I wish this were a more palatable slate, folks. I really do. But, there just haven’t been very many good bowl games this year: a lot of blowouts, one-sided affairs, rusty performances, teams and players simply not showing up, and coaching changes. So, let’s hope for some decent football to send out 2018, even if the names on the jerseys do not immediately excite you.
All times Central.
No. 24 Cincinnati (11-1) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6) +6
This may actually be one of the better games of the day, if you like defense, that is. The Hokies have grossly underperformed this year in a weak ACC and had to go on a two-game, must-win tear simply to become bowl eligible. Things are decidedly trending up in the Queen City under Luke Fickell, though. The Bearcats don’t have the firepower they need to dominate the AAC, but the defense is getting very close to a fully operational death star. With UCF, this was the class of the conference — they’re favored for a reason. Tech’s horizontal offense versus a team that can tackle well is probably not a good matchup. Then again, a conservative G5 offense against high-end P5 talent likely won’t light it up either. Don’t expect too many points, but a touchdown feels right in the gross, cold rain of Annapolis today. Take the Bearcats, even in this awful postseason for the AAC.
Pitt (7-6) vs Stanford (8-4) -5
Pitt played for an ACC title. Let that sink in. A team that got lit up by UCF, lost to UNC, and got beat by Temple, played for the ACC title. Shudder.
Now, for the game: both defenses have been highly disappointing, giving up well over 400 YPG, and for two defensive-minded coaches that has to be a kick in the jewels. Both teams are also nearing 400 yards of offense per game. Uncharacteristically, Stanford’s running game has been dreadful — about 112 yards per contest. That number is doubled by Pitt’s power running attack. Then again, Kevin Costello has been quite good (at times) under center for the Tree, while Pitt’s passing game is woeful. Given the defenses these teams will trot out, that lack of a passing game is a major demerit against the Panthers. This game will likely be terrible, but it may be close and fairly high scoring. The Panthers should be able to power the ball. Still, take Stanford and the points; I don’t think the Pitt secondary can keep up for 60 minutes.
Michigan State (6-6) +2 vs. Oregon (8-4)
Why is the line on the game so narrow? Two reasons. The first is that Oregon has not been able to get many wins against the top-tier teams it has played, and that’s in a down PAC12. In fact, the Ducks wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar but for their home win against then-reeling Washington in early October. Wedged in between blowouts of cream puffs were beatings at the hands of Arizona and Washington State, and a ghastly choke job against Stanford. The Ducks have also not been a very good running team, not even hitting triple digits on several occasions.
That bad news dovetails into our second point — the Spartans have been very good defensively after a bumpy first month. They whacked Maryland and Penn State, picked up a W against Purdue, and were competitive in close losses against OSU and Michigan. The offense really gives you pause here — Sparty has not reached 30 points since September. But, a generous Ducks defense should alleviate that. It’s not been a good run for the Big 10 so far, but the Spartans are a more physical team, and should be able to control the game with old school football. Despite the disparate record and lesser offensive talent, I think MSU gets it done in San Francisco. If you want a blueprint/preview for this one, look back to MSU’s victory over Penn State.
Okla. State (6-6) vs. No. 23 Missouri (8-4) -9
This may not be the shootout most predict (o/u 72.5). It has poured buckets here in Memphis the last 24 hours — 1.97” and more to come before kickoff. The Liberty Bowl does have Astroturf 3D, but the normally-fast track is still going to be sloppy and slower; there’s no way it drains fully by 2:45.
Why the meteorology report? Because Missouri’s running game and defensive line, as usual, are superb. Oklahoma State’s pass rush is furious as well. But, this one is going to be won by the superior ground attack. Given the trends of these two programs, the traditional SEC-home field advantage in the Liberty Bowl, and the greater incentive — only one of these guys is coaching for his job — I think Missouri gets it done. As bad as Missouri’s secondary is (and it is quite bad) Oklahoma State’s is just as awful, forces fewer turnovers, and adds an all-around terrible run defense to go with it (179 YPG.) When you toss in the soggy turf, and the Pokes’ propensity for turning it over (-8), that nine-point spread doesn’t seem so silly. Take the Tigers, and I think pretty big too — 13-17 or so. The Big 12 has taken it on the chin this bowl season. And nothing that OSU has done away from Stillwater gives you any reason to think the Cowboys can reverse that trend.
No. 22 Northwestern (8-5) vs. Utah (9-4) -7
Some teams play close games because that is their defensive identity; the Utes are just such a team. Other teams play games close to the vest because they have a dreadful offense; the Wildcats are just such a team. The Utes are a better team by nearly every metric, though the Wildcats do get the nod for being more competitive against a better slate. Fitzgerald’s bunch picked up Ws against Sparty, Wisconsin, Iowa, lost a FG heartbreaker to Michigan, and kept the ND game to 10 points.
The keys to this one are simple. For Northwestern, they need to force some turnovers and try to exploit a Utah secondary that is very hard to score upon: The ‘Cats won’t be able to run the ball. On the other side, the Utes are without QB Tyler Huntley, so Utah needs to run the ball against a ground defense that gives up just 132 YPG and has forced 20 turnovers. That may be their way to victory — see also Michigan State above.
This won’t be a pretty game, and I’m not sure that the Utes without Huntley can cover a full touchdown-plus here. A 20-17, 20-14 affair seems more likely. I suspect Utah picks up the win, but the Wildcats cover +7.
NC State (9-3) vs Texas A&M (8-4) -7
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite bringing in Elko from Notre Dame to save a bad defense, the Aggies’ secondary is still a tire fire. It is really bad — it may actually be worse than last year, in fact: 263 YPG and 111th in the country in efficiency; 25-to-5 TD-to-Int ratio (113th); 61% completion percentage allowed (113th); 8.5 YPA allowed (105th). But, A&M has gotten significantly better with the run defense, where A&M is second in the nation in yards per game allowed and gives up just 3.19 YPC.
Too bad NC State has the 6th-ranked passing offense in the country: wedged right between Alabama and Ole Miss. The Wolfpack aren’t a one-trick pony either. They also average 5 YPC and close to 150 YPG. It’s just a good offense.
The NC State secondary has taken a serious hit this season (more on that in a moment), but teams are rushing for just 109 yards per game and NCSU has forced 18 turnovers.
Too bad A&M is a running team, eh?
Like A&M, however, the secondary is simply ghastly. NCSU gives up over 271 yards per game through the air; allow a 60% completion rate and 8 YPA. Where the ‘Pack gets the nod over Aggie is that their secondary has surrendered fewer scores (17) and forced more picks (9).
Against two top-flight, run-stuffing defenses with struggling secondaries, we are likely in for an air show today. Don’t overlook the ability of Kellen Mond’s legs doing some damage either. I think the touchdown spread here is far too generous though, especially given that Aggies’ deficiencies line up so perfectly to be exploited. If I were going to take a bet on this one, I would not pick the spread on either: you can see a razor-thin game. But, over 56 points seems a very fair bet — 31-28 is a very plausible final.
A very happy New Year to you all.
Thank you again for being the best readers
and most awful commenters in the Gumposphere. Tell us below your plans for the day, how you’re ringing in 2019, and what bowl game today you’re most looking forward to.
We’ll see you in 2019.
Be safe, Roll Tide, and as always #NoRefunds