Monday, January 1
Michigan (8-4) vs. South Carolina (8-4)
Raymond James Stadium
Michigan -8 vs. South Carolina
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Line has moved a whole point down to 7.5 since we opened with some early action on South Carolina. However, Michigan is a very popular team with the public and I expect our position on this game to change by kickoff.”
This matchup evokes the classic 2012 Outback Bowl, where the Gamecocks pulled out a 33-28 thriller and DE Jadeveon Clowney blasted Michigan RB Vincent Smith into internet meme oblivion.
So badly do we want a rendition of that epic game, and so sorry are we to report that we don’t see another classic coming.
Neither team plays much offense. Both finished outside the top-100 in the FBS in total offense. South Carolina ranks No. 100 with an average of 24.1 points per game. Michigan averages 25.8, good for No. 87. Each is slightly better than that on a per-play basis, but not by much. S&P+ grades Michigan’s offense No. 74 and South Carolina’s No. 88.
After another lackadaisical offensive showing in 2017, Gamecocks HC Will Muschamp fired OC Kurt Roper earlier this month and promoted WR coach Bryan McClendon to be the play-caller for this game. We were surprised by that move, and wonder how different things would have gone for South Carolina’s attack had star WR Deebo Samuel not been lost for the campaign to a fractured leg in September.
South Carolina QB Jake Bentley sure missed him, though Bentley quietly showed some progress in his sophomore campaign. He’s completing 62.4% of his passes for 6.2 YPA while throwing for 2,555 yards and a 16/11 TD/INT rate. Without Deebo, Bentley leaned on exciting sophomore WR Bryan Edwards (59-705-4), intriguing 6-foot-4 true freshman OrTre Smith (30-326-3) and NFL-bound TE Hayden Hurst (41-518-2).
The Gamecocks’ passing game isn’t explosive (No. 103 S&P+), and it allows too many sacks (No. 71 S&P+ adjusted sack rate), but it ranked a solid No. 48 S&P+ overall, in part because Bentley is getting better at trusting his big outside targets and taking what the defense gives him.
This offense would be intriguing if it had a Deebo-caliber playmaker on the outside and a running game to compliment the pass. Unfortunately, it has neither. South Carolina was hoping that RB Rico Dowdle would be ready after he missed six games with a fractured bone in his lower leg, but HC Will Muschamp announced on Thursday that Dowdle wouldn’t play on New Year's Day.
That means South Carolina will start RB A.J. Turner (517 yards on 5.6 YPC) again. Fellow backs Ty’Son Williams and Mon Denson, neither of whom impressed in limited action, will come off the bench. The running game is middling (No. 67 S&P+) and cannot be relied upon to consistently move the ball up the field.
And boy could that be an issue in this one. Wolverines DC Don Brown, aka “Dr. Blitz”, might not even need to ramp up the creativity here. Michigan should be able to generate a sufficient pass rush and control the line of scrimmage against the run with its outstanding front of DE Rashan Gary (five sacks, 11 TFL, 16 run stuffs), DE Chase Winovich (eight sacks, 17.5 TFL, 22 run stuffs) and DT Maurice Hurst (five sacks, 13.5 TFL, 21 run stuffs).
If that’s the case—and it almost assuredly will be—Wolverines LB Devin Bush, an undersized holy terror, will be free to roam around and wreck South Carolina’s offensive plans as he sees fit. Even on this star-studded defense, Bush often jumps off the screen. He’s awesome against the run (65.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 16 run stuffs), against the pass (an interception and eight passes defended) and as a rusher (five sacks). Bush is joined on that level by big, burly enforcer Mike McCray (13 TFL, five sacks, 13 run stuffs).
For all the defensive talent Michigan lost in the offseason, it’s incredible that the unit remained as good as it did (No. 10 S&P+ overall, No. 1 in efficiency). Michigan is tremendous against both the pass (No. 3 S&P+) and the run (No. 10 S&P+). It has only one weakness: It is susceptible to getting ripped for huge plays from time to time (No. 110 in S&P+ explosion) against both the run and pass.
Two points on that, to echo what we’ve already said: 1.) South Carolina could really use Deebo Samuel for a game like this. 2.) If you guess right with your play call, you can catch Michigan with its pants down when it sends extra blitzers. But will Don Brown even be compelled to do much of that seeing as though his defensive line has such a big matchup advantage here?
While we struggle to see how South Carolina is going to score against Michigan, we do believe that the Wolverines could have some success against South Carolina’s defense. The Gamecocks rank a solid No. 24 in points per game allowed (20.8), but that standing flatters them a bit (No. 46 S&P+ defense).
South Carolina is solid against the run (No. 24 S&P+) and mediocre against the pass (No. 57 S&P+). It has a star in All-SEC LB Skai Moore (72.5 tackles, eight TFL, 15 run stuffs) and a bunch of workmanlike role players around him.
The front seven is a bit undersized, and it can struggle in phone booth situations (No. 123 S&P+ power success rate against the run). Odds are that Michigan will try to wear down the front seven while picking its spots to attack South Carolina’s shoddy pass defense (No. 97 S&P+ passing success rate).
Despite its lowly offensive standing as a whole, Michigan boasts an outstanding running game (S&P+ No. 9). RB Karan Higdon (a team-leading 929 yards on 6.3 YPC) can run hot-and-cold, but he has shown the ability to go nuclear (200-yard games against Indiana and Minnesota, 158 against Rutgers). Higdon and the running game as a whole struggled against Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. South Carolina’s defense isn’t in the same area code.
Michigan’s offense operated far better when QB Brandon Peters was healthy and playing, and fortunately he’s had the opportunity to mend from his concussion over the past month. The Wolverines’ passing attack finished a poor No. 76 S&P+, but it’s important to note that John O'Korn (2/6 TD/INT ratio) and Wilton Speight (3/2 TD/INT ratio) had 237 combined passing attempts to Peters’ (4/0 TD/INT ratio) 64.
Peters completed a higher percentage of throws for more YPA while taking less sacks per attempt than both of them. If Peters had started all year, the attack no doubt would have finished higher than it did.
Even so, the passing game is used as a compliment to the running game only. Avoiding turnovers and hitting a few open receivers off play-action passes will be all Jim Harbaugh asks of Peters here. The young quarterback should be able to do just that.
With Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson coming to town, we think Michigan may be the Big 10 frontrunner next year if the NCAA grants Patterson immediately eligibility. Harbaugh’s crew would like to ride into a critical offseason with an emphatic win, and we think they’ll get it.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
UCF (12-0) vs. Auburn (10-3)
12:30 p.m., ESPN
Auburn -12.5 vs. UCF
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Undefeated, getting 10 points, not really convincing anyone to bet on UCF. Over 80% of the money we’ve gotten is on Auburn.”
If this game is half as fun as the handicap, it’s going to be epic. Before we get started with all that, we need to stress something: Do not underestimate UCF based on its conference.
Time and time again around the internet over the past few weeks, we read that UCF will not be able to overcome Auburn’s talent advantage. Is that so? We read the same argument leading up to the 2014 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State upset Arizona 38-30 as three-point underdogs), the 2015 Peach Bowl (Houston upset Florida State 38-24 as seven-point underdogs) and last year’s Cotton Bowl (Western Michigan hung close in a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin).
That’s two Group of 5 outright upsets in New Year’s Six bowl games along with a near-miss cover on Western Michigan (most books had Wisconsin -7.5) in the three years of the College Football Playoff era.
Going back further, UCF’s 12-1 team in 2013 upset Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl as 17-point underdogs, TCU’s 2010 team (when it was in the MWC) beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl 21-19 (the Frogs were actually short faves in that one), Utah’s 2008 team (also in the MWC at the time) upset Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl as nine-point underdogs, and don’t even get us started with Boise State’s postseason upsets under Chris Peterson (BSU was a 6.5-point ‘dog in their classic 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset win over Oklahoma 43-42).
It is not a poor investment to back Group of 5 teams in marquee bowl games. Recent history has taught us that it’s actually quite profitable.
We question G5 teams’ ability to compete on this stage while often merely assuming that we’ll see the best version of the Power 5 team they’re matched up against. Clearly that hasn’t been the case, whether because the G5 team was better than expected, the blueblood didn’t take them seriously enough, or because the blueblood failed to show up because it had hoped to play in a better bowl.
So let’s ask that question: Is Auburn going to bring its A-game to Atlanta? The Tigers were whipped 35-19 in last year’s Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, and they’re coming off an embarrassing showing in the SEC Championship against Georgia at the end of November, a 28-7 loss. Are we sure they’re going to bounce back with one of their best games of the year? Are we really sure?
All of this is not to say that UCF will win, or even that they’ll cover. We’ll find that out on New Year’s Day. But it’s imperative that you understand that UCF is not in a bad spot—they’re actually in an extremely advantageous one.
UCF is an offensive force that finished No. 1 with 53.9 points per game and No. 5 with 540.4 yards per game. S&P+ ranked UCF’s attack No. 2, behind only Oklahoma. The offense is efficient (No. 4 S&P+), explosive (No. 4 S&P+), disciplined (No. 11 and No. 6 in S&P+ average field position for offense and defense), cash money inside opponents’ 40-yard lines (No. 4 S&P+) and ultra-careful with the ball (No. 2 with a turnover differential of +15).
It’s a fast-paced attack, though the offense doesn’t run at near the breakneck tempo you may have been led to believe (No. 38 S&P+ adjusted offensive pace). Sometimes, just to keep opponents off-guard, the Knights will allow most of the play clock to tick off before snapping. Other times, they’ll sprint to the line and try to catch you out of position, perhaps using a lightning-fast bubble screen or a cut-blocking quick-hit slant.
Now-former UCF HC Scott Frost’s brainchild is diverse in its influence and devastating in its application. Frost, a former triple-option quarterback maestro under Tom Osborne at Nebraska, began his college career playing for Bill Walsh at Stanford before transferring. In the NFL, he played (as a safety) for Bill Parcells, Mike Tomlin, and Jon Gruden.
He’s always been keen on option principles—he has told the media in the past that he roots for Air Force, Navy and Georgia Tech when he’s not playing them—but his horizons have considerably expanded. Chip Kelly was a huge influence when Frost was an assistant at Oregon.
At UCF, wrinkles from all his mentors have been baked into his attack. It’s a spread, shotgun look that leans on a varied new-school option in the run game and a spread-the-ball-around mantra in the passing game. His offensive line often pulls to extreme degrees, sometimes using three linemen as an envoy. Interestingly, some of his running plays have a striking similarity to Gus Malzahn’s at Auburn.
Frost took the Nebraska job after UCF beat USF in the title game. Unlike many coaches in his position, he elected to stay behind and coach the Knights in this game. It’s impossible to tell if UCF’s preparation suffered any as Frost pulled double-duty, though we’re more confident with him on the sidelines in this game than we otherwise would have been.
His offense is directed by QB McKenzie Milton, a 5-foot-11 Hawaiian who started as a freshman in 2016. This season, Milton's thrown for 3,795 yards with a 35/9 TD/INT ratio to go with 561 rushing yards and seven ground scores (with sack yards omitted). Incredibly, Milton completed nearly 70% of his passes while averaging 10.1 YPA and taking sacks on only 2.7% of passes. That’s just stupid. UCF ranks No. 14 in S&P+ passing offense and No. 49 in S&P+ rushing offense.
And boy is that group confident. UCF RB Adrian Killins Jr., a burner, told the Orlando Sentinel that “Auburn hasn’t seen any speed like we have here so I would say they’re in for a rude awakening.” Knights freshman WR Gabe Davis added this: "That whole secondary looks a good, solid, strong secondary. There are some holes in their defense, just like every other defense in the country. You're always going to find somewhere you can get 'em. We plan on attacking those and getting the ball in the air." Many scoffed at the hubris. We loved the gumption. Nobody expects you to win. Why not poke the bear, play free, and have some fun?
Speaking of the bear, my gosh is Auburn vicious on defense. The Tigers rank No. 13 with 18.8 points per game allowed and No. 5 in defensive S&P+. Auburns ranks No. 17 against the pass with 183 ypg allowed and No. 32 against the run with 135 ypg allowed. Advanced metrics would tell you they’re even better than that. S&P+ grades the run defense No. 5 and says the pass defense is the very best in the nation.
Auburn All-American CB Carlton Davis will miss this game with an illness and after-affects of his concussion. Davis leads the team with 11 pass breakups. His loss will be felt against UCF's powerful passing game. But make no mistake: Auburn's secondary remains solid without him.
The Tigers boast one of the nation’s best front sevens. DT Dontavius Russell, who announced he’ll return to school for his senior season recently, is hard to move. He’s joined by 6-foot-5, 316-pound Derrick Brown (8.5 TFL, 12 run stuffs), a former five-star recruit who could be a top-10 pick following the 2018 season.
Jeff Holland, a 6-foot-2, 249-pound edge rusher who’s considering early declaration along with Davis, earned first-team All-SEC honors after posting 12 TFL, nine sacks, 22 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles during the regular season.
UCF’s defense isn’t nearly as stout (No. 78 S&P+), but it does boast a little star power of its own. Their leader is All-American LB Shaquem Griffin (62 tackles, 10 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, and a defensive touchdown), a former AAC Defensive Player of the Year. ILB Pat Jasinski paces the Knights with 96 tackles (7.5 TFL, 18 run stuffs).
The Knights rank No. 66 in the country with 27.5 points per game allowed. There isn’t a positive way to spin this, per se, but there are a few things to keep in mind. The Knights are willing to play however they need to in order to win. In the regular season finale against USF and the AAC title game against Memphis, UCF allowed 42 and 55 points, respectively, and 653 and 753 yards of total offense.
That’s horrifying, yes. But USF and Memphis are both top-20 teams with ridiculously explosive offenses. The Knights thought they could win a pair of firefights, and they were right. UCF allowed 24 points or less in all nine of the other games against FBS teams (including a regular-season tilt against Memphis).
It goes without saying that UCF isn’t going to hold Auburn to 24 points or less. Star Auburn RB Kerryon Johnson (1,320 yards), the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, was heavily compromised at the end of the regular season with a painful shoulder injury sustained in the Iron Bowl. He’s reportedly healthy, which is obviously a huge deal for the Tigers’ offense. Johnson is one of our favorite Tier 2 running backs in the next draft class (if he declares). He reminds us of something between a souped-up Wayne Gallman and Le’Veon Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, enjoy.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s running mate Kamryn Pettway will miss this game with a fractured shoulder blade. Pettway fell off to only 305 yards in 2017 (from 1,224 yards last year) while battling various nagging injuries. Pettway didn’t travel with the team, and there were reports earlier this week that he’s not welcome at team activities. For what it’s worth, the team disputes those reports. Either way, Pettway is probably gone to the NFL along with Johnson.
Auburn boasts the nation’s No. 15 S&P+ run offense. This balanced attack is also dangerous through the air, with S&P+’s No. 10 passing offense. QB Jarrett Stidham (2,827 yards on 67% completions and 7.5 YPA with a 17/4 TD/INT rate with four rushing touchdowns), a Baylor transfer, has been as good as advertised.
The Tigers aren’t as careful with the ball as UCF is. They lost 13 fumbles and 17 turnovers total. They finished a middling No. 62 in turnover differential. But, in the same breath, they aren’t exactly undisciplined. Auburn takes 31 less yards in penalties per game than UCF, which is something to keep an eye on.
But don’t forget about UCF’s special teams advantage. The Knight boasts the nation’s ninth-ranked kickoff-return unit behind All-American KR Mike Hughes. This facet of the game has been an Achilles Heel of Auburn all season. The Tigers ranked No. 128 out of 130 in defending kick returns. Overall, UCF has the No. 23 S&P+ special teams unit, while Auburn ranks No. 64.
Per the Sagarin Ratings, Central Florida played the No. 83 schedule while Auburn played the No. 3 schedule. Auburn lost to Clemson early, LSU in October and Georgia in the SEC title. The Tigers are the only team in the nation to beat two Playoff teams, knocking off Georgia (in the regular season) and Alabama in the regular season finale. UCF hasn’t played a team like Auburn. It’s also true that Auburn hasn’t played a team like UCF.
We have no idea how all of this is going to shake out, but my gosh are we excited to find out. Forced to choose, we want those points. UCF is a legitimate top-10 team, not a fluky mid-major success story. Auburn can play with—and flat beat—any team in the country. They’ll need to duplicate their effort against Alabama to blow UCF off the field. Maybe they will. History suggests they won’t.
Citrus Bowl Presented by Overton's
Notre Dame (9-3) vs. LSU (9-3)
1 p.m., ABC
Camping World Stadium
LSU -3.5 vs. Notre Dame
Against the Spread:
View from Vegas
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “I’m actually a bit surprised that the majority of bets are on LSU -3. Normally if giving Notre Dame points we will see their following come bet them but that does not seem to be the case in this matchup.”
LSU has covered seven straight, while Notre Dame has lost four straight. We think the recent turn of events conspired to give us some really good line value. In what could be a close, physical game, we want those points.
Notre Dame boasts the nation’s best offensive line, with two All-Americans who will be first-rounders in the spring (G Quenton Nelson and T Mike McGlinchey). The unit won the Joe Moore Award for the top offensive line in the country.
That group paves the way for a devastating rushing attack (No. 5 S&P+). Er, what used to be a devastating rushing attack. Notre Dame averaged 7.0 YPC in their first nine games. Miami’s dynamic front-seven dismantled the attack, and Notre Dame carried the struggles into the two games after that. The Irish fell off to 3.8 YPC and 142 rushing yards per game in the final three.
It wasn’t all due to a Hurricane hangover. Star Irish RB Josh Adams averaged 146.1 yards a game and 8.9 yards per carry in the first eight contests of the campaign, but he was dinged up with injures in November and fell off to 54.5 YPG and 3.7 YPC over the last four (he missed much of the Wake Forest game after sustaining an injury). The good news on that front is Adams is now fully healthy.
To beat Notre Dame, you really only need to do one thing: Stop the running game. If it gets going, the Irish will control the clock and ultimately bury you. If you stop it, QB Brandon Wimbush will be forced to beat you through the air, and that’s a losing proposition for the Irish. In Notre Dame’s three losses—against Georgia, Miami and Stanford—Adams was held to 53 rushing yards or less each time (and he had only 22 yards after getting injured early against Wake).
In Notre Dame’s other eight games, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Adams (1,386 yards and nine touchdowns) went over 100 yards seven times, over 150 yards five times and over 200 yards twice.
If he gets going against LSU, the Tigers are cooked. LSU’s defense had spurts of greatness in 2017, though it struggled in its three losses to Mississippi State, Troy and Alabama. S&P+ ranks the Tigers defense No. 17 overall. LSU ranks No. 21 in run defense, allowing 126 yards per game (No. 26 S&P+ run defense). In terms of quality, the passing defense is near identical (No. 24 S&P+).
The group you’ll see against the Irish won’t be as good as it was at its peak. The Tigers will play without top-10 overall NFL Draft prospect DE Arden Key and a pair of starting LBs in Corey Thompson and Donnie Alexander. All three will probably be playing in the NFL next year. Replacing them in the starting lineup will be a pair of freshman (K'Lavon Chaisson for Key and Tyler Taylor for Alexander) and a sophomore (Michael Divinity for Thompson).
That’s most unfortunate in this matchup. Not only is LSU’s front seven severely compromised, but its depth has taken an enormous shot as well. Offensively, Notre Dame wants to beat up your front for four quarters. Will LSU’s young, inexperienced replacements be able to stand up to McGlinchey, Nelson and Notre Dame’s merry band of interior marauders? We have our doubts about that.
They simply must for LSU to win. And if they somehow can, LSU shouldn’t have any problem putting this one away. Notre Dame’s passing attack (No. 59 S&P+) was mediocre as is, and now it’ll be without No. 2 WR Chase Claypool due to injury, and No. 3 WR Kevin Stepherson and TE Alize Mack due to suspension. Notre Dame is fine at TE with Durham Smythe. At receiver, Cameron Smith and C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke will be asked to step up.
Wimbush, Notre Dame’s quarterback, is outstanding as a runner (885 yards and 14 touchdowns on 7.9 YPC with sack yardage taken out), but he’s an exceedingly poor passer. Looking past his respectable 16/6 TD/INT rate, he threw for only 1,818 yards on an awful 49.8% completion percentage and a middling 5.8 YPA. In Equanimeous St. Brown, Wimbush still has one stud on the outside. Since most of St. Brown’s starting pals are out, though, LSU will be free to double-team him throughout.
LSU’s offense is similarly run-happy. Derrius Guice (1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.3 YPA) leads S&P+’s No. 6 ground game. Guice was dinged up at times early in the campaign and into bowl prep, but HC Ed Orgeron said over the past week that Guice will play against the Irish. LSU has a tremendous backup RB to spell him with in Darrel Williams.
LSU’s passing game is no great shakes, but it’s very clearly superior to Notre Dame’s. Tigers QB Danny Etling was greatly aided by the addition of OC Matt Canada. He has 2,234 yards on 60% completions with a sterling 14/2 TD/INT rate and a strong 7.9 YPA average. Canada puts him in positions to succeed by taking deep shots off play-action when defenses start to cheat up on Guice. LSU has S&P+’s No. 10 most explosive passing attack because of that, with Etling periodically being able to hit home run threat WR DJ Chark (35-811-3, 23.2 YPC) for bombs in single coverage.
LSU doesn’t have much in the way of receivers outside of Chark, and the one-dimensional nature of the aerial component of the offense coupled with Etling’s dearth of mobility led LSU into taking 28 sacks (Etling had a 9.4% sack rate and LSU finished with the S&P+ No. 103 adjusted sack rate). The Tigers love to use Chark and WR Russell Gage on jet sweeps to punish defenses for over-pursuing, but that only helps so much.
Etling is a game-manager, no more and no less, and he’s become quite adept at that role. He threw only two interceptions, and the offense as a whole finished with a nation-low eight turnovers. Two of those turnovers came via interceptions of backup QB Myles Brennan in his mere 24 attempts.
Defensively, Notre Dame matches up well. The unit’s overall S&P+ ranking sagged to No. 30 as it struggled in November (a part of that had to do with the poor positions the offense was putting it into). Setting aside recency bias, Notre Dame finished with the No. 13 S&P+ run defense and the No. 4 S&P+ pass defense.
We do wonder if LSU’s offense will be hurt at all by all the drama surrounding Canada, the play-caller. According to reports, Canada will be out after this game, and he’s already moved out of Baton Rouge (the rumored OC replacement Steve Ensminger). Canada’s system is complicated and intricate. If his (or his team’s) preparation was affected in any way by the friction between he and HC Ed Orgeron, the attack could suffer.
Both teams are below-average on special teams, though Chark has proven to be a dangerous punt returner (two TDs). LSU is better at returning, but Notre Dame has a huge advantage in placekickers with the reliable K Justin Yoon.
Each team is 9-3, though Notre Dame faced a far higher degree of difficulty to get there. The Irish played Phil Steele’s No. 2 schedule, while LSU faced his No. 55 schedule. LSU went 2-3 against teams in the S&P+ top-60 amid a down season in the SEC, while Notre Dame went 5-3.
Not only are the Irish more battle-tested, but they match up well, with an elite offensive line going up against a compromised front-seven. We see the Irish grinding down LSU and springing the upset.
2017 Bowl Record (through 12/31/17): Straight-Up: 20-14 (58.8%); Against the Spread: 17-16-1 (51.5%)
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%)