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Odds and Ends

Against the Spread Picks: New Year's Day bowls

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: December 31, 2020, 11:53 am ET

In the table below, you'll find the Adjusted Thor Line (ATL). ATL is a system based on power ratings, computer models and real-time betting data that I devised for determining line value. ATL does not consider injuries, COVID absences, or situational spots. That's where the handicapping comes in.

The lines in the table below are from the perspective of the favorite. Check the bottom of the column for my adjusted spreads for the remainder of the bowl slate. 

All lines courtesy of PointsBet Sportsbook. My picks are in bold.

UnderdogFavoritePB LineATLDateBowl
Cincinnati BearcatsGeorgia Bulldogs-7-6.81/1Peach Bowl
Auburn TigersNorthwestern Wildcats-3.5+2.61/1Citrus Bowl
Notre Dame Fighting IrishAlabama Crimson Tide-20-14.01/1Rose Bowl Game
Ohio State BuckeyesClemson Tigers-7.5+2.31/1Sugar Bowl

Friday, January 1


Peach Bowl | Mercedes-Benz Stadium | Atlanta, Georgia

Cincinnati Bearcats (+7) vs. Georgia Bulldogs

ATL: UGA -6.8

11:30a CST | ESPN


What a matchup! The No. 1 SP+ defense (Georgia) against the No. 2 SP+ defense (Cincinnati) -- and boy do they teams like to hit. The Bulldogs held opponents to 322.8 YPG and 19.9 PPG, the Bearcats to 309.6 YPG and 15.5 PPG.

The Bulldogs were a different team once USC transfer QB J.T. Daniels took over the offense following losses to Florida and Alabama, games where UGA simply didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep pace. Daniels averaged 10.4 YPA as Georgia won its last three games. 

It would be fair to say that Daniels hasn’t been tested much while in Athens, as those last three opponents were Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri (Daniels threw for 839 yards and a 9/1 TD/INT rate).

Huge leap up in competition against Cincy’s defense, which ranks top-5 in passing success rate, marginal efficiency, completion rate and adjusted net yards per attempt. Cincy also holds opposing quarterbacks to a 93.6 QB rating, No. 2 in the country.

Unfortunately, the team around Daniels won’t be at full strength against the Bearcats.  Georgia’s opt-out and injury list is enormous.

The list of starters who will be missing includes: RG Ben Cleveland (statistically UGA’s best OL; shoulder injury), TE Tre McKitty (knee injury), LB Monty Rice (No. 3 in total tackles), CB Eric Stokes (interception leader), CB DJ Daniel (who would have replaced Stokes in the lineup) and LB Jermaine Johnson (third in sacks; transferring to FSU).

The Bulldogs did get a few good pieces of good news when LB Azeez Ojulari, the team leader in sacks and TFL, and CB Mark Webb, who plays the STAR position, confirmed to HC Kirby Smart that they would play after rumors opt-outs. That’s great news, but Georgia has additional health issues to deal with.

Starting C Trey Hill isn’t expected to play following arthroscopic knee surgeries last month. Star S Richard LeCounte’s availability is up in the air following his near-fatal moped accident on Halloween. LeCounte suffered a severe concussion, along with shoulder and foot injuries.

Smart said this on the subject of LeCounte’s status: “I can’t put odds on it. It will all boil down to the health and safety of that young man. If he’s capable of playing winning football, he’ll go out there and play.”

Christopher Smith, the man who replaced LeCounte, has comparable tackle-per-game numbers, but has zero havoc plays, while LeCounte posted three interceptions, four pass-breakups and a fumble recovery before his accident.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, has no reported opt-outs. This is a roster full of players that worked all season to be here and can’t wait to get onto the field.

Cincy’s underrated offense ranks No. 18 SP+ and averages 39.3 points and 467.2 yards per game. The Bearcats actually haven’t been quite as good on the ground as I thought this year, with RBs Gerrid Doaks and Jerome Ford underwhelming a little. But QB Desmond Ridder has pitched in with 671 yards and 12 TD on 9.2 YPC with sack yardage omitted.

Ridder also made a leap as a thrower this fall. Since the blowout win over SMU on Oct. 24, Ridder has been unconscious, throwing for 1,493 yards with an 11/2 TD/INT rate on 69.3% completions and run for 538 yards and 12 additional scores across six games (SMU, Memphis, Houston, ECU, UCF and Tulsa).

Georgia must slow down Ridder. I have no doubt the Bulldogs will shut down Cincy’s running backs -- Georgia allows only 69.3 rushing YPG -- but Ridder is a different challenge altogether.

And through the air was how you could beat this Georgia defense even before it lost so many DBs to opt-outs and injury -- UGA ranks No. 75 in defensive passing success rate, No. 109 in completion percentage against and No. 125 in air yards per pass.

Cincinnati is one of the best G5 teams of the playoff era by any metric -- resume, advanced stats, you name it. This is a legitimate team, and, unlike even a few of those dominant UCF teams, a well-founded team, with a top-20 offense, a top-2 defense and a top-35 special teams unit.

Cincinnati is thrilled to be here. Georgia, as you can tell from their opt-out list, doesn’t feel the same. My adjusted line of UGA -6.8 was created in a vacuum. With all Georgia’s personnel losses, I wouldn’t be averse to the idea that a fair line for this game is actually closer to pick ‘em.

Yep, gimme the Bearcats, 4-0 ATS in their past four as an underdog. And give me them outright. I'll also be on the under of 50.5.

Citrus Bowl | Camping World Stadium | Orlando, Florida

Auburn Tigers (+3.5) vs. Northwestern Wildcats

ATL: Auburn -2.6

12:00p CST | ABC


So long as Auburn gives effort following the firing of HC Gus Malzahn, the Tigers catching a field goal and a hook is one of my favorite plays of bowl season. Of course, motivation is one of the hardest things in bowl season to quantify.

What we can quantify is that, according to my numbers, Auburn is the better team in a vacuum -- ATL believes this line should almost be entirely flipped.

Northwestern’s offense is middling or worse, ranked No. 99 SP+. It is neither efficient nor explosive, the guy they’ve given the most carries to (Isaiah Bowser) is averaging less than three yards per carry, and QB Peyton Ramsey has a TD/INT rate of just 9/8 on a sliver less than 60% completions while only averaging 4.6 adjusted net yards per attempt. Ramsey will be without WR2 Kyric McGowan, who is in the transfer portal.

Auburn’s No. 34 SP+ defense was a little down this year, mostly because of its run defense -- but that unit shouldn’t have a problem putting the clamps on a Wildcat team that struggles to move the ball on the ground.

Where Northwestern excels is on defense, ranking No. 6 SP+. Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who did a wizard-like job this year, is retiring after game.

His unit is fearsome against the pass. The Wildcats ranked No. 1 in the FBS in pass efficiency D this fall. Most recently, in the Big 10 title game, you saw them befuddled QB Justin Fields into the worst game of his career (though, to be fair, two of OSU’s top-three WRs were out).

I don’t expect Auburn QB Bo Nix to throw the ball well -- stud WR Seth Williams may not be much more than very talented decoy in this game. Pop-the-top WR Anthony Schwartz is reportedly going to sit out.

But Auburn does have this going for them: All-Big 10 first team CB Greg Newsome, Northwestern’s best corner, also opted out. So did DL Eku Leota, the Wildcats’ sack leader.

I expect Auburn to run roughshod against a Northwestern run defense was just lit up for 399 yards on 9.1 YPC by Ohio State. The Wildcats’ run defense ranks just No. 74 in success rate, No. 107 in marginal efficiency and No. 102 in opportunity rate. 

Auburn RB Tank Bigsby, who ran for 834 yards and five TD on 6.0 YPC, is going to have a huge game. And Nix, while I don’t expect him to do much through the air, should be able to scramble around for yards against this generous Northwestern front-seven.

I think Auburn, which is 4-1 ATS in non-conference games since the start of last season, springs the upset. I also like the under in this game. 

These teams combined to go under in 15-of-18 games this fall (83.3%), an incredible hit rate. While the total of this game is just 43.5, Auburn’s defense matches up very well with Northwestern’s offense, and Northwestern’s pass defense is going to ensure that Auburn will need to keep the ball on the ground for its offense to function, which will keep the clock moving.

Rose Bowl Game | AT&T Stadium | Arlington, Texas

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+20) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

ATL: Bama -14.0

4:00p CST | ESPN


Don’t blink. The spread isn’t a misprint. And yeah, it’s the biggest in College Football Playoff history, breaking Alabama’s own record of being a 15-point favorite over Oklahoma in 2018 (the Tide won 45-34 in a non-cover). Per ESPN, this is also the largest spread in history of a game between top-5 teams.

Especially with that historical context in mind, does this line feel rich to anyone else? The Tide are of course undefeated, no doubt having put up the resume in the nation, and they furthermore streaked to an 8-2 ATS record during the regular season despite facing inflated spreads weekly.

But we shouldn’t forget: This team isn’t invincible. The No. 9 SP+ defense, for instance, gives up too many explosive passes (No. 92 passing marginal explosion against and No. 84 air yards per pass against). And even the No. 1 SP+ offense isn’t a flawless machine. 

Yeah, I said it. RB Najee Harris and WR DeVonta Smith are elite players at their respective positions. And Smith is having one of the most impressive seasons of any college receiver of all time, with 98 catches for 1,511 yards and 17 TD in only 11 games.

QB Mac Jones may lack a howitzer, but he’s shown great accuracy and touch in posting an absurd 76.5% completion rate with 12.3 adjusted yards per attempt. The Heisman finalist threw for 3,739 yards with a 32/4 TD/INT rate during the regular season.

But after Jaylen Waddle’s injury, Alabama’s throwing-offense became more funnel-centric than it’s been since the Jalen Hurts-Calvin Ridley days, with Smith drawing 125 targets to John Metchie’s 64. Outside of Harris, who has 41 targets along with 214 carries, the next-highest targeted pass-catcher is TE Miller Forristall, with 25.

That’s an enormous amount of usage split between Smith and Harris; toss in Metchie, that’s your offense. Alabama has generally been well-more diversified. And since Jones is a pocket-passer who rarely tucks it, defenses needn’t worry about scrambles either.

I don’t believe this Alabama offense is as good as the peak Tua offenses. Alabama sneakily played only the No. 32 SP+ strength of schedule this year -- six of 11 opponents were ranked SP+ No. 58 or below, and several teams on the schedule had train-wreck pass defenses.

The Tide’s offense will play this game without veteran center Landon Dickerson, who suffered a left knee injury near the end of the SEC championship game. Dickerson had started every game since the start of last year. He’s been outstanding this year, playing pivot on a superb line -- he’ll be missed.

Harris is a huge talent who has run for 1,262 yards and 24 TD on 5.9 YPC. He’s aided in part by Alabama’s strong offensive line, in part by Alabama’s killer passing game that keeps safeties out of the box, and in part by Alabama’s move to more heavy 12 personnel following Waddle’s injury.

Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian didn’t replace Waddle by trying to find a knock-off Waddle -- they simply funneled more touches to the two healthy studs, and beefed up the lineup with an extra blocking tight end or H-back where in the past they would have gone three-wide.

It’s difficult for defenses go body-for-body with all that beef while trying to track and then wrestle down the powerful Harris. Notre Dame matches up as well as anyone though -- the Irish rank No. 1 in the country in defensive stuff rate.

Notre Dame’s run defense also ranks in the top-25 in success rate, opportunity rate and power success rate. Nobody is going to stop Harris. But slowing him is key to controlling Alabama’s offense. When Harris is running wild, you’re cooked -- any help you give your front-seven will just be resources you’re taking away from covering DeVonta Smith or Metchie.

Where Alabama should be able to nick up the Irish is via a few explosive passing plays, as the Irish rank just No. 79 in passing explosion against despite fielding a strong pass defense in general (top-30 in success rate, marginal efficiency and completion rate against).

The Irish just got whipped by Clemson 34-10 in part because they couldn’t stop Trevor Lawrence from gashing them downfield. Slowing Harris and cutting down the 20-plus yard passing plays should be the two defensive priorities heading in.

Notre Dame’s offense relies less on the No. 56-ranked passing game (237.5 YPG), and more on the No. 20-ranked rushing game (217.6 YPG). In conjunction with a strong defense, this recipe worked wonders during the 11-0 start -- the run game kept the offense on schedule, QB Ian Book (2,601 yards throwing with a 15/2 TD/INT rate on 64% completions) made a few plays with his legs and a few with his arm, and the defense took care of the rest.

The Clemson game was a cautionary tale in what happens when Notre Dame’s opponent dictates the game terms to them. An inability to stop the pass cascaded into extra running space for Clemson, and once the Tigers staked a double-digit lead, Notre Dame’s run-first offense couldn't pass itself out of a hole.

Book gets a chance to redeem himself here. Alabama just coughed up 408 passing yards and 10.2 YPC to Florida. The Tide’s pass defense ranks No. 92 against passing explosion and No. 84 in air yards per pass.

Notre Dame’s odds for hanging in this game hinge on Book taking advantage of that defect. Because I think Notre Dame will have some success running against an Alabama front that ranks No. 65 in defensive power success rate and No. 67 in stuff rate. 

Notre Dame only finished 5-6 ATS this season, and they’re coming off a dreadful showing. But 20 points is just too many points to give a team with a top-13 SP+ offense and defense that can run the ball and stop the run.

Heck, even in the dreadful showing against Clemson, Notre Dame only lost by 24 -- and we’re just going to bank on the Irish playing the same again, and on Alabama matching Clemson’s brilliance that night?

It’s so easy to forget, following that poor showing, and with the context of Notre Dame’s past epic payoff failures (lost 30-3 to Clemson 30-3 in 2018 and lost 42-14 to Alabama in the natty following the 2012 season), that the Irish have actually been quite good against strong competition recently.

The Irish beat the other-two top-10 SP+ opponents they faced this year (Lawrence-less Clemson and UNC), and are tied for the top cover rate in the FBS by going 9-3 ATS against ranked since 2018.

Naturally, liking Notre Dame here, I also like the under (65.5 at PointsBet). Notre Dame is going to try to establish the run on their end. And I doubt Alabama takes many chances early during the feeling-out process.

Notre Dame only needs to worry about three position players on Alabama potentially scoring, and unlike many of Alabama’s opponents this year, the Irish have the athletes to run with those guys. 

Sugar Bowl | Mercedes-Benz Superdome | New Orleans, Louisiana

Ohio State Buckeyes (+7.5) vs. Clemson Tigers

ATL: Ohio State -2.3

7:45p CST | ESPN


Another playoff game with an inflated spread. This one is a little more head-scratching than the last. 

But before we get into that, boy oh boy is this a fun matchup. In advance of Dabo Swinney’s fourth career matchup with Ohio State, a game in which his team is favored by more than in any of the three previous, Swinney hilariously ranked Ohio State No. 11 in his coach’s poll and then refused to back down from the stance, stating that no team that played less than nine games deserved to be ranked in the top-10. His stance was of course similar when it came to Ohio State’s playoff resume. 

But Swinney isn’t a matchmaker, and the committee has given us a rematch of last year's CFP semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl, which Clemson won 29–23. 

Back to that Clemson -8 line, which is a full touchdown-plus north of my number. Just as Swinney under-ranked the Buckeyes due to a lack of games played, the general public has also not seen as much of the Buckeyes. 

Four of Ohio State’s six games came against teams with a combined record of 11-21. In the other two, against (CFP rankings) No. 11 Indiana and No. 14 Northwestern, QB Justin Fields went just 30-of-57 with a 2/5 TD/INT ratio as OSU won by an average margin of 9.5 PPG. If OSU was to play only six games, the public wanted carnage against a quality opponent, if not Indiana then Northwestern. They didn’t get it.

To return to Swinney, he added, during his comments on Ohio State’s ranking: "There is no question Ohio State is good enough to beat us, any of us, to be a national champion.” That’s the logical side of his brain talking. The part that ranked Coastal Carolina above Ohio State in his final coach’s poll was his emotional side.

And it’s the public’s confused emotions -- via recency bias and a few logical fallacies -- that have pushed Clemson to over a TD favorite in this spot. That’s more perception than reality. 

Clemson’s offensive line is decent, but not great. Finding cracks along it is the key to slowing the Tigers -- because if Lawrence gets time to throw, and Etienne gets space to run, you’re cooked.

Ohio State’s defensive front should win the battle of the trenches and mostly be effective in slowing Etienne. The Buckeyes rank No. 9 in defensive rushing success rate, No. 19 in marginal efficiency, No. 1 in opportunity rate and No. 2 in stuff rate. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, OSU held Etienne to 36 rushing yards. 

But Ohio State does get ripped long at a surprisingly-high rate for a No. 8 SP+ overall defense. The Buckeyes rank No. 109 in defensive rushing marginal explosion. Remember last year, when, even though Etienne didn’t find much space to work on the ground, he nicked the Buckeyes for 98 receiving yards and two touchdowns? 

Those sorts of opportunities will still be available. Ohio State also ranks No. 73 in defensive passing marginal explosion, as well as No. 109 in overall defensive marginal explosiveness. Ohio State’s secondary has sorely missed CBs Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette and S Jordan Fuller

It has also missed former DC Jeff Hatley, who was hired as Boston College’s HC last offseason. Hatley was replaced by Kerry Coombs, who coached OSU’s corners from 2012-17 before getting hired by the Titans as DB coach and then returning to Columbus as DC. Coombs developed Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, and Denzel Ward, but his 2020 defensive system has featured far less press coverage and more cushion off the line. 

It’s debatable whether that strategy has always worked, and it’s also curious that he employed it in the first place -- Coombs brought up some of the better Big 10 press corners during his first stint with the team; does he have a different overall defensive philosophy, or does he feel he doesn’t have the personnel to run his preferred system?

OSU CB Shaun Wade needs to have the game of his life against Clemson -- he’s a critical factor. here. If Wade shuts down one side of the field, Ohio State has a real shot to pull this upset. If Wade gets burned a few times, Ohio State’s in trouble.

Clemson QB Lawrence is coming off a dominant showing in the ACC title game beatdown of Notre Dame, posting 412 yards of offense with three touchdowns. Tee Higgins isn’t around this year, so Amari Rodgers stepped into the WR1 role with a 69-966-7 line, while six other Tiger pass-catchers posted over 200 receiving yards.

Clemson’s receiving corps isn’t as skilled as in year’s past, a benefit to Ohio State’s shaky secondary. Of course, Lawrence is going to make them pay for every coverage hiccup.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields sprained the thumb on his throwing hand against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game, an injury to watch. Fields simply must play his A+ game for Ohio State to have a chance.

Fields’ legs will be as important as his arm against Clemson. Ohio State’s offensive line ranks No. 104 in the FBS in sacks allowed, while the Tigers rank No. 2 in the nation in sacks. 

Clemson DC Brent Venables’ exotic blitzes and “replacer” blitzes will try to confuse Fields, who struggled against the best two defenses he saw this year, throwing all five of his INTs against Northwestern and Indiana. Fortunately for Fields, Ohio State’s defense didn’t allow a single score after an offensive turnover during the regular season.

Clemson’s defense ranks No. 4 SP+. Just like Ohio State, its kryptonite is getting scorched for explosive plays, a quirk that can come with aggression. The Tigers rank No. 92 in defensive marginal explosiveness. 

Clemson is going to have issues covering star WRs Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson when Fields has time to throw. And they also need to have a plan to deal with RB Trey Sermon, who lit up Northwestern for 331 yards and two TD. 

Ohio State’s offensive line may surrender too many sacks -- a lack of overall continuity on offense amid the COVID issues had something to do with that too -- but it has a nasty run blocking group, led by prime-time NFL prospects on the interior in All-American G Wyatt Davis and Rimington Trophy finalist C Josh Myers.

Ohio State has dealt with COVID-19 issues for a month. But the Buckeyes are hopeful they’ll get WR Chris Olave, WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, LB Baron Browning and P Drue Chrisman back -- as well as multiple reserves, and LB coach Al Washington and WR coach Brian Hartline -- after that group missed the Big Ten championship game. 

Ohio State HC Ryan Day previously missed the Michigan State game on Dec. 5 after testing positive. Against the Spartans, Ohio State played without 23 players. Ohio State managed a small six-game sample of games played, and in one-third of those games was severely compromised on both the roster and sidelines. 

Of course, Clemson doesn’t want to hear any COVID-19 excuses after Trevor Lawrence missed two games with the virus. Clemson went 1-1 in those games, losing to Notre Dame in OT, matching the amount of career losses Lawrence has in 35 starts (34-1).

There is no other way to attack each of these defenses other than to set up big play opportunities and hunt for them. Ohio State’s No. 5 offense (529.2 YPG) and Clemson’s No. 10 offense (507.6) should both feast.

Ohio State hasn’t been catching this many points in the CFP since the 2014 semifinal, when the Buckeyes upset Alabama 42-35 as 7.5-point underdogs. That was the Cardale Jones/Ezekiel Elliott team that went on to the win the title.

Going back to 2009, Ohio State is 14-3 ATS as an underdog, the best cover rate in the FBS over that span. One way or the other, I think this will be a one-possession game, so I want the points with the live underdog.

I also like this game to go over the total of 66.5.

I will be previewing every 2020 bowl matchup in this space through the title game. Check back Thursday for the next installment of the series, when we break down the Jan. 2 bowl games. In the meantime, here's my adjusted lines for every upcoming bowl matchup with updated PointsBet spreads. If you have any college football ATS questions until then, you can always reach me on Twitter

UnderdogFavoritePB LineATLDateBowl 
NC State WolfpackKentucky Wildcats-2.54.11/2Gator Bowl 
Ole Miss RebelsIndiana Hoosiers-8.5-4.41/2Outback Bowl 
Oregon DucksIowa State Cyclones-4-2.11/2Fiesta Bowl 
North Carolina Tar HeelsTexas A&M Aggies-7.5-0.91/2Orange Bowl 
TBDTBDTBDTBD1/11CFP National Championship 

2020: 61-64-1 (48.8%) ATS*

Bowls: 5-9 (35.7%) ATS*

Lifetime (2014-Present): 601-533-17 (53.0%) ATS*

*Through: Bowl games played on Dec. 30

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Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!