Happy bowl season to all those that observe, one of the most fun times of year.
The college football season is winding down and it's on us to cash some of our final bets of the season. Bowl season has become a unique part of the calendar as it's on us not to just handicap the matchup, but figure out who is playing, and which team is more motivated to be there.
While it sounds like a whole bunch of narrative talk and lip service, there is an edge to be had in bowl season if you can forecast who is going to be playing in these games and in what capacity. If you are betting on these games, it's imperative to stay plugged into the news around each bowl (I suggest following my betstamp for all my plays during bowl season) as any player can opt out due to transferring or going to the NFL Draft.
Odds are constantly moving on speculation and news breaking over the next few weeks, but here are three bets to make now before lines move in the hectic cycle.
Louisiana vs. Houston Prediction and Pick
Dana Holgorsen was able to lead Houston to a bowl win over Auburn last year, but historically is a good fade in bowl season. He's 2-7 against the spread (ATS) as a head coach in bowl games. This is a Houston team that was as volatile as they come this season, finishing 7-5 after entering as one of the favorites to win the AAC.
Now, they head to Shreveport, Louisiana to face the Louisiana Ragin' Cajun, who are a three hour car ride away from campus. The Sun Belt team had to battle a revolving door at quarterback, but are back to their early season signal caller in Chandler Fields. He will lead an offense that will face a Houston defense that can't stop explosive plays, outside the top 100 stopping both the run and pass this season.
Houston's defense is talented, top 10 in tackles for loss, but they can't stop big plays nor red zone tries, 95th in opponent red zone touchdown percentage.
On the other side, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune and wide receiver Tank Dell are currently slated to play, but could opt out ahead of the December 23rd kickoff. If they play, they will face an elite Ragin Cajun secondary that is top 25 in completion percentage allowed, turnovers gained and 47th in defensive success rate.
Houston has the seventh highest penalty yardage per game mark in the country, and I'll happily fade Holgorsen, who has a proven track record of failing to get his team prepared for bowl games. If you don't believe the historical numbers, Houston is 1-7 ATS as a favorite this season.
PICK: Louisiana +6.5, +201 ML (0.5U)
UCF vs. Duke Prediction and Pick
UCF made the AAC title game but came up short amidst a host of injuries at quarterback to both John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene. It may not get better by the time this bowl game comes around as Keene, who has 83 pass attempts this season and led two game winning drives, is in the transfer portal and JRP was in and out of the conference title game with a hamstring injury.
With Plumlee as the lone option under center, this will be a run first UCF attack, but they will run into a Duke defense that is top 15 defending the run on an EPA per play basis. If the Knights can't run to set up the passing game, they will be playing from behind the sticks all game long and struggle to keep pace with a formidable Duke passing attack that is 35th in terms of EPA/Pass.
Duke's offense has been strong with Riley Leonard at quarterback, averaging over six yards per play, 32nd in the country and scoring nearly three points per drive. While the Knights defense has plenty of talent, the offense will be shut down due to Duke's elite rush defense.
The Blue Devils have thrived this season, winning eight games for the second time since 2015 and have plenty of motivation to win their first bowl game since 2018 under first year head coach Mike Elko.
I like the matchup fit and the motivation edge to back the Blue Devils at -110 or better.
PICK: Duke PK
Tulane vs. USC Prediction and Pick
Half the battle of bowl games is knowing who wants to be there, and this is one of the most lopsided motivation angles on the board. USC had College Football Playoff aspirations this season, shunned by Utah twice, while Tulane is riding the wave of a dream season that ended with their first conference title since 1998 when they were part of Conference USA.
Look, that's not everything, but this line could be on the move soon. Caleb Williams suffered a hamstring injury in the PAC-12 Championship that head coach Lincoln Riley called "serious." Why would the soon to be Heisman Trophy winner play in this exhibition against Tulane? What about all the other future pros like Jordan Addison?
Information is key, so this is one to track, but I'll still back Tulane as small underdogs. The offense should be able to win on the ground with explosive back Tyjae Spears (1,376 yards and 15 touchdowns) or veteran quarterback Michael Pratt through the air. USC's defense is 127th in success rate on the season, and it won't get any better in a game with zero stakes.
I'm anticipating the NFL Draft hopefuls to pull themselves out of the Cotton Bowl while Tulane gets full attendance. If Williams is out for this game especially, Tulane will close as a considerable favorite.
For what it's worth, I make the Trojans -3.5 before any injury/opt out news, and the impact of Williams on the spread is at the very least a touchdown. In bowl game? Maybe 10 points, so I'll get in now.
I understand I'm speculating, but here's me blending in an on-field handicap with anticipating some news. I'm willing to take a shot on a motivated Tulane squad against a potentially short handed USC one.
PICK: Tulane ML (+105)
Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.