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College Bowl Picks 2021: Expert advice, tips, strategy for pick ’em, confidence pools

Based on over eight years of proven results in thousands of real-world football pools, we’ll lay out a framework that gives you the best chance to win your 2021 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 2021 college bowl pool picks.

MORE TEAMRANKINGS: Three value picks for pick ’em pools (coming soon)

College Bowl Picks: How To Win A College Bowl Picks Pool

Identify The Bowl Favorites — Objectively

Picking the team you think is likely to win every bowl game is usually not the best strategy to win your pool. You also need to take pick popularity into account, especially in larger pools. Of course, you also shouldn’t blindly try to assess who the best team is. You should think twice about trusting yourself in that department. 

  • Betting-market info is the most objective measure: If you want the best starting point, look at the spreads for the games.
  • Human pickers are biased: Things like win-loss records and recent performances or overweighting the importance of one memorable game are all common pitfalls.

Regional biases come into play: In college football, there aren’t many regular-season matchups between top teams in different conferences, so some pools show strong regional preferences.

Let’s take last year’s Gator Bowl between 4-6 Kentucky and 8-3 NC State as an example. 

  • NC State was ranked in the AP poll entering the game while Kentucky was not.
  • However, Kentucky was the betting favorite.
  • Our models gave the Wildcats a 54-percent chance of winning. 
  • Because of COVID-19 restrictions, many teams, including the SEC, played a conference-only schedule. 
  • Due to the weird year, Kentucky faced a tough slate that made its record look worse than a typical bowl team.

Kentucky won a close game, 23-21, and a small percentage of the public earned wins for that game. However, it was not an upset in the betting markets.

MORE: Bowl Pick ’em Picks from TeamRankings.com

College Bowl Picks: How To Identify Underrated Teams Or Upsets

Use Bowl Pick Popularity To Identify Underrated Teams

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. That seems fairly obvious, yet it’s often ignored in terms of pick strategy. 

Picking an arbitrary number of bowl wins correctly does not win you pools. 

  • There is no magic number to win a pool.
  • If you get a pick right and your entire pool makes the same pick, you gain nothing.
  • If you make a risky pick and get it right, you’ll gain serious ground in the standings. 
  • If you get picks wrong that your opponents get right, you lose ground.

Underdogs are often (but not always) unpopular picks, so you need to evaluate both the risk and the likely reward of every pick decision. One useful approach is to identify teams that fall into either of the following two categories:

1. Favorites picked at a rate significantly lower than their odds to win

We often refer to these teams as “value favorites.” They are as close as you can get to no-brainer picks in a pool contest, as the more likely winner is also the underrated team. West Virginia playing Army in the 2019 Liberty Bowl is a recent example.

  • West Virginia was favored by more than a touchdown.
  • West Virginia’s objective win odds were about 80 percent.
  • However, only about 68 percent of the public was picking the Mountaineers to win outright in pools.

That isn’t a huge difference, but it’s a great reason to stick with a team like West Virginia, who was a relatively undervalued favorite. If you go by the odds, you would gain on 32 percent of your pool a whopping four out of five times that you played out the pool.

2. Moderate underdogs significantly underrated by the public

In most cases, the public will pick favorites more heavily. The key to differentiating your entry can be to find slight underdogs who have a solid chance of winning (40 percent or better) but are extremely unpopular compared to other similar underdogs. If you’re going to pick an upset where the underdog has a 45 percent chance of winning, would you rather:

  • Do it when only 10 percent of your opponents are picking the same result; or
  • Do it when 40 percent of your opponents are picking the same outcome.

You should prefer the former. 

To win a bowl pool, you have to get some key games right. Sometimes, that means taking reasonable upsets when few others do to increase your pot odds of winning the contest.

College Bowl Pool Picks: How to find the best strategy for risky teams

Apply the Right Amount of Risk

Now comes the toughest and most complex part of getting an edge over your bowl pool opponents. If you’re in a typical bowl pool, you need to figure out the exact combination of 40-plus picks that you should make. You also may need to add a confidence-point ranking to each pick.

Here are some factors that should influence your risk strategy:

  • Pool Size: The more entries you have to beat, the more risk you need to take.
  • Format/Type: Picking winners (where there are some mismatches) versus picking against a spread (where every game is closer to even).
  • Scoring Structure: Confidence points (where some games are far more important) or fixed, flat scoring where every game counts the same.
  • Prize Structure: How many places get paid, and how steep is the drop-off? 

The approaches we use to optimize picks for bowl pools are beyond the scope of this post, but here are a few quick tips:

Pick Strategy for Smaller Bowl Pools

  • Pick strategy should focus on favorites in game-winner pools.
  • Be selective about taking risks.
  • Let others shoot themselves in the foot with extreme upset picks that are individually unlikely.
  • You can often get a solid edge simply by staying conservative.

Sure, some upsets are going to happen that you will miss, but with around 40 games to pick, the cumulative risk/reward strategy of staying extra conservative often pays off.  It may still be worth considering highly underrated teams if they are only the slightest of underdogs or perhaps making one calculated bet on one hugely underrated moderate underdog. Just don’t go overboard.

Pick Strategy for Larger Bowl Pools

  • Your chances of winning a large pool (let’s say over 100 entries) is quite small.
  • Unlike small pools, playing it safe rarely improves those odds.
  • With a large contest, at least one entry is likely to hit on more upset picks, raising the need to take risk yourself.
  • You typically need to take multiple gambles on value picks, even some risky ones, and hope to hit them.

Another way to increase your chance of cashing in a big bowl pool is to play multiple entries. You can diversify your risk by making a different set of calculated gambles in each entry. Our Bowl Pick’ em Picks product makes recommendations for playing up to three different entries in the same pool.

College Bowl Picks: Assigning Confidence Points, Picking Against The Spread

MORE: Bowl Pick ’em Picks from TeamRankings.com

Pick Strategy for Bowl Confidence Pools

In bowl confidence pools, it’s important to understand the relative impact of every game. 

  • For example, you probably need to assign a unique confidence value of between one and 43 points to each pick. 
  • That means getting your 36-point pick correct is worth the same as getting all eight of your one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, seven- and eight-point picks correct.
  • As a result, it isn’t worth agonizing too much over your lower-confidence picks. 
  • Your higher-confidence pick strategy likely determines whether it’s a prize-winning year for you. 
  • Instead of making a bunch of low-confidence upset picks, for example, think about concentrating your risk on a smaller number of bigger bets.

Pick Strategy for Point-Spread-Based Bowl Pools

Many players fail to understand the role of the point spread as the great equalizer in pools. 

  • If your bowl pool features up-to-date point spreads for each game, you aren’t going to have much better than a 50-50 chance of getting most picks right.
  • Top professional college football bettors only hover around 55-60 percent long-term accuracy against full-game point spreads — and that’s with the ability to lay off most games.
  • Pick popularity becomes a bigger driver of optimal strategy in these pools. 
  • In cases where the public heavily favors one side, you’re usually better off picking the other way.
  • Also keep an eye out for stale contest spreads and line value based on movement and news to create some edge.

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 2021 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:

MORE: Bowl Pick ’em Picks from TeamRankings.com

TeamRankings also offers data-driven college bowl betting picks.

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