Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Jan 2017

SDA: 2016-17 Bowl Spectacular Part IV

by Ian Boyd

The College Football Playoff semifinals are over, but Part IV of our bowl game extravaganza features some fun contests between several conference champions and multiple top teams from 2016. Big 10 heavyweights like Wisconsin, Iowa, and the league's champions, Penn State, all play on this day. USC, who will likely be a popular pick to make the playoffs in 2017, squares off against the Nittany Lions in one of the more intriguing matchups, and then we get a southern showdown between Auburn and Oklahoma that may be more evenly matched than people realize.

If you're a fan of college football, it's going to be hard to top this slate even if there aren't any championships at stake.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Outback Bowl: Florida (-3) vs Iowa -- January 2, 1 p.m. (ABC)

Florida finished the year surprisingly strong, with a stout defense that played well all year and an offense that often found ways to get just enough points on the scoreboard to get by. Their defensive style over the last few years has mostly been to play conservative base defense on standard downs, force third-and-long, and then bring exotic packages with confusing blitzes and different types of coverage.

Overall Florida Iowa
F/+ 38 19
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 102 30
S&P+ 107 12
IsoPPP+ 95 18
Rushing S&P+ 95 54
Passing S&P+ 63 12
When Iowa has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 8 44
S&P+ 8 65
IsoPPP+ 7 54
Rushing S&P+ 15 28
Passing S&P+ 7 68

Incidentally, that's the same style that has allowed Iowa to be so competitive in the Big 10 West over the last few years. This year the Hawkeyes also mixed in a solid passing game with senior quarterback C.J. Beathard and found a potential star of the future in running back Akrum Wadley. Their run game with Wadley as the featured runner allowed the Hawkeyes to beat Michigan and spoil the Wolverines' season, and then to whip Nebraska at the end of the year as he ran for a combined 220 yards in those two games.

Florida ended up leaning on transfer quarterback Austin Appleby and will turn to him one more time in this game while hoping that their younger offensive linemen and quarterbacks on campus allow them to make a better collective showing in 2017. In the meantime, it's on Appleby to try and drag their struggling offense into the end zone enough times to prevent wasting the outstanding efforts they always get from their defense.

This will be a major challenge against the Iowa defense, which doesn't give up big plays and is excellent at locking down the pass. Their defense has been largely built around cornerback Desmond King, who can handle playing coverage on an island, freeing the rest of the Hawkeyes to lock down other threats. Jaleel Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive tackle who led the team with 7.5 sacks, was also a big component, and his disruption in the middle really mucked up the works for Michigan's offensive line.

King's ability to lock down star Florida wide receiver Antonio Callaway, combined with the kind of damage that Jaleel Johnson could do to Florida's offensive line, could make this a tough one for the Gators. On the other side though, while the Hawkeyes have a much better all-around offense than do the Gators, they lack receivers that can burn Florida or really allow Iowa to open up the game. So unless Wadley breaks off a bunch of long runs (which he might), this game could be another low-scoring slog that Florida has a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

Watch for:

  • Can Iowa get explosive plays by getting the ball to Akrum Wadley?
  • Can Florida block Jaleel Johnson inside well enough to move the ball on offense?
  • Does either team get plays on special teams that could break open a likely low-scoring, defensive battle?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Iowa

Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Western Michigan vs Wisconsin (-8) -- January 2, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Western Michigan Wisconsin
F/+ 22 12
When Western Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 2 6
S&P+ 22 5
IsoPPP+ 17 9
Rushing S&P+ 36 16
Passing S&P+ 5 16
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 28 37
S&P+ 68 57
IsoPPP+ 74 35
Rushing S&P+ 94 44
Passing S&P+ 62 10

If you haven't watched Western Michigan this year, they're a very solid spread offense somewhat comparable to what you see from spread offenses all over the country. Their head coach P.J. Fleck has built their program around recruiting, and their spread offense is designed to allow them to get the ball to their best players over and over again in a "bellcow" offensive paradigm. Their defense is solid and multiple but hasn't caught on like their offense yet.

Wisconsin is a pretty tough draw for them for a few reasons. The first is that Wisconsin's favorite defense to play this year is a 2-4-5 nickel package that gets outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel standing up on either edge where they can get up to all kinds of mischief and disguises while backed by a solid secondary that makes life hard on spread teams with disciplined coverage. Western Michigan likes to run a lot of run/pass option plays where you have to choose between handling someone like star receiver Corey Davis (1,427 receiving yards) in space or bruising running back Jarvion Franklin (1,300 rushing yards) between the tackles.

Wisconsin's 2-4 fronts can move people around and muddy the reads for the quarterback, and their safety tandem of D'Cota Dixon and Leo Musso are active in support and very good tacklers. This is a tough unit to move the ball methodically against; Penn State's secret was to attack them deep repeatedly and that's a much, much riskier bet for Western Michigan.

On the other side of the ball, this game will be an interesting test for how far along the Wisconsin run game has come over the course of the year. Senior running back Corey Clement ended the year with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, and the young Badgers offensive line seemed to have things figured out by the end of the year.

That's all bad news for a Western Michigan defense that will be asked to stand in the way as the Badgers batter away with their running game. Perhaps the closest that the Broncos came to facing a run game this big and physical was against another Big 10 school, Northwestern, whose main runner Justin Jackson ran for 124 yards in a very narrow Western Michigan victory (22-21) to start the year. To prove they belong in a game at this level, Western Michigan is going to need to stand up to the Wisconsin run game and prevent the Badgers from bowling them over -- and thus blowing them out.

Watch for:

  • Can Western Michigan's defensive line and linebackers stand up to the Badgers in the trenches or will they be gashed early and often?
  • How does Wisconsin attack Western Michigan's spread-option offense and can they lock it down in their nickel package?
  • Can Western Michigan's offensive line block Wisconsin's blitzes or does the Badgers pass rush put this game away early?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Wisconsin

The Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual: USC (-6.5) vs Penn State -- January 2, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall USC Penn State
F/+ 7 13
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 25 35
S&P+ 17 16
IsoPPP+ 7 29
Rushing S&P+ 12 27
Passing S&P+ 6 31
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 27 20
S&P+ 13 29
IsoPPP+ 11 6
Rushing S&P+ 10 74
Passing S&P+ 13 2

Penn State's offense really shocked the Big 10 at the end of the year and they put up a lot of points on some good defenses without being able to run the ball effectively. Now, Penn State's running back Saquon Barkley is a major stud, but opponents like Wisconsin would drop a safety down to outnumber the run game and limit the damage that he could do in the Nittany Lions' spread offense.

It was then that the Nittany Lions would respond in a revolutionary (for the Big 10) way by accepting the gauntlet toss and happily throwing the ball down the field play after play after play. With tough and mobile Trace McSorley in the pocket and receivers like Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, or tight end Mike Gesicki running down the field, it was a very difficult feature to counter.

USC has a better pass defense than many teams in the Big 10, and with cornerbacks Iman Marshall and Adoree Jackson, they might have a better chance than Wisconsin did at holding up outside in man coverage while a safety helps out against Barkley. That's still a tough challenge though, because teams like Penn State are demonstrating that a modern passing game can become efficient enough that you can't totally shut them down if they're willing to take enough deep shots -- you have to match them on the scoreboard.

USC might be up to that challenge as well. The Trojans were really rolling by the end of the year after installing freshman quarterback Sam Darnold at the helm. The young signal-caller was a true gunslinger, and threw a couple of picks against both Washington and UCLA, but he also beat both of those teams and threw 26 touchdowns to eight interceptions on the year. With Darnold flinging the ball around to USC's typically athletic cast of wide receivers, lead running back Ronald Jones II found more room to run the ball and broke a thousand yards for the year with a strong finish.

Handling this offense could certainly be a big challenge for Penn State, but the Nittany Lions have a lot of talented defensive ends they like to throw at opposing quarterbacks, and their run defense benefits from a strong linebacker corps that got healthy midway through the year and rebounded from early setbacks. That said, they got pounded by Wisconsin's run game in the Big 10 championship game (Corey Clement ran for 164 yards on 21 carries) and had to outscore the Badgers to pull off their come-from-behind victory.

If USC can diminish the efficiency of Penn State's vertical passing attack while scoring points on their own with Darnold and Jones, they should be able to survive against the formula that won the Big 10 and cement their standing as a favorite to win big in 2017.

Watch for:

  • Can Penn State get after USC quarterback Sam Darnold with their base pass-rush and prevent USC from matching them on the scoreboard?
  • Does USC hope to match up in man coverage on the Penn State receivers or take their chances against Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley?
  • Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki lines up all over the field and could be a pro next year.
  • Is Sam Darnold ready to make a leap as a sophomore and lead the Trojans back to glory?

S&P Outright Pick: USC

Allstate Sugar Bowl: Auburn vs Oklahoma (-3) -- January 2, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Auburn Oklahoma
F/+ 11 10
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 29 55
S&P+ 34 57
IsoPPP+ 47 63
Rushing S&P+ 27 55
Passing S&P+ 42 45
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 9 3
S&P+ 7 1
IsoPPP+ 15 1
Rushing S&P+ 12 22
Passing S&P+ 32 1

Auburn is sneakily one of the better teams playing on January 2, and it's not as obvious as it could have been because their quarterback fought injuries much of the year. Nevertheless, Auburn won eight games playing in the tough SEC West and played playoff teams Alabama and Clemson tougher than many other teams managed to do.

The Tigers looked a little different than many have been used to with quarterback Sean White at the helm since White is not much of a runner and his presence required that Auburn support their normal inside runs with a mix of sweeps and pass options. That worked quite well, though, and running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson had 1,123 and 862 yards respectively with 19 combined touchdowns. The Auburn offensive line and H-back Chandler Cox were back to their normal, bruising ways, and the Tigers really mauled people in the trenches.

That should make for an interesting encounter with the Oklahoma Sooners, who have been fairly beat up in their defensive front this season and had to break in multiple new starters along their defensive line and at linebacker due to injuries. The Sooners' big problem in the Big 12 was the inability of their second cornerback to stop the deadly passing attacks in their league, but against Auburn the bigger question may be whether they have enough size and depth left up front to take a hammering.

The success of the Auburn defense this year has not escaped notice, and indeed one of their assistants was hired to take over the defensive coordinator opening at Ole Miss based on his role in fashioning this excellent Tigers unit. The key to their success has been a very simple scheme, largely built around playing a 4-2-5 nickel package with quarters as the base coverage and a few key blitzes in every game to change things up and allow them to attack offenses. This is exactly the right approach to take against a dynamic and fast offense like the one Oklahoma will bring into the Sugar Bowl. If you can't line up and play sound defense against Oklahoma, they can bury you before you realize what has happened.

The Sooners have too many good skill players to even list them all, and with versatile quarterback Baker Mayfield at the helm any one of them could be an X-factor in a given game. However, again Oklahoma will find an interesting challenge up front from the Auburn linemen. Players like defensive tackles Montravious Adams and Dontravious Russell or defensive end Carl Lawson are not terribly common in the Big 12, and virtually no one has more than one such player on their defensive line. For the Sooners to try and handle all three could prove to be a game-changing challenge if their own offensive line can't control the line of scrimmage.

Oklahoma's offensive line has real talent and began to gel over the course of the year, but Auburn will throw big, athletic bodies at them on a different level then what they're used to blocking. Auburn's secondary is also uniquely talented, but they'll have to answer some difficult questions about how they're going to keep tabs on explosive wide receiver Dede Westbrook and still get help into the box for the linebackers as they try to deal with running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

If Oklahoma can handle Auburn's defensive line, then it's not terribly probable that Auburn's defensive backfield can handle Oklahoma's skill players. This is a very evenly matched game that may prove to the best of the evening.

Watch for:

  • How does Oklahoma fare in the trenches against Auburn's big, athletic, and physical linemen on both sides of the ball?
  • Will Auburn try to focus on stopping the Oklahoma running game or try to limit Dede Westbrook and trust their own defensive line to survive against the Sooners running attack?
  • Can Auburn quarterback Sean White play well enough to secure his job with incoming transfer Jarrett Stidham from Baylor coming in the spring?

S&P Outright Pick: Oklahoma

S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 6

Favorite Spread Underdog S&P Pick S&P Pick against the spread
Florida 3 Iowa Iowa Iowa
Wisconsin 8 Western Michigan Wisconsin Wisconsin
USC 6.5 Penn State USC Penn State
Oklahoma 3 Auburn Oklahoma Auburn

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 35-49

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 02 Jan 2017

6 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2017, 6:07pm by Will Allen

Comments

1
by big10freak :: Mon, 01/02/2017 - 12:52pm

Western Michigan should take their chances with the deep pass. I doubt a month has changed Wisconsin's dbs inability to look for the ball.

2
by techvet :: Tue, 01/03/2017 - 1:46am

Your Big Ten teams are currently 3-7 in the bowl season.

3
by big10freak :: Tue, 01/03/2017 - 10:46am

Wisconsin won its bowl. Anything after that in terms of Big10 wins is just extra fun.

4
by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/03/2017 - 11:09am

Eh, people make way too much of the outcomes of close gmes. The only significant outcomes, in terms of indicating which team was superior, was Clemson's shutout of Ohio State, and Florida smoking Iowa, although Iowa was a high variance team all year.

The other factor that doesn't get mentioned in bowl season is the frequency with which the Big Ten plays what are essentially road games, with the opponent having home field advantage, or close to it. USC was a much, much, much, better team at the end of the season, from when they were crushed by Alabama, and then they had home field advantage against Penn State. I'd love to see SEC and ACC teams have to travel north to play late season games some day; it's one reason I'd love an 8 team playoff, with the 1st round on the home fields of the top 4 seeded conference champs.

5
by justanothersteve :: Tue, 01/03/2017 - 5:35pm

You're just hoping for an outdoor game at Minnesota. Though, to be honest, I'd love that too.

6
by Will Allen :: Tue, 01/03/2017 - 6:07pm

Goodness, yes, an early December game where USC, Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, etc. have to go play in 10 below weather, or in a blizzard, in Lincoln, Minneapolis (someday, maybe), Madison, Ann Arbor, Columbus, Happy Valley, etc., would be beyond great.