Fiesta & Orange Previews
December 28, 2017
By Joe Nelson
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While falling short of the College Football Playoff, a Saturday major bowl slot caps off a strong season for four power five squads. Here is a quick look at the Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl games with a preview of the final two bowl games ahead of the New Year’s Day schedule.
Matchup: Washington Huskies vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
Venue: At University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Time/TV: Saturday, December 30, 2017, 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Line: Penn State -2, Over/Under 55
Last Meeting: 1983 Aloha Bowl, Penn State (PK) 13, Washington 10
The 2016 Pac-12 and Big Ten champions face off in an appealing Fiesta Bowl matchup with a tightly lined contest between Washington and Penn State Saturday afternoon. Both teams are 10-2 and the victor will finish ranked in the national top 10 for a second season in a row.
Washington was considered a threat to return to the College Football playoff this season but with an incredibly soft non-conference schedule and a Pac-12 slate missing USC, the margin for error for the Huskies was slim. After losing 24-7 in the national semifinal with Alabama last season the Huskies weren’t going to be given the benefit of the doubt against a squad with a similar resume either.
It wound up not mattering as Washington was stunningly defeated at Arizona State in mid-October, 13-7 as a favorite of more than 17 points. The Huskies would surrender the Pac-12 North title a few weeks later losing at Stanford though they did knock rival Washington State out of the division title in the season finale.
That 41-14 win at home over Washington State qualifies as the best win of the season for Washington who also had wins over Mountain West runner-up Fresno State as well as three Pac-12 teams that finished 6-6 to reach the bowl season in UCLA, Oregon, and Utah with all of those conference wins coming at home. The road wins for Washington came against Rutgers and two of the worst Pac-12 teams Colorado and Oregon State.
Junior quarterback Jake Browning actually completed passes at a much higher rate this season compared with last season with a nearly 69 percent completion rate. He was far less productive, currently nearly 900 yards short of last season’s production (which came over 14 games) and posting only 18 touchdowns after having 43 passing touchdowns last season.
In the backfield Myles Gaskin had similar production to last season with nearly twice as many touchdowns but the receiving corps was far less productive without John Ross. Only five teams nationally have allowed fewer points per game this season than Washington as Chris Petersen has again led a great defensive team. Washington ranks 5th nationally in total defense allowing just 277 yards per game while currently the top team in the nation in run defense allowing just 2.6 yards per carry.
Saquon Barkley is the face of the Penn State offense as the Heisman candidate made several big plays this season but ultimately didn’t have an overwhelming statistical season, posting far less production than last season on the ground. Barkley drew a lot of attention and actually wound up with more yards per carry than last season at 5.7 as the matchup against the Washington defense will be one to watch.
Penn State’s schedule can also be criticized as while the Lions beat five bowl teams two of those teams were Akron and Georgia State. The Lions did win in blowouts with Northwestern and Michigan but lost the two toughest games faced on the schedule at Ohio State and at Michigan State. Penn State’s two losses came by a combined total of four points but they were out-gained significantly in the Ohio State defeat in one of the more memorable games of the season. The Michigan State loss also featured a lengthy weather delay for a tough set of circumstances but the win at Iowa also featured a narrow escape in the final seconds. The Lions rank 8th nationally in points scored and 7th nationally in points allowed but the yardage numbers do not put Penn State’s defense in the same class as Washington’s.
Junior quarterback Trace McSorley had a worse QB Rating this season than last season but had a far higher completion percentage however with as many interceptions and fewer yards and touchdowns. Both quarterbacks in this matchup figure to return next season as two of the higher profile signal callers in the nation with both teams likely to be considered threats in the College Football Playoff race. Momentum will be on the side of the Fiesta Bowl victor as both teams look to make amends for major bowl defeats last season.
-- Washington is 4-11 S/U in bowl games since the 1992 season but 7-4 ATS the last 11, going just 1-2 S/U & ATS in three appearances under Petersen who owns a 6-4 S/U bowl record counting his time at Boise State.
-- At Vanderbilt and at Penn State James Franklin is 3-3 S/U in bowl games, going 1-2 S/U and 2-1 ATS the past three seasons with the Lions.
-- Penn State is 18-11 S/U and ATS in bowl games since 1980 though just 2-5 S/U in the past seven appearances.
-- This will be the first time Penn State has been favored in a bowl game since 2007.
-- Washington is just 6-9 ATS in the last 15 instances as an underdog, going just 2-5 ATS since 2013 as an underdog of fewer than 7 points.
-- Penn State is 12-4 ATS in the last 16 games as a favorite but the Lions are just 5-8-1 ATS since 2004 as a favorite of 3 or fewer points.
Matchup: Wisconsin Badgers at Miami, FL Hurricanes
Venue: At Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida
Time/TV: Saturday, December 30, 2017, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Line: Wisconsin -6, Over/Under 45
Last Meeting: 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, Wisconsin (+3½) 20, Miami, FL 14
Much of the season Wisconsin and Miami were undefeated but considered unlikely by many to be serious national title threats or even playoff candidates due to marginal strength of schedule ratings. Those skeptics were proven right but not by much as both advanced to conference title games to be a win away from making the tournament. An Orange Bowl appearance is the consolation prize in the primetime slot Saturday night.
Last season in his first season leading his Alma Mater Mark Richt had the Hurricanes in the national top 10 with a 4-0 start. That run fizzled with four straight defeats but the Hurricanes rallied to win out including a bowl win to reach 9-4 matching the best seasons for the program since the Larry Coker era in the early 2000s. There was some valid skepticism of the hot start this season with narrow escapes in several ACC games before the team blasted Virginia Tech and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks in November.
Reaching 10-0 heading into the season finale the Hurricanes fell flat at Pittsburgh with a depleted roster due to injuries and perhaps looking ahead to the ACC title game with Clemson the following week. Miami fared poorly in that game as well with an ugly 38-3 defeat against the defending national champions with a College Football Playoff berth on the line.
Playing at home isn’t necessarily an advantage in bowl games as a bowl trip is generally considered a reward for the team and fanfare can be limited, especially for a Miami program that has often had trouble filling seats in a specious NFL stadium despite the return to national relevance this season.
The Hurricanes were led by junior quarterback Malik Rosier who threw for nearly 3,000 yards but on just 7.5 yards per attempt and with 11 interceptions and a completion rate below 55 percent. The Hurricanes lost top running back Mark Walton though sophomore Travis Homer filled in admirably posting 6.0 yards per rush and Rosier is a threat on the ground as well. An injury to tight end Christopher Herndon was a big late season blow to the offense that was evident in the final two games of the season.
Miami was known for its turnover chain on defense, creating 30 takeaways this season with 17 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. That figures to be the key to this game as despite the great success Wisconsin had this season, turnovers were an issue for the offense. The Badgers threw 15 interceptions and lost eight fumbles this season to sit towards the bottom of the nation in giveaways.
Wisconsin’s only loss this season came in the Big Ten championship with the elite defense exposed proving vulnerable to some big plays against Ohio State. Wisconsin did battle back in that game and had the ball late with a chance to win but a one-dimensional offense failed to come up with a big play.
The Big Ten West did not have a great season and Wisconsin’s best conference wins over Northwestern, Iowa, and Michigan all came at home. Non-conference wins over Utah State and Florida Atlantic wound up improving in quality by season’s end but ultimately the schedule was one of the weakest among power five schools.
The schedule played a role in Wisconsin allowing only 13.2 points per game for the 3rd best scoring defense in the nation while tops in the nation in total defense surrendering only 253 yards per game. Wisconsin is fifth nationally allowing just 3.0 yards per rush. Against Ohio State however there were some blown coverage plays and missed tackles as the numbers are likely a bit overvalued.
Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has a shot to eclipse 2,000 yards with a strong performance in this game and he averaged 6.8 yards per rush as one of the top rushers in the nation. The receiving corps for the Badgers was depleted with injuries with tight end Troy Fumagalli the go-to option though with only 43 catches and four touchdown receptions.
Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been a winner but despite the great support from a strong offensive line and running game he threw 15 interceptions on the season. Hornibrook has good accuracy but does not have elite arm strength and does not have mobility like Rosier. For the Badgers it is very important to stay on schedule offensively as the team isn’t well suited to convert long down and distance plays.
Wisconsin generally gets solid traveling support for bowl games and the team has won its past three bowl games including beating Auburn and USC. This is a rare instance of Wisconsin being favored in bowl action however, especially in a true road game. Ultimately this game will determine which of two squads many considered pretenders much of the season really deserved that assessment while the victor will wind up a major bowl champion with a lot a key players heading into next season as a potential repeat top 10 threat.
-- Wisconsin is 3-0 S/U and 2-0-1 ATS the past three bowl games but just 4-5-1 ATS the past 10 bowl appearances.
-- The Badgers have been favored in just one bowl game since 2000, last season’s 24-16 over Western Michigan that was a closing line push at -8.
-- Wisconsin is just 17-20-1 ATS as a single-digit favorite since 2007, going just 5-6-1 ATS the past 12 instances.
-- Chryst is 3-1 S/U in bowl games counting his time at Pittsburgh.
-- Miami is 2-7 S/U and ATS in bowl games since 2005 though the Hurricanes were S/U and ATS winners last season in the first bowl game at Miami for Richt, who is 10-5 S/U in his career in bowl games after a long run at Georgia.
-- Miami is 6-12 ATS as an underdog since 2013.
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