Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Independence Bowl
Alabama -3.5 Colorado

Two of college football's most surprising teams have the stage to themselves on Sunday. The Crimson Tide had high expectations, and rightfully so at roughly $4 million per, in Nick Saban's first season. Things looked good after 8 games as the Tide stood 6-2, with a recently completed 41-17 thrashing of Tennessee. Then the wheels fell off. Alabama lost it's last 4 games, though the combined margin of defeat was only 26 points (none by more than 7). In fact, Alabama did not lose a single football game by more than 7 points, indicating that they may not be too far away from returning to glory under Saban. However, just because all their losses were close, that does not mean they are excusable. Alabama lost to Florida State (7-5 record and one of the nation's most disappointing teams), Mississippi State (7-5 record) for the second year in a row, and Louisiana-Monroe (6-6 record--with no other wins against D-IA teams outside the Sun Belt). They also narrowly escaped defeat against Houston with a 30-24 win (at 8-4, a good, but not great Conference USA team) and against Ole Miss in a 27-24 win (3-9 with zero SEC wins). So 6-6 is probably a pretty good indicator of how good they are. Colorado on the other hand, was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. After finishing 2-10 in 2006, the Buffs began the season 4-2. included amongst those wins was a home upset over a top-5 Oklahoma team. They fell back to Earth over the last half of the season losing 4 of 5 before rebounding to take care of Nebraska in the season finale and become bowl-eligible.

Befitting two teams that finished 6-6, neither did anything exceptionally well. The Tide passing game was very anemic, especially considering they had a seasoned starter at quarterback in junior John Parker Wilson. The Tide had a cumulative passer rating of only 113.30 (95th in the nation) and averaged only 6.1 yards per pass (100th in the nation). Senior receiver DJ Hall did have a few good games catching the football, grabbing 13 for 185 yards in the aforementioned whitewashing of Tennessee. He also topped 100 yards receiving against Ole Miss and Arkansas (two other Tide wins). However, in the 4-game skid to close the regular season, Hall only managed 13 catches for 183 yards and a solitary touchdown.

The Tide's best performance came on defense and special teams. They limited their opponents to a quarterback rating of 114.62 (28th in the nation). They were also fantastic at returning punts, ranking 12th in the nation with an average return of 13.70 yards. But their biggest strength was on kickoff coverage where they limited teams to an average of only 17.62 yards per return (6th in the nation).

The Buffs 4-game improvement in 2007 was all due to their offense. In 2006, they averaged only 16.3 points (107th in the nation) and 291 yards per game (102nd in the nation). Those numbers jumped to 27.6 points (63rd in the nation) and 377 yards per game (72nd in the nation) thanks to the insertion of freshman quarterback and son of head coach Dan Hawkins, Cody Hawkins, into the starting lineup. Hawkins had his share of ups and downs in his first season as a college football player, but overall he threw 19 touchdowns against 15 interceptions and posted a passer rating of 115.71 (higher than the 111.86 rating of the more experienced John Parker Wilson). As a team, the Buffs had a passer rating of 115.71 (86th in the nation); still relatively low, but a substantial improvement upon the 96.66 (114th in the nation) rating the team compiled in 2006. While the efficiency numbers were not as high as father Hawkins would have liked, the offensive line did a pretty good job of protecting the younger Hawkins. The Buffs allowed only 17.5 sacks on the season (35th in the nation). The line also opened holes for senior running back Hugh Charles. After not playing in the first two games, and notching only 4 carries for 9 yards in the third, Charles gained 993 yards over the last 9 games. Not surprisingly, a Colorado offense that averaged only about 45 yards per game and 1.70 yards per rush over the first 3 games, averaged 185 yards per game and 4.41 yards per rush over the last 9.

Despite all the improvements on offense, the Buffs only managed a 6-6 record thanks to some regression on the other side of the ball. After allowing 22.3 points (56th in the nation) and 341 yards per game (66th in the nation) in 2006, the Buffs allowed 29.4 points per game (78th in the nation) and 389 yards per game (64th in the nation) in 2007. The slight up tick in yards led to a larger change in points because the Buffs were not as fortunate in the turnover department (+8 in 2006 and -4 in 2007). Those extra turnovers and extended drives caused the defense to allow many more points, despite actually improving (in the national ranking) in the yards they allowed.

Like their opponent in the Independence Bowl, Colorado was pretty proficient at each aspect of special teams coverage. They finished 33rd in the nation in opponents' punt return average (6.87 yards per return), 18th in opponents' kickoff return average (19.33 yards per return), 38th in punt return average (10.28 yards per return), and 30th in kickoff return average (23.00 yards per return). In what should be a low scoring affair, look for Dan Hawkins to have a trick or two up his sleeve. The Tide will lose their 5th straight game, meaning Saban will collect roughly $666,666 per win this season.

The Pick: Colorado will cover the 3.5 point spread.

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