Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Wake Forest -2.5 Connecticut

The last time these two teams played, on September 16th, 2006, it was very non-descript early season affair. Wake Forest was fresh off a 4-7 season while Connecticut had just finished a 5-6 campaign. The Demon Deacons won 24-13, despite being outgained by 115 yards (a common refrain for both teams recently). Of course, Wake Forest finished a Cinderella season with an 11-3 record and played in the Orange Bowl. Connecticut meanwhile struggled through a 4-8 season. The Deacons enjoyed another solid season this year, finishing 8-4 and playing in a bowl game for the second consecutive year for the first time in school history. Connecticut rebounded this season, and actually was the Big East co-champion. They have a great deal in common with both the 2006 and 2007 Demon Deacons.

The past two season, Wake Forest has gone an incredible 9-5 in games where they were outgained (5-3 in 2006 and 4-2 in 2007). They have done this by creating a ton of turnovers and being very careful with the football. In 2006 their turnover margin was +13 (6th in the nation) and in 2007 it was +10 (14th in the nation). They have also excelled at scoring unconventional (special teams and defensive touchdowns). In 2006 they returned a blocked punt and 2 interceptions for touchdowns. In 2007, they returned a kickoff, a punt, 6 interceptions (3 apiece by corner Alphonso Smith and linebacker Aaron Curry), and 2 fumbles for touchdowns. In two seasons, that is 13 unconventional touchdowns!

Connecticut has done their best Wake Forest impression this season. In 7 of their 12 games, the Huskies were outgained. They won 4 of those games. The reason? Surprise. Surprise. A turnover margin of +13 (7th in the nation) and some unconventional touchdowns. The Huskies have returned a punt (fair-catch gate against Louisville), 2 kickoffs, and 5 interceptions for touchdowns. I guess what I'm saying is, don't be surprised if the defense and special teams do some scoring in this game.

So if we consider the defense, special teams, and turnover capabilities of both teams to be a wash, what will be the difference in this game? Both teams have very competent quarterbacks. Riley Skinner of Wake Forest finished second in the nation in completion percentage, connecting on 71.9% of his passes. However, most of those passes were dinks and dunks. As a team, Wake Forest averaged only 9.18 yards per completed pass (119th or dead last in the nation). For Connecticut, their quarterback Tyler Lorenzen, a junior college transfer, stepped in and improved the Huskie passing game substantially, from terrible to average. In 2006, the Huskies sported a cumulative passer rating of 103.94 (104th in the nation) and averaged 5.4 yards per pass (117th in the nation). This season the Huskies have a passer rating of 126.46 (63rd in the nation) and average 7.0 yards per pass (47th in the nation). Both quarterbacks are also fairly nimble. Skinner rushed for only 16 yards on the season on 55 rushes, but when you consider that yards lost due to sacks are subtracted from rushing yardage, and his numbers are not in the red, it is a little more impressive. As an ardent observer of Wake Forest football, I can tell you that Skinner makes his best plays when he moves around within the pocket and buys time waiting for his receivers to come open. Lorenzen on the other hand gained over 300 yards (304) rushing on the season.

Connecticut has a better point differential (+111 to +59), better per game yardage differential (+12 per game to -16.5), and a better yards per play differential (+.1 per play to -.1 per play), all while playing a more difficult schedule. Both these teams are very close, and Wake is a slight Vegas favorite. Connecticut should be the slight Vegas favorite.

The Pick: Connecticut will cover the 2.5 point spread.

Liberty Bowl
Central Florida -3 Mississippi State

While the Bulldogs are certainly not the worst bowl team this season (that distinction likely belongs to Memphis or Nevada), they are the worst participant from a BCS conference. The Bulldogs gave up 29 more points than they scored on the season (2.4 per game), 432 more yards than they gained (36 per game), and averaged 4.5 yards per offensive play while allowing 5.0 yards per play on defense. All 5 of their losses were by at least 12 points, and the average margin in those defeats was 22.6 points. So how did the Bulldogs win 7 games and qualify for a bowl? Their opponents fell on their own swords. Prior to the season, most observers would have counted on 4 sure victories for the Bulldogs--home dates with UAB, Gardner-Webb, and Ole Miss, as well as a road game at Tulane. Mississippi State won those 4 games, but they also achieved 3 relatively unexpected victories--at Auburn, at Kentucky, and a home game against Alabama. Mississippi State was outgained by 110 yards in the Auburn game, but won 19-14 thanks to a +4 turnover margin. Mississippi State did outgain Kentucky by 33 yards, but won 31-14 thanks mostly to a +5 turnover margin. In the 17-12 win over Alabama, the Bulldogs were outgained by only 59 yards and were only +1 in turnover margin. However, one of the two passes they intercepted was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by defensive back Anthony Johnson to close the first half and change a possible 12-3 or 16-3 deficit into a 10-9 lead. This is not meant to denigrate the job Sylvester Croom has done in bringing the Bulldogs back to a bowl game for the first time since 2000. Rather it is to serve as a reminder that luck and random chance played a significant role in sending the Bulldogs to Shreveport.

Consider that Mississippi State ranked a woeful 112th in the nation in total offense, averaging only 305 yards per game. While freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll was an extreme improvement over Michael Henig, who began the season under center, the offense still managed to average only 5.8 yards per pass (113th in the nation) and compile a passer rating of 101.41 (117th in the nation). What Carroll gave the Bulldogs was an improvement from terrible to sub-par in accuracy (53.2% completion percentage for Carroll to 47.4% for Henig) and a knack for not throwing interceptions. Carroll threw only 6 interceptions in 237 pass attempts (2.5 per 100 passes), while Henig threw 9 in only 76 attempts (11.8 per 100 passes). Once the Bulldogs were able to take better care of the ball, they could rely on their defense (28th nationally in yards allowed per game) to keep them close and perhaps generate some luck to nab a few upsets.

The Bulldogs will need to follow that same formula against the Golden Knights because the Knights are clearly the superior team. As you may have heard, UCF is led by their junior running back Kevin Smith. Smith currently has 2448 yards and 29 touchdowns through 13 games. Smith's emergence as a star has also coincided with the rise of senior quarterback Kyle Israel (who is the chicken and who is the egg?). Israel split time last season with Steven Moffett and posted a better completion percentage (65.1% to 55.3%), yards per pass (8.6 to 6.4), and passer rating (142.82 to 117.09). In his first season as a full-time starter, Israel has continued his solid play, throwing 15 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions while completing nearly 60% of his throws (59.9%).

The Golden Knights also have a solid, if not spectacular defense. They intercepted 23 passes on the year (tied for most in the nation). They were also able to pressure opposing quarterbacks, generating 38 sacks (18th in the nation in sacks per game). While senior linemen Leger Douzable had 7.5 and freshman linebacker Bruce Miller had 7, the remaining 23.5 sacks were split among 13 players.

So can the Bulldogs contain Kevin Smith, or more accurately can we expect the Bulldogs to hold Smith in check? Smith's lone sub-par performance (his lone game under 100 yards or 4.00 yards per rush) came against South Florida. Mississippi State has a good defense, but they are not in the class of the Golden Bulls. The Bulldogs allowed over 200 yards rushing to West Virginia and Arkansas (understandable) as well as Tennessee and Ole Miss (somewhat understandable) and Auburn (inconceivable). Look for Smith to have a solid game (he won't get to 200 yards though) and the Golden Knights to win by two scores.

The Pick: Central Florida will cover the 3 point spread.

Alamo Bowl
Penn State -5.5 Texas A&M

The Nittany Lions are playing in their 3rd consecutive bowl game. That's quite a feat for Joe Pa and the boys considering in the 5-year span from 2000-2004, the Lions played in only one bowl game. Opposing the Nittany Lions are the Aggies from Texas A&M. The Aggies did beat their archrivals in Austin for the second straight year, but other than that victory, the season was a huge disappointment. The Aggies were beaten by perennial doormats (Kansas), perennial powers (Oklahoma), and former powers (Miami) alike. To be fair, 3 of their losses were to teams currently ranked in the top-10 (Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri). But, besides Texas, where is the marquee win? The last 2 and 4 of the past 6 Alamo Bowls have come down to the wire. Can the 2007 version continue this trend, or will the Nittany Lions roll over the Aggies?

In keeping with their recent success, Penn State is led by their defense. For the 4th consecutive year, and 5th time in the last 6 seasons, the Penn State defense allowed fewer than 20 points per game. Penn State sacked opposing passers 45 times in 12 games (2nd in the nation behind only Georgia Tech). That consistent pressure and the resulting lost yardage helped the Lions finish 6th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (88 per game). They also finished 9th in total yards allowed per game (307 per game). When they didn't bring opposing quarterbacks down, they were susceptible to the pass. They finished only a solid 44th in the nation in opponents' quarterback rating (119.11) and 41st in the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (6.5).

Offensively, Penn State was a run-first team. Senior running back Rodney Kinlaw, who came into the season with just 226 yards rushing on 80 carries, toted the rock 222 times and gained 1186 yards. His backfield mate, senior quarterback Anthony Morelli, had a decent season, substantially improving upon his 2006 numbers, but still keeping Penn State out of the national championship picture with his erratic play. He improved his quarterback rating from 111.90 to 126.97, but this number still ranked only 61st among qualifying quarterbacks. On special teams, Penn State was pretty good at returning punts (ranking 34th in the nation punt return average), but only decent at returning kickoffs (ranking 60th in the nation in kickoff return average). However, they did not do a good job covering kickoffs, allowing over 26 yards per kickoff return (116th in the nation).

Texas A&M was also a run-first team. In fact with 538 rush attempts, they were 17th in the nation in total runs. They were pretty proficient when they ran too, averaging 4.81 yards per rush (21st in the nation) and gaining 215 yards per game (13th in the nation). Their leading rusher was actually quarterback Stephen McGee who gained 858 yards. Their thunder-n-lightning running back combo of Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson gained 746 and 646 yards respectively. McGee had a decent season throwing the ball, albeit a significant regression from 2006 when he threw only 2 interception, but the Aggies live and die with the running game.

Defensively, the Aggies had trouble pressuring opposing quarterbacks, generating only 18 sacks all season (96th in the nation). That lack of pressure allowed opposing quarterbacks to get very comfortable. They compiled a cumulative quarterback rating of 141.77 (100th in the nation), averaged 7.8 yards per pass (102nd in the nation), and had three times as many touchdown passes as interceptions (21-7).

So in the Alamo Bowl, we have a team with a decent offense and very good defense facing off against a team with a good offense and a bad defense. So Penn State wins right? Not so fast. The Lions main defensive strength was sacking the opposing quarterback. The Aggies allowed only 14 sacks all season (18th in the nation). The Aggies main weakness on defense was stopping the pass. Penn State has a decent passing game, but their attack is predicated on the run. Finally, Penn State struggles at covering kickoffs, while Texas A&M ranks 20th in the nation in average kickoff return. The Aggie offense will have a hard time running consistently against the Penn State linebackers, but look for them to bust a few big plays and win the field position battle with their special teams.

The Pick: Texas A&M will cover the 5.5 point spread.

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