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From Notre Dame to Florida State, the best to worst bowl game upset picks

Notre Dame running back Josh Adams rushed for 1,386 yards and nine touchdowns this season. (Michael Conroy/AP)

The college bowl season will get underway Dec. 16, leading up to the College Football Playoff championship game on Jan. 9 in Atlanta. Some bowl games won’t offer much drama — Florida State is a 15-point favorite over Southern Mississippi in the Independence Bowl — but others will have the excitement we expect throughout the bowl season.

To project the chance of an upset — defined here as the underdog per the consensus Vegas odds — Sports Reference’s adjusted points for and against were used to forecast a margin of victory, which was then converted into a win probability. One final note: The upset picks are made outright, not against the spread. In some of these cases, the favorite wins, but does not cover.

Citrus Bowl (Louisiana State vs. Notre Dame, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC)

Prediction: Notre Dame beats LSU (-3) 31-21
Chance of an upset: 76 percent

Running back Josh Adams, a junior, rushed for 1,386 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. Having a solid offensive line helps — that allowed Notre Dame’s rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just 16.4 percent of the time, good for 23rd in the nation — but Adams has the size and strength to create space on his own, too, making him difficult to stop in the open field.

Hawaii Bowl (Fresno State vs. Houston, Dec. 24, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Fresno State beats Houston (-2.5) 20-13
Chance of an upset: 70 percent

Fresno State linebacker Jeffrey Allison finished the regular season with 71 solo tackles, 11th most in the nation, for a defense that allowed the second-fewest “explosive” plays per Bill Connely’s S&P+ Ratings.

Foster Farms Bowl (Arizona vs. Purdue, Dec. 27, 8:30 p.m., Fox)
Prediction: Purdue beats Arizona (-3.5) 34-29
Chance of an upset: 65 percent

Quarterback David Blough’s injury gave way for Elijah Sindelar to take command of Purdue’s offense. He hasn’t been as efficient as Blough was this season, but he was good enough — 6.2 adjusted yards per pass with a 120.1 passer rating — and threw multiple touchdowns in each of his final three regular-season games with just one interception.

Liberty Bowl (Iowa State at Memphis, Dec. 30, 12:30 p.m., ABC)
Prediction: Iowa State beats Memphis (-3.5) 36-31
Chance of an upset: 64 percent

Iowa State has not lost a fumble all season, and could become the first team to go an entire year without one. Since 2007, the first year data is available, one team, Northern Illinois in 2004, has finished the season with just one fumble lost.

Texas Bowl (Missouri vs. Texas, Dec. 27, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Texas beats Missouri (-3) 35-30
Chance of an upset: 63 percent

Texas’s defense ranks seventh, according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI)

Heart of Dallas Bowl (Utah vs. West Virginia, Dec. 26, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: West Virginia beats Utah (-6.5) 32-28
Chance of an upset: 62 percent

West Virginia’s David Sills V, a Biletnikoff finalist as one of the most outstanding receivers in college football, leads the nation with 18 touchdown catches, one more than Anthony Miller of Memphis.

Birmingham Bowl (South Florida vs. Texas Tech, Dec. 23, noon, ESPN)
Prediction: Texas Tech beats South Florida (-2.5) 36-32
Chance of an upset: 62 percent

Quinton Flowers threw for 21 touchdowns and added 10 more on the ground for South Florida in his senior year. Only five other quarterbacks in the nation had 20 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns this season.

Holiday Bowl (Michigan State vs. Washington State, Dec. 28, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Prediction: Michigan State beats Washington State (-3) 20-19
Chance of an upset: 51 percent

Quarterback Brian Lewerke was in charge of a Michigan State offense that finished the regular season ranked 18th in Passing S&P+, which grades a team’s efficiency, explosiveness, field position, drive-finishing ability and turnover rate.

Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs. Clemson, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Alabama beats Clemson (-2) 23-22
Chance of an upset: 51 percent

The Crimson Tide finished No. 1 in Football Outsiders college football ratings after surrendering just 11.5 points per game, the lowest in the nation. Clemson’s defense ranked No. 2 with 12.8 points allowed per game. That’s close, but it could be a difference maker between two very strong teams.

Camping World Bowl (Oklahoma State vs. Virginia Tech, Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)

Prediction: Oklahoma State (-6.5) beats Virginia Tech 32-31
Chance of an upset: 48 percent

Rookie quarterback Josh Jackson started off solid for the Hokies — completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,378 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions — but then hit the skids in October and November, completing 56 percent of his passes for 1,365 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

If he can get back to his early form, Virginia Tech has a chance.

TaxSlayer Bowl (Louisville vs. Mississippi State, Dec. 30, noon, ESPN)
Prediction: Louisville (-6.5) beats Mississippi State 34-31
Chance of an upset: 47 percent

All eyes are on Mississippi State running back Aeris Williams — 1,161 yards from scrimmage with five touchdowns — to carry the team after Coach Dan Mullen left for the Florida Gators and quarterback Nick Fitzgerald suffered a dislocated ankle in a 31-28 loss to Ole Miss in late November.

Military Bowl (Virginia at Navy, Dec. 28, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Virginia (Pick ’em) beats Navy 26-24

In August, Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus listed Virginia linebacker Micah Kiser among the best pass-rushers at the position, citing Kiser’s pass-rush grade (75.1), the highest of any returning ACC linebacker in 2016. He finished the regular season with 132 tackles — 9.5 for a loss  — and five sacks.

Idaho Potato Bowl (Central Michigan vs. Wyoming, Dec. 22, 4 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Wyoming (-1) beats Central Michigan 21-18
Chance of an upset: 46 percent

Quarterback Josh Allen has been considered by many to be a first-round pick in the 2018 draft, but the junior declined in his second year and has missed the past two games due to a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. If he’s healthy, the Cowboys should have no problem with Central Michigan.

Josh Allen Completion rate Adjusted yards per pass Passer rating
2016 56% 8.3 144.9
2017 56% 6.6 124.0

Cure Bowl (Georgia State vs. Western Kentucky, Dec. 16, 2:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

Prediction: Western Kentucky (-5) beats Georgia State 24-21
Chance of an upset: 43 percent

Georgia State appears to have the edge on paper, outgaining Western Kentucky in yards per play (5.43 vs. 5.29) but the No. 94 Hilltoppers have the edge over No. 109 Panthers per Football Outsiders’ college football ratings.

Rose Bowl (Georgia vs. Oklahoma, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Georgia (-1.5) beats Oklahoma 33-29
Chance of an upset: 39 percent

Senior running back Nick Chubb carried the ball 191 times for 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns, and should have no trouble producing against Oklahoma and the nation’s 62nd-ranked run defense.

Pinstripe Bowl (Boston College vs. Iowa, Dec. 27, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Iowa (-3) beats Boston College 24-20
Chance of an upset: 39 percent

Freshman tailback A.J. Dillon started off slow but ended the season with 1,099 yards and nine touchdowns over his final six games for Boston College, giving him 1,432 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.

Las Vegas Bowl (Boise State vs. Oregon, Dec. 16, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
Prediction: Oregon (-7.5) beats Boise State 35-31
Chance of an upset: 39 percent

The Ducks went 6-1 this season with quarterback Justin Herbert in the lineup. During the five games he missed due to injury Oregon turned to true freshman Braxton Burmeister under center and went 1-4.

Armed Forces Bowl (Army vs. San Diego State, Dec. 23, 3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: San Diego State (-7) beats Army 24-20
Chance of an upset: 38 percent

No team produced more yards per game on the ground (355.8) than Army and only two teams in the nation scored more rushing touchdowns. But unless the Black Knights show they can also get points through the air — their two passing touchdowns were the fewest in college football this season and they completed just 19 passes all season — it is tough to expect them to get another win against San Diego State, the 38th best team in the nation per Football Outsiders.

New Mexico Bowl (Colorado State vs. Marshall, Dec. 16, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Colorado State (-5.5) beats Marshall 30-24
Chance of an upset: 34 percent

Colorado State wideout Michael Gallup, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver,  ranked third nationally in receptions (94) and fifth in receiving yards (1,345) during the regular season. The game charters at Pro Football Focus ranked him as the nation’s No. 1 receiver in their first 2018 NFL mock draft.

Orange Bowl (Miami vs. Wisconsin, Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Wisconsin (-6.5) beats Miami (Fla.) 25-18
Chance of an upset: 34 percent

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor produced a historic run (see what I did there?) in 2017 with the third-most rushing yards by a freshman (1,847) in FBS history. He also forced 54 total missed tackles, ranking him first among Big Ten running backs this season.

Gasparilla Bowl (Florida International vs. Temple, Dec. 21, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Temple (-7) beats Florida International 28-22
Chance of an upset: 34 percent

Temple quarterback Frank Nutile was solid down the stretch, with his only clunker the second-to-last game of the season against Central Florida, where he completed 17 of 40 passes for 201 yards, two touchdowns and a season-high four interceptions.

Fiesta Bowl (Penn State vs. Washington, Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Penn State (-3) beats Washington 31-24
Chance of an upset: 32 percent

Nose tackle Vita Vea finishes his career at Washington with 61 career pressures on 480 rushes, earning him PFF’s fourth-highest grade among interior defensive linemen.

Outback Bowl (Michigan vs. South Carolina, Jan. 1, noon, ESPN2)
Prediction: Michigan (-8) beats South Carolina 20-13
Chance of an upset: 32 percent

Michigan’s defense is among the country’s best this season. The Wolverines allowed 18.3 points per game, 14th in the nation, with the 13th best defensive FEI, which measures value generated per drive against, adjusted for starting field position and opponent offenses faced.

Peach Bowl (Auburn vs. Central Florida, Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Auburn (-9.5) beats UCF 34-27
Chance of an upset: 32 percent

No team scored more points per game than Central Florida (49.4) and even after you adjust their offense for starting field position and opponent they only drop to No. 10, per Offensive FEI.

New Orleans Bowl (North Texas vs. Troy, Dec. 16, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Troy (-5.5) beats North Texas 36-28
Chance of an upset: 27 percent

Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers finishes his college career with 944 completed passes for 10,372 yards and 67 touchdowns. The only other passer to hit the 900-10,000-60 mark over the past four years is Washington State’s Luke Falk.

Alamo Bowl (Stanford vs. Texas Christian, Dec. 28, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Texas Christian (-2.5) beats Stanford 24-15
Chance of an upset: 25 percent

Stanford running back Bryce Love finished the 2017 season with 2,006 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns in 12 games. The Heisman Trophy finalist also forced 62 missed tackles, the highest among draft-eligible players at the position.

Cactus Bowl (Kansas State vs. UCLA, Dec. 26, 9 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Kansas State (-2.5) beats UCLA 38-29
Chance of an upset: 25 percent

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen finished his junior year with 3,717 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Per Chris Trapasso of, that’s good enough to make Rosen the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft.

Dollar General Bowl (Appalachian State vs. Toledo, Dec. 23, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Toledo (-8) beats Appalachian State 35-26
Chance of an upset: 25 percent

Appalachian State’s defensive line sacked the quarterback once out of every 14 passing plays on standard downs — first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer — and once out of every 10 plays on passing downs, ranking them No. 22 and No. 21, respectively, in the country this season.

Quick Lane Bowl (Duke vs. Northern Illinois, Dec. 26, 5:15 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Duke (-4.5) beats Northern Illinois 26-16
Chance of an upset: 23 percent

Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith had 14 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss in 2017, earning him a place on PFF’s first-team all-American defense. According to the site’s Steve Palazzolo, no edge rusher pressured the quarterback more often than Smith (15 sacks, 11 hits and 47 hurries). Smith also finished with PFF’s top grade against the run.

Frisco Bowl (Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist, Dec. 20, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: SMU (-5) beats Louisiana Tech 44-32
Chance of an upset: 19 percent

Southern Methodist’s defense fell apart during the final five games of the season.

2017 SMU Mustangs Wins Losses Points scored per game Points allowed per game
First seven games 5 2 42.0 30.6
Last five games 2 3 37.6 42.4

Sun Bowl (Arizona State vs. N.C. State, Dec. 29, 3 p.m., CBS)
Prediction: North Carolina State (-6) beats Arizona State 36-24
Chance of an upset: 18 percent

Arizona State linebacker Christian Sam finished with 127 tackles, 26 more than any other player in the Pac-10.

Belk Bowl (Texas A&M vs. Wake Forest, Dec. 29, 1 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Wake Forest (-3) beats Texas A&M 38-25
Chance of an upset: 17 percent

Wake Forest had 73 plays from scrimmage of at least 20 yards, 17th in the nation this season, while Texas A&M managed 55. However, nine of those big plays for the Aggies went 60 yards or more (ninth), whereas the Demon Deacons managed just one.

Camellia Bowl (Arkansas State vs. Middle Tennessee, Dec. 16, 8 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Arkansas State (-3.5) beats Middle Tennessee State 33-20
Chance of an upset: 17 percent

Arkansas State defensive end Ja’Von Rolland-Jones has been credited with 13 sacks this year, one fewer than Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith for most in the nation, but no one has more career sacks at the collegiate level than Rolland-Jones (42).

Player School From To Sacks
Ja’Von Rolland-Jones Arkansas State 2014 2017 42
Hau’oli Kikaha Washington 2010 2014 36
Bruce Miller UCF 2007 2010 36
Phillip Hunt Houston 2005 2008 34
Ryan Kerrigan Purdue 2007 2010 34

Boca Raton Bowl (Akron at Florida Atlantic, Dec. 19, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Florida Atlantic (-22.5) beats Akron 35-21
Chance of an upset: 17 percent

Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary has 1,796 rushing yards on the season with a league-leading 29 touchdowns, eight more than Ohio’s Nathan Rourke, who ranks second.

Music City Bowl (Kentucky vs. Northwestern, Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Northwestern (-7) beats Kentucky 31-17
Chance of an upset: 15 percent

Northwestern finished as the 18th best school per the average of 108 rankings tracked by Kentucky finished 58th, giving Northwestern a 1-in-4 chance of winning by 25 points or more.

Arizona Bowl (New Mexico State vs. Utah State, Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
Prediction: Utah State (-3.5) beats New Mexico State 40-25
Chance of an upset: 13 percent

The last time New Mexico State, the 87th best team in the nation this year per Football Outsiders, appeared in a Bowl gameDwight Eisenhower was President of the United States and gas cost 29 cents a gallon.

Cotton Bowl (Ohio State vs. Southern California, Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Ohio State (-7) beats USC 41-24
Chance of an upset: 9 percent

Ohio State’s defense allowed just 58 percent of opponent’s offensive drives to result in a touchdown or at least one first down in 2017, the fourth-best mark in the country.

Bahamas Bowl (Ohio vs. UAB, Dec. 22, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Ohio (-7.5) beats UAB 41-24
Chance of an upset: 6 percent

Ohio’s dual-threat quarterback Nathan Rourke threw 15 touchdowns and rushed for 21 more on the ground. Only Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary had more rushing touchdowns (29) in 2017.

Independence Bowl (Florida State vs. Southern Mississippi, Dec. 27, 1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Prediction: Florida State (-15) beats Southern Mississippi 34-11
Chance of an upset: 1 percent

Florida State’s defensive line stopped 24 percent of opposing rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage, the 13th best mark in the nation in 2017.