There's just three weeks remaining in the college football regular season. With the nature of college football, each team has a different goal. The top schools want to make the playoff and win a championship. Other schools want to compete for their conference and play for the conference championship. For some schools, the goal is as simple as winning six games and becoming bowl-eligible.
Bowl season is one of the best times of the year for a sports bettor, but before we enjoy the fruits of bowl season, we must figure out which teams are bowl-eligible. There are 41 bowls, meaning 82 schools will be selected to participate. Through 10 weeks, there are 49 bowl-eligible teams with 33 spots yet to be filled.
The art of handicapping motivation
The sports analytics community has made it a point to question the value of intangibles such as motivation. It claims it's not a real factor and it makes a minimal impact. I don't agree with that, I just think it's an extremely hard factor to quantify. However, motivation definitely exists and it's definitely a factor, especially in college athletics.
We try our best to quantify motivation heading into bowl season, but we must also now consider whether these teams even want to extend their seasons and become bowl-eligible. For schools like USC and LSU, it's certainly a legitimate question. They've vastly underperformed, they'll have new coaches next season and the players didn't sign up to play in the Idaho Potato Bowl or any other random bowl.
On the other hand, there are schools that are extremely motivated to become bowl-eligible. These are usually schools with first-year coaches where a winning program is being built. It could also be a veteran-laden team with players who just want to prolong their playing careers.
Eight games this week with bowl implications
Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech enters this week with a 4-5 record, meaning it would need to win two of its final three games in order to become bowl-eligible. The Hokies are 11.5-point favorites against Duke this week. Their final two games of the season are on the road against Miami and Virginia. Needless to say, a win against Duke feels necessary if they want to keep the dream alive.
Does Virginia Tech care about being bowl-eligible? Prior to last year's weird season, the Hokies made a bowl game for 27 consecutive seasons. On the other side, there are questions about the future of coach Justin Fuente.
Texas Tech: Texas Tech is playing under an interim coach, but it has a new coach in waiting whom players might be looking to impress. The Red Raiders are 5-4 and need to win just one of their final three games. Unfortunately for them, it looks like it'll be a tough task. The Red Raiders are 10.5-point underdogs against Iowa State this weekend. The remaining schedule isn't any easier as they get Oklahoma State and Baylor. One might say this weekend's matchup is their most winnable game, so are they a potentially good play as an underdog?
USC: I don't particularly think USC cares about becoming bowl-eligible, but if you're of the mindset that the Trojans do care, then their game this weekend against California is an absolute must-win. The Trojans are 1.5-point favorites as they look to even their record at 5-5. USC would then need to beat either UCLA or BYU in its final two games. USC is looking for a new coach and has played uninspired football all season long.
Syracuse: Syracuse is a team that I do think cares about becoming bowl-eligible. Expectations were low entering the season, and it has played hard all season long. Sitting at 5-4, the Orange need to win one of their last three games to become bowl-eligible. Their best chance at a victory might be this weekend, as they are 3-point underdogs against Louisville. After this week, Syracuse gets NC State and Pittsburgh.
West Virginia: The West Virginia Mountaineers are 4-5, but they have a game against Kansas on their schedule, so for the purposes of this exercise, let's make them 5-5. West Virginia would either need to beat Kansas State on the road this weekend or Texas at home next weekend in order to become bowl-eligible. West Virginia is a 6-point underdog this weekend against Kansas State. Neal Brown is in that weird situation where he's not on the hot seat just yet, but you can feel it coming as the team is nowhere near where it was under Dana Holgorsen.
San Jose State: San Jose State has made just one bowl in Brent Brennan's tenure, but it has a good chance of making it two this season. Sitting at 5-5, the Spartans need to win one of their final two games. San Jose State is a 4.5-point favorite against Utah State this weekend. It'll want to take care of business this week because its final game is against Fresno State.
South Carolina: It has not been a pretty season for South Carolina, but it's still 5-4 and one win away from bowl eligibility. The Gamecocks are 1-point underdogs against Missouri this week, and this is probably their best chance at a win. South Carolina closes the season with games against Auburn and Clemson. This is Shane Beamer's first year as head coach in Columbia, so the team should be motivated to get it done.
LSU: Ah, LSU. This is a tough one. Common sense tells you this team quit and doesn't care anymore. Coach Orgeron is on his way out and the program will be turned on its head during the offseason. Then, the Tigers hang with Alabama and have a chance of pulling off an upset as 30-point underdogs. There's no denying his players love him, so maybe they do play for the chance to give Orgeron a final bowl game. LSU is a 2.5-point underdog this weekend against Arkansas. LSU needs to win two of its final three games against Arkansas, UL Monroe and Texas A&M.