It feels strange to title a blog post “January Bowls” and not focus exclusively or semi-exclusively on Clemson vs Louisiana State. To a plurality of fans nationwide the Clemson-LSU scrum for a College Football Playoff championship is the only event in January, with all other FBS pairings worth a nickel having been played-out over the holidays. But even though the fan bases of Ann Arbor, Tuscaloosa, and Athens comprise a pretty hefty readership (and share of the weekly betting handle) on their own, there’s something for everyone in the minor (and major) bowl games still on the horizon.
For a start, we can learn from viewing the corporate ad-buys known as NCAA bowl games. Despite the popularity of big-picture coaching and NFL Draft recruits sitting out to avoid injury, there are an awful lot of programs going all-out to win their bowls. Bowl performances matter on a level beyond 3-hour commercials for a school or a head coach. We’re learning that some teams are always well-prepared for the postseason, like Texas. We’re finding that other marquee teams aren’t always well-prepared for late December, including programs we’ve never had to say that about, like Boise State.
LSU-Clemson speculators will watch teams from the SEC and ACC, trying to glean any scrap of match-up information they can prior to wagering on 1/13. For instance, are Auburn and Alabama’s offensive lines as powerful as the SEC schedule made them look? If so, then linemen like LSU’s Breiden Fehoko may be anchoring the nation’s strongest front-7, as overpowering as Clemson’s “Power Rangers” defensive line from last season. If not, then maybe we should all be putting prop bets on Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne.
I don’t have a solid prediction on Clemson vs LSU at this time. (Check on WagerBop every so often – it’s coming soon.) My only overriding thought is that it’s going to be a close game. It has to be a close game. I can’t imagine Lawrence or Heisman-winner Joe Burrow going down without a struggle, and I can’t believe either defense will be helpless for any significant stretch of time, even though the Carolina “Tigers” better be precise in pass coverage.
So no s*** Sherlock, it’s likely to be close, what good does that nugget of wisdom do for a gambler? Actually…a lot of good. Knowing that a blow-out scenario in the 2nd half of Clemson-LSU is well-nigh impossible, we’ll utilize some Monty Hall Problem logic and use given information to find best-value betting lines on the FBS championship.
Meanwhile, here are some seed-money touts on the best of the rest.
Citrus Bowl: Michigan Wolverines vs Alabama Crimson Tide
When Bono sings “all is quiet on New Year’s Day,” it’s because he’s never been to Camping World Stadium in Orlando as Michigan plays Alabama. U2 may consider changing the song’s lyrics if they’re close enough to Florida to feel the tremors on Wednesday.
That such an orgy of partisan pigskin warfare will happen at the Citrus Bowl brings up an interesting trend in college football. “Minor” bowl committees have finally figured out how to compete with the New Year’s Six – book 2 really good, iconic programs, and schedule the bout right around the beginning of 2020 or ’21 or ’22. Now the fact that the Citrus Bowl brand is not an A-#1 aristocrat of the postseason is a moot point. It’s a clash of titans on New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day, or on the maiden weekend of a fresh calendar. They could call it the Bland Bagel Bowl for all we care – just give us that SEC vs Big Ten goodness.
Alabama can execute power-running plays and put 5-star tailbacks in space against Michigan, and going by point spread movement in Las Vegas, I’m not the only bloke who feels that way. The Wolverines couldn’t shut down the run vs Army, Wisconsin, Ohio State, or Penn State – heck, they didn’t stifle Indiana on the ground. Michigan can put 8 or 9 men in the box and Alabama can still block and run well enough to eke-out 1st downs. Go ahead and dare backup QB Mac Jones to throw – he might hand-off anyway.
What Nick Saban has to adjust to without Tua Tagovailoa is a change in game-management goals. Alabama was happy to jump into shoot-outs with thinner opposition so long as a blue-chip NFL quarterback was at the helm. At the Citrus Bowl, the Tide will want to avoid trading big plays with Shea Patterson’s offense, and dominate the TOP by design.
What doesn’t add-up is a rising O/U total of (59) since gamblers seem to agree Alabama can control the contest. If Alabama controls the contest, the clock may run as swiftly as the Crimson Tide’s backfield.
Pick: Alabama (-8) or Under (59)
See this link for a preview of the Sugar Bowl between Georgia and Baylor.
Gator Bowl: Indiana Hoosiers vs Tennessee Volunteers
Thursday’s bowls should be no less intriguing if a tad easier on the eardrums. Boston College may be a worthwhile moneyline ‘dog vs Cincinnati in the Birmingham Bowl, but I’m looking at a prime-time kickoff between Tennessee and Indiana for sportsbook line-movement that could have made a few markets better.
The Indiana Hoosiers are an 8-4 team from a tough conference who opened as a (-122) favorite to win the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Since then, the schools have reversed roles, with the 7-5 Tennessee Volunteers becoming a (-130) moneyline favorite. There’s no single narrative you can point to as to why – neither team is nursing a casualty-ward of injured student-athletes, and there’s no mass exodus on behalf of the NFL Draft. Of course, a cynic might say that’s why Indiana and Tennessee aren’t ever in the New Year’s Six. Indiana’s Stevie Scott III has been injured, potentially exposing a lack of depth at RB this week.
Tennessee has an effective safety in Nigel Warrior, which makes me think of how the late Jim “Warrior” Hellwig* once tied American football to fields of battle: “In every battle there’s 80 guys who shouldn’t be there, 10 guys who want to be there but probably shouldn’t be, and 9 guys who are the real fighters. And then there’s the guy who makes you say ‘Ahhhhh. There’s a warrior!'”
But there’s no counting-out the underdog when it could be good old “Casual Joe” recreational betting action at work, driving the odds shorter on a glamour team from the SEC and longer on an opponent from the land of early autumn. Indiana is 5-2 and 1-1 against Big Ten contenders since September.
Pick: Indiana to win (+110)
* Jim Hellwig wished to be called “Warrior” late in life and legally changed his name as such. The author intends no disrespect to the Warrior family, but gave Warrior’s prior legal name here to distinguish it from Nigel Warrior and avoid confusion.
Potato Bowl: Ohio Bobcats vs Nevada Wolf Pack
Albertsons Stadium is a brand all its own, easily the most-influential “gimmick” field in college football. Instead of Boise State, it will be another Mountain West team, Nevada, “defending” the iconic blue turf against the green glow of the Ohio Bobcats on Friday.
Nevada is perhaps the most curious of all FBS bowl bids. The Wolf Pack has had weekends this season in which it looked like a fringe contender, then had turns of such hapless football that Nevada could have been handicapped last in the MWC in gambling value. That kind of inconsistency will be matched against a model of consistency from Athens (the other Athens).
Ohio doesn’t have many losing seasons. Solich’s teams have won at least 6 regular-season games for 11 years running and have highly improved their postseason form since 2017. Ohio shut-out Rocky Long’s San Diego State Aztecs 27-0 in the Frisco Bowl last season as QB Nathan Rourke and RB A.J. Ouellette shined. Rourke has returned to post solid passing stats and lead the Bobcats in rushing TDs in 2019, but he’s got a new top rusher in O’Shaan Allison. Still, the Bobcats are only a .500 team right now, and when the offense slumps there’s no dominant defense or return-game to fall back on. Western Michigan patiently built a lead over Ohio in a MAC game on 11/12, taking advantage while the Bobcats blundered-away turns and failed to pressure WMU’s Jon Wessink. By the 2nd half, Rourke got it together and rallied Ohio to force OT, but WMU prevailed anyway.
Nevada experienced a heartening November after hitting rock-bottom in mid-season. Wolf Pack boosters jeered as the visiting Hawaii blistered Jay Norvell’s team by 51 points, then shuddered to see Nevada get out-scored 67-13 on a road trip to Utah State and Wyoming. Led by QB Carson Strong and a dangerous pass rush, the Wolf Pack won 3 late-autumn games in a row to become bowl-eligible.
So why are the MWC representatives taking (+8) points at the Potato Bowl? Probably because Nevada is racked with injuries, suspensions, and coaching instability as the date approaches. 4 key defenders are serving punishments, and LB Lucas Weber is recovering from an ankle injury while defensive coaches are changed-out and in. The Nevada staff is in no position to glue some of the pieces back together.
Ohio should probably be the 1-to-3 moneyline favorite that it is. But the Bobcats are just not built to blow-out any but the very worst FBS programs. They have been guilty of playing down to the competition throughout Solich’s tenure. 1st-string MAC players aren’t that much better than 2nd-string MWC players to begin with. I can see Ohio blowing the chance to run away in the 1st half, then finding a way to win by a slim single-digit margin while Solich produces double-digit frown lines on the sideline.
Pick: Nevada ATS
Armed Forces Bowl: Southern Miss Golden Eagles vs Tulane Green Wave
Quick blogging story – I work for a webmaster who posts FBS and NFL schedules on a grid, allowing his pundits to pick and choose which predictions to make. Along with Week 17 of the NFL came a request for Southern Miss vs Tulane in the Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday, and Louisiana-Lafayette vs Miami of Ohio in the LendingTree Bowl on Monday. After we had finished touting the College Football Playoff and NFL Wild Card scenarios for the week, however, he simply wiped off the above bowl games too. No one had covered them. It was as if they never existed, in a way. That seems strangely fitting.
But gamblers are likely to be bored on 1/4 and 1/6, and when sports-gamblers are bored it’s good to have a few decent bets in mind that won’t crush a stake.
There could be value in the Ragin’ Cajuns (-14) ATS on Monday. Louisiana-Lafayette is a burly team which produced some eye-popping outcomes this season, like beating Georgia Southern on the road by 2 touchdowns, losing to App State twice by a combined 17 points, and crushing Troy by 50. There are troubling results from the same schedule, however, like from the last time the team visited Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Louisiana beat pitiful host South Alabama 37-27 after squandering opportunities and giving up 300+ rushing yards. The Ragin’ Cajun offense is still noteworthy but the D is losing some luster.
Better to focus on a more tightly-handicapped scrum at Texas Christian’s campus this Saturday night. Armed Forces Bowls often have actual armed-forces teams playing in them, but in this case it’s wonderful to see Southern Miss back in the postseason following a postseason snub of the 6-5 Golden Eagles in 2018.
The C-USA program has gone through a series of upgrades, followed by coaching changes. Larry Fedora made an ill-advised run to the ACC after leading Southern Mississippi to 12 wins in 2011. Todd Monken rebuilt a garbage team into a bowl participant, then left for the NFL, handing-over the reigns to steady and consistent Jay Hopson 4 years ago. Continuity of culture has bred success.
Still, gamblers don’t know what to make of the Golden Eagles or their opponent, with spreads on Tulane vs Southern Miss holding extremely still at Tulane (-7). The Green Wave looked and felt like more than a .500 squad when the 2019 season began, with solid recruiting classes and talent at key positions such as veteran Justin McMillan at QB. But coach Willie Fritz has phased-out his Central Missouri playbook in favor of a more wide-open, NFL prospect-friendly style. That’s great, but it means there’s no epic running game to fall back on when another facet of the team falters. McMillan is not an electric dual-threat, and Tulane played a lot of mediocre defense to lose 3 in a row in November.
I’m feeling Southern Miss and the points – but wait. A fresh injury report out of Hattiesburg may push the line to Tulane (-7.5) or (-8), which is the time to take the underdog ATS.
Nothing wrong with wagering against a 2-score favorite on a losing streak. Not even when stake money’s reserved for the big’un on 1/13.
Pick: Southern Miss ATS
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.