Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Picks Dec. 28

Wednesday, December 26, 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.



December 28

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tennessee)
Auburn (No. 18 S&P+) -3.5 vs. Purdue (No. 37 S&P+)
Total: 55
ATL: Auburn -5.5

At a glance

Auburn (7-5 vs. No. 4 SOS) - S&P+ off (47, 81/58), def (18, 20/16), ST (43)
Purdue (6-6 vs. No. 33 SOS) - S&P+ off (16, 29/24), def (82, 55/80), ST (60)

Oddmaker's intel

Kevin Bradley, Sportsbook manager: “Balanced action as 52% of the action is on Purdue and 48% on Auburn. Similar story for the total, 55% of the action is over and 45% is under. Small exposure on the Purdue moneyline as they are both being bet equally, but the +150 price on Purdue is slowly adding up.”

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team

Auburn DT Derrick Brown (Round 1 grade): “Dominant defensive tackle with great size, athleticism and power. Can occupy the gaps, stop the run or rush the passer. First round prospect who get lost in the shuffle.”

Purdue DT Lorenzo Neal (Round 7 grade): “Quick, athletic defensive tackle who can be a playmaker of occupy the gaps. Forceful when he’s on his game.”

The ‘cap

Of the non-elite bowls heading into the New Year’s Six games, this one features one of the largest motivational discrepancies. Auburn, a preseason top-10 team, is hobbling to the end of a crushingly-disappointing season they can’t wait to turn the page on. Purdue couldn’t be more thrilled to be here.

Jeff Brohm stunned the football world by turning down his alma matter Louisville to stay at Purdue. The fanbase, which was already all-in on the Brohm era, responded in kind by gobbling up as many bowl tickets as they could. The Boilermakers announced on Friday, Dec. 7 — five days after this matchup was announced — that they’d more than sold out their allotment of tickets for this game.

On that date, Purdue had sold 11,000 tickets (3,000 over their original allotment). We don't know how many Purdue fans will ultimately arrive at the stadium, but safe to say that the Boilermakers will have their largest bowl turnout since a reported 20,000 Purdue fans attended the 2004 Capital One Bowl.

Auburn also sold their allotment of 8,000 tickets. Over 50,000 tickets had been sold as of Thursday, thrilling game officials. "We're probably doing a little better in terms of ticket sales than we thought when we first announced the teams," Music City Bowl President and CEO Scott Ramsey said.

The Tigers started the season at No. 9 in the polls. In a marquee Week 1 matchup, Auburn knocked off the eventual Pac-12 champs (then-No. 6) Washington 21-16. The Tigers beat an FCS team the next week. They collapsed after that, going 5-5. That 10-game stretch featured only one win over a team ranked higher than S&P+ No. 70 (Texas A&M).

Purdue is the opposite. They began the year with three close losses (maybe even fluky losses — Purdue had 62%+ win expectancies in all three). Since then, the Boilermakers have gone 6-3, with one insanely good showing (the blowout of eventual Big Ten champ Ohio State) and one insanely bad showing (the blowout loss against Minnesota).

If you go by second-order win total, Purdue was the third-unluckiest team in the nation this year. The Boilermakers finished with 7.5 (+1.5) second-order wins against the No. 33 SOS. Auburn finished with 7.2 (+0.2) second-order wins against the No. 4 SOS.

If this number, Auburn -3.5, struck you as light on first blush — a few of my buddies who don’t bet college football but participate in bowl ATS pools texted with questions about why Auburn wasn’t favored by more — I’d argue that two things are going on.

1.) Purdue is better than their 6-6 record makes them seem (and I’m not even talking about the electric win over the Buckeyes, which in my eyes is canceled out by the no-show against Minnesota; I’m talking about the season on the whole), and, 2.) Purdue probably deserves a point or two on the line for the motivation discrepancy (my ATL line of Auburn -5.5 does not account for things like that).

Auburn’s biggest concern heading into this game is Purdue true freshman WR Rondale Moore. The Tigers have struggled to contain stud athlete (D’Andre Swift rushed for almost 200 yards against Auburn and Jake Fromm averaged almost 10.0 ypa, Alabama averaged over 10.0 ypa through the air against Auburn, Nick Fitzgerald and Kylin Hill combined for over 300 yards rushing against Auburn, etc.).

Moore, who led the nation with 103 receptions (143 targets), is the most electric outside athlete that Auburn has seen this year, and that’s saying something. Moore recently won the Paul Hornung Award — given to the most versatile player in college football — the Big Ten Receiver of the Year award and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. He was also a semifinalist for both the Maxwell Award, given to the collegiate player of the year, and the Biletnikoff Award, given to the receiver of the year.

Moore is also a fabulous kick and punt returner, and he’s extremely dangerous when given the occasional carry (11.3 ypc on 20 attempts). Purdue will get him the ball as much as they can. Moore is a walking mismatch as is, but he’s particularly unfair in this matchup. Purdue’s offense ranks No. 10 in S&P+ explosiveness, while Auburn’s defense is No. 105 against explosion.

The Boilermakers also have the No. 8 red zone offense in the FBS by conventional stats, and are No. 37 S&P+ in points per scoring opportunity. If you give up yardage to Purdue, they usually make you pay.

Auburn’s defense is good overall — No. 18 S&P+ — but its struggles with preventing home run plays makes Purdue a particularly bad draw. One effective way to defend passing explosion is to get to the quarterback before can throw. Auburn’s pass rush was fine during the regular season (No. 44 sack rate), but it’s likely going to be without its top pass-rusher, DE Nick Coe, who leads the team with 13.5 TFL and seven sack. Coe is doubtful after undergoing wrist surgery earlier this month.

Speaking of the pass rush, Purdue doesn't have one (No. 105). The Boilermakers’ biggest weakness, as a team, is its pass defense. From the perspective of Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham (2,421 yards, 13/5 TD/INT rate), coming off a very disappointing regular season, Purdue was a great draw. And with Stidham forgoing his final season of eligibility to turn pro after the game (he is playing), he could really use a big game.

Whether he will or not is another question. There’s been a stink around Auburn’s offense all year. The offensive line has been blamed (perhaps unfairly; it is No. 26 in stuff rate and No. 53 in sack rate), the offensive coordinator has been blamed (OC Chip Lindsey fled to Kansas to join Les Miles’ staff and was replaced by Memphis OC Kenny Dillingham), Gus Malzahn has been blamed (what else is new?), and Stidham, of course, has been criticized.

Stidham, notoriously shaky under pressure, shouldn’t be under much duress in this game. His go-to receiver, reliable slot target Ryan Davis, has been cleared after he took a nasty shot to the head in the regular season finale against Alabama (Jared Mayden was ejected for targeting).

To win, Auburn needs Stidham to go off. Because Purdue’s run defense is a tick above average, and Auburn’s rushing attack was non-existent all year. JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow leads the team with 777 yards and four touchdowns. He’s been mediocre. Everyone behind him has been worse. Four-star freshman RB Asa Martin got sick of not getting more touches and bolted to Miami.

Auburn isn’t going to have a ton of success on the ground. And I guess the issue, for me, is that it’s hard to envision Stidham rising up to light up Purdue in his last collegiate game. Stidham has regressed since his freshman year under Art Briles at Baylor. The Baylor scandal sent Stidham on an odyssey that eventually led to Auburn. It wasn’t a good pick.

If Eric Dungey hadn’t been at Syracuse, Stidham would have been fabulous under Dino Babers (who runs a version of Briles’ old offense). Stidham needs the field spread, and he needs time to work. Confined spaces make him claustrophobic, and chaos makes him hurl. If I’m Purdue, I’m cooking up a series of exotic blitzes right now to ramp up the heat.

This is a proverbial matchup of programs heading in different directions. The future is bright at Purdue now that Brohm has committed to staying. Brohm is 3-0 SU and 2-1 ATS in bowl games, including an upset win over Arizona in last year’s bowl game. Not only that, but Brohm is closing in on Tom Herman/Pat Fitzgerald territory as an underdog. As a ‘dog at Purdue, he’s 8-2 ATS with five outright wins.

The pick: Purdue +3.5

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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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