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Odds and Ends

Against the Spread Picks: Jan. 2 bowls

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: December 31, 2020, 8:44 pm 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
NC State Wolfpack Kentucky Wildcats -2.5 +4.1 1/2 Gator Bowl
Ole Miss Rebels Indiana Hoosiers -8.5 -4.4 1/2 Outback Bowl
Oregon Ducks Iowa State Cyclones -4 -1.1 1/2 Fiesta Bowl
North Carolina Tar Heels Texas A&M Aggies -7.5 -0.9 1/2 Orange Bowl

Saturday, January 2


Gator Bowl | TIAA Bank Field | Jacksonville, Florida

NC State Wolfpack (+3) vs. Kentucky Wildcats

ATL: NCSU -4.1

11:00a CST | ESPN


I’m not sure how to explain 4-6 Kentucky being favored over 8-3 NC State outside of the whole SEC thing.

The Wolfpack were the better team this year. They have the better resume, with three wins against top-55 SP+ teams. NC State was the only team to beat Liberty. The Pack’s three losses all came to top-22 SP+ opponents.

Kentucky is a severely flawed team, once again fielding a poor, slow-moving, run-first offense (No. 87 SP+). Only this year, the defense (SP+ No. 45) isn’t as good as it’s been the last four years, all campaigns where UK finished with a winning record.

Kentucky lost to three top-10 SP+ teams this fall. No shame in that. But they also lost to SP+ No. 32 Auburn, No. 49 SP+ Ole Miss and SP+ No. 82 Missouri -- with the Auburn and Missouri defeats coming by double-digits.

NC State’s defense ranks in the top-45 SP+ in success rate against both the run and pass. In this game, they’ll only have to worry about shutting down the former, since UK QB Terry Wilson can’t throw.

The Wolfpack should be able to slow the Wildcats’ ground game. NC State’s run defense ranks No. 41 in success rate, No. 42 in marginal efficiency, No. 21 in power success rate and No. 19 in stuff rate.

Kentucky’s offense only scored more than 24 points four time, against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Those teams combined to go 9-28. Kentucky lost to Ole Miss, but beat Mississippi State and the three other aforementioned teams (combined regular season record: 8-29).

Kentucky’s offense was so bad that the Wildcats got rid of co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. The new OC hire, Liam Coen, will not leave the Los Angeles Rams’ staff until after the season ends. Vince Marrow, the associate HC, TE coach and recruiting coordinator, will call plays. Good luck with that.

Kentucky doesn’t even have much of an advantage on defense here, with the No. 45 SP+ unit compared to NC State’s No. 51 defense. Let’s call it even, with Kentucky playing without top CB Kelvin Joseph, who led the team with four interceptions (nobody else had more than two). The Pack, with the No. 6 SP+ special teams, also have an advantage in that phase. 

Joseph opted out before the regular season finale. Expect NCSU QB Bailey Hockman, who has two straight 300-yard games, to have a stronger-than expected showing.

Kentucky’s offensive struggles have led to a 10-18-1 ATS record as a favorite over the past five seasons. They’re matched up here with a team better than any squad they beat in 2020. I like NC State to spring the minor upset that shouldn't be considered an upset -- my numbers favor the Pack by four points.

Outback Bowl | Raymond James Stadium | Tampa, Florida

Indiana Hoosiers (-8.5) vs. Ole Miss Rebels

ATL: Indiana -4.4

11:30a CST | ABC


This line has taken on helium, from Indiana -5.5 last week -- closer to my adjusted spread of Indiana -4.4 -- to Indiana -8.5 and climbing. I agree with the line movement.

Ole Miss, a team with a fabulous offense (No. 9 SP+) and no defense (No. 102 SP+) to speak of, is in trouble after suffering the confirmed opt-outs of first-team All-SEC WR Elijah Moore and second-leading receiver TE Kenny Yeboah.

That's not all. There have been reports of possible opt-outs of leading rusher and return man RB Jerrion Ealy and WR Braylon Sanders (15-376-4). The latter two each left Ole Miss’ regular season finale with injuries.

Because Ole Miss is so one-dimensional, they’re a bit of a paper-tiger bully, capable of annihilating bad teams but not of toppling good ones. This year, the Rebs went 0-3 SU against teams with winning records.

Indiana has no opt-outs, nor any new major injuries. And if you saw the way players speak about HC Tom Allen, and the way the program responded to being snubbed from the Big 10 title game, you know the Hoosiers are going to bring top effort.

The Hoosiers, of course, are also the far more well-rounded team. Indiana, SP+ No. 24 overall, ranks inside the top-32 SP+ in offense, defense and special teams (but no higher than 26 in any category).

Indiana beat three top-40 SP+ teams this fall -- Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- while only losing one game, 42-35, to SP+ No. 3 Ohio State. Ole Miss had three losses to teams ranked between SP+ No. 32-62, and they lost by 15 or more to the two top-4 SP+ teams it played this fall.

Rebels QB Matt Corral is really going to miss Moore and Yeboah (and Ealy and Sanders if they’re out as well). Florida QB Kyle Trask was not the same quarterback against Oklahoma after Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes opted out. Corral is facing a similar challenge.

Indiana will roll with QB Jack Tuttle again. Tuttle has been starting since Michael Penix’s season-ending injury. Tuttle has been a disappointment relative to his recruiting hype when he originally signed with Utah, but he should acquit himself well facing the worst college defense he’s ever played.

Indiana’s dream 6-1 regular season ended 7-0 ATS, the best cover record in the FBS this fall. I think Indiana caps off an undefeated ATS season by stomping Ole Miss on Saturday. 

Fiesta Bowl | State Farm Stadium | Glendale, Arizona

Iowa State Cyclones (-4) vs. Oregon Ducks

ATL: ISU -1.1

3:00p CST | ESPN


No opt-outs have been reported for this game, making it a welcome departure from other non-playoff bowl games featuring Power 5 teams. Without that to worry about, we have more of a straightforward handicap.

Oregon is more talented than its 4-2 record. But the Ducks have struggled with shooting themselves in the foot this season, ranking No. 106 in the country with a -5 turnover margin. If not for turnover issues, Oregon may have had a darkhorse argument to be included in the CFP playoff above Notre Dame.

In upset losses to Oregon State and Cal, the Ducks lost the turnover battle 5-0 as new starting QB Tyler Shough struggled. Oregon won the Pac-12 title game over USC (31-24) by flipping the script and picking off three passes.

But Shough struggled again against the Trojans, prompting Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to shake things up and give snaps to Boston College grad transfer Anthony Brown, who threw two TD in his four attempts.

Oregon RB C.J. Verdell missed that game with an injury. Ducks HC Mario Cristobal said earlier this week that he hopes Verdell will be available against Iowa State.

If he’s not, the Ducks will struggle to run the ball against an ISU run defense that ranks No. 10 in the nation against the run. ISU’s active front-seven -- led by DL Will McDonald and JaQuan Bailey and LB Mike Rose -- posted 35 TFL this fall. Oregon will not have the advantage when it tries to run, even if Verdell is active -- and the Ducks are a run-first outfit.

This Ducks offense is nothing like the 2019 edition, which had top-10 2020 NFL Draft pick Justin Herbert taking snaps, protected by potential top-three 2021 NFL draft pick LT Penei Sewell (who opted-out before the season). The 2020 offense sagged to SP+ No. 20.

Oregon will have its hands full trying to stop ISU RB Breece Hall, who ran for 1,436 yards and 19 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. Oregon allows 4.21 yards per carry, below-average for the Power 5 (No. 30 out of 55 P5 teams). The Ducks rank a mere No. 77 in the FBS in defensive rushing success rate.

Iowa State makes heavy use of two-TE sets, beefing up its front for run blocking. TE Charlie Kolar (39 catches for 538 yards) is also an extremely dangerous target for QB Brock Purdy.

Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors this fall and led the team with three sacks and 7.5 TFL -- played arguably the best game of his career in the Pac-12 title game, posting a sack, two TFL and a pass breakup. All three of Thibodeaux’s sacks have come in the last three games, one in each. 

The Ducks lost a ton of experience in their secondary to opt-out before the season, and the pass defense has struggled at times this year. Oregon really needs Thibodeaux to make his presence felt off the edge against the pass in particular, but will also need the talented youngster to consistently set the edge against this fearsome rushing offense.

Iowa State’s defense is more susceptible against the pass. But frankly, Shough hasn’t shown enough to trust he'll take advantage, especially if Oregon’s run game is compromised due to Verdell’s health and ISU’s run defense excellence.

The Cyclones have turned into a reliable program for bettors during the Matt Campbell era, with a 12-5 ATS record against ranked teams since 2017. Campbell also knows how to deal with expectations, with his group going 4-1 ATS over its past five as a fav. 

The Cyclones enter this game with the clearly better offense and clearly better defense. Iowa State’s special teams have been a mess this year, but Oregon ranks only No. 98 SP+ in that area. I like the Cyclones to beat the mistake-prone Ducks and cover this number.

Orange Bowl | Hard Rock Stadium | Miami Gardens, Florida

North Carolina Tar Heels (+7.5) vs. Texas A&M Aggies

ATL: A&M -0.9 

7:00p CST | ESPN


Whereas Iowa State-Oregon were kind enough to give us a clean handicap due to no reported opt-outs, we have our work cut out for ourselves here.

Because while there’s no question that Texas A&M -7.5 on a neutral site would have been an awful number during the regular season -- my numbers set an in-a-vacuum line of A&M minus roughly a single point -- the Tar Heels have complicated matters with a series of high-profile opt-outs.

North Carolina will play this game without RBs Javonte Williams and RB Michael Carter, the best running back duo in the nation, leading receiver WR Dyami Brown, and leading tackler and sack artist LB Chazz Surratt, four players who all opted-out to prepare for the NFL Draft.

Backup RB DJ Jones is also out with an injury, so the Tar Heels will obviously be playing this game with compromised backfield depth. Some combo of RBs Josh Henderson, Elijah Green and British Brooks (31 combined carries in 2020) will have to suffice as the backfield committee. DBs Storm Duck (lower body) and Obi Egbuna (undisclosed) are listed as questionable. 

Texas A&M has no new opt-outs to worry about, at least that had been reported as of this article’s posting on Thursday afternoon. Aggies CB Myles Jones is listed as questionable after he missed the regular season finale with a foot injury. 

The Aggies rebounded after a slow start -- a five-point win over winless Vanderbilt and getting whipped by 28 by Alabama -- to rip off seven-straight wins, starting with a 41-38 upset win over full-strength No. 4 Florida on Oct. 10.

The Tar Heels finished the regular season 8-3, with disappointing upset losses to Florida State and Virginia, games UNC should have won. The Tar Heels finished them with postgame win expectancies of 65% and 86%, respectively.

Because of that, UNC finished with 9.1 (+1.1) second-order wins. They had a 14-point loss to an elite team (Notre Dame), and blew the doors off a really good one (62-26 win over Miami in the regular-season finale).

For all the opt-outs, UNC still has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Sam Howell (3,352 yards passing with a 27/6 TD/INT rate), and a very deep receiving corps, even without its best big-play receiver Dyami Brown.

The trio of Dazz Newsome (72-1018-10 in 2019), Emery Simmons and Khafre Brown would start at most FBS programs, and Josh Downs and Antoine Green are talented options as well. Texas A&M’s pass defense is suspect, so I fully expect Howell to have a big game. And don't forget: UNC OC Phil Longo is one of the best play-callers in the business.

On the UNC defensive side, run defense is the issue. For that reason, expect Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller (176 carries for 993 yards and seven TD) to go off. The Aggies’ strong offensive line (only four sacks allowed) is going to control the line of scrimmage against UNC’s suspect front. QB Kellen Mond (2,050 yards and a 19/3 TD/INT rate on 63.5% completions) has avoided mistakes this year and will have to do so again.

A lot of times, in bowl season, you can quickly ballpark the motivation edge by which team had the fewer opt-outs. I’m not so sure that’s the case here. This is the biggest bowl game UNC has qualified for since 2001 (when they won the Peach Bowl). Texas A&M believed it should have gotten into the playoffs. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Aggies come out flat.

UNC returns to the field where the Heels just annihilated Miami in the regular-season finale. The personnel losses, particularly in the backfield, concern. But Howell will be the best player on the field, and he has more than enough talent and continuity at receiver to keep doing his thing -- Dyami Brown’s opt-out is not comparable to Florida’s top-three pass catchers leaving before the Oklahoma game, or Corral potentially being out three of his top pass-catchers.

A&M plays at the slowest adjusted pace in the nation, and UNC ranks only No. 65 in the same department. This will be a methodical chess-match, with a constantly-running clock. The Aggies will move the ball on the ground, the Tar Heels through the air.

I like the Tar Heels to stay close enough to stick within this TD-plus spread. And if my read is wrong and UNC ends up missing its departed players more than I expect, we always have a shot at a backdoor cover with UNC’s passing offense.

2020: 62-65-1 (48.8%) ATS*

Bowls: 6-10 (37.5%) ATS*

Lifetime (2014-Present): 602-534-17 (53.0%) ATS*

*Through: Tulsa-Mississippi State and Ball State-SJSU games played on Dec. 31

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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!