Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We definitely did not perform well enough to qualify for a bowl this season, but I did get pretty good grades in college so I guess we qualified based on APR. Anyway, here are seven bowl picks. Hopefully they can be a little better than the picks we made during the regular season.

Last Week: 1-2
Overall: 42-51-1

New Orleans Bowl @ New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana-Lafayette +2.5 Jacksonville State
Thanks to the general mediocrity in college football this season, Jacksonville State will be playing in their first bowl game in school history in their first season as an FBS program. The Gamecocks won eight games under Rich Rodriguez, but they did it in an unexpected way. The Gamecocks played fast, ranking ninth in the nation in plays per game (74), but they were not overly efficient. In league play, the Gamecocks ranked seventh of nine teams in Conference USA in yards per play, ahead of another FBS neophyte (Sam Houston State) and Florida International. The running game was strong (and high volume), but Gamecock quarterbacks combined to complete just over half their passes. Instead, the Gamecocks won with an aggressive, play-making defense. They allowed just over five yards per play in conference action (5.01), ranking first in Conference USA. They averaged three sacks per game (tenth nationally) and over seven tackles per loss per game (seventeenth nationally) while forcing 25 turnovers (third nationally). Can the Ragin' Cajuns do enough to protect their quarterback and avoid disastrous turnovers to win this game? Louisiana-Lafayette was mediocre in sacks allowed, ranking 57th nationally, but it would be a fool's errand to predict the turnover margin for an individual game (the Ragin' Cajuns were -3 in the regular season). The reason I am backing Louisiana-Lafayette is because of schedule strength and location. Louisiana-Lafayette did not face an arduous schedule, but Jacksonville State had a schedule tailor made for easing into FBS action. Including Jacksonville State, Conference USA had just four bowl eligible teams and the Gamecocks beat up on the dregs of the league in getting to eight victories. In non-conference play, they beat an FCS team (East Tennessee State) and a bad MAC team (Eastern Michigan) while losing to a mediocre Sun Belt team (Coastal Carolina) and losing to, but acquitting themselves well against a mediocre SEC team (South Carolina). Their best win is a three-point home victory against Western Kentucky. Their best road win is either Sam Houston State or Middle Tennessee State. Louisiana-Lafayette is better than both those teams and this game is practically on the road. Louisiana-Lafayette has played in the New Orleans Bowl on six previous occasions (all since 2011) and they are 5-1 straight up and 5-1 ATS in the game. I expect a spirited crowd to help lead the Ragin' Cajuns to an upset win. 

Boca Raton Bowl @ Boca Raton, Florida
South Florida +3 Syracuse
Often times, bowl results come down to motivation, and I think its easy to see which teams comes into this game with more motivation. After beginning the 2018 season 7-0, the bottom fell out of the South Florida program. The Bulls lost their final six games of 2018 (with each loss coming by double digits) and then proceeded to win just four FBS games between 2018 and 2022 (8-37 overall record). Expectations were not high heading into 2023 with new head coach Alex Golesh and you probably remember the Bulls for a game they did not even win back in September. South Florida hosted Alabama back in Week 3 and while the Bulls were never really a threat to win the game, they hung around and lost just 17-3. That game might give you the false impression that South Florida plays an old-school defensive first style with a limited offense. That could not be further from the truth. In AAC play, South Florida ranked fifth in yards per play as they put up more than thirty points in five of their eight conference games. However, the Bulls needed a win in their regular season finale to clinch a bowl bid because of their defense. They played well against a struggling (at the time) Alabama offense, but once league play started, they ranked dead last in the AAC in yards allowed per play. They allowed at least thirty points in five of their eight league games and finished about how you might expect a team that is very good on one side of the ball and very bad on the other (4-4 in the AAC). But this is their first bowl game in five years and the Bulls will be facing a team that is present in body, but absent in spirit. Syracuse began the season 4-0 against a less than arduous schedule, but once ACC play began, the Orange rotted. Syracuse lost their first five league games by nearly 25 points per game and while they rebounded to win two of their final three (against the dregs of the league), that skid and the general malaise surrounding the program cost Dino Babers his job. The Orange head to this bowl game (where they are laying points may I remind you) with units that ranked thirteenth and eleventh in the ACC in yards per play on offense and defense respectively. South Florida is bad on one side of the ball, but I expect them to be highly motivated, whereas Syracuse is bad on both sides of the ball and seems to be anxious to get this season over with. Take the Bulls to get the win in their home state. 

Camelia Bowl @ Montgomery, Alabama
Northern Illinois +1 Arkansas State
Both teams in this bowl game rebounded from rough starts. Arkansas State began the year by getting outscored 110-3 by Oklahoma and Memphis. At that point, the Red Wolves were 5-21 under head coach Butch Jones and appeared to be heading for a one or two win season. One quarterback change later and the Red Wolves won six of their final ten games to get back to a bowl for the first time since 2019 (when they also played in the Camelia Bowl). Northern Illinois actually won their opener at Boston College, but lost their next four. Included in that quartet was a home loss to an FCS team. The Huskies won five of their final seven games and are back in a bowl for the second time in three seasons. Northern Illinois has been a great underdog under head coach Thomas Hammock, posting a 19-11 ATS record in the role in his five seasons. They utilize excellent underdog strategies by running the ball to milk the clock and going for it often on fourth down to maximize variance and scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, this is just the fifth time Arkansas State has entered as a favorite against an FBS opponent under Butch Jones. Despite winning five games against FBS opponents this season, four of those victories came as an underdog. The market has probably tilted too much toward Arkansas State. In terms of per play margin, Northern Illinois was the second best team in the MAC (behind Toledo), while Arkansas State was outgained by their Sun Belt opponents on a per play basis. I think the wrong team is favored here. Take the Huskies to win their first bowl game since 2011. 

Pop-Tarts Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
NC State +3 Kansas State
Dave Doeren has quietly put together a great run at NC State. In the last ten seasons, the Wolfpack had one down year (2019) when they went 1-7 in ACC play and things looked bleak in Raleigh. In the other nine seasons, the Wolfpack have won at least eight games seven times and beaten their archrivals in Chapel Hill seven times, including four times as an underdog. A victory here would give the Wolfpack ten wins for the first time since 2002 and give them their third ranked finish under Doeren. All that stands between them and the second best season of this century is a Kansas State team that may be overvalued by the market for a change. After posting a 10-3 ATS mark the previous two seasons as a favorite, the Wildcats were just 5-4 as a favorite this season and lost three of those games outright. In fact, if you look at Kansas State's schedule, there is not a whole lot of heft on it. The Wildcats did dominate a good Group of Five team (Troy) early in the season, but Kansas was the only other team they beat that finished with a winning record. The Wildcats were also slightly underwater in terms of yards per play in Big 12 action (-.09 per play) despite posting a 6-3 league record. NC State has a sneaky good defense, ranking fourth in the ACC in yards allowed per play. I think they will shut down the Kansas State run game and keep this a low scoring affair. Take the 'Pack and the points.  

Music City Bowl @ Nashville, Tennessee
Maryland +2.5 Auburn
I can admit when I'm wrong and I think I whiffed on my take regarding the Mike Locksley hire. This is Maryland's third consecutive bowl trip under Locksley, a not insignificant accomplishment considering they reside (until next year) in the same division as Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. In fact, over the past three seasons, Maryland is 22-5 against unranked teams. Of course, they are 0-11 against ranked opponents, so while they are clearly a solid program, they are a notch below the elite of college football. And speaking of not being elite, allow me to introduce you to Auburn. The Tigers finished bowl eligible in Hugh Freeze's first season in charge, but of their six regular season wins, five came against either FCS teams or FBS teams that finished with a losing record. The only FBS team they beat that did not finish with a losing record was Cal which finished 6-6. I think Auburn is getting an artificial boost thanks to playing in the SEC and nearly beating Alabama in the Iron bowl a few weeks ago. This game will be played in SEC country, but not in Jordan Hare. Maryland is the better team and should be favored. 

Arizona Bowl @ Tucson, Arizona
Wyoming -3 Toledo
This is the end of the line for Craig Bohl at Wyoming. The former North Dakota State head coach has been in Laramie for ten years. While the Cowboys never won a conference title under his watch, they did play for the Mountain West championship in 2016 and including this year, were bowl eligible in the past seven non-shortened seasons. Bohl consistently put solid to good Group of Five defenses on the field and played to that strength by running the hell out of the football. This season, Wyoming opened the year with an upset of Texas Tech on their home field and were 5-1 in mid-October. They lost back to back games to Air Force and Boise State to fall out of the conference race, but won three of their last four to get to eight regular season wins for the first time since 2016. They will face the MAC Championship Game loser for the third consecutive time in a bowl. The Cowboys dominated Kent State in 2021 and lost a tight game to Ohio in 2022. Toledo bookended their season with losses, first to Illinois in the opener and then to Miami in the MAC Championship Game. In between, they were the best team in the MAC, becoming the first MAC school to finish 8-0 in league play since Western Michigan in 2016. Special teams failures cost them against Miami and I think motivation will be an issue for the Rockets. Two weeks ago, they were ranked in the top 25 and a sizable favorite in their conference title game. Now, their quarterback is in the transfer portal and they are facing a team from a better league looking to send their head coach out with a win. Take the Cowboys to cover this small number. 

Rose Bowl @ Pasadena, California
Alabama +1.5 Michigan
I don't think Alabama deserved their spot in the College Football Playoff over Florida State. In the previous nine iterations of the invitational, the committee has tended to defer to 'most deserving' instead of best (whatever your preferred predictive rating system is). I think they erred in deviating from the script this season, but at the same time, I think Alabama has a great shot at putting another trophy in the case. This is not close to Saban's best team at Alabama, it may not even be top six, but the Tide have improved throughout the year and feature a dangerous if unpolished quarterback. Jalen Milroe is a bomb thrower. He averaged nearly sixteen yards per completion this season. By comparison, Bryce Young averaged 13.3 yards per completion in his Heisman winning campaign of 2021. The defense, while not world devouring like some previous units, was good enough (third in SEC play in yards allowed per play). The Crimson Tide will face a Michigan team that has not looked great in their past three games. Maryland played Michigan even statistically in a close loss and the Buckeyes actually outgained the Wolverines, but were done in by two Kyle McCord interceptions. The Wolverines blanked Iowa in the Big 10 Championship Game, but they mustered just 213 total yards and averaged 3.33 yards per play. Turnovers have buoyed the Wolverines in those three games (+7 margin), but the fickle bounces of the football can reverse course without warning. The Wolverines passing attack is not up to snuff to beat Alabama. The Wolverines have thrown just one touchdown pass in their past five games. You rarely find Alabama catching points under Nick Saban, so savor these opportunities and back the Tide.