New Year’s Six Edition
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Last Week: 4-2 (.667)
2017: 52-32-1 (.618)
*Total: 124-91-2 (.576)
*Total dates back to last season
CAPITAL LETTERS indicate pick with the SPREAD
Cotton Bowl: #5 Ohio State vs #8 USC
Friday, December 29 8:30 PM ET
Sam Darnold and the Trojans have played two defenses ranked in the top 30 of opponent yards per play this season: Notre Dame (27) and Washington State (28). Is it simply a coincidence that they lost both of those games and averaged just 20.5 points per game? I think not. Moreover, Darnold — the potential top pick in this year’s NFL draft — didn’t play well in either of those contests. Against Washington State, he finished just 15 for 29 with only 164 yards and 1 interception. And in USC’s 49-14 loss to Notre Dame, Darnold’s two touchdown passes came in the second half after the Trojans had already fallen behind 28-0.
What relevance does this have to the Cotton Bowl? Simply put, since USC struggled against those aforementioned defenses, it won’t have much success against Ohio State. The Buckeyes rank fifth in the country in opponent yards per play; and their defensive line measures as the best in the nation, according to Football Outsiders (FO). That doesn’t bode well for the Trojans, particularly with respect to their 52nd ranked rushing offense.
There will be too much pressure to bear on Darnold, who hasn’t fared well this season against quality defenses. And on the other side of the ball, J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State offense will take advantage of a massive edge in the trenches and cruise to victory.
OHIO STATE 38, USC 24
Fiesta Bowl: #9 Penn State vs #11 Washington
Saturday, December 30th 4:00 PM ET
Penn State is the popular pick in this matchup. After all, the Nittany Lions were just a close loss to Ohio State away from playing in the Big Ten title game. Plus, they boast one of the best players in the nation, running back Saquon Barkley. But people are sleeping on Washington. Chris Petersen’s squad not only ranks 4th in the nation in opponent yards per play, but it has the country’s second best run defense, allowing just 2.8 yards per rush. Translation: the Huskies’ front-seven has what it takes to slow down Barkley.
Another thing to be aware of: Penn State has been backed by over 70% of bettors, yet the spread has dropped from -3 to -1.5. A possible reason why is that sharp money is aware of the fact that public favorites receiving over 70% of wagers are just 17-33-1 against the spread in bowl games since 2005. For these reasons, I’ll take Washington.
WASHINGTON 24, Penn State 20
Orange Bowl: #6 Wisconsin vs #10 Miami (FL)
Saturday, December 30 8:00 PM ET
The Hurricanes have the rare advantage of playing a big bowl game in their home stadium. Won’t matter, though. Miami’s offense is weak: it scored just 17 points in its final two games against Clemson and a 5-7 Pittsburgh team. But even a great offense would struggle against Wisconsin, which ranks second in the nation in scoring defense (13.2 per game). Miami won’t break out the turnover chain in this matchup either: the Badgers will pound Jonathan Taylor (1,837 rushing yards) and roll to victory.
WISCONSIN 31, Miami 17
Peach Bowl: #7 Auburn vs #12 UCF
Monday, January 1 12:30 PM ET
UCF is fast. In the regular season, the Knights averaged close to 5.5 yards per carry, ranked second in the nation in yards per play, and scored at least 40 points in nine of its twelve games. I wouldn’t be too concerned that they “haven’t played anybody” either. After all, non-Power 5 schools like UCF have pulled these sort of upsets before.
With that said, Auburn has had a month to recover after losing in the SEC title game. And at full strength (i.e. with star running back Kerryon Johnson healthy), this Tigers team that knocked off two College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinalists in Georgia and Alabama without much difficulty should beat the AAC champion.
AUBURN 41, UCF 30
Rose Bowl: #2 Oklahoma vs #3 Georgia
Monday, January 1 5:00 PM ET
What I love about this CFB Playoff is that any of the four teams can win the title. Think back to the last couple of years, for instance. Did teams like Washington (2017) and Michigan State (2016) have any chance? No. This year, though? Even Georgia, who I think is the weakest of these four outstanding teams, has a legitimate chance to win it all.
The Bulldogs are armed with a standout running game and a stout defense. And if freshman quarterback Jake Fromm can play as well as he did in the SEC title game (72.7% completion percentage, 2 touchdown passes), Georgia has no weakness. However, I’m a big believer in Baker Mayfield and this Oklahoma offense. I mean, how can you not be? The Sooners averaged a full yard per play more than the team with the second best yards per play figure in the country. Coupled with its improving defense, which allowed just 17.8 points per game over its final four regular season games, I’ll take Oklahoma to nip Georgia.
OKLAHOMA 35, Georgia 31
***UPDATE: Mayfield’s “flu-like symptoms” means I am abandoning my Oklahoma pick. GEORGIA (-2.5) over Oklahoma.
Sugar Bowl: #1 Clemson vs #4 Alabama
Monday, January 1 8:45 PM ET
Judging by the two national championships these teams have played against each other, we could be in for another classic game. Yet this rubber match obviously feels a little different than the previous matchups for two reasons. First, Deshaun Watson is gone — he’s been replaced by junior Kelly Bryant. And second, Alabama no longer feels like an unbeatable giant after sneaking into the final four in what some felt was a controversial decision (I didn’t, though).
With respect to Bryant, I think he’s undoubtedly the key player in this game. Clemson’s outstanding defense is certainly good enough to cause problems for Jalen Hurts and company, but the Tigers were terrific defensively in ’15 and ’16 as well. That didn’t stop ‘Bama from scoring 45 and 31 points respectively in those two title games. In short, Bryant will need to carry his share of the load. I’m skeptical that he can, however, considering the Crimson Tide ranks in the top ten against both the run and pass.
Moreover, the thought of Alabama playing with a chip on its shoulder after many pundits and fans alike slammed the committee’s decision to put them in over Ohio State is terrifying. As if this team needed any more motivation…remember, the Tide were already looking to exact revenge on this Clemson team for breaking their hearts last January. Given these circumstances, I’ll take Nick Saban’s squad to prevail in another nail-biter.
Alabama 30, CLEMSON 28
As for who I think will ultimately claim this year’s title…I have a hunch that Oklahoma is going to win. Perhaps I’m underrating the “Heisman Jinx” with respect to this year’s recipient, Baker Mayfield. But all I know is that the Sooners’ offense — and this is not an exaggeration — is one of the most potent units in college football history. Dynamic quarterbacks like Mayfield also tend to give Saban defenses trouble, so I don’t think Oklahoma should have issues scoring no matter who they potentially play in the championship.
So here’s my official prediction for the title game: Oklahoma over Alabama. Knowing how even this year’s four-team field is, though, Georgia will probably end up beating Clemson.