Previewing the New Years Bowl Slate

Holiday Bowl: No.22 Northwestern vs. No.17 Utah

This game is a defense lover’s dream.

The problem is that when great defenses are matched up against bad offenses, it’s not usually great defensive plays that are being made.  It’s bad offensive plays.

Northwestern and Utah both rank in the top 25 in Football Outsiders’ Defensive FEI.  The defenses are really the only reason these two teams are here right now.  Utah has battled an insane amount of injuries, depleting their offense of most of the skill it had, resulting in the other side having to lift them up.  Northwestern has a potent rushing attack and stout defense as well.  They give up a lot of yards, but lock down in the red zone.

This game comes down to which offense can muster enough.  The Utes struggled mightly against the Huskies in the Pac-12 championship game.  The injuries to running back Zack Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley loomed large in that one; Utah got nothing offensively and couldn’t manage the three point deficit they ended up losing by.

But that was against the Washington defense, which ranks 11th in Defensive FEI.  They’re a lot more to deal than Northwestern is.

Still, the Utah offense looked so incompetent that it’s hard to trust them to move the ball even against defenses that are worse than Washington’s.  Northwestern took Notre Dame out of a funk earlier this season, shut down Michigan State and held Ohio State to a couple stops early in the 2nd half of the Big Ten Championship, which was enough for the Wildcats to get back in the game.   They are no joke.

Northwestern faces a tough test as well.  Utah presents them with the 5th ranked rush defense by yards allowed per game.  At the same time, there hasn’t been one game where the Wildcats’ one-two punch in Isaiah Bower and Jeremy Larkin has struggled.

They may again against Utah.  The Utes are just as stout as Northwestern is up front.  Against the Huskies, Myles Gaskin never broke out for a big run once.  Washington had to chip away and gain yards that way.  Bowser and Larkin average 4.6 and 4.8 yards per rush, respectively.  The Wildcats should feed those two just as they usually do.

I think that will be enough.  The Utes are stout, but so is Northwestern.  The struggles offensively for Utah aren’t just present in the passing game.  Zach Moss’s injury was a brutal blow; backup Armand Shyne hasn’t produced even close to what Moss did for the offense.

This game feels like another Pac-12 Championship for the Utes.  The Northwestern defense gave some of the top offenses in the country trouble this year.  The matchup against this Utah offense, which is one of the worst out of all ranked teams, is a fantastic one for them.

The Wildcats should be able to bust a couple runs with Bower and Larkin, and that’ll be the difference.  Their offense might be just a hair better, but in this game, just that sliver matters.

Prediction: Northwestern-22  Utah-10

Fiesta Bowl: No.11 LSU vs. No.8 UCF

It has been really impressive to see that UCF, after losing Mackensie Milton to that horrific knee injury, hasn’t lost the explosiveness that made their offense so special. Dariel Mack Jr., who prior to Milton’s injury had started just one game, has lit it up just as Milton would.  Against Memphis in the AAC title game, Mack Jr. went 19/27 with 348 yards and two touchdowns.  He added four (!!!) touchdowns on the ground and 59 more yards.

The question is whether LSU’s defense, ranked 12th in Defensive FEI, can slow him and the rest of this group down.

The Tigers defense got beat three times this year.  Once against Florida (Yikes.  Yes I’m aware they beat Michigan handily Saturday), once against Alabama (fair), and once in that insanely stupid/entertaining Texas A&M 7OT game that we’re not going to count for this exercise.

Alabama beat them because they’re Alabama.  Their players were just better.  The Crimson Tide did with skill position guys.  Josh Jacobs ran over people.  Damien Harris couldn’t be stopped.  The Alabama receivers were too much to handle.

Florida barely survived.  Lamical Perine, who torched Michigan Sunday, did the same to LSU.  The ground and pound worked against the Tigers.  Perine ran for 85 yards and two touchdowns that day, and Florida’s defense came up big with a pick six of Joe Burrow.

Betting on UCF to get the same performance out of their skill guys that Alabama did isn’t very smart.  The Tigers are the 2nd best defense (by Defensive FEI) the Knights face this season.  Cincinnati, ranked 5th, was torched by them in Week 10.  Granted, Milton was healthy, and had four touchdowns in the effort.

Things haven’t changed yet with Mack at QB, but that could be thanks to Memphis’ 95th ranked defense by FEI.  LSU sits at 12th heading into the game.  Mack hasn’t faced a defense like this.  It’s hard to trust a freshman facing this front who has never played in a big game before.

He’ll have some help though.  UCF is good defensively.  They rank 29th in FEI and force a ton of turnovers.  Florida taught us that forcing turnovers against the Tigers could be huge.  Burrow, for as much as he’s added to LSU’s offense in terms of explosiveness, can have bad days.  The Knights will have to force him into bad decisions when he decides to throw.  Those chances may not come along though, as LSU loves to pound Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  The Knights give up 227.4 yards per game on the ground, which is 118th in the nation.  There are 130 teams eligible for that ranking.

If UCF is going to give LSU a run, it starts with stepping up and stopping the run.  If they do that, forcing Burrow into bad decisions through the air is the next step

Unfortunately for UCF, defense is how they’re going to have to win this game.  The Tigers may not be able to fully limit the explosive UCF scheme, but they can limit it enough so that they can keep up, and possibly pull ahead.

Prediction: LSU-38  UCF-29

Citrus Bowl: No.14 Kentucky vs. No.12 Penn State

It’s amazing that Penn State salvaged their season enough to be ranked No.12.  It feels incredibly high.  There’s a strong case Kentucky should be ranked ahead of them.

That doesn’t mean this is Kentucky’s game though.  The Nittany Lions measure out better on both sides of the ball in FEI, though the offensive gap isn’t as wide as you may think due to Penn State’s strange slow starts and overall incompetency on that side of the ball this year (Penn State’s season is very comparable to the Steelers’.  Funny how they’re in the same state).

The Wildcats are comparable to a Northwestern, although are much more terrifying.  They’re more explosive offensively, and have who I believe to be a better QB than in Clayton Thorson in Terry Wilson.

Against Georgia in Week 9, the Wildcats had some success early with Wilson.  Snell wearing down the Bulldogs first helped, but Wilson made a couple throws and ended up throwing for 226 yards, his 3rd most of the season.

But Penn State is better than Georgia against the pass.  The Nittany Lions allow just 5.6 yards per pass attempt, good enough for 6th in the nation as opposed to the Bulldogs ranking of 14th.  They cover everyone.

Explosiveness doesn’t just apply to the passing game, though.  Benny Snell Jr. ran for 1,305 yards this season, and was the sole powerhouse of this Kentucky offense.  He can break out at any time.  Snell, like Wilson, challenged Georgia’s defense before adjustments came along at halftime.

They’re going to need similar production from Snell and Wilson tomorrow.  The difference is that this time, instead of that production keeping them in the game, it could lead to them winning it.

The Wildcats defense is nasty.  Led by Josh Allen, who will be a top ten pick in the 2019 NFL Draft (Big board sneak peek: he’s really, really high on mine), this group is stout against the pass and makes it a pain to gain first downs; they rank 9th in Football Outsiders’ DFD stat and allowed the 14th fewest passing yards in the country this season.

This matches up well with the Nittany Lions, who after losing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin have struggled immensely on that side of the ball side this season.  The slow starts and lack of big plays have plagued them.  Trace McSorely only completed 54.3% of his passes this season, down 66.5% last season.  It’s felt like Moorhead’s loss has been the biggest.  Penn State just doesn’t have the same rhythm to begin games.  None of their first 15 plays have been impactful or moved the chains.

Kentucky has the talent to cause chaos for the Nittany Lions offensively.  It hasn’t even taken good defenses to cause it; the hinderance has been totally self-inflicted.  A slow start versus this Kentucky group results in a total mess offensively.

It’ll have to be up to Snell and the rest of the offense to capitalize on Penn State’s theoretical slow start.  If they can score early, they stand a chance.  Penn State, despite their struggles, still has McSorely, who is unstoppable once in a rhythm.  The Nittany Lions are not a team you want to get into a shootout with.  Kentucky won’t be able to keep up if that’s the way this game goes.

Snell will have to break through Penn State’s defense.  They’re stronger in the back end, so Snell should be up to it.  Kentucky’s going to have to score on every possession Penn State doesn’t, because once Penn State figures out the Wildcats’ defense, it could get a little ugly.

Kentucky will hang around.  Snell is too good, and I just can’t trust the Nittany Lions one hundred percent.  The Wildcats defense could extend their struggles far beyond the 1st quarter.  But the Nittany Lions are just more potent, and their defense will get stops on key possessions.

Prediction: Penn State-31 Kentucky-21

Rose Bowl: No.9 Washington vs. No.6 Ohio State

Over the past two seasons, the Rose Bowl has been an incredible display of offense.  Oklahoma and Georgia engaged in a total shootout in last year’s CFP Semifinal, and the year prior USC and Penn State did the same.

I think we’re going to see that again this time around.

That puts a lot of trust in Jake Browning and Washington’s offense, which ranked 36th in Offensive FEI and 85th in points per game.  It’s especially bold to put this trust in them after the performance they turned in against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.  Browning was horrific, and while Myles Gaskin had a decent game, it didn’t make things easier for the rest of the offense.

This was against Utah’s defense though, which as mentioned above is ranked 22nd in FEI and carries that team.  The Buckeyes have quietly struggled the past two seasons on defense (Saying that about the 2017-2018 team is risky; they finished 6th in FEI and everyone was in love them.  They blew a ton of downfield coverages last season and no one talks about it).  Ohio State ranks 46th in Defensive FEI this season, thanks to Nick Bosa’s injury and a terrible secondary.

This is the case for the shootout.  Despite his capability of having just a horrific game, Browning can command an offense pretty well.  Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia and Ty Jones are all fantastic receivers who can get downfield.  Jones’ team leading six touchdowns and 16.8 yards per catch are thanks to his 6’4 frame, which presents a troubling matchup for the Buckeyes secondary.  All Browning has to do is get the ball to these guys.

If Browning has a bad game, the Huskies could rely on one of the best running backs in the country in Myles Gaskin.  Ohio State’s run defense isn’t nearly as bad as their secondary, but is about average compared to the rest of the country.  Gaskin getting going takes some pressure off of Browning, but the former Heisman candidate must step up for Washington to keep up in this game.

The Washington defense is fierce.  Ranked 11th in Defensive FEI, they get stops and don’t allow touchdowns.  They’re good at forcing QBs into short throws, as they allow 5.7 yards per attempt, 9th in the nation.

Ohio State’s offense is just as impactful.  They don’t do anything poorly.  Dwayne Haskins was a Heisman candidate and will now be the first QB taken in the draft.  J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are the most ridiculous running back duo in the country (Sorry Alabama).  Haskins is surrounded by weapons like KJ Hill and Parris Campbell, receivers who make it happen in any area of the field.  The Buckeyes can play any style of offense they want to and not be stopped.

Ohio State has won every shootout they’ve taken place in this season.  They’re just too explosive, and Haskins is too scary.

Washington doesn’t break.  They’re 5th in points per game allowed.  Never have they ever even taken place in a shootout.  They haven’t faced an offense like this.

You have to outscore Ohio State, and making that proposition with Washington, specifically Browning, is too risky.

If the defense can get couple critical stops, Washington can win this game.  Ohio State has let weak teams hang around and put up points.  The Huskies, despite their drawbacks, are much more equipped than a Maryland or Nebraska.

This game should continue the latest Rose Bowl tradition of high-scoring affairs.  No more than six points has decided the past two matchups.  I’d expect that to remain the same this New Year.

Prediction: Ohio State-48  Washington-42

Sugar Bowl: No.15 Texas vs. No.5 Georgia 

These teams have a lot in common.  Both were upended by a Playoff team in their conference championship, and those two teams went on to play each other.  The losers did too.  Both know how to score points as well.  Like the Rose Bowl, this new year’s Sugar Bowl might be a shootout.

Texas’ offense is more powerful than the stats suggest.  They’re 29th in Offensive FEI and finished 45th in points per game.  The Longhorns stats are underrating them due to their poor performances in games they should have easily won instead of barely skirting by.  They put up 23 against Baylor, 19 against Kansas State and 24 against Kansas.  These performances, along with some occasional bad tendencies from Sam Elhinger, are cause for concern, especially since the Wildcats defense is the highest ranked in FEI out of the three at 64th.

But Texas came up clutch when it needed to.  The Longhorns put up 38, 42, 39 against Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oklahoma State respectively this season.  They went 1-2 in those games, and obviously fell to the Sooners again in the Big 12 Championship Game (where they only put up 27), but Texas has at least shown that they can play, and even win, in shootouts.

The question is whether Georgia will allow it to get to that point.  The Bulldogs are going to score on Texas’ defense; everyone with a high-powered offense did this season.  Texas was able to answer back almost every time, but that was against some of the worst defense in the country.  The Longhorns haven’t seen anyone even close to Georgia defensively.  TCU and Iowa State come close, but their respective Defensive FEI rankings of 19 and 23 don’t touch Georgia at nine.

Only LSU and Bama figured out how to test, and beat Georgia’s defense.  When it was tested, they lost.  LSU used grit to bring them down, scoring field goals and pounding away to tire the Bulldogs out.  It didn’t help that Georgia’s offense couldn’t get anything; the defense was on the field too much.

That’s not exactly Texas’ MO.  Georgia’s going to score, which means the defense should get plenty of rest.

The Alabama game doesn’t really have a lot to it besides “They’re Bama and they’re just better than everyone else.”  The fact that Jalen Hurts lit them up after replacing Tua Tagviola is concerning, that felt like more of momentum change for Bama rather than a concern for the Bulldogs defense.  They were lock-down in the first half, which made the task for an injured Tua even harder to complete.

Texas’ offense is going to have a balance of scores and stops in this game.  At times we’ll find them to be overwhelming for Georgia; Elhinger makes a good throw or Lil’Jordan Humphrey brings down a couple 50-50 balls.  Georgia will get stops though; the defense is nothing like Texas has seen, and the Longhorns don’t play the style that the Bulldogs struggle with on the defensive end.  This defense could force Elhinger into some bad decisions, perhaps at the worst possible times, and give Georgia that one extra possession to seal the game.

Prediction: Georgia-42  Texas-33