Best Bets for 2017-18 College Football Bowl Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 13, 2017

Best Bets for 2017-18 College Football Bowl Season

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    Jalen Hurts
    Jalen HurtsButch Dill/Associated Press

    It's tough to say whether the Alabama Crimson Tide or Clemson Tigers will win the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, but one of the best bets of bowl season is they'll combine for more than 47 points in that game.

    Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or something else this holiday season, chances are you're going to get some cash from uncreative relatives. Rather than put that money toward something responsible, maybe you want to "invest" it in a way to get a huge return in a hurry.

    Well, you're welcome.

    What follows are nine bets for bowl season that are the closest thing to printing money.

    The Texas Longhorns are a three-point underdog in a virtual home game (in Houston) against a Missouri Tigers team that went 0-5 against bowl teams this season? Ka-ching!

    Oregon averaged 52.1 points per game with Justin Herbert on the field, but the Ducks are only a 7.5-point favorite against a Boise State Broncos team that has scored 17 points in each of its last two games? Yes please!

    And when the oddsmakers put the over/under for the Camping World Bowl at 63, did they realize the average total in Virginia Tech's last five games is not even half of that (31.3)? Pound the under!

    Get ready to get rich.

Auburn (-9.5) vs. UCF

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    Jarrett Stidham
    Jarrett StidhamJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Game Details: Jan. 1 (12:30 p.m. ET) in Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta) on ESPN

    UCF had the highest-scoring offense in the nation this year. The Knights scored at least 31 points in every game and have scored at least 45 in seven of their last nine contests. There wasn't a more entertaining team to watch in 2017.

    But UCF has yet to face anything close to this Auburn defense, and the game could get ugly as a result.

    Incredibly, Auburn played four games against teams that reached the College Football Playoff. It limited Alabama, Clemson and Georgia (two games) to a combined average of 18.3 points per contest. In the entire season, only one opponent (Ole Miss) threw for more than 216 yards against the Tigers.

    And Auburn is no slouch on offense. Prior to the season-ending games against Alabama and Georgiathe latter with a banged-up Kerryon Johnsonthe Tigers scored at least 40 points in seven of eight games. They should have no difficulty putting up points against a lackluster UCF defense.

    I would love nothing more than for UCF to win this game. While it wouldn't get the Knights into this year's playoff, a win over a team the CFP selection committee had at No. 2 heading into championship weekend would be a huge victory for the "Group of Five" as a whole. It might give next year's last-standing undefeated team a legitimate case for inclusion in the Top Four.

    Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. Expect a monster performance from both quarterback Jarrett Stidham and Johnson.

                

    Prediction: Auburn 45, UCF 24

Texas (+3) vs. Missouri

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    Sam Ehlinger
    Sam EhlingerRay Thompson/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 27 (9 p.m. ET) in Texas Bowl (NRG Stadium, Houston) on ESPN

    No team was hotter over the final six weeks of the regular season than Missouri. After a 1-5 start, the Tigers finished with six straight wins, averaging 51.3 points and 579.5 yards of total offense in those games.

    Here's the thing, though: Every opponent Missouri faced in the second half of the season was a train wreck.

    All six teamsIdaho, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansasfinished with five wins or fewer. Connecticut had one of the worst defenses in the country long before it faced the Tigers, and Arkansas wasn't much better. Vanderbilt gave up 43.3 points per game in SEC play. Florida fired head coach Jim McElwain the week before it played Missouri, and Tennessee finally kicked Butch Jones to the curb after its loss to Mizzou.

    I'm not trying to take away from what Drew Lock, J'Mon Moore and Co. accomplished, but it has to be noted that the Tigers went 0-5 against bowl teams. It's also worth noting that they were downright awful on defense during the first half of the season. Giving up 21.3 points per game in the final six games after allowing 42.2 in the first six had much more to do with the quality of opponent than a sudden ability to defend.

    Meanwhile, Texas had a nice season after the shocking Week 1 loss to Maryland. The Longhorns only went 6-6. But they won road games against Iowa State and West Virginia. They beat Kansas State. And their losses to USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State came by a combined margin of 11 points.

    Not to mention, this is essentially a home game for Texas. Whether it's Sam Ehlinger, Shane Buechele or a combination of both at QB, the Longhorns should move the ball at will against Missouri's secondary, resulting in their first winning season since 2013.

                                         

    Prediction: Texas 38, Missouri 28

Arizona vs. Purdue (Over 65)

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    Khalil Tate
    Khalil TateSteve Dykes/Getty Images

    Game Details: Dec. 27 (8:30 p.m. ET) in Foster Farms Bowl (Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California) on Fox

    The spread in this one is Arizona minus-3.5, and I have no strong feelings about which team comes out on top.

    But because Arizona is playing, we know it's going to be a points bonanza.

    Since Khalil Tate became the must-watch starting QB of the Wildcats in their fifth game, each and every Arizona contest has produced at least 72 combined points. On average, that total has been 82.1 points.

    On the flip side of that coin, Purdue has neither scored nor allowed more than 31 points in a game since Week 3. The average total of Big Ten games involving the Boilermakers was just 39.6 points.

    However, their highest-scoring conference gamea 31-24 win over Indianacame in the final week of the season, and the Boilermakers averaged 35.7 points on offense in nonconference play. Now that they're out of the rigors of the Big Ten and get to face a defense that hasn't stopped anyone all season, the offense should make its triumphant return.

    And though there wasn't much scoring in Big Ten play, it's not like Purdue's defense has been shutting down good offenses. Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Indiana each had at least 420 yards of total offense against Purdue. And in the season opener against Louisville, the Boilermakers had no answer for Lamar Jacksonthe closest thing to Tate they faced all year.

    Buckle up for what could be the highest-scoring game of bowl season.

                                    

    Prediction: Arizona 45, Purdue 38

Iowa State vs. Memphis (Under 66.5)

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    Riley Ferguson
    Riley FergusonJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 30 (12:30 p.m. ET) in AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tennessee) on ABC

    Here's a fun fact about the Memphis Tigers: Six of their 12 games came against the nine worst defenses (yards allowed per game) at the FBS level. SMU (486.7 YPG), UCLA (488.8), Connecticut (519.0), Tulsa (528.9), Louisiana-Monroe (532.1) and East Carolina (541.7) couldn't stop anyone all season long, and they certainly weren't going to slow down the Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller-fueled assault of Memphis.

    In fact, Memphis only faced one opponent that ranked in the top 83 nationally in yards allowed per game. And in that game against Navy (No. 58), the Tigers were held to 30 points and 397 yards in their second-worst performance of the season.

    Enter: Iowa State.

    Despite games against high-powered offenses such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, the Cyclones finished the year ranked 46th nationally in yards allowed per game. Meanwhile, their offense struggled down the stretch, scoring 23 points or fewer in four of their final five games while cycling through limited QB options.

    The curious part of this Vegas total is that Iowa State is only a 3.5-point underdog, which means a theoretical score of 35-31.5. The 35 part may be right, but it's hard to imagine the Cyclones will score 31 points, given their offensive outputs late in the season. This Memphis defense is bad, but it's not that bad. And the fact that this is a home game for Memphis should mean a raucous crowd helping out.

                          

    Prediction: Memphis 27, Iowa State 23

Kansas State (-2.5) vs. UCLA

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    Alex Barnes (34) and Skylar Thompson (10)
    Alex Barnes (34) and Skylar Thompson (10)Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 26 (9 p.m. ET) in Cactus Bowl (Chase Field, Phoenix) on ESPN

    The big question here is the status of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen.

    "Chosen Rosen" got banged up multiple times this season—mostly recently Nov. 24, when he suffered a shoulder injury in the season finale against California. Based on early reports, he should be healthy enough to play.

    But will he?

    Given the recent trend of potential top-10 NFL draft picks skipping bowl games to avoid injury or ending their careers with stock-plummeting duds, who would blame Rosen for sitting out the Cactus Bowl and not risking another injury in a meaningless game for a university that recently fired its head coach?

    If he does play, Kansas State could be in trouble. After all, the Wildcats ranked 129th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game and haven't held an opponent below 264 passing yards since mid-September. Even if Rosen doesn't play and Devon Modster is running the show, the Bruins will still have a potent passing attack.

    In spite of those problems in the secondary, Kansas State finished the season with a flourish. The Wildcats went 4-1 in their final five games, including wins at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

    And rather than worrying about Kansas State's defense, the real story here is UCLA's horrendous D. The Bruins allowed 11 of 12 opponents to gain at least 417 yards and score at least 23 points. The only exception to that rule was a home game against an Oregon team playing without Justin Herbert. And even in that game, UCLA gave up 320 yards and 14 points.

    Kansas State should score at will, and Rosen or not, UCLA's offense won't quite be able to keep pace.

                                   

    Prediction: Kansas State 41, UCLA 27

Southern Miss (+15.5) vs. Florida State

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    Ito Smith
    Ito SmithRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 27 (1:30 p.m. ET) in Walk-On's Independence Bowl (Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana) on ESPN

    For the most part, this pick is just a lack of faith in Florida State.

    The Seminoles offense finally woke up late in the season, averaging 52.3 points in its final three games. But that was a team in desperation mode. FSU rescheduled a previously cancelled game against Louisiana-Monroe in order to extend its streak of consecutive bowl appearances to 36. Had it lost to the Warhawks, Delaware State or a Florida Gators team that was an absolute dumpster fire by late November, it would have been an embarrassment.

    Now that the Seminoles extended that bowl streak, are they really going to care about winning the Walk-On's Independence Bowl? And how much of an impact will the coaching change from Jimbo Fisher to Willie Taggart have on this offense? After eight months of offseason work with Taggart, it should be a good move. After just a couple of weeks, though, there may be a few hiccups.

    And Southern Miss is good enough that it's not going to get blown out by at least a 16-point margin by accident.

    The Golden Eagles have a solid offense that produced the nation's 20th-best rusher (Ito Smith; 1,321 yards) and the 15th-best receiver (Korey Robertson; 1,070 yards). They averaged 438.3 yards of total offense per game and limited opponents to just 321.9—17th in college football—including holding Kentucky to 254 yards and Tennessee to 210 yards.

    The clincher: Derwin James announced on Instagram that he won't be playing in this game in order to prepare for the 2018 NFL draft. Florida State's defense is significantly less terrifying without him on the field.

    While I'm not expecting Southern Miss to pull off the upset, an outright win is a more likely outcome than a loss by a three-possession margin.

                     

    Prediction: Florida State 30, Southern Miss 24

Alabama vs. Clemson (Over 47)

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    Kelly Bryant
    Kelly BryantBob Leverone/Associated Press

    Game Details: Jan. 1 (8:45 p.m. ET) in Allstate Sugar Bowl (Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans) on ESPN

    On the one hand, these are the two stingiest defenses in the nation. Alabama is No. 1 in points allowed at 11.5 per game. Clemson is No. 2 at 12.8. And both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers limited the opposition to fewer than 280 yards per game.

    Moreover, Alabama is no stranger to digging in its heels on defense for low-scoring victories in marquee games. In last year's CFP semifinal, the Crimson Tide beat Washington 24-7. And who can forget all the point-deficient games they have played against LSU in the past few years?

    On the other hand, this College Football Playoff rivalry has a history of putting points on the board.

    In 2015, both Alabama and Clemson ranked top 10 in the nation in yards allowed per game. They had held their opponents to 17 points or fewer in a combined 20 of 28 games prior to the national championship, only for that game to turn into a 45-40 shootout.

    Last year was a similar story. The Tigers had their fair share of defensive lapses during the regular season, but they entered the title game allowing 17.1 points per contest. Alabama was better at 11.4 points per game and had held each of its previous eight opponents to 16 points or fewer. And yet, we were blessed with another offensive explosion, featuring 887 yards of total offense and 66 combined points.

    Though Clemson's offense isn't quite as potent as it has been in recent years, the Tigers are still averaging 35.4 points per game, including a 38-point showing in the ACC championship against what had been a solid Miami Hurricanes defense. And Alabama's offensefrom both a points-per-game and yards-per-play perspectiveis better than it has been the past two seasons.

    As with the previously discussed game between Arizona and Purdue, I don't have any strong convictions about which team will win this game. However, I'm not expecting a 17-14 type of defensive tussle. Plus, there's always a chance this thing goes to overtime for even more points.

                              

    Prediction: Clemson 31, Alabama 28

Oklahoma State vs. Virginia Tech (Under 63)

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    Mason Rudolph
    Mason RudolphSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 28 (5:15 p.m. ET) in Camping World Bowl (Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Florida) on ESPN

    Oklahoma State has one of the most potent offenses in the country. The Cowboys averaged 46.3 points and 575.7 yards of total offense per game. They were held below 40 points just twice in the entire season, and they averaged 49.8 points in their last five games. And Oklahoma State's defense is average at best, allowing roughly 400 yards and 30.0 points per game, including 41.0 points over the last five.

    Against most teams, you might expect an Oklahoma State game to reach 63 total points before the end of the third quarter.

    But Virginia Tech isn't most teams.

    The Hokies rank fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.5 points per game. No teamincluding Clemson, West Virginia and Miamihas scored more than 31 points against them this season.

    Moreover, Virginia Tech is kind of a mess on offense. It has averaged a decent 28.8 points per game over the course of the season, but that includes a combined 123 points in blowouts of bad East Carolina and North Carolina teams. In the last five games, the Hokies have averaged just 17.2 points and 332.8 yards of total offense.

    The average total in Virginia Tech's last five games is only 31.8 points, thanks in part to a 10-0 win over the Virginia Cavaliers in the season finale Nov. 24. It was the third shutout of the season for the Hokies defense and the seventh time it held a team to 14 points or fewer.

    Oklahoma State will inevitably hit a couple of big plays and will probably win the game, but this shouldn't be the typical 45-31 contest involving the Cowboys. On each side of the ball, look for Virginia Tech to reduce that norm by roughly two touchdowns.

                         

    Prediction: Oklahoma State 31, Virginia Tech 20

Oregon (-7.5) vs. Boise State AND Over 59.5

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    Royce Freeman
    Royce FreemanChris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Game Details: Dec. 16 (3:30 p.m. ET) in Las Vegas Bowl (Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas) on ABC

    If you look solely at the full-season numbers, it's not ridiculous to think Boise State could win this game. The Broncos should be able to move the ball against an average Oregon secondary, and at 36.7 points per game, the Ducks aren't insurmountable on offense.

    The problem with only looking at the full-season numbers is that they include five games played without star quarterback Justin Herbert. And the difference between Oregon with Herbert and Oregon without him is night and day.

    Oregon with Herbert: 6-1, 52.1 points per game, 28.1-point scoring margin, plus-235.7 yards of total offense

    Oregon without Herbert: 1-4, 15.0 points per game, negative-19.2 scoring margin, negative-103.2-yard margin

    To be fair, it just so happened that Oregon's five toughest opponents were the five it faced without Herbert. There's a good chance the Ducks were always going to be a bit disappointing during that stretch compared to the rest of the season.

    Regardless, Oregon has scored at will with Herbert on the field, and it should do the same against Boise State. The Broncos gave up 42 points to Virginia, 47 points to Washington State and 52 points to Colorado State, and Oregon's full-strength offense is more potent than any of those.

    The Broncos might keep pace for a while, but they'll end up losing by a double-digit margin.

    And feel free to parlay an Oregon cover with the over (59.5), considering neither of these defenses has been anything close to dominant this season.

                               

    Prediction: Oregon 45, Boise State 30

                            

    Gambling odds courtesy of OddsShark.com.

    Kerry Miller covers men's basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.