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*All stats below refer to S&P+ (an advanced stats computer model created by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly) unless otherwise noted. “ATL” refers to my system, which generates adjusted game spreads independent of injuries and situational spots (those factors must be accounted for in your individual handicap). I use ATL to give me a ballpark idea of what a fair spread would be independent of public perception.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl
1 p.m. ET, ESPN
State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona (Glendale, Arizona)
LSU (No. 15 S&P+) -7 vs. UCF (No. 8 S&P+)
ATL: NA (Milton injury, LSU players sitting)
At a glance
LSU (9-3 vs. No. 1 SOS) – S&P+ off (53, 76/74), def (14, 28/5), ST (2)
UCF (12-0 vs. No. 83 SOS) – S&P+ off (5, 37/8), def (36, 43/24), ST (15)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “We are seeing both sharp and recreational action on both sides of the line since we opened. 51% LSU and 49% Central Florida overall. That would explain why the line has not moved from LSU -7.5 since we opened it at the beginning of the bowl season. We would probably see much more action on this game if McKenzie Milton was healthy, as well as a much smaller spread.”
LSU CB Greedy Williams (Round 1 grade): “Dominant, shut down corner with outstanding size and developing ball skills. Plays physical football and has a huge upside. Top twelve pick in April’s draft.”
Central Florida DT Trysten Hill (Round 4 grade): “Quick, explosive but undersized interior lineman who projects as a three technique tackle.”
Sitting: LSU CB Greedy Williams (NFL Draft), LSU CB Kristian Fulton (injury), LSU CB Kelvin Joseph (suspension), LSU DE Breiden Fehoko (injury), LSU DT Ed Alexander (NFL Draft), UCF QB McKenzie Milton (injury)
I bought an LSU -6 ticket on the Sunday the initial bowl lines dropped, the day after the conference title games. I thought this line could potentially push up near double-digits — as the Mizzou-Oklahoma State game eventually did — by gameday. But several defensive defections off LSU for various reasons over the past two weeks caused this line to stall out between LSU -7/-7.5. We’ll get to those losses in a second.
That I immediately jumped on LSU might surprise some longtime readers. Last year in this space, when previewing the UCF-Auburn Peach Bowl, I mentioned that a UCF upset was not only in the realm of possibility, but perhaps a distinct possibility due to historical precedent.
I brought up the 2014 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State upset Arizona 38-30 as three-point underdogs), the 2015 Peach Bowl (Houston upset Florida State 38-24 as seven-point underdogs) and the 2016 Cotton Bowl (Western Michigan hung close in a 24-16 loss to Wisconsin). Those were just the marquee G5 bowl games in the first three years of the College Football Playoff era.
Going back further, UCF’s 12-1 team in 2013 upset Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl as 17-point underdogs, TCU’s 2010 team (when it was in the MWC) beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl 21-19 (the Frogs were actually short faves in that one), Utah’s 2008 team (also in the MWC at the time) upset Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl as nine-point underdogs, and, of course Boise State’s 2007 team pulled off that epic 43-42 upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl as 6.5-point ‘dogs.
“We question G5 teams’ ability to compete on this stage while often merely assuming that we’ll see the best version of the Power 5 team they’re matched up against,” I wrote in that UCF-Auburn preview. “Clearly that hasn’t been the case, whether because the G5 team was better than expected, the blueblood didn’t take them seriously enough, or because the blueblood failed to show up because it had hoped to play in a better bowl. So let’s ask that question: Is Auburn going to bring its A-game to Atlanta? … Are we sure they’re going to bounce back [from the 28-7 loss in the SEC Championship against Georgia] with one of their best games of the year? Are we really sure?”
I eventually wrapped up with this: “It is not a poor investment to back Group of 5 teams in marquee bowl games. Recent history has taught us that it’s actually quite profitable.” I was on UCF heavy in that game against Auburn, and the Knights indeed pulled off the outright upset. Last year’s Auburn team was better than this year’s LSU team. And with a tighter spread, and the implied odds of an upset significantly higher this time around, why am I jumping ship on the underdog?
Situation, situation, situation. Last year’s Auburn team may have been better than this year’s LSU team, but Auburn was coming off an enormous gut-punch loss that cost them a spot in the playoff. The year before, Wisconsin cost itself a spot in the Rose Bowl with its own conference title loss to Penn State. In 2013, Baylor had a strong case to go to the playoff but got bypassed and stuck in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF.
You get the point. Not every G5 upset of a P5 blueblood in a marquee bowl game came in a situation where the P5 team was post bubble-burst… but most were. And a lack of effort from the favorite combined with overlooking a live sub-division underdog led to an embarrassing loss for the blueblood. Bubble burst handicapping is a tried and true long-term winner.
The concept is simple: Play against a team whose best-case scenario was taken off the table in the previous game. Sometimes that entails fading a team that had been a playoff contender that just took its second loss of the season, and sometimes that entails fading a team that botched a chance at its conference’s championship.
LSU’s bubble-burst scenario has already occurred. My podcast co-host Mark Lindquist and I talked about it on the podcast the week after LSU was shut out by Alabama, hanging the Tigers with their second loss of the season, more or less eliminating them from both the playoff and the SEC title chase. The next week brought a sleepy road trip to Arkansas. Mark and I were both on the Hogs, an objectively terrible team, as were a large procession of professional handicappers (the line was suspiciously low). LSU did win, but only by seven, cashing Arkansas tickets.
LSU’s situation is nothing like most of those fallen P5 Goliaths above. The Tigers are thrilled to be here. For 11 games of the season, they objectively played their way into a New Year’s Six game, starting 9-2, with the only losses a one-possession setback against Florida and that loss to Alabama. Then came the crazy 74-72 seven-OT loss to Texas A&M that led to a mini-brawl after the game and momentarily put a marquee bowl bid in jeopardy.
Despite the A&M loss, LSU was picked for a NY6 bowl, the second-lowest playoff-ranked (No. 11) team to make it (No. 15 Texas fulfilled the Big 12’s Sugar Bowl quota after Oklahoma was was sent to the playoff). The Tigers received the last at-large bid over Penn State and Washington State. Now they have a plum opportunity to take out some aggression on UCF. This is no bubble-burst scenario: LSU knew on Nov. 3 (the day of the Alabama loss) they weren’t going to either the SEC title game or the playoff. At that point, getting into a New Year’s Six bowl was the goal.
To me, in this game, LSU is not a motivation question. Fact is that HC Ed Orgeron and his staff could badly use the leash that winning 10 games with a New Year’s Six bowl victory would bring. Orgeron has been hot under the collar about the A&M loss in interviews given since, and he’s also evoked UCF’s winning streak with the clear message that his program wants to be the one that ends it.
UCF isn’t a motivation question either, so you can take the pop psychology angle off the handicapping table for this one. Which means that we only have these two teams to compare in a vacuum. And that makes our jobs a bit easier. So let’s get to it.
UCF beat zero top-20 S&P+ teams this year. Zero! The marquee wins on UCF’s resume were the two over Memphis (No. 23) and against Cincy (No. 32) and Temple (No. 34). That’s it. That’s the list. UCF played no other team ranked higher than No. 60 S&P+. UCF got lucky to beat Memphis twice. The Knights’ highest postgame win expectancy in those two was 66% (the title game).
Impressive wins, absolutely, but narrowly escaping a Memphis team ranked lower by S&P+ than middle-of-the-road SEC teams Missouri and Texas A&M is not a promising datapoint if we agree that UCF isn’t going to be able to ambush LSU by weaponizing some degree of opponent apathy (I should mention, too, that Memphis would likely be ranked even lower if S&P+ was updated with bowl results — the Tigers lost to Wake Forest).
You probably know that LSU played the nation’s hardest schedule this year. Did you also know that LSU played seven opponents ranked higher than S&P+ No. 23 (Memphis’ ranking heading into bowl season)? More than half of LSU’s opponents were objectively better than UCF’s best! That’s insane. LSU went 4-3 in those games. There is no comparison between these resumes. They aren’t remotely close.
For me, there are two other macro factors spurring my UCF pessimism: Last year’s UCF team was better (perhaps not by leaps and bounds, but it was), and, the elephant in the room since we began this writeup: UCF’s best player, star QB McKenzie Milton, is out for the season with a a devastating leg injury suffered in the regular season finale. To UCF’s credit, the Knights circled the wagons on his behalf a week later in the AAC title game against Memphis, roaring back from that 17-point deficit with 27 minutes left to play by outscoring the Tigers 35-3 down the stretch.
But how much does UCF, now carrying around a 25-game win streak around almost like a millstone, have left? And even if the answer is “enough to go balls-to-the-wall for four quarters against a good SEC team,” will that be enough to hang within one possession of a hungry SEC team that played the nation’s hardest schedule and brought it week-in and week-out?
Milton’s replacement, Darriel Mack Jr., has played well in limited action. But he’s a far different quarterback from Milton. Mack is four inches taller, 35 pounds heavier, and the superior runner. Milton has 219 more passing attempts than Mack this season, but Mack already has 33 more rushing yards (on 21 less carries). Passing is a different story. Mack is completing 2.1% less of his passes for 1.7 less yards per attempt while getting sacked on 3.7% more of his drop backs while grading significantly lower in both efficiency and explosion.
Mack was a three-star dual-threat who is going to turn into a really solid player. But as for now, he’s an enormous downgrade as a thrower who makes up for some (but not nearly all) of the lost value with his legs. UCF’s offense changes with him under center. It becomes more ground-oriented, with defenses not having to worry as much about UCF’s fleet of receivers. UCF has the No. 8 S&P+ passing offense and No. 37 rushing offense. The latter deserves a bump in your mental notes, while the former needs to be downgraded significantly.
All of which is to say that LSU won’t miss top-10 overall NFL prospect CB Greedy Williams as much a they would have if Milton were playing. Unfortunately for LSU, Williams got plenty of company on the inactive list over the past week. LSU will also be without fellow starting CB Kristian Fulton, reserve CB Kelvin Joseph, and starting defensive linemen DE Breiden Fehoko, and NT Ed Alexander. Plus, starting LB Jacob Phillips is suspended for the first half due to a targeting ejection against A&M.
That’s four starters out for the game, a fifth out who would have started in place of Greedy (Joseph), and a sixth for a half (Phillips). Full disclosure: The defensive back losses alone would have been enough for me to hop ship on LSU and back UCF had Milton been playing. But I wonder how much Mack, very raw as a thrower, is going to be able to exploit the Tigers’ secondary, even a decimated one.
Heck, LSU only has two experienced corners available for this one in senior Terrence Alexander and sophomore Kary Vincent (both are very talented, but still!). UCF’s spread offense and receiving depth could really make a thin and inexperienced LSU secondary pay — but only if Mack is hitting his throws. Since we’ve never seen him do it (in a small sample size), that’s hard to project (especially since LSU’s backups are still former four-star recruits).
LSU had a top-five pass defense in the regular season. There’s a lot of unknown variables in the UCF passing O vs. LSU pass D phase of the game. In my head, I see all of this washing out. I just can’t see Mack having taken a significant leap as a thrower over the past month since we last saw him.
UCF is more likely to focus its attack on trying to move the ball against an LSU (No. 28) rush defense without two of its starting defensive linemen and one of its starting linebackers for the first half. Mack and UCF’s speedster running backs should be able to get something going in this phase.
Offensively, LSU is going to give UCF a heavy dose of RBs Nick Brosette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. This is the facet of the game that is scariest for the Golden Knights. UCF’s run defense grades out okay overall (No. 43 S&P+), but it’s extremely weak in opportunity rate (No. 108) and against efficiency (No. 78) and explosion (No. 71).
Edwards-Helaire has been cleared to play after he was involved in a fatal shooting during an armed robbery attempt in Baton Rouge in the days leading up to Christmas. Apparently, he and reserve linebacker Jared Small were trying to sell an electronic when an 18-year-old pulled out a weapon to rob them. One of the two (details are scant) pulled out a handgun and shot the teen dead. Police have indicated it was an act of self-defense. The upshot for our purposes is that Edwards-Helaire is going to play.
UCF’s pass defense is better than its run defense. But the Knights have very little pass rush, which is unfortunate, because LSU has had issues protecting QB Joe Burrow at times. The Tigers’ passing attack is straightforward and mediocre, but it does have a legitimate WR1, now, in Justin Jefferson. Jefferson is surrounded by a bunch of enormous secondary receivers and TEs, three of whom are 6’6 or taller. With no Mikes Hughes on this year’s UCF team, and no Griffen twins, the Knights may have a hard time matching up athletically.
Lastly, this will be the first time all year that UCF (No. 15) doesn’t have a special teams advantage. LSU ranks No. 2.
The Tigers are a ticked-off team coming off an infuriating loss that has had a month to prepare for UCF’s unique system, a system that has, by necessity, been forced to remove many aerial wrinkles in the translation from Milton to Mack.
Motivation shouldn’t be an issue, and LSU’s coaching staff, always fighting for respect, isn’t taking UCF lightly. An embarrassing loss here coupled with a down 2019 season would quickly escort HC Ed Orgeron onto the hot seat, and he knows it. A win will buy goodwill, and a dominating double-digit win on New Year’s Day will buy even more.
I’m not as confident in LSU as I was a month ago, I want to be clear about that. In early December, LSU was one of my top-five favorite bowl bets. But too many guys have been ruled out, and the Edwards-Helaire shooting situation in conjunction with all that gives me an uneasy feeling.
Today, on December 31, I’m very much considering buying out of my LSU -6 ticket on UCF +7.5, which would give me a (slim) middle opportunity while removing my exposure from this game altogether. But since I have to give you a pick on the closing line, I’m going to stick with my lean on LSU. They’re out several starters, yes, but Milton’s absence may prove to be more devastating than all of them combined.
The pick: LSU -7
Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual
5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Rose Bowl (Pasadena, California)
Ohio State (No. 7 S&P+) -6.5 vs. Washington (No. 9 S&P+)
ATL: Ohio State -2.5
At a glance
Ohio State (12-1 vs. No. 55 SOS) – S&P+ off (4, 54/5), def (37, 79/74), ST (35)
Washington (10-3 vs. No. 43 SOS) – S&P+ off (34, 34/19), def (3, 11/19), ST (118)
Kevin Bradley, Bovada.lv Sportsbook manager: “No move on the total of 58 on this game and only a small but significant one on the point spread. We opened Ohio State at -6.5, but were bet heavily by our recreational players and decided to move to a full touchdown at -7. We have been seeing two-way action since that move, so there is just a small amount of exposure for the book at Ohio State -6.5.”
Ohio State DE Nick Bosa (Round 1 grade): “Despite not playing since the middle of September, Bosa still grades out as a top two selection. He’s a menacing pass rusher with outstanding length, growth potential and bloodlines.”
Washington CB Byron Murphy (Round 1 grade): “Though he falls about 2-inches short of 6-feet tall, Murphy will still be an early draft pick in April. He’s a natural cover man with great ball skills, fundamentals and instincts.”
Sitting: OSU DE Joey Bosa (NFL Draft/injury)
The storyline surrounding the Rose Bowl is all about Urban Meyer’s last game at Ohio State. Washington’s participation in the game is almost an afterthought. Including to bettors, who’ve hopped on the Buckeyes en mass, causing this line to jump from OSU -4.5 to -6.5. That started immediately and hasn’t stopped outside of books briefly toggling to OSU -7, at which point sharps will quickly pound the Huskies +7 on a buy-back to bring the spread back to -6.5.
Some of the public’s Ohio State enthusiasm no doubt has to do with the idea that the Buckeyes will show up motivated for Meyer’s final game, and some of it no doubt has to do with recency bias, that old fickle mistress. The past two times out, the Buckeyes have blown the doors off a top-10 Michigan team and dusted a resilient Northwestern squad in the Big 10 title game. Meanwhile, Washington couldn’t even muster an offensive touchdown in an unwatchable Pac-12 title game win over Utah.
But I have grave concerns about Ohio State’s makeup, and I’m not willing to forget the up-and-down, drama-filled first 11 games because of what happened in the last two. And if you’ve found yourself subconsciously buying into that narrative without questioning it, I want to refer you back to the Georgia Tech-Minnesota game, when GT backers (myself included!) looked on in horror as the Yellow Jackets no-showed Paul Johnson’s swan song. I also think it’s a fool’s errand to assume that Ohio State is going to carry over the momentum from the previous two games, especially because Washington provides unique challenges.
Ohio State is the Power 5’s Buffalo. The defense is suspect, and the running game doesn’t do much besides get you over, so the passing attack needs to be firing on all cylinders in order to beat good teams. Ohio State’s running game (No. 54) was hit-and-miss this year, a big disappointment in sum.
J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber (who has declared the draft but will play in this game) provided the star power, but the attack was neutered by a lack of push in the run game (No. 70 stuff rate) and the inability to break into the third level and beyond (No. 121 explosion). Washington’s No. 11 run defense (and No. 15 standing in defensive back havoc) isn’t going to have much issue shutting Dobbins and Weber down.
That puts the onus on Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins to win this game. Haskins, who finished third in the Heisman voting, threw for 4,580 yards with a 47/8 TD/INT rate. He threw for at least 400 yards five times. He wasn’t perfect, however, struggling in wins over Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska.
Washington, which boasts the No. 3 S&P+ defense overall, matches up well with a team of this profile. The Huskies boast one of the nation’s best secondaries. It’s stocked with future NFL players and goes four-deep in quality cornerbacks. Washington’s pass defense (No. 19) gives up a ton of completions (No. 117 completion rate), doesn’t get to the quarterback (No. 111), and is middling against efficiency (No. 51). But Washington’s pass defense is strong anyway because it’s elite-elite against explosion (No. 1).
So while Haskins is going to have a lot of time to survey his options, and while he will very likely be able to nick Washington up underneath, the Buckeyes are categorically not going to enjoy the amount of explosive passing plays that they typically enjoy.
Washington’s offense (No. 34) is better than it showed in the Pac-12 title game. As always, the Huskies will look to establish the run with RB Myles Gaskin to open up the high-percentage passing game for steady, noodle-armed QB Jake Browning. Ohio State’s pass defense (No. 74) can be had.
Ohio State’s defense is horrible at defending explosion (Nos. 119 and 120 in S&P+’s two major explosion categories), specifically against the run (No. 125). Gaskin isn’t terribly explosive, so Washington may not be able to take advantage of that quirk to the degree that they’d like. But Ohio State’s No. 79 run defense doesn’t match up well either way. On a per-play basis, Washington’s passing offense (No. 19) has been better than outsiders probably assume.
I think Washington will be able to erase Ohio State’s run game, and I think it’s going to force Haskins and crew to go on long, methodical drives in order to score. The Buckeyes won’t like this type of game, the sort of affair where a mistake or two will sink you. But on the other side, Washington isn’t exactly equipped to light up Ohio State’s mediocre defense. Interestingly, both offenses rank lower than No. 110 in red zone offense, which should only further drive down the scoring. This is the profile of a game that Washington wants to play, and I think they match up well for it.
You’ve probably heard by now that this is Meyer’s first trip to the Rose Bowl. Yada yada. Washington’s veteran-laden team is also chalk-full of players who’ve have played in the Rose Bowl, including Browning and Gaskin.
Washington HC Chris Petersen probably feels like he has something to prove coming into this game. The public is pretending his team isn’t involved with it, and he has a 1-3 bowl record at Washington to avenge. Petersen didn’t become a dummy overnight. This is the same guy who lit it up with a 5-2 bowl record at Boise State, which included one of the most iconic upsets in the history of the sport (referenced above).
Washington matches up favorably, is in a sneaky-good situational spot, and is coached by a guy who first became famous for legendary upsets. I like the Huskies, and I like them to win outright. And because I think they’ll do it by shutting down OSU’s run game and slowing Haskins — while trying to control the clock on offense — I like this game to go under, as well.
The pick: Washington +6.5 and UNDER 57.5