Marshall Thundering Herd vs. Buffalo Bulls
Line: Buffalo -4.5
Where: Crampton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama
When: Friday, 12/25, at 2:30 p.m. ET
A pair of star running backs could be missing from Friday’s Camellia Bowl between Marshall and Buffalo.
Marshall running back Brenden Knox, who is projected to be a late-round draft pick, has decided to forego the bowl game and his senior season. Knox had 887 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this year, finishing his career with nearly 3,000 rushing yards.
Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson exited the MAC Championship Game with an injury, but he is expected to be available on Friday. Patterson has been practicing off to the side early in the week, according to Rachel Lenzi of the Buffalo News.
The Bulls opened as 3.5-point favorites before dipping to field-goal favorites due to early betting action. They have ticked all the way up to -4.5 as of Tuesday afternoon though, likely caused by several key Marshall players deciding to opt out.
Buffalo finished the regular season with a 5-0 record, but it lost to Ball State in the MAC title game. Marshall won its first Conference USA Eastern Division title since 2014, but it lost to Rice in the regular-season finale and fell to UAB in the C-USA championship.
Knox made his announcement on Monday night. Senior linebacker Tavante Beckett also made the decision to opt out Monday. He led the defense with 90 tackles and was the FBS leader with four fumble recoveries.
Offensive tackle Josh Ball is also skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. All three players were All-Conference USA first-team selections.
“Any of those guys that think that’s the direction they want to go in, I know I’m behind them 100% and I know our players are,” long-time head coach Doc Holliday said. “Everybody has to make the decisions that they feel are best for them.”
Freshman quarterback Grant Wells will need to step up on Friday. Wells completed 60.8 percent of his passes and had an 18-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season. He led Conference USA in passing yards (219.7 per game), but he was intercepted five times in the 20-0 loss to Rice when Marshall was a 24.5-point home ‘chalk.’
Wells’ top target is senior tight end Xavier Gaines, who caught 26 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns. Knox will be replaced by junior running back Sheldon Evans, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 54 attempts. He did not have more than five carries in any of the last four games this season.
Buffalo will be hoping Patterson suits up for Friday’s game. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry this season and tied the NCAA record with eight rushing touchdowns in a win over Kent State. If he is limited or unable to go, junior running back Kevin Marks Jr. will be well-equipped to replace him.
Marks averaged 7.8 yards per carry and had 603 rushing yards this season. Junior quarterback Kyle Vantrease completed 63.0 percent of his passes and had a 7-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio, but the offense is predicated on the rushing attack.
They will be facing a Thundering Herd defense that finished third nationally, allowing only 277.7 total yards per game. However, they will be without Beckett on Christmas Day.
Marshall has won its last six games against the Bulls, but they have not played since 2004. The Thundering Herd are 11-4 ATS in their last 15 games as underdogs, while Buffalo has covered at an 11-3 clip in its last 14 games.
The pick: Buffalo -4.5
It will be very interesting to see where this line closes. Knox, Beckett and Ball might not be worth more than a point each to the spread, but the accumulation of three all-conference players missing could be much more than three points. Motivation is a major key to handicapping bowl games and the Thundering Herd might be lacking in that category on Friday. Buffalo seems to have everyone available, assuming Patterson is able to play. Even if he is limited, Marks is one of the most capable backups in the country. The Thundering Herd really tailed off down the stretch this season and I expect that to carry over into the bowl game.