After a disastrous Week 2 of bowl picks, my desperation level is at an all-time high. My record through the lower-level bowl games has been downright embarrassing, and I need to redeem myself this week. But in all honesty, who thought a Minnesota team that almost boycotted its bowl game would beat one of the Pac-12’s best teams by double digits? Who thought a Baylor team, losers of six straight, would thoroughly dominate Boise State, a team that has historically played extremely well in bowl games?
Despite my sense of shame for letting many of you down with my predictions, I have a deep appreciation for what we witnessed the first two weeks — this is why we love college football so much. We can lay out all of the individual matchups, get deep into the numbers in a way we could never dream of doing five years ago and yet, with the opening kickoff, much off what we know (or think we know) becomes irrelevant. Here’s hoping for an exciting final week of the college football season, regardless of whether the outcomes match my projections.
Friday, December 30
AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Georgia vs. TCU
Line: Georgia, -1
Georgia QB Jacob Eason has struggled against pressure this year, completing just 33.8 percent of his passes and posting a QB rating of 44.7. He has also struggled with his downfield accuracy, as he has completed only 22 of his 109 shots at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. While TCU hasn’t produced a consistent pass rush this season, the Horned Frogs rank 19th in coverage grading among Power-5 schools. CB Ranthony Texada has given up just two receptions of at least 20 yards in his past seven games, while his counterpart, Jeff Gladney has given up just three such catches the entire season.
Georgia’s ability to move the ball on offense relies almost solely on RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who have combined for 1741 yards and forced 60 missed tackles. Due to poor offensive line play, 1162 of their yards have come after first contact. TCU’s front seven is strong against the run, led by DT Aaron Curry. If the Georgia backfield can’t make TCU defenders miss – the Horned Frogs have missed 136 tackles this season – TCU should be able to put up enough points on offense to pull off the upset.
Prediction: TCU 23, Georgia 21
Hyundai Sun Bowl
No. 18 Stanford vs. North Carolina
Line: Stanford, -3
This game has lost a lot of its luster with both teams’ star RBs sitting the game out, but both rosters still have other top-end talents that warrant tuning in to see. With Elijah Hood out of action, this game could be an opportunity for QB Mitch Trubisky to showcase his skillset and put himself into the discussion of being the first QB off the board in April’s NFL draft. He has QB ratings of at least 120.0 in six different games this season, and he’s completing 71.3 percent of his passes (when eliminating the Week 6 game against Virginia Tech, which was heavily affected by Hurricane Matthew). Stanford is led by DE Solomon Thomas, who has posted 21 combined sacks and hits to go with 40 run stops. He is the highest-graded defensive interior player on run defense in FBS this season. Stanford QB Keller Chryst finished the season hot with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the final three games, posting a QB rating of at least 114.0 in each of them. If his strong play down the stretch carries over into the bowl game, Stanford should be able to pull out the victory, despite not having Christian McCaffrey in the lineup.
Prediction: Stanford 27, North Carolina 23
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Nebraska vs. No. 21 Tennessee
Line: Tennessee, -4.5
On paper this game looks like a good opportunity to play the under, as both teams will have big advantages on the defensive line. Almost every Nebraska offensive line starter has had significant struggles run blocking this year, and both tackles are outside the top 200 of the position in pass-blocking efficiency. This should set DE Derek Barnett for a huge final college game, as he has tallied 12 sacks and 64 total pressures this season, and is likely going to be a top-10 pick in April. Conversely, the Volunteers don’t have a lineman on their two deep with an overall grade higher than 56.3, and Minnesota has a trio of pass rushers on the defensive line with a combined 122 QB pressures this season, and two of the best run-stopping linebackers in the draft. Both QBs have proven to be turnover prone, and that will likely be the deciding statistic in this game. With Nebraska WR Jordan Westerkamp injured and out for this game, Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara is the top offensive playmaker on either roster. Look for Kamara to be the difference in a close win for the Volunteers.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, Nebraska 24
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl
South Alabama vs. Air Force
Line: Air Force, -13.5
South Alabama OLB Randy Allen has put together an impressive season, as he has racked up 11 sacks, 14 hits and 42 hurries when rushing the passer. Unfortunately for him (and the Jaguars), Air Force rarely passes the ball and has an outstanding offensive line. The Falcons have our top-graded run blocking line by a wide margin, and should have ample success moving the ball on the ground against South Alabama.
Prediction: Air Force 34, South Alabama 23
Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 Florida State
Line: Michigan, -7
Florida State’s chances in this game rest almost solely on the play of RB Dalvin Cook, as his offensive line has been subpar all season and will face off against one of the best and deepest fronts in the country, and his quarterback has completed just 44.4 percent of his passes when under pressure this season. Cook has forced an amazing 80 missed tackles on 266 rush attempts this season, and 1076 of his 1600 rushing yards have been earned after contact. If his outstanding elusiveness throughout the season doesn’t translate against the Wolverines, look for Michigan DEs Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley (79 combined QB pressures) to wreak havoc in the Seminole backfield.
Prediction: Michigan 27, Florida State 17
Saturday December 31
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
No. 20 LSU vs. No. 13 Louisville
Line: LSU, -3
Looking back at Louisville’s Week 12 loss to Houston shows an offensive line outmatched against a smaller, more athletic defensive front. LSU’s defensive front-seven has both size and outstanding athleticism, and its future NFLers should prove to be another very difficult matchup for the Cardinals. Assuming the Tigers are able to neutralize Lamar Jackson and the Louisville rushing offense, that will open the door for all-world DBs Tre’Davious White and Jamal Adams to make impact plays against the pass. Louisville’s run defense and pass coverage both grade in the top 10 nationally, but I like LSU RB Derrius Guice to continue his hot play and put enough points on the board for LSU to hold serve.
Prediction: LSU 20, Louisville 17
Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
Line: Georgia Tech, -3.5
Kentucky’s shocking win over in-state rival Louisville on the final day of the regular season put the Wildcats into this game. Georgia Tech’s season followed a similar track, as they struggled early in the conference season, but big wins late in the year over Virginia Tech and Georgia put the Yellow Jackets into this New Year’s Eve game. While Kentucky’s offense has looked explosive over the final six games, scoring at least 35 points in five of them, Georgia Tech’s triple option attack will be tough for them to stop on a month’s rest. Kentucky lacks a playmaker at any level of the defense, and the unit’s 130 missed tackles on the season does not bode well in this matchup. Georgia Tech should have enough defense to keep Kentucky under their recent points pace, and the Wildcats just aren’t good enough against the run to stand up against Georgia Tech.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 31, Kentucky 20
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
No. 4 Washington vs. No. 1 Alabama
Line: Alabama, -15
Alabama advancing to another national championship game appears to be a foregone conclusion to many pundits, but Washington has a defense more than capable of giving the Crimson Tide offense fits. Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea comprise one of the best trio of defensive linemen in the country, and S Budda Baker and CB Sidney Jones have given up catches on just 54 percent of passes into their coverage. The key for Washington will be the play of QB Jake Browning, who finished the season ice cold after looking like one of the top QBs in the country for the first 10 weeks of the season. When under pressure this season, Browning completed just 47.2 percent of his passes, but avoided critical mistakes (10 touchdowns to just two interceptions). As long as he avoids the critical mistakes, as he’s done most of the year, the Huskies have a legitimate shot at winning. All this being said, Alabama has been too dominant at every phase of the game this year to pick against them now.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Washington 19
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Clemson
Line: Ohio State, -3.5
These teams have a ton of next-level talent on both sides of the ball, but what is likely to make the difference in this game is quarterback play. Both signal callers in this game are outstanding in the ground game, but Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has been the better passer, and he also has better perimeter threats. When under pressure this year, Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett completed just 46.2 percent of his throws for a QB rating of 70.4 while taking twice as many sacks as Watson in almost the identical number of pressured snaps. The Tigers’ star CB Cordrea Tankersley split his snaps pretty evenly between right and left CB, thus it will be intriguing to see if he plays significantly more on the left side of the defense in this game, as only 16.5 percent of Barrett’s throws this season were to the left of the numbers. Look for Clemson WR Mike Williams to be more effective than the likes of Ohio State’s Noah Brown on downfield passes, which will be critical to a Tigers victory.
Prediction: Clemson 23, Ohio State 21
Monday, January 2
No. 17 Florida vs. Iowa
Line: Florida, -3
It’s easy to make the assumption that Florida is more talented across the board than Iowa, but the Gators have been a complete mess on offense, and their offensive line is clearly inferior to Iowa’s. Neither team has a legitimate playmaker on the outside, but Iowa has gotten strong play from RBs LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley, who have combined for 1967 yards rushing and have forced 65 missed tackles. On the other side of the ball, look for Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson and Anthony Nelson to be frequent disruptors in the backfield and force the Florida QB (regardless of whether it’s Luke Del Rio or Austin Appleby) into making a critical error in the passing game.
Prediction: Iowa 16, Florida 14
Coodyear Cotton Bowl
No. 15 Western Michigan vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Line: Wisconsin, -7.5
Penn State’s victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game should be encouraging for the Broncos, as the Nittany Lions showed the Badger secondary to be vulnerable when isolated in man coverage. This means we should expect to see Western Michigan spread the field in an attempt to create one-on-one matchups outside, in particular for star WR Corey Davis. When Wisconsin is on offense, I would still anticipate them struggling to throw the ball due to poor QB play, but as long as LT Ryan Ramczyk is effective – he is playing through a hip injury that will require surgery soon after the game – Wisconsin’s size up front should help pave the way for the likes of RBs Corey Clement and Brodrick Shaw. The Broncos have enough top tier talent on both sides of the ball to make this one close, but the Badgers should still be the superior side.
Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Western Michigan 20
Rose Bowl Game
No. 9 USC vs. No. 5 Penn State
Line: USC, -6.5
This is a matchup of two of the hottest teams in the country, with two of the hottest young QBs as well. Penn State’s Trace McSorley ended the year with two monster games against Michigan State and Wisconsin, completing 72.2 percent of his passes for 760 yards and eight touchdowns, posting QB ratings of well over 150.0 in both. All USC’s Sam Darnold did was lead the Trojans to eight consecutive wins to close the season, racking up 24 touchdowns and completing 67.5 percent of his throws. He completed an impressive 55.1 percent of his passes and posting a QB rating of 94.2 when under pressure. This last bit will be critical against the Nittany Lions, as their 275 total defensive pressures is in the top five in all of FBS. One area the Penn State defense struggled in throughout the season was tackling, as they missed 145. This should bode well for the USC run game, as RBs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis forced 57 missed tackles in the regular season on 259 carries. Both teams will put points on the board, but USC’s all-around talent is a step up from Penn State’s.
Prediction: USC 34, Penn State 27
Allstate Sugar Bowl
No. 14 Auburn vs. No. 7 Oklahoma
Line: Oklahoma, -3
Oklahoma’s offense against Auburn’s defense should be a fun matchup, as Auburn CBs Carlton Davis and Johnathan Ford have just two-combined 100 yard coverage games against them this year, and pass-rush specialist Carl Lawson and his 60 total pressures should have a strong matchup advantage against the Oklahoma offensive line. Lawson and the rest of the front-seven will need to consistently hit home and finish plays off, as Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield averaged a ridiculous 11.0 yards per attempt when under pressure and had a QB rating of 115.7. Auburn’s offense hasn’t consistently backed up the generally strong play of the Tiger defense this season, despite freshman RB Kerryon Johnson’s 11 touchdowns and 31 forced missed tackles on 172 carries. Despite Auburn’s strong passing defense, Oklahoma looks to have too much all-around offensive talent for the Tigers to keep pace.
Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Auburn 23