Seventh Day Adventure: Bowl Spectacular Part II
Bowl games really pick up over the next week. Everything was delayed, but now we'll get a veritable deluge of games in between Christmas and the New Year's Six games on January 1 (hopefully) and the playoff games. These games are going to be touch-and-go with COVID issues and then the now-routine "opting out" that multiple NFL draft prospects will elect in lieu of risking upcoming contracts on what are ultimately exhibition games.
With the playoff dominating discussions, expansions plausible, and even a Group of 5 playoff sometimes discussed, the era of bowl games is changing rapidly. Add in the extra factors of player opt-outs, the transfer portal, COVID concerns, pre-Bowl game coaching changes, and now a world in which teams are scheduling their own games on the fly based on what best fits the circumstances and it's a brave new world for college football. This new world may be worse, it may be better if the Liberty Bowl is any guide, but it will definitely be different.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Marshall vs Buffalo (-3.5) -- December 25, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Marshall (7-2)||Buffalo (5-1)|
|When Marshall has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||60||26|
|Passing success rate||56||38|
|When Buffalo has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||11||17|
|Passing success rate||65||13|
This is a pretty evenly matched game for a bowl contest, whether you gauge by the analytics or the Vegas odds. Also interesting and even in this matchup is the fact the Buffalo Bulls got here by landing big plays with a run game and then big shots in the play-action passing game while Marshall got here by holding up against the run and not allowing explosive gains down the field.
Buffalo's offense is centered around running back Jaret Patterson, who is expected to play although his back-up had big numbers as well. Patterson ran for 1,072 yards at 7.6 yards per carry with 19 rushing touchdowns and is explosive in his own right. On top of that, quarterback Kyle Vantrease added 1,186 passing yards at an efficient clip of 9.3 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns to two interceptions. A yards per attempt at any level of football higher than 8.5 or so is typically indicative of an effective play-action passing game that leads to big chunk yards, or else an extremely high-quality passing game of a Joe Burrow or Kyle Trask level. Teams that move the ball primarily by throwing don't tend to get above 8.5 yards per attempt.
Marshall is led by 5-foot-10, 214-pound Virginia Tech transfer linebacker Tavante Beckett, who had 122 tackles last year and 90 more this season along with 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His ability to run plays down stacking behind 240-pound middle linebacker Eli Neal is key to Marshall's success this season in piling up short gains on attempted runs that put opponents behind the chains. Strength on strength will determine this matchup.
When Marshall needs to score, they'll be facing a pretty stout defense with an offense that attempts balance but tends to rely quite a bit on quarterback Grant Wells. The redshirt freshman threw for 1,977 yards at 7.9 yards per attempt with 18 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He lacks a go-to receiver and Marshall has instead tried to pound the ball heavily with running backs Brenden Knox and Sheldon Evans for solid but unspectacular results.
- Can Marshall's defense stand up to Jaret Patterson and the Buffalo rushing attack?
- Which quarterback can land the big shots in the passing game -- neither team wants to rely much on the signal-caller.
- Buffalo head coach Lance Leipold will be a candidate for job openings in the silly season after these bowl games.
FEI Outright Pick: Buffalo by 3.1
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
Louisiana (-14) vs. UTSA -- December 26, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Louisiana (9-1)||UTSA (7-4)|
|When Louisiana has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||32||53|
|Passing success rate||38||25|
|When UTSA has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||94||102|
|Passing success rate||15||71|
The Ragin' Cajuns are big favorites in this one over first-time head coach (not counting high school) Jeff Traylor of UTSA. The Roadrunners had a great, breakthrough season when the new staff put together a power run game to feature running back Sincere McCormick on 226 carries for 1,345 yards at 6.0 yards per carry with 11 rushing touchdowns. The Roadrunners played a couple of different quarterbacks due to injury, but will have their main guy Frank Harris in this one. Harris is a dual-threat who threw for 1,422 yards at 6.2 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns to five interceptions and added 443 rushing yards at 5.8 yards per carry with eight rushing touchdowns.
Interestingly, run game defense wasn't Louisiana's strong suit this season. The Ragin' Cajuns had an outstanding secondary this year who helped drive the team to 15 interceptions and bedeviled Brock "Pump Fake" Purdy and the Iowa State Cyclones in the season opener. Having the capacity to play great man coverage will have less usefulness in this game; the Roadrunners will spread the receivers wide but then run the ball on a variety of power-option schemes with Harris, McCormick, and 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end LeRoy Watson.
While their defense was strong this year, Louisiana's wide expected margin in this game stems more from their offense. Their two main running backs this season were Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas, who combined for 239 carries for 1,413 yards at 5.9 yards per carry with 16 rushing touchdowns. The passing game didn't have a single go-to target, but quarterback Levi Lewis threw for 2,124 yards at 7.8 yards per attempt with 17 touchdowns to seven interceptions. If UTSA can't hold up to the pounding run game, this game won't be super interesting.
The Roadrunners will park safety and leading tackler Rashad Wisdom in position to help stymie the rushing attack and hope for the best. They have an odd front defensive system that will park lots of linebackers around the ball but doesn't feature many big, impact defensive linemen. Meanwhile, Louisiana boasts a large, physical offensive line.
- Can UTSA hold up in the trenches against Louisiana's big offensive line and run game?
- UTSA star running back Sincere McCormick on power-option schemes against a vulnerable run defense.
- Is Louisiana on a different talent level or does UTSA have enough athletes to run and bang with the Ragin' Cajuns?
FEI Outright Pick: Louisiana by 14.9
Western Kentucky vs. Georgia State (-3.5) -- December 26, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Western Kentucky (5-6)||Georgia State (5-4)|
|When Western Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||103||27|
|Passing success rate||96||36|
|When Georgia State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||82||43|
|Passing success rate||72||75|
Tyson Helton is in his second year with Western Kentucky as the head coach after previously serving as the offensive coordinator before journeying out to be an assistant at USC and Tennessee and then returning. The Western Kentucky offense hasn't really been the driving force of the program this season. Quarterback Tyrell Pigrome has thrown for only 5.4 yards per attempt and rushed for 315 at 3.3 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns. Lead running back Gaej Walker has run for 614 yards at 4.5 yards per carry with two touchdowns.
The Hilltoppers have to work their way down the field slowly and they don't finish just a ton of drives with touchdowns, as their 18.8 points per game average can testify. This is a problem going up against Georgia State, the only program in the Peach State besides the Georgia Bulldogs who aren't a triple option team. Instead, the Panthers run a spread offense in which quarterback Cornelious Brown has thrown for 2,046 yards at 7.5 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns to nine interceptions and added another 261 yards and seven scores on the ground.
The main thrust of the Georgia State offense is wide receiver Sam Pinckney, a 6-foot-4 target who caught 44 balls this year for 753 yards and six scores. Aside from throwing it up to Pinckney one-on-one outside for big gains, the Panthers spread it around to a variety of inside receivers, lead running back Destin Coates, and Brown himself.
Western Kentucky's leading tacklers are safeties Devon Key and Antwon Kincade, neither of whom will be particularly available to match all of Georgia State's motions, sweeps, quick throws, and runs if they have to busy themselves with helping stop Pinckney outside. The trick of it for Western Kentucky is that both cornerbacks, while effective, are under 6 feet tall. If Brown can put it up for Pinckney, it'll be trouble for Western Kentucky; otherwise the Hilltoppers defense could turn this into a low-scoring grind in which they have a shot at the win.
- Georgia State wide receiver Sam Pinckney against Western Kentucky's cornerbacks outside.
- Can Western Kentucky's defense and safeties tackle the Georgia State skill players in space?
- Western Kentucky's Tyrell Pigrome in the red zone against Georgia State's defense.
FEI Outright Pick: Georgia State by 8.0
FBC Mortgage Cure Bowl
Liberty vs. Coastal Carolina (-7) -- December 26, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Liberty (9-1)||Coastal Carolina (11-0)|
|When Liberty has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||8||73|
|Passing success rate||21||39|
|When Coastal Carolina has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||62||21|
|Passing success rate||7||8|
Looks like we get the Coastal Carolina vs. Liberty matchup after all! This game was going to take place during the season but was famously cancelled due to COVID, and Coastal Carolina instead played undefeated BYU on short notice. The Chanticleers then beat BYU, spoiling the Cougars' hopes of any sort of National Championship claim or playoff berth, while preserving their own special season. The Chanticleers have a shot at their own perfect season with signature wins over some of the other top Group of 5 teams.
The biggest difference this year has been quarterback Grayson McCall. He has thrown for 2,170 yards at 10 yards per attempt with 23 touchdowns to just two interceptions while running for 473 yards at 4.9 yards per carry with six touchdowns. Coastal Carolina runs a complicated system of option plays, trap blocking, and RPOs that McCall brings to life with his decision-making and accuracy. The key receiver is Javon Heiligh, who has 52 catches for 820 yards and 10 touchdowns; lead running back Torrance Marable has 844 yards at 5.2 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns. The Chanticleers score a lot between their steady option/RPO gains and then bigger chunk plays to Heiligh.
Liberty's defense has been effective at controlling the pass but even with some extra time to prepare it's going to be tough to handle Coastal Carolina's diverse attack. Liberty tends to solve such problems by scoring lots of points with their own creative spread offense, spearheaded by quarterback Malik Willis. The Flames' star player has rushed for 807 yards at 6.7 yards per carry with 10 rushing touchdowns while throwing for 2,040 yards at 8.6 yards per attempt with 20 more touchdowns and four interceptions. The passing dimension is solid but the ground game is where they really torture teams.
Coastal Carolina's defense wants to disrupt the run game with blitzes behind two-deep coverages. It's a good risk/reward balance. If you inflict a tackle for loss, the offense is behind the chains. If you don't, the deep zone defenders can help ensure the damage isn't too bad. The game likely comes down to whether the Chanticleers' option game or that of Malik Willis and the Flames is more productive.
- Can Coastal Carolina's run blitzes on defense slow down Malik Willis and the Liberty spread-option game?
- Chanticleers quarterback Grayson McCall executing one of the most unique offenses in college football.
- Will the Liberty defense be able to use the extra time to have a plan for stopping the Chanticleers offense?
FEI Outright Pick: Coastal Carolina by 15.6
Oklahoma State (-2) vs. Miami -- December 29, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Oklahoma State (7-3)||Miami (8-2)|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||110||85|
|Passing success rate||61||27|
|When Miami has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||36||94|
|Passing success rate||9||59|
While 7-3 isn't a bad finish, this season was a disappointment for Oklahoma State. With future NFL players Tylan Wallace (wide receiver), Chuba Hubbard (2,000-yard rusher in 2019), and Teven Jenkins (big offensive tackle) returning for another season with second-year starting quarterback and freak athlete Spencer Sanders, the Cowboys looked like the top contender in the Big 12 after Oklahoma. Then the team lost three potential starting offensive linemen in the offseason and Sanders was injured early in the season, and while the defense stepped up and helped carry the team into big showdowns with Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma, the offense couldn't put it together and went 1-2 in those contests to be left out of the Big 12 title game.
Miami had some big expectations for this year as well due to the infusion of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and transfer starters D'Eriq King (quarterback), Jaelen Phillips (defensive end), Quincy Roche (defensive end), and Bubba Bolden (safety). Those transfers all came together for the Hurricanes in a big way in building a strong team but the season ended with a bad taste when North Carolina destroyed them 62-26 in the last game of the season.
This game will have a lot of big opt-outs which will impact the game. Miami will be missing both of the aforementioned starting defensive ends, Phillips and Roche, while Oklahoma State will be missing running back Chuba Hubbard and also star cornerback Ro Williams. The latter is the real problem for Oklahoma State -- the Cowboys kept their running game rolling strong without Hubbard, who appeared a bit worn down from 2019 all year. The Cowboys had three other running backs average 5.6 yards per carry this season while getting meaningful snaps whereas Hubbard only managed 4.7. Once their retooled offensive line was able to gel and Sanders got back into the fold threatening the perimeter with his own running ability (224 rushing yards), it was possible for young Oklahoma State backs such as L.D. Brown and Dominic Richardson to find space. Oklahoma State will also enjoy one more game from Wallace, who had 53 catches for 872 yards and six touchdowns and might be the best athlete on the field in this game.
Williams was a key to their defense, though, allowing Oklahoma State to maintain their normal winning standard despite the trials on offense. He locked down the left side of the field all year, often in press-man coverage, but will be missing from this one.
Miami's offense isn't the worst one to face without an ace cornerback though. Their passing game centered around slot receiver Mike Harley (49 catches, 730 yards, six touchdowns) and tight end Brevin Jordan (30 catches, 480 yards, six touchdowns). Their run game was pretty inconsistent on a down-to-down basis but could generate big gains when King got loose (520 rushing yards on the year for the quarterback). Oklahoma State will flood the middle of the field with athletic linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga while bringing star box safety Kolby Harvell-Peel down to help them keep a lid on the Miami's zone-option game.
On the flip side, Oklahoma State will do the exact same thing against Miami's athletic safeties and backup defensive ends. Both teams will try to man up the cornerbacks in order to have all hands on deck to deny space for the run game in the alleys and in the box. Each team has comparable athletes on offense, but the Cowboys have the more veteran defensive backfield and an X-factor outside in Wallace who could break the game open. In order to even things out, Miami may need to double team Wallace and hope this discombobulates Sanders and encourages him to have a game like he did against Texas or Oklahoma in which he commits turnovers and holds onto the ball too long and takes sacks.
- How will these teams fare without the opt-out star players such as Oklahoma State cornerback Ro Williams or Miami defensive end Jaelon Phillips?
- Two teams with athletic quarterbacks and spread-option offenses working against fast defenses.
- Will Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders protect the ball against Miami's defense?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 0.2
Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Texas
Texas (-10) vs. Colorado -- December 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Texas (6-3)||Colorado (4-1)|
|When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||41||6|
|Passing success rate||67||18|
|When Colorado has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||39||66|
|Passing success rate||102||104|
This game is going to be interesting due to COVID opt-outs and the pending silly season which may or may not claim the job of Texas head coach Tom Herman. It was a disappointing season for the Longhorns, who entered the year facing a down Big 12 and weakened Oklahoma, who had a slow start while Texas was fielding a star senior quarterback and NFL-bound players at left tackle (Sam Cosmi) and edge rusher (Joseph Ossai). Instead Texas lost to TCU, Oklahoma, and -- with a chance at redeeming the season and going to the Big 12 Championship Game -- at home to Iowa State.
Colorado was in a sort of rebuilding season with first-year head coach Karl Dorrell and while conference rules left them out of the Pac-12 Championship Game in favor of USC, have had a strong season they can build on for the future. Unlike Texas, the Buffaloes will not have the same sorts of issues with opt-outs heading into this game. Texas will be missing Cosmi as he sits out to protect his draft status and Ossai for the same reason, along with various skill talents such as receiver Brennan Eagles, safety Caden Sterns, and safety Chris Brown. Senior center/tackle Derek Kerstetter will also miss the game with an injury so the Longhorns will be pretty young across the offensive line and in the middle of their secondary.
The Buffaloes will hope to attack the young players and find them undisciplined against some shotgun option schemes involving star running back Jarek Broussard (813 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry, three touchdowns) and quarterback Sam Noyer (191 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, five touchdowns) as Kansas State did in Texas' season finale. One of the big questions in this game will be how well-prepared Texas' young linebackers and safeties will be for handling spread-option football between the hashmarks.
Colorado's main defensive strategy this season has been to pack the box with linebackers, particularly strong-side linebacker Carson Wells, who had 13.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The Buffaloes would typically bring him off the edge while dropping the strong safety down over the slot and playing some Cover-3 schemes designed to keep the ball in front of them. They really feasted on some opposing offenses this year by playing sound football and having an extra big linebacker (Wells is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds) hovering around the box where many other teams would use a nickel. The downside of this approach was that Colorado's misses tended to go very poorly. Their IsoPPP on defense was remarkably poor and on film you can see the results manifesting in the form of several big linebackers running behind receivers and running backs that managed to find a crease.
Texas' strategy will undoubtedly be to hunt creases by emphasizing zone-option schemes that pair star freshman running back Bijan Robinson with quick passes on the perimeter to slot receivers Jake Smith and Jordan Whittington. Robinson came on strong at the end of the year and finished with 520 rushing yards at 6.8 yards per carry with three touchdowns. The Longhorns will also get one last appearance from senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who may have a few more rushing touchdowns left to give before he hangs it up for the Longhorns but will likely protect his draft status in a game plan designed to emphasize Robinson and the younger skill players.
- How will Texas' injury and draft-depleted offensive line and defensive backfield handle the hungry Buffaloes?
- Can Colorado keep Texas' young explosive skill talents in front of them?
- A final hurrah for four-year starter and senior Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 8.3
Duke's Mayo Bowl
Charlotte, North Carolina
Wake Forest vs. Wisconsin (-6.5) -- December 30, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Wake Forest (4-4)||Wisconsin (3-3)|
|When Wake Forest has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||81||3|
|Passing success rate||69||14|
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||100||84|
|Passing success rate||79||99|
This Wisconsin season got off to a promising start when redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz burst on the scene with five touchdown passes against Illinois but then sputtered to a stop. They never established their power run game consistently and suffered tremendously on offense as a result. They started to find their footing as the season progressed, although COVID losses and cancellations stunted the development, and hope to have freshman running back Jalen Berger available this week as their top weapon in the traditional power run game. Wake Forest is a good mark; the Demon Deacons did not play inspired run defense this season and if the Badgers are able to get in some good practices for this game you have a recipe for a strong conclusion for their offense.
Wake Forest will also be missing defensive end Carlos Basham Jr., who led the team in sacks. Their defense was solid at picking off passes, nabbing nine in eight games, which could be relevant if Wisconsin isn't able to just run them off the field. The Demon Deacons will also look to land some tackles for loss and disrupt Wisconsin's run blocking, testing whether they have the consistency to land shots to make up for it.
Wake Forest's offense was solid this year but has drawn a bad matchup. Receiver Jaquarii Robinson is going to struggle going up against Wisconsin's cornerback Rachad Wildgoose and safety rotations. The Demon Deacons like to mix in a lot of RPOs and quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 1,906 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns to one interception in this system. The Badgers will look to disguise who's involved in the run fit while mixing in some man coverage to deny easy, quick passes to the edge. The Badgers have some tall linebackers that will crowd around the box to disguise leverage and then get hands up in passing windows. Hartman will need to be ready to suss it all out.
- Will Wisconsin be healthy and well-practiced for this game?
- Wake Forest's RPO offensive game against Wisconsin's disguise- and blitz-heavy defense.
- Wisconsin's power run game looking to get on track against Wake Forest's run blitzes.
FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 9.7
TransPerfect Music City Bowl
Iowa (-14.5) vs. Missouri -- December 30, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Iowa (6-2)||Missouri (5-5)|
|When Iowa has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||34||115|
|Passing success rate||51||55|
|When Missouri has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||29||73|
|Passing success rate||30||34|
This was a terrible matchup for Eliah Drinkwitz's Missouri team, and the Vegas line reflects it. Iowa's defense is a bad draw in a bowl game; they'll zero in on all your favorite plays and shut you down. Iowa ranked really high on defense this year, playing their normal bend-don't-break schemes, and they'll be very tough coming off bowl practices focused on Missouri's playbook.
Weakside linebacker Nick Niemann has been the mainstay this season while middle linebacker has been a timeshare with Seth Benson and Jack Koerner; the former has two sacks while the latter has three interceptions. Defensive linemen Chauncy Golston and Daviyon Nixon combined for 22 tackles for loss and 11 sacks playing ahead of their linebackers and are going to be an issue for the Missouri line.
The Tigers threw the ball around a fair amount. Quarterback Connor Bazelak took over early in the year and threw for 2,366 yards at just 7.3 yards per attempt with only seven touchdowns to six interceptions. Lead running back Larry Rountree III got 209 carries and came just short of breaking 1,000 yards (972) while averaging 4.7 yards per carry and scoring 14 touchdowns. Missouri depends on running the ball with Rountree in a variety of schemes which is simply a tough way to try and beat the Hawkeyes. The Wisconsin Badgers have struggled to do it in this fashion for years now.
Missouri's defense will be without their own star inside linebacker, Nick Bolton, who led the team with 95 tackles and eight tackles for loss. It's a grievous loss, but they will have sophomore end Trajan Jeffcoat (six sacks) and freshman cornerback Ennis Rakestraw (six pass breakups). The Tigers will surely give this game a strong effort, but the real win is probably the development they'll get for the younger fixtures in the depth chart as first-year head coach Drinkwitz aims to develop his program for the coming years. Iowa can sympathize as a developmental program in their own right, but they'll likely come into this one looking to push the Tigers around.
- Missouri's defense trying to handle the Iowa zone running game without star linebacker Nick Bolton.
- Can Missouri establish their own running game against another great Iowa defense with extra time to prepare?
- Young quarterbacks Conner Bazelak (Missouri) and Spencer Petras (Iowa) and their development for next season.
FEI Outright Pick: Iowa by 20.1
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Florida (-3) vs. Oklahoma -- December 30, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Florida (8-3)||Oklahoma (8-2)|
|When Florida has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||58||16|
|Passing success rate||4||12|
|When Oklahoma has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||67||45|
|Passing success rate||69||16|
There's a lot of intrigue around this game, particularly with both teams releasing their players to go home for the holidays before reconvening for the game. The concern is how many players might become exposed to COVID and be unavailable to play. We've had three opt-outs for this game as of this writing: Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown and running back T.J. Pledger and then Florida's star tight end Kyle Pitts.
Barring any further absences, the Gators will still bring Kyle Trask into this game along with star receiver Kadarius Toney. Senior Trevon Grimes should also be involved after catching nine touchdown passes and securing a few big catches against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Florida's offensive line is also unlikely to see defections, being a cohesive unit built on experience rather than star NFL ability.
Oklahoma's losses aren't too serious. Brown was part of a three-man rotation at cornerback and youngster Woodi Washington is the future there for the Sooners. Pledger will transfer with Rhamondre Stevenson back from suspension and commanding the lion's share of the carries down the stretch.
This game has a few really interesting dimensions. One is Florida's lethal spread passing attack, which will be the closest to LSU's 2019 squad that Oklahoma has seen since that debacle in last year's playoff. Will the Sooners be able to hold up in coverage against Florida's passing, even without superstar flex tight end Pitts on the field? Oklahoma has attacked teams previously this season, flooding the field with fast and aggressive pass-rushers across the defensive line. Jack linebacker Nik Bonitto, tackle Isaiah Thomas, and defensive end Ronnie Perkins piled up 21 total sacks despite Perkins missing half the season. Florida is less vulnerable than most teams to pressure assuming their offensive line is healthy and available for this game.
Another dimension is Oklahoma's offense against the Gators defense. The Sooners tended to fall into a formula this season of using the game script by head coach Lincoln Riley to build an initial lead before getting conservative. Riley plainly doesn't trust his redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler to execute down the stretch and even pulled him in the Red River Shootout for a few series after a bad fumble. Rattler threw for 2,784 yards this season at 9.5 yards per attempt with 25 touchdowns to seven interceptions; he has an amazing arm and is deadly rolling out of the pocket and throwing on the move. His limitation at this time is a tendency to want to create those situations for himself when the Sooners' actual play designs already have enough for him.
Florida's defense isn't fantastic against the power run game, which is big trouble against Oklahoma, but they are athletic and capable in pass defense. Star cornerback Kaiir Elam picked off two passes this year and broke up 11 more; the rest of the Gators snagged another seven interceptions. Their defense is fast overall. A reasonable expectation for this game would be Riley scheming up a lot of opportunities early for Rattler but then Oklahoma having to run the ball successfully while Trask tries to charge the Gators back into the game. This is a more potent unit for Oklahoma to hold off than any they faced in the Big 12 this season.
- Can Florida's run defense hold up against Oklahoma's power run game and size up front?
- Oklahoma's talented but brash quarterback Spencer Rattler working against Florida's speed in the secondary.
- Will Oklahoma's pass rush be able to stop Kyle Trask and the Florida passing game working without Kyle Pitts?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 2.1
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Fort Worth, Texas
Tulsa (-2.5) vs. Mississippi State -- December 31, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Tulsa (6-2)||Mississippi State (3-7)|
|When Tulsa has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||79||63|
|Passing success rate||81||43|
|When Mississippi State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||10||24|
|Passing success rate||22||77|
Mississippi State has had a wild Year 1 under head coach Mike Leach. They opened the year with tremendous promise as Stanford transfer K.J. Costello was torching LSU's man coverages throwing to returning running back Kylin Hill and Alabama transfer wideout Tyrell Shavers. By the end of the year the Bulldogs were showing some promise once more but with freshman quarterback Will Rogers completing passes to freshman receiver Jaden Walley (48 catches for 691 yards and two touchdowns).
This is Mike Leach and the original Air Raid -- they're going to throw the ball early and often and only run every now and again if they see the defense failing to respect it. The running backs remain heavily involved but as much as checkdowns and quick-pass options as they are as run game weapons. Once Hill opted out (early in the year), Jo'quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson took over. Marks had 59 carries and 56 catches while Johnson had 41 carries and 34 catches.
Tulsa played great defense this year and will undoubtedly aim to counter them by playing a lot of drop-eight zone coverages as the SEC tended to do after Leach pirated LSU. Tulsa has just the defender for this challenge: outside linebacker Zaven Collins, who had four sacks AND four interceptions roving back and forth between rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. The Golden Hurricane also have terrific cornerbacks in Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans to help check Mississippi State's receivers. It's a tough matchup for the Bulldogs.
Mississippi State's defense is trouble as well though. They can check the Tulsa receivers and drop into coverage while trusting big inside linebacker Erroll Thompson to handle the Tulsa run game. Thompson had 86 tackles this season and is a veteran force in the box at 250 pounds. The biggest concern for Tulsa will be keeping Mississippi State defensive ends and blitzing linebackers off quarterback Zach Smith -- the Bulldogs like to blitz and have a lot of big athletes up front of a higher caliber than Tulsa is used to facing in the AAC.
- Bronko Nagurski award-winner Zaven Collins, a Tulsa hybrid linebacker who can rush the passer and cover.
- Mike Leach's young Air Raid offense going up against a top-notch Tulsa defense.
- Can Tulsa's offensive line block Mississippi State's SEC defensive front?
FEI Outright Pick: Tulsa by 7.5
Ball State vs. San Jose State (-7.5) -- December 31, 2 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Ball State (6-1)||San Jose State (7-0)|
|When Ball State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||30||50|
|Passing success rate||19||49|
|When San Jose State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||69||86|
|Passing success rate||120||18|
This season was a big breakthrough for both Ball State coach Mike Nieu and San Jose State head man Brent Brennan. After four losing seasons to begin his tenure, this was Nieu's first winning season at Ball State. Brent Brennan is in Year 4 at San Jose State and this was the first time they had a winning season either. Naturally, both exploded with big breakthrough seasons.
For San Jose State, the decisive factor was improvement on defense combined with the addition of grad transfer quarterback Nick Starkel, who had started at both Texas A&M and Arkansas in previous seasons. Starkel came to a program that had already been throwing the ball well and returning multiple strong receivers and threw for 1,906 yards at 9.0 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. Wide receivers Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker had 725 and 546 yards respectively and four touchdowns apiece while tight end Derrick Deese got goal-line attention with five touchdown catches. Defensive improvement was stirred by edge-rusher Cade Hall, who went from having four total sacks the previous two years to piling up 10 sacks in 2020.
Ball State's rise was similar, yet steadier. Their passing game has also gained with each passing year, but they returned their main weapons and the triggerman, quarterback Drew Pitt, from the last two seasons. Pitt threw for 1,937 yards at 8.4 yards per attempt with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Cardinals spread the ball around to smaller slot Justin Hall (5-foot-9, 186 pounds), who did their biggest damage with 665 yards and four touchdowns; big outside receiver Yo'Heinz Tyler (6-foot-3, 204 pounds), who had seven touchdowns; and thick Antwan Davis (5-foot-11, 204 pounds). Their run game was a true tandem with Caleb Huntley and Tye Evans turning 154 carries into 781 yards at 5.1 yards per carry with seven touchdowns.
The Ball State defense didn't have a top pass-rusher, typically blitzing linebackers when they want to disrupt an offense, but they do have 6-foot-0 cornerback Amech Uzodinma II who broke up five passes and picked off another this year and picked off five passes last year. They can match Uzodinma on the top wide receiver for San Jose State and try to muddy the picture for Starkel everywhere else. This game could be a bit of a test case for whether you'd have a great edge rusher or a top cornerback in stopping a spread passing offense.
- Both of these teams love to throw the ball around and won a lot of games this season doing so.
- Will Ball State cornerback Amech Uzodinma II or San Jose State edge rusher Cade Hall have the bigger impact against the pass?
- San Jose State claiming an undefeated season.
FEI Outright Pick: San Jose State by 3.9
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
West Virginia (-7.5) vs. Army -- December 31, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||West Virginia (5-4)||Army (9-2)|
|When West Virginia has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||116||5|
|Passing success rate||52||53|
|When Army has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||30||88|
|Passing success rate||13||124|
West Virginia appeared to be without an opponent when Tennessee opted out over COVID concerns amongst their team and Army was going to be left out due to the cancellation of the Independence Bowl where they were tied in. The Liberty Bowl offered a place to the Black Knights with West Virginia's blessing, and now we get a pretty compelling football game in this slot where everyone wins! Developments like this point to a possible future for college football that is more interesting.
Army is coming off a big win in their annual battle with hated Navy in which the Knights shut out the Midshipmen 15-0 thanks to a goal-line stand, followed by a narrower 10-7 win over Air Force. With the Midshipmen struggling this season due to an abridged offseason, Army's brand of triple-option football was ascendant this year. Their version involves pounding the interior with fullback dives, mixing in unbalanced formations, and regularly going for it on fourth down. The Knights were 71% on fourth down this season while leading the nation in fourth-down attempts. Head coach Jeff Monken wants to hold onto the ball and blast opponents repeatedly, and this year they also have a stout defense to minimize your opportunities on your occasional possessions. They have thick linebackers and safeties that are bigger than your average inside linebackers and safeties at other schools (around 240 pounds for each linebacker and 210 for each safety); it's a tough squad to out-physical.
West Virginia has a different approach. They rely on the Stills brothers, Dante and Darius, one of whom (Dante) is heading to the NFL but first playing this final game with his brother. The Stills brothers hold down the box with grad transfer linebacker Tony Fields behind them while the rest of the West Virginia defense plays out of the box and focuses on stopping big plays and layering coverages. It's an approach designed for stopping Big 12 spread offenses that has less relevance here. However, the Stills brothers will certainly be a challenge for the Army offensive front and their hopes of throwing fullback dives through the interior gaps for steady gains.
Army's big stout defense will need a plan for West Virginia's RPO game, the Mountaineers also have some sledgehammer in their approach with fullback Mike O'Laughlin and big running back Leddie Brown (945 rushing yards at 5.3 yards per carry, nine rushing touchdowns). The Knights will need to be able to hold up outside against the Mountaineers receivers without getting run over in the box, but the latter probably isn't their concern. It's the holding up in space part. Army didn't face a passing game of this caliber in the regular season.
- Which team can own the trenches? Both have some physicality in their approach.
- Will West Virginia's defense be ready to handle the triple option?
- Army's secondary trying to keep up with West Virginia's skill athletes and passing game out in space.
FEI Outright Pick: Army by 0.3
Mercari Texas Bowl
Arkansas vs. TCU (-5.5) -- December 31, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Arkansas (3-7)||TCU (6-4)|
|When Arkansas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||77||7|
|Passing success rate||31||8|
|When TCU has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||85||48|
|Passing success rate||96||107|
While neither TCU nor Arkansas had terrific seasons this year, a matchup like this is a good one for the fans of each school and an interesting one for the casual fan as well. The Razorbacks were in Year 1 with new head coach Sam Pittman, who had previously been the offensive line coach for Georgia. TCU seems to be nearing the end of the Gary Patterson era, although the timing of the ending is a matter of speculation and not acknowledged reality.
Both teams will be going into 2021 hoping to break out and these bowl practices and this game will be legitimately important stepping stones for developing the programs and recruiting. Both schools rely on the DFW Metroplex and the vast expanse of rural East Texas for a lot of their recruits, and both dabble in Houston as well, so a game played between them in Houston is certainly valuable. These are old rivals from the Southwest Conference and regional recruiting rivals. Additionally, Arkansas' offensive coordinator is Kendal Briles, the son of Art Briles, who was Gary Patterson's arch-nemesis as the head coach at Baylor.
The matchup between this year's teams is certainly interesting. The Horned Frogs are at their best mixing an arguably overly deep stable of running backs with dual-threat quarterback Max Duggan on option schemes from the shotgun and then taking some shots down the field to freshman wideout Quentin Johnston. Duggan ran for 526 yards at 4.5 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns and Johnston finished the year with 22 catches for 487 yards and two scores. The TCU defense was fairly typical; they played their standard 4-2-5 defense and had mixed results but mostly success save for some major issues with big plays. Cornerback was an issue for them after losing starter Noah Daniels.
The loss of Daniels looms for the Horned Frogs in this game going against Feliepe Franks and the Arkansas wide receivers. The Razorbacks' quarterback threw for 2,107 yards at 8.9 yards per attempt with 17 touchdowns to four interceptions working with Mike Woods (32 catches for 619 yards and five touchdowns) and big Treylon Burks (6-foot-3, 232 pounds, 51 catches, 820 yards, seven touchdowns). Briles' plan will be to hold the attention of the TCU secondary so the Razorbacks can pound the Horned Frogs up front with running back Trelon Smith (710 rushing yards at 5.3 yards per carry with five touchdowns).
- Can Arkansas' defense stop big plays from TCU quarterback Max Duggan as a runner or throwing deep to Quentin Johnston?
- TCU's star safety Trevon Moehrig-Woodard matched with big Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks.
- Rivalry game intensity -- these programs and staffs have some history against each other.
FEI Outright Pick: TCU by 8.5
FEI PICKS: Bowl Week II
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|Georgia State||3.5||Western Kentucky||Georgia State||Georgia State||Georgia State|
|Coastal Carolina||7||Liberty||Coastal Carolina||Coastal Carolina||Coastal Carolina|
|Oklahoma State||2||Miami||Oklahoma State||Miami||Oklahoma State|
|Tulsa||2.5||Mississippi State||Tulsa||Tulsa||Mississippi State|
|San Jose State||7.5||Ball State||San Jose State||Ball State||Ball State|
|West Virginia||7.5||Army||Army||Army||West Virginia|
FEI picks against the spread Championship Week: 2-4
FEI picks against the spread this year: 47-39-1
Ian's picks against the spread Championship Week: 4-2
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 47-39-1