LOUISIANA TECH vs. GEORGIA SOUTHERN — NEW ORLEANS BOWL
Skip Holtz faced a challenging season at Louisiana Tech, having to replace J’Mar Smith, a three-year starter at quarterback, and fill the graduation gaps in a defense that blanked Miami in the Independence Bowl last Dec. 26.
Resourceful as ever, however, Holtz cobbled together a bowl-eligible squad (even by normal bowl standards) with a 5-4 record. He mixed and matched as needed, with Abilene Christian transfer Luke Anthony and holdover Aaron Allen eventually splitting snaps at quarterback late in the season as the Bulldogs overcame numerous COVID-19-related postponements and cancellations.
The high-water mark was a Halloween upset win over eventual Conference USA champion UAB, yet another notch in Holtz’s belt as an underdog, a role in which he has enjoyed consistent success (21-11-1) since arriving in Ruston.
True, the Bulldogs were humbled by a superior TCU squad in the regular-season finale. But Georgia Southern doesn’t have the firepower that the Horned Frogs have.
The Eagles deserve credit for completing a 12-game regular season, the only team in the country to do so in the year of COVID-19. But Eagles quarterback Shai Werts missed the last two games with an injury to his throwing shoulder, and their spread offense didn’t operate as effectively without him. Georgia Southern hopes Werts will play, but even if he does, his durability will be a concern.
Holtz wins bowl games. He has done it in all six years since taking over the Bulldogs, and seven in a row counting his win with USF over Clemson in the 2010 season. Along with his underdog mark, the technical case for Louisiana Tech is a persuasive one.
MEMPHIS vs. FLORIDA ATLANTIC — Montgomery Bowl
These teams meet Wednesday with Memphis favored by eight points. The total is 50 points, while Florida Atlantic is + 250 on the moneyline.
Memphis went 1-3 SU and 0-4 ATS on the road this year. This is a neutral-site game, but the point is the Tigers haven’t fared well outside of the Liberty Bowl. They are in their first single-digit “chalk” situation of the season.
Memphis is 0-5 both SU and ATS in its last five bowl games. The Tigers are led by quarterback Brady White, who has passed for 3,096 yards with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. White’s favorite target is Calvin Austin, who has 60 receptions for 1,025 yards and 10 TDs.
Memphis, 7-3 SU, 3-7 ATS, is ranked No. 102 in total defense and No. 122 in pass defense. However, the Under has cashed in three straight games for the Tigers to improve to 5-3-2.
Florida Atlantic, 5-3 SU, 3-5 ATS, has lost back-to-back games at Georgia Southern (20-3) and at Southern Miss (45-31). The Owls are in a 0-3 ATS slump.
Willie Taggart’s team is ranked ninth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 16.5 points per game. The Owls are No. 16 nationally in total defense and No. 12 at defending the pass.
On the flip side, FAU is abysmal offensively. The Owls are ranked No. 117 nationally in passing yards, No. 111 in total offense and No. 112 in scoring, averaging 20 points per game.
Florida Atlantic is 1-0 ATS as an underdog this year, cashing as a 20-point dog in a 20-9 loss at Marshall. The Under is 6-2 overall for the Owls.
HAWAII vs. HOUSTON — NEW MEXICO BOWL
Christmas Eve is usually a time to sit in front of the TV, ignore the family and sweat out a bet on the Hawaii Bowl. Last year’s game was a wagering classic as Hawaii, a 3-point underdog, upset Brigham Young 38-34 after a wild fourth quarter. Sadly, the bowl in Honolulu was canceled this year.
The Warriors (4-4) will meet the Cougars (3-4) on Christmas Eve in the New Mexico Bowl, which will be played in Frisco, Texas, and the team with a losing record is a double-digit favorite. Only in 2020. Houston opened -10.5 at most books before the number moved to 12.5. The total has dropped from 61.5 to 60. The Cougars have played only once since mid-November, and the result was a 30-27 loss at Memphis on Dec. 12.
Expectations were reasonably high this season for Houston, which returned 18 starters, but the team underachieved. Dana Holgorsen is a coach who rarely overachieves. Holgorsen probably expected more from veteran quarterback Clayton Tune, who has completed 60.7% of his passes with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Houston has the location advantage in this bowl, but what is the Cougars’ motivation and might this be an emotionally flat favorite?
Todd Graham, in his first year as Hawaii coach, is a fiery guy and a better motivator than the laid-back Holgorsen. Graham is inclined to be aggressive with his play-calling because dual-threat quarterback Chevan Cordeiro gives the Warriors a shot to pull the upset. Cordeiro, who has totaled 18 touchdowns (11 passing, seven rushing) this season, led Hawaii to recent victories over Nevada and UNLV. Despite a line move in the other direction, most signs seem to point to the double-digit dog.
BUFFALO vs. MARSHALL — CAMELLIA BOWL
In this crazy, mixed-up college football season, these teams meet on Christmas Day, just seven days after both were upset in their conference championship games.
Buffalo was running over the Mid-American Conference at 5-0 SU and 4-1 ATS before losing 38-28 to Ball State as a 13-point favorite in the MAC championship game. Marshall was 7-0 and ranked as high as No. 15 in the AP poll three short weeks ago before dropping its last two games, including a 22-13 loss to UAB in the Conference USA title game as a 5-point favorite.
Buffalo has the more prolific offense, still averaging 508.7 yards and 47.8 points per game, though that was all against MAC competition, and is led by running back Jaret Patterson, who has piled up 1,072 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.
Marshall has the better passing attack with quarterback Grant Wells spreading the ball around to a decent corps of receivers with no stud performer. Wells has 18 touchdown passes, though he also has thrown nine interceptions.
Marshall really wins with its defense, allowing just 12.6 points per game and 88.9 rushing yards per game, so this game probably comes down to Buffalo’s run offense vs. Marshall’s run defense. (Check the status of Patterson’s knee injury before wagering.)
While Buffalo didn’t face any ranked teams this season, and lost to the only bowl-bound team it faced in Ball State, Marshall did beat then-No. 23-ranked Appalachian State 17-7 on Sept. 19, and therein might be the key to betting this game.
The total is set at 54 points but probably should be lower except that Buffalo is 4-2 to the Over and Marshall is 5-4. If Marshall could contain Appalachian State, it has a chance to slow Buffalo’s offense just like Ball State did last week.
LIBERTY vs. COASTAL CAROLINA — CURE BOWL
We get to see this matchup after all, following the cancellation of their Dec. 5 game due to COVID-19 on the Liberty side. BYU was hastily recruited as a replacement to face Coastal Carolina in what turned out to be the mid-major game of the year as the Cougars ended on the Chanticleers’ 1-yard-line in a pulsating 22-17 Coastal win.
Flat for the first time all season the following week at Troy, Coastal Carolina suffered its first spread loss against an FBS opponent this season, though it rallied for a breathtaking 42-38 outright win to maintain its unbeaten straight-up mark (11-0).
The Chanticleers’ Sun Belt title game against Louisiana was canceled because of a couple of COVID-19 cases on the Coastal side, so monitor the situation closely until this game kicks off.
Liberty hopes it is beyond its own COVID scare, which affected quarterback Malik Willis and head coach Hugh Freeze in recent weeks. The Flames will not shirk this challenge after winning a couple of games at ACC schools — Syracuse and Virginia Tech — and falling a blocked last-second field goal short of a win at bowl-bound NC State. A win in Raleigh likely would have made Liberty, not Coastal, the buzz team of the mid-major ranks.
Willis, an Auburn transfer, makes the Flames click. The bonafide dual threat has more than 2,000 yards passing, 20 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, plus 807 rushing yards. He’ll be in a matchup worth watching against Coastal freshman Grayson McCall, who has passed for 23 touchdowns and only two picks. Both teams feature tough defenses, with the Flames checking ranking seventh in the nation.
Coastal is getting nearly a full touchdown at most books, which seems like too much, especially considering Liberty is on its own hot streak against the spread (seven straight) and is 6-1 as an underdog since mid-September of last season. The Flames also pulled off a mild upset over Georgia Southern in last year’s Cure Bowl on this same field.
UTSA vs. LOUISIANA — FIRST RESPONDER
Both of these teams have seen scheduled games yanked away from them in recent weeks, so they should be eager to play in Dallas.
Louisiana lost out on last week’s anticipated Sun Belt title game against Coastal Carolina because of a positive COVID-19 test within the Chanticleers program. That cancellation could have a deflating effect on the Ragin’ Cajuns, who were looking forward to facing unbeaten Coastal. Meanwhile, UTSA thought it would be playing a bowl game in Frisco, Texas, before SMU had to cancel. So the Roadrunners ended up a few miles south at the Mustangs’ stadium.
There is another possible distraction on the Louisiana side as coach Billy Napier is reported to be on a short list for the Auburn job. Such situations have become postseason annoyances in the past.
Louisiana was good enough to knock off Big 12 regular-season champion Iowa State in Ames, but even a focused Ragin’ Cajuns squad might have trouble extending the margin on much-improved Texas-San Antonio, which is thrilled at any postseason opportunity.
First-year coach Jeff Traylor has built a tough team, thanks in large part to having dual-threat junior quarterback Frank Harris healthy after he missed most of 2019. Harris, who has rushed for 437 yards and eight TDs, was at his best during a season-ending three-game winning streak when he accounted for nine touchdowns and threw only one pick while completing 77% of his passes.
That might not be enough to get the Roadrunners over the hump against a 9-1 Louisiana team led by senior quarterback Levi Lewis, who has 41 touchdown passes and just 11 interceptions since last season. ULL also boasts the 1-2 punch of senior running backs Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who have combined for 6,596 career rushing yards.
But given possible distractions on the Louisiana side and UTSA’s solid 9-3 spread mark in its last 12 as a dog, we can make a case for the Roadrunners while making a parallel recommendation on the Under as the Roadrunners are 8-3 that way and the Cajuns 7-3 this season.
WESTERN KENTUCKY vs. GEORGIA STATE — LENDINGTREE BOWL
Western Kentucky and Georgia State will meet in a bowl game for the second time in four years. These clubs previously met in the 2017 Cure Bowl with Georgia State winning 27-17 in Shawn Elliott’s first season as Panthers coach.
Elliott is 1-1 as a head coach in bowl games with the ’17 Cure Bowl win and a 38-17 loss to Wyoming last year in the Arizona Bowl.
Western Kentucky coach Tyson Helton won a bowl game in his first year as coach last season with a 23-20 victory over Western Michigan in the First Responder Bowl. The Hilltoppers come into this game with a 5-6 record but rallied to finish with three straight victories — against Southern Miss, Florida International and Charlotte — after a 2-6 start.
Western Kentucky is just one of 10 FBS teams to play 11-plus games this season. The strength of the team is the defense, especially against the pass, as they rank eighth nationally, allowing only 170.1 yards per game.
However, the Hilltoppers ranked last in Conference USA in scoring offense at 18.8 points per game. That’s why offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis is going to be reassigned on the offensive staff after this game as Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley will take over. Kittley will bring the Air Raid to Western Kentucky. He learned it on the Texas Tech staff, where he coached some guy named Patrick Mahomes.
Georgia State comes in with two straight wins for a 5-4 record. The Panthers have two losses against ranked teams — 34-31 in overtime to Louisiana and 51-0 against Coastal Carolina. The Panthers have the third-best rushing defense in the Sun Belt (140.3 yards per game) and rank second in the conference with 32 sacks, led by linebacker Jordan Strachan’s nine, second in the nation.
Georgia State last played Nov. 28, while Western Kentucky played Dec. 6. Circa Sports opened Georgia State -5, and the spread has not budged, while the total has dropped substantially from 57.5 to 52.5. It’s not that surprising, considering potential rust for both teams and the news of Western Kentucky making changes to its offensive staff because of anemic production.
OKLAHOMA STATE vs. MIAMI — CHEEZ-IT BOWL
Both of these teams reached the top 7 in the national rankings, but losses in the second half of the season kept them out of the New Year’s Six. No. 21 Oklahoma State finished its 7-3 regular season with a 42-3 victory over COVID-19-depleted Baylor.
The Cowboys had higher aspirations than a third-place finish in the Big 12, but injuries on the offensive line and to several skill-position players, including quarterback Spencer Sanders, prevented them from a better finish.
Oklahoma State will be without star running back Chuba Hubbard, who opted out before the season finale. Cornerback Rodarius Williams and offensive tackle Teven Jenkins followed suit and will miss the bowl game in favor of NFL draft preparation.
No. 18 Miami was in line for a New Year’s Six bowl bid two weeks ago but got mauled 62-26 at home by North Carolina. The Hurricanes defense gave up 778 yards of total offense, including 555 yards on the ground. Now Miami’s defense will have to do without its two starting defensive ends as Jaelan Phillips and Quincy Roche have opted out.
Miami’s offense has dramatically improved with D’Eriq King at quarterback, leading a unit that averages 34 points per game. However, the defense has shown some slippage from its usual spot in the nation’s top 10, and that was before the North Carolina game.
Oklahoma State has been very solid in bowl games under coach Mike Gundy with a 9-5 record. Miami’s Manny Diaz has only one bowl game under his belt during his head coaching career — a complete no-show last year as the Hurricanes were shut out 14-0 by Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl. One would think Miami not only would want to get the bad taste of last year’s bowl experience out of its collective mouths, but also that miserable performance on Dec. 12 against North Carolina.
Circa Sports opened Oklahoma State -4 before early action came on the Hurricanes, moving the line to -2 The total opened at 60.5. Oklahoma State has the coaching edge and the bowl experience, but Miami has the better talent and more big-play threats on offense, so something has to give. Miami will have to bring more of an effort (1-9 in bowl games since 2007), or history will repeat itself.
TEXAS vs. COLORADO — ALAMO BOWL
The situation is a mess at Texas with fourth-year coach Tom Herman. Reports surfaced last week addressing Herman’s contact with South Carolina about its coaching vacancy, which has been filled, and his desire to find a new job. Herman has been on the hot seat and would be history if Urban Meyer had decided to come out of retirement, so the Longhorns are spinning their wheels as they head to San Antonio and into an offseason of uncertainty.
It seems fitting that Texas is returning to the Alamo Bowl for the second year in a row. Herman said his players are “extremely excited” to be playing in a bowl, but who’s buying that line? Here’s the truth: Five team captains — left tackle Samuel Cosmi, defensive end Joseph Ossai, safety Caden Sterns, defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham and safety Chris Brown — opted out to start preparing for the NFL draft. The only captain who will play is senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who actually could return in 2021 because of the NCAA granting all fall athletes an extra year of eligibility.
Ehlinger, who has 25 touchdown passes with five interceptions this season, is a gamer who always gives a great effort. Another positive is Herman’s 3-0 bowl record with the Longhorns, who were 7-point underdogs in a 38-10 victory over Utah last year in this bowl. In its most recent outing on Dec. 5, Texas hung 69 points on Kansas State.
In coach Karl Dorrell’s first season at Colorado, the Buffaloes beat UCLA, Stanford, San Diego State and Arizona to emerge as the Pac-12’s surprise team. Texas opened -12 at Circa Sports, and the number was bet to 13, probably due to Ehlingher’s significant edge at quarterback, but laying the points is risky business. The Longhorns have the look of unfocused bowl favorites.
WAKE FOREST vs. WISCONSIN — DUKE’S MAYO BOWL
In what used to be called the Belk Bowl, Wake Forest is at least in regional territory in Charlotte, not too far from Winston-Salem and where the Demon Deacons won one of the most exciting bowl games in recent memory, when they beat Texas A&M 55-52 in 2017.
We haven’t seen much of Wake Forest lately, however, with five of its games canceled in the last six weeks. Only once did Wake get on the field in that span, looking a bit rusty in a loss to Louisville after being off for almost a month.
The Deacons will get no sympathy from Wisconsin, however, as the Badgers’ season was disrupted early by COVID-19, forcing Paul Chryst’s team into scramble mode in order to find enough games to qualify for a Big Ten title game spot. Those hopes were effectively dashed with a Nov. 21 loss at Northwestern.
Comparing the teams, we got to see more of a full-strength Wake Forest, even with its recent cancellations, and saw progress, at least until the Louisville game after the long layoff.
The Deacons coughed the ball up just once in their first seven games, the nation’s best mark, before committing two turnovers against Louisville. In eight games, quarterback Sam Hartman threw just one pick and was able to lean on a functional ground game, featuring slashing junior Christian Beal-Smith, who gained 5.4 per carry. Wake’s defense likely will miss playmaking defensive end Carlos “Boogie” Basham, who just opted out to prepare for the NFL draft.
Meanwhile, the Badgers’ roller-coaster ride continued into last week’s battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Minnesota, when quarterback Graham Mertz, who blew hot and cold this season, was knocked out by a blow to the head. Little-used sophomore Chase Wolf finished the game, which the Badgers won in overtime.
COVID-19, however, already had taken the starch out of Wisconsin, which didn’t run with its normal abandon (ranking only 59th nationally), while its top-ranked defense had the benefit of a favorable slate against Big Ten teams in various states of disarray. One of those, Indiana, still beat the Badgers without explosive quarterback Michael Penix Jr., and Iowa manhandled the Badgers 28-7 on Dec. 12.
Some around the Big Ten contend this is the worst Badgers team in at least 20 years. Combined with the iffy status of Wertz, Wisconsin would appear hard-pressed to take down a Wake Forest team that was on a six-game cover streak before the loss to Louisville.
MISSOURI vs. IOWA — MUSIC CITY BOWL
Going 5-5 against an all-SEC schedule must be considered a success for first-year Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz. The Tigers also played with 60 or fewer scholarship players in six of their 10 games this season as injuries, opt-outs and COVID-19 wreaked havoc.
One piece of good news for Missouri is that the program looks to have found its quarterback of the present and the future in redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak, who has passed for 2,366 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions with a 67.3% completion rate. Bazelak was splitting time with TCU transfer Shawn Robinson before taking over full-time starting duties against LSU. A positive sign for the program culture is that Robinson, realizing his future was not at quarterback, moved over to defense to start at safety.
Senior running back Larry Rountree, who has rushed for 972 yards and 14 touchdowns, declared he would play in this game but will not be able to run behind right tackle Larry Borom, who opted out for the NFL draft.
However, the Tigers defense is reeling at the end of the season, having allowed 149 points in its last three games (48 vs. Arkansas, 50 vs. Georgia and 51 at Mississippi State). Meanwhile, Iowa has allowed just 128 points — 16 points per game, seventh in FBS — in its entire eight-game season.
Iowa rebounded from an 0-2 start to win six straight games and end the regular season ranked No. 15. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz was emotional after the 28-7 victory over Wisconsin and praised his players for dealing with adversity all season. Ferentz now has some adversity of his own as he is in isolation because of a COVID-19 diagnosis and will handle his coaching duties remotely until Dec. 27. His club has won three straight bowl games, and this senior class will be going for four in a row here.
Circa Sports opened Iowa -11 and received one-way traffic on the Hawkeyes as they are now 15.5-point favorites. The total opened at 50.5 and has risen to 52, which is no surprise considering Missouri’s late-season defensive struggles.
On paper this looks like a mismatch, but Missouri chose to come to Nashville because of the proximity and the spot on the bowl schedule. Iowa aspired for one of the bowls in Florida but was bounced down to the Music City, so will they be excited to play here?
FLORIDA vs. OKLAHOMA — COTTON BOWL
Florida has eight wins by 12 points or more and three losses by eight points combined. After an 8-1 start, the Gators have lost back-to-back games against LSU (37-34) and Alabama (52-46) because of the utter ineptitude of their defense.
One week after senior cornerback Marco Wilson was flagged for throwing a shoe after a third-down stop that led to LSU’s game-winning field goal, he had seven missed tackles and was torched for eight receptions on eight targets against the Crimson Tide.
Nevertheless, the offense kept the Gators in the game until the final play. Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against top-ranked Alabama. In 11 games against SEC opponents, Trask completed 69.7% of his throws for 4,125 yards with a 43-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also had three rushing scores.
Trask won’t have at least one of his favorite targets against Oklahoma. Junior tight end Kyle Pitts opted out to prepare the NFL draft and will not play against the Sooners. In eight games, Pitts had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns.
As of Dec. 21, there was no word on whether Trask or wide receiver Kadarius Toney would opt out. Toney has 70 receptions for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns in addition to 161 rushing yards, one TD and an 8.5 yards-per-carry average.
Most books had the Gators, 8-3 SU and 5-5-1 ATS, installed as three-point favorites with a total of 71.5.
Even if Toney opts out, Florida still has plenty of weapons as six players besides Pitts and Toney had at least 15 catches this season. Furthermore, if Trask opts out, backup quarterback Emory Jones is ready to take over — whether at the Cotton Bowl or Week 1 of next season — and thrive in Dan Mullen’s offense.
Oklahoma, 8-2 SU, 7-3 ATS, has won seven consecutive games since dropping a 37-30 decision at Iowa State on Oct. 3. Lincoln Riley’s team is 6-1 ATS during this surge, including Saturday’s 27-21 revenge win over the Cyclones as a 5-point favorite in the Big 12 championship game.
This is the Sooners’ first underdog spot since last year’s College Football Playoff semifinals, when they failed to cover as 14-point underdogs in a 63-28 loss to LSU. They are 4-3 ATS with three outright wins in their last seven games as underdogs since 2015.
Oklahoma freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler has a 15-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio during the team’s winning streak. Rattler has a 25-7 TD-INT ratio for the season.
MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. TULSA — ARMED FORCES BOWL
Mike Leach’s first season as Mississippi State coach has been a wild ride with more downs than ups. In late September, when the Bulldogs opened with a 44-34 win at LSU, a bowl game seemed a certainty.
K.J. Costello passed for an SEC-record 623 yards with five touchdowns, and it appeared the Stanford transfer could be unstoppable in Leach’s Air Raid offense. Costello was benched a few weeks later and finished the regular season with six touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.
Mississippi State heads to a bowl with a 3-7 record, tied for last place in the SEC West. Will Rogers, who replaced Costello, passed for 295 yards and three touchdowns to lift the Bulldogs to a 51-32 victory over Missouri on Saturday. “It’s been hard to get the tent over the circus, so to speak,” Leach said.
Mississippi State’s only other victory came against a winless Vanderbilt team. Leach’s three-win team is a 1.5-point favorite over Tulsa, which is 6-2 after falling to Cincinnati 27-24 in the AAC championship game. The Golden Hurricane covered as a 14-point underdog to the Bearcats.
Tulsa is typically in position to win because of a defense that allows 20.8 points per game. There is nothing flashy about an offense led by quarterback Zach Smith and running back Corey Taylor, who rushed for 102 yards against a tough Cincinnati defense. Tulsa is in a bowl for the first time since 2016. The small-conference underdog figures to be the more motivated team with a chance to beat a Power 5 opponent.
SAN JOSE STATE vs. BALL STATE — ARIZONA BOWL
These teams pulled upsets in their conference title games to earn this New Year’s Eve date in Tucson, Ariz.
Ball State stunned Buffalo 38-28 as a 13-point dog and + 400 on the moneyline in the MAC championship game. San Jose State beat Boise State 34-20 as a 6.5-point dog and + 250 on the moneyline for the Mountain West title.
Ball State is a Cinderella story, but San Jose State is even more impressive at 7-0 SU and 6-0-1 ATS and ranked No. 22. The Spartans are led by quarterback Nick Starkel, a transfer from Texas A&M who lost his starting job to Kellen Mond, has passed for 1,904 yards and 16 touchdowns with just four picks and a 65% completion rate.
Ball State is without its best player as leading rusher Caleb Huntley opted out before the MAC title game, but sophomore Tye Evans stepped in with 94 rushing yards against Buffalo. Quarterback Drew Plitt accounted for four touchdowns against Buffalo — three passing, one rushing — helping pick up the slack for an offense that was balanced all season, averaging 277 passing yards and 177 rushing yards.
San Jose State has the better defense, allowing just 17.9 points per game, though the Cardinals played in the more wide-open MAC, and their defense did step up against Buffalo.
The Spartans are 6-1 to the Under while Ball State is 4-3 to the Under, including four of its last five games. With the betting total at 63 points, the lean is to the Under, but the stronger play looks to be Ball State + 7.5 or higher as these teams are pretty evenly matched and we make the line closer to a field goal.
WEST VIRGINIA vs. ARMY — LIBERTY BOWL
Luckily we’ll get to see the Black Knights play in a bowl game after they originally were snubbed despite a 9-2 record. Now the question is will they take advantage of their opportunity against the Mountaineers?
The spread looks to favor West Virginia at -9 in most spots. That line seems a bit too aggressive off the bat. Both teams average about 27 points per game, while, defensively, Army allows just 14 points per game compared with West Virginia’s 20. Of course West Virginia has had a tougher schedule, but that doesn’t mean the Black Knights aren’t legit.
We know we can expect a slower-paced game. Army is known for its ground-based attack, averaging 281 rushing yards per game, with just 44 passing yards per game. The Mountaineers, on the other hand, pass for 277 yards per game. However, the Black Knights’ pass defense is very solid, just allowing 150 passing yards per game.
Expect Army to take advantage of this opportunity and show what it can do. Play Army + 9 and Under 44.5.
ARKANSAS vs. TEXAS CHRISTIAN — TEXAS BOWL
The record does not reflect it, but first-year coach Sam Pittman turned around the Arkansas program this season. The Razorbacks finished 3-7, tied with Mississippi State for last in the SEC West, after they went a combined 4-20 the previous two years. Pittman made Arkansas much more competitive in the conference, with three of its losses by three points or fewer.
The Razorbacks hung tough in games against Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU, so the fact they are going bowling is not a big embarrassment. A major player in the team’s improvement is quarterback Feleipe Franks, a Florida transfer. Franks has passed for 2,107 yards and 17 touchdowns with four interceptions. Pittman rebuilt the offensive line and established a solid running attack. Arkansas, which was hammered 52-3 by No. 1 Alabama on Dec. 12, is a 5-point underdog to TCU.
A year after finishing with a losing record, the Horned Frogs rebounded to go 6-4 and earn a bowl trip the old-fashioned way. The high point of TCU’s season was a 33-31 win at Texas in early October. The Frogs are riding a three-game winning streak and rolling with dual-threat quarterback Max Duggan, who has totaled 20 touchdowns (10 passing, 10 rushing) and leads the team in rushing yards.
The TCU defense allows 351 yards per game to rank 32nd nationally and fourth in the Big 12. Frogs coach Gary Patterson has won his last two bowls. Patterson is in his 20th season at TCU, and the Texas Bowl will be his 18th bowl game. Unlike some other postseason matchups, both teams should be excited to play another game, so there are no mysterious motivational angles to handicap.
CINCINNATI vs. GEORGIA — PEACH BOWL
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell is in an advantageous position in this bowl because his team will be motivated and playing to prove a point against an SEC opponent. No realist expected the American Athletic Conference champions to land the fourth playoff spot, but the Bearcats (9-0) were disrespected with a No. 8 ranking by the playoff committee.
As a 14-point favorite in the conference title game, Cincinnati barely got by Tulsa 27-24 as Desmond Ridder passed for 269 yards, rushed for 83 yards and accounted for two touchdowns. Ridder is a high-level playmaker, but the Bearcats’ strength is a defense that ranks No. 7 in the nation in scoring by allowing 16 points per game.
Cincinnati will deal with a hot hand in Georgia quarterback JT Daniels, who started the last three games and passed for 839 yards and nine touchdowns with one interception. The USC transfer was promoted to replace Stetson Bennett, who started in early-season losses to Alabama and Florida. Daniels took apart weak defenses — Mississippi State, Missouri and South Carolina — and Fickell’s defense presents a different challenge.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart faces the possibility of several players opting out to prepare for the NFL draft, with star senior linebacker Monty Rice among those who will not play in the bowl game. Is this a classic case of a motivated dog taking on an unfocused favorite? Cincinnati is in a similar spot to the one Central Florida capitalized on in the Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018, when the Knights went into the game with a 12-0 record and took down Auburn 34-27 as 10-point underdogs.
Georgia opened -6.5 and the line has hit seven at some books. Fickell is 31-5 straight up and 20-14-1 ATS in the last three seasons, including two bowl wins. The Bearcats should be live dogs, especially if the Bulldogs are disinterested.
AUBURN vs. NORTHWESTERN — CITRUS BOWL
What will Auburn look like without fired coach Gus Malzahn? That seems to be the key question here. It will have been three weeks since Auburn played a game, and just two for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has been one of the best college football coaches in the country this season, with multiple NFL teams expected to target him this offseason.
Like most matchups, this game will come down to defense. But, in this particular game, it will be emphasized even more so. Northwestern allows just 15.5 points per game, which puts them fifth in the FBS. Auburn allows about 24 points, which places them 34th.
Offensively, Auburn has the slight advantage, but only in the passing game. The Tigers rack up 212 yards per game through the air, while the Wildcats produce just 186 passing yards per game. They’re virtually the same in terms of ground production.
Consensus-wise, this line favors Northwestern by -3.5. Ideally, you would want that number at -3. If you can get it there, I suggest pulling the trigger. However, if you’re a little hesitant with the spread, banking on a lower-scoring affair is another solid option. The total is lined at 43.5, and it certainly looks to be a slower-paced game, assuming both teams use their ground game.
If this truly is Fitzerald’s last game at Northwestern, his boys will send him out on a win. Although the Wildcats don’t score a lot, expect them to find a way to cover behind their stout defense.
NO. 1 ALABAMA vs. NO. 4 NOTRE DAME — ROSE BOWL
Alabama has the No. 1 ranking, the two Heisman Trophy favorites — quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith — and coach Nick Saban, who has participated in six of the seven College Football Playoffs. Notre Dame has a lot to prove after taking a 24-point loss to Clemson.
It’s easy to see why the Crimson Tide opened as high as -20 in this playoff semifinal. The game was moved from Pasadena, Calif., to Arlington, Texas, where 16,500 fans will be allowed to attend at AT&T Stadium. This is the first meeting between the teams since the Tide rolled the Fighting Irish 42-14 in the BCS national championship at the end of the 2012 season.
Alabama had won each of its 10 games by 15 points or more before outlasting Florida in a 52-46 shootout in the SEC title game last weekend. Jones passed for 418 yards and five touchdowns with one interception, and Smith had 15 receptions for 184 yards and two scores. Jones has completed 76.5% of his passes with 32 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season.
The Tide run the ball well, with Najee Harris carrying 31 times for 178 yards and two touchdowns against the Gators. Saban’s defense had allowed a total of 36 points in the previous five games before surrendering 462 yards to Florida.
Notre Dame cannot match Alabama’s big-play ability, so senior quarterback Ian Book must play efficiently. Book, who has a 30-4 record, is the only Power 5 quarterback with at least 240 pass attempts and two or fewer interceptions this season. He will need to control the clock and get help from freshman Kyren Williams, who has six 100-yard rushing games but was limited to 50 yards on 15 carries against Clemson. The Irish offensive and defensive lines were strong all season yet got pushed around by the Tigers, and the same could happen against the Tide.
The total of 65.5 is a tricky number. If Alabama is winning comfortably, Saban could opt to sit on the lead and keep players healthy for the national championship game Jan. 11. Sharp money showed on the Irish at + 20. Notre Dame does not appear to be completely outclassed by Alabama, which had the ability to name the score in the matchup eight years ago.
NO. 2 CLEMSON vs. NO. 3 OHIO STATE — SUGAR BOWL
It was an eventful weekend for Trevor Lawrence. The Clemson quarterback was dominant in a 34-10 victory over Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. Lawrence passed for 322 yards, ran for 90 yards and accounted for three touchdowns Saturday. The next day, the New York Jets won for the first time this season and lost their hold on the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, meaning Lawrence could be the future star of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Tigers avenged their only loss by controlling the Irish in all phases of the game while totaling 541 yards and allowing only 263. Lawrence owns a 34-1 career record, with the loss coming against LSU in last season’s national title game.
In last season’s playoff semifinal against Ohio State, Lawrence passed for two touchdowns and ran for one as Clemson overcame a 16-0 deficit to win 29-23 as a 2.5-point favorite. The Buckeyes probably should have won — a couple of key calls went the Tigers’ way — but Justin Fields threw an interception in the end zone with 37 seconds left. Fields was not sharp in the Big Ten title game Saturday, completing 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards with two interceptions, but Ohio State rallied to top Northwestern 22-10 thanks to Trey Sermon’s 331 rushing yards. The Buckeyes’ offensive line is powerful, but they will not have similar success on the ground against Clemson, so Fields must be much better.
Ohio State’s pass defense has been a weakness this season, and Lawrence is by far the best quarterback the Buckeyes have opposed. Lawrence looks to have a big edge over Fields, whose recent form is troubling. This is a problematic matchup for Ohio State, which has played only six games against a relatively weak schedule.
The Buckeyes were double-digit favorites in all six games and suddenly play the big underdog role. The Tigers opened as 6.5-point favorites before early wagering boosted the line to -8. The single-digit point spread and late kickoff time will attract a massive wagering handle on New Year’s Day, when Clemson will be the more popular side with the betting public.
KENTUCKY vs. NC STATE — GATOR BOWL
Many will wonder what Kentucky is doing in a bowl game at 4-6, let alone being favored over 8-3 North Carolina State, which is No. 23 in the final CFB Playoff rankings. But that’s the power of the SEC, and oddsmakers don’t hold the Wildcats’ losses to Georgia, Alabama and Florida against them.
NC State, despite its lofty record, also lost to bowl-bound teams North Carolina and Miami, while beating Liberty only 15-14 as a 4-point favorite. (And Kentucky certainly would have been favored by more than 4 points against Liberty). The oddsmakers have been pretty good at projecting when Kentucky is the better team as the Wildcats are 15-4 SU the last 19 times they’ve been favored.
Dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson leads the Kentucky offense, which averages just 21.7 points per game — but again that’s against SEC defenses, including those three aforementioned juggernauts. The Wildcats should have a lot more success against a Wolfpack defense that allows 29.7 points per game.
NC State does come in on a four-game winning streak after the loss to Miami. However, it went only 2-2 ATS. In addition to failing to cover against Liberty, the Wolfpack didn’t cover against a poor Syracuse team despite quarterback Bailey Hockman having his best game of the season with 313 yards passing and four touchdowns.
This is a step back up in class for NC State, so it looks like the right team is favored after all.
MISSISSIPPI vs. INDIANA — OUTBACK BOWL
Indiana finished No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings, No. 7 in the AP poll and No. 8 in the coaches poll, but that was not enough to make the New Year’s Six. Then, to add insult to injury, the Citrus Bowl elected to take Northwestern, so Indiana fell to the Outback Bowl and will be the highest-ranked team ever to participate in this game.
Obviously, the Hoosiers were stung by this snub as CFP Committee Chairman Gary Barta ( Iowa’s athletic director) gave the rationale that Indiana had to be evaluated differently after losing quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to injury, despite defeating a then-ranked Wisconsin team on the road with backup Jack Tuttle. Now Indiana must get over the disappointment and focus on the task at hand, which is to bring a bowl game trophy back to Bloomington for the first time since the 1991 Copper Bowl.
The Outback Bowl is the most prestigious bowl game Indiana has played in in 30 years (1990 Peach Bowl). Indiana coach Tom Allen began his coaching career in Tampa in 1992 as the defensive coordinator at Temple Heights Christian High School. Allen also coached collegiately in Tampa, serving as South Florida’s defensive coordinator in 2015. His son, Thomas, is one of 12 players from the Tampa area on the Indiana roster. Allen and several assistants also have Ole Miss connections coaching under former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze from 2012-14.
Indiana last played Dec. 5 at Wisconsin and had its annual Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue canceled twice because of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss is in a bowl game in Lane Kiffin’s first season as coach. Kiffin has brought a dynamic offense to Oxford, and the Rebels led the SEC in total offense and rushing offense while finishing third in passing offense and scoring offense, averaging more than 40 points per game.
The problem for Ole Miss is a defense that gives up more than 40 points per game. The Rebels were last in the SEC for total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense. Ole Miss’s defense has allowed 176 plays of 10 yards or more this season.
The Rebels’ offense still will provide some challenges for the Indiana defense, but they also will not be at full strength. Elijah Moore, who led the SEC in receiving yards per game at 149.1, and tight end Kenny Yeboah, who led the conference in yards per catch at 19.41, have opted out. They combined to catch 14 of quarterback Matt Corral’s 27 touchdown passes.
Indiana opened -7 at Circa Sports and rose slightly on the open to -8 before coming back down to -6.5. The total has steadily dropped from 72.5 to 66.5. Can Indiana get over the disappointment from the New Year’s Six snub and will it be a focused favorite that can successfully play the disrespect card?
OREGON vs. IOWA STATE — FIESTA BOWL
Oregon took a roundabout route to the Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks were resigned to finishing the regular season against Colorado after losing back-to-back games to Oregon State and Cal. But the Pac-12 made a late call requesting the Ducks replace Washington in the league title game against USC. Given this reprieve, Oregon appeared animated for the first time since the opener against Stanford and proceeded to dump the favored Trojans 31-24 to earn an unlikely Fiesta bid.
Make no mistake, however, this Ducks team is not on the same level as recent power teams from Eugene. It’s certainly a lesser version of last year’s Rose Bowl winners who were led by Justin Herbert, now an NFL Rookie of the Year front-runner with the Chargers. Successor Tyler Shough flashed Herbert-like ability early in the season, but his numbers were declining as the season progressed.
Nor did Oregon have the same jarring run game as a year ago, even though left tackle Penei Sewell is regarded by many as a top-five NFL draft pick. The defense, with eight starters back from a nationally ranked unit, also suffered breakdowns against UCLA and Oregon State before redeeming itself in the Pac-12 title game.
Therein, however, lies the rub for the Ducks, who competed only against what appears to be a very suspect Pac-12
Iowa State, on the other hand, is battle-tested, having played 11 games, including several against capable Big 12 opponents. The offense is balanced with the nation’s leading rusher in sophomore Breece Hall (1,436 yards) and a likely NFL first-round pick in quarterback Brock Purdy. Purdy almost led a late comeback in the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma, nearly completing a season sweep of the Sooners in the process.
A functional ISU defense posted better season-long stats than Oregon as well. The Cyclones also took some capable Big 12 opponents such as Kansas State and West Virginia to the woodshed in recent weeks. And coach Matt Campbell will remind his troops of the egg they laid in last December’s Camping World Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
We suspect this matchup also will serve as a barometer of the relative strengths of the Pac-12 and Big 12, and unless we’re imagining things, the Big 12 representative is the stronger option. Go with one of the best Iowa State teams in history over the least-accomplished Pac-12 champ in recent memory.
TEXAS A&M vs. NORTH CAROLINA — ORANGE BOWL
Texas A&M will have a chance to prove its worth in the Orange Bowl against North Carolina. But it will not be easy. The Tar Heels come in with the seventh-ranked FBS offense in terms of points per game at 43 and fourth-ranked offense in total yards per game at 557.
The Aggies’ offense isn’t too shabby either. Quarterback Kellen Mond, who has thrown 19 touchdown passes and three interceptions, has the offense posting 32 points per game and racking up 437 total yards of offense.
A&M faced tougher defenses this year and came through with an 8-1 record, having lost to just the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama 52-24.
North Carolina has suffered three losses — at Florida State (31-28), at Virginia (44-41) and against Notre Dame (31-17). The loss to the Fighting Irish is respectable, but the other two are a different story, even though they weren’t blowouts.
The storyline for this game is how will the Aggies respond to being left out of the College Football Playoff. Will they dominate to show the committee it made a mistake, or will they not be as motivated to perform since they’re angry about what happened? I believe Jimbo Fisher will want to stick it to the committee so he can keep talking about how they should’ve been included.
As indicated by the total of 69, this game looks to be a shootout. And as this spread keeps increasing in A&M’s favor, now at -7, I think there is more value with the Tar Heels. Defensively, there is a slight advantage with the Aggies, but this North Carolina offense should do enough to stay in the game. Plus, there’s always that backdoor cover.