Monday's Early Bowl Tips
December 29, 2018
By Joe Nelson
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The College Football Championship is set for next Monday, but the New Year’s Eve Monday schedule features six big games as the bowl season nears its end. Here is a look at the three early day games on Monday’s schedule on the final day of 2018 with the Miltary, Sun, and Red Box Bowl games.
Matchup: Virginia Tech Hokies at Cincinnati Bearcats
Venue: Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland
Time/TV: Monday, December 31, 12:00 PM ET, ESPN
Line: Cincinnati -6, Over/Under 53½
Last Meeting: 2014 (Military Bowl) Virginia Tech (+1½) 33, Cincinnati 17
This is a rematch of the 2014 Military Bowl won by Virginia Tech. The Hokies started the season with great promise winning 24-3 against Florida State to seemingly take a commanding lead in the ACC Coastal, a lead they still held with a 3-0 ACC start even despite suffering non-conference losses to Old Dominion and Notre Dame. Quarterback Josh Jackson was injured in the stunning loss to the Monarchs and the Hokies would wind up losing four consecutive ACC games by double-digits to slip to 4-6. A wild overtime win over rival Virginia kept the season alive and then on championship weekend, the Hokies added a game with Marshall to keep alive a streak of now 26 straight postseason appearances.
Taking over for a legend in Frank Beamer, Justin Fuente had a great first season in Blacksburg, but this marks a second straight season of decline for the Hokies. His team lost a few key players to off-season incidents and dealing with a quarterback change was certainly a challenge as junior Ryan Willis had mixed results. In an ACC Coastal race that was wide open, finishing in fifth place was a poor showing for the program that always has set a high bar for expectations. The opportunity to close the season with a bowl win could build some momentum for next season when the Coastal race figures to again be wide open.
Cincinnati had a breakthrough season going 10-2 in Luke Fickell’s second season guiding the program. The Bearcats passed over long-time quarterback Hayden Moore for freshman Desmond Ridder and after an opening upset over UCLA, the Bearcats didn’t look back. Both losses came on the road vs. arguably the top two American Athletic teams and statistically there is massive gap between these squads with Cincinnati out-scoring foes 419-193 on the season while Virginia Tech was out-scored 357-368.
Cincinnati has out-rushed each of its last eight opponents by more than 100 yards while a Hokies program known for its defensive reputation featured one of the nation’s worst rush defenses, surrendering 207 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry, a worse per carry average allowed than 120 of the other 129 FBS teams. Cincinnati’s schedule certainly can be called into question however as the only wins over bowl teams this season came vs. Ohio, Tulane, and South Florida and all of those games were at home. The AAC has also had a poor bowl season so far with only Tulane getting a narrow win over Louisiana-Lafayette while Temple, South Florida, Houston, and Memphis have all lost bowl games with the first three teams on that list blown out.
Matchup: Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Stanford Cardinal
Venue: Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas
Time/TV: Monday, December 31, 2:00 PM ET, CBS
Line: Stanford -5, Over/Under 52
Last Meeting: 1932 Pittsburgh (NL) 7, at Stanford 0
Pittsburgh had an unusual season as they were outscored by 31 points in going 7-6, but they wound up 6-2 in ACC play and won the Coastal title. The Panthers lost badly to Clemson in the ACC Championship but after missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, the Panthers are back in a bowl game for the third time in four years under Pat Narduzzi.
The Panthers were one of the top rushing teams in the nation, set to eclipse 3,000 rushing yards for the season in this game while posting 5.6 yards per carry with both Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall breaking the 1,000-yard barrier. The passing game was limited behind sophomore Kenny Pickett, but Pittsburgh had a daunting schedule as four of the team’s six losses came against Penn State, and three teams that are a combined 37-0 facing UCF, Notre Dame, and Clemson. Pittsburgh also lost to North Carolina and Miami and the formula for beating the Panthers is clear, stop the running game.
David Shaw has led a successful run at Stanford but once again the Cardinal failed to rise to the top national stage and for the second straight season the defensive numbers were marginal for a program that has a reputation for quality defense. Stanford was reasonably effective against the run allowing 3.9 yards per carry and 141 yards per game. Stanford’s offense surprisingly did not produce good rushing numbers even with Bryce Love entering the season as a Heisman candidate. Love wound up missing a few games this season and has seen his rushing total drop from 2,118 yards last season to only 739 yards this season and his per carry average nearly halved and he will not be playing in this bowl game.
With three straight wins to end the season, Stanford wound up 8-4 but hopes were certainly much higher with a 4-0 start that included wins over USC and Oregon. Both of those Pac-12 powers also wound up with down seasons, but the Cardinal had five wins vs. bowl teams and stayed in the Pac-12 race most of the way, losing in close games with Washington and Washington State. Coming off a disastrous 1-8 bowl campaign last season, the Cardinal are a team the Pac-12 is counting on for win as nearly a touchdown favorite in El Paso. The early returns for the conference haven’t been great with Arizona State and California losing while Washington State had a very narrow win while being severely out-gained, though that win does ensure that the conference will improve its bowl record this season with only seven teams in play.
RED BOX BOWL
Matchup: Michigan State Spartans vs. Oregon Ducks
Venue: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California
Time/TV: Monday, December 31, 3:00 PM ET, FOX
Line: Oregon -2½, Over/Under 48
Last Meeting: 2015 at Michigan State (-4½) 31, Oregon 28
Formerly the San Francisco Bowl, the Red Box Bowl has an alluring matchup this season that is likely the best of the New Year’s Eve slate, while being played on the field where next week’s championship game will be played. Oregon wound up just 8-4, but the Ducks scored 37 points per game and were one of the teams to beat eventual Pac-12 champion Washington. That game along with Oregon’s painful home loss to Stanford, were two of the more memorable games of the season. Oregon is led by junior quarterback Justin Herbert, who is a top NFL quarterback prospect and the program received a big boost with his recent announcement to not only play in this game but to return for his senior season.
Herbert wound up with underwhelming numbers completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes but he also didn’t have the typical Oregon rushing attack supporting him as the Ducks had modest results on the ground with 191 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry. Oregon also played a very weak non-conference schedule while drawing a favorable Pac-12 slate as this was a team that seemed like it should have done more than the 8-4 result with a 5-4 Pac-12 finish. It has been a challenging transition for the program however with Mario Cristobal in his first season, a year after Willie Taggert coached just one season before leaving for Florida State.
Michigan State wound up just 7-5 this season, but the Spartans have superb defensive numbers in what will be billed a clash of contrasting styles of teams. The Spartans lost three Big Ten home games this season, but the defense allowed only 18 points per game while playing a tough non-conference schedule that included two bowl teams plus a difficult Big Ten slate that included two of the eventual top three teams from the West. Michigan State wound up only beating three bowl teams on the season however though one of those wins was an impressive result at Penn State.
Herbert will be tasked with making plays in this game as Michigan State ranks second nationally behind Clemson in allowing just 2.7 yards per rush with the 81 yards per game average in run defense the best in the nation. The offensive numbers for the Spartans are ugly however, posting just 122 rushing yards per game on 3.5 yards per carry and quarterback play was an issue all season. Junior Brian Lewerke completed just 54 percent of his passes with more interceptions than touchdowns while freshman Rocky Lombardi wound up with even worse numbers despite the Spartans winning two of his three starts. Lewerke is getting the nod to start this game for Mark Dantonio who has won five of his last six bowl games after losing his first four with the program.
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