Thor Nystrom

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ATS Bowl Predictions Dec. 30

Friday, December 29, 2017

Saturday, December 30



TaxSlayer Bowl

Louisville (8-4) vs. #23 Mississippi State (8-4)

Noon, ESPN

EverBank Field

Jacksonville, Florida


Louisville -7 vs. Mississippi State

Straight Up:

Louisville Cardinals logo

Against the Spread:

Louisville Cardinals logo


View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Some significant movement going from -5.5 to now a TD favorite. Still getting pounded on Louisville.”



What a game this would have been in mid-November! The past 40 days have not been kind to Mississippi State.

First, star QB Nick Fitzgerald suffered a gruesome season-ending dislocated ankle in the Egg Bowl. The Bulldogs’ offense went into the tank, and MSU was upset. A few days later, HC Dan Mullen accepted the Florida job. Mississippi State then hired Penn State OC whiz Joe Moorhead to replace him.

Unlike Sonny Dykes, who made the ill-fated decision to coach SMU in the bowl game after being hired, Moorhead decided not to meddle. "This is not my bowl game," Moorhead said. "This isn't my season. I don’t think it’s fair for me to be around this team when I haven’t earned it.”


Mississippi State will instead be led by interim coach Greg Knox, formerly the running backs and special teams coach. In a poorly kept secret, Knox will reportedly join Mullen at Florida after this game. Knox insisted to the contrary. "I have not entered into any agreement with the University of Florida," Knox said. "My focus is totally on this team and this bowl game."

Either way, Mississippi State will be playing without co-OC/WR coach Billy Gonzales, co-OC/OL coach John Hevesy and DC Todd Grantham, who all followed Mullen to Florida. Not only did the head coach leave, but he took his play-callers with him. So Knox gave QB coach Brett Elliott play-calling duties on offense and safeties coach Ron English play-calling duties on defense for this game. TE coach D.J. Looney pulled double-duty, adding offensive line coaching duties to his responsibilities in advance of this game.

In place of Fitzgerald, Knox and Elliott will roll with freshman QB Keytaon Thompson. Thompson is very talented, but he’s extremely raw. He’d better stay healthy: Mississippi State has zero scholarship quarterbacks behind him.

Mississippi State finished with a middling No. 63 S&P+ offense. That unit is in far, far worse shape today than it was heading into the regular season finale. We expect the passing attack to suffer greatly without Fitzgerald and a majority of the offensive brain trust.

That puts a ton of pressure on RB Aeris Williams (1,019 yards and five touchdowns on 4.5 YPC) and the running game. That rushing attack was dynamic due to Fitzgerald’s magic feet (1,025 yards and 14 TDs on 6.6 YPC with sack yardage omitted). We have our doubts about how effective it’ll be in lieu of these unfortunate circumstances.

If Mississippi State had been at full strength, its offense would have shredded Louisville’s poor defense (No. 88 S&P+). Louisville struggles against both the run (No. 95 S&P+) and the pass (No. 109). But it’s important to note that Louisville’s defense greatly improved at the end of the season.

Not so coincidentally, the improvement coincided with CB Jaire Alexander’s return from injury. Louisville allowed 410.1 yards per game and 30.8 points per game in the first nine games and gave up only 16.0 ppg and 233.3 ypg in the last three. Those contests weren’t gimmies either, featuring two bowl teams (Virginia and Kentucky) and a strong offense (Syracuse).

Unfortunately, both Alexander and edge rusher James Hearns have announced that they'll sit out this game. Even without Fitzgerald and Mullen, the Bulldogs offense should theoretically have a decent chance at some degree of success against this crew.

We just don’t think it’ll be able to score enough to keep up with QB Lamar Jackson.

With apologies to Baker Mayfield, Jackson remains the best player in college football. Jackson (1,561 rushing yards and 17 scores and 8.5 YPC with sack yardage taken out) has topped 100-yards rushing in each of the last six games.

Jackson improved as a passer in 2017. He heads into this game with 3,489 yards and a 25/6 TD/INT rate on 60.4% completions and 8.0 YPA. With an average of 411 yards of total offense per game, Jackson averages more than the total offenses of 76 FBS teams.

Louisville has a few interesting skill players around to assist him—RBs Reggie Bonnafon and Malik Williams, WR Dez Fitzpatrick—but make no mistake, this flammable offense (No. 5 S&P+) is a Lamar Jackson Production through and through.

The formula to beating Louisville is extremely straightforward. Since the beginning of last year, four teams have beaten Louisville by more than 10 points: 2016 Houston (awesome defensive line), 2016 LSU (awesome defensive line), 2017 Clemson (awesome defensive line) and 2017 NC State (awesome defensive line). Louisville’s worst loss this season came against Boston College. Say it with me: Awesome defensive line.

The formula is this: If you’re able to cave in Louisville’s offensive line with your front, you’ll free your linebackers to spy Jackson and flood his coverage zones. With the line of scrimmage controlled, you’ll erase Louisville’s running backs from the game, and you’ll force Jackson to beat you single-handedly while trying to evade pursuing defenders like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. Jackson’s good. But ain’t nobody that good.

Mississippi State has a strong defense (No. 20 S&P+), but it’s not designed in a way that’s conducive to stopping Jackson. The Bulldogs generate pressure not by leaving that task to its defensive line, but by blitzing like madmen.  

That allows MSU to pile up sacks and TFL while frequently getting burned deep (No. 120 S&P+ in defending explosive plays, No. 129 in defending explosive passing plays). This defense is like a wristwatch: It’s complicated to everyone but its designer. That designer, Grantham, won’t be on the sidelines.

Even if his replacement were to be just as good, MSU begins at a disadvantage merely by the construct of needing extra pass rushers to generate a push. When Ron English guesses right, he’ll force Jackson to attempt his Houdini routine to make a play. When he guesses wrong, Jackson is going to rip him every time. MSU’s offense won’t be able to keep up.

Louisville got blasted 29-9 by LSU in the Citrus Bowl last year. We were all over the Tigers in that game because of the matchup. This time around, it’s Louisville that draws the favorable matchup. Lamar Jackson could sure use a statement game, and he’ll get it by laying waste to a Mississippi State team that’ll look nothing like the crew that marched onto the field against Ole Miss in the regular season finale.


AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Iowa State (7-5) vs. Memphis (10-2)

12:30 p.m., ABC

Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

Memphis, Tennessee


Memphis -3.5 vs. Iowa State


Straight Up:

Memphis Tigers logo

Against the Spread:

 Memphis Tigers logo

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “-3 to -3.5 but not too many big wagers on this matchup as of yet. Probably be a coin toss for the book.”



In its first bowl trip since 2012, Iowa State drew a tricky matchup. We’d advise you to tune in: Styles makes fights, and these teams’ conflicting MOs could turn this into an instant classic.

Memphis wants to burry you in an avalanche of points. They play extremely fast (No. 13 S&P+ adjusted pace), and they’re always looking for the jugular (No. 2 S&P+ explosive offense).

As Nolan Richardson revitalized Arkansas’ basketball program in the 1990s with his “40 minutes of hell” defense, HC Mike Norvell has cemented Memphis’ status as one of the nation’s premier Group of 5 teams with a brand of “One hour inferno” offense.

The Tigers don’t particularly care how many points you score. They’re more interested in scoring as many points in as short a time as humanely possible. They have an NFL quarterback with a big arm in Riley Ferguson (63% completions for 3,971 yards and a 36/9 TD/INT rate), and a superstar WR in Anthony Miller (92 catches for 1,407 yards and 17 touchdowns).

Miller is explosive, sure-handed and, for a player of his ilk, surprisingly money in contested situations. It’s almost unfair to have a player of his skill in an offense like this playing against mostly G5 opponents.

You must devote as many resources as possible to not getting torched by that duo, but you also must worry about alignment and assignments on the fly as Memphis sprints towards the line of scrimmage to take the next snap.

In all the confusion, anxiety and fatigue created by that dichotomy, Memphis’ supporting offensive players find themselves in advantageous situations consistently, getting the ball with space to work against defenders sucking air. Tigers RBs Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor feasted this year, combining for almost 2,000 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

Henderson looked like a future star down the stretch, topping 100 yards in each of his last five games. In those contests, he averaged around 10 yards per carry while scoring seven touchdowns. He’s also a strong receiver.

When you play offense this fast, it’s nice to have depth, and Memphis his it in spades. In RBs Tony Pollard (222 yards) and Doroland Dorcecus (201), the Tigers’ have third- and fourth-stringers who would be starting on some other FBS teams. Pollard, a speedster, is dynamite in passing situations (34 catches).

Memphis’ complimentary receivers are also solid, with reliable possession WR Phil Mayhue and TEs Joey Magnifico and Sean Dykes all able to produce against the single-coverage they exclusively face.

For a team so explosive, Memphis’ secret sauce is appearing to gamble when in fact they are not. They’re like the poker player Phil Ivey, tossing chips around the pot to solidify a reputation as a loose gambler. Ivey gets opponents on their heels early, and he’s impossible to read because he’s always betting. If you become meek, he’ll win small pots throughout the night. If you take on a hero complex and try to bluff him out, you’re liable to lose your stack.

Ivey’s style of play is this: I will dictate the way this game is played, you will make mistakes amid the tempo, and I never will. One way or the other, your money is heading in Ivey’s direction, no matter what strategy you use against him. He’s extremely skilled, and his up-tempo play means he’ll always be dealing with you from a position of leverage.

Memphis is the same. Despite boasting one of the nation’s fastest and most explosive offenses, they ranked a highly respectable No. 40 in turnovers lost (and would finish much higher in a per-play metric). It’s no wonder that the Tigers rank No. 2 in the country with 52.0 points per game scored and No. 3 in S&P+’s overall offensive rankings.

This style of play leaves the defense on the field for long stretches, and Memphis gives up points in bunches. They rank No. 115 with 36.5 ppg allowed and No. 106 in defensive S&P+. They could allow less by playing slower and more conservative on offense, but like Ivey, they’re fine losing smaller pots so long as they leave the night a big winner.

Memphis’ defensive crew is better on a per-play basis than it is when looking at counting numbers. It ranks No. 65 in S&P+ run defense and a respectable No. 40 against the pass. The real defensive strength is creating turnovers. Memphis led the AAC in takeaways. In conjunction with the offense’s ability to play under control while in hyper-tempo, the Tigers finished No. 4 in the country in turnover margin.

Iowa State, of course, plays the exact opposite way. They’re slow and methodical on offense (No. 90 S&P+ adjusted pace), and they perceive the ball as you might perceive your infant child. Iowa State did not lose a single fumble this season, the only team in the country that can make that claim. The Cyclones rank No. 3 in turnovers lost (a mere nine in 12 games), and No. 12 in turnover margin.

The Cyclones have a boring, mediocre offense (No. 71 S&P+) that they augment with a solid-but-not-elite defense (No. 31). ISU has a keeper in 1,000-yard RB David Montgomery, though the running game as a whole was panned by S&P+ (No. 91).

It struggled both in efficiency and explosion, and the Cyclones don’t have much behind Montgomery. The lack of depth may or may not come into play here, as Montgomery suffered an ankle injury in the regular season finale. He swore to reporters that he’s fine, but it’s something to keep an eye on after he was limited to only 14 yards on four carries against Kansas State.

Iowa State’s offensive strength is its passing game (No. 55 S&P+). The attack is shepherded by veteran game-manager QB Kyle Kempt and runs on his merry band of strong receivers, led by prime NFL prospects Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler, both of whom are huge (Lazard is 6’5, Butler 6’6).

The Cyclones’ defense is particularly strong against the run (No. 25 S&P+), while it at times struggled with strong passing attacks (No. 64 S&P+ pass defense). We have concerns about how ISU’s secondary will deal with Ferguson and Miller’s histrionics once Memphis ramps up the tempo.

Both coaches signed extensions after the season, giving each team continuity through bowl preparation. Per the Sagarin rankings, Iowa State played the No. 22 schedule while Memphis played the No. 82 schedule. The Cyclones were extremely effective against some of the explosive offenses they saw, going toe-to-toe with Oklahoma State in a loss, and beating Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech.

This is the one area of the handicap that gave us pause. Memphis played only one Power 5 team, beating UCLA by a field goal, and their best win was over Houston. Outside of that, Memphis only played two other bowl teams (beating SMU and Navy).

All that said, Iowa State faded down the stretch, losing three of four in November (the only win, over 1-11 Baylor, was far from a dominant showing). For a team with poor depth and little star power, it’s concerning that Iowa State began to struggle after it was no longer able to ambush unsuspecting opponents with its clever, methodical brand of play.

Memphis has no such concerns, annihilating every opponent since late October by 20 or more points before losing an instant classic in the AAC title game to UCF by a touchdown. We were incredibly impressed by that showing—the Knights, per S&P+, were the ninth-best team in the country—and think Memphis will carry over the momentum.

Memphis has the great fortune of drawing a home game here. Instead of the partial home field credit we usually give teams playing closer to the bowl destination, Memphis gets full home field advantage (3-3.5 points of line value). It should also be noted that the favorites in the Memphis bowl games are 8-0 ATS.

S&P+ installed Memphis as a 4.6-point favorite on a neutral field, a spread we more or less agree with. Baking in home field advantage, we think we’re getting four or five points of line value on the Vegas spread. Yes, Iowa State is going to try to ugly this thing up.

They may just succeed one last time. We’re just not confident that the team we saw in November, which had gone to war week-after-week with heavyweights, can go into Memphis and remove the wheels from this explosive attack.


PlayStation Fiesta Bowl

Washington (10-2) vs. #9 Penn State (10-2)

4 p.m., ESPN

University of Phoenix Stadium

Glendale, Arizona


Penn State -3 vs. Washington

Straight Up:

Washington Huskies logo

Against the Spread:

 Washington Huskies logo

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Penn State is one of our most popular teams when it comes to betting on them, so am not surprised to be taking about 80% on them. But this line might be a bit biased towards that fact. I would take Washington here.”



Bovada isn’t the only book that has taken heavy action on Penn State. That seems to be going on around the industry. We agree with Mr. Bradley’s read: We’re thrilled to oppose the public in this spot.

Penn State is a tremendous team, explosive on offense (No. 12 S&P+) and stingy on defense (No. 12). The Nittany Lions pulled off the neat trick of finishing the season in the top 10 of both points per game scored (41.6, No. 10) and points per game allowed (15.5, No. 7).

Forgive us, but we find PSU slightly overrated. Around the internet over the past few weeks, we read a few different variations of the idea that the Nittany Lions would be in the playoffs right now if they had merely held onto their 11-point lead with five minutes left. We care not for that narrative.

Three counter-points: 1.) They didn’t. 2.) They lost the next week to Michigan State. 3.) This oh-so-close storyline never would have started in the first place if Iowa had merely closed out a certain victory in September (Penn State drove 80 yards in 1:42 and scored a touchdown on the game’s final play to win 21-19).

Upon closer inspection, Penn State’s resume loses a bit of luster. PSU played three patsies in the non-conference and probably should have lost to Iowa in the Big 10 opener. It caught Northwestern in early-October before the Wildcats took off, blew out Michigan (that was impressive), benefited from a considerable amount of circumstantial luck in the Ohio State loss (S&P+ set the adjusted scoring margin at OSU -17.7 and gave PSU a 3% win expectancy), lost in a non-fluky way to Michigan State, and closed out the year by boat racing three terrible Big 10 teams (Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland).

We’re nitpicking, admittedly. And while we don’t see Penn State as a playoff-worthy outfit, we do agree that they’re a well-rounded bunch that’s extremely fun to watch.

The offense is about as well constructed an attack as you’ll see. It’s efficient (No. 12 S&P+), explosive (No. 20), smart (top-eight in average starting field position for both the offense and defense) and money inside the opponent’s 40 (No. 11). It does all that while being extremely careful with the ball (No. 5 in turnover differential).

How do they do it? Tactical genius, a transcendent talent at running back and a whole bunch of solid role players outside of that who run the innovative attack to perfection.

The otherworldly talent, of course, is RB Saquon Barkley, who’ll be a top-10 selection in the spring. Barkley rushed for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns on 5.7 YPC with a 47-573-3 line as a receiver (12.2 YPC). Penn State’s offense is based around the idea of giving itself multiple options on every play, dictated by pre- and post-snap reads. It’s heavy on RPOs, and it heads into a majority of plays with no set idea of where the ball will wind up.

They’re happy to let the defense dictate that. Once they know where you’re vulnerable, they’ll merely point the ball in that direction. A player with Barkley’s ability is killer in this system; you simply cannot gang up on him without leaving yourself thinned out elsewhere.

PSU QB Trace McSorley (3,228 yards and a 26/8 TD/INT rate on 65.3% completions and 7.5 YPA with 568 yards and 11 scores on the ground with sack yardage omitted) isn’t the most physically gifted quarterback, but he runs the offense like a maestro. A scheme so heavily reliant on reading a defense’s alignment and movement needs a smart quarterback who’ll take what the defense gives him and won’t make mistakes. Penn State has one. McSorley knows what he is. He doesn’t try to play hero.

Penn State doesn’t have a ton of explosion on the perimeter, though it has extremely reliable receivers (the top-five most targeted pass-catchers all had a catch rate over 62%) who make defenses pay for being out of position. When he’s not shuffling the ball off to Barkley, McSorley is looking for WRs DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson (48 catches apiece) and TE Mike Gesicki (51).

We have two issues with the offense: 1.) The offensive line remains middling (No. 67 in S&P+ adjusted line yards on runs, No. 105 in S&P+ stuff rate, No. 74 in adjusted sack rate), and, most importantly, 2.) OC Joe Moorhead is now the head coach at Mississippi State.

Moorhead is one of the sport’s brightest offensive minds, and it was his brilliant scheme that propelled Penn State back to greatness. It’s a system based on impeccable play calling and clear communication on the field. Penn State isn’t explosive to this degree because of personal, though having Barkley helps—it’s this explosive because it’s always two steps ahead of the defense. Without Moorhead, will it retain that advantage?

The issues with the line led to bouts of ineffectiveness on the ground, despite Barkley’s presence. And it didn’t allow passing plays to develop as they had a year before. PSU had 30 plays of 40+ yards in 2016. They have 13 such plays this year.

That could be a big issue against Washington. Penn State has a good defense. The Huskies’ is better (No. 4 S&P+). It’s led by future Round 1 pick DT Vita Vea, a dancing bear who’s immovable off the line.

Washington controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the year and allowed only 2.6 yards per carry and 92.3 rushing yards per game. The rushing defense ranked No. 11 S&P+ and was No. 1 in preventing explosive rushing plays. The Huskies won’t erase Barkley, but they could absolutely slow him. And if they do, and PSU’s passing attack suffers any without Moorhead, Washington will have the Nittany Lions right where they want them.

Washington’s offense is solid (No. 23 S&P+) and unsexy. It’s hyper-efficient (No. 6 S&P+) and is always moving forward. Like the offense itself, UW QB Jake Browning’s game is almost boring in its cool efficiency (69% completions with an 18/5 TD/INT rate while rushing for six scores). Washington is almost as good as Penn State at taking care of the ball on offense and taking it away on defense, finishing with a plus-11 turnover differential.

Browning missed WR John Ross, and the offense as a whole dropped off a tad in yards per play. Even so, it’s hard attack to shut down. Browning doesn’t commit unforced errors, RB Myles Gaskin (1,282 yards and 19 scores; will achieve his third-straight 1,300-yard season with 18) is a dude, and his backup, Lavon Coleman, will also play in the NFL.

Huskies WR Dante Pettis (62 passes for 721 yards and seven touchdowns) will be the best pass-catcher on the field, and Pettis doubles as one of the most dangerous return men in the history of the NCAA.

Like Penn State, Washington also lost its OC, Jonathan Smith, who’s now the head coach at Oregon State (WR coach Matt Lubick will be the play-caller versus PSU). We’re not nearly as concerned by that as we are Moorhead’s defection, as Washington’s attack is a straightforward pro-style system (checkers) while PSU’s offense is progressive and complex (three-dimensional chess). The players matter more in UW’s system, while the play-caller and system itself holds more weight on the PSU side.

In the final analysis, we just trust Washington more in this spot. Moorhead’s loss will be felt by PSU (to what degree we don’t yet know), while we love the system in place at Washington. UW HC Chris Petersen, who won two Fiesta Bowls at Boise State and is 6-4 overall in bowl games, is a coach we always want to have money on in the postseason.

Washington is great at protecting the passer and defending explosive plays, two skills that could negate two of Penn State’s biggest strengths. And lastly: With a deluge of tickets bought on Penn State, the line hasn’t gone up. In fact, it’s fallen from an opening of PSU -4.5. You know what that means: Washington is the sharp side. We’re with them.


Capital One Orange Bowl

10 Miami (10-2) vs. #6 Wisconsin (12-1)

8 p.m., ESPN

Hard Rock Stadium

Miami Gardens, Florida


Wisconsin -6 vs. Miami

Straight Up:

Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes logo

Against the Spread:

 Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes logo

View from Vegas

Kevin Bradley, SportsBook Manager: “Some potential injury concerns and money has dropped this line a whopping -7 to -4.5. It’s now seeing even action on both sides.”



Behold! Before you stands a banged-up defensive juggernaut that lost to the only great team they played and a banged-up, well-rounded contender that lost its way late in the regular season after succumbing to injuries.

We begin with Wisconsin, a 12-1 team we still don’t have a good feel on. We know this: The Badgers simply dominate teams that are above-average or worse. During their 12-0 regular season, Wisconsin never once finished with an S&P+ win expectancy of less than 72%.

We do have a few nits to pick with the resume. Wisconsin’s best non-conference opponent was FAU, and the Badgers caught the Owls on Sept. 8, a month before Lane Kiffin got the train rolling. FAU finished as S&P+’s No. 12 team, but they were no such thing in early September, starting the season 1-3 with a loss to Buffalo.

Outside of the Owls, Wisconsin’s three best wins came in defeating Northwestern in late-September before the Wildcats took off (nine-game winning streak to close the year), dominating Purdue defensively in a sluggish offensive showing (17-9) and beating Michigan 24-10 in a game the Wolverines led 10-7 before starting QB Brandon Peters got knocked out in the third quarter.

In the Big 10 title game, Wisconsin lost to Ohio State 27-21 in a contest that was a little closer on the scoreboard than it was in actuality (S&P+ gave Ohio State a -12.6 adjusted margin of victory). We went into that game with some doubts about Wisconsin’s ability to remain elite defensively against top-notch athleticism, and we left it with a conviction that we’d fade Wisconsin if they were paired up with an athletic team in bowl season.

Miami qualifies. But with a big caveat. The Hurricanes raced out to a 10-0 start, dominating upper-tier teams like Virginia Tech and Notre Dame along the way. That was before a stupefying upset loss at Pitt and an embarrassing 38-3 butt-kicking by Clemson’s hands in the ACC title game a week later.

In large part, the issue was injuries to key offensive players and the effect those injuries had on this attack’s point man. Star RB Mark Walton was lost for the season in October. Miami weathered his loss due to the emergence of Travis Homer (902 yards). The Canes didn’t handle the late-season losses of WR Ahmmon Richards (24 catches for 439 yards) and TE Christopher Herndon (40 catches for 477 yards) as well.

While the rushing attack (No. 43 S&P+) more or less kept humming without Walton, the passing attack (No. 22 S&P+) sagged sans two of its top-three pass catchers. That had more to do with QB Malik Rosier than the replacements (WR Darrell Langham looked like a future star late in the year, and explosive freshman WR Jeff Thomas deserved more touches). Rosier, however, went into the tank. In the two losses, he was sacked seven times while completing 46-percent of his passes.

With nearly a month to prepare for Wisconsin, will Rosier be more prepared? Will the offensive play-calling be better than the non-creative script trotted out at the end of the campaign? We’re about to find out. We’ll say this: Even without Richards, Herndon and Walton, Miami has speed and athleticism in spades. If Rosier plays like he did earlier this season, the Hurricanes are going to stress Wisconsin in the intermediate and deep sectors of the field.

Miami doesn’t need to have a tremendous offensive showing to win this game. The Hurricanes’ offense is solid but not tremendous (No. 39 S&P+). It is also an explosive attack (No. 10 S&P+) that takes advantage of the strong field position Miami’s strong defense (No. 21 S&P+) consistently puts it into.

Miami will struggle to score on Wisconsin’s elite defense (No. 1 S&P+), but Wisconsin’s mediocre offense (No. 44 S&P+) is also going to have issues against Miami’s aggressive defense.

The Badgers are a one-man show on that side of the ball. Freshman sensation RB Jonathan Taylor (1,847 rushing yards) is already one of the FBS’ best players. He’ll enter next season as a Heisman frontrunner. Taylor surpassed 100 yards in nine of his 13 games during the regular season.

Outside of Taylor, this attack is toothless, though. QB Alex Hornibrook (61% completions for 2,386 yards and a 21/15 TD/INT ratio) is inconsistent and turnover prone. If Taylor isn’t sizzling against the Canes, Wisconsin will be in trouble. Hornibrook’s interception-happy game is a poor fit against Miami’s turnover-happy defense.

Expect to see Miami’s turnover chain out in full force: The Hurricanes have 17 interceptions. Overall, Miami forced the third-most turnovers of any team in the FBS. In conjunction with an offense that doesn’t often make huge mistakes, Miami entered the postseason with the nation’s No. 1 turnover differential.

Miami is also extremely good at getting after the passer. It finished with the S&P+ No. 19 adjusted sack rate. Traditional numbers show the pass rush in an even brighter light. The Hurricanes rank No. 1 sacks (3.6 per game) and No. 2 in TFLs (8.6 per game).

The Hurricanes are strong against the run, allowing 146.1 yards per game, and they’re particularly good at getting into the backfield and blowing up plays early (No. 18 S&P+ stuff rate). Notre Dame’s elite rushing offense was averaging seven yards per carry when it played Miami. The Hurricanes dismantled the attack, holding the Irish to only 109 rushing yards.

Wisconsin has a strong run blocking line—No. 22 S&P+ adjusted line yards and No. 28 stuff rate—but the Badgers struggle to protect the passer (No. 80 S&P+). So while we worry about how Wisconsin’s defense deals with athleticism, we also have some concerns with how the Badgers’ big offensive line will deal with Miami’s explosive pass rushers.

Miami’s front seven—DT RJ McIntosh, DE Trent Harris, DE Joe Jackson, DT Kendrick Norton, LB Shaquille Quarterman, LB Zach McCloud and LB Michael Pinckney—is worth the price of admission.

Wisconsin holds opponents to merely 4.0 yards per play, tied with Alabama for the fewest in the nation. It is good against the run and the pass, and really only has a noticeable weakness against explosive passing plays (No. 68 S&P+). Miami’s speed on the perimeter could absolutely took advantage of this Achilles heel, but again, that will require Rosier picking it up after two duds to close the season.

We’ve talked a lot about Miami’s injuries. Wisconsin has dealt with its fair share of them, too. WRs George Rushing and Quintez Cephus are out for the year. LBs Jack Cichy, Zack Baun and Mason Stokke were all lost for the season in August, and LB Noah Burks is questionable for this one. The secondary’s depth has also been tested with S Patrick Johnson out for the year, CB Titus Booker leaving the team in October and DB Lubern Figaro questionable.

ESPN’s FPI set this line at Wisconsin -1.6, and S&P+ set it at Wisconsin -7.6. Let’s split the difference and call Wisconsin a -4.5 favorite on a neutral field. But this, of course, is not a neutral field.  Like Memphis, Miami is fortunate to draw straight home-field advantage here.

That’s worth at least a field goal on the line, bringing our Rotoworld Adjusted Spread to around Wisconsin -1. Between the field goal value we feel we’re getting on the spread and our trepidations about Wisconsin’s ability to defend upper-echelon athleticism, we’re calling for an outright Hurricanes upset.

2017 Bowl Record (through OSU-VT): Straight-Up: 14-9 (60.9%); Against the Spread: 15-8 (65.2%)

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 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.
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