College bowl season piques wagering interest among casual sports bettors, who normally don't try to handicap collegiate games, for reasons that go beyond simply betting.
One factor driving holiday season interest in college football is that the dozens of bowl games being played over the next two weeks generate office pools similar to March Madness, although participation is a far cry from the mania of college basketball's championship tournament.
In addition, when a school qualifies for a bowl game - even if the team had a so-so regular-season - interest spikes among alumni and the program's extended fan base for that single event.
Handicapping bowl games, though, is tough for anyone who doesn't follow the college game closely, and if there's one rule of thumb to be applied, it is to look hard at the underdogs.
Mike Seba, senior oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the company that supplies wagering odds to casinos, points out that frequently the big favorite in a bowl is suffering a letdown after not landing the game the players had their hearts set on.
"A couple of years ago , Alabama had a chance to make the national championship and lost to Florida [in the last regular-season game] and wound up playing Utah in the Sugar Bowl," Seba recalled.
The Tide went into the Sugar Bowl as 91/2-point favorites and emerged 31-17 losers to the Utes.
"A lot of times, the favorites are just not interested," Seba said.
Aside from the biggest bowl games, such as this year's national championship between Oregon and Auburn, the game that should get the most local interest is Penn State's Outback Bowl appearance against Florida on Jan. 1 in Tampa. Both teams finished 7-5.
The most recent point spread on the Outback has the Nittany Lions as 71/2-point underdogs. But arriving at that number has been an interesting process. Seba initially made the Lions only a 31/2-point underdog while his colleague at LVSC, odds director Tony Sinisi, made the Gators a 7-point favorite. The line went out as a consensus 5-point spread, but the wagering has moved it up to 71/2 points.
In a curious twist, the volume of bets measured by covers.com, a website that reports wagering information and statistics, shows a wagering inclination toward Penn State with the Nittany Lions receiving about 57 percent of the total bets, making them an extremely popular underdog this bowl season among those bettors who are playing the game early.
"My personal opinion is that there's not much difference between Penn State and Florida," Seba said. The Gators do get a home-field advantage with the game being played in Tampa, he pointed out.
"I know that Penn State has had its problems in a couple of games, but so has Florida. Look at their final game against Florida State," said Seba referring to the Gators' 31-7 defeat to the Seminoles.
Over the last three seasons, Penn State is 2-1 in bowl games, both as the outright winner and against the spread, including last season's 19-17 win over LSU, when the Lions were 2-point underdogs in the Capital One Bowl.
Caesars Palace sports analyst Todd Fuhrman said the extra half-point over the touchdown this year could loom large and said the fractional move above seven points could be a handicapping reaction to the "intangible" of Florida coach Urban Meyer's making his last appearance on the sidelines for the Gators.
"But what concerns me most about Penn State is the lack of speed at the skill positions and going up against an SEC team where the other team has a pedigree of speed," Fuhrman said. Last year against LSU, Penn State benefited from wet, sloppy field conditions, he said.
"Still, I think it's hard to lay 71/2 [points]," Fuhrman added, "when you consider Penn State's bowl record and [coach] Joe Paterno having that extra time to prepare."