by Ian Boyd
The second round of bowl games often offers some of the most exciting contests of the year. First, it's intriguing to find out which teams will actually make a strong showing. Further, the timing of the games couldn't be better, with many fans off work for the holidays.
The matchups tend to be pretty compelling as well. While the early games often feature strong and interesting offenses against good defenses, most people don't really know the characters involved in the stories.
This slate of games features some flawed Power 5 schools facing opponents from other conferences in a dozen "styles make fights" battles. It also highlights some of the better Group of 5 schools competing to make an impression against schools from bigger conferences.
There are a lot of games here that should make for compelling television in between your rewatches of A Christmas Story or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Texas Tech vs South Florida (-2)
December 22, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Texas Tech||South Florida||F/+||52||26||Special Teams S&P+||111||74||When Texas Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||38||27||S&P+||27||27||IsoPPP+||40||15||Rushing S&P+||17||33||Passing S&P+||41||14||When South Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||73||40||S&P+||82||31||IsoPPP+||43||67||Rushing S&P+||56||107||Passing S&P+||76||108|
Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was very close to losing his job after another lackluster year in Lubbock, but the Red Raiders finally made good on their internal defensive improvements with a comeback win over the Texas Longhorns in the season finale to finish 6-6 on the year and earn a bowl bid. This isn't a dynamite Tech team, but they do have their typically explosive passing offense, and their defense is much stouter against the run than it has been in previous years.
That could spell trouble for a South Florida team that was chewed up by the better passing teams in the AAC and depends heavily on the run game to generate points on offense. South Florida is keyed by quarterback Quinton Flowers, an option-style signal-caller who ran for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons. They ran more of a vertical passing-oriented offensive scheme this year than last, but the main thrust of their offense is still the option run game. Much of their passing consists either of perimeter screens attached to runs or throws from Flowers when he's scrambling.
The Bulls have a lot of dangerous athletes on offense, so Tech will have to continue to grow in terms of playing disciplined, team defense. The Red Raiders do have an improving cast of tacklers who could be up to the challenge. The Red Raiders benefitted this year from bringing back linebacker Dakota Allen, who spent a year at junior college following legal troubles. They also added North Texas transfer defensive end Eli Howard and promoted walk-on safety Justus Parker to help set the edge for their run defense.
This is probably going to be a shootout unless South Florida's blitzes get to Tech quarterback Nic Shimonek, or the Tech run defense is able to keep Flowers in check.
S&P+ Outright Pick: South Florida
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Fort Worth, TX
San Diego State (-6) vs Army
December 22, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||San Diego St||Army||F/+||38||50||Special Teams S&P+||35||123||When San Diego St has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||61||113||S&P+||53||81||IsoPPP+||70||119||Rushing S&P+||92||116||Passing S&P+||94||122||When Army has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||33||5||S&P+||33||26||IsoPPP+||40||69||Rushing S&P+||37||12||Passing S&P+||44||128|
The San Diego State Aztecs are on a two-year streak of producing a 2,000-yard rusher, and they have a unique 3-3-5 defense which has often confused and beleaguered opponents. They took down the Stanford Cardinal and Arizona State Sun Devils earlier this season, and dominated the Houston Cougars in their bowl matchup a year ago. They're similar to a high school team that just pounds you all day with one star running back while playing a unique and disciplined defense that is unorthodox for you, but is something they've been doing for years and years.
The Aztecs were unable to repeat as Mountain West champs after losing to West division rival Fresno State, who emerged this season with a good team, and conference kings Boise State. They're a tough draw in a bowl game, though, due to their physical and unique style of play.
Army has one of their typical triple-option teams that struggles to handle top offenses but can run the ball for days, particularly against teams that don't know what they're doing against the option. Quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw was the leading rusher with 1,472 yards at 7.8 yards per carry. He has made their attack extra dangerous this year. However, San Diego State's defense faces the similar Air Force option offense every year. They are no strangers to the system.
S&P+ Outright Pick: San Diego State
Dollar General Bowl
Appalachian State vs Toledo (-7.5)
December 22, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Appalachian State||Toledo||F/+||44||21||Special Teams S&P+||96||63||When Appalachian State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||68||64||S&P+||38||57||IsoPPP+||45||79||Rushing S&P+||100||100||Passing S&P+||78||46||When Toledo has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||30||20||S&P+||36||13||IsoPPP+||71||18||Rushing S&P+||88||102||Passing S&P+||68||13|
Appalachian State has become a different team than the one that famously upset Michigan in Ann Arbor back in 2007. They're no longer a spread team with a dual-threat quarterback; instead they regularly field tight ends to run the ball. Their running game was less effective this season due to injuries to star running back Jalin Moore. They had to lean on senior quarterback Taylor Lamb to help move the ball. Moore is healthy now and fresh off a pair of big games to close the year -- he ran for 239 yards against Georgia State and 110 against Louisiana.
Toledo has had a pretty dominant season. They won the MAC, dropped 30 points on Miami, and scored 40 points or more in six games. Their top three running backs ran for 1,319 yards (Terry Swanson), 704 yards (Shakif Seymour), and 618 yards (Art Thompkins), while quarterback Logan Woodside added 3,758 yards in the air at 9.1 yards per attempt. Leading receiver Diontae Johnson had 1,279 yards and 13 touchdown catches while averaging 12.4 yards per target. This was one of the more potent offenses in the country, and their ability to take the top off with vertical passing from Woodside combined with their run game is worth tuning in to watch.
This style of play, in which teams are ostensibly run-centric but take deep shots early and often, is probably the next big thing in college football. It lures opponents into shootouts since it's hard to keep up with a team that can score quickly and often by throwing deep. Toledo is one of the strongest teams in the country at executing this style.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Toledo
Fresno State vs Houston (-2)
December 24, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Fresno State||Houston||F/+||47||31||Special Teams S&P+||37||17||When Fresno State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||55||23||S&P+||72||47||IsoPPP+||31||13||Rushing S&P+||31||34||Passing S&P+||68||62||When Houston has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||38||81||S&P+||15||34||IsoPPP+||12||98||Rushing S&P+||48||90||Passing S&P+||73||66|
Fresno State had a very solid year in the Mountain West this season, taking down the mighty San Diego State Aztecs and the Boise State Broncos before falling to Boise State in a rematch in the championship game. They have a balanced spread offense featuring young running backs Jordan Mims (609 rushing yards) and Josh Hokit (519 yards) splitting time. Junior quarterback Marcus McMaryion made some major growth steps after taking over the job early in the year from Chason Virgil. They surprised Boise State in the regular-season finale with McMaryion throwing for 332 yards and two scores before the Broncos adjusted and shut them down the following week.
Houston picked up steam over the course of 2017 as well after moving athletic wide receiver D'Eriq King to quarterback and getting back to the offensive style that made the Cougars great in previous years with Greg Ward Jr. behind center. The Cougars have a pair of veteran receivers in Steven Dunbar (873 receiving yards) and Linell Bonner (861 receiving yards) who are the offense's biggest threat, but now they have a more effective quarterback run game as well with King (6.6 yards per carry, eight rushing touchdowns) more heavily involved in the formula. The star of the show in Houston, though, is the defense, led by nose tackle Ed Oliver, their third leading tackler who made 14.5 tackles for loss. The Cougars' two leading tacklers were inside linebackers Matthew Adams and D'Juan Hines, who ran free to the ball all year behind Oliver.
Houston also has a trio of veteran safeties who combined for eight interceptions and helped the Cougars stop big plays all year. This is a tough defense for a young offense like Fresno State to match up against due to their mastery of the middle, anchored by Oliver.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Fresno State
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl
Utah (-6.5) vs West Virginia
December 26, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Utah||West Virginia||F/+||37||59||Special Teams S&P+||9||108||When Utah has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||77||79||S&P+||46||103||IsoPPP+||43||63||Rushing S&P+||30||71||Passing S&P+||36||38||When West Virginia has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||29||28||S&P+||41||17||IsoPPP+||23||38||Rushing S&P+||38||24||Passing S&P+||21||33|
West Virginia faltered down the stretch in 2017 after quarterback Will Grier dove for the end zone early against the Texas Longhorns and landed on the middle finger of his throwing hand, snapping it and requiring surgery. Backup Chris Chugonov proved less efficient trying to make the most of West Virginia's talented trio of receivers -- Gary Jennings (1,030 receiving yards), Ka'Raun White (986 receiving yards), and David Sills (980 receiving yards). If Grier had not been hurt, all three likely would have finished with thousand-yard seasons. Even without him, Sills finished the year with an amazing 18 touchdown receptions.
The Mountaineers have a solid run game, but it took a backseat until the end of the year when they relied on it by necessity. They could be in trouble without Grier against Utah, who's always good on defense under head coach Kyle Whittingham. Utah has a stout defensive front that will look to load the box and dare Chugonov to throw against the blitz.
Utah has bounced around some on offense this year due to their own struggles with quarterback injuries. They have been best with Tyler Huntley behind center, as Huntley has shown a greater mastery of their new spread passing attack. He's also their second leading rusher behind running back Zack Moss, who ran for 1,009 yards this year. The Utes are still working out their Air Raid-inspired passing attack; for now, they rely on zone-read plays to move the ball. West Virginia struggled mightily this year on defense after losing all of their defensive line starters from 2016, but they have an aggressive 3-3-5 defensive scheme that could be trouble for the Utes if their quarterback doesn't know how to read it properly on read plays. If West Virginia is ready to play with Chugonov at quarterback, this could be a very interesting game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Utah
Quick Lane Bowl
Duke (-2.5) vs Northern Illinois
December 26, 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Duke||Northern Illinois||F/+||60||45||Special Teams S&P+||71||115||When Duke has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||75||17||S&P+||93||13||IsoPPP+||103||24||Rushing S&P+||59||12||Passing S&P+||104||15||When Northern Illinois has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||34||99||S&P+||40||103||IsoPPP+||45||122||Rushing S&P+||41||111||Passing S&P+||20||84|
Duke seemed liable to break out this year with quarterback Daniel Jones back after a promising freshman campaign, but the young signal-caller endured a sophomore slump, throwing 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and averaging just 5.1 yards per attempt. Instead Duke relied on the emergence of sophomore linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who led a strong defense with 84 tackles, 15 of them for loss and 22 of which were "run stuffs" (tackles on running plays made at or behind the line). Duke was very stout up front against the run thanks to Giles-Harris and some other young players at defensive end. The Duke offense relied mostly on option plays to move the ball; Daniel Jones contributed 622 rushing yards to that effort.
Northern Illinois ran an up-tempo spread-option offense captained by the explosive but sometimes erratic freshman Marcus Childers. The Huskies quarterback threw for 1,440 yards and ran for another 565 with 20 total touchdowns, but also 16 sacks. Starting running back Jordan Huff will be out for the bowl game with an ankle injury, so the Huskies will have to lean on Childers to carry them in this game. They'll lean even more on the defense, which shredded opponents this season and is led by undersized but explosive defensive end Sutton Smith. The 6-foot-0, 220-pound end made 20 run stuffs and 14 sacks this season and should be the most interesting player to watch in this contest.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Northern Illinois
Kansas State (-2.5) vs UCLA
December 26, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Kansas State||UCLA||F/+||49||68||Special Teams S&P+||3||72||When Kansas State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||72||86||S&P+||55||120||IsoPPP+||74||67||Rushing S&P+||57||91||Passing S&P+||85||54||When UCLA has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||52||24||S&P+||75||16||IsoPPP+||54||26||Rushing S&P+||43||61||Passing S&P+||87||26|
The Wildcats' season was derailed when senior quarterback Jesse Ertz injured his knee and was lost for the year. Kansas State initially tried to replace him with redshirt sophomore Alex Delton, who was an equally dangerous runner but an inferior passer, but then Delton was injured as well. Then the Wildcats turned to redshirt freshman Skylar Thompson, who will probably start the bowl game and the 2018 season. Thompson is able to blend the quarterback runs of head coach Bill Snyder's offense with the passing needed to make the most of receivers like Byron Pringle (705 receiving yards). Kansas State has a big, veteran offensive line and is very dangerous when they are remotely balanced on offense, which could present huge challenges to a UCLA defense that was downright horrible this season.
On the flipside, UCLA was steady and effective on offense all year thanks to quarterback Josh Rosen, who is expected to play in this game, but that has not been confirmed. Rosen will likely be one of the first quarterbacks selected in the 2018 draft. He was deadly this season even after UCLA lost star tight end Caleb Wilson to an injury. The Kansas State defense struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks after losing defensive end Jordan Willis, and could be very susceptible to UCLA's passing game. This game looks like a shootout if Rosen play,s with Kansas State running all over the Bruins while UCLA tosses the ball up and down the field on the Wildcats.
S&P Outright Pick: Kansas State
Walk-on's Independence Bowl
Southern Miss vs Florida State (-16.5)
December 27, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Southern Miss||Florida State||F/+||51||40||Special Teams S&P+||66||11||When Southern Miss has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||92||19||S&P+||59||32||IsoPPP+||84||17||Rushing S&P+||105||29||Passing S&P+||113||28||When Florida State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||53||86||S&P+||25||87||IsoPPP+||77||46||Rushing S&P+||31||54||Passing S&P+||63||39|
Florida State is in the middle of all kinds of transitions after head coach Jimbo Fisher was poached by Texas A&M for $75 million in guaranteed money on a 10-year contract. The Seminoles have already replaced him with former Oregon and South Florida head man Willie Taggart, who has spent most of his time since coming to Tallahassee on keeping together a top-ranked recruiting class. If the Seminoles are ready to play, they do have talent advantages over Southern Miss and a freshman tandem of quarterback James Blackman and running back Cam Akers that may have an extra skip in their step with a regime change.
If the Noles aren't prepared, Southern Miss has the offense to make this game interesting. They're yet another spread-option team, led by running back Ito Smith (1,321 rushing yards) and wide receiver Korey Robertson (1,084 receiving yards). They have plugged in two different dual-threat quarterbacks to distribute the ball to them. If the Golden Eagles shock the Seminoles, you'll hear those names often. You'll also see a small but fast Southern Miss defense ganging up on the Florida State running game without suffering consequences from Blackman throwing the ball. The Golden Eagles aren't the ideal team to shock a potentially disinterested Florida State team, but it's not outside the realm of possibility.
S&P Outright Pick: Southern Miss
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
New York, NY
Iowa (-3) vs Boston College
December 27, 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Iowa||Boston College||F/+||29||42||Special Teams S&P+||44||90||When Iowa has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||41||18||S&P+||102||35||IsoPPP+||33||38||Rushing S&P+||53||70||Passing S&P+||30||10||When Boston College has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||15||53||S&P+||16||95||IsoPPP+||28||81||Rushing S&P+||57||16||Passing S&P+||26||99|
Boston College and Iowa are pretty much the same team every single season, with only mild fluctuations in how effective they are in their established identity from year to year. Boston College loves to litter the field with fullbacks and tight ends, perhaps a running quarterback as well, and then run power as many times as head coach Steve Addazio can think of. They'll do this a few times, then punt and hope their perpetually tough and stout defense keeps them in the game. This year's Boston College squad is better at running power than some previous iterations; freshman running back A.J. Dillon ran for 1,432 yards and 13 touchdowns. Their strong defense was led by big defensive end Zach Allen, who was second on the team with 69.5 tackles and made 22 run stuffs. They also blitzed effectively with linebacker Ty Schwab and played some nickel and dime packages that made it hard for opponents to find open receivers.
Iowa was yet again solid running the ball with fullback lead plays. Lead running back Akrum Wadley had 1,026 rushing yards. Quarterback Nate Stanley had a very solid year, throwing for 2,338 yards with 25 touchdowns to only six interceptions, though he was sacked 22 times at a rate of 6.1 percent. The Hawkeyes were fairly explosive with Wadley, but only had a rushing success rate of 38.5 percent, 103rd nationally, so their slow and steady system wasn't as effective (except against Ohio State, when they played out of their minds). The Iowa defense was better than normal thanks to three senior linebackers, led by middle linebacker Josey Jewell, who made 94.5 tackles with 18 run stuffs and 4.5 sacks. The odds of Boston College finding much running room against Iowa are slim, as are the chances of Iowa blowing away the Boston College defense, so this will probably be a low-scoring slog of a game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Iowa
Foster Farms Bowl
Santa Clara, CA
Arizona (-4.5) vs Purdue
December 27, 8:30 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Arizona||Purdue||F/+||48||33||Special Teams S&P+||95||83||When Arizona has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||7||25||S&P+||9||28||IsoPPP+||14||29||Rushing S&P+||35||6||Passing S&P+||31||67||When Purdue has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||111||57||S&P+||114||73||IsoPPP+||65||42||Rushing S&P+||66||26||Passing S&P+||27||47|
Arizona and Purdue were two of the more fun offenses to watch in football this year. Arizona took off because head coach Rich Rodriguez found an explosive running quarterback in Kahlil Tate to bring his zone-read offense to life. Tate ran for 1,417 yards at 11.4 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns and was a monster down the stretch for the Wildcats. He also helped open big holes for running backs J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson, who combined for 257 carries, 1,413 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The defense, long the Achilles heel of RichRod teams, was not very effective, and the Wildcats had to win games by shootout.
Purdue played an interesting and explosive brand of offense in Year 1 under new head coach Jeff Brohm (formerly of Western Kentucky), but is still learning how to execute it at a high level. Quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar were sacked a combined 30 times behind a still-developing offensive line trying to throw to a young wide receiver corps led by freshman Jackson Anthrop. They may be better after bowl practices, but they have leaned on a solid defense to get this far in the first place. They will be counting on star linebackers Ja'Whaun Bentley (23 run stuffs) and Markus Bailey (seven sacks) keeping Tate and the Arizona option game under control to have a good chance in this contest.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Purdue
Academy Sports & Outdoors Texas Bowl
Texas vs Missouri (-1)
December 27, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Texas||Missouri||F/+||43||55||Special Teams S&P+||70||6||When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||116||81||S&P+||97||93||IsoPPP+||120||118||Rushing S&P+||80||75||Passing S&P+||96||47||When Missouri has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||7||21||S&P+||26||10||IsoPPP+||10||3||Rushing S&P+||15||18||Passing S&P+||17||16|
Missouri is dealing with a lot of transitions heading into this game, most notably the loss of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee who have taken jobs at Central Florida. Preparing for Texas' high rated defense, which stuffed multiple Big 12 offenses of Missouri's style and caliber during the season, could be challenging for Missouri without those coaches to direct the focus of star quarterback Drew Lock.
But Missouri runs a pretty simple offense in which Lock reads the defense to find man coverage for a deep threat receiver like Emmanuel Hall or favorable numbers to hand off on a running play. The Tigers generated a ton of explosive plays this season throwing down the field. They had a good solution for the red zone as well in massive tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who caught 11 touchdown passes this season.
Texas has their own distractions, including the coaches being focused on the early signing day, when they signed seven of the state's top 10 prospects, and the decisions by NFL-bound linebacker Malik Jefferson and safety DeShon Elliott to skip the bowl game while preparing for the combine and draft process. There's still a lot of talent and knowhow left on the Texas defense, but it is diminished from the version that shut down Big 12 offenses earlier in the year. They will also miss cornerback Holton Hill, who was suspended towards the end of the year.
The Texas offense struggled all year and may not be able to take advantage of a questionable Missouri defense. The Longhorns will be rotating between sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele and dual-threat freshman Sam Ehlinger. The Ehlinger was a playmaker for Texas all year, but he also committed costly turnovers in narrow defeats against USC, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Texas' best chance to win this probably comes down to Ehlinger playing and avoiding the crucial late-game errors that haunted Texas throughout the season.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Missouri
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grunman
Virginia vs Navy (-2)
December 28, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Virginia||Navy||F/+||74||56||Special Teams S&P+||79||94||When Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||91||82||S&P+||101||101||IsoPPP+||104||64||Rushing S&P+||116||27||Passing S&P+||62||101||When Navy has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||42||27||S&P+||39||32||IsoPPP+||51||80||Rushing S&P+||47||20||Passing S&P+||41||98|
The typical trope about triple-option teams is that they struggle in bowl games when opponents can spend the extra time in practices making sure their players know how to handle the unique tactics of that offense. Ken Niumatololo has coached Navy in nine bowl games now and gone 4-5, but he is 3-1 in the last four, and Navy has scored 40 points or more in each of their last two bowl appearances. Navy is just plain hard to stop even when you are fully aware of what's coming. The Midshipmen have a great rushing combination with big quarterback Zach Abey (270 carries, 1,382 rushing yards, 21 total touchdowns) going off tackle and speedy pitch man Malcolm Perry (818 rushing yards at 8.9 yards per carry) screaming to the edge.
Navy's defense is less effective, which has forced their offense to win many a shootout in past years, but Virginia is less of a threat to match them in that kind of contest. The Cavaliers looked to establish a run game this year and handed the ball to lead running back Jordan Ellis 204 times for only 799 yards and six touchdowns. Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert threw for 3,062 yards and 25 touchdowns, but also took 30 sacks and was sacked on six percent of his dropbacks. Virginia depends much more on their defense, which is spearheaded by inside linebackers Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack, along with big safeties Quin Blanding and Juan Thornhill. If those guys aren't ready to beat cut blocks and make tackles, then Navy may just roll over this team.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Virginia
Camping World Bowl
Virginia Tech vs Oklahoma State (-4)
December 28, 5:15 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Virginia Tech||Oklahoma State||F/+||24||12||Special Teams S&P+||38||76||When Virginia Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||80||58||S&P+||99||70||IsoPPP+||90||46||Rushing S&P+||89||23||Passing S&P+||44||37||When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||9||2||S&P+||6||4||IsoPPP+||62||12||Rushing S&P+||14||38||Passing S&P+||19||17|
This is one of the most intriguing bowl matchups of the season. Virginia Tech played brilliant defense this year, like they normally have under longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster, but they're up against a different sort of challenge in Mike Gundy's explosive Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Hokies did a lot of their damage on defense this season. They played an aggressive brand of football, as evidenced by their low ranking in IsoPPP. This means they gave up plenty of big plays, but they had strong numbers in generating tackles for loss and limiting opposing offenses.
The Hokies played a very similar team in the season opener against West Virginia, holding the Mountaineers to 24 points in a 31-24 victory. They dared West Virginia to throw the ball in that game, maintaining both linebackers in the box even as the Mountaineers spread them out, and were able to hold West Virginia to 6.9 yards per pass and made them convert in the red zone, which they struggled to do. A similar plan against Oklahoma State could end in disaster. Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph threw for 4,553 yards this year, with receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman going for 1,418 and 1,049 yards, respectively. Oklahoma State will run the ball early and often, but they live to throw the ball down the field to speedy Washington on a post route or big Ateman on a fade. The teams that didn't backload their defense with extra deep defenders were roasted.
On the other side of the ball, Virginia Tech took some lumps this year while teaching redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson the offense. He was solid, but threw eight interceptions and had a sack rate of 5.3 percent. He didn't always have enough of a run game to help him along. The Oklahoma State defense is far from dominant, but they do have a lot of well-coached seniors and are adept at setting traps for young, inexperienced quarterbacks. This is all around a tough matchup for Virginia Tech.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma State
Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, TX
Stanford vs TCU (-2.5)
December 28, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Stanford||TCU||F/+||17||13||Special Teams S&P+||2||16||When Stanford has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||16||16||S&P+||29||14||IsoPPP+||17||11||Rushing S&P+||50||3||Passing S&P+||35||11||When TCU has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||62||47||S&P+||54||43||IsoPPP+||41||59||Rushing S&P+||54||25||Passing S&P+||56||67|
Stanford has been fascinating on offense this year. Their strategy is geared around loading the field with big blockers, forcing opponents to drop lots of defenders close to the action to avoid yielding running creases. The Cardinal then burn those teams with big runs when explosive running back Bryce Love is able to break through the defenders. The teams that had the best luck at stopping Love -- teams like Washington State and Washington -- were those that matched Stanford's size and power with speed that could track down Love and limit the damage. TCU is another such team. They will match Stanford with a small but strong and experienced defense that is designed to outnumber the run with speed from a 4-2-5 alignment.
This game may well come down to how well TCU's defenders manage to do at chasing Love down on the occasions where he gets loose, because the Cardinal haven't shown much on offense otherwise, although they did improve with sophomore K.J. Costello at the helm down the stretch.
TCU's offense was similarly limited to running the ball early and often and then counting on senior quarterback Kenny Hill to avoid turnovers, get the ball out to athletes like Jalen Reagor or Kavontae Turpin, and help pick up third downs with his scrambling (388 rushing yards on the year). Stanford will have interesting choices to make in defending the Frogs, but the obvious path is to play man coverage to get extra help against the run and then dare Hill to beat them down the field. Stanford has a lot of veterans in the secondary and could make life hard for Hill by manning up and using safety Justin Reid (five interceptions on the year) to spy from the middle of the field.
S&P+ Outright Pick: TCU
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
San Diego, CA
Washington State (-2) vs Michigan State
December 28, 9 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Washington State||Michigan State||F/+||48||33||Special Teams S&P+||95||83||When Washington State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||97||22||S&P+||57||7||IsoPPP+||55||8||Rushing S&P+||70||4||Passing S&P+||65||32||When Michigan State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||8||85||S&P+||23||106||IsoPPP+||26||61||Rushing S&P+||16||78||Passing S&P+||8||18|
Michigan State is one of the stranger teams in college football in terms of their offensive strategy from year to year. They always insist on lining up under center and pounding the ball straight ahead with lead runs to big backs working behind tight ends and fullbacks, and they rarely make any serious headway with this style. However, they're frequently devastating when passing out of empty formations. Quarterback Connor Cook used to bail them out time and time again when they went to the playoffs in 2015, and this year they ranked 14th nationally among offenses on passing downs.
Their defense is stout as normal. They like to be very aggressive in denying room to run. This year's cornerbacks are closer to what they had earlier in the decade, when they were excellent on defense, with Justin Layne and Josiah Scott combining for 17 passes defended. They'll face a different challenge in the bowl game against Washington State and the Mike Leach Air Raid offense, which is designed to avoid doing the one thing Michigan State is designed to stop: running the ball.
Washington State will be without wide receivers Tavares Martin (who was kicked off the team) and Isaiah Johnson-Mack, who were the two leading receivers this season. They'll still have senior quarterback Luke Falk and will still present some unique challenges to the Spartans with their spread offense, which is different from anything that Michigan State faces in the Big 10.
The best unit in this game is the Washington State defense, which is led by defensive tackle Hercules Mata'afa, who was named the Polynesian college football player of the year by the Polynesian College Football Hall of Fame. Mata'afa is an undersized tackle playing on an undersized but speedy defense who had 21.5 tackles for loss, 18 run stuffs, and 9.5 sacks. The Cougars are going to a real handful for Michigan State with their ability to move and create pressure up front without blitzing. Between that and Washington State cleaning house with their wide receivers while locking head coach Mike Leach down with a contract extension, this should be an interesting game to watch for the Cougars.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Michigan State
S&P+ PICKS: Bowl Week 2
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread|
|South Florida||2.5||Texas Tech||South Florida||South Florida|
|San Diego State||6||Army||San Diego State||Army|
|Toledo||7.5||Appalachian State||Toledo||Appalachian State|
|Houston||2.5||Fresno State||Fresno State||Fresno State|
|Utah||6.5||West Virginia||Utah||West Virginia|
|Duke||2.5||Northern Illinois||Northern Illinois||Northern Illinois|
|Kansas State||2.5||UCLA||Kansas State||UCLA|
|Florida State||16.5||Southern Miss||Southern Miss||Southern Miss|
|Oklahoma State||4.5||Virginia Tech||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
|Washington State||2||Michigan State||Michigan State||Michigan State|
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 45-37