Betting News & Analysis

College Greenline: Bowl betting preview

We failed to finish out the college football season as we wanted. Overall, we still sit by the slimmest of margins above average on the season at 40-39-1 (50.6%) but are down slightly on units when factoring in vig price, at -1.3. Among the 81 picks (one push, one parlay) against the spread or total on the season, 13 have closed with the exact same line as the printed pick while 37 have provided closing line value. Of printed bets, 61.7% have held steady or improved to pick up closing line value.

The Greenline betting model had a strong finish to the regular season and should be effective in selecting bowl games against teams that typically do not matchup in-season. Bowl season is a unique situation from a handicapping perspective, but utilizing PFF metrics allows us the opportunity to unearth significant value when targeting the right games. Using some of our advanced models, we hope to highlight some of the best games to wager on throughout the holiday bowl season. Below, you will find our first writeup of bowl games that we are targeting to hopefully gain value on line movement as games draw closer to kicking off.

San Diego State Aztecs (-3.5) vs. Central Michigan Chippewas

Why San Diego State covers:

Few people have bought into San Diego State in this matchup after an opening print of 6.5 came crashing down a full three points before settling in at 3.5. This looks like an overcorrection from a Greeline perspective, with our model giving the Aztecs a 52.9% cover probability at the current market price. Forty-two spots separate these two teams in our PFFELO rankings, with Central Michigan having the sixth worst-ranked offense, according to our Massey ratings. To say things have been dicey for Quinten Dormady in 2019 would be an understatement. He had only four big-time throws while accounting for 17 turnover-worthy plays and posting a passing grade of 62.4. Ryan Agnew has also had his struggles in 2019, but he is the much better quarterback in this matchup. His ability to limit turnover-worthy plays will offset what some believe is a vaunted Chippewas defense. According to our ELO and Massey ratings, the Aztecs are a significantly better team in all facets and should be able to provide a comfortable cover at the reduced market price.

What could go wrong:

San Diego State highlighted its ability to both win and lose ugly games in 2019. The common denominator was that the Aztecs failed to score over 20 points in their final five regular-season matchups. They also highlighted the direction of their season in Week 1 by winning 6-0 at home over Weber State. Defensively, they are one of the better units in the country but often rely too heavily on their defense to make plays. With the hook still present on this current line, it could definitely come into play with the Aztecs losing a late cover but still picking up the win.


Why the over covers:

One of the more intriguing bowl matchups pits Air Force, who calls a run play on 84% of offensive play calls, against Washington State, who passes on 82% of offensive plays. Both teams are effective moving the football for entirely different reasons. They both average a positive EPA on passing and rushing attempts. The key boost to an over hitting are explosive plays. Despite Washington State leading the FBS in pass attempts, they have a middling explosive pass play percentage that currently ranks 60th in the nation. Conversely, Air Force has the second-fewest pass attempts but ranks first in explosive play percentage on those pass attempts. Washington State’s defense has been incapable of slowing anyone down in 2019, sitting 90th in our Massey defensive ranking, and on top of that, they have been one of the worst teams in the nation at stopping the run. Their explosive run play allowed percentage is the third-highest number in the FBS at 18.4%. Air Force not only runs the ball constantly, but they are also effective at it from an EPA standpoint while maintaining one of the highest explosive rush play percentages in the FBS. If Air Force jumps out to an early lead and is comfortable playing prevent defense for an extended period of time, this could turn into a scoring frenzy. Greenline buys into this scenario heavily, giving the over a 57.4% cover probability. 

What could go wrong:

This total is one of the highest we have during bowl season. Washington State games tend to play slowly with so many pass attempts, but this is the first time they have faced off against a team as run-heavy as a service academy. Air Force is favored and could burn clock quickly if Washington State is ineffective against their rushing attack. We mentioned Air Force's ability to produce big plays in the passing game, but they average less than 10 pass attempts a game, which equates to only three explosive pass plays a game. On the other side of the ball, Air Force has effectively mitigated explosive plays in the passing game. The Falcons have only allowed 16.6% of pass attempts to go beyond 15 yards. In a spot where Air Force is favored and could conceivably control the time of possession, a total getting over 67.5 feels like we need more than a couple of chunk plays in order to turn this into a comfortable cover. 

Florida Gators vs. Virginia Cavaliers (+14.5)

Why Virginia covers:

Virginia failed to show up in the ACC title game, but that may be more a product of how dominant this Clemson team currently is rather than any shortcomings on the Cavaliers' end. The market has added the hook to the Gators' side, pushing this spread out past the two-touchdown threshold. At that price, Greenline gives the Cavaliers a 55.8% cover probability, as these teams are much closer than the current market has priced. Virginia actually owns the better offensive ranking and sits just 17 spots behind the Gators in our Massey defensive rankings. “Florida is more battle-tested” is the constant refrain we hear from these SEC vs. lesser-conference bowl matchups. This just simply isn’t true, as Florida is only 10 places higher in our measurement of 2019 strength of schedule. The SEC continues to receive betting backing during bowl season, but this appears like the perfect spot to fade the public in what should be a much closer matchup than the current spread indicates.

What could go wrong:

For a team with the talent to compete for a national championship in any given year, Florida should play well in what could be a buildup to their 2020 season. The only player skipping the bowl game at this point appears to be C.J. Henderson, who is a significant loss and a first-round pick, according to PFF’s latest mock draft. This cover will come down to the play of Kyle Trask, who is coming off his worst-graded game since taking over the starting role. He has failed to put up an average passing game grade over his past five starts. If he feels the need to cement his place in the pecking order of Florida quarterbacks, then this could turn into a showcase game of his abilities, with the Gators capable of rolling to an easy victory over a reeling Cavaliers team.

Mississippi State Bulldogs vs. Louisville Cardinals (Under 63.5)

Why the under covers:

This total continues to climb from an opening 62 print, with bettors buying into the electric offense Louisville flashed over its final three games before being stopped entirely by Kentucky in their regular-season sendoff. On the other side, Mississippi State underachieved throughout 2019 and saw its preseason defensive ranking of 14th drop to 45th by the end of the campaign. They have the talent to stop anyone but rarely showed that ability in 2019. The Bulldogs' offense relies heavily on their rushing attack, which generated the fourth-highest EPA per attempt in the FBS. Despite Kylin Hill declaring for the 2020 NFL Draft, he has stated he fully plans on playing in this bowl game. Whether he gets a full workload is the question that remains to be answered. Passing has been a struggle all season for the Bulldogs, who rank 95th in EPA generated per attempt. Louisville, by contrast, is in the middle of the pack in both EPA generated from passing and rushing attempts. Micale Cunningham has a unique skillset at the quarterback position and currently sits in the best tier of play, according to our clustering algorithm. The Bulldogs' defense should offer some resistance to the Louisville offensive attack. Offensively, the Bulldogs should be able to control the tempo and keep Louisville's offense off the field. The 63.5 point total is a high print, with Greenline giving the under a 57% cover probability.

What could go wrong:

Louisville is atrocious defensively, ranking 109th in our Massey defensive rankings. They are even worse in EPA allowed per rush attempt, with the eighth-worst ranking in the FBS. They also sit in the top 10 of explosive run plays allowed per attempt. If Mississippi State is able to break off chunk runs, Louisville has shown the offensive ability to keep pace with one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country. Greenline likes the under, but there are quite a few scenarios that can play out to cause this total to fall quickly.

Navy Midshipmen vs. Kansas State Wildcats (+2.5)

Why Kansas State covers:

This spread has completely reversed since the opening, with Kansas State flipping from two-point favorites to 2.5-point dogs. We have been low on Navy all season, as our model values passing game production over most other inputs. Kansas State has been successful slowing dual-threat quarterbacks in 2019, containing both Jalen Hurts and Max Duggan in subsequent weeks. The option is a different monster entirely, but the Wildcats have received extended time to devise a way to stop it. Navy, on the other hand, has had little luck stopping anyone in 2019. Currently, they rank just 111th in our Massey defensive rankings. We have Kansas State ranked 23 spots ahead of Navy, according to PFFELO. The fact that they are now an underdog is simply a mispriced line, according to our model. At the current price, we give Kansas State a 56.2% cover probability, with their moneyline also offering significant value at the right price.

What could go wrong:

Navy went 9-3 against the spread in 2019, becoming a favorite among bettors. This line movement plays into that narrative, but it is simply too much of an overcorrection after the Midshipmen's dominance against Army in a spotlight game. Navy has finished its season on a tear but has little to show for quality victories in 2019 outside of a win over SMU. They were blown out by Notre Dame and failed to keep pace with Memphis. Kansas State is a tier below those teams but is much better than the opponents Navy ran through late in the season. While our model has been low on Navy all season —which has hurt us at certain points — one more opportunity to fade them is a risk I am willing to embrace.

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