One of my favorite things about the holiday season is the weirdness of some bowl matchups.
Here, for example, we have a bad SEC team, the Missouri Tigers, with highly questionable motivation, facing an angry Army team playing in the — get this — Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
Sure, you could go about your business on this Wednesday and ignore this betting opportunity, but one particular matchup in this contest could make it a potential money maker despite the game’s lack of glamor. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s see if we can get inside the heads of these two programs.
One of the best approaches to handicapping bowl games is to play amateur psychologist. For example, do we think Mizzou cares what happens here?
Well, in the past few days, the Tigers have announced their star running back, junior Tyler Badie, will not participate. The coaches say they made the decision so he can prepare for the NFL Draft. Hard to blame a talented player with a bright future for skipping this one.
And, oh, by the way, Mizzou also announced it won’t start its leading passer or leading tackler either. Brady Cook, the backup QB, will be under center rather than Connor Bazelak, while safety Martez Manuel is still out with a high ankle sprain. The Tigers haven’t won a bowl game since 2014, when Gary Pinkel was still running the show.
As for Army, all you need to know is it’s a bowl game. Service academies always show up for their bowls. It’s one of the great angles of bowl season. In the past 30 years, Army, Navy, and Air Force have combined to go 37-14 against the spread (72.5%) in bowl games. Army (8-4) was cruising along, having a fantastic season, before Navy spoiled all that with a 17-13 win at MetLife Stadium a couple of weeks ago. The guess here is Army will be looking to make Missouri pay for what Navy did.
Gamblers should beware that the Mizzou QB switch may not be as big a deal as it sounds.
Many Mizzou fans clamored for coach Eli Drinkwitz to start Cook over Bazelak at various points throughout a rather undistinguished season. It will be Cook’s first start since high school, but he fared OK stepping in for Bazelak at times, completing 80% of his passes with two touchdowns and no picks in six career games. He can run a little bit, too.
Army QB Christian Anderson has surprised some teams this year with deep throws. In fact, Army led the nation in explosive pass plays, though the sample size was hardly massive. As usual, the Black Knights will be looking to move methodically behind their triple-option offense. They ran it on 90% of downs. Coach Jeff Monken likes to go for it on fourth down.
Here’s where things really get scary if you happen to root for the Tigers. Missouri’s rushing defense under coordinator Steve Wilks looked helpless to stop the run most of the season.
The Tigers finished 124th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (229.3) and No. 119 in yards allowed per play (5.5). There are only 130 FBS teams, so, yeah, not great.
Army did a lot better stopping the run and that should prove a lot easier now that it won’t have to try to tackle Badie, an All-Southeastern Conference player with a legitimate shot to be taken in the first few rounds of the draft. When good things happened for Mizzou this season, it was usually Badie accomplishing them.
Army’s defense is stout against the run, finishing top 20 in rush success rate and yards per rush. It might make more sense for Missouri to just let Cook wing it a bit, as the Army secondary is pedestrian to put it kindly. Army was fairly helpless against Wake Forest and its quarterback, Sam Hartman, which may have given Missouri’s coaches some clues, presuming Cook is good enough to follow the script.
Drinkwitz, hired from Appalachian State a couple of years ago, is building toward something, as evidenced by Mizzou’s signing of the top receiving recruit in the nation, Luther Burden III of East St. Louis. Burden, however, won’t be able to suit up for at least a few months.
You could knock Army a bit for its strength of schedule, with cupcake wins over UConn, UMass, and Bucknell, but they also had impressive victories over Western Kentucky (38-35), Georgia State, and Liberty, all bowl teams. The only team Army couldn’t hang with was Wake Forest, which put up 70 points on them, but Mizzou just doesn’t have the passer or playmakers to put up that kind of pressure on the Black Knights’ secondary.
If Cook appears shaky, look for Drinkwitz to call on freshman Tyler Macon, but there’s no guarantee that will work either.
The only real argument for Mizzou here is they played in the big, bad SEC. The Tigers, obviously, played a more challenging schedule, with OK wins against Central Michigan, North Texas, South Carolina, and Florida. Mizzou also has the special teams edge with kicker Harrison Mevis, one of the best in the nation.
If you’re going to back Mizzou, perhaps the smartest play is to go all-in, hope the SEC talent can carry you, and jump on the moneyline (+200 at some books, including Caesars).
Uncertainty with Missouri’s offense makes the over-under total (54 at most books) a bit of an enigma. The way Army grinds out first downs on the ground, games tend to fly by. If you’re leaning under, shop for lines, as some books, including BetMGM, have it at 54.5.
Overall, the best bet might be the simplest. Lay the 6.5 points (the universal line) with Army and hope the trends outlined above hold.
Photo: Chris Pedota/USA TODAY