Qualk's Six Rules of Bowl Season
By William Qualkinbush
Let’s get the inconvenient truth out of the way: I didn’t do so great with my picks this season.
There, I said it. You know it, I know it. We all know it. Glad we got that out of the way.
Now, forget all of that. Bowl season is here, and it’s a new beast all its own, full of twists and turns and nonsense and elements that don’t matter whatsoever over the course of the season.
Through the years, I’ve done pretty well in bowl pools and pick em contests during the postseason. It was something I assumed I would always be good at doing. Then came the transfer portal and opt-outs, and my goose was cooked. I had to do a remodel on my bowl structure because there were new factors thrown into the mix that I hadn’t had to account for before.
At the moment, I feel pretty good about my new process for picking these games in the portal era, as long as I stick to my principles. None of these are super earth-shattering, but they are time-tested, valuable tools to help you sift through the data and make a simple, informed decision on the tricky toss-up games. Not only that, but all of these are just as easy to forget as they are to apply.
While I should keep my grand strategy private for competitive purposes, what’s the fun in that? ‘Tis the season for giving or whatever. With that in mind, here are a few rules to pick by if you want to win your office or family pool:
Figure out who the better team is.
When people get sideways in March Madness pools, it often happens because of an inability to pick the proper upsets. It’s easy to choose an underdog you really like and hammer them to advance or win without ever examining whether the matchup favors such an outcome.
That logic is backwards. Start by identifying the favorite, because favorites are (logically) more likely to win. Getting this wrong can set you up for failure almost before you start.
Find the better team’s weakness, and determine if the weaker team can capitalize.
One of my favorite picks of all time happened a number of years ago, when a nationally-ranked Houston team faced off against Air Force in a December bowl game. (Don’t ask me why this is a point of pride. I’m weird like that.)
Anyway, Houston had a phenomenal passing game (I believe Case Keenum was the quarterback), but Air Force had the nation’s best passing attack in terms of yards per game and was good at forcing turnovers and getting off the field on third down. It was a perfect storm, so I took Air Force outright as a double digit underdog. The Falcons ended up intercepting six passes and rolling over the Cougars that day.
This is a perfect example of a favorite’s Achilles heel playing right into the hands of an underdog. Make sure a favorite’s weakness fits hand-in-glove with an underdog’s strength before you pull the trigger on an upset.
Be familiar with rosters and coaching changes.
If a team is missing all of its critical skill players, there might not be a dire need to pore over a ton of data about the game. The reality is that a few of these games will become blowouts due to players on one side or the other deciding to transfer or opt-out in preparation for the NFL Draft.
That reality makes it difficult to project a game more than a day or two out, so you’ll have to do the best you can here. It also makes it tough to be precise in a confidence pool. I like confidence pools, where you get (or lose) more points for games you feel better about, but it’s impossible to know how confident you’ll be about the games on January 2nd when the bowl season kicks off on December 16th–17 days prior.
You can do it, but you’ll have to be willing to adjust where it’s possible, and pray if you have to lock the games in at the start of the season. Truly, the best strategy for confidence pools in 2022 is to give more weight to earlier games since you know more details about who will or won’t be available.
Don’t be afraid to trust (or not trust).
Some programs are just set up for *all this* better than others. Different coaches have different philosophies about how to prepare a team for these types of postseason challenges. I believe history matters when it tells us over and over again how well or poorly a coach is able to get his team ready for a game where focus and motivation can be difficult to come by sometimes.
A couple of rules I like to follow in this section: Small sample size is the enemy, so I like to wait for a minimum of 4 games before I label a coach as trustworthy or untrustworthy. I also don’t include any coach with a winning percentage between .400 and .600. Those are my statistical benchmarks.
There are other reasons why a coach might do well without being inherently flawed (facing better/worse teams constantly, staff turnover at a lower level, consistent travel disadvantage, etc). However, I find these categories useful.
A few coaches in my “Trust” group:
Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M (I know, I’m shocked, too)
PJ Fleck, Minnesota
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
Nick Saban, Alabama
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Dabo Swinney, Clemson
Jeff Tedford, Fresno State
Kyle Whittingham, Utah
And the “Don’t Trust” group:
Jason Candle, Toledo
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan
Sonny Dykes, TCU
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Josh Heupel, Tennessee
Dana Holgorsen, Houston
Jerry Kill, New Mexico State
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
Motivation matters a whole lot.
This is the most difficult metric of them all to measure. Nobody knows when motivation (or a lack thereof) will play a role, so we basically just have to guess.
If a team expected to play in a New Years Six or CFP game and is, instead, heading to Shreveport to play in a cold rain on a random Tuesday against the second-best team in Conference USA, we can assume that team might not be all that jacked up to participate. Similarly, if you get a team from a smaller league that gets a shot at one of the big boys, or one that is willing to go to the mat for a popular interim coach, make sure to factor those things in.
This part isn’t even close to foolproof, but you can spot some clear upsets if you can infer an unequal dose of motivation on the two sidelines.
If you still don’t know what to do, go to the big three: location, quarterback, and culture.
You can’t go wrong here. If upheaval throws a game into chaos, or if you simply can’t decide, ask yourself one (or all) of these questions:
Where is the game played?
Who has the better quarterback?
Which culture is more resilient?
Bowl games often boil down to these main elements. If you’ve tied yourself in knots, any of these questions will help.
Here’s to a happy bowl season.