Clemson Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence

Seventh Day Adventure: Bowl Spectacular Part III

The bowl season has been solid thus far in college football despite the limitations from COVID complications, various opt-outs, the distractions of silly season (coaching changes), and then the outright cancellations that have occurred. One of the biggest wins was the Coastal Carolina vs. Liberty matchup we expected during the season which was cancelled and replaced with an excellent Coastal Carolina vs. BYU matchup. "America's team" (Coastal Carolina) took Liberty into overtime with a crazy, peak college football fumble by the Flames when they were intending to run clock before attempting a field goal. In overtime Liberty finally overcame the undefeated Chanticleers.

At some point the biggest win for college football might be to have a playoff for the Group of 5 that concludes with matchups such as this one over the holidays. They'll obviously be perpetually frozen out of the existing college football playoff, and rather than sneaking one or two teams into an eight- or 16-team playoff to get blown out in Round 1 by Alabama or Clemson, it'd be more fun to have an additional championship. Coastal Carolina vs. Liberty was great and should have been a semifinal or final for a national championship.

For this next phase of the playoffs we have a diverse mix of games. There's the New Year's Six games which are generally still taken seriously by the teams involved, a couple of straggling bowl games with midlevel SEC squads, and the playoff semifinal battles between Notre Dame and Alabama and then Ohio State and Clemson.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Atlanta, Georgia
Georgia (-7) vs. Cincinnati -- January 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Georgia (7-2) Cincinnati (9-0)
F/+ 8 7
FEI 8 10
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 9 5
SP+ 21 2
IsoPPP+ 47 10
Rushing success rate 11 25
Passing success rate 89 3
When Cincinnati has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 18 31
SP+ 1 18
IsoPPP+ 9 32
Rushing success rate 13 92
Passing success rate 75 5

On the one hand, Georgia is going to be missing a fair number of good players due to the annual NFL draft exodus that always diminishes their bowl game roster. This year their losses include cornerback Erik Stokes, linebacker Monty Rice, tight end Tre' McKitty, and All-SEC right guard Ben Cleveland. Starting safety Richard LeCounte may also be out with an injury. Stokes led the team with four interceptions this year while Rice has been a mainstay in the middle of the defense for a few years and finished second on the team in tackles. These are all real losses and juxtaposed with a fully intact Cincinnati roster coming off their AAC championship.

On the other hand, J.T. Daniels is playing for Georgia, and the Bulldogs have been a different team when he's out there. In just three games this season he threw for 839 yards at 10.4 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and a single interception. His accuracy and arm strength in the RPO and play-action game are unlike anything Georgia has ever had before, and the Bulldogs are always physical up front in the run game. To be able to add a vertical passing dimension of this caliber is a game-changer -- Jake Fromm brought it very inconsistently for Georgia.

This is where the game turns. Cincinnati played phenomenal defense this season, often playing aggressive 46-style defensive fronts designed to spill runs outside where speedy star linebacker Jarrell White could run them down. They could also match up in man coverage consistently against their AAC opponents and had great showings against some very dangerous passing attacks from SMU and UCF. If Daniels goes out and torches the Bearcats defense it'll be indicative of a lethal Georgia attack heading into the 2021 season when Daniels, most of this offensive line, and the top receivers all return. A key area will be whether or not Cincinnati's blitzing inside linebackers can cause disruption against the Georgia run game and whether or not their man coverage will hold up against Daniels throwing to these receivers.

Georgia's defense, despite the losses, will be in pretty good shape to take on the Bearcats offense. The main danger from the Bearcats this year has been the zone run game with some RPOs and quarterback keepers attached. Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder ran for 609 yards at 7.3 yards per carry with 12 rushing touchdowns this year; he runs like a gazelle on the perimeter and can pull away from defenders. Georgia will be trying to run him down with their own speedy linebacker Nakobe Dean, who led the team in tackles. The Bulldogs will put some big bodies on the field along the defensive line, spill zone-option plays, and ask Dean to track Ridder and beat him to the edge. If Ridder can't outrun Dean this game could be a rough one for Cincinnati. There's not enough else to the Bearcats offense and not enough consistency and power in the inside run game to Gerrid Doaks to compete in this game if Ridder isn't making hay running on the edge.

Watch for:

  • J.T. Daniels previewing what might be the best Georgia offense yet in 2021 against a top defense.
  • Can the Bearcats run with Georgia's wide receivers like they did while winning the AAC?
  • Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder trying to win the edge against Georgia's speedy defense.

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 0.5

Vrbo Citrus Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Auburn vs. Northwestern (-3.5) -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Auburn (6-4) Northwestern (6-2)
F/+ 31 28
FEI 35 20
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 40 2
SP+ 47 6
IsoPPP+ 97 22
Rushing success rate 29 74
Passing success rate 85 2
When Northwestern has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 65 72
SP+ 34 99
IsoPPP+ 13 117
Rushing success rate 110 117
Passing success rate 68 62

There are some major people missing from these teams for this bowl game. Auburn will be without head coach Gus Malzahn after a very public firing, a strange interim period where defensive coordinator Kevin Steele seemed position to win the job, and then a coaching search that ended with the hiring Boise State's Bryan Harsin. Steele will be coaching the Tigers through this bowl game, but beyond that his future with the program is very murky. Given the rumors he was a part of orchestrating the removal of Malzahn in hopes of being named head coach, it's hard to see him remaining to work for a new, younger coach. In the meantime, he'll be trying to coach Auburn to victory here.

Northwestern made a great game out of the Big 10 Championship Game, putting Ohio State in a hole before ultimately succumbing to their run game in a 22-10 defeat. They surged down the stretch after making freshman running back Cam Porter the starter. At 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, he has phenomenal quickness and balance and then some real power when he turns downhill in the hole. But Northwestern got here with defense and they are losing their top two athletes to the transfer portal. Defensive end Eku Leota (who led the team with four sacks) and cornerback Greg Newsome (who'd lock down the boundary side of the field in quarters coverage) are both sitting out the bowl game.

The Wildcats are best known for their terrific interior defense, led by three multi-year starters at linebacker in Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, and Chris Bergin. Those players are excellent and will cause trouble for Auburn and their run game in this contest, but those athletes on the perimeter won one-on-one matchups all year for the Wildcats and will be facing some big-time competition against the Tigers. Watch for Auburn to get more aggressive in the passing game with offensive coordinator Chad Morris unshackled from Malzahn, and for Newsome's replacement in coverage against Seth Williams, who had 42 catches for 688 yards this season. Northwestern's M.O. this season was to use strongside linebacker Bergin off the edge, play Cover-2 to the field, and then play man coverage on the boundary to help their free safety get involved in stopping the run. If Williams is burning the boundary corner with Newsome out, it undoes the structure of the Wildcats defense and could leave them vulnerable.

Northwestern's offense against the Tigers defense looks like a bad matchup for Northwestern as well assuming the Tigers are motivated to make a good showing in this game. The Wildcats could do little on offense unless facing an opponent that struggled to fit the run and tackle Porter. Their offensive line is a little on the smaller side and young, and quarterback Peyton Ramsey had to shoulder some run game duties that seemed to diminish his ability to throw down the field.

Watch for:

  • Is Auburn motivated amidst their program drama to show up and play Northwestern competitively?
  • How will the Wildcats defense fare against Auburn's athletes on offense without defensive end Eku Leota or cornerback Greg Newsome?
  • Does Auburn's approach on offense change a little without Gus Malzahn directing the show?

FEI Outright Pick: Northwestern by 5.0

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One -- College Football Playoff Semifinal
Arlington, Texas
Notre Dame vs. Alabama (-19.5) -- January 1, 4 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Notre Dame (10-1) Alabama (11-0)
F/+ 9 1
FEI 5 1
When Notre Dame has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 10 23
SP+ 13 9
IsoPPP+ 49 91
Rushing success rate 33 19
Passing success rate 17 32
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 15 1
SP+ 11 1
IsoPPP+ 86 12
Rushing success rate 20 4
Passing success rate 28 2

This game is already considered anti-climactic because of the ACC Championship Game between Notre Dame and Clemson. After overcoming the Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson Tigers in South Bend earlier this season, the Fighting Irish looked in over their heads in the rematch for the league title. The Tigers beat them 34-10, building a big lead early with explosive gains throwing and running and then sacking Ian Book six times while the Irish tried to mount a comeback. The sense from that game was Notre Dame isn't up for playing with these higher level, National Championship programs. So can they hang with Alabama?

The last thing we saw of Alabama was the Crimson Tide looking totally overwhelming on offense against Florida in a 52-46 win in the SEC Championship Game, yet also vulnerable on defense. As has been the case for really the entirety of the Nick Saban era in Tuscaloosa, good spread passing attacks have proven to be able to beat the Tide. If your quarterback can make some NFL throws and your receivers are good, the Tide have never been able to cover it all up, even dating back to the 2010 Rose Bowl when the Texas Longhorns nearly mounted a comeback victory with backup freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert throwing repeatedly to star receiver Jordan Shipley.

But Notre Dame isn't really a high-level spread passing team. They got here by controlling games with great defense, running back Kyren Williams running for 1,061 yards at 5.4 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns, Book mixing in some runs, and then a very solid but not featured passing attack. The Irish would prefer to keep the clock moving in this game and maintain some drives running the ball from double tight end sets with the occasional deep shot to Javon McKinley interspersed between crossing patterns to tight end Michael "Baby Gronk" Mayer and comebacks at the chains to Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek. One of the biggest questions for this game is whether or not Notre Dame's veteran offensive line can consistently move the chains running inside against Alabama's interior defense. The Tide aren't as thick and stout inside as other years they've won titles anchored by monstrous nose tackles. No one has blown Alabama away inside since the Ole Miss game when the Rebels mixed tempo, spacing, and option to run wild, but no one since then has had a rushing attack comparable to Notre Dame either.

If the Irish come out swinging with the passing game, we'll know they don't feel they can control and win this game in the trenches against late-season Alabama. Most likely, though, they'll give it a go and see how it proceeds.

The bigger question that will need to be answered positively by the Irish for this game to amount to much is whether or not they can even slow down the Alabama offense. No one else has really had any luck whatsoever, including the Georgia Bulldogs, who boast one of the better defenses in the country. The interesting wrinkle here is the injury to Tide center Landon Dickerson, who was having a tremendous season calling and running the show for one of the most dominant offensive lines we've seen in college football history. Dickerson hurt his knee against Florida in the SEC Championship Game and is already rehabbing after surgery. Can the Tide still give quarterback Mac Jones five seconds or more every time offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dials up a play-action double move to potential Heisman Trophy-winner wide receiver Devonta Smith?

The Irish aren't the first or even second playoff team you'd draft to try and attack the interior Alabama offensive line. Their defensive tackles are very stout and effective run-stoppers, as is middle linebacker Drew White, but their game-changing athleticism is all on the edge and particularly at strongside linebacker (Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah) and free safety (Kyle Hamilton). Notre Dame may also struggle to even successfully match and lock down all of Alabama's deep-shot passing routes without yielding some gimmes to receiver John Metchie outside, so committing linebackers on the blitz is going to be difficult.

There's a big-picture strategy question here for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to answer, just as there is on offense. Will the Irish aim to play conservatively and hope to keep Alabama in front of them? If they run the ball, shorten the game, and try to hang on and force field goals on defense, they could keep the score manageable and either have a chance to steal the game in the fourth quarter if their body blows land or else keep the margin respectable. If they really want to play this game like an underdog and beat Alabama, they may need to air it out regularly on offense and aggressively blitz Jones, at least early, so the Tide can't sit back and drop bombs like they have every other week. I suspect the tough and veteran Irish will elect to play the game close and hope discipline saves them from another drubbing.

Watch for:

  • Can Notre Dame run the ball and try to control the game against Alabama's defensive front?
  • Will Alabama be able to maintain their normal formula of taking killer play-action shots to Devonta Smith without center Landon Dickerson?
  • How will Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly approach this game? Aiming to win with a conservative approach and discipline, or throwing haymakers early like a true underdog?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 12.8

Allstate Sugar Bowl -- College Football Playoff Semifinal
New Orleans, Louisiana
Ohio State vs. Clemson (-7.5) -- January 1, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ohio State (6-0) Clemson (10-1)
F/+ 3 2
FEI 2 3
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 2 1
SP+ 2 4
IsoPPP+ 35 90
Rushing success rate 5 2
Passing success rate 6 11
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 12 7
SP+ 8 5
IsoPPP+ 106 25
Rushing success rate 9 15
Passing success rate 41 11

There has been some fun drama around this game. Ohio State famously brought an NFL-rich roster into this same game a year ago only to lose to Clemson despite the Tigers struggling with injuries to their two star receivers who had driven their offensive success. The game ended with quarterback Justin Fields throwing a post while his receiver broke off the route, leading to a game-ending interception by the Tigers. Heading into this rematch, Dabo Swinney ranked Ohio State 11th in the country on his coach's ballot in a move that was considered wildly disrespectful as it plainly suggested the Buckeyes shouldn't be in the playoff after playing only six games. Then Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was quoted as saying of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, "He seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing ... why that is I don't really know. But I can tell you he's been doing it for a long time." This seemed to be a transparent poke at the fact the Tigers have a reputation for being very effective signal-stealers and using it to call their defenses with situational precision.

It'd be a little surprising if this game wasn't a little chippy and competitive with the surrounding noise adding to the normal stakes and drama of a playoff bout competing for a National Championship.

The last time we saw Ohio State, they were hanging on for dear life trying to dispatch Northwestern in the Big 10 title game while missing star receiver Chris Olave and some other players and practice time due to COVID. Fields has often made his living at Ohio State throwing one-read passes outside the hashmarks that come down to arm strength and accuracy down the field, but he has struggled reading defenses and navigating passing windows between the hashmarks. With Olave out, he really locked in on his other star receiver Garrett Wilson and Northwestern was all over it. Fields ended up throwing for 114 yards on 27 attempts at 4.2 yards per attempt with zero touchdowns and two interceptions.

Obviously this is a major concern going up against Venables and the Clemson defense, who already have the aforementioned knack for stealing signs and can certainly use film study and disguised coverages to set coverage traps for Fields. Last year this game turned when the Tigers started playing a 3-3-5 flyover defense and confusing the Buckeyes on which defenders were going to end up where while crashing inside backer James Skalski inside to blow up runs. The Tigers have another good blitzing defense this season and Nolan Turner, the safety who ended the Buckeyes' season a year ago, had three picks this year and is back to help patrol the deep field against Fields' shots.

Ohio State's defense took a step back this year after losing multiple NFL players in the secondary, particularly cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, but their run defense has been very effective with athletic outside linebackers Baron Browning and Pete Werner bookending fellow returning starter Tuf Borland in the middle. It'll be tough for Clemson to line up and run the ball downhill on this unit; they couldn't do so very effectively against Notre Dame. The adjustment has been for the Tigers to mix in outside runs for Travis Etienne so he can work in space. They have also mixed in the quarterback run game with Trevor Lawrence, often with option schemes. In those concepts they run the ball inside with Lawrence if the defense commits their linebackers to stopping outside runs to Etienne, otherwise the ball goes with Etienne into space where the Tigers don't have to try and block big defenders such as Ohio State's Tommy Togiai.

The main concern for Ohio State's defense will be Lawrence throwing the ball to slot Amari Rodgers (69 catches for 966 yards and seven touchdowns) and outside receiver Cornell Powell (45 catches for 743 yards and five touchdowns). If Clemson is winning the one-on-one matchups that Ohio State's defense is designed to win with NFL athletes in the secondary, then the structure of the Buckeyes defense breaks down. The next concern is the quarterback run game and throws to the running back, which both caused back-breaking problems for Ohio State's man coverage schemes a year ago. It'll be interesting to see how the Buckeyes adjust to this challenge schematically.

(Editor's note: Wednesday evening, it was announced that Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott will miss the game against Ohio State on Friday after testing positive for COVID-19, according to coach Dabo Swinney.)

Watch for:

  • Can Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields navigate the coverage traps and blitzes Clemson will throw his way?
  • How have the Buckeyes adjusted to the running back passes and quarterback runs Clemson used a year ago to take them down?
  • Will Ohio State's advantages in the trenches carry this game or can Clemson win with Trevor Lawrence getting the ball to athletes in space?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 0.1

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Florida
North Carolina State vs. Kentucky (-2.5) -- January 2, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall North Carolina State (8-3) Kentucky (4-6)
F/+ 50 68
FEI 54 71
When North Carolina State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 49 44
SP+ 59 45
IsoPPP+ 57 7
Rushing success rate 72 68
Passing success rate 60 108
When Kentucky has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 54 93
SP+ 51 87
IsoPPP+ 64 122
Rushing success rate 41 13
Passing success rate 44 106

This will be an interesting game for the Kentucky Wildcats, who fired offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw after the season but then hired Liam Coen as the new offensive coordinator. Coen is currently the quarterbacks coach for the Los Angeles Rams and unavailable to coach in this bowl game or take on his duties until the Rams complete their season. These things happen in bowl games pretty often and it isn't always a big factor, but it's certainly an interesting dynamic to track.

The Wildcats will turn back to Terry Wilson at quarterback. The senior never developed as a passer as they had hoped and threw for 1,092 yards this season at 6.2 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns to four interceptions. He also ran for 410 yards at 4.2 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns working with running back Christopher Rodriguez, who had 701 yards at 6.9 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. The option run game from the spread has been Kentucky's calling card for the last few years, most notably in 2019 when injuries to quarterback led them to move star receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. behind center and running him for 1,468 yards and 13 scores.

North Carolina State is a tough matchup for this one final go from the Kentucky spread-option attack with Wilson. Wolfpack linebackers Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks this season roving in the middle of the field and defensive end Daniel Joseph added 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from the edge. If the Wildcats can't make consistent pickups on the ground against this front they don't tend to find them in the air either, hence the change in staffing for next season.

The Wolfpack have had their own issues at quarterback with Bailey Hockman, who will get the nod in this game. The junior threw for 1,820 yards at 8.1 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns (all solid) and then eight interceptions. The Wolfpack want to throw the ball and had four different receivers go for 400 yards or more with big Emeka Emezie (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) leading the way on the perimeter with 42 catches for 694 yards and five touchdowns.

Kentucky is normally a bad team to try and pass on, but they were less effective in pass defense this season aside from effectively keeping the ball in front of them. Jamar Watson led their pass rush with five sacks from outside linebacker, cornerback Kelvin Joseph had four picks, and the team had 13 interceptions overall. So there's danger throwing the ball against Kentucky, but also some space underneath if you're careful and know what you're doing. North Carolina State mostly knows what they're doing but are not always terribly careful. If you rely on fitting balls underneath coverage to move the chains, you always run the risk of throwing more interceptions, which they did, and Kentucky's defenders catch balls thrown at them.

Watch for:

  • Will Kentucky's spread-option run game be able to get going against a very productive Wolfpack defensive front?
  • How focused are the Wildcats amidst coaching changes in the program? Do they want to be here?
  • North Carolina State's Bailey Hockman looking to navigate Kentucky's sticky-fingered secondary.

FEI Outright Pick: North Carolina State by 2.3

Outback Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Ole Miss vs. Indiana (-6.5) -- January 2, 12:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Ole Miss (4-5) Indiana (6-1)
F/+ 48 17
FEI 48 12
When Ole Miss has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 6 6
SP+ 9 32
IsoPPP+ 18 105
Rushing success rate 42 57
Passing success rate 7 21
When Indiana has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 118 38
SP+ 102 26
IsoPPP+ 88 6
Rushing success rate 118 83
Passing success rate 125 76

This game will sadly be missing many of the players that made these teams fun to watch during the regular season. Indiana's quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was injured late in the year and replaced by Jack Tuttle. Ole Miss will be missing star wide receiver Elijah Moore and star tight end Kenny Yeboah, and running back Jerrion Early is iffy to play due to injury. You'd hope this game would be a high-paced shootout with Penix landing big shots in the passing game to wide receiver Try Fryfogle while the Rebels march up and down the field with their fast-paced spread-option game. Some of that may still happen, but both teams will be breaking in a lot of young new players so it's hard to discern how things will play out.

Indiana got here by playing great defense, often confusing quarterbacks with late shifts into zone coverages that resulted in passers trying to force balls into Cover-2 with smart underneath defenders drifting backwards into passing windows for picks or deflections to the safeties. The Hoosiers picked off 17 passes this season with their approach. Ole Miss got here by racing up to the line and running zone-read and split zone with quick slant options for the quarterback when teams tried to get extra defenders into the box. Their offensive line played well all year and they consistently protected space for the run game with the option dimensions and wore defensive linemen out with the tempo. A lot of their damage came from throwing to Moore and Yeboah though, so they'll need to help quarterback Matt Corrall find a rhythm with some new targets in an awful hurry. These RPO passes often come down to trust and timing, and if those aren't there, then things can get ugly against a team such as Indiana, who's so good at muddying the picture for the quarterback and sneaking defenders into passing windows.

The Ole Miss defense had a bad season and while Tuttle has not yet shown the same capacity as Penix for hitting downfield shots to Fryfogle or slot receiver Whop Philyor, those opportunities may very well be there. The trap for Indiana will be to try and slow the game down by pounding away with the run game in order to protect their defense from Ole Miss' tempo. The better solution might be to attack early in the passing game and build a lead that forces Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin to start calling passing plays and slowing down to get the protections and calls right rather than allowing them to get their zone-option game rolling at tempo.

Watch for:

  • How will Ole Miss' finely-tuned hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) spread offense work without receiver Elijah Moore or tight end Kenny Yeboah?
  • Indiana's confusing and sticky-fingered defense trying to work their way into passing windows against Ole Miss' RPOs.
  • Can Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle attack the vulnerable Rebels defense down the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Indiana by 10.8

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Arizona
Oregon vs. Iowa State (-4.5) -- January 2, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oregon (4-2) Iowa State (8-3)
F/+ 20 11
FEI 21 14
When Oregon has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 21 13
SP+ 20 12
IsoPPP+ 51 67
Rushing success rate 17 21
Passing success rate 10 47
When Iowa State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 39 12
SP+ 27 15
IsoPPP+ 16 71
Rushing success rate 77 16
Passing success rate 66 22

These two teams are taking the Fiesta Bowl pretty seriously, and no opt-outs have yet been announced by either team. Iowa State is coming off a disappointing loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game. The Cyclones were driving for a chance to win their first title of any kind since 1912, down 26-21, when quarterback Brock "Pump Fake" Purdy rolled out and tried to force a leading pass to receiver Xavier Hutchinson into coverage and was picked off to end the game. Oregon nearly missed the Pac-12 title game until Washington had to opt out due to COVID issues on their team. They made the most of their chance and beat USC by repeatedly pressuring Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis, often with star pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, and forcing him into multiple mistakes and interceptions that doomed USC's comeback attempt late.

The dimension that defined both of those title games is going to be a big key in this game. Iowa State starts a fifth-year senior left tackle who wasn't a starter until his final year (Sean Foster) and a redshirt freshman at right tackle who took over during the season (Jake Remsburg). Purdy has made a career out of buying time and handling regular pressure from opposing pass-rushers, but he runs into problems when opponents can really amp up the pressure and send defenders (such as Thibodeaux) at him who have the quickness to track him down.

Expect Iowa State to give Thibodeaux lots of extra attention from big, blocking tight end Dylan Soehner (6-foot-6, 265 pounds) in order to prevent the young edge rusher from dominating the game and forcing Purdy into bad situations. Iowa State ran out of steam some at the end of the season on offense as teams managed to slow down star running back Breece Hall, who finished the year with 245 carries for 1,436 yards at 5.9 yards per carry with 19 touchdowns. That's an awful lot of carries in 11 games (22.3 per game) and as teams gave them extra attention it tended to either open things up for the Iowa State passing game or else just slow down the Cyclones offense. Coming off a successful game controlling the Trojans passing attack with all of USC's talented receivers, the Ducks have to feel pretty good about matching up against Iowa State. The Cyclones' main weapons are Hutchinson and flex tight end Charlie Kolar, who's a matchup problem at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Oregon will play to keep Hutchinson in front of them while giving Kolar some safety attention. They follow a traditional formula of stopping the run and playing bend-don't-break in coverage (often with Cover-3) to keep the ball in front of them against the pass. It's an effective formula against this Iowa State team when you have athletes like Oregon will field.

Oregon's offense faces some issues as well though. The Cyclones play very stout run defense from their 3-3-5 flyover defense and linebacker Mike Rose leads the team in tackles, often coming unblocked from the edge as a strongside linebacker. Iowa State also has an up-and-coming middle-of-the-field safety in Isheem Young, who will be itching to play after getting tossed for targeting early against Oklahoma. The Ducks have a big, physical offensive line for trying to bully the Cyclones in the box, but Iowa State is typically pretty patient about biding their time until they enter the red zone, where they can get defenders coming unblocked from all directions to stuff red zone attempts. Quarterback Tyler Shough will need to make some reads and throws against their flooded zones in order to finish drives with touchdowns and put the Cyclones away.

Watch for:

  • Can Iowa State's offensive line block Kayvon Thibodeaux and the Oregon pass rush?
  • Will either team be able to establish the run in this game with tired running backs against strong defensive fronts?
  • Red zone conversions -- Iowa State has been effective in the red zone this year on both sides of the ball.

FEI Outright Pick: Iowa State by 2.9

Capital One Orange Bowl
Miami Gardens, Florida
Texas A&M (-7.5) vs. North Carolina -- January 2, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas A&M (8-1) North Carolina (8-3)
F/+ 14 12
FEI 16 18
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 13 80
SP+ 16 44
IsoPPP+ 98 69
Rushing success rate 12 92
Passing success rate 15 20
When North Carolina has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 36 3
SP+ 21 4
IsoPPP+ 60 3
Rushing success rate 31 6
Passing success rate 37 12

North Carolina will be missing arguably their three best players for this game due to opt-outs. Deep threat wideout Dyami Brown (55 catches for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns) is out along with running back Michael Carter (156 carries for 1,245 yards at 8.0 yards per carry with nine touchdowns) and linebacker Chazz Surratt (91 tackles, six sacks, one interception). The greatest loss is Brown, whose ability to run by cornerbacks in man coverage and take the top off defenses opens up so much of the Tar Heels offense and generates some of the space Carter and fellow running back Javonte Williams (157 carries for 1,140 yards at 7.3 yards per carry with 19 touchdowns) have feasted in.

In contrast, all of Texas A&M's starters are expected to play in this game and they have NFL talent on their roster as well. Defensive linemen DeMarvin Leal is one of the best in the nation and causes disruption from multiple positions across the line. He's athletic and powerful enough at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds to simply line up wherever the Aggies want to create a matchup. Linebackers Buddy Johnson and Aaron Hansford have feasted playing behind the line and safeties Leon O'Neal and Demani Richardson are active in run support as well. The Aggies also have a talented offensive line with some standouts and future pros and then star running back Isaiah Spiller (176 carries for 993 yards at 5.6 yards per carry with seven touchdowns) and tight end Jalen Wydermyer (45 catches for 502 yards and six touchdowns).

The loss of Brown is the biggest factor for this game. Do the Tar Heels have another receiver who can take the top off against the Aggies? On the bright side for North Carolina is senior slot receiver Dazz Newsome's decision to play in this game. Newsome will draw favorable matchups in the seams against A&M's big, run-stopping safeties and there could be opportunities there for the Tar Heels to still generate big gains and create space for the run game. The obvious path for A&M would be to play their safeties off out of respect for strong-armed Tar Heels passer Sam "The Howitzer" Howell and rely on their defensive line and linebackers to control the run game. It's a tough assignment though -- North Carolina's offensive line is very athletic and their spread run game has a variety of zone and counter concepts, to say nothing of the RPO dimensions for use in attacking linebackers.

North Carolina's defense had a bad start to the year but came on as the season progressed. Surratt was the tip of the spear in their scheme, moving around in a lot of places and getting some emphasis as a pass-rusher in the blitz. His replacement, Eugene Asante, has long been considered the future, but the future is now after Surratt's opt-out. North Carolina will need a disciplined game from him and real awareness from their safeties to attack A&M quarterback Kellen Mond like they prefer without giving away creases for tight end Jalen Wydermyer.

Watch for:

  • How will North Carolina's young replacements replacing star players such as Dyami Brown fare in their first big game?
  • Can Texas A&M handle the run/pass balance of the RPO/play-action spread offense North Carolina has mastered?
  • North Carolina's well-schemed spread run game and athletic offensive line against Texas A&M's defensive line of future pros.

FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 0.6


Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Ian's Pick
Against the Spread
Georgia 7 Cincinnati Georgia Cincinnati Georgia
Northwestern 3.5 Auburn Northwestern Northwestern Auburn
Alabama 19.5 Notre Dame Alabama Notre Dame Alabama
Clemson 7.5 Ohio State Ohio State Ohio State Clemson
Kentucky 2.5 North Carolina State North Carolina State Kentucky Kentucky
Indiana 6.5 Ole Miss Indiana Indiana Ole Miss
Iowa State 4.5 Oregon Iowa State Oregon Iowa State
Texas A&M 7.5 North Carolina Texas A&M North Carolina North Carolina

FEI picks against the spread in Bowl Games through Dec. 29: 6-6

FEI picks against the spread during regular season: 47-39-1

Ian's picks against the spread in Bowl Games through Dec. 29: 10-2

Ian's Picks against the spread during regular season: 47-39-1


2 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2021, 8:21pm

1 Last year’s game turned on…

Last year’s game turned on Dobbins. Clemson had no answers when he was in, and OSU had no answers when he was out.