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Weekly Picks

New Year's Day predictions

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

Outback Bowl

Auburn (-6.5) vs. Wisconsin

 

Straight Up:

 

 
 

Auburn Tigers logo

 

Against the Spread:


 

 
 
Auburn Tigers logo

 
 

 
 

 

Analysis: I would have been excited to fade wilting Wisconsin in the postseason regardless of the opponent they drew, but this matchup in particular electrified that degenerate impulse.

 

The Badgers are in a state of tumult. While the embarrassing 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game remains fresh in the minds of fans and bettors, don’t mentally file it as a one-weekend no-show fluke due to the salaciousness of the ugly final score. Signs of a rough post-season were explicit weeks before, and they’ve only grown clearer since. In the two games prior to the Ohio State slaughter, Wisconsin should have lost to 7-5 Iowa, and then struggled mightily to put away Minnesota in Madison when the Gophers’ only source of offense, RB David Cobb, limped through the game on a bum hamstring.

 

The post-Ohio State hangover was perhaps just as ugly as the game itself: HC Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, RB Melvin Gordon announced he will opt into the draft, and AD Barry Alvarez told the media that the team’s seniors coaxed him into returning to the sidelines to coach this game, as he did in the 2013 Rose Bowl after Bret Bielema relocated to Arkansas.

 

The Buckeyes’ defense exposed Wisconsin as the one-man show it’s been all season. The Badgers panic when they lose control of the line of scrimmage and Gordon can’t discern creases through which a swift acceleration will find him in the defense’s third level. Wisconsin cannot throw the ball (seriously: they rank No. 118 in the FBS in passing yards per game). Stack the box, obscure Gordon’s glimpses of daylight, and you’ve pinned an amputee’s arm against his body; there is no Plan B here. That scenario also puts a decent-but-not-great defense in a horrible spot, asking it, as it does, to consistently defend compact fields. Wisconsin ranks No. 16 in the country in scoring defense (20 points per game), but decent offenses score on them, even when Gordon is effectively bleeding the clock: Against the five best teams it played this year—LSU, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State—the Badgers didn’t give up less than 24 points once, surrendering 159 points total (31.8 points per game).

 

In summation: The regressing defense loses its teeth when placed in non-ideal circumstances, the one-dimensional offense’s best player would prefer to avoid a Todd Gurley-like injury in his last collegiate game, the coach abandoned his players to accept an inferior job, and his replacement is the man blamed in some circles for Wisconsin’s inability to retain coaches.

 

Bettors backing the Badgers can rest easy in the knowledge that Auburn won’t be able to control the line of scrimmage defensively. The Tigers will no doubt stack the box consistently with eight defenders, but it doesn’t have Ohio State’s talent in the front seven. Fortunately, Auburn’s security weakness, its 80th-ranked pass defense, won’t be tested much by Joel Stave. The terrible secondary allowed each of Auburn’s conference opponents since October 11 to score 30 or more points. Auburn’s run defense is far stouter, ranking No. 45 in the country. Gus Malzahn fired DC Ellis Johnson after the season and hired ex-Florida HC Will Muschamp, and defenders will no doubt view Thursday's game as a 2015 audition for their new high-profile defensive leader.

 

 

Intriguing NFL prospect WR Duke Williams will miss this game due to suspension, which is a slight cause for concern. The Tigers' offense stagnated earlier this year when Williams was hurt and it was forced to promote one-trick-pony-deep-threat Sammie Coates to WR1. Malzahn and company shouldn’t have problems moving the ball in this one, however: The Badgers couldn’t stop Ohio State from picking up chunk yardage on the ground at will. Expect QB Nick Marshall and RB Cameron Artis-Payne to each have huge games.

           

           

 

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Baylor (-2.5) vs. Michigan State

 

Straight Up:

 

 
 

Baylor Bears logo
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 
 
 
 
Baylor Bears logo

 
 

 

Analysis: This game has been billed as Elite Offense vs. Elite Defense, with the implication being that Baylor can’t play defense and Michigan State plods forward offensively. That narrative confuses reality: Michigan State’s defense isn’t as good as conventional wisdom claims, but the Spartan’s offense is far stronger than analysts lead on. Baylor’s offense, meanwhile, is just as strong as advertised, but it’s defense isn’t the swinging gate popular logic dictates.

 

Let’s start with Michigan State. The defensive numbers are impressive, and seemingly make the Spartans a matchup nightmare for the pass-happy Bears: MSU ranks No. 6 in the FBS in total defense, No. 4 in rush defense, and gives up only 19.9 points per game (No. 14 in the country) and 6.1 yards per passing attempt (No. 7). I’m not sold. Michigan State was pounded in its two biggest games of the year, and much of the blame for that belongs with the defense. They were thrashed against Oregon, perhaps the most similar team in the country to Baylor. Toss out the non-conference sacrificial lambs (Jacksonville St., Wyoming, EMU) and the plodding Big 10 offenses (Penn State, Michigan, etc.), and focus on the three quality offenses MSU faced. Across from Oregon, Nebraska, and Ohio State, Sparty went 1-2 and coughed up 39 points per game. Purdue hung 31 on this “stellar” defense. Nebraska was the best team Michigan State beat this season, and the Spartans very nearly choked that game away. The second-best win of MSU’s season? Um... Penn State? Rutgers?

 

Baylor puts up 48.8 points per game (No. 1 in the FBS). QB Bryce Petty and his receiving corps will be healthier than they’ve been all season. Baylor struggles with teams that press their receivers, including Texas and West Virginia, which is about all Michigan State’s defense has going for it in terms of matchups. Baylor ranks No. 5 in the FBS in passing, and No. 23 in rushing.

 

Baylor’s defense is very strong against the run (108 YPG allowed) -- which is bad news for breakout MSU senior RB Keith Langford -- but poor against the pass, and specifically the deep ball, which could lead to big games for MSU QB Connor Cook and WR Tony Lippett. The Bears rank No. 6 in the country in rushing yards surrendered (1,099) and No. 5 in yards gained after contact on a rushing play (3.0). The defensive line, led by potential 2016 top-10 pick Shawn Oakman and fellow All-Big 12 first-teamer sophomore DT Andrew Billings, is very strong, and Bears’ ILB Bryce Hager is an underrated pro prospect. Hager is a savvy and tough garbage cleaner in the middle who dissects quickly and gets to the ball faster than most thanks more to his brains than his feet.

 

Lippett has been moonlighting as a CB over the past month, which I take as more a lack of faith by HC Mark Dantonio in his secondary depth than the coach's stated reason of improving Lippett’s draft stock. Baylor receivers are going to provide Lippett with a steep learning curve in defensive technique.

 

The Spartans have the No. 7 offense in the nation, scoring 43.1 points per game. It is this unit that must excel for MSU to win. The 24th-ranked rushing attack might struggle with Baylor’s front seven, putting pressure on Cook to exceed the team’s average of 261.6 passing yards per game.

 

The Bears outgained the six bowl opponents they faced by 134 yards per game, while MSU was plus-116 against their own six bowl opponents. These are quality teams which have consistently cashed winning tickets for bettors: MSU finished 8-4 ATS in the regular season, while Baylor went 7-4-1.

 

I don’t think the Spartans defense is good enough to slow down Baylor’s offense, and I don’t trust Cook to put forth the Heisman-caliber performance he’ll need to match the Bears score-for-score. TCU made the playoff committee look silly on Wednesday. Baylor will do so again on Thursday.

 

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl

Missouri (-5) vs. Minnesota         

           

 

Straight Up:

 

 
 
 
Minnesota Golden Gophers logo

 

Against the Spread:


 

 
 
 
 
Minnesota Golden Gophers logo

 
 

 

Analysis: The Gophers are one of the nation’s best-coached teams—Jerry Kill would have been the consensus national coach of the year were it not for the stunning resurrection his good friend Gary Patterson pulled at TCU—and promise to bring complete effort and a throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-‘em attitude to Florida after having been shut out of January bowls since the 1962 Rose Bowl. Plus, have you ever been to Minnesota in January? Gopher fans have made a winter exodus into the sunshine to support their long-suffering program. Kill told reporters on Wednesday that the locals were so jacked about Florida’s weather that he had seen them “swimming yesterday when it was raining.” Expect Minnesota to enjoy an edge in the crowd.

 

We have some huge statistical matchups in play that probably end up canceling themselves out—Missouri’s No. 5 red zone offense against Minnesota’s No. 112 red zone defense, for instance, or Missouri’s No. 111 rank in penalty yards (61.5 per game) against Minnesota’s don’t-beat-yourself approach (47 penalty yards per game)—so, in this matchup, my upset prediction was derived from a study of the bigger picture.

 

Minnesota will control the clock and neutralize stud Missouri DEs Shane Ray and Markus Golden behind Rotoworld favorite RB David Cobb (1,548 yards). Ray might have cried a silent tear when this matchup was announced. The Gophers are indifferent towards the forward pass, ranking No. 124 in the country with 131 aerial yards per game. It’s possible Ray will be stuck at 12.5 sacks heading into the draft process.

 

The Gophers were only beaten soundly once this season, and it came against TCU’s elite offense. Missouri’s offense, averaging merely 362 yards per game, isn’t nearly good enough to crib off the Horned Frogs’ homework. I see the Gophers grinding out a narrow upset victory.

 

 

 

 

Rose Bowl: College Football Playoff Semifinal

Oregon (-9.5) vs. Florida State 

 

 

Straight Up:

 

 
 
 
Oregon Ducks logo

 

Against the Spread:


 

 
 
Florida St. Seminoles logo

 
 

 
 

 

Analysis: This is the kind of game in which the prediction says more about the handicapper then it does about the matchup.

 

How do you view Oregon, dear reader? As an offensive juggernaut incapable of being stopped? As a very good team with a few notable flaws—including an offensive line that has been up and down—that will get exploited by a more talented squad? Is Heisman-winning QB Marcus Mariota the best collegiate quarterback we’ve seen in the past few years? Or a good-but-not prospect whose less-than-elite throwing mechanics guarantee he’ll be overdrafted in the fall? Can he finally be schemed into having a nightmare game? Where do you fall on these questions?

 

How do you perceive Florida State? As the defending National Champions who haven’t been this big an underdog since 2009 and have no business being installed as a 9.5-point 'dog against anyone? Or as a team that only remained undefeated because of a soft schedule, a team that might have lost three or four games had it played in the SEC? Should FSU be the playoff favorite, or should it even have been granted a playoff berth in the first place over Baylor or TCU? Do you see a dynasty that has won 29 straight games and has saved its “A” game for the inaugural playoffs? Or do you see an overrated outfit without this hypothetical pocketed “A” game analysts keep speaking of? Do you look at the 2-7 ATS record against bowl teams and think FSU can’t possibly repeat its David Blaine escape act against an elite opponent? Do you think the Seminoles leave the field laughing at the naiveté of their detractors, or are they about to get put in their place at long last and stomped?

 

What type of handicapper are you?

 

I’m on the Seminoles.

 

Oregon can’t blow out Florida State unless QB Jameis Winston implodes. The Seminoles simply have too much talent; far more future NFL players reside on FSU’s roster than Oregon’s. And there’s certainly a chance that Winston does: He has thrown 15 interceptions on passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield, the most of any Power 5 quarterback. Oregon has forced 25 turnovers (and lost eight, the fewest in the country), while Winston himself threw 17 picks in 2014 and the Seminoles as a team gave away the ball 27 times. If that trend continues, this game will get out of hand quickly. Oregon’s defense isn’t great, but it matches up well with Winston, in that it should be able to apply pressure up the middle—one of his peccadilloes—and will aggressively jump routes when the former Heisman winner tries to force the ball into windows that don’t exist under duress.

 

All this talk of turnover problems divert attention from what could actually turn out to be a mismatch in Winston’s favor. Oregon’s defense is opportunistic, but is the ability to create turnovers a sustainable skill game-to-game? How sustainable? Because if Winston can avoid turnovers, he’s going to have an enormous game. The Ducks allow 259 passing yards per game, but that number spikes to 279 YPG when you only count road or neutral site contests. And Oregon’s secondary will be playing without (previously) projected first-rounder CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who suffered a devastating ACL injury in practice leading up to this game.

 

The 27-0 Winston ranks No. 14 in the country with 299 passing yards per game. I think he surpasses 325 in this game: Oregon will have serious personal issues when asked to locate defenders to mirror FSU WR Rashad Greene and TE Nick O’Leary. The Seminoles rank only 104th in the nation with 134 rushing yards per game, but that unit got much better in the final month-plus of the season when freshman RB Dalvin Cook emerged as a star. If FSU can stick with Oregon past halftime, the Seminoles should enjoy close-contest advantages such as more big-game experience and superior special teams play, led by potential Day 2 pick K Roberto Aguayo.

 

 

Mariota takes aim at an FSU defense that allowed 378 YPG this year. FSU’s defense was worse than it’s been in years, though it’s as talented as it's ever been, boasting future draft picks at every level and throughout the two-deep depth chart. Even if scheming issues have been fixed in the past month, it’ll be difficult for FSU to contain the Ducks, which rank No. 3 in points scored, No. 11 in passing yards, and No. 22 in rushing yards. Mariota has thrown only 12 career interceptions, and, at 1.1-percent, he’s tossed the fewest picks by percentage of any QB in NCAA history with a minimum of 1,050 attempts. Mariota might not have Winston’s Championship experience, but he takes care of the ball far better than his Heisman-winning counterpart.

 

Florida State as a team has more ammunition in the way of talent, and their battle-tested generals have been given plenty of preparation time to iron out strategic pratfalls that almost cost the program an opportunity to compete for another title. Oregon’s controlled-aggression guerilla tactics match up well against entitled troops that sometimes forget to click their Berettas into the "Safety" position and have racked up as many casualties to friendly fire as we’ve seen from an elite team in recent history. Oregon will be slowed by the waves of soldiers and sheer volume of artillery whizzing towards it on Thursday, but I think the Ducks pull this one out in the waning minutes.

 

Grab the points.

 

 

Sugar Bowl: College Football Playoff Semifinal

Alabama (-9.5) vs. Ohio State         

 

Straight Up:

 

 
 

Alabama Crimson Tide logo
 
 

Against the Spread:


 

 
 
Alabama Crimson Tide logo

 
 

 
 

 

Analysis: I slotted the Crimson Tide 39 out of 39 in our Bowl Confidence Pool Primer, published earlier this month. Because of that, you can probably tell where this analysis is going.

 

You’ve already read my probe of Wisconsin, so that should save us some space in discussing the context of Ohio State’s 59-0 romp in the Big Ten Championship Game. I’m simply not as impressed by that win as the public—and the playoff committee—was.

 

Alabama is the best team in the country, but it can be exploited. The Tide struggle to defend the deep middle of the field, so big-armed QB Cardale Jones and burner WR Devon Smith should be able to connect on a few huge gains. Alabama surrenders 223 passing yards per game, and was gouged for 365 against West Virginia and 456 by Auburn. If Ohio State is smart, its offensive game plan will be wildly aggressive, like an underdog brawler fighting a technical MMA maestro who is asked to stand in the center of the ring and throw haymakers until one man is on the canvas. This is Ohio State’s one chance to win. Hopefully OC Tom Herman, who was hired as Houston’s HC but will remain on the staff until Ohio State’s season concludes, caught enough game film in between his Texas courtship to realize this.

 

An RB Ezekiel Elliott-centric strategy simply won’t work against Alabama’s vicious front seven, which holds opponents to 88 rushing yards per game. The Buckeyes must also win the turnover battle, a distinct possibility against the Crimson Tide, which shockingly finished -1 in turnover margin this season. An OSU defensive line led by Joey Bosa (13.5 sacks) could pressure QB Blake Sims into throwing balls up for grabs into a secondary that picked off 21 passes this year. But, let’s be real: Ohio State has no defensive back prospect up to the task of controlling all-world WR Amari Cooper. A Buckeyes’ defense that was lit up earlier this season by running backs David Cobb and Tevin Coleman might not have to face RB T.J. Yeldon, who is nursing a sprained ankle and will be a game-time decision. Even if he doesn’t play (Yeldon says he will), Derrick Henry will move the chains consistently.

 

If you trust Jones, a toolsy prospect who nonetheless was No. 3 on the depth chart prior to Braxton Miller's injury, to play as well against Alabama’s defense as he did Wisconsin’s, you should probably take the points. But the matchup of HC Nick Saban, DC Kirby Smart, and a defense packed with NFL talent against a signal-caller with one career start is lopsided, at best, and unfair, at worst. As I’ve mentioned previously, I would have ranked Ohio State No. 6 in the final Playoff standings, behind Baylor and TCU. I don’t think they belong on this field, and I expect them to be expelled from it by at least two touchdowns on Thursday night.

 

 

Regular Season Record: Straight-Up: 98-53 (64.9%); Against the Spread: 82-68-1 (54.7%)


Bowl Record: Straight-Up: 15-9 (62.5%); Against the Spread: 14-10 (58.3%)

 

*Note: Record doesn't include bowl games played on Wednesday.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’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!