The big 2013 Holiday Bowl breakdown: Intangibles aside, Sun Devils should roll

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers love Arizona State with a fiery passion. Can the Sun Devils overcome both Pac-12 title game disappointment and Texas Tech to roll in the Holiday Bowl (Dec. 30, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) as projected?

Ninety-one percent.

The F/+ win probability model is pretty sound. Depending on your per-unit advantages (offense vs. defense) and the likely pace of a given game, it projects a score and win probability. During the regular season, I feel pretty comfortable with the projections. If a team is projected to have a 91 percent chance of winning a given game, and if that team is projected to win by more than three touchdowns ... well, they're probably going to win.

The bowl break makes me nervous, however. So does Arizona State.

Bowls aren't total crapshoots by any means, but they do introduce a new set of intangibles that occasionally have an impact. Which team is happy to be there? Which team wanted a bigger bowl and didn't get one? Which team is playing with an interim coach? There are extra opportunities for distraction during both the bowl break and the bowl trip itself; which team better maintains its focus?

I have no reason to believe Arizona State is going to lose this undefinable intangibles battle, though the Sun Devils certainly had visions of Rose Bowls floating in their head as they prepared to host the Pac-12 Championship (a game they lost badly to Stanford). No, I fear Arizona State because I have feared ASU in every game. I have feared them in every game because our numbers like them so damn much, and the eyeballs have struggled with that a bit.

When the Sun Devils dominate, they dominate. Cases in point: a 53-24 win over Washington (yards: ASU 585, UW 212), a 62-41 win over USC, and a 58-21 win over an Arizona team that had just beaten Oregon. The Sun Devils took down good teams like Wisconsin and UCLA as well.

But the glitches were pretty easy to remember, too. They were twice roughed up physically by Stanford, they barely survived a Utah team that had already begun to fade, and they lost to Notre Dame in Dallas. The highs were so high that they dragged ASU's ratings up, but the lows were both sketchy and perhaps more frequent toward the end of the season.

Arizona State has easily been a better team than Texas Tech. Easily. But will the Sun Devils show up? And are they really as strong a favorite (24 points according to F/+) as projected? The numbers are making a bold statement with this one. Time for the Sun Devils to back it up.

How they got here

ASU's season to date

I guess I just described it. The Sun Devils came within one home game of reaching the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season. A road win over UCLA, in which they screamed out to a huge lead and held on for dear life, locked up the Pac-12 South title, and Stanford losses to Utah and USC gave ASU home-field advantage.

But Stanford-ASU II was nearly identical to the first match, in which Stanford likewise screamed out to a huge lead and held on. Stanford was just a matchup nightmare for this team, and because of it, ASU fell from the cusp of the Rose Bowl to the Holiday Bowl.

Granted, they know these surroundings well -- it is the Sun Devils' third trip to San Diego in their last eight bowls. Now it's up to them to prove they want to be there.

TT's season to date

It felt mean, really. Texas Tech jumped out to a 7-0 start and reached as high as 10th in the country. They were undefeated in the last weekend of October, but the collective reaction was, "Yeah, but ... come on." The stats just weren't there, and the schedule was incredibly back-loaded. If the Red Raiders could only beat TCU (at home), Iowa State (at home), and West Virginia by a combined 27 points, surely the better teams in the Big 12 would have little problem with them, right?

Right. Oklahoma handed Tech its first loss by a respectable 38-30 margin, and then the floodgates opened. The Red Raiders lost by 18 at home to Oklahoma State, then by 23 at home to Kansas State, then by 29 against Baylor and 25 at Texas.

First-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury performed well in crafting a top-30 offense around an offense with one weapon (a tight end), but the defense and special teams units stunk, and it caught up to them. A lot of Tech fans would have probably been satisfied with 7-5 heading into a year with a freshman quarterback and a new coach. When you lose your final five, that certainly takes away some of the shine.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Arizona State 10-3 14 6 -14 8 16 67
Texas Tech 7-5 NR 60 27 84 116
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
ASU Offense 15 7 13 10 61 12 55
TT Defense 78 101 104 69 18 47 46
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
ASU Offense 47 44 83 58 75 92 62
TT Defense 93 63 25 50 85 84 91
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
TT Offense 60 9 51 29 11 74 8
ASU Defense 12 29 47 8 8 89 56
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
TT Offense 49 62 103 54 40 9 70
ASU Defense 23 38 61 21 2 6 4
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
ASU Special Teams 15 44 55 37 100 82
TT Special Teams 86 53 119 85 103 115

ASU's biggest advantages:

The Tech defense is not good. We'll put it as plainly as possible.

There is some individual talent here; senior end Kerry Hyder is great against the run, bandit linebacker Pete Robertson is a play-maker against run and pass, will linebacker Will Smith is a solid blitzer, corner Bruce Jones gets his hand on some passes.

But there just isn't quite enough talent or experience here to make the mundane plays. Tech is awful against the run, and if Smith isn't successfully blitzing, the passing-downs defense is a bit of a sieve.

Needless to say, this is a problem against a strong, balanced ASU offense. ASU throws a lot on standard downs and runs a lot on passing downs, going against the grain, throwing short to play-makers in space, and watching them make plays. The Sun Devils are 12th in Explosive Drives and in the top 20 of each of the S&P+ categories above.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly is a sound passer with a variety of weapons (three receivers between 50 and 71 catches, three more between 21 and 29), and despite an injury to running back Marion Grice, ASU has been just effective enough with the run to open up the pass (against teams not named Stanford, anyway). This is a better lineup with Grice (still questionable with injury), but it should be good enough to move the ball against the Tech defense.

Buckle up, Tech QBs. The Texas Tech quarterback situation is … complicated. On the same day that Baker Mayfield was named the Big 12's offensive freshman of the year, he announced he was transferring. The timing may have had something to do with sophomore Michael Brewer being named the starter against ASU. Brewer has thrown just 10 passes this year after suffering a preseason injury but will get the nod, especially in Mayfield's absence.

Davis Webb, another freshman who saw quite a bit of playing time this year (320 passes, 2,315 yards), is listed as an "OR" starter on the depth chart, so it's conceivable both he and Brewer will see time. Regardless of who is in the game, the odds of them running for their lives are pretty high.

When it is rolling, Tech's offense is both up-tempo and methodical, grinding out seven-yard pass after seven-yard pass and quickly lining up to do it again. The quick nature of the passing game will be a good antidote for ASU's ridiculous pass rush, but if the first read is covered, it's time to duck and cover. ASU recorded 40 sacks in 2013; three different players had at least 7.5 of them (OLB Chris Young, DE Davon Coleman, and devilbacker Carl Bradford), and though tackle Will Sutton's stats were not as other-worldly as we may have expected, he still has 11.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. And he starts every play only a couple of steps away from the quarterback.

If ASU's front line is able to disrupt the given Tech quarterback's reads and progressions, it's all over for the Red Raiders. And this is one of the best front lines in the country for doing just that.

TT's biggest advantages:

When ASU fails, it fails quickly. For how explosive the Sun Devils can be at times, they do go three-and-out a solid amount, and they're not much for sustaining drives; they usually don't have to sustain drives, as they are pretty inclined to score quickly. But one of Tech's few defensive strengths is the ability to force some three-and-outs.

Once you get the first first down against the Red Raiders, you quickly enter hot knife vs. butter territory, but if Tech can force some quick possessions here and there, be it through sack, turnover, or just some nice run stops (Tech does have a slight advantage in Stuff Rate and a large advantage in Power Success Rate), the Red Raiders could win some battles in the ongoing field position war. ASU is a much, much better field position team than Tech overall, partially because of general quality and partially because of Tech's wretched special teams unit, but three-and-outs are a lovely equalizer.

If the ASU pass rush is indeed neutralized by the quick passing, there isn't much of a Plan B. ASU's secondary is solid enough, but the Sun Devils have proven vulnerable to methodical, dink-and-dunk drives at times. That's basically Tech's specialty. The Red Raiders are in the nation's top 10 when it comes to generating 10-play drives, and they sport one of the nation's more physical passing games.

How does a passing game get labeled physical? It has a lot to do with Jace Amaro, the 260-pound tight end who apparently caught too many passes to be a true tight end. He caught 98 of 141 passes (70 percent catch rate) for 1,240 yards and seven scores but was passed over as a Mackey Award finalist by three players who combined for 121 catches. (Two of the three finalists had 33 each.) Regardless, he had almost as many intended touches in this offense as any of Tech's running backs, which is incredibly unique.

Tech will feed you a heavy dose of Amaro, Eric Ward, Jakeem Grant, Bradley Marquez, and short passes to running backs and hope that you eventually get winded and miss a couple of tackles. It works pretty often, and if the offense isn't disrupted up front, it could work for a few scores.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

There are sophomores and juniors everywhere you look on ASU's offense, but the defense is senior-laden: 13 of 22 players on the first- and second-string will be gone next season (and for all we know, a junior like Carl Bradford could be, too). Because we focus a lot on offenses and quarterbacks, ASU could be ranked or close to it to start next year, even with the rest on defense. But if the Sun Devils put up 60 in San DIego, that would increase their odds significantly.

Tech, meanwhile, almost certainly isn't going to be ranked next season, nor will the Red Raiders be slotted as a Big 12 darkhorse. (Who probably will be? Hello, KSU. Again.) They will lose Ward and will probably lose Amaro, but the overall level of experience will be strong enough to expect improvement. A little bit of it, anyway. An upset would help the perceived turnaround, sure, but more than that it would just feel good after five straight losses.

Summary

F/+ Projection: ASU 50, Tech 26
Win Probability: ASU 91%

Ninety-one percent. I'm hoping this isn't right, because I want to see a good game, but unless the Tech offensive line plays wonderfully and the Red Raiders are at least plus-two in the turnover battle, it's hard to be too optimistic.

ASU has been really, really good this year and has suffered losses only to teams much better than Texas Tech. Unless the Sun Devils are in a missing-Pasadena funk, they should roll.

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