Seventh Day Adventure
Football Outsiders' weekly preview for people who like their football played on Saturdays

Seventh Day Adventure: Bowl Spectacular Part II

Ohio State Buckeyes Edge Rusher Chase Young
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Our second batch of bowl games is an extremely eclectic mix of matchups. We have several games featuring Power Five also-rans against Group of Five winners, such as Memphis vs. Penn State. Then there are fun matchups between solid teams that fell short of their goals such as Iowa State vs. Notre Dame, Florida vs. Virginia, or Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M.

A lot of these games often come down to which teams are motivated to make something of the bowl games, which teams are getting healthy coming off the extra rest, which teams are getting weaker due to NFL defections, and also the coaching changes that occur and rob teams of either their coaches or their staff's attention.

This batch also includes our playoff semifinals, so we'll move more quickly through most of the other games in order to give more attention to the LSU-Oklahoma and Ohio State-Clemson matchups that will take place on December 28. Last year's semifinal games were not particularly exciting going in and truly failed to deliver very good games. Once Clemson flipped their playoff mode switch, they were a team well beyond anyone else in the field, and Oklahoma's lack of an even mid-tier defense prevented them from having a great chance against Alabama.

This year we have three powerhouse teams in LSU, Clemson, and Ohio State, about whom Vegas and the statistical rankings have divergent opinions. Then we have Oklahoma, back in the fray with some key players missing due to injury or suspension but also a different identity and formula than the squads that they brought into previous playoff matchups. LSU is favored big over Oklahoma, but the top three teams all seem to be well matched, so we may get at least two real battles rather than the series of blowouts we witnessed last season.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman
Annapolis, Maryland
North Carolina (-5) vs. Temple -- December 27, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall North Carolina (6-6) Temple (8-4)
F/+ 38 49
FEI 37 57
When North Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 42 30
SP+ 31 23
IsoPPP+ 17 47
Rushing SP+ 48 34
Passing SP+ 13 15
When Temple has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 61 103
SP+ 54 84
IsoPPP+ 64 106
Rushing SP+ 69 106
Passing SP+ 87 85

Temple finished second in the AAC East behind Cincinnati, falling short mostly because they had little they could count on offensively while trying to maximize a very strong defense. Quarterback Anthony Russo threw for 2,733 yards and 21 touchdowns but averaged only 6.4 yards per attempt. He led a steady but nonexplosive passing game, capable of taking advantage of some of the opportunities the defense created but little more. The run game was similar with a pair of pretty big power backs in Re'Mahn Davis and Jager Gardner who combined for 1,485 yards and 12 touchdowns at 4.7 yards per carry.

The chances for the Owls in this game hinge on keeping the score within reach with their defense going up against North Carolina's Air Raid that has a lot more "power run, play-action" dimensions to it than some other offenses from that tradition. Temple's star cornerback Harrison Hand will need to show out well against the Tar Heels' explosive outside receiver Dyami Brown (947 yards, 12 yards per target, 11 touchdowns).

If Temple can't keep North Carolina under wraps defensively, than the Tar Heels will bury them with explosive gains in the passing game on RPOs and play-action. Freshman quarterback Sam Howell has had a pretty strong season, throwing for 3,347 yards and 35 touchdowns to just seven interceptions; he may put himself on the national radar for 2020 after this game.

Watch for:

  • North Carolina's freshman quarterback Sam Howell executing an aggressive spread offense against a top-ranked defense from Temple.
  • Can Temple cornerback Harrison Hand take away North Carolina receiver Dyami Brown and the deep passing game?
  • Temple relies on field position and turnovers to set up their offense.

FEI Outright Pick: North Carolina by 5.5

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
New York, New York
Michigan State (-3.5) vs. Wake Forest -- December 27, 3:20 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Michigan State (6-6) Wake Forest (8-4)
F/+ 41 52
FEI rating 40 47
When Michigan State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 85 49
SP+ 90 65
IsoPPP+ 112 85
Rushing SP+ 95 74
Passing SP+ 81 64
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 17 59
SP+ 12 61
IsoPPP+ 59 37
Rushing SP+ 8 115
Passing SP+ 39 34

Michigan State continues to rely on the same formula with Mark Dantonio, with wildly diminishing returns. They play an aggressive defensive scheme designed to help them attack opposing run games with great defensive line play, aggressive linebacker fills, and safeties playing at shallow depth. On offense they try to run the football with a traditional power run game before becoming a pro-spread team on third-and-long. They've taken some lumps as opposing offenses have evolved into spread passing attacks that aren't as vulnerable to their aggressive fronts on defense and as their own offense has struggled to develop the quarterback position. Their current signal-caller, Brian Lewerke, is a senior who threw for just 2,759 yards this season at 6.4 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns to 12 interceptions.

Wake Forest has exactly the sort of offense that's designed to circumvent Dantonio's trap in the box by beating defenses on the perimeter. Wake Forest is an up-tempo RPO team, and what's more, they're the sort of RPO team that uses run blocking and asks their quarterback to put the ball in the running back's belly not with the intention of creating space for the run game but in hopes of sucking in defenders so the quarterback can pull the ball out and throw it. Their leading rusher this season was actually the quarterback, Jamie Newman, who has a collection of RPO plays in which his options are to throw or run himself. Leading receivers Sage Surratt and Kendall Hinton had 1,001 and 953 receiving yards respectively, while 6-foot-5 Scotty Washington had 607 receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns as a red zone target.

The Demon Deacons are going to test every vulnerable spot in the Spartans' aging formula that was so successful earlier this decade.

Watch for:

  • How will Michigan State adapt on defense to handle a team that is designed to punish units that play the run as aggressively as the Spartans like to do?
  • Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman executing "throw or run" RPOs at lightning tempo.
  • Michigan State to try and hold the ball on offense to keep their defense rested and the Demon Deacons off the field.

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan State by 2.5

Academy Sports & Outdoors Texas Bowl
Houston, Texas
Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M (-7) -- December 27, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma State (8-4) Texas A&M (7-5)
F/+ 32 24
FEI 34 30
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 37 33
SP+ 22 24
IsoPPP+ 26 67
Rushing SP+ 20 36
Passing SP+ 51 31
When Texas A&M has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 59 43
SP+ 53 33
IsoPPP+ 82 99
Rushing SP+ 63 9
Passing SP+ 69 66

Some of the stats for this game are missing important context, particularly the relative health and availability of key players. Oklahoma State welcomes back redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Sanders, who missed the last few games of the season, and is expecting star running back Chuba Hubbard to play in this game. Meanwhile Texas A&M might have only one scholarship running back available, although it is the richly talented freshman Isaiah Spiller who ran for 869 yards at 5.6 yards per carry with nine touchdowns this season.

This game will definitely be a "styles make fights" sort of contest. The Cowboys are an up-tempo spread team that is a little more oriented around the run game this season due to Sanders' inexperience in the passing game combined with his tremendous skill operating zone-option schemes. After removing sack yardage, Sanders had 119 carries for 735 yards at 6.2 yards per carry; his abilities to win the edge on quarterback keepers helped open lanes for Hubbard to turn 309 carries into 1,936 yards at 6.2 yards per carry with 21 touchdowns. Stopping Oklahoma State will require fitting the zone-option properly, which Texas A&M will likely try to do with some edge overload blitzes and aggressive play by the overhang defenders.

On the flip side, Texas A&M may only have one running back for this game, but their style has been to pound teams at a slow pace with lots of runs from double-tight end formations. Oklahoma State will have to outnumber the Aggies at the line of scrimmage and overload the box as their own defense is a base dime that deploys 205-pound converted safety Malcolm Rodriguez as a weak-side linebacker. If the Aggies can push Oklahoma State around up front, they'll have a chance to impose their preferred pace on the game.

Watch for:

  • The tempo of the game; can the Aggies run the ball and slow things down or will the Cowboys make this a higher-possession contest?
  • How will the Aggies defense address the Oklahoma State two-headed, zone-option run game?
  • Chuba Hubbard is an NFL prospect but he's set to play; will the Aggies also show up and be heavily invested in securing their biggest win of the season?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 3.2

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
San Diego, California
USC vs. Iowa (-2) -- December 27, 8 p.m. (FS1)

Overall USC (8-4) Iowa (9-3)
F/+ 21 19
FEI 23 20
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 14 6
SP+ 9 5
IsoPPP+ 81 2
Rushing SP+ 60 32
Passing SP+ 16 9
When Iowa has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 50 70
SP+ 55 71
IsoPPP+ 15 90
Rushing SP+ 83 67
Passing SP+ 23 50

USC survived a couple of near shakeups for their program during the early "silly season" with head coach Clay Helton allegedly being fired before ultimately being retained and then offensive coordinator Graham Harrell considering a job offer from Texas before ultimately coming back to USC with a raise. Now they have to survive the ultra-competent and sturdy Iowa Hawkeyes in the bowl game.

Iowa's defense played exceptional football this season, despite being vulnerable to good spread passing attacks like Minnesota's that put up 300 yards passing but only 19 points. They'll sit back and make you beat their smart defensive backs trained to sit on your favorite route concepts. There is some intrigue in this game over whether the Hawkeyes will play their normal 4-3 base defense against a team like USC that loves to play in four- and five-receiver sets that put guys like Amon-Ra St. Brown (879 receiving yards, six touchdowns) into slots that are covered by linebackers. If your response to that is to double St. Brown, then your corners have to hold up in isolation outside against Michael Pittman Jr. (1,222 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Tyler Vaughns (858 yards, six touchdowns). This should be a very interesting test for Iowa, but they'll be coming in off lots of bowl practices and film study devoted to this game.

Iowa's offense has had a pretty tough season, but USC isn't as daunting an opponent as in years past. The Trojans lacked impact players across the defensive line and contented themselves with trying to match opponents properly and clean things up with safeties Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao. Those two were their second- and third-leading tacklers on the year and also added four combined sacks, 10 run stuffs, and four interceptions. If the Hawkeyes are successful in slowing up the USC offense, they still may struggle to put a lot of points on the board unless they can work out how to get by those two big hitters in the red zone.

Watch for:

  • USC's big Islander safety tandem who have carried their defense against Iowa's ball-control offense.
  • Will Iowa be able to cover up USC's spread passing attack in their base 4-3 defense or will they adjust?
  • How much attention has USC been able to put on Iowa in the midst of administrative rumors and recruiting struggles that have produced one of the worst Trojans classes in history?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 0.2

Cheez-it Bowl
Phoenix, Arizona
Air Force (-3) vs. Washington State -- December 27, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Air Force (10-2) Washington State (6-6)
F/+ 23 34
FEI 19 38
When Air Force has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 13 107
SP+ 27 41
IsoPPP+ 15 118
Rushing SP+ 66 49
Passing SP+ 28 41
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 46 10
SP+ 63 56
IsoPPP+ 124 6
Rushing SP+ 48 65
Passing SP+ 61 45

The Falcons had a strong year in the Mountain West this year, finishing second in the Mountain division behind Boise State (who beat them 30-19) and splitting with the other service academies by beating Army (17-13) and losing to Navy (34-25). Their triple-option offense had a strong year, particularly with their ability to do some damage with the passing game on play-action. Quarterback Donald Hammond III threw for 1,286 yards at 12.3 yards per attempt with receiver Benjamin Waters averaging 23.1 yards per target. They were able to get guys running free down the field quite a bit and Hammond put the ball on them well. The run game had steady play from fullback Taven Birdow (731 yards at 4.6 yards per carry) while fellow running backs Kadin Remsberg and Timothy Jackson added another 1,600 total yards.

Washington State plays on the other extreme spectrum of offensive football with Mike Leach's Air Raid. Quarterback Anthony Gordon threw for 5,228 yards and 45 touchdowns and seven different receivers caught at least 40 passes. Running back Max Borghi had just 121 carries that yielded 790 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he caught a team-leading 81 passes for 566 more yards and another four touchdowns.

Best-case scenario for the casual fan looking for a fun viewing experience is that neither team can stop the other's offense (not unlikely) and we get a showcase of the extreme varieties of potentially effective offensive tactics. Another possibility, though, is that Washington State's stunting defense and speedy linebacker Jahad Woods (10 tackles for loss, 11 run stuffs) are able to disrupt the Air Force run game and the Falcons get behind and can't catch up or effectively mix in play-action.

Watch for:

  • When the Air Force triple-option game is humming their play-action attack is brutally efficient.
  • Extreme varieties of run-centric offense (the triple-option) and passing offense (the original Air Raid).
  • Washington State running back Max Borghi, who catches the ball almost as often as he takes handoffs.

FEI Outright Pick: Air Force by 9.7

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Arlington, Texas
Memphis vs. Penn State (-7) -- December 28, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Memphis (12-1) Penn State (10-2)
F/+ 15 9
FEI 15 9
When Memphis has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 7 10
SP+ 8 8
IsoPPP+ 71 36
Rushing SP+ 10 5
Passing SP+ 11 38
When Penn State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 52 23
SP+ 35 17
IsoPPP+ 30 24
Rushing SP+ 40 26
Passing SP+ 35 27

This could have been Memphis head coach Mike Norvell's first chance to win a big non-conference game over a Power Five opponent with real standing and tradition, but he won't be coaching in this game. Florida State snatched Norvell up to replace Willie Taggart, so the Nittany Lions will be facing his replacement Ryan Silverfield. The new head coach was previously the offensive line coach for a team that has produced four 1,000-yard rushers in the last three years. The name of the game in Memphis has been a dynamic, power run game from the shotgun mixed in with spread RPO and play-action concepts that regularly sees the quarterback throwing for 3,500 or more yards.

Penn State has had a pretty stout defense this season but got burned pretty badly by Minnesota's RPO and play-action game. If they bring the same level of focus into this contest that they brought when holding Ohio State to 28 points towards the end of the season with the Big 10 East division on the line, then they should fare well, but that's a big "if" in a game like this.

Memphis' defense took a big step forward this season by simplifying and focusing on playing some base defenses. They'll have their hands full going up against Penn State's spread-option schemes executed with multiple All-AAC caliber skill talents. Receiver KJ Hamler should be a handful for Memphis, and running back Journey Brown came on towards the end of the season with three 100-yard rushing games in the last four. This could be the last game in which Brown, Hamler, and quarterback Sean Clifford all play together, with Hamler projected to go high in the next draft.

Watch for:

  • Are these teams zeroed in and ready to play with Memphis' coaching transition and Penn State drawing a less exciting bowl game and opponent?
  • The Memphis power run game going up against a upper level, Big 10 defensive front.
  • Perhaps explosive Penn State receiver KJ Hamler's last college game?

FEI Outright Pick: Penn State by 2.0

Camping World Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Notre Dame (-4) vs. Iowa State -- December 28, 12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame (10-2) Iowa State (7-5)
F/+ 16 22
FEI 10 24
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 27 41
SP+ 20 22
IsoPPP+ 46 27
Rushing SP+ 47 53
Passing SP+ 48 22
When Iowa State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 8 18
SP+ 25 41
IsoPPP+ 3 30
Rushing SP+ 51 79
Passing SP+ 3 20

Notre Dame has already had an interesting December leading up to the bowl game. Head coach Brian Kelly fired his rather successful offensive coordinator Chip Long, who had been a big part of the Irish going 32-6 over the last three years. The reasons were mostly personal -- Long had clashed with Kelly and the other staffers, and especially with the players who were ready to bail on the program in their frustration with his coaching style. Kelly and the remaining staff should be up to the task of putting them in good shape for a bowl game without Long, but it'll be interesting to see what sort of effect it has on the Fighting Irish offensive players to "toss Jonah overboard."

The Iowa State off weeks were definitely productive as they were able to get their two best players -- quarterback Brock "Pump Fake" Purdy and safety Greg Eisworth -- healthier. Eisworth had to be moved out of his middle safety role and deeper off the ball to protect a shoulder injury, which hurt the Cyclones run defense, while Purdy's carries had to go down to protect him from taking too many hits. Both Cyclones units are pretty different when Eisworth is fitting runs from closer proximity like a linebacker in their inverted Tampa-2 defense and Purdy is able to handle work in the option and quarterback run game.

The Notre Dame defense will definitely have their hands full, as does every bowl team facing an opponent with a good dual-threat quarterback that can run the ball 15 times or more without worrying about staying healthy for the next game. One advantage they'll have, though, is that the Iowa State offensive line is hardly overpowering and may struggle to move the big Notre Dame defensive line off the ball. The Cyclones may not even try to establish the run but just mix it in while hunting for receiver Deshaunte Jones (832 receiving yards) and tight end Charlie Kolar (675 receiving yards, seven touchdowns).

Watch for:

  • Is the Notre Dame offense refreshed and charged by the changes made to the offensive staff?
  • Iowa State to lean heavily on Brock Purdy with lots of passing attempts and carries in the run game.
  • Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar is an NFL talent going up against a very good Notre Dame secondary.

FEI Outright Pick: Notre Dame by 6.6

Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl -- College Football Playoff Semifinal
Atlanta, Georgia
Oklahoma vs. LSU (-13.5) -- December 28, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma (12-1) LSU (13-0)
F/+ 5 3
FEI 7 4
When Oklahoma has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 4 15
SP+ 2 19
IsoPPP+ 5 83
Rushing SP+ 4 15
Passing SP+ 2 21
When LSU has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 63 2
SP+ 36 1
IsoPPP+ 95 12
Rushing SP+ 80 3
Passing SP+ 20 4

This semifinal is considered to be the greater risk of the two to result in a blowout. LSU has posted big wins this season at Texas, over Florida, over Auburn, at Alabama, and then in extra convincing fashion against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game 37-10. Meanwhile, Oklahoma limped down the stretch with a couple of very narrow wins over Baylor, a one-point win at home against Iowa State, and a solid win against a beat-up Oklahoma State missing their quarterback.

Everyone's big problem has been the LSU offense, which lit up every team on the schedule save for Auburn, who managed a passable effort playing a 3-1-7 package they designed specifically for the Tigers. Part of what makes LSU so difficult to contend with is their ability to spread opponents out with their 11 personnel sets that typically involve either Thaddeus Moss or Stephen Sullivan at tight end (combined for 49 catches, 556 yards, and a touchdown). From that same package they can bunch their receivers in to call Duo (a power run scheme) that helped propel running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to 1,290 rushing yards at 6.5 yards per carry with 16 touchdowns. Beyond that, their big three receivers -- Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall -- are all menaces with at least 10 touchdown catches apiece.

Oklahoma's approach on defense this year has been to play a variety of different fronts, often stunting into 46 bear looks while run-blitzing linebacker Kenneth Murray. Behind that they played five defensive backs with Brendan Radley-Hiles bringing more of a cornerback's skill set to the nickel position. With lots of press-quarters coverage, the Sooners were able to take away easy hot reads for offenses while applying pressure with a very quick defensive line and Murray. The star linebacker finished with four sacks and 18.5 run stuffs, while nose tackle Neville Gallimore added four sacks and defensive end/tackle Jalen Redmond had 5.5 sacks and 11.5 run stuffs. Ronnie Perkins also made a lot of plays opposite Redmond but was suspended for this game, while strong safety and second-leading tackler Dellarin Turner-Yell was injured in bowl practices and lost for the game.

For the Sooners' normal approach to work, they'll need to hold up outside in one-on-one matchups against Chase and Jefferson, and maybe more importantly, consistently beat LSU's protection schemes with their looks up front. If they can't beat the LSU guards and center by moving Gallimore around and inserting Murray and the other linebackers from different angles, then this will be a tough day for Oklahoma.

The matchup between the Oklahoma offense and the LSU defense is also interesting, and where much of the Sooners' hopes are invested. Quarterback Jalen Hurts put up huge numbers for the Sooners this year, throwing for 3,615 yards and 32 touchdowns while running for 1,396 yards and another 18 touchdowns. It was difficult for opponents to handle the Sooners play-action game without playing man coverage to prevent running backs and tight ends from running free, and man coverage left them vulnerable to the Sooners' power-option run schemes.

LSU's defense looked healthier and better against Georgia then they had for much of the season. They'll come into this game with Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit in better shape, and his counterpart JaCoby Stevens -- who had five sacks, 10.5 run stuffs, and three interceptions -- is also ready to go. With their future NFL cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley, they'll likely aim to play man-free coverage or perhaps another Dave Aranda special in which they play man coverage outside and bracket the slot while using everyone else to play the run. At any rate, they'll likely swarm Hurts and the run game and refuse to give them anything inside while spilling to aggressive safeties on the edge.

If Hurts can't beat their cornerbacks throwing to CeeDee Lamb or the other Sooners wideouts or navigate Aranda's pressures, then the Sooners may not have much going for them. In all likelihood, the Tigers will stop the run at all costs and make Hurts prove he can beat them by making plays in the passing game. Alabama ultimately benched Hurts because he couldn't overcome that approach from playoff-caliber defenses.

Oklahoma's head coach and offensive wunderkind Lincoln Riley will do what he can to scheme up opportunities in the run and pass game, but if LSU can park numbers around the box and force repeated throws, then it's hard to see Oklahoma putting up their usual 30-plus-point day. At that point it comes down to the Sooners' ability to get a pass rush against the LSU offense in order to prevent Burrow from throwing on their smaller and isolated secondary with one-on-one matchups.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma's interior pass rush get quick, inside pressure that can stop the LSU passing game before it starts?
  • How will LSU game-plan to make Jalen Hurts throw the ball and will he be able to punish that kind of approach?
  • How will Oklahoma's cornerbacks hold up on the perimeter against the LSU wide receiver corps in press coverage or in the Tigers' bunch set power run game?
  • Can Lincoln Riley scheme up the LSU defense enough to give Oklahoma a chance in this game?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 12.2

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl -- College Football Playoff Semifinal
Glendale, Arizona
Clemson (-2.5) vs. Ohio State -- December 28, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Clemson (13-0) Ohio State (13-0)
F/+ 4 1
FEI 2 1
When Clemson has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 5 2
SP+ 6 1
IsoPPP+ 7 37
Rushing SP+ 1 12
Passing SP+ 14 2
When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 1 3
SP+ 3 4
IsoPPP+ 1 14
Rushing SP+ 2 2
Passing SP+ 1 5

This will be the more heavily anticipated semifinal contest. It's hard to evaluate this Clemson team amidst all the noise around their recent success. The 2019 Tigers don't have the four NFL defensive linemen that powered their 2018 championship defense, they don't have four-year starting left tackle Mitch Hyatt, and they don't have ultra-reliable slot receiver Hunter "third-and-" Renfrow. However, they do have several other starters from the championship team, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, running back Travis Etienne, safety/linebacker hybrid Isaiah Simmons, etc. This year's Clemson team is also relatively untested since the ACC was extraordinarily weak this season, and their big non-conference matchup was at home against the 7-5 Texas A&M Aggies.

Adjusted stats and a peek at the depth chart suggest that this is another powerhouse Tigers team comparable to last year, but we haven't technically seen it truly tested on the field yet. The Ohio State Buckeyes are a very serious test of the mettle for this team. Head coach Ryan Day got to take over at the perfect time, with multiple returning starters on both sides of the ball and five-star quarterback recruit Justin Fields transferring in from Georgia. Most of the analytics and plenty of commentators believe the Buckeyes to be the strongest team in the country.

Beyond the fact that these could be the two best teams in the country (it's easy to make a case for LSU, Clemson, or Ohio State), this game is also fascinating for the matchup. The strength of the Buckeyes team is their run game and their ability to pattern-match or play straight man coverage in the secondary while rushing the passer with star defensive end Chase Young. Meanwhile, the strength of the Tigers is their spread passing attack and then their own defensive backfield's ability to move and swarm opposing offenses. There's a lot of strength-on-strength with the main exception being the Ohio State physical offensive front going up against Clemson's young and somewhat untested defensive front.

That's one of two areas where this game could turn. The Clemson defensive line is still excellent, and they have a fourth- and fifth-year player at the two inside linebacker positions, but whether this group is up to withstanding the Ohio State run game is less clear. The Tigers have tended to hold up by being sound at linebacker and then having three excellent tackling safeties in Isaiah Simmons, K'Von Wallace, and Tanner Muse on the field. If this group is comparable to Wisconsin's defense, then the Buckeyes should be able to put up some points with the run game. If it's better, then things will get more interesting. The health of Justin Fields also looms here; he hurt his knee late in the year against Penn State and whether or not he has the mobility to handle 15 carries or more has a big impact on the ceiling for this Ohio State run game.

The other area where this game could turn is if Ohio State's strength in pass defense proves inadequate for handling the Clemson spread passing attack. The Buckeyes' method this year has been to use hybrid linebacker Pete Werner and cover safety Shaun Wade to match up on inside receivers while senior Jordan Fuller plays over the top and the cornerbacks stay outside. Wade is a converted corner and Werner is very effective in coverage and tends to stay on tight ends, which makes the Buckeyes very difficult to attack in the passing game. But the Tigers will go after cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette with Higgins and Ross, and the Buckeyes haven't tended to send much help their way, playing mostly Cover-3 match or straight man-free.

If the Buckeyes cornerback tandem can't hold up against the Clemson passing game outside with Lawrence chucking the ball around rather than the Big 10 quarterbacks they've feasted on, then things get interesting. What's more, if Clemson goes to a four-wide attack and makes Werner cover one of their receivers rather than a tight end, then that could also be trouble for Ohio State. The Buckeyes' trump card is Young, who destroyed some passing attacks this season en route to 16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. The Clemson offensive tackle tandem is Jackson Carman, a sophomore and former 5-star recruit from Ohio, and senior Tremayne Anchrum, who's only 6-foot-2. Last season the Tigers leaned on great pass protection from senior running back Adam Choice to help make their spread sets work, but that option is gone this season. So either they'll need to help them out with Etienne or some tight ends and perhaps be more of a play-action team than in playoffs past, or else lean in extra hard and flex Etienne out in five-wide sets that allow Lawrence to get the ball out quickly in order to nullify Young's impact and eventually tire him out with pace.

Clemson's decision-making here on offense could be what determines this game. A huge offensive performance from the Tigers of the sort we saw in 2018 is probably too much for Ohio State to keep pace against, but if they can't attack one-on-one matchups in the passing game because of Young, then this could look a lot like the Buckeyes' other games this season.

Watch for:

  • How will Clemson's rebuilt defensive front hold up against the Ohio State zone-option run game?
  • How healthy is Justin Fields and can he carry a big load in the run game?
  • Can Ohio State's secondary hold up against Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson wide receivers?
  • Can Clemson block Chase Young or will he be able to wreck the spread passing game that allowed the Tigers to roll over Notre Dame and Alabama a year ago?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 5.1

Servpro First Responder Bowl
Dallas, Texas
Western Kentucky (-3.5) vs. Western Michigan -- December 30, 12:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Western Kentucky (8-4) Western Michigan (7-5)
F/+ 53 69
FEI 35 53
When Western Kentucky has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 67 80
SP+ 101 91
IsoPPP+ 109 73
Rushing SP+ 97 113
Passing SP+ 74 66
When Western Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 22 29
SP+ 37 49
IsoPPP+ 46 11
Rushing SP+ 28 15
Passing SP+ 14 84

Western Kentucky used to be a very strong passing team under the direction of Bobby Petrino and then Jeff Brohm, but they've faded now and had a tough season. Senior quarterback Ty Storey threw for 2,209 yards at 6.8 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns to five interceptions and running back Gaej Walker ran for 1,115 at 4.9 yards per carry with another eight touchdowns. They weren't explosive, just effective enough to win games when the defense was playing well, which was often.

The defensive line were the stars of the show for the Hilltoppers; tackle Juwuan Jones had five sacks and 13 run stuffs while defensive end DeAngelo Malone added 10 sacks and 20 run stuffs. Those two disrupted opposing rushing attacks and got after quarterbacks in the passing game, which made life easier for the rest of the unit.

Western Michigan's formula for beating that will be a power-spread offense in which senior quarterback Jon Wassink threw for 2,904 yards with 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions, favoring flex tight end Giovanni Ricci (47 catches, 622 yards, eight touchdowns). Running back LeVante Bellamy was the main feature of the offense with 248 carries for 1,412 yards at 5.7 yards per carry with 23 touchdowns, but Wassink has a strong arm and Ricci is a big problem for many teams. The game will likely hinge on whether Western Michigan can block Jones and Malone; if they can do that at a passable level than their offensive skill talent could take over the game.

Watch for:

  • Can Western Michigan block the Western Kentucky defensive line?
  • Will the Western Kentucky offense get going against a struggling Western Michigan defense?

FEI Outright Pick: Western Kentucky by 4.0

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Nashville, Tennessee
Mississippi State (-4) vs. Louisville -- December 30, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Mississippi State (6-6) Louisville (7-5)
F/+ 46 61
FEI 42 56
When Mississippi State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 33 95
SP+ 40 99
IsoPPP+ 79 106
Rushing SP+ 21 117
Passing SP+ 65 85
When Louisville has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 70 24
SP+ 58 32
IsoPPP+ 97 4
Rushing SP+ 61 23
Passing SP+ 104 8

This was a really tough year for Mississippi State, which took the losses of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and the multiple NFL defensive linemen on the roster very hard. Head coach Joe Moorhead tried to patch the defense with several junior college transfers, but that unit fell off in a major way. He added Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens to replace Fitzgerald, but Stevens suffered several injuries that shortened his season. Freshman quarterback Garrett Shrader will get the start for the Bulldogs in this one and likely run a lot of option schemes in an attempt to create angles and openings for star running back Kylin Hill.

When the Bulldogs looked effective this season it was because Hill was running free; he had 235 carries for 1,342 yards at 5.7 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. Shrader finished second with 675 yards and six touchdowns. The Louisville defense will be keying them carefully with a very solid linebacker corps that helped them play decent bend-don't-break defense this season. The Cards played with a pair of smaller, safety-sized outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme that could be tough to beat outside with option keepers.

The Louisville offense is the best unit on the field. Sophomore quarterback Micale Cunningham had a really efficient season throwing for 9.4 yards per attempt and 20 touchdowns on just 156 attempts while adding 511 rushing yards and another six scores. The Cards offense was built mostly on outside zone with some pistol formations and zone-option to help support the main play. Freshman running back Javian Hawkins proved a workhorse with 241 carries for 1,420 yards at 5.9 yards per carry, and waterbug wide receiver Chatarius Atwell (5-foot-9, 155 pounds) served in a KJ Hamler role with 61 catches for 1,129 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Watch for:

  • Can Mississippi State keep up with Louisville's own spread-option attack?
  • Young, underclassman quarterbacks that could be breaking out or breaking apart.
  • Louisville wide receiver Chatarius Atwell is 155 pounds of excitement.

FEI Outright Pick: Mississippi State by 3.3

Redbox Bowl
Santa Clara, California
California (-6.5) vs. Illinois -- December 30, 4 p.m. (FOX)

Overall California (7-5) Illinois (6-6)
F/+ 68 62
FEI 60 69
When California has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 87 42
SP+ 100 52
IsoPPP+ 101 66
Rushing SP+ 90 97
Passing SP+ 111 75
When Illinois has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 44 97
SP+ 45 87
IsoPPP+ 9 82
Rushing SP+ 41 80
Passing SP+ 36 106

Illinois put together a solid season for head coach Lovie Smith in his fourth year at the head of the program. They pulled off a nice upset win over Wisconsin, who was probably overlooking them with Ohio State looming, and they also edged out Michigan State 37-34. Michigan transfer Brandon Peters led the passing game, but there wasn't much going on for the Illini offense. Peters averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt but at least managed to throw 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

The defense was better, and the former NFL coach's linebackers Dele Harding and Jake Hansen had solid seasons. Harding had 143 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 22 run stuffs. Defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. had eight sacks and 14 run stuffs. They'll be a tough team for California to move the ball consistently against; the Bears were similarly non-explosive on offense this year. Cal couldn't get much going and tried to be a zone-option team with sophomores Chase Garber (quarterback) and Christopher Brown Jr. (running back), but they had a combined 10 rushing touchdowns.

The Cal defense is similar to Illinois' with a pair of inside linebackers in Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng that tend to play deep and rally to the ball. They combined for 11 pass break-ups and 25.5 run stuffs while Weaver had 172 tackles and Deng 113. This could very well be a repeat of the 2018 Cheez-it Bowl, in which Cal and TCU utterly failed to move the ball on offense until the Frogs somehow managed to kick some field goals and get away with an overtime win.

Watch for:

  • Did you enjoy the 2018 Cheez-It bowl between two teams trying to win on defense?
  • A duel between two solid field goal kickers.
  • These teams have excellent inside linebackers that could soon be late NFL draft picks.

FEI Outright Pick: Cal by 2.1

Capital One Orange Bowl
Miami, Florida
Florida (-15) vs. Virginia -- December 30, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Florida (10-2) Virginia (9-4)
F/+ 11 47
FEI 16 51
When Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 22 68
SP+ 15 44
IsoPPP+ 32 112
Rushing SP+ 98 78
Passing SP+ 9 73
When Virginia has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 14 48
SP+ 7 57
IsoPPP+ 41 100
Rushing SP+ 11 53
Passing SP+ 34 49

Virginia is sort of a pretender to the throne. They went 9-4 and competed in the ACC Championship Game almost by default as there were simply no good teams in that conference this year save for the Clemson team that blasted them 62-17. Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins is the main engine for their offense, which was the stronger component to the team. He wasn't particularly good in the passing game this season, throwing for 6.1 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He had a high usage rate as well, throwing 456 passes for 3,215 yards and then adding a team leading 175 carries for 971 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's to be commended for being so durable, but it wasn't terribly effective. Florida will be sure to key him with their safeties as he'll likely go for broke in this game with 30-plus passing attempts and 15-plus rushes in an attempt to get the Cavaliers to 10 wins with a notable victory.

Virginia's defense is built around a 2-4 package that can bring pressure with four linebackers (or safety Joey Blount) from a lot of angles. Florida played only solid pass protection this year and quarterback Kyle Trask had a sack rate of 6.3%. He protected the ball well with 24 touchdowns to six interceptions on 315 passing attempts. Trask really saved the Florida season; their run game wasn't doing much with a retooled offensive line and Trask was able to weaponize tight end Kyle Pitts (51 catches, 610 yards, five touchdowns), and senior receivers Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain.

Watch for:

  • Can Virginia's zone blitzing beat the Florida offensive line and bring down Kyle Trask and the passing game?
  • Virginia's senior quarterback Bryce Perkins to go for broke and carry the load both in the pass game and running the ball.
  • Florida tight end Kyle Pitts has one more season to go but he'll be an NFL draft pick in 2021.

FEI Outright Pick: Florida by 14.6


Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Ian's Pick
Against the Spread
North Carolina 5 Temple North Carolina North Carolina North Carolina
Michigan State 3.5 Wake Forest Michigan State Wake Forest Wake Forest
Texas A&M 7 Oklahoma State Texas A&M Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
Air Force 3 Washington State Air Force Air Force Washington State
Penn State 7 Memphis Penn State Memphis Penn State
Notre Dame 4 Iowa State Notre Dame Notre Dame Iowa State
LSU 13.5 Oklahoma LSU Oklahoma LSU
Clemson 2.5 Ohio State Ohio State Ohio State Clemson
Western Kentucky 3.5 Western Michigan Western Kentucky Western Kentucky Western Michigan
Mississippi State 4 Louisville Mississippi State Louisville Louisville
Cal 6.5 Illinois Cal Illinois Cal
Florida 15 Virginia Florida Virginia Virginia

FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 46-40

Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 43-43


3 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2019, 11:02am

2 Shrader

on 12/26, his teammate broke his orbital bone

3 Part 3?

Hey..when is part 3 coming out. I like the insights.