Clemson, Oklahoma Seek Direction in Bowl Season

Oklahoma Sooners RB Kennedy Brooks and QB Caleb Williams
Oklahoma Sooners RB Kennedy Brooks and QB Caleb Williams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Bowl Season - As fun as it was, and as surprising a playoff field as it produced, the 2021 college football season was arguably a bit disappointing. Remember the first few weeks of chaos? Ohio State's defense was a shambles, Clemson's offense was unwatchable, Oklahoma was relying on preposterous close-game performance, and even Alabama struggled with Florida and lost to Texas A&M. Sure, Georgia looked dominant throughout the regular season, but the typical leaders of the sport were all down. More than that: some of them looked like they might stay down beyond 2021, opening the door for more seasons such as this one.

But for most, the situation ended up regressing to the usual, though not enough for three of those usual contenders to miss out. Ohio State ended up 10-2 and, by many metrics, was one of the best teams in the country, and even in a rare division defeat, they delivered a standard-fare beatdown of previous College Football Playoff hopeful Michigan State. The defense still looked like a problem … and then the Buckeyes went and got Jim Knowles, coordinator of an Oklahoma State unit that led FBS in sacks, to run it. Michigan, which stormed into the playoff on the strength of a dominant win in The Game, looks like more of a force to be contended with, true. But Ohio State should be fine, and the balance of the Big Ten hasn't swung out of their favor yet.

Clemson's case is more interesting. The Tigers looked downright awful on offense at the start of the season, mustering three points against Georgia, then 14 against Georgia Tech two weeks later. Though an NC State loss eliminated them from the CFP chase, Clemson did recover, finishing on a 7-1 tear and scoring at least 30 points in each of their last five games. Around the time they usually would have been winning the ACC Championship Game and preparing for the playoff, though, the Tigers lost offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to Virginia and defensive coordinator Brent Venables to Oklahoma. Compared to Ohio State, they enter 2021 with far more questions.

The Sooners (who lost Lincoln Riley after a frustrating 10-2 season, but may have upgraded with Venables) and the Crimson Tide (who launched into the CFP with a win over Georgia, but struggled with inconsistency right up until the end of the regular season) are somewhere in between. Most of the usual leaders will be alright after this year, but they all have decisions and adjustments to make, as do the wide variety of teams chasing them. From recalibrating playoff perennials such as Clemson and Oklahoma to rising stars such as Tennessee and Arizona State, the second week of bowl season offers a look at plenty of teams on shifting trajectories.

All times are listed as Eastern.

TaxAct Camellia Bowl
Montgomery, Alabama
Ball State vs. Georgia State (-6)
December 25, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Ball State
Georgia State
2021 F+ 101 80
When Ball State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 102 64
2021 EPA/pass 91 89
2021 EPA/rush 92 42
When Georgia State has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 99 83
2021 EPA/pass 52 97
2021 EPA/rush 87 16

The Georgia State offense is going to have its work cut out for it. Ball State's field-position edge on defense has been strong this year (seventh in FBS), and the Panthers themselves struggle with getting good position to start drives (fifth-worst in FBS). So the Panthers, even more than usual, will be leaning on their rushing attack. By any measure, it's the best part of the offense: Georgia State's rushing rank beats its passing rank in EPA (41st to 81st), success rate (22nd to 61st), and explosiveness (82nd to 105th), despite the fact that they run at the seventh-highest rate in the country.

In addition to adept dual-threat quarterback Darren Grainger (7.1 yards per pass, 4.5 yards per carry), the key elements of the Panthers' ground game are seniors Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams. Both broke out in 2020 (478 yards for Gregg and 330 for Williams after a combined 163 in five prior seasons) and led the team this year (911 yards for Gregg and 829 for Williams), but they have otherwise led very different career paths. Gregg, a walk-on, is the model of a short-yardage rusher, forceful and consistent. Of his 176 carries this year, 147 of them (83.5%) were between the tackles, and only 19 (10.8%) went for over 10 yards. Compare that to Williams, who by his overall stats is a very similar player, but tends to take the role of a big-play threat. Though only an inch shorter than Gregg, he's 45 pounds lighter, and he had 24 of his 120 carries (20.0%) go for 10 or more yards. Most players who switch to running back originally played another position that demands physicality over speed, such as a lineman or linebacker—but just watching Williams play, it seems natural that he was originally a cornerback.

The ideal running back combines a number of elements—raw strength, physical presence, dynamism, speed, and control—that don't typically coincide. But the depth of this rushing room has allowed Georgia State to emphasize the best aspects of both of their top players at the position, providing a well-rounded attack that has gained some 225.4 yards per game (sixth nationally) this year. Both Gregg and Williams are likely on their way out after this season, but first they'll take on Ball State, which poses an interesting challenge. The Cardinals' weakness at defensive line (80th in line yards per carry, 98th in rushing success rate allowed) means they probably won't be able to stop Gregg, but they're far better in the open field (31st in rushing explosiveness), which might limit Williams' trademark big plays. Holding off Georgia State's impressive run game is difficult enough, but if Ball State's going to do it, limiting them to one angle of attack is as good a start as any.

Watch for:

  • Can Drew Plitt (6.2 yards per attempt, 17 TD, 5 INT) muster a vintage performance in what could be his final game at Ball State?
  • Can Georgia State's havoc-heavy defense win the turnover battle against the Cardinals' turnover-averse offense?
  • How much will Ball State's major field-position advantages (29th on offense, seventh on defense) affect the Panthers?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia State by 2.3

Quick Lane Bowl
Detroit, Michigan
Nevada vs. Western Michigan (-7)
December 27, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Nevada
Western Michigan
2021 F+ 54 82
When Nevada has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 49 94
2021 EPA/pass 39 75
2021 EPA/rush 99 79
When Western Michigan has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 58 47
2021 EPA/pass 23 14
2021 EPA/rush 117 45

Western Michigan's offense was one of the more bewildering units in college football this season. At a glance, it was excellent: the Broncos were 23rd in EPA per play, with a nice balance between rushing (28th) and passing (24th). The offensive line (10th in line yards per carry) was fantastic, and the run game had the success rate (50.3%, 14th) to match. Their opportunity conversion rate was somewhat lacking—3.99 points per possession inside the opponent's 40-yard line, 55th in FBS—but the overall group should have been good enough to reliably put up points, especially considering that its greatest strength was in short runs.

Instead, Western Michigan struggled with glaring inconsistency all year. They outdueled Heisman finalist Kenny Pickett in a 44-41 win, then scored just 23 points on a middling San José State defense the following week. In MAC play, they were all over the place: against Buffalo and Ball State they scored just 44 total points, then exploded for 64 against Kent State. Toledo, coming off two losses and going into another, ran the Broncos off the field in a 34-15 win, but in the very next game, Central Michigan needed two punt returns to escape with a 42-30 win. Eastern Michigan held Western to 21 points, their best defensive performance in the whole second half of the season; then the Broncos became one of only two MAC teams to score more than 40 points on eventual champion NIU. Despite their solid foundation on the offensive line, an impressive rushing tandem of Sean Tyler (1,004 yards) and La'darius Jefferson (836 yards), and a great quarterback in Kaleb Eleby (8.9 yards per attempt, 21 TD, 5 INT), Western Michigan's offense never seemed to put everything together and live up to the expectations they aspired to early in the season.

On paper, Nevada's defense isn't really a match. The Wolf Pack were solid against the pass (25th in EPA, 63rd in success rate), but far worse against the run (105th in EPA, 117th in success rate). But, of course, it's a question of which Western Michigan offense shows up to Detroit. They're going to need to lean on Tyler and Jefferson, and while the rushing attack came on strong towards the end of the season (averaging 264 yards and 6.0 yards per carry across the final three games), it's unclear whether the Broncos can keep up that performance to win their first bowl since 2015.

Watch for:

  • Can Nevada's rushing attack overcome their offensive line woes (128th in line yards per carry, 130th in stuff rate)?
  • With Carson Strong (8.0 yards per attempt, 36 TD, 8 INT) opting out, who will start at quarterback for the Wolf Pack?
  • Will Western Michigan be able to penetrate Nevada's backfield with their elite front seven (sixth in havoc rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: Nevada by 9.9

Military Bowl
Annapolis, Maryland
Boston College (-3) vs. East Carolina
December 27, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Boston College
East Carolina
2021 F+ 77 69
When Boston College has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 84 70
2021 EPA/pass 101 52
2021 EPA/rush 81 80
When East Carolina has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 62 67
2021 EPA/pass 56 34
2021 EPA/rush 64 68

"6-6 Boston College against 7-5 East Carolina in Annapolis" sounds like the kind of game often used to complain about the bloated postseason schedule, but despite its low-level contestants, the Military Bowl does offer some fascinating storylines. The Pirates have been one of college football's biggest what-ifs since they joined the American in 2014: despite a solid location, decent recruiting, and some solid recent history under Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill, they fell below .500 in 2015 and didn't win more than four games over the following five seasons. McNeill couldn't keep East Carolina up, and Scottie Montgomery couldn't wake the sleeping giant, but Mike Houston has finally brought the Pirates back to relevance in his third year here. Under his watch, they won seven games, nearly beat South Carolina, and only lost one game by more than 14 points (to CFP-bound Cincinnati). They were fun to watch, too, with an explosive offense led by freshman Keaton Mitchell—who, among rushers with at least 150 carries, beat out Kenneth Walker III and Breece Hall for the nation's best breakaway percentage (54.4%). With impending membership changes in the American, East Carolina seems to be arriving at just the right time.

Boston College is a different story. After a bewilderingly consistent stretch under Steve Addazio (7-6, 7-6, 3-9, 7-6, 7-6, 7-5, 6-7), the Eagles decided to try for better things and hired Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley ... under whom they have gone 6-5 and 6-6. This year's team could probably have done better, but an injury to star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (9.5 yards per attempt, 7 TD, 4 INT) led to Dennis Grosel (6.3 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 7 INT) starting for most of the season. Only two skill players (Pat Garwo III with 1,046 rushing yards and Zay Flowers with 746 receiving yards) surpassed 400 yards for the Eagles, and the overall offense was mediocre across the board: 93rd in EPA, 87th in success rate, 76th in explosiveness.

A year ago, East Carolina was stagnant at the bottom of the American and Boston College was surging in Hafley's first season, where they went 6-1 against then-unranked opponents. But both teams' fortunes have changed dramatically in 2021, and it's not so surprising that most projections favor the Pirates to put an exclamation point on their breakout season. Situations can shift dramatically, though, and both teams will be fighting for positive momentum going into next season. Despite appearances, this is one of the most fascinating bowls this year.

Watch for:

  • Can East Carolina's solid pass defense (52nd in EPA, 30th in success rate) limit Jurkovec through the air?
  • Will Boston College, 15th in preventing rushing explosiveness, bring Mitchell to a halt?
  • Will the East Carolina defense's surprising success on third downs (allowing the sixth-lowest conversion rate in FBS) continue?

FEI Outright Pick: East Carolina by 4.4

TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl
Birmingham, Alabama
Auburn (-2.5) vs. Houston
December 28, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Auburn
Houston
2021 F+ 23 43
When Auburn has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 40 29
2021 EPA/pass 92 12
2021 EPA/rush 37 11
When Houston has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 18 57
2021 EPA/pass 78 37
2021 EPA/rush 14 84

Few teams have been affected by transfers and opt-outs as much as Auburn this postseason. The Tigers' most high-profile departure is quarterback Bo Nix, but in a practical sense, the switch to TJ Finley won't be a huge change. The most important losses come in the defense, which will lack a pair of NFL hopefuls in linebacker Zakoby McClain and cornerback Roger McCreary. That leaves Smoke Monday, a draft prospect who may well sit out himself, as the only remaining member of the Auburn defense's 700-snap trio. The group has looked good this year—20th in EPA, 27th in line yards per carry, 57th in yards allowed per pass, and 42nd in points per opportunity—but the absence of at least two top players might mean that the Tigers will have a very different group in the Birmingham Bowl.

So the question is: can the Cougars capitalize? Their offense was defined by passing (Clayton Tune averaged 8.6 yards per attempt with 28 TD and 9 INT) and passing downs (where they ranked ninth in EPA and third in explosiveness, compared to 94th and 57th respectively on standard downs). Houston scored at least 28 points in every game of their 11-0 run, but managed just 21 points in their opening loss to Texas Tech and 20 in their streak-snapping loss to Cincinnati. (It's worth noting that the Bearcats had a far better defense—fourth in points per game rather than Texas Tech's 104th—but also that Houston only scored one touchdown before garbage time.)

Tune will return for 2022, and he'll face Auburn's depleted defense in this bowl. The Tigers had a solid pass defense in the regular season: they ranked 43rd in EPA and ninth in explosiveness, and they held Heisman winner Bryce Young to his worst performance of the season (25-for-51, 317 yards, 6.2 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT). But without McClain, McCreary, and possibly Monday, Tune will be a difficult challenge for them. The Tigers have major questions going into 2022 and beyond, and they'll start searching for answers when they face the surprisingly successful Cougars.

Watch for:

  • Will Auburn's offense be able to keep pace with Houston against an impressive defense (10th in EPA, fourth in success rate)?
  • Will the Tigers be able to lengthen their possessions (fourth-most plays per drive) to wear down the Cougars (sixth-fewest plays faced per drive)?
  • Can Houston rusher Alton McCaskill (883 yards, 16 TD) recover from his recent slump (50.3 yards per game against Memphis, UConn, and Cincinnati)?

FEI Outright Pick: Auburn by 6.3

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
Dallas, Texas
Air Force vs. Louisville (-1.5)
December 28, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Air Force
Louisville
2021 F+ 37 50
When Air Force has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 38 65
2021 EPA/pass 79 63
2021 EPA/rush 17 98
When Louisville has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 35 27
2021 EPA/pass 50 26
2021 EPA/rush 80 34

Back in 2019, things looked very bright for Louisville. Quarterback Malik Cunningham was one of the best in the nation, averaging a stunning 11.6 yards per attempt with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions while adding 482 yards on the ground. Tutu Atwell (1,272 yards, 18.4 yards per catch, 11 TD) made a fantastic top target, and Javian Hawkins (1,525 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 9 TD) led a strong rushing corps. A rough defense held the team back, but it looked set to improve, and there seemed to be every reason for the Cardinals to chase an ACC title in 2020.

They went 4-7. It's hard to blame any one thing—close-game luck, a tough schedule, some regression on the offense, less progression on the defense than they needed. But the Cardinals' massive potential went nowhere, and Cunningham was left alone at Louisville as Hawkins and Atwell ended up with the NFL's L.A. Rams. It's a minor miracle that, with head coach Scott Satterfield under scrutiny and so much key talent lost after 2020, Cunningham managed to drag the Cardinals to a bowl bid this year. After struggling with interceptions last year (12 in 11 games), he made major strides and threw only six this season, and his rushing numbers went from excellent to extraordinary. When he passed for five touchdowns and ran for two more against Duke, he joined an exclusive club of Power 5 quarterbacks to reach 18 touchdowns on the ground and through the air: Jalen Hurts in 2019, Lamar Jackson in 2016 and 2017, Johnny Manziel in 2012, Cam Newton in 2010, and Tim Tebow in 2007 are the only others with such a feat in the 21st century.

Cunningham was—and is—the Cardinals' offense. Even with his expected return in 2022, it's hard to expect Louisville to take strides forward unless they can surround him with more talent, and even then, history could repeat itself with another season like 2020. But with a weapon such as that as their foundation, this offense can still aspire to great things, and it does have some key pieces for the future, such as redshirt freshman Jalen Mitchell (722 rushing yards, 121 receiving yards). Against an Air Force defense that's solid all around (48th in EPA, ninth in success rate, 37th in line yards per carry, 14th in total havoc rate), the Cardinals will make use of the versatility that players such as Cunningham and Mitchell provide. Perhaps they can't threaten for the ACC title next year, but they can keep building and bring a remarkable quarterback's career to a strong finish.

Watch for:

  • How much can Air Force (13th in line yards per carry) dominate Louisville (98th in line yards per carry allowed) up front?
  • Can Louisville muster any takeaways from a stingy Air Force offense that has only lost 0.8 per game this year (tied for ninth in FBS)?
  • Will the Cardinals' explosive runs (fourth-most explosive rushing offense) define this game against a Falcons defense that has struggled in that area?

FEI Outright Pick: Air Force by 4.9

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Memphis, Tennessee
Mississippi State (-9.5) vs. Texas Tech
December 28, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Mississippi State
Texas Tech
2021 F+ 24 63
When Mississippi State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 20 100
2021 EPA/pass 32 122
2021 EPA/rush 49 86
When Texas Tech has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 22 33
2021 EPA/pass 62 51
2021 EPA/rush 47 48

It's the Mike Leach Bowl! The powers that be had a lot of fun putting together 2021's schedule, and this game is a prime example. But there's more depth to this game than that, as both teams had to pull off rather unlikely seasons to get here. Texas Tech started 3-0 with an impressive win over Houston, but they stagnated in Big 12 play, struggling to 5-4 and staring down the barrel of a tough closing run against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Fortunately, Jonathan Garibay nailed a 45-yarder at the half against the Cyclones, points that would later prove crucial when he hit a stunning 62-yarder to break a tie at the gun and rescue Texas Tech's bowl hopes.

Mississippi State's postseason path was a little less dramatic, but it was surprising nonetheless. With five games left in the season, the Bulldogs were 4-3 and needed to steal two wins against a tough slate—one against Tennessee State would be easy, but they also had to beat either Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn, or Ole Miss. In the end, they stunned the No. 12 Wildcats, then pulled off a wild comeback against the No. 16 Tigers to officially punch their ticket.

The Raiders, as ever, pride themselves on their offense; they ranked 28th overall in EPA and success rate, scored 30 points per game, and were among the nation's best in scoring opportunities. But Mississippi State was unusual for Leach in being fairly well-rounded: in points per game (48th and 57th), EPA per play (50th and 41st), and success rate (11th and 29th), their offense and defense were relatively even. When they had the ball, the Bulldogs passed more than any other team, and a breakout season for Will Rogers (75.1% completion rate, 7.1 yards per attempt, 35 TD, 8 INT) landed them fifth in passing success rate (at the sacrifice of ranking dead last in passing explosiveness). Defensively, line play (32nd in line yards per carry, 25th in stuff rate) keyed a defense that was solid on almost every front, particularly in getting opponents behind the chains.

To keep up with the points Mississippi State can produce, Texas Tech will need fairly gaudy numbers against that strong defense. Quarterback stability should help: the Raiders have put Henry Colombi (148 passes) and Tyler Shough (92 passes) out there quite a bit, but Donovan Smith (8.4 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 2 INT) locked down the starting job in the final third of the season and will take the reins against the Bulldogs. Though only a freshman with four starts under his belt, Smith has already shown clear flashes of potential against Iowa State (25-for-32, 322 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) and Baylor (15-for-23, 262 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT). If Texas Tech can punch above their weight and reach seven wins for the first time since 2015, the key will be winning a hotly contested quarterback duel.

Watch for:

  • Can the Bulldogs (118th in havoc rate) find a way to pressure Smith and possibly force some sacks (or errant passes)?
  • How sparingly will Mississippi State try to take the top off the Texas Tech defense with deeper passes?
  • Can a dangerous Texas Tech secondary (fourth in havoc rate) flip the field against the steady Bulldogs passing attack?

FEI Outright Pick: Mississippi State by 9.0

San Diego Credit County Union Holiday Bowl
San Diego, California
NC State (-1.5) vs. UCLA
December 28, 8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall
NC State
UCLA
2021 F+ 15 30
When NC State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 43 67
2021 EPA/pass 50 71
2021 EPA/rush 93 90
When UCLA has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 13 9
2021 EPA/pass 20 21
2021 EPA/rush 35 7

On its surface, this is a fairly unremarkable game between an 8-4 Pac-12 team and a 9-3 ACC team, neither a major contender in their conference but still a solid test for the top schools. But there's a brilliant matchup under the surface: UCLA's all-world offense against a very underrated NC State defense. If a great strength-against-strength battle is what you're looking for this week, the Holiday Bowl might just be the way to go.

On offense, UCLA's most recognizable star is quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, whose all-or-nothing style as a sophomore in 2019 has refined into a complete skill set that could land him in the NFL. While he didn't have the massive breakout that some were predicting this year, Thompson-Robinson still set career highs in yards per attempt (8.5), total touchdowns (30), and rushing yards (611), all while significantly cutting down on his interceptions (1.1 per game in 2019, 0.8 in 2020, 0.5 in 2021). With Dillon Gabriel's arrival from UCF, there would be competition for the starting role if Thompson-Robinson returned in 2022, but that doesn't necessarily rule him out.

As good as UCLA's passing game is and as explosive as Thompson-Robinson can be, though, the best element of the Bruins' offense was actually their rushing corps, which ranked third nationally in EPA per play. That's an impressive feat for any team, but it's remarkable considering UCLA's lack of depth, as only Zach Charbonnet, Brittain Brown, and Thompson-Robinson himself rushed for more than 100 yards. That trio, however, was simply exceptional. Charbonnet led the way with a staggering 202 carries, second-most in the Pac-12, yet somehow managed 5.6 yards on that huge workload, fifth-most in the conference among rushers with at least 100 carries. Leading the list: Brown, who toted the ball 102 times for 6.0 yards per carry and ranked second in the Pac-12 with 3.9 yards after contact per carry. Add Thompson-Robinson's excellent dual-threat efforts and you have one of the finest run games in college football. (An offensive line that ranked in the top 10 in line yards per carry doesn't hurt either.)

Facing the Bruins will be an NC State defense that deserves top billing. In an ACC full of high-scoring teams such as Wake Forest and Pitt, the Wolfpack managed an excellent defensive performance, allowing fewer than 20 points per game, ranking 12th in EPA and third in success rate, and ranking 12th with a 75.9% stop rate in The Athletic's most recent standings. The secondary was the star of the show—14th in EPA, fifth in success rate, eighth in yards allowed per pass—but the unit was great all around, particularly in ball control (they ranked fifth in plays allowed per drive). Against a dynamic UCLA offense that ranks among football's most reliable, this defense will have its work cut out for it, but the Wolfpack should be able to hang with Charbonnet, Brown, and Thompson-Robinson to give their offense a chance at their first 10-win season in two decades.

Watch for:

  • Will NC State (1.3 interceptions per game, tied for fifth) find a way to pressure Thompson-Robinson into dangerous passes?
  • Will the Wolfpack's one-two punch of rushers Zonovan Knight (753 yards) and Ricky Person Jr. (636 yards) see more action?
  • If not, will quarterback Devin Leary continue to navigate his heavy workload and lead NC State's offense to another solid performance?

FEI Outright Pick: NC State by 1.0

Guaranteed Rate Bowl
Phoenix, Arizona
Minnesota (-5) vs. West Virginia
December 28, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Minnesota
West Virginia
2021 F+ 22 70
When Minnesota has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 54 53
2021 EPA/pass 38 80
2021 EPA/rush 71 51
When West Virginia has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 14 72
2021 EPA/pass 40 64
2021 EPA/rush 22 68

Minnesota was, very quietly, an absolutely bizarre team this season. Right out of the gate, they spooked Ohio State, then went on to go 6-3 in the Big Ten, knock Wisconsin out of the conference championship game, and nearly win the West themselves, with only a loss to division champ Iowa keeping them out. That sequence of events accounts for two of the Golden Gophers' losses: a top-10 team and their division's champion. The other two: 5-7 Illinois and 4-8 Bowling Green, both games in which their opponent scored only 14 points and still escaped victorious.

Losing to a below-.500 Bowling Green is something no Big Ten team had ever done before, let alone a pretty solid 8-4 squad that nearly made it to Indianapolis like Minnesota. The closest point of reference is probably 2018 Northwestern, which won the West comfortably despite losing to 4-8 Akron (and every other non-conference opponent they faced in the regular season). And those Wildcats have another thing in common with this year's bewildering Minnesota team: defense was the order of the day. With Mohamed Ibrahim's injury in the opening game, the Gophers couldn't get much going on offense, averaging 0.13 EPA per rush (85th) and 0.32 per pass (51st), but they found ways to win on the strength of physicality on the other end. Excellent special teams gave Minnesota's defense the fourth-best starting field position in FBS, and they took full advantage of it, ranking in the top 20 in EPA (19th) and success rate (15th). Their only real struggles were in turnovers (they were 100th in overall havoc rate) and scoring opportunities (in which they allowed 3.76 points apiece, only 63rd).

West Virginia isn't in this bowl because of its offense—Jarret Doege's 11 picks nearly made him the rare quarterback to lead two conferences in interceptions, which he first did in the MAC in 2018 with Bowling Green of all teams. Veteran running back Leddie Brown was better, putting together his second straight season with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards, but he didn't have much help, as the Mountaineers had no other 300-yard rushers. Still, trying to muster points against Minnesota isn't a lost cause; West Virginia proved adept at extending possessions (10th-most plays per drive) and converting into scores (36th in points per opportunity). The Gophers aren't used to facing a lot of plays, as they only saw more than 65 plays once, a mark West Virginia reached in the majority of their games this season. Wearing down this physical defense has been difficult, but the Mountaineers might be up to the task.

Watch for:

  • Will Minnesota's lack of explosiveness (115th) against a shutdown Mountaineers defense (28th in explosiveness allowed) prove critical?
  • Can the Gophers produce some defensive takeaways to take advantage of their excellent offensive ball security?
  • How much of a workload will Minnesota's top rushing trio (Ky Thomas, Mar'keise Irving, and Treyson Potts, all over 100 carries) be given?

FEI Outright Pick: Minnesota by 8.8

Wasabi Fenway Bowl
Boston, Massachusetts
SMU vs. Virginia (-2.5)
December 29, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall
SMU
Virginia
2021 F+ 56 58
When SMU has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 25 104
2021 EPA/pass 10 113
2021 EPA/rush 85 124
When Virginia has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 83 7
2021 EPA/pass 116 18
2021 EPA/rush 28 23

On paper, without opt-out adjustments, FEI projects this game for about 67.8 points, the highest total in the bowl season. It's not hard to see why—SMU and Virginia's offenses respectively ranked sixth and 14th in EPA, 22nd and ninth in success rate, and 24th and 29th in points per opportunity. But both the Mustangs and the Cavaliers could have some key offensive absences, which might drive this down from a shootout to a more typical score. Uncertainty abounds at Virginia, where Bronco Mendenhall's resignation led some players to transfer who could still play. The situation is clearer, though, for SMU, which will lack two of the top three receivers from its absurdly good passing offense (fourth in EPA, 18th in success rate, 22nd in explosiveness).

Danny Gray (803 yards), Rashee Rice (670 yards), and Reggie Roberson Jr. (625 yards) were all excellent for SMU, but Rice—the only member of the trio who's set to play against Virginia—took on a somewhat more workmanlike role. Gray and Roberson (16.4 and 12.3 yards per reception) were generally used as big-play threats, with a high average depth of target for each (10.9 for Gray, 9.4 for Roberson). Rice, by comparison, was almost exclusively a slot receiver (73 of his 79 targets were in the slot), averaging only 10.5 yards per reception on an average depth of 7.3 yards—but catching 81.0% of his targets, over 10 percentage points higher than any other receiver on the team.

Rice was a key piece of the offense despite not being used as an explosive option very often, but the lost talent and versatility is a major blow for SMU. For a team whose rushing offense was more or less average (59th in EPA per play), the Mustangs' offense couldn't have been nearly as good if they didn't have such good changes of pace. If you can threaten opponents on short throws and downfield bombs alike, it's almost as good as having a typical run-pass balance. And SMU could do that throughout the regular season—but they might not be able to in this game.

The upside is that Virginia probably won't punish one-dimensionality as much as other opponents might. The Cavaliers' high-flying offense, led by superstar quarterback Brennan Armstrong (4,444 passing yards, 8.9 yards per attempt, 31 TD, 10 INT), will keep pace with SMU, but to win they'll need to slow the Mustangs down on defense. That should prove difficult, even with the missing receivers: Virginia only held three teams under 28 points all season, and those opponents combined for just eight FBS wins. They lost games while scoring 38, 39, and 49 points, and it's easy to see how this contest could develop into another back-and-forth affair despite both teams' depleted offenses. In addition to the postseason's highest projected total, FEI bestows the Fenway Bowl with the superlative of the closest spread—and that prediction seems fairly likely to come true.

Watch for:

  • Will the Mustangs bring their strong rushing duo (Tre Siggers and Ulysses Bentley IV) to the fore with their receiving losses?
  • Can Virginia's multifaceted run game (five players between 200 and 350 yards) hold steady against an efficient SMU run defense (30th in EPA, fourth in success rate)?
  • Will the Cavaliers' defensive line make up for in depth and physicality what it lacks in raw ability (127th in line yards per carry, 103rd in sack rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: Virginia by 0.0

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
New York City, New York
Maryland (-3.5) vs. Virginia Tech
December 29, 2:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Maryland
Virginia Tech
2021 F+ 76 62
When Maryland has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 41 55
2021 EPA/pass 44 38
2021 EPA/rush 86 100
When Virginia Tech has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 98 73
2021 EPA/pass 104 85
2021 EPA/rush 73 58

Two of the best stories of bowl season's first week—Old Dominion and North Texas—managed miraculous recoveries from 1-6 starts to reach the postseason. By contrast, two of the best stories of its second week—Texas Tech, who we saw earlier, and Maryland—seemed to lock up bowl bids early in the year, but had to steal wins late in the season to complete their runs.

The Terrapins, seeking a bowl for the first time since 2015, came out of the gate strong with a win over a Big 12 team, beating West Virginia 30-24—good, but also eerily reminiscent of recent disappointments. Maryland jumped out to 3-1 records in 2017 and 2018—both times, after starting with a win over Texas—before losing their last four games and ending up at home in December. And when the 4-0 Terrapins took on No. 5 Iowa and No. 7 Ohio State and lost by a combined score of 117-31, déjà vu began to set in. A 1-6 stretch ensued in which Maryland allowed over 45 points per game, leading into a momentous meeting with Rutgers that seemed to determine which 5-6 team would eke out a bowl bid.

To anyone who had watched Maryland, with the up-and-down play of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, the inept run game, the beaten-up receiving corps, and a defense that couldn't stop anything, there was only one certainty: they didn't have a team that could deliver a clean, untroubled win. Which made it all the more surprising when they did exactly that, jumping out to a 20-2 halftime lead and eventually crushing the Scarlet Knights by a decisive 40-16 margin. Consider the season saved.

The obvious explanation for why Maryland was able to win so convincingly was that, well, the Knights weren't very good (they went 2-7 in the Big Ten and didn't beat a bowl team all year, after all). But for the Terrapins, even steamrolling Rutgers was a surprise, considering they had only beaten 5-7 Illinois and 2-10 Indiana by three points each. Tagovailoa (21-for-30, 312 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) and lead rushers Tayon Fleet-Davis and Colby McDonald (combined: 251 yards, 7.6 yards per carry) lived up to their wildest expectations and then some. With several absent starters on Virginia Tech's middling defense (70th in EPA), the Terrapins' offensive surge should continue as long as they can navigate the Hokies' top-20 havoc. It may have taken quite a while, but Maryland has found their way forward, and with most of their top players expected back next year, their return to bowl season could be the start of something more.

Watch for:

  • Will the Hokies' offensive line (37th in line yards per carry, 49th in power success rate) be able to overrun Maryland?
  • The Terrapins are 5-1 when Tagovailoa avoids interceptions and 1-5 if he throws at least one pick; can he withstand Virginia Tech's threatening secondary?
  • With Connor Blumrick (7-for-16, 42 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) likely to start for the Hokies after Braxton Burmeister's transfer, can Maryland shut down their passing attack?

FEI Outright Pick: Virginia Tech by 6.6

Cheez-It Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Clemson (-1) vs. Iowa State
December 29, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Clemson
Iowa State
2021 F+ 14 17
When Clemson has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 78 30
2021 EPA/pass 114 59
2021 EPA/rush 60 43
When Iowa State has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 4 23
2021 EPA/pass 16 30
2021 EPA/rush 5 51

College football is, very often, less about where you are and more about where you're going. Case in point: Clemson and Iowa State. Both of these teams had seasons that are, by their programs' overall standards, very good. If the Cyclones win, they'll put the finishing touches on an eight-win season, just the 11th in their 124 years. If the Tigers come out ahead, they'll win 10 games for the 18th time in 120 seasons—and the 11th year in a row, nearly triple the previous school record. In the big picture, both Iowa State and Clemson have a lot of be happy about.

But expectations can shift quickly, and both of the Cheez-It Bowl's contestants are on a downward trend in the short term, having started the season in the top 10 and looking likely to end it at the back of the top 25, if that. So this game is less about celebration and more about concern for the future, with both teams needing to course-correct quickly. The Cyclones are losing quarterback Brock Purdy (who will play in this game) and running back Breece Hall (who won't), the defining leaders of the team that briefly jumped to the fore of the Big 12. With new teams joining the conference and many of the current members on the rise, Iowa State needs to assert its place in the pecking order, now more than ever. As for Clemson, they're losing much of the staff that put together that incredible decade-long run at the top of college football, and all eyes are on Dabo Swinney to see if he can figure out the Tigers' offense and put them back in control of the ACC.

So even though this game doesn't matter too much for either team—except, of course, for the practices both will use to set up their 2022 rosters—it still feels weighty in the way it could help define their trajectories over the next few months. Former four-star Jirehl Brock should take over the Cyclones' rushing attack, but after Purdy, quarterback is much more of an open question. Even without their top two, Iowa State does bring back a solid core (with players such as top receiver Xavier Hutchinson and sack-producing star Will McDonald returning), but there are questions to be answered. In the Tigers' case, it's less about what they're losing and more about what they didn't have this year—which is to say, a quarterback. DJ Uiagalelei averaged just 6.0 yards per attempt with a rough 9:8 TD-to-INT ratio, and it's hard to say what Clemson does at the position moving forward, especially with Dabo Swinney's aversion to the transfer portal. This bowl isn't going to turn everything around for either team, but it could provide some valuable information as they look to bounce back next year.

Watch for:

  • Will Purdy play the full game, or will Iowa State test some of their quarterback options for 2022?
  • Without Breece Hall, who led the Cyclones to 0.83 EPA per successful rush (12th in FBS), where will this offense look for explosiveness?
  • Can Uiagalelei overcome a rough season and an injury to lead Clemson to a 10-win finish?

FEI Outright Pick: Iowa State by 3.7

Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Texas
Oklahoma (-4.5) vs. Oregon
December 29, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Oklahoma
Oregon
2021 F+ 20 26
When Oklahoma has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 11 46
2021 EPA/pass 27 58
2021 EPA/rush 19 49
When Oregon has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 63 19
2021 EPA/pass 123 60
2021 EPA/rush 19 6

Not to sound like a broken record, but this game has a lot to do with reversing trends and building for the future as well. Both Oklahoma (which started the season at No. 2 but has fallen to No. 16) and Oregon (which started at No. 11 and rose as high as No. 3 before plummeting to No. 14) will look back at 2021 and see missed opportunities. But more pressingly, they'll look ahead to 2022 and wonder where their new coaches will lead. Turnover at programs as prestigious as these is rare enough, but making that change while already near the peak of college football is truly shocking, which is what makes the Sooners and Ducks so interesting.

When it comes to the game before us, though, it'll likely be defined by something far more concrete: offense. Both teams' most high-profile questions are on this side of the ball, and their best attributes are as well. Oklahoma seems to have held on to emerging talent Caleb Williams at quarterback, but in such a fragile situation, things could turn on a dime, and Spencer Rattler's transfer to South Carolina leaves little margin for a changing of the guard. The other looming decision is that of senior rusher Kennedy Brooks, who recently broke the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground for the third time in his career—something only Adrian Peterson and Samaje Perine have accomplished in the last 20 years at Oklahoma. Brooks, like Williams, is a lock to play in the Sooners' bowl, but his plans beyond that point are still unsettled. The offense will be as potent as ever in the Alamo Bowl, but it might be the last time we see this potent combination together.

The Ducks had offensive talent too, but it was far more inconsistent, with one crucial exception. Anthony Brown was the starting quarterback for a playoff contender, which sounded like a bad idea from the start and, based on his lines in losses to Stanford and Utah (51.7% completion rate, 6.6 yards per attempt, 1 TD, 3 INT), didn't exactly work out. But Oregon still managed to produce some solid offensive numbers (43rd in EPA, 12th in success rate, 15th in points per opportunity) on the strength of a career year from Travis Dye. The Ducks' primary running back was a force, rushing for 1,118 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and 15 touchdowns, then adding 374 more yards through the air. Dye's total yardage led the Pac-12, and though a fantastic offensive line helped (second in line yards per carry, first in stuff rate), his versatility and pure ability made him a uniquely valuable player as Oregon pieced together a 10-win season. And, of course, he too is undecided on his plans for next year. The Alamo Bowl could be a swan song or the start of a second act for several of football's very finest, and while we may not know who's going and who's staying, it's a game worth watching either way.

Watch for:

  • Can Oklahoma's daunting pass rush (15th in front-seven havoc rate) get the edge over Oregon's stout offensive line (eighth in front-seven havoc rate allowed)?
  • Will the Ducks (36th in EPA per pass against the 12th-highest pass rate) find a way to slow down Williams?
  • Who will come up big in long Sooner runs: Oregon's tackling (ninth in open-field yards per carry allowed) or Oklahoma's evasion (second in open-field yards per carry)?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 1.3

Duke's Mayo Bowl
Charlotte, North Carolina
North Carolina (-9) vs. South Carolina
December 30, 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall
North Carolina
South Carolina
2021 F+ 47 72
When North Carolina has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 14 41
2021 EPA/pass 67 9
2021 EPA/rush 9 71
When South Carolina has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 92 101
2021 EPA/pass 74 102
2021 EPA/rush 97 124

The Duke's Mayo Bowl exemplifies two themes of bowl season: narratively dramatic matchups, which this Carolina rivalry certainly fits, and intriguing program directions. North Carolina, which lost most of its offense and fell from the top 10 to unranked after just a month, is on a sharp downward trend; South Carolina, which ended 2020 on a six-game losing streak but surprised Florida and Auburn to bowl in Shane Beamer's first season at the helm, is on the way up. This game is about more than just bragging rights (although those are a pretty big deal); it's also about the validation of what both teams are trying to build.

The big question for the Tar Heels in 2022 will be their offense, particularly in the run game. Draft prospect Sam Howell was solid enough (8.7 yards per attempt, 23 TD, 9 INT), but the poor overall numbers (90th in EPA, 74th in success rate) and lack of receiving depth beyond the up-and-coming Josh Downs (1,273 yards, 13.0 yards per catch) mean that North Carolina doesn't have to worry about a massive drop-off at the position and can build from here. The rushing attack, though, could easily take a step back—because by EPA, it was the best in college football this year. Howell's 825 yards and 11 touchdowns were a major factor, but Tennessee grad transfer Ty Chandler (1,063 yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 13 TD) was quietly one of the best running backs in the ACC. With both Howell and Chandler gone, North Carolina will turn to British Brooks (223 yards, 8.6 yards per carry) and other 2021 backups to lead the way next year. And while this year's leaders are expected to play, the Tar Heels might test their future leaders at the position more than usual.

South Carolina's run defense hasn't been very good, at least up front—they were 126th in line yards per carry and 108th at the second level, though 38th in the open field. That strength against deep runs hints at the position that got the Gamecocks to this point: the secondary. South Carolina allowed just 0.19 EPA per pass (27th), and their defensive backs produced a 7.1% havoc rate (31st). That unit came up huge in the win over Auburn that sealed their bowl bid, in which TJ Finley arguably had a worse game (188 yards, 5.9 yards per attempt, 1 TD, 0 INT) than he did against Alabama a week later (137 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, 2 TD, 1 INT). Howell is a tougher challenge, but with South Carolina's rebuild ahead of schedule, they might be able to hold off North Carolina in a fascinating battle of hopeful contenders.

Watch for:

  • Will Zaquandre White (270 yards on 39 carries against Florida, Missouri, and Auburn) continue to emerge as South Carolina's top running back?
  • How long of a leash will Zeb Noland (11-for-22, 96 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT against Clemson) get from the Gamecocks?
  • Can South Carolina (95th in EPA per rush) hold their own against the final appearance of the Tar Heels' elite rushing group?

FEI Outright Pick: North Carolina by 5.6

TransPerfect Music City Bowl
Nashville, Tennessee
Purdue vs. Tennessee (-4.5)
December 30, 3 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Purdue
Tennessee
2021 F+ 28 12
When Purdue has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 39 56
2021 EPA/pass 24 68
2021 EPA/rush 129 103
When Tennessee has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 21 4
2021 EPA/pass 27 48
2021 EPA/rush 30 22

Both Purdue and Tennessee could be intriguing sleeper picks in 2022. After aborted four-year stints under Danny Hope and Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers rolled the dice on keeping Jeff Brohm despite a 6-12 record in 2019 and 2020. It was surprising, confusing, and ... in one of 2021's most remarkable stories, pure genius. Purdue opened the year with a win over a pretty solid Oregon State, came close to upsetting Notre Dame, and punctuated the season with shocking wins over No. 2 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State. Their 8-4 season put the stamp of approval on 2021's place in history as a year of chaos, enshrining it alongside the last time Purdue won eight games: 2007.

Tennessee's path to the Music City Bowl was, so to speak, not quite as clean. The Volunteers have been all over the place in the 21st century: making Peach and Cotton Bowls with Phillip Fulmer as head coach, being completely inexplicable under Lane Kiffin, struggling under Derek Dooley, surging and then collapsing under Butch Jones, and recently bouncing from Georgia State loss to Gator Bowl win to 1-7 finish in 2019 and 2020 with Phillip Fulmer as ... athletic director? If Purdue's move to keep Brohm was odd, so was Tennessee doing the relatively sensible thing and hiring UCF coach Josh Heupel. The Volunteers, like the Boilermakers, turned things around on a dime, their offense surging to the top 10 in points per game and their record improving to 7-5 despite four games against eventual New Year's Six teams.

But both of these teams know that success can depart as quickly as it can arrive. Purdue and Tennessee will look for stability from their veteran quarterbacks, Aidan O'Connell and Hendon Hooker, who have both announced their returns for 2022. But a lot of other key pieces are in flux. The Boilermakers will start to find out how much David Bell (1,286 yards, 13.8 yards per catch) defined their success in the passing game, and they're going to need to put together a rushing corps as well—this year they ranked 128th in EPA per rush and had no players go for over 500 yards on the ground. For Tennessee, the biggest loss is running back Tiyon Evans, possibly the best rusher on the team with 521 yards and 6.4 yards per carry. With Evans transferring to Louisville, the Volunteers will need to lean more heavily on Jabari Small (611 yards, 5.4 yards per carry) and could have four-star recruit Justin Williams in the primary rotation from Day 1. The future is bright in West Lafayette and in Knoxville, but there's still plenty of work to be done, starting when these two upstarts face off to conclude great seasons.

Watch for:

  • Can the statuesque O'Connell take advantage of Tennessee's thin secondary as more mobile quarterbacks have before him?
  • Will the iffy Volunteers run defense (101st in EPA, 116th in explosiveness) open the door for Purdue to gain yardage on the ground?
  • How will the Boilermakers' defense (28th in passing success rate, but 108th in passing explosiveness) take on Hooker's longer passes and more explosive plays?

FEI Outright Pick: Tennessee by 1.4

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Atlanta, Georgia
Michigan State (-2.5) vs. Pittsburgh
December 30, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Michigan State
Pittsburgh
2021 F+ 35 13
When Michigan State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 26 19
2021 EPA/pass 16 28
2021 EPA/rush 61 10
When Pittsburgh has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 43 21
2021 EPA/pass 103 25
2021 EPA/rush 7 54

It feels rather rude to say a New Year's Six bowl has lost its luster, doesn't it? Admittedly, this is an unusual case—it's rare that a player who finishes in the top six in Heisman voting opts out of such a prestigious bowl, and almost unheard of for two to do so in the same game. But even without Kenny Pickett leading Pitt's fearsome passing attack and Kenneth Walker III storming down the field for Michigan State, there's still plenty to watch in this contest.

While Walker may be out, the other keys of the Spartans' offense aren't, which gives us a chance to appreciate the depth this team had beyond its defining rusher. Michigan State couldn't have gotten anywhere near this far without a totally unexpected breakout season from quarterback Payton Thorne, who stepped up after Rocky Lombardi's transfer and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. By EPA, the Spartans' passing (23rd) actually outdid their rushing (43rd), though admittedly Michigan State's run game lacked depth.

Going into 2022, that will be a major position to figure out, and as is so often the case, this bowl should offer a first look at what the Spartans will do to replace their departed headliner. Jordon Simmons, the established secondary rusher who went from 3.9 yards per carry to 4.7 this year, should take on a major role, and when he arrives, Wisconsin transfer Jalen Berger (389 yards and 4.6 yards per carry in seven career games) will as well. The Spartans still seem likely to search for more depth in the transfer portal, though, and this group could change a lot between the Peach Bowl and the 2022 opener in eight months' time.

The Panthers, too, are a work in progress. With Pickett (8.7 yards per attempt, 42 TD, 7 INT) sitting out and USC transfer Kedon Slovis (7.2 yards per attempt, 11 TD, 8 INT) not yet available, backup Nick Patti will make the second start of his career. The first was against FCS Delaware in a half-full Heinz Field; this will be in one of football's most prestigious bowls under the lights at a sold-out Mercedes-Benz Stadium. No pressure. But Patti is competent enough to lead Pitt to a win, especially if their defense continues to step up. After allowing over 30 points in two of their first three games, the Panthers did so just twice more in the next 10, and they held a high-octane Wake Forest offense to just 21 points in the ACC Championship Game. Michigan State, even in transition, is a dangerous offense to face, but the Panthers look more than capable of putting the finishing touches on their first 12-win season in 45 years.

Watch for:

  • Can Thorne maintain his big-play potential without the threat of Walker lurking in the backfield?
  • With a good performance against a solid Spartans defense, could Patti challenge Slovis for the Panthers' starting job next year?
  • How often will Michigan State go on the ground against a Pitt defense that opponents have rarely rushed against?

FEI Outright Pick: Pittsburgh by 3.1

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl
Paradise, Nevada
Arizona State vs. Wisconsin (-6.5)
December 30, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall
Arizona State
Wisconsin
2021 F+ 31 7
When Arizona State has the ball
Offense
Defense
2021 F+ 36 2
2021 EPA/pass 65 5
2021 EPA/rush 2 2
When Wisconsin has the ball
Defense
Offense
2021 F+ 26 56
2021 EPA/pass 24 124
2021 EPA/rush 67 59

If you had to describe Wisconsin football in one word, you could do a lot worse than "stability". This program has weathered a lot of changes to college football over the past 30 years, but through it all, they have been more or less the same: great on defense with a wildly good running back to lead the offense to somewhere between eight and 11 wins. The Badgers have had their moments, peaking with a 13-1 season in 2017 in which they had a legitimate playoff case, but they have put together a long era of success at a program that could have been consigned to the Big Ten's also-rans, and punching above their weight is a nice bonus rather than the team's main goal.

It would be wildly premature to say Wisconsin's reign is over, but nothing lasts forever, and the last four years have been among the toughest since the Badgers first rose under Barry Alvarez. If they can't sneak into the final AP Poll of the season, they'll finish unranked in back-to-back years for the first time since 2002 and 2003, when players in their recently signed 2022 class weren't yet born. Yes, the bizarre 2020 season is a huge outlier, but Wisconsin hasn't looked quite itself in recent years. They reassembled the usual pieces that make up their contenders this season—an elite defense that was arguably the best in the nation down the stretch and one of those remarkable rushers in freshman Braelon Allen (1,109 yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 12 TD)—but the biggest key to reestablishing their consistent excellence is a position that's still a work in progress.

Quarterback Graham Mertz was many things for Wisconsin this year. Yes, he had his off days, more than a few—after three games he had already thrown six interceptions, several proving pivotal against Penn State and Notre Dame. But in spite of the turnovers and the ineffective passing (never more than 240 yards in a game), it's hard to lay all the blame for the Badgers' struggles on his shoulders. Inexperience often leads to the kind of problems Mertz had, particularly with his vision over the middle (where he threw six of his 10 interceptions). And there were some signs of improvement as the year went on, especially with regard to ball control; after the Notre Dame debacle, Mertz didn't throw multiple interceptions in any of Wisconsin's last nine games and had only four total. The efficiency is lacking, but that's improving as well, and there's reason to believe that a lot of those underclassman problems can be alleviated with a more typical offseason.

The Arizona State defense, which stood tall against some fairly tough quarterbacks in the Pac-12, provides a small (but potentially insightful) progress check for Mertz and the rest of Wisconsin's offense. With the Sun Devils lacking several key rushers—including prime draft prospect Rachaad White—the Badgers' defense should have an edge, which means the demands on their passing game shouldn't be too great. The future of Wisconsin football won't be decided in this game, but it could provide the first step of a turnaround to keep them on top for a long while yet.

Watch for:

  • Can Jayden Daniels (7.9 yards per pass, 5.6 yards per carry) and Daniyel Ngata (6.4 yards per carry) hold up the Arizona State rushing attack?
  • How much will Wisconsin trust Mertz, as opposed to the more successful Allen, against the Sun Devils' less successful run defense?
  • Who will win the trenches in a superb line battle—Arizona State's offense (third in line yards per carry, first in opportunity rate) or Wisconsin's defense (first in line yards per carry, opportunity rate, and stuff rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 7.5

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part II

Favorite
Spread
Underdog
FEI Pick
FEI Pick ATS
Preston's Pick ATS
Georgia State -6 Ball State Georgia State Ball State Georgia State
Western Michigan -7 Nevada Nevada Nevada Western Michigan
Boston College -3 East Carolina East Carolina East Carolina East Carolina
Auburn -2.5 Houston Auburn Auburn Houston
Louisville -1.5 Air Force Air Force Air Force Louisville
Mississippi State -9.5 Texas Tech Mississippi State Texas Tech Texas Tech
NC State -1.5 UCLA NC State UCLA NC State
Minnesota -5 West Virginia Minnesota Minnesota Minnesota
Virginia -2.5 SMU Virginia SMU Virginia
Maryland -3.5 Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Clemson -1 Iowa State Iowa State Iowa State Clemson
Oklahoma -4.5 Oregon Oklahoma Oregon Oklahoma
North Carolina -9 South Carolina North Carolina South Carolina South Carolina
Tennessee -4.5 Purdue Tennessee Purdue Purdue
Michigan State -2.5 Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Pittsburgh Pittsburgh
Wisconsin -6.5 Arizona State Wisconsin Wisconsin Wisconsin

FEI's picks ATS in bowls last week: 5-9

FEI's picks ATS in 2021: 46-52

Preston's picks ATS in bowls last week: 9-5

Preston's picks ATS in 2021: 47-51

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