Genuinely good bowl games this week, including the playoff, which is both genuinely important and genuinely interesting. Ohio State/USC was a boring preseason national championship pick, and we get it as a Cotton Bowl matchup! Washington/Penn State was a hipster national championship pick that we get as a Fiesta Bowl!
Last week (4-1 against the spread) went awfully well, bringing my 2017 bowl-game record to 7-3 ATS. Even though Toledo was one of the few teams to let me down, let’s ride this green wave into New Year’s weekend. The spreads below are from Bovada.
Cotton Bowl: Ohio State (-7.5) vs USC
Date: Friday, Dec. 29 (8:30 PM ET)
There are some that will say that JT Barrett isn’t good enough, and Ohio State isn’t consistent enough, to justify a spread of more than a touchdown. This is mostly justified: Ohio State is occasionally baffling, Barrett is occasionally mediocre, and USC has one of the most talented rosters in college football, including a quarterback who could be the no. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
However (and of course there’s a “however”) take a look at JT Barrett’s stats next to Sam Darnold’s, and then look at Ohio State’s team stats against USC’s. Barrett is very good; maybe not as good as in 2014, but still slightly better than Darnold, and the Buckeyes run the ball better than almost anyone USC has faced. The Trojans, meanwhile, are still struggling on defense generally.
You’ll feel dumber if you lose with Ohio State, but you’re more likely to win with the Buckeyes. Maybe trust that one quarterback is trying to boost his draft stock as much as possible and the other is trying to avoid the #1 spot and the Cleveland Browns like the plague.
My pick: Ohio State (-7.5) to cover.
Fiesta Bowl: Penn State (-3) vs Washington
Date: Saturday, Dec. 30 (4:00 PM ET)
Not sure why Penn State is the favorite here. Maybe because Saquon Barkley is exciting and nobody watches football on the West Coast. Otherwise, Washington is as good or better than Penn State, particularly on defense. Washington’s defense is right up there with the best in the country, and there’s a little coaching controversy with the Nittany Lions. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has left for Mississippi State, and it was his hyper-aggressive play-calling that made Penn State so fun and made such good use of Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.
I think the matchup of Penn State’s offensive line and Washington’s defensive line goes to the Huskies. A big reason for Saquon Barkley’s limited production, despite his obvious talent, is inconsistency on the line, and if Washington can exploit this weakness, they’ll go a long way to keeping Barkley under control.
My pick: Washington (+3) to cover.
Rose Bowl: Georgia (-2) vs Oklahoma
Date: Monday. Jan. 1 (5:00 PM ET)
Georgia’s the favorite because it’s a lot easier to talk yourself into Georgia than it is Oklahoma. Georgia runs the ball extremely well, plays fantastic defense, and rarely relies on freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to do anything spectacular. Plus, when they do, he usually delivers. That’s the kind of team that wins championships in this and every other era of college football.
Talking yourself into Oklahoma is a little more complicated. You have to look past the midseason defensive struggles and take Gary Patterson’s warning very seriously. You have to convince yourself, for the millionth time, that an explosive offense can “win the big one” when you’ve seen it disappoint so many times. You have to believe that a Big 12 team can slow down the best running backs the SEC has to offer. You have to trust Baker Mayfield. None of this is easy, but rest your head on the fact that Oklahoma leads pretty much every offensive stat and is a historically productive team.
My pick: Oklahoma (+2) to cover.
Sugar Bowl: Alabama (-3) vs Clemson
Date: Monday. Jan. 1 (5:00 PM ET)
The line for Alabama/Clemson III opened at dead even, but has slowly edged in the Tide’s favour. There’s a lot of uncertainty with this game: we don’t know how well Alabama’s linebackers have recovered from the injuries that cost them the SEC West title and a 12-0 record. Hootie Jones, Dylan Moses, and Shaun Dion Hamilton are all out. We don’t know how Jeremy Pruitt’s upcoming departure to Tennessee will affect that same defense. We don’t know if Kelly Bryant is going to be able to deviate from the normal rhythms of football enough to find holes in the Alabama defense. We don’t know if leaning on Jalen Hurts will be a winning strategy for either team, just a likely one. Clemson’s run defense is likely too good for Alabama to win the game with a straightforward rushing attack, and Alabama’s running backs are good enough that you’d understand Clemson trying to put the whole game on Hurts’ shoulders.
All the uncertainty means the points are the play.
My pick: Clemson (+3) to cover.