The NCAA Tournament has Cinderellas and buzzer-beaters. Madness belongs to bowl season.
A record 43 bowl games will be played over the next few weeks — more than double the number of bowl games held in 1997 — and 17 of them will feature at least one team without a winning record. A dizzying number of coaches and coordinators have already ditched their schools, prompting numerous players to announce their intentions of finding a new campus, too. Other players have opted out of their respective bowls, unwilling to risk injuries that were a threat all season.
Still, we sprint for betting slips. We find the app with the most favorable odds. We cross into neighboring states to place actions on games which have never been harder to predict, featuring teams which rarely resemble the groups on display the past four months.
It is madness — and it is wonderful.
Toledo (-10) over Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders force more turnovers than any team in the nation. Unfortunately, their underwhelming offense won’t get a boost against an opponent that commits fewer turnovers than any team in the nation. The Rockets have won each of their past three games by double digits.
Northern Illinois (+10.5) over Coastal Carolina: The Chanticleers were one of college football’s best stories last season. This season, the Huskies take that title, bouncing back from a winless season to claim nine games and the MAC title — as an underdog. The over (63) is an even better play.
Appalachian State (-3) over Western Kentucky: The Mountaineers don’t lose this time of year. A seventh straight season with a bowl win will come against the pass-heavy Hilltoppers’ offense, which is losing both of its coordinators and facing a defense allowing the fifth-lowest completion rate (54.6 percent) in the country.
UTEP (+11.5) over Fresno State: The Bulldogs are celebrating the return of star quarterback Jake Haener, who entered the transfer portal and looked set to join Fresno’s departing head coach and offensive coordinator in Washington before apologizing for considering the move. The weird set of circumstances won’t make it any easier to find a rhythm against a strong secondary and enthusiastic roster making its bowl debut.
BYU (-7) over UAB: It looks like a trap — BYU is 3-6 against the spread as a favorite, and UAB is 8-3-1 against the number overall — but the 13th-ranked Cougars are worth the risk. The Blazers’ defense is tough, but BYU is prepared, with star running back Tyler Allgeier facing tougher challenges on multiple occasions this season.
Liberty (-9.5) over E. Michigan: Few players need a strong bowl performance more than Malik Willis. The junior quarterback has thrown six interceptions during the Flames’ three-game losing streak, but the first-round prospect will bounce back against an inferior opponent surrendering nearly 200 rushing yards per game. In last year’s bowl win over undefeated Coastal Carolina, Willis ran for 137 yards and four touchdowns.
Jimmy Kimmel LA
Utah State (+7.5) over Oregon State: If kickoff isn’t in Corvallis, the Beavers will implode against the Mountain West champs. Oregon State, which went undefeated at home this season, is 1-5 on the road. Apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of space.
Louisiana (-5.5) over Marshall: Even without Billy Napier, the Cajuns will capture their 13th straight win and a second straight one-loss season. In a de facto road game, Marshall’s inconsistent attack will struggle to sustain drives against a defense allowing an average of 14 points over the past six games.
Old Dominion (+9.5) over Tulsa: Pitting a pair of .500 teams against each other is what bowl season is all about. Tulsa has won just one game by double digits this season, while the Monarchs have won — and covered — five straight games.
Famous Idaho Potato
Kent State (+3) over Wyoming: Neither side can be trusted, but at least the Golden Flashes can be counted on to put up points. Though Kent State’s defense is among the worst in the nation, it will look respectable against the Cowboys, whose 23.5 points per game ranks third-worst among bowl teams.
Tropical Smoothie Cafe Frisco
UTSA (-2.5) over San Diego State: The Aztecs, averaging under 21 points over their past eight games, now look lost defensively, too. After giving up 46 points in a blowout loss to Utah State, Brady Hoke must stop a balanced Roadrunners’ (12-1) attack, which has sped past the top-25 defenses of UAB and UTEP.
Missouri (+3.5) over Army: The overwhelming public action is on the Black Knights. I was headed there, too, given Missouri’s inability to stop the run and unfamiliarity with the triple-option. But something is off. The SEC should not be getting less than 20 percent of bets as an underdog against cadets.
Frisco Football Classic
North Texas (+3) Miami (Ohio): Everything’s coming up Frisco (Texas). The fastest growing city in America has been given the honor of hosting two bowl games. This one didn’t exist a few weeks ago, when a pair of eligible teams needed a place to play. Now, the peaking Mean Green — best name ever? — get a chance for a sixth straight win close to home, against an opponent with one road win this season.
UCF (+6.5) over Florida: It’s hard to believe these teams have played just twice. It’s harder to believe this game is named after a mythical pirate. It’s hardest to believe Florida nearly knocked off Alabama this season and fired Dan Mullen, after the Gators finished ranked in the top 12 the past three years.
Hawaii (+7.5) over Memphis: The Tigers haven’t won a game away from home in more than three months. They haven’t won by more than a touchdown in over two months. But, sure, Memphis will definitely be sharp in a far-flung vacation environment on Christmas Eve. Hawaii went 4-2 at home this season — upsetting Fresno State — with its losses coming by a total of 10 points.
Ball State (+4.5) over Georgia State: This game has my full attention. I’ll just DVR the NBA’s marquee Christmas games, and the Packers vs. Browns. The only worse time slot would be on the biggest social night of the year. But no one in the sport would be that stupid, right?
Western Michigan (-6) over Nevada: The Wolf Pack should be favored, but the absence of quarterback Carson Strong — one of the top pro prospects at his position — and star tight end Cole Turner changes everything. Nevada’s backup is 6-foot-9 Nate Cox, who has thrown 22 career passes and will face a defense that ranks ninth in the nation in sack percentage.
Boston College (-3) over East Carolina: The Pirates are a trendy upset pick, having won four of their past five games. However, their five lowest scoring games against FBS teams came in five losses against the five best pass defenses they faced. The Eagles rank fourth in the nation in passing yards allowed (173.5).
Houston (+3) over Auburn: Weeks removed from its near-upset in the Iron Bowl, Auburn, which has lost four straight, will have little fight in a game that means so much more to the Group of Five. Starting quarterback Bo Nix, whose father also played for the Tigers, believes in the program so much that he announced his plans to transfer.
Air Force (+1.5) over Louisville: Louisville QB Malik Cunningham will have his moments, but the triple-option will have more. The Falcons’ top-ranked ground game will be a constant headache for a lackluster Louisville front, which just surrendered 362 rushing yards to Kentucky and has only one win over a team with a winning record.
Mississippi State (-8.5) over Texas Tech: This is how you shift attention to a mid-tier bowl. Mike Leach will face the Red Raiders for the first time since Texas Tech fired him, and the coach still contends the school owes him money for wrongful termination. Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers ranks third in the nation in passing yards. How many deep shots will Leach let him air out against the 103rd-ranked passing defense?
NC State (-1.5) over UCLA: The 18th-ranked Wolfpack (9-3) have nothing to worry about. Not one of UCLA’s eight wins came against a team with a winning record, while each of the Bruins’ four losses came against teams above .500. Devin Leary (35 touchdowns, five interceptions) is averaging over 316 passing yards in his past six games and now meets the worst secondary in the Pac-12.
Minnesota (-4.5) over West Virginia: The Mountaineers were always going to struggle scoring against one of the best defenses in the nation. Getting the job done became easier after Minnesota hired away West Virginia offensive analyst Kirk Ciarrocca.
Virginia (-2.5) over SMU: Not all new bowls are bad. Fenway Park will provide an awesome backdrop for this duel between Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong and SMU’s Tanner Mordecai. The Mustangs opened the season with seven straight wins against teams with losing records, before going 1-4 against bowl participants and heading to Boston without its head coach and two leaders in receptions.
Virginia Tech (+1) over Maryland: The Terps are in a bowl for the first time in five years. They think their season is already a success. It’s indicative of the Johnny Drama (Taulia Tagovailoa)-led offense, which ranks 119th in red-zone offense and has converted fewer than 54 percent of such possessions into touchdowns.
Iowa State (-1.5) over Clemson: I’d prefer the Cheese Nips Bowl. Still, this matchup is more interesting than its sponsor could have imagined. For the first time since 2014, Clemson is not part of the playoff. Why? Because of an underachieving attack, set to fail against a top-10 defense. The Tigers’ loss of longtime defensive coordinator Brent Venables gives Brock Purdy — the winningest quarterback in Cyclones history — and back-to-back Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Breece Hall a greater chance to leave on top.
Oklahoma (-4.5) over Oregon: Both teams were in contention for the playoff just a few weeks ago. Now, neither will have a full-time head coach on the sideline. Unlike Oregon — which will be without potential No. 1 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux — Oklahoma will have its best player on the field. Future Heisman contender Caleb Williams doesn’t need Lincoln Riley to run through one of the worst tackling units in the country.
North Carolina (-7.5) over South Carolina: The most revoltingly named bowl should produce an electric atmosphere in Charlotte. The fireworks shouldn’t last long, though, in a border battle between the Tar Heels’ top-10 offense and the Gamecocks’ 118th-ranked attack. Mack Brown’s team was overrated to start the season, but it has approached its potential in the final month, beating Wake Forest and taking Pittsburgh to overtime.
Purdue (+4) over Tennessee: Home field for the Vols won’t have as much of an impact as the pair of Purdue All-Americans (George Karlaftis, David Bell) who’ve opted out of the game. Still, Aidan O’Connell — who has 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions, with a 76.5 completion percentage and an average of 372 passing yards in his past five games — shouldn’t need his top target to light up the 103rd-ranked pass defense in the nation.
Michigan State (-2.5) over Pittsburgh: Kenneth Walker III and Kenny Pickett will both sit out, robbing the game of two of the top six finishes in the Heisman voting. Predictably, the loss of the Pittsburgh quarterback will matter much more, providing the nation’s worst pass defense a reprieve from certain embarrassment.
Wisconsin (-7) over Arizona State: I’ll take the under (42), too. The Sun Devils’ run-reliant red-zone offense has little chance of success against the nation’s top-ranked defense. The Badgers have won seven of their past eight games and five of six bowl games under Paul Chryst.
Wake Forest (+5) over Texas A&M: The pick was in. I wrote my blurb and even marked the Aggies as a best-bet candidate. Hours later, I learned quarterback Zach Calzada would transfer, forcing Jimbo Fisher to start a walk-on freshman, who has thrown seven passes, including an interception against Prairie View A&M.
Miami (Fla.) (-2.5) over Washington State: It’s another game in which neither team will have the head coach it started the season with. Miami makes up for the recent change with star freshman quarterback Tyler Van Dyke, who has thrown for 20 touchdowns, three interceptions and an average of 366 yards, while leading the Hurricanes to a 5-1 finish to the regular season. The Cougars’ nonexistent pass rush will enable another big day.
Boise State (-8.5) over Central Michigan: My apologies to mayo, this is the most disgusting bowl name. Don’t make this pick yet until learning the status of Broncos quarterback Hank Bachmeier. For now, we’ll place confidence in Andy Avalos’ adherence to Jack Reilly’s famed philosophy — “It’s not worth winning if you can’t win big” — having gone 7-5, but earning victories by an average of over 22 points. Five wins by two-plus possessions came against bowl teams.
Cincinnati (+13.5) over Alabama: Really? It took just one win for Vegas to sprint back to Nick Saban’s good side? The Tide may be the weakest title favorite in playoff history. This is the same one-loss squad that won three games by single-digits in November, nearly losing to a pair of teams that finished 6-6. Now, they’ll be without star receiver John Metchie against the second-ranked pass defense in the nation. The Bearcats will not bow out quietly. The so-called Cinderella has been waiting for this opportunity for two years, showcasing its worth in the biggest moments, including last year’s bowl game against Georgia and this season’s win at No. 6 Notre Dame.
Michigan (+7.5) over Georgia: Stetson Bennett was sacked a season-high three times and tied a season-high with two interceptions in the loss to Alabama. He won’t fare better against Heisman finalist Aidan Hutchinson and the Wolverines’ 10th-ranked defense. The Bulldogs are still unproven against the elite — having decisively lost its lone game against a top-15 team — and Michigan looks like the most confident team in the nation since dominating Ohio State.
Penn State (-2.5) over Arkansas: The Hogs will have their way running the ball, but Sean Clifford should find greater success through the air against the Hogs, who have surrendered over 400 yards passing twice this season. Of course, Clifford — who hasn’t thrown an interception since October — needs star receiver Jahan Dotson to be there, unlike Arkansas’ top receiver, Treylon Burks, who has opted out.
Iowa (+2.5) over Kentucky: There are few teams I loathe watching — and backing — as much as the offensively challenged Hawkeyes, but their wins over Iowa State, Penn State and Minnesota carry far more weight than anything the Wildcats have achieved. Iowa ranks fourth in the nation in turnover margin and should clean up against Kentucky, which ranks 126th, thanks to Will Levis’ 12 interceptions.
Oklahoma State (+2.5) over Notre Dame: It’s funny how a few inches change the perception of an entire team. The heavy public action on the Irish is curious, considering they lost their longtime coach, they have no wins against ranked teams and they’ll be without their best defensive player (Kyle Hamilton) and offensive player (Kyren Williams). The Cowboys’ defense is unlike anything Notre Dame has seen since being held to 13 points against Cincinnati.
Ohio State (-6.5) over Utah: Somehow, the Utes went the entire season playing just one quarterback among the top 40 in passing yards. They surrendered 401 yards, but easily won because the opponent was USC. C.J. Stroud’s more talented teammates won’t let a masterpiece go to waste.
Baylor (-1) over Mississippi: Dave Aranda’s defense has simply been more reliable than Lane Kiffin’s offense. Matt Corral has mostly been a single threat since developing a nagging ankle injury, keeping the Rebels to no more than 31 points in seven straight games. The Bears won the Big 12 with defense, but their talented backfield should put up more than 200 yards against the 101st-ranked run defense.
Kansas State (-1) over LSU: Brian Kelly can’t fix this mess yet. Max Johnson is LSU’s second starting quarterback to enter the transfer portal this season, leaving true freshman Garrett Nussmeier to start a game without Ed Orgeron and multiple assistants. If Nussmeier sits to retain his redshirt season, the Tigers will resort to using a walk-on at quarterback.
Best bets: Liberty, North Texas, Utah State, NC State, Cincinnati
This season (best bets): 96-107-4 (23-17-2)
2014-20 record: 641-612-10
Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death
Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.
Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.
Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.
Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”
Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”
Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.
Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.
Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”
Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence
MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.
But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.
“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’
McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.
Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.
Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.
That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .
When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.
Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”
Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.
“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.
“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’
The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.
Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.
But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.
“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’
The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.
No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.
“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’
Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers
When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.
Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.
This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.
The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.
Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.
To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.
There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.
The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.
Baby steps, though.
Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.
Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.
Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.
Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.
And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.
Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.
Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.
Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.
“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.
On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.
That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.
That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.
It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.
If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.
The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.
“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’
A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.
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