Conquering Bowl Mania, Part II: Our TRACR College Football Bowl Projections
College football bowl season is underway!
After predicting the outcome for the early half of bowl games, we’re ready to give our predictions for everything in the second half.
We’re doing this using TRACR (Team Rating Adjusted for Conference and Roster), which is a net efficiency metric that evaluates how well a team performs based on who they play. The model, which is trained on over 10 years of college football data, rewards big wins over good teams and punishes losses to bad ones or even wins that are closer than expected.
We’ll also add the SmartRating for each game as they become available. SmartRatings is an AI-based platform that provides excitement ratings for sporting events, teams and players. The excitement scale, ranging from 0-100, is powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.
The weight of each variable is dynamic and adapts as a season progresses. The excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game) and 85-100 (Great Game).
In addition, check out my chat with Mike Leon for College Football Data Day as we discuss Mike Leach, Luke Fickell, and give some predictions for the College Football Playoff. We also give our win probabilities and analysis for the CFP here.
Let’s dive in.
Pinstripe Bowl, Dec. 29: Minnesota (14th in TRACR) vs. Syracuse (51st)
- SmartRating: 60
- Winner: Minnesota
- Win Probability: 78.0%
- Data Points: Minnesota beat Wisconsin, making it the first time the Gophers have beaten the Badgers in back-to-back seasons since 1993-94. They have won four of their last five, outscoring opponents by an average of 14 points. Freshman QB Athan Kaliakmanis is one to keep an eye on. This is a tough one for Syracuse, who beat Boston College at the end of the regular season after losing five straight. The Orange, however, did beat Purdue earlier in the year, two weeks before Minnesota’s loss to the Boilermakers. Still, it seems like Minnesota should be a clear favorite.
Cheez-It Bowl, Dec. 29: Florida State (10th) vs. Oklahoma (37th)
- SmartRating: 72
- Winner: Florida State
- Win Probability: 78.5%
- Data Points: Florida State skyrocketed in TRACR after winning five straight to end the regular season. Four of those wins were by 25 or more points. The Seminoles have rushed for at least 200 yards in seven straight games – the longest active streak in the FBS. Oklahoma put up 672 total yards of offense against Texas Tech to end the regular season and still lost. It’s been and up-and-down season for the Sooners, who were crushed by good teams like TCU and Texas but have also lost close ones to Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech. The offense is there, but it likely will not be enough against the red-hot Seminoles.
Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29: Washington (25th) vs. Texas (No. 6)
- SmartRating: 79
- Winner: Texas
- Win Probability: 82.0%
- Data Points: Texas has the highest chance of winning its bowl game than any other team this season, per TRACR. Despite the four losses, the Longhorns have ranked highly in TRACR ever since a narrow loss to Alabama in September. Crushing teams like Oklahoma and Kansas have also helped. All four losses were decided by a touchdown. Michael Penix Jr. had a tremendous season for Washington, but his attempts to actively recruit teammates to stay next year could be even more important. Even if the Huskies lose this game, there could be a lot to look forward to next year. The offense is tremendous, ranking 11th in offensive TRACR. The defense is about league average. Texas, meanwhile, is great on both sides of the ball, and the Huskies have not seen a defense like Texas this year. The Longhorns can win this game on that end.
Sun Bowl, Dec. 30: UCLA (46th) vs. Pittsburgh (33rd)
- SmartRating: 70
- Winner: Pittsburgh
- Win Probability: 56.2%
- Data Points: UCLA had key wins against Washington and Utah earlier in the season, and though it went 1-2 over its last three games, the team played close. I do wonder if this Bruins defense, which allowed 31.7 points per game in conference play, can handle a Pittsburgh team that has won four straight and most recently put up 504 total yards against Miami. No Kedon Slovis, who had two tremendous games against the Bruins when he was at USC, could hurt Pittsburgh’s chances.
Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Dec. 30: NC State (57th) vs. Maryland (21st)
- SmartRating: 65
- Winner: Maryland
- Win Probability: 78.4%
- Data Points: There have been times when Maryland has flashed brilliance (37-0 against Rutgers). There have been times when Maryland has been bad (30-0 loss to Penn State). Still, the Terrapins have played well when it’s not facing teams ranked in the TRACR’s top 25. This does look like a matchup in which conference plays heavily – the Big Ten was a lot better this season, so Maryland has played tougher opponents. And make sure to not drop the trophy.
Gator Bowl, Dec. 30: South Carolina (35th) vs. Notre Dame (19th)
- SmartRating: 69
- Winner: Notre Dame
- Win Probability: 63.5%
- Data Points: I think a lot of teams were thinking “please don’t pair us with South Carolina,” and perhaps a few groans came from the Irish when they saw their opponent. This is a red-hot Gamecocks squad that feels like it has a “why not us?” attitude after two incredible wins to close out the regular season. South Carolina killed Tennessee, then went on the road to beat Clemson. Spencer Rattler had a perfect game against the Volunteers and it seemed like he needed to have a similar performance to beat the Tigers, but he did not and they still won. It is not just Rattler – almost everyone on this team is playing well right now. There is a chance the Irish peaked with their wins over Syracuse and Clemson. They most recently lost to USC, though that was a tough game to go into. It seems like they have shaken off the losses to Marshall and Stanford, but there’s something else to consider when picking this game. Notre Dame will be without star tight end Michael Mayer, who will enter the NFL Draft and will likely be the best tight end in the class. The Irish will also be without quarterback Drew Pyne, who is transferring after a solid season and a tremendous performance against USC. They have a solid backup in Tyler Buchner, who is a dual threat with playing experience. This should be a fun one and it might be closer than people think.
Arizona Bowl, Dec. 30: Ohio (81st) vs. Wyoming (102nd)
- SmartRating: 64
- Winner: Ohio
- Win Probability: 62.9%
- Data Points: Ohio had won seven straight before putting up just seven points and losing to Toledo in the MAC Championship game. Wyoming got crushed by Fresno State 30-0 in its last game, but overall played well in the second half of the season. The Cowboys do not have much of a passing game, though, averaging just 127.8 pass yards this season. Ohio should have little trouble slowing this offense.
Orange Bowl, Dec. 30: Clemson (11th) vs. Tennessee (No. 5)
- SmartRating: 85
- Winner: Tennessee
- Win Probability: 66.6%
- Data Points: Having two orange teams play in the Orange Bowl is amazing. Tennessee’s offense still has what it takes without Hendon Hooker, as shown in a 56-0 blowout against Vanderbilt. The Volunteers have put up at least 500 yards of offense in their last three games. Still, this seems like a bit of a disappointment for Tennessee fans, who thought their team seemed destined for the playoff even after the loss to Georgia. TRACR has been consistently down on Clemson for most of the season in part because the ACC was down. The Tigers seemed to be a little lucky to be where they were after narrow victories over Wake Forest, Florida State and Clemson. Their luck finally ran out against South Carolina, but the dominant win against North Carolina in the ACC Championship game was a nice bounce-back win. Sure, this season did not lead to a playoff appearance, but it does feel like Clemson had a better season than in 2021. This game is a little less interesting without DJ Uiagalelei and Hooker. Tennessee’s offense could blow Clemson out, but TRACR thinks it will be somewhat close.
Music City Bowl, Dec. 31: Kentucky (22nd) vs. Iowa (13th)
- SmartRating: 68
- Winner: Iowa
- Win Probability: 64.9%
- Data Points: Kentucky and Iowa played in the Citrus Bowl last season, with the Wildcats coming out on top. This feels like a watered-down version of that game. Kentucky’s offense is nothing like it was last season, and Iowa’s offense has been weak all year. The Wildcats scored six points against both Tennessee and Georgia this season and will now play a Hawkeyes team ranked No. 1 in defensive TRACR. That being said, Iowa also ended the regular season losing to Nebraska. It’s all here. Fast running, low scoring, and punts? You bet!
Sugar Bowl, Dec. 31: Kansas State (No. 8) vs. Alabama (No. 2)
- SmartRating: 81
- Winner: Alabama
- Win Probability: 69.2%
- Data Points: This will be Alabama’s 17th appearance in the Sugar Bowl – the most by any team all time. The Tide are 9-7 in those games. This will be Kansas State’s first appearance. Despite the differences in appearances, this may be one of the best games all season. Kansas State cemented itself as a threat after winning the Big 12 title while handling other teams with ease. Of its three losses, none were that bad – at home to Tulane and Texas, and at TCU. The Wildcats had quite a tough schedule. But so did Alabama, which narrowly escaped with a win in Austin and lost two games by a combined four points. The average Power-5 team going through Alabama’s schedule would have likely lost four or five games. I know this may seem like a “down year” for most fans, but it was such a tough road for the Crimson Tide. Nick Saban said the team was disappointed that it couldn’t be the first two-loss team in the playoff. There’s certainly an argument for it, and the CFP committee recognized this by placing Alabama fifth in the final poll. TRACR agreed as its “Playoff Potential” metric ranked Alabama fifth. TRACR expects the Crimson Tide to finish with an 11-win season, but the tough schedule continues. Kansas State ranks similarly to Texas in defensive TRACR at No. 5. Alabama had a season-low 20 points against the Longhorns. This one could be somewhat low scoring, maybe with a 27-20 outcome.
ReliaQuest Bowl, Jan. 2: Illinois (12th) vs. Mississippi State (28th)
- SmartRating: 64
- Winner: Illinois
- Win Probability: 71.7%
- Data Points: Illinois might be one of the most underrated teams in the country, but losing three of its last four knocked them out of the top 25 in the CFP ranking. Still, all three losses were by single digits. Credit to Bret Bielema for taking this team not only to a bowl game but to an NY6 bowl. The defense, which ranks fourth in TRACR, has been the key. Mississippi State won the Egg Bowl for its best win all year. Ole Miss, however, ranks just 36th in TRACR. The Bulldogs went 0-4 against teams in TRACR’s top 25, getting outscored 133-58. Though two of those teams were Alabama and Georgia, it does beg the question if they can beat a team in the top 15 like the Illini at a neutral site. The fact that Mississippi State is still playing this game after the death of Mike Leach is truly inspiring. Leach, a pioneer of the sport and a tremendous person off the field, will be deeply missed by the college football world. This clip is just one of many that illustrate how great he was.
Citrus Bowl, Jan. 2: Purdue (32nd) vs. LSU (16th)
- SmartRating: 60
- Winner: LSU
- Win Probability: 69.4%
- Data Points: TRACR gave Michigan the highest chance to win its conference championship game, and it came through with a 21-point victory over Purdue. Still, the Wolverines needed both halves to brush away the Boilermakers (they only had a one-point lead at the half). Purdue has had ups (Illinois and Minnesota wins) and downs (trounced at home against Iowa), but playing a team like LSU may look more like the loss to Michigan than anything. It will be especially difficult without head coach Jeff Brohm, who left to take the head coaching position at Louisville. Overall, the Tigers have better wins, especially the one against Alabama. The loss to Florida State to begin the season does not look as bad anymore, either. Brian Kelly saw Purdue last year when Notre Dame beat the Boilermakers 27-13 at home. He went 6-0 against the Boilermakers during his time with the Irish.
Cotton Bowl Classic, Jan. 2: USC (20th) vs. Tulane (31st)
- SmartRating: 85
- Winner: USC
- Win Probability: 60.3%
- Data Points: Yes, Tulane!! What a ride to the end. After losing to UCF at home, the Green Wave crushed SMU, beat Cincinnati in a close one at home and then won the AAC Championship in a revenge game against UCF. They have shot up to 31st in TRACR. The running game has been key down the stretch, averaging 261.7 rush yards in those three games. Most of that has been thanks to Tyjae Spears. Since Week 7, Spears has averaged 7.9 yards per rush and 152.0 rush yards per game. Those rank third and fourth, respectively, in the FBS. Will the game come down to Tulane’s running game or USC’s passing game? Caleb Williams might have needed a tremendous stretch to win the Heisman, but it also got the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship game and nearly a playoff bid. He’s turned this program around. USC’s defense has allowed over 300 passing yards in three straight games. Michael Pratt had arguably his best game against UCF a few weeks ago. If the Trojans cannot get him under pressure, Tulane may pull off this upset in the air and on the ground.
Rose Bowl Game, Jan. 2: Penn State (No. 9) vs. Utah (15th)
- SmartRating: 81
- Winner: Penn State
- Win Probability: 63.7%
- Data Points: It isn’t often that we see the third-best Big Ten team in the Rose Bowl, but that makes it sound like Penn State is not a top-tier team. The Nittany Lions have only two losses – to Michigan and Ohio State. They won nine of their 10 games by double digits and have been impressive on both sides of the ball. This could be the best Penn State team in the James Franklin era. Back in August, TRACR expected Utah to win the Pac-12. But it’s been a bumpier ride than expected. The Utes proved their dominance in the Pac-12 Championship game, especially in the fourth quarter when they outscored USC 23-7. They also have plenty of dominant wins like Penn State. Penn State had arguably a tougher schedule and thus had better wins, but this one could still be a toss-up. TRACR expects the Big Ten to win this one, though 12 of the last 13 Big Ten teams not named Ohio State have lost this game.