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Weekly Picks

ATS Bowl Picks. Dec. 31

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

 






Saturday, December 31


Citrus Bowl

Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida

LSU (-3) vs. Louisville


Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

Analysis:

Louisville has a dirty little secret, and we suspect it’s going to sink them here: The Cardinals’ offensive line stinks. There were few worse bowl matchups the Cardinals could have drawn than LSU, and we suspect Louisville Heisman-winning QB Lamar Jackson will be under duress from the time he steps off the flight.


The utter mismatch that is the Tigers’ front seven against Louisville’s offensive line can be seen in a pair of S&P+ metrics, Standard Downs Sack Rate (LSU’s No. 9 defense vs. UL’s No. 119 offense) and Adjusted Sack Rate (LSU’s No. 10 defense vs. UL’s No. 78 offense). No one player can make up a line of scrimmage disparity that large. Jackson figures to get acquainted with edge rusher Arden Key (10 sacks, 12.5 TFL, 10 QB hurries, three forced fumbles) early on.


Jackson, Louisville's first Heisman Trophy winner, is the only player in FBS history to throw for 30-plus touchdowns and rush for 20-plus scores in the same season. Jackson was No. 8 with 1,538 rushing yards and No. 12 with 3,390 passing yards to engineer a Cardinals attack that finished the regular season as the No. 1-ranked offense (45.33 ppg). That offense averaged only 24.0 points in the last two games of the season, however, upset losses to Houston and Kentucky.


LSU will be without their own offensive force, RB Leonard Fournette, who’s skipping the game to rest his ankle and prepare for the NFL Draft. Fournette, Todd McShay’s No. 1 overall prospect, has been compared to Bo Jackson and Adrian Peterson.


We’re not overly concerned about Fournette’s absence, because No. 2 RB Darrius Guice is one of the nation’s 10-best running backs in his own right. This fall, Guice averaged an SEC-best 7.9 yards per carry and scored an SEC-high 14 touchdowns while finishing No. 2 in the conference with 1,249 rushing yards.


Guice will be backed up by a Tigers defense that ranks No. 6 in the FBS in scoring defense (16.4 points) and No. 13 in total defense (323 yards per game allowed). Key is joined by All-American junior S Jamal Adams (a top-five Draft candidate) and LB Kendell Beckwith (No. 2 in the SEC with 9.1 tackles per game).


Since starting 9-1, Louisville has been in a deep, deep funk. First, the Cardinals got smacked 36-10 by Houston. Houston’s defensive front is slightly inferior to LSU’s. The Cougars had 11 sacks against Louisville, which gives you an idea of what’s in play in this game. In the regular season finale, Louisville was upset 41-38 by archrival Kentucky.


And then, following Jackson’s Heisman award on Dec. 10, LBs James Hearns and Henry Famurewa were shot near campus. As if all that wasn’t enough, Louisville became implicated in the WakeyLeaks scandal and suspended offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway for accepting Tommy Elrod’s intel.


These teams have been heading in opposite directions for awhile now. The Tigers began the season 0-4 ATS as the Les Miles era arrived at its abrupt end. Since then, the Tigers are 5-2 ATS. They’re also 5-2 ATS in their last seven games against teams with winning records. Louisville, on the other hand, is 1-4 ATS in its last five games. And not for nothing? Teams with the Heisman winner are 13-24 ATS since 1980.


LSU’s extreme strengths in the areas where Louisville is weak suggest that these teams’ irreconcilable trajectories will hold serve in Orlando.


TaxSlayer Bowl

EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida

Georgia Tech (-3.5) vs. Kentucky


Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

Analysis:

If you like watching long touchdown runs, boy do we have the game for you. Kentucky and Georgia Tech are two of the best running teams in the nation. Both dominate the line of scrimmage offensively, and both churn out explosive plays with regularity.


They have one other thing in common. Neither team can play a lick of run defense.


The triple-option attack of Georgia Tech ranks No. 15 in S&P+ run offense. Kentucky has S&P+’s No. 105 run defense. The Yellow Jackets will spend the day blowing the Wildcats off the line. Georgia Tech ranks No. 23 in S&P+’s Adjusted Line Yards metric, while Kentucky is No. 123 of 128 in defensive Adjusted Line Yards.


Kentucky’s rushing offense has just as big an advantage over Georgia Tech’s run defense. In S&P+’s Adjusted Line Yards metrics, the Wildcats rank No. 5 offensively. Georgia Tech is No. 121 defensively in that metric. Kentucky ranks No. 10 in S&P+ run offense and No. 12 in rushing explosiveness, while Georgia Tech is No. 105 in run defense and No. 98 in rushing explosiveness against.


The Yellow Jackets will be without FB Marcus Marshall, who led the team with 624 rushing yards before transferring after the regular season. Georgia Tech should be able to make due with RB Clinton Lynch (11.2 yards per carry and the team’s leading receiver with 490 receiving yards) and FB Dedrick Mills taking on a bigger share of the workload. Count on GT QB Justin Thomas shining in his last collegiate game. Kentucky’s awful run defense will be defending the triple option for the first time this year.


Kentucky’s rushing attack is led by a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell. UK QB Stephen Johnson isn’t as fleet of foot as Thomas, but he can make plays outside of the pocket if Georgia Tech doesn’t keep contain.


In a close matchup between teams of similar profiles and nearly identical offensive effectiveness, we side with Georgia Tech’s superior defense (S&P+ No. 61 vs. 87), bowl experience (this is Mark Stoops’ first bowl game as a head coach) and tactical advantage (the triple-option is hell to prepare for if you aren’t experienced defending it).

College Football Playoff


Peach Bowl

Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia

No. 1 Alabama (-14) vs. No. 4 Washington


Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

Analysis:

This line suggests that the underdog has little chance of winning the game. It’s enough to make you forget which side is starting the true freshman quarterback.


Yes, the Crimson Tide (13-0, 8-0 SEC) are very good. The issue with this spread is that it treats the Huskies (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12) as though they live in Florida or Texas A&M’s neighborhood. We’d submit that the Huskies pay significantly higher property taxes than that.


Washington has the superior offense by any metric. Washington ranks No. 3 in the FBS with 44.5 points per game and is listed as S&P+’s No. 10 offense (No. 3 passing, No. 19 rushing). QB Jake Browning (46 total touchdowns, No. 5 in the country with a 176.5 passing efficiency) is one of the nation’s best passers, and he’s more athletic than many other pro-style passers of the same ilk.


Browning is joined in the backfield by the superb RB duo of Myles Gaskin (103 rushing yards per game) and Lavon Coleman (64.3 rushing yards per game). Gaskin is an exciting talent, but it’d be a surprise if he gets within 15 yards of his season average. The Crimson Tide prioritize shutting down the running game and rank No. 1 in the FBS in rushing defense (63.4 yards per game).


While it’s difficult to move the ball on the ground against Alabama, the Tide’s emphasis on keeping bodies in the box opens up downfield opportunities. Alabama surrendered 18 passing plays of at least 30 yards to rank No. 57 in the FBS. Without Tide S Eddie Jackson, lost for the season, this bugaboo is an even bigger concern. We expect Washington to aggressively attack the deep sectors of the field, and they have the perimeter talent to do serious damage when they do.


Browning’s favorite target is DeSean Jackson-clone WR John Ross (86.3 receiving yards per game, 18 total touchdowns). Ross is a break-your-ankles joystick athlete with exceptional hands. Regardless of what the media’s voting said (Browning), Ross was the Pac 12’s best offensive player this fall. Ross is also a sensational return man who scores on more than 20-percent of his overall touches.


Alabama can’t just sag all its secondary resources towards Ross, because Ross’ running mate WR Dante Pettis averaged 15.9 yards per catch and chipped in 14 touchdowns. Alabama will at times leave its defensive backs on islands in deference to loading up the box, so Washington can expect to get Ross, and especially Pettis, into single coverage looks.


If Browning capitalizes on enough of these opportunities, the Huskies stand a decent chance of knocking out the heavily favored Tide. If he can’t, Washington will have little chance of overcoming Alabama’s talent advantage.


This matchup features Washington’s No. 1-most efficient S&P+ offense against Alabama’s No. 1 S&P+ efficiency defense. Washington’s defense is more efficient than Alabama’s offense, by the way, and Washington’s defense is far more explosive than Alabama’s (No. 3 to No. 73). Just sayin’.


Alabama’s 471.3 yards per game ranks No. 26 in the country. S&P+ likes the rushing attack (No. 4), but is lower on the aerial show (No. 27). That rushing offense, ranked No. 14 by traditional counting numbers, boasts five runners who average 24 yards or more on the ground each time out.


One of them is true freshman dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts, who averages 197.2 passing yards and 64.7 rushing yards per game. Hurts is joined in the backfield by a rotating band of four- and five-star runners led by RBs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Joshua Jacobs.


The Huskies rank No. 7 against the run by S&P+ and are No. 18 in yards allowed per carry (3.5). UW DTs Vita Vea and Elijah Qualls are as enormous and disruptive an interior pair as you’ll see.


Hurts is far more effective on standard downs than he is on money downs. His passer efficiency rating plummeted from 144.5 to 85.7 when 10 or more yards were needed on a third down. Washington can beat Alabama by shutting down the running game on early downs and forcing Hurts to make plays from structure.


Hurts’ primary receivers are Amari Cooper-comped Calvin Ridley, strong No. 2 ArDarius Stewart and possession receiver Gehrig Dieter. TE O.J. Howard averages just 34.2 receiving yards per game, but he’s a first-round talent who can influence the outcome of a game (as we saw in last year’s title victory over Clemson). We expect Howard to get more involved when the big lights turn on.


There’s a narrative out there that Washington would have shut down your older brother’s Alabama but has little chance to stop this version of the Tide because the Huskies are built to stop pro-style offenses but not spread teams with mobile quarterbacks. That narrative is lazy and objectively incorrect.


We think it began in late September and early October, when Washington struggled in an overtime win against Arizona and then destroyed Stanford the next time out. But the week after the Stanford game, Washington throttled Oregon, a better version of Arizona, by a score of 70-21.


Washington beat (spread, immobile QB) Cal by 39 points a few weeks later, and it annihilated both (spread, mobile QB) Arizona State and (spread, immobile QB) Washington State later in the year. Only one team has beaten Washington this season, and that was the pro-style offense of USC. QB Sam Darnold isn’t exactly Marcus Mariota.


The truth is that Washington may have more defensive talent than any team in the nation outside of Alabama. Do the best defenses struggle with mobile quarterbacks? If they do, they do so less than everyone else does.


Hurts should fear Washington’s defense, is what we’re trying to say. Not the other way around. Hurts is extremely gifted, but he remains raw and is not one of the nation’s best signal-callers. Not yet, anyway. We’re exciting to see what Petersen and crew have cooked up for him.


With all of that said, Hurts and his offense are fortunate to be facing Washington without the services of star edge rusher Joe Mathis, (lost for the season Nov. 7) and stud middle linebacker Azeem Victor (lost for the season Nov. 12). At the time they went down, Mathis led the team in sacks and Victor led the team in tackles.


Even without Mathis at the end of the season, the Huskies still managed to finish No. 5 in the FBS in adjusted sack rate. Alabama sometimes struggles to keep the pocket clean and finished No. 44 in adjusted sack rate offense. Nine Huskies have at least two sacks. Washington’s pass rush is a group effort that comes in waves.


Washington backs that pass rush up with an elite secondary featuring future first-round possibilities S Budda Baker and CBs Kevin King and Sidney Jones. Freshman safety Kevin Rapp was the Pac-12 title game MVP, and the other safety, Jojo McIntosh, is No. 4 on the team in tackles.


The Huskies defense (No. 10 S&P+) seems to play better in big games. While it allowed 28 points to Arizona and 27 to Cal, Washington surrendered 14.75 points per game to the four best teams it faced all year. It held Stanford to six, USC to 26, Washington State to 17 and Colorado to 10.


The Tide’s defense ranks No. 1 in total defense (247.8 yards per game) and No. 2 in S&P+. They lead the nation in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and defensive touchdowns (10).


DE Jonathan Allen (56 tackles, 13 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 15 hurries and two fumble recoveries) is a top-five Draft candidate. Allen is surrounded by fellow first-round prospects. The two levels behind him are fronted by LB Reuben Foster (94 tackles, 12 TFL) and DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (56 tackles, five interceptions).


To beat the Tide, Browning is going to have to be pretty close to flawless and Petersen’s game plan will have to be fearless. Tiptoeing between the polarities of efficiency and aggressiveness is a treacherous line to walk, but Nick Saban’s bunch doesn’t afford you any other option.


While at Boise State, Petersen stunned Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and then upset both Oregon (2009) and Virginia Tech (2010) in the regular season. A win here would be shocking, but not more so than those victories were at the time. If there’s a coach you want in this spot, it’s Petersen.


We see a back-and-forth game going down the wire. You get the sense that Alabama fancies itself unbeatable. If Washington can relieve the Tide of that allusion in the first half, Browning and Ross will be in a position to engineer the biggest upset in the Playoff’s short history late.


Fiesta Bowl

University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

No. 3 Ohio State (-2.5) vs. No. 2 Clemson


Straight Up:  
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 

Analysis:

If Clemson is to upset Ohio State, they’ll need to reliably move the ball through the air against one of the nation’s best secondaries. This is QB Deshaun Watson’s money game, in other words, and HC Dabo Swinney and crew will roll the dice on the proposition that their program face levels-up in a return to the Playoff.


Nitpicking of NFL evaluators notwithstanding, Watson was just as good this year (67.6-percent completions, 37/15 TD/INT rate) as he was last (67.8-percent completions, 35/13 TD/INT rate). Watson dominated Oklahoma in last year’s lopsided semifinal upset win and then lit up Alabama for 478 total yards and four touchdowns in the narrow title game loss. If he plays like that again, Clemson hoists the trophy.


Watson’s favorite target is future first-rounder Mike Williams (84 catches for 1,171 yards and 10 TDs). Clemson boasts a strong No. 2 in Artavis Scott (71 catches for 592 yards) and a sensational move TE in the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jordan Leggett (38 catches for 627 yards and seven touchdowns). Ohio State has more to worry about than them because Watson isn’t one to lock onto his primary options. Six of Watson’s receivers have at least 27 catches.


The Buckeyes counter with the country’s No. 1 pass efficiency defense (91.43 QB rating against). First-round prospect sophomore safety Malik Hooker (six interceptions, 10 passes defended) is joined by the premier CB duo of Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Both Lattimore and Conley also may be ticketed for Rd. 1.


The Buckeyes rank No. 3 in the FBS in scoring defense (14.2 points per game allowed) and No. 4 in total defense at 282.3 yards allowed per game. They are tied for No. 10 with 25 takeaways, and are No. 2 in the Power 5 with 19 interceptions. Ohio State stands a great chance of winning if it can goad Watson into multiple turnovers.


LB Raekwon McMillan represents Ohio State’s best chance of clamping down on Watson’s perimeter improvisation act. McMillan will also be instrumental in defending underrated Clemson RB Wayne Gallman. The Buckeyes allow only 3.3 yards per carry and 118 rushing yards per contest.


Clemson is No. 9 in total defense at 313.9 yards allowed per game. S&P+ calls the unit the No. 6 overall defense. Clemson LB Ben Boulware will be counted on to keep Ohio State junior quarterback J.T. Barrett contained.


Barrett (2,428 passing yards for a 24/5 TD/INT rate and 70.6 rushing yards per game) finished the regular season only No. 42 in passing efficiency. Though 26-3 as a starter, Barrett remains something of an enigma. The lack of big play explosion in his or RB Mike Weber’s games has rendered this offense boringly efficient.


Clemson isn’t a good matchup for Barrett, as the Tigers have held opponents to 188.2 passing yards per game and come replete with one of the nation’s nastiest defensive lines. Ohio State often turns to all-purpose weapon Curtis Samuel (58.7 rushing yards per game on 7.7 yards per carry and 68.5 receiving yards per game) to manufacture first downs.


If there’s one promising sign for the Buckeyes, it’s that they rank No. 5 with an average time of possession of 33:55 minutes. Barrett and his offense aren’t a truculent group, but they know what they do well and don’t make many mistakes. Clemson can take the ball away—No. 20 in the FBS with 24 takeaways—but its defense is less predicated on explosive plays than it is on controlling the line of scrimmage.


Clemson defensive linemen Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, and Dexter Lawrence, the ACC defensive rookie of the year, are all ultra-agile 300-plus pounders. They combined for 32 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback pressures.


But Clemson’s defense is more than just a three-man show. Clemson’s 46 sacks ranked No. 2 in the nation (one behind Florida State) and its 112 tackles for loss tied for No. 3. If you’re the type who likes to focus on the trenches, Ohio State Rimington Award winner (nation’s top center) Pat Elflein against Clemson’s elephantine front is must-see TV.


Elflein doesn’t have much of a choice but to play flawless football here. Though Ohio State led the Big 10 with 42.7 points per game and total offense with 479.5 yards per game, good defensive lines discombobulated Ohio State’s delicate offensive line this fall.


Penn State upset the Buckeyes behind six sacks and 11 TFL and Michigan almost did the same behind eight sacks and 13 TFL. If Ohio State is stampeded by Clemson’s superb front line, the Buckeyes will lose by double digits. The Tigers allowed only 125.8 rushing yards per game this fall. One wonders what the ground-based Buckeyes will do if Clemson is able to erase its rushing game.


One guess is that Ohio State would lean heavily on move-TE Marcus Baugh as Alabama leaned on O.J. Howard against the Tigers in last year’s title game. We remain concerned about Clemson’s ability to deal with big athletes in the intermediate game, but at least the Tigers’ coaching staff has had one calendar year to stew over Howard’s role in stealing the 2016 championship out from under them.


The victorious party will get the winner of Alabama and Washington on January 9 in Tampa Bay for the national championship. The Tigers were our preseason No. 1 team. We’ll stick with them as our championship pick.

****

2016 Record: Straight-Up: 106-58 (64.6%); Against the Spread: 91-68-5 (57.2%)

 

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!