there would have been the will to do so, but I cannot blame them for opting to stay at home.

By the time the final non-playoff bowl games were in the books, a total of only 25 bowls had been played out of the originally planned 39. Deepening on where you stand, this is either more than expected (due to COVID or the idea that bowl games are pointless exhibitions) or less than hoped. As a college football fan, I generally feel that more football is always better than less, as long as it can be done safely.

In order to put a bit of a bow on this season, I present the results of my Bowl predictions, using the standard format.

Bowl Game Results and Betting Review

Figure 1 below shows the final score differential of each bowl game relative to the opening Vegas line.

Figure 1: Results of the 2020 Bowl season, relative to the opening lines

The 2020 bowl season included three favored teams that significantly overachieved: Georgia Southern, Texas, and BYU. As for the upsets, those are summarized below in Table 1.

Table 1: Bowl season upset prediction results

In total, nine of the 25 bowl games ended in an upset, which is exactly what my bowl week simulation suggested was the most likely number. Four of those upsets occurred in games where the opening line was at least a touchdown. The most notable upsets were Hawaii’s defeat of Houston in the New Mexico Bowl and Ohio State’s upset of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff Semifinal game.

As for the computers, they both had a good week, as my algorithm went a perfect 2-0 and the FPI was a less-than-perfect 2-2 (50 percent). Year-to-date it was a good year for the machines, as my computer finished over 50 percent (52.3 percent to be exact) and the FPI was correct on over 65 percent of its upset predictions.

Table 2 below summarizes the results of the bowl week Bad Betting Advice.

Table 2: Suggested betting results for the 2020 bowl season

In this case, my algorithm did not trigger any specific bets, but the FPI did, and it was correct on two of those three suggestions. Once again, the machines finished strong. My algorithm hit almost 55 percent against-the-spread (ATS) on suggested bets for the shortened season, the FPI finished over 60 percent ATS, and the combined strategy was at 61 percent.

Overall, my computer had a good season against the spread as well. If I count all of its predictions, the final tally for the season is 221-189 ATS (54 percent). Alas, the FPI did manage to do a bit better at 224-186 (55 percent). In both cases, I only started counting during the week of Oct. 24 when Big Ten play kicked off.

I like to use the self-deprecated title “Bad Betting Advice” for my columns, but the data actually shows the my method works well. Just to toot my own horn a bit, I entered all of my predictions for the year into the website, and I would like to show the final standings for the regular season.

Image courtesy of

Using my algorithm, I finished in a four-way tie for first place among over 300 “analysts” for my picks, which included the winner of each game, picks against the spread, and over/under picks. I guess at the end of the day, my advice is not so bad after all.

Conference Bowl Performance

Table 3 below summarizes the overall performance of each conference during Bowl season.

Table 3: Bowl performance by conference for the 2020 bowl season

The clear “winner” of the bowl season was the Big 12 conference, which as a group went a perfect 5-0 in bowl season and capped the week off with a big upset win by Oklahoma over Florida in the Cotton Bowl. The MAC also went undefeated, thanks to Ball State’s upset of San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl.

The SEC (6-2) had a better bowl season than expected due in large part to upset wins by Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. It also helped that underdogs such as Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and South Carolina all had wound up with their bowl games being canceled.

The Big Ten equaled the record of the SEC based on percentages, and earned a draw based on head-to-head performance as Northwestern beat Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, but Ole Miss upset Indiana in the Outback Bowl. That said, it is not clear if the last loss counted against the Big Ten, considering Indiana refused to show the Big Ten logo on their jerseys. The rubber match in this particular Big Ten/SEC challenge will come in the national title game as Ohio State will square off with Alabama on Monday night.

As for the rest of the Power Five, let’s just say that it was a rough few weeks for both the Pac-12 and the ACC, who went a combined 0-8 in bowls. Not only that, but the two conferences were 2-6 against the spread.

National Championship Advice

On Monday evening, Alabama will square off with Ohio State for the national championship in the final game of this most bizarre 2020-21 season. The current Vegas line has Alabama as an eight-point favorite and the over/under is set at about 75.5.

Just for the record, my algorithm does like Alabama to both beat the Buckeyes and cover. The projected final score is 39-28, which is a bit tricky to actually accomplish in reality, so I will round to a projected final score of:

Alabama 38, Ohio State 28

This suggests a bet on the “under” as well.

That just about does it for football. By the time the Spartans take the field again, hopefully the world will be in a much safer, healthier, and brighter place. Until then, enjoy, and Go Green.