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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.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tennessee)
Auburn (No. 18 S&P+) -3.5 vs. Purdue (No. 37 S&P+)
ATL: Auburn -5.5
At a glance
Auburn (7-5 vs. No. 4 SOS) - S&P+ off (47, 81/58), def (18, 20/16), ST (43)
Purdue (6-6 vs. No. 33 SOS) - S&P+ off (16, 29/24), def (82, 55/80), ST (60)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Balanced action as 52% of the action is on Purdue and 48% on Auburn. Similar story for the total, 55% of the action is over and 45% is under. Small exposure on the Purdue moneyline as they are both being bet equally, but the +150 price on Purdue is slowly adding up.”
Auburn DT Derrick Brown (Round 1 grade): “Dominant defensive tackle with great size, athleticism and power. Can occupy the gaps, stop the run or rush the passer. First round prospect who get lost in the shuffle.”
Purdue DT Lorenzo Neal (Round 7 grade): “Quick, athletic defensive tackle who can be a playmaker of occupy the gaps. Forceful when he’s on his game.”
Of the non-elite bowls heading into the New Year’s Six games, this one features one of the largest motivational discrepancies. Auburn, a preseason top-10 team, is hobbling to the end of a crushingly-disappointing season they can’t wait to turn the page on. Purdue couldn’t be more thrilled to be here.
Jeff Brohm stunned the football world by turning down his alma matter Louisville to stay at Purdue. The fanbase, which was already all-in on the Brohm era, responded in kind by gobbling up as many bowl tickets as they could. The Boilermakers announced on Friday, Dec. 7 — five days after this matchup was announced — that they’d more than sold out their allotment of tickets for this game.
On that date, Purdue had sold 11,000 tickets (3,000 over their original allotment). We don't know how many Purdue fans will ultimately arrive at the stadium, but safe to say that the Boilermakers will have their largest bowl turnout since a reported 20,000 Purdue fans attended the 2004 Capital One Bowl.
Auburn also sold their allotment of 8,000 tickets. Over 50,000 tickets had been sold as of Thursday, thrilling game officials. "We're probably doing a little better in terms of ticket sales than we thought when we first announced the teams," Music City Bowl President and CEO Scott Ramsey said.
The Tigers started the season at No. 9 in the polls. In a marquee Week 1 matchup, Auburn knocked off the eventual Pac-12 champs (then-No. 6) Washington 21-16. The Tigers beat an FCS team the next week. They collapsed after that, going 5-5. That 10-game stretch featured only one win over a team ranked higher than S&P+ No. 70 (Texas A&M).
Purdue is the opposite. They began the year with three close losses (maybe even fluky losses — Purdue had 62%+ win expectancies in all three). Since then, the Boilermakers have gone 6-3, with one insanely good showing (the blowout of eventual Big Ten champ Ohio State) and one insanely bad showing (the blowout loss against Minnesota).
If you go by second-order win total, Purdue was the third-unluckiest team in the nation this year. The Boilermakers finished with 7.5 (+1.5) second-order wins against the No. 33 SOS. Auburn finished with 7.2 (+0.2) second-order wins against the No. 4 SOS.
If this number, Auburn -3.5, struck you as light on first blush — a few of my buddies who don’t bet college football but participate in bowl ATS pools texted with questions about why Auburn wasn’t favored by more — I’d argue that two things are going on.
1.) Purdue is better than their 6-6 record makes them seem (and I’m not even talking about the electric win over the Buckeyes, which in my eyes is canceled out by the no-show against Minnesota; I’m talking about the season on the whole), and, 2.) Purdue probably deserves a point or two on the line for the motivation discrepancy (my ATL line of Auburn -5.5 does not account for things like that).
Auburn’s biggest concern heading into this game is Purdue true freshman WR Rondale Moore. The Tigers have struggled to contain stud athlete (D’Andre Swift rushed for almost 200 yards against Auburn and Jake Fromm averaged almost 10.0 ypa, Alabama averaged over 10.0 ypa through the air against Auburn, Nick Fitzgerald and Kylin Hill combined for over 300 yards rushing against Auburn, etc.).
Moore, who led the nation with 103 receptions (143 targets), is the most electric outside athlete that Auburn has seen this year, and that’s saying something. Moore recently won the Paul Hornung Award — given to the most versatile player in college football — the Big Ten Receiver of the Year award and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. He was also a semifinalist for both the Maxwell Award, given to the collegiate player of the year, and the Biletnikoff Award, given to the receiver of the year.
Moore is also a fabulous kick and punt returner, and he’s extremely dangerous when given the occasional carry (11.3 ypc on 20 attempts). Purdue will get him the ball as much as they can. Moore is a walking mismatch as is, but he’s particularly unfair in this matchup. Purdue’s offense ranks No. 10 in S&P+ explosiveness, while Auburn’s defense is No. 105 against explosion.
The Boilermakers also have the No. 8 red zone offense in the FBS by conventional stats, and are No. 37 S&P+ in points per scoring opportunity. If you give up yardage to Purdue, they usually make you pay.
Auburn’s defense is good overall — No. 18 S&P+ — but its struggles with preventing home run plays makes Purdue a particularly bad draw. One effective way to defend passing explosion is to get to the quarterback before can throw. Auburn’s pass rush was fine during the regular season (No. 44 sack rate), but it’s likely going to be without its top pass-rusher, DE Nick Coe, who leads the team with 13.5 TFL and seven sack. Coe is doubtful after undergoing wrist surgery earlier this month.
Speaking of the pass rush, Purdue doesn't have one (No. 105). The Boilermakers’ biggest weakness, as a team, is its pass defense. From the perspective of Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham (2,421 yards, 13/5 TD/INT rate), coming off a very disappointing regular season, Purdue was a great draw. And with Stidham forgoing his final season of eligibility to turn pro after the game (he is playing), he could really use a big game.
Whether he will or not is another question. There’s been a stink around Auburn’s offense all year. The offensive line has been blamed (perhaps unfairly; it is No. 26 in stuff rate and No. 53 in sack rate), the offensive coordinator has been blamed (OC Chip Lindsey fled to Kansas to join Les Miles’ staff and was replaced by Memphis OC Kenny Dillingham), Gus Malzahn has been blamed (what else is new?), and Stidham, of course, has been criticized.
Stidham, notoriously shaky under pressure, shouldn’t be under much duress in this game. His go-to receiver, reliable slot target Ryan Davis, has been cleared after he took a nasty shot to the head in the regular season finale against Alabama (Jared Mayden was ejected for targeting).
To win, Auburn needs Stidham to go off. Because Purdue’s run defense is a tick above average, and Auburn’s rushing attack was non-existent all year. JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow leads the team with 777 yards and four touchdowns. He’s been mediocre. Everyone behind him has been worse. Four-star freshman RB Asa Martin got sick of not getting more touches and bolted to Miami.
Auburn isn’t going to have a ton of success on the ground. And I guess the issue, for me, is that it’s hard to envision Stidham rising up to light up Purdue in his last collegiate game. Stidham has regressed since his freshman year under Art Briles at Baylor. The Baylor scandal sent Stidham on an odyssey that eventually led to Auburn. It wasn’t a good pick.
If Eric Dungey hadn’t been at Syracuse, Stidham would have been fabulous under Dino Babers (who runs a version of Briles’ old offense). Stidham needs the field spread, and he needs time to work. Confined spaces make him claustrophobic, and chaos makes him hurl. If I’m Purdue, I’m cooking up a series of exotic blitzes right now to ramp up the heat.
This is a proverbial matchup of programs heading in different directions. The future is bright at Purdue now that Brohm has committed to staying. Brohm is 3-0 SU and 2-1 ATS in bowl games, including an upset win over Arizona in last year’s bowl game. Not only that, but Brohm is closing in on Tom Herman/Pat Fitzgerald territory as an underdog. As a ‘dog at Purdue, he’s 8-2 ATS with five outright wins.
The pick: Purdue +3.5
Camping World Bowl
5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Camping World Stadium (Orlando, Florida)
Syracuse (No. 43 S&P+) 1.5 vs. West Virginia (No. 20 S&P+)
ATL: NA (WVU and Syracuse starters out)
At a glance
West Virginia (8-3 vs. No. 56 SOS) - S&P+ off (6, 35/12), def (81, 86/60), ST (23)
Syracuse (9-3 vs. No. 45 SOS) - S&P+ off (44, 45/60), def (60, 58/58), ST (1)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “The biggest decision for the book so far in the College Bowl season, probably because it was the game with the most line movement caused by Will Grier announcing he was sitting out the Bowl Game. West Virginia opened as a 7-point favorite and money started flowing on Syracuse. It seemed like everybody except us knew that Grier would sit out this game and the line dropped to all the way to West Virginia -1.5. We were seeing two-sided action on this number but in the last 48 hours we have seen overwhelming sharp money coming in on Syracuse. We moved the game to a Pick’em but this did not stop the Syracuse money. We now sit at Syracuse -1.5 and are finally seeing two-way action, but we are in a terrible position from Syracuse +7 all the way to Syracuse -1.5.”
West Virginia OT Colton McKivitz (Round 2): “The best offensive lineman on the WVU roster and an underrated prospect that can play left or right tackle.”
Syracuse DT Chris Slayton (Round 5-6 grade): “Relatively athletic defensive tackle prospect that’s show steady progress in his game.”
If you follow me on Twitter, you’re already sick of hearing about me talk about this game. For the rest of you, a brief history about my relationship with this line.
West Virginia opened as seven-point favorites. I found this line absurd and said so on Twitter. I quickly bet Syracuse — I thought the Orange, full-strength against full-strength, had a decent shot to spring the upset. They’re that good.
In the week-or-so that followed, QB Will Grier and LT Yodny Cajuste both announced they were sitting. I eagerly logged onto 5Dimes, expecting Syracuse to be favored by a field goal on the re-post, and further expecting the total to have taken a swan dive. Neither were the case. West Virginia was still favored by -1.5, and the total remained 70! So I tripled my investment by dropping another unit on the Syracuse ML and the under.
In the days that followed, Syracuse remained short underdogs, causing me to type on Twitter that the “market was asleep at the wheel” with this game. Then, stud Mountaineers slot WR Greg Jennings announced he too was sitting out the bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. West Virginia will roll with QB Jack Allison, a Miami transfer who has only 10 career attempts. HC Dana Holgorsen has also said he might play freshman Trey Lowe III a little. Lowe has never taken a snap.
In every bowl confidence ATS pool I’m in, Syracuse is either my top pick or my second-highest pick (Syracuse and Army were my two favorite picks of bowl season). Finally, over the past week, the market woke up. The result is that Syracuse has now taken their rightful place as favorites.
Before all this news, Syracuse had nice advantages on defense (No. 60 vs. 81), special teams (No. 1 vs. 23), coaching staffs (Syracuse is the second downtrodden FBS program Dino Babers has turned around in short order, while Holgorsen is 1-5 ATS in bowl games and 0-3 ATS and 1-2 SU as a favorite), continuity (WVU OC Jake Spavital took the HC job at Texas State) and motivation (Syracuse returns to bowl season for the first time in five years, while Holgorsen, no doubt worried about long-term job security, privately lobbied for the Texas Tech job and was outed).
The only facet of the game West Virginia had an edge in before was on offense. It’s questionable how big an advantage they have no with Allison running the offense and backups at LT and slot WR. WVU ranked No. 6 during the regular season but must be downgraded significantly. Syracuse ranked No. 40.
We don’t know what we’re going to get with Allison, but I’ll refer you back to last year, when Grier got hurt late in the year and was replaced by Chris Chugonov. West Virginia’s entire offense went into the tank and the Mountaineers were drilled in their bowl game.
Grier’s absence is drawing the most ink. But Cajuste, the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year, is also an enormous loss. He’s a prime-time NFL prospect, and was integral to keeping Grier clean. Jennings is an extremely prolific receiver in his own right. Jennings had 151 catches for a tick over 2,000 yards the past two years, a reliable chain-mover out of the slot.
All the pre-bowl news was pro-Syracuse until the Orange, over the past several days, took a few personnel losses of their own. Starting Syracuse DE Alton Robinson and DT McKinley Williams both didn't travel to Orlando for "personal reasons,” which seems like a fancy way of saying they’re suspended. Robinson is the bigger loss — he led the team with 10 sacks. Syracuse S Antwan Cordy will also miss the game, though that isn’t much of a surprise after he missed the last two.
So we need to downgrade Syracuse’s defense a little bit. But, returning to the offense discussion, Syracuse has actually added players since we last saw them. Junior transfers RB Abdul Adams (Oklahoma) and WR Trishton Jackson (Michigan State), former four-star recruits who came over last offseason, have been cleared to play in this game.
The 5-foot-11, 209-pound Adams rushed for 825 yards and a touchdown on 112 carries as a Sooner and averaged 9.2 ypc last year on Oklahoma’s playoff team. Jackson started the first four games of his sophomore season and played in 12. But are very good fits in Babers’ system. Adams is probably the most talented back Babers has ever had, while Jackson feels like the true No. 1 receiver Babers was never able to identify on this year’s roster.
So will West Virginia’s offense be better than Syracuse’s in this game? The jury remains out on that. To be honest, I think I’d prefer Eric Dungey and crew over the Allison grab bag. If it’s a wash or worse, WVU could get rolled. Syracuse has advantages in every other metric of the game — assuming the defense doesn’t crater without two starting defensive linemen — both tangible and intangible.
The only scary area here, for Syracuse backers, is that WVU’s rushing attack is solid overall and explosive in general, while Syracuse’s rushing defense is the team’s biggest weakness. But as we saw last year when Chugonov took over, WVU’s rushing attack isn’t nearly as good or explosive when it doesn't have the space to work with that Grier and the excellent passing attack provides. Syracuse’s run defense has also improved as the season has progressed.
Syracuse returns to a bowl for the first time since 2013. They’re ahead of schedule in Dino Babers’ third year. The Orange have a prime opportunity to win 10 games for the first time since 2001. I think they’ll get it done.
The pick: Syracuse -1.5
Valero Alamo Bowl
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Alamodome (San Antonio, Texas)
Washington State -3 (No. 25 S&P+) vs. Iowa State (No. 52 S&P+)
ATL: Washington State -5
At a glance
Washington State (10-2 vs. No. 60 SOS) - S&P+ off (14, 53/35), def (50, 96/22), ST (77)
Iowa State (8-4 vs. No. 42 SOS) - S&P+ off (77, 107/33), def (31, 34/24), ST (94)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “Action mostly on Iowa state, so far 68% of all bets are on the underdog. We opened at +5 but quickly moved to +4 because of the sharp action. Retail players who are not known to traditionally back underdogs were surprising us by betting Iowa State, so we moved it down another point to three. Small exposure on Iowa stats but nothing compared to the Camping World Bowl.”
Iowa State RB David Montgomery (Round 2 grade): “Three down back who, while not the quickest or fastest, does the little things well. Decision on whether or not Montgomery enters the draft coming after this game.”
Washington State OT Andre Dillard (Round 3 grade): “Fundamentally sound tackle that’s been moving north on draft boards since the start of the season.”
I enthusiastically bet Iowa State +7 when the opening bowl numbers dropped. That line was badly, badly, badly off. So much so that it’s hard to explain. But if I were to try, I’d venture that it had to do with Iowa State struggling in bad weather in that weird rescheduled regular season finale against FCS Drake, while Washington State went 11-0 ATS during the regular season prior to losing SU and ATS in the Apple Cup.
Either way, the market eventually got around to hammering Iowa State into the range we’re in now. Wazzu -3 or -3.5 is a fair line. My numbers have Wazzu as a five-point favorite, but Iowa State has enough going for it in the ancillary factors that a two-point tax feels fair.
Instead of burying the lede, lets address the elephant in the room straight away: Mike Leach is 1-3 ATS in bowl games at Washington State and 1-7 ATS in his last eight bowl games overall. There were some real clunkers in there. The two that stick out in my mind are the two most recent.
In the 2016 Holiday Bowl against Minnesota, the Gophers, embroiled in a scandal and without 10 suspended players (and soon to fire HC Tracy Claeys) beat Wazzu 17-12 as heavy underdogs. The next year in the same bowl (last season), Wazzu, as short favorites, got smoked 42-17 by Michigan State.
This will be the twelfth time (out of 14) that Leach has been favored in a bowl game. In his previous 11 bowls as a fav, he went 3-8 ATS and 5-6 SU. Hell, we can even nitpick some of the positive datapoints. Leach’s last bowl win was in bad weather conditions in the 2015 Sun Bowl against a Miami team playing for an interim staff. Prior to that, he hadn’t won one since 2007 (at Texas Tech).
There are several popular theories to explain why Leach has been so bad in bowl games. My favorite has been advanced by the Action Network’s Collin Wilson and Stuckey this month: The Air Raid, a timing-based system, loses its rhythm with long layoffs. Another has to do with the idea that Leach may not be putting in as much time to prepare as the opposing coach.
A related theory: The Air Raid is difficult to get ready for on short notice, but it’s easier to defend with extra prep time. Lastly, from a gambling perspective, Leach’s teams probably aren’t a value-buy in the bowls very often because recreational bettors, who know of The Pirate and his aerial pyrotechnics, get more involved.
If Wazzu’s offenses has a hard time getting going early on against Iowa State, the Cougars are in trouble. And there’s a real reason to think it might, beyond just the historical trends. Iowa State has a good pass defense that has led to wins against pass-first teams like Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Baylor (and only a 10-point loss to Oklahoma).
Washington State’s Air Raid is nearly identical to Texas Tech’s (obviously). The Cyclones beat Tech 40-31. ISU picked off TTU QB Alan Bowman three times and held him to an abysmal 5.14 ypa. And if you’re shouting: “But Thor! Washington State’s passing attack is way better than Texas Tech’s!”, fair enough. We have to talk about the West Virginia game.
The Mountaineers have a better passing attack than Wazzu, and also a better offense overall (when both are full strength). Don’t ask Will Grier about Iowa State. He doesn’t want to talk about it. In that game, a 30-14 Cyclone victory, Grier had the worst game of his career, throwing for 100 yards and an interception on a shocking 1.82 ypa while taking seven sacks.
Long story short: Leach’s offenses have shown a propensity to play down in a big way in bowl season, and Iowa State’s defense is known for making awesome passing offenses look awful. For me, this handicap begins and ends right there.
Wazzu themselves have a good pass defense, but the Cougars are poor against the run (no. 96). That could lead to a make-good game for star Cyclones RB David Montgomery, a stud who has done the best he could behind a mediocre offensive line. Luckily, Wazzu’s front isn’t very active. Since the Cougars won’t be ransacking the backfield, I see a big game in store for Montgomery, a versatile tackle-breaking machine.
Though whizkid Iowa State HC Matt Campbell is only 2-2 ATS in bowl games, he’s 1-0 ATS and SU at Iowa State after upsetting Memphis in last year’s bowl. I think Campbell improves to 2-0 in bowls at Iowa State by dragging Washington State’s offense into deep waters.
The pick: Iowa State +3.5