Rotoworld has a college football podcast dedicated to betting against the spread. Every week, my co-host Mark Lindquist and I pick our five favorite sides of the week. Subscribe on iTunes here! Write us a review and we'll shout you out on the next episode.
*All stats below refer to S&P+ (an advanced stats computer model created by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) unless otherwise noted. “ATL” refers to my system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap). I use ATL to give me a ballpark idea of what a fair spread would be independent of public perception.
Saturday December 15
New Mexico Bowl
2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Branch Field at Dreamstyle Stadium (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
Utah State (No. 21 S&P+) -8.5 vs. North Texas (No. 31 S&P+)
At a glance
North Texas (9-3 vs. No. 130 SOS) - S&P+ off (31, 36/47), def (48, 68/82), ST (5)
Utah State (10-2 vs. No. 128 SOS) - S&P+ off (20, 26/32), def (34, 35/43), ST (66)
Utah State QB Jordan Love (Round 3 grade): “Dynamite young quarterback already receiving a lot of chatter in scouting circles.”
North Texas NT RodErick Young (PFA grade): “Short but explosive lineman with potential as a three technique tackle on Sunday.”
This line surprisingly opened at Utah State -11 before quickly being bet down to a single-digit margin. I still see a tick of value on the ‘dog, with my ATL line setting this spread at Utah State -7.5.
Utah State must take the field for the first time without HC Matt Wells, who bolted to Texas Tech in the days following the firing of Kliff Kingsbury (who in turn took the USC OC job). Wells ended up taking seven assistants with him to Lubbock, including both coordinators, as well as his strength and conditioning coach. This is a really big deal.
Utah State has prepared for this game with a skeleton staff. Frank Maile, the DL coach and co-DC, was named interim coach. Maile must feel like a cast member of that HBO show where half the people vanish and the others just try to pick up the pieces while making sense of it all. Maile admitted to reporters that organizing practices has been “a little tricky.” USU OC David Yost, who is Lubbock-bound with Wells, did agree to hang around to coordinate this offense for the last time. Not many can pull off the divided attention thing at a high level.
North Texas doesn't have the same concerns. HC Seth Littrell was rumored to be a favorite for the Kansas State head coaching gig. Whether he turned it down or whether KSU has another target in its sites (NDSU’s Chris Klieman?), Littrell publicly pulled his name from consideration last week. Littrell has also to this point fended off poachers looking to raid his coaching room.
The spread has settled into an appropriate range. The initial Utah State tax likely had to do with the fact that the Aggies were Vegas darlings this season (9-3 ATS, with nine of 12 games going over the total) while the Mean Green were objective investment failures (4-8 ATS and only went over the total only once in 12 games).
Wells’ final season at Utah State was very close to an even happier ending. The Aggies lost to Boise State in the regular season finale, knocking them out of contention for the MWC title (USU’s only other loss was that seven-point near-miss in the opener on Aug. 31 against Michigan State). The Boise State loss ended the possibility of playing in the Las Vegas Bowl, relegating the Aggies to the early kick on the first day of bowl season.
North Texas probably is also kicking itself over a few missed opportunities. All three of its losses came by one-possession, including a two-point loss to Louisiana Tech and a three-point loss to Old Dominion. In those two games, UNT finished with postgame win expectancies of 93% and 72%, respectively.
Utah State is an S&P+ darling because the offense manages to stay efficient while being explosive, and the defense manages to prevent huge plays while keeping opposing offenses off schedule on early downs. The balance extends to the run and pass offense and defenses as well, as USU ranks No. 42 or higher in all four categories. Utah State is hyper-well rounded and altogether difficult to game plan against. Because whatever you’re bad at, they’re capable of exploiting the weakness.
North Texas’ biggest advantage heading in is its special teams unit, which ranks No. 5 in the country (USU's is middle-of-the-road). That unit is most famous for catching Arkansas with its pants down on that epic fake-fair-catch TD return back in September. But make no mistake: This was an elite unit all-round this fall.
The Mean Green’s offense and defense are both also fairly well-rounded, but not to the quality level of Utah State. Specifically on defense, where North Texas has struggled with allowing too many explosive plays. If Utah State is to win by margin, it’s going to come via explosive offensive plays.
If we knew the number of 40+ yard plays Utah State would generate going in, we’d almost assuredly know which side was going to cover. Most of the Aggies’ big plays come on the ground (No. 9 rushing explosion). North Texas ranks No. 40 in defending rushing explosion.
Utah State’s passing game is more about protecting the quarterback (No. 2) and maximizing efficiency (No. 9). North Texas doesn't have a great pass rush (No. 69), though it is decent at defending passing efficiency (No. 48) and does a nice job of preventing completions, which’ll be important (No. 15).
In terms of conventional stats, both passing attacks rank in the top-20 of country. Aggies QB Jordan Love was a revelation this season, putting him on the NFL map, while Mean Green QB Mason Fine is a sort of G5 Drew Brees, a physically unimposing sub-6 footer who’ll shuffle the ball off to whichever receiver gains separation first.
Both running attacks are also dangerous. I loved Utah State’s one-two punch of Darwin Thompson (951 yards, 14 TD) and Gerold Bright (785, 8), while North Texas’ ground game found its stride with the emergence of RB DeAndre Torrey down the stretch. Torrey, also a pest in the receiving and return games, dropped 614 of his 942 rushing yards and nine of his 14 offensive TD over the last four games.
This is a pretty tight handicap on paper. But I side with North Texas for a few reasons. The loss of Wells and his top lieutenants is devastating. This is as close to a coaching staff purge as you'll see in the postseason, and Utah State has the unfortunate fate of kicking off first among all bowl teams. The makeshift staff had two weeks to transition into their roles and begin gameplanning and running practices. USU’s strength in so many facets of the game, to me, comes down to development and scheme, culture and coaching.
Losing Wells hurts, because this isn’t a team talented enough to blow out strong teams by out-athleting them. Utah State pulled out a couple of wins this fall that they probably should have lost (Wyoming and Colorado State). I give Wells a lot of the credit for the over-achievement. Clearly Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt does too.
But North Texas is no patsy. The Mean Green play hard in all three facets and dominate the field position game. You have to give UNT the coaching and motivation edges heading in, and I thought the spread was already a bit inflated relative to reality. Torrey’s emergence gave UNT’s offense another dimension, and Fine proved in the regular season finale that he’s healthy again, removing two previous pressing question marks surrounding the offense.
Both of these teams played cupcake schedules this year, and neither has beaten a top-55 opponent. That’s about to change for one of them (Utah State is No. 21, UNT is No. 31). And while we can’t say for sure which side that’ll be, the unknowns heading in are another reason to take the generous assortment of points we’re getting with the ‘dog.
The pick: North Texas +8.5
AutoNation Cure Bowl
2:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Florida)
Tulane (No. 90 S&P+) -3.5 vs. UL-Lafayette (No. 84 S&P+)
At a glance
Tulane (6-6 vs. No. 69 SOS) - S&P+ off (107, 72/59), def (59, 37/65), ST (48)
UL-Lafayette (7-5 vs. No. 38 SOS) - S&P+ off (36, 19/22), def (111, 78/113), ST (17)
Tulane CB Donald Lewis (Round 6 grade): “Feisty corner with next level size best facing the action.”
UL-Lafayette G Kevin Dotson (Round 6-7 grade): “Large, dominant offensive guard who does a solid job blocking on the move.”
Dear lord do I love bowl season. The world at large may ignore this game, but it’s going to be so much fun. Louisiana against Louisiana. Unconventional hyper-balanced spread system against unconventional triple-option system. THE RAJUN CAJUNS AGAINST THE GREEN WAVE!
My knee-jerk reaction, when this line came out, was to love Tulane, coached by longtime heartthrob Willie Fritz. But the record and SOS comparisons alone give pause. Looking around the internet, opinions on this matchup run the gamut. ESPN’s FPI installed Tulane as a 6.4-point favorite. S&P+ made UL-Lafayette a 1.6-point favorite. The Action Network’s power rating split the difference with Tulane -4.5.
Tulane has one of the more interesting offenses that you will see. We always sort HC Willie Fritz into the triple-option bucket, but make no mistake: This offense is vastly different from Army’s or Navy’s. Perhaps it’s best to think of Fritz’s offense as the illegitimate lovechild of Paul Johnson and Urban Meyer's offenses.
The offense is run out of the shotgun, in several different formations, including the diamond. The option is a staple, but it’s only one element of an offense that is more balanced than outsiders would assume (Tulane averaged 208.8 rushing yards and 186.3 passing yards per game this year, and that was playing half the year with QB Jonathan Banks, who we’ve come to find out was clearly the second-best QB on the roster to Justin McMillan).
The threat of the option alone opens up a multitude of opportunities in the conventional running game (“Sometimes, we’ll just run an inside zone,” Fritz told SB Nation in 2017. “But all this window dressing makes it look like we’re running triple option. And sometimes, we are running triple option. Even on the inside zone, they gotta have somebody on the dive, the quarterback pitch, because it looks like that’s what we’re doing.”) and also the passing game (It’s the greatest pass protection known to mankind, because the D linemen are playing lateral, not playing vertical,” Fritz said in the same story. “So if you can run the option effectively, it makes your offensive linemen good pass protectors, even if they’re not.”).
Fritz has clearly been influenced by a variety of different coaches and schemes. So has ULL HC Billy Napier, who was OC at Clemson under Dabo Swinney and at Arizona State under Todd Graham in addition to spending five years (over multiple stints) on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
Nicknamed "Nick Jr." in Lafayette, Napier modeled the ULL rebuild on Saban’s vaunted “Process” and littered his new staff with Saban/Kirby Smart disciples. Said Napier: “Alabama says, ‘The Process Begins Here. We say, ‘The Journey Starts Here.’” OC Rob Sale told Sports Illustrated over the summer: “Everything, when you walk into this building, has the Alabama backbone. How we do our film breakdown, summer scouting reports, academic point structure, offseason program … everything is the same. We’re going to win here.”
He was right, and the staff didn’t need a Year 0 reboot to get it done. ULL started 1-3 but are 6-3 since. Two of those losses came to league superpower Appalachian State, and the other came to fellow league superpower Troy. In losing by 10, 10 and 11, respectively, in those games, ULL covered all three (two of the first three losses of the season, by the way, came to Alabama and Mississippi State).
UL-Lafayette’s offense is also very balanced (208.0 rushing ypg, 229.2 passing ypg). Napier has a reputation for running tempo, but ULL is actually middle of the road in pace (as is Tulane). Each offense ranks in the top-ten of both of S&P+’s explosion metrics. And while Tulane is bottom-10 in both of the efficiency categories — meaning the Green Wave are a baseball slugger who either hits a dinger or strikes out — ULL is top-45 in both of the efficiency metrics.
Translation: Take away Tulane’s big plays, take away Tulane’s offense; take away ULL’s big plays, and they’ll still generate points, just with longer drives. And while Tulane is a top-25 team at defending efficiency, the Green Wave are sub-100 in both of S&P+’s defensive explosion categories. ULL ranks in the 90s against explosion and efficiency.
I think we’re going to see a lot of big plays. And I think what’s going to surprise some is that Tulane’s passing game is going to have enormous success passing downfield against a ULL secondary that ranks No. 124 against passing explosion. But Tulane will give back that advantage by allowing huge plays in both the run and passing games.
And one thing to keep an eye on: Offenses heavy on option elements are brutal to prepare for on a one-week turnaround. But option teams can struggle in bowl season because opponents have multiple weeks to prepare for what they’ll see. Tulane’s offense is extremely unique from a schematics standpoint. Extra prep time benefits ULL more than Tulane in this game.
Because I think we’ll have so many quick scoring drives, I want the over on what is a relatively modest total of 59. As for the side, give me the points. This game doesn’t have a motivational edge, as both schools are playing in their first bowls under these coaching staffs. So the handicap all comes down to what we’ve seen on the field.
ULL’s arrow has been pointed decidedly up since the start of October, while Tulane has been up-and-down since then, getting upset by SMU, escaping sub-No. 100-ranked teams Tulsa, ECU and Navy by a combined 14 points, and getting blasted by Houston (with a road blowout of USF sprinkled in). I’ll side with ULL’s well-rounded consistency over Tulane’s boom-or-bust inconsistency.
The pick: UL-Lafayette +3.5 and OVER 59
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Sam Boyd Stadium (Las Vegas)
Fresno State (No. 10 S&P+) -4 vs. Arizona State (No. 54 S&P+)
At a glance
Fresno State (11-2 vs. No. 105 SOS) - S&P+ off (37, 103/16), def (9, 5/13), ST (91)
Arizona State (7-5 vs. No. 46 SOS) - S&P+ off (30, 20/44), def (92, 99/89), ST (24)
Arizona State DT Renell Wren (Round 2 grade): “One of the fastest rising seniors in the nation. Tough, slug it out defender who can occupy the gaps or make plays on the ball.”
Fresno State DB Mike Bell (Round 3-4 grade): “Versatile defensive back who can line up at safety or corner. Physical run defender with developing ball skills. Expect Bell to enter the draft soon after the Vegas Bowl.”
I made a series of bets on opening bowl lines the day after conference championship Saturday. At present, going by subsequent line movement, Arizona State was the only mistake I made, taking +3.5. A few days later, ASU WR N’Keal Harry announced he wouldn't be playing in this game (which I perhaps should have thought about in advance), and the line hit ASU +4.5 posthaste. Losing a potential Round 1 receiver who posted 73 catches for 1,088 yards and nine touchdowns hurts, but it doesn't necessarily kill ASU’s chances of covering (or winning, for that matter).
You bet numbers on the open, not the handicap, which comes later. So I dove into this game in the middle of last week with clear eyes and a full heart. Two things to begin with. The Pac-12 team in this game is always a motivation question. But not so this year, with ASU HC Herm Edwards surprising reaching a bowl in his first year in charge. Edwards and his squad are treating this as a playoff game.
One other thing that may or may not be worth noting but certainly grabbed my attention: Every national writer who I saw write one of those “early bowl preview” columns in the days after the bowls were announced — every single one — had Fresno State winning by at least four points (with the majority of them publishing a score that had FSU winning by double digits). I’ve always seen national writers who don’t handicap or bet sports as a sort of proxy for the public. Being on the other side of them is a good rule of thumb in general.
But lets get back to the question at hand: Can Arizona State beat Fresno State without N’Keal Harry? Because if your anewer to that question is an unequivocal “no,” well then you need to bet on the Bulldogs. You can only take the points if you think ASU has a shot to win.
My issue with Fresno State heading into the Mountain West Championship Game is that they hadn't beaten a good team all season. The Bulldogs added the first pelt of worth to their 2018 wall by beating Boise State, though that game was a true coin-flip proposition, won in overtime with a 55% postgame win expectancy. Fresno outplayed the Broncos. But not by much.
With the win, Fresno improved to 3-2 against top-60 S&P+ teams (FSU is 8-0 against teams ranked No. 76 or lower). All three of those marquee wins have slight caveats attached to them: The Toledo game featured an enormous situational advantage (Toledo traveling cross-country west for a late kick), the San Diego State win came over a team in a 1-4 end-of-the-season tailspin (which included losses to two teams ranked No. 100 S&P+ or lower), and the Boise State win was a pick-which-hand proposition that FSU came out on the right end of.
Long story short: I remain underwhelmed. Fresno State is built to absolutely dominate bad teams because of their smothering defense. But teams that can score 20 points on FSU have a shot to win. So again: Can ASU get there without Harry?
Harry had more than double the targets (114) of ASU’s next-highest receiver (Kyle Williams at 52). Williams and Frank Darby can’t replace Harry, and Herm Edwards won’t ask them to. Instead, ASU is going to become a far-more run-oriented offense in this game, asking QB Manny Wilkins (2,986 yards and 19/4 TD/INT) to avoid turnovers in the passing game and team up with star RB Eno Benjamin (the Pac-12’s leading rusher with 1,524 yards) to try to nick up the Bulldogs on the ground.
Fresno State has a top-5 overall run defense, though they do only rank No. 110 in stuff rate. The Bulldogs aren’t selling out to penetrate gaps. They play safe and responsible. So while Eno probably isn’t going to rip off many long runs, he and Wilkins could have success taking four or five yards a pop if Arizona State is willing to play this thing conservative (which, in my opinion, gives them the best chance to win).
Boise State provides a tremendous example of this. Boise State’s strategy in both games was basically “hand the ball to Alexander Mattison over and over again and see what happens.” Mattison ran for 344 yards on 70 carries (!) in those two games. Fresno State’s defense doesn't give you much, but their propensity to play things safe opens up the possibility of consistent short gains on the ground. It also takes away the pass rush (FSU's is feeble). Think of Fresno's defense as a pitcher who is outstanding at preventing extra-base hits but give up plenty of singles. ASU's strategy needs to be about attempting to string as many of those together as possible on each drive. Fresno shuts down teams who get antsy and skew aggressive, which plays right into FSU's hands.
Expect a heavy dose of Eno. As for Wilkins, he'll have time to throw in the pocket, even if he doesn't have many options for where to go with the ball. His mobility should lead to at least a few scrambling opportunities. This conservative-ASU-offense proposal also works well in conjunction with the Sun Devils’ biggest advantage in this game, their special teams unit. In a game where points could be at a premium and every yard of field position could be crucial, a big special teams edge is the type of hidden factor that could potentially lead to an outright upset if ASU’s offense and defense can play close enough to allow it to come into play.
Flipping the field, Arizona State’s biggest defensive strength is its stinginess in allowing big plays. Fresno State doesn't generate many of them in the first place, so it’s safe to safe that the Bulldogs’ scoring drives will be long and sustained (FSU’s offense is very efficient and ASU struggles with that). The Bulldogs will target WR KeeSean Johnson early and often (93-1307-8) with high-percentage targets, and try to patch together enough of a threat of the run run that ASU can’t merely flood coverage zones by dropping back on every play.
Harry’s absence complicates things. It takes away ASU’s ability to pluck a touchdown or two from thin air due to his sheer physical superiority over the man covering him. And while I don’t think Harry’s absence toggles ASU’s chances of winning outright to 0.0%, it does hurt enough that it scared me off my initial ASU lean.
But I do think ASU can have a level of offensive success if they go about game planning the right way (crazy as this is to type, I trust Herm Edwards and crew to zero in on their path of least resistance in this matchup). Laying the 4.5 points with Fresno is dicey for reasons mentioned above, and also because Edwards’ M.O. in his first season was a sort of throwback to his NFL days: Keep the score close and see where the chips fall in the last five minutes.
Nine of 12 ASU games this season were decided by seven points or less. Nine! Two of the other three were ASU blowouts of patsies, and the third was the surprising 18-point domination of Utah. Stated a bit differently: Arizona State has not lost to any opponent this season by more than seven points, despite facing a top-25 schedule. This is an extremely difficult team to pull away from.
But I concede that ASU’s path to a victory here is pretty narrow: Get Benjamin 30 touches or more, make Johnson’s life as difficult as possible, play impeccable special teams, keep the score close, and hope for the best. So for all those reasons, I’m going to pass on the side (though I do still lean ASU +4). Where I see value in this game is on the under. We know Fresno State isn’t going to generate explosive plays, and we know that Arizona State isn’t going to either.
Edwards will want to play conservative and close to the vest, and that suits Jeff Tedford just fine. Correlated parlays to investigate depending on your ultimate decision: Arizona State ML/under, or Fresno State -4/over. If Arizona State is to win, I believe the score is going to be low and close. If Fresno State wins by margin, forcing ASU out of the gameplan I’ve laid out in favor of wanton aggression, the game is more likely go over the total.
The pick: Under 51.5
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Cramton Bowl (Montgomery, Alabama)
Georgia Southern (No. 59 S&P+) -1 vs. Eastern Michigan (No. 63 S&P+)
At a glance
Georgia Southern (9-3 vs. No. 80 SOS) - S&P+ off (51, 58/36), def (71, 48/68), ST (14)
Eastern Michigan (7-5 vs. No. 121 SOS) - S&P+ off (86, 91/76), def (33, 60/21), ST (107)
Eastern Michigan edge rusher Maxx Crosby (Round 3 grade): Intense pass rusher who creates a lot of havoc on opponents. Expect Crosby to enter the draft soon after this game.
Georgia Southern CB Monquavion Brinson (Round 5 grade): “Nice sized corner with a physical game. Terrific run defender best facing the action in coverage.”
Bookmakers threw up their hands and opened this game a pick ‘em. Georgia Southern drew some early tickets to push them to 1-point chalk. There is no motivational edge to fall back on. Southern is playing in its second bowl in program history, while EMU will be playing in only its second since 1987. Neither team qualified last year.
Georgia Southern’s 2015 bowl game was also against a MAC team, Bowling Green, and GSU blasted them 58-27 as 7.5-point underdogs in the dearly departed GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, not too far away from the location of this game. We probably can’t draw much from that game, unfortunately, because Bowling Green had just lost architect Dino Babers and was preparing to torch the model Babers built by hiring the unproven Mike Jinks. Georgia Southern was also playing under an interim coach after Willie Fritz bolted to Tulane.
Georgia Southern is probably not quite as good as their 9-3 record, as their 7.8 (-1.2) second-order win total attests. The Eagles are money against bad teams, we know this, with a 7-0 record against teams ranked S&P+ No. 105 or lower. The loss to Clemson was a scheduling decision, the seven-point win over Arkansas State was a strong showing, and the upset win over Appy State was a season watermark and by far the best game GSU has played this year.
What’s troubling is the other two games, the first two of November, blowout losses to UL-Monroe and Troy where GSU was run off the field both times. With GSU, you have to ask the question: Did they blow their wad in that upset of Appy? The two worst showings of the year came immediately after that (and were followed by a pair of wins over patsies to close out the season).
Eastern Michigan is a strange case. The Eagles started 2-0 with that 20-19 road upset of Purdue in September. But instead of embarking on a dream season, EMU followed that up by losing four straight games, though all four were single-digit losses to bowl teams (including an overtime loss to San Diego State and triple-OT loss to Northern Illinois).
With a fork sticking out of their backs at 2-4, EMU flipped the script again by winning five of six games to finish 7-5. The only loss in that stretch came to Army, a triple-option outfit like Georgia Southern. EMU lost that one by 15, though the game was a lot closer than that, with a postgame adjusted scoring margin of Army -1.5. The experience itself is a positive datapoint for EMU from a preparation standpoint, giving them a headstart against a scheme that’s a headache to prepare for on short notice.
EMU’s run defense is the most crucial aspect of this handicap. The good news is that the Eagles are very good at preventing explosive runs, No. 24, a crucial element against a GSU offense that ranks No. 28 in rushing explosion. The bad news is that EMU’s run defense is mediocre overall, and poor in the three metrics I always go to first when capping against triple-option teams (No. 72 efficiency, No. 114 opportunity rate, No. 88 stuff rate). If you prefer conventional stats, EMU allowed 51.5% of rushing attempts to go for five or more yards (No. 114). That's an "uh-oh!" stat ahead of playing one of the nation's premier option attacks.
Georgia Southern will not benefit from the home run ground plays it has often enjoyed this season (and used to rip up Bowling Green three years ago). But GSU is absolutely going to have success consistently nicking EMU for shorter gains. And unfortunately for EMU, its outstanding pass defense and its outstanding pass rush are both going to go wasted in this matchup.
Eastern Michigan’s offense is limited, and a bit weird. EMU rotates running backs (Shaq Vann and Ian Eriksen), evenly distributes aerial targets to three different targets, and went through a stretch where it even had a dual-QB thing going (Tyler Wiegers and Mike Glass). Glass is questionable to play with a leg injury that cost him the last two games. Even if he's back, expect to mostly see Wiegers.
EMU’s offensive line is quite bad, which has hurt the development of Vann and Eriksen. The run game is poor outside of the (very) occasional explosive run. The passing game is better, though it is also hampered by the line, ranking No. 118 in sack rate. EMU’s aerial strength is melding high-percent completions with more big plays than you would expect. But only if Wiegers is kept clean, never a guarantee.
A team with a top-notch front seven would dismantle EMU’s offense. Georgia Southern isn’t that, though it is active enough up front (No. 55 stuff rate versus the run and No. 63 sack rate) that it’ll cause problems. Crucially, GSU is also superb at taking away big plays in both the run (No. 19) and passing games (No. 48).
That’s an issue for EMU, which makes up for offensive inefficiency (Nos. 101 and 112 in S&P+’s two major offensive efficiency categories) with big plays (Nos. 40 and 43). Thing of it is, GSU’s defense has always been willing to sacrifice efficiency (Nos. 101 and 86) in the name of taking away your big plays (Nos. 15 and 27).
I don’t expect EMU to do anything on the ground. It’s going to need to win by slowing GSU’s ground attack to some degree and throwing for enough yards to pull out a tight one. GSU gives up a lot of completions, the area where I think you’ll find EMU’s most consistent source of offense.
To be frank with you, I went into this handicap expecting to pick Eastern Michigan. EMU is a try-hard, well-coached squad that plays strong defense and keeps games close. They’ve already played a triple-option team, a team ranked one spot behind GSU’s offense in the S&P+ rankings, and played fine. On the surface, it’s a profile you can get behind against a team like GSU.
But EMU’s limited offense matches up very poorly, and its biggest defensive strength (against the pass) will go to waste. Have I mentioned that EMU is also on the wrong end of one of the bowl season’s largest special teams discrepancies? GSU’s kicking game is top-notch, while EMU’s is a mess. EMU’s best chance of winning this game is for the score to be low and close. That best-case scenario makes the kicking discrepancy a little troubling. If this game comes down to field goals, GSU is likely to win.
Add to that the fact that EMU’s only two wins over top 116 S&P+ teams this season came by a combined three points, with EMU winning the turnover margin in both (against Purdue and Toledo). That ain’t happening here. GSU ranks No. 1 in the nation not only in turnover margin (+22), but also expected turnover margin.
The pick: Georgia Southern -1
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Appalachian State (No. 13 S&P+) -7 vs. Middle Tennessee (No. 61 S&P+)
At a glance
Appalachian State (10-2 vs. No. 112 SOS) - S&P+ off (46, 69/63), def (10, 8/4), ST (37)
Middle Tennessee (8-5 vs. No. 79 SOS) - S&P+ off (81, 79/64), def (46, 42/41), ST (44)
Appalachian State T Victor Johnson (Round 6-7 grade): “Shy of running back Jalin Moore, who’s rehabbing an ankle injury which ended his season, Johnson is the top prospect from App State. He’s an athletic blocker with nice size and the ability to be used in multiple schemes.”
Middle Tennessee OLB Darius Harris (PFA grade): “Athletic linebacker with outstanding measurable that’s starting to put it together on the field.”
Scott Satterfield’s defection to Louisville after the Sun Belt title game altered the handicap of this game. But I want to say from the outset: The market has already factored that into the price. My ATL line on this game is ASU -9.5. The missing 2.5 points were in Satterfield’s luggage on the flight out of Boone.
So we have a fair price. Now let’s see if we can find an edge against it.
Appalachian State lost twice this season. You’ll recall the opener, where Appy came up just short in a 45-38 OT loss to Penn State. That one could have gone either way. You can’t say the same for the Georgia Southern loss (34-14), a no-show we brushed on above.
But lets add some context there. It was Appy’s second full game without star RB Jalin Moore, and QB Zac Thomas was knocked out of the game on the first series with a concussion. Poor performance, to be sure, but even a team as talented as ASU isn’t going to beat Georgia Southern when the backup quarterback comes in to go 3-of-12 for 0 TD and 2 INT.
Mountaineers RB Darrynton Evans emerged as a star after Moore’s season ended, rushing for 1,079 yards and seven TD on 6.5 ypc. Of everything Satterfield is bringing to Louisville, his ability to develop star running backs out of overlooked recruits is nonpareil. I was concerned for Appy when Moore went down, which shows you how much I learn from history.
That another stud runner emerged from the conveyor belt to keep the train rolling seems like an obvious outcome in hindsight. Evans isn’t as efficient as Moore, but his game is more explosive. If you don’t get him down immediately after the handoff, watch out.
Much is being made of Satterfield’s defection and the effect that will have on the Mountaineers in the short- and long-term. Not as much is being made of MTSU’s sideline, which features old reliable HC Rick Stockstill. The Blue Raiders’ coaching staff is top-notch, with a pair of P5-quality coordinators.
Motivation won’t be an issue for MTSU. Stockstill will be coaching his son, star QB Brent Stockstill, for the last time. I’m not a father, yet (as far as I know, anyway), but I would assume that not many days in a man’s life could top winning a bowl game with your son as the quarterback in your last chance to coach him.
The Blue Raiders’ overall record looks pretty poor next to Appy’s. But keep in mind that MTSU played three SEC teams. They went 0-3 in those games (with a 52% win expectancy in the 11-point loss at Kentucky). Of the other two losses, one was a Fluky McFlukstein three-point loss at FIU in which QB Brent Stockstill (first play of second quarter), RB Brad Anderson, OL Chandler Brewer and S Jovante Moffatt all suffered injuries and the backup quarterback was intercepted in the back of the end zone as MTSU got outscored 11-0 in the fourth quarter as attrition set in.
The other defeat occurred the last time we saw MTSU, when they lost by two to UAB in the CUSA title game after a 12-men-on-the-field penalty botched the opportunity to get the ball back in the waning minutes of the game down two. Long story short: MTSU is probably better than you think (and, to take that a little further, probably a little better than S&P+ thinks, too).
MTSU DC Scott Shafer, the former Syracuse head coach, probably should have gotten Broyles consideration over the past two years for the work he’s done (Shafer has been nominated in the past). Last year, MTSU’s defense was the best its been in a decade. There’s been no drop-off this year. That crew is solid against both the run and the pass. It’s better against efficiency (Nos. 26 and 32 in S&P+’s two major defensive efficiency categories) than explosion (67 and 60).
That latter quirk could be exploited by Appy, particularly our friend Darrynton Evans. Appy’s offense ranks Nos. 7 and 21 in S&P+’s two major offensive explosion categories (and 64 and 77 in the efficiency categories). The Achilles heel of MTSU’s otherwise strong run defense is its propensity to give up big runs (No. 73). Appy ranks No. 3 in rushing explosion. I’ll put it plainly: The outcome of this game may well come down to whether or not Shaefer makes adjustments to his scheme to account for Evans’ game. Evans is a matchup nightmare for a defense of this profile.
Middle Tennessee’s offense has a straightforward run game that uses freshman banger RB Chaton Mobley to charge forward for four- or five-yards gains but doesn't have much nuance or big-play ability. The offensive line doesn't help, with the No. 106 stuff rate and No. 99 sack rate. Luckily for MTSU, Appy’s pass rush is thoroughly mediocre.
The Blue Raiders’ passing attack is predicated on getting small playmakers in space on high-percentage throws (No. 6 completion rate) and hoping they YAC all over the field (No. 32 passing explosion). WR Ty Lee (67-828-7) sometimes does a passable Richie James impersonation, and WR Patrick Smith (54-526-6) is reliable, if not much else.
That passing game is MTSU’s offensive bread-and-butter. The bad news is that Appy State matches up extremely well, ranking No. 2 against passing explosion and No. 29 in preventing completions. They won’t get to Stockstill, but it’s going to take an inspired effort from Stockstill and his buddies to stay on schedule.
To be fair, UAB’s pass defense also matched up very well, and MTSU nearly beat the Blazers anyway (MTSU actually blew UAB out in the regular season finale, but that result is an unusable datapoint because UAB knew it would be playing MTSU the following week and essentially punted the game by using backups and a vanilla gameplan). Over the last three years, MTSU is 11-3 ATS off a straight-up loss, so there’s that.
I had a hard time with this game. Satterfield led ASU to three straight bowl wins (Appy is the only team in FBS history to win bowl games in its first three years after transitioning from the FCS). His absence introduces a big unknown into this handicap. MTSU hasn’t been good in the postseason recently — 1-4 ATS in their last four bowl games — but they have a huge advantage in both coaching continuity and experience. Perhaps motivation, too, as Appy is in familiar territory but without the man who built the model that made making a game like this the expectation, not the rule. I also believe that MTSU is better than the public believes.
But this is a fair line, and MTSU matches up poorly on paper, both on offense and on defense, against a team that won all 10 of its games by double-digits. Will coaching continuity be enough to overcome that? I cannot say. The margins on this game are too close at this number. To be frank, I don’t think the spread will come into play. I think Appy either plays like the team it has been and rolls despite Satterfield’s defection, or comes out flat against a well-coached team and gets upset, despite the on-paper matchup advantages.
So I’ll pass on the side. But I do like the under. Appy’s defense is murderous. It allowed 10.9 points a game in the 10 games that weren’t against Penn State and Georgia Southern. And as mentioned, it matches up well here. On the other side, Appy is going to rip off multiple big runs, but they’re also going to find themselves in several third-and-longs as Evans’ inefficiency meets the efficiency of MTSU’s run defense. Appy’s passing game isn’t much to write home about.
Both teams have sub No. 70 S&P+ tempo rankings, and Appy’s makeshift coaching staff may skew conservative to protect what it will correctly identify as a talent advantage heading in. Appy’s secondary is too talented to make a Keystone Cops turn against MTSU’s receivers in space, and MTSU’s run game doesn't have the teeth to do much outside of churning out short gains against a top-10 rush defense.
The pick: Under 50.5
2018: 82-85 (49.1%) ATS
2014-2017: 397-345-16 (53.5%) ATS