Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Picks Dec. 22

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

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*All stats below refer to S&P+ (an advanced stats computer model created by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) unless otherwise noted. “ATL” refers to my system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap). I use ATL to give me a ballpark idea of what a fair spread would be independent of public perception.


Saturday, December 22

Jared Birmingham Bowl


Legion Field (Birmingham, Alabama)

Memphis (No. 23 S&P+) -3.5 vs. Wake Forest (No. 77 S&P+)

Total: 73.5

ATL (my adjusted spread): Memphis -6

At a glance

Memphis (8-5 vs. No. 74 SOS) - S&P+ off (8, 4/66), def (75, 54/96), ST (28)


Wake Forest (6-6 vs. No. 78 SOS) - S&P+ off (56, 61/92), def (78, 49/69), ST (72)

Offshore intel

Kevin Bradley, Sportsbook manager: “We opened the line Memphis -5 and saw significant public money and then moved the line to -5.5. However, with the news of RB Darrell Henderson declaring for the NFL draft, the line moved down to Memphis -3.5, where we are currently taking two-sided action.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team

Memphis S Austin Hall (Round 5 grade): “Hall is a tough, intense safety who flies around the action. He’s best as a traditional strong safety.”

Wake Forest G Phillip Haynes (Round 6 grade): “Much was expected from Haynes before the season but he didn’t lie up to expectations. At the top of his game he’s a dominant, small area blocker.”

Sitting out: Memphis RB Darrell Henderson

The ‘cap

Where you fall on this game is going to depend on your read on Wake Forest. We know Memphis, more or less. They lost three games they were supposed to lose — twice to UCF and once to Mizzou — and got tripped up as favorites by a couple option teams (Navy and Tulane). Outside of that, the Tigers held serve.

But Wake Forest is all over the place. The Demon Deacons have alternated wins and losses every single week since Sept. 22. The offense tends to be firing on all cylinders when Wake wins, and it tends to go into the tank in losses. Wake averaged 45 ppg in wins and 20 ppg in losses.

Check out the last six games, which came after the bye: Lost to Florida State by 21 (what???), beat Louisville by 21 (that’s more like it!), lose to Syracuse by 17 (not great, but okay), upset NC State on the road by four (now we’re talking!), got annihilated by 21 by Pitt (come again?), and then blasted the doors off of Duke 51-7 (!!!) to qualify for the postseason.

If Wake merely follows their pattern, they’re about to lose by margin. Can they flip the script? Or will their consistent inconsistency be taken advantage of in a big way by Memphis? Either way, this one is going to be fun: Both teams rank in the top-20 of offensive pace, and both teams struggle on defense. Memphis averages 43.6 ppg and coughs up 31.5, while Wake Forest goes 32.5/33.3.

Memphis is a team with an awesome, ultra-explosive run game and a strong special teams unit. They struggle in most every other facet of the game. The defense lagging behind has become a theme, but QB Brady White’s lack of development really neutered what we thought could be a strong passing attack. Memphis’ inability to do consistent aerial damage may have cost it upwards of three wins (Navy and both games against UCF; White was held under 210 yards passing in all three).

And that could come into play again, depending on how much the offense misses mega-stud 1,909-yard rusher Darrell Henderson (22 TD, 8.2 ypc). That ypc average was the highest in the FBS since 1956. Henderson, a Doak Walker finalist who finished No. 10 in the Heisman voting, declared for the NFL Draft and will skip this game. You cannot replace a player like Henderson. But Memphis does have a fabulous backup in Patrick Taylor, who ran for 1,012 yards and 15 TD on 5.7 ypc.

Taylor is not nearly explosive as Henderson — nobody is — but he’s just as efficient. Whereas Henderson is a burner who makes you pay dearly for the creases you leave him, Taylor is a lanky banger at 6’3/223. Wake Forest, which ranks S&P+ No. 99 in defending rushing explosion, is no doubt thrilled with the swap. Henderson would have eaten Wake’s lunch.

Memphis will also use utility-man Tony Pollard, a RB/WR/KR hybrid weapon, as more of a runner in this game. Last year, Henderson sat out the Liberty Bowl against Iowa State with an injury. Taylor started in a game Memphis lost 21-20 as short favorites.

Wake Forest has its own issues. All-American WR Greg Dortch is questionable to play. He suffered a finger injury in the regular-season finale against Duke and hasn’t practiced since. His loss would be enormous, even bigger than Henderson’s absence.

While Memphis can ostensibly replace a portion of what Henderson can do, Wake has nobody to step in and replicate Dortch’s impact. Dortch led the ACC with 145.8 all-purpose yards per game and had 89 catches for 1,078 yards. He’s scored 19 touchdowns in 20 career games.

These defenses are almost identically bad. And once you get into the advanced metrics, they almost appear to be long-lost cousins. Each ranks in the mid-70s of S&P+ overall, and each is better against the run than the pass. Dortch’s availability would go a long way towards Wake potentially exploiting Memphis’ shoddy secondary. If he can’t go, Wake might be short on ammunition in a game that will assuredly be a shootout.

Wake Forest is one of 11 bowl teams that allowed more yards per play than they gained during the regular season. That’s troubling. And yet I keep coming back to them. Wake is hard to pin down, but we have seen them show up in huge games with big performances in the recent past, including wins in the last two bowls (with a big upset of Texas A&M last year) as well as the resounding domination of Duke in the finale that was required to go bowling.

And new starting true freshman QB Jamie Newman, a big, bulky dual-threat, has been an improvement over previous starter Sam Hartman as both a thrower and runner. In Newman’s three starts, he’s upset NC State and Duke and lost to Pitt. I got so excited by seeing a chunky David Gerrard-like dual-threat that I’ve dubbed Wake Forest’s Newman-led offense Woke Forest.

As for Memphis, they’ve been unable to win big games in the Mike Norvell era to this point. The Tigers are 0-4 in conference title games and bowl games combined under Norvell, and you can toss two additional regular season losses to UCF onto that pile. Without Henderson, the pressure is on White and Memphis’ defense to play better than we’ve seen them play in recent months. It’s certainly possible, but I’m going to hold my nose and put my faith in Wake Forest, a team that persevered throughout the regular season despite a rash of injuries.

The pick: Wake Forest +3.5

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Amon G. Carter Stadium (Fort Worth, Texas)

Army (No. 83 S&P+) -4.5 vs. Houston (No. 41 S&P+)

Total: 60

At a glance

Houston (8-4 vs. No. 110 SOS) - S&P+ off (11, 24/23), def (100, 65/94), ST (42)


Army (10-2 vs. No. 98 SOS) - S&P+ off (52, 89/3), def (77, 76/79), ST (123)

Offshore intel

Kevin Bradley, Sportsbook manager: “One of the biggest early movers in the Bowl season has been the total in the Houston vs Army game. We opened the total at 68 but were quickly bet under by the sharps and moved to 67, then 66, then 65. At all three of those numbers over 90% of the bets were on the under so the total kept dropping. The recreational players soon joined in and both these groups of players moved the total all the way down to 60. We are still seeing 75% of the bets coming in on the under 60 and this is by far our biggest decision of the day.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team

Houston CB Isaiah Johnson (Round 5 grade): “With Ed Oliver sitting this one out and preparing for the draft, Johnson will be the top prospect on the field. He combines excellent size, toughness and has dramatically improved his draft stock this season.”

Army: No NFL prospects.

Sitting out: Houston DL Ed Oliver

The ‘cap

Just like your ‘cap on the previous game more or less comes down to how you gauge Wake Forest, this one comes down to your feelings about Houston. Army is a paragon of consistency. Every week, they show up with the exact same gameplan and effort. Houston, on the other hand, has been an absolute mess since the calendar flipped to November.

Prior to that, the Cougars were 7-1, with one of the nation’s best offenses and a defense that at least had a couple of future NFL starting defenders going for it. But things fell apart for Houston during a 1-3 November. Chronicling the carnage is going to take more than one hearty paragraph.

DT Ed Oliver, the 2017 Outland Trophy winner, missed four games with a knee injury. During that time, in the mid-November game against Tulane, Oliver and HC Major Applewhite got into a heated argument over, of all things, a jacket. This kerfuffle was most unfortunately caught on ESPN’s cameras as the game was heading into halftime.

Applewhite tried to yank the jacket — which he said was for active players only — off of Oliver’s shoulders. Oliver went ballistic and was shepherded into the locker room. He apparently left the building at that time and was not seen on the sidelines in the second half. But — miracle of all miracles — Oliver actually started the next game, the finale against Memphis. But he was shut down for the second half after his knee injury was apparently re-aggravated. Oliver is headed to the NFL Draft and will not play in this game.

That Memphis loss, a 52-31 beatdown in which Houston finished with a 0% postgame win expectancy, was pretty telling. Houston had a shot to play its way into the conference title game with a win. Whether the Cougars didn't have the personnel on hand to get it done, or whether this squad no longer cares is a moot point.

Whatever issues that led to that performance have almost assuredly not been solved in the weeks since. Applewhite fired defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio afterwards. Might have felt good in the moment — and it was certainly justified, as Houston’s defense was horrid despite a decent amount of talent on hand — but it didn’t help preparations for this game.

But the absences of Oliver won’t hurt as bad as that of star QB D’Eriq King. King was a revelation this year. He was knocked out for the year with a torn meniscus in his right knee in the second quarter of the aforementioned Tulane game (the one win Houston had in November proved devastating on multiple fronts).

Before going down, King threw for 2,982 yards and a 36/6 TD/INT ration while rushing for 674 yards and 14 touchdowns. How valuable was King? Consider this: In a tick over 10 games played, King was responsible for 302 points. The only players above him are Dwayne Haskins and Kyler Murray — both of whom have been responsible for exactly 306 points — and they each have played in 13 full games.

Clayton Tune is now Houston’s quarterback. The freshman is completing less than 45% of his passes, he’s taking sacks on almost 3% more of his dropbacks, and he’s averaging 2.4 less yards per attempt while offering far less than King on the ground. The last part of that sentence seems like an aside, but that’s an area that really hurts a Cougar offense that never was able to identify a top-shelf starting running back this year. King basically provided that in his limited carries.

Not only is Houston’s DC gone, but whizkid OC Kendal Briles has been flirting with other job opportunities since the end of the regular season. He was briefly bandied about for Texas State’s head job before drawing interest for several prominent OC posts, including at Florida State and Tennessee. As of now, he remains at Houston. But this is a very tenuous situation. Briles is the best coach on Houston’s staff, and it isn’t close. If his head is elsewhere, that’s very bad news for Houston.

You can no longer think realistically about Houston based on its statistical profile, because so much has changed and because the offense and defenses best players will both not be involved in this game. Say we assume that Houston’s defense won’t regress and will remain at roughly No. 100 S&P+ quality. Say the offense, in dropping off from one of the nation’s best quarterbacks to a pedestrian freshman, has fallen from S&P+ No. 11 into the mid-60s neighborhood. You know what that would make Houston? It would make them UCLA, which finished No. 66 offensively and No. 103 defensively (UCLA has a better special teams unit but go with me).

As for Army, they’re the paragon of consistency. The 10-2 Knights have only lost two games this year, both times in September to Power 5 bowl teams. Army dropped the opener at Duke and then came the closest any non-Texas Longhorns team has come to beating Oklahoma, losing by seven points in overtime.

If we’re in agreement that the current incarnation of Houston is UCLA quality (or a tick worse), well then we should mention that Army has beaten four teams better than the Bruins this season (by S&P+ overall rank): Buffalo, Miami OH, Eastern Michigan and Air Force.

Army’s triple-option attack is brutal to defend. The Knights are always charging ahead (No. 2 in offensive stuff rate) and they stay on schedule even though you know what’s coming (No. 38 rushing efficiency). The offense is led by QB Kelvin Hopkins (847 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns while throwing for 956 yards and six more scores on 53% completions).

Houston’s defense ranks No. 65 against the run, and that’s with a top-10 NFL draft pick at defensive tackle figuring in on about half the sample size. In November, Houston gave up 210 yards and six touchdowns to Temple's Ryquell Armstead and 178 yards and two touchdowns to Memphis' Darrell Henderson. All told, Houston allows 197 rushing ypg.

Houston did beat fellow triple-option running Navy by 13 earlier this season. But that was back in October, when Houston was a completely different team. Army is a clearly superior team to Navy. Houston ranks last in the nation in time of possession, while Army ranks first. The Knights are going to dictate how this game plays out.

Army beat San Diego State 42-35 in this very bowl game last year. The opponent this year shouldn’t provide as much of an impediment. And Army is one of the few teams in the nation who is never, under any circumstance, a motivation concern. Shouldn’t be an issue with this squad returning to Fort Worth. Army HC Jeff Monken is 2-0 in bowl games. It should also be pointed out that while Houston is playing in its home state, Army has a large contingent of players on its roster from the state of Texas. This will be a homecoming of sorts for a large portion of the roster.

Army did face a coaching change of its own when respected DC Jay Bateman left to join Mack Brown’s staff at UNC in the day after the Army-Navy game. That loss hurts. But Houston is dealing with far graver concerns. The Cougars want this disappointing season to end. Army is trying to win 11 games for the first time in the 125-year history of the program. They’re also gunning for a third straight bowl win for the first time in program history. I think Army rolls.

The pick: Army -4.5 and UNDER 60

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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.
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