It’s time to pick some winners.
1. Can 9th-ranked Mizzou upset No. 7 Ohio State in Friday night’s Cotton Bowl? This is a challenging test for the potent and diverse Missouri offense. Ohio State has allowed only 11 points per game this season and is ranked third in the nation defensively. Ohio State coach Ryan Day has problems beating Big 10 blood-rival Michigan, but he’s lost only one game as a heavy favorite, getting knocked off by 12th-ranked Oregon in the second week of the 2021 season. The Buckeyes lost to the Ducks by a touchdown as a 13 and ½ point favorite.
2. Can Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reverse a brutal career pattern of coming up short in college-football postseason games and take down Nick Saban and Alabama? The Wolverines enter Monday’s semifinal with a 13-0 record and are the top-ranked team in the nation. But Harbaugh is 2-7 in the postseason overall as a college coach. He’s 1-6 at Michigan. He’s lost six straight postseason games including two failures in the last two college football playoffs. Saban has won seven national titles. The G.O.A.T. went 4-0 in BCS championship games, is 6-1 in the college football playoff semifinals, and is 3-3 in the national-title bouts during the four-team playoff era. That may give Michigan some optimism. But first things first. Michigan has to win the Rose Bowl before worrying about taking the national championship game, and Alabama is a huge obstacle. Saban is a combined 10-1 when competing in the BCS and the college football semifinals.
3. Washington, 13-0, is carrying the flag for the Pac 12, which goes away at season’s end. Texas is formidable – and a four-point favorite to dispose of Washington in Monday’s second CFP semifinal. Are we doing this again? Underestimating Washington? Despite winning 19 in a row and defeating Oregon earlier in the season, the Huskies were a big underdog (9.5 points) to Oregon in the Pac 12 championship game – and won by three.
Let’s take a look at the three games:
MIZZOU VS. OHIO STATE
Records: Missouri 10-2, Ohio State 12-1.
Betting Line: Ohio State by 5 and ½
Over-Under: 50.5 total points.
FPI Win Probability: Ohio State, 75.9%
The Outlook: Based on a wide range of advanced metrics at Sports Info Solutions, the Buckeyes are dominant at stopping the run, and difficult to beat through the air. The numbers are scary-good in both areas patrolled by the Ohio State defense.
That said, were the OSU’s defensive metrics propped up by going against so many weak offenses and soft opponents in the Big Ten?
The top four scoring defenses in the nation resided in the conference: Michigan (9.5 ppg), Ohio State (11.0), Penn State (11.4) and Iowa (13.2). All four teams played very good defense, but we have to factor in the lousy offense on display in heartland. Ten Big 10 offenses were ranked 83rd or worse in scoring average among 133 FBS teams – including seven that were ranked 102nd or poorer.
The Mizzou offense has an impressive cast of playmakers that includes quarterback Brady Cook, running back Cody Schrader and wide receivers Luther Burden, Theo Wease and Mookie Cooper. Improving reshman tight end Brent Norfleet gives Cook another option. Missouri ranked 13th nationally with an average of 35.2 points per game against Power 5 opponents. And the Tigers were seventh with an average of 32 points scored against ranked opponents.
Heisman Trophy finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. is with Ohio State in Texas, but didn’t participate in practice. The superb wide receiver will likely opt out of the Cotton Bowl to bypass a risk of injury that could damage his draft stock. We’ll see.
And Ohio State won’t have starting quarterback Kyle McCord, who entered the transfer portal and is heading to Syracuse.
Key Player: Ohio State sophomore quarterback Devin Brown. He takes over for McCord and will give the Buckeyes a run dimension at the QB spot. But Brown played very little this season (22 snaps) and Missouri doesn’t know what to expect. Planning for Brown can’t be easy. So the young quarterback could (A) be jittery and struggle for confidence and consistency, or (B) play loose and free and have the Tigers chasing him around. No one would be surprised if the Buckeyes go primitive and try to pound the MU defense with running back TreyVeyon Henderson. That would help Brown. But Brown was a five-star recruit and it would be stupid to underestimate him.
Talent Level: According to the 247 Sports Talent Composite, Ohio State is ranked 3rd and Mizzou is 25th.
Trends: Missouri is 4-1 against the spread this season when facing AP Top 25 teams. Starting with Ohio State getting hammered 41-14 by Florida in the 2007 BCS Championship game, Big Ten teams came into this bowl season with a 16-35 record straight up and 20-30-1 against the spread in bowl games against SEC opponents.
Prediction: The betting line for this matchup has fluctuated all over the place, and the sharp money has surged with late backing of Ohio State. Depending on where you shop, Mizzou will likely be a five-point or 5 and ½ point ‘dog at kickoff. I think that’s too much. Missouri has more firepower offensively – especially if Harrison Jr. is a no-go. I’m taking Mizzou and the points in a gamble that they’ll cover. And the Tigers could win it straight up. But I reject the narrative that would have us believe that Missouri has more competitive hunger than Ohio State. The Buckeyes will be plenty motivated.
Projected score: Ohio State 30, Mizzou 26.
MICHIGAN VS. ALABAMA
Records: Michigan 13-0, Alabama 12-1
Line: Michigan minus 1.5
Over/Under: 45 total points.
FPI Win Probability: Michigan, 56.2%.
Key Player: Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy. He’s had more than a month to rest up and get over a leg injury that clearly hampered him late in the season. A healthy, frisky McCarthy can make a difference in this one. If McCarthy is at full speed, his mobility can neutralize Alabama’s fierce pass rush. He can step up in the pocket to make throws, or scoot to the outside to avoid being trapped. The Wolverines won’t beat Alabama with a one-dimensional attack that’s built on a sturdy running game. McCarthy will have to make plays … with his right arm, with his speed, with his elusiveness. He’ll have to make lots and lots of plays.
The Outlook: To me, it comes down to trust. Do you have more trust in Harbaugh or Saban in this high-pressure coaching matchup? Saban is a proven big-game coach and legendary asset at this time of the season. When Saban has had at least 30 days to prepare for a game – a time frame that applies to this Rose Bowl – the Crimson Tide are 9-0. And Saban is 11-1 when he has at least 26 days to get ready for an opponent.
Premium talent matters in the college football playoff. That’s been a defining, determining factor in the CFP history since the format was put into place for the 2014 season. Historically, teams that have the higher-graded talent go into the conflict with a considerable edge. According to the 247 Sports Team Talent Composite and additional research done by The Athletic, this 202 Alabama team has a higher recruiting score than any previous national champion in the CFP Era. That’s really saying something because we’ve seen some truly great teams win the title over the previous nine seasons.
Alabama goes into this game with 18 five-star recruits on its roster. Michigan has two five stars. Put a big check mark next to Alabama in overall talent, speed and athleticism. Michigan is a physically tough team, and I think the Wolverines will play a lot better in their third shot in the playoff under Harbaugh. Can that lead to an upset? Possibly, yes. But Michigan will have to force Alabama into multiple mistakes that dramatically change the flow of the game.
Talent Level: According to the 247 Sports Talent Composite, Alabama is No. 1 and Michigan is 14th.
Trends: In his last nine games, Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe ranks fourth in passer rating among Power 5 quarterbacks, has accounted for 28 touchdowns on his passes or runs, and is No. 2 nationally with an average of 10.4 yards per passing attempt. He’s been intercepted only four times in the last nine games and hasn’t been picked off more than once in any of those contests. This season Michigan hasn’t played against a quarterback that has Milroe’s explosive skill set. He’s a lot to handle. And one more thing: do not blitz him. Milroe has awesome numbers when defenses try to do that. Best to play a lot of zone, reduce the big-play opportunities and make him work to find receivers.
Prediction: I’m keeping this simple. When you’re coached by the best coach in college football history, give that iconic coach extra time to prepare – and your team also has the clear edge in overall talent and a superlative track record in huge games … Well, I’m not going to walk away from Alabama just because Michigan is the betting favorite. Getting Saban and a 1 and ½ points is a bonus. Michigan has a strong defense – but so did Georgia. And Alabama scored 27 on the Dawgs in the SEC Championship.
Projected Score: Alabama 30, Michigan 23. What will it take for Alabama to lose? A fantastic game by McCarthy. A cool-down by Milroe after a 31-day break. Sloppiness – penalties, turnovers – by the Tide. And Crimson Tide gets sloppy with penalties and turnovers.
TEXAS VS. WASHINGTON
Records: Texas 12-1, Washington 13-0.
Betting Line: Texas is a four-point favorite.
FPI Win Probability: Texas, 68.4%
The Outlook: Texas did lose a heartbreaker to Oklahoma, but that isn’t abnormal in a heated rivalry game. The Longhorns had some other close calls, but overcame the threats and avoided a second (and fatal) loss. QB Quinn Ewers and the offense is averaging 37.7 points per game, but I’m surprised to see the Huskies going in as an underdog again. Both teams have outstanding coaches in Steve Sarkasian (Texas) and Kalen DeBoer (Washington) and both should have bright futures in their respective jobs. DeBoer’s team has been living dangerously all season, pulling out seven wins by a one-score margin. That should help the Huskies in a pressurized setting in New Orleans. Sarkisian is a superb game-planner, and he’s had extra time to scope out the potential vulnerabilities in a Washington defense that gave up 28 or more points in six games this season. Watching two rising-star coaches compete against each other makes for an enticing matchup.
Key Player: Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was the Heisman Trophy runner up this season and he’s rescued the Huskies on multiple occasions in 2023. He’ll likely have to do it again in the Sugar Bowl. Because even though Washington has a terrific running back in Dillon Johnson, the Longhorns have stuffed a lot of inside runs this year. Penix was banged up during the season and his performance tailed off through one stretch, but he clicked back to reset for the Pac 12 championship. You don’t want to see everything put on his shoulders – but Penix can be very special, and the Huskies will need his best against Texas.
Talent Level: According to the 247 Sports Talent Composite Texas is ranked 6th and Washington is No. 26.
Trends: Coming into this bowl season, favorites were on a run of 19-7 straight up and 16-10 against the spread in the previous 26 bowl games involving a Big 12 team.
Prediction: Washington can do this. But the offense will likely have to come through with a spectacular performance to compensate for a defense that can be exploited by Ewers, his athletic receivers, and power running. The Huskies will try to spread Texas out and set up one-on-one battles for Penix to connect with. Washington can’t let Texas jump out and take control of the game; that’s when the Longhorns are at their best. Keep this one close, and it works to Washington’s advantage. Oregon knows all about that, having gotten burned twice by the Huskies in close-call games this season. But in the end, I think the Longhorns get it done. The four-point spread does make me nervous. I say that because Washington led the FBS in passing offense with an average of 344 yards per game and ranked No. 5 in yards per play. And Texas has an adequate – but not great – secondary.
Projected Score: Texas 37, Washington 31. The Texas offense is a fast machine when playing with tempo. And Ewers is an effective pilot to drive that offense.
Enjoy the games!
An early Happy New Year!
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.