Encore Performances Await for Seminoles, Chanticleers

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers QB Grayson McCall
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers QB Grayson McCall
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Bowl Season - On November 26, 2022, in the dying seconds of an up-and-down campaign, Kyle Vantrease dropped back to the 35-yard line and hurled a pass to the end zone. It could have been his last pass as a college football player in a career already extended by COVID-19 and the transfer portal, and a regular-season finale extended into double overtime. But three hours and 30-nine minutes after the start of a special, winner-goes-bowling edition of the Deeper Than Hate rivalry, Vantrease's pass landed in the hands of Georgia Southern receiver Ezrah Archie, clinching a postseason bid one year after a 3-9 season. He raced to the end zone and joined the throng of celebrating players as a crowd of over 18,000 fans rushed the field.

Vantrease is one of countless players for whom bowl season now serves as a final send-off for their long, storied college careers. Sure, some players are opting out, but many who have NFL hopes (or are headed to the transfer portal) will deliver farewell performances in the next week. Wake Forest's A.T. Perry, Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall, and Florida State's Jammie Robinson and Jared Verse are among the biggest names set to play their last games at their current stop this week, and there are plenty of smaller ones such as Vantrease who are worth watching. That's not to mention the players who will return in 2023—most notably quarterbacks Bo Nix (Oregon) and Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), who both spurned the NFL Draft after contending for the Heisman Trophy this season.

The players who won't appear in this slate will, inevitably, be a topic of discussion. How different might the Guaranteed Rate Bowl look, for example, if starters Graham Mertz and Spencer Sanders weren't transferring away from the teams involved? Would the Liberty Bowl have been a true offensive shootout if more of KJ Jefferson's targets were available? Would Sean Tucker's final FBS game have made the Pinstripe Bowl a must-watch affair, and would Bijan Robinson's have done the same for the Alamo Bowl?

It's easy to dwell on these what-ifs, but they shouldn't distract us from the reality of the postseason we have. Some of the brightest stars have already bowed out, and others are taking their talents elsewhere, but for every player such as Mertz, Sanders, Tucker, and Robinson, there are dozens such as Vantrease, McCall, Penix, and Jefferson enjoying the chance at another chapter in their college careers.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl
Shreveport, Louisiana
Houston Cougars (-7) vs. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns
Friday, December 23, 3 p.m. (ESPN)

Houston Louisiana
2022 F+ 57 69
When Houston has the ball
2022 F+ 19 46
2022 EPA/pass 13 16
2022 EPA/rush 28 82
When Louisiana has the ball
2022 F+ 109 98
2022 EPA/pass 82 101
2022 EPA/rush 79 64

There are plenty of fun passing attacks in bowl season, but Houston's might fly under the radar more than any other. The Cougars slipped from 12-2 to 7-5 this season, but that was no fault of quarterback Clayton Tune, who finished 13th in EPA per pass and 11th in passing success rate. Houston put plenty of weight on Tune and its receivers, which top target Nathaniel Dell (third in FBS with 103 receptions and 1,354 yards) giving them the ability to use their passing game regularly without wearing it out. Tune and Dell both have pro potential, and the duo connected for three 150-yard games in the last four weeks of the season.

The Cougars lacked the rushing depth (four players with at least five carries) and defensive talent (33.5 points allowed per game, including 77 to SMU) needed to be truly elite, but their upside through the air means they're capable of hanging with anybody. Louisiana needs its pass defense, which has been a major strength this season amid a similarly disappointing campaign, to step up and limit Houston's reliable offense. While the Cougars are, at least, fairly easy to limit on big plays (63rd in passing explosiveness), their ability to find short yardage and keep the chains moving has been impressive; their 40.0% success rate on passing downs ranks third.

The Ragin' Cajuns have struggled on defense in such situations, but their secondary has the ability to make plays when it needs to. The whole starting lineup has been solid, with Louisiana's primary quintet of backfield defenders combining to hold opposing passers to 7.1 yards per attempt and a 53% completion rate. Finding the right defender to match against Dell is challenging, and the Cajuns may throw a variety of looks at him to keep Houston on its toes. Heavily-targeted corner Trey Amos and dynamic safety Kam Pedescleaux will likely play major roles in containing the Cougars' top receiving threat, but they'll need all hands on deck to give their offense a chance.

Watch For:

  • Will Louisiana's emphasis on preventing big plays on run defense prove a liability against a Houston rushing corps that makes its living with shorter carries?
  • How will the Ragin' Cajuns adjust with runaway lead receiver Michael Jefferson (51 catches, the most on the team by 29) opting out?
  • With Andre Jones also unavailable for Louisiana, can Zi'Yon Hill (12.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks) take over and lead the pass rush to make plays on Tune?

FEI Outright Pick: Houston by 7.2.

Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Missouri Tigers vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (-2.5)
Friday, December 23, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Missouri Wake Forest
2022 F+ 40 41
When Missouri has the ball
2022 F+ 74 93
2022 EPA/pass 75 109
2022 EPA/rush 92 55
When Wake Forest has the ball
2022 F+ 20 11
2022 EPA/pass 32 12
2022 EPA/rush 35 100

Blake Baker's first season at Missouri has been nothing short of exceptional. The itinerant defensive coordinator had led units at Louisiana Tech and Miami recently before coaching linebackers at LSU in 2021, and he proved a fantastic hire by Eli Drinkwitz for the 2022 campaign. The Tigers gave up 33.8 points per game last season, failing to hold a single opponent under 23 points (including Central Michigan, Southeast Missouri State, and Vanderbilt), but they made a major turnaround this year. With the exception of Kansas State and Tennessee, both headed to the New Year's Six, Missouri held every opponent to 27 points or fewer, including shutdown performances against South Carolina (10 points) and Georgia (26).

Missouri's defensive success has been a comprehensive effort, but the defensive line has led the way. The Tigers are sixth in front-seven havoc rate, 13th in line yards per carry, and 17th in sack rate, with all-SEC lineman Isaiah McGuire (40 tackles, 14 tackles for loss) leading a group of four players with at least 3.5 sacks. Missouri has made nine or more tackles for loss in half their games this season, and they're up against an offensive line that has struggled to protect quarterback Sam Hartman, ranking 102nd in sack rate allowed. The talented line has been depleted by opt-outs, however, leaving Darius Robinson (3.5 sacks, 2.5 in November) to lead the group into their bowl matchup.

The Tigers will need their pass rush to prevent Wake Forest from creating big opportunities through the air. The Demon Deacons' passing game is more reliable (ninth in success rate) than explosive (42nd in big-play rate), but the deep ball is still their main way of generating offensive explosiveness; their 9.8% big-play rate on runs ranks 118th in FBS. A.T. Perry, who will be a top receiving prospect in the draft next year, is the top option on those passes, hauling in 10 of 24 targets on 20-yard passes for 37.3 yards per catch and five touchdowns. Almost every available wideout—and even tight end Blake Whiteheart—has been effective on deep attempts, however, with Hartman's 15 touchdowns on such plays ranking third in the country. Missouri will need to shut him down in the backfield and shorten his dropbacks (3.02 seconds from snap to throw, tied for second-longest in the ACC) to avoid giving up back-breaking passes.

Watch For:

  • How will Wake Forest's rushing corps look with Christian Turner (516 yards) transferring but Justice Ellison (635 yards) still available?
  • Can Missouri quarterback Brady Cook continue his strong finish (8.3 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns in his last three games) without top target Dominic Lovett?
  • Will the Demon Deacons' struggles with big passing plays (123rd in passing explosiveness allowed) leave them vulnerable in the secondary?

FEI Outright Pick: Missouri by 0.5.

EasyPost Hawaiʻi Bowl
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders vs. San Diego State Aztecs (-6.5)
Saturday, December 24, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Middle Tennessee San Diego State
2022 F+ 97 85
When Middle Tennessee has the ball
2022 F+ 90 37
2022 EPA/pass 77 36
2022 EPA/rush 101 18
When San Diego State has the ball
2022 F+ 101 124
2022 EPA/pass 77 49
2022 EPA/rush 28 120

Few programs in the Group of 5 are at a more intriguing crossroads than San Diego State. The Aztecs have been through a bumpy ride in recent seasons—double-digit wins in 2017, 2019, and 2021, but middling records of 7-6, 4-4, and 7-5 in 2018, 2020, and 2022. The last three seasons have come under the watch of Brady Hoke, who may or may not have found his stride again; the 12-2 season and ranked finish last year are encouraging, but the Aztecs have dealt with a major setback this year. This all, of course, goes without mentioning the mess that is the ongoing civil suit against three former San Diego State players, which many have criticized the program's slow response to.

On the field, the Aztecs have questions to answer following a series of missed opportunities in a weak Mountain West. Blowing a 28-10 lead to Fresno State and mustering just three points against Air Force held this team back; the offense's minor improvement hasn't prevented it from going completely silent for long, critical stretches of play. Progress is needed on every offensive front, and even the defense has points of concern, mainly in the secondary. To San Diego State's credit, however, they have completely shut down opponents' rushing attacks, holding five teams under 100 yards on the ground, and Jalen Mayden (who was a safety for the first five games) emerged as a genuinely solid passer to lead the offense.

That's the positive foundation the Aztecs must build on, and this game offers an opportunity to see what they're trying to build. Middle Tennessee will be a daunting test for their rushing game, having likewise held five opponents under 100 yards—Miami among them—but their secondary is more vulnerable. San Diego State should experiment with its potential deep targets, particularly potential returner Jesse Matthews, who has shown potential as a big-play threat with Tyrell Shavers likely to leave. They'll also test their depth against that strong run defense, a group led by sixth-year superstar Jordan Ferguson (63 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 9 sacks). In particular, look for sophomore Jaylon Armstead (313 yards, 6.0 yards per carry) to see some usage as the Aztecs have a low-stakes situation to test his capabilities.

Watch For:

  • Can dynamic Middle Tennessee rusher Frank Peasant (750 rushing yards, 276 receiving yards) move the ball against the Aztecs' elite run defense?
  • Will San Diego State's run-first offense (109th in passing play rate) test the Blue Raiders' defense (12th in passing play rate faced) through the air?
  • How much will Hoke test the Aztecs' options in preparation for a major offseason overhaul?

FEI Outright Pick: San Diego State by 6.2.

Quick Lane Bowl
Detroit, Michigan
New Mexico State Aggies vs. Bowling Green Falcons (-3.5)
Monday, December 26, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

New Mexico State Bowling Green
2022 F+ 120 116
When New Mexico State has the ball
2022 F+ 123 119
2022 EPA/pass 92 66
2022 EPA/rush 102 53
When Bowling Green has the ball
2022 F+ 100 96
2022 EPA/pass 51 88
2022 EPA/rush 93 131

Nobody really saw New Mexico State's bowl season coming. The Aggies have made the postseason just once in the last 61 years, and the stars weren't aligning for Jerry Kill's first team to break through. After just five wins in the previous three seasons, a 1-5 start put them on a similar trajectory this season. But thanks to a light schedule down the stretch, a major step up in offensive consistency, and a shocking blowout win over Liberty, New Mexico State clawed its way to 6-6 and earned a bid to the Quick Lane Bowl. It has been a vindicating season for Kill, who's making a triumphant return to a head coach role six years after his ouster from Minnesota, and a commendable achievement for a roster which features numerous seniors in key roles.

The Aggies found their greatest success through big plays: both creating them on offense and shutting them down on defense. Good things have happened with Diego Pavia (8.0 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions) under center, especially when he has thrown to Justice Powers (seven 20-yard plays on 19 receptions). Meanwhile, the secondary has completely locked down opposing quarterbacks. The Aggies rank seventh in passing explosiveness allowed, and they're one of 18 teams to allow no more than one 50-yard pass. Corner Syrus Dumas has led this effort, establishing himself as one of the most efficient defensive backs in the nation; opposing passers have averaged just under 5.0 yards per attempt when targeting him, and opposing receivers have picked up just 3.9 yards after catch per reception. Versatile linebacker Chris Ojoh, too, has been a force, allowing 5.5 yards per attempt and no touchdowns on 34 targets.

Bowling Green will attempt to match Dumas with top receiver Odieu Hilaire, an Alabama A&M transfer who quickly became a star for the Falcons and racked up 246 yards on eight catches in the bowl-clinching win over Toledo. Hilaire and the rest of a deep receiving corps (six players with over 200 yards) led Bowling Green to a 4-2 finish, along with a major improvement from a defense that gave up 59 points to Eastern Kentucky early in the season. To pull off a win, the Falcons need that depth in the passing game to break through New Mexico State's secondary and create explosive plays.

Watch For:

  • Will Pavia (443 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry) be a threat on the ground after suffering a minor injury at the end of the season?
  • Can New Mexico State's depth at running back get past Bowling Green's decent defensive line?
  • Will the Falcons' struggles to capitalize (120th in points per scoring opportunity) become key if the Aggies (8.5 opponent drives per game, sixth fewest in FBS) can control the game's pace?

FEI Outright Pick: Bowling Green by 6.8.

Camellia Bowl
Montgomery, Alabama
Buffalo Bulls vs. Georgia Southern Eagles (-3.5)
Tuesday, December 27, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Buffalo Georgia Southern
2022 F+ 94 89
When Buffalo has the ball
2022 F+ 97 124
2022 EPA/pass 80 97
2022 EPA/rush 61 126
When Georgia Southern has the ball
2022 F+ 86 59
2022 EPA/pass 53 39
2022 EPA/rush 31 26

Before a magical season involving a career-high 25 passing touchdowns, a then-career-high 409 yards in a win over Nebraska, and a staggering 578-yard showing in an upset of No. 25 James Madison, Kyle Vantrease made his name in college football as Buffalo's quarterback. The Bulls had their moments under his watch, including a ranked finish in 2020 before Lance Leipold left for Kansas and took half the roster with him. Vantrease played a part in some great moments at Buffalo—353 yards and four touchdowns against Miami-Ohio in 2020 marked his most impressive performance—but he has experienced unprecedented success for a plucky Georgia Southern team in his final act. The Eagles, a triple-option team just a few years ago, have leaned on their primary passer more than all but two teams in college football, with Vantrease tossing some 558 passes this season en route to the Camellia Bowl.

Now Vantrease is up against his former team, which likewise made a major turnaround in 2022. The Bulls started 0-3 with a last-second loss to Holy Cross, and their bowl hopes were understandably dim after a 2-6 MAC record in the previous season. But Buffalo heated up going into October, rattling off a five-game win streak capped by an upset of eventual conference champions Toledo. The Bulls nearly missed bowl season despite that run, but a game-winning touchdown drive in a postponed game against Akron got them just over the hump. Even that FCS loss ended up looking a lot better after the Crusaders went 12-1 and made the quarterfinals.

Buffalo's key strength is an aggressive, talented linebacker duo, which has played a key role in their FBS-best 27.5% havoc rate. James Patterson has established himself as one of the most consistent defenders in the nation over the last few years, racking up 289 tackles in 31 games since the start of 2020. The Bulls knew they could lean on him as a dynamic pass rusher, but the emergence of fellow linebacker Shaun Dolac was completely unexpected. Though unheralded as a recruit and credited with only 44 tackles in his first two seasons, he shattered all expectations this season with 134 tackles, 90 of them solo tackles (the highest mark in the nation by a huge margin). With Patterson and Dolac at the helm, Buffalo's 16.8% front-seven havoc rate ranked second overall, and superstar safety Marcus Fuqua's seven interceptions led them to finish fourth in defensive-back havoc rate. The Bulls' chances at pulling an upset will rely on limiting Vantrease, and they're throwing one of the most explosive defenses in football at their former quarterback.

Watch For:

  • Will Ron Cook Jr. (two 100-yard games in his last three appearances) return from a late-season injury to replenish the Bulls' rushing corps?
  • Can Buffalo's run defense make stops up front (29th in rushing success rate allowed) to avoid giving up big plays (123rd in rushing explosiveness allowed)?
  • In a matchup of two teams ranking in the top 10 of plays per game, will Georgia Southern's pass-first offense or Buffalo's balanced attack prove more effective?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia Southern by 1.0.

SERVPRO First Responder Bowl
Dallas, Texas
Utah State Aggies vs. Memphis Tigers (-7.5)
Tuesday, December 27, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Utah State Memphis
2022 F+ 106 53
When Utah State has the ball
2022 F+ 89 77
2022 EPA/pass 93 104
2022 EPA/rush 96 23
When Memphis has the ball
2022 F+ 117 32
2022 EPA/pass 39 46
2022 EPA/rush 113 78

Much like Buffalo, it was far from clear that Utah State would make it to bowl season early in the year. The Aggies struggled with UConn (before we knew the Huskies were actually not that bad) and went on to drop four games in a row, including a flabbergasting 35-7 loss to Weber State. But Utah State was able to make a midseason turnaround and ride a 5-2 finish, including four one-score wins, into bowl season. This season still muddles the program's trajectory, but things are far less dire than they looked in September.

Defensive improvement, particularly against the pass, has been key to the Aggies' resurgence. Talented playmaker Ike Larsen, who led the team with four interceptions on just 24 targets, has emerged as a game-changer in the secondary, serving as the centerpiece for a group with more talented defensive backs than starting roles to fill. Utah State ranks among the top 40 in EPA and success rate against the pass, and they have created defensive-back havoc on 7.0% of plays, 46th in FBS. While this team lacks for major offensive weapons, especially with Calvin Tyler Jr. (1,043 rushing yards) opting out, it's capable of using a solid receiving corps to take down Memphis as long as Cooper Legas (7.0 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions) can take care of the ball.

Memphis will pit quarterback Seth Henigan, a consistent but unexceptional passer, against that strong secondary. The Tigers lack a go-to receiver, but their variety of options—five players with 35 or more receptions, and eight with over 140 yards—means they can test all of the Aggies' depth through the air. Relying on Henigan as a decent passer at all levels has been crucial for Memphis to move the ball, and they'll need him at full strength against Utah State, which holds opponents to a 28.9% success rate on passing downs (47th overall).

Watch For:

  • Can freshman running back Robert Briggs (353 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) pick up enough short yardage to keep Memphis from stifling the Aggies' offense?
  • Will Utah State's experienced run defense (ninth-highest rush rate faced) be able to shut down a middling Tigers rushing corps?
  • Can dynamic safety Quindell Johnson (73 tackles, four interceptions) give Memphis an edge against Utah State's inconsistent passing attack?

FEI Outright Pick: Memphis by 15.0.

TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl
Birmingham, Alabama
East Carolina Pirates (-7.5) vs. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
Tuesday, December 27, 6:45 p.m. (ESPN)

East Carolina Coastal Carolina
2022 F+ 66 78
When East Carolina has the ball
2022 F+ 42 105
2022 EPA/pass 32 110
2022 EPA/rush 20 78
When Coastal Carolina has the ball
2022 F+ 78 43
2022 EPA/pass 123 3
2022 EPA/rush 15 87

It has been a somewhat underwhelming season for both the Pirates and the Chanticleers, but two players ensure this game is appointment viewing. For Coastal Carolina, defensive struggles (only one opponent held under 20 points) and an inconsistent run game (five games with 3.6 or fewer yards per carry) have plagued a rebuild year, disguised as another season of contention by five wins by one score. The Chanticleers were able to keep a strong record intact for the most part (though fate caught up to them with 47-7 and 45-26 losses in their last two games) thanks largely to another sensational season from quarterback Grayson McCall, set to play his final game here before hitting the transfer portal.

McCall's role in Coastal Carolina's recent rise to the top of the Sun Belt has been bigger than anybody else's, arguably including head coach Jamey Chadwell. His 2021 season in particular was spectacular, as he set an FBS record with 11.9 yards per pass attempt. It also marked his second consecutive season with at least 25 touchdowns and just three interceptions, which only he and Hendon Hooker have done twice this century. (The list of those to do it once features Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields, and Zach Wilson, among others.) While McCall has been less efficient this year due to an overhauled receiving corps and a more demanding offensive workload, he's in position to add a third such season with one more touchdown in this game. Whether McCall will follow Chadwell to Liberty or seek out a chance to prove himself in the Power 5 is unknown, but he'll leave an enduring legacy in Conway, and he has a chance for more heroics in his final appearance for the Chanticleers.

The Pirates have been punchy all season, nearly stunning NC State in September, blowing out UCF in October, and taking Cincinnati down to the wire in November. East Carolina's success was much more balanced than Coastal Carolina's, and no one player is responsible for the revival of football at East Carolina; quarterback Holton Ahlers, receiver tandem Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson, and run-stoppers Jeremy Lewis and Xavier Smith have all been key. But there's no doubt that Keaton Mitchell, whose 50 runs for double-digit yardage lead the nation, is the most important player for the Pirates. The fastest player in FBS, if not all of football, his speed powered him to 1,562 total yards this season, including a 7.4 yards-per-carry average that ranked fifth of 283 qualified rushers. Paired with a passing attack that picks up shorter gains, Mitchell is vital for East Carolina in what could be his last game before he goes pro.

Watch For:

  • Can top Chanticleers rushers CJ Beasley (706 yards) and Reese White (487 yards) break past a strong Pirates defensive line (42nd in stuff rate)?
  • Five of Coastal Carolina's seven defensive backs with at least 20 targets have given up over 10 yards per target; can Ahlers take advantage of their lack of depth?
  • Can the Chanticleers' solid run defense (62nd in success rate, 57th in explosiveness) keep Mitchell in check?

FEI Outright Pick: East Carolina by 6.6.

Guaranteed Rate Bowl
Phoenix, Arizona
Wisconsin Badgers (-3.5) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Tuesday, December 27, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Wisconsin Oklahoma State
2022 F+ 39 38
When Wisconsin has the ball
2022 F+ 65 41
2022 EPA/pass 113 78
2022 EPA/rush 58 66
When Oklahoma State has the ball
2022 F+ 18 45
2022 EPA/pass 45 97
2022 EPA/rush 7 82

The transfer portal and recruiting calendar have led to whirlwind Decembers for both of these teams, and this bowl is probably the last thing on anyone's mind. Making it here did extend two of the longest postseason streaks in the nation (21 consecutive bowls for Wisconsin, 17 for Oklahoma State), but it's easy to feel that the outcome is rather inconsequential. Amid the chaos, though, there will be glimpses of what these teams plan to do in 2023, though many of the pieces they hope to add aren't in place just yet.

Both teams lost their quarterbacks to the portal a few weeks ago, and both made at least some overtures to land their opponent's starter, but the Badgers' Graham Mertz is headed to Florida and the Cowboys' Spencer Sanders is still searching for a destination. It'll be a battle of backups here, and one that carries plenty of significance as their teams try to settle on their depth chart for next season. Chase Wolf and Myles Burkett are battling for, at the very least, second-string honors for Wisconsin; Gunnar Gundy and Garret Rangel are doing the same for Oklahoma State. Both teams' secondaries have been liable to big plays, so it's likely the array of passers will take plenty of deep shots and test their ability to provide an offensive spark.

The defenses are hit particularly hard by opt-outs and transfers: the Badgers lose Nick Herbig, Keeanu Benton, and Jay Shaw, while the Cowboys will be without Mason Cobb, Trace Ford, and Thomas Harper. It stands to reason, then, that the defensive leaders who remain are particularly important for both sides. Wisconsin's Maema Njongmeta (an inspiring success story after illness, injury, and COVID-19 threatened to derail his college career) led the team with 88 tackles and ranked second with 11.5 tackles for loss, and they'll rely heavily on his services in this game. For Oklahoma State, Jason Taylor II (87 tackles and a team-best six interceptions) will be vital to rally a defense which has lost several stars to the portal. Both units have hope for improvement in their future once new talent begins to pour in, but standing firm through this period of instability is significant for the pieces these teams hope to build around.

Watch For:

  • How will both teams handle their two major options to start at quarterback in this game while searching for others in the portal?
  • Will Braelon Allen have fully recovered from a late-season injury to lead Wisconsin's rushing corps against the Cowboys' middling run defense?
  • Can Oklahoma State weather the departure of lead running back Dominic Richardson to test Wisconsin (top 20 in rushing EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Wisconsin by 2.7.

Military Bowl
Annapolis, Maryland
UCF Knights vs. Duke Blue Devils (-3)
Wednesday, December 28, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

UCF Duke
2022 F+ 36 52
When UCF has the ball
2022 F+ 33 63
2022 EPA/pass 72 105
2022 EPA/rush 14 17
When Duke has the ball
2022 F+ 56 46
2022 EPA/pass 87 33
2022 EPA/rush 60 12

Duke finished 2021 on an eight-game losing streak. Longtime head coach David Cutcliffe departed after back-to-back nine-loss seasons, and while new head coach Mike Elko was a solid hire, the Blue Devils didn't expect any immediate rebound. The fact that Duke went 8-4 is a miracle that didn't win much recognition—partially because of the weak ACC Coastal and partially because stunning ascensions like this one were ridiculously common in college football this year—but it may well have been the most unexpected rise this side of Kansas. To make matters more impressive, the Blue Devils were arguably better than that record suggested; they were just 20 points away from going 12-0 and crashing the ACC Championship Game with the College Football Playoff in their sights.

Further credit is due to Elko because one of the key pieces of this turnaround—the defense, which leapt from 127th to 37th in points per game—was clearly shaped by his trademark bend-don't-break tendencies to evident success. At Texas A&M, Elko's last defense allowed the second-fewest 30-yard plays of any team: Duke jumped from 129th to 68th in that measure and from 125th to sixth in 40-yard plays. Linebacker Shaka Heyward and safety Darius Joiner, first and second on the team in tackles, exemplify this improvement, with a combined missed tackle rate of just 8.1%. The Blue Devils give up lots of plays underneath, particularly through the air, but it's extremely difficult to take the top off this disciplined defense.

UCF will try to do so by throwing an unparalleled depth of big-play threats at Duke's defense. On the ground, Isaiah Bowser, RJ Harvey, and quarterback John Rhys Plumlee have all run for over 700 yards, with Plumlee and Harvey ranking fourth and fifth in the AAC in 10-yard carries. (If that wasn't enough, Johnny Richardson has 12 such rushes in just 51 attempts.) Through the air, Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson are both capable of putting together a back-breaking performance, though losing Ryan O'Keefe will sting. The main concern is Plumlee's ability to add a spark on the ground after a hamstring injury limited him late in the season; if he's effective as a rusher, Duke will have its hands full against a talented UCF offense.

Watch For:

  • Can the Blue Devils' special teams (which place them 6.8 yards closer to goal than their opponents on average) create good field position?
  • Will UCF be able to move the ball reliably on the ground and wear down Duke's defense with long drives?
  • If Plumlee proves to be a significant rushing threat, how will Duke adjust defensively to handle the Knights' depth on the ground?

FEI Outright Pick: UCF by 4.1.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Memphis, Tennessee
Kansas Jayhawks vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (-3)
Wednesday, December 28, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Kansas Arkansas
2022 F+ 55 25
When Kansas has the ball
2022 F+ 13 60
2022 EPA/pass 1 80
2022 EPA/rush 43 112
When Arkansas has the ball
2022 F+ 106 25
2022 EPA/pass 106 18
2022 EPA/rush 118 59

It still feels surreal that Kansas has made it here. The Jayhawks' glaring defensive liabilities (35 or more points allowed in seven conference games) and injury-riddled rushing corps (one player with 15 or more carries who appeared in every game) could easily have ruined a magical season, and they were factors in a 1-6 finish, but Kansas earned its way to a bowl. They beat three teams that won at least seven games, including an early-season victory over Duke that looks quite impressive now that the Blue Devils have finished 8-4 without a multiple-score loss.

The quarterback role, as managed by both Jalon Daniels (8.4 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions) and Jason Bean (9.5 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions) has been a highlight, with Kansas leading the nation in EPA per pass. But down the stretch, as the passing attack faltered (7.7 yards per attempt, 227 yards per game in November), running back Devin Neal stepped up to keep the offense rolling. His 224 rushing yards in the bowl-clinching win over Oklahoma State marked the fourth-most by a Kansas player this century, and he became the first player for any team with 200 rushing and 100 receiving yards since 2016. Neal's late-season workload (48 carries against the Cowboys and Texas Tech, the Jayhawks' following opponent) caught up to him as he averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the final two games, but he should be fully healthy for this game.

Arkansas' defense has had its ups and downs this season (giving up 1,171 yards but just 56 points in their final two games is exemplary of that) but the unit taking the field for this game will be a very different one from the regular-season defense. Coordinator Barry Odom (now at UNLV); linebackers Drew Sanders (opting out) and Bumper Pool (injured); and lineman Isaiah Nichols and defensive back Myles Slusher (both transferring) are all absent for this game. With so many stars absent, remaining leaders such as defensive back Dwight McGlothern (nine pass breakups, three interceptions) and middle linebacker Chris Paul Jr. (50 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 9.2% stop rate on run plays) will be critical to give the Razorbacks a chance.

Watch For:

  • Can KJ Jefferson lead the offense to success without top target Jadon Haselwood (702 yards), one of two Arkansas receivers with over 300 yards?
  • Will Razorbacks running back Raheim Sanders (1,426 yards, but 60 or fewer yards in three of his last four games) bounce back after a month-long break?
  • Does the Jayhawks' ability to limit big plays (53rd in explosiveness allowed) make their matchup with the Arkansas offense (13th in explosiveness) more favorable?

FEI Outright Pick: Arkansas by 6.2.

SDCCU Holiday Bowl
San Diego, California
North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Oregon Ducks (-14.5)
Wednesday, December 28, 8 p.m. (FOX)

North Carolina Oregon
2022 F+ 60 11
When North Carolina has the ball
2022 F+ 17 57
2022 EPA/pass 11 103
2022 EPA/rush 47 92
When Oregon has the ball
2022 F+ 116 4
2022 EPA/pass 129 7
2022 EPA/rush 89 5

Drake Maye vs. Bo Nix might be the most entertaining battle of bowl season, if only for all the comparisons and contrasts between the two. On the one hand, they're both monosyllabically-named dual-threat quarterbacks who started out in the south and contended for the Heisman this year. On the other, Maye has become a star in his first season as a starter, while Nix's breakout followed a three-year rollercoaster ride at Auburn and a bumpy start at Oregon. It helps, of course, that both Maye and Nix are exceptionally fun to watch; in their best moments, they're capable of drawing comparisons to the likes of improvisational geniuses such as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson.

The most prominent difference for this game, and the reason the Ducks are favored by two touchdowns, is the lack of talent surrounding Maye. He's singlehandedly led the Tar Heels to most of their success this season, winning despite a dismal defense and a middling rushing corps that his own 653 yards elevate significantly. Nix, meanwhile, has arguably the best run game in the nation at his disposal, courtesy of Mar'Keise Irving (909 yards, 6.4 yards per carry) and Noah Whittington (757 yards, 5.9 yards per carry). Nix does play a role here with 504 rushing yards of his own, but he has other great pieces to work with. The Ducks' defense, while nowhere close to their high-flying offense, is also markedly better than North Carolina's, preventing big plays through the air (6.7% passing explosiveness allowed, fourth in the nation) to preserve leads.

There's a reason Oregon is among the biggest favorites of bowl season, and they should deliver the Tar Heels their fourth straight loss without much trouble. But while they have been able to hold off plenty of offenses using a deep secondary, Maye will be one of the toughest passers they have faced. Even without top target Josh Downs (1,029 yards), he's capable of dragging North Carolina's offense downfield and turning this into a back-and-forth quarterback duel. Pulling off the Tar Heels' second 10-win season this century will be difficult, but if anyone can do it, it's Maye.

Watch For:

  • Can North Carolina (third in passing-downs success rate) take advantage of Oregon's struggles to close out drives (122nd in passing-downs success rate allowed)?
  • Will the Tar Heels (35th in rushing explosiveness allowed) be able to hold Irving and Whittington back from creating big plays?
  • Can Oregon's defensive line (127th in sack rate) get pressure against a middling North Carolina offensive front?

FEI Outright Pick: Oregon by 15.2.

TaxAct Texas Bowl
Houston, Texas
Ole Miss Rebels (-3.5) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Wednesday, December 28, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Ole Miss Texas Tech
2022 F+ 17 37
When Ole Miss has the ball
2022 F+ 14 51
2022 EPA/pass 41 58
2022 EPA/rush 30 68
When Texas Tech has the ball
2022 F+ 42 31
2022 EPA/pass 96 103
2022 EPA/rush 63 37

For those who recall the glory days of explosive passers such as Graham Harrell and Patrick Mahomes, it's rather jarring to see the Red Raiders finding success in spite of fairly weak quarterback play. Three players threw over 100 passes for Texas Tech this season, combining for just 7.1 yards per attempt with 25 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Far more impressive, and the heart of a strong first season under Joey McGuire, was the rushing tandem of SaRodorick Thompson and Tahj Brooks. Both ran for over 600 yards and added over 100 receiving, almost perfectly splitting carries (133 to 132 to Brooks), touchdowns (eight to seven to Brooks), and total yards (801 to 765 to Thompson).

While Texas Tech didn't produce many truly remarkable rushing performances, only posting more than 200 yards on the ground twice, their consistency was key. The Red Raiders' rushing corps was only held under triple digits once, and it scored multiple times in seven games. Due to how well Thompson and Brooks complemented each other as feature backs, Texas Tech was able to trade them off from game to game without having to worry about a drop in production. They should be especially dangerous in this game, as they'll both be fully rested from a month-long break between games; for evidence of how effective that might be, they led Texas Tech to a 239-yard performance after their regular-season bye.

Ole Miss may struggle to limit the Raiders' dynamic duo, but they have some superb rushing talent of their own to lead the way. Quinshon Judkins had one of the greatest true-freshman seasons in SEC history this year, rushing for 1,476 yards and 16 touchdowns to lead the conference in both stats. His emergence relegated TCU transfer Zach Evans to a secondary role, but he still put up 899 yards and eight touchdowns in his own right. It's unknown whether Evans will play, but the Rebels can guarantee Judkins will be available, which should provide for an intriguing clash of some of the sport's best rushers.

Watch For:

  • Can Jaxson Dart (8.1 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns, eight interceptions) wrap up a solid season by taking advantage of Texas Tech's struggles with the deep ball?
  • Will the Rebels' pass defense (98th in success rate, eighth in explosiveness) be enough to limit the Red Raiders' busy quarterback room?
  • Can Texas Tech make enough stops up front to mitigate their propensity for allowing big plays (12.8% explosive-play rate allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Ole Miss by 5.2.

Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl
New York City, New York
Minnesota Golden Gophers (-9.5) vs. Syracuse Orange
Thursday, December 29, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Minnesota Syracuse
2022 F+ 18 59
When Minnesota has the ball
2022 F+ 57 49
2022 EPA/pass 67 49
2022 EPA/rush 32 106
When Syracuse has the ball
2022 F+ 6 58
2022 EPA/pass 37 68
2022 EPA/rush 8 63

With Mohamed Ibrahim set to take the field for the final time in an impressive college career, it's fair to wonder where Minnesota will go from here. The Golden Gophers' passing game was underwhelming this season, with the anticipated surge of reuniting Tanner Morgan with coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca falling apart due to injury and a rough start to conference play. While Minnesota did rank 37th in EPA per pass and 23rd in passing success rate, those numbers were buoyed by throwing the ball on under a third of their plays, the fourth-lowest rate in FBS. The tradeoff was putting the offense on the back of the rushing corps—more specifically, Ibrahim, whose 304 carries ranked third in the nation.

Despite the massive workload, Ibrahim was still fairly efficient for Minnesota, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and putting in his third thousand-yard season for the Gophers. But he's moving on after this season, which raises the question of how the offense will look in his absence. Papering over Ibrahim's early-season loss to injury in 2021 required sensational efforts from Ky Thomas and Mar'Keise Irving; Minnesota would probably prefer not to test their luck on two more breakouts next season. Whether that means looking to the portal or settling on either Treyson Potts (444 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) or Bryce Williams (243 yards, 5.0 yards per carry) as the feature back is an open question, however. Both Potts and Williams should get significant usage in this bowl, particularly if Morgan is precluded from playing by injury and Athan Kaliakmanis (8.5 yards per attempt, three touchdowns, four interceptions) takes the reins at quarterback.

The Orange will try to limit Minnesota's rushing stable with a defense that takes the concept of "bend, don't break" to its limit. Syracuse has held opponents to a remarkable 8.3% explosive-play rate, fifth in FBS … but they have surrendered a 46.9% success rate that ranks 113th overall. While the defense has been decent at getting off the field (38th in passing-downs success rate), it faces the highest rate of standard downs in FBS due to its focus on limiting big plays, which has a tendency to extend opponents' drives and avoid critical third- and fourth-down situations. Ideally, the Orange need to get Minnesota behind the sticks and test their quarterback situation, which likely won't be completely up to standard even if Morgan is cleared to play. If they can't, it could be a field day for Ibrahim, Potts, and Williams against Syracuse's struggling defensive line.

Watch For:

  • How much push can Minnesota's solid offensive line, led by NFL hopeful John Michael Schmitz, create for the rushing corps?
  • Can the Gophers use their defense's excellence in limiting opponents' success rate (11th on passes, 12th on rushes) to extend their play-rate edge?
  • How well will intriguing Syracuse freshman LeQuint Allen (180 yards, 6.9 yards per carry) fill the shoes of outbound running back Sean Tucker?

FEI Outright Pick: Minnesota by 9.7.

Cheez-It Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Oklahoma Sooners vs. Florida State Seminoles (-9)
Thursday, December 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Oklahoma Florida State
2022 F+ 23 14
When Oklahoma has the ball
2022 F+ 23 31
2022 EPA/pass 38 33
2022 EPA/rush 27 40
When Florida State has the ball
2022 F+ 50 18
2022 EPA/pass 68 16
2022 EPA/rush 91 21

Florida State's rushing corps might be the most underrated unit in college football. Quarterback Jordan Travis has earned plenty of praise for a strong season (8.9 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns, four interceptions), but the Seminoles' depth of talent on the ground is a wonder to behold. Trey Benson, who was set back by injuries in two seasons at Oregon, stole the show and solidified himself as the top running back by late October, whereupon he ran for 593 yards on 6.8 yards per carry in Florida State's five-game winning streak to end the season. Initial starter Treshaun Ward was no slouch himself, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and putting in a pair of 125-yard games early in the season. Former four-star Lawrance Toafili was regularly featured as well, standing out as a strong dual-threat option with 447 rushing and 266 receiving yards. And, of course, Travis chipped in too, scrambling for 367 yards and 4.9 yards per carry this season.

Both Benson and Travis are set to return in 2023, which should generate plenty of excitement about Florida State's potential after the way they finished the season. But this game won't be a chance to display their skills against the weak Oklahoma defense that showed up in the first half. The Sooners made significant strides down the stretch, and while a talented offense can still take advantage of their defensive inexperience (as Texas Tech did, scoring 51 points on Oklahoma in the season finale), they're capable of keeping opposing attacks in check to a certain extent.

That opens the door for the Sooners to match Florida State's pace with their own offensive weapons. Oklahoma was offensively sound as long as Dillon Gabriel (8.5 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions) was available, but their main strength has also been on the ground. Star running back Eric Gray, who racked up 1,364 yards on 6.4 yards per carry this year, is opting out, but the Sooners have other dangerous rushers to throw at Florida State. Jovantae Barnes has shown great breakaway ability as a freshman, and former four-star Gavin Sawchuk will figure prominently for the first time in his college career. The Seminoles have a full lineup of defensive talent to deal with those threats, including NFL-bound defenders Jammie Robinson and Jared Verse, but the Sooners have the ability to torch them on the ground and make this a game.

Watch For:

  • Can Gabriel keep the offense rolling against a talented but fairly untested (11th-lowest pass rate faced) Seminoles secondary?
  • Will the Sooners be able to limit Florida State's big-play potential on the ground (fourth in explosiveness) and through the air (fifth)?
  • How will Florida State (134.2 total plays per game) handle Oklahoma's high offensive and defensive tempo (156.2 total plays per game)?

FEI Outright Pick: Florida State by 10.2.

Valero Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Texas
Washington Huskies vs. Texas Longhorns (-4)
Thursday, December 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Washington Texas
2022 F+ 20 6
When Washington has the ball
2022 F+ 6 13
2022 EPA/pass 2 74
2022 EPA/rush 2 24
When Texas has the ball
2022 F+ 73 20
2022 EPA/pass 126 44
2022 EPA/rush 94 45

2022 has been a banner year for teams built through the portal, and while the likes of USC and Ole Miss have earned most of the headlines, Washington deserves notice as well. The Huskies didn't bring in a huge transfer class, but they did have an entirely overhauled staff, with head coach Kalen DeBoer, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, and co-defensive coordinators William Inge and Chuck Morrell all in their first seasons here. And among the players Washington did bring in, two have defined its offensive success: Michael Penix Jr., who went from throwing just four touchdowns for Indiana in 2021 to placing eighth in this year's Heisman vote, and Wayne Taulapapa, a minor rushing piece who never ran for 100 yards in four years at Virginia but did so three times this season.

It's hard to imagine what the Huskies would look like without those additions. Both will play in the Alamo Bowl, though unlike Penix, Taulapapa isn't returning for 2023. Washington's roster situation for this game stands in stark contrast to Texas', as the Longhorns will be without running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson as well as linebacker DeMarvion Overshown. They will, however, have quarterback Quinn Ewers, who has shown flashes of brilliance but underwhelmed in the second half; he's under some pressure to perform with Arch Manning, the top prospect in the class of 2023, having officially signed with Texas just a few days ago.

Washington's defensive struggles should create ample opportunity for the Longhorns to rack up points despite their depleted rushing corps, but Texas is going to need some defensive stops. Without Overshown to lead the run defense—which ranks among the top 15 in success rate and explosiveness allowed—Jaylan Ford (109 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four interceptions) will need to take the helm. The Longhorns' defensive line, featuring edge rushers Ovie Oghoufo and Barryn Sorrell (68 combined pressures), will also play a key role to break into the backfield against a stalwart Washington line (1.0% sack rate allowed, second in FBS). Despite some absent stars, this figures to be one of the most interesting games of bowl season, offering an intriguing look at two teams with high hopes for next year.

Watch For:

  • Will the Longhorns get pressure against the Huskies' superb pass protection (4.7% front-seven havoc rate allowed, first nationally)?
  • Will Texas' defensive success on scoring opportunities (3.09 points allowed, ninth) hold back Washington's efficient offense (4.95 points per opportunity, second)?
  • Can the Longhorns avoid passing downs, where they fall from a 48.8% overall success rate (14th) to 31.1% (71st)?

FEI Outright Pick: Texas by 10.2.

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part II

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
Houston -7 Louisiana Houston Houston Louisiana
Wake Forest -2.5 Missouri Missouri Missouri Wake Forest
San Diego State -6.5 Middle Tennessee San Diego State Middle Tennessee Middle Tennessee
Bowling Green -3.5 New Mexico State Bowling Green Bowling Green New Mexico State
Georgia Southern -3.5 Buffalo Georgia Southern Buffalo Buffalo
Memphis -7.5 Utah State Memphis Memphis Memphis
East Carolina -7.5 Coastal Carolina East Carolina Coastal Carolina East Carolina
Wisconsin -3.5 Oklahoma State Wisconsin Oklahoma State Wisconsin
Duke -3 UCF UCF UCF Duke
Arkansas -3 Kansas Arkansas Arkansas Kansas
Oregon -14.5 North Carolina Oregon Oregon Oregon
Ole Miss -3.5 Texas Tech Ole Miss Ole Miss Texas Tech
Minnesota -9.5 Syracuse Minnesota Minnesota Minnesota
Florida State -9 Oklahoma Florida State Florida State Florida State
Texas -4 Washington Texas Texas Washington

FEI's picks ATS last week: 8-5.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 46-50-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 7-7.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 45-52-1.


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