College football bowl season kicks off in less than two weeks, and this month-long stretch represents a unique opportunity for contrarian bettors. During the regular season, there are usually over 50 games played on a given Saturday. During bowl season, there are 41 games spread across a prolonged period. With higher quality matchups and more attention paid to every game, sportsbooks experience much larger handles — particularly from casual bettors desperate for action. This influx of public money creates value for bettors looking to fade the public.
Using our historical database, I found the average bowl game receives more than three-to-four times the bets of an average regular season game. If we focus solely on BCS Bowls and College Football Playoff games, the number of bets is about five-to-six times the average regular season game. As we have previously stated, the value derived from betting against the public is directly correlated with the number of bets placed on each game. That bodes well for contrarian strategies, particularly when bettors wait for square money to artificially inflate the spread.
Just looking at last season’s ticket counts, we tracked just under 15,000 tickets per game during the regular season and just under 48,000 tickets during bowl season. In the three College Football Playoff games, we tracked an average of just over 110,000 tickets — that’s more than seven times more action than the average regular season game. In fact, these major bowl games usually take more action than most World Series games.
“Obviously the major bowls generate a much bigger handle, but all of them receive pretty good action,” said Scott Cooley, an Odds Consultant for Bookmaker.eu. “It’s safe to say that the early bowls generate as much action as an early season game, and more than a late season game. The major bowls will do more in handle than a game during the World Series, outside of Game 7.”
Contrary to popular belief, sportsbooks do not set their lines with the intention of attracting 50% of the action on each side. Rather than attempting to balance their book, oddsmakers shade their lines to capitalize on public perception and allow their sharpest bettors to shape the lines throughout the week. However, public money does factor into the line movement in the most heavily bet college football games.
Since the start of the 2005 season, teams receiving less than 50% of spread bets at our contributing sportsbooks have gone 4,102-4,172 ATS (49.6%) during the regular season. When we focus on heavily bet games, which is defined as any matchup in which the number of bets exceeds than the daily average, that cover rate improves from 49.6% to 51.2%. That same methodology can be applied to when handicapping bowl games. During bowl season, teams receiving less than 50% of spread bets have gone 195-174 ATS (52.8%), which barely exceeds the 52.38% threshold needed to overcome the standard -110 juice charged by sportsbooks.
Last year, 10 of the 14 most heavily bet college football games of the year were Bowl games, including the top 5 most bet games of the season.
- National Championship: Alabama (-6) vs. Clemson
- Cotton Bowl: Alabama (-10) vs. Michigan State
- Rose Bowl: Stanford (-6.5) vs. Iowa
- Orange Bowl: Oklahoma (-3.5) vs. Clemson
- Alamo Bowl: Oregon (-7.5) vs. TCU
It was interesting to see that an October 17th matchup between Michigan (-7.5) and Michigan State was the most heavily bet game of the regular season. That game featured one of the greatest endings in college football history and, although the final play didn’t impact the spread, it was an all-time bad beat for anybody who took the Wolverines moneyline.
With Michigan leading 23-21 and just 10 seconds remaining on the clock, Wolverines punter Blake O’Neill bobbled the snap, which was returned by Michigan State cornerback Jalen Watts-Jackson for a game-winning 38-yard touchdown. If you had Michigan State +260, you never get to complain about bad beats ever again.
According to our public betting trends, Michigan State closed with 86% of moneyline bets, which led to significant losses for sportsbooks. While this game was one of the most entertaining regular season matchups in recent memory, it’s the exception to the rule. Even second-tier bowl games receive more action than many marquee regular season games. For example, we tracked more bets on the 2015 Hawaii Bowl (Cincinnati vs. San Diego State) than we did for major conference rivalries like Mississippi/Alabama, Clemson/Louisville, and Baylor/Oklahoma.
Even market-setting sportsbooks like CRIS and Pinnacle will adjust their college football lines if one side is being hammered by public money. These artificially inflated lines have historically created value for opportunistic contrarian bettors since they’re getting a better line purely based on the opinion of recreational bettors. Often known as “squares” or “weekend warriors,” these casual bettors follow their intuition rather than data and analysis.
Casual bettors tend to overwhelmingly take the favorite, but they become increasingly willing to back the underdog in bowl games. My research found that the majority of public bettors (more than 50% of spread tickets) have taken the underdog in 16.1% of regular season games, while the majority of public bettors have taken the underdog in 19.2% of bowl games. That tendency has increased in recent years, with the majority of bettors taking the ‘dog in 26.3% of bowl games over the past two seasons.
“The public still has little impact on the odds, but maybe a bit more than normal because the sharps aren’t involved in every bowl,” according to Cooley. “I think the public plays more dogs than normal because they see their favorite team or a high-profile team in a matchup where they are getting points.”
It’s interesting to note that during bowl season, betting against the public has been an effective strategy for both favorites and ‘dogs. In fact, it’s been slightly more profitable taking contrarian favorites, which highlights the value of fading the trendy underdog.
Schools receiving less than 50% of spread bets during bowl season
|Criteria||Record (ATS)||Win Rate|
Most sportsbooks are able to anticipate which games will take one-sided public betting, so they will shade their opening lines to account for the predictable flood of public money. If the liability becomes too great, they will oftentimes adjust their number to encourage action on the other side, thereby mitigating some of their risk. With more public money entering the market during bowl season, this tendency is magnified and the value of fading the public increases.
While betting against the public represents a consistently profitable strategy, it’s only one component of employing a contrarian strategy. Past research has found that most casual bettors overvalue ranked teams and overreact to recent events. That’s one reason it’s so important to buy on bad news and sell on good news.
The number of bets statistic is proprietary Sports Insights information that is available exclusively to Sportsbook Insider subscribers along with real-time odds, public betting trends, money percentages, e-mail alerts, and much more. Sign up for a 4-day Pro trial and start making smarter bets today!
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