It's college football bowl season. In this post, based on over six years of proven results in thousands of real-world pools, we'll lay out a three-step framework to give yourself the best chance to win your 2019 college bowl pick 'em contest or confidence points pool.
This analysis is brought to you by TeamRankings.com, the only site that uses advanced analytics and game theory to optimize picks for football office pools. To see their recommended picks for every game, customized for your bowl pool's size and scoring system, check out their 2019 college bowl pool picks.
MORE TEAMRANKINGS: Three value picks for pick 'em pools
College Bowl Picks: How To Win A College Bowl Picks Pool
Identify The Bowl Favorites -- Objectively
Over the long term, humans -- including you, your buddy that watches a ton of college football, and the self-proclaimed "experts" on TV -- are almost never the best bowl game predictors, compared to good computer projections or the betting markets.
When it comes to college football bowl pools, humans also fall prey to irrational biases that you can exploit to get an edge.
Let's take this year's Las Vegas Bowl between 12-1 Boise State and 7-5 Washington. Boise State is ranked; Washington is not. And Boise State obviously has the much better win-loss record. Unsurprisingly, over 80 percent of early public pickers are taking Boise State to win.
However, Washington is a 3.5-point favorite in the betting markets, while our data-driven predictive ratings have Washington as 4.8 points better on a neutral field. What gives?
First, the public is likely failing to account for the difference in the schedules these teams faced, as the Pac-12 is tougher than the Mountain West. Another problem is focusing too much on win-loss records instead of better predictors like scoring differentials. Washington was a poor (and likely unlucky) 0-4 in close games. One or two more lucky bounces in those games, and Washington's season could look much better on paper.
Add in a dose of Washington coach Chris Petersen stepping down after the game, and the public is way off the betting market on this one. And this is just one bowl game of several where our Bowl Pick 'em Picks product has identified a likely irrational public bias.
College Bowl Picks: How To Identify Underrated Teams Or Upsets
Use Bowl Pick Popularity To Identify Underrated Teams
In order to win your college bowl pick 'em contest, you will need to get at least one pick right that your opponents get wrong. That's the only way to finish with the most points.
This critical aspect of bowl pool strategy seems fairly obvious, yet it's often ignored in terms of pick strategy. In short, your goal is not to get some arbitrary number of bowl picks correct. Your goal is to finish at least one point higher in the final standings than your next-best opponent.
As a result, you'll almost always increase your odds to win a college bowl pool by exploiting the best opportunities to make unpopular picks. Why? Because if you make a pick that all your opponents think is crazy, and you get it right, you'll gain serious ground in the standings. If you get a pick right and your entire pool made the same pick, you gain nothing.
How To Project Bowl Pick Popularity & Identify Value Picks
Estimating how popular of a pick every team will be in your bowl pool is never an exact science, but with some resourcefulness you can find national pick popularity data published by some of the sites that host college bowl pools. Using that national data as a baseline, you can then make some adjustments for your specific pool.
Of course, unpopular picks are often (but not always) risky picks, so you need to evaluate the risk of making every possible pick along with the reward associated with getting it right. The most useful approach is to use win odds and pick popularity data to identify teams that fall into either of the following two categories:
Teams that are favored to win, but are being picked by less than 50 percent of the public. We often refer to these teams as "value favorites," and they are as close as you can get to no-brainer picks. Favorites that are also being picked at a lower rate than their win odds, even if the public pick percentage might be just above 50 percent, are also excellent values. For example, as a seven-point favorite in the betting markets at post time, Texas A&M has about a 70 percent chance to beat Oklahoma State, but barely more than 50 percent of the public is picking Texas A&M to win.
Teams that are slight to moderate underdogs, but are being significantly underrated by the public. It's always a risk to pick an underdog, so you need to be much more careful in deciding when and where to make an upset pick. But unpopular underdogs can offer a good chance to differentiate your bowl pool entry, especially if they are not excessively risky. This year, Iowa State is a modest 3.5-point underdog against Notre Dame, but the Cyclones are only being picked by the public around 16 percent of the time. That’s less than half of their actual win odds, so in certain types of pools, taking a risk on picking Iowa State might be worth it.
That last point is worth repeating. With few exceptions, one of the worst things you can do is make a trendy upset pick. Consider the following two teams:
Iowa State: 16 percent pick popularity, 3.5-point underdog vs. Notre Dame
Boise State: 56 percent pick popularity, 3.5-point underdog vs. Washington
If you want to take a gamble on one of the two upset picks above, you'd be crazy to take Boise State and not Iowa State. Both teams are 3.5-point underdogs, and as a result, equally risky picks. But if Iowa State wins you'd gain ground on around 85 percent of your opponents. If Boise State wins, more than half your pool would get the points with you.
College Bowl Picks: Assigning Confidence Points, Picking Against The Spread
Now comes the toughest and most complex part of getting an edge over your opponents. You need to figure out the exact combination of 41 picks (assuming your pool includes the Celebration Bowl this year) that you should make with each of your bowl pool entries, and potentially add a confidence point ranking to each one, as well.
What's so difficult about this process is understanding the implications of the various characteristics of your specific pool. Factors like the total number of entries of your pool, its format (e.g. game winner or spread, confidence points or not), its scoring system, and its prize structure all play a role in determining which picks give you the best chance to win.
The approaches we use to optimize picks for bowl pools are beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:
In a smaller bowl pool (say fewer than 50 entries), you should focus your picks on favorites and be very selective about taking additional risks. As boring as it sounds, feeling that you need to make a bunch of upset picks is often the kiss of death in small bowl pools. Unskilled opponents in small pools tend to shoot themselves in the foot by making picks that are far too aggressive, and you can often get a solid edge simply by staying conservative.
In bigger bowl pools the most common mistake unskilled players make is the opposite: Their picks are too conservative. Your chances to win a large pool are already quite low, and playing it safe rarely improves them. To maximize your edge in a big pool, you typically need to take multiple gambles on big value picks.
In bowl confidence point pools, it's not worth agonizing too much over your lower-confidence picks. Your strategy for your higher confidence picks, and how those picks end up faring, is much more likely to determine whether or not it's a prize winning year for you. Rather than picking five upsets for a low number of points, sometimes it makes more sense to put a bigger number of confidence points on the best value picks or value upset picks, and give yourself a chance to make a big leap in the standings with one good result.
In point spread based bowl pools, you need to understand the point spread's role as the great equalizer. Sports books are good at what they do, and if your spread pool features up-to-date lines for each game, you're not going to have much more than a 50/50 chance of getting most picks right. As a result, pick popularity tends to be a bigger driver of optimal pick strategy in spread pools; if you think 75 percent of more of your opponents are going to pick one side, and the point spread in your pool still matches the current point spread in real life, it's almost always better to pick the other way, no matter how strongly you personally feel about the game.
Get Expert Picks From The Bowl Pool Pros
We hope this article has been helpful in explaining some of the key strategies you can use to win more college football bowl pick 'em contests. Is it complicated and time-consuming to apply this level of analysis to your 2019 bowl picks? Absolutely. If you're serious about winning, though, the expected long-term payoff can easily justify the effort.
However, if you'd rather outsource all of the number crunching to the office pool experts, we're here to help. We produce or collect all the data mentioned in this post (up to date betting odds, algorithmic game predictions, public picking trends, etc.), and have built a product that makes customized, game-by-game pick recommendations for all of your college bowl pick 'em pools.
You simply answer a few questions about your pool, and in a few seconds you've got the picks that maximize your chance to win. Learn more here:
TeamRankings also offers data-driven college bowl betting picks.