Thor Nystrom

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Saturday ATS Bowl Predictions

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Saturday, December 16


R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

1 p.m., ESPN

Mercedes-Benz Superdome

New Orleans


Troy -6.5 vs. North Texas


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “I am assuming since this game kicks off the Bowl Season, that’s why it is one of our most lopsided and heaviest bet games at this point, with public bettors slamming Troy -7, which opened at -5. But we have recently seen some smart money on North Texas and it is now down to -6.5 as a result.”



If North Texas (9-4) was completely healthy, we could make a compelling argument to take the high-scoring underdog over the defensive-minded favorite. But the Mean Green aren’t, and as such probably don’t have the horses to stick with the Trojans on Saturday.


Losing star RB Jeffrey Wilson for the season was a devastating blow for North Texas. He consistently moved the chains on the ground (1,215 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on 6.5 YPC), and his presence forced opposing defenses to focus more on him than the myriad receivers on the field at any given time in UNT’s spread scheme. Wilson was also a reliable outlet out of the backfield, catching 24 balls this fall.


The Mean Green must protect their shoddy defense (No. 96 S&P+, No. 116 with 36.7 PPG allowed), and they were mostly able to do so by relying on a heavy dose of Wilson along with quick-hitting pass completions.


North Texas was without Wilson in the Conference USA Championship Game against FAU two weeks ago, and the offense crumbled in his absence, falling behind 34-0 early in the third quarter en route to a 41-17 loss. North Texas’ No. 1 receiver, Jalen Guyton, was also limited in that one with a concussion. Guyton missed the Rice game and finished with only four catches total over the last four games. He should be healthier for Troy, but his status bears monitoring.


When Wilson is out of the lineup, defenses can divert more resources to stopping North Texas’ Air Raid passing attack. Against good teams, as we saw against FAU, that stretches QB Mason Fine beyond his capabilities (356 yards but a 1/2 TD/INT rate). Not only that, but North Texas as a team ran for a mere 73 yards against FAU.


The diminutive Fine (5'11/181) threw for three touchdowns or more six times this year, but he only did it once on the road. He was intercepted at least once in 10 of 13 games. He's an adequate trigger-man when the pieces around him are strong, but Fine won't elevate an uninspiring supporting cast.


With Wilson, North Texas is a borderline top-20 S&P+ offense. Without him, they have just a mediocre offense to go with the bad defense. That’s bad news with Troy on deck.


Troy’s No. 18 S&P+ defense, one of the best units in the Group of 5, would have provided a nice test for Wilson. Instead of keying on him, the Trojans can now prepare for more passing attempts and trick-play chicanery. Troy was the only FBS team this season that didn't allow more than 24 points in any game. They're particularly stingy in the red zone, where the defense ranks No. 1 (41% of opponent's drives into the red zone against Troy ended without a score).


Last year, RB Jordan Chunn was Troy’s Wilson. This year, he’s been nagged by a leg injury that stole two games and limited his effectiveness in others. Chunn’s uncertain weekly status didn’t help Troy’s offense, which didn’t progress as much as we thought it would in 2017. With two weeks off since Troy’s last game, we’d assume we’ll see Chunn as healthy as he’s been since September. But don’t quote us on that.


After a disappointing regular season for Troy QB Brandon Silvers (2,985 yards, 13/6 TD/INT rate, 6.8 YPC, 62.9% completions), he draws a nice matchup Saturday to go out in a blaze of glory. North Texas’ No. 112 S&P+ pass defense regularly gets beat deep. If Silvers has a good game left in him, he could have a monster day.


AutoNation Cure Bowl

2:30 p.m., CBSSN

Camping World Stadium

Orlando, Florida


Western Kentucky -6 Georgia State


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Line opened -5 for Western Kentucky but some early big bets on them moved line to -6.5. We are now seeing pretty even action on the game.”



Understand: This pick is not an endorsement of Western Kentucky (6-6), quietly one of the nation’s most disappointing teams. No, it’s a pick against Georgia State (6-5), one of the FBS’ 20-worst teams.


Along with Akron, the Panthers will function as hack writers’ go-to example when constructing circular arguments about how there’s too many bowl games every year.


Georgia State began the year by losing 17-10 to Tennessee State, an FCS team that only finished with an overall winning record (6-5) because of that game. Of Georgia State’s six wins, none came against bowl teams. GSU achieved bowl eligibility by going 6-1 against teams ranked S&P+ No. 97 or lower (there are 130 FBS teams).


And Georgia State didn’t exactly impress during those six wins, either—five were decided by 10 points or less. GSU beat No. 112 Coastal Carolina by six, No. 105 UL-Monroe by 10, No. 97 South Alabama by eight, No. 120 Georgia Southern by four and No. 117 Texas State by three. S&P+’s Win Expectancy metric suggests they were a bit lucky to beat both Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern.


If this game was played on paper, Western Kentucky, clearly more talented, would win by blowout. But if the season had been played on paper, the Hilltoppers would have a far better record than 6-6.


Last year’s team went 11-3, winning the Conference USA title and then blowing Memphis out in the bowl game to finish S&P+ No. 16. Purdue subsequently poached HC Jeff Brohm and star WR Taywan Taylor and stud OL Forrest Lamp graduated to the NFL, but expectations remained high for a team that returned QB Mike White (4,363 yards, 37/7 TD/INT rate in 2016), a handful of intriguing skill players and several strong defenders.


Western Kentucky also had a cupcake-filled 2017 schedule that featured only two Power 5 teams (Illinois and Vanderbilt, two of the P5’s worst). Signs of deep issues were apparent immediately, with WKU looking non-competitive in a Week 2 loss to the Illini (20-7).


Under new HC Mike Sanford, formerly Notre Dame’s OC, Western’s offense imploded. After ranking No. 1 in the FBS with 45.5 points per game in 2016 (No. 13 S&P+ offense), WKU heads into bowl season No. 82 with 26.2 PPG (No. 76 S&P+ offense). White fell off but still had a solid year, all things considered (3,826 passing yards, 24/7 TD/INT rate).


The running game was the issue, and it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around how it vanished so quickly and completely. Last year, Anthony Wales (a senior at the time who went undrafted and appears to be out of football) ran for 1,621 yards and WKU finished with 2,609 rushing yards as a team. This year, D'Andre Ferby leads the team with 362 rushing yards and the team has only 793 yards on 2.1 YPC.


It wasn’t talked about as much, but WKU’s defense also badly regressed, falling from No. 43 S&P+ in 2016 to No. 73 this year.


Despite all that—and with our deep reservations about WKU noted—we like the favorite to cover here. The defenses are close to a wash in terms of overall quality, but Georgia State’s defensive makeup is a bad fit against WKU. GSU’s biggest area of strength is its run defense (No. 40 S&P+), a strength that will be negated here due to WKU’s run-game apathy.


White should light up GSU’s No. 115 S&P+ pass defense. When he does, GSU’s only recourse will be attempting to engage in a firefight. We ragged on WKU’s run offense earlier, but GSU’s is actually worse. Per S&P+, GSU has the worst run offense in the entire FBS at No. 130.


The Panthers offense essentially boils down to mediocre veteran QB Connor Manning funneling touches to star WR Penny Hart (73-1094-8 line this year). The issue there is two-fold: It’s an obvious strategy that WKU will be prepared for (even though WKU's own poor pass defense will still give up big yardage totals), and Hart may not be 100-percent healthy. He left the regular season finale against Idaho early with a foot injury a few weeks ago. He's expected to play Saturday, but we have not yet heard an update on his status.


Without Hart, GSU isn’t just one of the FBS’ 20-worst teams. It’s one of the 10-worst, or maybe even one of the five-worst. If he’s out or less than totally healthy, we’d like WKU all the more. Either way, we see the Hilltoppers closing out a down year by blasting GSU by double-digits. That would reclaim some lost momentum heading into next week's early-signing period and give Sanford a winning record in Year 1, despite his early travails.


Las Vegas Bowl

3:30 p.m., ABC

Sam Boyd Stadium

Las Vegas


Oregon -7.5 vs. Boise State



Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Not much movement on this game holding at just over a TD with about 60% of money on the Ducks. Looks like the book will need Boise here.”



Motivation and coaching changes are the two most difficult things to handicap during bowl season. If you do it well, you’ll make money. If don’t, you’re guaranteed to lose.


Oregon (7-5) provides a very interesting test case this season. HC Willie Taggart left for Florida State earlier this month after spending only a year in Eugene. In most of these cases, the school will name an interim HC for the bowl game as it begins a national search for a replacement. In Oregon’s case, assistant coach Mario Cristobal was promoted to permanent head coach.


Cristobal ascension guarantees staff continuity, and it also puts a guy in the head coach post who’d badly like to beat the Broncos in his Oregon HC debut. But while Cristobal’s appointment dispels some concerns about Oregon’s motivation for this game, the Ducks still dealt with the loss of a respected coach, a small staff reshuffling and a few weeks of Taggart-inspired drama.


We simply don’t have many similar cases to look back on when trying to gauge how Oregon will respond. When Taggart left for FSU, many compared it to when Lane Kiffin left Tennessee for USC after one season. And while the Vols got decked 37-14 by Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl that year, you can’t blame Kiffin’s departure for the lackadaisical effort. He took the USC job 12 days later, on Jan. 12, about 48 hours after Pete Carroll stepped down to take the Seattle Seahawks job. A better example is probably last year’s Houston team, which promoted Major Applewhite after Tom Herman left for Texas. The Cougars went out and got clobbered 34-10 by San Diego State in this very same Las Vegas Bowl.


Not only does Oregon’s coaching change cloud our read, but almost half of Oregon’s 2017 resume is unusable for handicapping purposes. That’s because Oregon went 1-4 when QB Justin Herbert missed five games due to a fractured collarbone. In those games, the Ducks were forced to use uber-raw true freshman QB Braxton Burmeister, who took 14 sacks and posted a 2/6 TD/INT rate on an ugly 2.6 YPA.


With Herbert, the Ducks are 6-1—and a completely different team. Since his return, the Ducks easily beat a good Arizona team by 20 points and then brought fire down upon Oregon State in a 69-10 win in the regular season finale.


Herbert not only gives Oregon a passing element that they didn’t have in his absence, but his mere presence unlocks the effectiveness of the running game. Star RB Royce Freeman is having a tremendous season (1,475 rushing yards, 14-164-0 as a receiver), but we can’t help but wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up if Herbert never went down.


Freeman was only held under 120 yards three times; the Arizona State upset loss, the win over Cal when both he and Herbert got injured and the loss to Wazzu a week later, Herbert’s first full game on the sidelines. This is an incredible stat: Freeman scored 16 touchdowns in the six games Herbert started and finished, and zero in the other six.


But will Freeman even play on Saturday? As of Wednesday afternoon, when this column was published, that was unknown. Freeman seems to be pondering sitting out the game to begin his NFL Draft preparations, and Cristobal has been mum when asked about his status. “No update yet,” Cristobal said on Tuesday night. If Freeman sits, his absence would obviously be devastating -- if Herbert isn't the team's most valuable player, Freeman is.


While it’s extremely difficult to get a finger on Oregon’s pulse at the moment, Boise State (10-3) is a straightforward read—outside of sophomore RB Alexander Mattison’s status (leg). Mattison reportedly has a decent chance to play. In the conference title game, Mattison needed help to leave the field. He had a boot on his left foot and lower leg a day later. HC Bryan Harsin said that week that he'll be a game-time decision.


Losing the 1,000-yard rusher would hurt but not doom Boise State’s balanced offense. If Mattison can’t go, scatback Ryan Wolpin will start in his place. If that’s the case, expect Boise State’s staff to allow QB Brett Rypien to air it out more than usual (which would lead to an even bigger game for star WR Cedrick Wilson).


Of the early bowl games, this is one of the trickiest to bet. With so much uncertainty heading in, we prefer the points. Boise’s defensive strength is stopping the run. If they can keep Freeman under 125 yards, they’ll have a shot to spring the outright upset. And if they don't even have to face Freeman? All the better.


Gildan New Mexico Bowl

4:30 p.m., ESPN

Branch Field at Dreamstyle Stadium

Albuquerque, New Mexico


Colorado State -5.5 vs. Marshall


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Line has not budged at -5.5 for Colorado State. Maybe our least bet Bowl game so far, anyone who is betting on this game must be going to it, will be small decision for the book.”



Styles make fights. Which means this’ll be a good one.


Colorado State (7-5) is a defense-optional outfit that wants to engage in firefights. The Rams rank No. 34 with 33.8 ppg scored, and S&P+ likes the offense even more, ranking it No. 14. The defense is another story, ranking a lowly S&P+ No. 97. That unit coughed up 59 to Boise State, 42 to Nevada and 45 to Air Force.


Marshall (7-5) is the opposite, a defense-driven team with a poor offense (No. 105 S&P+). Unlike many teams with this profile, the Herd aren’t able to grind clock with the running game. The ground attack’s extreme struggles (No. 128 S&P+, largely because of a dead-last ranking in Opportunity Rate) dragged the entire offense down.


Both teams struggled down the stretch, with Marshall going 1-4 in their last five and CSU going 2-3. All four of those Marshall losses came to bowl teams, while the only “bad” Rams defeat of the three was a home loss to 5-7 Air Force in late-October.


Marshall would be playing in a better bowl game had it closed out games better in November. It lost its last three games—to FAU (the infamous punter-taking-a-safety-to-give-Marshall-the-cover game), UTSA and Southern Miss—by a combined eight points.


While Marshall’s backs don’t have much wiggle, the Herd do have a quarterback who will get a look from the NFL in 6-foot-6 pocket passer Chase Litton. They also have two NFL-caliber pass-catchers in WR Tyre Brady and TE Ryan Yurachek. Brady missed the last two games of the season with an undisclosed injury, but he's returned to practice and is now considered probable to play.


Litton is exposed when he’s asked to do too much (see: the four-interception FAU game), but he’s a reliable distributor who doesn’t take sacks (only eight all year) when the offense is functioning in the manner it was constructed.


Colorado State’s offense is so difficult to defend because of its balance. It combines a 1,349-yard rusher (Dalyn Dawkins) with one of the nation’s best aerial duos in QB Nick Stevens (3,479 yards, 27/10 TD/INT rate) and the breathtaking WR Michael Gallup (94-1345-7).


We’ve seen CSU’s offense shut down a few times this season. The formula to do it is simple, but really difficult to pull off: Shut down either the run or the pass and make CSU one-dimensional. In Week 2, Colorado held CSU to three points in a demoralizing 17-3 loss. In that one, CSU couldn’t run the ball, and Stevens’ 300-plus passing yards came on 51-percent completions and a 5.94 YPA with two interceptions. Against Wyoming in early-November (a 16-13 loss), Dawkins gained 154 empty-calories yards as Stevens and the passing game vanished.


This is exactly why Marshall has a decent chance to spring the outright upset: It’s built for the express purpose of taking away what you want to do on offense and forcing you to play left-handed.


Specifically, the Herd are coming for Dawkins. Marshall’s defense is vicious against the run (No. 19 S&P+) and specializes in putting you in second-and-long situations (No. 6 Rushing Success Rate). The pass defense isn’t as strong (No. 69 S&P+), and it’ll give up decent yardage numbers to Stevens.


But Marshall knows what CSU will do if/when the run game is taken away: They’ll funnel as many touches to Gallup as they can. Gallup finished with nearly three-times as many receiving yards as CSU’s second-leading receiver. He was targeted 149 times. No other CSU receiver had even 60 targets.


Flipping the field, CSU’s No. 111 S&P+ pass defense should be generous to Litton, Brady, Yurachek and crew. Marshall should be able to do enough damage through the air to give them the cushion the defense will need to shut the lights out. Marshall must navigate a longer trip and altitude (CSU regularly plays at altitude), but the thinking here is that they have the defense to do so.


Raycom Media Camellia Bowl

8 p.m., ESPN

Cramton Bowl

Montgomery, Alabama


Arkansas State -3.5 vs. Middle Tennessee


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:


View from Vegas:

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Line at -3.5 has held pretty steady and money is almost exactly even on both sides. However the total is of more interest to us at 62. We're taking about 75% on the over.”



Of Saturday’s bowl games, this is the line that feels most off to us: It’s treating Middle Tennessee (6-6) as though they’re the team they’ve been for the past two years.


The Blue Raiders aren’t that team anymore, mostly because star WR Richie James is out for the season with an injury. QB Brent Stockstill also missed six games in the middle of the season. Stockstill is back now, but he’s clearly not the same quarterback when James isn’t on the field—and he also may still be suffering some ill-effects from the cracked sternum and separated collarbone he suffered against Syracuse in September.


Stockstill 2015 (redshirt freshman): 13 games, 3,933 passing yards, 30/9 TD/INT rate, 66.7% completions, 8.2 YPA, 151.8 rating.


Stockstill 2016 (redshirt sophomore): 10 games, 3,233 passing yards, 31/7 TD/INT rate, 63.3% completions, 7.8 YPA, 150.2 rating.


Stockstill 2017 (redshirt junior): six games, 1,440 passing yards, 14/5 TD/INT rate, 58.3% completions, 7.1 YPA, 135.4 rating.


Most of Stockstill’s production this season came in these four games: Syracuse, UTEP, Charlotte and Old Dominion, four of the worst defenses in the FBS. He had a 12/4 TD/INT rate in those, and a 2/1 TD/INT rate in the other two games against Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky (the two-best defenses he faced; but neither has a top-60 S&P+ defense).


MTSU’s passing offense has regressed this year (No. 60 S&P+ last year to No. 91 in 2017), but the bigger issue has been the disappearance of the running game (No. 16 S&P+ last year to No. 81 this year). Last year’s offense spread you out to defend James (105-1641-12) and WR Ty Lee (63-692-9), and then it gashed you with RB I'Tavius Mathers, who ended up with nearly 2,200 yards from scrimmage.


The idea was to replace the graduated Mathers with a committee, which should have been our first indication that the Blue Raiders didn’t have a ready-made starting-caliber replacement. No MTSU runner has even 500 yards on the ground this season. And whereas Mathers posted a 66-626-3 line as a receiver in 2016, MTSU’s top-RB freshman Brad Anderson has turned in a 33-338-3 line thus far.


The Blue Raiders' injury issues don't end with James and Stockstill—far from it. Only four MTSU players have started every game this season. Four!


The offense has struggled not only with a lack of continuity, but a lack of sure offensive sources with James and Mathers out of the picture. MTSU regularly turns the ball over, an especially crippling tendency because its defense is incapable of creating turnovers itself. MTSU lost the turnover battle in nine of 12 games this year and is currently -12 overall.


Add it all up and you have a once-flammable offense (No. 12 with 39.7 ppg last year) turned feeble (No. 95 with 24.8 ppg). Ty Lee (74-916-5) is a star, but he’s all Stockstill has at this point.


And Arkansas State (7-4) knows it.


The Red Wolves don’t have much of a rushing attack, but they have the No. 20 S&P+ offense anyway because of the QB Justice Hansen-led passing game. ASU ranks No. 8 in the FBS with 42.4 ppg.


The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Hansen, an Oklahoma transfer, has thrown for 3,630 yards with a 34/15 TD/INT rate (and 388 yards and six scores on the ground). The attack he runs is both efficient and explosive, but it’s also turnover prone due to a propensity to gamble.


But will that bugaboo even matter here? MTSU has only four interceptions all season. The Blue Raiders’ defense valiantly hung in there all season (No. 45 S&P+) through the offenses' struggles, but it specifically struggled to take the ball away and to play pass defense (No. 80 S&P+). 


The bread-and-butter of that unit is its run defense (No. 61 S&P+, but No. 23 in preventing explosive runs and No. 39 in success rate), but that may go to waste here, because ASU doesn’t need to run to move the ball.


Arkansas State’s defense is decent-but-not great overall (No. 55 S&P+), but it does have several things going for it. Firstly, it takes the ball away, with 21 turnovers created. Secondly, it boasts one of the Group of 5’s best defensive lines, populated by two NFL-caliber players in DE Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and DT Dee Liner, both playing in their last games.


Rolland-Jones (18.5 TFL, 13 sacks) is an absolute terror off the edge. Check him out and you’ll have a chance to witness history on Saturday: Rolland-Jones is one sack away from the FBS career sack record. He has 42 in his career, the most in the FBS since 2005 by six. Extra credit if you can guess either of the players who are tied for second on that list.


(Washington’s Hau'oli Kikaha had 36, as it did UCF’s Bruce Miller).


The 337-pound Dee Liner (five TFL, 11 run stuffs) is an Alabama transfer who boasts one of the great names in the history of the sport. Topping it would require a quarterback to be named Quarter Backer, which none of us is prepared to emotionally reconcile.


We like Arkansas State, and we like them to win big.




2017 Record: Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)
Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)

Thor Nystrom is a former associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom

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