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Bowl Predictions

Jan. 2 ATS Bowl Predictions

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


TAXSLAYER BOWL: Georgia (9-3) -7 Penn State (7-5)


Site: Jacksonville, Fla.

Date: Jan. 2

Time/TV: Noon ET, ESPN


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:






Thor Nystrom’s analysis:


Welcome to the Doppelgänger Bowl. Both schools play offense that will make your eyes bleed (PSU ranks No. 56 via S&P+, UGA is No. 73) and defense that will make your body bleed (PSU is No. 16 and UGA is No. 11). Both offensive units are piloted by the run (PSU is No. 38 and UGA is No. 14) and play at snail's paces (both are No. 123 or lower in plays per game and adjusted pace).


While those units are almost identical on a macro level, they have quite profiles different when we zoom in. The Nittany Lions are highly explosive (No. 15) but play as illogically (No. 110 efficiency) as the plot of Back to the Future III, when Doc builds a steam train time machine in the old west, even though everybody knows you need plutonium to time travel. The Bulldogs are mediocre but awful in neither metric (Nos. 60 and 52, respectively). Georgia lost RB Nick Chubb to a devastating knee injury and suffered through QB Greyson Lambert’s dogged mediocrity, ranking No. 75 with 381.4 yards per game and No. 84 with 26.5 points per game.


S&P+ likes the run game quite a bit, ranking it No. 14, though that grade is propped up by the fallen Chubb’s 8.0 YPC. Sony Michel is a clear downgrade but a good lead back nevertheless. Where Chubb's absence is most acutely felt is on the depth chart, with Mr. Glass Keith Marshall replacing Michel as backup (I swear to you there will only be one more sci-fi allusion in this column). Penn State has a nasty pass defense (No. 8 by S&P+) but a mediocre run defense (No. 53). Will PSU’s strong defensive front, led by Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib, occupy blockers more and penetrate less (PSU has the No. 2 front seven havoc rate) because of the matchup?


Penn State has far more offensive talent, even if that doesn’t show up in the statistics. QB Christian Hackenberg won’t get out of Day 2 if he declares for the draft, even though he often looks confused under pressure, which he’s under quite often because of the offensive line’s struggles over the past few years. It’s imperative that Georgia harass Hack endlessly so he doesn’t have time to wait for WR Chris Godwin to shake corners. The Bulldogs are well equipped to do so because of edge rushers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. UGA has the No. 20 passing downs sack rate and the No. 52 adjusted sack rate compared to PSU’s Nos. 105 and 116 offensive showings in those categories. UGA carries those advantages into third down S&P+ (No. 32 defense vs. No. 94 PSU offense), so the ideal scenario is forcing Hackenberg into third-and-long passing situations, where the Bulldogs thrive (No. 1 FBS pass defense with 146.0 YPG).


To get there, Georgia will have to stop the source of all PSU’s big plays, RB Saquon Barkley (6.1 YPC). While the Bulldogs are great at penetrating and the Nittany Lions are regularly beat off the edge, PSU’s offensive line is actually quite decent when moving forward (No. 34 in adjusted line yards) and UGA’s front is at its worst when its asked to hold up at the point of attack (No. 75 defense in adjusted line yards).  


The Bulldogs have the proximity advantage at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, though I don’t give too much credit for home field advantage in this one. The Bulldogs don’t have an identity at the moment. Without selfhood, there is no conceit of home. Georgia will play without their head coach (Mark Richt is the new Miami HC), offensive coordinator (Brian Schottenheimer is now the assistant manager of an Athens' Denny’s) and defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt is now Alabama’s DC, taking the old gig of new UGA HC Kirby Smart). WR coach Bryan McClendon will coach. If you know who he is, you're Mrs. McClendon. Thanks for reading, ma'am. The Nittany Lions closed out the season on a three-game losing streak but crave a marquee January win in Florida for recruiting and program momentum purposes. With Hackenberg likely off to the NFL after this game, a new era of Penn State football is about to begin. For HC James Franklin, that metamorphosis begins now.


Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

Georgia LB/Edge Leonard Floyd (#84) - Floyd played more of a traditional, off ball linebacker spot this season. WHile it likely won’t be his position in the NFL, that versatility in space was well received by scouts and likely allows all schemes to believe they can fit Floyd on their defense. As a pass rusher, Floyd is one of the true edge players to show bend and flexibility to turn the corner. Let’s talk through where he could fit: SAM backer in a 4-3 under, weak or strong side depending on the scheme in a 4-3, or as a drop linebacker in an odd (3-4) front, which can be difficult to find. I bet the NFL likes Floyd more than the media currently does. It can be difficult to find defenders who move like Floyd.

Other notable draft prospects: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State DE Carl Nassib, Penn State DL Anthony Johnson, Penn State DL Anthony Zettel, Penn State TE Kyle Carter, Penn State S Jordan Lucas; Georgia OL John Theus, Georgia edge rusher Jordan Jenkins, Georgia WR Malcolm Mitchell.




LIBERTY BOWL: Arkansas (7-5) -11.5 Kansas State (6-6)


Site: Memphis, Tenn.

Date: Jan. 2

Time/TV: 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:






Thor Nystrom’s analysis:


Both teams come in hot. The Wildcats earned postseason eligibility with a three-game winning streak to finish the season. Arkansas enters winners of five of six. To be fair, KSU's "hot streak" consisted of victories over Kansas, Iowa State and playing-for-nothing West Virginia. Arkansas' resurgence included road upsets over Mississippi and LSU.


To finish with a winning record, Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, who may or may not be coaching his last game, is going to have to pull four or five rabbits out of his wizard hat. KSU can't throw (No. 110 by S&P+), is middle of the road at running (No. 45), can’t stop the run itself (No. 86) and can’t defend the pass either (No. 73). If there is one saving grace for the 'Cats, it’s that DTs senior Travis Britz and sophomore Will Geary are solid and long runs have been mitigated (only 12 runs of 20-plus yards have been allowed). Still, the unit will have huge problems against a monstrous Hog offensive line and aggressive RB Alex Collins, the third SEC RB ever to top 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.


KSU isn't sure if it will start the injured QB Joe Hubener (who can't throw) or the healthy but worse-throwing Kody Cook (to be fair, he's normally a receiver) at quarterback. The Hogs' kryptonite is aerial pyrotechnics. Somehow the pass defense (No. 118 by S&P+) is even worse than KSU's anemic passing offense. Those weaknesses cancel each other out. Arkansas' run defense is middle of the pack, as KSU's running game is, another statistical wash. Kansas State’s best source of offense may be All-American kick returner Morgan Burns, though we can’t just assume they’ll have the edge on special teams over the Razorbacks, who rank No. 14 in kick coverage (18.1 yards allowed per kick return). If I were KSU, I would tab Cook to start. The slight decrease in passing efficiency expected would more than be mitigated by Cook's ability to break containment and force the game to be played on the perimeter, where less superior Arkansas players can congregate. The Wildcats can't win a straight-up Rock'em Sock'em brawl with the Razorbacks. To spring the upset, guerilla tactics will be needed. Nobody is better at dragging the outcome of a game out of the clear light of day, where talent wins, and into the menacing fog of enigma, where coaching wins, better than Snyder. That's how you spring upsets and he has about as many of those as anyone in the history of the sport. 


We can't just assume mystique can overcome across-the-board talent and situational advantages for Arkansas, however. The extreme statistical mismatches all occur when Arkansas has the ball. The Hogs have the No. 2 S&P+ offense, with the No. 1 passing attack and the No. 10 running game. QB Brandon Allen has thrown for 3,125 yards on 65.1 percent completions and 8.6 YPA with a 29/7 TD/INT rate. His favorite receivers are WR Drew Morgan and TE Hunter Henry, a possible first-round pick. Kansas State is even worse in standard defensive stats than in advanced metrics (No. 101 in total defense). Arkansas will score at will if it is clicking.


Snyder used to mentor Hogs HC Bret Bielema, so we're about to find out if the student has it in him to punish his teacher. On paper, this game is the most lopsided matchup of any bowl. If Arkansas is motivated, it can name the margin it will win by. If it isn’t, the pesky Wildcats could stun them. I’m going to bank on the Hogs showing up with something to prove and drilling this undermanned KSU squad that lost by 55 to Oklahoma, 14 to Texas and 15 to Texas Tech. Perhaps I'm stepping into a trap. I do so knowing Snyder has taken the scalps of far better handicappers than me. If he's got one more shamanistic sideline performance left in him, we can at least watch it charmed, secure in the knowledge that he fooled us once more and may never do so again.


Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

Kansas State OL Cody Whitehair (#55) - Whitehair will inevitably receive poor man’s Zack Martin comparisons. Because of that, the Kansas State veteran could be shifted inside since his strong base and powerful hands matches up at guard extremely well. At tackle, he gets in trouble when his base gets too wide, preventing him from reacting to angles. I’ve said it before, but guards can hold just as much value as tackles, since teams deploy interior disruptors at the same rate as edge pass rushers. Whitehair’s strength will allow him to overcome some balance issues.

Other notable draft prospects: Arkansas QB Brandon Allen, Arkansas RB Alex Collins, Arkansas TE Hunter Henry, Arkansas OL Sebastian Tretola.




ALAMO BOWL:  Oregon (9-3) -8.5 TCU (10-2)


Site: San Antonio, Texas

Date: Jan. 2

Time/TV: 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:






Thor Nystrom’s analysis:


These teams had swapped the designation of small favorite throughout the past few weeks until TCU QB Trevone Boykin was suspended on Thursday following a bar fight and a scrap with police. At the time of publishing, the Ducks were favored by between 7 and 8.5 points, depending on your book. Unfortunately, TCU is also down stud WR Josh Doctson, out for the year with a left wrist injury. With Boykin and Doctson, I had the Horned Frogs as my No. 1 strongest bet in ATS bowl pools. There is no way this ghastly Oregon secondary could have contained them; Doctson may have dropped 200-plus receiving yards had he been cleared.


Boykin (2,928 yards with a 28/5 TD/INT rate with 524 rushing yards and six TDs) gives way to backup QB Bram Kohlhausen. The Horned Frogs have averaged 44.8 PPG with Boykin and 26 without him. You'll see a more pocket-based passing offense, as Kohlhausen isn't nearly the scrambling threat Boykin is (most aren't). While the offense won't be nearly as explosive or varied without Boykin and Doctson, you'd be making a big mistake by assuming TCU now has no chance to win this game. Sans Boykin and Doctson against Oklahoma, a clearly superior team to Oregon, TCU failed on a last-second two-point conversion that would have won the game.


The offense, ranked No. 13 by S&P+, will change, but it's still going to find plenty of success on Saturday. Incredibly, the Ducks surrendered 50 more yards per game than their opponents averaged against everyone else (TCU is +32 in that stat). The Horned Frogs replaced Doctson with converted four-star RB Shawn Nixon, who had a school-best 23 receptions, 253 yards and one touchdown in November and December. Kohlhausen will also feed a steady dose of balls to WRs Kolby Listenbee and KaVontae Turpin. With his Olympic-grade speed, Listenbee is a perfect No. 2 collegiate WR, while the 5-foot-9 Turpin is a prototypical slot guy. They’re miscast as lead men, but Oregon’s corners are miscast as college football players. Young TCU WRs Emanuel Porter and Jarrison Stewart also have skills. Point being: This group remains strong and deep. The Horned Frogs’ No. 14 S&P+ passing offense retains a sizable advantage over Oregon’s No. 61 pass defense.


You would expect the Ducks to at least play adequate run defense with top-10 NFL talent DE DeForest Buckner and stout lane-clogging Day 3 prospect DT Alex Balducci on the front line. You would be wrong. S&P+ ranks the Ducks No. 110 against the run, No. 101 in standard down line yards per carry and No. 102 in overall efficiency. The Horned Frogs aren’t a great running team (No. 65), but they've only used the ground game all season to force you to account for it. Tellingly, TCU, led by RB Aaron Green (1,171 yards, 10 TDs), ranks No. 11 in avoiding run stuffs. Oregon ranks No. 96 in stuffing runs. Unless DC Don Pellum has made major adjustments over the last few weeks—a caveat akin to “Unless Donald Trump has taken PC classes since the last presidential debate...”—Kohlhausen won’t find himself in many third-and-longs. Expect TCU HC Gary Patterson to spread the field and lean on Green more than ever before. 


Oregon can't play defense, but boy can they move the ball. The Ducks enter with S&P+’s No. 8 offense. Over the last five games, it is averaging 48.6 points while the school has knocked off Stanford, USC and Arizona State. Since QB Vernon Adams returned from injury on Oct. 17, he’s thrown for 1,865 yards with a 21/4 TD/INT rate and an FBS-high 195.2 rating while the Ducks went 6-0.


Adams steals some of his shine, but RB Royce Freeman (1,706 rushing yards, 16 total touchdowns) is the real star of a unit that entered bowl season No. 6 in the FBS with an average of 548.2 yards per game. Oregon will rip off a series of big plays against TCU. The Ducks boast S&P+’s No. 8 most explosive offense while TCU’s defense is No. 108 in avoiding those plays. Explosive rushing (No. 2 offense vs. No. 43 defense) and passing plays (No. 11 offense vs. No. 49 defense) will both be available.


The Horned Frogs only rank No. 56 in S&P+’s defensive metrics, but that’s largely because of a series of huge plays it gave up over the first few months of the season. TCU actually grades No. 26 against the pass and No. 37 against the run. The defense made great progress down the stretch. If you toss out the Oklahoma State game, it gave up 16 PPG in wins against Iowa State, West Virginia and Kansas and then held Oklahoma to 30 and Baylor to 21. 


While Oregon will score plenty and TCU is undermanned offensively, the Horned Frogs don't play the same brand of swinging-gate defense that the Ducks do. And it’s fair to point out that despite Oregon’s late-season pyrotechnics, the team only escaped lowly Oregon State by 10 in the finale. Now they're laying near double-digits to an elite team minus two stars? I expect the Horned Frogs to put a real scare into the Ducks, perhaps even winning outright.


Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

Oregon DL DeForest Buckner (#44) - Following a draft class that saw Leonard Williams go in the top 10 and Arik Armstead in the top 20, Buckner is a player on the same spectrum who should be selected within the opening 10 picks. I don't view Buckner as a can't miss pass rusher. His awareness as an upfield disruptor in pass rushing situations is lacking, in terms of urgency to shed or make a move and attack the quarterback. However, I am sold about Buckner's individual traits that can result in a powerful pass rusher. Let me explain. Buckner has desired size and length. He is not slow off the football. He has strength in his hands and uses length. All of these show up as a run defender. Once he shows urgency to play behind the line of scrimmage against the pass, he can be a huge factor on a defense. But there is a gap between confident run defender and all around disruptor.

Other notable draft prospects: TCU WR Josh Doctson; TCU QB Trevone Boykin; TCU WR Kolby Listenbee, TCU OL Joey Hunt; Oregon WR Bralon Addison, Oregon QB Vernon Adams, Oregon OL Tyler Johnstone, Oregon DL Alex Balducci, Oregon WR Byron Marshall.




CACTUS BOWL: West Virginia (7-5) -1 Arizona State (6-6)


Site: Phoenix, Ariz.

Date: Jan. 2

Time/TV: 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN


Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:






Thor Nystrom’s analysis:


Of all the bowl games I handicapped this year, this is the one where my personal opinion deviated most wildly from advanced statistical metrics and computer projections. The numbers and computers agree West Virginia is the correct pick. I like Arizona State. And not by a little. The difference between my subjective viewpoint and the objective prognostications of machines boils down to context. It’s why John and Sarah Connor will always take down Skynet: We understand subtext. The bots think that’s an IM sent by a Subway sandwich.


Before we delve deeper into my promised final metaphor, this one the most convoluted, comparing the author, as it is, to dystopian messianic figures, we’ll talk about West Virginia, aka Skynet’s paper champion. The Mountaineers are the No. 18 team in the land, according to S&P+, while Arizona State is No. 61. S&P+ gives West Virginia advantages on both offense (No. 29 to 35) and defense (No. 18 to 79) over the Sun Devils.


The celebrated Mountaineers defense is ruthless against the run (No. 3 by S&P+) and brings a hyper-aggressive secondary that intercepted 23 passes, including six by star CB Daryl Worley.  Unfortunately for the prerogative of artificial intelligence, Worley was recently suspended for this game. WVU's coverage unit lives and dies by the gambling sword. What they taketh, they also giveth away (No. 112 in suppressing explosive plays). ASU QB Mike Bercovici’s performance will dictate the winner of this game. ASU’s offensive success is generally predicated on how well he plays, for better or worse. Bercovici brings a whip and will test vertically with WRs Tim White and Devin Lucien (17 balls for 390 yards and four TDs over the last two games).


On offense, West Virginia plays very fast (No. 5 pace). You’ll see more punts than you’d expect unless QB Skyler Howard, who has completed less than 50 percent passes in four of his last seven, can pull out of his tailspin. If he can, he should be able to steal a touchdown or two, because ASU has already given up 30 TD passes and will be playing without star S Jordan Simone. Speedy WR Shelton Gibson will be deployed on a handful of fly routes. What happens on those calls is another key factor in the game.


West Virginia’s best offensive player is the highly underrated RB Wendell Smallwood (1,447 rushing yards, 23 receptions), who averages 120.6 rushing yards (No. 13 in the FBS) on 6.4 YPC (No. 38). He faces a stiffer test against ASU’s stiff run defense (No. 26 by S&P+ against WVU’s No. 32 run offense) than the passing offense does (WVU checks in at a mediocre No. 51, but ASU is No. 61).


Of course, ASU is seen more attractively by conventional stats because of the feverish way it chooses to defend. The school leads the FBS with 44 sacks and ranks No. 5 with 101 TFL behind a penetrating front and athletic LBs Antonio Longino and Salamo Fiso. S&P+ recognizes the aggression, ranking ASU No. 29 in overall havoc rate and No. 13 in front seven havoc rate. That style of play matches up well here, because West Virginia’s offensive line, while strong at run blocking, struggles to keep defenders out of Skyler Howard’s grill (in that way, they are similar to Penn State). ASU’s No. 11 defensive passing downs sack rate will be going against WVU’s No. 103 offense in that metric. If all those flying bullets spook the shaky Howard and ASU’s run defense plays as it has, West Virginia will find it exceedingly hard to consistently convert first downs.


ASU also plays offense with hyper-tempo, ranking No. 6 in pace. That group will be without coordinator Mike Norvell, who left to take over as Memphis’ HC. ASU's rotation of downhill RBs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage has been more effective down the stretch but matches up poorly overall with WVU’s take-no-prisoners run defense. The Sun Devils hope they can merely do enough to keep the offense out of third-and-longs, which is a realistic expectation. It’s the overrated WVU pass defense, which hasn’t been the same since S Carl Joseph went down and just lost its best cover man in Worley, that Arizona State will attack with zeal. Give the Sun Devils a little extra credit for having home field advantage at Chase Field in Phoenix, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.


I mentioned context at the outset and that’s where we’ll end. West Virginia’s best win of the season was ambushing a wide-eyed Georgia Southern in the opener. That school blossomed later on but wasn’t ready in early September. S&P+ allots too much credit to WVU's run defense for shutting out GSU’s No. 1 triple-option run attack in early September. West Virginia beat only one other bowl team, Texas Tech. WVU lost to Kansas State in the finale and you know by now how embarrassing that was. Arizona State is a far more frustrating team, but the resume is superior. The Sun Devils led Cal 24-3 before blowing the lead to lose 48-46 and lost in triple-overtime to Oregon. ASU beat four bowl teams (New Mexico, UCLA, Washington and Arizona) and probably should have beaten two more.


Skynet's only chance to survive was to create The Terminator to go back in time to kill Sarah Connor, erasing John's existence in the first place and thus breaking the contextual link to Skynet's ultimate demise. Context makes meaning. It’s telling you to go against convention wisdom.


Josh Norris’ favorite prospect:

Arizona State QB Mike Bercovici (#2) - In a quarterback landscape where evaluators turn over every stone in an attempt to find a viable second or third string quarterback, I’m surprised more attention has not been paid to Bercovici. The offense is not “pro style” in terms of lateral play action out of the gun, with rollouts to hit crossing routes at multiple levels. But when asked to play inside of structure, Bercovici can keep his eyes up, weave through pass rushers and has a strong arm that he uses well.

Other notable draft prospects: Arizona State OL Christian Westerman, Arizona State OL Vi Teofilo, Arizona State CB Lloyd Carrington, Arizona State S Jordan Simone; West Virginia LB Nick Kwiatkoski





2015 Bowl Record (through Wed. Dec. 30): Straight-Up: 19-9 (67.9%); Against the Spread: 18-10 (64.3%)


2015 Overall RecordStraight-Up: 112-57 (66.3%); Against the Spread: 85-82-3 (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!