Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Dec 2014

2014-15 SDA Bowl Spectacular Part I

by Chad Peltier

The 2014-15 bowl season kicks off with a slew of games between unranked teams with poor F/+ rankings, but in some ways, this is the #MACtion of the bowl season: lots of competitive matchups and plenty of poor defenses against solidly-ranked IsoPPP and Explosive Drive offenses.

The highest-ranked matchup is probably between Utah and Jim McElwain-less Colorado State, but seven of the other games feature teams ranked within 20 spots of each other in the F/+.

And in true MACtion form, four of the top-ten IsoPPP -- or explosive on a per-play basis -- offenses play between December 20 and December 24.

So what better way to enjoy the holidays than by watching lots of touchdowns?

R+L Carrier's New Orleans Bowl: Nevada (-1) vs. Lousiana Lafayette -- 11 a.m. Saturday December 20 (ESPN)

The 8-4 Ragin' Cajuns won't have to travel far to take on the 7-5 Wolfpack in the New Orleans Bowl. Sure, you will probably watch this game simply because it's the first bowl game of the season, but it should be an enjoyable matchup with star offensive skill guys like Nevada quarterback Cody Fajarado and Lafayette running back Elijah McGuire. The Wolfpack and Cajuns can both claim big victories (Washington State for the Wolfpack and Arkansas State for the Cajuns). Both offenses are ranked in the 50s in Offensive F/+, but with the defenses as poor as they are (84th and 111th), there should be plenty of points (and quality field position!) in the New Orleans Bowl.

Overall Nevada Louisiana Lafayette
Record 7-5 8-4
Overall F/+ 64 86
Field Position Advantage 26 35
Offensive F/+ 53 57
Defensive F/+ 84 111
When Nevada has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 74 87
FEI 45 121
Rushing S&P+ 54 70
Passing S&P+ 72 99
When Louisana Lafayette has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 82 41
FEI 87 64
Rushing S&P+ 105 29
Passing S&P+ 86 79

The 8-4 Ragin' Cajuns won't have to travel far to take on the 7-5 Wolfpack in the New Orleans Bowl. Sure, you will probably watch this game simply because it's the first bowl game of the season, but it should be an enjoyable matchup with star offensive skill guys like Nevada quarterback Cody Fajarado and Lafayette running back Elijah McGuire. The Wolfpack and Cajuns can both claim big victories (Washington State for the Wolfpack and Arkansas State for the Cajuns). Both offenses are ranked in the 50s in Offensive F/+, but with the defenses as poor as they are (84th and 111th), there should be plenty of points (and quality field position!) in the New Orleans Bowl.

The thing that stands out about this matchup is that neither team turns the ball over very often. Nevada is tied for ninth in turnover margin at +.92 per game, and the Cajuns are eleventh with fewest turnovers lost with 13. The Wolfpack are fourth in the country for fumbles (with a total of four) as a percentage of total runs (0.7%), while the Cajuns are sixth (0.8%). Both teams also run the ball heavily, with roughly two-thirds of standard-down plays going as runs for both teams. Neither squad is particularly explosive on offense (IsoPPPs ranked 59th and 73rd for the Cajuns and Wolfpack respectively), but the Cajuns are at least efficient, ranking 21st in Success Rate.

This game will come down to two factors. First, the Cajuns are not great at many things, but their rushing offense is a top-30 Rushing S&P+ unit that is matched up with the 105th-ranked Rushing S&P+ Nevada defense. It will be a long day for the Wolfpack if they can't stop McGuire and company. Second, the Cajuns are among the worst teams in the country in Defensive FEI despite playing the 118th-ranked Defensive Strength of Schedule. The Wolfpack will need to maximize their scoring efficiency if McGuire runs like he has all season.

F/+ Outright Pick: Nevada

Gildan New Mexico Bowl: Utah State (-10) vs. UTEP -- 2:20 p.m. Saturday December 20 (ESPN)

Overall Utah State UTEP
Record 9-4 7-5
Overall F/+ 59 94
Field Position Advantage 47 80
Offensive F/+ 81 99
Defensive F/+ 33 75
When Utah State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 70 84
FEI 89 74
Rushing S&P+ 75 87
Passing S&P+ 76 61
When UTEP has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 33 88
FEI 30 103
Rushing S&P+ 40 73
Passing S&P+ 27 124

Utah State was slightly disappointed with losses to Arkansas State and Colorado State this season, but the Aggies will get a last chance to flex their defensive muscles against a UTEP team that is 99th in Offensive F/+.

While the Miners are staggeringly outmanned against the Aggies defense -- especially in Passing S&P+, where the Miners are one of the worst five teams in the country -- the New Mexico Bowl will highlight Aggies defenders (and brothers) Zach and Nick Vigil for the entire country. The pair have 35.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks, with Zach second to only Scooby Wright in forced fumbles. They are a big reason why the Aggies are seventh in turnovers gained, 11th in Havoc Rate, and tenth in Success Rate.

However, if the Miners can generate any scoring opportunities, the typically solid Aggies defense is worse in the red zone, tied for 102nd in opponent red zone touchdown rate (65.7 percent). The Aggies struggle in the red zone on both sides of the ball, as they are also 94th in red-zone touchdown rate on offense (52.8 percent). If the Miners can win the red zone and sophomore running back Aaron Jones can have a big game (averaging 5.7 yards per carry with 1,233 total rushing yards) then they will have a chance to knock off the defensive-heavy Aggies and claim their eighth win of the season in coach Sean Kugler's impressive second-year turnaround.

F/+ Outright Pick: Utah State

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Utah (-3) vs. Colorado State -- 3:30 p.m. Saturday December 20 (ABC)

Overall Utah Colorado State
Record 8-4 10-2
Overall F/+ 38 30
Field Position Advantage 16 48
Offensive F/+ 76 19
Defensive F/+ 27 57
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 85 45
FEI 74 61
Rushing S&P+ 86 79
Passing S&P+ 74 44
When Colorado State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 46 22
FEI 14 19
Rushing S&P+ 61 52
Passing S&P+ 15 26

The Las Vegas Bowl is likely the biggest and best game of the day, with two top-40 F/+ teams squaring off -- and with opposite strengths. Colorado State's massive offensive success this season propelled head coach Jim McElwain into the Florida job, but his triple-headed offensive monster of quarterback Garrett Grayson, former Alabama running back Dee Hart, and receiver Rashard Higgins deserve just as much credit. Utah has the 27th-ranked F/+ defense, led by disruptive defensive end Nate Orchard, which throttled both UCLA and USC and their strong passing games.

The entire Utah defense vs. Colorado State offense will be the main draw, but in particular, look for how Nate Orchard fairs against the Colorado State offensive line. The Rams are 51st in Adjusted Line Yards, but just 71st in Adjusted Sack Rate. That looks like a good opportunity for Orchard to pad his second-leading sack total (17.5).

But the Colorado State offense is plenty capable of scoring on whichever defense they face. They move slowly (96th in Adjusted Pace), but regularly connect on big plays (sixth in IsoPPP), particularly to Rashard Higgins. Higgins leads the nation in receiving yards per game (149) and averages 18.4 yards per catch. While Utah may be elite at creating big plays on defense, the Rams are equally proficient engineering big plays on offense. And if the Utes manage to slow Higgins with the 15th Passing S&P+ defense, they have to worry about running back Dee Hart, who is 12th in the country in Opportunity Rate.

F/+ Outright Pick: Colorado State

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Western Michigan (+1.5) vs. Air Force -- 5:45 p.m. Saturday December 20 (ESPN)

Overall Western Michigan Air Force
Record 8-4 9-3
Overall F/+ 47 44
Field Position Advantage 103 55
Offensive F/+ 46 79
Defensive F/+ 52 32
When Western Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 36 35
FEI 55 26
Rushing S&P+ 69 8
Passing S&P+ 31 75
When Air Force has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 50 67
FEI 53 87
Rushing S&P+ 82 114
Passing S&P+ 88 33

The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl pits two teams that put together impressive turnarounds from the 2013 season. The 9-3 Falcons (2-10 last year) upset both Boise State and Colorado State in addition to both other service academies, while second-year coach P.J. Fleck took the Broncos from 1-11 last season to 8-4 this year. It's an extremely evenly-matched bowl, with only two teams separating the two in the F/+ rankings.

There are three keys to Idaho Potato Bowl: Jarvion Franklin and the Air Force rush defense; the Bronco's explosive passing offense; and the Air Force passing offense. Despite playing on the 69th-ranked rushing offense, freshman running back Jarvion Franklin is 12th in the country in rushing yards per game, fourth in most rushing attempts, and averages 5.8 highlight yards per opportunity. However, the Falcons are eighth in rushing defense and 16th in Success Rate. The issue for the Air Force defense is in allowing explosive plays (110th) and in pass defense, where the Falcons are 75th. Sophomore quarterback Zach Terrell leads the seventh-ranked IsoPPP offense and averages 9.5 yards per attempt while completing a fifth-best 70 percent of his passes. That's a dangerous mix for the Falcons defense, despite a 46th-to-32nd F/+ matchup between the Western Michigan offense and the Air Force defense.

The Air Force offense has been inefficient running the ball (114th in Rushing S&P+) and generating explosive plays (92nd), but has been effective passing the few times they do pass. The Falcons run the ball on nearly 84% of standard downs (sixth) and nearly 60 percent of passing downs (fifth), but rank 33rd in Passing S&P+. The Falcons average just 151 passing yards per game, but are fourth in the country in passing yards per attempt (9.5). Of course, the Broncos also bring the second-ranked secondary in Havoc Rate, so they'll need to avoid critical mistakes from an aggressive defense, too. If the Falcons can hit a few big passing plays against the 88th-ranked Passing S&P+ defense, then they might take down the upstart Broncos.

F/+ Outright Pick: Air Force

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl: South Alabama (-3) vs. Bowling Green -- 9:15 p.m. Saturday December 20 (ESPN)

Overall South Alabama Bowling Green
Record 6-6 7-6
Overall F/+ 93 104
Field Position Advantage 98 72
Offensive F/+ 124 102
Defensive F/+ 53 110
When South Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 103 107
FEI 126 112
Rushing S&P+ 107 103
Passing S&P+ 112 103
When Bowling Green has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 49 100
FEI 55 98
Rushing S&P+ 35 61
Passing S&P+ 36 119

You should watch the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl for no other reason than the South Alabama Jaguars are playing in their first bowl game ever, against Bowling Green. Neither team has an impressive record (6-6 and 7-6), but South Alabama can claim a close loss to Navy and competitive game against South Carolina on its resume, while Bowling Green upset Indiana just a week before the Hoosiers stunned Missouri (so essentially Bowling Green is your SEC East winner, right?).

Neither team has an offense that instills much fear, but the Jaguars compiled six wins on the back of their defense, which is a top-50 unit overall and a top-40 unit in both rushing and passing defense. A name to watch out for is senior Jaguars defensive lineman Theo Rich, who is 29th in the country with eight sacks to go along with 12 tackles for loss. The Jaguars aren't even top-75 in Havoc Rate, but Rich can change the game, especially against a Bowling Green offensive line that is 80th in Adjusted Line Yards and 86th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Bowling Green running back Travis Greene leads the 61st-ranked rushing offense -- which doesn't sound like much, but Greene himself averages nearly 5.7 yards per carry and is the unquestioned bright spot for the 102nd-ranked Bowling Green offense.

F/+ Outright Pick: South Alabama

Miami Beach Bowl: BYU (+1) vs. Memphis -- 2 p.m. Monday December 22 (ESPN)

Overall BYU Memphis
Record 8-4 9-3
Overall F/+ 42 40
Field Position Advantage 70 2
Offensive F/+ 36 71
Defensive F/+ 59 40
When BYU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 39 28
FEI 33 45
Rushing S&P+ 32 55
Passing S&P+ 41 48
When Memphis has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 51 56
FEI 58 81
Rushing S&P+ 38 91
Passing S&P+ 77 59

BYU and Memphis get to enjoy the wonders of South Beach in the Miami Beach Bowl, but college football fans will enjoy a surprisingly strong matchup between the 42nd- and 40th-ranked F/+ teams. The Miami Beach Bowl is Memphis' first bowl game since 2008, capping an impressive turnaround year after four-straight losing seasons. BYU might be a little disappointed after a fast start that included a 41-7 win over Texas.

Memphis' best shot is to combine a strong defensive effort with a steady pass attack from sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch. Lynch averages 7.4 yards per pass and has only thrown six interceptions all season (14th fewest in the country). His offensive line is likely responsible for the low interceptions, ranking 19th in Adjusted Sack Rate. However, Lynch doesn't have much help from his running game, since that same offensive line is ranked 116th in Adjusted Line Yards and senior running back Brandon Hayes averages just a 36.4% Opportunity Rate (63rd). It doesn't help that the BYU defense is stronger against the run (38th in Rushing S&P+).

BYU took a major hit on offense when quarterback Taysom Hill went down with a leg injury, but a strong run-blocking offensive line (13th in Adjusted Line Yards) kept the offense from losing too much. Hill was one of the most efficient runners in the country before his injury, with the third-highest Opportunity Rate among quarterbacks (68.1 percent of his rushes were successful). Regardless, the Cougars are strong on third down (converting 44.6 percent of attempts), efficient in the red zone (scoring touchdowns on 71.4 percent of opportunities, 14th-best), and have only been slowed by fumbles (14, or the ninth-most in the country). This is likely Memphis' best shot, as the Tigers have been among the most aggressive defensive teams in college football, with the 23rd-ranked Havoc Rate and 13th-best Success Rate in the country.

F/+ Outright Pick: Memphis

Boca Raton Bowl: Marshall (-10) vs. Northern Illinois -- 6 p.m. Tuesday December 23 (ESPN)

Overall Marshall Northern Illinois
Record 12-1 11-2
Overall F/+ 15 72
Field Position Advantage 33 34
Offensive F/+ 27 61
Defensive F/+ 17 85
When Marshall has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 15 77
FEI 39 88
Rushing S&P+ 24 102
Passing S&P+ 35 87
When Northern Illinois has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 3 55
FEI 48 62
Rushing S&P+ 76 49
Passing S&P+ 19 65

The Thundering Herd (12-1) and Northern Illinois (11-2) may have similar records, but the statistics make this look like a completely lopsided matchup. Marshall has the advantage in ten of the F/+ comparisons (Northern Illinois only has an advantage in rushing offense).

The Thundering Herd offense is led by the prolific Rakeem Cato, who averages 8.7 yards per attempt (tenth in the country), and the offensive line, which is 14th in Adjusted Line Yards and 37th in Adjusted Sack Rate. They should have plenty of opportunities against a Huskies defense that is 102nd in Rushing S&P+ and 87th in Passing S&P+, while allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 64.3 percent of red-zone attempts. Marshall is the most explosive offense in the country by IsoPPP, but their weakness has been in turnovers (explaining why their Offensive FEI is ranked much lower than their Offensive S&P+ score). The Thundering Herd are 97th in turnovers lost with a -2 overall turnover margin. Northern Illinois doesn't match up well with Cato and the high-flying Marshall offense, but the Huskies are 34th in Havoc Rate and 27th in turnovers gained.

Marshall is strong on defense, especially per play, but is weak against the run. Those issues largely stem from the defensive line, which is ranked 98th in Adjusted Line Yards. Northern Illinois' senior running back Cameron Stingily may only have 118 rushing attempts this season, but he is 19th in Opportunity Rate. The Huskies might need to lean on Stingily more to have a chance at the upset over Marshall. But even if an upset bid is unsuccessful, at least both teams get to spend their bowl game in Boca Raton.

F/+ Outright Pick: Marshall

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Navy (+3) vs. San Diego State -- 9:30 p.m. Tuesday December 23 (ESPN)

Overall Navy San Diego State
Record 6-5 7-5
Overall F/+ 50 66
Field Position Advantage 116 36
Offensive F/+ 12 86
Defensive F/+ 99 60
When Navy has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 19 54
FEI 8 59
Rushing S&P+ 14 44
Passing S&P+ 78 56
When San Diego State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 71 69
FEI 105 95
Rushing S&P+ 91 60
Passing S&P+ 66 102

San Diego State plays a home game at Qualcomm Stadium against Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, but that won't make it too much easier to stop Keenan Reynolds and the Midshipmen rushing attack. The 14th overall rushing team, Navy has strong wins over Temple, Georgia Southern, and Army (and competitive losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State), while San Diego State's best victory might be over Air Force.

The draw for the Poinsettia Bowl might be the dueling rushers in quarterback Keenan Reynolds and Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphery. Pumphery's Aztecs don't have the most elite rushing offense overall (at 60th), but he has been exceptional, averaging 6.88 yards per carry on the way to 1,761 total rushing yards this season. He ranks 29th in Opportunity Rate and 18th in Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Reynolds leads the nation in quarterback rushing yards per game (118), but is just 39th in Opportunity Rate for quarterbacks and 20th in Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Reynolds is durable and prolific (he has 11 more rushes than any other quarterback in the country), but is not as explosive a running threat as Pumphery. Based on those two alone -- and with San Diego State ranking 102nd in Passing S&P+ -- it's a safe bet that the winner will be the team who wins the running game on both sides of the ball. San Diego State has the better Defensive Rushing S&P+ ranking, but Navy has the better rushing offense. In short, expect a close game full of rushing attempts.

F/+ Outright Pick: Navy

Popeyes Bahamas Bowl: Central Michigan (+4) vs. Western Kentucky -- 12 p.m. Wednesday December 24 (ESPN)

Overall Central Michigan Western Kentucky
Record 7-5 7-5
Overall F/+ 77 65
Field Position Advantage 114 62
Offensive F/+ 63 24
Defensive F/+ 67 102
When Central Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 52 94
FEI 66 101
Rushing S&P+ 81 75
Passing S&P+ 50 124
When Western Kentucky has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 57 21
FEI 72 27
Rushing S&P+ 36 57
Passing S&P+ 97 15

Both Western Kentucky and Central Michigan are 7-5, but they are coming off completely different final games. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers are on a roll with a recent win over Marshall thanks to their record-breaking passing offense. Central Michigan, on the other hand, lost their last game of the regular season to Western Michigan. Both teams will likely rely on their passing attacks: the Hilltoppers are led by Brandon Doughty, the nation's leader in passing touchdowns (44) and second-leader in passing yards per game (362), but their pass defense is just as bad as the offense is prolific. At 124th in Passing S&P+, even Central Michigan's 50th-ranked passing offense should find plenty of holes to exploit.

It's not just that the pass defenses are bad, but they're explosively bad. Western Kentucky is ranked 111th in Defensive IsoPPP; Central Michigan is 76th. That's probably a bigger concern for Central Michigan's defense, because the Hilltoppers are the 15th-most explosive offense in the country. At least the Chippewas can turn to Michigan-transfer running back Thomas Rawls, who has the 32nd-best Opportunity Rate in the country. However, the key for the Chippewas might just be ball security, since they have a -6 turnover margin compared to the Hilltoppers' +6.

F/+ Outright Pick: Western Kentucky

Hawai'i Bowl: Fresno State (+2) vs. Rice -- 8 p.m. Wednesday December 24 (ESPN)

Overall Fresno State Rice
Record 6-7 7-5
Overall F/+ 101 95
Field Position Advantage 63 39
Offensive F/+ 105 65
Defensive F/+ 103 115
When Fresno State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 109 103
FEI 99 120
Rushing S&P+ 101 99
Passing S&P+ 107 112
When Rice has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 98 78
FEI 106 59
Rushing S&P+ 63 99
Passing S&P+ 95 39

Fresno State may have a losing record, and Rice allowed 76 points to Louisiana Tech, but that won't stop either team from enjoying the Hawai'i Bowl on Christmas Eve. As the last college football game of the day, Rice and Fresno State should provide plenty of opportunities for explosive plays. Both are top-40 offensive IsoPPP units, but both defenses are also ranked among the bottom 17 teams in the country in preventing explosive plays. Rice in particular has the services of senior receiver Jordan Taylor for one final game. Taylor has a 65.3 percent catch rate and is targeted on almost a quarter of all of Rice's passes, gaining 781 receiving yards despite missing the first three games of the season.

Outside of slowing either team's explosive plays, the big key will be in not turning the ball over. Fresno State and quarterback Brian Burrell have struggled with turnovers this season, going -5 overall and throwing 19 total interceptions. Otherwise, Fresno State's biggest statistical advantage is in defending the run -- but with Rice's 99th-ranked Rushing S&P+ offense, running the ball probably won't figure prominently in the Owls' game plan anyway.

F/+ Outright Pick: Rice

F/+ PICKS: Bowl Games December 20 to 24

Underdog Spread Favorite F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Lousiana Lafayette 1 Nevada Nevada Nevada
UTEP 10 Utah State Utah State Utah State
Colorado State 3 Utah Colorado State Colorado State
Western Michigan 1.5 Air Force Air Force Western Michigan
Bowling Green 3 South Alabama South Alabama South Alabama
BYU 1 Memphis Memphis Memphis
Northern Illinois 10 Marshall Marshall Marshall
Navy 3 San Diego State Navy Navy
Central Michigan 4 Western Kentucky Western Kentucky Western Kentucky
Fresno State 2 Rice Rice Rice

Record last week outright: 5-1
Record last week against the spread: 5-1
Season record outright: 100-46
Season record against the spread: 72-77

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 19 Dec 2014

3 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2014, 7:56am by Lance

Comments

1
by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 12/21/2014 - 2:44am

espn terrible,job notshowing replay of roughijg punter,penalty by s.,alabama in final minute o f game

2
by hotpad :: Fri, 12/26/2014 - 1:44pm

when is part II coming out? games start in 15 mins....

3
by Lance :: Sat, 12/27/2014 - 7:56am

It's up now!