Previewing This Weekend’s Bowl Games

We have finally made it to the stretch of bowl season that I actually care about.  Below are previews for today’s and tomorrow’s bowl games, including the two College Football Playoff matchups.  I will have a column on New Years Eve morning previewing the Monday-Tuesday slate.

Camping World Bowl: No.16 West Virginia vs. No.20 Syracuse

There was only one exciting aspect to this game coming in, and it was going to be Will Grier and the West Virginia trying to score on every single play against a Syracuse defense that does not allow anyone to keep the ball for a long period of time.

Now that’s gone.

I totally respect the decision by Grier and many others to sit out bowl games with regard to their draft stock.  But in Grier’s case I found it a little odd.  I don’t have him as a first round quarterback (In fact, the only QB I did have in the first round decided he’s coming back for another year), and see him as a 2nd or 3rd round selection.  With an extremely underwhelming QB class, I find it unlikely his stock would rise a lot.  Sitting out a bowl game to make sure you’re taken in the 2nd round as opposed to the 3rd is a massive difference from the first to the second.

Anyways, Grier’s absence does give Syracuse a huge new advantage in this game.  West Virginia is planning on using both of their backups, Jack Allison and Trey Lowe, against the Orange.  It feels a little unnecessary to use both when West Virginia’s system is simply to throw the ball downfield and hope someone catches it.  QB draws and rushes don’t exist in West Virginia’s playbook, so it’s odd to see that Lowe, a running QB, will be featured.

This could create chaos on the offensive side for the Mountaineers, which the Orange could feed off of.  Syracuse’s doesn’t allow teams to hold onto the ball (They’re 7th in Football Outsider’s DBC stat), and with West Virginia’s new inability to throw the ball downfield and get chunk yards, we could see a lot of incompletions and stagnant drives from the Mountaineers.

The Orange won’t struggle as much to match West Virginia’s offensive output.  The Orange are average offensively, ranking 52nd in Football Outsider’s Offensive FEI stat.  Eric Dungey is nothing special; he averages 7.5 yards per attempt and occasionally makes brutal decisions.  The Orange utilize his running ability though; he was 2nd on the team in rushing yards and ran in 15 touchdowns this season.  Him, along with running backs Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland, create a powerful rushing attack that West Virginia, one of the infamous Big 12 defenses, must stop.

The Mountaineers force turnovers well and that’s about it.  When Syracuse throws, forcing Dungey into bad decisions might be their only hope.  West Virginia only has seven linebackers dressing for the game thanks to injuries.  Still, even those who are injured struggled.  Though Syracuse has a less explosive offense than what they’re used to seeing, West Virginia just doesn’t possess the skill to stop it.

This game will come down to which offense can muster enough.  I’d expect rare incompetency and struggles from the Mountaineers offensively.  Usually the defense is bailed out by the other side.  Grier’s absence and an unforgiving Syracuse defense makes that not the case.

Prediction: Syracuse-24 West Virginia-13

Alamo Bowl: No.24 Iowa State vs. No.13 Washington State

Another reason Grier’s absence for West Virginia is a bummer has to do with this game right here.  The Mountaineers would have been a much better option when it comes to fulfilling the legacy of this game.

This might be the first Alamo Bowl in awhile where it’s not going to be an all-out shootout.  Every year at least one of the teams puts up a boatload of points (2016 was a weird outlier where Colorado only put up eight and Oklahoma State only 38).  West Virginia-Washington State would have been unreal if Grier played.  If Oklahoma State had won more than six games, we would’ve had a similar game as well.

But instead we get the high-powered Cougars against an Iowa State team that somehow wins huge games and has a ferocious defense.

The Cyclones have shown that they are frisky.  They beat Oklahoma State and West Virginia, and hung close with Texas and Oklahoma.  None of these games were blowouts.  In every game except the Oklahoma State one, Iowa State won or hung close with defense.  Oklahoma only hung 37 on them, and Texas only put up 24.  It was the 49th ranked offense by FEI that hurt them in those games.

The Cougars are set up similarly to the opponents Iowa State has played tough.  They score a ton of points and don’t play a lot of defense.  They rank 85th in Defensive FEI and 7th in Offensive FEI.  Essentially, they’re just another Big 12 team.

The Cyclones defense is the 2nd best Washington State has faced this season.  It’s possible the Cougars offense was overrated a bit thanks to the Pac-12’s low quality of teams.  When Washington faced them in November, a team with not only the Pac-12’s best defense but one of the country’s best, it was no contest.  The Huskies swarmed to the ball, allowing Washington State QB Gardner Minshew to complete 26 passes for only 152 yards and two interceptions.  It was easily the Cougars worst performance of the year.

Iowa State’s going to have to do the same thing, because if they don’t, playing catchup with Washington State won’t work.  David Montgomery was one of the country’s best running backs this season, and Brock Purdy has had his moments, but even if both turn out good performances, it still may not be enough.  The Cyclones just don’t have the firepower that other Big 12 teams and Washington State has.

That’s why I see this game playing out very similarly to the way Iowa State’s matchup against Oklahoma played out early in the season.  The Cyclones did a good job holding the Sooners back a bit, but failed to answer when Oklahoma did score.  Once they got down two possessions, it was over.  They were never catching up.

Even if the Cyclones put up a fine defensive display, Washington State will find a way to overpower.  They should be capable of this; they aren’t facing the Washington defense.

Prediction: Washington State-34 Iowa State-23

Peach Bowl: No.10 Florida vs. No.7 Michigan

Everything about this game is annoying.

I feel like the Peach Bowl always gets the crappiest matchup.  They always get stuck with the Group of Five team, an underwhelming or overrated team, or an in-general just terrible matchup.  The Peach Bowl is the one New Years Six (New Years??  Why are we still calling it New Years Six if half the games aren’t on New Years?  We need a new name) bowl that you have to force yourself to watch.  All the others put up no resistance.

And the Playoff committee decided to carry on that Peach Bowl tradition this year by giving us Florida and Michigan, two of the most overrated and boring teams in the country.  But hey, it should be fun because these teams don’t play each other that often, right?

Oh, wait.

This year’s Peach Bowl will be the third year in a row these teams have played each other.  There are teams in the same conference that don’t even play each other that often!  It will also be the 2nd time in three years that these two have played each other in a bowl game, and the 4th time since 2003.

It’s hilarious, mostly because as of late, Florida and Michigan haven’t really been must-watch teams.  Sure the Wolverines defense was amazing this year, but these two teams can be defined over the past four seasons or so by their poor offensive outputs not being enough to secure the defense’s win.

For Florida, it’s absolutely the case this year.  For Michigan, a little less so.

The Gators actually finished 31st in Offensive FEI this season, thanks to a massive rushing attack led by Lamical Perine and Jordan Scarlett.  Felipe Franks throws when he has to; he totaled only 2,284 yards on the season with a yards per attempt of 7.5.  When Franks played well he was fine, but when he was bad, boy was he bad. Teams with stout defenses like Georgia and Kentucky feasted on him, and Missouri got Franks benched after forcing him into a 9/22 start.

Florida’s offense got by, but good defenses shut them down in a heartbeat.

Florida is essentially facing a mix of Georgia and Kentucky in the Wolverines.

The Gators don’t have the offensive skill to break through Michigan’s stout man-to-man defense.  What the Wolverines do is simple, but effective given the talent they have.  They will make you beat their cornerbacks and safeties one-on-one.  Ohio State was the only team to do that this season.  There is no way Franks will get the ball into the windows needed to gain passing yards against this Michigan back-end.

Pounding the ball down Michigan’s throat is probably the best option but isn’t very appeasing either.  The Wolverines are 17th in rush defense, which is the best they’ve faced all season.

Florida keeps this close by their defense getting the best of Michigan.  The Gators should be able to get stops.  The question is whether the offense can have their back even once.

Prediction: Michigan-28  Florida-10

Playoff #1, Cotton Bowl: No.3 Notre Dame vs. No.2 Clemson

Though both are fantastic matchups, the two College Football Playoff games could not be more different.

This one will come down to defense.

Even with Dexter Lawrence’s suspension (It’s a real bummer.  It really seems like whatever he tested positive for was a complete and total accident), the Clemson defense is still the best in the country.  The Fighting Irish are essentially going against a NFL-caliber squad.

They face a mismatch on the other side of the field as well.  Though Notre Dame’s defense ranked 8th in Defensive FEI, they give up 3.7 yards per rush, which ranked 35th in the country.  It’s the secondary that’s the meat of this defense, which works out well when trying to stop true freshman Trevor Lawrence (It’s all the sudden very weird writing about guys who are my age).

Like Florida-Michigan, this game comes down to stops.  Notre Dame is going to have to get more of them.  Clemson’s offense has relied less on the passing game this season, as four running backs ran for more than 400 yards this season.  All four of those running backs averaged more than five yards a rush too.  The Irish are going to have to load up the box to stop it.  That could free up the top of the secondary, allowing Lawrence to throw downfield to the explosive Clemson wide receivers.  The Tigers had 18 passing plays of 40+ yards this season, 5th in the nation.  With Lawrence’s cannon arm and the size of the Clemson receivers, that’s no surprise.  Notre Dame is good at taking away the short passing game, but if they’re loading up to stop the run, those plays downfield could be open.

The Irish might screwed either way.  Stopping the run is going to be tough enough in the first place.

Ever since turning things over to Ian Book though, the Notre Dame offense has been one of the most explosive in the country.  They are excellent at moving the ball, ranking 10th in Football Outsiders’ OFD stat.  Book has given them a command they lacked with Brandon Wimbush.  His ability to make throws combined with Dexter Williams’ rushing game has made the Irish offense hard to stop.

But when Notre Dame struggles is when Book doesn’t have the run game to benefit off of.  In “close” games (defined by a margin of 10 points), an Irish running back or QB ran for over 100 yards only once.  It doesn’t take great run defenses either to stop them.  In Week 7, Pittsburgh held Williams to only 31 rushing yards in Notre Dame’s 19-14 win.  The Panthers rank 100th in yards per rush allowed nationwide.  Northwestern, who’s stingy defense held them in almost every game this season but doesn’t pride itself on stopping the run, held Williams to 56 yards on the ground.  Though much better than Pittsburgh, the Wildcats only rank 40th in yards per rush allowed.

Then there was the regular season finale against USC, where Notre Dame’s offense succumbed to an average USC defense in the first half.  Book was off, and the Trojans got stop after stop.  That turned around in the 2nd half, but created an even greater cause for concern for the Irish in tomorrow’s game.

The Tigers will stop Williams, which means a slow start for the offense overall can’t happen for the Irish.  If Clemson has a weakness, it’s the secondary.  Like the Tigers, the Irish have big receivers, and Book can make the throws.  But Clemson doesn’t allow for slow, methodical drives; they rank 3rd in DBC and swarm to the ball.

It’s a really tough task for the Irish.  Stopping Clemson’s offense is a nightmare for them, and trying to break through this defense will take an excellent game from Book.  If everyone brings their A-game, the Irish have a chance.

Prediction: Clemson-38  Notre Dame-17

Playoff #2, Orange Bowl: No.4 Oklahoma vs. No.1 Alabama

The first playoff games features offenses that will have to break through stout fronts in order to get points.  That’s the case for only one team here.

It’s hard to understate how bad Oklahoma’s defense is.  They’re 98th in Defensive FEI, and give up 8.2 yards per pass, 108th in the country.  The run defense is their strength; the Sooners somehow came in 48th in yards per rush allowed.  That’s a good thing, considering Alabama’s ground and pound style of offense.  Still, Tua Tagovailoa is now fully healthy, and is going to pick apart the Sooners secondary.

I do not know how Oklahoma is going to get stops in this game.  That means the offense, as per usual, is going to have to bail them out.

Iowa State and Army were easily the two best defenses the Sooners faced this season, and that’s not saying too much compared to the Crimson Tide.  I touched on  Iowa State above; they’re frisky but never gave Oklahoma a real test.  Army’s defense got Oklahoma off the field quickly and had a ton of rest, thanks to the Black Knights’ 44:41 time of possession.  Kyler Murray and the passing game was held in check, but Oklahoma still escaped.  It was, once again, Oklahoma’s defense that got them in real trouble.

The Sooners should be able to score against Bama.  The Crimson Tide haven’t dealt with someone as athletic and explosive as Kyler Murray.  However, Bama’s defense has only looked bad once this year, and it was against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, where the Bulldogs attacked the middle of the field and tired out a Bama defense that was on the field a lot thanks to Tagovailoa’s injury.  Murray and the Oklahoma offense is a whole other beast though, and I trust Lincoln Riley to figure out ways to exploit it.  The question is whether they can do it on every single possession, because that’s what it is going to take.

The Crimson Tide defense could get torched for the most part tomorrow night.  But just one stop could be enough.  Remember, I’m projecting Alabama to score every single against Oklahoma.  One stop means a two possession lead and the win.  For once, Oklahoma is going to be playing catch up.

I think that is as simple as this game is.  Alabama’s run defense could find the Sooners being conservative on 1st and 2nd down and stuff them both times.  Murray isn’t going to have a perfect completion percentage.  There’s your three-and-out and your lead.  Alabama might get two stops the entire game, but that’ll be enough.

Prediction: Alabama-48  Oklahoma-38