Picking bowl games is hard in any year, because we’re not just evaluating team quality but also trying to figure out how various absent players and the psychology of playing an exhibition at the end of a long year might affect a program. All of these elements of uncertainty are ratcheted up further in a pandemic season, adding to our complications.
But if we’re smart about it, maybe we can use those things to our advantage by paying close attention. I’ll try to do that with this week’s bowls. Last week’s bowls were a rough ride, as I went 1-5 despite getting closing line value on four of my six bets. It’s been that kind of 2020.
All wagers are for one unit.
Sugar Bowl Picks
BET: Ohio State +7.5 @ -110
The Sugar Bowl figures to be the more competitive of the two Playoff semifinals, as Alabama shouldn’t struggle with Notre Dame and these two teams played a thriller of a Fiesta Bowl semi at the end of last season. I agree with Clemson being a clear favorite in this game, but a whole touchdown (and change, in this case) is a lot for the Tigers to be laying.
Ohio State has considerable roster uncertainty because of COVID protocols. They were missing a lot of important players, including game-breaking receiver Chris Olave, linebacker Baron Browning, and punter Drue Chrisman, in the Big Ten Championship against Northwestern. The program hasn’t said who will be back and who won’t, but the Big Ten changed its rules to shorten the mandatory absence after a positive COVID test, and it’s hard to imagine that wasn’t geared specifically toward allowing Ohio State to have more players back.
As it happens, Ohio State should benefit from having played a shorter season than Clemson (six games, rather than 11) and being fresher than a Playoff team normally is by this point in the year. Justin Fields should be better than he was against Northwestern, and I just have a hard time seeing this game not being extremely close. Ohio State is too talented for me to expect them to lose by a touchdown or more to any non-Alabama opponent.
Peach Bowl Picks
BET: Cincinnati +7 @ -105
Amateur bowl psychology holds that Cincinnati might be a little more invested in this Peach Bowl than Georgia. The Dawgs have failed to reach their goals and have a documented history under Kirby Smart of showing up flat in non-Playoff bowl games. The Bearcats are on the program’s biggest stage in years and ostensibly would like to demonstrate how wrong it was that the Playoff committee didn’t give them a shot despite an undefeated record. A Cincy win could also facilitate a national championship claim, should the Bearcats want.
Of course, all of that’s conjecture, and the main reason I’m taking Cincinnati is that I think the Bearcats are really good. The Georgia offense has improved greatly since JT Daniels took over as quarterback, but Cincy’s biggest strength is a secondary that might be the best in the country. The Bearcats can limit explosive passing plays and find enough points to cover such a wide spread. Plus, Georgia has lots of opt-outs, and Cincinnati doesn’t have any of note. If you like moneyline betting, you could do much worse than Cincy in this game.
Cotton Bowl Classic Picks
BET: Oklahoma -3 @ -120
BET: Under 72 @ -115
The Cotton Bowl might be the most enticing non-Playoff matchup of the year, but it’s not guaranteed to be the offensive explosion you’d expect based on the teams’ reputations. Oklahoma has quietly grown on defense under coordinator Alex Grinch, while the Sooner offense has taken some time to overcome offensive growing pains with freshman QB Spencer Rattler. Florida is indeed an all-offense, no-defense operation, but I’ll be curious to see if the offense dips somewhat with Kyle Pitts, the all-world tight end, not playing in this game.
Ultimately, Pitts’ absence should mean a lot for Oklahoma, which doesn’t have any elite coverage linebackers and was going to struggle to contain him. OU’s defense is much better than Florida’s, and that’s why I like the Sooners to cover. The absence of OU running back T.J. Pledger is also good news for the under, although OU cornerback Tre Brown’s opt-out is a point in the other direction. All in all, I expect OU to win a relatively low-scoring game.
Texas Bowl Picks
BET: Under 57.5 @ -110
For multiple reasons, the Texas Bowl shouldn’t feature a lot of scoring. Both offenses do a poor job finishing drives, with some of the lowest goal-to-go touchdown rates in the country. (Arkansas scores on just 58% of its goal-to-go series, 119th in FBS.) TCU has a top-20 defense and one of the worst offenses in the Power 5.
The only thing that smells like offense in this game is that Arkansas runs tempo and squeezes in a lot of possessions. But even so, the defenses present matchup issues for the offenses. Arkansas doesn’t have much of a running game and relies mainly on Feleipe Franks to push the ball downfield, but TCU has some of the best safeties in the country. TCU’s biggest offensive asset is the occasional chunk run play, but Arkansas doesn’t give up many of those.
Duke's Mayo Picks
BET: Wisconsin -7 @ -122
This is not a particularly enticing Duke’s Mayo Bowl matchup. Neither team is exciting, and Wisconsin’s offense has not materialized into anything interesting after an encouraging start to the season. Wake Forest has not had much of a chance to get going all season, whether because their schedule was packed with difficult games or because COVID forced long layoffs between games. Despite a solid QB in Sam Hartman, this isn’t a great offense.
Wisconsin appears to be playing this game at close to full strength, while Wake has seen a couple of important players opt out. (Running back Kenneth Walker III ran for 13 TDs this year, and defensive end Carlos Basham was by far this team’s most prolific pass rusher with 25 pressures –- nearly twice what anyone else on the Demon Deacon defense generated.
Given that, and the strength of Wisconsin’s defense, I feel strongly about the Badgers winning by more than a touchdown.
Liberty Bowl Picks
BET: Under 41.5 @ -105
This game was hastily scheduled, which means the teams had little time to prepare for each other and might not be sharp. Army’s rush defense is stout, and WVU’s rush offense is close to nonexistent. Army’s offense will chew tons of clock by pounding the ball into the ground, and WVU’s front seven is strong enough to prevent the Knights from moving the ball too quickly. (It also crosses the mind that WVU coach Neal Brown comes from Troy, which shared the Sun Belt with Georgia Southern and thus has some experience preparing for the triple option.)
The under is a combined 12-8 in Army and WVU games this year, and I like its chances to 13-8 in what feels like it should be a sloppy Liberty Bowl on New Year’s Eve.