Let the spreads point the way to college football’s must-watch matchups

McCaffrey will try to vault Stanford over North Carolina in the Hyundai Sun Bowl.
Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

College football’s bowl season can be a lot like a sprawling shopping center. If you don’t go in with a plan, it’s easy to become paralyzed by options.

There’s almost no way to watch every single postseason contest, with 38 bowl games (excluding the national semifinals) scheduled over the next two weeks. Luckily, point spreads can act as a guide to the games that might be worthwhile in terms of competitiveness. Nine games stand above in being evenly matched, with betting lines at 3 points or lower at press time, and five of those nine feature at least one team that spent a significant stretch in contention for a College Football Playoff spot.

Houston minus-3 vs. San Diego State (Las Vegas Bowl, December 17) San Diego State relies on its running attack behind local product Donnel Pumphrey, who will set the all-time NCAA rushing record with 108 more yards. Houston goes pass-heavy with senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who was in the Heisman conversation early in the season. But the Cougars’ rush defense has played better than the Aztecs’ pass defense throughout the year. Pick: Houston minus-3.

West Virginia plus-2.5 vs. Miami (Russell Athletic Bowl, Orlando, December 28) This was one of the most intriguing matchups even before four-star wide receiver recruit Michael Harley Jr. announced he would commit to whichever school won the game. Miami marred its season by losing four games in a row, but the defeats were by a total of just 32 points. West Virginia’s two losses came by a combined 45 points, and it went 4-0 in games decided by less than a touchdown to make its 10-2 overall record a bit misleading. Pick: Miami minus-2.5.

Oklahoma State plus-3 vs. Colorado ( Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, December 29) You wouldn’t know by the 41 points Colorado gave up to Washington in the Pac 10 Championship Game, but the Buffaloes had one of the best defenses in the nation this season. Problem is, the Oklahoma State offense will be the second-best Colorado has faced, behind only Washington. The Cowboys finished the year ranked 14th in the nation, gaining 6.6 yards per play with an elite quarterback-receiver duo in Mason Rudolph and James Washington. Pick: Oklahoma State plus-3.

North Carolina plus-3 vs. Stanford (Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, December 30) This game could mark the end of an era for Stanford. Junior running back Christian McCaffrey has announced he will enter the NFL Draft, and coach David Shaw could be a candidate for the LA Rams job. Things are more stable on the opposite sideline, where coach Larry Fedora opted to stay put. McCaffrey is expected to go in the mid-rounds of the NFL Draft, long after North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who’s being heralded as the potential No. 1 overall selection. Pick: North Carolina plus-3.

LSU minus-3 vs. Louisville (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, Orlando, December 31) Heisman Trophy winners have a history of playing poorly in bowl games, and the betting market is calling for it to continue with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. All the early action is on LSU, which has gone 5-2 straight-up and against the spread under interim-turned-new coach Ed Orgeron. Louisville went the other direction late in the season, losing its last two games and failing to cover in four of five, but could use the monthlong break to regroup. Pick: Louisville plus-3.

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