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ATS Bowl Predictions Dec. 29

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


 

Friday, December 29

 

 

Belk Bowl

Wake Forest (7-5) vs. Texas A&M (7-5)

1 p.m. ESPN

Bank of America Stadium

Charlotte, North Carolina

 

Wake Forest -3 vs. Texas A&M


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

           

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Line holding steady at -3 with balanced action. Some smart money came in on the under.”

 

Analysis

The first ever game between Wake Forest and Texas A&M features stability against upheaval, a program pointing upwards against a program in wild flux.

 

The Demon Deacons are thrilled to have qualified for a bowl game for the second straight season. Over the past few weeks, HC Dave Clawson has talked about how this game, and a hypothetical win in it, represents the “next step” for his program.

 

Last year, the Deacs finished the regular season 6-6 and went on to win the Military Bowl. With a victory on Friday against the Aggies, Clawson’s crew will reach eight wins for the first time since Jim Grobe did it back in 2008. That’s a huge deal.

 

On the other side, winning eight games every year got Kevin Sumlin fired. This time around, Sumlin wasn't even given the opportunity to get there, getting canned after a 7-5 regular season. 

 

The Aggies backed a Brink’s Truck in front of Jimbo Fisher’s Tallahassee home to replace him. Fisher’s spent the last few weeks trying to salvage A&M’s 2018 recruiting class.

 

In the meantime, Texas A&M has been overseen by interim HC Jeff Banks (formerly the special teams coordinator and TE coach) and a hodgepodge set of assistants. Fisher beat Wake Forest earlier this season while at FSU, but he’s reportedly not been involved with bowl prep.

 

This will mark the second straight year that Wake Forest has squared off with an interim coach in their bowl. In 2016, the Demon Deacons were installed as 11.5-point underdogs against Temple in the Military Bowl after Owls coach Matt Rhule left for Baylor. The Deacs upset Temple 34-26.

 

Wake Forest’s offense—referred to lovingly as the “Clawfense”—blew up in 2017. It improved from No. 110 to No. 30 in S&P+’s methodology while adding over 13 points per game (to 33.7) and nearly a full yard per carry (3.6 to 4.5). Wake also allowed 22 fewer sacks in 2017 than it did in 2016.

 

A lion’s share of the credit for the breakthrough goes to QB John Wolford (2,792 yards and a 25/6 TD/INT rate on 63.7-percent completions and 8.1 YPA; 691 yards and 10 touchdowns on 6.1 YPC as a runner with sack yardage taken out). The passing attack, incredibly, finished No. 2 S&P+.

 

Unfortunately, No. 1 WR Greg Dortch has been ruled out for this game, having undergone surgery to repair an abdominal injury at the end of October. The Demon Deacons went 2-2 in November without him (beating Syracuse and NC State). Wake Forest was fortunate to have strong Nos. 2-3 receivers, both of whom proved worthy of increased targets (Tabari Hines and Scotty Washington have 65 targets; Dortch finished with 74 in eight games).

 

Though Dortch is missed, Wake’s offense is designed to spread the ball around evenly, allowing it to weather this type of loss (Wolford is the only indispensable player in the offense). Wake Forest backup RB Cade Carney (undisclosed) is questionable. If he plays, he’ll spell Matt Colburn off the bench.

 

Wake’s defense has gone the opposite direction of the offense this season, falling from No. 22 S&P+ to No. 53. It allows 26.3 points per game (No. 54) and 444 yards per game. The offense’s improvement masked some of the issues on this side of the ball.

 

That defense will have to deal with Texas A&M star WR Christian Kirk. Kirk will play, explaining to reporters that he wanted to participate because he hadn’t yet won a bowl game at A&M. He’ll likely declare for the draft in the days following this game. Formerly considered a near-lock to go in Round 1, Kirk’s stock took a hit in 2017 as his numbers fell (58-730-7 line). That was hardly his fault, as A&M rotated through three quarterbacks, mostly using raw true freshman Kellen Mond during the regular season. Mond isn't ready, and he left yards on the field in every game he participated in, depriving Kirk and his buddies of the opportunity to make plays in space.

 

QB Nick Starkel has since returned. That's a very good thing, indeed, because he’s the only starting-caliber SEC quarterback on the roster (for now, anyway). A&M’s offense finished a middling No. 64 S&P+, similar to its defensive finish (No. 66). This was always going to be a rebuilding year, and Sumlin suffered a most unfortunate turn of events when Starkel broke his leg in the opener against UCLA.

 

Mond’s struggles as a passer allowed defenses to gang up on RBs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. A&M’s rushing attack sagged to No. 109 S&P+ (the passing attack finished No. 72 S&P+). Starkel’s presence alone will elevate both facets of A&M’s offense, but he’s miscast as a miracle worker.

 

On defense, Texas A&M will make do without DT Zaycoven Henderson, a two-year starter who was suspended following an arrest on aggravated assault and other charges earlier this month. A&M’s defensive strength is getting after the quarterback; they’re good at that, and average or worse in most other facets. Wolford’s elusiveness should have the effect of negating some of that strength.

 

Wolford led an incredibly reliable and efficient attack on the whole. Wake scored in 47-of-50 trips inside the red zone this year (two of the misses came against Clemson when Wolford was out). They figure to be money again against the Aggies, who have one of the nation’s worst red zone defenses. A&M allowed scores to opposing offenses in 43-of-48 trips into the red zone (and surrendered a touchdown on a stupefying 71-percent of them). All told, Wake finished with the No. 7 red zone offense. A&M finished with the No. 113 red zone defense.

 

Per the Sagarin rankings, the Deacs played a far harder schedule (No. 13 to No. 48). Despite that, Wake Forest was better against bowl teams (4-5) than Texas A&M (1-5). Wake beat Boston College, Appy State, Louisville and NC State. A&M? Well... they beat South Carolina!

 

On a neutral field and devoid of ancillary context, S&P+ set this line at Wake Forest -5.4. Lets credit A&M with 1.5 points for having Starkel back, and lets immediately subtract those points for Wake’s partial home-field advantage in Charlotte.

 

The motivation edge heavily swings in Wake’s favor due to coaching continuity and program stability. In our highly un-scientific computations, we'll give Wake a 1.5-point advantage for that theoretical edge, giving us a Rotoworld Adjusted Spread of around Wake Forest -7. We would have gladly bet the Demon Deacons up to a -6.5 spread, and are thrilled to get them laying a field goal less than that.

 

Hyundai Sun Bowl

#24 NC State (8-4) vs. Arizona State (7-5)

3 p.m., CBS

Sun Bowl

El Paso, Texas

 

North Carolina State -6.5 vs. Arizona State

 

Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Pretty one sided money coming in on the favorite, moving the line from -6 to -6.5. I would not be surprised if the line hits 7 by kickoff.”

 

Analysis

Everybody and their mother is on NC State in this game. The public turned on Arizona State when they unjustifiably fired HC Todd Graham to hire television cartoon character Herm Edwards, who was represented by ASU AD Ray Anderson back when Herm was piling up losses in the NFL and Anderson was his agent.

 

We could devote 10,000 words to that decision and its aftermath, but you’ve no doubt read plenty about that already. The context is important to keep in mind, because this handicap comes down to a single question: Will the Sun Devils no-show this game after dealing with weeks of unnecessary drama? (Or will they rise up for Graham in his last game on the sidelines?).

 

We can’t answer that question for you. But we would like you to discard your beliefs regarding the Edwards hiring for the purposes of this handicap. That’s tomorrow’s problem for ASU. Edwards was not involved in the prep for this game. Graham was. So again: How will ASU’s players respond?

 

The public consensus has it that the Sun Devils will no-show. Mr. Bradley and the crew at Bovada aren’t the only book that’s taking lopsided action on NCSU—they all are. But what if Arizona State doesn’t no-show? If the Sun Devils play hard for Graham, you’re going to want to be holding an ASU ticket. This is the essence of betting on bowl games: Divorce yourself from the public narrative and make your own read.

 

So let’s strip this game of outside context and dive into the on-field matchup for a bit. S&P+ set this line at NCSU -5.5, while ESPN’s FPI set it at NCSU -4.5. To that, we need to credit Arizona State with partial home field advantage. Not only does the Pac-12 typically have a strong presence at this game, but ASU fans are far closer to the festivities. Tempe is a six-plus hour drive from El Paso. Driving isn’t an option for NC State fans; they’re 1,822 miles away (a 26-hour trek for those who don’t mind a two-day road trip).

 

Let’s split the difference between S&P+ and FPI, call this NCSU -5 on a neutral field, and give ASU 1.5 points for partial home field to bring the Rotoworld Adjusted Spread to NCSU -3.5. Is the lingering stink around ASU’s program worth a field goal tax on the spread? Again, that’s your call.

 

The offenses are about a wash heading in. Arizona State averaged 1.3 more points per game, but NCSU finished a bit higher in S&P+s metrics. NC State has the defensive edge, but it’s not as pronounced as you might think. The Wolfpack finished No. 64 S&P+, while ASU finished No. 100.

 

NC State’s unit boasts the star power, with DE Bradley Chubb (10 sacks, 25 TFL) a potential top-10 pick in the spring. The Pack’s line is one of the best in the nation. Chubb is joined by DE Kentavius Street and DTs Justin Jones and B.J. Hill, all of whom will likely play in the NFL. It’s a flashy position grouping, but the rest of NC State’s defense underwhelmed in 2017. The unit was below average in the ACC in scoring defense, total defense and yards per play allowed.

 

Arizona State, as blitz-happy as ever, ranks No. 17 in the FBS with 35 sacks. The Sun Devils will either make a play in the backfield or give up an explosive play, a trade-off Graham has lived with throughout his tenure. Predictably, ASU ranks a lowly No. 112 S&P+ in defending explosive plays.

 

Arizona State has an enormous advantage on special teams. The Sun Devils rank No. 32 in Phil Steele’s ST rankings and No. 59 in S&P+'s methodology, while North Carolina State's ranked No. 104 and No. 114, respectively.

 

NC State QB Ryan Finley (3,200 yards and a 16/6 TD/INT ratio on 63.9-percent completions) directs a passing attack that finished No. 12 S&P+. We think that ranking flatters the Pack a bit, but this is an extremely efficient attack (No. 22 S&P+ success rate) that doesn’t give up many sacks (No. 6 S&P+ adjusted sack rate). It doesn’t try to beat you deep, though (No. 107 S&P+ in passing explosion). Avoiding sacks will obviously be critical against ASU’s aggressive blitz packages.

 

ASU QB Manny Wilkins (2,918 yards and a 17/5 TD/INT ratio on 63.5-percent completions) is a decent passer and a capable runner (490 yards and six touchdowns on 5.3 YPC). His favorite target, the lengthy and explosive WR N’Keal Harry (73-1000-7), a former blue-chip recruit, has the NFL salivating.

 

ASU has a balanced attack with two future NFL RBs in Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Ballage is a size/speed freak with receiving chops who’s always underachieved as a runner compared to what #DraftTwitter dreamed he would be.

 

The Sagarin Rankings would have you believe that NC State played a harder schedule. Even so, Arizona State incredibly played 11 bowl teams (only Oregon State didn’t qualify). ASU pulled four outright upsets and went 5-2-1 ATS as an underdog. NC State’s 1-7 ATS mark as a favorite does not inspire confidence.

 

NC State has more talent, and they also have far more program stability going forward. But the stability/motivation edge gets negated if ASU goes to bat for Graham one last time.

 

We can’t categorically dismiss the idea that ASU will. And since Graham was relieved of recruiting duties during bowl prep, you could even argue that his team had a short-term stability advantage over just about any other bowl team, the staffs of which all had to devote resources towards the early-signing period earlier this month (Dec. 20-22). Meanwhile, Graham zeroed in on NC State in what is a showcase game for him personally. Graham's next move is unknown, but he will almost assuredly not be an FBS coach next year. If his players rise up for him on national television in his last game, it could only help his cause when the coaching carousel fires back up in 11 months.

 

Investing in Arizona State here will require some real guts, as you’ll be putting yourself against conventional wisdom and the public at large. It’s the biggest contrarian pick of the entire bowl slate. And we’re going to make it. We don’t love backing a team with open-ended motivation questions like this, but unlike many bowl teams with similar concerns, ASU’s bowl prep went on uninterrupted under its current head coach.

 

For a handicap so full of questions, we’re going to leave you with a final one to mull before you invest in this game: With so much money pouring in on NC State, why has the line refused to budge over -6.5? Put another way: Who do you think is betting on Arizona State to monetarily negate the volume of tickets being purchased on the Wolfpack?

 

We’d suggest it’s sharp money. The surest way to win long-term in sports gambling is to follow the sharp money and fade the public as often as you can. In this instance, doing so is extremely counter-intuitive on the surface. We fought with ourselves over the past two weeks on this game. Forced to choose, we’re riding full-contrarian with the sharps.

 

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Kentucky (7-5) vs. #21 Northwestern (9-3)

4:30 p.m., ESPN

Nissan Stadium

Nashville, Tennessee

 

Northwestern -7.5 vs. Kentucky


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “90% of bets on Northwestern, no love for the underdog ‘Wildcats.’ This is shaping up to be a big decision for us.”

 

Analysis

Few bowls feature momentum disparities as big as the Music City Bowl. Northwestern hasn’t lost since Oct. 7. It’s won seven straight games, slaying bowl teams Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue along the way. Kentucky has dropped three of four games (and four of six).

 

The Wildcats started 3-0 in non-conference play (Southern Miss, FCS Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan), beat Missouri during Mizzou’s five-game losing streak early in the season and beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt while those teams were amid breathtaking death spirals. When taking context into account, the team’s best win was probably over South Carolina (23-13) in mid-September.

 

Under further scrutiny, Kentucky’s seven-win resume breaks down even more. Yes, they beat S&P+ No. 34 Southern Miss 24-17 in the opener. But that result was fluky. S&P+ gave Kentucky a 6% win expectancy in that game, and set the adjusted scoring margin at USM -14.5 (i.e. the Golden Eagles were two touchdowns better in a vacuum that day).

 

Kentucky only beat FCS cupcake EKU by 11 (expected S&P+ scoring margin: UK by 7.4 points) and 5-7 Eastern Michigan by four points (expected S&P+ scoring margin: EMU by 8.9 points). Kentucky also had a sub-50% win expectancy in the win over Mizzou (expected S&P+ scoring margin: Mizzou by 3.6 points), and S&P+ adjusted scoring margins of 4.0 points or less in the wins over South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Not only that, but Kentucky lost to home-for-the-holidays Florida and Ole Miss (in results that S&P+ said were not fluky).

 

To hear S&P+ tell it, Kentucky is more like a 5-7 team that could have finished even worse. It isn’t that Kentucky faded down the stretch—it’s that the luck ran out as the schedule got tougher.

 

Kentucky faced three S&P+ top-30 teams, and they were boat-raced each time (by Mississippi State, Louisville and Georgia). Kentucky’s adjusted S&P+ scoring margins in those three games were all between -33.3 and -37.0 (with a 0% win expectancy in each).

 

Northwestern’s resume has no such question marks. Two of its three losses were entirely understandable (Wisconsin and Penn State), and the other can at least be explained (the embarrassing 41-17 loss to Duke in early September before the Blue Devils hit the skids and Northwestern took off).

 

Facing the harder schedule (per the Sagarin ratings), Northwestern had seven wins in which it finished with an S&P+ win expectancy of 89% or more. In its 12 games, Kentucky never once earned an 80% win expectancy. Not even against FCS Eastern Kentucky (79%).

 

This will be the final career game for the criminally underrated RB Justin Jackson, who’s only the ninth player in FBS history to rush for over 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. He owns a bevy of career schools records, including rushing yards (5,283), yards from scrimmage (6,131) and rushing touchdowns (39). He’ll move into third place on the Big 10’s all-time rushing leaderboard by gaining just 17 against Kentucky.

 

Interestingly, Kentucky may just have the next player to post four 1k-rushing seasons on its roster. RB Bennie Snell, a sophomore, became the first player in school history to rush for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. If Snell remains in Lexington through his senior year and stays healthy, he has a strong chance to duplicate Jackson’s neat trick.

 

Clearly, run defense is at a premium in a game like this. More bad news for Kentucky: While it has an awful run defense (No. 93 S&P+), Northwestern has a tremendous run defense (No. 20 S&P+) that allows only 111.3 yards per game on the ground.

 

Like the team as a whole, Kentucky’s run defense cratered in the second half. In the last two games of the regular season—blowout losses to Georgia and Louisville—the Wildcats allowed a combined 727 rushing yards. Over the second half of the campaign, Kentucky surrendered an average of 35.8 points per game.

 

While both teams are heavily-dependent on the run, each has a degree of success when throwing the ball. Kentucky boasts the No. 29 S&P+ passing attack, though that ranking is inflated due to the scarcity of Kentucky’s passing attempts and the highly advantageous situations it was in when it threw (play-action, defenses keying on Snell, etc.).

 

Northwestern, which had more than 150 passing attempts than Kentucky, ranked No. 49 in S&P+’s passing metrics. Make no mistake: Northwestern has the superior aerial attack.

 

Northwestern received some outstanding news last week when QB Clayton Thorson announced he’d return to school in 2018. It was the right call for the player, and a boon for his ascending program. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has thrown for 2,809 yards (No. 3 in the Big 10) on 60.6-percent completions with a 15/12 TD/INT ratio this season.

 

Thorson benefits from Jackson’s outstanding receiving skills (43 catches for 266 yards), and he has a solid pair of outside targets in reliable possession receiver Flynn Nagel (47-483-2) and 6-foot-4 downfield threat Bennett Skowronek (42-619-5).

 

Both teams struggle to defend the pass (Northwestern is No. 79 S&P+), but of course Kentucky is worse (No. 95). Kentucky has an edge on special teams, but that’s about it.

 

As much as we’d like to fade the public here, this situation doesn’t warrant it. Northwestern is a legitimate nine-win Big 10 team, it comes in on fire, and it matches up extremely well on the field. Kentucky is lucky to be in a bowl game, has proven overmatched against quality opponents, and will likely have its biggest strength (rushing offense) neutralized.

 

We like Northwestern to win, and we like them to win by blowout.

 

NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl

Utah State (6-6) vs. New Mexico State (6-6)

5:30 p.m., CBSSN

Arizona Stadium

Tucson, Arizona

 

Utah State -4 vs. New Mexico State


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Some early money on the fav moving from -3.5 to -4, but pretty steady money on both sides since. Nothing of note here.”

 

Analysis

Earlier this bowl season, we picked UAB to upset Ohio. Much of our reasoning revolved around UAB’s supposed motivational edge heading in, as the Blazers had returned from a two-year hiatus to qualify for a bowl. Our thinking was that they would upset an Ohio team that was bored of playing in mid-December bowl games.

 

It’s the worst pick we made during bowl season, and arguably the worst pick we made during the entire 2017 season—Ohio annihilated UAB 41-6. We’re still mortified by that prediction.

 

We bring that up for this reason: The same thought process that we used to back UAB would lead us down the road of taking New Mexico State here. Indeed, we initially leaned the Aggies. But for better or worse, we’re going to use recent history as our guidepost to audible off to Utah State.

 

But first, let's chat about New Mexico State, which has the best bowl story this side of UAB. Along with Idaho, NMSU is being kicked out of the Sun Belt after this season. The Vandals elected to skip down to the FCS ranks after they heard the news. NMSU will begin life as an FBS independent starting next season.

 

It’s a grisly fate to get booted from the worst conference in the FBS, obviously. In NMSU’s case, it was probably warranted—the Aggies haven’t been to a bowl game since 1960. For those reasons and more, New Mexico State AD Mario Moccia, an NMSU alum, cried when accepting the invitation to this game.

 

Whereas we were misled into believing that UAB would respond with a season-best performance in their own triumphant return to bowl season, we aren’t going to assume that the Aggies will do the same. Will NMSU, ala UAB, just be happy to be here? Have they already achieved their 2017 goal?

 

To back New Mexico State, you have to believe that they’ll level-up due to the circumstance. If they level-down because of it, they’re going to get run off the field like UAB did, because Utah State is objectively the better team. S&P+ ranks Utah State No. 55 and New Mexico State No. 69, while the Sagarin Rankings rank USU No. 85 and NMSU No. 125.

 

Sagarin installed Utah State as 11-point favorites, S&P+ tabbed Utah State as 2.2-point favorites and ESPN’s FPI has Utah State as 4.6-point favs. Not only that, but Utah State matches up well on the field here.

 

New Mexico State overcame a poor defense (No. 79 S&P+, No. 101 with 33.3 ppg allowed) with its dangerous passing attack. NMSU is No. 4 in the FBS in passing offense (352.6 yards), and QB Tyler Rogers ranks No. 6 in the country in total offense (348.1 yards).

 

Rogers' favorite target is intriguing 6-foot-6 NFL prospect WR Jaleel Scott (73-1042-8). RB Larry Rose III didn’t post the numbers we saw out of him earlier in his career, but he still earned second-team All-Sun Belt honors with 807 yards and nine scores rushing.

 

All in all, it’s a fun attack that piles up yards (No. 26 in total offense, No. 40 S&P+ offense) but makes too many mistakes to overcome NMSU’s poor defense against good teams. Rogers (3,825 yards, 26 TDs) looks like a future NFL quarterback at times; other times (16 INTs), his gambling ways puts his team into sticky situations they can’t get out of.

 

New Mexico State’s volatile offense committed 26 turnovers this season, which ranks No. 116 in the FBS and was the second-most of any bowl team entering the postseason. Unfortunately, this plays right into Utah State’s hands. Utah State’s defensive strengths are the pass defense (No. 49 S&P+) and its ability to create turnovers (No. 11 with 26 turnovers forced). Utah State finished No. 50 overall in S&P+’s defensive ratings.

 

When the field flips, Utah State will attack NMSU’s shoddy defense with a balanced approach. Utah State’s offense finished a mediocre No. 69 in S&P+’s methodology, but it’s become more dangerous with QB Jordan Love behind center. Former starter Kent Myers never took the next step in his progression, and his early-season struggles opened the door for Love, who won the starting job for good in October.

 

Love’s value is hard to gauge by conventional numbers (1,377 yards passing with an 8/6 TD/INT ratio), but Utah State has averaged more points with him behind center (32.6 ppg in Love’s first starts against 29.8 ppg in Myers’ seven starts), and its rushing attack has noticeably taken off. Leading rusher senior RB Lajuan Hunt averaged 3.7 yards per rush in Myers’ seven starts but is averaging 5.7 yards per carry over his last five games since Love took over.

 

Utah State will only pass when it has to (No. 89 S&P+). When it does, Love will be looking for WR Ron’Quavion Tarver (40 receptions for 472 yards and seven touchdowns).

 

Lastly, Utah State has an enormous special teams advantage, with S&P+’s No. 22 unit going against NMSU’s No. 119 grouping. Phil Steele sees an even bigger disparity; he ranks Utah State’s special teams No. 2 and New Mexico State’s No. 122.

 

In New Mexico State’s last bowl appearance, the 1960 Sun Bowl, they beat Utah State 20-13. To return to bowl season with another win over Utah State, they’ll need to play their best game of the season. We were wrong in making a similar logical leap with UAB. Odds are that Utah State has a different idea of what the ending to this story should be.

 

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

#8 USC (11-2) vs. #5 Ohio State (11-2)

8:30 p.m., ESPN

AT&T Stadium

Arlington, Texas

 

Ohio State -7.5 vs. USC


Straight Up:

Against the Spread:

 


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv SportsBook Manager: “Small move from -7 to -7.5 for Ohio State. But taking about 60% on USC now. I am actually a bit surprised. I like Ohio State in a smashing here, and it looks like we will need that for the book.”

 

Analysis

Like NC State-ASU, this is one of those bowl handicaps that can more or less be boiled down to one simple question: Will Ohio State show up with its A-game after being spurned from the college football playoff?

 

If the Buckeyes do, then they’re the right side—A-game OSU will almost assuredly win by double-digits. But if they’re more preoccupied with the game they aren’t playing in than the game they are, the Trojans could just as easily pull off the outright upset.

 

You already know how we’ve answered that question. You must answer it for yourself.

 

Stripping motivational context away and viewing this game in a vacuum can lead to only one conclusion. All computer models point towards Ohio State being the correct pick. S&P+ set this line at Ohio State -12.1, ESPN’s FPI set it at Ohio State -9.9, Sagarin set it at Ohio State -18.3, OddsShark set it at Ohio State -14.6, and both Phil Steele and Dave Cokin of Covers.com wrote over the past week that their models had Ohio State favored by more than the Vegas spread.

 

At 3-9 ATS, USC tied lowly Kentucky and Western Kentucky for the worst ATS mark among bowl teams. That's not necessarily a bad thing for the purposes of this handicap. There’s a very strong bowl betting system that indicates that a low regular season cover rate is a coup come bowl season. File this under the category of “so overrated that they became underrated.”

 

The system, per ESPN, is this: Teams that covered 33-percent or fewer of their regular season games were 33-19-1 ATS (63.5 percent) in their bowl games heading into this postseason. To be fair, this system is only 1-3 so far this year (Western Kentucky, Colorado State and UCLA failed to cover, while Florida State did).

 

The Trojans were fortunate to avoid Washington in Pac-12 play and ended up facing only one team in the S&P+ top-29. They were pulverized in that game (by Notre Dame, 49-14). To be fair, USC beat the S&P+ No. 30 team, Stanford, twice, mostly recently in the Pac-12 title game. Outside of those two games, USC has an extremely thin resume.

 

USC lost to S&P+ No. 31 Washington State, and they beat S&P+ No. 39 Utah by a single point. Every other opponent on the schedule was ranked No. 49 S&P+ or lower. This is why computer models hate USC: They were dominated by easily the best team on the schedule, and they fatted themselves up against the underbelly of the Pac-12.

 

While USC was 0-1 against teams in the S&P+ top-15 and 2-2 against teams in the S&P+ top-35, Ohio State went 2-1 against teams in the S&P+ top-10 and 4-1 against teams in the S&P+ top-25.

 

The Buckeyes have four wins better than USC’s best: Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Ohio State lost to Oklahoma in early-September, and they missed the Playoff because they were thoroughly dominated by Iowa in November (55-24).

 

Outside of the nightmare showing against the Hawkeyes, OSU QB  J.T. Barrett has played well, throwing for a career-high 2,939 yards and a 35/9 TD/INT ratio on 64.7-percent completions and 7.7 YPA. Ohio State boasts the S&P+ No. 3 passing attack.

 

The running game, led by wunderkind true freshman RB J.K. Dobbins (1,364 yards) and complimented by Barrett’s feet (820 yards with sack yardage omitted along with 10 ground scores), is even better (No. 2 S&P+). Former starter RB Mike Weber is now one of the nation’s three-best RB2s (608 yards and 10 scores on 6.3 YPC), giving Ohio State a fresh, dangerous runner to compliment Barrett at all times.

 

USC has a strong running attack of its own. RB Ronald Jones II (1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns on 6.1 YPC) comes in hot, averaging 162.8 per game during USC’s current five-game winning streak. The Trojans run more hot and cold than the Buckeyes in this phase of the game, and Sam Darnold doesn’t stress defenses outside the pocket to nearly the degree that Barrett can. S&P+ likes USC’s rushing attack less than conventional stats (and the eye test), ranking it No. 52.

 

That system is far higher on USC’s dangerous passing attack (No. 8). When Darnold is on, he flashes transcendent talent and becomes one of the nation’s best players. When he’s off, the Trojans offense struggles to compensate. Fortunately, Darnold has been much more of the former down the stretch, throwing only two interceptions during the current five-game winning streak after opening the season with eight picks in the first five games.

 

Darnold’s favorite target is WR Deontay Burnett (74-975-9). You’ll also want to keep your eye on redshirt freshman WR Tyler Vaughns (51-690-5), who looks like a future star. Ditto for Michael Pittman Jr., who dropped 146 yards on Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Ohio State simply must slow down USC’s aerial show, and they know that damn well.

 

Very good receivers. And the quarterback is obviously going to be a top two or three draft pick in the NFL,” HC Urban Meyer said. “So that’s the biggest issue we’re dealing with.”

 

Both offenses are extremely explosive, each ranking in the top-10 in the FBS in plays of 20-plus yards. If the game turns on home run plays, that will play into OSU’s hands. While OSU ranks No. 44 in preventing plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage, USC is No. 117, having coughed up 71 such plays. S&P+ ranks OSU’s defense No. 13 in defending explosiveness, while USC is No. 76.

 

USC is chalk-full of star-caliber talent on offense, but its line was up-and-down, in part due to injuries and continuity issues. It had better play the game of its season, because Ohio State has the nation’s best defensive line. DE Nick Bosa is the biggest name of the group, and he leads the team with six sacks and 12.5 TFL. Fellow Ohio State defensive linemen Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Dre'Mont Jones, Chase Young and Tracy Sprinkle are all also premium NFL prospects. The Buckeyes led the Big 10 with 37 sacks and 100 TFL.

 

Ohio State is also stocked at linebacker (Jerome Baker is a terror) and in the secondary (CB Denzel Ward is a lock-down cover man who may be the first corner taken in April). The Buckeyes boast the No. 11 overall S&P+ defense. This is, obviously, the area of the game that swings decidedly in the Buckeyes’ favor. In large part due to their issues preventing explosive plays, USC has a middling No. 61 S&P+ defense. Conventional stats, like points per game allowed (No. 76 with 28.5), like USC’s defense even less.

 

The Trojans struggle against the run (No. 53 S&P+), a big issue in this specific matchup. You might recall that USC coughed up 377 rushing yards to Notre Dame, a team with a similar rushing attack to Ohio State’s (S&P+ slightly prefers the Buckeyes’ running game to the Irish’s, for what it’s worth).

 

USC is very good at defending the pass (No. 12 S&P+) and getting after the quarterback (No. 5 with 3.31 sacks per game), however. Ohio State’s offensive line, led by Rimington Award winner Billy Price, has been very good this year. It’ll have to be again to slow USC’s relentless rush.

 

In a vacuum, Ohio State is 10 points or more better than USC. In addition, the Buckeyes match up exceedingly well with the Trojans. But bowl games are not played in vacuums. If you’re going to bet this game, you need to be confident in your read on OSU’s mental state (one way or the other).

 

We tend to believe that Ohio State will show well in a statement to the committee and to make up for the humiliating shutout loss to Clemson in last year’s playoff. If, however, you think the Buckeyes will be listless, we have no problem with you going the other way.

 

****

2017 Bowl Record (through Iowa-BC): Straight-Up: 11-8 (57.9%); Against the Spread: 12-7 (63.2%)

2017 Regular Season Record:  Straight-Up: 115-56 (67.2%); Against the Spread: 90-77-4 (53.9%)

2014-2016:  Straight-Up: 350-197 (64.0%); Against the Spread: 286-250-11 (53.4%)



Thor Nystrom is a former MLB.com associate reporter whose writing has been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to Rotoworld's college football writer on Twitter @thorku.
Email :Thor Nystrom



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