Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We closed strong with another winning week. Let's see if we can put up a strong bowl season. As always, where applicable, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 49-45-4

Boca Raton Bowl @ Boca Raton, Florida
UAB -2 Northern Illinois
If you like sacks, tackles for loss, and long down and distance situations, this is the game for you. Northern Illinois ranks first nationally in sacks per game and UAB ranks fourth. In tackles for loss per game, UAB ranks fifth and Northern Illinois ranks sixth. Northern Illinois is led by the pass rushing duo of Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran who combined for 25 sacks on the season while UAB has more of a committee approach to generating pressure as sixteen players have tallied a sack with no player reaching double-digits. On the flip side, UAB has done a better job of protecting their quarterback and not getting tackled behind the line. The Blazers rank 47th in sacks allowed and 63rd in tackles for loss allowed. Northern Illinois on the other hand ranks 114th in sacks allowed and 88th in tackles for loss allowed. Those negative plays took their toll on Northern Illinois as the Huskies ranked tenth in the twelve team MAC in yards per play and averaged their fewest points per game since 2007. The last time Northern Illinois won the MAC (2014) they faced off against the Conference USA champion in this very bowl and did not acquit themselves very well. I expect more of the same here. Head coach Rod Carey is 0-5 in bowl games with four of the five losses coming by at least three touchdowns. Eventually, Carey will win a bowl game, but I don't like standing in front of streaks like this. Both these teams dominated their respective conferences defensively (first in yards allowed per play), but UAB has by far the more competent offense. Take the Blazers to easily get their first bowl win in school history.

Bahamas Bowl @ Nassau, Bahamas
Florida International +6 Toledo
This destination bowl game will take place in a much nicer climate than the last place these two met up. Eight years ago, Florida International won their first bowl game in school history against the Rockets in Detroit. The game had the decency to be played indoors, but I doubt the events and environment surrounding it were anywhere near as nice as they will be for this game. Toledo is favored by nearly a touchdown thanks to their strong close to the regular season. After a 3-4 start, the Rockets won four of their last five games to finish with at least seven wins for the ninth straight season. The Rockets were dominant in those four wins, emerging victorious by nearly 30 points per game. However, the MAC teams they beat in that span were mostly trash. Ball State, Central Michigan, and Kent State finished with a combined 7-29 record. The Rockets did best Western Michigan, but the Broncos lost their starting quarterback early in that game and were severely limited offensively. This strong close against less than stellar teams has Toledo a bit over-valued as they head to Nassau to face a Panthers team making consecutive bowl appearances under Butch Davis. After losing a great deal of production from last season's eight-win club, the Panthers were expected to take a step back. However, they were in contention for the Conference USA East division up until the final week of the regular season. Despite finishing with the same regular season record, these Panthers were much better on a per play basis. Last season, they were below average on both sides of the ball in conference play, but this season they had one of the best offenses in Conference USA (third in yards per play) and were average defensively (eighth in yards allowed per play). Both these teams beat up on the dregs of their respective conferences, but it seems Toledo is getting a lot more credit for doing so. This line should be closer to a field goal, so take the Panthers to keep this one close.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu, Hawaii
Louisiana Tech +1 Hawaii
For the first time since 2003, this game will not be played on Christmas Eve. So you will have to find some other excuse to avoid your family. Fortnite or Red Dead Redemption II is probably the way to go. This marks Hawaii's eight appearance in their eponymous bowl game. In the previous seven games, the Warriors are 4-3 straight up and 3-4 ATS. The Warriors have been favorites in five of those games, winning three of them. Keep that in mind should you feel compelled to bet on the Warriors because you believe they enjoy some sort of extra homefield advantage in this game as it appears they do not. Hawaii and Louisiana Tech used to meet annually as members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The Warriors dominated in those days, winning seven of nine meetings as conference opponents. However, since the WAC's implosion and the subsequent diaspora of its members, these two programs have gone in different directions. Hawaii is just 29-60 since leaving the WAC following the 2011 season while Louisiana Tech is 45-33 since the WAC's dissolution in 2012. In fact, regardless of the bowl result, 2018 will mark Hawaii's first winning season since 2010! However, despite their eight regular season wins, you can make a decent case that Hawaii is not very good. The Warriors have beaten exactly one team that will finish the 2018 season with a winning record and four of their eight wins have come by a touchdown or less. Meanwhile, four of their five losses have come by at least 18 points. In conference play, they were decent on offense, ranking fifth in the twelve team Mountain West in yards per play, but on defense, they ranked just tenth in yards allowed per play. Louisiana Tech has a profile that is entirely different. The Bulldogs struggled moving the football consistently, ranking eleventh in the fourteen-team Conference USA in yards per play, but also fielding the fourth best defense in yards allowed per play. In addition, most of Louisiana Tech's losses are excusable. The Bulldogs lost on the road to SEC teams LSU and Mississippi State as well as conference champ UAB and Southern Miss (the Eagles missed out on a bowl but did finish with a winning record). Their only questionable loss came in the season finale to Western Kentucky. Louisiana Tech has been great as an underdog against fellow Group of Five teams under Skip Holtz, posting a 10-2 ATS mark since 2014 in those games. Couple that with Hawaii's inability to cover as a home favorite (0-6-1 ATS under Nick Rolovich) and you have all the makings of a slight upset in the Hawaii Bowl.

First Responder Bowl @ Dallas, Texas
Boise State -3 Boston College
Motivation is always something to consider when handicapping a bowl game and it could certainly be an issue here. In Boise State's last game, a blocked extra point contributed to their overtime loss at home in the Mountain West Championship Game. Perhaps the Broncos are not interested in playing another game and would rather sulk into the offseason. However, if you look at the other circumstances surrounding college football, I don't think that is the case. Before that game kicked off, UCF had already finished another unbeaten regular season and were sure to be the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six. A Mountain West title would have been nice, but it would not have placed them in a major bowl. No, they would have most likely played in the Las Vegas Bowl with a victory. The same place they visited last bowl season. Plus this will be the final game for senior quarterback Brett Rypien. While Rypien's career has produced three-ten win seasons, it will probably be considered a bit disappointing since the Broncos won just a single Mountain West title and failed to reach the New Year's Six. Still, I would imagine he will be motivated to end his career with a strong performance. No, if you want to look at motivation, or lack thereof, take a gander at the other sideline. A month or so ago, Boston College was sitting at 7-2 with Gameday in town for a primetime matchup with ACC overlord Clemson. The Eagles were mostly non-competitive, especially on offense, and dropped that game. No worries there. Clemson ran roughshod over the ACC this year. However, the Eagles also dropped their next two against Florida State and Syracuse respectively. The trio of losses dropped the Eagles to 7-5 and turned the heat up on head coach Steve Addazio. I am always a little skittish of backing a Group of Five team against a Power Five team in a bowl game, particularly when the Group of Five team is favored. However, despite the face that Boston College is a Power Five team, the ACC outside of Clemson was a tire fire this season. In fact, Boston College's best win in 2018 may turn out to be their non-conference victory against Temple. If it isn't the Owls, then its their Friday night home win against Miami. Either way, Boston College beat up on a lot of trash in the ACC and still finished underwater in terms of yards per play (gained slightly fewer yards per play than they allowed). Boston College has never won more than seven games under Addazio and I don't see them eclipsing that run of mediocrity with a victory in this game. Two years ago, Boise State lost a bowl game against a Power Five team they were favored to beat. I think Bryan Harsin will remind them of that in the lead up to this game. Take the Broncos to win comfortably here.

Camping World Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Syracuse +1.5 West Virginia
This line opened with West Virginia laying about a touchdown, but dropped precipitously with the news that quarterback Will Grier will be sitting this one out as he prepares for the NFL draft. Can't blame him for not wanting to risk an injury. We're pro-labor here at Statistically Speaking. When the line was about seven, I wanted nothing to do with either team, but with Grier sitting out, I think the wrong team is favored. Motivation was always a potential issue in this game, with West Virginia eyeing a Big 12 title and outside shot at the CFB Playoff in mid-November. However, consecutive losses to the Oklahoma schools not only pushed them out of the playoff picture, but also kept them out of the revived Big 12 Championship Game altogether. Off two straight losses, with their starting quarterback sitting out, how motivated will the Mountaineers be to avenge their 2012 Pinstripe Bowl beating? Contrast that with a Syracuse team making their first bowl appearance in five years having an opportunity to win ten games and finish ranked for the first time in nearly two decades. Since pummeling Clemson in the Orange Bowl following the 2011 season, West Virginia is just 1-4 in their last five bowl games under Dana Holgorsen, with two of the losses coming in games West Virginia entered as a betting favorite (and their lone win in the span was by a single point). I am wary backing ACC teams, with the conference as a whole being pretty bad in 2018, but this line does not appear to have shifted enough. Take the Orange to cover and win outright.

Alamo Bowl @ San Antonio, Texas
Iowa State +3.5 Washington State
It's a shame the old incarnation of the Big 12 does not exist. If it did, Iowa State could well have been playing in their first Big 12 Championship Game this season (of course, Missouri might have thrown a wrench in those plans). The Cyclones finished 6-3 in conference play, their best mark since the league was formed. A win here would also see them finish ranked for the first time since 2000 and just the second time in the last forty years. Matt Campbell has done great work in Ames, and as of this writing he has not been pried away. The Cyclones were balanced this season, ranking fourth in the Big 12 in yards per play and second in yards allowed per play. They also continued their phenomenal work as a betting underdog in 2018, going 4-2 ATS with a pair of outright wins. Thus far in three seasons under Campbell, the Cyclones are 15-8-1 ATS as an underdog with seven outright upsets. They will look to continue that trend against a Washington State team that saw their season end in disappointing fashion for the sixth year in a row as they dropped the Apple Cup to Washington and saw their conference and longshot playoff hopes dissipate. Now the Cougars will attempt to regroup and avoid dropping their third straight bowl game. Overall, the Cougars are just 1-3 in bowl games under Mike Leach, with two of the losses coming in the favored role. Their normally prolific offense has put up just 49 combined points in their last three bowl games, topping out with 20 points in the Sun Bowl three seasons ago. The Cougars love to throw the ball, but Iowa State should be uniquely prepared to handle the Air Raid as they play nine games against other pass happy Big 12 spread teams each season. Couple that potential familiarity with Campbell's track record in the underdog role and Washington State's postseason struggles and you have the recipe for an Alamo Bowl upset.

Redbox Bowl @ Santa Clara, California
Michigan State +3 Oregon
The bowl formerly known as the San Francisco, Emerald, Fight Hunger, and Foster Farms Bowl has a new sponsor. Personally, I wish Redbox had sponsored the Camping World Bowl instead as it debuted under the moniker of the Blockbuster Bowl in 1990, but I digress. This Big 10/Pac-12 matchup will feature a distinct contrast in styles. Oregon wants to get out and run, ranking twelfth nationally in adjusted pace, while Michigan State is content to play at a more glacial speed, ranking 115th in the category. Befitting a squad that plays at a slow pace, Michigan State is a defense first team, ranking first in the Big 10 in yards allowed per play. Alas, the Spartans nearly wasted that defensive effort as they ranked second to last in yards per play, ahead of only Rutgers. Their offensive shortcomings are the main reason they did not contend in the rough and tumble Big 10 East. The Spartans finished a rather disappointing 7-5 and lost games where they allowed nine, sixteen, and twenty-one points. Perhaps more impressively, Michigan State has not allowed more than 30 points in any game since their opener against Utah State. Speaking of, Oregon did not win a single game in which they failed to score 30 points, going 0-3 when they failed to reach that narratively convenient number and 8-1 when they did. Oregon is not as imbalanced as Michigan State, as the Ducks were middle of the road in the Pac-12 in yards per play (sixth) and yards allowed per play (seventh). However, that balance also means they don't have a great strength either. Their season-long scoring numbers were relatively impressive, as the Ducks ranked 17th nationally in scoring offense at a little over 37 per contest. However, those numbers are buoyed by the nearly 52 points per game they averaged against three cupcakes in the non-conference. If we remove those three games and their Civil War battle against a defenseless Oregon State, their scoring average dips below 30. Oregon's recent history and flashy reputation along with their solid overall numbers have conspired to make them the betting favorite in this game despite the fact that Michigan State is probably the better team. The Spartans will attempt to make this game as aesthetically unpleasing as possible and grind out a win. Mark Dantonio got off to a rough start to his bowl career at Michigan State, losing his first four games. However, his teams have won five of six with the lone loss in the span coming in the 2015 CFB Playoff against Alabama. In fact, Dantonio has not lost a bowl game to a team not named Alabama since 2009! Take the Spartans to cover here and don't be too surprised when they win outright.

Those are the picks. I hope they win you a lot of money. I have a few thoughts on some of the other big bowl games. Read on for them.

Cotton Bowl @ Arlington, Texas
Clemson -11 Notre Dame
Clemson was obscenely dominant in ACC play this season (check back when we do the ACC YPP and APR offseason recaps to see just how dominant they were), but the ACC was pretty bad in 2018. When they stepped outside the ACC, they needed a late defensive stop to squeak by Texas A&M and then allowed 600 yards of offense at home to South Carolina. Keep this in mind before you lay your Christmas bonus on the Tigers to cover this large number. Perhaps this Notre Dame team will get run over like they did in 2012, but I'd advise you to stay away from this one.

Orange Bowl @ Miami, Florida
Alabama -14 Oklahoma
I don't have any betting advice on this game, but I will be watching for several things. First, how many non-garbage time punts can Oklahoma force in this game? The Sooners best bet to win or cover is probably some fortunate turnovers involving tipped passes or forced fumbles, but can the Sooners stop the Tide in a more conventional way? I really want to see how many times (if any) Alabama punts in this game while it is still competitive. The other thing I will be looking out for is how many points the Sooners score. Under Nick Saban, the most points Alabama has allowed is 45. In a nice coincidence that came to...Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl following the 2013 season (in another game where Alabama was heavily favored). Can these Sooners come close to matching that total?

Fiesta Bowl @ Glendale, Arizona
LSU -7.5 UCF
Can UCF continue their improbable win streak? How obnoxious will they be about claiming a national title if they do (especially if Oklahoma or Notre Dame wins the CFB Playoff)? If LSU loses, how hard will they lean into the 'not motivated' excuse?

Rose Bowl @ Pasadena, California
Ohio State -6.5 Washington
Despite their disappointment in not making the CFB Playoff, the Buckeyes will almost certainly play hard for Urban Meyer in his last game as a head coach (of the Buckeyes at least). Before you go preemptively putting your tax return money on Ohio State to win in a blowout, take a hard look at Washington. To me, the Huskies seem like a better version of Michigan State. Meyer's biggest Big 10 nemesis as coach of the Buckeyes was the Spartans. They beat him twice, preventing the Buckeyes from playing for a BCS and CFB title both times, and usually seemed to be able to ugly up the game (held the Buckeyes under 30 points five times in seven games). I wouldn't be surprised if Washington was able to do the same.

Sugar Bowl @ New Orleans, Louisiana
Georgia -11 Texas
How motivated will Georgia be fresh off blowing a two-touchdown lead in the SEC Championship Game? Can Tom Herman continue his spectacular ATS run as an underdog? And the question I most want answered, will we get any horns down gestures?