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Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Picks Dec. 26-27

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Rotoworld has a college football podcast dedicated to betting against the spread. Every week, my co-host Mark Lindquist and I pick our five favorite sides of the week. Subscribe on iTunes here! Write us a review and we'll shout you out on the next episode.

 

*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.

 

December 26

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl


1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Cotton Bowl (Dallas, Texas)
Boise State (No. 29 S&P+) -2 vs. Boston College (No. 71 S&P+)
Total: 55.5
ATL: Boise State -1.5


At a glance

Boise State (10-3 vs. No. 49 SOS) - S&P+ off (18, 14/29), def (39, 52/45), ST (120)
vs.
Boston College (7-5 vs. No. 40 SOS) - S&P+ off (95, 108/41), def (28, 46/51), ST (117)

Offshore intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “We may have got caught speeding here and thought we could cheat on the line with a ranked team playing an unranked team. We were wrong. We opened Boise state as 3.5-point favorites and were bet heavily [on Boston College] by our sharp (expected) and retail (not expected) bettors. We moved the line to -3 and now have a pretty significant decision on the BC +3.5 line. I do not foresee moving off 3 but if we keep getting bet on BC we might have to start thinking about it.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects


Boston College DE Zach Allen (Round 1-2 grade): “Versatile defensive lineman with a three down game. Can line up at end, as a three technique tackle and in certain two-gap systems.  Vastly underrated.”

Boise State T Ezra Cleveland (Round 3 grade): “Dynamic underclassman who possesses next level pass protection skills and needs to just improve his run blocking.”

The ‘cap

Boise State’s primary offensive objective will be to establish the run and prevent Boston College’s pass rush — specifically the outstanding BC DE duo of Zach Allen (6.5 sacks, 15 TFL) and Wyatt Ray (nine and 11.5) — from being able to pin their ears back off the edge on third-and-longs. The status of Allen and Ray must be monitored after each suffered an injury in the regular season finale against Syracuse.

Even if they’re both 100-percent, this plan is likely to work. Boston College’s run defense ranks No. 46 overall and is good at limiting home run plays (No. 23), but it struggles at the point of attack, likely because the best players on its front are pass rushers first. Boston College ranks No. 100 in stuff rate against the run.

That profile reminded me of a very poor man’s version of Fresno State’s defense (No. 9 overall), which ranks No. 5 against the run; No. 2 against rushing explosion, but No. 110 in stuff rate. In two games against Fresno this year (regular season and MWC title game), Boise State RB Alexander Mattison ran for 344 yards on 70 carries.

I think the Broncos will come in with another Mattison-heavy gameplan here. Mattison (1,415 yards with 17 touchdowns) has really come on down the stretch as BSU has fed him more and more, turning 127 attempts over the last four games into 689 yards and seven touchdowns.

Boston College’s No. 51 pass defense is top-50 in efficiency, completion percentage allowed and sack rate, but it ranks No. 72 against explosion. What’s interesting is that Boise’s air attack (No. 29) has similar strengths and weaknesses, but only skewed more empathetically towards the polarities. BSU is top-16 in efficiency and completion percentage (with the No. 58 sack rate allowed), but No. 89 in terms of generating explosive plays. If Mattison gets going — which seems like a reasonable expectation — I don’t think that BSU will mind having this area of the game more or less cancel itself out.

As a team, the Broncos have three weaknesses: They don’t generate enough explosive plays on offense, they allow too many explosive plays on defense, and they play shoddy special teams. The Broncos are strong everywhere else. I play on the Broncos when they play a team that can’t exploit those weaknesses, and I play against them when they play against a team that could.

Boston College also plays poor special teams, and the Eagles’ defense matches up poorly enough against Mattison that I think it’s very possible that the Broncos won’t need explosive plays to consistently dent the scoreboard. The one area Boston College matches up well in — and this is the area the Eagles must excel in to pull off the upset — is in offensive explosion.

The Eagles’ offense never came on to the degree we wanted it to this season (No. 95), mostly because it was one of the Power 5’s least efficient attacks. Shockingly, the primary culprit for that was the running game, which was expected to be elite with star RB AJ Dillon back behind one of the nation’s most talented offensive lines.

But Dillon has been banged up all season and, perhaps because of that, his effectiveness has been a hit-and-miss proposition. When Dillon’s on the field, BC gives him as many touches as possible. Which is a dynamite strategy when he’s 100%. When he’s not, Dillon becomes a strange sort of back: A 6’0/245 banger who is looking to break long runs, not charge ahead to take what the defense is giving him. This year, Dillon has been inefficient, with a 41.9% opportunity rate that is poor enough that S&P+ shades it red. That means Dillon is getting the yardage that the offense needs him to get on only around four out of every 10 carries. Not ideal for a jumbo back.

When Dillon starts to consistently break into the second and third levels, this offense takes off. It runs at extreme tempo (No. 4), hustling back to the line to either quickly hand it off to Dillon again, or to uncork a deep shot over safeties that have begun to cheat up. Boston College’s passing offense ranks No. 41, but it's sub-mediocre in every facet except hitting bombs (No. 11 explosion).

Boise State ranks No. 52 against rushing explosion, but is strong in every other metric of rush defense. Boston College simply must have Dillon break off long runs, or else the defense won’t become concerned enough about the passing game to leave QB Anthony Brown’s receivers on islands downfield.

All of which makes Dillon’s status very, very important leading up to kick. And once again, as has been the case for most of the season, we have no idea how healthy he is. Dillon re-injured his gimpy ankle in the regular season finale against Syracuse.

And with a less than 100% Dillon, the offense refuses to switch up its strategy and can fall into inefficient quagmires chasing the glory of last year’s success. That’s the offense. The Boston College defense needs both Allen and Ray 100% healthy for this game, or they lose the havoc that the entire unit is built around.

Boise matches up well on paper. They’re also a more trustworthy team both in big spots, but also in bowl season in general. BSU HC Bryan Harsin is 3-1 SU and ATS in bowl games, while Boston College is 1-3 SU and ATS in bowl games under Steve Addazio.


The pick: Boise State -2

 

Quick Lane Bowl

5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ford Field (Detroit, Michigan)
Georgia Tech (No. 74 S&P+) -5 vs. Minnesota (No. 58 S&P+)
Total: 58

ATL: NA (Minnesota suspensions)

 

At a glance

Georgia Tech (7-5 vs. No. 27 SOS) - S&P+ off (31, 18/6), def (105, 90/118), ST (16)
vs.
Minnesota (6-6 vs. No. 36 SOS) - S&P+ off (88, 86/51), def (44, 101/47), ST (25)

Offshore intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “The story in this one is the big move in the total. We opened it at 61 and were immodestly bet by are sharp bettors. We moved it down to 60 but it was not aggressive enough as players continued to bet the under. They bet it all the way down to 57 where we finally saw some buyback, but considering the bad position we are in with this totals it would not surprise me if this total fell even more before kickoff.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects


Minnesota LB Thomas Barber (Round 5 grade): “Tough, run defending linebacker with great bloodlines.  More of a two down player but instinctive and tough.”

Georgia Tech G Parker Braun (Round 7): “Nice sized blocker with a next level combination of mobility and strength.”


Sitting: Minnesota OT Donnell Greene, Minnesota LB Blake Cashman

The ‘cap

I bet Georgia Tech -3 when the first bowl lines were released. Everything that has happened in the weeks since has been pro-GT and anti-Minnesota.

Georgia Tech HC Paul Johnson announced that he’d be retiring after this game. The 61-year-old went 189-98 across stops at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech. With the Yellow Jackets, he finishes as the fourth-winningest coach in school history (and the winningest in 50 years) despite rarely getting just credit because of the offensive system he ran.

Tech hired Temple HC Geoff Collins to take over, effective after this game. This news is very pro-GT from a handicapping perspective. On the motivation side, Johnson’s players have one last chance to send him off the field a winner. And on the preparation side, not only is Johnson ostensibly getting ready for Minnesota as if it's the last game of his life (it is), but he didn’t have to worry about doggedly recruiting prior to last Wednesday’s early-signing period. While all the other head coaches in bowl season had to check in with high school athletes through Dec. 19, Johnson was thinking about the Gophers.

Minnesota’s past month didn’t go as well. According to numerous reports, the Gophers will suspend seven players for this game due to an off-the-field issue following the 37-15 win over archival Wisconsin in the regular season finale on Nov. 24 to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. That upset may have been made possible by Wisconsin’s apathy, but it was a legitimately huge deal to the Gophers program. It was cited by Minnesota’s brass as a primary reason for Fleck’s recent one-year extension.

Thing is, we still have no idea which players will be sitting. Minnesota to this time has refused to reveal their identities. The hush-hush nature of the entire thing may not be terribly surprising — the program no doubt wants fans to continue to bask in the win over the hated Badgers while getting excited for a return to bowl season — but it’s a bit troubling when assessing Minny’s mindset heading into this game (and, of course, when trying to project which players it’ll have at its disposal against GT).

That’s not all. Minnesota OT Donnell Greene, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound left tackle, will sit out after signing with an agent following surgery to repair a meniscus in his knee. The All-Big Ten honorable mention will be replaced on Morgan’s blind side by Sam Schlueter, generally used as a TE-eligible third OT in heavy formations when he hasn’t filled in for Greene (this will be Schlueter’s third start of the year).

We’re not done. Star Gophers LB Blake Cashman — the team’s leading tackler and leading run stuffer — is also sitting out this game to begin NFL preparations. Cashman was perhaps Minnesota’s most important defensive piece when considering this matchup against a triple-option team. He’ll give way to a green youngster.

And on top of all this, Minnesota was injury ravaged as is. They played almost the entire season without the top-shelf one-two RB punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (both of whom will miss this game). The biggest loss was star S Antoine Winfield Jr., a stud who sealed the win over Fresno State with an acrobatic interception back in September. Later that month, an injury ended his campaign.

Minnesota’s No. 101 rush defense matches up poorly here. The Gophers are far better against the pass, a strength that will be negated against GTs triple-option offense. Minnesota is elite at stuff rate (No. 9 S&P+), which is going to help, but they regularly get ripped for huge runs (No. 126), an unfortunate quirk Georgia Tech should be able to exploit. Minnesota played a lot of conventional run-first teams in the Big 10, but they did not face a triple-option team.

Minnesota’s only path to keeping up in this game is through the air with its No. 51 passing attack against Georgia Tech’s dreadful No. 118 pass defense. Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson (74-1,112-10) is an All-Big Ten performer who may have been an All-American if he’d played with a better quarterback this fall. The Gophers’ limitations behind center make it hard to project them to come out clean if Georgia Tech is moving the ball on its defense, Johnson or no Johnson.

Georgia Tech is bad at defending the run -- No. 90 S&P+, with the No. 110 defensive stuff rate — so Mohamed Ibrahim should have some level of success. But keep in mind that Ibrahim was the fourth-stringer coming into the year and that Minnesota’s offense line isn’t at full strength.

Georgia Tech was on an absolute roll — winning four straight, including three wins over ACC bowl teams — prior to losing 45-21 to Georgia in the finale. The Bulldogs are a top-three team, so we can forgive the Yellow Jackets that one. I think they get back on track by drilling the drama-embroiled Gophers to send Johnson out a winner.

The pick: Georgia Tech -5.5

Cheez-It Bowl

9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Chase Field (Phoenix, Arizona)
California (No. 64 S&P+) -1 vs. TCU (No. 57 S&P+)
Total: 38.5

ATL: Pick 'em

 

At a glance

Cal (7-5 vs. No. 66 SOS) - S&P+ off (121, 96/122), def (12, 27/14), ST (20)
vs.
TCU (6-6 vs. No. 30 SOS) - S&P+ off (99, 92/98), def (23, 29/11), ST (121)

Offshore intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Sharp bettors are taking a pass on this game, but the recreational bettors were able to move the line slightly. We opened this game as a pick ‘em with a total of 40 and our recreational player bet the Golden Bears into 1 Point favorites by taking a staggering 85% of the action. Similar story for the total as 76% of the bets were on the under so we moved it from 40 to 39.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects


TCU DE Ben Banogu (Round 5 grade): “Terrific edge rusher who disrupts the action when focused on the task at hand. Could make a big move up boards if he plays and works out well in the lead up to the draft.”

Cal LB Evan Weaver (Round 6 grade): “Dominant tackling machine who’s come out of nowhere to make a name for himself in the scouting community.”

The ‘cap

If you hate offensive football, have we got the game for you!

These aren’t just bad offenses. These are bad offenses that got worse and worse as the season progressed. TCU (No. 99 S&P+ offense) was held under 20 points in three of their last four games, while Cal (No. 121) was held under 20 points in four of their last five.

But boy can these teams play defense! The Golden Bears (No. 12) held 10 of 12 opponents to 24 points or less (and Washington and Washington State to a total of 29!), while TCU pulled that trick seven times. Keep an eye out for NFL-bound Horned Frogs star edge rusher Ben Banogu (31.5 TFL and 14 sacks over the last two seasons), perhaps the most talented defender in this all-defense matchup.

The total of this game is 38.5 points, an absurd number befitting a game between triple-option running military academics. But it’s that low for a reason. If one of these teams reaches 20 — it’s no sure thing; TCU played in four games this year where neither team cracked 20, Cal played in such games in three of the last four games alone — it’s likely going to win.

So let’s jump into the offenses. But before we do, we should make one thing clear: Cal not only has a defensive edge heading in, but they also have en enormous special teams edge (No. 20 to 121). So for TCU to get consideration here, they need to have a pronounced offensive edge.

The Horned Frogs will have the singular best offensive performer on the field, we can say with certainty. WR Jalen Reagor (11 touchdowns and 1,222 yards of total offense) is a do-everything athlete that averaged 15.4 yards per rushing attempt (on only 11 carries, but still — he also averaged nearly 15 yards per catch). Reagor’s leap was especially important after WR/KR KaVontae Turpin was kicked off the team leading up to the Kansas game.

The issue is the rest of the unit. TCU dealt with a ton of injuries this fall —at one point, a punter was practicing as a defensive end so the scout team had enough bodies — and that’ll be the case again against Cal. “It’s our duct tape group here,” HC Gary Patterson said. “The way it’s been going this year, I’d tell you the day before the game who’s ready, who’s not.”


QB Michael Collins, who had been starting since Shawn Robinson was knocked out for the year (Robinson has since transferred to Missouri), is out after undergoing season-ending surgery to fix an injury he suffered in the Baylor game. Other notable absences on the bowl depth chart include starting RB Darius Anderson and OL Austin Myers, both of whom were injured against Oklahoma State. Patterson still doesn’t know if LB Ty Summers or DT Joseph Broadnax will be healthy enough to play.

The Horned Frogs will once again turn the offense over to limited fifth-year senior QB Grayson Muelstein, an organizational soldier whose football-playing days will likely conclude when the clock strikes 0:00 on this game. To Muelstein’s credit, he did lead TCU to an upset win over Oklahoma State in the regular season finale to clinch bowl eligibility.

But he enters this game with only 43 career attempts. TCU hyped freshman QB Justin Rogers is listed as the backup, but Rogers has been rehabbing an injury all year and may not be ready, either physically or experientially. “He’s still not where we want him to be with the foot and everything,” Patterson said.

So Patterson has been joking that he himself might have to be the backup QB against Cal. Let’s put it this way: Even though Muelstein is no better than a low-end G5 quarterback, TCU desperately needs him to make it through four quarters against one of the nation’s best defenses. If Muelstein goes down and Rogers isn’t healthy enough to step in, TCU is in deep, deep trouble.

It already might be. TCU failed to reach 18 points against Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia during the regular season. At No. 31, Iowa State has the highest S&P+ defensive rank of those teams. Texas is next at No. 55. None of the other four rank in the top-70.

And now TCU is starting a fourth-string QB and a backup RB. Even if this offense can somehow generate multiple drives each half inside of Cal’s 40, they still aren’t out of the woods. The Horned Frogs rank No. 122 in red zone offense. In one-quarter of their drives into the red zone, TCU came away with zero points. One-fourth! And to repeat: They're now down to their fourth-string QB and backup RB!

Cal’s offense is paint-by-numbers, and, frankly, downright bad. But it does have an identity. The Golden Bears eventually decided upon freshman QB Chase Garbers (1,413 yards passing and a 14/7 TD/INT rate), and that decision has paid off. Brandon McIlwain (2/8 TD/INT ratio) was not it.

Cal tries to establish the run with Patrick Laird. Defenses know that’s coming, but Laird is good enough to take what’s given to him (923 yards and five TD on 4.3 ypc). The Golden Bears are looking to keep Garbers out of third-and-longs. But they don’t mind trusting the defense and playing the field position game with their outstanding special teams units, because the coaching staff has no illusions about the offense they’re gameplanning around.

Cal is better at taking care of the ball than TCU by conventional and advanced numbers. But the difference is larger than the cumulative numbers make it out to be. That’s because McIlwain (2/8 TD/INT rate) was a turnover machine during his brief reign and the curdled milk stats from that regrettable era remain baked into Cal's season-long numbers. Garbers has thrown one less pick in 112 more throws. TCU, which ranks No. 126 in expected turnover rate, needs to be very careful here. Cal's defense led the Pac-12 with 24 takeaways.

Fortunately for Cal, TCU is better against the pass than the run. Laird and crew don’t match up the best with TCU’s run defense, but this is the one in-game matchup of the entire contest where the offense isn’t at an absurd disadvantage. TCU ranks S&P+ No. 48 against rushing efficiency — decent but not great — and that area-of-least-resistance just so happens to be exactly what Cal’s offense would prefer to attack, if it had its druthers.

Cal ranks No. 65 in rushing efficiency and is just inside the top-60 in opportunity rate and stuff rate (meaning that Cal’s ground game, if nothing else, doesn’t lose yardage). If you told Justin Wilcox that he could choose one area of the offense to excel at heading into this game, he would no-doubt answer “rushing efficiency” in different words.

TCU is a team accustomed to playing in better bowl games. HC Gary Patterson is one of the sport’s best coaches. His team persevered to finish 3-1 to rally into the postseason after being left for dead at 3-5 after the Kansas loss. Because of the effort down the stretch, and because of Patterson’s presence, I’m not projecting TCU to no-show here.

But they’re going to need to be firing on all cylinders to have a chance. Because Cal has been building towards this moment, qualifying for their first bowl game since Jared Goff was on campus. Wilcox turned the program around by remaking Cal as Wisconsin West. The offense has a long way to go, but the defense and special teams are already championship caliber.

The pick: Cal -1

 


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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.
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