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Big Ten Bowl Preview: the Insight Bowl

The first year I actually gambled a decent amount of money on football, I used a bookie. The best part about using a bookie is also the worst part: credit. If gambling were legal, the online websites you use require you to put cash into an account before you can make bets, but with a bookie, you usually just place bets until you get up or down so significantly that either you or the bookie needs to pay the other party.

That first year was glorious until Christmas. I went on hot streaks, hit three team parlays, always won the big bets, and was up a pretty big chunk of change going into the bowl games. And then the bowl season started, and I started losing, and I kept on losing, I committed the cardinal sin of increasing my bet size during a losing streak, and ended up owing a lot. A half decent NFL playoffs kept everything reasonable, but I vowed that year to never lose so much during the bowl season.  And I haven't, though I haven't ever made a killing either. Until this year.

During a solid seven years of betting on the bowl games, I've come up with a system: I first look at the coaches. If there's a decisive advantage on either side, I take that team (and the points). If not, I move onto quarterbacks. If there's a decisive advantage there, I take that team (and the points). If I'm still stuck, I flip a coin and hope for the best.

Others have their own rules. Chad Millman who writes and records podcasts for ESPN Insider about sports betting, gave four factors for betting on the bowl season:

1. How a team ended the regular season: "Were they on a run to make the bowl or did they lose a lot?"

2. How much excitement is a team going to have headed into the bowl: "You're looking for a team that is thrilled to be there and looking forward to the game."

A subset of No. 2 is bowl experience, but not for the reason you think: "I'm more likely to give a team a higher ranking if it hasn't been to a bowl for a while, because that will generate excitement amongst the program and fans."

3. How much time off a team has had before the bowl: "When you are not playing it's hard to simulate game speed. It's like walking on the highway at 30 mph."

4. The weather on schools' respective campuses: "The SEC, Pac-10, even the ACC tend to do better in the bowls than the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East. I think the warm weather has a lot to do with that. Thirty days of practice in warm weather before a bowl game helps you get a lot more done than practicing in a bubble or outside in a cold climate."

My friend Chas thinks that the bowl season is a complete crap shoot and tries to bet on "whichever team is less hungover" from the night before.  But Chas' argument is actually very similar to mine-and number two in Millman's scheme-it really all comes down to motivation. And to me, the best way to judge motivation is by judging the coach and his staff. Of course, coaching is always important in football, but it takes on extra importance during the bowl season because the coach essentially has to keep his guys focused for a whole month to play something that for the vast majority of teams is nothing more than an exhibition game. The fact that Joe Paterno has the most bowl wins of any coach by far only helps my case. 

In addition to coaching, I like to look at what kind of leadership there is in the locker room. If graduating seniors really want to go out with a win or if underclassmen are hungry to get prepared for a run next season, the team will take the bowl game and their preparation for it more seriously. Because it's difficult to really know the dynamics of the locker rooms for teams you don't follow closely, I use the quarterback as a proxy for leadership. 

Let me apply my system to tonight's game, the first bowl game of the season involving a Big Ten team:

The Insight Bowl 10:00 p.m. ESPN, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, AZ

Missouri Tigers (10-2) v. Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5); Missouri -3; o/u 46.5

In general, it's hard to find a coach not named Joe Paterno that I admire much more than Kirk Ferentz, who does a great job of teaching up talent and graduated from my high school way back when. But Missouri's coach Gary Pinkel roomed with Jack Lambert when both played at Kent State, which is a huge plus in my book. The Tigers have steadily improved during his ten-year tenure at Missouri, so I'm inclined to call the coaching match-up a wash and move on to the quarterbacks.

Here, we've got the ever-entertaining Ricky Stanzi against Blaine Gabbert, a 21 year-old true Junior. Gabbert is projected as the third best pro prospect of the 2012 class of college graduates, below Cam Newton and Ryan Mallet, and ahead of Nick Foles, Terrelle Pryor and Kirk Cousins. But don't discount Stanzi, the experts have him as the 5th best QB of the 2011 class, and he's the clear leader of a team that's gone through a lot in the past month.

So after all that, I'm inclined to toss a coin, but screw that, I'm going with my gut and taking the Hawkeyes to win this one outright.

Prediction: Iowa 24-Missouri 21