Our third batch of bowl games comes off the heels of the College Football Playoff semifinals and includes some delayed lower-level contestants and then four of the still prestigious "New Year's Six" that take place on January 1. This year that will include the Outback Bowl, Citrus Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Sugar Bowl. Teams that narrowly missed out on the playoff and drew New Year's Day games don't always show up, but often they do because of the pageantry of the events and the bigger stadiums and prime-time slots.
Last year that slate included a narrow Kentucky win over Penn State, LSU's shootout with UCF, Ohio State hanging on against Washington, and then Texas shocking Georgia. Sometimes you get an exciting outcome in these games because you have a playoff-caliber team that doesn't bring enough focus into their preparation and then they get caught by a team that is eager to show their mettle on the big stage against a powerhouse program. Georgia vs. Baylor and Minnesota vs. Auburn could fit that bill this year, and then there's Michigan vs. Alabama, where someone technically has to give some effort and win amongst two teams that have mailed in previous bowl games.
Things wind down after New Year's with a few other fun matchups before our National Championship Game next week.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Virginia Tech (-2.5) vs. Kentucky -- December 31, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Virginia Tech (8-4)||Kentucky (7-5)|
|When Virginia Tech has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Kentucky has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Kentucky predictably fell off in a major way after losing star pass-rusher Josh Allen and the vast majority of his supporting cast on defense. However, at 7-5 in the Belk Bowl, they match up quite well with the struggling Virginia Tech Hokies, who will be coordinated on defense by Bud Foster for the final time before the longtime figure steps down and retires. Virginia Tech isn't what they once were on defense or as a program in general, ceding a lot of ground in recruiting to Clemson and Penn State, who regularly come across either border and pilfer some of the state's best recruits. Kentucky also tends to recruit in Virginia, which means that this game may have a little extra fire.
The Wildcats were able to rebuild their pass defense without Allen and all of their other veterans thanks in part to the next generation of defensive ends proving to be quite good. Jamar Watson is the new pass-rushing outside linebacker in Allen's spot, and he had 6.5 sacks this year while the absurdly large Calvin Taylor (6-foot-9, 310 pounds) played opposite him and had another 7.5 sacks. Behind the big front, the Wildcats played a lot of smaller defenders, including leading tackler DeAndre Square, a 204-pound linebacker with a lot of quickness and range.
It'll be a tough matchup for Virginia Tech to find places to throw the ball against the Wildcats, especially when Taylor gets his hands in the throwing lanes. At times they defaulted to running quarterback power with big Hendon Hooker, a 6-foot-4, 228-pound sophomore who ran for 421 yards and five touchdowns. Fortunately for the Hokies, keeping the game close will mostly mean playing good run defense, which they've always done under Foster. The most dangerous dimension to the Kentucky offense is sweeps and runs to slot receiver Lynn Bowden Jr., who turned 146 carries into 1,258 yards at 8.6 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns.
- Lynn Bowden Jr., receiver in name, but the most dangerous runner on Kentucky's roster and the most explosive player in the game.
- Can Virginia Tech find any throwing lanes over the tall Kentucky defensive line and past their speedy backfield?
- Bud Foster coaching his last defense for Virginia Tech.
FEI Outright Pick: Kentucky by 1.2
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl
El Paso, Texas
Florida State vs. Arizona State (-4) -- December 31, 2 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Florida State (6-6)||Arizona State (7-5)|
|When Florida State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Arizona State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Florida State had a truly tough season, and much of their staff has been fired or pilfered by other programs, leaving a skeleton crew to man the program while new head coach Mike Norvell is situating himself and preparing to take over for the offseason. Their big issue was the offensive line, which completely fell apart at the end of the Jimbo Fisher era and now is a terrible wreck. Sophomore quarterback James Blackman had a sack rate of 8.0%, which is bad, and senior quarterback Alex Hornibrook was at an abysmal 14.1%. Blackman will be at the helm for the bowl game and will be hoping to find Tamorrion Terry (1,023 receiving yards and eight touchdowns) early and often, especially with star running back Cam Akers (1,144 yards) sitting out while he prepares for the draft.
The Seminoles have been running the Briles family "veer and shoot" offense, a particularly aggressive brand of smashmouth spread that combines a power run game from the spread with lots of vertical RPOs and deep play-action shots involving the slot receivers. They ran into trouble trying to utilize that style without an offensive line that could blow open holes in the run game or hold up in protection.
Arizona State was built around running back Eno Benjamin, who had 253 carries for 1,083 yards at 4.3 yards per carry, but he'll be sitting this one out like Akers in preparation for the NFL draft. Like Florida State, Arizona State still has their starting quarterback and star receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who had 1,191 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The big edge for the Sun Devils is that they'll likely give this game their full attention while Florida State has had a highly tumultuous season and a preoccupied coaching staff.
- Will Florida State show up for this game or take a beating and look to regroup under new coaching for 2020?
- Which team best replaces their starting running back, each of whom is sitting out to protect their NFL draft status?
- Can the Florida State defense put together a winning performance?
FEI Outright Pick: Florida State by 3.6
Autozone Liberty Bowl
Navy (-2.5) vs. Kansas State -- December 31, 3:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Navy (10-2)||Kansas State (8-4)|
|When Navy has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Kansas State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Bowl games featuring triple-option teams like Navy always carries the dimension that they don't get their normal advantage because the defense gets extra time to prepare for the unique offense. Instead of facing the option pitches, varying blocking angles, and endless cut blocks in between facing other styles, the defense is zeroed in on it. Normally with extra time and preparation the triple-option offense could also mix in different looks to throw the defense off, but for a bowl game they don't necessarily know what they're getting from the defense.
Since Ken Niumatalolo took over at Navy in 2007, they've gone 5-5 in bowl games. In Kansas State they draw a pretty tough opponent of the sort that has tended to give them trouble. The Wildcats defense includes very sound defensive line play, consistent discipline against the option in general, and seven senior starters all coached up by a defensive coordinator with experience facing Air Force every year at Wyoming. The Kansas State staff will have a game plan for Navy's flexbone that is built from familiarity with the offense and is being taught to older defenders that are capable of handling a high level of specificity.
It's a bad matchup for the Midshipmen, although they aren't as badly off against the Kansas State offense as they might be in another game. The Navy defensive front was very stout this year, anchored by nose tackle Jackson Pittman, who's a rare 300-pounder on the roster. The Kansas State offense is built around bigger sets such as the I-formation and then power run schemes. The Wildcats passing game isn't much to speak about -- quarterback Skylar Thompson threw for just 2,191 yards at 6.9 yards per attempt this year and lead receiver Dalton Schoen is a former walk-on and not the overwhelmingly fast athlete of the sort that would tend to give Navy trouble. So this game may prove to be a lower-scoring grind, in which case Kansas State's superior special teams could be the biggest factor. The Wildcats returned four kickoffs for touchdowns this season, three by freshman Joshua Youngblood.
- Can Navy's flexbone, triple-option offense find room to run against a senior Kansas State defense with extra time to prepare?
- Can Kansas State beat Navy up front with their power run game or will they need to throw the ball to attack the Midshipmen?
- Special teams could be the difference and Kansas State has returned four kickoffs for touchdowns this season.
FEI Outright Pick: Navy by 4.7
Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl
Wyoming (-7) vs. Georgia State -- December 31, 4:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
|Overall||Wyoming (7-5)||Georgia State (7-5)|
|When Wyoming has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Georgia State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Unlike most non-UGA programs within the state, Georgia State is not an option team. Senior quarterback Dan Ellington threw for 2,291 yards and 21 touchdowns while also running 127 times for 743 yards and another five touchdowns. Their main feature was senior running back Tra Barnett, who had 233 carries for 1389 yards at six per carry with 12 touchdowns. They had more of a power-spread concept with tight end Roger Carter moving around to help create angles for the run game and matchups in the passing game.
They'll face a tough one in Wyoming, who lost defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton to Kansas State but still managed a top-30 defense by SP+ and top-40 by FEI. The Cowboys excelled at run defense with safety Alijah Halliburton putting together a big year with 10 tackles for loss and 17.5 run stuffs hawking down from depth. That's a tough look to account for, particularly since Halliburton is liable to drop back from time to time as well and make play-action look silly. Linebacker Logan Wilson also had a big year, finishing second behind Halliburton in tackles and adding four interceptions and seven pass break-ups. This is a tough team to attack with a moving tight end and run game focus because those two players easily adjust to tight end movement, and both play in or around the box.
The Wyoming offense moved to Year 2 sans current Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and it hass been a rocky going. Tyler Vander Waal had a tough year and entered the transfer portal recently, freshman Sean Chambers flashed talent but was knocked out with injury, and that leaves Wyoming with freshman Levi Williams at quarterback for this game. That spells a tough go of things for the Cowboys, who didn't have a particularly efficient run this year without utilizing Chambers' legs. However, the Georgia State defense may be overmatched anyways.
- How will Wyoming freshman quarterback Levi Williams fare in his first start in a bowl game?
- Can Georgia State's offense find room to run against Wyoming's safety Alijah Halliburton?
- Can Wyoming simply control the game with their rushing attack or will Georgia State be able to mount a defense?
FEI Outright Pick: Wyoming by 6.2
Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Texas
Utah (-7) vs. Texas -- December 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Utah (11-2)||Texas (7-5)|
|When Utah has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Texas has the ball||Defense||Offense|
On the surface, this looks like a slam dunk for Utah. Their pair of 330-pound defensive tackles and steady offense gives them an advantage in a head-to-head, smashmouth game with the Longhorns. Texas was stonewalled in several big games this year when they tried to impose their will on the ground with their "tight zone" downhill play only to fail to move some of the better defensive linemen at Iowa State, TCU, or Baylor. Utah will bring a great defensive line into this game and then a big, powerful offensive line as well.
There are a few worrying signs for the Utes though. One is that three of their starting defensive backs will be out, including cornerback Jaylon Johnson (11 pass break-ups), free safety Julian Blackmon (four interceptions), and his back-up R.J. Hubert. Another is that Texas is often a different team in big games when they feel comfortable running quarterback Sam Ehlinger (120 carries for 770 yards, six touchdowns) as often as they need to in order to win. Ehlinger had 20 carries in the Sugar Bowl a year ago against Georgia and ran for three rushing touchdowns in a 28-21 victory.
If Texas goes all in on Ehlinger in this game, throwing the ball 30-plus times and running him 15 or more, then the Longhorns offense becomes very potent and difficult to match up against for a man coverage team like the Utes. Utah has tried to win games this year by preserving matchups with their best defensive backs and then trusting the defensive line and inside linebackers Francis Bernard and Devin Lloyd to control the run game. When the quarterback is involved with the option, the offense can create 6-on-6 or 5-on-5 battles while the rest of the defense has their backs turned in coverage, which was trouble this year against Oregon in the Pac-12 title and could be trouble against Texas.
The Utah offense may need to have a solid day working agains Texas' lower-ranked defense. The Longhorns fired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando after the season but stopping the run was one of his better skills. They'll try to control the game with their own defensive line and likely still regularly blitz the linebackers as great fundamentals at that position were not their calling card in the Orlando era. If Texas can stop Utah running back Zack Moss without giving away free quarterback keepers to Tyler Huntley or easy throws on RPOs and play-action, then this game becomes very interesting.
- Texas to ask Sam Ehlinger to carry them in the air and on the ground, much like in the Sugar Bowl a year ago.
- Can Utah run the ball on the big defensive front for Texas?
- Which team wants to be here? Will Utah be in letdown mode? How will the Longhorns look after much of their staff was fired?
FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 12.5
Minnesota vs. Auburn (-7) -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Minnesota (10-2)||Auburn (9-3)|
|When Minnesota has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Auburn has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Two spread offenses on opposite edges of the spectrum are facing off in this game. Under Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have always leaned towards using pace and space to run the ball between the tackles for chunks of yardage at a time. Their run game this season rebounded from a tough 2018 with JaTarvious Whitlow and D.J. Williams combining to turn 226 carries into 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns. The passing game was less effective with leading receiver Seth Williams turning 104 targets into only 801 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Bo Nix was a true freshman and he played in a mostly constraint role, trying to hit enough passes and pull the ball on some option plays in order to keep the roads inside clean for Williams and Whitlow.
Minnesota was ostensibly a downhill zone running team, but with all of the RPOs attached to their offense they ended up being more of a RPO/play-action team instead. Lead running back Rodney Smith had 212 carries for 1,094 yards and eight scores but quarterback Tanner Morgan had 2,975 yards at 8.8 yards per attempt with 28 touchdowns to just six interceptions, and both Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman had around 1,100 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. The Golden Gophers were the much more explosive offense overall due to their superior passing dimension.
However, the Tigers didn't get here with offense. Linebacker K.J. Britt and defensive linemen Marlon Davidson (questionable for this game) and Derrick Brown each had over 10 run stuffs and 14 total sacks and safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas led the team in tackles. Auburn plays a relatively simple but very effective brand of 4-2-5 press quarters coverage that denies easy throws underneath with match coverage while parking those safeties relatively shallow before the snap and training them to arrive where they are needed either deep down the hashmarks or in the run fit. They'll sit on the Golden Gophers' favorite pass options and make them either beat them with double moves and true dropback passing progressions or else run the ball against their front.
Minnesota wasn't bad at defense either. Safety Antione Winfield had a monster season with 83 tackles, three sacks, and seven interceptions. They'll hope to funnel the Auburn run game from their under fronts into channels where they can control them. This has all the makings of a lower-scoring game where the winner gets a few big throws down the field from their quarterback.
- Can Minnesota's RPO passing game find windows against Auburn's press quarters-match coverages?
- Will Bo Nix be able to make enough big throws and runs to keep Minnesota from keying the Tigers running backs?
- Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield and Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown are NFL draft prospects.
FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 1.2
Vrbo Citrus Bowl
Michigan vs. Alabama (-7) -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Michigan (9-3)||Alabama (10-2)|
|When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense|
It was a pretty disappointing season for the Crimson Tide with losses to their two main rivals, Auburn and LSU, and then no trip either to the SEC Championship Game or the playoff. In the past when Nick Saban's Tide didn't make the playoff or final, they laid eggs in the bowl games, losing to Utah in 2008 31-17 and then to Oklahoma in 2013 45-31.
The Tide still struggle with spread passing attacks, not having found any answers after their defeat against Clemson and then after having to break in two freshman inside linebackers after fall camp injuries. They were vulnerable inside where those freshman linebackers had to play behind freshman nose tackle D.J. Dale and were torched by Auburn's and LSU's offenses. Beyond that, Tua Tagovailoa continued to have issues with ankle injuries, and then after playing on a surgically repaired ankle against Mississippi State he dislocated his hip, ending his season. His replacement, Mac Jones, was solid against Auburn but threw a few picks as well.
Michigan's season was actually fairly solid -- they had to replace a lot of key players across their defense and had some early struggles with an offensive transition, yet still went 9-3. The big stain on the season was losing to Ohio State, again, by another lopsided score of 62-39. The Wolverines simply haven't been able to match up to Ohio State's talent and speed on offense, which bodes poorly for this contest. Alabama's ability to get receivers Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III on the field together overwhelmed most of the opponents on their schedule. All three, as well as backup Jaylen Waddle, can fly and are extremely hard to tackle in space. Michigan will seek to match up in man coverage on them and beat Jones with pressure up front, which is an iffy proposition but probably a safer bet than holding up against the Alabama RPOs and run game from two-deep coverages.
The Michigan offense started to find their groove at the end of the year as quarterback Shea Patterson became healthier from an early injury and more comfortable in the offense. Receivers Ronnie Bell and Nico Collins had solid seasons as their role increased and the offense was able to take advantage of their routinely strong performances on defense. A focused Alabama can squeeze a lot of the Michigan offense and particularly the run game, so Patterson will need to have a big day finding those receivers from the start for the Wolverines to keep up here.
- Which team shows up ready to play? Michigan under Harbaugh is 1-3 in bowl games with three straight losses, and Alabama hasn't typically been super motivated when not playing for a National Championship.
- Can Michigan's defensive backs cover the supremely talented Alabama receiving corps?
- Will Shea Patterson be able to execute the kind of passing attack that has troubled Alabama in the past?
FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 18.8
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
Oregon vs. Wisconsin (-3) -- January 1, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Oregon (11-2)||Wisconsin (10-3)|
|When Oregon has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
In the Rose Bowl's very long history of matching up Pac-12 and Big 10 programs at the end of the season, only once has Oregon faced Wisconsin in this setting. That was recent too, back in 2012 when the Ducks outscored the Russell Wilson Wisconsin team 45-38 and put up over 500 yards of total offense with Chip Kelly's up-tempo, spread option offense. Things will likely be different this time around.
Both teams are power run-oriented these days, Mario Cristobal's Oregon won the Pac-12 this season with great defense and a run game whose two main runners both averaged over 6 yards per carry (C.J. Verdell and Travis Dye). Wisconsin continues to be an old-school team that uses formations like the I and whose main running back Jonathan Taylor had 299 carries for 1,909 yards at 6.4 yards per carry with 21 touchdowns. All of those running backs are expected to play rather than sitting things out for the NFL, so this game should be an old-school battle for who's the biggest, baddest, and most versatile team in the trenches.
Both teams will likely be able to score, but once again Oregon may have the edge. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw 32 touchdown passes to five interceptions this year while his Wisconsin counterpart Jack Coan threw for 17 touchdowns to four interceptions. The Ducks have some other skill weapons more fully integrated into their system whereas Wisconsin still ultimately relies on plowing a path for Taylor. Oregon receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd combined for 1,287 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, both picking up their involvement after star tight end Jacob Breeland went down, and the Ducks won some big games this season hitting Redd on quick screens off their run game.
The Wisconsin defense had a few issues against the run this year, particularly against zone-option heavy Ohio State, and the success of their scheme often came down to whether or not opponents could handle their run blitzing. Oregon was bigger and sturdy up front, yeah, but breakout star freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is questionable. Thibodeaux had nine sacks and 15.5 run stuffs this season playing on the edge opposite big outside linebacker Mase Funa. Their ability to keep the ball contained was key to their success.
If Wisconsin can hold up against the Oregon run game without giving up explosive gains on quick screens, then their superior pass rush could come to bear in this one. Linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr had 12.5 and 11.5 sacks apiece and combined for 44 run stuffs. Oregon will need to be able to spring their skill players in space with the run game or else Herbert will become a sitting Duck for that Badgers pass rush.
- Which run game is able to control the game? Wisconsin's customary big line and Jonathan Taylor, or Oregon's multi-faceted approach with a similarly large and senior line?
- Can Oregon protect Justin Herbert against Wisconsin's blitzing linebackers on passing downs?
- Which team is the strongest in the trenches? Normally Wisconsin would be the power team but Mario Cristobal has remade the Ducks roster.
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 8.3
Allstate Sugar Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Georgia (-6) vs. Baylor -- January 1, 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Georgia (11-2)||Baylor (11-2)|
|When Georgia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Baylor has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Last year Georgia was clearly disappointed to have lost the SEC Championship Game and another chance at the playoff, where they had narrowly lost the previous season in overtime. Much like a year ago when they lost to Texas, it's not clear if they'll come into this game hot and looking to prove themselves against the upstart Baylor Bears. It's also possible that several of their defensive starters may end up sitting this out to protect themselves from injuries that hurt their NFL draft status. The Bears also have some question marks though. Quarterback Charlie Brewer left the Big 12 Championship Game with a concussion, potentially his second in three weeks, and while rumors say he'll be good to play in this game he was pretty beat up and dazed by the end of the season.
Georgia cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell have had recent injuries, but neither are draft eligible, so they'll likely play along with nickel Mark Webb, which is perhaps the key for this contest. Baylor struggled to get their power run game going against the better defenses in the Big 12 and did their most damage when Brewer could land shots down the field to Denzel Mims (945 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) and Tyquan Thornton (744 receiving yards, five touchdowns). If those three defensive backs are on the field then Georgia won't hesitate to play man coverage on the Bears receivers and load up the middle of the field. Brewer has struggled to hit throws beyond the far hashmark and if the Bulldogs keep all of their speedy and well-trained defensive backs in the middle of the field, they could eliminate much of the Baylor offense and force the Bears to pick up yardage against their front.
Georgia's offense will also have their hands full though. Baylor didn't get this far with their offense, but with a stifling defense led by one of the best players in the country. Defensive end James Lynch had 18.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 20 run stuffs, five pass break-ups, and three forced fumbles this season. At 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, he had the size and strength to not only abuse offensive tackles in the pass rush but also to join forces with nose tackle Bravvion Roy to allow the Bears to play the run from three-man fronts while dropping eight speedy linebackers and defensive backs into coverage. It was the ultimate bend-don't-break formula and it did wonders against the Big 12 by erasing the space spread offenses were used to playing in and forcing them to earn their yardage against Lynch and Roy.
Of course Georgia doesn't use space that much anyways, preferring to try and bully teams in the trenches running the football with D'Andre Swift (1,216 yards, 6.2 yards per carry). The Bulldogs may try to play this game from double-tight end formations in hopes of winning by controlling the ball, pounding away at Baylor's smaller defenders, and winning with defense and field position. Like Brewer, Jake Fromm had a bad second half of the year while dealing with an ankle injury (and maybe some other issues), and his health will be a big factor in this game. Fromm was at least able to protect the ball, throwing only five interceptions and boasting a low sack rate of only 3.3%. Brewer also protected the ball pretty well with only six interceptions but took sacks at a 7.7% clip. The difference between those two players and their ability to overpower or withstand strong defenses could be what decides this game.
- Who's healthy and available for this game? Will Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer be able to run and throw like earlier in the season? How does Jake Fromm look?
- Can the Baylor offense find anywhere to go with the ball against one of the nation's two best defenses?
- How will Baylor's speed-oriented defense hold up against Georgia's pounding run game?
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 3.9
Ticketsmarter Birmingham Bowl
Boston College vs. Cincinnati (-7) -- January 2, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Boston College (6-6)||Cincinnati (10-3)|
|When Boston College has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Boston College had one of their better offensive seasons in years but fired head coach Steve Addazio at the end of the season and made wide receivers coach Rich Gunnell the interim head coach for the bowl game. Cincinnati had their best season yet under head coach Luke Fickell, and if they lose their head coach anytime soon it won't be because he's fired but because he's moving on to take a job at a bigger program. Fickell will likely be aiming for a bigger job than is currently available, so he figures to stay in Cincinnati for a while yet. Interestingly, Addazio has already been hooked up with the Colorado State head coaching job by his old pal Urban Meyer, who was brought in to run their hiring process for some reason.
The main keys to Boston College's season were running back A.J. Dillon and their tight ends Hunter Long and Korab Idrizi. Dillon is a unique specimen for the modern game, a 6-foot-0, 250-pound bowling ball that had 318 carries for 1,683 yards at 5.3 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. Addazio's program has always been about the power run game and in Dillon it found its ultimate expression. The defense fell apart though, after some solid seasons in the past in which Don Brown (now at Michigan) carried the team while the offense fell flat.
Cincinnati has a smaller and speed-oriented defense which makes this matchup somewhat interesting. Normally a speedy defense overcomes a unit like this with penetration and tackles for loss, getting linebackers and defensive backs into the backfield to wrap up a guy like Dillon early before he can build the momentum to knock them over. Boston College will protect him with multi-tight end sets though and double teams. Cincinnati's defensive tackle Curtis Brooks (12.5 run stuffs) and big linebacker Bryan Wright (13.5 run stuffs) normally handle the run, but Boston College will weight the edge and run duo (no puller power) behind the tight ends at the defensive ends and backs on the edge. The Bearcats will need an answer for that scheme, perhaps big young defensive end Myjai Sanders (6-foot-5, 258 pounds).
The Cincinnati offense was similarly run-oriented, but they did it with the zone-option game, running quarterback Desmond Ridder 98 times for 687 yards at 7 yards per carry to help running back Michael Warren II turn 240 carries into 1,160 yards at 4.8 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns. They weren't super efficient, but they normally paired well enough with Fickell's defense to get the job done. Against the Boston College defense, they should be able to make it work.
- Can Cincinnati's defense, built for the spread offenses in the AAC, handle Boston College running power at their perimeter with a 250-pound running back behind a pair of tight ends and double teams?
- How will Boston College's struggling defense look against the sturdy zone-option attack by Cincinnati?
- Head coach Luke Fickell for Cincinnati is going to be a hot name in coaching searches in the coming months and years.
FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 9.4
Taxslayer Gator Bowl
Indiana vs. Tennessee (-1.5) -- January 2, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Indiana (8-4)||Tennessee (7-5)|
|When Indiana has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Tennessee has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Both of these teams took strides in 2019 towards become effective passing teams. Jarrett Guarantano initially lost his job to a freshman (Brian Maurer) before reclaiming the job after injuries and finishing with 1,937 yards at 7.7 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns to six interceptions. Tennessee's senior wideouts Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway helped things come along with 1,558 combined yards and 14 touchdowns.
Indiana made a major leap and also cycled through a pair of quarterbacks while leaning on star receiver Whop Philyor (1,001 receiving yards) and tight end Peyton Hendershot. Indiana's offensive breakthrough led to offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who was in Year 1 on the job, getting the head coach job back at Fresno State, where he had just been. So DeBoer will be out for this game, but the Hoosiers still have junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey to execute a normal game plan throwing to Philyor. They may need a smart plan, though, in attacking the Tennessee pass defense, where Volunteers head coach Jeremy Pruitt is starting to get some results.
Pruitt was the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Florida State when they won the National Championship and helped Georgia as their coordinator as well before circling back to Alabama for another National Championship and then taking the Tennessee head job. Star safety Nigel Warrior is second on the team in tackles, has four interceptions, and has broken up seven passes. The team has 11 interceptions overall and gets a solid pass rush from outside linebacker Darrell Taylor (seven sacks).
Conversely, Indiana's defense relies on blitzing to get pressure and has struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They've picked off just five passes on the year and are built more to stop spread rushing attacks by getting extra hats near the box with the nickel and strong safety than to deny passing lanes. Between that and DeBoer's absence, the Vols may have an advantage here.
- How does Indiana look without rising star offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who left for the Fresno State head job?
- Indiana's star receiver Whop Philyor trying to find openings against Jeremy Pruitt's Tennessee secondary.
- Can Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano build up some momentum for a senior year with a big bowl game?
FEI Outright Pick: Indiana by 1.9
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Ohio (-8) vs. Nevada -- January 3, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Ohio (6-6)||Nevada (7-5)|
|When Ohio has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Nevada has the ball||Defense||Offense|
This matchup is quietly very lopsided per the stats. Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcats have been consistently strong for a long time now and they're coming into this game with a senior quarterback in Nathan Rourke playing at a high level. Rourke has thrown for 2,676 yards at 7.7 yards per attempt with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions while rushing for a team-leading 924 yards at 7.5 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns.
Once a practitioner of the Tom Osborne I-option offense, Solich now utilizes two-back zone-option offense from the shotgun, moving big tight end Ryan Leuhrman (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) around to lead block on the edge or off tackle for Rourke and the backs. It'll be a tough challenge for Nevada, who fields a lighter and faster defense that hasn't been very good this season. The key player up front for the Wolfpack is Dom Peterson, a stocky 6-foot-0, 290-pound defensive end with eight sacks and 17.5 run stuffs. The Bobcats will work the ball off him on the option, and that will dictate how things go for the Wolfpack.
On the other side of the ball, Nevada has been strikingly inefficient on offense this season, but may be able to find some things that work against a decidedly non-elite Ohio defense. Nevada quarterback Carson Strong threw only 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions while averaging 5.2 yards per attempt, and lead running back Toa Taua ran for 759 yards at four yards per carry with six touchdowns. Nevada will aim to run the ball against Ohio, and if they can limit the Bobcats' vertical passing game, they may be able to hang around and lean on them with a deeper roster of talent.
- Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke, a lethal dual-threat quarterback in a spread-option offense.
- Can Nevada move the ball on the Ohio defense and lean on the smaller program down the stretch?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio by 16.3
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Fort Worth, Texas
Southern Mississippi vs. Tulane (-7) -- January 4, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Southern Mississippi (7-5)||Tulane (6-6)|
|When Southern Mississippi has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Tulane has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Southern Miss had an interesting season this year. They've been pretty explosive in the passing game but quarterback Jack Abraham was boom-or-bust. He threw 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions while throwing for 3,329 yards at 7.9 yards per attempt. The receiving corps is the strength of the team. Quez Watkins went for 1,024 yards and Tim Jones for 840 while slot De'Michael Harris had 297 receiving yards and then a team-leading 113 carries for 541 yards and five touchdowns. The Golden Eagles put a lot of speed on the field and created a lot of stress for opponents, if Abraham had taken better care of the ball likely would have been able to put away more opponents.
As it happens, Tulane has a decent pass defense that could capitalize on that issue. The Green Wave rely more on the run and their quarterback Justin McMillan threw for 2,229 yards and 14 touchdowns to 10 interceptions while leading the team with 865 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Their receiving corps includes former Oklahoma State star Jalen McCleskey, who had 494 receiving yards this season. It's a team with some speed but for the most part they go as McMillan does. Southern Miss loves to mix in the blitz, and if they can confuse McMillan that'll be their best hope in this contest.
- Tulane dual-threat quarterback Justin McMillan.
- How will Southern Miss' zone blitzing work against Tulane's do-it-all quarterback Justin McMillan?
- Do we see Southern Miss the explosive passing team or Southern Miss the team that throws multiple interceptions in most games?
FEI Outright Pick: Tulane by 6.4
Louisiana (-14) vs. Miami (OH) -- January 6, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Louisiana (10-3)||Miami (OH) (8-5)|
|When Louisiana has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|When Miami (OH) has the ball||Defense||Offense|
Miami of Ohio is pretty overmatched in this final bowl game. Their own offense didn't produce much this season, with quarterback Brett Gabbert throwing for only 11 touchdowns. Their two main running backs combined for 254 carries for 1,217 yards and 14 touchdowns operating in a run-heavy spread offense. The Louisiana defense tended to play bend-don't-break, giving up some ground to opposing rushing attacks but limiting damage. That plays poorly with Miami's propensity to accumulate yardage before struggling to punch the ball in with touchdowns.
The Ragin' Cajuns offense is the main concern in this game and the reason why the Redhawks are in bad shape. Quarterback Levi Lewis was pretty efficient and careful, throwing for 2,804 yards and 24 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His sack rate was low, at 4.1%, and he averaged a solid 7.3 yards per attempt. Then there was the run game, which is where the Ragin' Cajuns really destroyed opponents. Their lead back was Elijah Mitchell with 1,092 yards at 5.8 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns. Their second guy up, Raymond Calais, had 867 yards at 7.7 yards per carry with another six touchdowns, then the third back, Trey Ragas, had 796 yards at 7.3 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns.
Louisiana ran the ball exceedingly well this season. Miami stopped the pass fairly well this year but the run game was a tough spot for them. They drew a tough matchup with this bowl game.
- Louisiana's three-deep running back position that has operated with top-25 efficiency this season.
- Can Miami play defense well enough to hang around or do they get rolled early?
FEI Outright Pick: Louisiana by 21.1
FEI PICKS: Bowl Week II
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Arizona State||4||Florida State||Florida State||Florida State||Arizona State|
|Navy||2.5||Kansas State||Navy||Navy||Kansas State|
|Wyoming||7||Georgia State||Wyoming||Georgia State||Wyoming|
|Cincinnati||7||Boston College||Cincinnati||Cincinnati||Boston College|
|Tulane||7||Southern Mississippi||Tulane||Southern Mississippi||Southern Mississippi|
FEI's Picks against the spread on the year: 46-40
Ian's Picks against the spread on the year: 43-43