Thursday College Football Best Bets: Our Staff’s Favorite Picks for New Year’s Eve Bowl Games
Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: West Virginia Mountaineers.
- Here's to winning our final bets of 2020 and entering 2021 as winners.
- Our college football staff broke down their favorite bets for each of Friday's New Year's Eve bowl games, including the Armed Forces Bowl, Arizona Bowl, and Liberty Bowl.
- Check out each pick complete with a breakdown for each bowl game below.
Thursday’s New Year’s Eve slate of bowl games serves as a fitting testament and homage to the 2020 college football season. On one hand, somehow we still have college football — and that alone is cause for celebration on Thursday night.
And yet, even as New Year’s Eve’s games inspire hope for new and better things beyond 2020, the slate also conjures all too familiar feelings of disappointment. As has become commonplace this season, Thursday lost perhaps its most compelling bowl game of the evening via the cancelation of the Texas Bowl between TCU and Arkansas.
But, we’ve been here before. Frankly, we’ve been through far worse. Week after week of games and bets struck from the board, and yet we’ve soldiered on. And our reward is nigh: In just one more day, we’ll ring in 2021 with the College Football Playoff Semifinals, featuring No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State.
Until then, let us honor the privilege we have enjoyed to watch and to wager on college football this year, and let us remember the summer — when the season was not promised to us at all. So, in the spirit of gratitude, thankfulness and grace, we choose to celebrate as best we know how: By offering our top picks for New Year’s Eve’s three remaining bowl games.
Do not limp into 2021 with your head fallen low. Instead, raise your glass high, bet that the best is yet to come — with empty pockets all turned out — and join us as we sweat the final betting card of 2020. From all of us at The Action Network, here’s to ending the season on a high note — and entering 2021 as winners.
Thursday’s New Year’s Eve Bowl Schedule
Click any of the following matchups to navigate to skip to our picks for your game of interest.
Additionally, click the “Game Guide” button next to each matchup to navigate to our formal, comprehensive betting guide for each of Thursday’s New Year’s Eve bowl games.
Our Staff’s Best Bets for New Year’s Eve
Our college football staff broke down their favorite betting picks for Thursday’s New Year’s Eve bowl games. Click any of the picks below to skip to that specific betting analysis.
All listed odds come via DraftKings unless otherwise noted and have been updated as of Wednesday afternoon. Specific bet recommendations at the end of each matchup breakdown 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.
Armed Forces Bowl | No. 24 Tulsa vs. Mississippi State
Mississippi State +3 (-115)
The Tulsa offense has been a work-in-progress all year. Since losing running back Shamari Brooks to injury before the season, the Golden Hurricane have gotten next to nothing from their rushing attack. The passing game has also been very inefficient throughout the year.
Tulsa’s games have each followed a similar script. Its inefficient offense starts very slowly, and the Golden Hurricane find themselves behind at the half.
They then connect on timely deep passes in the second half to either come all the way back from huge deficits (See: SMU and Tulane games) or come up just short as they did against Cincinnati in the AAC Championship. Look no further than this discrepancy for an illustration:
- 8.2 points per first half (117th in FBS)
- 17.9 points per second half (15th in FBS)
In contrast, Tulsa’s 3-3-5 defense has been fantastic all season, ranking in the top 25 in various categories. However, the star of the show won’t suit up for Tulsa on Thursday.
Linebacker Zaven Collins was arguably the best linebacker in the country this season, but he’s skipping the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.
On the other side, Mississippi State’s Will Rogers finally got the Bulldog offense on track with an impressive effort against Georgia’s elite defense after some early struggles. Outside of a dud against Auburn, Rogers looked very comfortable in three of the final four games.
Former starter KJ Costello and Rogers are both listed as starters ahead of Thursday’s Armed Forces Bowl, but I’d imagine Rogers will get the first crack after how he finished the year. Despite the experience gap between Rogers and Costello, Rogers just seems to have a better grasp of the offense.
I make this game essentially a coin flip, so there’s value in the underdog in what could be a low scoring game. The loss of Collins can’t be overstated for the Tulsa defense. And Mississippi State is as close to full strength as it’s been this season.
Ultimately, the game could simply come down to the SEC pedigree and talent of Mississippi State. It’s also worth noting that the AAC hasn’t looked great overall to start bowl season. In four postseason appearances, AAC teams have gone 1-3 straight-up and against the spread.
Mississippi State Team Total Under 22.5
by Matt Wispe
It’s easy to remember its spectacular season opener, but Mississippi State’s offense mostly fell off a cliff after that start.
It ranks in the bottom 50 of offensive SP+ and inside the bottom 25 of yards per game. For the year, it has an Offensive Success Rate of 41.1% and a Passing Success Rate of 39.9%.
Teams have consistently been able to get this Bulldog offense off of the field, as it allows Havoc on 20.7% of plays and has only scored 2.83 points per opportunity.
If it were just a questionable Mississippi St. offense, I’d be hesitant to take the under on a team total just over three touchdowns, but it’s playing against one of the better defenses in the country. Tulsa ranks 23rd in points allowed per game and yards allowed per game with 20.8 and 339.9, respectively. The Golden Hurricane create Havoc on 19.5% of plays and have allowed a 34.9% Success Rate.
It might be a bit of a sweat on an under play against a Mississippi State offense that runs the ball on only 24.82% of its plays, but the Bulldogs’ running game has actually performed better than their passing game. Against a good defense, this will be a low-scoring game.
Arizona Bowl | Ball State vs. No. 22 San Jose State
Both of these programs finished the season on a high note offensively, and SJSU has even more wind in its sails now that Nick Starkel has announced he’s returning to the Bay Area for his sixth season of eligibility.
The SEC journeyman is coming off of a career performance against Boise State (453 yards, three touchdowns), and is set to face off against the nation’s 118th-ranked pass defense. When you pepper in his experienced and explosive receiving corps, it’s hard to envision a sub-300 yard performance from Starkel.
On the Ball State side of things, Mike Neu’s offense really came together this season, and Drew Plitt is peaking in his senior season. Plitt has accounted for 12 touchdowns in his last three games, while helping pilot a Cardinal offense averaging 38 points per game across its last three.
San Jose State has a strong defense across the board, but it’s not disruptive in the least. If Ball State can stay ahead of the sticks and finish off drives, it should be good for 28-31 points in this one, which should be enough to push this past the total.
Ball State +9.5 (-105)
Ball State is coming into this game fresh off an upset victory over previously undefeated Buffalo in the MAC Championship game. It had its chutzpah on full display as it secured the conference title.
Ball State can hang points on the scoreboard, as it averages 34.3 points per game this season in MAC play and ranks 25th in FBS scoring offense. The Cardinals generate most of their offensive success by rushing the ball. They rank 31st in FBS Rushing Success Rate.
Ball State is ranked 93rd in FBS total defense, but it has shown defensive improvement as the season has progressed.
San Jose State comes to Tucson with a top defensive squad that is ranked 21sr in FBS total defense. When you break down the San Jose State defense based on Rushing and Passing Success Rates, the defense becomes more exploitable, ranking 46th and 34th in FBS, respectively. The Spartans will have to rely on the passing game here because their rushing attack has largely been ineffective this season.
The Cardinals will look to establish the ground game early and often to take advantage of the Spartans’ rush defense. Ball State heads into the matchup without an entitlement complex and a point to prove after developing a season-long underdog persona. I think the motivation factor is heavily on Ball State’s side here.
My model has Ball State as 1.5-point underdogs in Tucson. Additionally, Action Network PRO Projections see excellent value on Ball State, projecting it as a 3.8-point underdog. There has been noticeable sharp action on the Cardinals at +9.5 as well.
There are a lot of things working in Ball State’s favor here. The defense is an area of vulnerability, but the offense has enough firepower to hang points, and I believe it’s the more motivated squad.
I suggest taking the points here, as all signals point toward an excellent value play on Ball State +9.5.
Liberty Bowl | West Virginia vs. Army
It was a travesty that nine-win Army didn’t originally get a bowl bid, especially when a team like South Carolina (with only two wins) received an invitation. Well, fortunately for the Black Knights, Tennessee had to pull out of the Liberty Bowl due to COVID-19 complications.
The Mountaineer offense really struggled this season — especially on the ground. Even with a talented running back in Leddie Brown, West Virginia ranked 100th in Rushing Success Rate and managed only 4.0 yards per carry (83rd).
Much of the blame for team’s rushing struggles may fall on the Mountaineers offensive line, which ranked 113th in Line Yards and 122nd in Opportunity Rate, per Football Outsiders. The ‘Eers simply couldn’t get a push up front all season; and the line could struggle once again versus Army’s defensive front, which ranks in the top 10 in both categories.
West Virginia had a much better year on the defensive side of the ball, ranking top-30 nationally in nearly every advanced metric.
The Black Knights led the nation with 59.7 rush attempts per game and ranked fourth with 281 yards per game on the ground. They have been moderately efficient on the ground, but the Black Knights did face four triple-option teams that have familiarity with their unique offense.
The defense has been very strong, ranking second in the country in yards per game allowed. It was particularly stout against the run due to its unique style that uses a high frequency of slants up front to gain penetration.
From a matchup perspective, I think Army’s defensive line can control the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, West Virginia’s defense has little experience facing the triple option; and it only had 10 days to prepare for this unique offense, which is significantly less time than normal for a bowl game.
When trying to handicap bowl games, motivation is the biggest factor to consider. Well, if you want to bet on motivation, look no further than the Army Black Knights.
After a 9-2 season, capped off by back-to-back wins over Navy and Air Force to secure the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the third time in four years, Army somehow found itself without a bowl game.
Army was set to play in the Independence Bowl, but after too many Pac-12 teams opted out of a bowl game, the Independence Bowl was canceled.
While many teams around the country were voluntarily choosing not to play in a bowl game, Army head coach Jeff Monken said his players were in tears because they wouldn’t get the opportunity to play.
The Black Knights continued to practice, saying they would take the place of any team with COVID-19 issues and play any team in any bowl. They just wanted to play.
With Tennessee backing out, Army will get its chance against a West Virginia team that now has less time to prepare for the triple option offense.
The Mountaineers finished the season 5-4 and were 0-4 away from Morgantown. West Virginia will be without the conference’s leading tackler All-Big 12 first-team linebacker Tony Fields.
Army is 6-2 in bowl games and has won four straight postseason games. I will gladly take the points with a motivated Black Knights squad.
Army and West Virginia meet in a matchup of two of the best defenses in FBS.
Army ranks second in FBS scoring defense, allowing only 14 points per game this season. Meanwhile, West Virginia sits 21st in scoring defense, allowing 20.4 points per game. It should be noted that the Mountaineers played a significantly tougher schedule this season. Both defenses are excellent and should be evenly matched.
The differentiator in this matchup is going to be Army’s triple option offense. As many teams have experienced, it’s very difficult to prepare for and even harder to play against. Army isn’t going to put up 30 points, but it’s going to wear the Mountaineer defense down and keep it close.
Neither team is an offensive juggernaut. Army ranks 71st in FBS scoring offense, and West Virginia ranks 78th in the metric.
Both of these teams are very evenly matched. This game should be a relatively low-scoring affair with a lot of action between the tackles. My model has West Virginia as a 0.5-point favorite. I don’t see any reason as to why Army should be getting touchdown and an extra point here, especially since it’s garnered significant sharp action thus far.
With that being said, I think there’s tremendous value on Army +7.
Under 41.5 (-113)
When I think of explosiveness, this matchup does not come to mind.
Both West Virginia and Army are top-25 in both Defensive Success Rate and explosive plays allowed, per College Football Data.
In fact, West Virginia has one of the best defensive lines in the country, allowing only 3.8 yards per attempt and ranking top-20 in Power Success Rate, Defensive Line Yards, and Stuff Rate. That is not something you want to see if you’re Army.
The triple option has been effective this season, but that’s mainly been the case against lesser opponents. If you look at their game against Cincinnati — which is the most comparable defense to West Virginia that Army has played — the Black Knights gained only 4.3 yards per play and scored only 10 points. West Virginia’s strength is against the run, so I think it should be able to shut down the triple option.
On the flip side, West Virginia’s offense has gone in the wrong direction the final three games of the season. The Mountaineers scored a total of 33 points and gained only 4.9 yards per play in those three games.
The main issue for West Virginia on offense was that it could not run the ball. The Mountaineers ranked 101st in Rushing Success and averaged only 3.5 yards per carry. That’s going to be a problem against Army’s front seven, which ranked seventh in Defensive Rushing Success this season.
Given how good both of these defenses are, this game screams “under” to me. I have only 36.54 points projected for this game, so I think there’s plenty of value on the under at 41.5 points.