Boise State backers will hit jackpot in Vegas bowl

Remember when a college bowl game was a reward for a successful season? And remember when a successful season was defined as a record that featured at least twice as many wins as losses? Well, those days—much like daily newspapers, the sport of boxing and my 34-inch waist—are long gone.

Of the 120 schools that play major college football, 70 qualified for postseason competition this year. Breaking it down further, nearly half (31) of those 70 teams sport records of 7-5 or worse, with 13 teams at 6-6. Think about that: More than 18 percent of this year’s bowl participants didn’t even have a winning record!

This isn’t American Idol or a presidential election, where we’re used to seeing mediocrity rewarded. This is college football, where only the strong are supposed to survive. Instead, we get Miami of Ohio versus Middle Tennessee in the Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

But, hey, I’m a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, so here’s the upshot to all these bowl games: 35 more opportunities to make some cash! This week, I’ll give you my best bets of the early bowls (through Dec. 23), then cover the remaining games in next week’s year-end double issue. I went 3-4 last week, but cleared $210 by winning two of my top three plays, pushing my bankroll to $5,717. Now, let’s see if I can close out 2010 Snoop Dogg-style (on a high note).

$330 (to win $300) on BOISE STATE (-17) vs. Utah (Dec. 22): The Maaco Bowl Las Vegas ended up with one of the best matchups of the postseason, one of just three non-Bowl Championship Series games featuring top-20 teams. And yet none of the other 34 contests has a point spread bigger than this one. How can Utah, which is 10-2 and owns the nation’s longest bowl winning streak at eight straight, be this big of an underdog? Answer: 47-7. That’s the score by which the then-undefeated Utes lost to TCU on Nov. 6 … in Salt Lake City! Well, Boise State is every bit TCU’s equal, and as long as the Broncos—who obviously had national championship aspirations a month ago—get over the disappointment of playing in Las Vegas prior to Christmas Day, Utah (with starting quarterback Jordan Wynn out with an injury) doesn’t stand a chance.

$110 (to win $100) on BYU (-11½) vs. UTEP (Dec. 18): The New Mexico Bowl kicks off the postseason, and fittingly so as it’s widely considered the weakest of the lot (it’s the only one matching a pair of 6-6 teams). Given their identical records and the fact that El Paso, Texas, is closer to Albuquerque than Provo, Utah, it might seem odd that BYU would be one of six double-digit bowl favorites … until you realize how these teams finished the regular season. The Cougars went 5-2 straight up and 6-1 against the spread—their only losses were at nationally ranked TCU (31-3) and Utah (17-16)—while UTEP followed up a 5-1 start with a 1-5 finish (2-4 ATS). The big difference here? BYU plays defense (12.2 points per game allowed in its last five), while the Miners treat tackling like the French do soap (29 ppg allowed during their 1-5 slump, including 89 points in the last two games).

$110 (to win $100) on FRESNO STATE (+1) vs. Northern Illinois (Dec. 18): Northern Illinois burned me good in the Mid-American Conference championship game, losing as an 18-point favorite and landing in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho. The stunning loss to Miami of Ohio snapped the Huskies’ nine-game winning streak and 9-0-1 ATS run, and days later they lost again when their coach bolted for the Minnesota job. So while Northern Illinois plays this game with a patchwork coaching staff, the steady hand of 14-year head coach Pat Hill will guide Fresno State. The Bulldogs closed with consecutive wins (including one over Illinois, which handed Northern Illinois one of its three losses), and they’re familiar with the blue turf in Boise.

BEST OF THE REST: Jaguars-Colts OVER 48½ ($55); Raiders (-6½) vs. Broncos ($44); Utah-Boise State UNDER 61 ($44); Panthers -2½ vs. Cardinals ($33); Louisville (+3) vs. Southern Miss ($33); Navy (+5) vs. San Diego State ($33).

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