Welcome to the Dec. 29 through Jan. 1 (non-New Year’s Six) portion of the Action Network’s 2017-18 College Football Bowl Preview. Make sure you subscribe to our Degen and Juice podcast for even more in-depth analysis.
This preview integrates a combination of point spreads, advanced statistics, motivational angles and coaching changes. You can follow all of my plays for free on the SportsAction App, which you can download through the [App Store] or [Google Play].
All lines taken from Pinnacle as of Dec. 27, 2017.
Teams: Wake Forest vs. Texas A&M
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
Date: December 29th, 1:00 PM EST
|Wake -3||Wake -2||Wake -5.5||66.5|
Notes: The Belk Bowl, a degenerate tradition unlike any other. Some still haven’t recovered from the horrifying Duke +9.5 moose in 2012 and/or Arkansas +7 blowing the cover after leading 24-0 last year. I fully expect more shenanigans this year.
Throwback Thursday: who can ever forget last year's wild finish to the Belk Bowl, after the Hokies came back from a 24-point deficit to defeat Arkansas! pic.twitter.com/k3caxejtff
— Virginia Tech Alumni (@VT_alumni) December 8, 2017
This year’s participants include Wake Forest without all-world wide receiver Greg Dortch, and Texas A&M with an interim head coach.
Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M, and he’ll take over as the Aggies’ head coach immediately following this game. Texas A&M interim head coach Jeff Banks, who has served as the program’s special teams coordinator since 2013, will take home $75,000 for this one bowl game (and another $25,000 with a victory). Banks can count on an advantage with his special teams unit that ranks 19th in the nation (specifically, second in punt success rate). Texas A&M’s primary issues this season were an inefficient offense (117th in efficiency) and a defense that gave up the big play (127th in defending passing downs explosiveness).
The Demon Deacons have had a big-play offense all season, even without star wide receiver Greg Dortch. Wake Forest’s offensive Passing S&P+ rating (second nationally) and passing success rating (seventh) should help lead them to a victory in front of a pro-Wake crowd.
- Wake Forest is 4-1 ATS in its last five games
- Texas A&M is 6-14-1 ATS in its last 21 games
The Pick: Wake Forest -3
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Teams: North Carolina State vs. Arizona State
Location: El Paso, Texas
Date: December 29th, 3:00 PM EST
|NC State -6.5||NC State -1.5||NC State -5.5||59.5|
Notes: Sun Devil players dealt with plenty of off-field drama as they prepared for the Sun Bowl, despite the fact that Todd Graham decided to coach the bowl after his dismissal at the end of the season.
-fired Todd Graham at a $12 million buyout
-replaced him with Herm Edwards, who hadn't coached since '08
-wanted to keep both coordinators
-lost the defensive coordinator on Edwards' first Tuesday
-and lost the OC on his first Friday https://t.co/jlzdmKDYiv
— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) December 15, 2017
Both Arizona State and North Carolina State have experienced junior quarterbacks, but the Wolfpack’s Ryan Finley sits behind an offensive line that ranks sixth in adjusted sack rate. Finley may declare for the NFL Draft, pending a draft grade and his performance in the bowl. Defensively, NC State’s Bradley Chubb, a potential first-round pick in April’s draft, will travel to El Paso, but he has still not decided if he will play.
Arizona State pulled a big upset earlier this season against Washington, a feat they will look to repeat in this spot. One of the biggest differences between NC State and Arizona State is red zone points per attempt; Arizona State ranks fourth in the nation in that category, the Wolfpack just 109th. Both S&P+ and my power rankings make this game lower than 6 on a neutral field, so we will side with the Sun Devils, as the upperclassmen should have motivation to send Todd Graham out with a win.
- NC State is 1-3-1 ATS in its last five games
- NC State unders are 8-1 in the last nine games
The Pick: Arizona State +6.5
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Teams: Northwestern vs. Kentucky
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Date: December 29th, 4:30 PM EST
|NW -7.5||NW -7||NW -9||51|
Notes: These two teams ended the season on completely different notes, as Kentucky finished 1-4 straight up, while Northwestern swept their final five games with plenty of offense. The purple Wildcats set themselves apart in the battle of Wildcats as a result of their ability to play defense, particularly rush defense, where they rank 20th in defensive Rush S&P+ and Rush IsoPPP (explosiveness).
Both teams feature 1,000-yard plus running backs in Northwestern’s Justin Jackson and Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. However, Kentucky may have a better opportunity to move the ball through the air, as the blue Wildcats rank 29th in Passing S&P+, with an impressive passing downs explosiveness ranking of 19th. Kentucky senior quarterback Stephen Johnson has just as much ability with his arm as he does with his legs.
A :33 de la fin, Kentucky repasse devant Tennessee sur une course de QB Stephen Johnson !pic.twitter.com/X02ABegkpW
— TBP College Football (@thebluepennant) October 29, 2017
Kentucky also has the better special teams, ranking 24th in the nation and fourth in punt return success rate. That could ultimately keep them inside the number, as Northwestern ranks outside of the top 100 in most special teams categories.
- Kentucky is in the midst of a 1-7 ATS streak
- Northwestern has covered 5 straight
The Pick: Kentucky +7.5
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl
Teams: Utah State vs. New Mexico State
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Date: December 29th, 5:30 PM EST
|Utah St -4||Utah St -3.5||Utah St -2||61|
Notes: After the all-Wildcat bowl, we will get to watch the all-Aggie bowl between New Mexico State and Utah State. The similarities don’t stop there for the two 6-6 teams, as they both have a strength of schedule outside the top 100, rank outside the top 100 in time of possession, and average just over 4.84 points per red zone trip (ranks of 71st and 73rd).
— Erica Weston (@EricaLWeston) December 3, 2017
NOVA Bowl officials wanted this particular matchup most of the season. The bowl dominoes played out, and Utah State gained eligibility for a bowl their fanbase desperately wanted. New Mexico State will have plenty of motivation as well, considering they will play in a bowl game for the first time in 57 years. New Mexico State has sold out its ticket allotment, and most of the players come from the Tucson-Phoenix corridor.
Neither team really differentiates itself in the advanced stats except in third-down conversions. New Mexico State ranks fourth in third-down conversion rate, while Utah State ranks 70th. You can attribute most of NMSU’s success to a passing downs success rate of 16th.
Utah State will come to Tucson armed with a top-25 special teams unit, supported by a ranking of eighth in field goal value. Special teams could ultimately decide this battle of two evenly matched teams, as New Mexico State will look to pull some special teams receipts from the Tucson area. NMSU ranks an abysmal 119th in special teams, which includes rankings lower than 96th in every category (field goal value, punt success, etc).
- Utah State is 5-1 SU in its last six vs NMSU
- NMSU is 1-4 ATS in its last five games
The Pick: Utah State -4
Teams: Mississippi State vs. Louisville
Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
Date: December 30th, 12:00 PM EST
|Louisville -6.5||Louisville -2||Louisville -2.5||63.5|
Notes: A few different factors can help explain the reason that the current point spread differs from the power ratings from myself and S&P+. Mississippi State lost both head coach Dan Mullen and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after the regular season. Additionally, the Bulldogs will not have the services of dynamic quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who suffered a gruesome injury in the Egg Bowl. However, the mood around practices has apparently remained positive, with interim coach Greg Knox commenting multiple times about his team’s strong focus. Keytaon Thompson, who has only 46 pass attempts in his career, will look to somehow fill Fitzgerald’s shoes.
— SEC Country MS State (@SECCountryMSU) November 24, 2017
2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson will likely play his final college game at this bowl after a fantastic 2017 season. The Louisville offense ranks fifth in S&P+, led by Jackson, who amassed over 1,500 yards on the ground and over 3,400 yards through the air. Despite the explosiveness of the Louisville offense, I see a few reasons to believe why Mississippi State can have success on defense in this matchup.
Mississippi State ranks in the top 20 in Rush S&P+ Defense, fifth in Pass S&P+ Defense, and 14th in overall defensive havoc rate. The Bulldogs may have lost their head coach and star quarterback, but the defense that held LSU to seven points (and almost pulled off an upset against Alabama) remains intact. Given all of the losses that Mississippi State has suffered, I would recommend waiting on this line if you like the Bulldogs, as I expect it to hit seven.
- Louisville is 4-11-1 ATS in its last 16 games
The Pick: Mississippi State +6.5
Autozone Liberty Bowl
Teams: Memphis vs. Iowa State
Location: Memphis, Tenn.
Date: December 30th, 12:30 PM EST
|Memphis -3.5||Memphis -3.5||Memphis -4.5||66|
Notes: On a day that features two New Year’s Six bowl games, the Liberty Bowl may steal the show. Memphis, which only lost one game during the season in a thriller to Central Florida has plenty of offensive firepower, but will face an Iowa State team known for its 31st S&P+ ranked defense. The Cyclones have also demonstrated they can turn on the offense when necessary, as we saw against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
That said, the Tigers should have no issues moving the chains through the air with their offense that ranks ninth in passing success rate and 20th in passing explosiveness. Iowa State did have to contend with a slate full of explosive Big 12 offenses, but the Cyclone defense only ranks 95th in passing success rate. Memphis, which ranks sixth in the nation in total first downs, should not face much resistance in the secondary on their home turf.
While the Memphis offense should score at will, several weaknesses on their defense can keep this game close. Memphis ranks 117th in third-down conversions allowed and 128th in penalty yards. Additionally, Memphis’ special teams rank 123rd in kickoff success rate. I expect this game to come down to the wire, as Iowa State should answer every Memphis score with long, productive drives. Look for an overtime prop for fun, but side with Iowa State to stay within the number in what should be a back-and-forth affair.
- Iowa State is 6-1-1 ATS in its past eight games
- Memphis overs have hit in five of its past six games
- Memphis is 7-1 SU in its past eight games
The Pick: Iowa State +4
Teams: South Carolina vs. Michigan
Location: Tampa, Fla.
Date: January 1st, 12:00 PM EST
|Michigan -7.5||Michigan -8.5||Michigan -8.5||43|
Notes: A matchup of two strong defensive teams with inefficient offenses, as most know limited the potential of Michigan this year. South Carolina, meanwhile, has lost its offensive coordinator, and may have issues of their own putting up points. The Gamecocks’ offense struggled during the season, ranking 12th out of 14 SEC teams in total offense. Jake Bentley threw seven interceptions in the final four South Carolina games. The offensive line did see marginal improvement from 2016, but the Gamecocks still rank 74th in sacks allowed, which spells trouble against an elite Michigan defensive line that ranks second in the nation in adjusted sack rate.
Quarterback Brandon Peters, who will start under center for Michigan, will have extra motivation to perform at a high level with Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson coming to town next season. Peters has kept the Michigan offense off of life support at certain points of the season.
GREAT play call and a better throw by Brandon Peters. 21-0, Michigan. pic.twitter.com/AWugltkRIo
— Michigan Moments (@GoBlueMoments) November 11, 2017
Michigan has a simple offensive game plan: Keep handing it off to Karan Higdon, who averages 6.3 yards per carry. Michigan ranks eighth in rushing success rate and fourth in the nation in power success rate (the percentage of third- or fourth-down runs of 2 or fewer yards that result in first downs or touchdowns) Power success rate just so happens to be South Carolina’s worst defensive category, as they rank 123rd in defending short rush attempts on third and fourth down. As a result, the Wolverines should convert on almost every third or fourth and short to keep the sticks moving.
The Michigan ground attack will set up crossing routes that Peters had success with in over 64 pass attempts (versus fellow Michigan QB John O’Korn and his 2-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio). The South Carolina defense does excel in defending pass explosiveness, ranking 11th in the nation, but the Gamecocks only rank 97th in defensive pass success rate, which means Michigan will have opportunities to move the ball with short passes.
Ultimately, the Wolverines should dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Lay the points.
- Overs are 5-2 in the last seven Michigan games
The Pick: Michigan -7.5
Florida Citrus Bowl
Teams: LSU vs. Notre Dame
Location: Orlando, Fla.
Date: January 1st, 1:00 PM EST
|LSU -3||Notre Dame -1||Notre Dame -2||51.5|
Notes: Another trip to the Citrus Bowl for LSU. Motivation may play a factor for both teams, as LSU routed Louisville in this same bowl last year and Notre Dame had their sights set on the College Football Playoff for most of the season. The Irish had their greatest success against teams that could not defend the rush, while taking three losses to teams with excellent defensive fronts (Georgia, Miami and Stanford). LSU boasts an elite defensive front, ranking 17th in S&P+ defensively with an overall havoc rate of 16th, although Arden Key will not play.
Brandon Wimbush had a spectacular season running and passing the ball for most of 2017, but the one elite defense he faced (Georgia) held him to 27 yards on 13 carries. LSU can bring similar pressure, and Wimbush won’t have the help of running back C.J. Holmes and second-leading receiver Chase Claypool.
Coach Orgeron has remained adamant about LSU bringing the intensity to Florida for this repeat bowl game, and the Tigers’ offensive line should give Danny Etling (former Purdue quarterback) plenty of time add to his 14-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Special teams could also play a factor, as LSU ranks 13th in kick return success rate, while Notre Dame ranks 120th in kickoff success rate. Expect LSU to hand Etling and Derrius Guice plenty of solid field position to help secure the cover.
In a game of two evenly matches teams, field position could decide the outcome, which favors the Tigers.
- LSU is 5-0 ATS in its last five games
- Notre Dame is 1-4 ATS in its last five games
The Pick: LSU -3