Autozone Liberty Bowl Odds, Pick, & Prediction: Kansas State vs. Navy

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If Chris Klieman can take a page from Craig Bohl’s book, then it could be a successful trip to Memphis for the Kansas State Wildcats. Klieman and his K-State squad have a tough task going up against the triple-option of the Navy Midshipmen in the Autozone Liberty Bowl on December 31 with a 3:45 p.m. ET kickoff.

Navy has taken the early money, as we have a flipped favorite situation in this bowl game. The Middies are -2.5, a move that happened before Navy rolled over Army in the annual Army/Navy game on December 15. The Middies have a much shorter layoff and more of a chance to stay fresh having just played that game, but Kansas State is hardly going to complain about additional time to try and digest the option attack.

This isn’t supposed to be as low-scoring of an affair as you might have guessed with the total sitting 52. So far, we haven’t seen much movement on the total, which is a testament to how good Navy has been running the option and how the Kansas State offense improved as the season went along.

Surely Klieman saw some option at the FCS level with North Dakota State and his specialty has always been defense. The 52-year-old was a multi-year defensive coordinator at Northern Iowa and the same at NDSU before getting the head coach gig in 2014 when Bohl went to Wyoming.

Replacing a Hall of Fame coach like Bill Snyder isn’t easy, but Klieman kept the bar of success where it traditionally is in Manhattan. Snyder’s final season marked the first time since 2009 that KSU fell short of a bowl game. Klieman has the Wildcats right back in one with an 8-4 record that includes wins over Mississippi State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State.

Here’s the thing, though. Kansas State wasn’t good defensively. The Wildcats allowed 6.13 yards per play. They just managed to stay on the field and play at a really slow tempo. Kansas State only had 5.62 yards per play, but managed to run 800 offensive plays and was only on the field for 713 defensive plays. That is quite a number given that the Big 12 has some high-powered offenses. Kansas State was 28th in scoring defense with 21.5 points per game and 98th in yards per play allowed on defense.

If you’re wondering why this line moved, that’s why. Kansas State was -0.5 yards per play and still managed to go 8-4. That is not something that would be viewed as sustainable.

Navy runs the football a ton. The Middies only had 1,140 passing yards, which ranked 128th in the nation. Yet that triple-option attack was so proficient that Navy finished the regular season 10th in yards per play with 6.76. Only Clemson, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Oklahoma had more yards per carry than Navy. Nobody came close to Navy’s 51 rushing touchdowns or 363 rushing yards per game. Kansas State was actually 106th in the country in yards per carry allowed with 4.91.

Navy’s defense took a huge leap forward this season with just 5.32 yards per play allowed. Obviously the Navy defense is able to stay off the field and refrain from getting exposed with the triple-option ground and pound, but Navy was 120th in the country in yards per play allowed last season with 6.52. It’s not like the AAC took a major step down offensively. Navy was just substantially better.

With a +1.44 YPP differential for Navy, this line should be even higher than it is, right? There are two reasons I can see it staying low. The first is Klieman’s exposure to the option in the past. The second is that Kansas State played the 20th-ranked schedule per Sagarin and Navy played the 76th-ranked schedule. Kansas State actually rates higher in Sagarin than Navy and is also higher in my power ratings. My line is a pick ‘em with a one-point HFA edge to Navy for a lot of familiarity with this venue and playing in Memphis.

Despite my line, it’s Navy for me here. Kansas State does not have a very efficient offense and will have to be efficient with a limited number of possessions. Navy should control the clock and control most everything else about this game. The Middies also improved dramatically on defense.

But my favorite play here is the under. Unless Navy breaks off some huge runs, this game is going to have a running clock. Kansas State plays extremely slowly and had 511 rushing attempts against 289 pass attempts. The Wildcats only had 4.4 yards per carry. They move very deliberately. I can’t see a lot of short fields with turnovers here. This game looks boring and run-heavy. That’s great for an under.

Pick: Under 52

Lean: Navy -2.5

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