Doug Kezirian, Bill Connelly, Joe Fortenbaugh, Tyler Fulghum and David M. Hale provide their best bets for the start of college football bowl season. More games will be added as bowls approach.
Connelly 37-33-1 (1-2 bowls)
Fortenbaugh 27-31-1 (1-1)
Kezirian 28-30 (0-1)
Hale 19-23-1 (1-2)
Fulghum 13-11 (0-2)
Note: Lines courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook (All times Eastern)
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Air Force Falcons 31, Louisville Cardinals 28
Hale: Louisville's keys to winning any game: Malik Cunningham does something incredible and makes defenders look silly. It's proved to be a relatively effective strategy, but the problem for the Cardinals is, Air Force doesn't allow quarterbacks to do that very often. No quarterback has run for more than 55 yards against the Falcons this year, and just one had more than 22 scramble yards against them. The Air Force defense has been one of the best in the country at preventing explosive plays, too. Louisville simply isn't built to march down the field. Limit big plays, then the Cardinals struggle. That all plays right into Air Force's hands.
Pick: Air Force +1.5
10:15 p.m. on ESPN at Chase Field in Phoenix
Connelly: There probably aren't going to be a lot of big plays in this one -- neither offense produces many, and neither defense allows many. The game should therefore come down to moving the chains and avoiding turnovers. Minnesota's defense ranks 16th in success rate allowed and 11th in three-and-out percentage, and both the Gophers' turnover margin (+3) and expected turnover margin* (+2.2) are dramatically better than WVU's (-5 and -4.4, respectively). SP+ likes the Gophers by a healthy margin (12.6 points), and that's not even adjusting for the absence of WVU's leading rusher, Leddie Brown. This should be a game PJ Fleck's team can control.
*Expected turnover margin is based on typical fumble recovery rates and interception-to-pass breakup ratios. It's an attempt on my part to separate the luck and randomness of turnovers from the actual skill/quality at hand.
Pick: Minnesota -5
Hale: Normally, I'd wager Florida didn't care much about this game at the end of a 6-6 season in which its coach was fired, especially as a new chapter is about to begin as soon as this one ends. But the in-state matchup changes the dynamic enough that I'm willing to wager Gators players aren't going to want to hear about a loss to their neighbors down the turnpike -- even if they're eager to start talking about life under Billy Napier.
Pick: Florida -6.5
Connelly: GSU began the season 1-4 with three losses by at least 29 points, but the Panthers have been awfully good since. They won six of their past seven and fell only to Sun Belt champ Louisiana by a 21-17 score. Their offense is efficient, if lacking in big plays, and their defense is excellent at forcing opponents behind schedule.
This feels like a pretty good matchup against a Ball State team that doesn't allow big plays but constantly falls behind schedule and prevents opponents from doing the same. BSU is bowl eligible primarily because of a midseason hot streak -- three straight wins over bowl teams (Army, WMU, EMU) -- but has otherwise been subpar. After seven-win seasons in 2017 and 2019, this seems like an excellent opportunity for GSU to not only hit eight wins for the first time, but do so semi-comfortably.
Pick: Georgia State -4.5
Connelly: Toledo was really close to having a huge year in 2021. The Rockets went a decent 7-5 but were 0-4 in one-score games. They won five MAC games by an average of 21.6 points but lost three by an average of 2.7. Freshman quarterback Dequan Finn ended the regular season wonderfully, going a combined 44-for-64 for 677 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks in the Rockets' last three games, and the defense was excellent for most of the year, finishing 20th in defensive SP+.
MTSU reaching 6-6 was a bit of an accomplishment considering the QB issues the Blue Raiders had to work through -- their No. 1 quarterback (Bailey Hockman) retired in September, and their No. 2 (Chase Cunningham) was lost to injury in October. They managed to win two of their last three despite iffy production from their signal-callers, but those came against teams ranked 125th and 93rd in SP+. Toledo is 50th. MTSU has a solid pass defense, but Toledo simply has more upside. SP+ projects a 13.2-point advantage for the Rockets, and that feels more realistic to me than the 10-point spread.
Pick: Toledo -10
Hale: App State has had a tendency to start slow this year, which is a recipe for disaster against the high-flying Western Kentucky offense. Moreover, there's history on the line for WKU. QB Bailey Zappe needs four TD passes to tie the all-time FBS single-season mark of 60 (set in 2019 by Joe Burrow). Yes, Western lost both of its offensive coordinators to other jobs this offseason, but the scheme remains in place for Zappe's final appearance with the Hilltoppers, and with NFL scouts watching, he'll have something to prove in this one.
Pick: Western Kentucky +3
Connelly: Fresno State heads into bowl season with some changes to deal with -- head coach Kalen DeBoer has left for Washington, and it's unclear whether quarterback Jake Haener will start after briefly putting his name in the transfer portal before withdrawing it. If the Bulldogs underachieve in Albuquerque, that'll probably be why. But I still feel pretty good about this pick for one reason: Fresno State is a good team, and UTEP got roughed up by good teams this year.
The Miners are bowling for the first time in seven years, which is awesome, but the difference in their performance against bad and solid opposition was rather stark.
UTEP vs. teams ranked 100th or worse in SP+: 6-0 with an average scoring margin of +13.8.
UTEP vs. teams ranked in the 90s: 1-2 with an average scoring margin of +0.3
UTEP vs. teams ranked in the top 60: 0-3 with an average scoring margin of -26.3
Fresno State is 36th and finished the regular season beating New Mexico (120th) and SJSU (86th) by a combined 74-16. UTEP is 90th. Even if Fresno isn't totally sharp (and even if it would be really cool to see UTEP enjoy its first bowl win since the 1960s), the Bulldogs should have a two-touchdown win in them.
Pick: Fresno State -11.5
Fortenbaugh: The Beavers rank 12th in the nation in rushing and 90th in plays per game, which means they are more than capable of grinding the game down to a virtual halt while the clock keeps ticking. Considering the fact that Utah State ranks 85th in run defense, Oregon State should be able to implement its traditional game plan and, in the process, limit the Aggies and their high-octane offense. With both teams surrendering fewer than 25 points per game this season, the under feels like the play.
Pick: Under 67.5
Fortenbaugh: After an emotional sendoff via a 24-16 win over Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Conference championship game, Louisiana head coach Billy Napier said his goodbyes and departed for the University of Florida. Michael Desormeaux now takes the reins for the Cajuns despite no head-coaching experience on his resume. Marshall enters this matchup ranked 27th in the country in scoring, 12th in passing and is more than capable of testing Louisiana's terrific defense. I have this game Louisiana -3, so I'll grab the value with the Thundering Herd.
Pick: Marshall +5
8 p.m. on ESPN at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas
Hale: This might not match Army's ridiculous 70-56 game against Wake Forest from late October -- indeed, the Black Knights haven't topped 17 in the five games since -- but this is more a bet about Missouri's defense. The Tigers rank 119th nationally in yards per rush allowed and have surrendered 30 rushing touchdowns this season. Add Tyler Badie on the other side and there's a good chance we'll see some big runs and quick scores.
Pick: Over 58
Fulghum: Picking on my alma mater against the spread this season was a profitable endeavor. Missouri made it to six wins and bowl eligibility despite going 3-9 ATS -- tied with Florida for the worst ATS record of any bowl eligible team. Mizzou's uninspiring season had many culprits, but maybe the biggest was its awful run defense. The Tigers' run defense allowed 229.3 yards per game this season (248th in FBS). Not sure if you've heard, but Army is decent at running the football (286.4 yards per game, good for third in FBS). This is a classic strength vs. weakness matchup, and I fear the Tigers will have no answers for stopping Army's rushing attack.
Pick: Army -3.5
Kezirian: How can Army be favored over an SEC team? Well, that's because Missouri owns one of the nation's worst ATS marks (3-9) and allows 5.3 yards per rush attempt. Now, I realize a great deal of that came against SEC competition, but the storyline is that Mizzou lacks the discipline and ability to stop the triple option. Overall, Missouri is a weak team and I doubt they will show up in this bowl game. I have much more confidence that Army will be pumped to take down an SEC opponent.
Pick: Army -3.5
Cheez-It Bowl: Clemson Tigers 20, Iowa State Cyclones 13
5:45 p.m. on ESPN at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida
Connelly: Two of SP+'s favorite teams face off in this one -- my ratings never dropped Clemson out of the top 10 even during its 4-3 start, and they never dropped Iowa State out of the top 20 no matter how many close games it lost. (The Cyclones dropped four by seven or fewer points.) Clemson found a nice groove late in the season: The offense, so dreadful early in the year, scored at least 30 points in each of the last five games, and while the defense's level slipped a hair, the Tigers did still pitch a shutout of South Carolina in the regular-season finale. The Clemson receiving corps is a bit of a M*A*S*H unit -- Justyn Ross is out, and both Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams are battling to get healthy and ready in time -- but the defense should be mostly healthy and intact, and it's facing an ISU offense that will be without star rusher Breece Hall. The Cyclones will still have Brock Purdy and a solid passing game, but SP+ projected a 5.3-point advantage for Clemson with Hall, so if his absence costs ISU anything, that adds to the cushion.
Pick: Clemson -1
9:15 p.m. on ESPN at the Alamodome in San Antonio
Fortenbaugh: This is an interesting handicap considering former Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley bolted for USC while former Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal departed for Miami. But all that turmoil aside, I believe the Sooners have a significant edge in this matchup. For starters, the game is taking place in San Antonio, so don't be surprised if you see a sea of Oklahoma red in the stands. Additionally, how much do you trust Oregon and inconsistent quarterback Anthony Brown in a big matchup considering the fact that this program was routed 76-17 by Utah in two marquee showdowns? It may have been a disappointing year in Norman, but Oklahoma's offense still finished the year ranked in the top 12 in both scoring and yards per play. That's the unit I'm rolling with here.
Pick: Oklahoma -4.5
3 p.m. on ESPN at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee
Connelly: Showing faith in Tennessee can be a pretty fraught experience overall, but UT is one of the few non-CFP SEC teams (to date) that hasn't gotten hit all that hard by opt-outs, while Purdue take the field in Nashville without its two best players, WR David Bell and DE George Karlaftis. The Boilermakers still have some standouts -- WR Milton Wright went for 200-plus yards against Northwestern late in the year, and the defensive line still has strong players in Branson Deen, Lawrence Johnson & Co. But over its last eight games, Tennessee lost to three teams in the SP+ top 12 (Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss) and beat five other teams by an average of 51-24. The offense really found a nice groove, and while the defense isn't great, it should limit chunk plays. SP+ loves the Vols and gave them a 9.2-point edge without any adjustment for Bell and Karlaftis. So 5 points sounds pretty favorable.
Pick: Tennessee -5
Kezirian: This is a play with my gut. I think Notre Dame will come to play and I am unsure what to expect from Oklahoma State. The Pokes wasted multiple scoring opportunities in the Big 12 championship game to potentially secure a CFP berth. How much focus have they had in practice since then? Also, I generally do not trust Mike Gundy in big games. Additionally, did we all see that locker room video of Notre Dame celebrating the promotion of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach? He will replace Brian Kelly and this will be his first game.
Pick: Notre Dame -2