Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Defense and Rest Time

Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

26 Dec 2016

SDA: 2016-17 Bowl Spectacular Part II

by Ian Boyd

Things start to pick up after Christmas with more Power 5 programs getting into the mix of bowl season. This second batch of bowls includes some fun matchups between mid-major powers and bigger programs, as well as some middleweight bouts between teams that just missed the cut in winning their conferences.

Lots of these teams had successful head coaches or assistants who have already been hired away to help some of the bigger programs that won't be featured in the major bowl games still to come. If you want a glimpse at a team that has been coached by someone like Willie Taggart (the new coach at Oregon) or Matt Rhule (new head man at Baylor), this is your chance. There are also some really intriguing contests, such as Colorado vs. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M vs. Kansas State, that should provide compelling drama.

The buildup from these games to the New Year's Eve games and the College Football Playoff semifinals should make for good theater in between the holidays. All times are listed as Eastern.

St. Petersburg Bowl: Miami (Ohio) vs. Mississippi State (-13.5) -- December 26, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

Overall Miami Mississippi State
F/+ 77 62
When Miami has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 73 106
S&P+ 87 79
IsoPPP+ 62 98
Rushing S&P+ 90 51
Passing S&P+ 56 103
When Mississippi State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 56 36
S&P+ 51 33
IsoPPP+ 51 21
Rushing S&P+ 73 7
Passing S&P+ 54 53

The biggest question for Mississippi State in 2016 was how they were going to overcome the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott, who is now killing it in the pros in Dallas alongside fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott was an enormous piece of the puzzle for head coach Dan Mullen thanks to his size and ability to run inside between the tackles, combined with his skill throwing the ball outside in spread formations. Prescott alone could attack multiple areas of the field, and his sturdiness as an inside runner allowed the Bulldogs to surround him with speed at other positions.

The Bulldogs found their quarterback of the future fairly early in the year in Nick Fitzgerald, and in him they have found a guy with the capacity to run the ball inside (he's 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds) and throw the ball out wide like Prescott had done. The offense is still a work in progress, but plugging in that same invaluable skill set at quarterback allowed the Bulldogs to finish strong on offense again.

Their challenge in this bowl game will be handling a solid Miami Redhawks spread offense with their own porous defense. If the Bulldogs can continue to grow with Nick Fitzgerald, who ran for 389 yards in his last two games, that might just set this game up to be a post-Christmas shootout. The Redhawks were doing some growing of their own down the stretch, with sophomore quarterback Gus Ragland ending the year throwing for 380 yards against Ball State in a win that made Miami bowl-eligible.

At worst, this could be a chance for everyone to get a glimpse into the future of Mississippi State football with Nick Fitzgerald, while the best-case scenario is a competitive shootout between two explosive offenses.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Mississippi State

Quick Lane Bowl: Maryland (-1) vs. Boston College -- December 26, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Maryland Boston College
F/+ 97 93
When Maryland has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 53 26
S&P+ 81 21
IsoPPP+ 45 36
Rushing S&P+ 14 6
Passing S&P+ 76 40
When Boston College has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 99 122
S&P+ 82 125
IsoPPP+ 109 126
Rushing S&P+ 127 123
Passing S&P+ 69 117

It's a wonder that Maryland even managed to find the three Big 10 victories needed to reach bowl eligibility this season. They weren't particularly good at anything at all, unless opponents weren't able to handle speed backs Lorenzo Harris or Ty Johnson. It was Johnson who carried the load down the stretch. He had just 53 rushing yards in three games against Michigan, Ohio State, and Nebraska, followed by a 168-yard day against Rutgers to conclude the season.

Boston College isn't likely to yield rushing yardage to the Terrapins like Rutgers did -- its defense is more on the level of Michigan, Ohio State, or Nebraska. For the last four years under head coach Steve Addazio, the Golden Eagles have been an experiment in what is possible with a combination of elite defense and abysmal offense. During that stretch they have gone 23-27 and are bowl-eligible for the third time, but they have never been serious competitors in the ACC.

Their run game, which has very little pop this year, is based around big, tight end-heavy formations and power run schemes that often just serve to create a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" effect. They do protect their defense at times by running clock and controlling possession, but they only scored 30 points three times this year. If Maryland can withstand the battering of the Boston College run game and avoid committing turnovers against the Golden Eagles' very strong defense, then this could be a highly competitive, low-scoring slog.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Maryland

Camping World Independence Bowl: North Carolina State (-4) vs. Vanderbilt -- December 26, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)

Overall North Carolina State Vanderbilt
F/+ 37 60
When North Carolina St has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 61 41
S&P+ 55 45
IsoPPP+ 59 42
Rushing S&P+ 67 52
Passing S&P+ 46 36
When Vanderbilt has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 29 92
S&P+ 17 90
IsoPPP+ 12 80
Rushing S&P+ 11 66
Passing S&P+ 19 84

The North Carolina State Wolfpack managed to build a very credible defense that kept them competitive in the ACC this season (except against Louisville) and almost enabled a thrilling upset victory over Clemson on the road. Their offense was somewhat plodding and impotent against better defensive teams, but their defense had some strong moments over the course of the year.

The Wolfpack defensive backfield was very solid, and strong safety Josh Jones led the team in tackles while hard-hitting nickel Dravious Wright forced four fumbles and broke up five passes with his wrathful striking in the open field. Defensive end Bradley Chubb is probably the most difficult player on their defense to account for -- at 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, he's big for his position, but he has real athleticism that allowed him to make 9.5 sacks and 11.5 other tackles behind the line of scrimmage for NC State.

Vanderbilt will have to have a plan to account for Chubb on the edge that won't allow the swarming Wolfpack safeties and linebackers to easily chase down and devour everything they want to do on offense.

Vanderbilt also leans heavily on its defense, particularly linebacker Zach Cunningham, who led the team with 119 tackles. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he's a bit tall for an inside linebacker, but he uses his length and range to cover ground against the pass and close on the ball. Since he's not built low to the ground like many linebackers, he's not a traditional plugger on run plays, so if the Wolfpack want to move the ball it will need to get running back Matthew Dayes opportunities to make darting cuts past the big linebacker.

The Vanderbilt defense isn't very effective with its pass rush, which may be something to watch for if this game comes down to fourth-quarter possessions and quarterback play in the two-minute offense.

S&P+ Outright Pick: North Carolina State

Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl: Army (-10) vs. North Texas -- December 27, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Army North Texas
F/+ 85 111
When Army has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 66 94
S&P+ 101 91
IsoPPP+ 111 86
Rushing S&P+ 64 108
Passing S&P+ 112 57
When North Texas has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 83 106
S&P+ 41 115
IsoPPP+ 88 118
Rushing S&P+ 69 81
Passing S&P+ 87 125

In addition to having a flexbone, triple-option offense that could be a bear for North Texas to prepare for, Army's defense is actually the best unit in this game per S&P+. They turned Navy over three times, including twice on attempted early down play-action shots by the Midshipmen that Army was more than ready to defend.

North Texas is lucky to even be in a bowl game and were admitted despite their 5-7 record thanks to a high APR score (measuring athletes' progress towards graduation). That said, one of North Texas' five wins this season was actually a 35-18 victory over these Army Black Knights. In that game, the Mean Green overcame Army in a similar fashion to how the Knights took down Navy -- they picked off Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw four times and forced and recovered three fumbles to successfully negate (and also help create) a 16:08 difference in time of possession.

Army struggled to contain North Texas running back Jeffrey Wilson, who ran for 855 yards and 13 touchdowns on the year despite missing two games down the stretch. His back-up Willy Ivery added 490 more rushing yards and five touchdowns, and the Mean Green running game could once again present major challenges to Army in this one. The biggest step towards reversing the regular season outcome for Army, though, would simply be to avoid turning the ball over seven times as they did the first time.

Another question is whether Army already considers the season a win after beating Navy to close out the regular season -- will they have juice in the tank to go into Dallas and beat North Texas in their own town?

S&P+ Outright Pick: Army

Northrop Grumman Military Bowl: Temple (-11.5) vs. Wake Forest -- December 27, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Temple Wake Forest
F/+ 18 72
When Temple has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 46 37
S&P+ 64 28
IsoPPP+ 41 61
Rushing S&P+ 68 70
Passing S&P+ 39 49
When Wake Forest has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 24 113
S&P+ 9 112
IsoPPP+ 14 122
Rushing S&P+ 33 94
Passing S&P+ 10 124

Both of these teams are facing a lot of distractions from the "silly season" of coaching changes and hires that always takes place in early December. Temple is losing its head coach and much of his staff to the vacancy at Baylor, while Wake Forest is losing defensive coordinator Mike Elko to the vacancy at Notre Dame for a new defensive coach. Elko might be around for the bowl game, but Temple will be missing much of its regular season staff and featuring a team basking in an AAC championship.

So, like in many other bowl games, it's hard to gauge where these teams and coaches will be mentally heading into the game and whether it will have their full attention or not.

The expected outcome of this game is definitely a defensive struggle, as both teams have been keyed by the play of their defenses this season. For the Demon Deacons it's all about the play of linebacker Marquel Lee and defensive end Duke Ejiofor, who combine to give them a lethal pass-rush that isn't limited to working off the edge. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds in a 3-4 front, Ejiofor often works inside in Wake Forest's pressure package -- he led the way for them this season with 10 sacks. Lee added 7.5 more while leading the team in tackles from his weak inside linebacker spot behind Ejiofor. Wake Forest also featured free safety Jessie Bates, a rangy clean-up hitter who finished second on the team in tackles while adding five interceptions.

They played a multiple, attacking defense, much like their bowl opponent the Temple Owls. Former head coach Matt Rhule built the Temple defense with players no one else wanted and formed a top-10 unit this year per S&P+. Their star disruptors were defensive ends Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike, who combined for 17 sacks this year. They also have been known under Rhule for fielding physical, versatile defensive backs like Stephaun Marshall (who led the team in tackles) and Deivon Randall.

Both of these teams are difficult to throw the ball on, and neither offense is particularly adept at running the ball well enough to try and make ground that way. Temple does have senior quarterback Phillip Walker, a small senior (5-foot-11 and 205 pounds) who is at his best creating off-schedule plays by scrambling for time and throwing down the field. Temple ranked 30th nationally on passing downs and will be relying on Walker's magic to grant them one final victory.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Temple

National Funding Holiday Bowl: Minnesota vs. Washington State (-6.5) -- December 27, 7 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Minnesota Washington State
F/+ 43 27
When Minnesota has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 80 43
S&P+ 73 63
IsoPPP+ 94 75
Rushing S&P+ 99 41
Passing S&P+ 59 104
When Washington State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 36 13
S&P+ 23 15
IsoPPP+ 24 29
Rushing S&P+ 23 41
Passing S&P+ 26 25

The biggest story in this game was the boycott that Minnesota's players nearly held over the suspension of 10 of their teammates, which they recently backed away from after discussions with university administration. The loss of those 10 players is not insignificant for this game, as the Gophers are losing two starters and two key reserves amidst that group and lost two bowl practices to the short-lived boycott.

Washington State doesn't have anything close to that level of distraction and are also a tough matchup for a Big 10 team due to their style of offense. Under head coach Mike Leach, the Cougars use the "Air Raid" offense, which is famous for producing results like a starting quarterback throwing for more than 4,000 yards (Luke Falk) or three different receivers going over 700 receiving yards (Gabe Marks, Tavares Martin Jr., and River Cracraft). It's a unique, ball-control style of offense that relies heavily on quick passes from spread sets and is thus fairly different from what Minnesota is used to facing in the Big 10.

Generally, teams have found success by utilizing nickel and dime packages that all but dare Leach to run the football. The problem here is that the four key players suspended from Minnesota were all defensive backs, so the Gophers may lack the depth to field the kinds of sub-packages that have been successful against Leach's tactics in the past.

Another path to beating the Cougars is to run the ball and limit their ability to get on the field, although this year's Washington State squad has a better run defense than those of years' past. The problem for the Gophers is that they haven't been very effective running the ball this season or setting up quarterback Mitch Leidner to get after teams with play-action. Leidner has seven touchdowns to 12 interceptions this season, and has struggled adapting to new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson -- or perhaps he has just struggled over the last two years adapting to life without NFL tight end Maxx Williams catching his passes.

At any rate, the Cougars are always a tough bowl game matchup even when your program is not embroiled in boycott and scandal, so this could be a very tough challenge for Minnesota.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Washington State

Motel 6 Cactus Bowl: Boise State (-7.5) vs. Baylor -- December 27, 10:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Boise State Baylor
F/+ 14 66
When Boise State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 17 68
S&P+ 5 85
IsoPPP+ 19 59
Rushing S&P+ 49 66
Passing S&P+ 13 70
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 10 58
S&P+ 34 51
IsoPPP+ 5 83
Rushing S&P+ 13 61
Passing S&P+ 17 86

The Cactus Bowl will be the last time that Baylor asks Jim Grobe to step out on its behalf and endure the consequences of trying to lead a half-invested staff and depleted roster before new head coach Matt Rhule takes over the Bears and it becomes his problem. In the meantime, they drew a pretty fierce opponent in the Boise State Broncos.

Bryan Harsin's Broncos are led by quarterback Brett Rypien, a true sophomore who threw for 9.8 yards per pass this year while dropping 3,341 passing yards and 23 touchdowns. Boise State always does damage in their passing game by throwing off play-action, and this run game was led by running back Jeremy McNicholls, who ran for over 1,600 yards and another 23 touchdowns. They also have the capacity to use spread sets to fling the ball around and had two different thousand-yard receivers in Thomas Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson.

It's a tough squad to handle because of their balance and ability to get after opponents with misdirection and trick plays on top of their great competence with traditional runs and passes. The Baylor defense will have their hands full trying to keep tabs on it all and may choose to do so by attacking the Broncos and trying to put them on the defensive. Senior nickel linebacker Pat Levels was one of their key tools for disruption, with 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks blitzing the edge. The Bears have a lot of athletes on defense that thrive attacking the edge, including nickel Travon Blanchard and linebacker Taylor Young. They were having a solid year as a defense before the second half of the season, when the team seemed to give up and lost six consecutive games.

We'll have to wait and see if they'll be invested in playing winning football again. Leading wide receiver K.D. Cannon promised Rhule they'd win this bowl game, so perhaps the players will be reinvigorated by all the changes. Their collapse on offense this season was remarkable and was occurring well before starting quarterback Seth Russell went down with a leg injury late in the year. A depleted offensive line struggled to blow holes open for the run game, but the biggest issue was that Russell was inaccurate on the deep throws that the entire offense was built upon, which meant opposing defenses had much less fear to gang up on the run.

Boise State was very good on defense this year and will be working against true freshman quarterback Zach Smith, who showed flashes of promise this year but also threw six interceptions in just three starts. The Bears will be hoping he learns a lot in bowl practices and can build some momentum into next season.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Boise State

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Pittsburgh (-5.5) vs. Northwestern -- December 28, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Pittsburgh Northwestern
F/+ 24 45
When Pittsburgh has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 12 44
S&P+ 4 27
IsoPPP+ 22 47
Rushing S&P+ 38 35
Passing S&P+ 19 47
When Northwestern has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 95 39
S&P+ 66 67
IsoPPP+ 64 67
Rushing S&P+ 39 86
Passing S&P+ 50 67

Pittsburgh's offensive prowess under head coach Pat Narduzzi has been a pretty stunning and interesting storyline within college football. Narduzzi was hired at Pitt off the reputation he built overseeing Michigan State's dominant defense, but while his new team has struggled to master his defensive system, its offense has been terrific. In fact, offensive coordinator Matt Canada was just poached away to take the same position for the LSU Tigers, although he'll remain for this game.

Northwestern has been very good on defense for the last few years via the Narduzzi strategy of playing one main, base defense and developing players with redshirts and multiple seasons as back-ups to play that defense with speed and intimate knowledge of its details. The Wildcats excel at making opponents beat them with bend-don't-break strategies and added some fierce pass rush to that equation this year with defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who had 10 sacks.

Playing sound, bend-don't-break defense will be key to handling a Pittsburgh offense that torched the aggressive Clemson Tigers earlier this year with play-action and shovel option plays that punished aggressive play. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is very effective standing in the pocket in the face of a pass rush and averaged 9 yards per pass attempt this year doing exactly that. Their offense is built around running back and cancer survivor James Conner, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound bowling ball who ran over opponents this year with 20 total touchdowns.

The Northwestern offense is not terribly potent, and their battles with the Pitt defense may help give the Panthers some momentum going into 2017. They rely pretty heavily on running the ball with running back Justin Jackson, and if there's one thing that Narduzzi knows how to shut down it's an opposing run game. The Panthers' box scores this year have often featured comedically lopsided opposing lines with zero success running the ball, but gaudy stats in the passing game. Narduzzi's gambit is typically to shut down your run game and make you beat them throwing the ball on press coverage -- with this offense providing some margin for error, it has generally worked out pretty well.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Pittsburgh

Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Miami (-3) -- December 28, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall West Virginia Miami
F/+ 50 15
When West Virginia has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 45 18
S&P+ 35 14
IsoPPP+ 51 13
Rushing S&P+ 69 28
Passing S&P+ 44 9
When Miami has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 16 60
S&P+ 55 36
IsoPPP+ 40 30
Rushing S&P+ 34 59
Passing S&P+ 35 47

Year 1 of the Mark Richt era at Miami went off really well, with quarterback Brad Kaaya throwing for 3,250 yards and 23 touchdowns, while running back Mark Walton went for over a thousand yards rushing. Defensively they adapted well to coordinator Manny Diaz's blitz-heavy scheme, and their defeats were often more attributable to slow offense then struggles on defense. They had a strong year and seemed close at times to the top of the AAC, particularly when they nearly toppled Florida State at home in the season's first major test.

West Virginia also surprised some teams with their defense this season and were moderately successful on offense despite featuring a lesser player at quarterback with Skyler Howard than Miami featured with Brad Kaaya. The Mountaineers were contenders for the Big 12 title up until late in the year when they went down against both Oklahoma schools.

This game may serve as a sort of test to determine which of the Big 12 or ACC was stronger this year, as it features teams that appeared competitive in those conferences but couldn't really hold up against the cream of the crop.

Both of these teams really want to run the football, and West Virginia's offense works best as a "spread to run" concept, with Howard responsible for punishing teams when they loaded the box with an extra defender. Miami's strategy will likely hinge around confusing Howard and the Mountaineers about where the extra defender will come from while bringing disguised blitzes that force him to make quick decisions and good throws after the snap.

Miami has a more traditional run game, and their running back Mark Walton might be the most dynamic player on the field. West Virginia's defense has won games all year by playing bend-don't-break, but this could be more difficult against explosive athletes like Walton and receivers Ahmmon Richards and Stacy Coley.

The Mountaineers have leaned heavily on their athletes on defense: cornerback Rasul Douglas, linebacker Justin Arndt, and safety Kyzir White. They held up quite well in the Big 12, so they have a fair shot at holding up against Miami, but if they can't then this game could go south in a hurry for West Virginia.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Miami

Foster Farms Bowl: Indiana vs. Utah (-7) -- December 28, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Indiana Utah
F/+ 58 36
When Indiana has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 81 33
S&P+ 66 38
IsoPPP+ 39 38
Rushing S&P+ 110 37
Passing S&P+ 15 33
When Utah has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 42 71
S&P+ 30 53
IsoPPP+ 34 65
Rushing S&P+ 20 45
Passing S&P+ 48 77

Utah chugged along with their normal formula this year, winning games with defense and special teams while relying on running the ball on offense. They were really bulldozing opposing defenses with lead running back Joe Williams late in the year, but their defense wasn't quite strong enough to bring a Pac-12 title. They had a typically great pass rush, highlighted by defensive end Hunter Dimick, who capped off a brilliant collegiate career with a 14.5-sack season. Yet despite that feature, they got burnt some on passing downs and ranked only 54th nationally there.

Indiana is a worthy foe to pick at that weakness, as they ranked 16th nationally on passing downs and got after teams all year throwing the ball with quarterback Richard Lagow. The Hoosiers signal-caller was aggressive, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns but also adding 16 interceptions. Indiana was persistent with their run game, and leading rusher Devine Redding had 236 carries on the year that led to 1,050 yards and six touchdowns.

The real story in Indiana this year was the tremendously elevated play of their defense under new coordinator Tom Allen, who was recently named the permanent head coach after Kevin Wilson resigned due to "philosophical differences" with the athletic director about the program's process. Things should remain relatively stable for the Hoosiers in that transition, with much of the staff still intact and Allen's familiar face taking the helm.

The Hoosiers own defense made great strides for the first time with Allen running that side of the ball. Outside linebacker Tegray Scales grew into a star and had 116 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and five sacks to lead the team in all three categories. The Hoosiers were much more successful this year at attacking offenses, often bringing pressure from the wide side of the field to force opponents to play in tighter spaces. Attacking the Utah run game is usually a good idea, as the Utes are very inconsistent about how well they counter with their passing game.

Since both of these defenses will be going after the offenses, the game likely comes down to whether Utah's running back Joe Williams breaks some long runs or whether Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow is burning the Utes deep on the blitz or throwing picks.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Utah

Advocare V100 Texas Bowl: Texas A&M (-2) vs. Kansas State -- December 28, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Texas A&M Kansas State
F/+ 23 41
When Texas A&M has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 51 32
S&P+ 27 39
IsoPPP+ 32 46
Rushing S&P+ 31 26
Passing S&P+ 49 60
When Kansas State has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 52 54
S&P+ 37 46
IsoPPP+ 48 91
Rushing S&P+ 56 29
Passing S&P+ 51 111

Texas A&M and Kansas State have a lot in common. Each are led by quarterbacks who are at their best running the option and are iffy as passers (Trevor Knight for A&M, Jess Ertz for Kansas State), both have dangerous defensive ends that can allow them to get a pass rush without blitzing (Myles Garrett for A&M, Jordan Willis for Kansas State), and both will be looking to run the ball early and often to win this game.

One of the main differences between the two teams is the respective talent levels of the rosters. Texas A&M has multiple players with NFL aspirations, and their recruits were much more sought after at the high school level than any of the Wildcats. However, A&M is also pretty banged up heading into this game, and safety Armani Watts is questionable, while Justin Evans is probable but appeared banged up in the season finale against LSU.

The Aggies leaned heavily on both Evans and Watts this season to help clean up for a linebacker corps that struggled to fit the run consistently. Their own offense should be in good shape, with Trevor Knight cleared to lead their potent run game.

Kansas State is exactly the team you don't want to face when inconsistent linebacker play and injured safeties are your primary concern. Their multiple offense is loaded with option concepts designed to create indecision for linebackers and then to punish their mistakes The Wildcats hit their stride down the stretch of the year, and Ertz ran for 170 yards on 19 carries in the season finale against TCU. They were perhaps at their best in sets with 6-foot-1, 226-pound freshman running back Alex Barnes in along with fullback Winston Dimel to help pound the ball inside, while Ertz threatened the perimeter with quarterback keepers and option plays.

This is one of the better Wildcat defenses of head coach Bill Snyder's second tenure in Manhattan, Kansas. Junior college transfer cornerback D.J. Reed helped bring some aggressiveness back to the Wildcats' play in the secondary and had three interceptions and 15 pass break-ups with his ability to make plays on the ball in zone. Previously mentioned defensive end Jordan Willis had 11.5 sacks playing in front of an improved secondary, and linebacker Elijah Lee brought a lot of athleticism and playmaking on the edge, leading the team in tackles. This is a more talented group than Kansas State has featured on defense in recent years.

Despite playing with what basically amounts to home field advantage in Houston, Texas, Texas A&M will need to be focused and healthy to avoid Snyder and his overachieving Wildcats taking them down with their ball control offense and particularly stout defense.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Texas A&M

Birmingham Bowl: South Florida (-10.5) vs. South Carolina -- December 29, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall South Florida South Carolina
F/+ 33 94
When South Florida has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 6 47
S&P+ 3 52
IsoPPP+ 5 53
Rushing S&P+ 8 89
Passing S&P+ 31 46
When South Carolina has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 72 117
S&P+ 100 117
IsoPPP+ 73 116
Rushing S&P+ 101 106
Passing S&P+ 75 113

South Florida had a fantastic season this year, going 10-2 and narrowly missing out on playing for the AAC championship due to a head-to-head loss against East division opponent Temple. Like Temple, their success led to their head coach getting poached by a bigger program. In this instance it was Oregon hiring Willie Taggart away, although South Florida was able to replace him with deposed Texas coach Charlie Strong.

That'll lead to an interesting future for the Bulls, who thrived this season not thanks to defense but due to an explosive offense. The Bulls destroyed teams with a spread attack that made things just too easy for athletic quarterback Quinton Flowers, who threw for 2,551 yards and 22 touchdowns while adding another 1,425 yards and another 15 touchdowns rushing. South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp will have to hammer defensive fundamentals in hard over bowl practices to give his players any chance of controlling the explosive signal-caller. His defense has received some good experience facing running quarterbacks such as Joshua Dobbs (Tennessee), Trevor Knight (Texas A&M), and Deshaun Watson (Clemson), but Flowers is match for all save for Watson.

The advantage South Carolina has in this game is that the South Florida defense isn't very good and may not be able to keep them off the scoreboard, even as weak as South Carolina's offense has been this year. The Gamecocks started to approach competency down the stretch when they turned to freshmen Jake Bentley (quarterback) and Rico Dowdle (running back). Dowdle wasn't able to get going against defenses like Florida or Clemson, but he burned Missouri and Western Carolina and should prove a challenge for South Florida.

This game is worth tuning in for just for a chance to watch Quinton Flowers and see what he can do against a lower level SEC defense coached by one of the best defensive minds in college football.

S&P+ Outright Pick: South Florida

Belk Bowl: Arkansas vs. Virginia Tech (-7) -- December 29, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Arkansas Virginia Tech
F/+ 55 21
When Arkansas has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 34 25
S&P+ 40 20
IsoPPP+ 44 17
Rushing S&P+ 57 45
Passing S&P+ 23 11
When Virginia Tech has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 86 57
S&P+ 76 50
IsoPPP+ 114 73
Rushing S&P+ 115 93
Passing S&P+ 83 45

The collapse of Brett Bielema's Arkansas defense over the last few seasons has been remarkable. This year their plan was to create matchups up front with a highly regarded defensive line that would make things easier for their linebackers and secondary to sit back in conservative coverages and have time to close on the ball. This went horribly wrong when their defensive line didn't prove disruptive enough to protect their defensive backfield. Middle linebacker Brooks Ellis ended up as the only Arkansas defender to have more than five tackles for loss on the year, and the lack of disruption left the secondary to be targeted and attacked every week.

Virginia Tech's spread offense got better over the course of the year, and quarterback Jerod Evans will be a serious challenge for this Razorbacks defense with their susceptibility to quarterback runs and spread tactics. Evans almost took down the Clemson defense and managed to put up 310 yards and four touchdowns (although he also threw two interceptions) in Virginia Tech's last contest. If Arkansas isn't in better shape to battle them than it was in conference play this year, then things could go very poorly for the Razorbacks.

Virginia Tech had an off year on defense in 2015 and rebounded in 2016 by re-emphasizing its "robber" zone coverages and getting after opponents again with its trademark aggressiveness in the secondary. That will make the Hokies a very intriguing matchup for the Razorbacks, who often leaned on their passing game until their run game got going later in the year with running back Rawleigh Williams III.

The Hokies' defense was designed to stop run games like the one Arkansas will bring into the Belk Bowl, but their personnel has evolved over the years to stop spread teams in the ACC. They were often vulnerable to a power run game this season, such as the Pittsburgh rushing attack that put Panther running back James Conner at 141 yards on just 19 carries. If they can't be the more physical team at the point of attack, then this game will go Arkansas' way, or perhaps become a high-scoring shootout. Hopefully for viewers it's the latter.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Virginia Tech

Valero Alamo Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Colorado (-3) -- December 29, 9 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Oklahoma State Colorado
F/+ 16 28
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 33 4
S&P+ 13 11
IsoPPP+ 34 10
Rushing S&P+ 65 25
Passing S&P+ 32 6
When Colorado has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 54 52
S&P+ 81 43
IsoPPP+ 83 52
Rushing S&P+ 77 77
Passing S&P+ 78 20

The Alamo Bowl will feature the respective runner-ups from the Big 12 and Pac-12 championship games, both of whom were very good on one side of the ball but came up short against superior foes in the end. To the benefit of viewers, each team is respectively strong on opposing sides of the ball, so when Oklahoma State has the ball against Colorado's defense we'll all get to watch a very high level competition between truly great units.

The Buffaloes have several key components to their defense that make it great. One is pass-rushing outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert, who gets to blitz from a variety of different angles and had 11.5 sacks on the year. At the second level they're led by inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, who led the team in tackles with 130 and is a missile running to the football. It's very difficult to fool him or avoiding him in the run game.

The Buffaloes secondary is loaded with valuable players including corners Ahkello Witherspoon (who is 6-foot-3) and Chidobe Awuzie, who moves around and often patrols in underneath zones. At safety they have several reliable players like clean-up man Tedric Thompson or strong safety Ryan Moeller, who often plays down in the nickel and joins the box. All of them are very versatile and rangy, and Colorado will move them around from snap to snap and trust the ones in deep zone to prevent big plays.

Oklahoma State loves to attack deep with their passing game, but may have to settle for some sustained drives with their run game and quick passing attack because Colorado doesn't tend to bite on fakes or misdirection and allow receivers to run past them. Early reports say that the Cowboys' star quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington will both return next season, so this game could be a prelude to a big 2017 from Oklahoma State if they can overcome the Colorado defense. Oregon fans may tune in to see defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt's unit in action since he has just been hired for the same position up in Eugene.

On the other side of the ball there's less star power, but both Colorado's offense and Oklahoma State's defense are sneaky good. Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau should be healthier for this game, he was nursing a bad ankle in the Pac-12 championship game that seemed to clearly affect his play as he threw multiple interceptions. The Buffaloes like to use him in their run game to get some balance on offense, which would make things more challenging for Oklahoma State if his ankle is healthy enough to allow.

The Cowboys are a stout, physical defense that has lacked the athleticism to go toe-to-toe with the better offenses in the Big 12. Star safety Jordan Sterns knocked Oklahoma's star receiver Dede Westbrook out (and out of the game) in the season finale against Oklahoma, but the Cowboys had already yielded 111 yards on four catches and still couldn't slow down Sooners running back Samaje Perine, as he went for 239 yards on 37 carries. Colorado may lack enough stars to really get after the Cowboys and prevent them from ganging up on their tendencies.

This game should come down to the battle between Colorado's defense and Oklahoma State's offense, with the Buffaloes needing a big victory here to help their own offense get opportunities against an underrated Cowboys defense.

S&P+ Outright Pick: Colorado


Favorite Spread Underdog S&P+ Pick S&P+ Pick against the spread
Mississippi State 13 Miami (OH) Mississippi State Mississippi State
Maryland 1 Bostonr College Maryland Maryland
North Carolina State 4 Vanderbilt North Carolina State North Carolina State
Army 10 North Texas Army Army
Temple 11.5 Wake Forest Temple Temple
Washington State 9.5 Minnesota Washington State Minnesota
Boise State 7.5 Baylor Boise State Boise State
Pittsburgh 6.5 Northwestern Pittsburgh Pittsburgh
Miami 3 West Virginia Miami Miami
Utah 7 Indiana Utah Utah
Texas A&M 2 Kansas State Texas A&M Texas A&M
South Florida 10.5 South Carolina South Florida South Florida
Virginia Tech 7 Arkansas Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Colorado 3 Oklahoma State Colorado Colorado

S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 35-49

Posted by: Ian Boyd on 26 Dec 2016

3 comments, Last at 23 Aug 2017, 12:30am by Insistani


by big10freak :: Sun, 12/25/2016 - 8:24am

Wisky fans don't miss BB but do smile as to how things have played out for the Bretster.

by hotpad :: Thu, 12/29/2016 - 9:41am

Ian Boyd is having a rough bowl season. Bring back Chad Peltier!!

by Insistani :: Wed, 08/23/2017 - 12:30am

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