Beware of disinterested favorites in bowl season

Anticipating a trip to Las Vegas excites most people. Oregon State football coach Mike Riley might be an exception.

Riley’s life would be more intriguing now if he were preparing for the Rose Bowl. But the Beavers fell short of Pasadena, Calif., by losing to Oregon 37-33 on Dec. 3 and stumbling a few steps down the Pacific-10 Conference’s bowl ladder.

Welcome to Sam Boyd Stadium for the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, the granddaddy of all the pre-Christmas bowl games.

Brigham Young (10-2) is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance in Las Vegas. Oregon State (8-4) is preparing for the second-place team from the Mountain West Conference. It’s an attractive matchup of ranked teams, but is either team excited to be here playing under the Tuesday night lights?

If you’re considering betting on any or all of the 34 bowls, the motivation question requires speculation.

“It’s one of the larger determining factors in starting to find the right side of a game,” Playbook.com handicapper Marc Lawrence said. “You don’t want to be on a team that is disinterested or disappointed in the bowl game, especially the disinterested favorite.”

Because it smelled the Rose Bowl but just missed out, “Oregon State probably would be the classic case,” Lawrence said. “I like the BYU side of the game for that reason.”

Lawrence added more reasons for backing the Cougars, who are 2-point underdogs at most sports books. For those who prefer the ‘dog, the best line available is plus-3 at MGM Mirage books.

In his comprehensive “Bowl Stat Report,” Lawrence crunches more numbers than a Goldman Sachs Group accountant. His calculations conclude BYU should be a 10-point winner.

The Cougars, led by 24-year-old quarterback Max Hall, are 2-2 in their past four Las Vegas bowl trips. Hall recently admitted BYU had little interest in playing last year’s game, a 31-21 loss to Arizona.

The Beavers are 5-0 straight up and 4-1 against the spread in their past five bowls under Riley. Oregon State was a 1-point favorite in its boring 3-0 victory over Pittsburgh in last year’s Sun Bowl.

There is no questioning the Beavers’ talent — quarterback Sean Canfield, running back Jacquizz Rodgers and flanker James Rodgers — but we don’t know if Riley can motivate his team for this bowl.

The postseason kicks off Saturday with the New Mexico Bowl, where Fresno State is an 11-point favorite over Wyoming. Lawrence sees the Cowboys as live underdogs, and they fit that profile with first-year coach Dave Christensen and freshman quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels among the few who will be excited to be in Albuquerque.

“I think Fresno State is a disappointed favorite, a team with bigger and better visions,” Lawrence said.

It’s interesting to note, Lawrence said, that the favorite was a straight-up loser in the Bulldogs’ past eight bowls.

Lawrence and Northcoast Sports handicapper Phil Steele each produce newsletters with thorough scouting reports and projections on the bowls. Steele also sides with Wyoming on Saturday, and he has a four-star play on BYU over Oregon State.

Steele put a two-star rating on Southern Mississippi as a 31/2-point favorite over Middle Tennessee in the New Orleans Bowl on Sunday.

This time of year reminds me of the great bowling movie ”Kingpin,” in which Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) duels with Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) in the finals of a $1 million tournament in Reno. McCracken rolled three consecutive strikes to beat Munson in the finals.

I’m entered in several bowl-game office pools, none worth anywhere close to $1 million.

Here are my top three plays: Miami (-3) over Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, Stanford (+8) over Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl and Oregon (-31/2) over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

It’s time to go bowling, so put on your clown shoes and your handicapping hat, and good luck rolling strikes.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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