There are quite a few factors that go into correctly picking the College Bowl games. Some unusual percentages come to light in December and into the New Year. By the way, when I refer to a "Bowl game", this will include the recent College playoff and National Championship games as well.
Bowl games give a team an opportunity to share the national spotlight for a few hours during the holiday season. Teams like to make the best of their time in the spotlight - to put their best foot forward. In the case of a team that lost the previous year in a Bowl game the opportunity to erase the bitter taste of a Bowl defeat that has lasted a year can be a motivator. Especially when the team seeking to reverse a defeat is made the Underdog. Historically, such teams have covered the spread at a 60% rate.
When playing an underdog you should consider the money line under certain conditions. Double digit underdogs (those getting 10 points or more) win straight up only 25% of the time. Thus, if you can get at least 3 to 1 on your double digit dog you are set good. The average line for bowl underdogs is around +6, so the number of double digit dogs is not great (about one bowl game in six features a double digit line). Surprisingly, underdogs from + 7 to + 9 1/2 win at about the same one in four rate and you occasionally will get 3-1 or better in that price range. About one Bowl in seven falls within this pointspread range. An acceptable money line range appears to be from + 3 1/2 to + 6 1/2, or greater than a field goal but less than a touchdown. Underdogs in this range win about one game in three so getting at least 2-1 on these underdogs can provide value. About one bowl game in three falls within this pointspread range. Finally, the small underdog, up to + 3. These only win about two games in five, so you would need at least 3-2 (+ 150) odds to consider these small Underdogs for a money line play.
The ability to control the line of scrimmage has always had a strong correlation to success both straight up and against the spread. Controlling the line of scrimmage is best evidenced by the ability to run the ball on offense and to stop the run on defense. Historically, teams that outrush their opponents cover the pointspread in excess of 60%. There are many reasons why such a strong correlation exists, including the obvious one that a team that has the lead is more likely to run the ball in the end stages of a game.
There has been a tendency in recent years for Bowls to be high scoring. A part of the reason why this is so is because one or both teams lack a strong running game to be able to control the clock and protect leads late in games. Often that's the difference between a 9-2 and a 7-4 record.
Teams gaining more rushing yards in a Bowl game have covered at better than a 79% clip. Compare that to the 51% ATS success rate enjoyed by the team gaining more passing yards. The team that has the better average yards per rush in a Bowl game (not necessarily the same team that gains the most rushing yards) has covered at slightly under a 75% rate. That's how strong the rushing game is!
Not every team that goes to a Bowl is excited about the opportunity. Whereas in days gone by a trip to a Bowl game was a reward for a very successful season, times have changed. Years ago there was many less Bowl games and no four team playoff to aspire to. In order to be invited to a Bowl game a team pretty much needed to win a minimum of 7 or 8 games. Nowadays it takes only a 6-5 record for a team to become "Bowl eligible." Mediocrity is hardly worth rewarding, but with 23 Bowl games there are now 46 slots to fill. 40% of all Division I-A teams will be going to Bowl. Yet there are always teams that do go Bowling that may not look upon the experience as a reward and often give a very lackluster effort. Such teams, especially when favored, present outstanding opportunities to play against.
Teams that go to Bowl games have generally had pretty good seasons. It can be argued that a 6-5 season is hardly 'pretty good' but such teams nevertheless are needed to fill Bowl berths. But what about teams that have ended their 'good' regular seasons on a sour note? Or two? Or more? Consider teams that have lost two or more consecutive games at the end of the regular season.
It can be argued that a team that has lost two or more games can look at its Bowl game in one of two ways - either it's a chance to end the season on a positive note and make amends for a disappointing finish to what had been a very good season. Or, such a team might not be interested in continuing what had been a promising season but which had turned sour down the stretch. Often such a team that is made the Underdog in this situation is a team that had overachieved during the regular season and looks upon this Bowl game as a reward and chance to show they really are an improved team. A Favorite in this spot is more apt to be a team that had higher aspirations but whose late season collapse relegated that team to a much lesser Bowl than had looked likely before the losing streak set in.
Favorites entering their Bowl game off of two or more consecutive losses are 5-14 Against the Spread over the past 20+ years. That's just 26% ATS. Underdogs have fared better, although they've not excelled. Underdogs off of two or more straight losses have gone 20-15 ATS (57%) over the past 20+ years.
Experience is a positive factor when handicapping the Bowls for many of the reasons previously discussed. Especially having an edge in experience over your opponent. Historically, Underdogs with more recent Bowl experience than their favored opponents have cashed at better than 60%. Experience is often related to the current strength of a program. Additionally, experienced teams are better able to handle to off-the-field activities that surround Bowl games and are more likely to be able to 'get down to business' once the practice sessions begin and the game gets underway.