Get college football best bets for the Saturday slate. This article features an analysis and predictions for Utah State vs. Georgia State, Utah vs. Northwestern, San Jose State vs. Coastal Carolina, South Alabama vs. Eastern Michigan, Troy vs. Duke, and James Madison vs. Air Force.
College Football Saturday 12/23 Bowl Game Best Bets
We’re onto bowl season in college football, and the Saturday slate this week is loaded with juicy matchups. In this article, our staff has you covered with our favorite bets of the day. Check out the Lineups YouTube page where we break down every bowl game in detail. Let’s get to work.
Jacob Wayne’s Record: 26-28-1 (-2.9 units)
Kody Malstrom’s Record: 17-15-1 (+0.5 units)
Will Schwartz’s Record: 27-10-1 (+16.2 units)
Potato Bowl: Utah State vs. Georgia State
Reaching a bowl game was a huge accomplishment for Utah State this season after bringing in 39 new scholarship players and 30 transfers last offseason. Head coach Blake Anderson has done an excellent job with this group, especially considering the inconsistency at the quarterback position. In this game, it will be Levi Williams getting the start under center.
Williams was the 2021 Potato Bowl MVP when he was at Wyoming, and he ran for four touchdowns in that game. In the final week of the season, he led Utah State to a double overtime win over New Mexico to reach bowl eligibility. He should have plenty of success against a Georgia State secondary ranked outside the top 120 in passing EPA/play allowed and PFF’s coverage grades.
Georgia State’s offense will be down its top running back Marcus Carroll here, as he has transferred to Missouri. Carroll was the heartbeat of the offense, and replacing his 1,345 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns will not be easy, especially with backup running back KZ Adams also in the portal. The offense will rest on the shoulders of Darren Grainger, who is a turnover waiting to happen with 16 turnover-worthy throws and 11 fumbles this season.
This game is being played in Boise, Idaho, just 300 miles from Utah State’s campus, while Georgia State has to make a trip of over 2,000 miles. After losing the final five games of the season, it’s fair to wonder how motivated Georgia State will be for this game. Give me Utah State as a short favorite as Levi Williams gets his second Potato Bowl MVP.
Best Bet: Utah State -2.5
Las Vegas Bowl: Utah vs. Northwestern
Handicapping bowl games is often as much about who is actually available as it is about the matchup, and that’s very true here. Utah heads to Las Vegas with a skeleton roster as several key players on both sides of the ball remain sidelined with injuries, including star quarterback Cam Rising. Bryson Barnes will make the start under center, but he completed just 58.3% of his passes this year with more turnover-worthy plays (10) than big-time throws (8).
Northwestern doesn’t possess a huge advantage at quarterback – Ben Bryant had 12 turnover-worthy plays this year – but he did have an 84.2 passer rating, which was higher than Barnes. Bryant also gets the benefit of facing a Utah defense down several key pieces. Safeties Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki have declared for the NFL Draft while edge Jonah Elliss, who led the team with 12 sacks, suffered a season-ending injury.
Kyle Whittingham is an excellent coach, and he deserves a ton of credit for getting perhaps the most injured team in the country to eight wins. However, I’m backing David Braun in this game with confidence. Braun led Northwestern to a shocking 7-5 record despite the team going 1-11 last year and seeing Pat Fitzgerald fired just before the start of the season due to a hazing scandal.
Braun went from being the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State to accepting a full-time head coaching offer at Northwestern in less than a year. The energy around this team is palpable, and I expect them to be the more motivated side against a Utah team that had aspirations of playing in the Pac-12 championship in Las Vegas rather than the Las Vegas Bowl.
Best Bet: Northwestern +6.5
Hawaii Bowl: San Jose State vs. Coastal Carolina
Line movement during bowl season can be significant, and this is one such instance where that has been the case. San Jose State has ballooned to a 10.5-point favorite here due to a bundle of transfer portal guys on the Coastal Carolina side, but I believe this spread has gone too far. Quarterback Grayson McCall is off to NC State, but Ethan Vasko has been filling in admirably.
Vasko is a very capable runner, averaging over 8 YPC this season, and I expect his legs to be a consistent part of the Coastal offense against a San Jose State defense ranked 126th in run defense EPA this year. Vasko should also have plenty of time in the pocket as San Jose State has just a 26% blitz rate, one of the lowest in the country, and has a middling pass rush overall.
Chevan Cordeiro saved some of his best football for the end of the season, when San Jose State went on a six-game win streak. A Hawaii native, Cordeiro should be excited for this opportunity to play in front of family and friends. However, the team as a whole could be a bit deflated after missing out on the Mountain West championship game due to a computer algorithm choosing UNLV and Boise State.
San Jose State has a couple of notable absences of its own with stud tackle Fernando Carmona and tight end Dominick Mazotti entering the portal. For what it’s worth, Coastal Carolina head coach Tim Beck said multiple transfer players could be available for this game, while San Jose State’s Carmona and Mazotti have already committed elsewhere. The Spartans are the rightful favorites in this game, but this spread is overinflated.
Best Bet: Coastal Carolina +10.5
68 Ventures Bowl: South Alabama vs. Eastern Michigan
When handicapping bowl games, it’s vital to be up-to-date on opt outs, players entering the transfer portal, and injuries. Lineups football analyst Jacob Wayne has put together a running list of all the previously mentioned factors, and you can read it here in order to stay on top of what is going on before kickoff.
While the list of changes for this contest are relatively thin compared to most other bowl games, this one still features massive changes that can drastically alter the identity of both units. Especially at quarterback as South Alabama’s Carter Bradley is dealing with an injury while EMU’s Austin Smith has entered the transfer portal.
Carter Bradley has been taking snaps in prep for this game, but he has now been splitting duties with backups Gio Lopez and Desmond Trotter which is not an ideal sign. Worse yet for South Alabama’s offense, star wide receiver Caullin Lacy has also entered the transfer portal and starting running back La’Damian Webb has already been ruled out due to injury.
That leaves the Jaguars potentially without three starting skill players, decimating an offense that has put up respectable metrics. An offense that finished the year ranked 52nd in Success Rate, fourth in Explosiveness, and 18th in Points per Opportunity. Taking care of the ball has been an issue, ranking 73rd in Havoc Allowed, and now may be more prone to turnovers as they start backups at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.
As for Eastern Michigan, losing starting quarterback Austin Smith may alter their offensive identity as they would turn towards backup Ike Udengwu who is more of a runner than a passer. Having to rely on a heavier dose of the run may come with minimal success as the Jags rank 26th in Def Rush Success Rate, 18th in Def Rush PPA, and 19th in Def Rush Explosiveness.
Better yet, South Alabama will have the ability to sell out and stack the box in order to shut down the run as Eastern Michigan has failed to find any sort of pass production. EMU comes into this contest ranked 120th in Pass Success Rate, 121st in Pass PPA, and 129th in Pass Explosiveness.
With Eastern Michigan’s offense being in a position to get shut down once again, as well as South Alabama taking a major step back in offensive production, this game plays towards the under. Expect a very conservative game script from both units, most likely leading to stalled out drives and wasted time off the clock.
Best Bet: Under 46.5
Birmingham Bowl: Troy vs. Duke
The Mike Elko Duke days are over as the coach has left for Texas A&M after an impressive stint with the Blue Devils. As expected, an abundance of players have opted out and/or hit the transfer portal following suit, leaving Duke decimated on both sides of the ball heading into this contest.
One of the players who have already found a new home is stud quarterback Riley Leonard as he has signed with Notre Dame to play for the Fighting Irish next season. Leonard spent a majority of this season hurt, missing some time early in the year and clearly looked less than 100% in his efforts to play at the end of their schedule.
Still, it was apparent that the drop off from Leonard was massive as Duke’s offensive metrics took a nosedive during his absence. Especially in the pass game, dropping to as low as 61st in Pass Success Rate, 60th in Pass PPA, and 98th in Pass Explosiveness. Grayson Loftis is now expected to take back the reins, playing in seven games when Leonard was hurt.
The lack of pass production doesn’t bode well for Duke’s offense as we have already previously seen, turning into a one-dimensional unit with minimal success. Their ground game has failed to help elevate the offense as well, ranking 91st in Rush Success Rate and 62nd in Rush PPA.
Worse yet for the Blue Devil’s offensive outlook, they take on a Troy defense who has been rather elite for a majority of the year. The Trojans excel at stuffing both facets of the offense, ranking an impressive 23rd in Def Success Rate, 44th in Def Explosiveness, 13th in Def Points per Opportunity, and 20th in Havoc as a whole.
Troy’s defense is also entering this contest with plenty of familiar faces, only potentially losing linebacker Jayden McDonald and backup cornerback Darrell Starling to the transfer portal. That means they should have no issue with maintaining their elite defensive marks against a hobbled Duke offense, stalling out their drives early and often and draining time off the clock.
Better yet for the under, Troy’s offense has sputtered for a majority of the year by ranking 71st in Success Rate, 74th in Points per Opportunity, and 68th in Havoc Allowed. Duke’s defense has been decimated by opt outs and transfers as well, yet was still an elite unit that may only regress to average at worst. Take the under in what should be a defensive slugfest against two anemic offenses.
Best Bet: Under 44.5
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: James Madison vs. Air Force
This is a really challenging game to bet right now because of some uncertainty we’ll discuss below, but by the time you’re reading this, there will likely be enough clarity to make a confident play, so let’s dive right into what could be the best bowl played between two Group of Five teams this postseason.
We all know James Madison’s story; in just their second year after making the jump to FBS competition, they established themselves as perhaps the best Group of Five program in the country with an 11-1 campaign. They were going to be left out of the postseason, due to some incredibly illogical NCAA rules about transitioning from FCS to FBS, but due to a lack of eligible teams, they managed to find themselves in the Armed Forces bowl against a very good Air Force team, giving both squads the opportunity to end the year with an impressive win.
By EPA per play, these teams both have a case that they deserve to be ranked; James Madison ranks 14th by the popular metric, while Air Force is just outside of the top 25 at 28th. Both schools should retain a lot of talent for this game, even in the transfer/opt-out era; Air Force will likely be missing just a couple of starters, and James Madison will unfortunately be without star edge rusher Jalen Green, who suffered a season-ending injury.
Now, the uncertainty begins. Air Force quarterback Zac Larrier, who had a better passing season than we usually see from the program and is also a key runner for the Falcons, is injured and may or may not play. On the James Madison side, star quarterback Jordan McCloud is in the transfer portal, but if he doesn’t find a transfer destination before Saturday, he’s expected to play for the Dukes. This can also be said for running back Ty Son Lawton, a major contributor to the offense, and several starters from the James Madison defense, which ranks 10th by EPA per play.
It’s not likely that all of these players find a new home before Saturday, but it’s hard to know exactly who will and will not take the field against Air Force, with McCloud of course the most significant variable. That being said, the uncertainty around Larrier means that even if McCloud is out, the teams could be at relative parity in terms of available production.
With that in mind, I’m willing to take advantage of the significant number of 2.5 while it’s available, as definitive news on key players from either side will surely swing the line. Even without McCloud, JMU is one of the best teams in the Group of Five, and they won’t be dealing with the motivation differential often experienced by opponents of Service Academies in bowl season. After feeling snubbed all year, the Dukes will be pushing hard to win their first-ever bowl game regardless of who’s on the field, but it wouldn’t hurt morale if their quarterback came back to lead them into battle one last time.
Best Bet: James Madison -2.5