by Ian Boyd
The bowl games are upon us! Every year these tend to provide some fun matchups, a chance for fans to watch some interesting teams from the smaller conferences, and a useful distraction during the holiday season. The first round of games is filled with Group of 5 contests, including lots of really strong teams whose coaches have already left for higher paying jobs or are still in consideration for openings amongst Power 5 programs.
There are also some programs running next-generation schemes as tactical innovation in football tends to flow upwards with the bigger schools catching on to best practices after they are established and not beforehand. So you can take in San Diego State's influential 3-3-5 defense or the North Texas Air Raid. If you're inclined to gamble or pick winners, the bowl games are a treasure trove of fun, hypothetical matchups with all kinds of varying factors such as injuries, coaching changes, and motivation that make it hard for the linemakers to get them pegged. We'll try and sort through all that in this space.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Autonation Cure Bowl
Tulane (-3.5) vs. Louisiana -- December 15, 1:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||Tulane (6-6)||Louisiana (7-6)||F/+||92||95||Special Teams S&P+||48||17||S&P+||-3.3||-1.6||When Tulane has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||96||123||S&P+||107||111||IsoPPP+||14||52||Rushing S&P+||72||78||Passing S&P+||59||113||When Louisiana has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||59||18||S&P+||59||36||IsoPPP+||114||12||Rushing S&P+||37||19||Passing S&P+||65||22|
Things start off hot with the explosive Ragin' Cajuns offense taking on a Tulane defense that has been prone to giving up the big play. The big feature of this game is the Louisiana backfield that includes running backs Trey Ragas (1,141 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, eight touchdowns) and Elijah Mitchell (951 rushing yards, 6.8 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns) who comprise the majority of the Cajuns attack. You'll see the Cajuns mix in a variety of screens, sweeps, and motion from spread formations all designed to confuse the run fits of the Tulane defense in order to help open running lanes for Ragas and Mitchell to get free. They may also aim to avoid Tulane defensive end Patrick Johnson, who has 14 tackles for loss on the year and could be trouble for their off-tackle runs.
The Tulane offense is similar in its emphasis on the run game, but head coach Willie Fritz employs a more traditional option approach despite the shotgun spread formations and modern appearance to his attack. The Green Wave have struggled some this year, but things picked up some after LSU transfer Justin McMillan took over at quarterback. Louisiana hasn't played good defense this season, so the extra bowl practice reps for McMillan could pay big dividends as Tulane tries to establish Louisiana supremacy out in central Florida.
McMillan is a solid athlete, but it wasn't his running that helped open up Tulane's offense but his cannon arm, which was hitting at 8.5 yards per attempt this season and allowed the Green Wave to unleash speedy wideout Darnell Mooney down the stretch. Watch for that connection to give Tulane a boost against favored Louisiana.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Louisiana
New Mexico Bowl
Albuquerque, New Mexico
North Texas vs. Utah State (-9) -- December 15, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||North Texas (9-3)||Utah State (10-2)||F/+||38||20||Special Teams S&P+||5||66||S&P+||9.8||12.4||When North Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||45||32||S&P+||33||34||IsoPPP+||30||49||Rushing S&P+||36||35||Passing S&P+||47||43||When Utah State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||50||11||S&P+||48||20||IsoPPP+||84||22||Rushing S&P+||68||26||Passing S&P+||32||32|
This is the best matchup in terms of the overall quality of the teams involved within this slate of games, per S&P+. The Fresno State Bulldogs rank higher, and their opponents the Arizona State Sun Devilss have the highes profile, but the adjusted stats like these two teams and this matchup quite a bit. The bigger schools also liked how these two teams played -- Utah State's head coach Matt Wells was hired away by Texas Tech, while North Texas' Seth Littrell interviewed with Kansas State before withdrawing from consideration. Utah State then brought back Gary Andersen, who helped build the Utah State program with Matt Wells before leaving for the Wisconsin opening.
In the meantime, Utah State's staff has split attention as many of them will be leaving for the Texas Tech job and Wells is already working in Lubbock. But Littrell is still around in Denton and is currently positioned to stick around through 2019 with his senior-to-be quarterback Mason Fine. That's the main feature of this game -- Fine working against a top-rated defense designed to confuse and attack spread quarterbacks. The North Texas passer threw for 3,734 yards this season spreading the ball around to three main targets, led by outside wide receiver Rico Bussey Jr., with running back Deandre Torrey (942 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 14 touchdowns) as a constraint when teams overloaded the passing windows.
Utah State is no stranger to spread passing offenses. They have a 3-4 defense designed to confuse the quarterback and keep him from using pre-snap looks to determine where to look to throw the ball. They chewed up Hawaii this season and finished 7-1 with a close loss to Boise State that kept them out of the Mountain West championship game. Linebackers David Woodwards and Tipa Galeai combined for 23 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, and their showdown with Fine should define the contest.
North Texas played pretty solid defense in their own right this season. Linebackers E.J. Ejiya and Brandon Garner combined for 40.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks while blowing up opposing rushing attacks. Utah State has a balanced spread offense that wants to run the ball behind tight end Dax Raymond so they can create one-on-one matchups for their receivers and space for some of their speedy, hybrid slots to work in. If they can't run the ball without yielding tackles for loss to the Mean Green linebackers, then their own approach struggles.
This is a legitimately good and compelling game, and fans of the Big 12 -- particularly Texas Tech -- should be tuning in to get a sense of how these teams perform.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Utah State
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, Nevada
Arizona State vs. Fresno State (-4) -- December 15, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Arizona State (7-5)||Fresno State (11-2)||F/+||42||11||Special Teams S&P+||24||91||S&P+||3.5||16.2||When Arizona State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||23||13||S&P+||30||9||IsoPPP+||41||7||Rushing S&P+||20||5||Passing S&P+||44||13||When Fresno State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||86||30||S&P+||92||37||IsoPPP+||23||73||Rushing S&P+||99||103||Passing S&P+||89||16|
Arizona State had a pretty solid year one with "CEO" coach Herm Edwards at the helm. All five of their losses were within a single possession and they simply came up short in some close games. They built a good spread offense around senior quarterback Manny Wilkins' ability to run some spread-option with new sophomore running back Eno Benjamin (1,524 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns) and star wide receiver K'Neal Harry (1,088 yards, nine touchdowns). That was the main thrust of the Sun Devils offense, feeding those two bell cows, but now Harry will miss the bowl game after leaving the team to prepare for the NFL draft.
Fresno State has also leaned on a star wide receiver: senior KeeSean Johnson (1,307 yards, eight touchdowns), who will be playing in this game and taking the opportunity to try and improve his draft stock the traditional way. His quarterback Marcus McMaryion threw for 3,453 yards this year at 8.7 yards per attempt with 25 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. The Oregon State transfer has a hitch in this throwing motion and was pretty quiet against Boise State in the Mountain West championship game, but he knows what he's doing after getting extensive playing time for three consecutive seasons and knows where to go with the football.
The Arizona State defense isn't phenomenal at getting the quarterback on the ground, but they do have some methods for confusing him with their 3-3-5 formation that Danny Gonzales brought from San Diego State. The Sun Devils picked off 10 passes and recovered eight fumbles to give them a +9 turnover margin on the year, good for 12th nationally. The Fresno State defense has been phenomenal this year for the same reason -- they're +13 in turnover margin mostly thanks to 17 interceptions. They have athletic defensive backs who get their hands on lots of balls, and it can be risky trying to take shots on them.
This is a battle between two senior quarterbacks who are going to be flinging the ball around for all their worth in what may be each man's last football game against sticky-fingered defenders. It should make for compelling drama.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Fresno State
Georgia Southern (-1) vs. Eastern Michigan -- December 15, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Georgia Southern (9-3)||Eastern Michigan (7-5)||F/+||67||71||Special Teams S&P+||14||107||S&P+||2.9||2||When Georgia Southern has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||55||37||S&P+||51||33||IsoPPP+||75||15||Rushing S&P+||58||60||Passing S&P+||36||21||When Eastern Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||54||99||S&P+||71||86||IsoPPP+||16||36||Rushing S&P+||48||91||Passing S&P+||68||76|
Georgia Southern follows a pretty standardized formula for success, recruiting a talent-rich state for athletes and deploying them (once again) in a triple option-oriented offense from the shotgun. They did some damage through the air but never threw the ball more than a dozen times in any of their wins. They have a typical dive/quarterback keeper/pitch veer system in which the most grievous damage occurs on the pitch -- especially when they get the ball to Wesley Kennedy III, who had 395 yards at 7.2 yards per carry along with 15 catches for 182 yards. When teams take on a team like Georgia Southern, things tend to come down to how well their players and coaches understand defending the option. Either that, or they score tons of points and engage the option team in a shootout.
Eastern Michigan can't really win a shootout because their offense lacks potency and the Georgia Southern defense is reasonably solid, particularly for a Sun Belt team. Eastern Michigan's most effective offense came from feeding slot receiver Blake Banham (714 receiving yards, five touchdowns), and it will be tough sledding if Georgia Southern can limit the space he finds to operate in. However, Eastern Michigan has a good defense they can turn to in order to match Georgia Southern in a lower scoring game.
The Eastern Michigan defense is led by inside linebacker Kyle Rachwal, who is far and away the leading tackler with 115 along with nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. After Rachwal, they get good run support from their nickel/linebacker hybrid safeties and disruptive play from defensive linemen Maxx Crosby and Jeremiah Harris, who have combined for 29 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. They're a tough team to beat on the edge, and Rachwal is really good at cleaning up when the ball is forced back inside. It's a tough matchup for Georgia Southern, although at least it's down south and not in the cold weather where Eastern Michigan would be vastly more comfortable.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia Southern
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Middle Tennessee vs. Appalachian State (-7) -- December 15, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Middle Tennessee (8-5)||Appalachian State (10-2)||F/+||63||24||Special Teams S&P+||44||37||S&P+||2.8||15.5||When Middle Tennessee has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||67||6||S&P+||81||10||IsoPPP+||54||8||Rushing S&P+||79||8||Passing S&P+||64||4||When Appalachian State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||49||51||S&P+||46||46||IsoPPP+||57||44||Rushing S&P+||42||69||Passing S&P+||41||63|
Here's another game that could be impacted by coaching changes. Scott Satterfield was a quarterback for Appalachian State, an assistant coach there for 12 years (non-continuous), and then spent six years as the head coach. Now he's moving on and taking over as the Louisville head coach. His team had a strong season, but now faces a Middle Tennessee squad that finished second in Conference USA and beat the champion (UAB) in the regular season 27-3 before losing the immediate rematch 27-25 when UAB successfully quieted star receiver Ty Lee (828 receiving yards, seven touchdowns).
Middle Tennessee leans on their passing attack, with senior quarterback Brent Stockstill and Lee as his favorite target by a fair margin and no clear No. 2, nor a rushing attack that serves as a No. 2. This could be a problem against Appalachian State, even with their coaching staff focusing on taking over at Louisville. The Mountaineers had a highly effective defense this year and will know how to clamp down on the Middle Tennessee attack. The Mountaineers play a 3-4 defense with hybrid outside linebackers who can play in space and a secondary playing over the top and picking off the passes that opponents try to force through zone coverage. If the 5-foot-9, 178-pound Lee is unable to hold up trying to find soft spots in their zone, then that could be it for Middle Tennessee in this game.
Appalachian State's offense is a pseudo-option system that includes a lot of zone-read from multiple-tight end sets that allows them to move the edge and read player across the defensive front and to get lead blockers either for the running back or the quarterback on the keep. Lead running back Darrynton Evans had just over a thousand rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season, while sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas added 476 timely yards and 10 rushing touchdowns to go along with 1,862 passing yards and 18 passing touchdowns. The Mountaineers want to slow the game's pace down and shorten its duration with a pounding run game paired with that strong defense, a good foil for the Middle Tennessee style. The Blue Raiders will need to speed up the young Thomas and try to draw the Mountaineers into a shootout to have a good chance in this one.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Appalachian State
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl
Boca Raton, Florida
UAB (-2.5) vs. Northern Illinois -- December 18, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||UAB (10-3)||Northern Illinois (8-5)||F/+||60||61||Special Teams S&P+||84||105||S&P+||3.7||1.6||When UAB has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||68||21||S&P+||89||15||IsoPPP+||92||41||Rushing S&P+||40||6||Passing S&P+||45||36||When Northern Illinois has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||45||116||S&P+||27||115||IsoPPP+||118||125||Rushing S&P+||50||63||Passing S&P+||44||125|
You get all kinds of interesting matchups in bowl games. The stalwart defensive squad against the shootout-oriented offensive team, the dueling pinball offenses who don't play defense ... and then sometimes the battle between two teams who lean on their defenses. This is one of those contests between a pair of tough defenses, and neither offense is particularly great at putting points on the board. The one solid offensive dimension to either team is the UAB rushing attack led by running back Spencer Brown (1,152 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns).
The Blazers have leaned on pounding the ball on the ground with Brown and usually rely on freshman quarterback Tyler Johnson III, who can add a rushing dimension but also takes things off the table with turnovers at times. The obvious fear in this game is that he'll make the crushing mistakes that make the difference in a defensive slog.
Northern Illinois runs a lot of option with quarterback Marcus Childers and running back Tre Harbison, but they don't do it all that terribly well. Childers averages 2.8 yards per carry while Harbison has averaged 5.8, but couldn't hit a thousand rushing yards on the year and only had four rushing touchdowns. They have a pair of smaller receivers in D.J. Brown and Jauan Wesley to work off the run game on the perimeter, but it's a pretty plodding attack overall that doesn't land many big punches. Their hope will be that young Johnson turns the ball over a few times and allows them to win the field position battle.
They'll try to achieve that with a pair of blitzing linebackers named Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran who racked up a combined 37 tackles for loss and 25 sacks. The difference in this game, though, might instead be the UAB defensive end tandem Jamell Garcia-Williams and Tre Crawford, who have combined for 27.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks. Garcia-Williams in particular is a 6-foot-8, 255-pound force who Northern Illinois may find to be too big an issue for their offense to overcome. Alternatively, if UAB can't find and control Smith on the blitz, then that's that. There's a good chance this game will have lots of big defensive plays that would seem to turn the tide of the game only for the other defense to make another big play that flips it back.
S&P+ Outright Pick: UAB
DXL Frisco Bowl
San Diego State vs. Ohio (-3) -- December 19, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||San Diego State (7-5)||Ohio (8-4)||F/+||44||36||Special Teams S&P+||8||56||S&P+||6.6||5.6||When San Diego State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||107||76||S&P+||96||107||IsoPPP+||46||110||Rushing S&P+||88||100||Passing S&P+||77||110||When Ohio has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||27||6||S&P+||25||9||IsoPPP+||28||25||Rushing S&P+||9||3||Passing S&P+||38||42|
This is a really good one. Ohio's quarterback Nathan Rourke was one of the most productive players in the country outside of the Power 5, throwing for 2,225 yards at 8.8 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while rushing for 816 yards at 6.5 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. His play made it fairly easy for Ohio running back A.J. Quellette to run for 1,142 yards at 6.2 yards per carry with 12 more touchdowns in Ohio's spread-option offense. They have a pretty unique attack, running more of an old school style in the mold of the I-option offense of Tom Osborne because their head coach is former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich. It's basically the Osborne offense but oriented to the shotgun spread instead of the I-formation.
San Diego State has their unique defense to match. They play with a dime structure but personnel that is essentially that of a 3-3-5, but at times more of a 3-4. They play smaller, tweener defensive linemen who move around before and after the snap backed by three linebackers who all take turns playing in different roles. The secondary plays a "four corners" philosophy with corners and safeties who can all cover in man and then an "Aztec" safety who is bigger like a box safety or smaller linebacker, who sits in the middle of the field and gives them an extra defender against the run or the pass. That Aztec safety sitting in the middle of the field is often a game-changer, and utilizing a player like that who excels in space has become a common trend across the college game, particularly in the Big 12 where Iowa State really put it in vogue.
The other side of the ball is less dramatic. The Aztecs are an old school, I-formation style team that just pounds the ball on the ground to their running backs and runs play-action rollouts off the rushing action to shake things up. They weren't terribly good at it this year and their nice run of having multiple seasons with a 2,000-yard feature running back ended with Juwan Washington finishing with a disappointing 870 total yards at 4.8 yards per carry, mostly due to injury. He finished the year strong though, and should be ready to run roughshod over a bad Ohio defense.
S&P Outright Pick: San Diego State
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl
Marshall (-2.5) vs. South Florida -- December 20, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Marshall (8-4)||South Florida (7-5)||F/+||62||86||Special Teams S&P+||96||97||S&P+||4.4||1||When Marshall has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||98||74||S&P+||110||66||IsoPPP+||63||93||Rushing S&P+||64||81||Passing S&P+||81||39||When South Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||39||90||S&P+||13||55||IsoPPP+||75||57||Rushing S&P+||21||55||Passing S&P+||32||100|
This year didn't go as planned for South Florida. Former Alabama backup quarterback and frequent transfer Blake Barnett struggled to grasp the "veer and shoot" offense, and so the Bulls weren't able to add much explosiveness off their effective run game. Meanwhile, head coach Charlie Strong's defense still didn't crack the higher levels of defensive play. Their linebackers made some tackles for loss, but they didn't get as much pass rush.
The "veer" side of the offensive equation worked out pretty well, with lead running back Jordan Cronkite going for 1,095 yards at 6.3 yards per carry with nine touchdowns and backup Johnny Ford adding 737 at 7.1 yards per carry with eight more touchdowns. They just weren't able to get the passing game working, and now offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert has departed to be the head coach at McNeese State. It seems likely that offensive line coach Matt Mattox, who worked with Gilbert at Tulsa, then Texas, and now South Florida will follow him soon, and Strong made the tight end coach play-caller over Mattox for the bowl game.
The main key for Marshall in this game will be to study how to throw monkey wrenches into the veer and shoot system, which is usually done by playing man coverage to get numbers against the run game and daring the offense to either work their way down the field with small gains on the ground or by beating man coverage. Barnett's 11 interceptions and 7.6 yards per attempt suggest that could be an issue in this contest.
Yet for all that, the Thundering Herd don't have much offensive firepower of their own with which to attack the South Florida defenders. Their main weapon is wide receiver Tyre Brady, who had 60 catches for 819 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Strong does have some athletes to send Brady's way. Strong employs a pretty simple style of single-high safety defense and man blitzes, but Marshall's freshman quarterback Isaiah Green may not be ready to wade through those waters.
S&P Outright Pick: Marshall
S&P+ PICKS: Bowl Week 1
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Utah State||9||North Texas||Utah State||North Texas||Utah State|
|Arizona State||4||Fresno State||Fresno State||Fresno State||Fresno State|
|Georgia Southern||1||Eastern Michigan||Georgia Souther||Eastern Michigan||Eastern Michigan|
|Appalachian State||7||Middle Tennessee||Appalachian State||Appalachian State||Appalachian State|
|UAB||2.5||Northern Illinois||UAB||Northern Illinois||Northern Illinois|
|Ohio||3||San Diego State||San Diego State||San Diego State||San Diego State|
|Marshall||2.5||South Florida||Marshall||Marshall||South Florida|
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 46-38
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 49-34