Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Predictions Dec. 28

Monday, December 25, 2017


 

Thursday, December 28

 

 

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman

1:30 p.m. ESPN

Jack Stephens Field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Annapolis, Maryland

 

Navy -1.5 vs. Virginia

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Line going back and forth between a PK and -1 tough to tell at this point who we will need at game time.”

 

Analysis

Both teams had hopes for far better seasons in October, but each faded. Navy opened the season 5-0 and went 1-5 down the stretch. Virginia raced to a 5-1 start before closing 1-5.

 

Each team had moments of brilliance and moments of gross negligence. Navy annihilated 11-3 FAU 42-19 in the opener (before the Owls got going, but still) and turned away SMU’s brilliant offense in November. The Mids were extremely inconsistent, however, narrowly beating Tulane and Air Force (neither made a bowl) and losing to Temple.

 

Virginia thoroughly dominated 11-3 Boise State in Idaho in September, and they also beat Duke and Georgia Tech. Of course, the Cavaliers also lost to Pittsburgh.

 

Virginia returns to a bowl game after a six-year absence (the Cavs haven’t won one since 2005). They’re a hard team to trust, but we side with the Cavs here because we think they match up well with this particular opponent.

 

Virginia has a strong defense (No. 39 S&P+) that is equally adept at defending the run and the pass. Navy, of course, will keep the ball on the ground throughout. Virginia is a team you can trust against the triple-option.

 

Cavs HC Bronco Mendenhall is one of the nation’s best at defending it, going 9-1 SU and 9-1 ATS in his career against option teams. Last month, Virginia beat Georgia Tech and its vaunted triple-option attack by limiting the Yellow Jackets to 220 yards.

 

Virginia’s defensive crew is led by star LB Micah Kiser, who has 132 tackles, 9.5 TFL and 5.0 sacks, his third consecutive 100/9/5 season. Virginia also has a stud in the backend in S Quin Blanding, who’ll be freed to play in the box with little threat of Navy effectively retaliating through the air.

 

In Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry, Navy has a pair of 1,000-yard rushing quarterbacks. The Mids will go with Perry behind center against the Cavs. Perry started nine games at slotback earlier this season before being called into duty for an impromptu position change.

 

With Abey injured and struggling with consistency, Perry received his first career start at quarterback in the 43-40 win over SMU, shredding the Ponies for 282 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. That turned out to be Navy’s only victory over their last six games. Perry’s next extended look at QB came last time out against Army. He ran for 250 yards and a touchdown in a 14-13 loss. That gave Perry 532 rushing yards and five touchdowns over two games as Navy’s quarterback.

 

Perry’s emergence no doubt makes the offense more dangerous, but it also effectively wastes Abey’s talent. At least against Virginia. Early speculation has Navy moving Abey (6’2/212) to fullback next year (he’s a junior). It would be a surprise if Abey was ready to play that position this week.

 

Abey is a physical between-the-tackles runner who lowers his shoulders and fights for extra yards. Perry (5’9/185) is a slippery, athletic and clever. He’ll stress Virginia outside the tackles in a way Abey isn’t capable of. That’s a valuable dimension to add, especially against a team that we know can defend this type of offense. But Navy may struggle to consistently gouge Virginia inside. Without Perry as the slotback, Navy will rely more heavily on unproven backup Darryl Bonner and FB Anthony Gargiulo.

 

When the field flips, Virginia matches up similarly well. Navy’s defense stinks (No. 101 S&P+), but it’s solid against the run (No. 27 S&P+). The Mids are awful against the pass, which should allow Cavs senior QB Kurt Benkert (3,062 yards with 25/8 TD/INT rate) to go out with a bang.

 

Virginia has struggled to run the ball all year. They’ll only be semi-serious about making Navy worry about that facet of the offense. The position group to exploit is Navy’s secondary. The Mids are going to have all kinds of trouble covering Virginia’s stellar trio of receivers (Olamide Zaccheaus, Doni Dowling and Andre Levrone), and they don’t have the pass rush to disrupt Benkert’s timing.

 

Camping World Bowl

5:15 p.m., ESPN

Camping World Stadium

Orlando, Florida

 

Oklahoma State -4 vs. Virginia Tech


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Opened at OSU -6, dropped quickly to -4. When it opened, the early action was on the dog, but now at -4 over 75% of the money is on Oklahoma State.”

 

Analysis

When investing in Oklahoma State games this year, we mostly faded the Pokes, who were overvalued throughout due to their explosive offense. Over their last seven games, OSU went 2-6-1 ATS. That stretch led to a woeful 1-6 ATS mark overall against bowl teams.

 

That stretch caused the betting market to assume a more realistic viewpoint of Oklahoma State. As a result, we were given a bowl spread that allows us to back the Cowboys at long last.

 

This will be the last time we get to see OSU seniors QB Mason Rudolph (13,000-plus career passing yards with a 90/26 TD/INT ratio) and WR James Washington (221-4346-38 career receiving line) playing together on the collegiate gridiron.

 

Oklahoma State boasts the nation’s No. 4 scoring offense (46.3 points per game scored) and the No. 4 S&P+ offense. The Pokes scored 40 or more points in 10 of 12 games, only falling short against Texas (win) and TCU (loss).

 

The passing offense is sensational. The running attack is superb in its own right, boasting a 1,300-yard rusher in Justice Hill. Oklahoma State’s defense isn’t good, but it’s actually a bit better than we thought it would be (No. 70 S&P+) over the summer.

 

Unlike, say, Oklahoma’s defense, which is hapless, the Pokes’ D can do a few things. While they’ll give up a lot of passing yards, they play a ball-hawking brand of pass defense that led to 16 interceptions. OSU also finished with the No. 23 S&P+ run defense.

 

After losing QB Jerod Evans, WR Isaiah Ford and TE Bucky Hodges to early declaration following last season, we were a bit pessimistic about Virginia Tech's offense over the summer. When the Hokies raced out to a 4-0 start by averaging 40.0 points per game, we were misled into believing our read had been wrong.

 

In hindsight, it wasn’t. In the first four games, Tech beat West Virginia (awful defense), FCS Delaware (sub-division cupcake), East Carolina (worst defense in the FBS) and Old Dominion (bad defense). That's as soft an opening slate of defenses as perhaps any FBS team faced.

 

Over the last eight games, Virginia Tech topped 24 points just once (against 3-9 UNC). The poor showings against Clemson and Miami were understandable. But managing only 22 points against Georgia Tech, 20 points against Pittsburgh and 10 points against Virginia to close out the regular season? Less so.

 

VT QB Josh Jackson looked like a future star in the opener against West Virginia, but he looked like a guy who might have to compete for the starting job next summer last month. In November, Jackson posted a 2/4 TD/INT ratio on only six yards per attempt.

 

More bad news: Virginia Tech’s leading rusher, RB Travon McMillian, is in the process of transferring and won’t play in this game. Even more devastating, No. 1 WR Cam Phillips (71-964-7) will skip this game to begin his NFL prep.

 

Phillips had more targets (107) than VT’s next two highest-targeted receivers combined. Who had the fourth most targets? McMillian, with 19. Virginia Tech finished with the No. 99 S&P+ offense. If the offense hadn’t absolutely wrecked the five worst defenses it played this year (the first four teams on the schedule and UNC), it would have finished lower.

 

Now, that offense is without a lion’s share of its rushing and receiving output. All of which puts a ludicrous amount of pressure on Jackson, who hasn’t looked like a legitimate FBS starter since October.

 

As Virginia Tech’s offense has increasingly struggled, the defense has picked up the slack by doing the exact opposite. The Hokies pitched three shutouts this season. They allowed more than 24 points in only three games—VT’s three losses to Clemson (31-17), Miami (28-10) and Georgia Tech (28-22).

 

Virginia Tech is No. 2 in the country in scoring defense (13.5 points per game allowed) and boasts the No. 6 in S&P+ defense. That crew is incredibly efficient (No. 8 S&P+), and it buckles down on both third downs (No. 2 conversion defense) and when teams broach their 40-yard line (No. 5 in points per trip against).

 

That defense, ranked in the top-20 of S&P+’s metrics against both the run and pass, is led by potential future first-rounder OLB Tremaine Edmunds, a 6-foot-5, 250-pounder with range and a nose for the ball (102 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 14 TFL, 22 run stuffs). Fellow LB Andrew Motuapuaka is disruptive himself (10.5 TFL and 15 run stuffs), while Tremaine’s brother Terrell, a safety, is a strong NFL prospect in his own right.

 

We could go on—Virginia Tech has a pair of NFL CBs in Adonis Alexander and Brandon Facyson, and three extremely disruptive defensive lineman in dancing bear DT Tim Settle (6’3/335), DT Ricky Walker and DE Trevon Hill—but you get the point: The Hokies’ defense is every bit as impressive as Oklahoma State’s offense.

 

Really, Virginia Tech only has one defensive weakness. Unfortunately for them, it’s likely to get exploited by the Cowboys. Despite boasting multiple future NFL defensive backs, Virginia Tech regularly gets ripped deep. It ranks No. 126 (out of 130) in defending explosive passing plays, and No. 114 in defending explosive plays of any kind.

 

That’s obviously an enormous problem against Oklahoma State’s offense, which finished as S&P+’s No. 5 most explosive attack.

 

Virginia Tech has a big edge on special teams—OSU is average in that regard, the Hokies are, as always, tremendous—and defense heading in, but we like Oklahoma State to negate both advantages by ripping off multiple explosive plays through the air. If the Pokes can get to 28 points—they were held under 31 just once—it’s difficult to envision them losing. Virginia Tech simply does not have the offense to engage in a firefight.

 

 

Valero Alamo Bowl

9 p.m., ESPN

Alamodome

San Antonio, Texas

 

TCU -2.5 vs. Stanford


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Pretty even money on both sides in this matchup. But looking at how money has been trending in the last few days, I expect us to need Stanford by game time.”

 

Analysis

It’ll be strength-on-strength when Stanford star RB Bryce Love (a Power 5-leading 1,973 yards rushing in 11 games on 8.3 yards per carry) squares off against a TCU run defense that allows only 99 rushing yards a game (No. 4 in the FBS) on 3.2 YPC (No. 8).

 

All signs point towards Love playing on Thursday. As you’ll recall, RB Christian McCaffrey opted to sit out last year’s Sun Bowl against UNC. Like C-Mac, Love will likely declare for the NFL Draft early. Unlike his predecessor, Love seems intent on playing in the bowl game, even though he has a really good reason to sit after dealing with a painful high ankle sprain in the second half of the season.

 

Stanford’s offense has leveled up since turning the quarterback job over to sophomore K.J. Costello. Costello (1,361 yard and a 11/2 TD/INT rate) has developed tremendous chemistry with WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (43-720-6 line despite three missed games).

 

Between a stellar running game and a passing attack that will now keep you honest, Stanford finished with a top-30 S&P+ offense (No. 29). The Cardinal’s weakness is its defense (No. 54 S&P+), which was mediocre against both the run (No. 54) and the pass (No. 56).

 

TCU’s offense runs hot-and-cold, but it was mostly strong outside of its three losses. The Horned Frogs scored 24 points or more in every game except for the two setbacks against Oklahoma and the loss to Iowa State.

 

The Cyclones have a superior defense to the Cardinal, and Oklahoma’s success against TCU’s offense had to do with controlling the clock, jumping out to a lead, and forcing TCU out of its comfort zone (i.e. rely heavily on the pass) in the limited possessions it had.

 

Speaking of TCU’s passing game, this will be the final game of Kenny Hill’s long, bizarre career. It began at Texas A&M, where once upon a time Hill was Johnny Manziel’s backup. After Johnny Football left for the NFL, Hill lit the world on fire for a short spell, christened himself Kenny Trill, and promptly went into the tank. After getting benched, Hill transferred to TCU, where he spent two seasons as the starter.

 

Like the offense as a whole, Hill has been up-and-down (again). Overall, though, his numbers are fine (2,838 yards on 67.2-percent completions and a 7.2 YPA average with a 21/6 TD/INT ratio; 388 yards and four touchdowns on the ground). Hill isn’t the world’s best pocket-passer, as evidenced by TCU’s No. 67 S&P+ passing offense finish.

 

Still, Hill took far too much flack over the past two seasons, backlash to his early-career hubris at A&M. He’s a solid Power 5 starter, and his dual-threat, completion-happy game inside TCU’s spread offense helped opened things up for the Horned Frogs’ ultra-efficient running game (S&P+ No. 25).

 

TCU RB Darius Anderson will be a game-time decision with a leg injury. Anderson was better than Kyle Hicks when he was on the field this year. Hicks fell off after his star-turn in 2016, though we wonder how much of that had to do with the injuries he battled throughout the campaign.

 

Hopefully Hicks is rested and fully healthy for the Cardinal. We can’t say one way or the other if Anderson will join him. If TCU had both, we’d especially like the Frogs’ chances of running all over Stanford.

 

As for TCU’s defense, it’ll be the best unit on the field (No. 14 S&P+). It’s outstanding against the pass (No. 11), but downright elite against the run (No. 3). It’s for that reason primarily that we side with TCU in this game.

 

TCU is athletic and disruptive up front. It ranks No. 4 in the FBS with 41 sacks. TCU DE Mat Boesen leads the team with 11.5 sacks, and he’s joined by potential Round 1 prospect Ben Banogu, who has 15.5 TFL and 8.5 sacks. TCU is also stacked at linebacker and in the secondary.

 

The unit has one weakness and one weakness only: Facing a pass-happy Big 12 slate that featured multiple star quarterbacks, it finished No. 119 in defending explosive passing plays. Stanford simply isn’t built to exploit that quirk.

 

Stanford comes in off a narrow loss to USC (31-28) in the Pac-12 championship game. It was the Cardinal’s second loss to USC this season. As the Trojans were the Cardinal’s inter-conference bugaboo, Oklahoma was TCU’s. The Sooners smoked the Horned Frogs 41-17 in the Big 12 title game after also beating them earlier in the season.

 

Both coaches in this game are top-notch. They're also ultra-reliable in the postseason. TCU HC Gary Patterson is 9-4 in his last 13 bowl games, and David Shaw is 4-1 career in bowl games. For what it’s worth, Patterson is 5-0 in his career against Pac-12 teams, including wins against Stanford in 2007 and 2008. In TCU’s last appearance in the Alamo Bowl (Jan. 2, 2016), the Horned Frogs stormed back from a 31-0 halftime deficit against Oregon to defeat the Ducks 47-41 in triple-overtime.

 

(The urban legend surrounding that game is that it turned when Patterson changed out of a black shirt into a purple shirt at halftime, sparking the 47-10 run to close the game. In reality, the comeback largely had to do with Ducks starting QB Vernon Adams getting injured in the second quarter).

 

Welcoming Stanford to Texas, TCU gets partial credit for home field advantage. S&P+ set this line at TCU -4 as though it were being played on a neutral field. Let’s give the Horned Frogs 1.5 points of home field advantage (half credit) and set our own theoretical spread of around TCU -5 or -5.5.

 

We think this spread was under a field goal due to TCU’s embarrassing showing in the Big 12 title game. But Oklahoma is better designed to attack TCU’s defense, as TCU is worse against the pass than the run. TCU matches up better with Stanford, and we see the Horned Frogs bouncing back to close out the campaign with a victory.

 

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl

9 p.m., FOX

SDCCU Stadium

San Diego

 

Washington State (pick ‘em) vs. Michigan State


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 

 

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Huge move here from +3 to a pick ‘em. It’s all Spartans money coming in even at this current line. Need dog huge.”

 

Analysis

In terms of national perception, both teams could really use a win here. Michigan State had a nightmare 2016 in which it finished 3-9 and missed the postseason. In the Spartans’ last bowl game, they were blasted off the field by Alabama in Round 1 of the 2015 college football playoff. Washington State no-showed last year’s Holiday Bowl against Minnesota, losing 17-12 to a team that was weeks from firing its head coach and was playing without a handful of suspended players.

 

We weren’t taken off guard by Kenny Hill’s inconsistencies this fall. Wazzu QB Luke Falk’s uneven play was a different story. Falk (3,593 passing yards on 66.9-percent passing) vacillated between abominable and stellar. His team went as he did.

 

Falk had a dreadful 2/8 TD/INT ratio in Wazzu’s three losses. It wasn’t like he was facing the Minnesota Vikings’ defense in all three games, either. Falk was benched for performance against Arizona’s atrocious defense, for instance.

 

In Wazzu’s other nine games, all wins, Falk posted a 28/5 TD/INT ratio. When he’s on, this is an extremely difficult team to beat. Completions come in bunches, defenses can’t decide if they should blitz or hang back to flood coverage zones, space opens up for Wazzu’s run game and the Cougars’ strong defense (No. 23 S&P+) takes care of the rest.

 

That formula led to wins over Boise State, USC, Stanford and Utah. Wazzu's offense proved to be great on third downs and ended up leading the Pac-12 in time of possession. It finished No. 2 in the nation with 392.3 passing yards per game.

 

But when Falk’s off, Washington State’s offense turns into an inefficient turnover machine and the Cougars’ defense is powerless to overcome the poor situations it’s consistently placed into. Wazzu was annihilated 37-3 by 5-7 Cal, 58-37 by 7-5 Arizona and 41-14 by 10-2 Washington.

 

The Cougars offensive line was leaky, ranking No. 125 in sacks allowed. To be fair, the Cougars attempted 663 passes, but Wazzu finished No. 87 in S&P+ adjusted sack margin. 

 

As much as Washington State struggles to keep opponents out of the backfield, the Cougars are elite themselves at getting after the quarterback. Wazzu ranks No. 3 in the nation in S&P+ defensive adjusted sack margin.

 

Most unfortunately, the Cougars must weather the first half without their best player, stud DL Hercules Mata'afa (21.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 18 run stuffs), who invoked a one-half suspension by getting tossed in the second half of the Apple Cup due to targeting.

 

That’s not all. The team’s top two receivers—Tavares Martin Jr. (70-831-9) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack (60-555-5)—have both played their last games at Wazzu. Each announced after the regular season finale that they would transfer (Martin, who was booted off the team, didn’t have much of a choice). Falk and the Air Raid attack will now have to rely heavily on unproven receivers outside of Kyle Sweet (50-481-2) and a heavy dose of RBs Jamal Morrow (56-479-5) and James Williams (61-417-3).

 

Michigan State’s tremendous defense ranked No. 9 in the country with 298 total offensive yards allowed per game. It is stingy against the pass (No. 32 S&P+), allowing a 13/13 TD/INT rate on the season. But it’s not perfect: Trace McSorley threw for over 400 yards against MSU. To be fair, it was in a losing effort.

 

The Spartans are elite against the run (No. 4 S&P+; No. 5 with 101.3 yards per game allowed on the ground), a big reason why they finished with a top-10 S&P+ defense (No. 7). Wazzu, of course, rarely runs, so they’ll mostly be able to avoid MSU’s biggest strength. But for Wazzu to put enough points on the board to beat MSU, Good Falk will have show up. Period. If he doesn't, MSU will swallow this offense whole.

 

Like Michigan State’s defense, the offense sometimes plays out of character. In the offense’s case, that means a feeble unit (No. 106 S&P+) sometimes shows flashes of explosiveness.

 

MSU QB Brian Lewerke threw for only one touchdown pass over the final three games—going 2-for-14 for 20 yards against stinky Maryland lol—but he lit up Penn State and Northwestern’s strong defenses for 885 passing yards. That was super duper impressive, but that two-game stretch reads like a fluke when you realize that more than one-third of Lewerke’s total passing yards (2,580) came in those two games.

 

While doing bowl prep, we read in several places some form of the theme that “Wazzu must stop Michigan State’s strong run game.” Disregard that narrative from your mind. It’s objectively false.

 

Michigan State’s rushing offense is inefficient (No. 107 S&P+ success rate, No. 114 in opportunity rate), lacking in playmakers at running back (leading rusher LJ Scott has been a big disappointment; he’s run for 788 yards and six touchdowns on a mediocre 4.3 YPC with four lost fumbles) and altogether decidedly below-average nationally (No. 78 S&P+).

 

Lewerke (587 yards on 6.1 YPC with sacks taken out) saves the rushing attack from being a complete waste, and his feet make him hard to sack as a passer. That skill will come in handy against a Wazzu pass rush than ranks No. 13 with 37 sacks. The Cougars’ will really miss Mata'afa (for a half) in that facet of the game.

 

No one part of Lewerke’s game is upper-echelon, but he’s underrated as a whole due to his efficiency. When he decides to be a runner, he gets yards. When he’s throwing, he’ll take what he can get and mostly avoid mistakes (with a few notable exceptions).

 

Michigan State is thin on skill talent. Unfortunately, that forces Lewerke to assume a lion's share of the offensive usage. He’s miscast as a Nick Fitzgerald-like playmaker, but since he’s all that Michigan State has, it makes sense for Sparty to elevate this character actor into a leading role for one season.

 

If this game had been played during the regular season, we would have leaned towards picking the Cougars. But as is, we’re going to go the other way. The loss of Martin and Johnson-Mack deprives Falk of his two favorite weapons. Because of Falk’s preexisting consistency issues, that’s even more concerning than it may have been in vacuum.

 

In addition, Wazzu’s defense will take a big hit in the first half with its best player, Mata'afa, on the sidelines. Between all that and Mike Leach’s flirtation with other schools after the regular season, we have to question both Wazzu’s on-field team and its off-field state of mind.

 

****

2017 Bowl Record (through Fresno St.-Houston): Straight-Up: 7-7 (50.0%); Against the Spread: 8-6 (57.1%)

2017 Regular Season Record:  Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)

2014-2016:  Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)


 



Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com 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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