College football bowl pool handbook: How to bet on all 43 games and win big
Perhaps it’s the hectic nature of the holidays – the festivities, tending to the Christmas lists, the Egg Nog(!) – or all the emphasis on NFL playoff scenarios.
But in comparison to March Madness, which draws an estimated 40 million Americans to bet upward of $9 billion, the college bowl pool gets undeservedly lost in the shuffle.
It isn't right. As a player in my friend's confidence pool for more than 25 years, I can assure you the weeks-long, day-in and day-out monitoring of the action is more riveting than the bracket-busting dread that accompanies the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
The beauty of college bowl confidence pool is its weighted points system. Not only do you pick winners straight up — regardless of point spread — you must rank your confidence in each pick.
For example, if out of all 43 college bowl games this season, you are most confident heavily favored and top-ranked Alabama will defeat Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff’s Cotton Bowl Dec. 31, then your 43-point pick is Alabama.
If you have no idea who’s going to win the Dec. 29 Cheez-It Bowl, with Iowa State favored by less than a half-point over Clemson, then you make that your one-point pick.
Got it? Forty-three games. Forty-three different point assignments. The person with the most points at the end of all the bowl games (the action ends with the Jan. 10 College Football Playoff championship game) wins the pool.
For years now, a copy of the pool’s master picks sheet has been kept in my pocket as a daily companion — right alongside the kids’ Christmas lists.
Sometimes, I’m watching games while grabbing a bite at a mall restaurant. Sometimes I’m knee-deep on a 30-point pick during a friend’s Christmas party. Other times, my only chance to survive is to win the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl (or whatever the game in Atlanta is called now) as I’m hosting a New Year’s Eve party.
(As an aside, while it’s comforting to know the Liberty Bowl still exists, it’d be nice if they could bring back the originally named Tangerine Bowl or Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl.)
It’s the individuality of the college bowl picks — taking a two-point flyer on heavy underdog UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, or going all-in on a slight favorite like Texas A&M over Wake Forest in the Dec. 31 Gator Bowl — that defines the great enjoyment of the confidence pool.
A critical win or multi-point swing by going rogue on a selection conjures visions of thousands of dollars in winnings.
When our pool started, it was a pretty steep $50 buy-in (steep because most of us were otherwise penniless, college-debt-ridden lads clinging to employment).
Now, we won’t publicly discuss the figure, but let’s just say the winnings would pay for Christmas.
So now that we’re all in on the college bowl confidence pool, here’s my entry* for you to consider.
* = Since my picks aren’t officially due until the morning of Dec. 17, I retain the ability to alter some of these selections.
Tipico Sportsbook point spreads are attached for reference, and all start times are EST. Rankings are from the latest FBS Football Rankings.
43. No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Cincinnati (+13.5)
CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl, Dec. 31 on ESPN, 3:30 p.m., Arlington, Texas
We all know which way this one’s going. Get those points in the bank.
42. Toledo vs. Middle Tennessee (+10.5)
Bahamas Bowl, Friday on ESPN, Noon, Nassau, Bahamas
Here’s an opportunity to jump on two big favorites early and pile up a come-and-catch-me points total with this game and No. 41 played on the same day.
41. Coastal Carolina vs. Northern Illinois (+10.5)
Cure Bowl, Friday on ESPN2, 6 p.m., Orlando, Fla.
40. No. 13 BYU vs. Alabama-Birmingham (+7.5)
Independence Bowl, Saturday on ABC, 3:30 p.m., Shreveport, La.
I'd pick the Cougars close to this level even if the pool considered the point spread. The fact that we're not using the points seals the deal.
39. North Carolina vs. South Carolina (+7.5)
Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Dec. 30 on ESPN, 11:30 a.m., Charlotte, N.C.
When valuable hours of your holidays are burned up by watching the Duke's Mayo Bowl, you know you're edging closer to degenerate status.
38. Fresno State vs. UTEP (+11.5)
New Mexico Bowl, Saturday on ESPN, 2:15 p.m., Albuquerque, N.M.
A little concerned this game is a home affair for the Miners, but the Bulldogs have defeated former top-25 San Diego State and should be formidable.
37. Tulsa vs. Old Dominion (+9.5)
Myrtle Beach Bowl, Dec. 20 on ESPN, 2:30 p.m., Conway, S.C.
Not super happy to have all these points on a so-so team, but the point spread begs for this type of investment.
36. Boise State vs. Central Michigan (+7.5)
Arizona Bowl, Dec. 31 on Barstool Sports, 2 p.m., Tucson, Ariz.
In a unique turn, with Barstool head Dave Portnoy giving a nod to fervent interest in the bowl pool, this game will be accessible only via online streaming. Yes, we know we’re taking a lot of chalk picks thus far. The dogs will come.
35. Mississippi State vs. Texas Tech (+8.5)
Liberty Bowl, Dec. 28 on ESPN, 6:45 p.m., Memphis, Tenn.
Bulldogs Coach Mike Leach is complaining about unpaid funds from his time with the Red Raiders. Whether he collects his money or not, let's ride Leach's vendetta to boost our own financial coffers.
34. No. 16 Oklahoma vs. No. 14 Oregon (+4.5)
Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29 on ESPN, 9:15 p.m., San Antonio, Texas
Their coach has left them, they skidded to the finish and they must hate that their once-promising campaign ends here. Oh, wait, this storyline applies a bit to Oklahoma, too. Still, I like the Sooners big here.
33. Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty (+8.5)
LendingTree Bowl, Saturday on ESPN, 5:45 p.m., Mobile, Ala.
Would we like Liberty more if this was the Liberty Bowl? Probably not.
32. Western Michigan (+1.5) vs. Nevada
Quick Lane Bowl, Dec. 27 on ESPN, 11 a.m., Detroit, Mich.
Despite a quality season, Nevada coach Jay Norvell resigned to lead Colorado State, and Wolfpack quarterback Carson Strong hasn't committed to playing in Detroit given his NFL prospects. This led to widespread player disinterest, with Western Michigan effectively enjoying a home game.
Some books report the line moved from Nevada at -6.5 at the opening to Western Michigan now being favored by 4.5. That's a staggering shift.
31. Penn State vs. No. 21 Arkansas (+1.5)
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1 on ESPN2, Noon, Tampa, Fla.
You should know by now we love the favored unranked team against a top-25 entrant.
30. No. 22 Kentucky vs. No. 15 Iowa (+2.5)
Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1 on ABC, 1 p.m., Orlando, Fla.
Avoid the New Year’s Eve hangover and get up to watch these affairs. An intangible worth embracing: This game means so much more to the emerging Wildcats than the disappointed Hawkeyes. The smartest bettors have pounded the Wildcats after Iowa opened as a 1.5-point favorite at some shops.
29. Florida vs. Central Florida (+7.5)
Gasparilla Bowl, Dec. 23 on ESPN, 7 p.m., Tampa, Fla.
It's encouraging the Gators beat Florida State after Dan Mullen was fired as coach.
28. Oregon State vs. Utah State (+7.5)
LA Bowl, Saturday on ABC, 7:30 p.m., Inglewood, Calif.
There’s a talent divide between the Pac-12 and the Mountain West, and there’s ample reason to flex that for the Beavers in a quality Southern California recruiting opportunity.
27. No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Marshall (+5.5)
New Orleans Bowl, Saturday on ESPN, 9:15 p.m.
Some disappointment oozes from the Ragin' Cajuns because they're playing here despite their top-25 status, which is mildly alarming. But Marshall looked so lethargic in getting waxed by Western Kentucky during its most recent showing. So, we're on the home team.
26. LSU (+1.5) vs. Kansas State
Texas Bowl, Jan. 4 on ESPN, 9 p.m., Houston, Texas
With coach Ed Orgeron gone and quarterback Max Johnson in the transfer portal, this is a high-risk play, but the Tigers nearly beat Alabama this season and those returning surely want to send a positive message to new coach Brian Kelly.
I spoke to my pool-running buddy, Richi, on his pool strategy of going big on an underdog or a team (like LSU) that others may run from.
“You have to find one or two upsets that you really feel will win and commit a lot of points to those teams,” he said. “If you can hit those and otherwise stay the course, you’ll definitely be there in the end.”
25. Texas-San Antonio vs. No. 24 San Diego State (+2.5)
Frisco Bowl, Dec. 21 on ESPN, 7:30 p.m., Frisco, Texas
The Aztecs’ flat showing in the Mountain West title game leaves them demoted to the road here against a UTSA squad inspired to close in the top 25. Take the team with more to play for.
24. No. 25 Texas A&M vs. No. 17 Wake Forest (+6.5)
Gator Bowl, Dec. 31 on ESPN, 11 a.m., Jacksonville, Fla.
The Demon Deacons can score points, but they’ve shrunk in the biggest moments. And this is another.
23. SMU (+0.5) vs. Virginia
Fenway Bowl, Dec. 29 on ESPN, 11 a.m., Boston, Mass.
The Mustangs laid an egg after peaking before their late-November showdown against Cincinnati, but I’ll take a shot they’ll do enough to win this toss-up affair.
“Bowl games are the toughest assignment as a bookmaker,” said Craig Mucklow, Caesars Sportsbook’s vice president of trading. “You’ve got players sitting out, weather, coaching changes and motivation levels for each team (to consider).
“It’s tough setting odds for teams playing in Yankee Stadium in December for a game that isn’t going to win anyone a title.”
Wrong, Craig. Games like this can win us a college bowl pool title!
22. Maryland (+1.5) vs. Virginia Tech
Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 29 on ESPN, 2:15 p.m., Bronx, N.Y.
Since he was talking about the game at Yankee Stadium, let’s jump on it here and land some valuable swing points.
21. No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 8 Mississippi (+1.5)
Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1 on ESPN, 8:45 p.m., New Orleans
The Bears are talented and gritty, capable of winning close games as they did against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game and sharp bettors have pounced upon Baylor after Ole Miss opened as a 2.5-point favorite.
20. No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 2 Michigan (+7.5)
CFP Semifinal/Orange Bowl, Dec. 31 on ESPN, 7:30 p.m., Miami Gardens, Fla.
The Bulldogs’ defense should revert to form and calm the Wolverines’ vaunted rushing attack to set up a rematch with Alabama in the title game.
“I personally would have Georgia as a nine-point favorite,” Mucklow said. “(But) I think Michigan will be a big-time public underdog. I’m getting the feeling we’re going to need Georgia in the game.”
19. No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (+2.5)
Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 on ESPN, 1 p.m., Glendale, Ariz.
The gut-punch departure of Kelly to LSU was quickly followed by the thrill of Marcus Freeman taking over, giving the Fighting Irish far more incentive than the Cowboys, whose ultra-narrow defeat to Baylor cost them a final-four spot.
18. No. 10 Michigan State (+3.5) vs. No. 12 Pittsburgh
Peach Bowl, Dec. 30 on ESPN, 7 p.m., Atlanta
The Panthers parting ways with their offensive coordinator, and big-armed Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett's hesitancy to even play in this game in consideration of his NFL stock, saw the Spartans improve to 1.5-point favorites at some books.
17. No. 19 Clemson (+1.5) vs. Iowa State
Cheez-It Bowl, Dec. 29 on ESPN, 5:45 p.m., Orlando, Fla.
It's hard to be sold on the five-loss Cyclones, especially against the national-power Tigers, who were rolling at regular season’s end.
16. No. 20 Houston (+3.5) vs. Auburn
Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 28 on ESPN, Noon, Birmingham, Ala.
Yes, the Tigers are playing a virtual home game, but quarterback Bo Nix announced he’s entering the transfer portal and the Cougars are a formidable group with an offense that could pace a double-digit victory here.
15. Western Kentucky (+2.5) vs. Appalachian State
Boca Raton Bowl, Saturday on ESPN, 11 a.m., Boca Raton, Fla.
The Hilltoppers’ potent offense has been a treat to watch most of the season, and we’ll wager it will be the difference in this one.
14. Arizona State (+6.5) vs. Wisconsin
Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 30 on ESPN, 10:30 p.m., Las Vegas
The former top-25 teams meet in this lesser bowl. While the favored Badgers are capable of running over and wearing down the Sun Devils, ASU’s skill is worth siding with.
Yes, there’s a bit of a run on underdogs here, but we’re not getting crazy.
“Suicide players (who repeatedly pick ‘dogs) never win this,” pool-organizer Richi said. “Yeah, they may get hot for a while, but then they lose picking against six straight favorites and they’re out.”
13. North Texas (+3.5) vs. Miami (Ohio)
Frisco Football Classic, Dec. 23 on ESPN, 3:30 p.m., Frisco, Texas
The Mean Green started slowly this season but closed by upsetting San Antonio. They have also scored 30 or more points in four of their last five games.
12. Memphis vs. Hawaii (+7)
Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24 on ESPN, 8 p.m., Honolulu, Hawaii
The alleged mistreatment of players by Hawaii coach Todd Graham is significant adversity to set aside, and we know sideline drama is a definite factor to consider in bowls.
11. Wyoming vs. Kent State (+2.5)
Idaho Potato Bowl, Dec. 21 on ESPN, 3:30 p.m., Boise, Idaho
These might be pivotal points in the pool, so take the comfort of playing close to home and knowing the Cowboys blasted conference champion Utah State by 27 points Nov. 20, throwing out the 24-point loss to Hawaii that followed.
10. No. 11 Utah (+6.5) vs. No. 6 Ohio State
Rose Bowl, Jan. 1 on ESPN, 5 p.m., Pasadena, Calif.
As they proved by destroying Oregon twice – and, remember, the Ducks beat the Buckeyes in September – the Utes are fast, relentless and savvy. This appearance means the world to the program and its fans, and they should ride that wave to a team disappointed to be out of the CFP.
“You have to sprinkle in a game or two like this in there,” Richi advised. “I’d say 70% of the people have no idea how to win this pool. Most of them don’t have the (guts) to pick ‘dogs. If you try to offset the way most people are picking by taking a team like this … well, even if you’re losing, you’re winning because most people have big points on the other team (like Ohio State).
“And, then, if you win it, you’re famous.”
9. Georgia (No Line Yet) vs. Alabama
CFP Championship Game, Jan. 10 on ESPN, 8 p.m., Indianapolis
Since a substantial victory over Michigan is required for Georgia to reach this game, we’ll set the number low, believing the Bulldogs will overcome their demon (Nick Saban) and win the big one.
8. UCLA (+0.5) vs. No. 18 North Carolina State
Holiday Bowl, Dec. 28 on FOX, 8 p.m., San Diego, Calif.
Being home in Southern California won’t make this the vacation game the Wolfpack is wanting.
7. Army vs. Missouri (+3.5)
Armed Forces Bowl, Dec. 22 on ESPN, 8 p.m., Fort Worth, Texas
Army’s brutal loss to Navy is no way to end a season. Righting their own ship in this bowl is.
6. Washington State (+2.5) vs. Miami
Sun Bowl, Dec. 31 on CBS, Noon, El Paso, Texas
Yes, this goes against the same theory we used to back LSU since the Hurricanes are also playing under a watchful new, high-profile coach in Mario Cristobal. But I liked the way the Cougars closed under replacement coach Jake Dickert, who clearly has won over his team.
5. Tennessee vs. Purdue (+3.5)
Music City Bowl, Dec. 30 on ESPN, 3 p.m., Nashville
In a similar choice to taking UCLA near its home, I’ll roll the dice that the visiting Boilermakers might find “Nash-Vegas” a bit too distracting to muster a victory. The Boilermakers started as a three-point favorite at some books when the game was announced, but key absences have swung the spread wildly to the Volunteers.
4. Georgia State vs. Ball State (+3.5)
Camellia Bowl, Dec. 25 on ESPN, 2:30 p.m., Montgomery, Ala.
The Panthers closed by winning six of seven.
3. Air Force (+1.5) vs. Louisville
First Responder Bowl, Dec. 28 on ESPN, 3:15 p.m., Dallas, Texas
The Falcons are 5-0 on the road.
2. Minnesota vs. West Virginia (+3.5)
Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Dec. 28 on ESPN, 10:15 p.m., Phoenix
The Golden Gophers closed by winning six of eight, defeating Wisconsin in the regular-season finale.
1. East Carolina (+3.5) vs. Boston College
Military Bowl, Dec. 27 on ESPN, 2:30 p.m., Annapolis, Md.
The Pirates beat Navy and took Houston to overtime.
Have fun, everyone!