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*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.
Tuesday, December 18
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium (Boca Raton, Florida)
Spread: UAB (No. 53 S&P+) -2.5 vs. Northern Illinois (No. 90 S&P+)
ATL (my adjusted spread): UAB -2
At a glance
UAB(10-3 vs. No. 118 SOS) - S&P+ off (89, 40/45), def (27, 50/44), ST (84)
Northern Illinois (8-5 vs. No. 82 SOS) - S&P+ off (115, 63/125), def (15, 6/36), ST (105)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “We are in the unenviable position where both sharp and recreational players bet the early UAB -1.5 line and have moved the line to -2.5. We really do not want to move onto 3, but if we keep seeing one way UAB money we might not have a choice.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team
Northern Illinois OL Max Scharping (Round 5 grade): “Scharping has received some second day grades in the scouting community. He’s a mobile blocker that would be a good fit in a zone blocking system.”
UAB NT Anthony Rush (Round 6-7 grade): “Rush is one of the more underrated defenders in the nation. He’s a massive and powerful interior lineman who commands double and triple team blocks to prevent him from collapsing the pocket.”
The last time we saw Northern Illinois, they were roaring back from a 29-10 deficit with 15:17 left to play to beat Buffalo 30-29 in the MAC title game. It was a stunning display: The late offensive explosion was driven by the passing attack, which remains one of the worst in the nation (QB Marcus Childers had 300 yards and four TD).
The next day, in the C-USA championship, UAB had a drama-filled ending to secure its own trophy, fending off Middle Tennessee 27-25 after UAB HC Bill Clark alerted officials that MTSU had 12 men on the field during a punt that would have given the Blue Raiders the ball back in the waning minutes.
MAC teams in general have been poor in bowl season recently. But NIU HC Rod Carey, 0-5 SU and ATS, shoulders more blame for that than perhaps any of his contemporaries. To be fair, NIU wasn’t favored in any of those games. But the performances have been embarrassing (NIU lost 31-10 to Florida State in 2012, 21-14 to Utah State in 2013, 52-23 to Marshall in 2014, 55-7 to Boise State in 2015 and 36-14 to Duke in 2017).
Carey went 23-5 with Dave Doeren’s recruits in 2013-2014, but he’s 29-23 in the four seasons since then, including a 5-7 finish in 2016 that marked the first time NIU had missed a bowl game season before the Jerry Kill era. I’ve been unimpressed with his offensive machinations and his in-game adjustments, which made the Buffalo comeback all the more astounding. It remains to be seen if that flip-the-script outcome carries over and secures NIU’s first bowl win since Doeren’s GoDaddy victory in 2011.
Whereas I think NIU is on the low-end of the coach-quality spectrum in this year’s bowl slate, UAB is near the top. HC Bill Clark, who won this year’s Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, has pulled off a miracle in Birmingham over the past two years. It’s difficult to wrap your head around what he’s doing.
But here’s the short version: UAB played in a sum total of one bowl game in its history prior to killing off its own football program after the 2014 season. Clark stuck around the two years the program was dormant. The Blazers re-started their football program last season. Incredibly, unthinkably, UAB qualified for a bowl and finished 8-5 (the best record in school history… until this season).
The harshest sanction the NCAA can levy against a member institution is the “death penalty”, which is a loaded term that describes banning a team from playing for one or more years. It has only happened in college football once, to SMU in 1987. UAB essentially sentenced itself to double SMU’s “Pony Excess” penalty, and the Blazers were further away from contention with less available resources when they did so.
And yet Clark turned around and submitted the two best seasons in program history (UAB had never before won eight games in the FBS) and tripled the team’s historical bowl total in the two years since. To me, what he’s done the past two years is one of the great accomplishments in the history of sport. Not this sport. Any sport. In any country.
So you might say that UAB has the coaching edge heading in. I also believe the Blazers to have the motivational edge. UAB’s dream first season back on the gridiron ended on a sour note last year when they ran out of gas and got bombed 41-6 by Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl. My pop psychologist read is that the beatdown is something that lingered with all the returning players. Clark didn’t hang around Birmingham for two years to get punked like that on national TV once the country started paying attention to his program again.
His team bounced back in a big way this year and ended up winning the Conference USA title. Schools submit little bowl quotes from coaches for the national media after their teams get selected. These quotes always doff the cap to the opponent, state that School X is really excited to be playing in Bowl X in beautiful City X, and all that sort of boilerplate nonsense.
Clark’s quote started off with all that. It ended like this: “We look forward to an incredible challenge and will be eager to finish off our historic season with a bowl victory.” That may seem innocuous, but take it from someone who reads these cliché-ridden comments every December: Rarely does the coach directly allude to winning the game. Maybe I’m in too deep on these previews, but that turn of phrase said something to me.
The opponent, Northern Illinois, is a straightforward team. The Huskies’ defense (No. 15) is top-notch, but its offense (No. 115) and special teams (No. 105) are both terrible. Offensively, the Huskies were allergic to the forward pass prior to Childers’ last-second eruption against Buffalo. Betting on a repeat showing isn’t advised. More likely, we’re going to see what we did in the first 12 games: An offense that can’t generate yardage through the air becomes overly reliant on a non-explosive, paint-by-numbers running game (No. 63) that at least has efficiency and a refusal to lose yardage going for it.
Defensively, NIU is dominant against the run (No. 6) and a little more generous against the pass (No. 36). NIU’s pass defense is led not by its secondary, but by its ludicrous pass rush (No. 6 S&P+) which leads the nation in sacks. As always: Keep an eye out for undersized DE terror Sutton Smith, one of my favorite players n the nation. No collegiate tackle can block him one-on-one (NFL fans: tune in to this game if you’ve never seen Smith play; he’s one of the more fascinating evaluations in the next NFL Draft class).
When I handicap NIU, I’m always looking to answer two questions, which I mentioned in my MAC title preview: 1.) Will the Huskies be able to run the ball at all on offense? And 2.) Can the other team pass and protect the quarterback? Because if NIU isn’t able to run, they are not able to score (exception, again, being the Buffalo game). And if the opponent cannot pass and protect its quarterback, it might have a tough time moving the ball against an elite run defense.
UAB’s surface-level passing stats may underwhelm you, but S&P+ gives the unit a thumbs-up (No. 45) because the Blazers rank No. 16 in passing explosion. UAB is middle-of-the-road in protecting the quarterback (No. 60). The Blazers simply must figure out a way to keep Smith and crew out of the backfield. This is the scariest portion of the handicap for those who support UAB.
One thing that might help in that regard is the threat of the run. UAB has one of the nation’s best unknown backs in star sophomore RB Spencer Brown. Brown comes in with 1,149 rushing yards and ranks sixth nationally with 16 rushing touchdowns. Any success the hard-charging Brown (“The Moose”) has will play up the passing game. UAB isn’t going to light up the scoreboard, but they might only need to score 21 points to win this game.
To harken back to Clark’s quote earlier, Brown entered the CUSA title game with a nagging injury but played through it and won the game’s MVP award. Afterwards, he said: “I was going to run until the wheels fell off.” Sure, that’s a cliché, but I think it gives you a good idea of where this team’s psychology is heading into the game.
Flipping the field, UAB’s strong pass defense (No. 44) and equally-fearsome pass rush (No. 3 S&P+) is going to shut down whatever Childers wants to do. The Blazers’ run defense (No. 50) is only so-so on the surface. But it actually matches up extremely well here. NIU’s run game would be ranked quite a bit higher except for the fact that it simply cannot break off long runs (No. 114). Giving up big runs happens to be the reason that UAB’s run defense isn’t ranked higher (No. 89).
The Blazers rank Nos. 10, 19 and 24 in S&P+’s three other major run defense metrics, and those are the areas NIU excels in (Nos. 11, 26 and 33 in the same three offensive categories). Churning out tough yards is basically all NIU can do, and that’s what UAB’s run defense is designed to shut down.
Of all the Group of 5 defenses that NIU could have drawn in the bowls, it may match up with UAB’s worse than any of them. NIU does have the kind of run defense that’s necessary to prevent Brown from going off, but the Huskies’ margin for error is razor-thin because the offense isn’t going to be of help.
For Carey to win his first bowl game, he’s going to need some area of his team that’s poor heading in (i.e. the pass offense) to explode with by far its best game of the season. It’s more plausible that his hat is fresh out of rabbits and that Clark’s focused crew drops Carey to 0-6 in bowl games. And what a story that would be.
The pick: UAB -2.5 and under 43.5
Wednesday, December 19
DXL Frisco Bowl
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
The spread: Ohio (No. 45 S&P+) -3 vs. San Diego State (No. 38 S&P+)
ATL (my adjusted spread): Ohio -2.5
At a glance
Ohio (8-4 vs. No. 126 SOS) - S&P+ off (9, 3/14), def (107, 100/104), ST (56)
San Diego State (7-5 vs. No. 89 SOS) - S&P+ off (96, 88/77), def (25, 9/38), ST (8)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “There is not much going on in this game, however our sharpest NCAA football bettor placed his only bet so far on Ohio -3.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team
San Diego State G Daishawn Dixon (Round 5 grade): “With Tyler Roemer no longer at SDSU and potentially on his way to the draft Dixon grades as the top prospect from the program. Dixon is a mauler, who annihilates opponents run blocking, while also showing ability in pass protection.”
Ohio OT Joe Lowery (UDFA grade): “No player on the Ohio depth chart will get drafted in April. But Lowery, a tall lineman who blocks with solid fundamentals, has practice squad potential.”
This game was poo-poohed a bit in those “bowl watchability rankings” columns you’ll see in the few days after the matchups are announced. SB Nation ranked it the second-least watchable bowl game. SI ranked it No. 31 out of 40.
Nonsense. This is a game between two of the best coaching staffs in the nation that features a fascinating clash of styles. Of the pre-Christmas bowls, for me, this is a dark-horse to be talked about as one of the most entertaining we’ll see. Styles make fights, and I think we’re going to get a brawl.
It’ll also be fun to see grizzled football lifers Ohio HC Frank Solich and SDSU HC Rocky Long standing across from one another. “I don’t know if it’s old-school football,” Long said when asked about the matchup earlier this month. “[But] the two coaches are old.” With Bill Snyder retired, the 74-year-old Solich is now the FBS’ oldest active head coach. Long, 68, ranks third. The year Solich was born, there were only five bowl games — Cotton, Orange, Rose, Sugar and Sun.
I think both are in the short discussion for most underrated coaches in the game. Ohio had gone to two bowl games in its history when it hired Solich, fresh off of being run out of Nebraska because he wasn’t Tom Osborne (Solich went 58-19 with the Cornhuskers but was fired in 2003 after an 8-3 finish, mostly because he’d won “only” one Big 12 title… if Scott Frost goes 58-19 in his next 77 games with a Big Ten title, they will erect his statue in Lincoln). This will be Ohio’s 11th bowl game under Solich. One more astounding stat: Solich has only finished with a losing record in two of 14 seasons at Ohio (the last was in 2008). Ohio had losing records in 19 of the 22 seasons before he was hired. He’s the Bill Snyder of the G5.
Solich’s team this year is fascinating because it has managed to stay strong despite fielding an awful defense. Ohio’s coaching staff has worked around this by creating an ultra-efficient (No. 4 in both major S&P+ efficiency categories), ultra-methodical (No. 120 tempo) offense with a fabulous rushing attack (No. 3) and a passing game (No. 14) that makes defenses pay for cheating up. Three different Bobcats rushed for more than 800 yards this season. One was QB Nathan Rourke, who accounted for 35 total TD.
And while the defense is objectively bad — poor against the run and pass, poor situationally — it does do a few things extremely well. The Bobcats are tied with Syracuse for No. 1 in the nation with 30 turnovers gained, and they’re No. 16 in defensive havoc rate.
How should you think of Ohio? As a mid-major basketball team with five senior starters and a deep bench that passes crisply, shoots the lights out, and then attempts to overcome a physical talent disadvantage on defense by running a full-court press for 40 minutes. You’re going to get plenty of quick dunks and open looks if you can beat that press, and you’ll be able to bully Ohio in the half-court game. But whenever you succumb to the heat and turn the ball over, Ohio is going to zing the ball around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter, who’ll hoist it up.
This style is devastating for lesser-talented teams to deal with. Ohio can score on anyone (they scored 49 or more points in half their games, were held under 28 only twice, and never under 21). Here’s the formula to beating them: Hold the Bobcats to 31 or fewer points and take care of the ball. The Bobcats rank No. 6 in the country with a +12 turnover margin. In their four losses, Ohio was -3 (+15 in the eight wins). Ohio scored between 21-31 points in all four of those losses.
Ohio’s 8-4 record can be broken up into two sections. The Bobcats are 1-4 against top-65 opponent, and 7-0 against teams ranked No. 97 or lower (with FCS Howard included). Ohio’s most impressive win — by far — came on a Wednesday night prime-time MACtion tilt with Buffalo, who went on to narrowly lose the MAC title game to Northern Illinois. The Bobcats trucked Buffalo 52-17. The Bulls turned the ball over five times in that game.
Can San Diego State hold Ohio to fewer than, say, 30 points without losing the turnover battle? To the first question: Yes, absolutely. SDSU gave up more than 28 points only twice this season, and never more than 31. And the Aztecs match up pretty well here, because the run defense, pivotal against Ohio, is one of the nation’s best.
The Aztecs rank No. 9 in S&P+ run defense and No. 4 by conventional stats (94.5 rushing ypg). They’ve also given up a mere 14 rushing touchdowns. Superb run defense has long been a staple of Long-coached teams. At SDSU, when facing an opponent that averages 230 ypg or more rushing, Long is 12-2 SU and 9-5 ATS. The short story: The public doesn't adequately weight his success against the run against teams that run well.
I found Long’s assessment of Ohio’s offense, per the San Diego Union-Tribune, to be fascinating: “They’re a spread team that runs some zone read,” Long said. “They’re big and strong up front, block very, very well and they’ve got a couple good running backs. If you spend too many people on the running backs, or stopping that part of the run, the quarterback is very good at running the ball. … He either carries it himself or gives it to the running back, depending on what you do on defense. It’s not near as complicated as the triple option, but it’s very good.”
That story ran the day after the matchup was announced, on Dec. 3. Why is Long so good against the run? Preparation. He started game-planning for Ohio the second that matchup was announced. Solich no doubt did as well, but what has to have Solich nervous right now is that Long has made a career of stopping exactly what Ohio is built to do.
San Diego State’s area of concern should be turnovers. The Aztecs rank No. 86 in turnover margin, though S&P+ believes they’ve been a tad unlucky (No. 63 expected TO margin). And to give them the benefit of the doubt: SDSU dealt with a rash of injuries during the regular season, with starting QB Christian Chapman and star-in-waiting RB Juwan Washington both missing long stretches of time. The offense suffered considerably during that stretch, which culminated in a 1-4 swoon to end the regular season.
Chapman and Washington are both back and healthy, now, and they aren’t the only contributors who badly needed these few weeks of rest. SDSU’s end to the season gives pause, but two things must be noted: 1.) All were by single-digits, and, 2.) Long is 11-5 ATS at San Diego State when he’s failed to cover in three of four coming in. It’s also a long-term profitable play to back bowl teams who struggled ATS at the end of the season and on the season as a whole. The reason? Public perception, which can sway like the breeze, leaving teams undervalued in subsequent games (if you want a killer trend on this, hang around for the BYU-Western Michigan writeup below).
San Diego State’s offense should fare better in this game than their S&P+ No. 96 ranking implies, both because they’re now at full strength and also because Ohio’s defense is super generous. Despite missing four games, SDSU’s Juwan Washington has rushed for 870 yards and 10 touchdowns.
A well-built, low-to-the-ground unorthodox burner, Washington is a candidate to continue SDSU’s recent trend of 2,000-plus yard rushers next season if he stays healthy. His presence alone, when 100%, stabilizes SDSU’s offense (Washington was rusty and out of sorts when he returned in early November but rushed for 158 yards and a pair of scores in the finale against Hawaii).
Without him, this crew is lost. The passing attack is sub-mediocre and the backup runners are young, green, and, to this point, unexplosive. Ohio’s No. 100-ranked S&P+ run defense is going to have a bunch of issues with Washington. I think he’s going to go ballistic. And though Ohio’s pass defense is also porous, San Diego State isn’t likely to take much advantage outside of chain-movers.
If San Diego State can stay on schedule offensively, taking care of the ball shouldn’t be a big issue, because Ohio has already proven that it can’t translate the havoc it creates into run stuffs. And check this out: Washington lost one fumble in 180 rushes this year. Three of his primary backups at RB lost four fumbles in 170 carries.
Ohio finished with 7.9 second-order wins against the No. 126 SOS. San Diego State finished with 7.6 against the No. 89 SOS despite playing short-handed for a decent portion of the season. Full strength on full strength, I think San Diego State is the slightly better team.
And if this game is close, which seems like a reasonable expectation, special teams play is going to factor in prominently. San Diego State has one of the nation’s best units (No. 8), while Ohio is middle-of-the-pack (No. 56).
One last thing to leave you with: For a team like Ohio that has struggled against the best teams on its schedule, it has to concern you that MAC teams over the last 10 years of bowls are 20-34-3 ATS (hat tip for the trend to professional handicapper and Twitter friend Kyle Hunter). Ohio hasn't fared well in steps-up in competition. Neither has its conference. San Diego State represents a step up in competition, and I think they’ll spring what on paper will be considered an upset.
The pick: San Diego State +3
Thursday, December 20
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Florida)
Marshall (No. 49 S&P+) -2.5 vs. South Florida (No. 72 S&P+)
ATL (my adjusted spread): Marshall -4.5
At a glance
Marshall (8-4 vs. No. 119 SOS) - S&P+ off (110, 64/81), def (13, 21/32), ST (96)
South Florida (7-5 vs. No. 92 SOS) - S&P+ off (55, 55/100), def (66, 81/39), ST (97)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Players expect to see a lot of scoring in this one as 83% of all bets so far have been on the over. We opened at 54 but quickly moved to 55. Also, we’re seeing significant money on Marshall in the last 24 hours which has moved the spread from -2.5 to -3.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team
South Florida TE Mitchell Wilcox (Round 4-5 grade): “Wilcox is an exciting tight end prospect coming off a breakout season. He’s a terrific pass catcher that’s shown improvement as a blocker.”
Marshall WR Tyre Brady (Round 5 grade): “Brady is well liked in certain realms of the scouting community. He’s a reliable pass catcher with nice size and enough speed to develop into a fourth wide out on Sunday.”
I want to make a confession. I’ve never really known how to factor home-field advantage into my bowl handicaps. Do you give it to the team playing closer to home when each fanbase would have to fly? Do you give it to the team familiar with the bowl or venue? How much do you award to a team that’s playing the game in its home stadium?
Or do you go the other way with it, and strike home-field off the ledger in that situation because the visitor is amped up for the destination while the host wonders about the validity of a postseason “reward” that doesn’t include traveling outside confines it already plays in? I’ve never answered this question. To this point, in my adjusted lines, I give no home-field advantages in bowl games.
I want to be upfront about that, because this is one of those interesting scenarios where one team (USF) stays home as the other (Marshall) travels south for a traditional “destination” bowl. You could erase the two-point discrepancy between my adjusted line and the Vegas line simply by giving USF two points of HFA. Whether that is justified, you be the judge. (USF went 1-5 ATS at home this year and 3-3 on the road, for whatever that’s worth).
We can toss special teams from this handicap, as these squads are equally poor in that area. The offense vs. defense side of things is where it gets interesting. In one corner, Marshall, a team with a sluggish, identity-less offense and a vicious, havoc-wreaking defense. In the other, USF, a team that’s middle of the road in both areas of the game, with an offense that can run but struggles to pass, and a defense that arrives at its mediocrity with a solid pass defense and a sub-mediocre run defense.
With USF, we need to get a handle on mindset. And this is going to tie back into the home-field advantage question. The Bulls started 7-0 by beating Georgia Tech in a fluky way (USF had a 24% postgame win expectancy despite the 11-point win) and knocking off six teams ranked S&P+ No. 103 or lower. Since that house-of-cards start, USF has lost five straight— each time by double-digits.
To be fair, four of the five opponents were ranked higher than Georgia Tech (UCF, Cincy, Temple, Houston) and the fifth, Tulane, also qualified for a bowl. USF was the underwhelming 7-5 team that many of us assumed they’d be. They just arrived there less the end-game of mythical journey than a rollercoaster that goes up and then down. The Bulls went 1-5 against bowl teams, with the win a bit suspect, and 6-0 against everyone else.
And now they’re back home with a chance to salvage the season. The 2018 narrative of the USF football team is still up in the air. If they get waxed on their home-field to end the 2018 season on a six-game losing streak, fans will be calling for Charlie Strong’s head (and if they beat Marshall, the losing streak will more or less be forgotten).
Strong is a good recruiter, and the teams he puts on the field generally look like they belong right there on the cutting edge of modern college football, with a hyper-tempo spread offense and an athletic defense. But his teams are always less than the sum of their parts, bafflingly bad at areas of the game they have no business struggling in.
As one example, USF’s offense ranks No. 1 in the nation with zero turnovers inside their opponents’ 10 yard-line; despite this, the Bulls rank No. 121 in both inside-10 success rate and goal line success rate. Makes no sense, right? Especially for a team with two good running backs, a legitimate NFL tight end and multiple receivers of P5-quality.
How about the fact that USF has a good pass defense but somehow is No. 124 against third-and-long plays? USF is also No. 119 at defending inside their own 10. You look deep into the profile and it starts to make perfect sense why this squad has issues with quality opponents: Sometimes it appears that USF is actively helping its opponent win.
USF OC Sterlin Gilbert left to take the McNeese State head coaching job after the regular season ended. At one time, Gilbert was seen in a similar light as Lincoln Riley. Those paths have obviously diverged over the past three years. The effect of Gilbert’s absence is hard to gauge. He’s a talented coach who presided over an offense that was less than the sum of its parts this year. Hard to say if he was the one keeping a dysfunctional group on the same page, or the one holding the offense back by not skewing even more heavily towards the run. Perhaps we’re about to find out.
The Bulls have a dynamite one-two running back punch in Jordan Cronkrite (1,095 yards, nine touchdowns) and Johnny Ford (737 yards, eight touchdowns). We’ve always known Cronkrite was skilled. Ford’s emergence was enormous for a zombie USF team that at times badly needed a spark of electricity. You’ll enjoy Ford. He’s a 5-foot-5, 168-pound home run hitter who’s more efficient than he has any business being. As a team, USF’s biggest strength, by far, is its ability to generate explosive runs (No. 16).
The Bulls have a strong receiving corps, but have been held back by QB Blake Barnett, now a confirmed recruiting bust. If you’re a casual fan, I want you to mine your memory and see if you can find the 2016 college football opener between Alabama and USC. Have you found it? Blake Barnett started that game for the Crimson Tide. Crazy, right? Barnett got yanked, a true freshman named Jalen Hurts took over, and Alabama didn’t lose again until they were upset by Deshaun Watson’s last Clemson team in the title game.
Since then, Barnett has switched schools three times and gotten married, a kid from Hawaii named Tua signed with Alabama, Hurts himself was benched, and Alabama won a title. Barnett is questionable to play in this game with an injury he suffered in the Tulane loss. He’s never going to live up to his five-star billing, but USF desperately needs him to play. In 73 attempts, his backups have completed just a tick over 45% completions with a brutal combined YPA of around four yards.
What concerns me about this matchup for USF is that Marshall is uniquely equipped to force the Bulls to play left-handed. Marshall’s run defense is superb (No. 21), particularly stellar at taking away huge runs (No. 13). The Herd’s pass defense is also strong (No. 32), with the kind of pass rush (No. 15) that is going to make Barnett’s life (or the life of his replacement) extremely difficult.
Marshall is going to force USF to embark upon long-methodical drives to score. Think of the Bulls’ offense as the former middle school classmate of yours who was creative and quippy but had a nasty streak of ADD. Best in small doses, right? If you force that kid to sit still solving a math equation, he’s eventually going to snap. Maybe not in the first five minutes, but it’s coming. Marshall is going to strap USF’s offense into a restraint chair and ask it a series of complex questions.
If USF can make a shocking Zach Galifianakis-turn ala the casino scene from The Hangover, the Bulls are going to win this game. But that would be pretty out of character. More likely, one wrong answer will lead to sulking which will lead to frustration which will lead to trying to rush through more answers to quickly regain losses which will lead to more incorrect responses which will lead to Blake Barnett flipping the desk and going Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket as he hears Nick Saban’s disembodied voice whispering in his ear about turning in his playbook.
Will Marshall’s offense muster enough of a push to finish USF off? What the Herd have going for it is a strong offensive line that rates high in stuff and sack rate categories. The pass offense was a huge disappointment this season, but, to be fair, it’s superior to USF’s rudderless aerial show.
That’s mostly because of star WR Tyre Brady, who Marshall forces targets to early and often (66-914-9 over 132 targets; Marshall’s next-most targeted receiver saw 52 balls thrown his way). Brady is NFL-bound after this game but told reporters in the weeks leading up to the game that he’d play because he has unfinished business. I thought that spoke well to his mindset, and was perhaps indicative of the team’s at large.
The function of Marshall’s ground game is to try to prevent third-and-longs. To that end, it’s mostly successful (Marshall is top-20 in average third-down distance), even though it doesn’t do much else but take what’s blocked for it. Marshall sophomore RB Tyler King has been sidelined since Oct. 20 with a knee injury. In his place, freshman Brenden Knox has done similar work overall, with a bit more explosion in place of less efficiency. King’s status for this game is unknown.
What USF needs to do is force Marshall into third-and-long situations. Once there, we know, and (more importantly) USF will know, that Marshall is going to force the ball to Brady. The issue is that USF’s run defense is spotty (No. 81), and the defense overall struggles to stay on schedule (No. 83 in average third-down distance against). As long as Marshall’s offense gets to 24 points, I like the Herd’s chances. And I think they’ll get that done.
My read of this game is galvanized by the fact that Marshall is 5-0 SU and ATS in bowl games under HC Doc Holliday, who has proven to be one of the game’s top postseason coaches. Strong is probably better than people assume (4-2 ATS in bowls), but I remain underwhelmed with his teams. I think Holliday puts on a coaching clinic by dragging this erratic USF squad into deep waters in front of the Bulls’ half-filled stadium. It might not feel like home when Bulls fans follow half-hearted boos with a louder statement: Filtering out early.
The pick: Marshall -2.5
Friday, December 21
Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl
12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium (Nassau, Bahamas)
Toledo (No. 48 S&P+) -5.5 vs. Florida International (No. 86 S&P+)
ATL: Toledo -5.5
At a glance
Toledo (7-5 vs. No. 104 SOS) - S&P+ off (17, 12/46), def (95, 119/93), ST (31)
FIU (8-4 vs. No. 127 SOS) - S&P+ off (75, 95/75), def (87, 114/71), ST (41)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “This is our biggest decision on the second day with 69% of all the money wagered coming in on FIU. That action moved the line from where we opened at -6.5 to -6 and then again to -5.5. We are now seeing two-sided action on the 5.5 spread and if that continues till game time, we will erase the early exposure on FIU.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team
Toledo WR Diontae Johnson (Round 6-7 grade): “Toledo has a trio of draftable receivers but Johnson’s speed and potential as a return specialist makes him more attractive at the next level.”
Florida International QB James Morgan (PFA grade): “FIU has no stars on their depth chart, but what they do have is good football players. Morgan is an efficient passer who does not make mental mistakes throwing the ball.”
At any given point during the college football season — and especially at the end of it, heading into bowl season — every handicapper has a short mental list of “buy” and “sell” teams. Programs you’re looking to invest in or fade if the situation is right. When bowl matchups get released, the best-case scenario is when one of your “buy” teams draws one of your “sell” teams. A trickier scenario is “buy” vs. “buy”. The trickiest yet is “sell” vs. “sell.”
That’s what the Bahamas Bowl is for me. Sell vs. sell. Two teams I thought/think were/are overvalued. Doesn't mean we can’t find an angle. Just means we have to roll up our sleeves, disavow ourselves of dearly-held notions, and jump even deeper into the weeds.
First, let’s talk about my issues with these squads.
Toledo destroys awful teams, and they lose to good ones. Toledo won seven games this year. Two came against fringe bowl teams (Nevada and Western Michigan) and the other five were against teams ranked No. 117 S&P+ or lower. In all seven games, Toledo scored 45 points or more. In six of seven, 51 or more.
Basically, Toledo ran up the score on five awful teams, beat Nevada in September (before the Wolfpack took off by winning four of five down the stretch to surge into the postseason in Jay Norvell’s second season), and then had the good fortune of Western Michigan QB Jon Wassink going down injured after a mere four attempts. Without Wassink, as we would come to see (we’ll talk about this more below), Western Michigan went into the tank.
Toledo played five teams in the top-65 of S&P+ and went 0-5. The Rockets were consistently non-competitive in those games. In four of the five, they lost by 14 points or more. In the other, Eastern Michigan dominated throughout, drawing a -18.8 postgame adjusted scoring margin, but Toledo managed to only lose 28-26.
My issue with FIU throughout this season is that they benefited from several fluky wins through situational happenstance and also benefited from absurd turnover luck on top of that.
FIU had combined postgame win expectancies of 62% in victories over Old Dominion (FIU was down 17-0, a rainstorm caused a two-hour delay that caused ODU’s fans to leave, and FIU closed the game on a 28-3 run in front of an empty stadium after the skies cleared) and Middle Tennessee (MTSU’s QB Brent Stockstill got hurt on the first play of second quarter in a game teammates RB Brad Anderson, OL Chandler Brewer and S Jovante Moffatt were also knocked out of; despite the good fortune, FIU needed to score a late TD and pick off MTSU’s backup QB in the end zone to use an 11-0 fourth quarter rally to win by three). FIU should have lost both of those games. But folks, we’re just getting started.
In FIU’s blowout win over UMass in Week 3, the Minutemen were forced to play their third-string quarterback for the majority of the game because of injuries. Against Rice in October, the Owls were down to a two-star third-string true freshman quarterback. Rice was the second-worst team in the FBS this season, according to S&P+. FIU’s postgame adjusted margin was a mere -9.1 points in a sluggish 36-17 win.
FIU also gets credit for covering in a pair of losses to P5 opponents. But a deeper look into those games reveals more fluky results. In the 10-point loss to Indiana, the game ended with the Hoosiers at FIU’s 1-yard line. In the 14-point loss to Miami, FIU entered the fourth quarter down 31-0 but rallied for 17 consecutive points and the backdoor cover when Miami decided to sit on the ball in N’Kosi Perry’s first extended action off the bench after Malik Rosier got an early hook. Miami got stuffed on a 4th-and-goal at the FIU 3 in the fourth quarter of that one.
FIU has also been absurdly lucky with turnovers. FIU ranks No. 9 in the country with a +9 margin. Their S&P+ expected turnover margin is No. 78. The Panthers have benefited, per S&P+, from 3.9 points of turnover luck per game. Four points! Per game! For free! This year, FIU stands for Fortunate Illegitimates Unite.
According to second-order wins, a more accurate gauge of team quality than overall record, FIU had 6.9 wins (-1.1) against the No. 127 SOS. Toledo had 6.6 (-0.4) against the No. 104 SOS. By any metric, Toledo has been a little better. And the market has accounted for that. At the time of this writing, my adjusted line was exactly what the Vegas spread was in only three of the 39 early bowl games. This is one of them.
Special teams is a wash. So is motivation. Both teams got spanked in last year’s bowl games (FIU lost 28-3 to Temple in the Gasparilla Bowl, Toledo lost 34-0 in the Dollar General Bowl to Appalachian State). I’m supposed to give FIU the coaching edge but I can’t. FIU is 9-4 ATS under Butch Jones. Last year’s ATS record can be attributed to the public not appreciating what Jones was doing in Year 1 fast enough; this year’s can be attributed to flat luck. So I don’t know how much predictive value that number has.
Both of these offenses are predicated on explosion. Toledo ranks in the top-21 of both of S&P+’s major explosion metrics, while FIU ranks in the top 12 of each. FIU can defend explosion, Toledo can’t. That means FIU is likely going to generate more explosive plays than Toledo. But Toledo’s offense is also efficient, whereas FIU’s isn’t, and FIU isn’t nearly as good at defending that.
Toledo’s defensive line is very good, drawing high havoc marks. But FIU’s offensive line is one of the best in the CUSA. The Panthers rank No. 5 in offensive sack rate. That’s the kind of handicap this is: In some areas, both of these teams are weak. In others, there’s a strength-on-strength component that washes out.
Toledo’s biggest edge is its No. 12 rushing game taking aim at FIU’s No. 112 rushing defense. We came into this season thinking the Rockets would have a dynamite rushing attack with Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins forming one of the G5’s best one-two punches. The surprising thing is that Bryant Koback came out of nowhere to surge past both on the depth chart.
The Rockets average 223.6 rushing yards per game and, at any given time, have a top-shelf, fresh back on the field. Last week, Thompkins announced he would transfer out as a graduate, clearing the deck even more for Koback. Toledo’s passing offense has sagged a bit (No. 46) because of quarterback inconstancy. But Eli Peters has, if nothing else, shown the ability to hit Toledo’s outstanding trio of receivers downfield.
FIU’s run game is mediocre, which is unfortunate because Toledo’s run defense is quite bad. FIU’s offense is led by Bowling Green transfer QB James Morgan, who predictably broke out after escaping Mike Jinks’ sinking ship (Morgan signed with BGU as a hyped MAC recruit to play in Dino Babers’ up-tempo spread; Babers subsequently left for Syracuse). Morgan has posted a 26/7 TD/INT rate on 65.3% completions.
Toledo is a little better at defending the pass (No. 93) than the run (No. 119), but that area certainly isn’t a strength. One fortunate coincidence, here: In Jason Candle’s first season as head coach, in 2016, Morgan, still at Bowling Green, ripped up the Rockets’ defense for 335 yards and a 5/1 TD/INT rate in a failed upset big (Toledo won 42-35). If nothing else, Toledo’s staff and a few of its players are familiar with Morgan’s work. That could come into play here, as Morgan will have more to say in the way this game plays out than any other individual player.
This was a difficult handicap that I struggled with. But I do lean Toledo. In a matchup with so many unknowns, I know two things for sure: Toledo whips bad teams. And FIU is very likely one of those once the luck runs out.
The pick: Toledo -5.5
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Lyle Smith Field at Albertsons Stadium (Boise, Idaho)
BYU (No. 56 S&P+) -12 vs. Western Michigan (No. 97 S&P+)
ATL: BYU -10
At a glance
BYU (6-6 vs. No. 47 SOS) - S&P+ off (84, 39/84), def (30, 32/18), ST (90)
Western Michigan (7-5 vs. No. 88 SOS) - S&P+ off (40, 67/20), def (106, 88/125), ST (130)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “This is the least bet game so far of the bowl season, which is not surprising given its time slot. We’ve seen a minor .5 point move on the spread in BYU’s favor and one point more added to the total, but with so little money bet we are not seeing the type of line movement we are seeing in the other games.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospect on each team
BYU OT Austin Hoyt (Round 7 grade): “Hoyt is your prototypical BYU offensive lineman: tall, smart but a prospect with limited upside.”
Western Michigan C John Keenoy (Round 7 grade): “Kennoy has average size but is an intelligent lineman who gets the most from his ability.”
To me, this ‘cap is all about your read on Western Michigan. Specifically, your read on QB Kaleb Eleby. More on that in a second. First, a quick spin through WMU’s season.
The Broncos opened 0-2 with a pair of scheduling losses to Syracuse and Michigan. The Broncos then ripped off six straight wins, four of which were against opponents ranked No. 120 S&P+ or lower, and two of which had merit (Miami-OH and Eastern Michigan). This wasn’t a dominant winning streak, by any means. In the stretch against Miami, EMU and Bowling Green, Western won all three by one-possession with postgame win expectancies between 56-68%. In other words, three straight coin flips came up WMU.
But a win’s a win, and WMU was now bowl-eligible and playing with house money. The season changed against Toledo on Oct. 25 when WMU QB Jon Wassink was knocked out in the first quarter with a season-ending injury. This was no normal injury, or even a normal quarterback injury: The passing offense was the best thing WMU had going for it.
WMU went on to lose three straight, blowouts at the hands of Toledo and Ohio and an embarrassing upset loss to lowly Ball State. But with their bowl hopes potentially fading away — a 6-6 finish would have left WMU on the bubble for bowl selection, and WMU wasn’t selected last year at 6-6 — WMU turned around and stunned Northern Illinois 28-21.
That win came mostly on the heels of the WMU “defense”, which ranks No. 106 S&P+. More to the point, NIU’s offense played even worse than usual and WMU escaped courtesy of a 3-1 TO advantage (WMU benefitted from +6.5 points of turnover luck in that game, per S&P+). But, on the other hand, BYU lost outright to Northern Illinois 7-6 (!) at home in October. If you’re a common-opponent handicapper, the edge in this one goes to WMU.
The freshman Eleby has completed 3.3% more of his passes than Wassink for a slightly better marginal efficiency score. But Eleby has taken a ton more sacks on a per-play basis and averages 1.2 yards less per attempt.
Wassink also offered more as a runner. Without him, Western has really had to lean on a running game that is only mediocre by the advanced numbers (No. 67) but does have two name brand veterans in LeVante Bellamy (1,172 yards and six touchdowns on 6.2 yards per carry) and Jamauri Bogan (740 and 15 on 4.5 ypc).
Western has a bad defense, along with the worst special teams unit in the country. But it does rank in the top-10 in the nation in time of possession as a sort of antidote to those weaknesses in games it can keep close enough for it to matter.
And since we don’t care who wins this game straight-up, only who covers, we have a bit more leeway. This is an enormous bowl spread, one of the biggest of the 39 pre-title games. It’s an especially eye-catching line with BYU as the favorite. The Cougars, who struggle offensively, beat only four teams by double-digits this year: McNeese State (Sterlin Gilbert’s new squad!), Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico State.
Interestingly, this will be BYU’s second trip to Albertsons Stadium this season. The Cougars outplayed Boise State in early November (76% postgame win expectancy) but lost 21-16 despite outgaining BSU by 61 yards on more yards per play (three lost fumbles sunk BYU). BYU has never won in five trips to Boise. They’ve got a plum opportunity to put an end to that streak with a more forgiving opponent scheduled.
With no conference affiliation, sitting at 6-6, BYU was one of the “bubble” teams heading into college football’s Selection Sunday. To be picked, even for the Potato Bowl, is a big deal to not only the kids in the program, but Kalani Sitake and his coaching staff, some of whom may have wondered if this day would ever arrive while they were living in Salt Lake City.
But while Western Michigan is probably worse than their 7-5 record, BYU is assuredly better than their own. BYU lost four games to top-65 S&P+ teams by one possession, including Utah and Boise State. The Cougars played a far harder schedule, beating Arizona and Wisconsin on the road.
Like Western, BYU switched from a veteran quarterback to a freshman mid-season. In the Cougars’ case, that was a personal choice. A really smart one. QB Zach Wilson has been a clear upgrade over Tanner Mangum as both a runner and a passer. Wilson’s legs open up possibilities for the offense that weren’t on the table with the statuesque Magnum back there.
I really like how BYU’s defense matches up here. BYU is one of the nation’s best at limiting explosive plays, and they excel against both the run and the pass. I think Eleby really struggles in this one, which is going to force Western to derive the bulk of its offense against BYU’s run defense.
I think Western will have success consistently pushing ahead for short-yardage, but the home run plays aren’t going to be there. And since this is the only area of the game you can project success for Western, the handicap becomes a bit complicated when you’re wanting to take what appears to be a very generous assortment of points.
There are numerous trends that support going contrarian here. One of my favorite bowl betting habits, as mentioned earlier, has to do with supporting teams with poor ATS regular season records against teams with good ones. The logic is pretty straightforward: The latter is likely going to be priced at a tax, so supporting the former is unadulterated positive-EV bargain bin shopping.
Last week, the Action Network’s John Ewing ran the numbers. Teams that finished with a 33.3% or lower ATS win percentage during the regular season playing teams that were .500 or better ATS in bowls have gone 22-12-1 (64.7%) ATS since 2005. Five games this bowl season fit that system. I was on the first two, North Texas and San Diego State. Western Michigan (4-8 ATS) and BYU (8-4 ATS) is the third such game.
But this time, I can’t fall in line. BYU has enormous edges in defense and special teams headed in, and they’ll also enjoy a home field advantage thanks both to familiarity, but also expected turnout at the stadium. My adjusted line is -10, but you can bump that up a point or so if you want to give BYU credit for some semblance of HFA.
One other thing my numbers can’t take into account, because they are based on season-long stats: BYU is a better team with Wilson under center (offense averaged more than 5.8 ypp in three of the last four after only doing so once in the first eight games), while Western is worse with Eleby under center. This line looks fat on the surface. But if I was setting it, I would have opened it at BYU -13.5. I’d still be on BYU at that price.
The pick: BYU -12