Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Armed Forces Bowl
California -3.5 Air Force

If you were to ask a casual college football fan what Cal's record was, what would they say? Probably 8-4. Heck the team started 5-0, with wins over Tennessee and Oregon, but I remember them dropping that game to Oregon State where their quarterback took a sack as time ran out and they couldn't get the kicking team on in time to try a field goal. So ya, 8-4 sounds good. Since beating Oregon on the last weekend in September, the Golden Bears have won only once more--a 3-point home win over Washington State. They lost to good teams (Arizona State and Southern Cal are currently in the top-15), bad teams (Stanford upset them the last weekend of the season), mediocre teams (UCLA), at home (Oregon State), and on the road (Washington). Cal fans can take heart that their largest margin of defeat was only 14 points (against the Huskies). Still a 6-6 finish (3-6 in the Pac-10) has to have Jeff Tedford scratching his head. Their opponents, the Air Force Falcons are making their first bowl appearance since 2002, under first-year had coach Troy Calhoun. The Mountain West is already 4-0 in bowl games (with 1 to go), and the Falcons would like nothing more than to take down another 6-6 Pac-10 team like their conference brethren BYU.

For all the hoopla surrounding the Falcons run-dominated option offense, they were also pretty stout defensively. Opposing quarterbacks were only able to compile a passer rating of 117.51 (39th in the nation). The Falcon defense allowed only 13 touchdown passes all season (16th in the nation), while intercepting 15 errant throws (34th in the nation). The Falcons were also pretty good at shutting down the run, as only two teams averaged more than 4 yards per rush against them (Navy and Colorado State). For the season, Air Force allowed only 3.28 yards per rush (24th in the nation).

Offensively, the Falcons rely on their option offense to move the chains. The Falcons averaged 298 yards per game on the ground (2nd in the nation behind only Navy) and 5.43 yards per rush (6th in the nation). Three players had over 500 yards on the ground: wing back Chad Hall (1415 to go along with his team-leading 46 catches for 488 yards), running back Jim Ollis (581) , and quarterback Shaun Carney (529). When they did throw the ball, which was not very often (2nd fewest pass attempts), they were pretty effective. Their team passer rating of 133.44 ranked 40th in the nation.

Getting back to the Golden Bears, if you take a look at the numbers its easy to see why they lost 6 of their last 7 games. Through the first 5 games, the Bears turned the ball over only 4 times (2 picks and 2 fumbles). They also turned their opponents over 15 times in those 4 games (8 picks and 7 fumbles) for a margin of +11. In their last 7 games, they turned the ball over 21 times (12 picks and 9 fumbles). Quarterback Nate Longshore threw at least one interception in the last 6 games he started and the team as a whole turned the ball over at least 3 times in every game but one during the last 7 games. The team also collected only 9 turnovers in that span (2 picks and 7 fumbles) for a margin of -12. If the Bears are more careful with the ball and are fortunate enough to fall on a Falcon fumble or two, they can win this game going away.

The Pick: California will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Sun Bowl
South Florida -6.5 Oregon

Oh what might have been for Oregon. The Ducks were 8-1 and leading Arizona before an injury to quarterback Dennis Dixon effectively ended their season. In their first 9 games, they averaged nearly 511 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. In their last 3 games, the Ducks averaged 317 yards per game and 3.7 yards per play. Suffice it to say: Dennis Dixon meant a lot to this team. The what might have been refrain also fits into the Bulls' season. Standing 6-0 and ranked #2 in the nation, South Florida lost their next 3 games by a combined 15 points. In their first loss, a 3-point defeat at the hands of Rutgers, the Bulls had a touchdown overturned on review (blocked field goal and an illegal forward pass on the return) and the Knights used several trick plays to get in scoring position (fake field goal and fake punt). In their next loss, a 7-point defeat at Connecticut, the Bulls outgained the Huskies by 87 yards, but lost thanks to a pick-6 by the Huskies and 2 missed field goals by their kicker Delbert Alvarado. In their next loss, a 5-point defeat a home to Cincinnati (their only home loss of the season), the Bulls outgained the Bearcats by 106 yards, but lost thanks to 8 turnovers (4 picks--one of which was returned for a touchdown and 4 fumbles) and a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown.

The previous few sentences may seem like a lot of excuses, but the Bulls really were one of the nation's best teams. They were simply undone by some poor luck and execution. The Bulls' defense was phenomenal, allowing only 327 yards per game (22nd in the nation). They were especially good at pass defense, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 102.16 (7th in the nation), allowing only 5.8 yards per pass (10th in the nation), holding opponents to a completion rate of only 51.1% (6th in the nation), and intercepting 23 passes (tops in the nation). The Bulls also did a solid job of pressuring the quarterback, registering 29 sacks (35th in the nation). The only disparaging remark to be uttered about the Bulls is that offensively, they were a one-man show. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe was not only the leading passer, but also the teams leading rusher (with 832 yards). Grothe threw only 13 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions, but he also rushed for 10 touchdowns. However, if Grothe gets hurt (shades of Dennis Dixon), the Bulls could struggle hardily on offense.

We discussed the Duck offense, or lack thereof sans Dixon, a few paragraphs ago. What about the defense? Depending on which stat you looked at, it was either pretty good or merely average. The Ducks registered 35.5 sacks on the year (18th in the nation), led by defensive linemen Nick Reed. Reed's 12 sacks ranked 6th in the country. Despite all those sacks, the Ducks still allowed 387 yards per game (62nd in the nation). All that pressure helped the secondary hold opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 116.76 (35th in the nation), but they also allowed 6.8 yards per pass (53rd in the nation). The Duck defense is middle of the road. It has its strengths--pressure, but also some weaknesses, big plays. The South Florida defense should shut down the Oregon offense, and Matt Grothe will do enough on offense to help South Florida win rather comfortably.

The Pick: South Florida will cover the 6.5 point spread.

Humanitarian Bowl
Georgia Tech -6 Fresno State

Another year, another 5-loss season for the Yellow Jackets. Chan Gailey was shown the door and Georgia Tech recently hired, in my opinion, the best NCAA football coach in Paul Johnson. Look for Johnson to work his magic relatively quickly and the Jackets will own an ACC Championship by 2012. First things, first, however. The Jackets must deal with a team that has a sterling reputation for taking on any challenge and knocking off some BCS-conference teams. The Bulldogs did beat Kansas State this season, but prior to that win, their last victory over a BCS-conference opponent came against Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl. The Bulldogs had lost 7 straight contests against BCS -conference teams before their victory over the Wildcats.

Their are two key matchups in this contest.The first one will be the Fresno State offensive line against the Georgia Tech pass rush. The Jackets led the nation with 47.5 sacks, meaning they got to opposing quarterbacks nearly 4 times per game. They had at least 1 sack in every game and at least 2 in all but two games (Miami and Georgia). The Fresno State offensive line did a fine job of protecting quarterback Tom Brandstater, allowing only 16 sacks all season (25th in the nation). They also did a fine job of opening holes for the running game to the tune of 205 yards per game (16th in the nation) and 4.70 yards per rush (25th in the nation). Georgia Tech was very good at stifling the run game, allowing only 100 yards per game on the ground (12th in the nation) and 2.80 yards per rush (7th in the nation).

The second key matchup will be the Georgia Tech ground game against the Fresno State rush defense. Despite the absence of quarterback Reggie Ball, the Jackets were once again horrendous at this thing called the forward pass (finishing 116th in the nation in touchdowns passes with 8). But the running game would have brought a tear to the chiseled old face of Woody Hayes himself. Behind senior running back Tashard Choice (1310 yards), the Jackets averaged 202 yards per game on the ground (18th in the nation) and 4.78 yards per rush (22nd in the nation) despite no threat of a passing game. Stopping the run was not one of Fresno State's strengths. They allowed 183 yards per game (86th in the nation) and an even 5.00 yards per rush (108th in the nation).

Tashard Choice and the Jacket ground game will move the ball against the porous Fresno State rush defense. However, when they are forced to pass, Taylor Bennett won't be able to consistently convert 3rd downs. The Jackets are playing a long way from home, and may not be as motivated as the Bulldogs who always get up to face a team from a BCS conference (3-1 in bowl games against BCS-conference teams under Pat Hill). Look for the Bulldogs to pull off the upset. Also, if a pass is intercepted in this game, stop the presses. Georgia Tech picked off 5 passes all year (117th in the nation), while Fresno State nabbed only 3 (119th--last in the nation).

The Pick: Fresno State will cover the 6 point spread.

Music City Bowl
Kentucky -10 Florida State

The Wildcats are playing in their second consecutive and 12th bowl game in the school's history. Despite appearing in so few bowl games, this marks the 5th time in school history that the Cats have appeared in bowl games in consecutive seasons. Their opponent has a somewhat more storied history, as the Seminoles are appearing in their 26th consecutive bowl game. However, if we limit our scope to the past 2 seasons, Kentucky actually has a better record than the Noles--15-10 to 14-11.

The spread on this game was around 2.5 to 3 points before Florida State lost roughly a third of their team to academic suspensions. The spread then jumped to 10 points. It's a shame Florida State couldn't apply to the NCAA for some hardship waiver and pick up some players from other Florida schools. Heck Rusty Smith looked better in the New Orleans Bowl than any Nole quarterback since Chris Weinke.

Befitting a team that finished 7-5, the Noles finished in the middle of the pack (at best) in most statistical categories. They finished 82nd in the nation in yards per game (360 per), but did allow a respectable 350 yards per game on defense (36th in the nation). The addition of Jimbo Fisher cost the Noles roughly 3.6 points per game (down from 26.5 points per game to 22.9 per game), but added an additional 30 yards per game (up to 360 yards per game from 330 per). In other words, his addition meant basically nothing in Year 1. In what has been a common refrain in the recent past, the Noles struggled running the football (averaging under 4.00 yards per rush for the 4th time in 5 seasons) and suffered through inconsistency at the quarterback position with a cumulative quarterback rating of 121.39 (79th in the nation). It should be clear to the Florida State coaching staff that Drew Weatherford is the quarterback who should play in the bowl game and next season. He lacks the big play ability Xavier Lee has shown (Lee averages 14.73 yards per completion compared to 11.15 for Weatherford), but he has a higher completion rate (58.9% to 53.2%) and limits his mistakes. Weatherford threw only 1 pick in 270 pass attempts (0.37 interceptions per 100 passes), while Lee threw 5 in 124 pass attempts (4.03 interceptions per 100 passes).

The Wildcats don't have the problems the Noles have on offense. Quarterback Andre Woodson ranked 20th in the nation among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (144.28). Woodson did throw 6 interceptions in the Cats' last 4 games (of which the Cats lost 3), but he also threw 10 touchdowns in that span. On the season, the offense averaged 439 yards per game (25th in the nation) and 36.7 points per game (15th in the nation). Keep in mind that the Cats may be without the services of leading receiver (in receptions not yards) Keenan Burton.

The defensive unit kept the Wildcats from being a contender in the SEC. They gave up 390 yards per game (65th in the nation). They finished much worse in the points per game department (80th in the nation at 29.8 per game) because opponents began so many drives with great field position (allowed 24.02 yards per kickoff return--106th in the nation).

With all the personnel losses, I don't see any way the Noles can win this game outright. However, Florida State has lost only 4 bowl games by 10 points or more under Bowden (17 points to Oklahoma in 1979, 32 points to Florida in 1996, 11 points to Oklahoma in 2000, and 13 points to Georgia in 2002). Also double digit bowl favorites are only 4-12 against the spread since 2004. Kentucky will win, but the Noles will cover.

The Pick: Florida State will cover the 10 point spread.

Insight Bowl
Oklahoma State -4 Indiana

This is the second of two bowl games the NFL Network will broadcast and unlike the first, a 20-13 defensive struggle between two mid-majors from Texas, this one should be must see TV. The Hoosiers are playing in their first bowl game since 1993, and will be playing to honor their late head coach Terry Hoeppner. This is the Hoosiers' 9th bowl game in school history, and amazingly 6 of those bowl appearances belong to former coach Bill Mallory, a vastly underrated college football coach. Mallory took the team to bowl games in 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, and 1993, a time when there were not 32 bowl games salivating at the notion to invite every 6-6 team to play in their corporately sponsored game. Oklahoma State is making their 5th bowl appearance in 6 seasons, and their second consecutive appearance following a 6-6 regular season.

You like offense? This is the game for you. The Cowboys give up points almost just as easily as they score them. They averaged 484 yards of total offense per game (9th in the nation), but they also gave up 446 yards per game (103rd in the nation). The Cowboys were pretty balanced on the offensive side of the ball. They averaged 246 yards per game on the ground (7th in the nation) and 248 yards per game through the air (48th in the nation). As a team, the Cowboys posted a cumulative quarterback rating of 142.91 (19th in the nation), behind sophomore signal-caller Zac Robinson. Unfortunately, their pass defense was one of the worst in the nation. Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 146.42 (108th in the nation) and and the defense allowed 292 yards per game through the air (116th in the nation).

Do the Hoosiers have the personnel to shred that deplorable Cowboy defense? I would say so. The Hoosiers 'only' averaged 238 yards per game through the air (49th in the nation), but they were very efficient throwing the football. Their passer rating of 136.18 was good for 30th in the nation. Sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis threw all but 3 of the Hoosiers passes on the season. He completed over 60% (60.9%) of his throws for 26 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Most of those passes went to James Hardy, a 6-7 beast tight end/wide receiver hybrid. Those 74 catches resulted in 1045 yards and 16 touchdowns. Lewis was also the teams leading rusher, gaining 653 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Hoosiers were hardly dominant, but they had their moments and areas. They allowed 394 yards per game (68th in the nation), but they finished 4th in the nation with 42 sacks. Defensive end Greg Middleton led the team with 16 sacks, registering at least one in 9 of their 12 games. That will be an important matchup in this game as the Cowboys allowed only 11 sacks on the year (5th in the nation).

Oklahoma State has a more prolific offense than Indiana, but also a much worse defense. Both teams will score, so don't be surprised if this one rivals the Motor City showdown between Purdue and Central Michigan as the highest scoring bowl game of 2007. Indiana should come up with a few more stops on defense, probably thanks to their insidious pass rush, and will win outright.

The Pick: Indiana will cover the 4 point spread.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Clemson -2.5 Auburn

The former Peach Bowl should be an interesting clash between two successful coaches who are less than revered at their respective institutions. It seems every season Tommy Bowden is in danger of losing his job. His teams either starts out hotter than a house of fire and limp to the finish line, or start slowly before turning on the jets to get expectations ramped up for the following season. Tommy Tuberville has done a superb job at Auburn, going 41-9 the past 4 seasons. However, prior to that 4-season span, Tuberville was the focus of a clandestine palace coup that ended up not going over so well. Auburn did lose 4 games this season, but all came to bowl teams, and two were to teams currently residing in the top 5.

Both teams boast stellar defenses. Clemson allowed only 297 yards per game (6th in the nation) and Auburn finished right behind them, allowing 298 yards per game (8th in the nation). Clemson held opposing quarterbacks to an efficiency rating of 108.25 (16th in the nation), while Auburn was slightly better, limiting opposing passer to a quarterback rating of 107.49 (11th in the nation). The one defensive statistic where Clemson was much better than Auburn was getting to the quarterback. Clemson finished a mediocre 46th in the nation with 27 sacks, while Auburn was only 93rd in the nation with a scant 19 sacks all year.

The two defenses were pretty close in most categories with a slight edge going to the Tigers (Clemson). However, since they will certainly be without two and possibly three starting linebackers, I'll give the Tigers (Auburn) a slight edge in defense heading into this one. However, on offense there is no comparison. Clemson gained a shade over 412 yards per game (47th in the nation), while Auburn only managed 328 yards per game (101st in the nation). This is not a one-year aberration for Auburn either. It is a somewhat disturbing trend. After finishing 25th in the nation in yards per game in 2004, they dropped to 37th in 2005, and then finished 76th in 2006. When it comes to throwing the football, the difference between the two teams is enormous. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper completed 67% of his passes for 27 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions while posting a passer rating of 146.91 (17th among qualifying quarterbacks). Meanwhile, Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox completed 58.% of his passes for only 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 117.58 (84th among qualifying quarterbacks). Clearly the offensive edge goes to Clemson.

The Pick: Clemson will cover the 2.5 point spread.

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