by Ian Boyd
While the Playoff comes early this year to seize the Saturday night television window, college football also has its normal assortment of big-time bowl games on New Year's Eve and the "New Year's six" on the first day of January. While the new normal of big-time players skipping out on bowls continues to be an issue that is particularly relevant for these games, there are still some big showdowns with real stakes at play here.
In particular, there are some big matchups between high-profile teams such as Texas vs. Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Urban Meyer's last game as the head coach at Ohio State, and potentially another claimed national championship on the line when Central Florida takes on LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman
Cincinnati (-5.5) vs. Virginia Tech -- December 31, 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Cincinnati (10-2)||Virginia Tech (6-6)||F/+||25||79||Special Teams S&P+||76||45||S&P+||9.0||1.3||When Cincinnati has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||47||104||S&P+||74||79||IsoPPP+||100||126||Rushing S&P+||62||110||Passing S&P+||88||86||When Virginia Tech has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||5||66||S&P+||19||48||IsoPPP+||85||33||Rushing S&P+||3||82||Passing S&P+||26||26|
The 2018 season was the year of the collapse of the vaunted Virginia Tech defense. Losses across their roster from 2017 took a spectacular toll, and the unit struggled without all of its veteran disruptors across the front or the lockdown cornerbacks it had in the past. That showed up in a lot of places, particularly in their passing-down defense, which lacked a pass rush or the ability to hold down top targets.
Their offense was effective though, even after losing starting quarterback Josh Jackson early on and plugging in Kansas transfer Ryan Willis. With Willis at the helm, they flung the ball around effectively; he had almost 2,500 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes working the ball around to a solid cast of wideouts, led by Damon Hazelton Jr. (745 receiving yards, eight touchdowns). They have a decent shot at hanging with Cincinnati by continuing to lean on that strength.
The Bearcats defense had a very strong year, but their team strength was ganging up on the run as a unit, and that may not translate so well if Virginia Tech just comes out flinging the ball around on their secondary. The starting assumption for the Hokies will be that the game has to be won on the perimeter, throwing the ball around and forcing the Bearcats offense to keep up. Cincinnati was led by a spread-option attack that worked optimally when it was creating space for lead running back Michael Warren II, who ran for 1,163 yards and 17 touchdowns. If Virginia Tech can shore up their run defense to something close to what they ordinarily play, then they have some advantages in this matchup.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Cincinnati
Hyundai Sun Bowl
El Paso, Texas
Stanford (-5) vs. Pittsburgh -- December 31, 2 p.m. (CBS)
|Overall||Stanford (8-4)||Pittsburgh (7-6)||F/+||28||55||Special Teams S&P+||10||49||S&P+||10.6||1.4||When Stanford has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||32||71||S&P+||22||67||IsoPPP+||8||102||Rushing S&P+||105||71||Passing S&P+||7||57||When Pittsburgh has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||55||38||S&P+||51||64||IsoPPP+||80||17||Rushing S&P+||66||11||Passing S&P+||95||93|
Stanford really evolved on offense this year. Everyone in the world was keying in on star running back Bryce Love, and the Cardinal were set up to capitalize, with quarterback K.J. Costello throwing for 3,435 yards and 29 touchdowns. He worked the ball to top target J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (969 yards, 14 touchdowns) while tight end Kaden Smith and wide receiver Trenton Irwin worked off that threat for over 600 yards apiece, and extra tight end Colby Parkinson came in for red zone situations to catch seven touchdowns.
Love is sitting this game out to focus on getting healthy and ready for the NFL draft, but the Cardinal arguably don't even need him this season to do what they do best, which is spread opponents out and pick them apart in the passing game. They want to use the run game to hold defensive players in gaps up front so that there are fewer of them out wide to stop the passing attack. It's a completely different philosophy for the Cardinal and the direction the college game is going in general.
Pittsburgh's defense is designed to play into their hands, committing numbers to the box (although they aren't even that effective this year in run defense regardless) and accepting the resulting matchups on the perimeter. Pitt did have good secondary play this year though; the only trick is that they achieved that result by spinning down some smaller, speedy guys to safety, and Stanford loves to pick on smaller defensive backs with their tight ends and Arcega-Whiteside, who's 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds.
On the other side of the ball, Pitt has relied on gashing teams with their run game. After the ACC title game, they now have two different running backs at or over a thousand yards in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Stanford hasn't been particularly stout on defense against anything this year, although not terribly bad either. If Pitt can limit the efficiency of the Stanford passing game this could be a close contest; if not then they won't be able to keep up by running the ball.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Stanford
Santa Clara, California
Michigan State vs. Oregon (-2.5) -- December 31, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Michigan State (7-5)||Oregon (8-4)||F/+||27||45||Special Teams S&P+||53||103||S&P+||7.7||5.2||When Michigan State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||106||51||S&P+||114||69||IsoPPP+||95||82||Rushing S&P+||114||64||Passing S&P+||109||77||When Oregon has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||4||50||S&P+||2||23||IsoPPP+||24||37||Rushing S&P+||2||57||Passing S&P+||17||39|
This isn't a Playoff semifinal or a New Year's Six bowl, but it's still one of the more intriguing games of bowl season. Oregon and Michigan State are good teams, they tend to show up in games like this, and there's only one high-profile star sitting it out (albeit an important one). The matchup is also compelling, pitting eventual NFL draft prospect Justin Herbert and Oregon's effective offense against one of the best defenses in the country.
The Spartans were able to rebuild their "no fly zone" reputation on defense, but much of that was thanks to star cornerback Justin Layne, the one star player who seems to be sitting this contest out. The Spartans will have Josiah Scott available at cornerback. Scott missed chunks of the season, and his replacements will vie for the other spot. Scott is perhaps their best talent at corner, so his playing in this game is a massive boost to their defense. Elsewhere, the Spartans are physical and stout and have a nasty defensive line led by tackle Raequan Williams, end Kenny Willekes (eight sacks), and middle linebacker and leading tackler Joe Bachie.
Oregon generally looked to build their offense around running the ball up front and throwing off that action, often to star receiver Dillon Mitchell (1,114 receiving yards, nine touchdowns). However, Michigan State is very good at pressuring opposing run games with closely packed and aggressive linebackers, daring opponents to work the ball down the field with double moves on the safeties or throwing to wide receivers matched up in press coverage by guys like Scott. Oregon will need Herbert to make precise throws down the field in order to loosen up the Spartans defense.
Michigan State is planning to send Brian Lewerke back out to start at quarterback. Lewerke was pulled during the season when a shoulder injury limited his effectiveness. He averaged only 6.2 yards per attempt with only eight touchdowns to 10 interceptions. The Michigan State run game was also ineffective -- leading rusher Connor Heyward had only 520 yards -- and their hopes of bailing the offense out on third down with the pass game took a hit when wide receiver Felton Davis II went down with injury. Oregon is still only an improving defense, but stopping up Michigan State isn't too tall of an order. This one comes down to whether the Spartans can shut down Herbert and drag the Ducks into the sort of low-scoring slog where they can come out ahead.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Michigan State
Autozone Liberty Bowl
Missouri (-9) vs. Oklahoma State -- December 31, 3:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Missouri (8-4)||Oklahoma State (6-6)||F/+||13||32||Special Teams S&P+||38||35||S&P+||14.4||19.8||When Missouri has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||12||99||S&P+||15||84||IsoPPP+||52||104||Rushing S&P+||21||95||Passing S&P+||17||50||When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||17||28||S&P+||38||10||IsoPPP+||76||28||Rushing S&P+||7||25||Passing S&P+||67||43|
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock will look to use this game to pad his resume for the NFL against Oklahoma State's defense in what might become a wild and entertaining shootout. Lock threw for 3,125 yards and 25 touchdowns this year, playing in a less aggressive system than the one Josh Heupel was running before leaving for the Central Florida head coach job. Instead Lock auditioned in more of a pro-spread system with progressions and a flex tight end in Albert Okwuegbunam (466 receiving yards, six touchdowns) moving around to try and clear up the reads and create matchups.
The Tigers were less explosive in that system than in the old veer-and-shoot offense that had their wideouts running verticals past people while Lock dropped back on play-action, but it was still effective. Running backs Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett combined for 1,721 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Oklahoma State is particularly well suited to handle this attack; they played poor run defense this past year and generally weren't very effective at anything save for occasionally good play from the secondary and moving players like defensive end Jordan Brailford around to rush the passer (10 sacks). The key matchup on this side will be between Lock and Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles as Lock hunts matchups on third down while Knowles tries to break down his protections with Brailford. If Lock wins that battle, it'll be a good sign for his chances at the pro level.
On the other side, Missouri played good defense this year but will get a stern test from the Cowboys offense. Oklahoma State went on a tear in the second half of the season as young wide receiver Tylan Wallace came alive and finished with 1,398 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He's explosively fast and the Cowboys found him regularly on their preferred deep route combinations like the dig-post combo. Oklahoma State also ran the ball effectively, leaning on young Chub Hubbard down the stretch (595 rushing yards and six touchdowns) and mixing in senior quarterback Taylor Cornelius in key situations (385 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns). They're very good at overstressing opponents with run/pass balance, and while he lacks accuracy, Cornelius nonetheless knows where the ball should go and gets it there fairly often.
Missouri's defense was pretty solid up front with a big defensive line, good blitzing linebacker Terez Hall, and the highly effective Cale Garrett leading the way from middle linebacker. They like to get the safeties involved against the run and may struggle some with Oklahoma State's "throw it deep to set up the run" paradigm, but if they double Wallace and force the Cowboys to work their way down the field running the ball on their front or throwing elsewhere, that could be a good formula.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma State
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl
San Diego, California
Northwestern vs. Utah (-7) -- December 31, 7 p.m. (FS1)
|Overall||Northwestern (8-5)||Utah (9-4)||F/+||49||16||Special Teams S&P+||122||7||S&P+||-1.1||14.4||When Northwestern has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||82||22||S&P+||103||22||IsoPPP+||114||44||Rushing S&P+||112||12||Passing S&P+||85||30||When Utah has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||24||54||S&P+||32||43||IsoPPP+||56||78||Rushing S&P+||19||27||Passing S&P+||75||49|
This one has all the potential in the world to be an ugly, low-scoring slog. Utah played good defense this year against many opponents with more skill and firepower than Northwestern, including in the Pac-12 title game when they held Washington to 10 points in a 10-3 defeat. They went down due to completely impotent offense on their own part, but that was against an elite Washington defense. Northwestern relies on playing stout defense to stay in games and had a better record overall than their play typically suggested they should. It all came apart against teams that could throw at a high level, like Notre Dame and Ohio State, the latter of whom threw for 499 yards and five touchdowns in the Big 10 title game.
Utah doesn't throw the ball all that terribly well, so they don't have a great avenue for pulling away from Northwestern in this contest. Instead the Utes will try to shut down the overachieving Wildcats with their normal recipe of field position achieved through superior special teams, turnovers forced by their defense, and a solid run game that can finish drives with touchdown runs. They may also get starting quarterback Tyler Huntley back for this game, which would probably be enough to tip the scales pretty far in their favor.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Utah
Taxslayer Gator Bowl
North Carolina State vs. Texas A&M (-7) -- December 31, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||North Carolina State (9-3)||Texas A&M (8-4)||F/+||31||22||Special Teams S&P+||36||26||S&P+||9.9||12.7||When North Carolina State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||13||58||S&P+||21||42||IsoPPP+||97||123||Rushing S&P+||75||14||Passing S&P+||13||88||When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||56||22||S&P+||52||19||IsoPPP+||98||64||Rushing S&P+||24||22||Passing S&P+||84||25|
North Carolina State has taken a lot of hits before this game, losing their offensive coordinator Elijah Drinkwitz to the Appalachian State head coaching vacancy and star wide receiver Kelvin Harmon (1,186 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) to the NFL draft. They will still have wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (1,028 yards, four touchdowns) and an impressive young cast of targets for senior quarterback Ryan Finley to work with. Finley is a savvy veteran who grad transferred from Boise State after his redshirt sophomore year and played three years as the starter for the Wolfpack, throwing for 3,789 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. The Wolfpack know how to get what they want in the passing game and their rushing attack benefits; lead running back Reggie Gallaspy II ran for 1,014 yards and 18 touchdowns this year. Texas A&M was iffy in their secondary this year and will be without safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Otaro Alaka. This is a tough matchup for them.
But North Carolina State will be without star linebacker Germain Pratt, who led the team in tackles and added six sacks, as he prepares for the NFL draft. They'll have to deal with a balanced and dangerous Texas A&M offense without him, which is another difficult challenge. The Aggies excelled in double-tight end sets this year that helped create angles for star running back Trayveon Williams to go for 1,524 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, while also loosing tight end Jace Sternberger in the seams for 804 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Quarterback Kellen Mond was spotty at times, but he threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 23 touchdowns to only eight interceptions, with another 387 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Aggies also have some potent receivers who have only scratched the surface of their potential, such as 6-foot-3 Kendrick Rogers, who was only the fifth leading receiver but had four touchdowns and was a star against LSU in the season finale. This is a loaded but young offense that could be even more potent after bowl practices to hammer down some fundamentals and build on what worked in the season. What's more, while Williams and Sternberger are potential NFL talents, they're all playing in this game. North Carolina State will have their hands full and the Aggies may embrace this game as a showcase for an offense that could be elite in 2019.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Texas A&M
Mississippi State (-7) vs. Iowa -- January 1, 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
|Overall||Mississippi State (8-4)||Iowa (8-4)||F/+||10||18||Special Teams S&P+||109||46||S&P+||15.6||10.8||When Mississippi State has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||24||16||S&P+||41||20||IsoPPP+||91||6||Rushing S&P+||6||23||Passing S&P+||89||29||When Iowa has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||2||49||S&P+||6||63||IsoPPP+||12||79||Rushing S&P+||17||119||Passing S&P+||2||40|
This is the last hurrah for Mississippi State senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who had an amazing 201 carries this season for 1,018 yards and 12 touchdowns while backfield partners Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill combined for 1,193 more yards and seven touchdowns. That was the main thrust of Year 1 under spread offensive guru Joe Moorhead: lots of spread-option runs involving Fitzgerald and a passing attack that struggled to make much headway.
However, combined with Mississippi State's excellent defense, it worked out pretty well. The Bulldogs kept the ball funneled inside to a pair of big, hard-hitting safeties in leading tackler Johnathan Abram and Mark McLaurin, as well as a loaded defensive line featuring tackle Jeffery Simmons (15.5 tackles for loss) and end Montez Sweat (11.5 sacks).
The Iowa team facing them is a pretty tough matchup, at least for the Mississippi State offense. The Hawkeyes always play ultra-sound on defense, and similarly relied on a pair of big safeties in Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker this season. It's generally a bad bet to count on Iowa getting taken by an option running team after having extra time and bowl practices to prepare -- the Hawkeyes thrive in such a setting.
The Iowa offense was evolving to more of a pro spread this year, leaning on tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who combined for 1,235 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Fant will miss the bowl game in preparation for the NFL draft, but the Hawkeyes will still have Hockenson, who had more receptions, and their normal stretch run game with a committee of running backs as the focal point. Their chances of scoring real points on Mississippi State will hinge on quarterback Nathan Stanley (2,638 yards, 23 touchdowns) finding Hockenson or else making the Bulldogs pay for bringing safeties down to help cover him up. If Mississippi State can sit back in Cover-2 and still stop up the Iowa run game with their defensive line, then there may not be too many points in this one.
S&P Outright Pick: Mississippi State
Playstation Fiesta Bowl
LSU (-7.5) vs. Central Florida -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||LSU (9-3)||Central Florida (12-0)||F/+||12||7||Special Teams S&P+||2||15||S&P+||14.8||19.6||When LSU has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||41||29||S&P+||53||36||IsoPPP+||106||19||Rushing S&P+||76||43||Passing S&P+||74||24||When Central Florida has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||12||4||S&P+||14||5||IsoPPP+||14||29||Rushing S&P+||28||37||Passing S&P+||5||8|
This is the de facto Group of 5 national championship game, as the odds are decent that Central Florida (or at least their increasingly vocal supporters) will find a way to claim a national championship if they finish the season 13-0 and defeat LSU in a bowl game. Whether or not LSU will take seriously playing for the pride of the SEC and Power 5 football is less clear; indeed the team will be without starting cornerbacks Greedy Williams or Kristian Fulton and potentially a large handful of other players due either to the beckoning of the NFL draft or off-field concerns.
The Central Florida Knights will be without quarterback McKenzie Milton, but they also missed him during their AAC title game against Memphis, which they won 56-41 with backup quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. throwing for 348 yards. The freshman is still a work in progress, but also arguably a better fit for head coach Josh Heupel's new veer-and-shoot offense than Milton due to his arm strength throwing the ball down the field.
The goal of the Central Florida offense is to erase the possibility of the defense effectively getting numbers to the run or pass with their scheme unless they commit to one or the other before the snap. Then the quarterback attacks them wherever there is numbers or leverage. The obvious solution from LSU would have been to lean on their top cover cornerbacks to lock down the Knights wide receivers and allow star safety Grant Delpit to help key the spread run game. Now there's some question over whether the LSU backups can hold up against the Knights receivers without safety help, which changes everything. Central Florida has an explosive rushing attack and Mack adds to it with his mobility and big frame (6-foot-3, 230 pounds).
On the other side of the ball, the LSU offense is not at all terrifying for Central Florida. The Knights have been pretty stout against the run this year, save for against top units like Memphis that are frankly better there than LSU. Safety Richie Grant has been a superstar, leading the team in tackles (101) and interceptions (six). The normal procedure on offense has been to use the passing game to get within range and utilize quarterback Joe Burrow as a runner (375 yards, seven touchdowns) to convert in the red zone or in short-yardage. The Tigers have the talent and the offensive line to get on the board against Central Florida, but not to match them if the Knights get loose on offense.
S&P Outright Pick: Central Florida
VRBO Citrus Bowl
Kentucky vs. Penn State (-6.5) -- January 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Kentucky (9-3)||Penn State (9-3)||F/+||30||14||Special Teams S&P+||74||61||S&P+||6.5||16.1||When Kentucky has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||63||14||S&P+||92||11||IsoPPP+||103||29||Rushing S&P+||51||41||Passing S&P+||99||12||When Penn State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||18||43||S&P+||21||39||IsoPPP+||31||40||Rushing S&P+||36||16||Passing S&P+||15||65|
This is the last game for Trace McSorley at Penn State, which alone probably gives the Nittany Lions quite a bit of motivation to show strong against the Kentucky Wildcats. For Kentucky it's a pretty big game as well, and arguably against a recruiting rival since Penn State regularly dips into nearby Virginia while Kentucky likes to recruit from Ohio where Penn State also frequents.
It was a tough year for McSorley and the Lions. A brutal schedule combined with a depleted passing game resulted in them asking McSorley to get up to 151 carries, which led to him being injured, which led to some tough losses. Still, he held up for most every game and ran for 723 yards and 11 touchdowns while helping running back Miles Sanders find room for 1,223 yards and nine more touchdowns. The passing game leaned on slot receiver K.J. Hamler (714 receiving yards, five touchdowns), who was a speedy target in screens or crossers, but they lacked the skilled matchup weapons of previous seasons.
Kentucky has a good defense for this contest, led by star pass-rusher Josh Allen (14 sacks) and supplemented by a pair of safeties in Mike Edwards and Darius West who were the second- and third-leading tacklers behind Allen and combined for five interceptions. They'll all be swarming the Penn State rushing attack.
Kentucky's own offense is also a spread-option style attack, involving quarterback Terry Wilson to help create angles for lead running back Benjamin Snell Jr. (1,330 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns). Penn State hasn't faced a comparable offense, save for their own in practices, but they have some improving young outside linebackers and experienced safeties that should be able to figure it out over bowl practices. This looks like a defensive battle that comes down to quarterback play, where you'd give McSorley and Penn State a sizable edge.
S&P Outright Pick: Penn State
Rose Bowl Game presented by Washington Mutual
Washington vs. Ohio State (-6.5) -- January 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Washington (10-3)||Ohio State (12-1)||F/+||9||8||Special Teams S&P+||118||35||S&P+||17||19.8||When Washington has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||36||47||S&P+||34||37||IsoPPP+||62||124||Rushing S&P+||34||79||Passing S&P+||19||74||When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||11||5||S&P+||3||4||IsoPPP+||3||47||Rushing S&P+||11||54||Passing S&P+||19||5|
This is going to be Urban Meyer's last game as the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. He'll be retiring, although we'll see what comes next for that fellow. In the meantime, his Buckeyes are all aiming for a final send-off against Washington. But the Huskies also have a lot to play for in this game. This is another big chance for them to finally show they can beat a top-ranked program. They had losses to Alabama in the Playoff and subsequent losses in games against Penn State in last year's bowl and Auburn in the season opener.
On top of that, this is also an interesting showdown between an Ohio State program that has become a full-time, fully modern spread passing team that uses the run game as a secondary feature and a Washington defense that may have the key personnel to stop such a team. The Huskies have a deep and talented secondary that plays in a base nickel, a multiple front that is good at creating pressure by bringing four-man blitzes in different directions, and a middle linebacker in Ben Burr-Kirven who is much quicker at 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds than a typical middle linebacker. Burr-Kirven had an absurd 160 tackles on the year as well as two interceptions and six pass break-ups.
There aren't a lot of weak spots to hit in the Huskies defensive backfield and they're pretty difficult to run over as well, even if Ohio State still had a fearsome downhill run game. This contest will be an interesting one that may foretell the future of college football between spread passing attacks and defenses that are designed to stop them.
The other side of the ball is interesting but maybe less novel. Ohio State has been pretty spotty on defense, best reflected by their horrendous numbers in IsoPPP. They have a tendency to break down and give up huge gains, and their secondary doesn't hold up in lockdown coverage so well this season. The Huskies offense isn't lethal though, and has tended to win games by pounding away with senior running back Myles Gaskin. Senior quarterback Jake Browning didn't reach 3,000 passing yards or 20 touchdowns. The Huskies simply haven't had a home run-hitting skill talent since John Ross left for the NFL. Still, they should be able to find some ways to punch through with the run game and get some points on the board. Wide receiver Aaron Fuller is a pretty good weapon who had 794 receiving yards on the year. Getting him open down the field may be a crucial part of any Huskies victory.
S&P Outright Pick: Ohio State
Allstate Sugar Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Texas vs. Georgia (-13) -- January 1, 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Texas (9-4)||Georgia (11-2)||F/+||29||2||Special Teams S&P+||63||27||S&P+||7.6||25.9||When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||29||9||S&P+||28||16||IsoPPP+||110||4||Rushing S&P+||93||57||Passing S&P+||42||3||When Georgia has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||43||3||S&P+||55||3||IsoPPP+||38||10||Rushing S&P+||44||7||Passing S&P+||53||4|
This game may be Round 1 between a pair of programs that are on the rise on the college football scene. Head coach Tom Herman got Texas to the Big 12 title game in his second year, while Kirby Smart took Georgia to the national title game last year and into a second-straight SEC title game this season. There's some question as to how motivated Georgia is for this contest. Lockdown cornerback and 2018 Thorpe award winner Deandre Baker is sitting it out to go to the NFL, which could hurt Georgia badly against Texas, who will field wide receivers Collin Johnson (6-foot-6, 945 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) and Lil'Jordan Humphrey (6-foot-4, 1,109 receiving yards, nine touchdowns).
Texas and Georgia are both run-centric teams, but the Longhorns really moved the ball this season by throwing to those two big wideouts while quarterback Sam Ehlinger handled short-yardage conversions. Ehlinger threw for 3,123 yards and 25 touchdowns while running for 418 and 13 touchdowns. He set a Big 12 record for most consecutive passes without an interception, avoiding any in the 10 games between the season opener and season conclusion. The run game was consistent but not great; running backs Tre Watson and Keaontay Ingram combined for 1,378 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Georgia had a really solid passing game with Jake Fromm (2,537 yards, 27 touchdowns) doing real damage when needed, but mostly the Bulldogs blew teams away with running backs D'Andre Swift (1,037 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) and Elijah Holyfield (956 rushing yards, seven touchdowns). Both teams pride themselves on being physical on offense and defense, and this will be an absolute war in the trenches. Texas was much more effective on defense this season against running teams than spread passing teams, but if Georgia embraces the chance to throw the ball around from spread sets with their tight ends flexed out against the Longhorns linebackers, that could be bigger trouble.
Another advantage for Georgia is the high quality of their passing defense, even without Baker, against the Longhorns. Safeties Richard Lecounte III and J.R. Reed, who finished first and third on the team in tackles, have great range that can allow them to support different areas of the field from depth. Their weak spot is the run defense, which has struggled to replace senior nose tackle John Atkins and inside linebacker Roquan Smith, but Texas hasn't been a high-level rushing team save for in short-yardage situations when they involve Ehlinger.
The game looks like a physical battle that should be much closer than the point spread and may come down to which sophomore quarterback is ready and able to make the key plays.
S&P Outright Pick: Georgia
S&P+ PICKS: Bowl Week 4
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P+ Pick|| S&P+ pick
against the spread
| Ian's pick
against the spread
|Oregon||2.5||Michigan State||Michigan State||Michigan State||Oregon|
|Missouri||9||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
|Texas A&M||7||North Carolina State||Texas A&M||North Carolina State||North Carolina State|
|Mississippi State||7||Iowa||Mississippi State||Iowa||Mississippi State|
|LSU||7.5||Central Florida||Central Florida||Central Florida||Central Florida|
|Penn State||6.5||Kentucky||Penn State||Penn State||Penn State|
|Ohio State||6.5||Washington||Ohio State||Washington||Washington|
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 46-38
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 49-34