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Bowl Predictions

ATS Bowl Picks + NFL Prospects

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PEACH BOWL: Florida State (10-2) -6.5 Houston (12-1)

 

Site: Atlanta

Date: Dec. 31

Time/TV: Noon ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

I’ve picked against Houston and lost throughout the season. With that as your fair warning caveat, I side with Florida State here. Both Josh and I think Dalvin Cook (1,658 rushing yards with 7.9 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns) should have won the Heisman. It’s hard to believe an uber-talented offensive superstar on Florida State could be overlooked, but Cook is.

 

Because he’s so good, Florida State has a top-20 S&P+ offense despite platooning a pair of mediocre quarterbacks (one of them, Everett Golson, left the team recently and won't be on the sidelines for this game). I’ve got some issues with the offensive playcalling as a whole, but the macro strategy—methodical and conservative—caters to the personnel. The Seminoles ask Cook to cut-accelerate-gouge and cut-accelerate-gouge some more. Then they leisurely meander back to the huddle, talk about this week’s episode of The Challenge, and walk back the line so Cook can cut-accelerate-gouge again. FSU ranks No. 123 in adjusted pace, No. 119 in possessions per game and No. 113 in plays per game.

 

Though Sean Maguire can't be trusted to consistently deliver the ball to a gifted stable of receivers (Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Kermit Whitfield), Cook’s presence ensures that defenses will never be able to pin their ears back and harass him into crippling mistakes. Cook is a dangerous weapon when leaking out of the backfield, converting 22 catches into 218 yards and a score.

 

By contrast, the Cougars run a fast-break offense that ranks No. 14 in adjusted pace. That strategy also perfectly suits their skill position talent. The Cougars are a three-man show and the NFL is not begging any to declare for the draft early. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, though. In fact, the unit is terrifying.

 

QB Greg Ward Jr. is a stupidly athletic open field wizard. He’s next to impossible to defend. You can’t spy him, you can’t stack the box and you can’t drop back eight. Ward has thrown for 2,590 yards with a 16/5 TD/INT rate and rushed for 1,174 and 19 touchdowns on 7.6 yards per carry. Defenses can’t forget about RB Kenneth Farrow, who may join Ward in the 1,000-yard rushing club during the game (he’s at 949 yards and 12 scores now). Ward’s favorite target is WR Demarcus Ayers, a diminutive, sticky-handed junior who has 89 catches for 1,140 yards and six scores. The offense rarely is stopped for negative plays.

 

While Farrow (ankle) has been cleared to return after missing two games, Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite admitted recently that the senior is not 100 percent healthy. Expect Farrow to platoon with Ryan Jackson and converted CB Brandon Wilson

 

I’m a big fan of advanced metrics and S&P+ in particular, but it’s wrong about Houston’s offense. S&P+ ranks that unit No. 31, primarily because of the school’s poor schedule. Houston’s offense is better than Florida State's. S&P+ is, however, correct about Florida State’s defense (No. 9) and Houston’s defense (No. 68). The Seminoles hold opponents to 15.8 points per game. If Houston is able to light up this group, I will owe them a big apology. It's going to be a blast watching Jalen Ramsey, Terrance Smith, Reggie Northrup and DeMarcus Walker trying to corral Ward. If they can, this game may get out of hand. Easier said than done.

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey (#8) - Numerous scouts are salivating over Ramey’s NFL projection. Let’s run down why. Ramsey has starred as both a cornerback and safety, playing outside in press and inside close to or off the line of scrimmage. Two, he is one of the best athletes in college football, placing in conference long jump championships along with running the 4x100 relay. Three, he is long at over 6’0/200 lbs. He plays the position with aggression and speed, while many are passive and reactionary. Ramsey plays in control, keeping his assignment on the outside on running plays or using his length to slow down receivers or attack the catch point without overextending. I know many believe Vernon Hargreaves is destined for the top defensive back selection. I think it will be Ramsey.

 

Other notable draft prospects: Houston CB William Jackson III (#3); FSU LB Terrance Smith (#24); FSU DE DeMarcus Walker (#44).

 

***

 

ORANGE BOWL: Oklahoma (11-1) -4 Clemson (13-0)


Site: Miami Gardens, Fla.

Date: Dec. 31

Time/TV: 4 p.m. ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

The Sooners are 6-1 ATS in their last seven. Clemson is 1-4 ATS over its last five. Oklahoma has scored 50 or more points in five of their last seven. In the other two, they beat TCU and Baylor, scoring a relatively tame 30 and 44 points, respectively. We most recently saw Clemson benefit from a blown call to beat UNC in the ACC Championship. Before that, they barely escaped the dumpster fire that is South Carolina. Not surprisingly, Vegas has been assaulted with Oklahoma money and a line that opened at OU -1.5 is now OU -4.

 

"As far as Clemson is concerned, they are getting no respect, no respect at all. So much for being undefeated and No. 1,” Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports at Station's Casinos, told ESPN. It’s bizarre that picking a No. 1-ranked, undefeated team would be contrarian, but that’s where we are. Where I am.

 

Since the stunning loss to Texas, the Sooners' offense has basically been unstoppable. QB Baker Mayfield (3,389 passing yards, 35/5 TD/INT) is both explosive and efficient, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt on 68.6 percent completions. RBs Samaje Perine (1,291 rushing yards, 15 TDs) and Joe Mixon (749-7) form a devastating backfield duo and WR Sterling Shepard (1,201 receiving yards, 11 TDs) leads a strong group of receivers. OC Lincoln Riley is the perfect maestro for this orchestra. His group is No. 27 or better in all five of S&P+’s crucial factors to offensive success (explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives and turnover margin).

 

Clemson doesn’t have as many cooks in the kitchen, but they have a master chef. His name is QB Deshaun Watson (3,512 yards with a 30/11 TD/INT rate on 69.5 percent completions) and he directs Clemson’s No. 3 S&P+ passing attack. Clemson’s running game isn’t quite as good, but checks in at a respectable No. 28. For comparison, Oklahoma’s offense, far more lauded, is No. 18 in rushing and No. 10 in passing in S&P+’s eyes (OU's offense is No. 3 overall and Clemson is No. 10). Watson chipped in 954 yards with 11 scores on the ground and the underrated RB Wayne Gallman had 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns.

 

The Tigers play elite defense, ranking No. 6 as a unit in S&P+'s rankings. S&P+ grades the pass defense No. 3 and the run defense No. 13, both of which edge the Sooners’ offensive showings in the same categories. Clemson boasts S&P+’s No. 1 standard downs sack rate behind the dogged pursuit of DEs Shaq Lawson (22.5 TFL) and Kevin Dodd (15). How do you figure Oklahoma’s offensive line, ranked No. 120 in standard downs sack rate, keep those guys away from Mayfield? Clemson is also elite at stuffing runs, while OU is merely mediocre in avoiding that. The Tigers will dominate the line of scrimmage on defense.

 

Oklahoma's No. 12-ranked S&P+ defense is underrated. It grades No. 6 against both the pass and run. When Gallman is running the ball, I like the matchup for Oklahoma. When Watson has it, though, the equation changes. Oklahoma struggles mightily with mobile quarterbacks because it plays an attacking, gambling style that can overextend itself against clever players. OU can be beat with accuracy and patience for the same reason. Prior to the hot streak, OU was lucky to beat Tennessee in double overtime, allowed 38 points to Tulsa and lost to Texas. The Sooners scrambled Josh Dobbs’ brain, but Tulsa QB Dane Evans picked them apart for 427 yards and a 4/0 TD/INT rate and maligned UT QB Jerrod Heard ran for 115 yards and threw only three incompletions in a clinic.

 

Now this is where it gets really interesting: The torrid hot streak to close the season that caused many to crown OU as the No. 1 team in the nation was comprised of drilling four awful-to-mediocre Big 12 schools (KSU, TT, KU and ISU) before knocking off the conferences' big bad wolves—Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State—consecutively. In those three games, OU beat a backup QB each time (BU QB Jarrett Stidham, TCU QBs Bram Kohlhausen and OSU QB J.W. Walsh). This was a stretch of scheduling luck that may be without precedent in modern college football: The Sooners managed to catch all three elite teams on their schedule when the opposing starting QB was injured. And it's not like OU mauled those schools. With five minutes left in the Baylor game, the Sooners led by a field goal. Against the overmatched Horned Frogs, who were without both QB Trevone Boykin and WR Josh Doctson, OU had to stop a two-point conversion in the final minute to pull out a one-point decision.

 

I reject the premise that the Sooners were an obvious choice for the Playoff. I do not see them as one of the nation's four best teams. Clemson dominated this Sooner outfit in a 40-6 whipping last Dec. 29. Everyone is calling the Orange Bowl a revenge game. There’s a better chance it will be more of the same.

 

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard (#3) - Shepard is not tall. Shepard is not the fastest. Shepard is not the most explosive. I want Sterling Shepard on my team. The receiver is in the same species as Doug Baldwin, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate. The Sooner lines up inside and outside, creating separation on breaking routes or finding soft areas against zone. He will win after the catch (averaged 5.6 yards this year, along with 11 missed tackles) and can be a threat down the field (caught 10 of 15 20-plus yard targets). Most collegiate receivers lack polish and nuance. Shepard is far ahead in this area, and despite lacking standout measurables, he makes numerous difficult plays.

Other notable draft prospects: Oklahoma LB Eric Striker (#19); Oklahoma CB Zack Sanchez (#15).; Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield (#6); Oklahoma DL Charles Tapper (#91); Oklahoma DT Charles Walker (#97); Clemson RB Wayne Gallman (#9); Clemson DE Shaq Lawson (#90); Clemson DE Kevin Dodd (#98); Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander (#2).

 

***

 

COTTON BOWL: Alabama (12-1) -9.5 Michigan State (12-1)

Site: Arlington, Texas

Date: Dec. 31

Time/TV: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

This matchup is so lopsided in the direction of the favorite that it’s hard to find aspects of the game Michigan State will succeed in. The Spartans can forget about running the ball (No. 98 S&P+ rushing attack vs. the No. 1 S&P+ run defense). They must take their chances with QB Connor Cook and the No. 30 S&P+ passing game against Alabama’s No. 1 S&P+ pass defense. Cook will find himself in third-and-long scenarios most of the night (Alabama also has the No. 2 S&P+ defense on first down, compared to MSU’s No. 109 offense; a similar discrepancy is found on standard downs).

 

The one saving grace, once there, is that the Spartans’ offensive line, led by future NFL players LT Jack Conklin and C Jack Allen, does a pretty good job of keeping defenders off Cook’s back. The bad news is Alabama’s defense ranks in the top 5 nationally in overall havoc rate, front seven havoc rate, passing down S&P+, passing downs success rate and passing downs sack rate. It is one of the best college defenses we've seen over the past 10 years.

 

To recap: Despite having a decent No. 26-ranked S&P+ offense, the Spartans will not take one offensive snap where they have a schematic advantage on Thursday. Not one. MSU struggles to run (no 700-yard rushers) and has only one receiver. WR Aaron Burbridge is one of our favorite unheralded offensive prospects, but you can’t expect him to single-handedly wreck a secondary with at least four NFL prospects that can key in on him. Even so, the Spartans would be best served going Air Raid-lite and letting Cook throw 50-plus times. That’s not exactly the school’s modus operandi.

 

Alabama is the best team in college football, ranked No. 1 overall by S&P+. Michigan State’s only chance of keeping this game close is slowing RB Derrick Henry, which would put Alabama in third-and-long predicaments of its own. As we’ve seen, there’s only one way for college defenders to stop Henry: You must chop out his legs at the line of scrimmage. If you don’t, he’ll pick up steam and truck stick a defensive back or two.

 

MSU LBs Riley Bullough and Darien Harris must be perfect and star DEs Shilique Calhoun and Malik McDowell must consistently penetrate without overpursuing, which would open the gaping holes Henry uses as power-ups in Sonic the Hedgehog. Alabama has S&P+’s No. 13 rushing attack and MSU grades No. 21 against the run. Michigan State’s real strength, as has been the case for a few years now, is its outstanding pass defense, which ranks No. 10 to Alabama’s No. 28 aerial attack. Nick Saban and OC Lane Kiffin will play it conservative with QB Jake Coker outside of a small handful of home-run balls designed to push defenders out of the box.

 

Expect Alabama to thrash Michigan State by double-digits and advance to play the winner of Clemson-Oklahoma for the championship.

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Alabama RB Derrick Henry (#2) - I’m not calling Henry a perfect prospect, but I think some evaluators and tweeters are going a bit far when highlighting flaws in his game. Singling out negatives in a player’s game is good practice and does not mean said evaluator “hates” a prospect, but Henry is not a fullback.

Derrick Henry is an outstanding athlete. However, on his first few steps he certainly is not quick or agile. Worst case scenario would be Henry landing behind a terrible offensive line that gets pushed back or allows consistent disruption. I think Henry will have success, inside and outside, behind an adequate or better line. Best case? Derrick Henry given free releases to the second level with a team like the Cowboys. Henry at full speed is a scary sight, as he will run by or through defenders. I don’t think it takes him long to get there, but his first two steps are certainly laborious. Henry creates on his own and maximizes the yards blocked for him. Brandon Jacobs was a very good ball carrier before being slowed down by injuries. Think of Henry in the Jacobs, Chris Brown mold.

 

Other notable draft prospects: Alabama DL A'Shawn Robinson; Alabama DL Jarran Reed; Alabama DL Jon Allen; Alabama LB Reggie Ragland; Alabama TE O.J. Howard; Alabama C Ryan Kelly; Alabama RB Kenyan Drake; Alabama QB Jacob Coker; Alabama LB Reuben Foster; Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun; Michigan State QB Connor Cook; Michigan State C Jack Allen; Michigan State G Donovan Clark; Michigan State T Jack Conklin; Michigan State WR Aaron Burbridge; Michigan State LB Darien Harris

 

***

 

OUTBACK BOWL: Tennessee (8-4) -9 Northwestern (10-2)

Site: Tampa, Fla.

Date: Jan. 1

Time/TV: Noon ET, ESPN2

 

Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

The Vols rank 10 slots lower, have lost two more games and don’t have a unit nearly as strong as Northwestern's No. 4 by S&P+ defense. Nevertheless, they are justifiably laying more than a touchdown.

 

The Wildcats' offense, No. 109 by S&P+, is hard to watch. The passing attack, graded No. 112, is only an attack in the sense of what it does to viewers' sensibilities. QB Clayton Thorson, bless his heart, cannot throw. Despite consistently facing stacked boxes and thin coverage, Thorson somehow managed only 1,465 yards and a 7/7 TD/INT rate on 51.6 percent completions and a 4.6 yards per attempt average. I mean.

 

Northwestern’s only source of offense is RB Justin Jackson. Defenses know this, of course, so the poor guy has to run into the teeth of a defense keying on him every time. The Vols are built to shut down one-dimensional offenses like this. They have S&P+'s No. 17 run defense and rank No. 14 against short-yardage rushing, compared to Northwestern's No. 109 offensive showing in that metric. Tennessee’s inconsistent but talented secondary won’t be tested much.

 

Because of Northwestern’s defense, it’s impossible to feel supremely confident in laying over a touchdown against them. The Wildcats match up fairly well with Tennessee’s offense. I expect Tennessee to play conservatively and avoid the QB Josh Dobbs-led No. 31 S&P+ passing offense against Northwestern’s No. 13 aerial defense. CBs Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris shouldn’t have too much trouble sticking to WRs Von Pearson and Josh Malone.

 

The better play for Tennessee is feeding RB Jalen Hurd as much as possible and then doing the same to Alvin Kamara when Hurd needs a blow. Those sophomores have led the Vols to a No. 17 S&P+ rushing rank. Northwestern is very good against the run, ranking No. 16, but they’re more susceptible to getting gouged on the ground than through the air.

 

I initially sided with the Vols in this spot. But the public is all over Tennessee and the line has dropped anyway, generally a sign of impending danger. Also, Northwestern has the coaching edge. Pat Fitzgerald is 4-1 ATS in bowls (to be fair, Butch Jones is 3-1). Since the number is spot-on, I'm going to gamble on the better defense keeping it close and the sharps having backed a winner.

 

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (#21) - The Vols linebacker is still waiting on his evaluation from the draft advisory board. As I have mentioned, the linebacker position might be the best group in the 2016 NFL Draft. Reeves-Maybin would find his place despite such a talented crop, because he has NFL ability. Reeves-Maybin can diagnose what is in front of him, react quickly and has the athleticism and angles to make a play on the ball, against the run or pass. When facing blocks, Reeves-Maybin has the hands and quickness to shed and make a tackle or cause an angle change. There is a lot to like.

Other notable draft prospects: Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara, Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton; Northwestern LB Anthony Walker, Northwestern DL Dean Lowry, Northwestern FB Dan Vitale, Northwestern CB Nick VanHoose.

 

***

 

CITRUS BOWL: Michigan (9-3) -4.5 Florida (10-3)


Site: Orlando, Fla.

Date: Jan. 1

Time/TV: 1 p.m. ET, ABC

 

Straight Up:  

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

I wanted to pick Michigan badly. But I’ve been monitoring this line for the past few weeks and have become convinced—perhaps through a paralysis-by-overanalysis mechanism—that Florida is the right side.

 

Here’s the thing: The public has been hammering the Wolverines and the line, mysteriously, hasn't budged (it's even down to 4 at some books). With a bevy of trends and systems suggesting Florida is the pick—my favorite simple one comes from ESPN’s David Perdum: since 2005, underdogs playing a ranked opponent who received less than one-third of total bets covered 70.2 percent of the time—I’m going to take a leap of faith.

 

The best argument against a Gators cover is the following question: How are they going to move the ball? We know Florida isn't banking on doing so through the air. Michigan's pass defense ranks No. 11 by S&P+'s metrics. The pass rush averages 2.50 sacks per game, No. 30 in the FBS. Florida QB Treon Harris, who took over for the suspended Will Grier, is bad inside the pocket. He can’t throw and doesn’t see the field well. Not only that, but the Gators' pass protection allows 3.31 sacks per game, No. 121 in the FBS.

 

When Harris is forced to stay in the pocket and the offensive line struggles, defenses can key in on RB Kelvin Taylor. Alabama erased the NFL-bound Taylor in the SEC Championship Game. Florida State stomped Florida the week before that, holding the Gators to a season-low 3.3 yards per play. Florida went 5-of-17 on third down and 0-for-3 in the red zone. The Gators haven’t played well on offense since a Halloween victory over Georgia.

 

But let’s consider the other side of this: How is Michigan going to move the ball? The Wolverines have a very good defense, but Florida’s is better. The Gators only lost to LSU, Florida State and Alabama this year. Those teams collectively have two things in common: They are tremendous running the ball and play stellar defense. Michigan checks only one of those boxes. Banged-up RB De'Veon Smith and Drake Johnson are plodders who are going to get eaten alive by UF’s front seven, led by DLs Jonathan Bullard and Bryan Cox Jr. and LBs Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis.

 

Unfortunately, the Gators will be without lanky DE Alex McCalister, but McCalister isn’t great against the run anyway and Florida probably won’t need him to take care of Michigan’s passing offense. S&P+ hates Michigan’s running attack (No. 61) but surprisingly loves it passing game (No. 17). QB Jake Rudock is efficient but not gifted. He spreads the ball to only three receivers: WRs Amara Darboh and Jehu Chasson and TE Jake Butt.

 

That simplistic attack should be easy enough for Florida’s NFL-like secondary (175 yards per game allowed)—Vernon Hargreaves, Keanu Neal, Jalen Tabor, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole are all varying degrees of stellar—to shut down. If that happens, Michigan will have to bank on Smith and Johnson to move the ball against a defense that doesn’t give up much ground (except, of course, to Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, all of whom did their best work in the second half; Michigan isn’t equipped to jackhammer defensive fronts like that).

 

Florida boasts the nation’s No. 6 defense, a big turnover margin advantage (No. 14 to No. 103) and have tremendous special teams play besides issues at placekicker (which, granted, may very well come into play). They also have homefield advantage and are being backed by pro bettors. In a close matchup, that’s good enough for me to grit my teeth and take the points.

 

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Florida DE Jon Bullard (#90) - There’s a lot to like in Bullard’s game. He fits somewhere on the Jason Jones, Malik Jackson spectrum of players who can play on the edge in base (possible running downs) and move inside to win with length, power and agility in high percentage passing downs. Now, that is all certainly scheme dependent, and some defenses want strict roles. Bullard might not be a dominant disruptor, but he frequently wins and is successful against the run and the pass. He has his own set of highlights, specifically running over blockers at the line of scrimmage and making plays in the backfield.

 

Other notable draft prospects: Florida LB Antonio Morrison; Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves; Florida TE Jake McGee, Florida CB Brian Poole, Florida LB Anthony Harrell, Florida RB Kelvin Taylor, Florida WR Demarcus Robinson, Michigan DB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan TE Jake Butt, Michigan DL Chris Wormley

 

***

 

FIESTA BOWL: Ohio State (11-1) -6.5 Notre Dame (10-2)

Site: Glendale, Ariz.

Date: Jan. 1

Time/TV: 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

The Buckeyes hold advantages in coaching (OSU’s Urban Meyer is 9-2 ATS in bowl games; Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is 2-6 ATS), talent (Sports Illustrated’s top-40 Big Board has six OSU prospects and two ND prospects) and experience, having won the National Championship last season. Despite that, I think taking the points is the only play to make here (along with the over).

 

Both schools are Playoff-caliber (remember when I said Oklahoma wasn't? I'd have slid the Buckeyes into the field in their place). The Buckeyes loss was a three-point setback to No. 3 Michigan State in which they never trailed until the Spartans hit a field goal with no time left. Notre Dame lost by two at Clemson in a monsoon and by two at Stanford via a last-second field goal.

 

The Buckeyes shouldn’t have any problems moving the ball. Ezekiel Elliott is arguably the best all-around RB in the country (see Josh's analysis below) and he has a good matchup against a Notre Dame run defense that allows 4.5 YPC and ranks No. 51 in S&P+’s rankings. If there is one saving grace for the Irish, it’s that they rank No. 27 in run stuffs while Ohio State gets stuffed more than you’d expect (No. 47). That said, it’s a mismatch overall, despite the presence of top-10 prospect ND OLB Jaylon Smith.

 

Ohio State’s passing offense has improved with J.T. Barrett and I don’t trust Notre Dame’s pass defense as much without injured CB KeiVarae Russell. That said, Ohio State will only have a slight advantage when it throws because Notre Dame has a very good pass rush (Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara are big and agile) and Ohio State at times struggles to keep gifted penetrators out of the pocket.

 

Ohio State plays far superior defense to Notre Dame (No. 8 to No. 33, per S&P+), though it will be facing the better offense (No. 4 to No. 14). The Irish’s offensive dominance is truly remarkable following the losses of QB Malik Zaire, RBs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston and OL Alex Bars. The group is highly explosive and supremely efficient, grading No. 3 in rushing and No. 8 passing in S&P+. The elite offensive line, featuring top-10 pick OT Ronnie Stanley and possible first-round C Nick Martin, will clear space for RBs C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams. Ohio State’s No. 4 S&P+ pass defense boasts the No. 3 standard down sack rate behind DE Joey Bosa. The suspension of DT Adolphus Washington will hurt Ohio State.

 

One book reported that over 90 percent of bets have come in on Ohio State. Despite that, the line hasn’t budged from 6.5. The Irish are more battle tested in 2015, having played the No. 20 SOS to OSU’s weak No. 61 slate. That’s a bigger discrepancy than even the FSU-Houston bowl tilt. The Fighting Irish haven't won a premier bowl game since 1993 and will be motivated to end that stretch of futility. Ohio State has underachieved all year and half the roster is considering declaring for the draft. Something doesn’t smell right with them. If they try to sleepwalk through this game like they did against Michigan State, Notre Dame will punish them.

 

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott - Zeke is a complete running back. Even if you believe teams should not pay a premium for running backs because productive or competent ball carriers can be found easily, I would stress that productive does not equal complete. Elliott might not be Todd Gurley, but like Gurley, Elliott is a foundation piece of an NFL offense. Elliott’s eyes and feet are clearly linked. He reads blocking strengths and positioning at the line of scrimmage and changes his angle in a fluid movement to maximize his movement. Then comes the balance, acceleration and strength to beat tacklers at the second level. Elliott converted so many three yard gains into 10 yard gains - the difference really adds up for an offense. Add on that Elliott is a proficient receiver and perhaps the best pass protector/blocker I’ve seen among true running backs, and I can guarantee that Elliott will be ranked in my top 10.

Other notable draft prospects: Ohio State DE Joey Bosa; Ohio State WR Braxton Miller; Ohio State WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State T Taylor Decker, Ohio State QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State LB Darron Lee, Ohio State DL Adolphus Washington, Ohio State LB Joshua Perry, Ohio State S Vonn Bell, Ohio State TE Nick Vannett, Ohio State G Chase Farris, Ohio State CB Eli Apple; Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith; Notre Dame OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame DL Sheldon Day, Notre Dame DL Jarron Jones, Notre Dame G Nick Martin, Notre Dame WR Will Fuller, Notre Dame WR Chris Brown, Notre Dame RB C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame S Elijah Shumate, Notre Dame DE Romeo Okwara

 

***

 

ROSE BOWL: Stanford (11-2) -6.5 Iowa (12-1)

Site: Pasadena, Calif.

Date: Jan. 1

Time/TV: 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

These programs have shared reputations as physical, smart and well coached. But make no mistake: These teams could not be more different.

 

The Cardinal have one of the nation’s best offenses—ranked No. 7 by S&P+—largely because of do-everything RB Christian McCaffrey (1,847 rushing yards with eight touchdowns and 41 receptions for 540 yards and four scores). McCaffrey not only gives Stanford the decided offensive advantage, but he leads a strong special teams unit that is also superior to Iowa’s (McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders‘ single-season record with 3,496 all-purpose yards by also averaging 28.9 yards per kickoff return with another TD).

 

Stanford’s offense is proficiently methodical (No. 2 S&P+ efficiency ranking) and highly conservative (No. 92 in explosion). Chalk that up to a heavy dose of high-percentage calls for McCaffrey in both the running and passing games. It helps that the offensive line is a TNT blast squad (see Josh's favorite member below). QB Kevin Hogan was miscast as a star earlier in his career but has turned into arguably the nation’s premier game manager (2,644 yards and a 24/7 TD/INT rate on 68.6 percent completions). No other receiver outside of McCaffrey has over 500 yards, so you could say I remain highly skeptical about Hogan’s NFL prospects.

 

Iowa's defense is as explosive (No. 5) as Stanford’s offense is efficient and it is quite a bit more efficient (No. 35) than Stanford’s attack is explosive. The Hawkeyes achieve their explosiveness in an unorthodox way. This isn’t a blitz-crazy, havoc-causing front seven. It’s an occupy-blockers-and-stay-in-your-freaking-gap front seven. Instead of selling out to collapse the pocket, Iowa holds up at the point of attack, asking its defensive linemen to occupy and wrestle with offensive linemen to keep them off of linebackers. The run stuff and standard down sack rates are mediocre by design: Iowa wants to plug gaps, not create them by penetrating too far upfield. That profile matches up really well with Stanford, which loves to pull blockers and get them into the second level as escorts for McCaffrey. The Hawkeyes won’t stuff McCaffrey, but nobody stuffs McCaffrey. Iowa won’t allow McCaffrey to rip off a series of multiple long gains, which should render a non-explosive offense even less so.

 

The Hawkeyes can instruct their stout, workmanlike front seven to stay in their lanes because the secondary is elite. The sacks are generally coverage-based. Jim Thorpe award winner and possible first-rounder CB Desmond King (eight interceptions) is the front man for that group. Iowa led the Big 10 with 18 picks, returning four to the house. HC David Shaw cannot—and will not—allow Hogan to test this group, because one pick-six may decide the game.

 

This is what makes Iowa so hard to play and why they haven’t been given proper credit this season: You cannot impose your will on the Hawkeyes. It is not possible. You must play it close to the vest on offense and be considerate about everything you do or else they will take the ball away. That slow, deliberate pace is exactly how Iowa wants to play. The Hawkeyes do not panic in close games because their strategy is to play in close games. Michigan State ended up beating Iowa at its own game, but the Spartans were built very similarly and needed all 60 minutes to get it done.

 

Offensively, the Hawkeyes pound the ball and don't make mistakes. Stanford’s defense is middling (No. 54), mediocre against both the run (No. 65) and pass (No. 57). Iowa rotates three strong runners (Jordan Canzeri, LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley) who run behind a vicious trio of interior blockers. QB C.J. Beathard has been banged up over the past few months, which has effected his mobility. He says he’s gotten healthier with a few weeks off. Even if he’s being overly optimistic, Stanford ranks No. 114 in adjusted sack rate. The rush won’t bother him much.

 

Stanford ostensibly has home field advantage because of proximity. But on game day, the Hawkeyes will feel more like hosts. That fan base will follow the Hawkeyes off a cliff. Iowa expects to have 60,000 fans in the stadium in its first Rose Bowl in 25 years. Kirk Ferentz is hard to beat when he has time to prepare and this team historically plays better as an underdog. Ferentz is 8-4 ATS in bowls (Shaw is 2-2). The game will be decided late in the fourth quarter, making the 6.5 points a gift. I think the underdogs cap off a dream season by knocking off the Cardinal.

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Stanford G Joshua Garnett - I’ve tried to formulate an argument over the last couple of years that interior offensive lineman are as important as edge blockers. They maintain the fabric of the pocket and quarterbacks struggle with interior disruption far more than edge pressure. Many rank Garnett as the top interior prospect. Scouts will focus on the Oregon and Notre Dame contests, both games where Garnett struggled. Overall, he is a better run blocker than pass protector.

 

Other notable draft prospects: Iowa CB Desmond King, Iowa TE Henry Krieger-Coble, Iowa DE Drew Ott; Stanford TE Austin Hooper, Stanford QB Kevin Hogan, Stanford WR Devon Cajuste, Stanford LB Blake Martinez, Stanford T Kyle Murphy

 

***

 

SUGAR BOWL: Mississippi (9-3) -7.5 Oklahoma State (10-2)

Site: New Orleans

Date: Jan. 1

Time/TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

 

Straight Up:  

 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

 

 

Thor Nystrom’s analysis:

 

The Rebels enter off a superior regular season, but they’re down four key defenders and have been answering awkward questions for the past few weeks. S&P+’s No. 23 defense will take the field without DT Robert Nkemdiche (top-three talent), DE Fadol Brown (a Day 3 talent), OLB Denzel Nkemdiche (6.5 TFL) and safety Tony Conner (possible mid-round pick). Robert Nkemdiche is suspended after jumping out of a hotel window, apparently to avoid being caught with marijuana. He’s already declared for the draft. TE Evan Engram and Brown both requested NFL draft grades but say they're returning to school, perhaps because they received disappointing grades. Conner is mulling it, as is WR Laquon Treadwell and T Laremy Tunsil, both projected first-rounders.

 

That’s a whole lot of players who either pondered moving on, are strongly considering doing so or have already left. I haven’t been overly impressed with the Cowboys this season, but they’re in a good spot here to ambush a heavily favored SEC team that doesn’t seem overly concerned about the opponent.

 

QB Mason Rudolph returns from his minor foot fracture and HC Mike Gundy says he’ll platoon with J.W. Walsh (Gundy said he expects Walsh "to play at least half" of the game). I like where Gundy's head is at. The Cowboys are that rare outfit that plays better offense using a QB platoon. That’s because the Pokes have a poor offensive line (No. 126 in S&P+ adjusted line yards) and a trio of uninspiring runners (No. 114 S&P+ rushing offense) who can’t create on their own. Walsh, then, directs an entirely different offense than Rudolph does.

 

The mobile Walsh (285 rushing yards and 11 ground scores) is arguably the best runner on the team. He mitigates the bad offensive line’s role in the game as best he can when he’s on the field. And because defenses can’t flood coverage zones against him—as they can against the stationary Rudolph under the belief that pressure can be achieved without needing to blitz—Walsh put up a stellar 13/1 TD/INT rate, mostly against single coverage. When Rudolph is in, the Pokes become more dangerous through the air (they boast S&P+’s No. 15 passing offense). Rudolph has a far superior arm and has good rapport with WRs James Washington and David Glidden.

 

As good as the Pokes’ passing game is, the Rebels’ is better. Mississippi's No. 14 offense (40.25 PPG) is No. 11 overall in S&P+'s eyes and No. 2 through the air. OSU has a mediocre defense overall (29 PPG allowed, No. 86 in the FBS) but plays the pass well (No. 32 S&P+) because of a tremendous passing downs sack rate (No. 2) courtesy of future first-rounder DE Emmanuel Ogbah. Ole Miss is No. 63 at avoiding sacks on passing downs, but is better equipped to deal with Ogbah and Jimmy Bean now that Laremy Tunsil has returned from suspension and settled in. Tunsil vs. Ogbah may be the best individual matchup of bowl season.

 

The Rebs average 333.67 yards passing per game, so Ogbah must get the better of Tunsil to disrupt Chad Kelly’s timing and coerce him into unforced errors. OSU CB Kevin Peterson will also need to have a career game across from Treadwell, who has scored in six of the past seven games.

 

If both teams were even strength and this game was being played in a vacuum, I’d call for a double-digit Ole Miss win. Because that’s not the case, somebody put the Rebs on upset alert.

 

 

Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

 

Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell - Where to start. Treadwell bounced back from last season’s major injury in a huge way. He still looked physically dominant off the line of scrimmage, in his routes, at the catch point, after the catch and as a blocker. Just because a receiver is big (6’3/216 lbs) does not mean he plays big. Treadwell absolutely does, but can create with some quickness and footwork as well. He projects as a No. 1 target on an NFL offense. I have seen multiple possible comparisons: Dez Bryant, Terrell Owens, Alshon Jeffery. I don’t have one myself, but I do know Treadwell is good. Very good. A 10.5 percent drop rate is not a positive, however.

 

Other notable draft prospects: Oklahoma State DE Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State CB Kevin Peterson, Oklahoma State DE Jimmy Bean (#92), OSU DB Jordan Sterns; Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche;; Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly, Ole Miss OL Fahn Cooper, Ole Miss WR Cody Core, Ole Miss T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss LB C.J. Johnson.

 

 

******

 

2015 Bowl Record (through the Auburn-Memphis and MSU-NCSU games on Wed. Dec. 30): Straight-Up: 18-8 (69.2%); Against the Spread: 17-9 (65.4%)

 

2015 Overall RecordStraight-Up: 111-56 (66.7%); Against the Spread: 84-81-3 (50.9%)

 

 2014 RecordStraight-Up: 118-72 (62.1%); Against the Spread: 99-90-1 (52.4%)

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!