What Vegas Odds Can Tell Us About College Football Bowl Season

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterDecember 10, 2012

Dec 22, 2011; Las Vegas, NV, USA; General view of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino and the Las Vegas strip before the 2011 Las Vegas Bowl between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Boise State Broncos at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, college football’s bowl game slate was built for the degenerate gamblers.

Now, it wasn’t constructed to appease to this special group of sportsbook outcasts, but they’ll gladly consume as many betting options as you want to give them. Not interested in [insert .500 team here] playing against [team that’s slightly better than .500] in the [obscure brand] Bowl? Someone is, that’s for certain.

But Las Vegas does more than just give millions an excuse to tune into these televised scrimmages. They handicap these games, and they provide us an idea of how they see the bowl season playing out. It’s an inexact science—perhaps mathematics seems more appropriate—but make no mistake about it: the beings that construct these betting parameters are some of brightest football minds on the planet.

And once again, they have spoken. Thirty-five bowl games, 35 point spreads.

What can we learn from Las Vegas this year? Plenty, actually. Their betting lines give us more than just, well, betting lines. They give us some expert expectations when it comes to the bowls. 

With the lines in place and initial movement accounted for, here’s what the point spreads tell us about this year’s bowl lineup.

Big Numbers, Questionable Matchups 

There’s been significant chatter regarding overall interest in this year’s games—or more specifically, a lack of—and Las Vegas isn’t arguing these claims. In fact, they most certainly agree.

A large point spread is no way indicative of how a game will live up to entertainment standards, but it does provide a good a blueprint of what should expect. The blueprint for this year’s “postseason” tells a story, and that story may not do well in the box office if these games play out as the experts think.

Of the 35 bowl games, 16 have been given spread of at least a touchdown. To put that in comparison, last year’s opening numbers featured nine games with a spread of at least seven.

Think about that: almost half of this year’s slate has a point spread of at least one score, which “could” mean we’re in for some snoozers. Eight of these games have a spread with at least a double-digit number compared to five total matchups last season.

The largest spread on the board comes from the Heart of Dallas Bowl (that’s the real name, promise), where Oklahoma State is a 17-point favorite over Purdue. Last year the largest opening figure we saw came from the Insight Bowl where Oklahoma was a 16-point favorite over Iowa.

It doesn’t tell the whole story, but it certainly sets it up.

Las Vegas Does Not Foresee Big Things For the B1G

The Big Ten is an underdog in all seven of its bowl games. I suppose we could leave it at that and move along, but realistically what kind of performance are we looking at for a conference that went 4-6 in bowl games last year?

Purdue, as referenced above, is the biggest underdog in any bowl game this year. Minnesota isn’t far behind, and they’re listed as a 13-point underdog against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Although not as big, the sportsbooks didn’t like what they saw out of Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game. After all, you could see the flames from this dumpster fire from orbit. Nebraska will take on Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, and the angry Bulldogs are a 10-point favorite.

Michigan drew South Carolina in the Outback Bowl where it’s a 5.5-point dog, while Wisconsin—without their head coach, and more on that in a bit—is a 6.5-point underdog to Stanford.

Northwestern is a two-point underdog to Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl, and Michigan State is a 2.5-point dog to TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Unlike those Buffalo Wild Wings commercials, Big Ten fans may want to get this bowl season over as quickly as possible.

I would be surprised to see the Big Ten go winless with both Northwestern and Michigan State seemingly very live, although victories elsewhere would qualify as a surprise. We don’t need experts to tell us that it’s been a rough year for the B1G, but Vegas confirmed it likely won’t be turning around in the next month.

Get Your “S-E-C” Chants Ready

While the forecast of the Big Ten doesn’t look bright, Las Vegas believes the SEC will thrive. Shocking, I know. The nation’s most elite conference is favored in all nine games it’ll participate in this postseason, which is rather incredible.

Alabama provides the most noteworthy number, and it’s a 9.5-point favorite over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship. Although that’s substantial, it’s not the biggest for the conference in this year’s batch.

The biggest SEC favorite in all of the games belongs to Florida, and the Gators are a 14-point favorite over Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia, as mentioned, is also a double-digit favorite over Nebraska.

The average point spread of all nine games averages out to a little over six, which says a great deal about the SEC in 2012. Now, will they win all of these games? It’s incredibly unlikely, although seven wins seem more than possible. 

Either way, it’s probably best you ready yourself for “S-E-C” chants across the United States. After all, nothing says “Happy New Year!” like those three letters.

New Faces, New Places, Same Lines

The coaching carousel has become the wildest and strangest ride in the college football theme park, and it certainly has a major impact on the bowls.

Nearly 13 percent of the teams placed in the 35 bowl games will be without the head coach they had to start the season. This is not a new ritual, of course, but rather one we’ve grown accustomed to.

In terms of point spreads, however, it has very little impact. For example: Wisconsin without Bret Bielema is still a 6.5-point underdog to Stanford, just how they opened. Although some books did take this number down briefly when the news broke, they reposted shortly after at the exact same spread.

Across the board these changes have had absolutely zero impact on these numbers, which is interesting. It says that coaches don’t have as much impact on these games as one would think—at least at this point in the season—and in the end it comes down to the players.

How can you handicap motivation in these games? There’s no perfect way to do so, and teams will react differently given the amount of time they have to prepare under new (and most times, temporary) leadership.

Please remember, this information is for recreational use only. Unless, of course, you win, then please send us a cut.


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