Everchanging bowl game odds: Kenny Pickett and the high-stakes guessing game between bookmakers and bettors

Kenny Pickett's status for Pittsburgh's bowl game kept everyone guessing. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Since the opening lines for bowls hit the board at Caesars Sportsbooks on Dec. 5, the favorite has flipped in 10 games, and the spread in the Quick Lane Bowl has moved 11 points.

It's only the beginning of the annual high-stakes guessing game between bettors and bookmakers that has become a college football tradition during bowl season in the age of player opt-outs.

This time of year, bettors fire $10,000 and $20,000 limit bets at sportsbooks sometimes based on educated hunches that a star quarterback such as Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett may opt out of a bowl game. Other times, well-connected bettors have the inside scoop from, for example, talkative alumni who like to spread the news before it hits the media.

To stay ahead, bookmakers are tasked with determining not only which players are in or out but also which bettors have the goods and which ones are just guessing. It's not easy.

"It's turned into wait and see what piece of information is going to blow up on some random Tuesday, where you have to move the line three or six points," Matt Metcalf, sportsbook director for Circa Sports, said.

Last week, it happened on Wednesday.

It pays to guess

This season's guessing game kicked off late on a Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, before the bowl matchups were even announced, and picked up steam the following Wednesday on The Dan Patrick Show:

  • On Dec. 4, in the press conference after the ACC Championship Game, Pickett, a Heisman Trophy finalist and likely first round NFL draft pick, said he planned to play in the Panthers' upcoming bowl game.

  • Oddsmakers believed him and on Dec. 5 installed Pittsburgh as high as a 4-point favorite over Michigan State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a line that reflected Pickett playing. Some bettors weren't convinced and took early positions on the Spartans as underdogs.

  • The line began to move toward Michigan State early in the week, with Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple resigning Dec. 7.

  • Around 10:45 a.m. ET,, Dec. 8, Pickett told The Dan Patrick Show that he was "undecided" about playing in the bowl. Within an hour of his appearance, the spread dropped from Panthers -3 to pick 'em. Michigan State would become the favorite a day later.

Metcalf believes the early bets on Michigan State were from people he thought were just speculating about Pickett's status, but still chose to move the line aggressively.

"We're still in the discovery mode," Metcalf explained. "That said, we're 75% of the way to where the number would probably be if he wasn't playing. If he's in, it's probably Pitt -3 or -4. And if he's out, it's probably Michigan State -3, -3.5.

"A lot of times I think the wise guys will take kind of a free roll," Metcalf, a former high-level bettor, said, adding that he thought it was still "50/50" on whether Pickett plays in the Peach Bowl. "On that game, they can probably talk themselves into playing Michigan State plus four to begin with, so they might just say, 'You know what, let's bet it. If we know he's going to play, we can always dump it.' I think there's a lot of that going on, where people are taking a shot that [Pickett] doesn't play."

Professional sports bettor Joe Fortuna is one of those wise guys. Fortuna said he received a tip that Pickett may not play in the bowl and placed bets on Michigan State at +4 and +3.5 early in the week. He now sits in an advantageous position, with the Spartans consensus favorites in the game.

"I think it's worth guessing, worth a gamble," Fortuna told ESPN.

The primary mission when betting bowls

Paul Stone is a respected college football bettor based in Texas, who regularly travels to Las Vegas to bet opening lines.

He was in town Dec. 5, when the opening lines on bowl games hit the boards, but his preparation began around Thanksgiving with a review of the mock drafts. He was hunting for teams with NFL prospects who may opt out. He spotted one in Nevada quarterback Carson Strong, an NFL prospect who has had knee injuries in the past.

Nevada opened as high as a 7-point favorite over Western Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl, with the over/under total set at 66. Stone bet Western Michigan +7 and under 66. Within two days, Western Michigan was a 3.5-point favorite, and the total had dipped to 59.5.

"As of this morning," Stone said in a phone interview with ESPN on Friday, "those two tickets had a collective value of 16.5 points versus the current number. Even though I don't think he has yet declared that he will not play, I think it's fairly evident that Carson Strong isn't going to play in the bowl game. He says he's thinking about it, but when a player says he's thinking about it or pondering it, that usually means they're not going to play."

Strong declared for the NFL draft on Tuesday.

"That's the key," Stone said. "That's the primary mission when you're a bettor betting college football bowl games is to do your best work, and sometimes even guesswork to determine who might be on the field."

It doesn't work every time, of course. Sometimes bettors guess and end up holding a bet on a team that goes from favorite to underdog. Stone believed Pickett would play in Pittsburgh's bowl game and ended up on the wrong side of the change to the Peach Bowl odds.

"I played that game over 62.5 because Kenny Pickett had made it clear that he was going to play, and I felt confident that he was being forthright, and I think he was at the time," Stone said. "But then when Mark Whipple, his offensive coordinator resigned, now it appears that Pickett is re-considering his decision and says he's not yet decided whether he'll play in the bowl game, which I feel like, again, this is an indication that he won't play. Opt-outs are just a big part of it."

A race for information

When making lines on bowls, Metcalf reviews his power ratings and then asks himself the same question for each game: "Is the team excited to be there?"

Long before opt-outs became a thing, motivation was a key factor in handicapping bowl games for both bettors and bookmakers.

"It's important, but I can't get inside these kids' heads," Fortuna said about trying to quantify motivation. " Obviously, they're going to have fun. A lot of them come from poor neighborhoods, so going to the Bahamas has to be amazing for them at 18, 19."

Stone pointed to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl between Mississippi State and Texas Tech, noting Bulldogs coach Mike Leach's lingering animosity toward his former school, as an example of motivation. The reported player unrest with Hawaii coach Todd Graham ahead of the Rainbow Warriors' bowl game against Memphis is another example. Memphis has gone from a 3.5-point favorite to a 7.5-point favorite over Hawaii at Caesars Sportsbook.

From the bookmaker's perspective, Metcalf insists taking an aggressive approach to moving lines based on news is imperative to come out ahead during bowl season. When he read about the troubles at Hawaii, he immediately moved Memphis from a 4-point to a 7-point favorite.

"You just have to be aggressive and be right," Metcalf said. "And if you're right, and you get ahead of it, you can make money on these things. But if you're just going to sit there and take limits bets and move the line a half point every time you take a limit bet, then, yeah, you're going to be in bad shape."

In the end, betting and booking the bowls often comes down to a race for information.

The SuperBook at Westgate Las Vegas dedicates two members of its bookmaking team to monitoring Twitter for opt outs and bowl news. They scour social media, looking for reports from beat writers and any rumors swirling in the betting community that pick up steam. It's the same approach that the SuperBook takes with NBA players sitting out on load management.

"It's who finds out the information first," said Ed Salmons, vice president of risk for the SuperBook.

Asked how confident he is that he gets the information on the bowls before the bookmakers, Fortuna, the professional bettor, said, "Very."

Asked how well his sportsbook typically does on bowl season, Salmons said, "Very good."