• Entering a bowl pick 'em pool this year? Here's some advice to keep in mind when making your selections.
By Daniel Rapaport
December 15, 2017

Saturday’s matchup between North Carolina A&T and Grambling State, which marks the beginning of this year’s bowl season, could not be more appropriately named. It’s the Celebration Bowl, a proper moniker for a contest that kicks off a month of glorious college football madness.

In total, there are 41 games to celebrate. We’ve got everything from non-descript matchups between two middling Big 5 programs (looking at you, Heart of Dallas) to a really compelling David vs. Goliath bout (hello, Peach Bowl) to the national championship game at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 8.

And it’s not just the games themselves that are worth celebrating. Bowl season also means it’s time for fans to fill out their bowl pick ‘em entries. Generally speaking, these are contests in which players pick a winner in each of the 41 games straight up—just the winner, no spread—and assign confidence points (from 1 to 41) to each pick. Each correct pick counts for however many confidence points were wagered on the game; thus, logic would suggest putting the most points on the pick you feel most confident in.

There are a ton of variables to sort through when constructing your entry—whether to frontload or backload your picks, whether to go with Vegas’ picks, how much to weigh a coaching change, to name just a few. Here’s a guide to help you navigate your way through the mess and assemble a moneymaking entry.

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Rule number one: Avoid the alma mater bias

This seems obvious, but your bias toward your alma mater may be subconscious. For example, it could be a classic case of the mere exposure effect—a documented psychological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for things just because they are familiar with them. Thus, you might think your school’s team is better than it is simply because they’re the team you watched most this season. What’s more, this effect can be magnified if you haven’t watched the team your alma mater is playing at all. Be wary of this.

On the other, less scientific hand, don’t let your school spirit cloud your judgment when filling out your picks. Take a deep breath, perhaps a physical step back, and avoid the temptation to pick your team with 40 confidence points just because its your team.

How much should I factor in travel distance?

As a general rule, not much at all. While travel distance is definitely something to keep in mind during the season, when teams play every week and only have a few days to get accustomed to their new surroundings, every team has ample time between its last regular season game and the bowl game to get comfortable. And because the games fall during the winter, when kids are off school and a bunch of people travel for the holidays, fans are far more likely to schlep to a bowl game than a regular road game.

The one exception to this rule is if one team is playing within, say, 50 miles of its campus, because then even casual fans will make the trip. The extreme example here is Miami playing Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl, which will be played in Miami’s home Hard Rock Stadium. The Hurricanes certainly have a home-field advantage in that matchup, but there will be more Wisconsin fans there than had this been a regular-season game.

Should I just follow the Vegas spreads?

It’s definitely tempting to just play the odds and choose favorites, since these pick ‘ems give you the luxury of not having to pick games with spreads. But there will always, always, always be upsets. The key to distinguishing yourself from the pack is by correctly picking these upsets, similar to filling out a March Madness bracket. The spreads might also be not as tight because these are out of conference matchups, so oddsmakers don’t have the luxury of comparing how the teams did against a bunch of common opponents.

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What about teams whose coaches have left/are leaving?

In recent years, teams playing in a bowl game with a coach who has accepted another job or with an interim coach have had a surprising amount of success. But as a general rule, it’s safe to assume that teams playing with an interim coach they know won’t be there next year—Texas A&M (Jeff Banks), Florida State (Odell Haggins), Mississippi State (Greg Knox) to name a few—will not fare as well.

This does not apply to a team like UCF, which will be coached by Scott Frost even though he’s already accepted the Nebraska job. The opposite might be the case, actually, as his players might be extra motivated to send him out on the right note. Oregon’s situation also doesn’t fall under the interim coach category, as it removed Mario Cristobal’s interim tag, so the team knows he’ll be back next season.

Should I frontload or backload my confidence points?

The distribution of your confidence points should obviously be determined by your level of assuredness in each pick. But if you’re deciding between two picks, put more confidence points in the game that takes place on a later date. Why? Because it’s no fun to be essentially eliminated just a week into the bowl season. Keep it interesting for as long as possible, within reason. Don’t leave it all until the last week, but also don’t lose the contest in the first five games.

Should I put a bunch of confidence points on the playoff games?

Probably not. These are the only bowls in which a group of educated people picked teams based on how close they are in quality to each other. You might have a strong opinion as to who will take the natty, but it’s probably prudent to limit the confidence points you wager.

It is, of course, important to take everything that was just said with a grain of salt. Bowl picks wouldn't be any fun if they were a predictable science. Stuff goes haywire during the bowl season, and that’s what makes it so irresistibly enjoyable.

Happy watching.