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Statistically Speaking: December 2011

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part III

The Game: Texas Bowl
The Teams: Texas A&M vs Northwestern
The Line: Texas A&M -10
The Aggies came into the season riding high, ranked eighth in the nation and dreaming about their first Big 12 championship since the days of RC Slocum, Dat Nguyen, and Dante Hall in 1998. The Aggies played well, but were doomed by second half collapses and a poor turnover margin. The Aggies actually boasted the fourth best offense and second best defense in the Big 12, but struggled in close games. Five of their six overall losses came by a combined 17 points. Meanwhile, only one of their six wins came by fewer than 16 points. Alas, those solid peripheral number could not save Mike Sherman's job. However, if the team is motivated, it could mean another year of postseason misery for Northwestern. This bowl game marks the fourth consecutive postseason trip for the Wildcats, but unfortunately the Wildcats have not emerged victorious in a postseason game since winning the 1948 Rose Bowl over Cal. The Wildcats boasted the Big 10's second best offense, behind senior quarterback Dan Persa. However, their defense was among the worst in the conference, ranking ahead of Indiana only. Northwestern beat a single bowl bound team in 2011, upsetting Nebraska in Lincoln. Their other five wins came against Boston College, Indiana, Rice, Minnesota, and Eastern Illinois (IAA). Boston College, Indiana, Rice, and Minnesota combined to post a 12-36 record. Oh, and for good measure, Northwestern also lost to Army. This game is far from a lock, especially with Texas A&M's penchant for second half collapses, but the odds are seriously stacked against Northwestern ending their postseason victory drought.

The Game: Sun Bowl
The Teams: Georgia Tech vs Utah
The Line: Georgia Tech -3
Year Four of the triple option at Georgia Tech looked like it was to be one for the ages at midseason. The Yellow Jackets were 6-0 and averaging 554 yards and 46.5 points per game. Since then, the Jackets have gone just 2-4 while averaging 366 yards and 23.3 points per game. Looking back though, its clear the early barrage of points and yards were accumulated against less than capable defenses. Of the first six victims, Western Carolina is a IAA school, Middle Tennessee State ranked 104th, Maryland ranked 108th, and Kansas ranked 120th (or dead last) in total defense. Only NC State (39th) and North Carolina (40th) were respectable defensive squads. Over the second half of the season, the Jackets faced teams ranked third (Georgia), 14th (Virginia Tech), and 29th (Virginia) in total defense, and only one team (Duke) ranked in the bottom half of the national total defense rankings. The bad news for Georgia Tech is that Utah is pretty good defensively. In league play, the Utes featured the third best defense in the conference, and nationally, they were 30th in total defense. Utah did not get off to a blazing start in their new BCS conference, as they opened Pac-12 play with four consecutive defeats. They did win their next four heading into the regular season finale against Colorado (a team that came into the game with a 2-10 record). A win against the Buffaloes would have sent the Utes to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game for a shot at the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Naturally, Utah lost and UCLA backed into the game. Utah won seven games, but missed out on a special season because their offense was garbage. Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with an injury in the fourth game and has not played since. Without him, the Utes finished dead last in the Pac-12 on offense. Utah's defense should keep them in this game, but methinks Georgia Tech will find a way to win their first bowl game since the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl.

The Game: Liberty Bowl
The Teams: Vanderbilt vs Cincinnati
The Line: Vanderbilt -2
After waiting more than a quarter century between their last two bowl bids, the Vanderbilt Commodores decided an abbreviated postseason drought was more to their liking. Head coach James Franklin is the first Vanderbilt coach to lead the Commodores to a bowl game in his inaugural season. If Vanderbilt can win this game, he would become the first Vanderbilt coach to record a winning record in his first year since Fred Pancoast in 1975. If the Commodores had performed a little better in close games, they would already have a winning record. Vandy lost four games by less than a touchdown, with each loss coming to an SEC school (Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee). By contrast, five of Vandy's six wins came by at least 20 points. On the season, Vanderbilt has outscored their opponents by 73 points, their largest scoring margin since 1974. While Vandy went just 2-6 in the SEC, they are actually betting line favorites over Cincinnati, a team that tied for the Big East championship. The Bearcats rebounded from a poor 2010 season by winning (at least) nine games for the fourth time in five seasons. The Bearcats were not particularly adept on either side of the ball, finishing just below average on offense and defense in the Big East. However, they won the close ones (3-1 in one-score games) and avoided the turnover troubles that plagued them in 2010 (second worst margin in the nation at -15). This spread on this game seems about right. Vanderbilt is better than you think and Cincinnati is a shade worse. Look for the Commodores to win just their third bowl game in school history here.

The Game: Fight Hunger Bowl
The Teams: Illinois vs UCLA
The Line: Illinois -2.5
I know its weird to say, but Illinois actually had the makings of a decent team in 2011. Their defense was tied with Wisconsin as the best in Big 10 play. Their offense was poor, ranking just tenth in the twelve team league, but it wasn't historically bad. One could have reasonably expected a team with their down-to-down profile to win about half their league games. Instead the Illini went just 2-6 in the conference, dropping their final six games and costing Ron Zook his job. The Illini lost those games thanks to the offense's inability to score (averaged just eleven points per game in the skid) and proclivity for turning the ball over (16 turnovers in the last six games). To put the turnover number in perspective, the offense committed nearly twice as many turnovers in the last six games (16) as they scored touchdowns (9). The 1985 Chicago Bears would have had difficulty winning games with an offense like that. Still, in the bowl spirit of rewarding mediocrity, the Illini will get to play a 13th game against a team that has also fired its coach. Rick Neuheisel came to Los Angeles intending to end Southern Cal's death grip on the Pac-10. The Trojans have ceded control of the conference, but not to their cross-town neighbors. Neuheisel leaves Los Angeles with an 0-4 record against the Trojans, with each loss coming by at least 14 points. Miraculously though, his team did 'win' the Pac-12 South thanks to the Trojans' probation and the general ineptitude of the rest of the division. For their 'victory', they received a thrashing at the hands of Oregon, and now head into the bowl season with a 6-7 record. The Bruins become the first team to enter the postseason with a losing record since North Texas in 2001. Of course, that team did at least win its conference. Neither team in this superfluous bowl game is very good, as indicated by their combined 12-13 record. However, when in doubt, take the team that does at least one thing well. Illinois is legit on defense, and should do just enough to win here.

The Game: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
The Teams: Auburn vs Virginia
The Line: Auburn -3
Welcome back to the postseason Virginia! After becoming bowl stalwarts under George Welsh and continuing the run at the beginning of the Al Groh era (15 bowl games in 19 seasons from 1987-2005), the Cavs fell on hard times. Hearkening back to their days at the bottom of the ACC, the Cavs played in just one bowl game from 2006-2010. They had also lost three straight games to Duke entering the 2011 season. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Virginia won twice as many as they lost and were in contention for the Coastal Division title until being thumped by Virgina Tech in their final regular season game. Mike London, winner of a national title as coach of Richmond in 2008, has guided the Cavs to a bowl game in just his second season. The Cavs were probably not as good as their 8-4 record would indicate, as they posted a phenomenal 5-1 record in one-score games. The Cavs seemed to play close games regardless of the competition. Two of their narrow wins were over dregs Indiana and Idaho, while the other games came against decent (Miami) to good (Georgia Tech and Florida State) competition. Speaking of close games, Gene Chizik must have acres of four leaf clovers in his backyard. Since losing to Alabama in the regular season finale of 2009 by a score of 26-21, the Tigers have reeled off eleven straight one possession wins, including seven last season when they claimed the BCS National Championship. They were 3-0 in such games in 2011, helping to explain how they won seven games overall despite being outscored by 61 points on the season. Both teams were pretty average in their respective conferences and appear pretty evenly matched here. That being said, take a flier on Virginia to win this one outright.

The Game: Ticket City Bowl
The Teams: Houston vs Penn St
The Line: Houston -5.5
This is the consolation prize for the Houston Cougars. About a month removed from hosting the Conference USA Championship Game, a win away from a BCS bowl berth, the Cougars must instead settle for a trip to Dallas to take on a Penn State team in disarray. The Cougars are led by their offense, featuring record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum, and a stable of senior wide receivers. Patrick Edwards and Justin Johnson both went over 1000 yards through the air, and if Tyron Carrier has a good game in the Ticket City Bowl (comes in with 914 yards receiving), he would join them, giving the Cougars three 1000-yard receivers for the second time in three seasons (Edwards and Carrier joined James Cleveland as 1000-yard receivers in 2009). Penn State enters this game having lost two of three since an 8-1 start. The Nittany Lions also have their fare share of drama going on off the field. What impact will that have on this game? Its impossible to tell, so lets focus on what we do know. Penn State's offense, particularly their passing offense is bad. As a team, Penn State completed less than half their passes (112th in the nation in completion percentage) and threw just nine touchdown passes (116th in the nation) with four of those coming against Eastern Michigan. The Lions were a little better running the ball, with Silas Redd gaining nearly 1200 yards on the ground. The Lions defense was solid, but far from an elite unit, ranking fifth in the Big 10. Houston is probably better than Penn State, and they should be sufficiently motivated with a chance to finish the season ranked for the first time since 1990. However, in their lone game versus a BCS conference opponent this season, the Cougars narrowly escaped UCLA by a 38-34 score at home. Houston will probably win, but I wouldn't lay the five and a half points.

The Game: Gator Bowl
The Teams: Florida vs Ohio St
The Line: Florida -2.5
This seems like a battle between these two schools' JV squads. With both teams coming into the game with 6-6 records, one will leave with a losing record for the first time in a long time. Florida has not finished with a losing record since they lost (almost) all their games in 1979. Meanwhile, Ohio State last finished below .500 in 1988. This game is being called the 'Urban Bowl' by some even though:
1) Urban Meyer has not coached Florida in a calendar year.
2) Urban Meyer will not coach Ohio State until next September.
3) Urban Meyer will not coach this game.
By this logic, next season when Arkansas hosts Ole Miss, we should refer to it as the 'Nutt Bowl'. What this game possesses in terms of name recognition, it more than makes up for in lack of appreciable football talent. Here's a composite list of the twelve teams these two have beaten: Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Furman, Akron, Toledo, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Those twelve victims include just three bowl teams (Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Wisconsin), and only two of those wins came on the road (Kentucky and Illinois). These teams should have been playing in late-December, not early January. That being said, I'll give a slight nod to Florida in this one because the game is in Florida and the Gators appear to have a better defense.

The Game: Outback Bowl
The Teams: Georgia vs Michigan St
The Line: Georgia -3.5
Last season the Outback Bowl hosted a pair of teams (Florida and Penn State) that entered the game with a combined ten losses. While there was certainly some name recognition with the Gators and Nittany Lions, this season the bowl features better teams. Georgia and Michigan State combined to go 14-2 in their respective conferences and have just six losses combined. In fact, as both these were losers in their respective conference title games, they actually had just four combined losses in the regular season. Georgia is no stranger to double-digit wins, having won ten games seven times in the last ten seasons. Michigan State on the other hand, has posted back-to-back seasons of at least ten wins for the first time in program history. In fact, Michigan State has gone a Big 10 best 14-2 in league play over the past two seasons, but has no Rose Bowl (or other BCS bid) to show for it. Ah, the vagaries of a three-way tiebreaker. Michigan State was hardly excellent on either side of the ball, but they were very solid, finishing fourth in the Big 10 (which now was 12 teams) on both offense and defense. Their solid play and a little bit of luck in close games allowed them to win seven games in the conference for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, down south, the Georgia Bulldogs followed up the first losing season of the Mark Richt era with an 0-2 start, putting the current longest-tenured SEC head coach squarely on the hot seat. The Bulldogs responded by riding a relatively easy schedule (no Alabama, Arkansas, or LSU) to ten straight wins. While the schedule certainly made it easier for Georgia to win ten games, it didn’t do it for them. The Bulldogs played very well in their SEC games, finishing a distant third in my SEC SDPI ratings (behind the behemoths at Alabama and LSU). The one thing Mark Dantonio has not done well at Michigan State is win bowl games. The Spartans are 0-4 in bowl games under his guidance, including a loss to Georgia in the state of Florida (though not in this bowl game) after the 2008 season. Look for that trend to continue here with Georgia winning a close one.

The Game: Capital One Bowl
The Teams: South Carolina vs Nebraska
The Line: South Carolina -2.5
South Carolina began the season in the top-10 and despite the best efforts of now-departed quarterback Stephen Garcia, have a chance to finish there for the first time ever. As a resident of Columbia, and part time Gamecock fan (they can sometimes be a little insufferable here), I followed the season closely. Without a doubt, while the Gamecocks have enjoyed an historic season, but it could have been much better had they not squandered a home game against a very beatable Auburn team. That was Garcia’s last hurrah, and a prime example for how not to manage the clock in the two-minute drill. The Gamecocks gave Garcia the boot, or spur (for real this time) and handed the keys to Connor Shaw. Shaw went through some growing pains, as would be expected from an inexperienced player, but the Gamecocks won each game he started save for their trip to Arkansas. For the season, the Gamecocks finished fifth in the SEC on offense (quite an accomplishment considering the injuries and quarterback play) and fourth on defense (behind the impenetrable forces that were Alabama and LSU and to a lesser extent Georgia). The Gamecocks will face a team that also began the year with grandiose expectations. The Nebraska Cornhuskers began the year ranked number ten, but were quickly exposed in their first game against an elite team, losing in grisly fashion to Wisconsin. The Huskers would also lose to Michigan in a similar fashion and in an upset at home to those nerds from Northwestern. For the first time under Bo Pelini, the Huskers were less than elite on defense. The Huskers were middle of the pack in the Big 10 on defense, finishing sixth in the twelve-team league. They were gouged by several teams, most notably in their three losses where they gave up an average of 457 yards and 40.3 points per game. South Carolina appears to be a safe pick to win here. The only thing that would give me pause from picking them is their poor performance in bowl games under Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks have won just once in five postseason trips under the Ol’ Ball Coach. Not only are they 1-4, but they have actually been favored in every game save for the Outback Bowl versus Iowa following the 2008 season. Still, this Gamecock team seems to be different. Take them to win, but I still don’t quite trust them to cover.

The Game: Rose Bowl
The Teams: Oregon vs Wisconsin
The Line: Oregon -6
This year’s Rose Bowl is the postseason game I am most looking forward to. Both participants boasted their respective league’s strongest offense. Wisconsin, behind transfer Russell Wilson and a stout offensive line ran roughshod over the Big 10, dominating their foes outside of a pair of close to defeats to Michigan State and Ohio State. Meanwhile, Oregon continued their high-octane ways under Chip Kelly. The Ducks cranked out the best offense in the Pac-12 for the sixth season in a row (this is Kelly's fifth season with the team and third as head coach). The Ducks lost just once in league play, against a revitalized Southern Cal team. Ultimately, that loss may have cost them a place in the BCS National Championship Game. Still, the Rose Bowl is not a bad consolation prize. What about defense? Does any team stand a chance at stopping the other, or is this destined to be the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever (surpassing the 1991 game). This may come as a surprise, but Wisconsin actually boasted the best defense in the Big 10 (tied with Illinois). Oregon on the other hand, was hardly a pushover defensively, finishing fourth in the Pac-12, but they were not an elite unit. The last time Oregon came into the Rose Bowl as a solid favorite against a Big 10 team, they left an outright loser, with their offense never quite getting on-track. This game should be tilted in Wisconsin’s favor much more than the six-point spread. For that reason, the Badgers are my fourth lock of the bowl season.

The Game: Fiesta Bowl
The Teams: Oklahoma St vs Stanford
The Line: Oklahoma St -3.5
Oklahoma State was oh so close. Instead of playing for the national championship, the Cowboys will have to settle for their first conference title since 1976 and first outright conference title since 1948! Despite their gaudy record and laundry list of victims, Oklahoma State was somewhat of a house of cards in 2011. They did rank second in the Big 12 on offense, but their defense was just seventh in the conference. They won games with a ridiculous turnover margin. They were second nationally with a +20 turnover margin (behind LSU at +22). They intercepted 23 passes on the year and also recovered an amazing 19 of the 25 fumbles they forced! They will need to force their fair share of turnovers against Andrew Luck and Stanford as the Cardinal should be able to move the ball against the Cowboys. Stanford ranked just a shade behind Oregon on offense in the Pac-12, and actually boasted the conference's top-ranked defense! Both teams should be motivated here, with a chance to finish in the top-3 and perhaps even as high as number two depending on the outcome of the BCS National Championship Game. Since they are getting points, take Stanford to win this one outright if you insist on making a wager.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part II

The Game: Military Bowl
The Teams: Toledo vs Air Force
The Line: Toledo -3
Air Force is playing in their fifth straight bowl under head coach Troy Calhoun, and for the second straight year, the Falcons won the coveted Commander in Chief Trophy by beating the other two service academies (Army and Navy). In fact, Air Force is the lone service academy represented in this year's postseason. Unfortunately for Air Force, while the schedule was conducive for a very special season, the Falcons lost to every bowl team they played (Boise State, Notre Dame, San Diego State, TCU, and Wyoming), and ended the regular season tied for the fewest wins of the Calhoun era. The Falcons will take on another team that narrowly missed taking flight, the Toledo Rockets. Toledo lost close non-conference games at Ohio State and Syracuse (the latter in a game there the officials failed to make the correct ruling when the Orange missed a crucial extra point). The Rockets rolled through the MAC at 7-1, but their lone loss came in a nailbiter to Northern Illinois, so they lost out on the MAC West tiebreaker and were forced to watch as the Huskies won the MAC championship against Ohio. Toledo had the best offense in the MAC and one of the better mid-major offenses in the nation. Look for the Rockets to get their share of big plays and win a very high-scoring game.

The Game:Holiday Bowl
The Teams: Texas vs Cal
The Line: Texas -3
The two combatants in this year's Holiday Bowl have a great deal in common. Both missed bowl games last season for the first time under their respective coaches (Cal did not play in a bowl in Jeff Tedford's first season because they were ineligible for the postseason). Both teams boast strong defenses (Texas had the best defense in the Big 12 this year and Cal had the second best in the Pac-12). Both offenses are below average. Texas ranked eighth in the ten-team Big 12, while Cal was a more passable sixth in the Pac-12. Finally, both teams lost numerous times to teams that are currently ranked. Three of Cal's five losses came to teams in the current AP top-10 (number four Stanford, number five Southern Cal, and number six Oregon). Four of Texas' five losses came to teams in the current AP top-20 (number three Oklahoma State, number eleven Kansas State, number fifteen Baylor, and number nineteen Oklahoma). Thus, while both teams have combined for ten losses, this matchup may be better than it seems on the surface. Go with the Golden Bears in a defensive struggle.

The Game: Champs Sports Bowl
The Teams: Florida State vs Notre Dame
The Line: Florida State -3
Before the season began, if I told you the Irish and Seminoles were renewing old acquaintances in the postseason, you probably would have assumed it was a BCS bowl. While both teams failed to live up to their preseason hype (yet again), they remain two very strong teams. Consider: Florida State lost four games. Their four losses came by 21 total points. Six of their eight wins came by more than 21 points. Two of their losses came to teams currently ranked in the top-20 (Clemson and Oklahoma). Meanwhile, Notre Dame also lost four games. While two of their losses were by more than a touchdown, they did come to teams currently ranked in the top-5 (Stanford and Southern Cal). Five of their eight wins came against bowl teams, including beatdowns of Michigan State, Purdue, and Air Force by a combined 72 points. Both these teams should be highly ranked in the preseason next year and may be able to actually live up to expectations (for real this time). In the interim, take the Seminoles to win here.

The Game: Alamo Bowl
The Teams: Baylor vs Washington
The Line: Baylor -9
RG3, or Robert Griffin the Third, has barely had time to polish off his Heisman before heading down to San Antonio to take on the Washington Huskies. Griffin's phenomenal season helped lead Baylor to their first nine-win regular season since 1980, when a certain Samurai was intimidating opposing ball-carriers. Make no mistake, Griffin, and his fellow playmakers on offense, receiver Kendall Wright (101 catches, 1572 yards, 13 touchdowns) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1347 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns) are the main reason for Baylor's success. The Bears ranked number one in the Big 12 on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, they also ranked dead last in the conference on the other side of the ball (yes, even worse than Texas Tech and Kansas). The Bears were quite fortunate to win nine games, as they managed a solid 4-1 record in one-score games. Remember, despite their much ballyhooed wins over Oklahoma, TCU, and Texas, the Bears also needed overtime to escape a terrible Kansas team. It's precisely for that reason that I wouldn't be very comfortable taking Baylor to cover in this game. The Bears nearly meet the double-digit favorite criteria previously mentioned in Part I of the bowl preview (they are just 9-17 ATS since the 2005 bowl season). Washington is an average Pac-12 team, neither great not awful on either side of the ball, but if you are feeling lucky, take them to win this game straight up. The last Heisman winner from a team not playing in the BCS National Championship Game brought his team into the bowl season as a heavy favorite, but left with a straight-up loss.

The Game: Armed Forces Bowl
The Teams: BYU vs Tulsa
The Line: BYU -2
Tulsa may be the best four-loss team in the nation. And they are without a doubt, the best four-loss mid-major. The four teams the Golden Hurricane have lost to (Boise State, Houston, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State) have a combined six losses between them, and all are currently ranked in the top-20. Against the other eight teams they played, Tulsa was absolutely dominant, winning just once by fewer than 17 points. While their victims were relatively weak, only SMU and Marshall are bowl bound, their dominance is still indicative of a good team. Their opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl, BYU, has won eight of nine since a 1-2 start, with the lone loss coming to red-hot TCU. The Cougars have been a completely different team since Riley Nelson took over at quarterback in their fifth game against Utah State. In the six games started by Nelson, the team has averaged 484 yards per game. In the six games started by Jake Heaps, the team has averaged just 338 yards per game. Nelson also threw for more yards than Heaps despite nearly 100 fewer pass attempts! If Nelson had started from the beginning, the Cougars could have positioned themselves for a BCS-bowl bid. As it is, they must settle for a potential ten-win season (would be their fifth in seven years under head coach Bronco Mendenhall). To me this game is a toss-up, and Tulsa is criminally underrated. Take the Golden Hurricane to pull off the straight-up win here.

The Game: Pinstripe Bowl
The Teams: Rutgers vs Iowa State
The Line: Rutgers -2
Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads is on the verge of accomplishing something very special in just his third season in Ames. With a win in the Pinstripe Bowl, he would tie former coach Dan McCarney for the school record in bowl wins. Granted, it would only be his second, but the Cyclones have been playing football for 114 years, so that would still be pretty special. While Rhoads is just 18-19 in his three seasons at the school, I would argue he has done more with less than most coaches in college football. His charges routinely pull off at least one huge shocker per season. In 2009, Iowa State won as twenty point underdogs against Nebraska in Lincoln (first win there since 1977). In 2010, they helped throw dirt on Texas' season when they won in Austin as twenty point underdogs. This season, they not only helped bring about the rematch no one outside of Dixie wanted when they beat Oklahoma State as a nearly four-touchdown underdog, but they also put Tommy Tuberville on the hot seat when they won against Texas Tech in Lubbock as (merely) fifteen point underdogs. The Cyclones have been money in the bank under Rhoads as double-digit underdogs. In his three season, the Cyclones are 10-5 Against the Spread (ATS) in such situations. Unfortunately, in the showdown with Rutgers, the Cyclones are only a small underdog. After missing out on a bowl game last season, the Scarlet Knights are back in the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Knights boasted the best defense in the Big East this season, and if not for their offensive struggles (sixth out of eight Big East teams in that category) could have represented the league in the Orange Bowl. Iowa State doesn't do anything well, except for cover large spreads and get up for big games. Rutgers plays fantastic defense and is playing this one pretty close to home. The Scarlet Knights are my third lock of the bowl season.

The Game: Music City Bowl
The Teams: Mississippi State vs Wake Forest
The Line: Mississippi State -7
As a life-long Wake Forest fan, I think I am qualified to weigh in on just how unusual this season has been. The Deacons won five games in the ACC, representing the fourth time in head coach Jim Grobe's eleven seasons that they have at least broken even in conference play (a much greater accomplishment than that may seem). The Deacons beat bowl teams Florida State and NC State at home, hung tough with the eventual ACC champ Clemson in Death Valley, and even gave Notre Dame a run for their money. They also lost to Syracuse, and were destroyed by a pair of mediocre bowl teams (North Carolina and Vanderbilt) by a combined margin of 59 points. In league play, the Deacons were not very good on either side of the ball, finishing ninth in the conference on offense and eleventh (second to last) on defense. While Wake enjoyed an unusual season, Mississippi State's was resoundingly disappointing. Some believed the Bulldogs were a sleeper in the tough SEC West. The Bulldogs proved that they could beat the dregs of the conference (Kentucky and Ole Miss), the dregs of IA (Memphis and UAB), and a IAA school (Tennessee-Martin), but not much else. Their lone win over a team with a winning record came in overtime at home against Louisiana Tech. To be fair, five of their six losses did come to teams currently ranked in the AP top-20, but outside of a 14-12 defeat at the hands of South Carolina, none were particularly close. Mississippi State is probably the better team, but not by much.

The Game: Insight Bowl
The Teams: Oklahoma vs Iowa
The Line: Oklahoma -14
After beginning the season as the AP Preseason number one team, a holiday trip to the Insight Bowl has to be a little disappointing for Oklahoma fans. The Sooners failed to qualify for a BCS bowl after losing two of their final three games; to Baylor for the first time ever and to Oklahoma State for the first time since 2002. Still, its not like the Sooners were a bad team. They ranked third in the Big 12 on both offense and defense, and were probably the league's best team, but were undone by a poor turnover margin in conference play. This wasn't a typical Bob Stoops' Oklahoma juggernaut, but they were pretty damn good. The Sooners will be taking on Stoops' alma mater in the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes were pretty average in 2011. In their ten games against BCS conference opponents (eight conference games and non-conference clashes with Iowa State and Pittsburgh), the Hawkeyes scored 265 points and allowed 255. Not surprisingly, they went 5-5 in those games. The Hawkeyes best performance of the year was easily their home upset over Michigan in early November. However, outside of that game, there are not a lot of beefy wins on the schedule. Oklahoma fans can take heart that the Sooners are 3-1 in non-BCS bowl games under Stoops. However, betting this game and its double-digit margin would not be advisable.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part I

The bowl season is an entertaining way to end the college football season. While it may not be a perfect way to crown a champion, it does allow hardcore football junkies like myself to get their fix for another three weeks. With that in mind, Statistically Speaking will preview all 35 bowl games over the coming days and give you the five biggest locks of the bowl season. Enjoy these 35 games. There won't be anymore until late August.

The Game: New Mexico Bowl
The Teams: Temple vs Wyoming
The Line: Temple -7
After enduring nearly three decades of ineptitude after their win in the Garden State Bowl following the 1979 season, the Temple Owls have miraculously risen from the dead. This season marks their third straight with at least eight wins. The rejuvenation began under Al Golden, now the head man at Miami, and continued under first-year coach Steve Addazio. The Owls were lead by their defense, which was the second best in the MAC behind Kent State. They pitched two shutouts on the season (versus Ball State and Buffalo) and held the Maryland Terrapins to just seven points. The Owls will seek their first bowl win since 1979 against a Wyoming team that surprised many by winning eight games in the regular season. The eight wins were their most since 1998, and a win in this bowl would give then the most wins since a certain mustachioed spread-offense trailblazer was stalking the sidelines. While the 'Pokes do own eight wins, they actually failed to outscore their opponents on the season (scoring and allowing 324 points). Five of their eight wins came against either IAA teams (Weber State and Texas State) or against the dregs of IA (Colorado State, New Mexico, and UNLV). Wyoming was also 5-0 in one-score games, while each of their defeats came by at least eleven points. The close game phenomenon has become something of an odd-year quirk under head coach Dave Christensen. In his first season (2009), the Cowboys went 6-0 in one-score games en route to a New Mexico Bowl win for a 7-6 mark. Last season, the Cowboys were just 2-3 in one-score games and fell to 3-9. Christensen better carry his lucky rabbit's foot with him because Temple appears to be the better team. Wyoming's special season is more a function of a fantastic turnover margin and close game randomness than anything else. Temple should win this game, but there are much better games to wager on.

The Game: Idaho Potato Bowl
The Teams: Utah State vs Ohio
The Line: Utah State -3
At 7-5, the Utah State Aggies have clinched their first winning season since 1996. The Aggies enjoyed or endured depending on your point of view, one of the stranger seasons by a mid-major in quite sometime. They opened the season, you may remember, by nearly beating Auburn in Jordan Hare. They followed that up with more late game failures, in losing to Colorado State, BYU, and Louisiana Tech by a combined eleven points. In between, they crushed IAA Weber State and bowl bound Wyoming by a combined 81 points, so despite a very good scoring margin, they stood just 2-5 after seven games. After that, they didn't play quite as well in the meat of their WAC schedule after their starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton was injured against Hawaii, but they won their final five games, with none coming by more than seven points (total margin in those five games of 19 points). Adam Kennedy replaced Keeton for the final four and a half games and performed quite well. Against their WAC brethren, the Aggies were good on offense, but a shade below Nevada and Fresno State, and good on defense, but a shade below Louisiana Tech and Nevada. The Aggies will head to Idaho attempting to win just their second bowl game ever against the Ohio Bobcats. The rebuild under Frank Solich is in its seventh season and going quite well. The Bobcats played in their third MAC Championship Game under Solich and fell by three on a last second field goal to Northern Illinois. That loss, coupled with their three bowl defeats under Solich and two under Bill Hess in the 1960's mean the Bobcats are still waiting on their first postseason win. This is probably their best chance. The Bobcats have their best offense yet under Solich. Compared to their MAC brethren, the Bobcats have only been above-average on the offensive side of the ball one other time in the Solich-era (that was 2006). That offense was less than a quarter of one standard deviation above-average. This season, led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Tettleton (Mickey's son) and senior receiver LaVon Brazill, the Bobcats were three quarters of one standard deviation above average. This is hardly a lock, but if you must wager on this game, take the Bobcats straight up.

The Game: New Orleans Bowl
The Teams: San Diego State vs Louisiana-Lafayette
The Line: San Diego State -5
After going to just one bowl game from 1992-2009, the Aztecs will be playing in their second straight down in the Big Easy. Brady Hoke may have headed east to Michigan, but he left a solid foundation for Rocky Long. Long, you may remember, is no stranger to postseason games, having led New Mexico to five of them in eleven seasons as head coach. In the past two seasons, only two players have rushed for more yards than San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman. LaMichael James of Oregon is first at 3377 yards. Bobby Rainey of Western Kentucky is second with 3344 yards. Hillman has 'just' 3188 yards in the past two seasons (oh, and he is only a sophomore). San Diego State will be taking on the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette, who are making their maiden postseason voyage this season. Under first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth the Ragin' Cajuns boasted the second-best offense in the Sun Belt and were involved in a number of high-scoring affairs. Five times in their twelve games, the Ragin' Cajuns and their opponents both netted at least 30 points (3-2 record in those games). And lest you think Mr. Hudspeth is a one-year wonder at Lafayette, keep in mind he had a pretty successful seven-year run at Division II North Alabama. The Lions went 66-21 in his seven seasons, with four postseason appearances and a pair of trips to the national semifinals. This should be one of the more entertaining matchups of the bowl season. And since the Ragin' Cajuns are playing in their home state, they wouldn't be a bad play straight up.

The Game: Beef O'Brady's Bowl
The Teams: FIU vs Marshall
The Line: FIU -4
After winning a share of the Sun Belt championship last season, in just their ninth year of playing football (and seventh year in IA), much was expected in of FIU in 2011. I think its fair to say they disappointed a little. While they did set a school record with eight wins, they actually finished in fourth place in the Sun Belt, behind Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, and Louisiana-Lafayette. The problem was the offense. After boasting both the second-best Sun Belt offense and defense in 2010, the offense regressed to second-to-last in 2011. The defense remained strong, falling to just third in the conference. Meanwhile, Marshall will be playing in their second bowl game in three seasons under second-year coach Doc Holliday. While the Herd are bowl bound at 6-6, they hardly qualify as a good team. They were outscored by nearly 100 points over the course of the season, and five of their six wins came by a touchdown or less. The Thundering Herd did somehow manage to defeat Southern Miss (Conference USA champion) and Louisville (Big East co-champ also beaten by FIU). However, their other four wins came against Rice, UAB, Memphis, and East Carolina (combined record of 14-34). Marshall was equally unimpressive in their ranking amongst Conference USA schools, finishing tenth in the conference on offense and eighth on defense. This game is in Florida and appears to be a pretty solid mismatch. For this reason, FIU is my first lock of the bowl season.The Game: Poinsettia Bowl
The Teams: TCU vs Louisiana Tech
The Line: TCU -10.5
It's not quite the Rose Bowl they played in last year, but the Poinsettia is still a red flower, and TCU still enjoyed a very good season. Win or lose, they should finish the season ranked for the fourth straight season. A fourth straight season in the top-10 is a long shot, but at least within the realm of possibility. TCU has run off seven straight wins after a lackluster 3-2 start that included losses to fellow Texas private schools Baylor and SMU. During the win streak, the Horned Frogs upset Boise on the smurf turf, a loss that may have cost the Broncos a shot at the national title. The Frogs defense, which was torched on the opening Friday night of the season by eventual Heisman Trophy winner RG3, has returned to prominence. While they are not quite at the elite level of the past three seasons, the defense has allowed just 308 yards per game in the seven-game win streak (after allowing 410 per game in the 3-2 start). In this game, the Frogs will be facing off against the best defense in the WAC. The Air Raid attack Sonny Dykes intended to bring to Ruston has yet to take off, but in his second season at the helm, the Bulldogs won their first WAC title since 2001. The Bulldogs also had a spate of near misses in the non-conference, losing by two points to eventual Conference USA champion Southern Miss, by a single point to Conference USA runner-up Houston, and in overtime to a bowl team from the SEC (Mississippi State). Like TCU, the Bulldogs closed the year with a seven-game win streak. Five of those seven wins came on the road, including wins against the two teams tied for second in the WAC (Nevada and Utah State) and Ole Miss. Keep these two things in mind if you plan on wagering on this game. Louisiana Tech is probably better than you think, and since 2005, double-digit favorites in bowl games are just 9-17 ATS (Against the Spread).

The Game: MAACO Las Vegas Bowl
The Teams: Boise State vs Arizona State
The Line: Boise State -14
Boise State is always looking to get a shot at a BCS-conference opponent, but this is probably not what they had envisioned as their postseason reward. Arizona State closed the season with four consecutive defeats, including losses against Washington State and Arizona. The losing streak not only cost Dennis Erickson his job, but also put UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Erickson will coach the bowl game before he rides off into the sunset. Boise should have their way against a poor Arizona State defense. The Sun Devils finished ahead of only sieves Arizona and Colorado in defensive acumen in the Pac-12. In fact, during their four-game skid, the Sun Devils allowed 496 yards per game. If you feel like making a play on one of the early double-digit favorites to cover, I think Boise State is a much safer bet than TCU.

The Game: Hawaii Bowl
The Teams: Southern Miss vs Nevada
The Line: Southern Miss -6
This Christmas Eve showcase is a clash of the surprise Conference USA champ and the preseason favorite to win the WAC. Southern Miss is playing in their tenth consecutive bowl and has clinched their 18th consecutive winning season. However, for most of those 18 years, the Golden Eagles were stuck in a six to eight win rut, consistently good, but not quite good enough to be among the nation's elite mid-major programs. The Golden Eagles won nine games just four times in that span before this season. In addition, they had not won a conference title since 2003. That all changed this season as the Golden Eagles won ten games for the first time since 1988, and with their upset over Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game, set a school record with their 11th win. Southern Miss boasted the best defense in Conference USA and proved their mettle in the championship game by becoming the first team this season to hold Houston below 30 points. Still, one has to wonder what might have been. The Golden Eagles lost two games to a pair of teams they were much better than. They opened conference play by losing at Marshall, a team that as previously mentioned, was outscored by nearly 100 points on the year. Then, after an eight-game winning streak that included a road win against a surprising Virginia team, the Golden Eagles somehow lost to UAB, a team that won only thrice all season while giving both Tulane and Florida Atlantic their only IA wins. Thus, instead of a BCS showdown with a team like Michigan, they must travel to the islands to take on the most prolific offense in the WAC. Nevada absorbed the loss of their ostrich-like superman quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, and followed up their 13-1 virtuoso performance with another workmanlike 7-5 mark. Apparently, dual-threat quarterbacks grow on trees down in Reno, as head coach Chris Ault plugged in freshman Cody Fajardo who rushed for 680 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing for over 1600 yards in splitting time with senior Tyler Lantrip. Fajardo also did a pretty good job of coaching one young lady on how to throw the football as well.
Southern Miss is rightfully favored and is in the midst of one of the best season's in school history. However, they are undergoing a great deal of turmoil now as Larry Fedora moves on to his new job with North Carolina. Plus, with losses to the likes of Marshall and UAB, they have proven to be far from invulnerable. Big upsets always happen in the bowl season, and this may be the best chance for one happening prior to Christmas.

The Game: Independence Bowl
The Teams: Missouri vs North Carolina
The Line: Missouri -4.5
North Carolina weathered the Butch Davis scandal relatively well, in winning seven regular season games and qualifying for their fourth consecutive bowl. Perhaps surprising many casual fans, the Tar Heels boasted one of the ACC's best offenses, finishing third in that category behind Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels were led by a pair of young studs in the backfield, with sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner and freshman running back Giovani Bernard each having good seasons. Missouri was also led into a brave new world by a pair of young backfield mates. Sophomore quarterback James Franklin took over for the departed Blaine Gabbert and posed a threat both running (13 touchdowns) and throwing (20 touchdowns). Sophomore running back Henry Josey became the first Missouri running back to top 1000 yards since Derrick Washington in 2008. Missouri was solid on both sides of the ball, finishing fifth in the Big 12 on offense and fourth on defense. Based on the abundance of offensive firepower in the Big 12, I think its safe to say Missouri's offense is a bit overrated while their defense is a bit underrated. Their defense should be the difference in what should be one of the better games of the bowl season.

The Game: Little Caesar's Bowl
The Teams: Purdue vs Western Michigan
The Line: Purdue -2.5
The Purdue Boilermakers are bowl-eligible for the first time under third-year coach Danny Hope. Of course, in this day of bowl creep, that doesn't necessarily mean they're good. The Boilermakers won four of their games by a touchdown or less. They nearly lost to Middle Tennessee State. They did lose to Rice. Still, against a team with the strengths and weaknesses of Western Michigan, this could be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. The Broncos featured the third best offense in the MAC behind junior quarterback Alex Carder and his 28 touchdown passes. The Broncos also feature the nation's leading pass catcher in senior receiver Jordan White (127 catches for 1646 yards). Unfortunately, the Broncos defense was the second worst in the conference (ahead of only Ball State). Western Michigan faced three teams from BCS conferences this season, losing handily to Michigan, losing by three to Illinois, and upsetting Connecticut. All of those games came on the road, so you can bet the Broncos are looking forward to this neutral site clash. Purdue may be the more name brand, but Western Michigan has the better players. They should probably be a small favorite in this game, and for that reason, they are my second lock of the bowl season.The Game: Belk Bowl
The Teams: NC State vs Louisville
The Line: NC State -3
It may not seem possible, but this clash in Charlotte will mark the first time NC State has played in consecutive bowl games since the 2002 and 2003 postseasons. The Wolfpack qualified for this bowl after staging a furious rally in their regular season finale versus Maryland. The Wolfpack scored the final 42 points of that contest after trailing 41-14 in the third quarter. The win marked a fine closing streak for NC State. After losing their first three games against IA foes, the Wolfpack won five of their last seven, including an annihilation of eventual ACC champ Clemson. Like the Wolfpack, the Cardinals from Louisville closed the season on a good run. After a 2-4 start that included losses to Florida International and Marshall, the Cardinals won five of their final six games and actually shared the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati. Both teams put up very similar statistics in their respective conferences. NC State had the second worst offense in the ACC, but the second best defense. Similarly, Louisville had the second worst offense in the Big East, but the third best defense. That would lead one to believe a low-scoring game is at hand. This should be a good one. Take Louisville to pull off the small upset if you're feeling lucky.
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