Bowl season is the second best time of the year (to March Madness of course). And one of the most rewarding aspects of bowl season is trying to predict each bowl's winner against the spread. With 34 bowl games this season, accurately predicting a significant percentage of covers is nigh impossible. However, if you restrict your view to games where the spread does not accurately represent the quality of the teams engaging in gridiron conflict, then you have a better chance of coming out ahead. That being said, I present to you my Magnificent Seven.
Oregon State -2.5 Pittsburgh
Despite their home loss to hated rival Oregon in the season finale that ultimately cost them a Rose Bowl bid, the Beavers enjoyed a fine season in 2008. They were extremely balanced, finishing third in yards gained in Pac-10 play (behind Oregon and Southern Cal) and fourth in yards allowed (behind Southern Cal, UCLA, and Cal). Oregon State was only 3-3 on the road, but two of those defeats came to top-10 teams (Penn State and Utah). The Beavers crushed UCLA in Pasadena and squeaked by bowl bound Arizona in Tucson. On the surface, Pitt would also appear to be very balanced as they finished fifth in the Big East in yards gained in conference play and third in yards allowed. However, while the Big East consists of only 8 teams, the Pac-10 has 10 (duh) making Oregon State's finish much more impressive. Statistically, the Beavers were the second best team in the Pac-10 (based on SDPI), though were significantly worse than league overlord Southern Cal. Meanwhile, Pitt was the third best team in the Big East, behind Cincinnati and Rutgers, but they were bunched very closely together with South Florida and Connecticut, and failing to separate themselves from the pack.
Music City Bowl
Boston College -4 Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt is obviously a great story as the Commodores broke a 26-year bowl drought by finishing 6-6 and an impressive 4-4 in the SEC. Ignore the record though, and look only at the stats and the numbers tell a troubling tale. Only 2 teams gained fewer yards in SEC play than the Commodores (Tennessee and Mississippi State). Vandy's defense was solid, finishing sixth in the conference in yards allowed in SEC play. However, the Commodores clearly relied on the other team's mistakes to win their games. In their 6 wins, the Commodores were +10 in turnover margin. In their 6 losses, they were -4. Put another way, when Vanderbilt won the turnover battle, they were 5-1. When they were even or negative, they were 1-5. The Vanderbilt offense gained more than 300 yards only 3 times all season. Those games were against Miami of Ohio (91st nationally in total defense), Rice (115th nationally in total defense), and Kentucky (37th in total defense thanks to their piss poor non-conference slate, but 12th in the SEC in yards allowed in conference play). That is not good news as they go up against a Boston College team that features the third best defense in the ACC (behind Virginia Tech and Clemson). The Eagles are also no strangers at forcing turnovers, netting 36 on the season to lead the nation. Even without quarterback Chris Crane, the Eagles should do enough to polish off the Commodores. Remember, Boston College lost the ACC title game because they could not move the ball against an elite defense. Vandy has a good defense, but it is not elite. Plus the Commodores are already 0-2 against the ACC this season (losses to Duke and Wake Forest).
Chick Fil-A Bowl
Georgia Tech -4 LSU
Statistically, Georgia Tech was the best team in the ACC in 2008. Their offense, which would never work mind you at a major college, ranked first in yards gained in conference play, and their defense, even without the aggressive Jon Tenuta ranked fourth in yards allowed. Paul Johnson couldn't have asked for a better opponent in the bowl game. The Yellow Jackets draw LSU from the big bad SEC. LSU, despite their reputation coming into the season, was an absolute sive on defense. Only Kentucky and Arkansas allowed more yards in conference play than the Tigers. Of course, Tiger apologists will point out they drew Florida and Georgia (the 2 best offenses in the SEC) as 2 of their 3 SEC East opponents. True. But the Tigers also benefitted from facing Auburn (ninth in yards in SEC play) and Mississippi State (dead last in yards in SEC play) in their division. LSU's defense is not good, and their offense is middling (sixth in yards gained in SEC play). Georgia Tech should score their third win of the season against an SEC foe (already beat Mississippi State and Georgia).
Iowa -3.5 South Carolina
A 3-game losing skid in September and October booted them off the national radar, but the Hawkeyes returned with a vengeance when they upended Penn State on November 8th. Each of Iowa's 4 losses came 5 points or less (12 total points). The Hawkeyes were statistically the fourth best team in an underrated Big 10. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks were statistically the sixth best team in an overrated SEC. South Carolina had a solid defense, but it was far from great. In SEC play, four teams allowed fewer yards than the Gamecocks (Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss). Plus those numbers are inflated by the fact that 2 of their opponents were among the 3 most offensively challenged teams in the conference (Vanderbilt and Tennessee). The Gamecocks will also be without their star safety and leadiing tackler Emanuel Cook, who is academically ineligible. That's bad news for the Gamecocks, but good news for perhaps the nation's top running back. Junior Shonn Greene topped 100 yards in every game he played this season on his way to finishing second nationally in rushing to Connecticut's Donald Brown. Iowa should take care of business and send the Gamecocks on a 3-game skid of their own to close the season.
Nebraska +2.5 Clemson
I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around this number. Yes Clemson has been on a relative tear, winning their last 3 games to attain bowl eligibility. But who have they beaten? Duke, Virginia, and South Carolina. Duke, while improved, is not a good team. Likewise, the Virginia win was on the road, but the Cavs are also middling at best. South Carolina is a bowl team, but not exactly a super power in the SEC. In ACC play, Clemson struggled somewhat offensively, finishing sixth in yards gained, but were once again carried by their defense, which was second only to Virgina Tech in yards allowed. Of course, now in the bowl game, the maestro of the defense is no longer with the team. When Dabo Swinney was promoted to head coach, one of his first duties was releasing defensive coordinator Vic Koenning of his responsibilities. Koenning is an excellent coordinator and his presence will be missed. On the other sideline, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have quietly gone 8-4 in Bo Pelini's first season in Lincoln. And believe it or not, the Huskers actually own the Big 12's second best defense. Only Texas allowed fewer yards in Big 12 play than Nebraska. The Huskers also have the Big 12's third best offense. Only Oklahoma and Texas Tech gained fewer yards in conference play. If not for the fact that they only forced 15 turnovers on the season (110th nationally), the Cornhuskers could very well have won the Big 12 North. The main contributing factor to this inability to create turnovers was their bad luck in recovering opponent fumbles. Nebraska forced 16 fumbles this season and recovered only 5 of those (31%). Fumble recoveries are totally random events and we have expected Nebraska to recover about 3 more fumbles than they actually did. Nebraska is an excellent pick getting points as I fully expected them to be a small favorite in this game.
Capital One Bowl
Georgia -7.5 Michigan State
If you don't believe that things tend to even out of time, just take a look at Michigan State. Last season, despite playing like one of the best teams in the Big 10, the Spartans lost 6 games by 7 points or less (2-6 record in one-score games) en route to a 7-6 finish. This season, despite playing like one of the weaker teams in the Big 10 (statistically, only Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana were worse), Michigan State went 9-3. Though they were only 2-1 in one-score games, their wins were all reasonably close (6 Big 10 wins by an average of 10 points) and their losses were huge (Ohio State and Penn State outscored them 94-25). The Spartans do have a fantastic running back in Javon Ringer (1590 yards on the ground), but their passing game needs work (efficiency rating of 118.33 ranks 81st nationally). Georgia is a tad overrated (they are certainly not the number one team in the land as many thought before the season), but they do have an offense strong enough (second to Florida in SEC play in yards gained) to move the ball against a Michigan State defense that was below average against Big 10 foes (eigth in yards allowed).
Penn State + 9 Southern Cal
Can the Trojans make it 3 straight Rose Bowl bludgeonings over outclassed Big 10 teams? You don't need me to tell you that Southern Call was uber-dominant against the Pac-10. They were second in yards gained (by a single solitary yard to Oregon) and first by a mile in yards allowed. However, Penn State was pretty damn dominant too. The Lions had the second best offense in the Big 10 (to surprise--Illinois!) and the best defense. Methinks the Trojans will find the Penn State defense to be every bit as athletic as theirs. Southern Cal may have a small advantage on offense, but barring a barrage of turnovers this one should be close and could be a classic.