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Mark Lindquist

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ATS Bowl Picks: Dec. 31

Sunday, December 30, 2018


Rotoworld has a college football podcast dedicated to betting against the spread. Every week, my co-host Thor Nystrom 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 Thor Nystrom's system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap). Thor uses ATL to give a ballpark idea of what a fair spread would be independent of public perception.


*Thor's picks can be found at the end of each handicap

 

December 31

 

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman

 

Noon ET, ESPN

Jack Stephens Field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Maryland)

Cincinnati (No. 32 S&P+) -6 vs. Virginia Tech (No. 69 S&P+)

Total: 53.5 


At a glance

 

Cincinnati (10-2 vs. No. 96 SOS) - S&P+ off (74, 62/88), def (19, 3/26), ST (76)

vs.

Virginia Tech (6-6 vs. No. 63 SOS) - S&P+ off (48, 82/26), def (79, 110/86), ST (45)

 

Oddmaker's intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Small exposure on Virginia Tech money line at +185, but most of it would be covered by Virginia Tech +5.5. An interesting note here is the total was posted at 54 and has not moved at all. It is the least bet total of any game on the board right now.”

 

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects

 

Virginia Tech DT Ricky Walker (Round 5): “Explosive interior lineman with potential as a three technique tackle. Makes a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage.”

 

Cincinnati WR Kahlil Lewis (UDFA grade): “Relatively productive college receiver with average measurables and speed for the next level.”

 

The ‘cap

 

The Military Bowl will pit two teams with very different trajectories against each other. Cincinnati is sitting at 10-2 and on the verge of their best season since 2009, when they were coached by Brian Kelly, while Virginia Tech barely managed to make it into the bowl fray at all -- they needed to win each of their final two games (against Virginia and Marshall) to reach this New Year’s Eve date.

 

We loved Virginia Tech’s initial hire of HC Justin Fuente back in 2016, and he made good on the early excitement in leading his squad to a berth in the ACC title game against Clemson and an ultimate 10-4 record. Things have not developed on schedule since then, though, as Fuente’s crew dropped back to 9-3 in 2017 before taking a significant step back at 6-6 for the current regular season. The Hokies limped through the campaign in decidedly unimpressive fashion. An upset loss at the hands of Old Dominion on Sept. 22 set the tone for their wilderness year, but that defeat wasn’t just notable in terms of its 49-35 final score. It also cost Justin Fuente and crew their starting quarterback, as Joshua Jackson sustained a season-ending fractured fibula in the contest.

 

With Jackson sidelined, Virginia Tech turned to Kansas transfer Ryan Willis. And for all of their issues as a team, Willis does provide something of an interesting spark, both as a runner and a passer. He threw for multiple touchdown passes in seven games, with three of those contests seeing him go off for three or more scoring passes (including four against Marshall in a do-or-die regular-season finale). Despite his success in spots through the air, the 6-foot-4, 223-pound signal-caller is nowhere close to being a finished product as a passer. He’s completing just 58% of his passes on the year. That will prove problematic in this contest, against what is an elite pass defense.

 

Cincinnati made their bones this season on the strength of one of the best statistical defenses in the country (16.1 points per game allowed, good for 7th nationally) and a workmanlike rushing attack led by All-AAC second-teamer Michael Warren II (1,163 yards, 17 touchdowns). Of note with Warren, he is currently dealing with a shoulder injury but is probable to play on Monday. Assuming Warren can take the field, that running game should play up well against Virginia Tech’s oh-dear-goodness-awful run defense, ranked S&P+ No. 110. That defense was especially putrid once the calendar flipped to October. Over their final eight games, the Hokies surrendered an average of 268 yards rushing per contest, with opposing runners shredding them at a 6.3 YPC clip. Assuming that Warren can take the field at relatively full strength, he has a chance to gallop for grand numbers. Couple Warren with dual-threat QB Desmond Ridder (574 rushing yards) and you have a nice foundation for a big day on the ground. We’re far less smitten when it comes to Ridder’s passing prowess -- he finished with fewer than 200 yards passing in eight games -- but don’t see this one coming down to his arm to begin with.

 

Cincinnati’s stellar pass defense (S&P+ No. 26 and No. 1 vs. passing efficiency) does have one soft spot that Willis and crew could potentially exploit, in their relative inability to stop big passing plays. At least that’s something that shows up in the advanced stats, as the Bearcats rank No. 109 vs. passing explosion. Yet despite that raw number, the actual counting statistics when it comes to long passing plays are far more palatable. The Bearcats have allowed the 16th fewest aerial plays of 20-plus yards in the country this year and were top-40 against plays of 30-plus and 40-plus yards. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Willis could turn in a big game, though. We saw him shred Marshall’s S&P+ No. 32 pass defense to close out the campaign, when he threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns.

 

On the motivational front, we give the edge to Cincinnati as they hunt for their 11th win of the campaign. Tough losses to Temple and especially UCF (that one was not competitive) prevented them from cracking the AAC Championship Game, but this is still a team which not only outperformed preseason expectations, but largely thrived in doing so. Cincy HC Luke Fickell should have the team ready to cap off this big year in high style. But like we said, Virginia Tech has something to play for, too. They showed up when it mattered in their final two games, with a little assist from Virginia, who had a 70-percent postgame win expectancy in the penultimate game of the campaign only to lose in excruciating fashion to their in-state rival to trigger that 12th and final game against Marshall. Which Virginia Tech thoroughly dominated.

 

This one ultimately comes down to our trust in Cincinnati’s defense -- occasional issues allowing longer passing plays notwithstanding -- and run game. The Hokies are actually probably better equipped to hang in a shootout than the Bearcats, but this one’s not going to develop into a shootout. It’s going to be another rock ‘em, sock ‘em affair for Cincinnati. So long as Warren plays, we see them building a lead and holding it. Our biggest concern comes in whether Willis and company could pop a few big plays to keep this one tight (potential backdoor cover?), but so long as Cincinnati keeps everything in front of them, and so long as Warren is healthy enough to perform at or near his normal standard, we like the Bearcats to cover.

 

Mark's pick: Cincinnati -6

Thor's pick: Cincinnati -6

 

Hyundai Sun Bowl

 

2 p.m. ET, CBS

Sun Bowl Stadium (El Paso, Texas)

Stanford (No. 27 S&P+) -4.5 vs. Pittsburgh (No. 67 S&P+)

Total: 52

 

At a glance

 

Stanford (8-4 vs. No. 25 SOS) - S&P+ off (22, 105/7), def (51, 66/95), ST (10)

vs.

Pittsburgh (7-6 vs. No. 6 SOS) - S&P+ off (64, 11/93), def (67, 71/57), ST (49)

 

Oddmaker's intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “The line opened at Stanford -6.5 and the sharps bet it down to -5.5 within a couple of days. We were still seeing sharp money at Pittsburgh +5.5 so we decided to move to +5. We then saw a significant amount of public money come in on Stanford to the point that Stanford is now a loser for the book. With the sharps betting +5.5, it would take a lot of public money before we considered moving it back.”

 

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects

 

Stanford RB Bryce Love (Round 2 grade): “Love surprisingly bypassed the 2018 NFL Draft then was graded as a mid-first round pick by scouts entering the season. Injuries plagued him this year which has hurt his draft stock.  He won’t participate in the Sun Bowl but when healthy Love is a terrific runner in space who picks up big chunks of yardage from the line of scrimmage and he’s very effective catching the ball out of the backfield.”

 

Pittsburgh CB Oluwaseun Idowu (Round 6 grade): “Smallish but very athletic run and chase linebacker with solid cover skills.”

 

The ‘cap

 

When first the bowl slate was announced, two games stuck out to us as immediate potential ugly ones in the Cheez-It Bowl matchup between Cal and TCU and this Sun Bowl matchup between Stanford and Pitt. Nothing is going to top what the Golden Bears and Horned Frogs offered up on Dec. 26, in what finished as a so-ugly-it’s-beautiful 10-7 overtime win by TCU. Unlike that contest, which was so absurdly out there offensively that it was fascinating, this Pitt-Stanford matchup might just end up being forgettable.


What we’re faced with, here, is an ACC title game combatant that would have been an also-ran had the conference played stronger ball on the whole, and a Pac-12 outfit we loved in the preseason and into the early portion of the campaign which underwhelmed progressively as the season wound on its merry way. Pitt’s path to the Sun Bowl did see them win four of their last six during the regular season, though they dropped each of their last two in uncompetitive fashion, falling to Miami 24-3 before being waxed by Clemson 42-10 in the conference title game. Both of those teams neutered Pitt’s strength as a rushing team.


That the Panthers kept their heads above water for the campaign is admirable given the team’s drawbacks in certain avenues. The less said about Kenny Pickett and the Pitt passing game, for instance, the better, but just to touch on it, it’s rotten. Pickett was held under 200 yards passing in every game save for one this season. He finished out the pre-bowl campaign throwing for eight (!) yards against Clemson. This is an offense which hinges almost completely on its running game. That unit, headlined by Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, has been the team’s saving grace. On the whole, Pitt boasts the S&P+ No. 11 rushing attack in the country, with Ollison and Hall combining to rush for 2,211 yards on the year.


It’s hard to believe we’re typing these words, but we far, far prefer Pitt’s rushing offense to Stanford’s rushing offense. That would have been near-sacrilege coming into the season, but then again, we expected Bryce Love to look like, well, Bryce Love. He didn’t, managing just one 100-yard game for the season while fighting through ankle injuries (yet again). Even so, the threat of Love -- real or, more often, imagined -- would have been big in this matchup. Stanford won’t even be getting that, as Love will be skipping this bowl game in order to focus on the NFL Draft. He should have declared a year ago, and would have been in play for a Day 1 selection had he done so, but the damage to his draft profile has already been done.  Instead of Love in this matchup, we’ll be treated to the blargh combo of Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights. Remember how Ollison and Hall combined to put up (essentially) Bryce Love’s numbers from a year ago? Scarlett and Speights have combined for 457 rushing yards on 116 carries. That comes with the caveat that Love took 166 carries off the table, but even so, neither Scarlett (4.1 YPC) nor Speights (3.7 YPC) impressed when given opportunity.


The absence of Love and the mediocrity of Stanford’s rushing attack as a whole is problematic in and of itself, because that’s an arena in which you can bash up Pitt if you have the weapons. The Panthers struggled to an S&P+ No. 71 rushing defense this year, and have fared even worse against explosion, ranking No. 119 on S&P+. Love’s not there to offer that explosive aspect on the ground (or at least the possibility for it), and as aforementioned, Speights and Scarlett do not have that big-play skill-set in their toolbox. Not only does the Cardinal offer little in the way of ground support for QB K.J. Costello at this point, their defensive profile against the run is problematic in the face of the only thing that Pitt excels at. Ollison and Hall should find plenty of room to work against S&P+’s No. 66 run defense.


So just what does Stanford have going for it in the Sun Bowl if it’s not their running game and not their run defense? Well it’s also not their pass defense (S&P+ No. 95), though for us, that’s essentially a negligible deficiency giving that Kenny Pickett is tossing it on the other side. Where the Cardinal do have a decided edge, and what really makes this handicap interesting, is K.J. Costello, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and the rest of aerial attack. Costello threw for the third-highest yardage total in Stanford history this season, putting up 3,435 yards with a 29/11 TD/INT ratio. Pitt isn’t exactly a leaky boat in their pass defense (S&P+ No. 57), but a tall wave could certainly sink them and that’s what we see happening, here. Costello and Arcega-Whiteside play somewhat like a less flashy Will Grier/David Sills combo, with the two wideouts in question both monster red zone targets. Arcega-Whiteside pulled down 14 touchdowns during the regular season to lead the Pac-12.


Cardinal HC David Shaw can drive you crazy with his at-times ultra-conservative approach, but routinely has his boys ready to play around this time of the year. They head into the Sun Bowl having won three consecutive games to close out the regular season, and Shaw is 5-2 ATS in bowl games since taking over as head coach in 2011. That speaks well to his preparation and ability to keep motivation through the month of December, though we should fairly point out that this is one of his less inspiring outfits -- Shaw’s teams have won double-digit games in five of eight seasons, something that cannot happen this year with Stanford currently sitting at 8-4. His bowl history is encouraging on the whole, as is his discipline. One arena that could swing this game -- penalties. Stanford shoots itself in the foot with just 5.5 penalties per game on average (for 42.3 yards averaged). That shows in stark contrast to Pitt’s discipline issues. The Panthers average 7.3 flags per contest for 70 yards a game, and thrice surrendered more than 100 penalty yards. Wrapping up on the coaching side, Pitt HC Pat Narduzzi owns a small sample size 0-2 ATS record in bowl appearances with the Panthers.


This is something of a strange matchup in which the two teams excel in opposite ways -- run for Pitt, pass for Stanford -- but for us, in a game where neither team possesses an elite defense, our preference would be to go with the more upside passing game. Factor in the coaching edge provided by Shaw and we’ll lay the points with the Cardinal.


Mark's pick: Stanford -4.5

Thor's pick: Pitt +4.5

 

Redbox Bowl

 

3 p.m. ET, Fox

Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, California)

Oregon (No. 47 S&P+) -2.5 vs. Michigan State (No. 35 S&P+)

Total: 48

 

At a glance

 

Oregon (8-4 vs. No. 65 SOS) - S&P+ off (23, 57/39), def (69, 64/77), ST (103)

vs.

Michigan State (7-5 vs. No. 23 SOS) - S&P+ off (114, 114/109), def (2, 2/17), ST (53)

 

Oddmaker's intel


Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “All Oregon all the time, as almost 70% of the bets are on the Ducks. We opened the line at Oregon -2.5, but the public bettors were able to push the line to three. We are not seeing the public on Oregon -3 and the sharp bettor on Michigan State +3. As long as we are seeing a split like this between sharp and recreational bettors I do not see the line moving off three one way or another.”

 

Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects

 

Oregon QB Justin Herbert (Round 1 grade): "Herbert’s recent announcement he plans to bypass the draft for another season on the college field surprised no one yet still shapes the top of the draft. He’s a tall, athletic signal caller with all the ingredients to lead a franchise at the next level."


Michigan State CB Justin Layne (Round 3 grade): "Layne announced he will enter the draft and he’s sitting out this contest to prepare for the combine. He has excellent length, a large degree of athleticism and is slowly developing a complete game."


The ‘cap


Redbox coming in to throw around their branding weight in this showdown between the Spartans and Ducks. Up front, we’d like to note that Oregon received a huge boost with QB Justin Herbert announcing that he will be returning to school in 2019. That should have a positive effect on the locker room for obvious reasons, but we’re not going to put too much weight into the emotional impact for this bowl. That’s because Herbert’s return was widely rumored throughout the season. If the internet was openly speculating on it based on very reports, you can reasonably assume that Herbert’s brothers in the locker room have been sitting on this knowledge for a while. So while it’s a happy occurrence for the Ducks, it’s not necessarily a needle-mover in the short term, at least beyond the fact that Herbert will, indeed, be playing in this game.


Oregon sure as heck is going to need the junior gunslinger to come through with an impressive performance, because Michigan State brings to the fore a dominant defense -- ranked No. 2 overall on S&P+ -- and one particularly adept at putting the brakes on explosive passing plays at an S&P+ No. 11 clip, neutering something Herbert excels at (S&P+ No. 26 passing explosion offense for Oregon). MSU’s elite pass defense did not begin the year as such. Rather the opposite. They presented as stark a split between rushing and passing defense as could be found in the FBS through the first month-plus of the season, when theirs ranked as the best run defense in the country -- and the worst pass defense. They were allowing more than 300 passing yards per game on average early on in the campaign, before stabilizing in large part due to the return of CB Josiah Scott from a knee injury. Down the stretch, Michigan State allowed just 138.8 passing yards over their final four games. That’s stellar, though with a caveat in relation to the Redbox Bowl. Scott may be back in the fold, but MSU will be without CB Justin Layne, who is set to sit out this contest after declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft.


His absence could prove critical with Herbert slinging it for the Ducks on the other side, and we’ll see if a Layne-less secondary is capable of holding onto what had been a definitive edge. While we like Oregon’s running back trio of Travis Dye, CJ Verdell and Tony Brooks-James (the latter of whom ended up taking a backseat to Dye/Verdell), we don’t expect it to be terribly effective at finding space against an MSU defense ranking an S&P+ No. 1 against both rushing efficiency and in stuff rate. This really does figure to be Herbert’s show.


Note that all of our chatter thus far has been about Michigan State’s defense vs. Oregon’s offense, rather than the reverse. That’s because we see the handicap coming down to that matchup more than anything else. No sugarcoating, Sparty’s offense (as it were) was one of the worst in the country this season, especially after leading receiver Felton Davis III was knocked out with a torn Achilles near the end of the campaign. Michigan State finished the year looking as pitiful as a wet kitten, scoring a combined 26 points over their last three games and very nearly falling in defeat to Rutgers at the close of the campaign. Brian Lewerke dealt with a shoulder injury for much of the season but is expected to play in the Redbox Bowl. Though honestly, it probably doesn’t matter much who is quarterbacking MSU. Lewerke, Rocky Lombardi, neither will knock your socks off.


We’re all about finding slight saving graces, though, and if there is one with this abomination of an offense, it comes in the draft-bound LJ Scott emerging like the Loch Ness Monster from a mostly absent season. He plans on playing in this game after appearing in just four contests during the regular season due to an ever-nagging ankle injury and actually could have taken a redshirt for 2018 had he so chosen. He last played on Oct. 27, against Purdue, meaning that he will have had over two months to heal up by the time this game kicks off. A year ago in the Holiday Bowl, Scott rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns in a showdown with another high-flying Pac-12 outfit in Washington State. The Spartans won that one handily. MSU’s offense has been laughably bad at times this season, but Scott is a low-level NFL talent and if he comes out healthy and motivated to show out strong for pro evaluators, Oregon’s run defense (S&P+ No. 64) is average at best.


We have no doubts about Michigan State HC Mark Dantonio’s ability to get his guys motivated and roaring to go. He is a wizard against the spread in all sorts of scenarios. A few to throw your way -- Michigan State is 5-1 ATS in their last six bowl games (only failing to cover when Alabama shut them out in the Playoff a few years back) and Dantonio is an even heartier 7-0 in his last seven bowl games in which the spread is under a touchdown. And MSU is 5-0 in their last five as underdogs, with four outright wins snagged in that space. There’s not a coach we trust more than Dantonio in a spot like this. As much as MSU’s offense might be scary to back, we feel an equal and opposite confidence in the defense and in the coaching staff. A presumably fresh LJ Scott pushes this one over the top for us. GIve us Michigan State and give us the outright upset.

 

Mark's pick: Michigan State +2.5

Thor's pick: Michigan State +2.5

 


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Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.
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