Bowl matchups and factors to consider when making picks

Northwestern has done a nice job holding things together after firing Pat Fitzgerald. Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

I love bowling. The inherent math behind the scoring system allows my overactive brain to constantly project my score for the entire game, there's a perfectly even playing field with everyone in the same lane with the same pin setup, no defense, and playing with beginners can be just as fun (or sometimes more fun) as playing with experts. Throw in a beer and some pizza, and you've got the perfect evening planned.

So when they asked me to write a bowling preview this week, I jumped at the chance!

Oh, you said "bowl game," not "bowling" ... well I guess I can do that too.

Nowhere are the results of bowl games more important than your pick 'em pool, spread pool, confidence pool, you name it. The monthlong game incurs a constant flow of information and allows for extra strategy (if you know how to apply it). Players are opting out left and right as others enter the transfer portal, and the coaching carousel is in full swing. You need to do a lot of digging to figure out how motivated a team might be, or how barren its depth chart is.

In turn, this leads to wild line movement, the likes of which are unachievable during most regular-season games. Initial articles are written with picks, then as more information comes out, touts and experts begin hammering home key storylines, which pushes the spread even further to account for the narrative. In most cases, that info is actionable, but occasionally, the line is stale and has already moved a few points, or the line was already set to account for that intel.

Normally I rely on ESPN Analytics' FPI data as the backbone for many of my picks, but when it comes to bowl season, I try to hone in on the flow of information and reading the tea leaves to get a feel for how teams will perform. Tail my picks or fade my picks, but all you'll find in here is logic, not hot takes. Let's get after it!

Note: All bets are to win one unit (or are one-unit bets on plus-money picks), unless otherwise noted.

RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl

South Florida Bulls vs. Syracuse Orange (-2.5, 56.5)
Thursday, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+
, FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Fla.

After firing Dino Babers, Syracuse is a program that should be headed in the right direction, having hired Fran Brown away from Georgia as head coach and already bringing in transfer QB Kyle McCord from Ohio State. But rebuilds take time, and Brown and McCord won't be there Thursday. Orange OC Jason Beck also won't be coaching, leaving a patchwork offense that will be unlikely to take advantage of a Bulls squad that was torched most of the season (6.34 yards/play allowed, 119th in FBS).

With the game being played in South Florida, I'll lean toward the Bulls in this one, and I'll also take the under, which opened at 58.5, went up to 60.5 and now sits at 56.5. Syracuse had 10 straight games go under this number prior to its season finale, and its run-heavy approach has me expecting a quicker game.

Bets: South Florida ML (+110), Under 56.5 (-110)

Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. UCF Knights (-4.5, 67.5)
Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

UCF rebounded from a rough start to its first season in the Big 12 and won three of its final four games. The Knights also had a 42-point win over Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma State, along with half of their losses coming by 1-2 points. This team is better than their 6-6 record and should be able to capitalize on Georgia Tech's biggest weakness, where the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.4 yards/rush, worst among all Power 5 teams and 130th out of 133 FBS teams. UCF averages a Big 12-best 5.7 yards/rush this season, fifth best in FBS.

This game opened at 61.5 and was rapidly bet up to 67.5, and while I expect a lot of points to be scored, I'm a little worried we've jumped the shark here. These teams faced off last season with UCF winning 27-10, adding more confidence to my spread pick.

Bet: UCF -4.5 (-110)

76 Birmingham Bowl

Troy Trojans (-7.5, 44.5) vs. Duke Blue Devils
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN+, Protective Stadium, Birmingham, Ala.

Am I missing something here? Sure, Riley Leonard transferred to Notre Dame and Mike Elko is gone to Texas A&M. But Leonard hasn't played since October. This is one of the best examples of trap avoidance on the 2023 bowl slate. Troy opened as a 6.5-point favorite, which has to mean it was accounting for the Blue Devil absences. But now articles keep mentioning that fact, and Duke becomes a popular fade as the line crosses the key number of seven.

The three Blue Devils losses with Leonard came to ranked Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State squads; without Leonard, they went 3-2 against five ACC opponents and almost beat a ranked UNC squad in 2OT. Troy also lost its head coach Jon Sumrall to Tulane, so it's not operating at 100% either. I won't go as far as to pick Duke to win outright, but with a lower game total of 44.5, it won't take much for the Blue Devils to keep it within a touchdown. Troy was also 1-4 ATS against teams with a winning record this season.

Bet: Duke +7.5 (-110)

Camellia Bowl

Arkansas State Red Wolves vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (-2.5, 53.5)
Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Ala.

Any time one trend matches my first instinct, I feel good. Any time the trends start piling up, I feel even better. Arkansas State is 4-1 ATS in its last five games, while Northern Illinois has lost seven straight bowl games. This is just the second bowl game of Thomas Hammock's head-coaching career; he lost the 2021 Cure Bowl after turning around the Huskies from a zero-win team in 2020 to a nine-win team the following season, but that success hasn't kept up in the years since.

Butch Jones won all three of his bowl games while at Tennessee, hasn't lost a bowl game since 2008 and is currently turning around a Red Wolves program that won two games in his first year and has increased its win total in both seasons. I'm following the line movement here (it opened at ARST -1), but I'm comfortable knowing the line is still under a field goal.

Bet: Arkansas State -2.5 (-115)

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

James Madison Dukes (-2.5, 41.5) vs. Air Force Falcons
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN+, Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth

I'll keep this one simple. James Madison was originally ineligible for a bowl game and was allowed in after not enough teams earned a spot. The school at one point threatened to sue the NCAA over its eligibility. The fans are into it as well; they were incredible as the backdrop to the "Pat McAfee Show" when JMU hosted "College GameDay" and have been fervent supporters of the team all year. I expect the team, the school and the fan base to come motivated in this one, to prove to the country and the NCAA that they are ready to compete with the big dogs in FBS and are deserving of this spot.

Bet: James Madison -2.5 (-110)

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Georgia State Panthers vs. Utah State Aggies (-2.5, 61.5)
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. on ESPN/ESPN+, Albertsons Stadium, Boise, Idaho

I can't say I've watched a ton of Mountain West football this season, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I also watch a lot of midlevel college basketball, and one thing I've learned is that you can start to paint a picture of teams by looking at who they beat and who they lose to. Some teams are wildly volatile and play up or down to the level of their competition, while others simply win the games they should and lose the ones to superior teams.

Utah State is the latter. In their past 22 games, the Aggies are 9-0 straight up when favored and 2-11 straight up as underdogs. This year, it's 4-0 when favored and 2-6 as underdogs. The line is moving even further towards Utah State right now, so just as a pure numbers play, I'll take the favorite here. Again, with the line only at 2.5, I'm comfortable on the spread.

Bet: Utah State -2.5 (-120)

68 Ventures Bowl

South Alabama Jaguars (-17, 46.5) vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles
Saturday, 8 p.m. on ESPN/ESPN+, Hancock Whitney Stadium, Mobile, Ala.

This game reminds me of the column I wrote a month or two ago about heavily favored teams covering double-digit spreads. This is a clear mismatch between two Group of 5 teams with very little in common, and most metrics have the game as a multi-TD win for the Jaguars. But a deeper dive into the numbers reveals that South Alabama is 2-10 ATS this season, tied for the worst cover rate in FBS, and has failed to cover six straight games, tied for the longest active streak in FBS. Meanwhile, the Jags are 1-7 ATS as a favorite and Eastern Michigan is 3-0 ATS as a double-digit underdog.

Then there's the player takes; South Alabama will be without leading rusher La'Damian Webb (1,007 yards, 16 TD) due to a toe injury, and leading receiver Caullin Lacy (1,316 yards -- sixth in FBS -- and 7 TDs) entered the transfer portal and already committed to Louisville. That duo combined for 48% of the team's yards and 50% of the team's TD this season.

The game will also be played in Boise, Idaho with a temperature in the low 30s and a wind chill in the 20s. Over 90% of South Alabama's players are from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida or Georgia. The weather may not end up playing a factor, but if it does, it'll be less of an issue for the team from Michigan.

Bet: Eastern Michigan +17 (-110)

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl

Utah Utes (-6.5, 41.5) vs. Northwestern Wildcats
Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET ABC/ESPN+, Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas

If you want to talk about motivation and a team playing together, look no further than a Northwestern squad that fired head coach Pat Fitzgerald in the offseason and clearly rallied around each other to finish with a surprising, but well earned, seven-win season, featuring road upsets over Wisconsin and Illinois. The Wildcats have covered in six straight weeks, tied for the longest active cover streak in FBS, including five straight as an underdog.

Utah has played under Kyle Whittingham long enough that some recent trends bear more fruit. The Utes are 1-4 ATS in bowl games against Big Ten opponents and have lost four straight bowl games. Las Vegas is closer to Utah than Chicago, but the Utes did go 6-1 at home this season and 2-3 away from Salt Lake City, with their two road wins coming by just two and seven points against unranked teams. The line has moved one point to Northwestern's favor since opening, but it's across a key number and with a lower-scoring game expected, I want to buy that extra point (the implied final score is 24-17.5).

Bet: Northwestern +7.5 alternate spread (-140)

EasyPost Hawai'i Bowl

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers vs. San Jose State Spartans (-10, 52.5)
Saturday, 11:30 p.m. ET on ABC/ESPN+, Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex, Honolulu

One final game for the weekend, and it's yet another bet against the popular line movement. Coastal Carolina is expecting a mass exodus of transfers, including starting QB Grayson McCall and starting WR Jared Brown. But again, I think the line may have been factoring that in already.

Both teams were 7-5 this season, and ESPN Analytics, which doesn't update for player availability but does update after each game, had San Jose State as a 2.6-point favorite. McCall won't have played in a game for Coastal in over two months, the Chanticleers went 3-2 without him and third-string QB Ethan Vasko is a capable dual-threat option that will put a strain on the Spartans' defense. It's also worth noting that Brown only accounted for 96 receiving yards combined in Vasko's three starts this season -- he much preferred throwing to leading receiver Sam Pinckney.

If picking the outright winner, I'm leaning with the superior Spartans. It's a return home for SJSU QB Chevan Cordeiro, who will be playing in his hometown of Honolulu after transferring from the University of Hawaii after four seasons. But I'll take 10 points with Coastal Carolina and with the over, as both teams have played in some high-scoring affairs lately.

Bets: Coastal Carolina +10 (-105), over 52.5 points (-105)