Papa John's.com Bowl
Cincinnati -11 Southern Miss
This spread is the second largest of the bowl season (behind the 13.5 points Southern Cal is giving Illinois), and so it should be. The Bearcats are 9-3, and all of their losses have come by 7 points or less. Currently sporting a #20 ranking in the AP Poll and a #23 ranking in the Coaches Poll, the Bearcats have a great chance to finish the season ranked for the first time in school history. And with Michigan recently filling their head coaching vacancy, perhaps Brian Kelly will stay awhile in the Queen City and build a team that is consistently ranked and revered. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagles are only 7-5 with losses to both good (Tennessee, Boise State, and Central Florida) and bad (Rice) teams. The only Division IA team they beat with a winning record was East Carolina. This marks the sixth time in seven seasons that Southern Miss has finished with at least 5 losses. That slippage into mediocrity caused longtime coach Jeff Bower to be forced out/resign at season's end. So can the Golden Eagles, in the last game of the Jeff Bower era, keep this one interesting?
To answer that question, we need to assess what (if anything) Southern Miss does well. For the most part, the Golden Eagles rank where we we would expect a 7-5 team to rank; somewhere around average. However, their is one area where they do distinguish themselves. Running the football. Southern Miss ranks 22nd in the country in rush yards per game (200 yards). They also rank 29th in yards per rush (4.65 per attempt). Led by sophomore running back Damion Fletcher (over 1400 yards on the ground) and senior quarterback Jeremy Young (294 rush yards), the Golden Eagles were very proficient on the ground.
So now that we know what the Golden Eagles did well, what about the Bearcats? What did they excel at? Creating turnovers. The Bearcats created 39 turnovers (23 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries) which ranked 2nd in the country. Their turnover spree consistently put the offense in great field position, and allowed the team to score almost 37 points per game (14th nationally). The Bearcats also excelled at throwing the football. Behind senior quarterback and Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk, the offense ranked 23rd in passing yards per game, 8th in quarterback rating, 9th in yards per pass, and 29th in completion percentage.
On paper, this game should not be close. The Bearcats won their 5 non-conference games by an average score of 46.4-10.6. Several of those teams were bad (San Diego State was 4-8, Marshall was 3-9, and SE Missouri State is not D-IA), but Oregon State (8-4 record) went bowling and Miami (Ohio) (6-7) was bowl-eligible and won their division in the MAC. Plus two of those games (San Diego State and Miami) were on the road. Southern Miss should not be able to run the ball consistently against the Cincinnati defense, and their passing game leaves a lot to be desired (83rd in quarterback rating and 100th in passing touchdowns). Barring a slew of turnovers or a plethora of injuries, Cincinnati should win rather comfortably.
The Pick: Cincinnati will cover the 11 point spread
New Mexico Bowl
New Mexico -3 Nevada
The New Mexico Lobos are playing at home in the New Mexico Bowl for the second season in a row and in their 5th bowl game in the last 6 seasons. Head coach Rocky Long deserves a great deal of credit for consistently fielding a winner since taking over for Dennis Franchione following the 1997 season. After winning just 12 games in his first three seasons, Long has led the Lobos to at least 6 wins in each of the past seven seasons, though he has yet to guide the Lobos to a postseason win. On the other sideline, head coach Chris Ault has the Wolfpack in a bowl game for the third consecutive season. The Wolfpack won their first bowl game in Ault's second go-round with the team by a single point in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl (49-48 over Central Florida). Last season they lost MPC Computers Bowl by a single point (21-20 to Miami). This game has the potential to be as good as those two.
New Mexico struggled moving the football in 2007. The offense averaged only 357 yards per game (84th in the nation). The running game was the weakest link, as despite having a 1000 yard rusher in Rodney Ferguson (1177 yards), the team averaged only 3.48 yards per rush (93rd in the nation). The passing game was a little better, but not much, ranking 77th in quarterback rating, 66th in yards per pass, and 59th in passing yards per game. The Lobos made their money on defense (to an extent) and in the kicking game. The Lobos ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per game (126 yards), 27th in yards per rush allowed (3.30), 37th in opponent's quarterback rating (117.10), and 23rd in yards per game (329 yards). In the kicking game, the Lobos held opponents to only 19.45 yards per kickoff return (21st in the nation) and their kicker John Sullivan made 26 of his 29 field goal attempts (6th best percentage in the nation).
For the Wolfpack, its all about offense. Freshmen quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the ideal fit to run Chris Ault's unique Pistol offense. Kaepernick took over full time for injured starter Nick Graziano in the 6th game. For the season, Kaepernick has averaged 9.4 yards per pass (3rd behind Tim Tebow and Paul Smith among qualifying quarterbacks), thrown 19 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions, and has a quarterback rating of 161.06 (5th among qualifying quarterbacks). He also rushed for 567 yards and added 6 touchdowns on the ground. Of course, Kaepernick is not the only threat in the backfield. Fellow tri-syllable surname having Luke Lippincott (the rarest of all breeds, a white running back) gained 1380 yards and averaged 5.37 yards per rush.
On defense it was a different story for the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack defense could not stop the pass. Nevada only held opposing quarterbacks to a quarterback rating of 134.43 (87th in the nation). The primary reason for the high rating was an inability to intercept passes. They grabbed only 6 all season (116th in the nation). Opposing quarterbacks used the pass to move the ball down the field and when they got close to pay dirt, they punched it in on the ground. The Wolfpack allowed 25 rushing touchdowns (94th in the nation). The Wolfpack also did a poor job of covering punts, allowing 10.48 yards per return (84th in the nation).
Nevada returns 8 or 9 starters on offense next season, depending on whom you consider a starter. Their defense should also improve on the lowly 6 interceptions they were able to grab. They should also see some improvement in the luck department as they went only 3-5 in games decided by 8 points or less. They could be poised for a big season and possible WAC title next year. If season-to-season momentum exists, they will have that to because they will conclude this season with an upset win in the New Mexico Bowl. The Lobos' defense will not be able to hold down the Pistol attack.
The Pick: Nevada will cover the 3 point spread.
Las Vegas Bowl
BYU -5.5 UCLA
Forget about Hawaii and their tissue-soft schedule in the Sugar Bowl, the best mid-major team this season (and possibly last season) is the BYU Cougars. Coming off an 11-2 campaign that included an undefeated season in Mountain West conference play and culminated with a 30-point beatdown of Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, this was expected to be a rebuilding year with all the personnel losses (especially quarterback John Beck who now plys his trade for the Miami Dolphins). After beginning the season 1-2, the Cougars have simply reeled off 9 consecutive victories (6 by 10 points or more) to once again stand 10-2 at the close of the regular season and undefeated in conference play. They face a UCLA team that has limped to the finish line (1-4 last 5 games) and will be without the services (?) of fired head coach Karl Dorrell.
If your memory is anything like mine, you may not remember that these two teams have already tangled once in 2007. In the season's second weekend UCLA defeated BYU 27-17 in Pasadena. However, BYU outgained the Bruins by almost 200 total yards (435-236), but were undone by two lost fumbles and an interception. The Cougars have gone 9-1 since that defeat, while the Bruins have floundered, going only 4-6. BYU ranks 10th in the nation in yards allowed per game (307). They are especially proficient at shutting down the run. Only one team averaged more than 4 yards per rush against them this season (Air Force averaged 4.16 per rush). They were also pretty good against the pass, limiting teams to a cumulative quarterback rating of 111.95 (22nd in the nation). And like most good teams, BYU was not a one-trick pony. On offense, their sophomore quarterback Max Hall, in his first season as a starter, threw twice as many touchdowns (24) as interceptions (12). Their freshman running back Harvey Unga gained 1211 yards while averaging 5.33 yards per rush. Unga also added 41 catches and 629 yards through the air, making him their third leading receiver in both categories. Their top two receivers, sophomores Austin Collie and Dennis Pita, both had over 50 catches and over 700 yards receiving.
Meanwhile, the Bruins suffered through injury and inconsistency on offense throughout their 6-6 season. Juniors Ben Olson, Patrick Cowan, freshman McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and even sophomore wide receiver Osaar Rasshan spent time playing quarterback. The Bruins only managed to complete 48.3% of their passes as a team, good for 116th in the country, and ahead of only Washington, Florida International, and Idaho. Bruin quarterbacks were also sacked 33 times (103rd in the nation). Defensively, the Bruins were pretty strong. They ranked 19th in the nation with 35 sacks, 25th in opponent's quarterback rating (113.58), 17th in yards per pass allowed (6.0), and 19th in yards per rush allowed (3.12). In all likelihood the Bruins defense will keep this one interesting for a time, but they won't be able to score enough to hold off the Cougars.
The Pick: BYU will cover the 6.5 point spread