Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

Despite Troy Calhoun's best efforts to ruin my weekend, we managed to close the regular season on a positive note. We've done well in bowl games the past few seasons, so we'll try to keep that up. The bowls are listed in chronological order. The first pick is from December 21st and the last is from January 4th. I hope you make enough money to pay off your bloated holiday credit card bills. As always, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 52-44-2

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State +3.5 Washington
The surprising retirement of Chris Petersen at Washington pretty much demanded these two teams be matched up in the postseason. Petersen, as you probably know, guided Boise to lofty heights during his eight-year tenure in 'The Gem State’. The Broncos finished with unblemished regular season records three times and wound up in the top-ten of the final poll four times during his eight year run. Bryan Harsin has helped the the Broncos maintain their standing as one of the best mid-major programs in the nation, and while they have not reached the same pinnacle as they did under Petersen, the two coaches have remarkably similar resumes when we look at how the Broncos did under Petersen without Kellen Moore at quarterback.
This is no knock on Petersen, who won two Pac-12 titles at Washington, but I don’t think Harsin often gets the credit he deserves for upholding Boise State’s place in the college football zeitgeist after Petersen departed. But I digress. So what can we expect from this incarnation of the Las Vegas Bowl? Probably Washington struggling to score points. Outside of a turnover-aided 51 point outburst at Arizona, the Huskies averaged just under 23 points per game in Pac-12 play and just over fifteen points per game on the road. Quarterback Jacob Eason’s numbers look good on the surface (nearly eight yards per throw and 22 touchdown passes), but he averaged over ten yards per pass and threw ten touchdowns in their three non-conference games against Eastern Washington, Hawaii, and BYU. His numbers were more pedestrian against Pac-12 opponents. The Washington defense remained stout, keeping the Huskies in pretty much every game this season. They ranked third in the conference (behind the two conference title game participants) in yards allowed per play. That defense will need to be on point against a Boise State team that dealt with quarterback injuries and still finished with one of the best offenses in the Mountain West. In fact, had the Broncos gone to Jaylon Henderson when Hank Brockmire Backmeier was out with an injury against BYU, the Broncos may have finished the regular season without a loss. Henderson has been the starting quarterback the past four games, and the Broncos have averaged 40 points per game in that span. Boise State has a solid track record against Power Five opponents under Harsin, going 7-5 straight up. The Broncos are a middling 6-6 ATS against Power Five opponents, but are 4-2 ATS as an underdog. Harsin also has a solid track record in bowl games, posting a 3-1 mark at Boise State, including two outright wins as an underdog (to Pac-12 teams no less). The Broncos may be disappointed they missed out on a New Year’s Six bowl, but they should relish the opportunity to get a shot at a regional Power Five opponent. If any team is disappointed by being in this game, it is probably Washington. The Huskies began the season in the top-fifteen and come in having played in three consecutive New Year’s Six games. They will probably want to send Petersen off a winner, but that might be easier said than done. Take the Broncos and the points. Before we move on, if you are wary of this game because the Broncos, as a ranked team, are an underdog to an unranked team, do not fret. I looked into it, and since 2005, ranked teams that are underdogs to unranked teams in bowl games are 5-8 straight up and 7-6 ATS. Those are hardly numbers that will move me off a side I like. See table for specifics.

Gasparilla Bowl @ Tampa, Florida
Marshall +17.5 UCF
Like a lot of bowl games this postseason (and in postseason’s past), this is a renewal of old acquaintances. The Thundering Herd and Knights were both members of the MAC from 2002-2004 and then Conference USA from 2005-2012. The two teams played for eleven consecutive years, with the Herd winning all three of the games as members of the MAC and the Knights winning all eight as members of Conference USA. The Knights got the call up to what amounts to Quadruple A in 2013, when they joined the American Athletic Conference. Since joining the AAC, UCF has played in three prestigious bowl games, getting a grandfathered Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2013 and finishing unbeaten the past two regular seasons to nab a Peach and another Fiesta Bowl bid respectively. UCF is one of only eight mid-major programs to appear in a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl since 1998. I wanted to see how those other mid-major programs performed when they appeared in less prestigious bowl games the following season. Those results are summarized in the following table.
First off, some clarification. UCF was technically in a BCS conference in 2013, just like you can technically be pulled over for driving one mile per hour over the posted speed limit. Also, I did not include Western Michigan in the analysis as they were bowl eligible in the season after they played in the Cotton Bowl, but were not extended an invitation to a bowl game. For what its worth, they lost and failed to cover in their next bowl game against BYU. Obviously, we are working with a small sample size here, but motivation could be a factor when teams coming off major bowl appearances have to settle for a less prestigious bowl game the next season. The eleven teams have a losing ATS record (4-7) and have lost outright three times as a favorite. UCF is in an especially unique position, having played in two consecutive major bowl games against SEC opponents. There is a real possibility they overlook Marshall. In addition to potentially taking Marshall lightly, this spread just seems really high. I like to use the Simple Rating System at College Football Reference as a starting point when handicapping games. Based on the SRS scores for both teams, this spread should be about ten points on a neutral field. Even applying a small homefield advantage for UCF playing in their home state, this number would still be south of two touchdowns. Finally, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday has a track record of bowl game success. In his previous six bowl appearances at Marshall, his teams are 6-0 straight up and ATS with two outright victories as an underdog. I wouldn’t read too much into Josh Heupel’s bowl debut against the current top-ranked team, but Holliday is a more proven commodity on the bowl circuit. I think UCF is a very good team that was a little unfortunate to not win their third straight AAC title. Full disclosure, when I head to Vegas next summer, I will be looking for some UCF AAC futures and potentially looking to play their win total ‘over’. I also expect them to win this game. UCF has more talent, a better record, and plays in a better conference. However, this spread is just too high. A three touchdown fourth quarter lead would not be safe from the dreaded backdoor cover. Maybe UCF plays up the disrespect angle that has aggravated the larger college football universe for the past three seasons and crushes Marshall, but I think there will be some disinterest on the UCF sideline and I know what I’m getting with Doc Holliday. If Marshall gets blown out and fails to cover, I’ll happily be your huckleberry.

Camping World Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Iowa State +3.5 Notre Dame
You know Matt Campbell has brought the Iowa State program a long way when a seven win regular season is seen as a disappointment. However, when viewed through the prism of the point spread, the 7-5 record is somewhat disappointing. The Cyclones were underdogs in just two games all season! They managed to cover both of those games against the Hawkeyes and Sooners, but lost by a point in each. Overall, their five losses came by a combined 21 points with four coming by a touchdown or less. A historic season was within reach, but the Cyclones will have to settle for a third consecutive bowl game and a chance to knock off a marquee program in Notre Dame. The Irish lost the two games they were expected to lose (to Georgia and Michigan), but won the other ten against varying degrees of competition. After a stirring comeback against Virginia Tech, the Irish cruised to the finish, winning their final four games by an average of 29 points. Despite the blowout nature of those final four wins, one can quibble with the strength of that quartet of victims. Duke and Stanford both finished with losing records, Boston College barely qualified for a bowl game, and Notre Dame is much more talented than Navy. Despite the strong close to the season, the Irish were not selected to participate in a New Year’s Six bowl. Considering they qualified for the College Football Playoff last season, the Cyclones may not have their undivided attention in the Camping World Bowl. The Irish have also parted ways with their offensive coordinator since the end of the regular season, so that side of the ball may not be in peak form. Iowa State is an amazing 18-8-1 ATS as an underdog under Matt Campbell, so they are no stranger to playing teams with more talent and better pedigree. Both previous bowl appearances under Campbell have been close games with the Cyclones covering both games as an underdog and winning one outright. I expect a similar result in this spot with the hook giving you even more reason to back Iowa State.

First Responder Bowl @ Dallas, Texas
Western Kentucky -3.5 Western Michigan
The Tyson Helton era at Western Kentucky began rather inauspiciously. The Hilltoppers lost outright against an FCS team and seemed destined to follow up their 3-9 2018 season with another losing campaign. But the Hilltoppers rallied, winning eight of their last eleven games, including a road thrashing of an SEC team. That thrashing earned Chad Morris his official walking papers (not that he wouldn’t have been fired even if the Hogs had won) and was doubly sweet as it was co-authored by a former Arkansas quarterback who apparently was not good enough to play for Morris. Despite the offensive outburst against the Hogs (the Hilltoppers scored a season high 45 points in the game), Western Kentucky was an old-school defense-first team in 2019. The Hilltoppers finished second in yards allowed per play in Conference USA, holding league foes below five yards per snap. After allowing over seven yards per play in their opener to Central Arkansas, only three other opponents eclipsed six yards per play against the Hilltoppers, and two of them were Power Five teams (Louisville and Arkansas). The Hilltoppers will be looking for their third nine win season in the past five years against a Western Michigan team that may still be reeling from their season finale. With a 5-2 conference record, and the tiebreaker over their fellow directional Michigan conference rival, the Broncos needed to win at struggling Northern Illinois to secure a spot in the MAC Championship Game. The Broncos were up to the challenge, notching their fewest points scored on the season (14) in an upset loss that handed the division to the Chippewas. Despite owning prohibitive victories over both MAC Championship Game participants, the Broncos were forced to watch the Redhawks upset the Chippewas in Detroit and claim the glory that comes with winning a MAC title. Statistically, Western Michigan was a middling MAC team, posting a yards per play margin that ranked eighth (of twelve teams) in the conference. Couple that with the fact that MAC teams have done quite poorly in bowl games both straight up and ATS in recent years (see table below) and a spread that is just north of a field goal makes Western Kentucky an easy play.

Birmingham Bowl @ wait for it... Birmingham, Alabama
Boston College +7 Cincinnati
Despite a six bowl appearances in seven seasons, the Steve Addazio era is over at Boston College. Don't weep for him though. He has already landed on his feet at Colorado State. Former Eagle Rich Gunnell will lead them in their bowl game. Gunnell played for the Eagles when they made back-to-back ACC Championship Games in 2007 and 2008, so the team should rally around an interim coach just a decade removed from playing for the team. Despite getting fired, this may have been one of Addazio's best coaching jobs. After losing starting quarterback Anthony Brown to injury halfway through the season, the Eagles leaned even more into their old-school ground based attack, averaging 56 carries per game over the final six games of the season. Over the course of the 2019 season, the Eagles ran the ball more than every FBS team save the three service academies. The run heavy attack was also very explosive. Outside of games against elite teams (Clemson and Notre Dame), the Eagles averaged nearly 36 points per game and over five yards per carry. Of course, with an offense that good, it obviously begs the question: Why did the team finish 6-6? That can be explained by the play of the defense. The Eagles finished dead last in the ACC in yards allowed per play, permitting over six and a half yards every time their conference opponents snapped the ball. Normally, teams with a defense that bad are hard to back, but I believe the Eagles have a favorable matchup with Cincinnati. The Bearcats nearly ran the table in the AAC despite finishing with an even yards per play margin. The Bearcats are probably not as good as their lofty record. There are also a couple of trends that point to fading Cincinnati. Had Cincinnati beaten Memphis in the AAC Championship Game last week, they may have qualified for a New Year's Six bowl as the top-ranked Group of Five team (in the discussion with a one-loss Boise State). In the short history of the College Football Playoff, there have been three instances of an AAC team losing in the conference title game while being in position to grab the New Year's Six bid had they won (Temple in 2015, Navy in 2016, and Memphis in 2017). All three of those teams lost their bowl games, with Temple and Memphis losing outright as favorites. As always, we are dealing with a small sample, but the Bearcats may not be as motivated to beat a middling ACC team in Birmingham as they would a good Big 10 team in the Cotton Bowl. Finally, as I noted last season, Group of Five teams are not a good bet when laying points against Power Five teams in the postseason. Since 2005, mid-majors (and I do not use the term in the pejorative sense) are just 11-17-1 ATS when favored against major conference teams. Take the Eagles to keep this one close.

Gator Bowl @ Jacksonville, Florida
Tennessee -2 Indiana
After a three-year hiatus, the Hoosiers and Volunteers managed to return to the postseason in 2019. Both teams did most of their heavy lifting against non-bowl teams. Tennessee faced eight bowl teams on the season and managed just a 3-5 record against that octet, beating Kentucky, Mississippi State, and UAB. While each of their five losses came against a postseason participant, two of those also came to Group of Five teams (BYU and Georgia State). However, Indiana fared even worse against bowl teams, finishing 0-4 in such games. Despite playing in a Power Five conference that features nine conference games, the Hoosiers managed to avoid playing any quality teams outside their own division. The Hoosiers fortuitous schedule saw them avoid facing Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin in their cross-division games. Instead they were treated to clashes against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Purdue. Couple that with a non-conference schedule that included an FCS team, a MAC team, and a Connecticut squad doing their best impression of an FCS team and Indiana managed to beat no one of note during the regular season. If you do some basic math, you can figure out Indiana and Tennessee went a combined 12-0 against teams that are not playing in bowl games. While both teams beat up on the soft underbelly of their respective conferences, Tennessee also managed to put up solid per play numbers. They outgained SEC opponents by nearly seven tenths of a yard per play. Those are not numbers befitting a national title contender (LSU outgained SEC opponents by over two and a half yards per play), but they are solid. And, I will note this includes all eight of their conference games. The losses to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia are included in there. Meanwhile, Indiana was actually outgained on a per play basis in the Big 10. The Hoosiers were underwater by about a tenth of a yard per play and this was despite getting to play Rutgers! If you follow college football, I shouldn’t have to tell you that Tennessee recruits at a higher level than Indiana. While the Volunteers have been an average recruiter by SEC standards (which is still great nationally) over the past few seasons, Indiana has been near the bottom of the Big 10 in recruiting. The Volunteers are more talented, have faced a tougher schedule, and have a track record of pounding Big 10 teams in Florida in recent years. Meanwhile, Indiana has not won a bowl game since 1991. Bowl bids and eight win seasons don’t come around that often for Indiana, so the Hoosiers should be motivated for this game, but don’t forget Tennessee is no longer the annual postseason participant they once were. The Volunteers are coming off consecutive losing seasons and want to show signs of progress as they close the second year of the Jeremy Pruitt era. You’re getting the Volunteers at a discount in this spot. Take them to easily cover this number.

Armed Forces Bowl @ Fort Worth, Texas
Southern Miss +7 Tulane
The Golden Eagles and Green Wave were founding member of the football branch of Conference USA and played each other for 28 straight years between 1979 and 2006. These two would seem to be natural mid-major rivals as they likely dip into the same recruiting pool and are separated by just 115 miles or so. However, this tilt in the Armed Forces Bowl will be their first meeting since 2010. Historically, Southern Miss has dominated this rivalry, winning 23 of the thirty games, including the last six and 19 of the past 22. Tulane’s last victory in this series came way back in 2002 when future Buffalo Bills standout J.P. Losman was quarterbacking the team. Obviously, a lot has changed since these teams last met nearly a decade ago. Tulane is now a member of arguably the strongest Group of Five conference, the AAC while Southern Miss is still slumming in Conference USA. Tulane will be making consecutive bowl appearances for just the second time in school history while Southern Miss is appearing in their fourth bowl in five years (they were also bowl eligible last season, but were not invited). Both teams are led by coaches entering their fourth season who achieved success at the FCS level. Tulane marks the fourth stop for head coach Willie Fritz, who previously coached in Division II, the FCS, and lower level FBS (Sun Belt) ranks before getting the job in New Orleans. While it’s obvious the team has improved under Fritz, I expected more. His four teams have all failed to win more than six regular season games and his record in conference play is just 12-20. While the Green Wave technically tied for the AAC West division title last season, they were still outscored on the year and needed a last second two-point conversion to even qualify for a bowl game. This is not intended to bash Willie, I loved the hire and I love the option (the Green Wave have evolved from the option offense Fritz ran at Georgia Southern), but I just expected Tulane to win more. Perhaps my expectations were too high. For the Golden Eagles, Jay Hopson is also in his fourth season after having spent four successful seasons at Alcorn State. In my opinion, the Golden Eagles, like the Green Wave, have also been a little disappointing. While they have been bowl eligible each season under Hopson, they have also finished with five losses each year and have yet to even tie for a division title. This year was especially disappointing with the Eagles dropping their final two games of the year to hand the division title to UAB. Those two defeats could certainly take their toll on the psyche of the team, but with the Eagles missing out on a bowl last season despite six wins, I think they will be motivated to play in this game. I understand why Tulane is favored, but I have a hard time figuring out why the spread is seven points. Here are the teams Tulane has beaten this season along with their record and SRS rank.
The only bowl eligible team they beat was Florida International and by SRS, the best team they beat was Tulsa. For comparison’s sake, Southern Miss currently ranks 80th in the SRS which would represent Tulane’s third best win this season and best win away from New Orleans. The Green Wave have lost five of six and their offense has averaged less than five yards per play during their current three-game losing streak. Take Southern Miss to cover this number in the rivalry renewal.