Monday, December 31, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Outback Bowl
Tennessee -2 Wisconsin

The Tennessee Vols rode the golden arm of their senior quarterback and a great deal of luck to an SEC East and nearly, an SEC title. The Wisconsin Badgers began the season 5-0, but fell off the national radar after losing a close one to Illinois and then getting blown away by Penn State. Following the loss to the Nittany Lions, the Badgers won 4 of their next 5 with the only loss coming to Ohio State. Not a bad second act for Brett Bielema after his 12-win rookie season.

Both these teams won their fair share of close games. Wisconsin was 4-1 in one-score games and Tennessee was 3-1. These teams were extremely fortunate to finish where they did, or if you buy into the whole 'knowing how to win' deal, their experience allowed them to make plays while their opponents faltered. Tennessee, despite their impressive showing in the SEC Championship Game, was actually outgained on the season. Tennessee averaged a solid 399 yards per game (55th in the nation), but their defense struggled and allowed 408 yards per game (73rd in the nation). The strength of the Vols offense was the passing of Eric Ainge. Ainge threw 29 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions on the season while compiling a passer rating of 134.64 (41st in the nation among qualifying players). While Ainge has a great touchdown to interception ration, he averaged only 6.6 yards per pass attempt on the season (73rd among qualifying quarterbacks). In fact, he averaged under 6 yards per pass in 5 of the Vols' 13 games (Cal, South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt). Ainge was able to avoid a lot of mistakes because of the fantastic protection his offensive line afforded him. The line allowed only 4 sacks all season (best in the nation). The line also opened pretty big holes for running back Arian Foster. Foster gained 1162 yards and averaged 5.07 yards per rush.

As good as the Tennessee pass offense was, their pass defense was almost as bad. The Vols gave up 24 touchdowns through the air (93rd in the nation). The Vols also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.4% of their throws (70th in the nation). The Vols' pass defense played well in a few games (Arkansas, Georgia, Arkansas State, and Louisiana-Lafayette), but all those games were at home, and two were against Sun Belt teams.

The Badgers had a much healthier per game yardage differential. They gained about 414 yards per game (44th in the nation) while allowing 350 yards per game (36th in the nation). Offensively, the Badgers were very balanced. Behind running back PJ Hill, the rushing attack averaged 201 yards per game (19th in the nation). Senior quarterback Tyler Donovan helped the passing game average 212 yards per game (67th in the nation). In fact, Donovan actually finished one spot ahead of Eric Ainge in passer rating (40th in the nation among qualifying players). Donovan had only 16 touchdown passes (compared to 29 for Ainge), but he averaged over a yard more per pass (7.9 to 6.6).

Defensively, the Badgers were a notch above a much a middle of the road unit. They accumulated 28 sacks over 12 games (39th in the nation), allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 120.33 (46th in the nation), allowed 211 pass yards per game (35th in the nation), allowed 140 yards per game on the ground (49th in the nation), and permitted opponents to gain 4.26 yards per rush (73rd in the nation). Both teams are not quite as good as their sterling records (combined 18-7) would indicate. Tennessee has been throttled 3 times this season, once to a good team (Florida), but twice to some pretty average teams (Cal and Alabama). Good team don't lose by 39 points in my opinion. Wisconsin is a solid team, but they boast two blowout losses too (Penn State and Ohio State), and I expect them to take care of Tennessee.

The Pick: Wisconsin will cover the 2 point spread.

Cotton Bowl
Missouri -3.5 Arkansas

The Missouri Tigers got royally screwed by the BCS. They beat Illinois and Kansas, two BCS teams, and lost to Oklahoma (twice), another BCS team, yet find themselves on the outside looking in. Of course, with the BCS, someone's gonna get the shaft every season. That's the nature of the college football postseason, where money rules all. Still, a win in the very prestigious Cotton Bowl would likely give the Tigers a top-5 ranking at season's end. The Arkansas Razorbacks have gone through a great deal since when we last saw them giving LSU 'that wood'. Head coach Houston Nutt left town and ended up in Oxford, Mississippi. Arkansas then went on the prowl for a football coach, failing to close the deal (thankfully) on Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, and instead swooping in and grabbing reputed scum bag Bobby Petrino. His tenure at Arkansas should be long and fruitful, unless of course another BCS school offers him $50 more per season to coach their team.

The Tigers' offense shouldered much of the load during their historic season. They averaged 493 yards of offense per game (5th in the nation). Quarterback Chase Daniel completed nearly 70% of his passes (69.7%) with 33 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. With a passer rating of 151.90, Daniel was the 12th rated passer in college football. While he is not in the same class as Vince Young as a runner, he also gained 284 yards on the ground and scored 4 touchdowns. On the ground, the Tigers spread things around. Tony Temple led the team in rushing with 758 yards, but 6 players rushed for at least 100 yards, and 4 surpassed the 200 yards mark. leading receiver Jeremy Macklin (77 catches for 1023 yards) was the team's second leading rusher, gaining 349 yards on just 46 carries.

Defensively, the Tigers were solid if not spectacular. The defensive unit allowed 380 yards per game (59th in the nation). In this game, the unit's rush defense will be put to the test. How did they do against other good running teams? The Tigers actually fared reasonably well. The only team to rush for more than 200 yards was Ole Miss. In the second week of the season, the Rebels gained 229 yards and averaged 6.03 yards per rush. Most of those were courtesy of Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. He rushed 33 times for 226 yards. The Tigers only allowed more than 4.00 yards per rush in two other games--Kansas State and the second Oklahoma game. They should be able to do a decent job of containing the vaunted Razorback rushing attack.

Behind Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, the Razorbacks finished third in the nation in rushing yards per game (297 per) and averaged a robust 6.19 yards per rush (tops in the nation). While the running game was absurdly dominant, the passing game left a little to be desired. While quarterback Casey Dick did post a pass efficiency rating of 129.67 (52nd in the nation among qualifying players), he was very inconsistent and had a mix of piss poor and good games. He had 4 games with a quarterback rating under 100 (Kentucky, Auburn, Florida International, and Tennessee). He also had 4 games with a quarterback rating over 150 (North Texas, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Mississippi State). Suffice it to say, he's a tad inconsistent.

The Arkansas defense under Reggie Herring was a very good unit. They finished 45th in the nation allowing 359 yards per game. That number appears to be pretty mediocre until you look at the yards per play average. The Hogs permitted only 4.7 yards per play on defense (20th in the nation). They were especially good in pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks managed a cumulative passer rating of only 99.16 (5th in the nation). Opposing quarterbacks also averaged only 5.6 yards per pass (6th in the nation) and completed just 45.6% of their throws (tops in the nation). Arkansas' pass defense stats are inflated by their non-conference schedule (Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga, and Florida International), but they played pretty good pass defense against their SEC opponents. John Parker Wilson of Alabama, Andre Woodson of Kentucky, Blake Mitchell of South Carolina, and Wesley Carroll of Mississippi (a real WTF moment) had better than average games against the Arkansas pass defense. Chase Daniel won't be able to pick them apart, but the only way Arkansas will win this game is if Casey Dick plays well. Will he? He's been spectacularly inconsistent, so don't bet on it.

The Pick: Missouri will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Capital One Bowl
Florida -10.5 Michigan

Lloyd Carr's last game as Michigan coach has blowout written all over it. Against a similar spread offense in Oregon, the Michigan defense got shredded to the tune 624 yards and 8.1 yards per play. Tim Tebow has to be licking his chops. But before you go and put next month's mortgage payment on the Gators to cover, consider this.

1. Florida's defense is not nearly as dominant as last year's unit. Florida won the national title last season, not because of their spread attack, but because of their fantastic defense. The Gators permitted only 255 yards per game last season (6th in the nation). They held opposing passers to a quarterback rating of 98.28 (4th in the nation) and allowed only 2.74 yards per rush (6th in the nation). This season, the Gators are allowing teams to gain an average of 348 yards per game (32nd in the nation--still pretty good, but not great). Opposing quarterbacks posted an efficiency rating of 125.95 (65th in the nation) and they are allowing 3.02 yards per rush (14th in the nation). The Gator defense is still good, but don't expect them to put the clamps on the Wolverines like they did to the Buckeyes last season.

2. Michigan will be motivated to send their coach out on a winning note. While Lloyd Carr may seem very curmudgeony to outsiders and the media, his players seem to genuinely like him, and they will want to send him off a winner.

3. Florida may take Michigan lightly. Most observers and fans have already handed Florida this game and next year's SEC Championship as well. Don't be surprised if they start slowly.

4. Double digit favorites are just 4-12 since 2004 (including 0-2 this bowl season) against the spread. They are 10-6 straight up though.

Florida will come out slow and fall into a double digit hole before rallying to put the Wolverines away.

The Pick: Michigan will cover the 10.5 point spread.

Gator Bowl
Texas Tech -6 Virginia

The Virginia Cavaliers walked a tightrope this season, and despite getting blown out by Wyoming on the season's first weekend, finishing 100th in the nation in yards per game (329 per contest), and gaining on average 6 yards more per game than their opponents, the Cavs stayed in the ACC Atlantic Division race until the season's final weekend. They did it by going an amazing 6-1 in one-score games. Those 6 wins came by 12 total points. Three came by a single point, two were by 2 points, and the 'blowout' game was a 5-point decision. Scattered amongst the close wins were an 11-point beating of Duke, a 30-point thrashing of Pitt, and a 48-0 shutout of Miami to close the Orange Bowl. Fortunately for the ACC, and advertising executives, the Cavs were not able to garner the conference's automatic BCS bid, and instead get to play a pretty good Texas Tech team in the Gator Bowl.

Texas Tech is the lone Big 12 team to not have a losing record in the conference's history (since 1996). This season, the Red Raiders did what they always do under Mike Leach--pull off at least one big upset (Oklahoma), win at least 4 Big 12 games (4-4 record), and throw for a ton of yards (5707). Quarterback Graham Harrell had the highest completion percentage (72.7%) of any player. His passer rating of 160.49 was the sixth best among qualifying players and his 45 touchdown throws led the nation. The Tech offensive line did a fine job protecting Harrell too, permitting only 15 sacks all season (21st in the nation). Of course, any discussion of the Texas Tech offense would not be complete without mentioning freshman receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree hauled in an amazing 125 passes for 1861 yards and 21 touchdowns. Fellow receiver Danny Amendola also hauled in over 100 passes (103) and gained more than 1000 yards (1177).
The Red Raider defense is obviously overshadowed by the historic offense, but the unit was pretty solid in 2007. They allowed only 367 yards per game (50th in the nation) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 118.09 (41st in the nation). The most amazing defensive statistic for the Red Raiders is that they forced 33 fumbles, yet managed to recover only 9. Some regression to the mean (or progression in this case) in fumble recovery luck could mean the defense improves substantially in the number of points they allow next season.

It should be obvious to an fan or analyst that Virginia is not going to win a shootout here. Their offense lacks the firepower and the Tech defense is solid enough to prevent the Cavs from topping 27 points. The best chance the Cavs have for a victory is to keep this a low-scoring affair and win another close one. The Cavs need to look no further than the Cotton Bowl from two seasons ago for an example of this strategy. In that game, the Alabama Crimson Tide held the Red Raiders to a season-low 329 yards in their 13-10 win. Virginia's defense is not as stout as the one employed by Alabama in 2005, but they do one thing particularly well. Pressuring the quarterback. The Cavs racked up 40 sacks on the year (7th in the nation). 14 of them came from defensive end Chris Long. If Long and his mates are able to consistently get into the backfield against the quick Texas Tech passing game they will have a shot at pulling off the upset. Virgina should keep this game relatively close, but they lack the offensive firepower to hang with Tech.

The Pick: Texas Tech will cover the 6 point spread.

Rose Bowl
Southern Cal -13.5 Illinois

This is the biggest spread of the bowl season. All the reasons I listed in the Michigan/Florida preview apply here as well, with the notable exception of trying to send Ron Zook out a winner. The Zooker has bought himself at least a few more years in Champagne with his team's performance in 2007. However, the main reason Southern Cal will not cover the spread is their offense, or lack thereof. The Trojans finished only 41st in the nation in yards per game with 418 per contest. That ranking is directly below Air Force and directly above Kansas State. In fact even with solid performances against UCLA and Arizona State to close the season (945 yards in two games), the offense only averaged 388 yards per game and 5.2 yards per play over the last 7 contests. The Trojans managed to average 461 yards per game and 6.2 yards per play over the first 5 games because they played Idaho (86th in the nation in yards allowed per game), Nebraska (112th), Washington State (89th), Washington (102nd), and Stanford (97th). The Illini's defense is mediocre (41st in the nation allowing 355 yards per game), but it is much better than the aforementioned units the Trojans faced in their first 5 games.

Now, the Trojans themselves have a very stout defense. They finished 2nd in the nation allowing a scant 259 yards per game. Expect the Illini and Juice Williams to have trouble moving the ball (pre-Dixon-injury Oregon gained only 339 yards against them), but if they can get to 10 points they should cover the Mangino-sized spread.

The Pick: Illinois will cover the 13.5 point spread.

Sugar Bowl
Georgia -8 Hawaii

The Warriors are probably undeserving of their BCS bowl bid thanks to their easy schedule, but I won't shed a tear because a mid-major beat the system. Remember, Notre Dame has garnered 3 undeserved BCS bids this decade, by employing a similar strategy. But the question is, can Hawaii put up a fight (at least more so than those 3 Notre Dame teams)?

Hawaii struggled in 3 crucial road games this season: @ Louisiana Tech (a 1-point win), @ San Jose State (a 7-point win), and @ Nevada (a 2-point win). However, for all those road games they had to travel just a few days before the game. In fact, for the San Jose State and Nevada games, they played just 6 days after a home game (they got a full 7 days rest for the Louisiana Tech game). After the Louisiana Tech near debacle, the Warriors played at UNLV. Rather than return to the islands and fly right back, they stayed on the mainland. The result--a 35-point win. Now a blowout of UNLV does not mean the Warriors will roll over the Bulldogs, but it does lend some credence as to why Hawaii struggles on the road. It's the same reason teams struggle on the islands. Simple jet lag. The Warriors have had ample time to prepare for the Bulldogs and their fans will be out in full force. Hawaii will move the ball on the Georgia defense, but the key matchup will be whether or not the can contain the Bulldogs fabulous freshman Knowshon Moreno. If they can prevent him from having a huge day they will make the Sugar Bowl a competitive game.

The Pick: Hawaii will cover the 8 point spread.

No comments: