Adam Burke shares his bowl game confidence pool strategies
Successful bettors and handicaps have no choice but to have the utmost confidence in their processes and abilities. Everything we do in betting is an educated guess, but the degree of education can oftentimes define the outcome of a bet. Believing in what you do, why you do it and how you do it are critical traits to finding fortune in all walks of life, but especially betting.
Whether you have elaborate spreadsheets with weighted stats and metrics or use a blend of handicapping techniques and angles, the bowl season presents ample opportunity to find lines that are off-market and games that stand out.
When it comes to bowl confidence pools, it isn’t as cut and dry as picking all the favorites that are expected to win. You have to use some game theory and analyze what the competition is likely to do. You are, in essence, handicapping the handicapper. You have to look at the matchup, but you also have to think about the most popular teams, the most likely upset candidates and how you can leverage that information to hang a high score.
What is a confidence pool?
Before going deeper into the weeds with the strategies and my own thoughts on this year’s bowl games, it’s important to explain what a confidence pool is. Some are going to feature against the spread picks, but the vast majority are just going to be picking the straight-up winner of the 41 bowl games.
Points are assigned to the games from 1 to 41 based on your confidence in picking the winner of the game. For example, you may be completely certain that Oregon (-16.5), with leader and QB Bo Nix, is going to have their way with Liberty, the undefeated Group of Five representative in the New Year’s Six bowls that played the 133rd-ranked schedule in the country per Jeff Sagarin (whose rankings include FCS teams). That type of game could be a high number in your confidence pool.
On the flip side, a coin-flip type of game like New Mexico State (-1) vs. Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl might be a one or two, given that Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford is out tending to a medical issue and New Mexico State QB Diego Pavia left the Conference USA Championship Game with an injury. This is also one of the bowl games on the first day, so Pavia doesn’t have a lot of time to recover and could be a game-time decision.
The entry with the most points wins, so the goal is to get as many games correct as possible, but there are additional layers of strategy.
Confidence Pool Strategies
Isolate the Favorites
Even though you are picking straight-up winners, looking at the spreads and using them as a guide is tremendously important. It will be hard to win a confidence pool by picking a bunch of upsets and trying to hit home runs when a single or a double will suffice. There are a multitude of reasons why teams are favored in bowl games.
For starters, one team is just better than the other in most cases. The difference in conference strength plays a big role as well. Not only are there big strength of schedule differences, but some conferences perform really poorly in bowl games. The MAC is 17-29 in bowl games since the 2015 bowl season. The ACC is just 7-14 in 21 bowl games over the last three bowl seasons. That doesn’t mean you want to blindly fade teams from those conferences or blindly follow teams from stronger conferences. It does mean that strength of schedule and strength of conference can and will matter.
Pay Close Attention to the News
In the current era of college football, with NFL Draft opt-outs and the transfer portal, hundreds of players are changing schools or bypassing the bowl game. The coaching carousel also spins faster than ever before. Head coaches grab the headlines, but I always try to focus on the losses of coordinators as well. Head coaches are point men for the program and the ones that face the media, but the coordinators are often the ones putting together the game plans and doing a lot of the heavy lifting with recruiting.
The loss of a head coach can lead to a mass exodus in the transfer portal and a general feeling of malaise throughout the program, but the X’s and O’s between the lines are often what define bowl game outcomes, and the coordinators have their fingerprints all over that aspect of the game.
Going Contrarian, But To A Degree
My colleague Josh Appelbaum often talks about going contrarian and picking against the grain. He’ll extensively use betting splits in that analysis, and many find it to be a viable strategy. When it comes to bowl confidence picks, the betting splits can be a good way to “read the room.” You won’t win a confidence pool without picking against some pretty popular teams. You don’t want to do it for the sake of doing it, but you want to find some vulnerable favorites that are popular and try to pick on them.
Some confidence pools will even provide information specific to your contest, or you can look at contest pools for major sites like ESPN, CBS or Fox to see what the general consensus is picking.
If you can avoid or mitigate your losses with a favorite that maybe has an average confidence rating of 20 or 25 and loses with your own lower value of 10 or 15 on them, that is a huge swing in the context of this type of contest.
Again, that doesn’t mean you want to pick against a bunch of favorites. You simply want to pick and choose your spots to try and steal an upset victory. If you’re wrong on a popular team, you might find yourself at a big disadvantage. But upsets are inevitable, and identifying the teams with the best chance may be the difference between finishing with a good score and finishing with a great score.
This process also works in reverse. Most pool players are going to know that they need to pick some upsets. Staying away from the more popular upset picks (or as Josh says, fade the trendy dog) can help.
Understand the Competition
Are you in a big pool or a small pool? Are you with friends and co-workers or sharper college football minds? Your strategy will change based on the company you keep in this endeavor. The smaller the pool, the more chalk you want to go with. Taking unnecessary gambles on a bunch of upsets is likely to hurt in the end. Playing it with a conservative mindset should be fruitful.
In a large pool, you’ll have to take some gambles and riskier positions. Unlike a small pool, where conservatism makes sense, there will be a lot of entrants in a big pool that go the safe route. You don’t really have that luxury.
Once again, handicapping the handicapper is important. If you’re in a sharper, more high-stakes pool, you’ll have to make some different moves than you would with people who aren’t in the know as much as you might be.
Every Pick Matters
If you stop to think about it, 1+2+3+4+5+6+7 = 28. Don’t just throw away a pick because you don’t know. Even your lowest confidence picks are going to add up in this context. You are going to get some high numbers wrong, which means that the small numbers matter, too. Leveraging your most confident picks with the highest numbers is important, but every game deserves attention.
This is mostly tailored towards straight-up confidence pools, but against the spread, pools with stale numbers are really going to magnify this point. If you truly don’t know about a game, but the line has moved from -3.5 up to -6.5, take the stale line value and treat it accordingly. Three points of free line equity is worth moving up a few numbers on the confidence scale.
Confidence Pool Picks
I was asked to put together my confidence picks for the Bowl Betting Guide. Keep in mind that a ton of moving parts still have to be figured out in advance of the bowl games, so you’ll want to keep an eye on the news cycle as players and coaches continue to make decisions about their futures. Lines will also move, creating higher or lower implied probabilities for teams. My advice: wait it out as long as you can.