Underdogs Stand Out in the Biggest Bowls of the Postseason #Raiders #NFL #Steelers #HereWeGo #Pickett #Franco


NCAA Bowl Season – In the relatively short College Football Playoff era, we have seen a number of trends in how the selection committee picks teams, and among the most obvious is the significance they ascribe to conference championship games. Teams have made it in thanks to big wins in them—such as Ohio State in 2014, which parlayed a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin into the No. 4 seed and their most recent national title. But teams have also been left out for losses, even close ones—in 2017, Wisconsin again lost the Big Ten title to the Buckeyes (this time by six points) and fell from the top four.

With that season’s Alabama and this season’s Ohio State both making the CFP without having to play that 13th game, some have argued that the committee doesn’t respect its professed logic of rewarding division winners. In any case, losing so late in the season and making it in is a difficult task: only one team, 2021 Georgia, has been truly assured of making it despite a conference championship loss, and before this year only one other team, 2020 Notre Dame, had pulled it off.

Even with some help from losses by a thinning field of contenders—Clemson losing to South Carolina, LSU losing to Texas A&M, and USC losing to Utah—TCU knew they would be on the fringe of the playoff if they lost in the Big 12 Championship Game. Even in a loss, it would be critical to put up a fight and leave a good last impression with the committee. So while the Horned Frogs’ miraculous game-tying touchdown drive (on which Max Duggan drove them 80 yards by rushing for 95) didn’t lead to a win in overtime, it was enough to all but secure their bid to the bracket.

Duggan is one of the biggest stars of bowl season, and his chance at further redemption after a gritty late-game performance against Kansas State will be a key storyline to follow in the Fiesta Bowl. But while TCU’s Cinderella season has been the best of a year full of upstarts, the marquee bowls have plenty of unfamiliar teams. Five are in the New Year’s Six for the first time in at least half a decade, and three are making their only appearance in the playoff era—tied for the most since 2014. Tennessee and Tulane are looking to cap their best seasons since the turn of the century, while Utah is chasing its first-ever Rose Bowl win and Kansas State is hoping for its first top-10 finish in two decades. The last full weekend slate of the season promises to be a must-watch spectacle to conclude a thrilling season of college football.

All times are listed as Eastern.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl
Charlotte, North Carolina
Maryland Terrapins vs. NC State Wolfpack (-1)
Friday, December 30, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

NC State
2022 F+ 31 51
When Maryland has the ball
2022 F+ 36 14
2022 EPA/pass 47 54
2022 EPA/rush 55 19
When NC State has the ball
2022 F+ 38 102
2022 EPA/pass 15 91
2022 EPA/rush 59 112

Considering the strength of some of the quarterbacks they faced, Maryland’s strong statistical performance against the pass is quite an impressive feat. The Terrapins held Tanner Mordecai to 6.8 yards per attempt, J.J. McCarthy to 8.5, Sean Clifford (and others) to 5.5, and C.J. Stroud to 8.0. Opponents totaled just 33 passes for 20 or more yards against Maryland, a better mark than Ohio State and Penn State (both in the New Year’s Six), and they were held to a 7.9% big-play rate that ranked 19th overall. While the Terrapins’ secondary wasn’t particularly flashy—it only intercepted seven passes all season, and none of its players made an all-conference team—it was impressively efficient at limiting opposing passers.

Injuries have plagued NC State’s quarterback room this season, with starter Devin Leary lost for the year in early October and MJ Morris (7.5 yards per attempt on 86 passes) unavailable down the stretch. If Morris isn’t healthy in time for this bowl, the Wolfpack might be down to preseason fourth-stringer Ben Finley, who averaged 6.3 yards per attempt on 75 passes in two games this season. In any case, the starter for this game will have to work without Devin Carter, whose 16.2 yards per catch were easily the most of any regular receiver for NC State.

On the upside for the Wolfpack, their defense is well-equipped to deal with Maryland’s own passing attack, which will be severely handicapped without two of its top four targets. Rakim Jarrett (471 yards) and Jacob Copeland (376 yards) have both declared for the NFL draft, and Dontay Demus (2,008 career yards) will be unavailable as well. Second-team all-conference quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (7.9 yards per attempt, 17 touchdowns, six interceptions) should be fully recovered after a minor injury late in the season, but his depleted group of pass-catchers will have to reckon with a strong NC State secondary. The Wolfpack faced the fifth-highest passing rate of any defense, holding opponents to a 37.0% success rate (28th) and 7.6% big-play rate (13th) as a key factor in their eight-win season. If they can shut down a deep Maryland receiving corps, they should be able to put the Terrapins away without much difficulty.

Watch for:

  • Can Maryland’s rushing corps create yardage up front against a stalwart NC State defensive line (2.09 line yards per carry allowed, third in FBS)?
  • Will the Wolfpack defense (fourth in success rate on standard downs, 70th on passing downs) be able to get off the field?
  • Can NC State linebacker Drake Thomas (90 tackles, 15 tackles for loss) get into the Maryland backfield in his final college game?

FEI Outright Pick: Maryland by 5.7.

Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl
El Paso, Texas
Pittsburgh Panthers vs. UCLA Bruins (-7.5)
Friday, December 30, 2 p.m. (CBS)

2022 F+ 44 24
When Pittsburgh has the ball
2022 F+ 55 82
2022 EPA/pass 84 120
2022 EPA/rush 71 67
When UCLA has the ball
2022 F+ 35 5
2022 EPA/pass 4 6
2022 EPA/rush 14 4

UCLA’s defense held them back from challenging for the Pac-12 title or a New Year’s Six bowl, but their offensive talent is undeniable, and most of it will be on display in the Sun Bowl. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, one of the nation’s most reliable passers, will close out a storied career with the Bruins, and Zach Charbonnet (1,359 yards, 7.0 yards per carry, 14 touchdowns) was recently confirmed to start the game as well. With Jake Bobo (789 yards, 14.6 yards per catch) playing, UCLA will have the chance to send off their top offensive trio with a win, though they’ll have to beat a strong Pitt defense to do so.

The Panthers excelled at stopping teams up front, holding their opponents to a 35.4% success rate (13th) but allowing a 10.9% big-play rate (48th). Their performance on standard downs was exceptional, as they ranked eighth with a 40.6% success rate allowed, but they struggled to capitalize; that success rate stood at 27.3% on passing downs, only 34th overall. Pitt’s defense was at its best when it played aggressively, making the most of Sirvocea Dennis (12 tackles for loss, seven sacks) and all-American Calijah Kancey (14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), but neither will be available for this game.

Opt-outs and injuries have decimated Pitt across the board: quarterback Kedon Slovis, star running back Israel Abanikanda, edge rusher Deslin Alexandre, and safety Brandon Hill are among other key starters who won’t play against UCLA. The Panthers do, however, have some impressive defensive depth: corners Erick Hallett II and M.J. Devonshire have been remarkably efficient at taking down opposing players (7.1% combined missed tackle rate), and Habakkuk Baldonado (24 pressures) could be a force in the pass rush if healthy. Pitt’s absences will make it difficult to keep up with the Bruins’ offense in this bowl, but they shouldn’t be counted out entirely.

Watch for:

  • Can the Panthers’ defensive line (ninth in line yards per carry allowed) keep Charbonnet under wraps and avoid giving up big plays?
  • Will Thompson-Robinson (three interceptions against USC in Week 12, four in the rest of the season) avoid turnovers against a strong Pitt secondary (sixth in defensive back havoc rate)?
  • With Abanikanda unavailable, can Pitt rusher Rodney Hammond Jr. (366 yards, 4.4 yards per carry) take advantage of UCLA’s poor run defense (109th in success rate)?

FEI Outright Pick: UCLA by 4.2.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Florida
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-3.5) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks
Friday, December 30, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Notre Dame
South Carolina
2022 F+ 30 29
When Notre Dame has the ball
2022 F+ 48 53
2022 EPA/pass 35 30
2022 EPA/rush 89 123
When South Carolina has the ball
2022 F+ 33 38
2022 EPA/pass 31 54
2022 EPA/rush 103 72

Few teams were defined more by their quarterback this season than South Carolina. Spencer Rattler, formerly of Oklahoma before he was benched in favor of Caleb Williams last year, almost singlehandedly turned the Gamecocks from an also-ran into a genuine threat to beat any team. Where last year’s squad was steamrolled by its toughest opponents (40-13 by Georgia, 45-20 by Tennessee, 44-14 by Texas A&M, 30-0 by Clemson), this year they showed much more fight and finished the season by stunning No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Clemson. The floor did remain low—South Carolina lost 23-10 to Missouri and 38-6 to Florida, both of which ended up going 6-7—but having a legitimate playmaker under center raised the ceiling quite a bit.

On the other end of the spectrum, Notre Dame’s quarterback situation proved limiting for the most part. By most metrics, Drew Pyne had a better season overall than Rattler, but he was generally not the key piece in their biggest wins. When the Fighting Irish, like the Gamecocks, shocked ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks against Syracuse and Clemson, he averaged just 5.6 yards per pass with two touchdowns and an interception. Pyne won’t play in this game, having entered the transfer portal, but Tyler Buchner’s return from injury doesn’t change matters much; he was unexceptional in a loss to Ohio State, then threw two interceptions in a shocking loss to Marshall.

It isn’t all bad for Notre Dame, which did punch above its weight at times—in their case, thanks mostly to a rock-solid run game that dominated the Orange and the Tigers, among others. The Irish ranked 20th in rushing success rate, 12th in line yards per carry, and fourth in stuff rate, rushing for over 200 yards in six games and winning all six. A deep rushing corps consisting of Audric Estime (825 yards), Logan Diggs (732 yards), and Chris Tyree (423 yards) was key to their success, but the line has been perhaps the most important factor. Among 786 linemen with at least 200 snaps blocking for rushers, PFF’s grades ranked Notre Dame tackle Joe Alt second, tight end Michael Mayer 26th, guards Josh Lugg and Jarrett Patterson 133rd and 134th, tackle Blake Fisher 146th, and guard Zeke Correll 309th. Against a South Carolina defensive line that struggled to stop opponents up front (52.4% rushing success rate allowed, 127th in FBS), Notre Dame should get enough push on the ground to match Rattler through the air.

Watch for:

  • Will the Irish’s success in limiting short passes (seventh in passing success rate allowed) account for their relative weakness to big plays (34th in passing explosiveness allowed)?
  • Can Buchner (5.9% career interception rate) protect the ball against a solid Gamecocks secondary (0.8 interceptions per game)?
  • Will Notre Dame’s usual field position advantage (+8.1 yards compared to opponents) be weaker against South Carolina’s special teams (+3.9 yards)?

FEI Outright Pick: Notre Dame by 2.6.

Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl
Tucson, Arizona
Ohio Bobcats (-2.5) vs. Wyoming Cowboys
Friday, December 30, 4:30 p.m. (Barstool)

2022 F+ 82 101
When Ohio has the ball
2022 F+ 54 72
2022 EPA/pass 14 59
2022 EPA/rush 103 107
When Wyoming has the ball
2022 F+ 97 116
2022 EPA/pass 92 127
2022 EPA/rush 32 38

For well over a decade, nothing defined Ohio football more than Frank Solich. The former Nebraska coach arrived in 2005 and swiftly made the Bobcats one of the Group of 5’s most consistent teams. Under his watch, they made four conference championship games and 11 bowls, and he had just two losing seasons in 16 years at the helm. So when Solich retired late in the 2021 offseason, it was more than just necessity that made longtime assistant Tim Albin a natural hire. Between Lincoln and Athens, Albin had worked under Solich for every year in the 21st century aside from one, and his promotion was the most logical move. While his debut was a ghastly 3-9 season lowlighted by a loss to FCS Duquesne, he led a complete turnaround this year, with the Bobcats going 9-4 and winning their last seven games of the regular season.

That one season Albin spent on a non-Solich staff, 2004, saw him calling plays on offense for new Division I-AA program North Dakota State. Several others who coached those Bison went on to further fame—Casey “Gus” Bradley became an NFL defensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen is now 24-4 at Montana State—but leading the way was head coach Craig Bohl, who would go on to win three straight national titles at North Dakota State before taking over at Wyoming.

Unsurprisingly, Albin’s offense and Bohl’s defense are the top matchup in this bowl, but there’s an interesting imbalance for both units. Ohio has relied heavily on quarterback Kurtis Rourke (9.2 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns, four interceptions), who has led them to a 48.4% passing success rate (15th) and a 14.4% explosive pass rate (14th). A season-ending injury, however, thrust backup CJ Harris (393 yards on 64 passes) into the starting role, forcing the Bobcats to put running back Sieh Bangura (940 yards) front and center. With nearly a month of rest, they should hammer the run in this game, especially against a Wyoming defense that was best against the pass. Linebacker Easton Gibbs, who led the Cowboys with 49 tackles and 22 stops on run plays, will need to pace the front seven against an Ohio offense that will likely look to win on the ground.

Watch for:

  • Can the Cowboys lean on their depleted rushing corps effectively with a floundering passing attack (76 yards per game, one touchdown, eight interceptions in the last four games)?
  • How will Ohio’s run defense, which teams tend to avoid testing (10th-lowest rush rate faced), handle Wyoming’s run-first offense (14th in rush rate)?
  • Can Wyoming’s defense (73rd in passing-downs success rate) get the Bobcats’ offense (20th in passing-downs success rate) off the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Ohio by 7.4.

Capital One Orange Bowl
Miami Gardens, Florida
Tennessee Volunteers vs. Clemson Tigers (-6)
Friday, December 30, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

2022 F+ 5 15
When Tennessee has the ball
2022 F+ 1 15
2022 EPA/pass 9 8
2022 EPA/rush 23 10
When Clemson has the ball
2022 F+ 36 41
2022 EPA/pass 116 74
2022 EPA/rush 6 29

Tennessee featured one of the best passing offenses in football this season, but most of its key pieces won’t be around for the Orange Bowl. Quarterback Hendon Hooker, of course, tore his ACL in a loss to South Carolina, while Biletnikoff winner Jalin Hyatt and fellow star receiver Cedric Tillman have both opted out. The Volunteers have punched above their weight with some of these players unavailable—the offense didn’t miss a beat with Tillman out for most of the first half, and it put up 56 points with Joe Milton under center against Vanderbilt—but their absences haven’t been anywhere close to this.

With their passing attack decimated, Tennessee will have to lean on their rushing corps against a talented, balanced Clemson defense. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small have been an excellent one-two punch on the ground, combining for 1,485 yards and 22 touchdowns on 280 carries, and freshman Dylan Sampson (397 yards, 6.8 yards per carry) has emerged as a great chance-of-pace option. The Volunteers’ run game isn’t particularly explosive, but line play (13th in line yards per carry, seventh in stuff rate) has helped them establish offensive success up front.

Clemson’s run defense has been largely excellent this year, allowing just 101 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry, but teams with comparable talent and size have given them trouble. In a four-game stretch against Florida State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Louisville, the Tigers surrendered well over half of all the rushing yardage they allowed this season, with those teams averaging 5.3 yards per carry. This unit, too, will lack some of its best players for the bowl—edge rusher Myles Murphy (11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and linebacker Trenton Simpson (72 tackles) have both declared and won’t play in this game. That could create an opportunity for Tennessee to overcome their own losses and pull off an upset, but they’ll still have to beat a deep Clemson line to do so.

Watch for:

  • Will the deep threat posed by Milton (12 explosive passes on 54 attempts) outweigh his struggles on shorter plays?
  • Can the Tigers’ defense (3.06 points allowed per opportunity, eighth) make a stand against the Volunteers (4.76 points per opportunity, fifth) on critical possessions?
  • Will new Clemson starter Cade Klubnik keep rolling after his strong showing against North Carolina (20-for-24, 279 yards, one touchdown)?

FEI Outright Pick: Tennessee by 14.9.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Kansas State Wildcats vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (-6.5)
Saturday, December 31, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Kansas State
2022 F+ 8 4
When Kansas State has the ball
2022 F+ 22 8
2022 EPA/pass 25 10
2022 EPA/rush 69 39
When Alabama has the ball
2022 F+ 12 9
2022 EPA/pass 26 23
2022 EPA/rush 87 36

In an era where even marquee bowls can be diminished by opt-outs (and where the length of the schedule often leaves postseason rosters significantly weakened by injury), this game promises to be just as good as advertised. The only absences for either team will be the few players who have entered the portal or are still recovering from injuries, and every major star on both sides is set to participate.

Kansas State will have quarterback Will Howard, dual-threat rusher Deuce Vaughn, and receiver Malik Knowles to lead the way on offense, while edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah and cornerback Julius Brents will be the standouts on defense. The Wildcats were one of the most balanced teams in FBS this season, and making a switch at quarterback was the final puzzle piece that made them unstoppable down the stretch. In their last five games with Howard under center, Kansas State went 5-0, averaging 41 points per game with over 30 points in every game. Howard himself threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception in that span, averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and 240 yards per game.

The Crimson Tide will look for corner Kool-Aid McKinstry to limit Howard’s effectiveness through the air, while dominant pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. will try to create pressure against a solid offensive line. On offense, Alabama has a wealth of options, but Jahmyr Gibbs (850 rushing yards, 378 receiving yards) is easily the most dynamic and has been their go-to playmaker all season. Complemented by Jase McClellan in the rushing corps and by Ja’Corey Brooks and Jermaine Burton in the receiving corps, Gibbs leads the Tide in carries and catches and has the size and speed to test the Wildcats’ defense at every level. If Kansas State can’t find a way to contain him at full strength, they’ll need everything their own offense can muster to keep up with the high-scoring Crimson Tide.

Watch for:

  • Can the Wildcats (22nd in success rate allowed on passing downs) prevent Alabama (seventh in success rate on passing downs) from extending possessions?
  • Will the Tide’s fantastic pass defense (18th in success rate, fifth in explosiveness) make up for their susceptibility against the run?
  • How well can each offensive line stand up to the heavy pressure brought by Anudike-Uzomah and Anderson?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 6.7.

TransPerfect Music City Bowl
Nashville, Tennessee
Iowa Hawkeyes (-2.5) vs. Kentucky Wildcats
Saturday, December 31, 12 p.m. (ABC)

2022 F+ 28 26
When Iowa has the ball
2022 F+ 109 10
2022 EPA/pass 119 20
2022 EPA/rush 123 41
When Kentucky has the ball
2022 F+ 2 73
2022 EPA/pass 5 59
2022 EPA/rush 22 106

We could discuss how these offenses will fare with unfamiliar quarterbacks at the helm—Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla are out for Iowa, while Will Levis won’t play for Kentucky—but if you’re watching this game, it’s a safe bet you’re not in it for the offense. The projected point total is hovering around 31 points, which would break the record set by Iowa-Northwestern in October for the lowest in recorded history. Much will be made of the inept offenses at play for these teams, rendered more so by opt-outs, transfers, and injuries, but their elite defenses deserve the limelight.

That minuscule 31-point total makes sense considering Iowa has averaged a 17-14 final score this season, indicative of both their offensive ineptitude and their defensive brilliance. The Hawkeyes gave up 54 points to Ohio State, but each of their other 11 opponents scored 27 or fewer, nine scored 13 or fewer, and four were held to single digits. Linebacker Jack Campbell (115 tackles, 5.8 yards allowed per target) led the way for this group, with Riley Moss (10 pass breakups) and Cooper DeJean (seven pass breakups, four interceptions) chipping in for a sensational secondary.

While the Wildcats’ defense wasn’t as dominant as the Hawkeyes’, it was still effective across the board and shut down nearly every opponent. Kentucky didn’t hold an FBS foe under 13 points, but they only gave up more than 24 in one game, throttling the talented offenses of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Georgia. The Wildcats are led by cornerback Keidron Smith, efficient as a tackler (7.8% missed tackle rate) and in coverage (6.3 yards per target, no 25-yard completions allowed). He’s emblematic of how strong this unit is across the board, without any obvious weaknesses against passes, rushes, short gains, or big plays. There’s no telling which of these defenses will take care of business more effectively—in a game where they could legitimately outscore the offenses—but it’s clear they’ll be the stars of a low-scoring bowl.

Watch for:

  • Will Kentucky passer Kaiya Sheron’s experience this season (29 passes in four games) give him an advantage over Iowa’s Joey Labas (first career appearance)?
  • Can the Hawkeyes give their offense good field position by creating takeaways from a turnover-prone Kentucky offense (85th in havoc allowed)?
  • How will the Wildcats’ limited rushing depth fare with lead running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. (904 yards in eight games) opting out?

FEI Outright Pick: Kentucky by 0.0.

Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal)
Glendale, Arizona
Michigan Wolverines (-7.5) vs. TCU Horned Frogs
Saturday, December 31, 4 p.m. (ESPN)

2022 F+ 2 7
When Michigan has the ball
2022 F+ 10 28
2022 EPA/pass 19 65
2022 EPA/rush 11 46
When TCU has the ball
2022 F+ 4 8
2022 EPA/pass 7 22
2022 EPA/rush 4 25

Considering TCU is a team that was not expected to fight for a spot anywhere in the postseason, let alone the playoff, much of the preamble to this semifinal understandably focuses on their unbelievable season. At a glance, Michigan seems a natural contrast, having entered the top five in the second week of the season and never fallen out. The 13-0 Wolverines, while not absolutely dominant against all comers, delivered authoritative statements against their two ranked opponents, outscoring Penn State and Ohio State 53-6 in the second half. It’s tempting to force them into the role of the heavy favorite with the Horned Frogs looking to continue the unlikeliest run in CFP history.

While there’s some truth to that framing, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Michigan wasn’t in this position for most of the season, let alone their recent history. The Wolverines were an underdog by more than a touchdown against rival Ohio State, and while their upset win wasn’t as stunning as last year’s, it was still a major reversal from where they stood all season. As in 2021, Michigan looked more like a pretender to be eliminated once they ran into a playoff-caliber opponent, not a true title contender.

But in 2021, the Wolverines’ magic ran out after they took down the Buckeyes and won the Big Ten, with their season reaching an abrupt end in a 34-11 loss to Georgia. Michigan lacked steady passing (combined 6.6 yards per attempt, one touchdown, two interceptions) and was therefore unable to lean on their strength, the run game (91 yards on 27 carries, both season lows). For this year to be different, they need to pick up yardage through the air to support the run game, which will lack Blake Corum (1,463 yards, 18 touchdowns) but feature a well-rested Donovan Edwards (872 yards).

Of course, 2022 TCU’s defense isn’t as daunting a force to face as 2021 Georgia’s was. But even as this unit lags behind the Horned Frogs’ dynamic offense, it has still made major strides since last season, when it finished among the bottom 15 of FBS in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed. In particular, the experienced secondary has been a revelation, limiting short gains well (36.5% passing success rate allowed, 22nd) and creating turnovers (1.0 interceptions per game, tied for 26th). And while the deep passes TCU has allowed led Michigan to a blowout victory over Ohio State, they haven’t been the Wolverines’ bread and butter this season. This offense prefers to keep the ball on the ground, rushing on 62.6% of plays (11th), and it doesn’t push the ball downfield through the air. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy only threw 43 passes of at least 20 yards, seventh in the Big Ten, and only one Michigan player (Ronnie Bell) ranked in the conference’s top 25 in yards after catch.

How much the Wolverines will need to pass is, of course, heavily dependent on how well they can prevent TCU from getting ahead and pressuring them into moving the ball quickly. The Horned Frogs’ offense did sputter at times down the stretch, scoring fewer than 30 points in three of their last four games after reaching that mark in their first nine outings, but it’s reasonable to ascribe some of that decline to a tough schedule and a general reliance on big plays. Michigan is equipped to deal with anything on defense—they rank among the top 20 in EPA, success rate, and explosiveness allowed on both rushes and passes—but shutting down big plays has been their best attribute. The Wolverines have held opponents to a 7.7% big-play rate, third in the nation, and they could be the first team to completely shut down both Max Duggan’s passing attack (13.7% big-play rate, 19th) and Kendre Miller’s run game (16.9% big-play rate, 14th). If Michigan can do so and secure an early advantage, they should be well on their way to taking the next step and challenging for a national title.

Watch for:

  • Can Edwards (18 runs for double-digit yardage on 117 carries) provide enough explosiveness to move Michigan’s offense quickly if it needs to?
  • Can TCU’s solid special teams (top-15 in offensive and defensive starting field position) nullify Michigan’s advantage (first in starting field position on offense, sixth on defense)?
  • Will McCarthy take advantage of the Horned Frogs’ susceptible pass defense (92nd in explosive pass rate allowed) to push the ball downfield?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 9.2.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinal)
Atlanta, Georgia
Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Georgia Bulldogs (-6.5)
Saturday, December 31, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Ohio State
2022 F+ 3 1
When Ohio State has the ball
2022 F+ 3 1
2022 EPA/pass 4 23
2022 EPA/rush 7 1
When Georgia has the ball
2022 F+ 11 7
2022 EPA/pass 11 5
2022 EPA/rush 11 67

Purely on paper, this might be the best first-round matchup the playoff has ever produced. Ohio State and Georgia rolled through 24 of their 25 opponents without much difficulty this season, with metrics placing both comfortably among the best in the nation every week. The Buckeyes did come up short at the end of the season, but they blew out nearly every other team on their schedule and delivered some fairly authoritative wins over solid Notre Dame and Penn State teams. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs opened with a near-perfect win over Oregon and firmly established themselves as the best team in the nation by stifling a dynamic Tennessee offense in Athens.

Ohio State doesn’t find itself in the role of an underdog often; Vegas hasn’t favored their opponent since the 2020 National Championship Game, and with good reason considering the Buckeyes’ 22-3 record in that span. It’s not just Georgia’s dominance that makes this an uphill battle, however, with several other factors playing against Ohio State. Two of their three best offensive players—running back TreVeyon Henderson and receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba—are out for the season, and the top-seeded Bulldogs had the luxury of selecting nearby Atlanta as the site for this game. It wouldn’t be too crazy to suggest that even the current line is too small—Georgia did roll past a fairly similar Michigan team in the semifinals last season, after all.

Still, even with Ohio State’s absences, they should have the offensive weapons to match Georgia blow-for-blow. Miyan Williams outshone Henderson at running back this season, totaling 817 yards on 6.5 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns, and Dallan Hayden (510 yards, 5.0 yards per carry) performed well as a secondary option. In the receiving corps, Emeka Egbuka reached 1,039 yards on the season with a 125-yard performance in the loss to Michigan. Julian Fleming and Cade Stover haven’t taken workloads on the order of Harrison (72 catches) and Egbuka (66 catches), but they have been solid as well, with 861 combined yards and 13.5 yards per reception.

How will Georgia look to limit this suite of playmakers? Well, as much talent as the Buckeyes have on offense, there might not be a unit in college football that can compare to the Bulldogs’ defensive depth. In the secondary, Georgia shut down any threat of big plays with ruthless efficiency. Javon Bullard (6.5% missed tackle rate) and Malaki Starks (7.9% missed tackle rate) were vital to preventing opponents such as Tennessee and LSU from taking the top off the defense. Up front, the Bulldogs ranked second with 2.09 line yards per carry allowed, and they led the nation in rushing explosiveness allowed. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson (64 tackles, 23 stops) anchored Georgia in run defense, but edge rusher Nolan Smith (10 stops on 69 snaps in run defense) made surprisingly significant contributions as well.

Georgia’s defense has practically nothing to exploit, but the same isn’t true of Ohio State, which has one glaring weakness: the deep ball. Much was made of how the Buckeyes stated they hadn’t prepared for Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy to test their secondary, and it showed. But this defense also struggled with big passes all season, giving up a 10.4% explosive-pass rate that ranked 79th in FBS, and McCarthy hadn’t often shown the big-play ability that he demonstrated in the Wolverines’ runaway victory. In Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, the Buckeyes face a similar opponent, one who made 10- and 20-yard passes well but rarely pushed the ball further downfield. In the SEC, he ranked 12th with five 40-yard passes, and while Georgia opened up the playbook more as the season progressed, he was still rarely called upon to go deep. Whether Bennett will look to take advantage of the Buckeyes’ fatal flaw—and whether Ohio State will prove better prepared for it than they were against Michigan—will likely define the chances of an upset in an exceptional playoff duel.

Watch for:

  • Will Georgia’s lack of aggressiveness on defense (76th in havoc) allow Ohio State to move the ball consistently?
  • Can the Buckeyes’ offensive line (seventh in line yards per carry) win a superb battle with Georgia in the trenches?
  • How well can the Bulldogs (second in passing-downs success rate) stay on the field against a tenacious Buckeyes defense (fifth in passing-downs success rate allowed)?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 6.7.

ReliaQuest Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (-1.5)
Monday, January 2, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)

Mississippi State
2022 F+ 19 16
When Illinois has the ball
2022 F+ 82 22
2022 EPA/pass 71 40
2022 EPA/rush 88 43
When Mississippi State has the ball
2022 F+ 3 35
2022 EPA/pass 3 87
2022 EPA/rush 12 90

It’s impossible to discuss this bowl without addressing the sudden, tragic death of Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, which has understandably cast a pall over the Bulldogs’ upcoming game. The game will still be played, which seems in line with what Leach would want; it’s also a welcome opportunity for celebration amid a difficult time for the program, and offers the team a chance to finish the season ranked for the first time since 2017.

Mississippi State’s offense, as was characteristic of Leach’s extreme Air Raid style, relies heavily on short, successful plays to move downfield. That makes the Illinois defense, third in the nation in success rate allowed, an intriguing matchup for the Bulldogs. To the extent the Illini were vulnerable (outside of their susceptibility to explosive plays, which aren’t Mississippi State’s specialty), they struggled more against the pass. In part because Illinois led in most of their games and in part because their secondary was a step behind their front seven; opponents targeted it heavily, passing at the 29th-highest rate faced by any defense. Still, only 33.9% of those passes were successful plays, the sixth-lowest average allowed in FBS.

It’s a given that the Bulldogs will pass heavily—they do so on 68.3% of plays, the highest rate in the nation by a wide margin—so the Illini’s secondary will certainly be tested. While this group has been excellent all year, it’ll be lacking first-team all-conference defensive backs Devon Witherspoon (14 pass breakups, three interceptions) and Sydney Brown (seven pass breakups, six interceptions). This game will test their depth, but there are plenty of playmakers in Illinois’ defensive backfield: Jartavius Martin (11 pass breakups, three interceptions) is likely to play, as is Kendall Smith (five pass breakups, four interceptions). If this defense can make a stand in the absence of their top stars, they stand a good chance at stifling the Bulldogs’ attack and winning a low-scoring slugfest.

Watch for:

  • Without Chase Brown (1,643 rushing yards, 75.7% of all Illinois rushing yards), can the Illini move the ball effectively on the ground?
  • How will the Bulldogs shuffle their receiving corps without Rara Thomas, the team leader in catches, yards, and yards per reception?
  • Can Illinois (10th in passing-downs rate forced) force the Bulldogs’ offense (84th in success rate on passing downs) to convert long downs and stay on the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Mississippi State by 1.1.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl
Arlington, Texas
USC Trojans (-2) vs. Tulane Green Wave
Monday, January 2, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

2022 F+ 12 22
When USC has the ball
2022 F+ 2 27
2022 EPA/pass 8 52
2022 EPA/rush 1 84
When Tulane has the ball
2022 F+ 83 34
2022 EPA/pass 91 52
2022 EPA/rush 125 17

It took a combination of factors for Tulane to reach their first New Year’s Six bowl since 1940: Michael Pratt led them to a 14.7% explosive-play rate through the air, the offensive line produced on a heavy workload, and the defense made a stand on passing downs. But the most obvious reason for the Green Wave’s incredible turnaround from 2-10 to 11-2 was the way they shut down big plays on defense. Tulane’s opponents averaged a 40.5% success rate, a solid but unexceptional mark, but they were held to a 7.6% big-play rate that ranked second in the nation.

A wide range of defenders played a part in that performance, but the most prominent were linebackers Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams. On the ground, Anderson and Williams combined for 223 tackles and missed just 15, a stellar 6.3% missed tackle rate. In coverage, they handled 55 total targets and allowed 4.9 yards after catch per reception with as many interceptions as touchdowns (two of each). Thanks in part to their efforts, the Green Wave held opponents to just 14 plays of 30 or more yards, tied for fifth in FBS.

USC, second in offensive explosiveness this season, should be a great matchup for Tulane’s defense. While the Trojans were able to avoid opt-outs from some key pieces, a lingering injury will preclude superstar receiver Jordan Addison from playing, and another could limit the effectiveness of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams. With a brilliant rushing corps (third in success rate, first in explosiveness) entering this game at near-full strength, USC might run the ball more than they generally have this season, testing a relatively weak Tulane run defense. Travis Dye (884 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) is unavailable, but Austin Jones (644 yards, 5.7 yards per carry) is arguably just as good, especially with a month of rest since the Pac-12 Championship Game. For the Trojans to avoid an upset and complete a comeback season of their own, they’ll need him to step up.

Watch for:

  • How will USC’s offensive line perform without injured center Brett Neilon and guard Andrew Vorhees?
  • Can Tulane (9.0% front-seven havoc rate allowed, 41st) hold off a USC pass rush led by the dynamic Tuli Tuipulotu (21 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks)?
  • Will the Trojans’ struggling run defense, 128th in success rate and 116th in explosiveness allowed, be able to hold off Tyjae Spears (1,376 yards, 6.5 yards per carry)?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 4.1.

Cheez-It Citrus Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Purdue Boilermakers vs. LSU Tigers (-14.5)
Monday, January 2, 1 p.m. (ABC)

2022 F+ 43 13
When Purdue has the ball
2022 F+ 39 29
2022 EPA/pass 79 55
2022 EPA/rush 75 48
When LSU has the ball
2022 F+ 45 15
2022 EPA/pass 61 30
2022 EPA/rush 45 10

Few units in college football have made a more complete turnaround this season than LSU’s run game. Last year, the Tigers averaged just 114 yards per game on the ground, ranking 115th in success rate and 94th in explosiveness on rushing plays. Five teams held them under 100 yards and 2.5 yards per carry, including 4-8 ULM. One year later, LSU is averaging 181 rushing yards per game, with their rushing corps ranking fourth in success rate and 20th in explosiveness. Only two teams, Tennessee and Georgia, have held them under 100 yards, and five different players have at least 250 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns for the Tigers. With quarterback Jayden Daniels (818 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns) and running back Josh Williams (532 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry) leading the group, LSU has gone from one of the nation’s worst teams on the ground to one of its best.

Trying to limit that lineup of star rushers is an unenviable task for any defense, particularly for Purdue. The Boilermakers have been solid against the run this season, especially in limiting big plays—just 7.9% of opponents’ carries have gone for double-digit yardage, second in the nation. But whether because of increasing schedule difficulty or wear and tear on the defense, they struggled more and more as the season went on. Purdue held four of their first six opponents under 100 rushing yards, but all of their last seven foes reached that mark, with five of them going for over 150 yards on the ground.

The Boilermakers closed out the season by giving up 225 yards on 5.9 yards per carry to Michigan, but the long break between that game and this one might provide a much-needed mental and physical reset. Purdue’s defensive line is capable of making stops; Kydran Jenkins and Jack Sullivan are among the nation’s most efficient run-stopping tandem up front, with just one missed tackle on 54 attempts. The linebackers haven’t been as much of a factor as they could be, however, and the Boilermakers will look for players such as Jalen Graham and OC Brothers (combined 17.6% missed tackle rate on rushing plays) to contribute more and slow down LSU’s deep rushing attack.

Watch for:

  • How will Purdue handle its passing game with quarterback Aidan O’Connell and top targets Charlies Jones and Payne Durham all opting out?
  • With Kayshon Boutte unexpectedly declaring for the draft after initially planning to play, how will the Tigers’ receiving room adjust to address its losses?
  • How much pressure can BJ Ojulari (5.5 sacks) and Saivion Jones (3.5 sacks) bring for LSU, whose other three defenders with multiple sacks are unavailable?

FEI Outright Pick: LSU by 11.0.

Rose Bowl Game
Pasadena, California
Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Utah Utes (-2.5)
Monday, January 2, 5 p.m. (ESPN)

Penn State
2022 F+ 9 10
When Penn State has the ball
2022 F+ 27 16
2022 EPA/pass 34 22
2022 EPA/rush 85 49
When Utah has the ball
2022 F+ 7 16
2022 EPA/pass 6 36
2022 EPA/rush 13 8

In football, we are often guilty of ascribing the bulk of a team’s success to its quarterback. Even when there’s an element of truth to that assumption, it can obscure the other factors in a team’s success—like the elite run games complementing Heisman finalists at USC and TCU this season. But sometimes, there is no doubt that the quarterback is at the heart of everything in a superb season.

That’s the case for Utah’s Cam Rising, who drifted in and out of the starting role throughout his early career before solidifying himself as the top option last season. He earned all-conference honors while leading the Utes to their first-ever Rose Bowl in 2021, and he was a steady hand on the helm as they won the Pac-12 and secured a return trip this year. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the team relied on other stars to make it this far—such as running back Tavion Thomas and corner Clark Phillips III, neither of whom will play in this game—but Rising is undoubtedly the leader in the locker room. If there was one play that defined Utah’s season, it wasn’t a game-winning two-point conversion or a huge return; it was the violent hit Rising took in the Pac-12 title game that sent his helmet flying, only for him to jump right back up with a smile.

Penn State has done about as good a job as any team at limiting opponents’ passing attack this season. C.J. Stroud racked up 354 yards on 33 passes against the Nittany Lions, but the rest of the teams they faced averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt. A deep secondary, led by corners Kalen King, Johnny Dixon, and Joey Porter Jr. (6.3 yards per target, 36 pass breakups), shut down almost every opposing quarterback. While Porter has opted out, most of the stars in Penn State’s defensive backfield are likely to play, presenting a tough challenge in what could be Rising’s final game—and the cornerstone of his legacy—at Utah.

Watch for:

  • Can Penn State’s solid run defense (45th in success rate, 41st in explosiveness) suppress the Utes’ deep rushing corps (four players with over 350 yards, excluding Thomas)?
  • Will Sean Clifford (7.7 yards per attempt, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions) be able to keep pace with Rising against Utah’s strong intermediate pass defense?
  • Can Nittany Lions rushers Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen (1,771 combined yards, 19 touchdowns) get past the Utes’ line and wreak havoc in the open field?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 0.3.

FEI Picks: Bowl Spectacular Part III

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Pick ATS
NC State -1 Maryland Maryland Maryland NC State
UCLA -7.5 Pittsburgh UCLA Pittsburgh UCLA
Notre Dame -3.5 South Carolina Notre Dame South Carolina Notre Dame
Ohio -2.5 Wyoming Ohio Ohio Ohio
Clemson -6 Tennessee Tennessee Tennessee Clemson
Iowa -2.5 Kentucky Kentucky Kentucky Kentucky
Alabama -6.5 Kansas State Alabama Alabama Kansas State
Michigan -7.5 TCU Michigan Michigan Michigan
Georgia -6.5 Ohio State Georgia Georgia Georgia
Mississippi State -1.5 Illinois Mississippi State Illinois Illinois
USC -2 Tulane USC USC Tulane
LSU -14.5 Purdue LSU Purdue Purdue
Utah -2.5 Penn State Utah Penn State Utah

FEI’s picks ATS last week: 3-11-1.

FEI’s picks ATS in 2022: 49-61-2.

Preston’s picks ATS last week: 11-3-1.

Preston’s picks ATS in 2022: 56-55-1.

#Underdogs #Stand #Biggest #Bowls #Postseason