Picking straight-up winners or making hunches against the point spread can be great fun for those filling out office pool sheets for the college bowl season.
But a true risk-taker appreciates the more complex nature of ‘Confidence’ pools, where entrants invoke a two-fold process of: 1) Identifying the straight-up winner of all 40 bowls … and then 2) Prioritizing their certainty for every pick by ranking the choices from “40” (most confident winner) to “1” (least confident victor).
SEC Country offers its own confidence-pool picks for the 2015-16 bowl season, an educated-guess exercise which could look eminently foolish in a few weeks. But we’re not afraid to walk the plank of potential embarrassment here.
(Note: The VegasInsider.com betting lines, as of Dec. 17, are in parentheses.)
FIESTA: Ohio State (-5) over Notre Dame
TEXAS: LSU (-7.5) over Texas Tech
LIBERTY: Arkansas (-13) over Kansas State
PEACH: Florida State (-7) over Houston
HEART OF DALLAS: Washington (-8.5) over Southern Miss
GODADDY: Bowling Green (-7.5) over Georgia Southern
POINSETTIA: Boise State (-8) over Northern Illinois
REASONS TO BELIEVE
1. If only LSU tailback Leonard Fournette (1,741 rushing yards, 18 TDs) could have encountered Texas Tech before the Heisman Trophy balloting. The easy-to-navigate Red Raiders rank 124th nationally in scoring defense (42.6 points per game), 124th in third-down defense, 125th in rushing defense (272 yards allowed per outing) and 126th in total defense (540.2 yards).
Consequently, Texas Tech doesn’t have the chops to beat balanced teams on neutral fields, especially an LSU program loaded with NFL-caliber athletes. Against four ranked opponents this year — at the time of the meetings — the Red Raiders averaged 42 points against TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma … and still lost by an average of 21!
2. For the season, Arkansas boasts per-game averages of 35.2 points and 193 rushing yards; and of its last eight games, Kansas State (six-game losing streak during Big 12 play) surrendered a staggering average of 204 rushing yards to the opposition. (Advantage: Hogs)
3. Ohio State won’t repeat as national champions, thanks to my alma mater, Michigan State. But I’m willing to concede the Buckeyes, from a pound-for-pound, position-by-position standpoint, remain the most talented team in the country. As such, I’ve got the Buckeyes pegged as double-digit winners in the Fiesta Bowl.
4. Florida State has my vote as next year’s preseason No. 1, on the strength of a cat-quick, playmaking defense (per-game average of 15.8 points allowed in 2015), a Heisman Trophy front-runner (tailback Dalvin Cook — 1,658 rushing yards, 19 total TDs) and a generous schedule which offers Clemson, Florida and North Carolina at home … and then Ole Miss in neutral Orlando, Fla.
Which brings us back to the present: A Seminoles victory in the Peach Bowl should serve as a springboard for bigger and better things in 2016.
5. Southern Miss had a deflating 1-4 record against its five best opponents this season — Mississippi State, Nebraska, Marshall, Louisiana Tech (victory), Western Kentucky; and of the four defeats, the Golden Eagles surrendered 31-plus points each time. Washington, in turn, enters bowl play on a modest two-game high (beating Oregon State and Washington State) … at a composite final score of 97-17.
ALAMO: Oregon (pick ’em) over TCU
MIAMI BEACH: Western Kentucky (-3) over South Florida
COTTON: Alabama (-8.5) over Michigan State
CURE: San Jose State (-4) over Georgia State
CAMELLIA: Appalachian State (-9.5) over Ohio
REASONS TO BELIEVE
1. It’s been a great ride for Michigan State (12-1 overall, Big Ten champions), taking out every major challenge, recovering from a controversial loss to Nebraska in early November and clinching a berth in the College Football Playoff (3-seed).
In a bit of honesty, though, MSU was fortunate to beat Oregon (overthrow on potential game-winning TD during the Ducks’ final drive), Michigan (the most surreal ending of the last 30 years), Ohio State (the horrible weather muffled the Buckeyes’ passing attack) and Iowa in the Big Ten title game (teams typically don’t close championship bouts with 22-play TD drives).
And now, the Spartans’ reward for an unlikely championship involves a Cotton Bowl clash with Alabama — a bigger, badder, deeper and likely better version of Michigan State.
2. I must be crazy for assigning a high ‘confidence’ number to Oregon, knowing the Ducks have a porous defense (surrendered five rushing touchdowns to woeful Oregon State) and the home-area disadvantage (playing in Texas).
But this hunch also credits Oregon for its sterling streak of six consecutive victories to close the regular season, highlighted by one home rout of Southern California and three road takedowns of Washington, Arizona State and Stanford.
During this prodigious run (six outings), the Ducks notched 180-plus team rushing yards five times.
3. How is Western Kentucky only a three-point favorite? The Hilltoppers incurred two respectable losses to LSU and Indiana and then crushed the top four opponents in Conference USA — Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee — by an average margin of 18 points.
Plus, the SEC Country blog already has WKU head coach Jeff Brohm ticketed for Arkansas … 10 years from now.
The above mini-rant shouldn’t be construed as a bias against South Florida (seven wins in its last eight games). We simply believe that Western Kentucky might be the best team among the Group Of Five conferences (sorry, Houston).
CACTUS: Arizona State (pick ’em) over West Virginia
SUGAR: Ole Miss (+7) over Oklahoma State
FAMOUS IDAHO POTATO: Utah State (-6.5) over Akron
INDEPENDENCE: Virginia Tech (-14) over Tulsa
CITRUS: Michigan (-4) over Florida
FOSTER FARMS: UCLA (-6.5) over Nebraska
MILITARY: Navy (-5) over Pittsburgh
PINSTRIPE: Indiana (-2) over Duke
REASONS TO BELIEVE
1. The Robert Nkemdiche hotel/marijuana incident in Atlanta was equal parts troubling and deflating. As a consequence, we’re pulling back the Ole Miss ‘confidence’ pick by one sub-grouping.
Here’s some good news for the Rebels: With the Big 12 championship on the line a few weeks ago, Oklahoma State lost it final two games at home — by a composite score of 103-58; and for the season, the middling Cowboys rank just 95th in total defense (yielding 430 yards per game), 86th in scoring defense (29 points per game) and 91st in pass defense (244 ypg).
These aren’t good numbers when confronting Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly (3,740 yards passing, 37 total TDs) and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (76 catches, 1,082 yards, 8 TDs), the headliners for the SEC’s most prolific passing attack.
2. Does it really matter that Michigan has a strong defense? In its last five games, anemic Florida has generated a grand total of 70 points — for a middling average of 14 per outing. Ugh.
Does it really matter that Florida has the nation’s 11th-ranked pass defense? During September and October, Michigan senior quarterback Jake Rudock endured a shaky streak of seven straight games of under 200 yards passing.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, their offensive balance and red-zone efficiency (ranked fourth nationally) should be enough to collect a hard-fought victory over the Gators.
3. Obviously, the sports bookmakers like Frank Beamer’s odds of ending his decorated coaching career on a high note. But on paper, Is Virginia Tech really 14 points better than Tulsa?
Upon review … maybe. Of Tulsa’s six seasonal defeats (Oklahoma, Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy), each one had a double-digit point spread. In fact, the Golden Hurricane’s average defeat margin was a staggering 18.2 points.
For this exercise, though, only the victor has true value; and we’re happy to commit to Virginia Tech — which also incurred six losses … but with five at 10 points or less.
(It also helps that Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer — the program’s best pocket passer — should be healthy enough for Beamer’s last ride.)
CONFIDENCE LEVEL: ‘MEH’
TAXSLAYER: Penn State (+7) over UGA
ARIZONA: Colorado State (-3.5) over Nevada
ROSE: Stanford (-6.5) over Iowa
BIRMINGHAM: Auburn (-2.5) over Memphis
HOLIDAY: Southern California (-3) over Wisconsin
HAWAII: San Diego State (+2.5) over Cincinnati
QUICK LANE: Minnesota (-6) over Central Michigan
ROYAL PURPLE VEGAS: Utah (-3) over BYU
ORANGE: Oklahoma (-3) over Clemson
BOCA RATON: Temple (-1) over Toledo
REASONS TO (SOMEWHAT) BELIEVE
1. If former head coach Mark Richt were still leading the UGA program, the Bulldogs would be an easy ‘confidence’ pick. But everything’s up for grabs now, especially for those harboring fond memories of Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s monster bowl outing last season (371 yards passing, four TDs versus Boston College).
And then there’s this:
The people at BangTheBook.com (it’s not a clean site) have done the research: From 2003-13, spanning 11 seasons, interim head coaches had an overall bowl record of 22-24. Additionally, the same interim coaches had a 20-25-1 record against the point spread.
2. The buzz for Auburn-Memphis went up a few notches this week, in the wake of ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay listing Paxton Lynch (3,670 yards passing, 28 TDs) as the top-ranked quarterback prospect for the 2016 NFL Draft. In McShay’s world, Lynch would also be the No. 2 overall pick (Cleveland Browns — seriously).
But don’t sleep on Auburn’s chances of pulling off the minor upset and happily capping a rough season (dead last in the SEC West).
(Perhaps we should reclassify the meaning of upset, since Auburn’s favored by nearly a field goal.)
Digging deeper …
a) Lynch and the Memphis coaches must get creative to outsmart/outperform an Auburn defense which allowed three or more touchdown passes just once, and only three outings of 300-plus passing yards.
b) Against the premier American Athletic Conference teams (Houston, Temple, Navy), the Memphis offense produced so-so averages of 22 points and 387 total yards.
c) Auburn has averaged 228 rushing yards in its last four games, including the Iron Bowl loss to Alabama. On the flip side, during the regular season, Memphis surrendered multiple rushing touchdowns to the opposition seven times.
OUTBACK: Tennessee (-9) over Northwestern
RUSSELL ATHLETIC: North Carolina (+3.5) over Baylor
BAHAMAS: Middle Tennessee (+3) over Western Michigan
BELK: North Carolina State (+7) over Mississippi State
NEW MEXICO: New Mexico (+11.5) over Arizona
ST. PETE: Connecticut (+4.5) over Marshall
ARMED FORCES: Cal (-6.5) over Air Force
SUN: Miami (+1.5) over Washington State
NEW ORLEANS: Arkansas State (-1) over Louisiana Tech
MUSIC CITY: Texas A&M (-2.5) over Louisville
REASONS TO WAFFLE BACK AND FORTH
1. Tennessee stands as one of the biggest favorites of the “Diminished Hubris” group, but that’s still not a comforting thought.
Yes, the Volunteers are riding a five-game winning streak (including one non-conference rout of North Texas); but of the four league victories during that stretch … Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt finished with a combined SEC tally of 6-26.
Conversely, Northwestern stealthily ranks seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in total defense and 12th in red-zone defense.
2. It’s hard to quantify any bad losses for either Texas A&M or Louisville — outside of maybe Auburn on both sides.
On offense, the Aggies and Cardinals posted similar numbers for total passing and total rushing.
Regarding venue proximity (Nashville, Tenn.), the edge goes to Louisville; but as a converse to that, head coach Kevin Sumlin hasn’t lost a bowl game at Texas A&M.
And dating back to 2004, spanning 11 Music City bowls, the final score had a margin of eight points or less 10 times.
Hence our misery in choosing an actual winner.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.