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24 Dec 2015

SDA: 2015 Bowls Part II

by Chad Peltier

It’s time for the post-Christmas round of bowls, and this is where the Group of 5 teams really start to enter the fray. After Christmas, the bowls are less about #MACtion and #FUNbelt and more about underachieving major-conference teams. Here is also where you’ll start to see the conference record books padded. Want to know if the Big Ten is the best conference in the country? Here’s where you can include Indiana’s postseason performance in your argument. Think the SEC West is overrated? Well, Memphis and Paxton Lynch may give you some talking points.

The family will likely all be together for these games and you’re almost guaranteed some good background football to your family activities prior to the New Year’s Eve playoff games. So let’s get to it.

St. Petersburg Bowl: Marshall (-4.5) vs. Connecticut -- December 26, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall UConn Marshall
F/+ 80 59
When UConn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 114 36
FEI 112 32
Success Rate 102 29
IsoPPP 107 26
Rushing S&P+ 108 84
Passing S&P+ 83 35
When Marshall has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 38 85
FEI 18 91
Success Rate 47 57
IsoPPP 30 97
Rushing S&P+ 52 99
Passing S&P+ 39 79

It’s Saturday morning, the day after Christmas, and you’re in for a morning kickoff (very early in the morning, if you’re on the west coast) between two teams with top-40 S&P+ defenses but offenses that are 85th and worse. UConn and Marshall are both average teams -- UConn did upset (a quarterback-less) Houston to get to 6-6 -- but offense is not either team’s forte. Neither has a star quarterback, neither has a 1,000-yard rusher (or one that averages a 40 percent opportunity rate), and no starting receivers average more than 13 yards per catch. This could be a defensive struggle, but you do get the advantage of rolling out of bed on Boxing Day to college football.

This is UConn’s first bowl in four years, so they’re likely to be fired up. The question is whether they can field an offense. It will all run through quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who has been adequate throwing the ball (6.3 yards per attempt and seven interceptions), but who is the most consistent runner, averaging a 58 percent opportunity rate. Marshall has a fleet of backs to replace Devon Johnson, and the three all have very similar profiles, with just Remi Watson deviating as a boom-or-bust explosive back. Marshall’s high-flying passing attack from last year is gone, but they are still explosive on passing downs, ranking 16th in IsoPPP (though 116th on standard downs IsoPPP?), so they’ll likely need some big passes on third down to take down a surprisingly stout UConn defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Marshall

Sun Bowl: Washington State (-2.5) vs. Miami -- December 26, 2 p.m. (CBS)

Overall Miami Washington State
F/+ 61 56
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 39 81
FEI 52 48
Success Rate 74 95
IsoPPP 23 44
Rushing S&P+ 116 89
Passing S&P+ 12 37
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 57 45
FEI 66 46
Success Rate 117 9
IsoPPP 12 117
Rushing S&P+ 118 57
Passing S&P+ 38 77

Things are starting to get good in bowl season as Power 5 conference and name-brand teams start entering the mix. An 8-4 record can feel very differently depending on where you’re sitting. For Miami, it was enough to fire Al Golden and hire Mark Richt. For Washington State, it was cause for celebration, as Mike Leach’s Cougars seem to have turned the corner this season after a rough start to his tenure there. The actual bowl will be a quarterback dual and one of the best of the early bowl season. Luke Falk has 4,266 passing yards in that Air Raid system, while Brad Kaaya has quietly had an incredibly efficient year with only four interceptions and more than 3,000 passing yards so far.

The problem for the Miami offense was that they really didn’t have a run game. Joseph Yearby has almost crossed the 1,000-yard mark, but averages under a 40 percent opportunity rate and 5 yards per carry as Miami ranks 116th in rushing S&P+. Washington State’s defense isn’t a formidable threat, but is far better against the pass (37th in passing S&P+) than against the run (89th), so it’s strength-on-strength. Brad Kaaya has a deep receiving corps with three receivers surpassing 600 yards. Kaaya and his receiver trio will need to carry the day and try to hit big plays on standard downs (14th in IsoPPP). While Miami will go for big passing plays, Washington State will try to be efficient (16th in passing downs success rate and ninth in standard downs success rate). Miami may have the advantage as Washington State ranks 77th in passing S&P+ to Miami’s 38th, but the Cougars have an opportunity to create steady drives on the Hurricanes defense -- particularly one that lost safety Jamal Carter and defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins for the bowl game.

F/+ Outright Pick: Miami

Heart of Dallas Bowl: Washington (-8.5) vs. Southern Miss -- December 26, 2:20 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Washington Southern Miss
F/+ 22 54
When Washington has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 46 62
FEI 103 46
Success Rate 63 26
IsoPPP 71 105
Rushing S&P+ 59 59
Passing S&P+ 97 75
When Southern Miss has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 10 41
FEI 1 30
Success Rate 56 46
IsoPPP 17 1
Rushing S&P+ 20 52
Passing S&P+ 25 55

Washington has been much better than its record indicates, ranking 20th in the S&P+ rankings despite an even 6-6 record overall. The Huskies are favored in Vegas by more than a touchdown as well, agreeing with the advanced stats here that Washington is the better team despite the worse record. The Huskies are favored in part because of a top defense that is ranked tenth by the S&P+ and top 25 in both rushing and passing S&P+ individually. The other thing to consider is that the Huskies are an extremely young team. Both quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are freshmen.

However, while Washington might be on the upswing and favored in this one, Southern Miss has seen a big turnaround of their own, going from 3-9 last year to 9-4 and the top of the Conference USA West. It has largely been through an explosive but inefficient offense that racks up total yards. The Golden Eagles rank first overall in offensive IsoPPP and 46th in total efficiency. Southern Miss managed two 1,000-yard rushers, running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith, and both were incredibly explosive. Richard was slightly more consistent, but Smith averaged 9.8 highlight yards per opportunity. They complemented junior quarterback Nick Mullins, who threw for 4,145 yards and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. So the matchup of the game will be how the solid Huskies defense performs against an explosive but inefficient Golden Eagles offense. While Washington’s defense is solid against explosive plays on standard downs (tenth), Southern Miss has most of the advantages on passing downs -- so this one could be close for the whole game as the Golden Eagles' offense will keep them within striking distance at all times.

F/+ Outright Pick: Washington

Pinstripe Bowl: Indiana (-2.5) vs. Duke -- December 26, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Indiana Duke
F/+ 62 75
When Indiana has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 20 45
FEI 25 97
Success Rate 34 39
IsoPPP 31 43
Rushing S&P+ 56 40
Passing S&P+ 11 104
Duke has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 106 91
FEI 107 75
Success Rate 87 86
IsoPPP 113 100
Rushing S&P+ 98 78
Passing S&P+ 93 89

On the surface, you should only pay attention to the Pinstripe Bowl when Indiana has the ball, since that will be a matchup between the 20th S&P+ offense and the 45th-ranked Duke defense. And when Duke has the ball, it’s the 91st offense against the 106th Indiana defense. That seems to make sense, as Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld has had an excellent year, throwing for more than 3,100 yards and only five interceptions. The Duke defense, particularly the pass defense, was built on All-American safety Jeremy Cash (three forced fumbles, four pass break-ups, and 18 tackles for loss), but he was ruled out for the bowl game. So can the Indiana offense take advantage of this hole in the Blue Devils defense and tip the scales in their favor?

Nate Sudfeld has three big targets: Simmie Cobbs Jr., Ricky Jones, and Mitchell Paige all have at least 63 receptions and account for two-thirds of the team’s total targets in the passing game. With a significantly weakened secondary due to Cash’s absence, that could really push things in favor of the Hoosiers. One thing you’re not likely to see is a lot of quarterbacks on the ground. Not only are both offensive lines excellent in pass protection (Indiana is ninth and Duke is fourth in adjusted sack rate), but both defenses are similarly terrible, with Duke especially ranking 116th. Sudfeld should have the time to go through his three-receiver progressions, but he also has UAB transfer Jordan Howard in the running game. Howard was as consistent as they come, averaging a 47 percent opportunity rate. The Duke offense doesn’t have anyone that deadly, as Thomas Sirk has needed to be the top running threat (45 percent opportunity rate but 3.8 highlight yards per opportunity) and will throw to a deep receiving corps that lacks a true star threat. But with the Indiana defense, you don’t need to be particularly explosive to have explosive plays -- at 89th in passing IsoPPP and 109th in rushing IsoPPP, the Hoosiers defense allows explosive plays regularly.

F/+ Outright Pick: Indiana

Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech (-13.5) vs. Tulsa -- December 26, 5:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Tulsa Virginia Tech
F/+ 93 53
When Tulsa has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 51 28
FEI 50 43
Success Rate 87 15
IsoPPP 24 117
Rushing S&P+ 103 32
Passing S&P+ 65 50
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 115 81
FEI 103 96
Success Rate 107 80
IsoPPP 99 116
Rushing S&P+ 119 84
Passing S&P+ 108 74

This is Frank Beamer’s final game with the Hokies, so you know that Virginia Tech will be fired up despite playing Tulsa in a matchup of 6-6 teams. Their records mask the fact that this will be an exciting game, especially when Tulsa has the ball. Tulsa’s Air Raid offense throws early and often, usually generating big plays if not efficient passing. Dane Evans has thrown for just under 4,000 yards on the season with only eight interceptions even though the passing S&P+ rankings only slot Tulsa as the 65th-most efficient passing offense. But what’s interesting is that while Tulsa is explosive (24th in IsoPPP) but inefficient (87th in success rate), Virginia Tech’s defense is the opposite -- very susceptible to big plays (117th), but lock-down otherwise (15th in success rate). So the real question for this one is whether Tulsa can hit enough big plays, particularly through the air, to beat a traditionally very stout Hokies defense as Frank Beamer stands on the sidelines for the final time?

Another, related question will be whether Dane Evans can get the ball out of his hands before getting sacked. The Hokies are 18th in overall havoc rate and eighth in standard downs sack rate, and are playing a Tulsa offensive line that was 109th in standard downs sack rate. Tulsa’s big two receivers are Keyarris Garrett and Joshua Atkinson, who both average around 15 yards per catch. Virginia Tech has been weaker against the pass overall (52nd in passing S&P+), but at least Tulsa has next to no chance to run on the Hokies, ranking 103rd in rushing S&P+ with both running backs averaging less than 3.4 highlight yards per opportunity. Finally, given Tulsa’s defense, Virginia Tech should be fine offensively (Tulsa ranks 115th in defensive S&P+), but they’ll need a strong performance from Michael Brewer, who has performed extremely well since coming back from injury.

F/+ Outright Pick: Virginia Tech

Foster Farms Bowl: UCLA (-7) vs. Nebraska -- December 26, 9:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall UCLA Nebraska
F/+ 30 38
When UCLA has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 23 55
FEI 39 74
Success Rate 28 32
IsoPPP 45 116
Rushing S&P+ 64 36
Passing S&P+ 47 78
When Nebraska has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 46 36
FEI 31 34
Success Rate 66 72
IsoPPP 4 34
Rushing S&P+ 54 43
Passing S&P+ 19 25

Nebraska may have snuck in to a bowl game at 5-7, but we’re better for it with the matchup with UCLA. This is certainly a step down for the Bruins based on preseason expectations, but this game is critically important for Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers. 5-8 looks much worse than 6-7 to prospective recruits and Nebraska fans as the Cornhuskers try and rebuild.

We’ve got an interesting matchup where both offenses have a chance to move the ball on decent but limited defenses. Josh Rosen is the story for the Bruins, as he draws an end to a freshman season that did little to diminish expectations for his career. He leads just the 47th-ranked passing S&P+ offense, but the Nebraska pass defense is 78th in S&P+ and really struggles with explosive plays (116th in IsoPPP). Jordan Payton and Thomas Duarte are the two receivers that will benefit the most from playing the Cornhuskers' leaky explosive play defense. Paul Perkins has locked in another 1,000-yard rushing season (and his freshman backup Soso Jamabo has nearly identical numbers), but the Nebraska run defense is much better than the pass defense (36th), so look for the Bruins to primarily air it out.

The same goes for Nebraska’s offense, where Tommy Armstrong has put up nearly 2,900 passing yards, but at the cost of 16 interceptions and just a 54.8 percent completion rate. The Bruins defense has been hampered by injuries, but that has mainly been a problem defending the run (54th) as the pass defense has stayed at an efficient 19th in the S&P+. Even though Nebraska’s run game lacks a star (or really even a go-to guy), they may want to lean a little more on Terrell Newby than normal given the UCLA defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: UCLA

Military Bowl: Navy (-4) vs. Pittsburgh -- December 28th, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Pittsburgh Navy
F/+ 39 13
When Pitt has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 38 37
FEI 37 69
Success Rate 33 76
IsoPPP 104 23
Rushing S&P+ 16 30
Passing S&P+ 62 59
When Navy has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 44 15
FEI 68 3
Success Rate 22 5
IsoPPP 111 73
Rushing S&P+ 58 5
Passing S&P+ 22 40

It has been a very successful year for both Navy and Pitt. For Navy, the Midshipmen have the chance to hit ten wins; for Pitt, Pat Narduzzi will compete for a nine-win season in his first year as a head coach. While the Navy defense has certainly stepped up this season (37th in the S&P+, though just 69th in defensive FEI), the real matchup to watch will be when Keenan Reynolds and Navy have the football against the Pitt defense.

Pat Narduzzi has brought his stellar Cover-4 defense over from Michigan State, and it has shown with the 44th overall defense in the S&P+ (also much lower in the FEI, at 68th). The question will be whether they can handle Navy’s triple-option offense. Pitt won an earlier matchup with Georgia Tech by a last-second field goal, but allowed a devastating 376 rushing yards at 9.4 yards per carry. If Navy can replicate that performance against the 58th-ranked rushing S&P+ Pitt defense, then that’s a very bad sign for getting to nine wins for Pitt. However, Pitt also has the benefit of facing a triple-option team once already this season and getting to practice it on defense for three weeks during bowl practices. But it will take a lot to slow down Keenan Reynolds and that rushing offense nonetheless. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee graduate transfer Nate Peterman has had a solid but unspectacular junior year, averaging a pedestrian 6.3 yards per attempt. But he has dealt with replacing star running back James Conner by relying on the efficient Tyler Boyd and newcomer Qadree Ollison. Ollison is more explosive (6.7 highlight yards per carry) than efficient (32.4 percent opportunity rate) and will face a Navy defense that doesn’t give up big plays, but concedes shorter gains nonetheless. Expect a big day from Tyler Boyd and a respectable performance from Ollison as this one goes down to the wire.

F/+ Outright Pick: Navy

Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota (-5.5) vs. Central Michigan -- December 28th, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall Central Michigan Minnesota
F/+ 68 57
When Central Michigan has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 80 21
FEI 68 55
Success Rate 71 68
IsoPPP 33 7
Rushing S&P+ 120 71
Passing S&P+ 36 24
When Minnesota has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 59 55
FEI 58 65
Success Rate 62 93
IsoPPP 50 84
Rushing S&P+ 88 72
Passing S&P+ 66 34

Like Big Ten brethren Nebraska, Minnesota snuck in to a bowl game at 5-7. The Golden Gophers will face Central Michigan, with the latter not even leaving its state for the bowl game. The Gophers look like one of those teams that is a lot better than its record, ranking 35th overall in the S&P+ (though 73rd in the FEI). The key for Minnesota is how good the defense is -- 21st in the S&P+ and particularly solid in pass defense (24th), shutting down explosive plays (seventh in overall IsoPPP and leading the country in opponent 20-plus-yard passes with just 24 allowed on the season).

This actually makes for an interesting matchup as Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush has thrown for 3,703 yards this season (with five receivers totaling over 500 yards!) and the Central Michigan offense ranks 33rd in IsoPPP. So with strength-on-strength, who will win out? The Minnesota offense looks to have the slight upper hand, particularly because the Chippewas are totally one-dimensional, ranking 120th in rushing S&P+ with three running backs all averaging 3.5 yards per carry and a 30 percent or lower opportunity rate. A further problem for Central Michigan might be turning explosive plays into points. While Minnesota has advantages stopping the run and containing explosive plays, they are also facing a 106th-ranked offense at finishing drives (not that the 83rd-ranked Minnesota defense is great at this either). So even if the Chippewas can hit a few big plays, that doesn’t mean they’ll all go for scores when they enter the red zone.

F/+ Outright Pick: Minnesota

Armed Forces Bowl: California (-7) vs. Air Force -- December 29th, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall California Air Force
F/+ 44 58
When California has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 17 63
FEI 19 61
Success Rate 10 5
IsoPPP 41 128
Rushing S&P+ 25 44
Passing S&P+ 9 54
When Air Force has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 87 30
FEI 86 36
Success Rate 105 23
IsoPPP 56 30
Rushing S&P+ 73 20
Passing S&P+ 98 5

Get ready for some offense, but in totally contrasting styles. Jared Goff will play in his final college game before heading off to the NFL, and leads a passing offense that ranks tenth in success rate and ninth in overall passing S&P+ against a mediocre Air Force pass defense (54th in S&P+). Air Force brings the 20th-ranked rushing S&P+ offense, with three players who average around a 40 percent opportunity rate.

While Air Force is ranked fifth overall in passing S&P+, that shouldn’t fool you -- they’re also ranked 66th in passing downs S&P+. Air Force rarely throws the ball, but they’re decently explosive when they do, averaging 10.6 yards per attempt (though quarterback Karson Roberts has ten interceptions on just 134 attempts this year). But just sticking to the ground game should be good for Air Force, as the Cal defense is 112th in standard downs success rate and 73rd in rushing S&P+. On the other side, Jared Goff should find plenty of holes in the Air Force defense. Air Force's defense also tends to get better as the game goes on (starting at 106th in defensive S&P+ in the first quarter then averaging 32nd after), but Cal might be able to build up a big enough lead early that a ground-first attack may not have time to catch up.

F/+ Outright Pick: California

Russell Athletic Bowl: Baylor (-3) vs. North Carolina -- December 29th, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall North Carolina Baylor
F/+ 21 12
When North Carolina has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 22 60
FEI 9 28
Success Rate 22 30
IsoPPP 3 47
Rushing S&P+ 15 8
Passing S&P+ 23 34
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 65 4
FEI 56 11
Success Rate 100 8
IsoPPP 3 13
Rushing S&P+ 106 36
Passing S&P+ 65 6

It was a big drop-off for the Tar Heels from playing in the ACC championship game to the Russell Athletic Bowl (when they could have challenged for a playoff spot as well), but they face a worthy opponent in Baylor. The only issue is that there may not be anybody left for Baylor to field an offense. Both Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham were lost for the year at quarterback, then Chris Johnson stepped in only to get hurt himself, leaving a strange veer-based offense for former high school quarterback Lynx Hawthorne against Texas in their last regular season game. Reports are that Johnson will be back for the bowl, but he’ll just have his (admittedly excellent) running back Shock Linwood and duo of K.D. Cannon and Jay Lee at receiver since star Corey Coleman is also out for the game with surgery.

With Baylor’s injuries you really can’t evaluate their offensive statistics the same way. There was a big drop-off in production with Chris Johnson, as he has under a 40 percent completion rate. Regardless, the North Carolina defense is one of the best in the country preventing explosive plays, but is much worse on a per-play efficiency basis (100th in success rate). The biggest problem for Baylor will be in the red zone and finishing drives, as North Carolina is 13th in points allowed inside their 40. While Baylor was one of the best teams in the country at finishing drives, it’s hard to say if that will still be the case. On the flip side of the ball, expect big plays from Marquise Williams and Elijah Hood. The Tar Heels are third overall in IsoPPP on offense and rank in the top 25 in four of the five factors (including success rate, IsoPPP, finishing drives, and field position). But North Carolina has the biggest advantages on passing downs, where you can expect to see big plays (25th in IsoPPP to Baylor at 79th) and efficient running (tenth in passing downs line yards per carry to 88th for Baylor). Elijah Hood has been one of the best under-the-radar backs in college football (1,345 rushing yards, 6.5 yards per carry, and a 46.6 percent opportunity rate), but will fight for yards on standard downs, where Baylor’s still-intact defense ranks eighth in rushing S&P+.

F/+ Outright Pick: Baylor

Arizona Bowl: Colorado State (-3.5) vs. Nevada -- December 29th, 7:30 p.m. (ASN)

Overall Nevada Colorado State
F/+ 99 86
When Nevada has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 96 89
FEI 97 94
Success Rate 68 59
IsoPPP 106 101
Rushing S&P+ 81 103
Passing S&P+ 103 89
When Colorado State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 104 64
FEI 91 57
Success Rate 82 18
IsoPPP 49 96
Rushing S&P+ 92 51
Passing S&P+ 103 50

Called a travesty by the Mountain West commissioner, the all-Mountain West Conference Arizona Bowl features Nevada and Colorado State. Neither team is particularly effective in any one area (ranking in a range from 64th to 104th in offensive and defensive S&P+), but it’s fair to say that the Nevada defense will undoubtedly be the worst unit on the field. The biggest advantage either team has is Colorado State's offensive success rate versus Nevada defense (18th to 82nd) and the Rams’ elite field position (23rd to 124th). Strange enough, while the Rams are 51st in offensive rushing S&P+ and Nevada is 81st, Nevada had two players break the 1,000-yard marker, Don Jackson and James Butler. They received a huge number of carries, though Jackson had just a 29.7 percent opportunity rate on 222 rushes. The Rams, in contrast, had three players hit at least 500 yards, and leading rusher Dalyn Dawkins had a 44.9 percent opportunity rate. The main action will be on the ground as both Jackson and Butler try to take advantage of the 103rd-ranked rushing S&P+ Colorado State defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Colorado State

Texas Bowl: LSU (-7) vs. Texas Tech -- December 29th, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall LSU Texas Tech
F/+ 11 47
When LSU has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 16 118
FEI 17 121
Success Rate 43 126
IsoPPP 19 78
Rushing S&P+ 7 124
Passing S&P+ 37 84
When Texas Tech has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 27 1
FEI 39 7
Success Rate 65 7
IsoPPP 37 14
Rushing S&P+ 50 1
Passing S&P+ 12 27

For our second straight state-themed bowl game, it’s hard to judge the Tigers’ motivations for this one. Texas Tech isn’t the bowl game opponent most LSU fans were hoping for after a half-season of dominance, but the 8-3 Tigers will likely have at least one highly motivated running back who is eager to prove he should have been invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. Leonard Fournette was the far-and-away Heisman leader until his run-in with the Alabama defense, then completely dropped out of the race with a few subpar performances. But he’ll look for redemption with a punishing performance against the 124th-ranked rushing S&P+ Texas Tech defense. The Red Raiders’ run defense is just about as bad as you can get. And Leonard Fournette is about as good of a running back as you can get, too -- fourth in rushing explosiveness and seventh in overall rushing S&P+, the Tigers are probably the worst possible matchup for Texas Tech’s defense that ranks 126th and 124th in those two categories. Forget whether or not Brandon Harris or even Les Miles is the long-term answer at LSU -- this game should be about offensive catharsis for the Tigers fans.

So with that in mind, can Texas Tech overcome its defensive woes with big offensive play? After all, the Red Raiders are first in overall offensive S&P+ themselves, with the eighth-ranked explosive run game and top S&P+ rushing attack. DeAndre Washington has quietly amassed 1,455 rushing yards and a 43.9 percent opportunity rate, while quarterback Patrick Mahomes II keeps it balanced with 4,283 passing yards and 7.7 yards per attempt. In fact, the LSU defense looks outmatched on paper in a few areas -- like standard downs success rate (ninth to 82nd), passing downs explosive plays (second to 108th), and standard downs line yards per carry (third to 94th). It’s crazy to believe, but don’t write off Texas Tech -- even with that defense -- because of how efficient that offense can be on standard downs and explosive it can be on passing downs. When you factor in both teams’ motivations, this one could be extra interesting.

F/+ Outright Pick: LSU

Birmingham Bowl: Auburn (-2.5) vs. Memphis -- December 30th, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Auburn Memphis
F/+ 49 27
When Auburn has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 47 72
FEI 40 53
Success Rate 39 75
IsoPPP 122 92
Rushing S&P+ 40 41
Passing S&P+ 41 86
When Memphis has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 50 21
FEI 63 13
Success Rate 111 20
IsoPPP 8 43
Rushing S&P+ 53 88
Passing S&P+ 49 18

What a disappointing year for the (Auburn) Tigers. Pegged as the SEC frontrunners by many in the preseason, the 6-6 Tigers don’t even get to leave their own state for a bowl game against Memphis. And Auburn is barely favored, by less than a field goal, out of respect for Paxton Lynch and the matchup with the Auburn defense. Will Muschamp has moved on after just a season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, so the instability there has made the Tigers even more mediocre than they might otherwise be.

Although Memphis dropped a few as the season went on and Auburn was average at best, this bowl game is a truly exciting matchup. Both offenses should find plenty of success against these defenses. Memphis is 20th in offensive success rate to Auburn’s 111th, while the Auburn offense is up against the 75th-ranked success rate defense. Auburn’s success is likely to come on the ground, where the Tigers are 38th in standard downs success rate. Peyton Barber was the go-to guy early, but Jovon Robinson came on strong later in the season, rushing for 5.7 yards per carry and a team-high 46.7 percent opportunity rate. No matter who takes the ball on the ground, Gus Malzhan’s offense desperately needs a quarterback. Sean White offers more consistency and a better chance at explosive passes against the 94th-ranked passing IsoPPP defense, but has been dealing with injuries.

Paxton Lynch has rivaled the Air Raid guys in terms of passing yardage, and he gets one more opportunity to impress NFL scouts with game film before the offseason and NFL combine training. Lynch has averaged 8.4 yards per pass with only three interceptions despite an anemic rushing attack. The best thing to say for Auburn’s defense is that it limits explosive plays (eighth in IsoPPP), but it has struggled with efficiency, ranking 111th in standard downs success rate and 63rd in defensive FEI. That plays to Memphis’ strengths on offense, which is more about consistent passing rather than chunk plays. If Auburn can’t get to Lynch -- and they probably will struggle at this, ranked 110th in passing downs sack rate -- then he should have all day to pick apart the Auburn defense.

F/+ Outright Pick: Memphis

Belk Bowl: Mississippi State (-5) vs. NC State -- December 30th, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall NC State Mississippi State
F/+ 41 23
When NC State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 28 41
FEI 18 51
Success Rate 61 85
IsoPPP 47 19
Rushing S&P+ 6 60
Passing S&P+ 63 44
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 34 24
FEI 78 21
Success Rate 31 24
IsoPPP 115 67
Rushing S&P+ 46 27
Passing S&P+ 82 13

If you were to guess, even after looking at their respective records, I’m betting few would realize that both the Wolfpack and the Bulldogs are ranked in the top 30 of the S&P+. This is a good matchup between similarly ranked teams with senior quarterbacks who are both good runners.

Dak Prescott and Jacoby Brissett will be the main draws here. Prescott ends his career as probably the best overall player Mississippi State has ever had, and he has done it all for his team this season. Prescott is the team’s leading rusher by nearly 400 yards (he's also the most explosive by 2.4 highlight yards per opportunity, and the most efficient compared to the two running backs with at least 40 carries) and has led the 13th-ranked passing S&P+ offense with more than 3,400 passing yards and a 66.9 percent completion rate. It has been a stellar year for Prescott and his two leading receivers, Fred Ross and De’Runnya Wilson, but Jacoby Brissett is nearly as important to his team as Prescott is to his. Brissett has thrown for 2,448 yards and just four interceptions, but has mainly done so with shorter passes (he averages 5.6 yards per pass).

N.C. State has two big keys on offense: try and avoid sacks, and be efficient on standard downs. The Wolfpack have a big advantage over the Bulldogs on standard downs, ranking seventh in standard downs S&P+ to Mississippi State’s 65th, and 32nd in success rate to the Bulldogs’ 109th. But things reverse on passing downs, as the Bulldogs are 19th in passing downs S&P+ defense, while Brissett’s short passing attack struggles and the Wolfpack fall to 86th. Second, the Wolfpack offensive line is clearly built for run blocking, ranking 102nd in standard downs sack rate and 116th in passing downs sack rate. For Mississippi State, the answer is with Dak Prescott -- the Bulldogs are 12th in passing S&P+ to the Wolfpack’s 84th, so expect a lot of passing as Prescott ends his college career.

F/+ Outright Pick: Mississippi State

Music City Bowl: Texas A&M (-3) vs. Louisville -- December 30th, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas A&M Louisville
F/+ 37 43
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 58 22
FEI 85 40
Success Rate 50 24
IsoPPP 99 36
Rushing S&P+ 22 7
Passing S&P+ 80 51
When Louisville has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 30 50
FEI 14 66
Success Rate 40 79
IsoPPP 44 37
Rushing S&P+ 82 24
Passing S&P+ 2 60

Who would have thought that Texas A&M would have had more bowl season controversy and distractions than Louisville? With both former five-star quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray deciding to transfer, the Aggies are left with sophomore junior college transfer Jake Hubenak at quarterback for the bowl game. So will the Aggies have any offense? And will Louisville run all over the Aggies defense?

The Aggies went from one of the most explosive and innovative passing attacks in college football under Johnny Manziel to the 80th-ranked passing S&P+ attack from this season, which revolved around two former five-star quarterbacks and a group of countless blue chip receivers that simply couldn’t put it together. Christian Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, and Damion Ratley had the potential to be the top overall wide receiver group in the country, but they were inefficient all season as Allen averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt and Murray just 4.9. So far Hubenak has a 44.4 percent completion rate and averages 3 yards per attempt in very limited action. Passing would theoretically be the way to go against the 51st-ranked Louisville passing S&P+ defense, but that’s assuming Hubenak and the receivers (and the offensive coaching staff) can pull it together amidst reports of dissatisfaction with head coach Kevin Sumlin in the administration and rumored upcoming offensive coaching changes. But considering Louisville is seventh in rushing S&P+, the Aggies likely can’t rely on running back Tra Carson, and they won’t have either Kyler Murray (8.6 yards per carry, 62.2 percent opportunity rate) or Kyle Allen (6 yards per carry, 51.2 percent opportunity rate) to balance the quarterback run game.

So this looks like an excellent opportunity for Louisville to avenge its Belk Bowl loss from last season against another SEC team and climb back into the national spotlight with an eight-win season. The biggest challenge is going to be from John Chavis’ pass defense, which ranks second in the country in defensive passing S&P+. The Aggies manage that with a strong pass rush, which is 15th in overall havoc rate this season. Louisville’s biggest opportunity will then be with the ground game, as they rank tenth and ninth in standard and passing downs line yards per carry and 24th in rushing S&P+ to the Aggies’ 82nd.

F/+ Outright Pick: Louisville

Holiday Bowl: USC (-3) vs. Wisconsin -- December 30th, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall USC Wisconsin
F/+ 17 33
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 12 7
FEI 14 11
Success Rate 27 8
IsoPPP 57 24
Rushing S&P+ 34 14
Passing S&P+ 38 9
When Wisconsin has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 49 86
FEI 30 80
Success Rate 83 69
IsoPPP 72 111
Rushing S&P+ 35 80
Passing S&P+ 41 39

The late night game features two programs who had a great deal of change in 2015. USC fired its head coach after a tumultuous series of off-field reports (not to mention underwhelming on-field success), promoted a coach from within, went to and lost the Pac-12 Championship, and are now on the verge of a nine-win season regardless. Wisconsin has faded from the national spotlight after getting pummeled in its season opener by Alabama and missing the Big Ten Western title -- but it's also on the edge of a ten-win season.

The Wisconsin offense has really struggled in the post-Melvin Gordon era so far, ranking a dismal 80th in rushing S&P+ behind Dare Ogunbowale and a mismatched cast of guys due to Corey Clement’s injuries. Wisconsin only averaged more than 5 yards per carry in three games this season, but had a crazy 62 carries in its win over Minnesota to end the regular season. Clement is supposed to play in this one and could have a really positive impact considering that he easily has the highest average highlight yards per opportunity (nine yards per opportunity) on the team for the 111th IsoPPP offense. But the Trojans defense has struggled with efficiency too (83rd in success rate) and the Badgers’ biggest offensive advantage is likely in field position, where they rank 11th to USC’s 61st.

The Trojans’ Cody Kessler will play his final game for USC in this Holiday Bowl, and he has led an efficient but un-explosive offense that has relied more on the run game than in previous years. Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II have been an excellent one-two punch for the Trojans, each averaging north of a 42 percent opportunity rate and Jones hitting 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity. Kessler has been extremely reliant on Juju Smith-Schuster, who has gotten more than 2.5 times the targets as the second-most targeted receiver, Steven Mitchell Jr. It’s possible that the passing game’s reliance on the admittedly excellent Smith-Schuster, combined with the offensive line’s patchwork nature, has made it difficult for Kessler to get to other receiving options in his progressions, as he has been sacked 35 times and the Trojans are 94th in adjusted sack rate. Wisconsin is 19th in defensive adjusted sack rate -- and solid across the board, with 14th- and ninth-ranked rushing and passing S&P+ offense -- and will likely try to force errors and inconsistency out of Kessler.

F/+ Outright Pick: USC


Favorite Spread Underdog F/+ Pick F/+ vs. Spread Pick
Marshall 4.5 Connecticut Marshall Marshall
Washington State 2.5 Miami Miami Miami
Washington 8.5 Southern Miss Washington Washington
Indiana 2 Duke Indiana Indiana
Virginia Tech 13.5 Tulsa Virginia Tech Tulsa
UCLA 7 Nebraska UCLA Nebraska
Navy 3.5 Pitt Navy Navy
Minnesota 6 Central Michigan Minnesota Minnesota
California 7 Air Force California Air Force
Baylor 2 North Carolina Baylor Baylor
Colorado State 3 Nevada Colorado State Colorado State
LSU 7.5 Texas Tech LSU LSU
Auburn 2.5 Memphis Memphis Memphis
Mississippi State 5.5 N.C. State Mississippi State N.C. State
Louisville 1.5 Texas A&M Louisville Louisville
USC 3 Wisconsin USC USC

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 24 Dec 2015