Tuesday, December 26
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl
Utah (6-6) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
1:30 p.m., ESPN
Utah -6.5 vs. West Virginia
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Money pretty split on this one at -7, but West Virginia has a pretty big following, so I expect to need Utah by game time.”
This game would have been extremely fun had it been scheduled in September or October. Instead, West Virginia heads in under-manned and facing long odds.
A JUCO import, Crawford enjoyed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and consecutive all-Big 12 second team honors over his two years in Morgantown. His loss is a huge blow to WVU’s No. 24 S&P+ rushing offense. West Virginia does have a capable backup in RB Kennedy McKoy, who’s the same size as Crawford and shares his buddy’s slash-happy style. Like Crawford, McKoy is quicker than fast.
McKoy is probably a better receiver, but make no mistake: He’s not an upgrade. In 79 more carries, Crawford topped McKoy in both YPC and opportunity rate, a stat showing the percentage of runs that go for at least five yards.
While McKoy only represents a small drop-off from Crawford, the latter’s loss will be particularly felt when the former needs a breather on Tuesday. Instead of McKoy entering for Crawford, WVU will insert little-used third-stringer Martell Pettaway when McKoy needs a blow.
Of course, the bigger loss—by far—is Grier (3,490 yards on 64-percent completions with a 34/12 TD/INT rate). When the Mountaineers were at their best this year, Grier would open things up by testing defenses deep with WRs David Sills (60-980-18) and Ka’raun White (59-986-11) and exploiting single-coverage in the intermediate sector of the field with WR Gary Jennings (94-1030-1), a sensational possession receiver who boasts a superb 74-percent catch rate.
Between the devastating aerial game and the spacing gained from West Virginia’s spread alignment, Crawford and McKoy were often running against thinned-out boxes. At times, the attack was close to impossible to stop.
And against quality opponents, it had to be, because West Virginia’s defense is awful, ranking No. 103 S&P+ while allowing 31.6 points per game (No. 91). That unit was protected by extended drives and ultimately bailed out by WVU’s offensive brilliance (No. 17 S&P+ and No. 27 with 36.3 ppg despite Grier missing nearly two full games).
QB Chris Chugunov looked overmatched in those two games. He completed 10-percent less of his passes than Grier for nearly three yards less per attempt. To boot, Chugunov took sacks in more than 1-percent more of his snaps.
WVU’s system requires strong quarterback play to work. With Chugunov in, the team’s three outstanding receivers went to waste while boxes began to get more crowded for Crawford. McKoy can look forward to an afternoon of that.
In early November, West Virginia had one of the nation’s top-15 offenses and one of its 30-worst defenses. Today, without Grier and Crawford, it has a mediocre offense and (still) one of the 30-worst defenses in the FBS.
That’s going to make for a long day against the Utes.
We tentatively think Utah will be at full-strength. QB Tyler Huntley (undisclosed) is probable, while WR Darren Carrington (66-918-6 receiving line) said he’s “hopeful” to be able to play through his own undisclosed injury. There’s a chance that Carrington could use his aches as a reason to skip the festivities and begin mending for the pre-draft process, but at least publicly, he’s indicated he wants to play.
Huntley has thrown for 2,246 yards on 65.4-percent completions with a 15/10 TD/INT ratio. The dual-threat also has 623 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The offense regressed whenever he was out and recruiting bust QB Troy Williams was in. Shouldn’t be an issue here.
Whereas West Virginia is a top-heavy team whose success heavily relied upon a select few offensive stars, two of whom are out, Utah is rock-solid across the board but elite at nothing—and overly dependent on no one player.
Utah is reliable on offense (No. 46 S&P+) and defense (No. 41 S&P+). The offense is solid at both running (No. 30 S&P+) and passing (No. 36 S&P+), and the defense defends both the run (No. 38 S&P+) and the pass (No. 21 S&P+).
The Utes are led by HC Kyle Whittingham, who’s one of the most reliable postseason coaches in the sport. Over his career, he’s 10-1 SU (an NCAA record 91% winning percentage) and 8-3 ATS in bowl games. Dana Holgorsen is 2-3 in bowl games.
Utah will have no problems scoring against West Virginia’s beleaguered defense. And against WVU’s depleted offense, Utah will control the line of scrimmage with one of the nation’s best defensive lines. We expect Utah to run away with this one by double-digits.
Quick Lane Bowl
Duke (6-6) vs. Northern Illinois (8-4)
5:15 p.m., ESPN
Duke -5 vs. Northern Illinois
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Line opened -4 for the Blue Devils. Some instant smart money came in on the favorite. Now at -5.5. Not a heavily bet game, but one of those where smart money and public money both on favorite.”
This matchup gave us trouble during our preparations for this preview series. Here’s the deal: We wanted to take Northern Illinois as badly as we wanted to fade Duke, a team that underachieved throughout the fall.
But eventually, when this pick was due, we had to concede to a notion we’d attempted to repress for the past 10 days: Duke is the right side. (We think). Why were we unable to pull the trigger on NIU? Because we still can’t figure out how they’re going to score on Tuesday.
At full strength, NIU’s offense is poor (No. 103 S&P+). The Huskies’ surface-level profile is misleading in that regard, as their 30.2 points per game average is actually slightly above average in the FBS (No. 55).
That average was heavily padded by three games: The 38-10 win over FCS Eastern Illinois, the 48-17 win over Bowling Green (No. 109 S&P+) and the 63-17 mauling of Ball State (No. 122 S&P+).
In Northern Illinois’ other nine games, they averaged 23.6 ppg. For the sake of an apples-to-apples comparison with fellow conference mates, Akron’s dreadful offense averaged 25.6 ppg and Bowling Green’s fledgling group of youngsters put up 25.3 ppg. Sure, it’s not exactly fair to remove NIU’s three highest-scoring games for an exercise like this. But keep in mind that NIU’s offense benefited throughout the season from playing with a tremendous defense (more on that in a sec) that gifted it with consistently great field position (No. 14, per S&P+).
But all that’s not even our issue. No—we were still attempting to talk ourselves into NIU even while holding that context in hand. Here’s our issue: Over the past week, we learned that NIU will be without RB Jordan Huff, the offense’s best player, and TE Shane Wimann, who leads the team with seven touchdown catches and is tops among Husky pass-catchers (minimum 40 targets) with a 73.2-percent catch rate.
Now’s probably the time to mention that Duke has a strong defense (No. 40 S&P+) that was particularly stingy with points allowed (No. 23 with 20.8 ppg). The Blue Devils surrendered over 28 points only once (the 31-6 loss to Miami). Keep an eye out for star LB Joe Giles-Harris (117 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 15 TFL).
It’s extremely difficult to envision NIU mounting any offense whatsoever in this game. The Huskies’ passing game (No. 84 S&P+) was poor even with its most-reliable outlet receiver in Wimann, and its running game was awful on a per-play basis (No. 111 S&P+). That despite a tremendous showing in S&P+’s power success rate (No. 6), for which it had Huff to thank.
Huff’s overall stats weren’t tremendous (740 yards, four TD, 5.8 YPC), but he was done no favors by his line (an abysmal No. 101 in S&P+ adjusted line yards) nor his passing attack, which was so toothless that he regularly saw stacked boxes.
NIU will replace Huff, we think, with the combination of Tre Harbison and Marcus Jones, perhaps with a little Tommy Mister sprinkled in. None rushed for even 400 yards, and only Harbison averaged over five yards per carry (5.5 YPC on 42).
We don’t like that group’s odds against Duke’s No. 41 S&P+ rushing defense, and we already know QB Marcus Childers and NIU’s passing attack aren’t going to do any damage against Duke’s No. 20 S&P+ passing defense.
That takes a ton of pressure off Duke’s offense, which is a very good thing indeed for the Blue Devils. Duke’s passing game is one of the nation’s 30-worst, according to a bevy of advanced statistics. We had much higher hopes for it, but QB Daniel Jones (who HC David Cutcliffe once called a first-round talent) was terrible during the six-game mid-season losing streak.
The Blue Devils likely won’t pull out of their aerial funk against NIU’s No. 15 pass defense. The Huskies are one of the nation’s best teams at getting into the backfield, ranking No. 1 in the nation in TFL and No. 2 in sacks. On that note, you’ll enjoy watching tiny terror NIU DE Sutton Smith (6’0/225), who has 28.5 TFL and 14 sacks this season. Duke’s shaky offensive line (No. 100 nationally in TFL) could be in for a long day.
Duke will need to rely on its running game (No. 59 S&P+) once more. This is the offensive area where the Blue Devils occasionally gel quite well; Jones has remained a strong runner even when struggling as a passer, RBs Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson have turned into a strong 1-2 punch, and the offensive line acquits itself far better in advanced stats as a run-blocking unit than it does by its TFL-allowed count.
NIU is also very strong against the run (No. 12 S&P+), of course. On paper, the Huskies’ defense matches up extremely well against Duke’s offense—the biggest reason we initially wanted to take the points. But it isn’t just NIU’s offense that has us spooked.
Consider that the MAC is 1-8 in bowl games since last year, 0-6 after the 2016 season and 1-2 this year so far. NIU itself has been terrible in the postseason over the past five years.
Going back to the 2012 season, in order, NIU lost 31-10 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, lost a 21-14 battle in the Poinsettia Bowl to Utah State, got punked 52-23 by Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl and got humiliated by Boise State in a 55-7 loss in the Poinsettia Bowl. Perhaps it was a good thing NIU sat out the bowls last year after finishing 5-7.
In conjunction with whispers that NIU was unhappy with its bowl assignment, its plenty more than fair to be trepidations about that team’s motivation heading in. We have no such reservations about Duke, a team with an ace coach in David Cutcliffe and momentum on its side.
The six-game losing streak dropped Duke to 4-6. At the brink, the Blue Devils could have packed it in. Instead, they responded with a pair of impressive upset victories over Georgia Tech (43-20) and Wake Forest (31-23).
Those wins gave the Blue Devils three wins over S&P+ top-72 teams and two wins over S&P+ top-50 teams. Northern Illinois beat zero bowl teams, and its best win, per S&P+, was over 5-7 Eastern Michigan (no. 68). Per the Sagarin Rankings, Northern Illinois played the No. 92 schedule and Duke played the No. 42 schedule.
With deep reservations about Duke’s offense noted, we don’t have a choice but to back them. The evidence that NIU is worth an investment in this spot is scant or non-existent. We’d know: We were digging for it.
Kansas State (7-5) vs. UCLA (6-6)
9 p.m., ESPN
Kansas State -6 vs. UCLA
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Two pretty big name teams finally playing. Over three-quarters of money on Kansas State at -2.5. Would not be surprised if this moves to 3 by game time. If you like UCLA, better to wait to bet them in my opinion.”
*NOTE: This preview was written before news broke that UCLA QB Josh Rosen (concussion) will miss this game.
As we’ve talked about before, motivation and coaching changes are two of the most important factors to consider when handicapping bowl games. Handicap the on-field matchups, but not before you attempt to decipher each team’s emotional state.
Of the games we’ve covered so far in this series, Kansas State is the only favorite of less than a field goal that heads into its bowl game with not only an on-field advantage, but enormous edges in coaching continuity (obviously), bowl prep and motivation.
In short: This line is off.
UCLA is in a state of wild flux while inhabiting a state covered in wildfires.
You have the Jim Mora firing. You have the Chip Kelly hiring. You have the customary staff upheaval that comes with coaching changes. You have an interim HC (offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch). You have brand-new assistants coaching players for the first time during bowl prep. You have a new coaching staff more concerned with recruiting than preparing players who are about to graduate for the bowl.
You have a star quarterback who may or may not play but who will definitely declare for the NFL Draft after the game. Oh, and you have the California wildfires, which conspired with semester exams to limit the Bruins to eight practices total in advance of KSU.
Meanwhile, boring ol’ Kansas State has done what they always do. They worked hard in quiet preparation under legendary HC Bill Snyder and his steady eddy staff.
Ancillary factors rarely swing so emphatically toward one side in a bowl matchup.
We could write a thousand words about the impact of each extenuating circumstances effect on UCLA, but will focus instead on the most boring of them. The early signing period, which took place late last week, almost seemed unfair for bowl teams going through coaching changes. It certainly put those teams at a competitive disadvantage.
In UCLA’s case, hiring Paul Rhoads to coach defensive backs and Don Pellum to coach the linebackers under Kelly had the unfortunate repercussion of forcing the Bruins to wave goodbye to LB coach Scott White and DB coach Demetrice Martin immediately due to an NCAA rule that limits the number of full-time assistants a school can have. That rule certainly makes sense in-season. But pre-bowl during the early-signing period era? That’s another story.
Did Pellum and Rhoads begin preparing for Kansas State? Of course not. They were out recruiting. So who coached the UCLA linebackers and defensive backs over the past few weeks? Graduate assistants Dalton Hilliard and Kyle Weiss.
All of which is to say that UCLA’s No. 120 S&P+ defense (No. 117 with 36.8 ppg allowed) will be even less prepared than it usually is. Meanwhile, UCLA’s super offense (No. 16 S&P+, No. 35 with 33.8 ppg scored) teeters on the brink as it awaits word on Josh Rosen’s status.
UCLA was unable to run the ball for the second straight year. In 2017, Rosen stayed healthy to ensure the offense as a whole would be superb anyway.
If he sits against Kansas State, the offense will obviously suffer. The impact of strong WRs Jordan Lasley and Darren Andrews would be mitigated, and the limited running game would provide further evidence that it can’t be the focal point of a successful attack.
Kansas State has a strong run defense, but its pass defense is lousy (No. 87 S&P). It gave 400 passing yards or more in four Big 12 games—including to Kansas!—and 370 or more in six of them.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they also have a huge mismatch to exploit when the field flips. Kansas State’s power-run offense takes aim at an atrocious UCLA run defense that ranks No. 129 out of 130 (only San Jose State was worse).
The Bruins surrender 282.7 yards per game on the ground, and they only held three of 12 opponents beneath 200 yards on the ground. Kansas State’s success on the ground will allow it control the clock, keeping the ball away from UCLA’s offense.
The Bruins struggle on special teams (last in the Pac-12 in kick and punt coverage) and take a ton of penalties (a tad over 75 yards per game lost). Kansas State, as always, is awesome on special teams (No. 15 on kickoff returns, No. 7 on punt returns) and doesn’t make silly mistakes (about 48 yards per game lost to penalties).
Despite facing enormous disadvantages in coaching, defense, special teams, team discipline and every conceivable X-factor, including the repercussions of a natural disaster, UCLA will have a puncher’s chance if Rosen is active and clear-headed. He’s that good, and Kansas State’s secondary is that bad.
But that’s the absolute best-case scenario for UCLA, an outcome that has a low-probability of occurring. More likely, Kansas State will run all over UCLA, control the clock, play mistake-free football, dominate on special teams and take advantage of UCLA’s inevitable mistakes.
And if Rosen doesn’t play? Expect a demolition.
*Note: After the news of Rosen's absence broke, the spread re-opened at KSU -6. We'd still be on the Wildcats at the number.
Wednesday, December 27
Walk-On's Independence Bowl
Southern Miss (8-4) vs. Florida State (6-6)
1:30 p.m., ESPN
Florida State -17 vs. Southern Miss
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “When you get high spreads like this it gets tricky as to how high can you go. This line has been toggling back and forth between 15 and 17 and taking money on both sides at each spread. To be honest, we might need either team here at kickoff.”
Of all the spreads of bowl season, we were most taken aback by this one. Florida State was laying over two touchdowns in the postseason? The same Seminoles team that was 3-6 in mid-November?
It’s not just that this rendition of FSU is miscast as a big favorite. It’s that the opponent, Southern Miss, is being similarly miscast as hapless.
And don’t get us wrong: We concede that FSU played a beastly schedule (Phil Steele’s No. 13-hardest), while Southern Miss enjoyed a cakewalk slate (No. 127). We also concede that FSU is the more talented team, with six prospects in Todd McShay's top-235 compared to Southern Miss’ zero. Noted. If your handicap ends there, though, you’ll be ignoring a bundle of factors pointing in the direction of the underdog.
Three brief counter-points, while we’re on the subjects of talent and strength of schedule disparities: 1.) FSU’s best player, S Derwin James, has already announced he won’t play to begin his preparations for the NFL Draft. 2.) Three other Seminoles are skipping the game to begin NFL prep: star LB Matthew Thomas, starting DE Josh Sweat and versatile backup WR/S Ermon Lane. 3.) Florida State went 0-7-1 ATS against the eight bowl teams it faced. The three-game winning streak that punched FSU’s postseason ticket featured blowouts of FCS Delaware State, 4-7 Florida and 4-8 UL-Monroe.
The regular season finale against the WarHawks provided proof that the Seminoles could play well (and cover) while in post-Jimbo Fisher limbo, a credit to interim HC Odell Haggins. Since then, the long-term coaching situation has cleared up (hello, Willie Taggart), but the opponent has gotten much tougher.
Southern Miss rides in winners of six of eight. Unlike FSU, USM was kind to bettors this fall, going 8-4 ATS. And while much has been made of the SOS gulf between the teams, Southern Miss’ three-best wins (over S&P+ No. 52 UTSA, No. 59 Marshall, No. 80 Louisiana Tech) match up with FSU’s three-best victories (No. 36 Wake Forest, No. 70 Duke, No. 87 Florida).
Southern Miss missed QB Nick Mullens, but it actually improved offensively this fall (to No. 59 S&P+). Golden Eagles star RB Ito Smith remains the focal point. Smith had 1,321 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 5.7 YPC, with a sizzling 36-370-2 line as a receiver.
USM WR Korey Robertson (73-1084-11) emerged as a star to mitigate some of the regression we saw with Allenzae Staggers (43-469-5). QB Kwadra Griggs doesn’t have Mullens’ natural passing ability, but Griggs is a better runner who takes less sacks and makes less mistakes (ho-hum 56.3% completions and 6.9 YPA but with a 15/2 TD/INT rate).
Southern Miss’ biggest strength is its No. 25 S&P+ defense, which is better against the run (No. 31) than the pass (No. 63). The defense’s Achilles heel is its maddening propensity to give up explosive plays (No. 91). Outside of that, it’s strong across the board, particularly at getting into the backfield.
Ranked No. 10 in the FBS with 7.8 TFL per game (94 total on the year), Southern Miss should have no problems caving in FSU’s atrocious offensive line. The Seminoles are No. 121 in TFL allowed and No. 105 in sacks taken. The eye test emphatically bears out FSU’s issues in run blocking and pass-pro.
FSU true freshman QB James Blackman did a solid job in lieu of circumstances (15/11 TD/INT rate, 57.2% completions, 6.0 YPA), but between his rawness and the shape of his line, the Seminoles’ perimeter talent (Nyqwan Murray, Auden Tate, Keith Gavin, et al), largely went to waste against quality opponents.
While FSU has a strong defense (No. 32 S&P+), it’s going to have to make do without James, Sweat and Thomas. Even with all three, FSU finished lower in S&P+ and points per game allowed than Southern Miss.
To be more than safe, let’s call it a defensive wash between the teams heading in. We trust Southern Miss’ offense more, and we certainly are far more confident in USM’s mindset than FSU’s. Florida State is nearing the end of a nightmare season and playing in a bowl perceived as beneath them without their best player and coach. Hattiesburg is also far closer to Shreveport (305 miles) than Tallahassee is (646, a 10-hour drive).
Southern Miss, meanwhile, is in a no-lose situation: Nobody expects them to win, yet in reality, they have a very real chance to upset a college football blueblood on national TV.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Iowa (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5)
5:15 p.m., ESPN
Iowa -2.5 vs. Boston College
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Very lightly bet game so far, no movement. Next.”
The Pinstripe Bowl has turned into one of the most entertaining minor bowls, with a cool venue (Yankee Stadium) and three straight one-possession thrillers, two of which were decided in overtime. This year’s rendition, featuring teams separated at birth, could be another classic.
Iowa and Boston College share identical records. They each have a run-first offensive ethos and a strong, physical defense that rarely finds itself out of position.
Boston College’s offense is centered on freshman sensation RB A.J. Dillon (1,432 yards and 13 touchdowns, including 1,099 yards in the final six games alone). But this isn’t the low-scoring, grind-it-out type of Eagles offense you remember from the past few seasons. The Eagles won five of six to end the regular season, scoring 35-plus points in all five victories.
Led by one of the nation’s best defenders in LB Josey Jewell (125 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL), Iowa has a strong rushing defense. Statistically, the unit ranks a bit lower in that area of the game than the eye test says they should be, but that can be explained by the poor showings against Penn State RB Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor (and to a far lesser extent, Iowa State RB David Montgomery).
Outside of that, Iowa shut down everybody, including talents like Northwestern RB Justin Jackson, North Texas RB Jeffery Wilson, Michigan State RB LJ Scott, Minnesota RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and Ohio State RBs JK Dobbins and Mike Weber.
We’d like Boston College’s odds better had QB Anthony Brown not been knocked out for the season in November. Mediocre veteran QB Darius Wade, whom Brown displaced at the beginning of the season, has been forced back into duty.
We know what Wade is at this point: He’s going to vacillate between inept and forgettable against good defenses, and he’s going to vacillate between mediocre and solid against awful defenses (248 yards against Syracuse’s stinky crew). As always, there isn’t much to work with on the perimeter, as Boston College is receiver-poor again (TE Tommy Sweeney is fine as an outlet, though).
There’s really no wiggle room in the interpretation here: Boston College will be unable to throw on Iowa’s stellar passing defense. We’d go as far as suggesting the Eagles rarely try, as Iowa’s secondary, in particular Round 1-candidate CB Joshua Jackson, has shown a knack for game-changing interceptions. Jackson had three interceptions, including a pair of pick-sixes, in the 55-24 upset win over Ohio State. Darius Wade is a sort of homeless man’s J.T. Barrett.
Iowa doesn’t have the best pass defense in this game, though. Boston College’s aerial defense is elite by any metric, No. 1 by Phil Steele’s numbers and No. 10 by S&P+’s. Then again, unlike the Eagles, the Hawkeyes can throw (at least a little bit).
Iowa QB Nathan Stanley (6’5/212) looked like a potential future NFL prospect in his first year starting, throwing for 2,238 yards and a 25/6 TD/INT ratio. Stanley doesn’t have a ton to work with either in terms of pass-catchers, but Iowa is better off in that regard. WR Nick Easley has proven to be a solid slot and TE Noah Fant (10 touchdown catches) will get a long look from the NFL.
The Hawkeyes offensive centerpiece is 1,000-yard RB Akrum Wadley, a New Jersey native who received over 100 ticket requests for this game. Wadley could have skipped this game to begin his NFL preparations; it says something about his resolve that he refused.
Boston College’s defense will be the best unit on the field, but we side with Iowa anyway. We prefer Iowa’s resume, which includes a No. 47 S&P+ finish, a dominant win over Ohio State (No. 1 S&P+), a two-point loss to Penn State in which it led the whole way and lost on the final play of regulation, four single-digit losses to top-45 S&P+ teams and only one loss in which it was dominated (i.e. had an S&P+ Win Expectancy of less than 10%; Wisconsin).
Boston College’s resume includes a No. 67 S&P+ finish and a pair three-point tossup wins over Louisville (No. 17 S&P+) and Northern Illinois (No. 48 S&P+) in which BC had sub-50% S&P+ Win Expectancies. BC was thoroughly dominated four times (had an S&P+ Win Expectancy of 2% or less against Wake Forest, Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech).
S&P+ clearly prefers Iowa’s defense to Boston College’s (No. 16 to No. 35), and with Wade starting, we slightly prefer the Hawkeyes’ offense. In a low-scoring game decided late, we’ll lay the short price with the superior quarterback and defense.
Foster Farms Bowl
Arizona (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
8:30 p.m., FOX
Santa Clara, California
Arizona -3.5 vs. Purdue
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “55% of the bets coming in on the dog here getting just over a FG. Only thing this game has got going for it is it is the last game of the day, which means it will probably end up being a huge decision for us by game time.”
A classic case of the wrong team being favored because the public prefers to bet on offenses (and overs) instead of defenses (and unders).
It should be an entertaining game, as Arizona’s strength (rushing offense) goes head-to-head with Purdue’s (rushing defense).
Arizona QB Khalil Tate is, of course, the headliner. The fate of the Wildcat program (and its HC Rich Rodriguez) changed significantly when Tate replaced an injured Brandon Dawkins early in the Oct. 7 game at Colorado. Arizona, 2-2 at the time, would go on to win four straight to achieve bowl eligibility before the calendar had even turned to November.
Tate rushed for 327 and 230 yards his first two games and posted 1,417 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 11.4 YPC (with sack yardage omitted) in about eight full games. He’s incredible in the open field, but the Lamar Jackson comps are a bit premature. Despite the spacing his feet opens up, Tate still struggles to move the ball through the air, finishing with 1,289 yards and a 9/8 TD/INT ratio on 61.4-percent completions.
Because of the strength of the run game, Arizona rarely puts Tate into situations as a passer that will overextend his limits. This has the effect of playing up his efficiency, a big part of the reason why S&P+ liked the passing attack far more than any conventional stat (No. 31). For the opposite reason, S&P+ liked the run game less than any conventional stat (No. 35).
We’d like to strike both numbers from the record and just point you to Arizona’s No. 9 S&P+ offensive finish, the same finish it had in points per game scored (41.8). Tate is joined in the backfield by explosive jitterbugs RBs Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor. Arizona doesn’t have any difference-makers on the perimeter, but they do have plenty more speed out there.
Purdue’s run defense provides a fascinating test for Tate and crew. The Boilermakers ranked No. 6 in S&P+ run defense, including No. 3 in rushing success rate, No. 5 in adjusted line yards (i.e. controlling the line of scrimmage) and No. 4 in opportunity rate.
Purdue is rock-solid up front, and it has a star-studded linebacker corps led by skull-crushing ILB Ja’Whaun Bentley (9.5 TFL, 23 run stuff), who’s flanked by future star Markus Bailey (10 TFL, seven sacks, 14 run stuffs) and Brohm’s former Hilltopper enforcer T.J. McCollum (five TFL, two sacks, nine run stuffs).
Overall, Purdue ranks No. 35 in yards per play allowed. Good passers can move the ball on them through the air (No. 67 S&P+), but outside of that, they’re extremely stingy.
Since Purdue played Louisville in the opener, we have an interesting data point for how they could hypothetically look against Tate. The Cardinals pulled out a back-and-forth 35-28 win. Jackson ripped Purdue for 378 yards through the air, but he was held to 107 yards on the ground. In addition, Louisville only managed 41 yards of rushing by everyone else.
Tate is on Jackson’s plane as a runner, but as we’ve mentioned, he’s nowhere near him as a passer. We’d add that Purdue has improved since Sept. 2, when that game took place.
Because the strength-on-strength matchup may end up something close to a wash, this game could be decided when the field flips. Purdue’s offense has struggled this year, as has Arizona’s defense.
Purdue QB David Blough was dinged up throughout the season and knocked out for good late in the campaign. Elijah Sindelar, who got plenty of experience while platooning with Blough early on, had the gig to himself while leading the Boilermakers' to wins over Iowa and Indiana at the end of the season. Those wins punched Purdue’s postseason ticket in Jeff Brohm’s first year.
Purdue only averages 24.2 points per game (No. 99), but advanced stats indicate the unit is better than that. Sindelar (1,703 yards, 14/6 TD/INT rate, 55.8% completions) runs a passing offense (No. 47 S&P+) that isn’t explosive (No. 97 S&P+) but rarely makes big mistakes.
Brohm ran the nation’s No. 1 offense at Western Kentucky last year. He doesn’t have near the offensive talent with the Boilermakers yet, but Brohm has a strong grip on this group’s strengths and weaknesses. One of the best play-callers in the sport, Brohm not only coolly masks Sindelar’s flaws, but he enters games with an extremely good idea about where the opposing defense’s soft spots are. This allows his entire unit to play up, as it’s consistently a step ahead schematically.
Brohm’s running game isn’t used a ton (No. 82 in rushing yards per game), but it’s a strength (No. 26 S&P+) because it’s extremely efficient in a complimentary role. As with the passing game, Purdue’s runners are flattered by Brohm’s tactical genius.
We’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall in Brohm’s film room as he studied Arizona's defense over the past few weeks. For a guy who lives for finding mismatches, this must feel like stealing.
The Wildcats allowed 40-plus points in five games this season and finished with the No. 114 S&P+ defense (No. 105 with 34.1 ppg allowed). According to conventional numbers, the passing defense (No. 121) is worse than the rushing defense (No. 87). S&P+ hates both, ranking the passing defense No. 92 and the run defense No. 101.
Either way, Arizona’s run defense is hurt by the various injuries it has suffered along the front.
Arizona has proximity to California in its favor, while we give Purdue the X-factor edge after it’s shocking turnaround in Year 1 of the Brohm era. The Boilermakers have the coaching edge overall, and also by postseason record. Brohm is 2-0 SU and 1-1 ATS in bowl games, while Rodriguez is 5-5 SU and 2-8 ATS.
Purdue also has momentum on its side after winning three of four to achieve bowl eligibility. Arizona found it harder to move the ball after defenses had tape on Tate, losing three of their last four.
We’d never rain on the Tate parade, but it’s important to keep in mind that the four-game winning streak that catapulted him to stardom came against three terrible defenses (Washington State being the exception). The only win Arizona had last month was against Oregon State, scarcely an FBS-caliber team in 2017.
Other than that, the Wildcats lost by double-digits to USC, Oregon and Arizona State. Tate tore up the Trojans on the ground while struggling through the air. In the last two games against the Ducks and Sun Devils, teams with far, far worse defenses than Purdue (in particular Arizona State), Tate was held to only 81 rushing yards total (40.5 per game).
A narrative built up around Tate after he went nuclear on the terrible defenses of Colorado and UCLA. He’s a good player, but we’d advise you not to buy into the Paul Bunyan tall tales just yet. Arizona is a top-heavy team with one huge strength and several glaring weaknesses.
Brohm has built a reputation on drinking the milkshakes of profiles like that. He began his first year by narrowly whiffing on an upset of Louisville. He’ll end it by finishing the job against Arizona.
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl
Texas (6-6) vs. Missouri (7-5)
9 p.m., ESPN
Missouri -2.5 vs. Texas
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Very one sided action on Missouri by a field goal and the over 61, already up from 59.5. We need the dog and under here big.”
The Missouri Tigers against the Texas Longhorns? More like the Missouri Paper Tigers against the Texas Short(handed)horns, amiright?
Missouri supposedly comes in hot, riding a six-game winning streak in which it scored at least 45 points in every game. Don’t buy into that narrative. That six-game winning streak is more about a scheduling quirk than a true resurgence.
So, if you can, wipe the winning streak from your memory like you have a neuralyzer from “Men in Black.” Instead, let's zoom out and take a look at the Tigers’ 2017 resume as a whole.
- Record against bowl teams: 0-5. 18.4 points per game scored.
- Record against non-bowl teams: 7-0. 54.3 points per game scored.
- Record against teams in the S&P+ top-80: 0-4. 42-14 average margin of loss.
- Record against teams ranked outside the S&P+ top-80 (including FCS Missouri State): 7-1. 52-26 average margin of win.
So yes, Missouri currently owns a six-game winning streak. But we’d suggest Texas would as well if they’d faced the same slate.
Missouri was 1-5 heading into games against Idaho and UConn, two of the FBS’ worst teams. After the Tigers predictably whipped each, they were fortunate enough to draw Florida the week they fired Jim McElwain.
The next week, they got Tennessee. The next day, Butch Jones was fired. Next up, Vanderbilt, who was in the middle of a 1-7 tailspin. In the finale, Missouri narrowly beat Arkansas. Immediately after the game, Bret Bielema was fired. The next week, Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel left to become the head coach at Central Florida.
So yes, Missouri hasn’t lost since Oct. 14. Yes, the Tigers rank No. 7 nationally with 511.5 yards per game. Yes, QB Drew Lock leads the FBS with 44 passing touchdowns (26 of which came during the six-game winning streak).
But you could call us skeptical regarding all of it.
Of course, Texas has issues of its own.
The Longhorns will play without S DeShon Elliot, LT Connor Williams and CB Holton Hill, who all decided to get a jump on their NFL Draft prep. We’re still awaiting word on the status of OLB Malik Jefferson and CB Kris Boyd, who are also considering early declaration. Jefferson, a likely first-round pick, is dealing with a turf toe injury. It’d be surprising if he played.
Rotational RB/H-back Chris Warren III is in the process of transferring. Seven-game starter DL Chris Nelson is injured. TE Garrett Gray, WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey (Texas’ No. 2 WR) and freshman RB Toneil Carter are all suspended.
With so many losses, it’s hard to be confident in any read on Texas. Not only are both teams question marks heading in, but computer models can’t agree on which team’s regular season resume was more impressive. S&P+ installed Missouri as a 4.3-point favorite, ESPN’s FPI favors Texas by 3.1 and OddShark projects Missouri to win by 8.7.
Texas will platoon pocket-passing sophomore Shane Buechele and dual-threat freshman Sam Ehlinger. Both should have success against Missouri’s No. 93 S&P+ defense. The Tigers are worse against the run than the pass, so Ehlinger and emerging RB Daniel Young could both have big games.
Texas’ defense is first-rate (S&P+ No. 26). If it can weather the storm of the losses of Elliott, Hill (who was suspended for most of November) and Nelson—an open question—than it could pose a real threat to Missouri’s offense. Texas does have plenty of talent remaining on that side of the ball, starting with disruptive DT Poona Ford.
Of Missouri’s 2017 opponents, Purdue fielded the closest approximation to Texas’ defense (No. 28 S&P+), and only Auburn and Georgia finished better than the Longhorns. Missouri lost 35-3 to Purdue, 51-14 to Auburn and 53-28 to Georgia.
S&P+ loves Missouri’s offense, ranking it No. 10. We think that number isn’t giving proper weight to the opponents when the bulk of the points were scored, but even so, make no mistake: Missouri has a top-25 offense. That offense will have to do without Huepel, its hotshot play-calling whiz, and OL coach Glen Elarbee, who left with Huepel for Orlando.
This is Barry Odom's first bowl game as a head coach. In early October, it was an open question as to whether Odom would finish the season as Missouri’s coach. Earlier this month, he signed a contract extension through 2022. What a world.
Texas HC Tom Herman won the only bowl game he ever coached in, leading Houston to a 38-24 win over No. 9 Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. He’s as dangerous as it gets as an underdog, going 6-4 SU and 9-1 ATS. We like him to bag another outright upset on Wednesday.
2017 Bowl Record (Through Army-SDSU): Straight-Up: 5-7 (41.7%); Against the Spread: 6-6 (50.0%)
2017 Regular Season Record: Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)
2014-2016: Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)