by Sean Zerillo – Wannamakeabet Staff Writer
Saturday is shaping up to be a fun day of football. Although I expect the game I’m about to pick below to be fairly lopsided, the Memphis-Iowa State game projects as a fun shootout with an upset savvy Cyclones team; Penn State will try to continue the Big Ten’s dominance of this bowl season against Washington in the Fiesta Bowl; and the Miami Hurricanes will return to the national spotlight of a New Year’s Six bowl in a home game under the roof and the lights against one loss Wisconsin at Hard Rock Stadium.
THE PICK (2017 ATS: 7-2; ML: 1-0) (5-1 Favorites; 3-1 Underdogs)
Louisville vs. (#23)Mississippi State (Jacksonville, FL) – Taxslayer Bowl (formerly the Gator Bowl)
Against the Spread: Louisville (5-7); Miss. St. (7-5)
Current Line: Louisville -7, O/U 63
Open: Louisville -5, O/U 61.5
This game comes down entirely to motivation between two 8-4 teams going different directions. Mississippi State saw nearly its entire coaching staff leave for the University of Florida under former head coach Dan Mullen and is being led into this game by its Running Backs coach. Per Chris Fallica of ESPN, “The 6 bowl teams affected by a head coaching change to play thus far are 1-5 with FSU’s win over Southern Miss the only win. 4 of 5 losses came by double digits, 3 by more than 17 points.”
Louisville finished the season strong going 4-1 against the spread, and is looking to send Lamar Jackson off with a big victory in what will likely be his final college game; especially in light of last year’s Citrus Bowl loss to LSU.
Mississippi State will be without Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and will turn to their own dynamic runner at the QB position in freshman Keytaon Thompson, who ran for 121 yards and a touchdown in a 31-28 loss to Ole Miss in his first collegiate start. Thompson has struggled with accuracy completing just 13 of his 27 throws against Ole Miss and 21 of 46 on the year, with a paltry 5.67 yards per attempt).
Louisville will be without two starters on defense who are sitting out for NFL draft prep, but they have other motivation factors in play – the Bulldogs are ranked and they are not and a 9-4 Cardinals team would finish the season ranked. UL also recruits the Florida area heavily and will have current and prospective recruits at the game to watch Lamar Jackson flash his unique skillset one last time.
Bobby Petrino likes the way that Louisville has been practicing in the lead up to this bowl – and he knows that this is a statement game for his program against an SEC opponent. Petrino is 5-5 straight up in bowl games and has not lost two in a row. I expect that trend to hold.
It’s going to take a big effort to overcome a motivated Lamar Jackson and this humming Louisville offense, especially with an inaccurate freshman quarterback and an overmatched, undermanned coaching staff on the other side. I think Louisville wins by multiple scores.
THE STRONG LEANS (1/2*)
Penn State is getting all of the public money here, reflecting the strong public bias from the media attention that the program receives. They will be traveling west for this game, and facing a QB and RB combo in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin that have been arguably more efficient than Shane McSorely and Saquon Barkley. Washington has the better defense, led by 340 pound defensive tackle Vita Vea who will be selected near Barkley at the top of the NFL draft this year. With Vea leading the way, the Huskies allow just 92 yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry, tops in the NCAA.
I also really like this trend per John Ewing of Sports Insights: “Fading the public has been a sharp strategy in bowl season, with teams receiving less than 50% of spread tickets going 228-194-6 (54%) ATS since 2005. The fewer tickets a team gets the more profitable they become (<40% of bets (132-90-3 ATS) and <30% of bets (33-17-1 ATS).” We’re firmly in the <30% range here.
Miami (+6) / Miami (+195):
This line has bounced up and down; Miami opened at +6 and was bet down to 4.5 and as low as 3.5 for a time, but the number has come back up to the open about 24 hours before kickoff. The money here is backing how poorly Miami played in its upset loss on a cold day in Pittsburgh and in its no-show performance against Clemson in the ACC Championship game in what was essentially a home game for Clemson on a chilly day in Charlotte.
I’m expecting a big bounce back effort here for the Hurricanes, especially back in the South Florida weather and in their home stadium. Miami has not lost at home this year, and they are a completely different team at home with the new roof holding in the crowd noise of a passionate and hungry fan base who has been energized by turnover chain fever.
When Wisconsin has the ball, this matchup reminds me a lot of Miami’s blowout of Notre Dame back in November. Miami has a big speed advantage on defense and should be able to consistently set the edge against the Wisconsin running game and force Alex Hornibrook into third downs. Unfortunately for Miami, Wisconsin is one of the best third down conversion offenses in the country.
The key for Miami will be whether Malik Rosier can get the offense going again. Running Backs Travis Homer and DeJay Dallas can spark the offense on read-option and run-pass-option looks with Rosier, but Rosier needs to hit receivers up the seam and avoid overthrows and bad turnovers which have plagued him throughout the year.
Mark Richt is 10-5 straight up in Bowl games and has had plenty of time to get his quarterback and play calling ready for this contest. I also think the public is severely underrating the night home game here in a big spot for a team and home environment that everyone has doubted all season.
I expect this to be a low scoring, hard fought defensive affair and would take the points, and/or a small taste of Miami’s money-line near 2:1.
Also predicting that the turnover chain will get busted out 3 times….