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Odds and Ends

Against the Spread Picks: Dec. 31 bowls

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: December 31, 2020, 11:52 am ET

In the table below, you'll find the Adjusted Thor Line (ATL). ATL is a system based on power ratings, computer models and real-time betting data that I devised for determining line value. ATL does not consider injuries, COVID absences, or situational spots. That's where the handicapping comes in.

The lines in the table below are from the perspective of the favorite. Check the bottom of the column for my adjusted spreads for the remainder of the bowl slate. 

All lines courtesy of PointsBet Sportsbook. My picks are in bold.

Underdog Favorite PB Line ATL Date Bowl
Mississippi State Bulldogs Tulsa Golden Hurricane -2.5 -5.0 12/31 Armed Forces Bowl
Ball State Cardinals San Jose State Spartans -10 -1.6 12/31 Arizona Bowl
Army Black Knights West Virginia Mountaineers -7 -7.8 12/31 Liberty Bowl

Thursday, December 31


Armed Forces Bowl | Amon G Carter Stadium | Fort Worth, Texas

Tulsa Golden Hurricane (-2.5) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs

ATL: Tulsa -5.0

11:00a CST | ESPN


Tulsa has a physical, hard-hitting, unique, 3-3-5 defense that forces opponents to play left-handed. Against a one-dimensional Mississippi State offense, that assignment shouldn’t be too difficult.

MSU Mike Leach’s first season was a 3-7 disappointment, with wins over LSU, Vanderbilt and Missouri. In hindsight -- the thrill of the opening-week upset over LSU notwithstanding -- we should have seen it coming. 

Leach has warred with his roster at times this year, and multiple veterans who began the season with the team will not end it likewise. MSU has 26 first-time starters, most in the FBS.

That includes three-star true freshman QB Will Rogers, who replaced an injured K.J. Costello in the 41-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama on Halloween. Surprisingly, Rogers has proved to be a sizable upgrade over the veteran Stanford grad transfer.

In 316 attempts, Rogers completed 69.6% of his passes for a 10/7 TD/INT ratio while gaining 4.8 adjusted net yards per attempt and taking a sack on 4.8% of his drop-backs. In Costello’s 209 attempts, the veteran completed 64.1% of his passes for a 6/11 TD/INT ratio while gaining 3.6 adjusted net yards per attempt and taking a sack on 6.3% of his drop-backs.

In Rogers’ five starts down the stretch, MSU went 2-3 SU and 3-2 ATS. In Costello’s four starts, MSU went 1-3 SU and 1-3 ATS -- the LSU game proved to be the exception, not the rule. 

Youth movements abound on the Bulldogs roster, including next to Rogers in the backfield. When RB Kylin Hill opted out earlier this fall, Leach turned to frosh RB Jo’quavious Marks, who responded with 56 receptions, tops among FBS running backs.

Despite steps forward, this is a Mississippi State offense that scored more than 24 points in a game just twice -- in the opener, and in the regular-season finale. That unit ranks No. 83 SP+.

The Bulldogs aren’t efficient, nor explosive -- and they struggle in the red zone, on third down, turn the ball over too much, and consistently lose the field position battle. 

Tulsa is a really tough bowl draw for a team like Mississippi State. The Hurricane’s nasty defense ranks No. 22 SP+. 

Most unfortunately, Tulsa will play this game without Bronko Nagurski award winner LB Zaven Collins (nation's best defensive player). The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder, who logged four interceptions, four sacks, and 11.5 TFL in eight games this fall, opted out to begin preparing for the draft.

His loss hurts, but it certainly doesn't submarine Tulsa's chances.

Tulsa is coming off a narrow 27-24 defeat at the hands of the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats in the AAC title game. The Hurricane’s only other loss of the season was also against a ranked team, way back in the September opener against Oklahoma State, a game Tulsa held tough but eventually lost 16-7.

Tulsa’s offense has been a letdown. The attack has some skill talent but was dragged to No. 67 SP+ due to QB Zach Smith’s inaccuracy and offensive line issues. But it must be said: Tulsa’s offense is better than Mississippi State’s, for whatever that’s worth.

And as long as Tulsa’s offense can battle to a draw with Mississippi State’s No. 56 SP+ defense that will be playing without starting S Marcus Murphy, an opt-out, the Hurricane should feel good about their chances.

Of Tulsa’s eight games, six were decided by single-digits (Tulsa blew out USF and Navy in the others). That includes five games against teams ranked between SP+ No. 5-47. Mississippi State simply isn’t in that class, ranked No. 69 SP+. All seven of MSU’s losses came by seven points or more.

Tulsa has been underpriced by sportsbook all season. That they’re laying less than a field goal to this dumpster fire of a Mississippi State team -- Zaven Collins or no Zaven Collins -- is just another datapoint in that direction.

Tulsa went 7-1 ATS this season -- the No. 3 ATS cover percentage in the FBS behind only San Jose State (6-0-1) and Indiana (7-0) -- and is also 4-1 ATS in their last five as a fav.

Tulsa is thrilled to be here after turning its fortunes around this season with HC Phil Montgomery on the hot seat after going 2-10, 3-9 and 4-8 the past three years. I think they’ll cap their season with a win over Leach’s bunch that is still searching for an identity.

Liberty Bowl | Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium | Memphis, Tennessee

West Virginia Mountaineers (-7) vs. Army

ATL: WVU -7.8

3:00p CST | ESPN


Army was nearly left out in the cold during the bowl selection process, but got called on to replace Tennessee in this game when the Vols were forced to pull out due to COVID-19 issues.

Army is a trickier opponent for West Virginia than Tennessee would have been. The Black Knights’ triple-option offense ranks No. 4 in the FBS with 281.3 rushing yards per game.

West Virginia HC Neal Brown told reporters he expects to see both Army QBs, Christian Anderson and Tyhier Tyler, in the Liberty Bowl. Anderson earned the first four starts of the season, but an undisclosed injury limited him to just two games after that.

One of them was the season finale, when Tyler got hurt, bringing Anderson off the bench to complete the 10-7 win over Air Force. Anderson might be the slightly better option by the advanced stats, but it’s close. Both are plenty competent.

Army uses that offense, ranked No. 95 SP+, to control the clock and tempo of the game. Because of that, Army’s defense saw fewer plays run against it per game than any team in the country this year.

And since Army’s defense also ranked No. 3 in the country in points per drive allowed, you can tell why this team finished 9-2 without the offensive pyrotechnics. 

West Virginia is similar to Army in that they have a good defense and a mediocre offense, but the similarities end there. 

West Virginia runs a modified Air Raid attack at tempo that spreads the field for dink-and-dunk QB Jarrett Doege and asks him to take what the defense gives him when he isn’t throwing pre-determined screens.

Doege spreads the ball around, with six different pass-catchers over 200 receiving yards and none over 600. Spreading defenses out leaves boxes thin for WVU RB Leddie Brown, a bursty back who has piled up 945 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.

If there is a criticism of Brown and West Virginia’s run game in general, it’s that it’s always looking for the home run (No. 18 rushing explosiveness) and doesn’t always execute (No. 116 rushing success rate, No. 112 rushing marginal efficiency).

We know Brown is going to hit a few homers against an Army run defense that ranks No. 113 in rushing explosion against. But Army’s run defense executes extremely well and is ranked top-five in both success rate and efficiency -- will every non-dinger be a strikeout?

West Virginia’s defense will have to replace an enormous opt-out, LB Tony Fields. Fields, a first-team All-Big 12 honoree in 2020, was also named Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Award after leading the conference in tackles with 88. 

But Darius Stills, an undersized, highly disruptive nose guard, announced he would play in the game. Stills, another All Big-12 first-teamer, was named the conference’s defensive linemen of the year and was listed on multiple All-American lists. He’s posted a team-leading 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and an interception this fall.

Stills’ brother, Dante Stills, ranks No. 2 on the team with six TFL. They’re a menacing duo along the defensive front.

Statistically, Army’s defense comes in higher-ranked, No. 2 in the FBS in total defense (271.1 YPG). But some of Army’s counting stats aren’t to be trusted. Three of its 11 games were played against FCS teams, and three others were played against teams ranked No. 103 SP+ or lower. If you're doing the math at home, that's more than half the schedule.

Army only played two teams ranked higher than SP+ No. 68: Cincinnati (5), which beat Army 24-10, and Tulane (47), which beat Army 38-12. Army beat the two-other top-75 SP+ teams it played, Georgia Southern (75) and Air Force (68), but posted postgame win expectancies of just 28% and 27%, respectively, in those victories. 

Facing West Virginia (SP+ No. 35), even without Fields, is an enormous step up in competition, and Army didn’t handle that the best this year. West Virginia, on the other hand, is strong under the weight of expectations, going 4-1 ATS as a favorite in 2020.

I expect Leddie Brown to have a big game, the Stills brothers to pile up several TFL, and West Virginia to win by double-digits.

Arizona Bowl | Arizona Stadium | Tucson, Arizona

Ball State Cardinals (+10) vs. San Jose State

ATL: SJSU -1.6

1:00p CST | CBS


My numbers love Ball State. And in any quantitative vacuum, San Jose State shouldn’t be laying double-digits in this spot -- this is an overreaction! But I do have my trepidations. So let me touch on those.
Ball State’s secondary has been torched with regularity this fall, ranking No. 119 in passing yards allowed per game. The Cardinals rank No. 120 in defensive passing success rate and No. 109 in defensive passing marginal efficiency. 

San Jose State has one of the G5’s best passing offenses, ranking No. 18 in passing success rate and No. 37 in marginal explosiveness. Veteran QB Nick Starkel, the former ballyhooed recruit who bounced between Texas A&M and Arkansas before reviving his career in California, is averaging a superb 9.3 adjusted net yards per attempt while getting sacked on only 2.3% of his snaps. He’s completing 65.1% of his passes for a 16/4 TD/INT rate.

Ball State is going to have all kinds of issues corralling WRs Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither, who combined for almost 1,300 receiving yards in seven games. 

The Spartans went 6-0-1 ATS during their perfect 7-0 regular season, winning six of seven games by double-digits. Only Indiana (7-0 ATS) had a better ATS record in the FBS.

While San Jose State didn't have any opt-outs, Ball State has been playing without one of their best offensive players, standout starting RB Caleb Huntley, for the past month due to an opt-out.

Despite all this, if I have to pick a side in this game, I have to take the points and back the Cards.

Surprisingly, Ball State has seemed to improve since Huntley left the team. Which makes little sense, until you consider that the team ranks No. 19 in passing success rate, No. 26 in passing marginal efficiency and No. 22 in completion rate. 

Huntley’s departure forced Ball State to lean more on QB Drew Plitt, and Plitt has responded with numbers comparable to Starkel’s -- including a 16/6 TD/INT ratio on 65.8% completions.

Starkel has two awesome targets. Plitt has three dangerous ones, Yo'Heinz Tyler, Justin Hall (who is also very dangerous on handoffs, another sneaky way BSU offset Huntley’s loss) and Antwan Davis.

Hall is an absolute star -- one of college football’s most overlooked players. In the same way BSU will struggle to corral SJSU’s perimeter skill, the Spartans are going to have issues covering these shifty Cardinals.

Ball State opened the season playing three teams ranked SP+ No. 104 or lower, and they went 2-1 in those games, with the two wins each coming by a touchdown or less. The Cardinals seemed to get better week-by-week after that, beating four straight teams inside the top-87 SP+ (Toledo, CMU, WMU and Buffalo). 

It would be fair to put Western Michigan and Buffalo in San Jose State’s qualitative neighborhood. Ball State was an underdog three times this season -- including in those two games -- and they won all three games outright.

The Cards dominated Buffalo 38-28 in the MAC title game, shutting down star RB Jarrett Patterson (note: BSU's run defense is better than its pass defense, so Buffalo was a better matchup on paper for BSU coming in than you can project San Jose State to be).

The Cardinals are an underrated team, I think that much is without question. And I think at this point it’s fair to wonder if San Jose State, after its magical run, may have become a bit overrated. I understand why the public has steamed this line to double-digits. 

But the value proposition it presents on the underdog is too much for me to pass up -- an overlay of 8.4 points off my adjusted number is an enormous discrepancy for ATL in a game that doesn’t feature multiple injuries or COVID-19 absences.

Texas Bowl: Canceled

Arkansas Razorbacks (N/A) vs. TCU Horned Frogs

ATL: TCU -5.4


Author’s note: This game was canceled on Tuesday due to COVID-19 issues within the TCU program. Below is my breakdown for posterity.

The surface-level narrative here is that we have a streaking TCU, winners of five of six to finish the year 6-4, facing an Arkansas squad in a tailspin, losers of four straight (and five of six) to close the regular season.

I’m not so sure. Taking a deeper look at the team’s resumes, TCU has produced 5.5 (-0.5) second-order wins against the No. 44 SP+ strength of schedule, while Arkansas has produced 4.7 (+1.7) second-order wins against the No. 1 SP+ SOS. 

The Razorbacks were non-competitive in the opener against Georgia and the finale against Alabama, which perhaps we can forgive them for. In the eight games in-between, Arkansas went 3-5, and posted win expectancies of 41% or higher in three-of-the-five losses (against Ole Miss, Florida and Missouri). 

In the advanced stats, Arkansas doesn’t stick out except for in one area: On defense, they do not allow explosive plays, ranking No. 5 in defensive marginal explosiveness and No. 21 in explosive play rate. The Hogs force you to work the ball down the field to score.

That defense could make things hard on the QB Max Duggan-led TCU offense, which isn’t a strong unit overall (No. 75 SP+) but does rank No. 35 in marginal explosiveness. What the Horned Frogs offense is not is efficient, ranking No. 83 in success rate and No. 77 in marginal efficiency. 

If Arkansas can take away TCU’s home runs, they might find that the Frogs struggle to hit singles and take walks. 

TCU’s defense will be the best unit on the field, ranked No. 20 SP+. Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 defense is extremely aggressive, with a healthy dose of stunts and blitzes.

TCU keeps you off schedule -- ranking No. 3 in success rate and marginal efficiency -- but coughs up its fair share of big plays in exchange (No. 127 defensive marginal explosion). 

Where Arkansas can take advantage is through the air with Feleipe Franks’ big arm, and the open-field running of WRs Treylon Burks and Mike Woods off screens and quick-hitters to take advantage of situations where TCU has leveraged itself thin.

The Hogs rank No. 35 in the nation in passing marginal explosiveness in large part due to the above trio. They better feast, because TCU shouldn’t have any problem shutting down Arkansas’ running game that will be without opt-out RB Rakeem Boyd

But Arkansas’ running game wasn’t very efficient with Boyd anyway. The way to beat TCU wasn’t through Boyd -- it’s downfield. Franks has been great this year, completing 68.5% of his passes for a 17/4 TD/INT rate while averaging 7.9 adjusted net yards per attempt. He's aided by Burks and Woods, both talented athletes and big-play guys. 

It’s not really Gary Patterson’s way to dial back the aggression to give more over-the-top help. If Franks can consistently get it where it needs to go on time in the short passing game, and if he can hit a few downfield one-on-one throws with pressure in his face, Arkansas is going to get its fair share of explosive passing plays. It’s that simple.

As you’ve gathered, I think these teams are closer in quality than their records or this point spread indicate. I see a close game that comes down to the wire. I want the points.

I will be previewing every 2020 bowl matchup in this space through the title game. Check back on Wednesday for the next installment of the series, when we break down the New Year's Day bowl games. In the meantime, here's my adjusted lines for every upcoming bowl matchup with updated PointsBet spreads. If you have any college football ATS questions until then, you can always reach me on Twitter

Underdog Favorite PB Line ATL Date Bowl  
Cincinnati Bearcats Georgia Bulldogs -7 -6.8 1/1 Peach Bowl  
Auburn Tigers Northwestern Wildcats -3.5 +3.6 1/1 Citrus Bowl  
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Alabama Crimson Tide -20 -14.0 1/1 Rose Bowl Game  
Ohio State Buckeyes Clemson Tigers -7.5 +1.3 1/1 Sugar Bowl  
NC State Wolfpack Kentucky Wildcats -2.5 +5.1 1/2 Gator Bowl  
Ole Miss Rebels Indiana Hoosiers -8 -4.4 1/2 Outback Bowl  
Oregon Ducks Iowa State Cyclones -4 -2.1 1/2 Fiesta Bowl  
North Carolina Tar Heels Texas A&M Aggies -7.5 -0.9 1/2 Orange Bowl  
TBD TBD TBD TBD 1/11 CFP National Championship  

2020: 61-64-1 (48.8%) ATS*

Bowls: 5-9 (35.7%) ATS*

Lifetime (2014-Present): 601-533-17 (53.0%) ATS*

*Through: Bowl games played on Dec. 30

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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!