Handicapping the bowl season is challenging enough. It’s a time when sports bettors morph into sports psychologists. Given the nature of these games — most of which are televised scrimmages — they can be hard to figure.
Who will be motivated? Who won’t give a damn? How will [insert team] play with an interim coach? How will various opt-outs at key positions affect overall performance?
Like most things in 2020, this bowl season will feel different. It’ll look different. And handicapping games that are rife with distractions and departures will require a bit more digging and educated deductions than usual.
You’ll also have almost no time to do that digging. With college football’s unique schedule this season, the bowl season is underway.
There are now less than 30 bowl games on the docket. Because of the large number of programs that opted out, more than 15 bowls already have been canceled.
More will likely be canceled. Given the issues programs have had with contact tracing and positive COVID-19 tests, it seems inevitable.
While it will be challenging, handicapping the bowl season has always been one of my favorite yearly rituals.
Home field, which was different in 2020 anyway, is largely lost. Rare matchups between unfamiliar teams with unfamiliar strengths often create surprising outcomes. And trying to dive into the mindset of a team or a coaching staff — especially in a year like this — is a tall order and a welcomed challenge.
So happy digging, happy handicapping and happy holidays.
(Note: I am breaking up the bowl season into two installments. I will hit all pre-Jan. 1 games this week and tackle the playoff and post-Jan. 1 games next week. Cheers.)
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. I’m done with the selection committee. In fact, I’m pretty much done with this playoff format altogether. I don’t want a human being explaining to me why Florida, after back-to-back losses, essentially doesn’t drop in the rankings. It’s exhausting. In fact, I really don’t want human beings involved in deciding the playoff at all. Expand to eight teams, award spots to all Power Five conference winners, dust off the computers from the BCS and fill the remaining three spots with the highest-ranked Group of Five team and the top two at-large teams. Done. It’s that simple.
2. Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith might actually win the Heisman. His 15-catch performance against Florida in the SEC championship game gave him a legit chance, even though quarterback Mac Jones, his teammate and primary competition for the award, was excellent as well. At some books, Smith actually was the favorite early in the week. Given that a wideout hasn’t won in decades, this is a big deal.
3. Army is playing after all. The Black Knights, despite finishing 9-2, were not given a spot in the bowl season. Originally, Army was set to play in the Independence Bowl, but the bowl was canceled. And because other bowls have contractual agreements with other conferences, Army essentially was hung out to dry. COVID-19 issues knocked Tennessee out of the Liberty Bowl, creating a spot for Army to take on West Virginia in what should be a really good game. But it’s embarrassing that Army needed something like that in order to get in. I love this sport, but sometimes it makes it very hard to do so.
4. Draft Kyle Pitts. If you are an NFL team sitting somewhere between pick No. 5 and pick No. 10 in next year’s draft, you have to take a good, long look at the Florida tight end. His performance against Alabama in the SEC championship game — not just the numbers but the quality of catches — was jaw-dropping. His college career is over, and he will not play in the Cotton Bowl. But we’ve seen everything we need to see. What a player.
5. I’ll save most of my playoff commentary for next week, but I will say this: In this year of madness and uncertainty, it would feel almost comforting if the football season comes down to Clemson-Alabama (again) in the championship game. While I’m not sure what the ratings would be for another rematch, it would be wildly compelling in my eyes. Trevor Lawrence’s last game against a robust Alabama offense. Two great running backs. Two elite coaches. We’ll see if we get there, but if we do, I’m in.
The Buffet: Breaking Down Our Favorite Pre-Jan. 1 Bowl Games
Note: We are using games starting on or after Dec. 23.
1. Cotton Bowl: Florida (-3, 71.5) vs. Oklahoma
This has a bit of everything you seek in a bowl game. Classic football powers. Elite quarterbacks. Brilliant offensive minds on both sidelines. Future NFL players all over the field. One of those players, however, will not play in this game. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, as mentioned above, will not participate. Still, this is the best non-playoff game on the bowl slate. The Sooners closed out the season by covering the spread in six of their last seven games. It wouldn’t be shocking to see that trend continue.
2. Cure Bowl: Coastal Carolina (-7, 60) vs. Liberty
Part of me wishes Coastal Carolina and Liberty both got a crack at a Power Five team. Part of me is thrilled to see two of the best stories of the year going head-to-head in a game that was originally canceled because of COVID-19. Both teams have been kind to backers this year. Liberty is 8-2 against the spread; Coastal is 8-2-1 against the number. One element of this game that could potentially have an affect? Liberty hasn’t played since Nov. 27. Still, Hugh Freeze’s only loss this year came at NC State — a game his team could’ve won. I lean Coastal, although Liberty is plenty capable.
3. Cheez-It Bowl: Oklahoma State (-2, 59.5) vs. Miami
Both of these teams have looked elite for brief periods this year. And yet, in other moments, both have looked overwhelmed. In terms of final regular-season impressions, the results could not be more lopsided. Oklahoma State rolled Baylor 42-3 as a 6.5-point favorite. Miami was steamrolled 62-26 by North Carolina as a 3-point favorite. If the Cowboys can duplicate UNC’s game plan and run the football, the Hurricanes could be in for a long night. And yet, I think Miami quarterback D'Eriq King might have a little magic left.
4. Arizona Bowl: San Jose State (-7.5, 62.5) vs. Ball State
One could make the argument, and a good one, that this game should be ranked higher. Given the way both programs closed out their seasons, that seems fair. San Jose State has not lost a football game or lost a game against the spread this year. The Spartans’ convincing win against Boise State as a 6.5-point underdog likely will generate plenty of support at the window. This is nothing new to Ball State, which has quietly delivered a superb season. In the last four games, the Cardinals have been an underdog three times and won all three games. That said, San Jose State might just be too good.
5. Camellia Bowl: Buffalo (-4.5, 55) vs. Marshall
About a month ago, this game had more shine and intrigue than it does now. Still, it’s a fascinating schematic matchup that will put one of the nation’s best running backs against one of the nation’s best statistical defenses. Jaret Patterson has been a delight for Buffalo, although the Bulls just lost outright as a 12.5-point favorite to Ball State in the MAC championship game. Marshall, after starting the season 4-0 and 4-0 ATS, has lost the last two outright — including a 20-0 defeat against Rice as a 24-point favorite. The Thundering Herd look a bit off at the moment, and Buffalo could take full advantage.
6. Alamo Bowl: Texas (-10.5, 64) vs. Colorado
We were waiting to see when Colorado would look like the team we expected to see at the start of the season, and that time arrived in the team’s final game against Utah. The Buffaloes were 4-0 outright and against the spread heading into the Dec. 12 matchup, and they proceeded to lose 38-21. Losing to Utah isn’t bad, but now we’re left wondering just how good Colorado is as the season closes. Texas feels like a good barometer. And while Tom Herman has taken plenty of heat, the Longhorns lost their three games this season by a combined 14 points. One of those came in overtime. If you have not seen freshman running back Bijan Robinson play yet, you should. He could be special. Texas by two touchdowns.
7. Texas Bowl: TCU (-5.5, 57.5) vs. Arkansas
This season, Arkansas played Alabama, at Texas A&M and at Florida. That is, well, suboptimal. Despite being handed an adjusted, brutal conference schedule, the Hogs played reasonably well under new coach Sam Pittman. Although they only had three wins, they finished 6-3-1 ATS. TCU, perhaps quietly, finished 7-3 against the spread and covered five times in its final six games. The schedule down the stretch was largely kind, which makes this a tough game to figure. I could certainly see the Hogs looking much better than a three-win team. In fact, the underdog on the moneyline is plenty tempting.
8. Armed Forces Bowl: Tulsa (-2.5, 49.5) vs. Mississippi State
Another three-win SEC team is in the mix. Yes, 2020 is weird. But I am certainly curious to see what the Tulsa defense can do against Mike Leach’s Mississippi State team. The Golden Hurricane nearly upset Cincinnati in its conference championship as a 13.5-point underdog and is 7-1 against the spread. After starting the season with a thrilling, explosive win over LSU, Mississippi State, especially on offense, really regressed until its 51-point output against Missouri the last time out. Fluke game? Or finally finding something? Nothing like a little Group of 5 vs. Power Five tussle. Give me the pirate and the points.