Dear Chris Ault,
A thousand thanks to you and your Nevada football team for that epic collapse against Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl, giving up two touchdowns with less than a minute to play to turn a 48-35 lead into a stunning 49-48 loss. Thanks not because it got me paid (I had the Wolf Pack plus-9, a never-in-doubt winner from the word “go”). And not because I get a kick out of seeing UNR and its smug fans suffer (although I most certainly do).
No, Coach Ault, by captaining a team that kicked off the bowl season by blowing leads of 21-0 and 45-28—a team that lost despite amassing 659 yards of total offense (including 403 rushing yards)—you ensured that I won’t go down as the biggest choke artist of this bowl season. At least I sure as hell hope so.
In fact, fresh off a profitable college football regular season, I enter the postseason with so much confidence that I’ve entered William Hill’s 20/20 College Bowl Challenge, in which contestants pick any 20 of the 35 bowl games against the spread. The prize pool is $10,000, with a perfect 20-for-20 netting a $50,000 bonus. You can track my journey to $60,000—as well as that of several other Vegas Seven staffers—at VegasSeven.com/BowlContest.
Now on to my best bets for bowl games through Jan. 2 (all odds are as of Dec. 17) …
$550 on LSU -4 vs. Clemson (Dec. 31): Quality of regular-season competition, conference affiliation, momentum, coaching defections, crowd support, travel, mascots—there are plenty of intangibles to consider when it comes to handicapping bowl games. To me, though, the most important has always been motivation. And of the 70 teams that qualified for this year’s postseason—by the way, that’s more than half the schools in Division I-A; somewhere, Bear Bryant just rolled over in his grave—none will be more motivated than Clemson. Why? Because the Tigers were on the wrong end of the most humiliating defeat of last bowl season, jumping out to a 7-0 lead against West Virginia en route to a 70-33 loss.
Unfortunately for Clemson, motivation is the only edge it has against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Oh, sure, both teams are 10-2, but LSU played an SEC schedule, with its only losses being by a combined 12 points against Florida and Alabama (ranked second and third, respectively, in the BCS standings). As usual, LSU’s defense led the way, giving up 22 points or fewer 11 times, with six opponents scoring 14 or less. And while Clemson put up points in bunches, its three lowest-scoring games were against its three toughest opponents (26 against dreadful Auburn, 37 at Florida State and 17 vs. South Carolina—the latter two being double-digit losses).
By the way, Clemson’s defense allowed at least 27 points in half of its games. By the way, Part 2: In the schools’ last seven bowls, Clemson is 1-6 ATS, while LSU is 5-2 ATS.
$330 on Duke +7½ vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 27): If this was a college basketball matchup, playing Duke as a big underdog would be a no-brainer. In college football, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, the Blue Devils enter the Belk Bowl—that’s right, I said the Belk Bowl—on a four-game straight-up and ATS losing skid (outscored by a combined 102 points), while Cincinnati has won four of five, covered in five of six and held its last four foes to 10, 10, 10 and 17 points.
Ah, but here’s where that motivation angle comes into play. Duke this year ended a string of 17 consecutive losing seasons, reached its first bowl since 1994 and gave coach David Cutcliffe a contract extension through 2018. Conversely, Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones just bolted for Tennessee and took five of his assistant coaches with him. One of those assistants, defensive line coach Steve Stripling, will stay behind and guide the Bearcats against the Blue Devils.
Another reason to grab the generous points: Duke’s offense is led by third-year starting QB Sean Renfree, who had a career-high 18 TD passes and a career-low eight interceptions. Translation: The backdoor will be wide open for a cover (although I doubt I’ll need it).
$220 on Purdue-Oklahoma State OVER 70 (Jan. 1): In recent decades, the phrase “offensively explosive” has been used to describe Big Ten football about as often as “hysterically funny” has been used to describe a Steven Spielberg film. And yet Purdue made its Big Ten opponents look like Oregon, giving up 29 points or more in six of eight conference games. In fact, the Boilermakers’ first three opponents—Eastern Kentucky, Notre Dame and Eastern Michigan, all offensively inept—combined for just 42 points, while their last nine averaged 34 points per game.
Now, in something called the Heart of Dallas Bowl, Purdue runs up against Oklahoma State, which only averages 44.7 points and nearly 550 yards per game. The problem with the Cowboys? They don’t play much defense, especially away from home, where they surrender nearly 42 points and more than 520 yards per contest.
$110 on Northwestern +2½ vs. Mississippi State (Jan. 1): How can I take less than a field goal with a Big Ten team against an SEC opponent? Especially when that Big Ten team enters the Gator Bowl having lost nine straight bowl games (last postseason victory: 1948)? Because Northwestern is simply the superior squad (even on the offensive and defensive lines). Because I couldn’t be less impressed by Mississippi State (the Bulldogs lost four of their last five SU and ATS, and their “signature” wins were at home against Tennessee and Arkansas, neither of which qualified for a bowl). And because all Northwestern did this year was cover point spreads (11-1 ATS).
On the motivation front, do you think the Wildcats—and in particular coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former star linebacker at Northwestern—might be a bit inspired to end a 64-year bowl drought?
$110 on Vanderbilt -6½ vs. North Carolina State (Dec. 31): I admit that Vanderbilt’s season-ending six-game winning streak was about as sexy as Betty White in a wet T-shirt contest (just one victory against a bowl-eligible team, 27-26 at Ole Miss). I also realize that was the Commodores’ only win against a bowl opponent (losing to Florida, Georgia, Northwestern and South Carolina, covering just once). But Vandy is on a 5-0 ATS roll, going 4-0 as a favorite (winning those four by 42, 40, 23 and 34 points). As for N.C. State, its 7-5 record was so fraudulent that coach Tom O’Brien has been canned. The Commodores have the talent edge across the board, and they get to play in their backyard, as the Music City Bowl is in Nashville, Tenn.
BEST OF THE REST: Dec. 22: Washington-Boise State UNDER 46 ($66); Washington +5 vs. Boise State ($55). Dec. 24: Fresno State -12½ vs. SMU ($44). Dec. 27: Baylor-UCLA OVER 79½ ($55). Dec. 28: Virginia Tech -2½ vs. Rutgers ($33). Dec. 29: Syracuse +4 vs. West Virginia ($55); Texas +2 vs. Oregon State ($44); Navy +14½ vs. Arizona State ($33). Dec. 31: Georgia Tech +10 vs. USC ($44). Jan. 1: Nebraska +10 vs. Georgia ($77); Wisconsin-Stanford UNDER 47½ ($66). Jan. 2: Florida -14 vs. Louisville ($55).