College Football Odds and Best Bets: Our Staff’s Top 9 Picks & Predictions for Today’s Bowl Games (Tuesday, Dec. 28)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images. Pictured: PJ Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Editor’s note: Looking for our favorite bowl game bets on Wednesday’s slate? Click here.
Tuesday marks one of the most refreshing days the college football world has seen in what seems like weeks. Today, we’re blessed with five bowl games.
Our college football staff is taking full advantage of this opportunity, as they have come up with best bets for every game on the schedule. That’s right. All of them, starting at noon ET and running through 10:15 p.m. ET:
- Houston vs. Auburn
- Air Force vs. Louisville
- Texas Tech vs. Mississippi State
- UCLA vs. NC State (CANCELED)
- West Virginia vs. Minnesota
It’s just like a regular college football Saturday, so strap in for the ride as we begin our journey to Green Dot City.
Tuesday College Football Best Bets
The team logos in the table below represent each of the matchups that our college football staff is targeting from today’s slate of games. Click the team logos for one of the matchups below to navigate to a specific bet discussed in this article.
|Specific bet recommendations come from the sportsbook offering preferred odds as of writing. Always shop for the best price using our NCAAF Odds page, which automatically surfaces the best lines for every game.|
Houston vs. Auburn
Auburn opened the season 6-2 with its losses coming to respectable opponents in Penn State and Georgia. The Tigers then proceeded to stumble down the stretch, losing their final four games including an unforgettable four-overtime collapse in the Iron Bowl to Alabama.
The Tigers now will need to prepare for a high-flying Houston offense without linebacker Zakoby McClain and cornerback Roger McCreary. McCreary was named a first-team All-American and is a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
His absence will be big going against Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, who threw for over 3,000 yards while averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt. Tune led the Houston offense to the 17th-best Success Rate through the air and will have a clear advantage against a Tigers secondary that ranked 99th in the same category.
The Tigers will want to establish the run without quarterback Bo Nix, who has transferred to Oregon. But Auburn will be without at least three starting offensive linemen in the Birmingham Bowl.
Houston’s run defense ranked 12th in the nation and seventh in Line Yards. The group allowed just 3.0 yards per carry and will be able to slow down the Tigers’ rushing attack.
There hasn’t been much news about the health of quarterback T.J. Finley, but last we saw, he was still nursing an ankle injury. He’s completed just 56% of his passes this season and will have a tough task matching up against a Houston secondary that ranked second in Passing Success Rate.
Auburn has now lost four games in a row and put all of its eggs in the Iron Bowl. After losing that game, there is little reason to believe the Tigers will come out motivated.
Houston will want to win the Birmingham Bowl over an SEC competitor because… “It Just Means More.”
Pick: Houston +2
I would chew my own arm off to get one last “Bo Nix season in full effect” type of game at Auburn. Sadly, life had other plans as he was knocked out for the rest of the season with an injury.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t cap this game and watch it for our own entertainment — especially when I am in love with the under.
The style of play will have under written all over it, as Auburn will be going run-heavy.
Houston’s rush defense took a drastic step back in its conference championship game, an area that Auburn will look to exploit, especially without Nix under center.
Auburn is above average in the run game itself, ranking 37th in Rush Success and 47th in Line Yards. With the clock constantly churning in what is expected to be a tight slugfest, points may come to a premium. This will add an extra emphasis past the 40, a unit that Houston is better at on both sides of the ball.
Speaking of both sides of the ball, Houston is also an under friendly unit, as it’s 114th in plays per minute.
While it has advantages in the passing game, gains will still be tough to come by, as the Tigers are 10th in Def. Line Yards and 15th in tackles for loss. Houston will need to figure out Auburn’s 4-2-5 defense and fast, as Havoc will always be a threat.
With Auburn going more rush-heavy on offense and possessing the ability to get in the Houston backfield and cause mayhem on defense, I will take the under at 51 or better and sprinkle some Auburn moneyline as well.
Pick: Under 51.5
Air Force vs. Louisville
By Shawn Burns
Louisville and Air Force face off in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl on Tuesday afternoon. Air Force is looking for its 10th win of the season and has won three straight games after suffering a tough loss to Army in early November.
The Cardinals are 6-6 and hoping for a big win that will build momentum toward next season. The program received great news in early December when quarterback Malik Cunningham decided to return for his senior season. He instantly makes Louisville a threat in the ACC next year, and he could be a dark horse Heisman candidate.
Air Force has the top rushing rushing attack in the country, averaging 340 yards per game and 5.25 yards per carry. The Falcons will control the clock and they have a battering ram in Brad Roberts, who has rushed for over 100 yards seven times this season.
The Air Force defense is one of the top units in the nation, allowing only 19 points per game, and it is ranked fifth in yards allowed per game. This is a talented defense, but it was exploited against Nevada and Utah State earlier this season. Louisville has more talent than both, and will create mismatches in both the run and pass game.
Cunningham is a lethal playmaker who finished with 18 passing touchdowns and also led the team in rushing with 968 yards and 19 scores. When he plays well, the Cardinals offense is tough to contain. He will unfortunately be without some of his top targets due to transfers and will need a few young receivers to step up.
Air Force hasn’t faced a dual-threat quarterback like Cunningham this season, so he will give them issues. However, Louisville won’t have an answer for the precise rushing attack of the Falcons.
Air Force wins a close game and improves to 10-3 on the season.
Pick: Air Force +1.5
Air Force ML +100
The Air Force Falcons (9-3) take on the Louisville Cardinals (6-6) in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl on Tuesday afternoon in Dallas, Texas. This is the first-ever matchup between the two programs.
Air Force is an excellent 7-4-1 against the spread this season, whereas Louisville is an even 6-6 against the linemakers in the desert.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Stuckey’s college football bowl news tracker as your first stop for handicapping bowl games. The document captures injuries, opt-outs and coaching changes, all of which can have a meaningful, multi-point impact on spreads.
Additionally, Omicron is beginning to do its thing and wreak havoc on the bowl season. We have seen bowl cancellations, but where you can really get burned are game-day lineup changes. Twitter is a handicapper’s best friend for monitoring developments as it pertains to available personnel.
Air Force comes into the game with a robust and complete roster. Louisville, on the other hand, has lost a number of key contributors to the transfer portal. Leading receiver Jordan Watkins and fourth-ranked receiver Justin Marshall have both entered the portal.
Cardinals cornerback Greedy Vance also entered the portal, depleting the secondary after Kei’Trel Clark was lost to injury.
Air Force has a significant statistical advantage in two areas. The first, and most important, is on defense. The Falcons rank fifth in the nation in total defense, allowing only 289 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Louisville ranks 84th in the same metric, giving up 401.8 yards per game. The advanced statistics reflect this discrepancy, as well, with Air Force ranking ninth in the FBS in defensive success rate relative to a ranking of 72nd for Louisville.
Air Force has a powerhouse rushing attack and leads the nation in rushing offense, averaging 342 yards per game this season. Louisville has a below-average rushing defense that ranks 72nd in the nation, allowing 156.7 yards per game.
Louisville QB Malik Cunningham is a dynamic playmaker, but the Air Force defense should be able to do enough to contain him throughout the game.
Air Force comes to Dallas with a stout defense and a triple-option offense that is notoriously difficult to prepare for. The last time that Louisville faced the triple-option in 2018, it got manhandled by Georgia Tech, 66-31.
Louisville is fortunate to retain Cunningham and head coach Scott Satterfield for next season, however, Air Force will surely come into the game with the discipline and focus that non-service academy teams tend to lack during bowl season.
Bet Air Force to win outright at even money in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl.
Pick: Air Force ML +100
The triple option makes its way to Dallas on Tuesday, as Air Force has a fantastic matchup against a very poor Louisville run defense.
The Falcons ran the ball with a ton of success this season, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt and ranking inside the top 40 in Rushing Success Rate, Offensive Line Yards, and rushing explosiveness.
So, running the ball a little over 87% of the time against a Louisville defense that was outside the top 100 in those three categories and allowed 4.6 yards per attempt could be bad news for the Cardinals defense.
On the flip side, Louisville has a boom-or-bust offense with Malik Cunningham under center. Louisville is 58th in Offensive Success Rate but seventh in explosiveness, which is huge against an Air Force defense that is highly susceptible to giving up explosive plays, ranking 117th in that category this season.
Louisville should be able to break off a lot of those big plays in the running game, where it was sixth in explosiveness and averaged a whopping 5.6 yards per carry. Air Force is solid at preventing success in the running game, ranking ninth this season, but it’s 125th in rushing explosiveness allowed.
I have 65.5 points projected for this game, so I like the value on over 55 points for two offenses that should be able to move the ball effectively.
Pick: Over 55
Texas Tech vs. Mississippi State
By CJ Vogel
A 63-yard game-winning field goal as time expired is the only thing that has kept Texas Tech from going winless over the last two-and-a-half months.
It’s safe to say Texas Tech has been in a rut since firing head coach Matt Wells, and while Joey McGuire seems to have the fans in Lubbock excited for the foreseeable future, that is not going to help the Red Raiders’ chances when they face off against Mike Leach and Mississippi State.
I am expecting Jo’quavious Marks to have a very big game for the Bulldogs, specifically in the passing game. Riko Jeffers and Collin Schooler are talented linebackers but have combined to allow 658 yards in the passing game this season, something Miss State will exploit.
Marks this season has 79 receptions out of the backfield. The repeated targets to the tailbacks should bode well for the fighting Mike Leaches Tuesday evening.
Another factor I’m highlighting in favor of the Bulldogs is third downs. Mississippi State is 18th in the country at converting on third downs, doing so at a 45.5% clip this season. Meanwhile, Texas Tech is among the worst teams in the country at getting off the field on third downs. Opposing teams are converting at 44.4% against the Red Raiders, a mark that has Tech ranked 118th in the country in the category.
Expect the combination of Mississippi State extending drives and exploiting the matchup out of the backfield to be the reason why it wins the AutoZone Liberty Bowl by 10+.
Pick: Mississippi State -9.5
Texas Tech +10
The 2021 edition of the Liberty Bowl is not lacking in storylines. Mike Leach takes his Mississippi State Bulldogs to Memphis to take on his former program, the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Leach has made it very clear that he believes Texas Tech still owes him money, and he also found himself in the headlines in mid-December for his comments about players opting out of bowl games.
Meanwhile, in Lubbock, the Red Raiders are transitioning the reins of the program over to new head coach Joey Maguire. Interim coach Sonny Cumbie, who ironically played for Leach at Tech, will coach this one before shipping off to Louisiana Tech to be the new head man in Ruston.
As far as the on-field matchup, I believe this point spread is simply too big, and that the value sits with the Red Raiders catching the points.
I’ve been impressed with the job quarterback Donovan Smith has done in his four games as starter for this Tech offense. Smith threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns against a formidable Iowa State defense, and he also had a very solid game in Waco against a Baylor team that was playing to go to the Big 12 Championship.
While Mississippi State should certainly have some advantages of its own on the other side of the ball, I’m a believer in air-raid offenses suffering from some rust in bowl games.
Both of these offenses play at a relatively slow tempo, and both should be able to have some success on the ground, which should limit the number of possessions in the game.
I think this will be a competitive, back-and-forth battle between two teams that both want to be there, and will have plenty of motivation to win a bowl game.
Give me the Red Raiders to hang inside the number and cover here in a matchup I’m really excited to watch.
Pick: Texas Tech +10
UCLA vs. NC State
Editor’s Note: The Holiday Bowl will not be played tonight due to COVID-19 issues in the UCLA program.
Dave Doeren has been the model of consistency at NC State, leading it to a 9-3 record and another bowl berth. The Wolfpack have produced a winning season in six of their last seven years, and this season was capped off with a thrilling win over rival North Carolina.
Quarterback Devin Leary had a breakout season with 35 touchdowns and five interceptions to lead the Wolfpack to a top-15 Passing Success Rate.
He has plenty of weapons at his disposal with Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter. Leary should be able to throw all over a UCLA defense that ranks 60th in Passing Success Rate.
NC State doesn’t run the ball incredibly well, but it has a terrific offensive line and two good backs in Bam Knight and Ricky Person. UCLA is 110th in Rushing Success, and the duo could be in line for big games as well.
Now, the Bruins’ strength is running the ball. Zach Charbonnet rushed for 13 touchdowns and 95 yards per game this season. UCLA has the 23rd-highest rushing rate and sits eighth in the country in Rushing Success Rate.
But yards could be hard to come-by against this Wolfpack defense that has been dominant all year. They are sixth in the country in Success Rate against both the run and the pass.
NC State has the No. 1-ranked pass rush in the country and Dorian Thompson-Robinson really struggled under pressure, completing just 30% of his passes.
UCLA needs to be able to run the ball. It rushed for at least 200 yards in all eight of its wins this season and lost every game it didn’t reach that mark.
NC State allowed over 200 yards just twice all season. In fact, it allowed over 140 rushing yards just three times all year. Oh, and it still won all three of those games.
Take the Wolfpack at -3 or better.
Pick: NC State -1.5
West Virginia vs. Minnesota
By Doug Ziefel
In the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, the one thing that can certainly be guaranteed is how the Minnesota Golden Gophers will attack the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Gophers rush over 67% of the time, and they were highly successful when doing so this season. The Minnesota offense averaged 195 yards on the ground per game, and that production remained consistent despite multiple key injuries to the backfield.
Now leading the running back stable is freshman Ky Thomas. Since Thomas took over as the starter, he has racked up four 100-yard games. He will now face a Mountaineer defense that was solid against the run but may be missing a starting linebacker and starting cornerback in this one.
On the other side of the ball, the Golden Gophers were one of the toughest defenses in the nation this year. They held opponents to just 18 points per game and allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game in the nation.
Quarterback Jarret Doege leads a pass-centric Mountaineer offense that could struggle mightily. The Minnesota defense allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 55% of their passes, which was seventh amongst FBS programs.
The game script in this matchup should be identical to how all Minnesota wins have looked this season. The Golden Gophers will be able to control both the pace and the clock with their run game.
Multiple methodical drives combined with the play of a suffocating defense will create a big hole that the Mountaineers will not be able to climb out of.
The Golden Gophers should cover this spread, and I would be comfortable playing it up to -6.5.