by Ian Boyd
At last we come to the New Year's slate of bowl games, including big-time matchups between conference champions, and of course the playoff games. Last year, the Rose Bowl -- featuring Sam Darnold and USC against Saquon Barkley and Penn State -- was one of the better games of the season. This year has a few matchups that could provide some similarly good theater.
Beyond the intrigue of some high-profile matchups, the playoff games themselves are also quite interesting because there isn't really a heavy favorite. Oklahoma has the worst odds but also the best player, Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, and arguably the most impressive win of the four after going into Columbus and beating Ohio State. We'll break down the numbers and defining tactics of all those games and more here.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Wake Forest (-3) vs Texas A&M
December 29, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Wake Forest||Texas A&M||F/+||28||64||Special Teams S&P+||65||19||When Wake Forest has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||30||37||S&P+||30||66||IsoPPP+||20||47||Rushing S&P+||95||36||Passing S&P+||2||36||When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||48||64||S&P+||53||64||IsoPPP+||34||73||Rushing S&P+||30||109||Passing S&P+||61||72|
This is one of many games that is likely to be impacted by the fact that Texas A&M fired their coach after the year, then managed one of the big coups of the "silly season" by bringing in championship-winning Jimbo Fisher from Florida State. The Aggies will be led by interim coach Jeff Banks in this bowl game while Fisher focuses on making connections, building a recruiting class, and hiring staff. It's hard to be sure of what impact this will have on the Aggies' bowl prep and process.
Baylor found itself in a similar situation last year, hiring Matt Rhule before their bowl game. Rhule left the old staff in place as interims. The Bears came out and blasted Boise State 31-12. This year, though, we saw the exact opposite outcome when Oregon had even more stable coaching turnover, went out to play Boise State, and was eviscerated.
Anyways, the matchup in this game favors Wake Forest regardless. The Demon Deacons are led by senior quarterback John Wolford, who threw for 2,792 yards and 25 touchdowns at 8.1 yards per attempt while adding another 691 rushing yards and 10 more touchdowns at 6.1 yards per carry. The passing game is the most dangerous dimension of their offense, but Wolford is very good at executing short-yardage and in the red zone with his legs.
Texas A&M had a scattered year on defense, in part because they were replacing first-overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett and some other good seniors, and in part because they ended up playing multiple freshmen before the year was over. Their offense flashed supreme potency, particularly when quarterback Nick Starkel was healthy and at the helm, as he allowed them to make more of star receiver Christian Kirk (730 receiving yards). The Wake Forest defense had a strong year though, and with defensive tackles Duke Ejiofor and Zeek Rodney (28 combined run stuffs) backed by linebackers Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams (35 combined run stuffs), they will really put the A&M passing game to the test.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Wake Forest
Hyundai Sun Bowl
El Paso, TX
North Carolina State (-6.5) vs Arizona State
December 29, 3 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||North Carolina State||Arizona State||F/+||32||53||Special Teams S&P+||114||59||When North Carolina State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||26||37||S&P+||28||100||IsoPPP+||23||65||Rushing S&P+||45||66||Passing S&P+||12||27||When Arizona State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||50||51||S&P+||64||37||IsoPPP+||60||52||Rushing S&P+||44||65||Passing S&P+||34||52|
North Carolina State looked impressive coming into the year with running back Nyheim Hines (1,040 rushing yards), hybrid H-back Jaylen Samuels (917 total yards and 15 total touchdowns), and junior quarterback Ryan Finley (3,200 passing yards). The defense didn't really match preseason expectations though, even though defensive end Bradley Chubb had a brilliant season with 25 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and 27 run stuffs.
The Wolfpack were competitive in the ACC but dropped their major games against South Carolina, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest. They ultimately weren't good enough on defense to support an efficient offense, and the offense tended to run out of juice late in games.
Their opponents, the Arizona State Sun Devils, are in the midst of massive transitions. Herm Edwards has been named head coach even though he hasn't been a head coach since 2008, when he went 2-14 with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. The plan was allegedly to keep the old offensive and defensive coordinators on staff in order to provide more leadership at the top of the program, but then the Sun Devils proceeded to lose both coordinators, leaving Edwards to rebuild the staff despite having virtually zero connections to the modern college game. It should be interesting to watch how his Arizona State program goes, to say the least.
Naturally, Edwards is inheriting a zone-read spread offense with a dual-threat quarterback (Manny Wilkins) that's unlike anything he saw or coached in the NFL. The Sun Devils' best player is probably wide receiver N'Keal Harry (precisely 1,000 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) but running backs Demario Richard and Kallen Ballage are also dangerous. The Sun Devils defense was being retooled by new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who is now gone. Long-term, it sounds like the goal of the Herm era will be to establish him as the "general manager" of the program who focuses on recruiting while delegating to the coordinators. In the meantime, it sounds for sure as though it will be a wreck.
S&P+ Outright Pick: North Carolina State
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Kentucky vs Northwestern (-7.5)
December 29, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Kentucky||Northwestern||F/+||90||39||Special Teams S&P+||24||69||When Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||63||26||S&P+||68||24||IsoPPP+||58||36||Rushing S&P+||58||20||Passing S&P+||29||79||When Northwestern has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||90||70||S&P+||102||82||IsoPPP+||72||64||Rushing S&P+||93||75||Passing S&P+||95||49|
Kentucky was designed to be a multiple, aggressive defense that would use blitzes and stunts to confuse opponents and force turnovers. Instead, they ended up just getting beat a lot and having to rely on starting safeties Mike Edwards and Darius West to clean things up as the leading tacklers. When Wildcats linebackers or defensive end Denzil Ware weren't getting home -- which was often -- Kentucky was getting gashed by big plays.
The Kentucky offense was a bit better, at least in the run game, where Benny Snell Jr. ran for 1,318 yards and 18 touchdowns at 5.1 yards per carry. They didn't lean as much on the passing game, with quarterback Stephen Johnson adding 518 rushing yards and an option constraint on teams that wanted to load up to stop Snell.
Northwestern is a bad matchup for them, as the northern Wildcats boast a very big and disciplined defensive front led by freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher, who paced the unit with 86 tackles and 18 run stuffs. Fellow linebacker Nate Hall was next up and made 16.5 tackles for loss. The defensive line featured the 6-foot-4, 315-pound tackle Tyler Lancaster (13 run stuffs); 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle Joe Gaziano (eight sacks); and 6-foot-3, 261-pound lineman Samdup Miller (5.5 sacks). It's a big unit that's hard to keep blocked and isn't very vulnerable to the passing game.
The Northwestern offense is led by quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has announced he's returning next year. He's a big pocket passer who threw for only 5.7 yards per attempt, had a sack rate of 6.4 percent, and threw 12 interceptions to 15 touchdowns. He did add eight rushing touchdowns and helped open holes for senior running back Justin Jackson, who had 1,154 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. If Northwestern can handle Kentucky's aggressive fronts, they should stay ahead with their runs. But if this game falls to Thorson executing against the blitz, things may get interesting.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Northwestern
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl
New Mexico State (-4) vs Utah State
December 29, 5:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||NM State||Utah State||F/+||87||75||Special Teams S&P+||119||22||When NM State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||83||47||S&P+||40||50||IsoPPP+||77||61||Rushing S&P+||84||85||Passing S&P+||77||49||When Utah State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||97||111||S&P+||79||69||IsoPPP+||87||57||Rushing S&P+||79||68||Passing S&P+||107||89|
New Mexico State had a pretty solid offense this year, with senior quarterback Tyler Rogers throwing for 3,825 yards and 26 touchdowns at 6.8 yards per attempt. Rogers had a sack rate of 5.2 percent and threw 16 interceptions, but he's solid on the move. He has a big, dangerous target in fellow senior Jaleel Scott, who had 1,042 receiving yards and eight touchdowns with his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame.
Utah State is normally a nightmare defense to work against, but they're lacking the explosive playmaker in their defensive front they typically field. Their secondary has had to carry most of the weight for the unit. This could lead to them being over-stressed trying to handle the New Mexico State passing game without leaving the front isolated against the running game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Utah State
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
USC vs Ohio State (-7.5)
December 29, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||USC||Ohio State||F/+||15||4||Special Teams S&P+||68||42||When USC has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||15||10||S&P+||15||11||IsoPPP+||13||7||Rushing S&P+||52||1||Passing S&P+||8||18||When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||55||4||S&P+||61||6||IsoPPP+||33||2||Rushing S&P+||53||2||Passing S&P+||12||3|
This is a fascinating battle between two teams that many expected might be in the playoff this season, and two quarterbacks many thought might be in the running for the Heisman. Even as a consolation game for either team, it's an intriguing matchup due to the Trojans' explosive offense and Ohio State's inconsistent play this year against teams that can throw the ball down the field.
Ohio State's defense has struggled with constant turnover in the secondary over the last few years, with their best cornerbacks and safeties routinely leaving early for the NFL. They've also been vulnerable up the gut at linebacker this year, rotating bodies up front before turning to freshman middle linebacker Tuf Borland to stabilize things and allow speedy linebacker Chris Worley to move back outside where he excels. It's not as disciplined or consistent a unit as Ohio State tends to field, but it still has overwhelming athleticism and talent at every level. The USC offense they'll face is very explosive and dangerous, pairing 1,486-yard rusher Ronald Jones II with Sam Darnold, who threw for 3,787 yards and 26 touchdowns.
The USC passing game wasn't as deadly this year due to struggles to find a No. 2 receiver behind speedy slot Deontay Burnett and the frequent injuries on their offensive line. However, they improved over the course of the year, and the run game with Jones has been consistently deadly.
Ohio State's saving grace is their own offense, with senior quarterback J.T. Barrett IV at the helm for his last game in the Buckeyes' scarlet and silver. Barrett threw 35 touchdowns this season and ran for 10 more while adding 820 rushing yards to his 2,939 passing yards. He has been the main engine of the Ohio State offense, but their big, veteran offensive line blocking for star running backs J.K. Dobbins (1,364 rushing yards at 7.5 yards per carry) and Mike Weber (608 rushing yards at 6.3 yards per carry) is the most dangerous component of their team. Their wide receivers are fast and explosive, but they have tended to be a run-centric team that relies on Barrett to move around and execute on third down.
The USC defense hasn't been great by the numbers, but that has been more of a reflection of the rash of injuries that devastated their depth chart than the failures of their approach or roster (when healthy). They'll play things outside-in against the Buckeyes' option game and hope to hold up in the middle of the field despite a beat-up defensive line. The Trojans have struggled to hold the point of attack amidst numerous injuries to their nose tackles. Their typical adjustment is to play safeties Chris Hawkins and Marvel Tell III shallow; the two finished second and third on the team in tackles as a result.
If those two safeties tackle well and the Buckeyes don't get big yardage from their explosive receivers or running backs, then the Ohio State offensive machine could struggle to score. The Buckeyes could quickly become vulnerable to an upset here at the hands of Darnold and the Trojans.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Louisville (-6.5) vs Mississippi State
December 30, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Louisville||Mississippi State||F/+||18||22||Special Teams S&P+||29||7||When Louisville has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||8||14||S&P+||5||20||IsoPPP+||7||30||Rushing S&P+||3||18||Passing S&P+||7||5||When Mississippi State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||84||34||S&P+||88||63||IsoPPP+||115||49||Rushing S&P+||95||19||Passing S&P+||109||32|
This should be Lamar Jackson's last game with the Louisville Cardinals before taking his athletic act to the NFL. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist again after another brilliant season in 2017, though he drew less attention due to the poor play of the Louisville defense that held the team back.
With Dan Mullen leaving to take the head job at Florida, the Bulldogs will eventually be coached by former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead -- but for now one of Mullen's assistants will serve as the interim coach. They'll have to be creative, since junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is out with an injury for this contest and will be replaced by freshman Keytaon Thompson. The offense should still be similar, as Thompson also adds a running threat, and they'll still focus on getting the ball to running back Aeris Williams (1,019 rushing yards).
Even without Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs will likely run the ball well on Louisville; the question is how well they'll contain Jackson. Their defense is led by three safeties, and they tend to operate with big safety blitzes and disguised coverages from linebacker and defensive back-heavy packages. That's a risky bet against Jackson, unless they're ready to make lots of open-field tackles or else regularly get into the backfield. Consider this another testing ground for the trend of tiny defenses and a measure of how they fare against explosive, dual-threat quarterbacks.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Louisville
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Iowa State vs Memphis (-4)
December 30, 12:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Iowa State||Memphis||F/+||27||19||Special Teams S&P+||49||32||When Iowa State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||33||44||S&P+||71||106||IsoPPP+||86||57||Rushing S&P+||91||65||Passing S&P+||55||40||When Memphis has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||31||17||S&P+||31||3||IsoPPP+||21||32||Rushing S&P+||25||88||Passing S&P+||64||42|
This is a really well-matched and tough battle that's probably more worthy of watching than some games between more high-profile programs. Memphis has one of the more explosive offenses in the country, led by quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,971 passing yards and 36 touchdowns) throwing play-action and run-pass options. Their run game is paced by backs Darrell Henderson (1,154 yards, 8.9 yards per carry) and Patrick Taylor Jr. (798 yards, 5.7 yards per carry). Finally, they have star receiver Anthony Miller, a three-year starter who put up 1,407 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns this season. It's an explosive unit that most teams have struggled to even slow down.
Iowa State had a major breakthrough this season by playing a 3-3-5 nickel package that employed diminutive outside linebackers Marcel Spears (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) and Willie Harvey (6-foot-0, 222 pounds) on either side of true inside linebacker and converted quarterback Joel Lanning. They were backed by three safeties and two cornerbacks. Lanning has been an ultra-versatile player, playing on special teams and as a short-yardage quarterback in addition to leading the team in tackles and run stuffs (15). They're built to handle spread offenses like the Memphis attack, although they have been hurt by similarly balanced units such as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
The Memphis defense has been wretched this season, and has little hope of containing Iowa State running back David Montgomery (1,094 rushing yards) or big receivers Allen Lazard (799 yards, nine touchdowns) and Hakeem Butler (586 yards, six touchdowns). This is likely a shootout that will test how close Memphis is to the better spread offenses in the Big 12.
S&P Outright Pick: Memphis
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Washington vs Penn State (-2)
December 30, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Washington||Penn State||F/+||7||9||Special Teams S&P+||101||86||When Washington has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||10||12||S&P+||23||12||IsoPPP+||21||14||Rushing S&P+||51||17||Passing S&P+||11||13||When Penn State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||6||11||S&P+||4||12||IsoPPP+||5||4||Rushing S&P+||11||4||Passing S&P+||23||5|
Penn State took off a year ago after hiring FCS coach Joe Moorhead to install a spread offense that immediately kick-started the Nittany Lions into high gear. This year they had another strong season, mostly off the efforts of star running back Saquon Barkley (1,134 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 573 receiving yards). They were less vertically inclined in the passing game despite returning quarterback Trace McSorley, but moved the ball efficiently with the run game and by finding big tight end Mike Gesicki (501 receiving yards, nine touchdowns). They're all playing in this game and Barkley and Gesicki aren't skipping for NFL prep, so despite losing their coordinator the Nittany Lions have enough sticking around to give them some nice focus for this game.
They'll need it against a Washington defense that S&P+ had as one of the best in the land. The Huskies' defense is even smaller and faster than the unit that went to the playoffs with middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven (6-foot-0, 220 pounds) the leading tackler, but the team is really keyed by their trio of safeties and the big defensive front led by Vita Vea and Greg Gaines, each of whom are 320-plus pounds. It isn't a highly disruptive defense, but they are hard to make big gains against due to their team speed and tackling.
The Washington offense was solid again despite losing star receiver John Ross, but they didn't get the needed bump from their run game, nor did they replace Ross with another star receiver. Nevertheless, lead running back Myles Gaskin ran for 1,282 yards and 19 touchdowns and quarterback Jake Browning threw only five interceptions while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. They played it safe on offense this year and leaned on their defense. If their defense can stymie Barkley, that should be enough again. But if not, the Nittany Lions may get after them pretty fiercely.
S&P Outright Pick: Washington
Capital One Orange Bowl
Wisconsin (-5.5) vs Miami
December 30, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Wisconsin||Miami||F/+||6||14||Special Teams S&P+||31||85||When Wisconsin has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||31||11||S&P+||44||21||IsoPPP+||16||19||Rushing S&P+||22||42||Passing S&P+||9||25||When Miami has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||1||39||S&P+||1||39||IsoPPP+||9||15||Rushing S&P+||7||43||Passing S&P+||7||22|
Miami struggled this season when teams could handle their spread-option rushing attack -- which featured running back Travis Homer and dual-threat quarterback Malik Rosier (1,455 combined rushing yards) -- and force Rosier to beat them throwing the ball. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has one of the most disciplined run defenses in the country. Their inside linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards combined for 22 tackles for loss and 30 run stuffs. It's a very difficult unit to make consistent gains against in the run game, and they don't always have to dedicate lots of safety help to do it. When they do, they have strong safety and returning starter D'Cota Dixon to get involved.
But the Miami defense is similarly excellent. They rely on a trio of sophomore linebackers who are all returning starters in Shaquille Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud. Their 4-3 base defense should help them match up against Wisconsin's big I-formations and power run game. Defensive linemen R.J. McIntosh (19 run stuffs), Joe Jackson (15 run stuffs), Chad Thomas (11 run stuffs), and Trent Harris (8.5 sacks) make for a more disruptive line than Wisconsin has faced save perhaps for Ohio State.
If Wisconsin can't get running back Jonathan Taylor (1,847 rushing yards) going, than it will fall to inconsistent starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook and star tight end Troy Fumagalli (516 receiving yards) to generate enough offense to actually put Wisconsin 5.5 points over on Miami.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Wisconsin
Michigan (-8.5) vs South Carolina
January 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
|Overall||Michigan||South Carolina||F/+||23||72||Special Teams S&P+||73||92||When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||59||36||S&P+||74||46||IsoPPP+||39||25||Rushing S&P+||9||24||Passing S&P+||76||57||When South Carolina has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||13||73||S&P+||10||88||IsoPPP+||18||66||Rushing S&P+||10||67||Passing S&P+||3||48|
South Carolina got a tough draw here, facing a Michigan team with a legitimately elite defense and then an offense that might be better than anticipated now that redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters has been cleared from concussion protocol. The Wolverines struggled mightily to throw the ball after losing their top three receivers from 2016, a few starting offensive linemen, starting quarterback Wilton Speight, and then backup quarterback Brandon Peters at the end of the year.
Despite those struggles, the Wolverines had three receivers with 500 rushing yards or more, paced by junior Karan Higdon with 929. Their tendency has been to just force the issue with the run game this year while bringing along the passing game with their young receivers and tight ends. Peters had looked OK, throwing zero interceptions but taking sacks at a rate of 7.2 percent and hitting only 6.4 yards per pass attempt. Those were the best numbers of the group though, and he has been working hard in bowl practices to get the chance to prove himself before ex-Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson is ruled eligible to practice and play. With Peters or Patterson at the helm and an older, more experienced offense overall, Michigan will be a team to watch in 2018.
South Carolina is an up-and-coming team as well. but they took on injuries this year. Star receiver Deebo Samuel was averaging 11.4 yards per target before he went down this year. The rest of the top Gamecocks receivers and quarterback Jake Bentley will return this coming year. The defense has a blend of senior veterans and young talents, but they still don't have the kind of defensive linemen that Muschamp has built defenses off in the past and probably won't find any before this contest. Without a few more years under Muschamp's direction on defense or Samuels, this will be a tough game for the Gamecocks, but a good chance for Peters to prove himself.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Michigan
Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl
Central Florida vs Auburn (-9.5)
January 1, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Central Florida||Auburn||F/+||10||8||Special Teams S&P+||23||64||When Central Florida has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||9||3||S&P+||2||5||IsoPPP+||8||1||Rushing S&P+||49||5||Passing S&P+||14||1||When Auburn has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||20||19||S&P+||78||36||IsoPPP+||49||28||Rushing S&P+||63||15||Passing S&P+||30||10|
This is a fantastic example of the kind of game in which the advanced stats suggest one outcome while recruiting rankings, the eye test, and conventional wisdom say the opposite. The former says Central Florida is the better team and can beat Auburn straight up; the Vegas odds and other metrics say that Auburn is a big favorite.
One challenge that the Knights will have is the way the Auburn's 4-2-5 base nickel defense will erase space that the Central Florida spread offense has enjoyed against American Conference opponents. The Tigers will be happy to match up in man coverage with their cornerbacks and safeties, and then free up their linebackers or safety Tray Matthews to attack the run game. Another more obvious challenge is the Auburn defensive line, featuring star pass-rusher Jeff Holland (nine sacks) and defensive tackle Derrick Brown (12 run stuffs), and the speedy athletic linebacker corps behind them. The Central Florida offensive line may struggle to handle even honest numbers in the box.
If that's not an issue, there's also the challenge of the Auburn offensive line, led by big veterans Austin Golson and Braden Smith, that could end up plowing consistent roads for Tigers running backs like Kerryon Johnson (1,320 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns). It's harder these days to stop the Auburn run game because quarterback Jarrett Stidham can throw the ball to the perimeter or down the field, primarily to speedy slot Ryan Davis (791 receiving yards).
Central Florida's hope is in their impossibly clever spread-option offense, coached by Scott Frost (who's going to coach them in this game while managing his transition to Nebraska) and led by quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton, a sophomore, excels in spreading the ball around, with four different receivers boasting four touchdown catches or more. Milton has also run for 561 yards. Milton's sack rate is only 2.7 percent, and he has thrown 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions. The hope in Orlando will be that Milton's overall brilliance is the great equalizer, even if the Knights struggle to match up in the trenches.
Auburn has the talent edge, and Central Florida's spacing tactics may not work so well.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Central Florida
Citrus Bowl presented by Overton's
Notre Dame vs LSU (-2.5)
January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Notre Dame||LSU||F/+||11||20||Special Teams S&P+||84||81||When Notre Dame has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||13||32||S&P+||24||17||IsoPPP+||10||20||Rushing S&P+||5||26||Passing S&P+||59||24||When LSU has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||21||25||S&P+||30||42||IsoPPP+||6||19||Rushing S&P+||13||6||Passing S&P+||4||24|
LSU quietly had a strong season despite losing big early against Mississippi State; blowing a game against Group of 5 member Troy; and taking their annual beating at the hands of Alabama. The Tigers beat Auburn and pounded most everyone else on the schedule while the defense grew over the course of the season. Notre Dame will be a challenge of how much their young defense has grown over the final stretch of the season and bowl practices.
The Fighting Irish will bring a pair of NFL-bound offensive linemen in left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson, and then running back Josh Adams (1,386 rushing yards) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (885 rushing yards). Notre Dame will be without a few players who were suspended, but the main cogs in their downhill option run game will all be present for this contest.
The Tigers weren't as stout along their defensive line this season as in years past. Arden Key took a big step back from his pass-rushing form of 2016. However, sophomore inside linebacker Devin White grew up in a major way, leading the team in tackles and in run stuffs (18). Freshman safety Grant Delpit also improved over the course of the year with nine more run stuffs.
The LSU offense played well over the course of the year. This will be quarterback Danny Etling's last game in an LSU uniform, and perhaps the last game for running back Derrius Guice, who led the team with 1,153 rushing yards this year. The Tigers got rolling this season spelling Guice with senior Darrel Williams (776 rushing yards) and jet sweeps to their wide receivers on the perimeter. Their offense is fairly simple if you can handle the dual threats on the perimeter of the running back cutbacks and the receiver sweeps.
Notre Dame played sound (if not always dominant) defense this year and could be a big challenge on the perimeter for the Tigers, who depend somewhat on defenses getting caught out of position. The trio of weakside linebacker Te'von Coney (15 run stuffs), middle linebacker Nyles Morgan (16 run stuffs), and strongside linebacker Drue Tranquill (eight run stuffs) covers a ton of ground and can stay on the field against three-receiver sets due to the speed of Tranquill, a converted safety. Notre Dame may use him to help control the LSU jet sweep game while the other two shut down the traditional run game. There may not be a ton of scoring in this game overall.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual (playoff semifinal)
Georgia (-1.5) vs Oklahoma
January 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Georgia||Oklahoma||F/+||1||5||Special Teams S&P+||1||56||When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||3||58||S&P+||18||95||IsoPPP+||5||75||Rushing S&P+||8||62||Passing S&P+||4||52||When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||4||2||S&P+||8||1||IsoPPP+||3||1||Rushing S&P+||8||1||Passing S&P+||6||1|
The big question surrounding Oklahoma in the playoff is whether it's possible to win a championship without a great or even good defense. Oklahoma hasn't really had either this season, but has thrown a lot of schemes and players at the wall trying to see if something will stick on defense. They have one great player in linebacker Obo Okoronkwo (eight sacks, 23 run stuffs) but have surrounded him with a collection of athletes who flash greatness one play and ineptitude the next. The Sooners should be in better shape against a team like Georgia that likes to run the ball downhill and isn't as comfortable throwing the ball around like the Big 12 offenses that tortured Oklahoma this season.
Meanwhile, the Oklahoma offense had one of the greatest seasons in Big 12 history. You can see most of their brilliance summed up in the numbers of Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, who threw for 4,340 yards (10.8 yards per attempt) and 41 touchdowns, throwing only five interceptions and a sack rate of 5.4 percent.
On top of that, Oklahoma went through three different running backs before settling on Rodney Anderson, who ran for 960 and 11 touchdowns. Their run game is terrific and extremely hard to stop without yielding easy passes for Mayfield. Meanwhile, the passing game is also exceptionally hard to stop thanks to flex tight end Mark Andrews (922 yards, eight touchdowns) and their speed at receiver. Playing nickel personnel puts a team at risk of getting gashed in the run game, while even a nickel defense can struggle to deal with all of Oklahoma's weapons in the passing game. Finally, there's Oklahoma's offensive line, which is loaded with big guys who have all started for at least two years now in this system with Mayfield at quarterback and head coach Lincoln Riley calling plays
Georgia will have to figure it all out, or else dominate with their own defensive front, including outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter and star inside linebacker Roquan Smith (92.5 tackles, 5.5 sacks). They also have a veteran secondary led by cornerback/nickel Aaron Davis, but they don't have a ton of answers for how to match up with the Sooners skill players.
While Georgia has been winning this season with their defense, their offense has some nice components, such as running backs Nick Chubb (1,175 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) and Sonny Michel (948 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns). They did not ask freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to win games for them, but he did throw for 2,173 yards (8.5 yards per attempt) and 21 touchdowns with only five interceptions. They aren't built to play in shootouts, but they have some potential there if Oklahoma struggles to fit the run properly against the downhill Georgia run game.
Overall, Oklahoma is certainly a flawed team, but their weak spots are most easily exploited by teams that can throw the ball or who can match up to their pro-style spread offense. Georgia may struggle to do either.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia
Allstate Sugar Bowl (playoff semifinal)
New Orleans, LA
Alabama (-3) vs Clemson
January 1, 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Alabama||Clemson||F/+||3||2||Special Teams S&P+||26||118||When Alabama has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||6||2||S&P+||19||2||IsoPPP+||9||2||Rushing S&P+||14||9||Passing S&P+||6||2||When Clemson has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||5||18||S&P+||3||35||IsoPPP+||4||47||Rushing S&P+||2||11||Passing S&P+||9||19|
Alabama simply hasn't been as terrifying in 2017 as in recent years, even while going 11-1 in the regular season. While S&P+ still loves their performances, FEI is more lukewarm and likes Clemson here. Alabama's victories have all been a touch less overwhelming than normal, and it's not hard to point at reasons for their relative struggles. The offense was retooled to be more pro style, which didn't suit sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts particularly well, especially in comparison to the spread-option attack he was running a year ago under then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. The offense is still effective and loaded with athletes like wide receiver Calvin Ridley (896 receiving yards), running back Damien Williams (906 rushing yards), or Hurts himself (880 rushing yards). The offensive line is also about as good as most of the other great lines Alabama has put on the field this decade.
The Clemson defense will be a major test for them. The Tigers are loaded up front with three defensive linemen with 10 run stuffs, and then big nose tackle Dexter Lawrence manning the middle and absorbing double-teams for the benefit of the Clemson linebackers. The Tigers also have multiple run-stuffing safeties; at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Tanner Muse often drops down like an extra linebacker near the box. They're always very well coordinated on game days and will easily sniff out Alabama's tendency towards running the ball or having Hurts look for Ridley before scrambling. They'll load the box on standard downs, play with contain on the edge, and spy Hurts when he tries to escape the pocket.
On the other side of the ball, the Clemson offense will likely struggle in their own right against the Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide don't have what they normally have, an All-American or All-SEC inside linebacker, but they do have a trio of excellent safeties led by Thorpe-winning Minkah Fitzpatrick. They also have yet another sturdy defensive line, but lack a single great pass-rusher, whereas last year they had three up front. They lean on Rashaan Evans to be both their main inside linebacker and their best pass-rusher, so teams that can keep tabs on him and control him can limit what Alabama can do. However, it's hard to generate big gains against the Alabama defense due to the excellent tackling of their safeties.
Clemson did a lot of their damage this year by getting the ball on the perimeter to burners like running back Travis Etienne (744 rushing yards, 7.2 yards per carry) or receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (542 receiving yards). They can also attack coverage with ultra-shifty slot receiver and two-time Alabama killer Hunter Renfrow or big outside target Deon Cain (659 receiving yards). Quarterback Kelly Bryant is as strong a runner as his predecessor Deshaun Watson, but he's not nearly as good in the dropback passing game. The Clemson offense now relies more on option plays and working the ball down the field rather than picking it up in chunks.
In a close, defensive battle, it's not obvious which team would hold the advantage, but Alabama is generally very good at avoiding turnovers and ranks much higher in special teams. They may hold the overall advantage unless their offense is totally swamped by the Clemson defense.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
S&P+ PICKS: Bowl Week 2
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread|
|Wake Forest||3||Texas A&M||Wake Forest||Wake Forest|
|North Carolina State||6.5||Arizona State||North Carolina State||Arizona State|
|New Mexico State||4||Utah State||Utah State||Utah State|
|Ohio State||7.5||USC||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Louisville||6.5||Mississippi State||Louisville||Mississippi State|
|Michigan||8.5||South Carolina||Michigan||South Carolina|
|Auburn||9.5||Central Florida||Central Florida||Central Florida|
|LSU||2.5||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 45-37