Can Michigan, Cincinnati Pull Off CFP Upsets?

Michigan Wolverines QB Cade McNamara
Michigan Wolverines QB Cade McNamara
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Bowl Season - The eighth edition of the College Football Playoff could be the biggest ever. When the system was first introduced in 2014, it felt like the sport was finally getting the showdown that would solve its title debates and provide huge viewership bonuses in one fell swoop. The first field looked like the perfect combination of bluebloods (Alabama against Ohio State) and new faces (Oregon against Florida State) that would make the four-team system work perfectly.

But after that tantalizing introduction to the CFP, things settled down quickly. Four teams—Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma—entrenched themselves as the claimants of three playoff spots in each season from 2015 to 2020. They took up all but two spots in the championship game in that span, and the lone exceptions were both from the SEC, whose dominance likewise became a defining feature of the playoff. Unsurprisingly, the massive TV audience boom never materialized. After the CFP's dramatic start, the next five title games averaged fewer viewers (26.4 million) then the last five of the BCS era (27.0 million). Throughout 2021, proposals to expand the playoff to 12 teams have become a major topic of discussion, and while no decision has been reached yet, the four-team system (and possibly its selection committee) may not be long for this world.

If the current playoff holds on, though, this year will undoubtedly be one of the major reasons for its survival. Just one of the usual participants managed to emerge mostly unscathed this year—Alabama, which went 12-1 and won the SEC—while the other three teams in the field have just one prior appearance between them. Michigan shocked Ohio State and went on to win the Big Ten, earning their first appearance in the CFP (or any other official playoff system). Georgia dominated the regular season and snuck in despite a loss in the SEC Championship Game, getting a shot at revenge for the title Alabama won at their expense in 2017. And thanks to a goal-line stand by Baylor and a head-to-head win over Notre Dame, undefeated Cincinnati secured a breakthrough bid to become the first team from outside the Power 5 in the CFP.

In a season full of chaos and upsets, the playoff hosts a fascinating quartet of teams who could all make a run at the championship. The setup is tantalizing, and fans across the country are as excited about the playoff as they have ever been. Only two hurdles remain: first, can all four teams make it to their bowl games without a COVID-19 cancellation becoming necessary? And finally: will this attention-grabbing, history-making slate live up to all its towering expectations?

All times are listed as Eastern.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Florida
Rutgers vs. Wake Forest
December 31, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Rutgers Wake Forest
2021 F+ 86 29
When Rutgers Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 114 80
2021 EPA/pass 126 94
2021 EPA/rush 105 93
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 49 10
2021 EPA/pass 91 13
2021 EPA/rush 37 57

The 1951 Hawai'i Rainbows went 4-6 during the regular season, and it wasn't pretty. Half of their wins came over something called the "Honolulu Town Team," and they suffered ignominious losses to Tulsa (58-0) and Cincinnati (34-0). For wholly inexplicable reasons—beyond the simplicity of playing a seventh consecutive game at Honolulu Stadium—they were invited to the Pineapple Bowl to face 9-0-1 San Diego State, whom they promptly lost to 34-13. It was the ill-fated bowl's second consecutive season with a team with a losing record, after 3-7-1 Denver had lost to Hawai'i itself the previous year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bowl folded immediately.

Why bring up such archaic college football history? Because the Pineapple Bowl's dubious honor as the most recent host of back-to-back losing teams has, after 70 years, finally been usurped. The Gator Bowl, among the most prestigious events outside the New Year's Six, saw 4-6 Kentucky defeat NC State last year, and a COVID-19 outbreak at Texas A&M this year led to drastic action and the emergency substitution of the top 5-7 team available: Rutgers.

It's safe to say that Wake Forest would rather face a team that finished on a 5-2 run than one that lost seven of its last nine games, but under the circumstances, just playing this bowl is a minor miracle. That's also what it would take for the Scarlet Knights to upend their opponent, which has reached 10 wins for the second time in school history. But for a team unexpectedly called to reassemble weeks after the end of its season, Rutgers has done an impressive job rounding up its top players to give the Demon Deacons something of a fight. The defense led this team all year, and most of its stars are set to play: Mike Tverdov (career: 123 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) will postpone his NFL Draft declaration, Julius Turner (164 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) is set to play a school-record 58th game, and team leader Olakunle Fatukasi (282 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks) should make a triumphant return from a late-season injury. Even punter Adam Korsak, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, is making the trip over from Melbourne, Australia.

The Knights' defense has been quietly solid this year (76th in EPA per play, 33rd in points allowed per opportunity), but Wake Forest's offense is one of the best they have faced all year. Fourth-year sophomore (yes, that's a thing) Sam Hartman took on a heavier workload than in 2020 (from 30 passes per game to 36), but his numbers didn't drop—in fact, they improved slightly, as he went from 8.1 yards per attempt to 8.4 and from a 13:5 TD-to-INT ratio to 36:14. The all-star receiving duo of A.T. Perry (1,166 yards, 19.1 yards per catch, 14 TD) and Jaquarii Roberson (1,078 yards, 15.2 yards per catch, 8 TD) earned first- and second-team all-conference honors amid one of the best passing seasons in ACC history. (On the upside for the Knights, Roberson is opting out of the bowl game.)

Meanwhile, Hartman helped lead a versatile rushing attack that featured four players with over 90 carries, 300 yards, and five touchdowns each. Few teams have stopped them this year, as they have scored at least 37 points in 11 of their 13 games—though, perhaps offering a bit of hope to Rutgers, the two exceptions both occurred in their last three games. To pull off a huge upset win in their first bowl since 2014, the Knights' defense is going to need to come up big.

Watch for:

  • Can Noah Vedral come up with a solid performance after a rough four-game finish to the season (81 passing yards per game, 4.6 yards per attempt, 0 TD, 3 INT)?
  • Will Wake Forest's run defense (119th in EPA per rush) hold against a Rutgers rushing attack missing lead back Isaih Pacheco (654 yards, 5 TD)?
  • How much can the Knights' reinvigorated defense do against Wake Forest's somewhat depleted offense?

FEI Outright Pick: Wake Forest by 15.1

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl
El Paso, Texas
Central Michigan vs. Washington State
December 31, 12 p.m. (CBS)

Overall
Central Michigan Washington State
2021 F+ 83 52
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 74 45
2021 EPA/pass 19 45
2021 EPA/rush 32 95
When Washington State Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 96 46
2021 EPA/pass 96 75
2021 EPA/rush 62 67

After a frustrating, disorienting season in which head coach Nick Rolovich had to be replaced by Jake Dickert due to his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the last-minute dropout of Washington State's initial bowl opponent (Miami) provided one more hurdle to overcome. Fortunately for the Cougars, Central Michigan also found themselves without a partner after Boise State proved unable to play in the Arizona Bowl, and the remaining teams paired up to finish out their seasons.

Before his ouster, Rolovich got the Cougars to four wins against mostly inferior competition, but when Dickert took over, they were staring down a tough gauntlet: BYU, Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington, with at least two more wins necessary to secure a bowl. If the Cougars couldn't spring an upset, they'd need to be perfect in the final two games with no margin for error—but under Dickert's guidance, something surprising happened. The career defensive coach led Washington State to a meteoric rise on offense, defining the first half-season of his tenure with a 28-0 start against Arizona State, then 84 total points in comfortable wins over Arizona and Washington. Those games were first, second, and tied for third in total scoring for the Cougars against FBS competition, and they couldn't have come at a better time. Not a bad showing for a team that, at one point, started Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback this year.

Among the keys of the Cougars' offensive improvement was quarterback Jayden De Laura, who took the starting job for good after Guarantano struggled against Utah in the fourth game of the season. Though only a sophomore, De Laura looked adept under pressure this year, managing to pass on 57 of his 78 pressured dropbacks and throwing only one interception on those plays. He also extended plays well, averaging 4.26 seconds from snap to throw under pressure, seventh-longest among the 146 quarterbacks who were pressured on at least 50 dropbacks. (Others in the top 10 included Caleb Williams, Malik Willis, and Kenny Pickett.) But while Central Michigan doesn't bring a lot of heat—only 10.1% of their pass-rush snaps result in pressure, ranking 53rd—they're among the nation's best at converting pressures into sacks, which they do at a 22.3% clip (11th in FBS). It'll be up to De Laura to navigate that attack if the Cougars are to emerge this strange season with their eighth win.

Watch for:

  • Can Washington State's defense (54th in EPA per pass) slow down the breakout of Chippewas quarterback Daniel Richardson (8.5 yards per attempt, 23 TD, 5 INT)?
  • Can Central Michigan's Lew Nichols III (1708 rushing yards, 300 receiving yards) continue his hot streak (at least 130 yards in seven straight games)?
  • In a battle of a Cougars offense and Chippewas defense that do far better on passing downs (18th and 19th in EPA) than standard downs (65th and 99th), who can find an edge?

FEI Outright Pick: Washington State by 9.7

Goodyear Cotton Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal)
Arlington, Texas
Alabama vs. Cincinnati
December 31, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Alabama Cincinnati
2021 F+ 3 5
When Alabama Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 2 9
2021 EPA/pass 3 7
2021 EPA/rush 75 4
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 8 17
2021 EPA/pass 41 46
2021 EPA/rush 3 8

Where do you even begin to analyze this game? You could write a book on the narratives alone without ever getting to anything about who's actually going to win. On one side, Nick Saban's Alabama, arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport, coming off one of their most dominant performances ever against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. On the other, Luke Fickell's Cincinnati, the first team from the Group of 5 to reach the playoff, the first team from outside the major conferences with a title shot going into the postseason since 1984 BYU. There's so much that can be said about the incredibly high bar the Bearcats had to set to make it to this point, or about the gap in depth that has often separated Group of 5 pretenders from Power 5 contenders in the past. You could talk about plenty of worrying performances on either side—Cincinnati's escapes from Indiana, Navy, and Tulsa; Alabama's nail-biters against Florida, LSU, and Auburn (plus their loss to Texas A&M). Or you could marvel at their authoritative statements in their respective conference championship games, results which proved key to their playoff cases.

In the interest of relative brevity, though, let's focus on the matchups. On the surface, Cincinnati profiles fairly similarly to Georgia, with a defense that has led the team. But there's a case to be made (which we'll examine in more depth when we get to the Orange Bowl) that Georgia's primary defensive strength was the ability to be more physical than opposing offenses, and Alabama was their first opponent that could block and tackle on their level. If the lack of a talent advantage is what did the Bulldogs in against the Tide, that might be good news for Cincinnati; this defense has already faced an opponent with far more depth of talent in Notre Dame, and they lived to tell the tale.

It's still not at all an easy matchup for the Bearcats, though. Georgia's pass defense currently leads the nation in EPA and success rate, and Bryce Young passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns against it to seal his Heisman bid. Again, though, it's notable that the Bulldogs' and Bearcats' defenses look very different under the hood. Both teams boast powerful pass rushes—Cincinnati's is led by Myjai Sanders, who racked up 45 quarterback hurries this year (fifth-most in FBS)—but Georgia tends to throw as much at opponents' offensive lines as possible, whereas the Bearcats are a lot more efficient. When the Bulldogs get pressure, it often results in a takedown; 24.9% of their pressures have resulted in sacks, second in the nation. But they call a lot of blitzes to accomplish that, with only 11.0% of their pass-rush snaps resulting in pressures (37th). Cincinnati is the opposite: they only convert 17.0% of pressures into sacks (61st), but 14.6% of their total pass-rush snaps results in pressures (10th).

There's reason to believe that producing pressure efficiently is more important than producing sacks efficiently; the former correlates far more strongly with points allowed per game, and pressured passes are often better for the defense than sacks. But Young, who's averaging 8.2 yards per attempt with 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions under pressure, isn't your usual quarterback. The Bearcats' pass rush and secondary are both among the best he has faced this year, and it's possible that such a potent combination will be enough for the high-flying sophomore to show some vulnerability. But it's going to be an uphill battle for Cincinnati to find a weak link in the Crimson Tide's armor and take their unprecedented season to further heights of glory.

Watch for:

  • Can the Bearcats find an answer to Alabama's huge advantage on passing downs (first in EPA, compared to 61st on standard downs)?
  • How much pressure will the Tide's suffocating run defense (second in line yards per carry, sixth in second-level and open-field yards per carry) place on Cincinnati?
  • Can the Bearcats stay within striking distance as the game goes on and both teams' depth becomes key?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 9.5

Capital One Orange Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal)
Miami Gardens, Florida
Georgia vs. Michigan
December 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Georgia Michigan
2021 F+ 1 4
When Georgia Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 3 10
2021 EPA/pass 4 25
2021 EPA/rush 73 16
When Michigan Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 1 6
2021 EPA/pass 1 28
2021 EPA/rush 8 20

The 2021 CFP is probably the most interesting we have had for any number of reasons, but to pick just one, it's fascinating that both semifinals depend heavily on the way you interpret Georgia's stunning blowout loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. On one end of the spectrum, you have the position that the playoff committee generally seemed to take when they put the Crimson Tide over Michigan for the top seed: Nick Saban, as usual, was leading his team to a late-season peak, and in the week between the Iron Bowl and the Georgia game, they took a huge step forward to become the national title favorite. That's not as crazy as it might initially seem—beyond the fact that they performed far better in the conference title game than they had previously, Alabama specifically looked far less vulnerable in areas that have given them fits this year, such as their less-than-brilliant run game. The biggest concern for the Tide going into the postseason was on the ground: if they couldn't establish a rushing attack, it seemed possible for their offense to be limited by a lesser opponent. But then they went up against one of the best run defenses in the nation, looked awfully pedestrian against it (116 yards, 4.6 yards per carry)—and still ran away with a high-scoring win.

The takeaway from that perspective is that Alabama is going to be really hard to beat unless Bryce Young takes a significant step back. (Which, admittedly, is not impossible; even the Heisman winner has had his fair share of struggles, particularly against an Auburn team that finished 6-7.) And the corresponding takeaway is that Georgia is probably fine—which is why they're the No. 3 team in the country and a strong favorite against Michigan. But there's another interpretation with some merit to it: the Bulldogs were leaning heavily on their talent advantage from Weeks 2 to 13, and it showed against the two opponents that could match them in raw depth: Clemson and Alabama, which in retrospect are their two worst performances of their season by a mile. (It's notable to this argument that among Georgia's other opponents, Florida has the most recruited talent, and the Bulldogs' lead against a fairly poor Gators team didn't stretch past 3-0 until near the end of the first half.)

That argument also has some weight to it, and while Georgia has piled up solid wins against a number of teams on the fringe of the rankings, the best team they have beaten is still Clemson, down at No. 19. Michigan, having taken down No. 6 Ohio State, fought No. 10 Michigan State down to the wire, and blown out No. 15 Iowa, is arguably easier to place confidence in. But neither interpretation of the Bulldogs' loss is entirely accurate, and it would be premature to write off Georgia as a second-tier team that racked up wins against lesser competition. Lest we forget, they opened the second quarter against Alabama with a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead. The Tide may have won decisively, but they also showed plenty of mortality in Atlanta.

So what does all of this mean for the Orange Bowl? Well, whatever you make of the Georgia-Alabama game, there's one piece of excellent news for the Bulldogs in this semifinal: Cade McNamara is no Bryce Young. While Young is certainly beatable at his worst, he's almost untouchable at his best, and McNamara isn't likely going to reach those heights. Even in the Wolverines' breakthrough win against Ohio State, he only passed for 159 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. There are also major questions about how much McNamara can take the lead, considering how much Georgia's opponents have to rely on their quarterbacks. Young's 44 passes in the SEC Championship Game were his third-most in a game on the season, behind only the multi-overtime affair with Auburn and the loss to Texas A&M. McNamara has only thrown more than 30 passes in two games this year—against Nebraska and Michigan State, both of which are now over two months in the rearview mirror, and both of which were down games for the team and for McNamara himself.

Of course, the Wolverines' defense is no slouch itself, and winning a quarterback duel against Stetson Bennett is far from impossible. But if Georgia's defense can get Michigan out of their comfort zone, they should be well on their way to setting up a high-stakes rematch with either the Tide or the Bearcats and getting an opportunity to rewrite their narratives in the national championship.

Watch for:

  • Can Michigan reassert their advantage in the trenches against one of the most talented teams they have faced all year?
  • How long will Bennett's leash be after a disappointing SEC Championship Game (7.1 yards per attempt, 3 TD, 2 INT)?
  • Georgia's run game is excellent (16th in success rate behind Zamir White and James Cook)—but can it produce big plays (124th in explosiveness) if needed?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 10.8

Outback Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Arkansas vs. Penn State
January 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall
Arkansas Penn State
2021 F+ 21 16
When Arkansas Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 24 6
2021 EPA/pass 22 15
2021 EPA/rush 66 29
When Penn State Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 23 65
2021 EPA/pass 43 58
2021 EPA/rush 26 128

What will the SEC West look like in 2022? For a division that has routinely had so much depth in recent years, it's difficult to immediately settle on a challenger to Alabama. Ole Miss has been improving quickly, but they'll need to find a replacement for Matt Corral at quarterback, and they got run off the field when they faced the Tide this year. Auburn and LSU, both trying to navigate transitional periods for their quarterbacks and head coaches, are in no position to contend right away. Texas A&M loses the best pieces of its offense, while Mississippi State keeps theirs but needs to put them together for once. It's a division with a lot of talent and a bright future, but ... nobody seems ready right now.

Except Arkansas, of all teams. Now, competing with the Tide in the SEC West, let alone beating them, is a very difficult task, one many teams have attempted without success. Alabama has claimed six of the last eight division titles, and in the two years they missed the SEC Championship Game, one saw them sneak into the playoff and win it all, while the other was outdone by an LSU team that ranks as one of the greatest in college football history. So the bar is high, and the Tide are still a heavy favorite to win the division next year.

If they do fall short, though, you could make a pretty convincing argument that Arkansas is the likeliest team to step up and fill the void. Sam Pittman has led them from the ignominy of back-to-back 0-8 records in the SEC to a chance at nine wins for the first time in a decade, all in just two short seasons. Part of the reason that rebuild has been so impressive is that it's come during instability at the quarterback position; Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks led the 2019 team, then Feleipe Franks transferred in for a one-and-done 2020, and former four-star KJ Jefferson finally got his shot to start after two seasons on the bench this year. But for once, the Razorbacks know what they have under center for 2022: Jefferson is returning after a fantastic season (9.4 yards per attempt, 21 TD, 3 INT, 554 rushing yards) to lead the way again.

That's not to say there aren't questions, ones Arkansas will begin answering in the Outback Bowl against Penn State. Treylon Burks was a massive factor in the success of their passing game this year: he put up 1,123 receiving yards while nobody else cracked 300. The Razorbacks still have solid players at the position, like Warren Thompson (292 yards, 16.2 yards per catch) and Tyson Morris (286 yards, 14.3 yards per catch), but figuring out their new lineup is still a tall task. There's also the question of lead tackler Bumper Pool (120 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 6.3 yards allowed per catch), who has yet to decide whether he'll go to the NFL. The Nittany Lions' tough pass defense (fifth in EPA per pass, 17th in success rate and explosiveness) offers a good test of the reshaped receiving corps, and this game should offer a glimpse of Arkansas' 2022 hopes. The question is: will that team be yet another step forward in the Razorbacks' charge towards the fore of the SEC West? This bowl won't answer that question definitively, but it could provide the first hints as to Alabama's competition for the near future.

Watch for:

  • Who will Penn State look to at running back after a dismal year on the ground (125th in EPA per rush, 114th in rushing yards per game)?
  • How much of the Razorbacks' rushing corps (Trelon Smith, Raheim Sanders, and Dominique Johnson) will play in this game and in 2022?
  • Can the explosive Arkansas offense (30th in rushing explosiveness, 27th in passing explosiveness) get downfield against the constraining Nittany Lions (fourth in opponent explosiveness)?

FEI Outright Pick: Penn State by 0.3

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Arizona
Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma State
January 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Notre Dame Oklahoma State
2021 F+ 6 11
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 22 3
2021 EPA/pass 49 8
2021 EPA/rush 78 1
When Oklahoma State Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 11 61
2021 EPA/pass 2 72
2021 EPA/rush 44 103

In a year where most of the playoff contenders were ruled by offense (Ohio State, Alabama) or defense (Georgia, Oklahoma State), Notre Dame was one of the few top teams with elite units on both ends. This team was 12 points away from beating Cincinnati and not just making the playoff, but probably cruising in at No. 1. And while they won't be at full strength for the Fiesta Bowl—with top running back Kyren Williams and star safety Kyle Hamilton both opting out—the Fighting Irish are still formidable at nearly every position.

Hamilton or no Hamilton, the defense gets a favorable matchup against an Oklahoma State offense that was downright terrible at times. What remains of Notre Dame's secondary is still quite good, and they're facing a quarterback who just threw four interceptions against a middling Baylor backfield. The Cowboys aren't going to dazzle offensively, but that hasn't usually been a problem this year; they have beaten teams by scores of 21-20 (Boise State), 24-14 (Baylor in the first game), 24-3 (West Virginia), and 23-0 (Texas Tech). Even with the worst game of Spencer Sanders' career (5.6 yards per attempt, 0 TD, 4 INT), plus a downright incapable run game (70 yards on 40 carries), they came a yard from beating the Bears and possibly surviving to reach the CFP. That's down to their defense, which ranked in the top 10 in EPA per play, EPA per rush, EPA per pass, success rate, line yards per carry, second-level yards per carry, front-seven havoc, and points per opportunity, among other things. Its greatest strength, though, was the defensive line, which led the nation with 4.23 sacks per game and a 17.2% conversion rate of pass-rush snaps to pressure.

One player Notre Dame doesn't lose to opt-outs is veteran quarterback Jack Coan, which is great news against that tenacious pass rush. Pressure was a defining problem for the Irish at the start of the year as they labored through a four-week stretch of generally close wins leading into the Cincinnati game. Against Florida State, Toledo, Purdue, and Wisconsin, Coan suffered an average of 13 pressures and five sacks per game, allowing opponents to convert a dreadful 39.6% of pressures into sacks. But in the loss to the Bearcats, the line took a major step forward, allowing only seven pressures and one sack. From that point on, Coan was never pressured more than 10 times or sacked more than twice in a game, and the improvement showed in a lengthy stretch of dominant performances to end the season. His performance under pressure improved, too, with only two other quarterbacks taking pressure as many times while only throwing one turnover-worthy pass. If the Irish can get one more vintage performance from their experienced quarterback, they should be able to stay out of trouble and dispatch Oklahoma State to finish the season on a high note.

Watch for:

  • Can Cowboys running back Jaylen Warren return to his earlier form (over 100 yards in a four-game first-half stretch) after a late slump and a Big 12 Championship Game absence?
  • Will Chris Tyree (204 rushing yards, 143 receiving yards) step up as a top candidate for Notre Dame's next lead rusher?
  • Will Tyler Buchner (21 for 36, 298 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) or Drew Pyne (15 for 30, 224 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) get a chance to make their case as next year's starter?

FEI Outright Pick: Notre Dame by 1.5

Vrbo Citrus Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Iowa vs. Kentucky
January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)

Overall
Iowa Kentucky
2021 F+ 33 18
When Iowa Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 94 33
2021 EPA/pass 115 72
2021 EPA/rush 122 33
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 5 18
2021 EPA/pass 10 33
2021 EPA/rush 12 27

For all that Iowa's defense does well, it does have one fairly obvious weakness: the line. The Hawkeyes are second in the nation in yards per carry at the second level and in the open field, but only 22nd at the line, and their 7.8% front-seven havoc rate is the seventh-worst in FBS. When Iowa allowed 42 points to Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game, 15 more than they gave up in any regular-season game, that disadvantage proved critical: they gave up four rushing touchdowns, 220 rushing yards, and 3.9 yards after contact per carry. Meanwhile, Cade McNamara was only pressured seven times and suffered just one sack.

The Wolverines weren't the only team to beat Iowa this year, but the definitive way in which they did so provides a blueprint for Kentucky to follow in their footsteps. The Wildcats' offensive line is among the nation's best: fourth in line yards per carry, seventh in stuff rate, 23rd in sack rate. Their rushing corps was excellent this year, ranking 26th in EPA per rush and fifth in success rate behind Christopher Rodriguez Jr. (1,271 yards, 6.2 yards per carry), and it should be able to pick up solid yardage against Iowa if the offensive line can impose its will.

Their quarterback play is a different question. The offensive line has been excellent at protecting Will Levis, allowing pressures on only 27.5% of his dropbacks (18th among 74 Power 5 quarterbacks with at least 50 pressures), and he's relatively good at dealing with opposing pass rushes, with only one interception on 69 passes. But the looming question is his trouble with ball security when not pressured. Levis has thrown 11 interceptions in 255 unpressured passes, which is surprisingly far worse than his pick rate under pressure. Admittedly, there is some luck behind that (his rate of turnover-worthy passes is about the same in either situation), but there's clear reason for concern.

That's what makes this matchup so interesting as Levis and Kentucky look to improve in 2022. The most obvious key to taking a step forward and possibly challenging for the SEC East lies with the relatively inexperienced passer's hastiness. Among those 74 most-pressured quarterbacks, Levis' 2.34 seconds from snap to pass when the pocket is kept clean ranks 20th, and those ahead of him are generally not ideal comparisons. (Leading the way are Vanderbilt's Ken Seals and Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei, for example.) But there are some quarterbacks in Levis' mold who have made such swift passing work, and they are exclusively experienced starters. Aidan O'Connell, Hendon Hooker, Cade McNamara, Matt Corral, and Henry Colombi all have shorter release times when not pressured, and on average, they had thrown nearly 300 passes before 2021 even began. Practice is a virtual necessity to succeed as the kind of quarterback Levis looks to be, and more of it has helped; he has thrown nine touchdowns and only three interceptions in the Wildcats' last four games. Iowa's defense, the runaway leader in picks per game, is a formidable opponent, but they're the kind of test Levis will need to take on if Kentucky is to aspire to new heights next year.

Watch for:

  • Amid speculation about their starting quarterback, will Iowa give Alex Padilla (5.7 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 2 INT) a chance to prove himself over Spencer Petras?
  • Can the Wildcats' impressive offensive line beat out Iowa's less-than-elite defensive line (29th in line yards per carry, 89th in sack rate)?
  • How much will the loss of Tyler Goodson, who led the Hawkeyes in rushing yards in each season from 2019 to 2021, affect their efforts against Kentucky's solid run defense?

FEI Outright Pick: Kentucky by 4.5

Rose Bowl Game
Pasadena, California
Ohio State vs. Utah
January 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Ohio State Utah
2021 F+ 2 9
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 1 16
2021 EPA/pass 2 26
2021 EPA/rush 14 53
When Utah Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 27 13
2021 EPA/pass 64 59
2021 EPA/rush 23 1

Running backs have fallen somewhat by the wayside in recent seasons. 2021 marked the fourth straight year in which none of the Heisman finalists were running backs; Bryce Love, who finished second to Baker Mayfield in 2017, is the most recent. Kenneth Walker III's sixth-place finish this year led all rushers, and top-10 running backs received only 262 votes, the fourth consecutive year in which they didn't crack 400. (Prior to this streak, there had been only three in the 21st century.) Increasingly, top teams employ multiple rushers to avoid injuries and fatigue, and solitary stars on contenders run out of gas eventually—like Walker, who managed just six carries for 25 yards in Michigan State's blowout loss to Ohio State.

There's a lot of star power on display in this Rose Bowl, which feels like a demonstration of how much of a must-watch this prestigious game can be, even when it's not in the playoff (or hosting one of the conference champions who would otherwise appear here). Cameron Rising, Utah's quarterback, has played a major role in their resurgence and 9-1 finish, and their defense has been lights-out behind stars such as Devin Lloyd (107 tackles, 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks, six breakups, four interceptions) and Nephi Sewell (81 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss). On the other side, CJ Stroud (9.8 yards per attempt, 38 TD, 5 INT) became the first freshman to finish in the top five of the Heisman vote since JT Barrett in 2014 and one of only three underclassmen to throw 38 touchdowns or more and five interceptions or fewer this century (along with Bryce Young this year and Justin Fields in 2019). Two members of the Buckeyes' elite receiving corps, Garrett Wilson (1,058 yards, 12 TD) and Chris Olave (936 yards, 13 TD)—may be opting out for the draft, but Jaxon Smith-Njigba (1,259 yards, 6 TD) might be the best of the trio and is still a sophomore.

You'll hear about the rushing attacks, too—these teams are third and fourth in yards per carry, after all, and both have some of the most explosive backfields in the country. But it's hard to give due justice to how good these teams are on the ground. For the Buckeyes, TreVeyon Henderson broke out for 1,172 yards in his freshman season, the fourth-highest rushing total for any freshman who also put up at least seven yards per carry this century (after Nick Chubb, Johnny Manziel, and J.K. Dobbins). That's not to mention Miyan Williams, another freshman who himself added 470 yards on 7.1 yards per carry. As for Utah, they had four players rush for over 400 yards, led by Tavion Thomas (1,041 yards), whose 20 rushing touchdowns are already a school record by five. The Rose Bowl will also be TJ Pledger's final game with the Utes, capping off a 671-yard season in which his yards after contact per carry (4.5) led all Pac-12 rushers with at least 30 attempts. The season-defining quarterbacks, dominant defenses, and high-flying receivers will be on full display in a star-studded Rose Bowl, but don't be surprised if these running backs steal the show.

Watch for:

  • Can Utah's fantastic pass defense (13th in EPA per pass, ninth in success rate) slow down CJ Stroud's record-setting season?
  • Will the Ohio State offensive line (fourth in front-seven and total havoc allowed) hold off Utah's daunting pass rush (27th in front-seven havoc, 19th in sack rate)?
  • Can a Buckeyes defense that hasn't faced many runs (seventh-lowest rush rate in FBS) handle Utah's domineering rushing corps?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 8.9

Allstate Sugar Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Baylor vs. Ole Miss
January 1, 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Baylor Ole Miss
2021 F+ 19 10
When Baylor Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 29 36
2021 EPA/pass 41 18
2021 EPA/rush 33 126
When Ole Miss Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 15 5
2021 EPA/pass 33 35
2021 EPA/rush 27 26

The Ole Miss offense against the Baylor defense will be the main draw for this game—though the other matchup does present an interesting battle between the Bears' powerful rushing attack (led by Abram Smith's 1,429 yards and 12 touchdowns) and the Rebels' beleaguered offensive line. With Smith and Trestan Ebner (764 yards, 5.3 yards per carry) in the backfield, Baylor should be able to wear down the Ole Miss line (124th in line yards per carry) and rack up yardage. To pull off a win, the Rebels are going to need to score at pace, which makes it critical that their offense is at virtually full strength.

Quarterback Matt Corral (8.8 yards per attempt, 20 TD, 4 INT) has struggled with lingering injuries all year, but he has still put up impressive numbers as Ole Miss has leaned on him more. Practically the poster child for big-risk quarterbacks in 2020, when his nine interceptions from clean pockets led FBS, Corral has refined himself into a much more secure passer while maintaining his explosiveness, with an SEC-leading 18:1 TD-to-INT ratio on unpressured passes. The shift has been necessary, because Ole Miss' offensive line has struggled to protect Corral—his 130 pressured dropbacks ranked fourth in the SEC this year. The Rebels have done their best to avoid overworking their star quarterback, with a below-average 45.3% rate of passing plays, and the rushing corps has been key to accomplishing that (although Corral's 145 carries do lead the team). Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Conner, Corral, and Henry Parrish Jr. all rushed over 100 times for over 500 yards this year, and all indications are that the full staff will be on hand for the Sugar Bowl. All told, the offense ranked 17th in EPA per play, 23rd in success rate, 24th in explosiveness, and ninth in EPA per drive this year, and it'll make a tough foe for Baylor.

The Bears' best shot at dealing with Ole Miss will come in the trenches, where the Rebels were weakest this year: they were 45th in line yards per carry and 60th in sack rate. Baylor finished 12th and 48th in those stats respectively, and they converted 16.7% of pass-rush snaps to pressures, the second-highest rate in FBS. The Bears racked up at least five sacks against three different teams this year (Oklahoma, BYU, and West Virginia), only the second time they have done so in a season this century. Against a line that has struggled to protect Corral and advance its rushing attack, that front seven could provide Baylor with enough of an edge to win their first New Year's Six bowl in over 40 years.

Watch for:

  • Will Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon (8.4 yards per attempt, 17 TD, 6 INT) be fully healthy in his return from injury?
  • Do the Bears have a strong enough run defense (37th in EPA per rush, fourteenth in yards allowed per carry) to handle Ole Miss?
  • Can the Rebels' departing receivers—including Dontario Drummond (924 yards), Braylon Sanders (512 yards), and Jahcour Pearson (392 yards)—put on a show in their final game?

FEI Outright Pick: Ole Miss by 2.5

TaxAct Texas Bowl
Houston, Texas
Kansas State vs. LSU
January 4, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Kansas State LSU
2021 F+ 27 45
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 37 37
2021 EPA/pass 53 100
2021 EPA/rush 30 50
When LSU Has the Ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 20 59
2021 EPA/pass 97 43
2021 EPA/rush 46 88

It's difficult to maintain consistency in the Big 12, which tends to have a fairly unpredictable hierarchy outside of Oklahoma near the top and Kansas at the bottom. In the past decade, every team aside from the Jayhawks has reached the top 10 at least once, but most have found it difficult to stay near the top. With the post-2005 retirement of longtime coach Bill Snyder, who took over a team in a 3-40-1 rut and built it into a regular BCS contender back in the 1990s, the Wildcats got an unsettling glimpse of how swiftly they could drop back to perennial underdog one again. Ron Prince's teams struggled to 7-6, 5-7, and 5-7 records before Snyder stepped in and led a renaissance, taking Kansas State from outside bowl season to No. 2 overall in a few short years. But after 2018, he retired again, and concern for the future of the program once again set in.

Enter Chris Klieman, who won as many FCS championships as he lost conference games (four of each) in five years at North Dakota State. Under his watch, Kansas State has put together an 8-5 season in 2019 and a 7-5 campaign this year, with a 4-6 season without starting quarterback Skylar Thompson in between. Klieman has done well to keep the Wildcats treading water amid a difficult transitional period, but going into 2022, they're looking to take a clear step forward. Thompson is playing in his last game, but Nebraska transfer Adrian Martinez should fill the void well. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is Deuce Vaughn, who led the team with 1,246 rushing yards and with 471 receiving yards as a sophomore. In a conference where Oklahoma is navigating a coaching shift, Baylor is losing the core of their critical rushing attack, and Oklahoma State is replacing most of their defense, the path to a Big 12 title looks surprisingly wide open for Kansas State.

But to get there, the Wildcats are going to have to overcome the kind of opponent that gave them trouble in the conference this year: a team with talent that has struggled to execute, namely LSU. Kansas State's five losses this year all came against the six Big 12 teams with the most recruited talent, included a 5-7 Texas team that looked very beatable in the regular-season finale. The Longhorns' offensive line gave the Wildcats fits, with top rusher Roschon Johnson totaling 179 yards and 5.8 yards per carry despite his longest run of the day going for only 24 yards. The Kansas State defensive line has been quite good this year (15th in line yards per carry, 33rd in sack rate), but Texas was simply more physical. LSU's offensive line probably won't have the same advantage, but they'll still look to impose their will with a solid run defense (27th in EPA per play). As Vaughn develops into one of football's best players, his excellent performance on a heavy workload is just what the Wildcats need to make a run at the conference championship in 2022.

Watch for:

  • With Tyrion Davis-Price (1,004 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) expected to opt out, will LSU have enough of a rushing attack to threaten Kansas State?
  • Can the Tigers (16th in EPA per play on standard downs) handle the Wildcats' excellent standard-downs offense (26th in EPA, 10th in success rate)?
  • Will Kansas State's defense continue to excel under pressure (3.17 points allowed per scoring opportunity, 10th) and limit LSU from breaking through?

FEI Outright Pick: Kansas State by 0.9

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part III

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI Pick ATS Preston's Pick ATS
Wake Forest -16.5 Rutgers Wake Forest Rutgers Rutgers
Washington State -7 Central Michigan Washington State Washington State Washington State
Alabama -13.5 Cincinnati Alabama Cincinnati Cincinnati
Georgia -7.5 Michigan Georgia Georgia Michigan
Arkansas -1.5 Penn State Penn State Penn State Arkansas
Notre Dame -2 Oklahoma State Notre Dame Oklahoma State Notre Dame
Kentucky -3 Iowa Kentucky Kentucky Kentucky
Ohio State -4.5 Utah Ohio State Ohio State Utah
Ole Miss -1.5 Baylor Ole Miss Ole Miss Baylor
Kansas State -3.5 LSU Kansas State LSU Kansas State

FEI's picks ATS in bowls last week: 6-7

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 52-59

Preston's picks ATS in bowls last week: 9-3

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 57-54

Comments

15 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2022, 11:16pm

#1 by mehllageman56 // Dec 31, 2021 - 2:08pm

The battle between the Alabama offense and the Cincinnati defense is the huge one everyone wants to watch; Bryce Young and Jameson Williams vs Sauce Gardner, just to name the automatic first round picks.  But the game will be decided on when both of them are on the sideline, and you didn't bother to write about Desmond Ridder vs Tim Anderson, to name drop two other first round picks.  Granted, Ridder isn't pegged to be a first round pick right now, but if he does play up to his usual level in this game, the Bearcats either win or barely lose, and he goes in the first round.  The key there is whether the Bearcats offensive line can give him time.

Points: 0

#2 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 31, 2021 - 4:02pm

Ridders chance to shine. 

Points: 0

#3 by mehllageman56 // Dec 31, 2021 - 5:07pm

As a Jets fan I'm hoping it is too (helps with a trade down), but not looking like it right now.

Points: 0

#10 by anthonytwotimes // Jan 01, 2022 - 8:01am

Highly inaccurate on intermediate to deep throws. He simply isn't good. 

Points: 0

#11 by Preston Pack // Jan 01, 2022 - 7:29pm

Ridder averaged 15.3 Y/A with 14 TD and 0 INT on deep passes this year. I wouldn't call that inaccurate. His problem is a lot more in the short-to-intermediate game, all 8 of his picks (and all 8 turnover-worthy plays) were between 0-20 yards downfield.

Points: 0

#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Dec 31, 2021 - 5:16pm

Future 1st rounder

Points: 0

#6 by mehllageman56 // Dec 31, 2021 - 5:47pm

What I've seen from him, he's been real good.  Granted I've not seen enough to get his name right in the post above.  He wasn't able to do much against Charles Cross though.  Want to watch more footage of both of them.

Points: 0

#7 by jgov // Dec 31, 2021 - 6:50pm

With Alabama controlling this game with a robo-game plan that barely even uses their Heisman winning QB, it does not bode well for future non-power 5 schools' chances of being selected for the playoffs. 

Points: 0

#8 by LionInAZ // Dec 31, 2021 - 11:34pm

In other words, Alabama is guaranteed at least a CFB game until Little Nicky Saban has been found to violate NCAA rules for the past 7 years.

Points: 0

#9 by mehllageman56 // Dec 31, 2021 - 11:51pm

The corollary to that is that the ratings will keep going down until the NCAA dies a slow inglorious death.  At least when the Yankees kept winning in baseball, they were in the largest population center of the U.S.  How many fans outside the state of Alabama (Birmingham is the 45th largest TV market in the U.S.) are going to care about this in five years?

Points: 0

#15 by GwillyGecko // Jan 02, 2022 - 11:16pm

The SEC as a whole is immensely popular and has been for decades.

Points: 0

#12 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jan 01, 2022 - 8:04pm

From past semi games. Closer than the very next game too. 

Points: 0

#13 by Stendhal1 // Jan 01, 2022 - 9:18pm

Next question?

Points: 0

#14 by andrew // Jan 02, 2022 - 10:27am

Betteridge's Law applies here I suppose.

Points: 0

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