Predicting every post-Christmas Pac-12 bowl game
The college football bowl season is already 15 games deep, but with Christmas now in the books things start to get interesting.
Not that they haven’t been already. Central Florida beat Florida for the first time in program history. Army beat an SEC team. (Sensing a particular SEC theme here, those schools must not have wanted to play in the bowl games they were in…) Western Kentucky and App State put up a combined 97 points while Coastal Carolina and Northern Illinois kicked everything off with a barnstormer and a dumpster fire of late-game officiating. If the early portion of the postseason is any indication, bowl season should be wild.
And post-Christmas bowl games equals Power Five matchups. The Pac-12 will be involved in five of those games. Already off to an 0-1 start thanks to Utah State’s win over Oregon State in the LA Bowl, we’ll see what the remaining squads can do to represent the conference.
One thing is clear early on: the models don’t like the Pac-12 this bowl season. Not a single team from the West Coast is favored in their matchups, and Bill Connelly’s SP+ system is nearly three points kinder than Vegas, on average, to the non-Pac-12 side in each matchup.
Here are a few predictions.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl: UCLA vs. 18 NC State (-2)
When: Tuesday, Dec. 28, 5 p.m. PT on FOX
FPI: 41.5% chance for UCLA to win
SP+: NC State -6.8
Prediction: UCLA got to its bowl with a rip-roaring offense. The Bruins ripped off three straight to close the regular season and during that stretch they scored at least 42 points in every game and won by an average of 27 per. The Wolfpack played close against the big games on their schedule—34-30 over UNC, 45-42 loss to Wake, 31-30 loss to Miami, 27-21 over Clemson. Quarterback Devin Leary put together a quietly solid campaign—3,433 yards, 35 touchdowns to five interceptions, 65.7% completion rate—but he has done so with an aggressively pedestrian rushing attack to complement. The Wolfpack will have the star of the show with future NFL tackle Ikem Ekwonu declared for the NFL Draft but committed to playing in the game, and we’ll see how some of UCLA’s COVID-related absences hurt the team, but a good offense usually gives you a shot in bowl games and that’s especially true so far this bowl season. UCLA is 8-4 against the spread so far this year, 5-2 in the last seven, and the over is 7-3 in NC State’s last 10 and 4-1 in UCLA’s last five. This feels like it could be a 35-32 kind of game. I’ve got the Bruins outright.
Valero Alamo Bowl: 14 Oregon vs. 16 Oklahoma (-4.5)
When: Wednesday, Dec. 29, 6:15 p.m. PT on ESPN
FPI: 29.3% chance for Oregon to win
SP+: Oklahoma -2.7
Prediction: Perhaps the biggest “Who’s more disappointed in being here?” bowl game of the season. Oklahoma probably feels like it was a pass interference call away from winning Bedlam and playing for a Big 12 championship. Oregon knows it was on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff had it been able to handle its business better against Utah in two of its last three. Both will be coached by guys holding the interim tag. The Ducks have one of the most impactful opt-outs of the bowl season with potential No. 1 overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux sitting out to ready for the NFL Draft. Corner Mykael Wright and wideout Devon Williams are doing the same. Oklahoma will be without its four best defensive players—Nik Bonitto, Isaiah Thomas, Perrion Winfrey, and Brian Asamoah—the guy leading its defense, and the guy responsible for its offense. Bob Stoops is a pretty good stand-in, and the Sooners have the better quarterback in the matchup with Caleb Williams still at the controls (for now…), but this game has sloppy written over it. Given the advantage at quarterback and the defensive opt-outs from Oregon, taking OU to cover feels like the play here.
SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl: Arizona State vs. Wisconsin (-6)
When: Thursday, Dec. 30, 7:30 p.m. PT on ESPN
FPI: 38.6% chance for Arizona State to win
SP+: Wisconsin -6.3
Prediction: The Sun Devils’ best offense this season was their ground game and, for the bowl, they’ll be without both of their top two running backs. Wisconsin has the best run defense in the country, allowing just 2 yards per carry, which means a huge burden should be on ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels to move the ball through the air. Arizona State was pretty good stopping the run in its own right, but UW freshman Braelon Allen is the best running back you haven’t yet heard about. (Or maybe you have. Wisconsin is boring outside the Big Ten footprint.) A 17-year-old linebacker when he got to campus this year, Allen moved to running back and then erupted for 1,060 yards (7.3 per carry) over the final eight weeks of the season. It made the mediocre quarterback play not as important and allowed pressure to come off quarterback Graham Mertz. Over UW’s seven-game win streak late in the year, Mertz averaged 17 pass attempts a game. When he threw more than 25 times, Wisconsin lost (0-3). Loading up to stop the run will be harder given Darien Butler’s absence, but if Arizona State can put the game on Mertz’s shoulders instead of Allen’s, there’s a good chance it can force some mistakes. I like the Sun Devils to cover the six points, but Wisconsin to win the game.
Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl: Washington State vs. Miami (push)
When: Friday, Dec. 31, 9 a.m. PT on CBS
FPI: 36.5% chance for Washington State to win
SP+: Miami -4.5
Prediction: Miami quarterback Tyler Van Dyke went 6-3 as a starter to close out the season, leading Miami to a surprise top-25 offense. He threw for 2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns against only six interceptions. With an interim coach and a staff in transition, expect a heavy dose of leaning into what has been working. The Hurricanes were slight favorites over Washington State to open but COVID issues within Miami’s program have brought this game back to even. Both of these teams fought adversity and distractions throughout the year to get to 7-5 but the interesting thing is the timing. Miami fired Manny Diaz after the regular season, a move that may have been jarring to the team given the record over the final nine. In Pullman, Jake Dickert took over in late October and the Cougars rallied to win three of their last five around him and claim the program’s first Apple Cup win in seven years. Freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura, the Pac-12’s offensive freshman of the year, should get plenty of opportunities to attack an average Miami secondary. The Canes gave up a high completion percentage to opposing throwers this season and 7 yards per attempt; they didn’t get to the quarterback often and were dreadful getting there in obvious passing downs. Take the Cougs.
Rose Bowl Game: 11 Utah vs. 6 Ohio State (-6.5)
When: Saturday, Jan. 1, 2 p.m. PT on ESPN
FPI: 32.3% chance for Utah to win
SP+: Ohio State -12.7
Prediction: The last time Ohio State saw the field, it gave up nearly 300 rushing yards (a season-worst) to its bitter rival and had to walk off losers while the Michigan crowd in Ann Arbor emptied onto the field around them in jubilation. The Buckeyes also committed 10 penalties that day and just generally looked pretty un-Ohio State-like. To give Ryan Day a month off to sit and stew over disappointment and build a gameplan around the kind of talent he has in Columbus feels like it should be illegal. Ohio State will have the better quarterback in CJ Stroud and the best wideout in the game in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. But Utah might have the best player on the field, period, in linebacker Devin Lloyd. He can impact the game in so many ways and the Utes will need him to have a signature performance to try and keep Ohio State’s offense in check. The Buckeyes’ receivers will make big catches and contested catches, and Stroud has matured a ton as the year has progressed; Utah will have to impact the passing game at the line of scrimmage against one of college football’s best offensive lines. The Utah offense is obviously going to have to score points to keep the Utes in the game, but whether they have a shot to capture the Rose Bowl will depend on how uncomfortable they can make Stroud. If Vegas was sitting where SP+ is sitting, I’d take Kyle Whittingham and Utah, but at 6.5 points I like the Buckeyes to cover.