Bowl game opening lines: What to bet now, and what to wait on

Wesley Hitt / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In a landscape shaped by an increasing number of transfers, coaching changes, and opt-outs, betting bowl openers can sometimes be risky. But if you pick your spots carefully, it can be greatly beneficial.

Lines are already on the move after openers were released Sunday night, so here's a close look at which lines to bet early and which you should wait on.

Sides to bet now

New Mexico Bowl: UTEP +13.5 (vs. Fresno State)

Fresno is unquestionably the better team but has much bigger things to worry about than a pre-Christmas trip to Albuquerque, with head coach Kalen DeBoer and standout quarterback Jake Haener off to Washington. The Bulldogs, a pass-first team that had very little success running the ball this season, will hand the reigns to a freshman QB to take on UTEP's secondary, which ranked in the top 30 in yards allowed per game.

The Miners are searching for a first bowl victory since 1967 in what is one of the biggest games in program history following a wildly successful season. They remain vastly underrated by the market and will be much more motivated to be there. This opened over two touchdowns and continues to tick down. Anything over double digits is good, and don't rule out an outright Miners win here.

Armed Forces Bowl: Army -3.5 (vs. Missouri)

Missouri is the only SEC team not to be participating in an SEC-affiliated bowl and draws a terrible matchup here against Army. The Tigers were dreadful against the run this season, ranking 115th in the country, and while they improved down the stretch after a coaching change, this is a huge step up in class against the nation's second-best rushing attack. They're going to bleed points, and while Tyler Baddie - if he plays - will help them stay competitive, the massive question mark at quarterback and their nonexistent run defense will allow Army to control this game and cover the number.

This opened at a field goal and will continue to climb over the next two weeks. This is a great matchup for Army and service academies never lack support during bowl season, so get in quick.

Camellia Bowl: Georgia State -3.5 (vs. Ball State)

After a rough start to the season, Georgia State played terrific football down the stretch. The Panthers come into this one having won six of seven to close out the year - including an impressive upset of Coastal Carolina, with the lone loss a close one to conference champion Louisiana - and have all sorts of momentum as they get set to face a very underwhelming Ball State team.

The Cardinals ranked 101st in EPA/play on offense and 89th defensively and only became bowl eligible because they faced a completely disinterested Buffalo team in the season finale. The Panthers should be favored by over a touchdown. Take the discount before the market adjusts.

Birmingham Bowl: Auburn -3 (vs. Houston)

Houston had a terrific season after going a combined 7-13 the last two years. The Cougars rattled off 11 straight wins at one point this season, but those were bookended by losses in their two toughest tests - 38-21 versus Texas Tech in the opener and 35-20 against Cincinnati in the AAC Championship. As good as the offensive and defensive numbers look, there really wasn't an impressive win on their schedule, and now they take another big step up in class. It's very much a prove-it game for Dana Holgorsen, who has a terrible track record in bowl season, covering just once in eight contests.

Auburn's resume is much more impressive despite what the records suggest. The talent gap between these teams will show here in what is essentially a home game for the Tigers, as Bryan Harsin will cap off his first season with a bowl win as they build momentum for 2022. This already moved up from -2.5, and you'd be wise to grab -3 now as anything over is a risk in what will likely be a defensive matchup.

Duke's Mayo Bowl: North Carolina -6.5 (vs. South Carolina)

It was a terrific first season in Columbia for Shane Beamer, and his South Carolina will certainly be motivated for this one. But will it be enough to overcome the talent disparity between these two teams? The gap is big, and as long as Sam Howell plays, which seems to be the case, North Carolina will be too much for its rivals, especially with the heart of the Gamecocks' defense - edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare - likely to opt out.

This line has already ticked up after opening -5 and will surely climb over a touchdown. Get in before it does.

Outback Bowl: Arkansas +3.5 (vs. Penn State)

Arkansas should absolutely be favored in this spot, and I suspect that will be the case by the time Jan. 1 rolls around. I grabbed the +4 opener and would happily still play it at the current price. Not only will the Razorbacks be more motivated and closer to full strength - wide receiver Treylon Burks already said he'll play - they're also the better team.

Penn State was led all season by its defense, but co-ordinator Brent Pry is off to Virginia Tech and key opt-outs are likely to follow for this senior-laden group. It's also hard to see the Nittany Lions doing much offensively, especially with NFL-bound receiver Jahan Dotson almost certain to sit this one out. The Razorbacks are the more balanced team and will be fired up for the program's biggest game since 2011 and first bowl appearance since 2016.

Others to bet:

  • Toledo -9 (play to -9.5)
  • Western Kentucky +2.5 (opened +3, play to +1)
  • UAB +7.5 (opened +8, play to +7)
  • Marshall +6
  • UTSA -2.5
  • West Virginia +4.5 (opened +7, play to +4)
  • Virginia +1.5
  • Virginia Tech -2.5
  • Oregon +3.5 (opened +4, play to +3)
  • Tennessee -2.5 (opened +3, play -2.5 or better)

Sides to wait on

These are all sides I like now but am willing to be patient on in hopes of a better number. In some cases, like Georgia and Oklahoma State, I would expect money to come in on the always popular Michigan and Notre Dame. These are ones worth monitoring that you won't be punished for if they move to a slightly worse number (-3.5 to -4, -4.5 to -5.5, -7.5 to -9.5, +2.5 to +1).

  • Pittsburgh -3.5 (look for -3)
  • Texas A&M -4.5 (look for -4)
  • Georgia -7.5 (look for -7)
  • Oklahoma State +2.5 (look for +3)
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Bowl game opening lines: What to bet now, and what to wait on
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