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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.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Cotton Bowl (Dallas, Texas)
Boise State (No. 29 S&P+) -2 vs. Boston College (No. 71 S&P+)
ATL: Boise State -1.5
At a glance
Boise State (10-3 vs. No. 49 SOS) - S&P+ off (18, 14/29), def (39, 52/45), ST (120)
Boston College (7-5 vs. No. 40 SOS) - S&P+ off (95, 108/41), def (28, 46/51), ST (117)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “We may have got caught speeding here and thought we could cheat on the line with a ranked team playing an unranked team. We were wrong. We opened Boise state as 3.5-point favorites and were bet heavily [on Boston College] by our sharp (expected) and retail (not expected) bettors. We moved the line to -3 and now have a pretty significant decision on the BC +3.5 line. I do not foresee moving off 3 but if we keep getting bet on BC we might have to start thinking about it.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
Boston College DE Zach Allen (Round 1-2 grade): “Versatile defensive lineman with a three down game. Can line up at end, as a three technique tackle and in certain two-gap systems. Vastly underrated.”
Boise State T Ezra Cleveland (Round 3 grade): “Dynamic underclassman who possesses next level pass protection skills and needs to just improve his run blocking.”
Boise State’s primary offensive objective will be to establish the run and prevent Boston College’s pass rush — specifically the outstanding BC DE duo of Zach Allen (6.5 sacks, 15 TFL) and Wyatt Ray (nine and 11.5) — from being able to pin their ears back off the edge on third-and-longs. The status of Allen and Ray must be monitored after each suffered an injury in the regular season finale against Syracuse.
Even if they’re both 100-percent, this plan is likely to work. Boston College’s run defense ranks No. 46 overall and is good at limiting home run plays (No. 23), but it struggles at the point of attack, likely because the best players on its front are pass rushers first. Boston College ranks No. 100 in stuff rate against the run.
That profile reminded me of a very poor man’s version of Fresno State’s defense (No. 9 overall), which ranks No. 5 against the run; No. 2 against rushing explosion, but No. 110 in stuff rate. In two games against Fresno this year (regular season and MWC title game), Boise State RB Alexander Mattison ran for 344 yards on 70 carries.
I think the Broncos will come in with another Mattison-heavy gameplan here. Mattison (1,415 yards with 17 touchdowns) has really come on down the stretch as BSU has fed him more and more, turning 127 attempts over the last four games into 689 yards and seven touchdowns.
Boston College’s No. 51 pass defense is top-50 in efficiency, completion percentage allowed and sack rate, but it ranks No. 72 against explosion. What’s interesting is that Boise’s air attack (No. 29) has similar strengths and weaknesses, but only skewed more empathetically towards the polarities. BSU is top-16 in efficiency and completion percentage (with the No. 58 sack rate allowed), but No. 89 in terms of generating explosive plays. If Mattison gets going — which seems like a reasonable expectation — I don’t think that BSU will mind having this area of the game more or less cancel itself out.
As a team, the Broncos have three weaknesses: They don’t generate enough explosive plays on offense, they allow too many explosive plays on defense, and they play shoddy special teams. The Broncos are strong everywhere else. I play on the Broncos when they play a team that can’t exploit those weaknesses, and I play against them when they play against a team that could.
Boston College also plays poor special teams, and the Eagles’ defense matches up poorly enough against Mattison that I think it’s very possible that the Broncos won’t need explosive plays to consistently dent the scoreboard. The one area Boston College matches up well in — and this is the area the Eagles must excel in to pull off the upset — is in offensive explosion.
The Eagles’ offense never came on to the degree we wanted it to this season (No. 95), mostly because it was one of the Power 5’s least efficient attacks. Shockingly, the primary culprit for that was the running game, which was expected to be elite with star RB AJ Dillon back behind one of the nation’s most talented offensive lines.
But Dillon has been banged up all season and, perhaps because of that, his effectiveness has been a hit-and-miss proposition. When Dillon’s on the field, BC gives him as many touches as possible. Which is a dynamite strategy when he’s 100%. When he’s not, Dillon becomes a strange sort of back: A 6’0/245 banger who is looking to break long runs, not charge ahead to take what the defense is giving him. This year, Dillon has been inefficient, with a 41.9% opportunity rate that is poor enough that S&P+ shades it red. That means Dillon is getting the yardage that the offense needs him to get on only around four out of every 10 carries. Not ideal for a jumbo back.
When Dillon starts to consistently break into the second and third levels, this offense takes off. It runs at extreme tempo (No. 4), hustling back to the line to either quickly hand it off to Dillon again, or to uncork a deep shot over safeties that have begun to cheat up. Boston College’s passing offense ranks No. 41, but it's sub-mediocre in every facet except hitting bombs (No. 11 explosion).
Boise State ranks No. 52 against rushing explosion, but is strong in every other metric of rush defense. Boston College simply must have Dillon break off long runs, or else the defense won’t become concerned enough about the passing game to leave QB Anthony Brown’s receivers on islands downfield.
All of which makes Dillon’s status very, very important leading up to kick. And once again, as has been the case for most of the season, we have no idea how healthy he is. Dillon re-injured his gimpy ankle in the regular season finale against Syracuse.
And with a less than 100% Dillon, the offense refuses to switch up its strategy and can fall into inefficient quagmires chasing the glory of last year’s success. That’s the offense. The Boston College defense needs both Allen and Ray 100% healthy for this game, or they lose the havoc that the entire unit is built around.
Boise matches up well on paper. They’re also a more trustworthy team both in big spots, but also in bowl season in general. BSU HC Bryan Harsin is 3-1 SU and ATS in bowl games, while Boston College is 1-3 SU and ATS in bowl games under Steve Addazio.
The pick: Boise State -2
Quick Lane Bowl
5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Ford Field (Detroit, Michigan)
Georgia Tech (No. 74 S&P+) -5 vs. Minnesota (No. 58 S&P+)
ATL: NA (Minnesota suspensions)
At a glance
Georgia Tech (7-5 vs. No. 27 SOS) - S&P+ off (31, 18/6), def (105, 90/118), ST (16)
Minnesota (6-6 vs. No. 36 SOS) - S&P+ off (88, 86/51), def (44, 101/47), ST (25)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “The story in this one is the big move in the total. We opened it at 61 and were immodestly bet by are sharp bettors. We moved it down to 60 but it was not aggressive enough as players continued to bet the under. They bet it all the way down to 57 where we finally saw some buyback, but considering the bad position we are in with this totals it would not surprise me if this total fell even more before kickoff.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
Minnesota LB Thomas Barber (Round 5 grade): “Tough, run defending linebacker with great bloodlines. More of a two down player but instinctive and tough.”
Georgia Tech G Parker Braun (Round 7): “Nice sized blocker with a next level combination of mobility and strength.”
I bet Georgia Tech -3 when the first bowl lines were released. Everything that has happened in the weeks since has been pro-GT and anti-Minnesota.
Georgia Tech HC Paul Johnson announced that he’d be retiring after this game. The 61-year-old went 189-98 across stops at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech. With the Yellow Jackets, he finishes as the fourth-winningest coach in school history (and the winningest in 50 years) despite rarely getting just credit because of the offensive system he ran.
Tech hired Temple HC Geoff Collins to take over, effective after this game. This news is very pro-GT from a handicapping perspective. On the motivation side, Johnson’s players have one last chance to send him off the field a winner. And on the preparation side, not only is Johnson ostensibly getting ready for Minnesota as if it's the last game of his life (it is), but he didn’t have to worry about doggedly recruiting prior to last Wednesday’s early-signing period. While all the other head coaches in bowl season had to check in with high school athletes through Dec. 19, Johnson was thinking about the Gophers.
Minnesota’s past month didn’t go as well. According to numerous reports, the Gophers will suspend seven players for this game due to an off-the-field issue following the 37-15 win over archival Wisconsin in the regular season finale on Nov. 24 to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe. That upset may have been made possible by Wisconsin’s apathy, but it was a legitimately huge deal to the Gophers program. It was cited by Minnesota’s brass as a primary reason for Fleck’s recent one-year extension.
Thing is, we still have no idea which players will be sitting. Minnesota to this time has refused to reveal their identities. The hush-hush nature of the entire thing may not be terribly surprising — the program no doubt wants fans to continue to bask in the win over the hated Badgers while getting excited for a return to bowl season — but it’s a bit troubling when assessing Minny’s mindset heading into this game (and, of course, when trying to project which players it’ll have at its disposal against GT).
That’s not all. Minnesota OT Donnell Greene, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound left tackle, will sit out after signing with an agent following surgery to repair a meniscus in his knee. The All-Big Ten honorable mention will be replaced on Morgan’s blind side by Sam Schlueter, generally used as a TE-eligible third OT in heavy formations when he hasn’t filled in for Greene (this will be Schlueter’s third start of the year).
We’re not done. Star Gophers LB Blake Cashman — the team’s leading tackler and leading run stuffer — is also sitting out this game to begin NFL preparations. Cashman was perhaps Minnesota’s most important defensive piece when considering this matchup against a triple-option team. He’ll give way to a green youngster.
And on top of all this, Minnesota was injury ravaged as is. They played almost the entire season without the top-shelf one-two RB punch of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks (both of whom will miss this game). The biggest loss was star S Antoine Winfield Jr., a stud who sealed the win over Fresno State with an acrobatic interception back in September. Later that month, an injury ended his campaign.
Minnesota’s No. 101 rush defense matches up poorly here. The Gophers are far better against the pass, a strength that will be negated against GTs triple-option offense. Minnesota is elite at stuff rate (No. 9 S&P+), which is going to help, but they regularly get ripped for huge runs (No. 126), an unfortunate quirk Georgia Tech should be able to exploit. Minnesota played a lot of conventional run-first teams in the Big 10, but they did not face a triple-option team.
Minnesota’s only path to keeping up in this game is through the air with its No. 51 passing attack against Georgia Tech’s dreadful No. 118 pass defense. Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson (74-1,112-10) is an All-Big Ten performer who may have been an All-American if he’d played with a better quarterback this fall. The Gophers’ limitations behind center make it hard to project them to come out clean if Georgia Tech is moving the ball on its defense, Johnson or no Johnson.
Georgia Tech is bad at defending the run -- No. 90 S&P+, with the No. 110 defensive stuff rate — so Mohamed Ibrahim should have some level of success. But keep in mind that Ibrahim was the fourth-stringer coming into the year and that Minnesota’s offense line isn’t at full strength.
Georgia Tech was on an absolute roll — winning four straight, including three wins over ACC bowl teams — prior to losing 45-21 to Georgia in the finale. The Bulldogs are a top-three team, so we can forgive the Yellow Jackets that one. I think they get back on track by drilling the drama-embroiled Gophers to send Johnson out a winner.
The pick: Georgia Tech -5.5
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Chase Field (Phoenix, Arizona)
California (No. 64 S&P+) -1 vs. TCU (No. 57 S&P+)
ATL: Pick 'em
At a glance
Cal (7-5 vs. No. 66 SOS) - S&P+ off (121, 96/122), def (12, 27/14), ST (20)
TCU (6-6 vs. No. 30 SOS) - S&P+ off (99, 92/98), def (23, 29/11), ST (121)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Sharp bettors are taking a pass on this game, but the recreational bettors were able to move the line slightly. We opened this game as a pick ‘em with a total of 40 and our recreational player bet the Golden Bears into 1 Point favorites by taking a staggering 85% of the action. Similar story for the total as 76% of the bets were on the under so we moved it from 40 to 39.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
TCU DE Ben Banogu (Round 5 grade): “Terrific edge rusher who disrupts the action when focused on the task at hand. Could make a big move up boards if he plays and works out well in the lead up to the draft.”
Cal LB Evan Weaver (Round 6 grade): “Dominant tackling machine who’s come out of nowhere to make a name for himself in the scouting community.”
If you hate offensive football, have we got the game for you!
These aren’t just bad offenses. These are bad offenses that got worse and worse as the season progressed. TCU (No. 99 S&P+ offense) was held under 20 points in three of their last four games, while Cal (No. 121) was held under 20 points in four of their last five.
But boy can these teams play defense! The Golden Bears (No. 12) held 10 of 12 opponents to 24 points or less (and Washington and Washington State to a total of 29!), while TCU pulled that trick seven times. Keep an eye out for NFL-bound Horned Frogs star edge rusher Ben Banogu (31.5 TFL and 14 sacks over the last two seasons), perhaps the most talented defender in this all-defense matchup.
The total of this game is 38.5 points, an absurd number befitting a game between triple-option running military academics. But it’s that low for a reason. If one of these teams reaches 20 — it’s no sure thing; TCU played in four games this year where neither team cracked 20, Cal played in such games in three of the last four games alone — it’s likely going to win.
So let’s jump into the offenses. But before we do, we should make one thing clear: Cal not only has a defensive edge heading in, but they also have en enormous special teams edge (No. 20 to 121). So for TCU to get consideration here, they need to have a pronounced offensive edge.
The Horned Frogs will have the singular best offensive performer on the field, we can say with certainty. WR Jalen Reagor (11 touchdowns and 1,222 yards of total offense) is a do-everything athlete that averaged 15.4 yards per rushing attempt (on only 11 carries, but still — he also averaged nearly 15 yards per catch). Reagor’s leap was especially important after WR/KR KaVontae Turpin was kicked off the team leading up to the Kansas game.
The issue is the rest of the unit. TCU dealt with a ton of injuries this fall —at one point, a punter was practicing as a defensive end so the scout team had enough bodies — and that’ll be the case again against Cal. “It’s our duct tape group here,” HC Gary Patterson said. “The way it’s been going this year, I’d tell you the day before the game who’s ready, who’s not.”
QB Michael Collins, who had been starting since Shawn Robinson was knocked out for the year (Robinson has since transferred to Missouri), is out after undergoing season-ending surgery to fix an injury he suffered in the Baylor game. Other notable absences on the bowl depth chart include starting RB Darius Anderson and OL Austin Myers, both of whom were injured against Oklahoma State. Patterson still doesn’t know if LB Ty Summers or DT Joseph Broadnax will be healthy enough to play.
The Horned Frogs will once again turn the offense over to limited fifth-year senior QB Grayson Muelstein, an organizational soldier whose football-playing days will likely conclude when the clock strikes 0:00 on this game. To Muelstein’s credit, he did lead TCU to an upset win over Oklahoma State in the regular season finale to clinch bowl eligibility.
But he enters this game with only 43 career attempts. TCU hyped freshman QB Justin Rogers is listed as the backup, but Rogers has been rehabbing an injury all year and may not be ready, either physically or experientially. “He’s still not where we want him to be with the foot and everything,” Patterson said.
So Patterson has been joking that he himself might have to be the backup QB against Cal. Let’s put it this way: Even though Muelstein is no better than a low-end G5 quarterback, TCU desperately needs him to make it through four quarters against one of the nation’s best defenses. If Muelstein goes down and Rogers isn’t healthy enough to step in, TCU is in deep, deep trouble.
It already might be. TCU failed to reach 18 points against Texas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas State and West Virginia during the regular season. At No. 31, Iowa State has the highest S&P+ defensive rank of those teams. Texas is next at No. 55. None of the other four rank in the top-70.
And now TCU is starting a fourth-string QB and a backup RB. Even if this offense can somehow generate multiple drives each half inside of Cal’s 40, they still aren’t out of the woods. The Horned Frogs rank No. 122 in red zone offense. In one-quarter of their drives into the red zone, TCU came away with zero points. One-fourth! And to repeat: They're now down to their fourth-string QB and backup RB!
Cal’s offense is paint-by-numbers, and, frankly, downright bad. But it does have an identity. The Golden Bears eventually decided upon freshman QB Chase Garbers (1,413 yards passing and a 14/7 TD/INT rate), and that decision has paid off. Brandon McIlwain (2/8 TD/INT ratio) was not it.
Cal tries to establish the run with Patrick Laird. Defenses know that’s coming, but Laird is good enough to take what’s given to him (923 yards and five TD on 4.3 ypc). The Golden Bears are looking to keep Garbers out of third-and-longs. But they don’t mind trusting the defense and playing the field position game with their outstanding special teams units, because the coaching staff has no illusions about the offense they’re gameplanning around.
Cal is better at taking care of the ball than TCU by conventional and advanced numbers. But the difference is larger than the cumulative numbers make it out to be. That’s because McIlwain (2/8 TD/INT rate) was a turnover machine during his brief reign and the curdled milk stats from that regretable era remain baked into Cal's season-long numbers. Garbers has thrown one less pick in 112 more throws. TCU, which ranks No. 126 in expected turnover rate, needs to be very careful here. Cal's defense led the Pac-12 with 24 takeaways.
Fortunately for Cal, TCU is better against the pass than the run. Laird and crew don’t match up the best with TCU’s run defense, but this is the one in-game matchup of the entire contest where the offense isn’t at an absurd disadvantage. TCU ranks S&P+ No. 48 against rushing efficiency — decent but not great — and that area-of-least-resistance just so happens to be exactly what Cal’s offense would prefer to attack, if it had its druthers.
Cal ranks No. 65 in rushing efficiency and is just inside the top-60 in opportunity rate and stuff rate (meaning that Cal’s ground game, if nothing else, doesn’t lose yardage). If you told Justin Wilcox that he could choose one area of the offense to excel at heading into this game, he would no-doubt answer “rushing efficiency” in different words.
TCU is a team accustomed to playing in better bowl games. HC Gary Patterson is one of the sport’s best coaches. His team persevered to finish 3-1 to rally into the postseason after being left for dead at 3-5 after the Kansas loss. Because of the effort down the stretch, and because of Patterson’s presence, I’m not projecting TCU to no-show here.
But they’re going to need to be firing on all cylinders to have a chance. Because Cal has been building towards this moment, qualifying for their first bowl game since Jared Goff was on campus. Wilcox turned the program around by remaking Cal as Wisconsin West. The offense has a long ways to go, but the defense and special teams are already championship caliber.
The pick: Cal -1
Walk-On's Independence Bowl
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Independence Stadium (Shreveport, Louisiana)
Temple (No. 34 S&P+) -3.5 vs. Duke (No. 66 S&P+)
ATL: Temple -1.5
At a glance
Temple (8-4 vs. No. 84 SOS) - S&P+ off (61, 70/28), def (24, 38/1), ST (101)
Duke (7-5 vs. No. 53 SOS) - S&P+ off (76, 73/78), def (49, 69/34), ST (83)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “With the injury to Temple QB Anthony Russo, our players have been betting Duke hard. The Blue Devils are seeing 75% of bets on the money line and 66% on the spread. We expect that trend to continue if Russo is out, but if he plays we think that people will start backing Temple on the spread and moneyline. If Russo can’t go the book will become huge Frank Nutile and Temple Owls fans — and hopefully he can find some success on Thursday.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
Duke QB Daniel Jones (Round 1 grade): “Tough, intelligent quarterback with a great feel for the position. Expect Jones to enter the draft then land in the bottom half of round one.”
Temple CB Rock Ya-Sin (Round 6 grade): “Fierce cornerback coming off a terrific season. Stamped as a street free agent before the year and not graded as a late round pick.”
This handicap was complicated by Temple HC Geoff Collins taking the Georgia Tech job. “I know (Collins) is from Georgia and figured it was his dream job,” TE Kenny Yeboah told philly.com. “You can’t really hate him for it. It (stinks), but it is part of life.” The Owls named Ed Foley interim head coach. “It is tough when you think about it and get a bond with your coach, and then it is broken away so abruptly,” RB Jager Gardner said.
Foley, who sort of looks like the “stapler” guy from Office Space, was also the postseason interim coach in 2016 when Matt Rhule left for Baylor before the Military Bowl. The Owls, 10-3 at the time and the champions of the AAC, were installed as 12-point favorites over Wake Forest in that Dec. 27 game. Temple got upset 34-26.
The Owls scored the first TD of the game, then allowed 31 consecutive points to fall down 31-7 before putting enough points on the board in the second half to make it appear as though it hadn’t been a demolition (the media described Temple’s second half as a “furious rally”). Wake Forest was the more penalized team in that game, and both teams turned it over twice — it was no fluke. Watching the game, it didn't feel like an upset. Wake soundly outplayed Temple.
That doesn't mean history is about to repeat itself. But it is an interesting datapoint. Exactly two years to the day after that loss to Wake, Foley is once again the interim coach preparing to take on an ACC school from North Carolina on December 27.
Books opened Temple as a three-point favorite. Early bettors hit the Owls to push the line to -5, before it was bought back to the range we’re in now. In between all that, Collins left and Temple replaced him with Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Diaz won't be involved, here.
Duke has been playing without NFL-caliber CB Mark Gilbert since September. Against Temple, they also might be without fabulous LB Joe Giles-Harris, currently listed as questionable with a knee injury that has kept him out since early November. Giles-Harris is emphatic that he'll play if he's cleared. “Right now my mind is on getting 100 percent healthy and getting really to play against Temple,” Giles-Harris said. “I have no intention of thinking about not playing in a game. You are only given so many games in your career, why skip out on one is my feeling on that.”
Fellow LB Ben Humphreys is another question mark. He, too, scoffed at the idea of sitting. “I don’t think that’s a Duke thing,” Humphreys said. “We’re going to play every game that we can. We’re going to do it because we love the guys around us. I don’t think that will happen at Duke.”
Star QB Daniel Jones, who suffered a broken collarbone in Week 2 against Northwestern but rehabbed so quickly that he returned to the starting lineup by the end of September, also suffered a lower-body injury in the last game. Jones (6’5/220), a potential Round 1 pick, wouldn’t have been blamed for either skipping this game, or having Duke’s staff announce that he wasn’t healthy enough to go. No such luck for Temple. “I certainly plan on playing and I will play in the bowl game,” Jones said. “I’ve never really considered that as something I’d want to do. We are going to finish this season.”
Duke is one of the best coached teams in the nation. Duke HC David Cutcliffe is famous for developing quarterbacks (Eli and Peyton Manning, et al) and, in general, getting every ounce out of his (often out-talented) teams.
Team cohesion is one of a coach’s biggest jobs. It’s difficult to quantify. But reading the quotes of Duke players ahead of a game like this truly makes you appreciate the culture that Cutcliffe has built at a basketball school. His players are, in a very real way, willing to assume personal risk (injury, potrential loss of future income) in the name of the team.
Temple comes in on a roll. They’ve won six of seven since starting 2-3 (including an embarrassing loss in the opener to FCS Villanova). Credit to them. We should point out, though, that three of those six wins were against the dregs of the FBC (ECU, Navy and UConn) and two of others came in November against teams in the middle of deathspirals (Houston and USF). The one win that transcends caveats was the 24-17 victory over Cincinnati on Oct. 20.
Duke’s 3-0 start courtesy of non-conference wins against Army, Northwestern and Baylor — all 2018 bowl teams — looks a heck of a lot more impressive now than it did at the time. The Blue Devils rolled to a 7-3 start before stumbling down the stretch. They got blown out in their last two games by a combined score of 94-13 (one of the losses was to Clemson, but the other was to Wake Forest).
In Duke’s defense, they were dealing with major injuries. But they are here, once again. At least we know that Jones is playing. I prefer Duke’s offense to Temple’s (the Blue Devils also have the special teams edge), especially with a few key pieces on the Owls also hobbled with injuries.
Temple RB Ryquell Armstead is probable after he suffered an undisclosed injury in the regular season finale. Armstead has dealt with nagging injures throughout his career. He’s a tough kid and appears prepared to play through it, but he may not be 100%.
Temple starting QB Anthony Russo, meanwhile, is questionable with a hand injury. The status of Armstead, the team’s most valuable offensive player, is more important than Russo's, in my opinion. Russo and QB2 Frank Nutile, last year’s starter down the stretch, have posted similar per-play stats this year (they’re also nearly the same size, which galvanizes my tendency to perceive them as interchangeable).
Temple’s calling card is defense. And it’s in that area of the game that they have an advantage heading in, especially in lieu of Duke’s defensive injuries, which never allowed the Blue Devils to field the kind of unit we thought we’d see in the preseason.
Any way you slice it, Duke has the enormous coaching edge. Blue Devils HC David Cutcliffe is 8-2 ATS in bowl games (4-0 ATS in his last four) and 48-33-2 ATS as an underdog at Duke. His school, now 34-16-1 ATS in their last 51 non-conference games, is traditionally under-valued at the window.
Similar to Gary Patterson, Cutcliffe has had to make due with a roster that has been ravaged by injuries this year. But he may be getting his All-American linebacker back, and his team appears fired up to get back out there. Temple fans may be getting deja vu two days after Christmas, watching Foley take the field as a favorite over an ACC team. I like the Blue Devils to repeat Wake Forest’s trick by upsetting Temple.
The pick: Duke +3.5
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Yankee Stadium (New York, New York)
Miami (No. 22 S&P+) -3 vs. Wisconsin (No. 24 S&P+)
ATL: Miami -2
At a glance
Miami (7-5 vs. No. 86 SOS) - S&P+ off (67, 44/112), def (7, 25/9), ST (100)
Wisconsin (7-5 vs. No. 52 SOS) - S&P+ off (13, 2/80), def (43, 61/64), ST (116)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Seeing two-way action on both the spread (Miami -3) and the total (48). We are however seeing many recreational players betting Wisconsin on the moneyline at +135. Looking into it further, we could not find any reason for it. But it looks like we will be Miami fans at kickoff.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
Wisconsin C Tyler Biadasz (Round 2 grade): “The next dominant lineman from Wisconsin. Quick, explosive and very effective blocking on the move.”
Miami DT Gerald Willis (Round 2 grade): “Big, explosive interior lineman who disrupts the action or controls the gaps. Caught scouts by surprise after not playing in 2017.”
Wisconsin must once again turn to sophomore QB Jack Coan, as Alex Hornibrook has been shut down due to persistent concussion complications. Coan — interestingly, a New York native — will be making his fourth start. More importantly, his fifth appearance, which means he agreed to burn his redshirt for the honor.
That’s his call. And I understand why Wisconsin asked him to do it. To drop further on the quarterback depth chart for Hornibook’s replacement would have been to concede this game in advance. But I wonder if both player and school will come to regret this one. Because I don’t know that Coan is going to provide enough to alter the outcome of this game.
In last year’s Orange Bowl -- Wisconsin beat Miami 34-24 (as 6.5-point favs) -- Miami “limited” Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor to 130 yards and no TD on 26 carries (5.0 ypc). Taylor had run for more yards than that in seven of 13 games heading into that one while posting a higher ypc average in 11 of 13. The Badgers came back from a 14-3 deficit to win by 10 anyway. Why? Because Hornibrook turned in arguably his best career game, throwing for 258 yards and four touchdowns on 67.6% of his passes with no interceptions (Wisconsin also benefited from three Miami turnovers, a missed field goal, and a really dumb Mark Richt penalty).
Hornibrook aint walking through that door, and his odds of repeating that performance were zero anyway. Coan has been a notable downgrade when forced into the lineup (to be fair, nobody thought he was going to have to make four 2018 starts). Coan has completed 61.0% of his passes (1.5% better than Hornibrook). That’s about all I can say for him.
Coan gets sacked on 1.5% more of his dropbacks, he averages 2.3 yards less per attempt (and nearly four yards less per completion), and he’s an enormous downgrade in terms of efficiency (the one category Hornibrook grades out well in) and also explosion (an area Hornibrook wasn’t a world-beater in anyway). And like Hornibrook, Coan offers zero as a runner, so he isn’t recouping that lost value elsewhere.
All of which puts a ton of pressure on Wisconsin’s running game. And while that rushing attack is one of the nation’s best, it has a few notable things working against it. 1.) Miami has a strong run defense (3.3 yards per carry allowed), 2.) Without the threat of being beaten over the top, the Hurricanes’ strong safety corps should be able to focus on the run more than usual, 3.) Miami did decent against Taylor the first time around and isn’t going to be surprised by anything Wisconsin wants to do.
Miami comes in with a big defensive edge — Wisconsin’s defensive corps sagged all year, in part because of a rash of injuries (as one example, Wisconsin has 18 sacks after posting 42 last year) — and a small edge in special teams. The Hurricanes’ offense is what concerns us. Specially, the passing game, which was objectively worse than Wisconsin’s feeble aerial attack this year.
But the Hurricanes can run the ball. Not as well as Wisconsin, I’ll grant you, but they’re facing a far worse run defense. Wisconsin can be shoved around and bullied. The Badgers are going to have all kinds of issues containing RBs Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas. We don't know if Malik Rosier or N’Kosi Perry will start. Doesn't make much of a difference, to be honest.
Miami comes in playing better. After a 5-5 start, the Hurricanes closed strong by blowing out Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh by 21 points or more. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has alternated wins and losses every week since Oct. 6. In the finale, the Badgers, dealing with several injuries and, it seemed, a lack of interest in playing, got rolled by a mediocre Minnesota by 22 at home in a rivalry game (poo-poo Paul Bunyan’s Axe all you want, but it’s a big deal to each program — for Wisconsin to lay down in Camp Randall for that specific game was troubling).
Not only all that, but I’m here to tell you that Miami is better than its 7-5 record. Miami was an eight- or nine-win team that dropped multiple games the boxscore says it should have won. In fact, the Hurricanes finished with a 60% or higher postgame win expectancy in three of its five losses. That’s absurd.
Blame coaching if you want, but the numbers don’t lie: Miami objectively played well enough to win all three games. The Hurricanes’ second-order win total of 8.8 tells us that S&P+ believes this team is closer to 9-3 quality than 7-5. The Canes match up well enough in this game that a normalization of luck alone could lead to a double-digit win against a Wisconsin team that looks a lot different than we thought it’d look in August.
The pick: Miami -3
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
NRG Stadium (Houston, Texas)
Vanderbilt (No. 68 S&P+) -4 vs. Baylor (No. 85 S&P+)
ATL: Vanderbilt -1.5
Vanderbilt (6-6 vs. No. 12 SOS) - S&P+ off (45, 41/50), def (70, 105/25), ST (98)
Baylor (6-6 vs. No. 48 SOS) - S&P+ off (57, 43/94), def (90, 83/81), ST (89)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Not much movement on this game at all since we first opened, spread moved in Baylor’s favor by 1 point from +5 to +4. The lack of movement can probably be attributed to the two-way betting we are seeing on both teams. Sharp bettors are betting both sides of the line so it’s a great position for the book and a sign that the number is right.”
Tony Pauline’s top NFL prospects
Vanderbilt DB Joejuan Williams (Round 2-3 grade): “Aggressive defensive back who can play corner or safety. Physical, most effective facing the action and has an upside.”
Baylor WR-TE-RB Jalen Hurd (Round 3 grade): “Versatile skill player who produces anytime he touches the ball. May not have one defined position in the NFL yet could line up in multiple spots. Knee injury could sideline him for this contest.”
Sitting: Baylor WR Jalen Hurd
Of all the “minor” bowl games between P5 opponents, I’m looking forward to this one the most. When handicapping bowl games, I give a bump to 6-6 teams on the motivation ledger — the difference between 7-6 and 6-7 is real; per Bet Labs, teams with a .500 or worse record are 80-60-2 (57%) ATS in bowls since 2005 — and I give a bigger bump if that program appears to be on the upswing in general (and thus particularly incentivized to capitalize on the momentum).
Each of these teams qualify on both accounts. Baylor returns to bowl season after going 1-11 in Matt Rhule’s first year. They get there by upsetting Texas Tech in the finale 35-24 (going back to the winning record vs. losing record perception thing: that TTU loss dropped the Red Raiders to 5-7 and probably cost Kliff Kingsbury his job). Baylor’s five-win improvement tied Florida and Syracuse for tops among Power 5 teams.
Vanderbilt achieved bowl eligibility after a 4-6 start by beating Ole Miss and Tennessee in the final two weeks. The Bears and ‘Dores figure to be even better next season, especially now that Vandy has signed Ball State grad transfer QB Riley Neal (a big time under-the-radar signing… Neal will enter next season as a top-10 NFL Draft prospect at his position).
I was particularly impressed with Vanderbilt’s 3-1 finish to qualify for inclusion in this game. The Commodores played a gauntlet of a schedule — taking understandable losses to Notre Dame, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Mizzou — and finished with a second-order win total of 6.9 (+0.9).
Basically, Vandy got involved in four coin-flip games and came out on the wrong end of three of them (against Notre Dame and Kentucky, the ‘Dores finished with postgame win expectancies of 54 and 55%, respectively). Baylor’s second-order win total, for whatever it’s worth, is about the same as its actual record.
Vanderbilt’s offense grows on you. It’s only slightly above-average overall (No. 45), but it’s explosive (Nos. 30 and 32 in S&P+’s two major explosion categories) while staying mostly efficient (Nos. 45 and 51), it can both run and pass, and it takes care of the ball (Vandy ranks No. 16 in turnover margin).
Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound son of Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, threw for 2,844 yards and a 23/6 TD/INT ratio on 64% completions. Shurmur is a fringe NFL quarterback who doesn’t have a big arm and can struggle with pressure but otherwise checks all the boxes (with an empathic checkmark under “coach’s son”).
If you haven’t seen the ‘Dores this year, you might be surprised by how many NFL-caliber players surround Shurmur. Vandy RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn (1,001 yards and 10 TD on 7.0 ypc), the Illinois transfer, has been a godsend. His 8.3 highlight yards per opportunity (a measure of what the RB gained outside of the yardage his OL was expected to create) was particularly impressive.
Vaughn suffered an arm injury in the finale. I haven’t seen anything that would indicate that he’s going to miss this game. Vandy needs him active and healthy. Baylor’s run defense (No. 83) is bad, consistently allowing explosive runs (No. 110) while getting pushed back at the line (No. 105 stuff rate). Vandy ranks No. 24 in 40-plus yard runs, while Baylor ranks No. 111 in 40-plus yard runs allowed (in total, Baylor allows 20-plus yard gains on 9.1% of its defensive snaps, No. 111 in the country)
Vaughn could badly exploit Baylor’s biggest weakness. Vanderbilt’s two backup RBs, Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield, will do no such thing. That duo has combined for 738 yards and five TD on around 4.5 ypc. Both are station-to-station 220-plus pound plodders. If Vaughn were to be announced as out before this game, hidden cameras would catch Rhule dancing in his hotel room.
Shurmur’s two favorite toys are WR Kalija Lipscomb (81-886-9) and TE Jared Pinkney (45-700-7). Lipscomb is coming back to school, while Pinkney is likely to declare fo the NFL Draft after the season. Baylor’s pass defense (No. 81) can be had, and the Bears’ pass rush isn’t good enough to consistently fluster Shurmur.
Baylor’s offense will most unfortunately be without the services of star WR Jalen Hurd due to a knee injury. The former five-star Tennessee running back was a revelation as a slot monster and occasional five-yard-gain-picker-upper as a tailback out of the I-formation. He finished the year with a 69-946-4 receiving line.
Hurd was the matchup nightmare he was advertised to be, but in a very limited, very specific capacity: He was an uber-raw 6’4/217 slot receiver who QB Charlie Brewer would frequently hit in the intermediate sector on quick-hitters. Opposing defenses couldn’t do a ton about that. Baylor’s offense was extremely efficient, and much of the credit for that should go to Hurd.
But Hurd’s emergence, and the way the offense changed to cater to his limited-but-productive skillset, stole touches from stud WR Denzel Mims (49-699-8) and Chris Platt, two upper-echelon Big 12 receivers. Some teams wouldn’t be able to afford to lose a player with Hurd’s usage numbers. Baylor can. Mims and Platt are that good.
What the Bears will do is swap efficiency for explosion, deleting the “throw to Jalen six yards downfield after a quick hook” plays from the gameplan and getting back to more traditional Baylor throwing concepts, which means letting Mims and Platt attack the deep sector of the field (Baylor sagged to No. 99 in passing explosion in part because of a shift in strategy).
I think this will ironically play up Baylor’s rushing attack a bit, because the offense tended to get claustrophobic in terms of spacing, especially when Mims missed time with injuries (when the defense wasn’t concerned about getting beaten over the top but became infuriated by Hurd’s run-and-turn catches, boxes naturally became thicker than Baylor’s offense was accustomed to seeing in the Art Briles days).
Baylor QB Charlie Brewer, underrated as a scrambler, should be able to nick up Vandy when he tucks and runs. The Commodores are very strong against the pass overall (No. 25), though there is a bend-but-don’t break tilt that shows in the advanced metrics (No. 72 against efficiency, No. 64 against explosion, No. 92 in completions rate allowed, No. 89 pass rush).
The lack of the pass rush is a big boost for Baylor, which struggled to protect Brewer this year (in part why the Hurd dump-offs became so popular — it was the one play in the playbook where Baylor had a really good chance to pick up five yards or more on a given down against a good pass-rushing team). Vanderbilt finished dead last in the SEC in sacks and is bottom-20 in the country in pass-down sack rate. Brewer is no doubt thrilled about the matchup.
Where Vanderbilt really struggles is against the run (No. 105), decent in limiting explosive runs but terrible against efficiency, opportunity rate and stuff rate. Brewer matches up well against a defense like this — he’s a “take what the defense gives you” kind of quarterback in general, and Vandy's has multiple glaring weaknesses — but he simply must eliminate unforced errors for Baylor to have a chance.
Because of Vanderbilt’s passing defense, the Commodores showed well against pass-heavy teams like Missouri (lost 33-28 as 14.5-point ‘dogs), Ole Miss (36-29 win as 3.5-point favs), and, going back to the non-con schedule, blowouts of Middle Tennessee and Nevada back in September. Going back to HC Derek Mason’s first year as Commodores head coach in 2014, Vanderbilt is 10-3 ATS when playing teams that average at least 275 passing yards per game (like Baylor).
Baylor must run the ball well here to pull off the upset. Hurd’s absence ironically might facilitate improvements in that area — Baylor’s rushing offense looks poor on the surface, but it’s actually No. 43 in S&P+ because it rates well on a per-run basis in this air-leaning scheme — due to schematic changes I’m projecting Rhule and crew to implement because of the matchup and personnel.
Both of these coaching staffs are strong, both of these programs are on the upswing, and each were teams I was looking to invest in during bowl season. Unfortunately, they got matched up with other. That makes for a great matchup but a complicated handicap. I bought a Baylor +7 ticket on the opening numbers. That was an easy bet.
But on the closing number — what this column asks me to handicap against — this one is tight. Baylor gets slight edges in special teams and homefield (Vandy must travel into Baylor’s backyard), while Vandy has slight edges in offense and defense. I'm buying out of my original bet with a Vandy -4 ticket, hoping for a middle. But I don't want exposure on this one. There's a scenario where Baylor upsets Vanderbilt. Absolutely. It's just that I think that the scenario where Vanderbilt wins by double-digits is a little more likely. My model thinks this line is short. But Baylor is going to miss Hurd, and Vanderbilt matched up well on paper anyway.
The pick: Vanderbilt -4