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Bad Betting Advice, 2021 Bowl Edition

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With bowl season officially kicking off on Friday at noon, it’s time to provide one last dose of potentially dubious financial advice.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Happy holidays, Michigan State football fans, and what a year it has been. How it started was with a prediction of just a handful of wins and a potential last place finish in the Big Ten East. How it’s going is a 10-win season, a victory over the Michigan Wolverines, a spot in the New Year’s Six, and a newly-minted top-25 recruiting class. Life is good in East Lansing.

From a more national point of view, we are about to enter one of the most entertaining times on the college sports calendar: bowl season! While some would argue that there are too many bowls and that they don’t matter, I would simply counter that arguing for less football to watch, as a sports fan, is foolish. I can promise that come May, many of us would be rather excited to watch Texas-San Antonio face San Diego State in the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl.

To this end, today I would like to offer up a preview of what to expect over the next 20 days and 42 bowl games. Let’s start with my typical comparison of the Las Vegas lines to the predictions made by the computers.

Picks of the Week

For the final time in 2021, Figures 1 and 2 compare the predictions made by my computer and ESPN’s FPI relative to the opening spreads for all 42 bowl games between now and Jan. 4.

Figure 1: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on my algorithm to the opening Vegas Spreads for bowl season.
Figure 2: Comparison of the projected final margins of victory based on ESPN’s FPI to the opening Vegas Spreads in bowl season.

Table 1 below summarizes the combined upset picks for the week, based on the data shown above.

Table 1: Upset picks for bowl season.

The computers suggest a total of 10 upset picks, including a curiously high number of Big 12 teams winning. For reference, a simulation of the entire bowl season suggests that a total of 13.9 upsets, plus-or-minus 2.9 upsets, are likely to occur.

As for picks against the spread, my usual metrics do not have any picks that meet my normal criteria (which is to fall outside of the dotted lines in Figure 1 or 2). But, I would hate to leave everyone with no advice at all, so Table 2 below gives the six games that are the closest to the dotted lines and therefore my highest confidence picks.

Table 2: Picks against the opening spread for bowl season. The picks are listed in order of confidence score.

As these picks do not meet my criteria, I will not officially track the results of these six suggestions. Consider these picks to be a fun exhibition only, much like bowl season itself.

Michigan State and Big Ten Overview

The Spartans will take the field for the final time in 2021 in Atlanta in the Peach Bowl against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Dec. 30. The line for the game opened with the Panthers as a 3.5-point favorite. But, as rumors (now confirmed) that Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Picket might not play began to circulate, the line shifted in Michigan State’s favor and now sits with the Spartans as a one-or-two-point favorite in most places. Now, with Kenneth Walker’s announcement that he will also not play in the Peach Bowl, it seems feasible that the line will start to shift closer to a pick’em.

There will be a lot more to say about the Peach Bowl as the game draws closer. For now, I will only say that the computers generally agreed with the opening point spread. The FPI has Pitt favored by a little over four points, while my algorithm has Pitt favored by just under two points. Therefore, my computer’s official prediction for the game is for Pittsburgh to edge out Michigan State by a score of 32 to 30.

That said, I am personally a bit more confident. At the end of the day, the strength of the ACC as a whole is questionable, and Pittsburgh has losses to the Miami (FL) Hurricanes (a team Michigan State beat handily earlier this season) and the Western Michigan Broncos on its resume. I am optimistic for a Spartan victory, and possibly even a double-digit one.

As for the rest of the Big Ten, a summary of the matchups for the Big Ten bowl games are shown below in Table 3.

Table 3: Summary of Big Ten action in bowl season including my algorithm’s projected scores. The teams shaded in green are projected to cover by my algorithm. The teams shaded red are projected to cover by the FPI.

Based on the initial Vegas lines, six of the nine Big Ten teams that are scheduled to play in a bowl game were favored by the opening lines. Only Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State opened as underdogs.

That said, several of the lines in Big Ten games have been rather volatile. As mentioned above, Michigan State is, for now, a narrow favorite. The Maryland/Virginia Tech Pinstripe Bowl matchup is now close to a pick’em.

On the other side of the coin, the lines for the Purdue and Iowa bowl games have now flipped such that both teams are now underdogs. The lines for Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl and for Penn State in the Outback Bowl games are also now much closer to a pick’em.

The computers seem to agree with some of these line movements. My algorithm also has Kentucky putting a sour taste in the mouths of Iowa fans in the Citrus Bowl. The FPI agrees and also has Tennessee creating discord for Purdue fans in the Music City Bowl. If the computers are correct, the Big Ten may struggle to reach .500 in bowl season.

However, with so many games with spreads very close to even, it is likely to be an exciting New Year. Only Ohio State (-7) in the Rose Bowl and Wisconsin (-7) in the Las Vegas Bowl are “big” favorites, while Michigan (+7) is the biggest underdog in the Orange Bowl against Georgia.

Notable National Action

Finally, let’s take a look at the rest of the national action in this bowl season. Table 4 below is a summary of the matchups where a non-Big Ten Power Five team is favored, including some of the games shown above in Table 3.

Table 4: Summary of other notable Power Five action in bowl season, including my algorithm’s projected scores.

As for the bowl games where a Group of Five team is favored, those are summarized below in Table 5.

Table 5: Summary of the Group of Five action in bowl season, including my algorithm’s projected scores.

From a big picture standpoint, it is interesting to examine the conference-by-conference expected performance based on the opening lines and the predictions made by both my computer and ESPN’s FPI. Those projected records are summarized below in Table 6.

Table 6: Projected final conference bowl records based on the opening Vegas spread and the predictions of both computer systems.

As Table 6 shows, there is a considerable difference in the predicted performance of some of the conferences.

The biggest difference is likely in the Big 12. There are three games where all three systems agree. Oklahoma (-4) is an unanimous favorite to beat Oregon in the Alamo Bowl that is sure to be memorable. Conversely, Mississippi State (-8.5) is an unanimous favorite to beat Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl, as is Minnesota (-6.5) to beat West Virginia Guaranteed Rate Bowl. I suppose none of those results are a sure thing, and you are free to form your own opinions.

In the other four bowls involving Big 12 teams, the opening Vegas line and the FPI all favor a not-so-happy holiday for the teams from the Great Plains. However, my algorithm projects an upset win for all four of the Big 12 teams.

These four games are Baylor (+2) versus Mississippi in the Sugar Bowl, Iowa State (+1.0) versus Clemson in the Cheez-It Bowl, Kansas State (+2.5) versus LSU in the Texas Bowl, and Oklahoma State (+1.5) versus Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. As we can see, the spread is less than a field goal in all four games. It remains to be seen if bowl season will be sweet and festive for Big 12 fans or if it will leave them hot and a bit salty.

The predictions are also fairly divergent in the ACC, but in general the conference is expected to have a respectable bowl season. The computers and Vegas all project North Carolina State (-2.5) to have a nice holiday at the expense of UCLA, North Carolina (-5.5) to cream South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, and Virginia to tame the SMU Mustangs at Fenway Park.

As mentioned above, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh are also both consensus favorites. The only ACC team that is a consensus underdog is Wake Forest (+4.5). The Demon Deacons project to get defeated by the Aggies of Texas A&M.

As for the other three bowls not already mentioned above, both the FPI and the spread project Boston College (-3) to give East Carolina a dishonorable discharge in the Military Bowl and project Miami (pick’em) to be feeling sunny after their game with Washington State. However, my algorithm projects an upset in both bowls. Meanwhile, the FPI responded quickly with an upset pick for Louisville (+1) over Air Force.

As for the SEC, the majority of the conference’s bowl games have been mentioned already above. The remaining games are all consensus picks by the computers and Vegas. Alabama (-13) is expected to bale the Bearcats in the Cotton Bowl, Auburn (-3) is picked to outsmart Houston in Birmingham, Florida (-6) is picked to pillage UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl, while Missouri (+2.5) is projected to surrender to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

In general, the FPI sees a pretty good bowl season for the SEC, due to upset wins over Big Ten teams (Iowa and Purdue) while my algorithm suggests that a pair of Big 12 teams (Kansas State and Baylor) will steal wins for the Big 12 at the expense of the overall SEC record.

In the Pac-12, all but one of the five bowls is a consensus pick and most of them do not favor the team from out west. As mentioned above, Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Utah are all consensus underdogs. The only consensus favorite is Oregon State (-6.5), which look to make Jimmy Kimmel proud in the LA Bowl versus Utah State. As mentioned above, the only game where the computers do not agree is the Sun Bowl matchup between Miami and Washington State.

As for the remaining bowls and the Group of Five conferences, as Table 6 suggests, the Sun Belt Conference is projected to finish undefeated in its four bowls and the Mountain West also projects to have a good holiday season, especially if my algorithm is correct. Most notably, my computer projects upset wins by Hawaii (+4) and San Diego State (+2.5) over Memphis and Texas-San Antonio, respectively.

Meanwhile, the prospects are not very good in the AAC, the MAC or Conference USA. The spread and the computers only project between four and five bowl wins for these three conferences combined. In the AAC, only Tulsa (-7) is a solid favorite in Myrtle Beach versus Old Dominion.

The MAC is only favored to win two bowls. Miami of Ohio (-4.5) is favored to beat North Texas in the Frisco Football Classic and Toledo (-9) is favored over Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas. In Conference USA, Texas San Antonio is the only team favored, at least by the FPI and the spread.

Well, that is all the advice that I have to give this year. Enjoy the bowl season. Go State, beat the Panthers!