Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bowl Preview: Part III

Part III of the illustrious bowl preview takes us through the New Year's Eve, New Year's Day, and Sugar Bowl games. Enjoy.

AdvoCare V100 Bowl
Arizona vs Boston College
Line: Arizona -7.5
Boston College returns to the postseason after a two-year hiatus. The Eagles were bowl mainstays since the late-90's, first under Tom O'Brien and then under Jeff Jagodzinski, but the program wilted under the guidance of Frank Spaziani. In keeping their arcane tradition of hiring coaches who last names end in vowels, the Eagles tabbed Steve Addazio to be their next head coach. The Eagles improved by five wins in Addazio's first season on the sidelines and will seek to end a three-game bowl losing streak dating back to 2007. The Eagles were a scrappy bunch in 2013, giving Florida State their toughest test to date in a fourteen point home loss. They also played Clemson tough in Death Valley, surrendering just two offensive touchdowns to the high-powered Tigers. For the season, Boston College was glaringly average in the ACC ranking sixth in yards per play and seventh in yards per play allowed. The focal point of their offense was running back Andre Williams, a Heisman finalist, who enters bowl season leading the nation in rushing yards with 2102. He is the first player to have at least 2000 yards rushing since Donald Brown in 2008. The Eagles will tangle with an Arizona team that also features a star running back. After leading the nation in rushing last season, Ka'Deem Carey enters the postseason ranked sixth in rushing yards. Despite Carey's heroics, the Wildcats ranked just eighth in the powerful Pac-12 in yards per play. The primary reason for this was the play of the passing game. Quarterback B.J. Denker took nearly every snap and averaged just 6.3 yards per pass, ranking 91st in the metric among qualifying quarterbacks. Defensively, the Wildcats improved from their horrendous showing last season, but were just seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. The Pac-12 was a tremendous conference in 2013, but outside of their shocking upset of Oregon, the Wildcats only other league victories were against the dregs of the conference (Utah, Colorado, and Cal). Boston College is undervalued by the nation at-large despite the presence of a Heisman finalist. This line should be closer to a field goal rather than the touchdown spread it currently sits at. Look for Boston College to keep this one close and potentially pull off an outright upset.

Hyundai Sun Bowl
UCLA vs Virginia Tech
Line: UCLA -7
If the Arizona/Boston College game wasn't enough for you, the beautiful city of El Paso presents you with another ACC/Pac-12 clash. Very quietly, UCLA has won nine games for the second straight season under Jim Mora Jr. Currently ranked 17th in the AP Poll, the Bruins have a chance to finish the season ranked for the first time since 2005. Despite their impressive resume, when you peel back the onion, UCLA was not especially dominant in the Pac-12. Their offense, lead by quarterback Brett Hundley, ranked just seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play. Hundley averaged a robust 8.3 yards per pass, but took 34 sacks to somewhat offset his big play ability. Hundley didn't get much help in the backfield from the usual starting running back, but linebacker turned offensive star Myles Jack was explosive in limited playing time. Jack only carried the ball 37 times, but he averaged over seven yards per rush and scored seven touchdowns. Jack also intercepted a pass and recorded a handful of tackles for loss. In addition to Jack, linebacker Anthony Barr proved to be a big playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. Barr recorded ten sacks and twenty tackles for loss in helping the Bruins rank fifth in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed. Barr and Jack will attempt to stymie the gargantuan Logan Thomas who endured a very disappointing senior season at Virginia Tech. Over his junior and senior seasons, Thomas has thrown an incredible 29 interceptions and the Hokies have gone just 15-10 after losing more than four game just once since 1997. With Thomas struggling, the defense was its usual dominant self, ranking second in the ACC in yards per play allowed, behind only Florida State. Despite their struggles, Virginia Tech is no pushover. Outside of Alabama, all their losses came by a touchdown or fewer, and the Hokies did beat six bowl teams in 2013, including three on the road (East Carolina, Marshall, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pitt, and Miami). Like Boston College, Virginia Tech is a little undervalued. I expect this to be a typical Hokie game circa 2013; ugly and low-scoring. Take the Hokies to cover and don't be surprised with an outright upset.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Mississippi State vs Rice
Line: Mississippi State -7
With a season ending upset of rival Ole Miss, the Bulldogs from Mississippi State have qualified for their fourth consecutive bowl game, a new school record. Aside from that victory over the Rebels however, there isn't a great deal of heft on the Bulldogs resume. Their second best win is easily their one-point home escape over eventual MAC champ, Bowling Green. Their other conference wins came over Arkansas and Kentucky, a pair that managed a cumulative 0-16 mark in the SEC. In non-conference action, they also crushed Steve McNair's alma mater and Troy. In fact, their most impressive performance on the year is arguably their close loss to eventual SEC champion Auburn in the season's third week. In SEC play, Mississippi State was below average on both sides of the ball, ranking eighth in yards per play and ninth in yards per play allowed. The Bulldogs will be quarterbacked in the Liberty Bowl by sophomore Dak Prescott who actually led the team in rushing with 751 yards and eleven touchdowns. His passing was a little uneven as he threw as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns. The Bulldogs will look to improve to 3-1 in bowl games under Dan Mullen against a Rice team that just won their first outright conference title since 1957. The Owls won ten games for just the third time in school history, and the second time under coach David Bailiff. Rice opened their season playing an SEC team, where they lost, but kept the game somewhat competitive. They then knocked off Kansas for the second consecutive season, and after a tight loss to former conference mate Houston, reeled off nine wins in their final ten games. The Owls made a habit of winning the close ones in 2013, rolling up a 5-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Primarily thanks to their close game success, the Owls finished 7-1 in Conference USA despite middling yards per play numbers. They ranked just eighth in Conference USA in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. In fact, in league play, their most impressive performance did not come until the Conference USA Championship Game against Marshall. The Owls averaged over seven yards per play and held the explosive Marshall offense to under five yards per play in a seventeen point win. Senior quarterback Taylor McHargue completed just over half his passes, but threw 17 touchdowns and also rushed for nearly 500 yards. The offensive line did not do a great job protecting McHargue, as the Owls allowed 33 sacks (104th in the nation). The good news for Rice fans is that Mississippi State only accumulated sixteen sacks themselves over the course of the year, so McHargue has a better shot at avoiding negative plays. During his tenure at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen has gone 12-1 versus IA teams from outside BCS conferences. However, against the better teams, those games have often been close (see Bowling Green this season and Louisiana Tech two years ago). Rice is a quality team and should be motivated to win their eleventh game of the season. Look for the Owls to keep this one close and cover here.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Texas A&M vs Duke
Line: Texas A&M -12
Coming off a season that saw them finish 11-2 and rank in the top-five of the final AP Poll for the first time since 1956 when a certain legendary gentleman was stalking the sidelines, the Aggies entered 2013 with great expectations. However, despite the exploits of the reigning Heisman winner, the Aggies defense went from bad to worse and the Aggies were just 4-4 in the SEC. To be fair, three of their losses came by a touchdown or less, but two of them also came in the comfy confines of College State where the Aggies played eight games this season. Ten of their twelve opponents scored at least 28 points against the Aggies lackluster defense. In the SEC, only Kentucky and Arkansas allowed more yards per play than the Aggies. The Aggies also did a poor job forcing turnovers, creating just nine in their eight SEC games. A defense that allows a lot of big plays and fails in creating turnovers will generally allow a great deal of points, and the Aggies were no exception, permitting 36.5 points per game in their league contests. And despite those defensive struggles, the Aggies head to Atlanta as huge favorites against a Duke team that, while not possessing the resume of a ten-win team, is clearly the best team Duke has fielded in ages. After losing their first two ACC games, the Blue Devils won their final eight regular season contests before falling to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. Amazingly, the Blue Devils won all four of their ACC road games, equaling their number of conference road wins in David Cutcliffe's first five seasons. Duke was a functionally average team in the ACC, ranking seventh in yards per play and ninth in yards per play allowed. Duke's biggest playmaker on offense is wide receiver Jamison Crowder who has nearly 1200 yards receiving. Crowder also returned two punts for touchdowns and corner DeVon Edwards added two kickoff return touchdowns, one of which provided the winning margin in their division clinching game against rival North Carolina. Edwards also ran two interceptions back against NC State, accounting for three touchdown in Duke's eighteen point win. In a season of roughly 1900 plays, Edwards' four big ones provided the thin margin by which Duke enjoyed a sublime season. Texas A&M is better than Duke, but double-digit favorites, especially when they are not elite teams, do not fare well against the spread in bowl season. Even if this game is relatively non-competitive, the Aggie defense will leave the backdoor wide open in this game. Take the Devils to cover, and don't be surprised if this one is a lot closer than most thought possible. Gator Bowl
Georgia vs Nebraska
Line: Georgia -9
This year's Gator Bowl presents us with a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl. An early back-and-forth affair turned into a relatively comfortable 45-31 win for Georgia. Despite the familiarity, this game will feature two different starting quarterbacks than the last matchup. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez was injured in the season opener, and while he did play appear in four games, he missed the Cornhuskers last five contests and will not be playing in the bowl. Georgia's outstanding senior signal caller, Aaron Murray, was injured in their penultimate regular season game and missed the annual clash with Georgia Tech and is out for this game as well. In looking at Nebraska's Big 10 stats, we can get a pretty idea as to what kind of team they are without Martinez, as he played in only one conference game. The results, at least on offense, are not pretty. Nebraska ranked just ninth in the conference in yards per play. The quarterbacks behind Martinez, Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kelllogg III combined to throw just thirteen touchdowns and ten interceptions on the season. Plus, those two are far from the running threat Martinez was. Armstrong and Kellogg combined to rush for just 160 yards on 80 carries in 2013. In his illustrious Nebraska career, Martinez rushed for nearly 3000 yards and averaged over five yards per carry. The offense certainly missed him in his absence. However, the defense compensated for his loss. The Cornhuskers ranked second in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed. However, the vagaries of a short season manifested themselves in the inability of the defense to force turnovers. Nebraska forced just six in their eight conference games, easily the fewest in the league. A few more swing plays here or there and maybe Nebraska wins nine or ten games. On the other hand, evaluating Georgia is a little bit different since Aaron Murray played in all their SEC games. Murray and the Bulldogs own a pair of impressive wins, beating both South Carolina and LSU between the hedges. They also nearly beat eventual SEC champion Auburn (a common refrain in 2013) on the road before suffering a heartbreaking defeat. For the season, Georgia ranked sixth in the SEC in yards per play (remember a lot of powerful offenses resided in the SEC) and sixth in yards per play allowed. The Bulldogs allowed at least 30 points to six of their eight conference opponents, with low-wattage outfits Florida and Kentucky failing to get to that number. In their final regular season game against Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs fell behind early before quarterback Hutson Mason rallied them to an overtime win. Still, Georgia allowed over 30 points to the Yellow Jackets meaning eight of their eleven IA opponents went at least that high in 2013. I think the spread in this game is a little high considering the potential defensive issues at Georgia. Nebraska's defense is more than capable of holding Georgia in check and keeping this game close. I wouldn't bank on a Nebraska win, but a cover seems likely here.

Heart of Dallas Bowl
North Texas vs UNLV
Line: North Texas -6.5
This game is an unexpected treat for mid-major aficionados like myself. Getting the opportunity to play on New Year's Day, even if they are stuck on ESPNU, is something most in Denton and Las Vegas probably did not expect when the season began. For North Texas, this marks their first bowl appearance since 2004 when they finished their run of four consecutive New Orleans Bowl bids. After winning just thirteen games from 2005 through 2010, the Mean Green have won seventeen in just three seasons under Dan McCarney. After turning the Iowa State program around and guiding the Cyclones to five bowl appearances over a six season span, McCarney guided the Mean Green to the cusp of a conference title in his third season at the helm. North Texas lost just two Conference USA games all season, with the defeats coming by three and eight points. Meanwhile, each of their six league wins came by at least twelve points, including a win over eventual league champ Rice. On the year, North Texas ranked fifth in Conference USA in yards per play and outstanding second in yards per play allowed. In fact, their per-play margin ranked second in the league behind only Marshall. Offensively, the Mean Green were not explosive, but they also suffered few negative plays. They allowed only ten sacks on the season, an amount that ranked fifth in the nation. The Mean Green are a senior laden team, with their quarterback, running back, two leading receivers, and four leaders in tackles for loss all playing their final games on the January 1st. Seeking to win a bowl game for the first time since 2002, the Mean Green will face a UNLV team that has not been to the postseason since 2000, and has but three previous bowl appearances in its history. UNLV won a combined six games in Bobby Hauck's first three seasons in Sin City, but the Rebels shook off an ugly 0-2 start to win more than six games for just the second time in the last two decades. UNLV did what they had to do in 2013, namely beating six teams that did not finish with a winning record. To be fair, they did end the regular season with a beatdown of San Diego State, their lone win over a bowl team, to clinch this bowl appearance. UNLV was below average on both sides of the ball in Mountain West play, ranking ninth in yards per play and seventh in yards per play allowed. Despite the pedestrian showing, a few seniors did have good individual performances. Senior quarterback Caleb Herring three 22 touchdown passes after throwing just 14 in his first three years at the school. Senior running back Tim Cornett rushed for over 1200 yards for the second straight year, and set the school's career rushing mark, passing Mike Thomas. Both of these teams have been absent from the postseason for a while, so motivation should not be an issue. North Texas is probably the better team, but this spread is a little too high to feel comfortable taking them. Sit this one out and enjoy some mid-majors that get the New Year's spotlight.

Capital One Bowl
Wisconsin vs South Carolina
Line: Wisconsin -2
For the third straight year, South Carolina will take a New Year's trip to Florida, face a Big 10 team, and attempt to set/tie the school record for wins in a season with eleven. The Gamecocks have burst onto the national scene in recent years, and despite not playing in the SEC Championship Game during this run (they won a watered down SEC East in 2010), have enjoyed arguably the best seasons in school history back-to-back-to-back. South Carolina was not elite on either side of the ball in the SEC this year, ranking seventh in yards per play and fifth in yards per play allowed. However, since most SEC teams were very unbalanced with either a great offense and poor defense (see Texas A&M) or great defense and paleolithic offense (see Florida), the Gamecocks actually ranked fourth in yards per play differential. This will be the final game for the best quarterback in Gamecock history, Connor Shaw. Despite not getting nearly the attention he deserves nationally, Shaw quietly enjoyed one of the best touchdown to interception ratio seasons of all-time. Shaw threw 21 touchdown passes on the year (and also added five scores on the ground), but threw just a single interception. The four Heisman Trophy finalist quarterbacks combined to throw 36 interceptions! I'm not saying Shaw deserved an invite, but he should have at least been in the conversation. Joining Shaw in the backfield is sophomore running back Mike Davis. While potentially blasphemous to folks around Columbia, Davis posted better rushing numbers than Marcus Lattimore did in any season. And of course, on defense, the man with true SEC speed, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will be playing his final college game. The Gamecocks will face an imposing Wisconsin team that is not playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2009. The Badgers were probably a bit underrated for much of the year until their head-scratching home loss to Penn State to close the year. Overall, Wisconsin ranked second in the Big 10 in yards per play and fourth in yards per play allowed. Although they were an old school Big 10 team in that they loved to run the ball, this was not three yards and a cloud of dust. The Badgers finished second nationally in yards per rush (behind another Big 10 team in Ohio State) by averaging a robust 6.61 yards per carry. For the second time in four seasons, the Badgers had two backs go over 1000 yards on the ground. Melvin Gordon got fewer touches than James White, but averaged over eight yards per attempt. For his career, Gordon is averaging an absurd 8.31 yards per carry on 263 attempts. The Badgers can also sling it a little bit with Jared Abbrederis becoming to first Badger to go over 1000 yards receiving since Brandon Williams in 2005. This game has the potential to be one of the better clashes of bowl season. There is no value on either side of this spread, so just sit back and enjoy while you nurse that hangover.

Outback Bowl
LSU vs Iowa
Line: LSU -7
This Outback Bowl is a rematch of the Capital One Bowl from nearly a decade ago that featured one of the best endings in college football history.
Iowa rebounded from a rare losing campaign in 2012 to qualify for their eleventh bowl game in the past thirteen seasons. Iowa lost four games in 2013, but each loss came to a quality opponent. Northern Illinois nearly finished unbeaten, Michigan State and Ohio State lost just two games between them, and Wisconsin is one of the more underrated teams in the country. The Hawkeyes also own solid wins over Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska. Iowa ranked just seventh in the Big 10 in yards per play, but they boasted a very solid defense, ranking third in yards per play allowed. On offense, the Hawkeyes prefer to run the ball, ranking 94th in the nation in pass attempts per game. The Hawkeyes did not have a 1000-yard rusher, but they did have three players who gained at least 400 yards on the ground. Iowa's biggest playmaker on offense is receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Though he only gained 384 yards through the air, he also returned two punts for touchdowns in the same game. The Hawkeyes will take on an LSU team that flipped the script on their usual method for winning games. Typically, the Tigers are led by an elite defense and an inconsistent offense. However, this season, their offense was among the best in the SEC, ranking third in yards per play, while their defense regressed and was just seventh in yards per play allowed. Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw 22 touchdowns and averaged over ten yards per pass attempt. LSU offensive series seemed to follow this script: Short run on first down, short run or incomplete pass on second down, and a ridiculous throw and catch by Mettenberger to one of his stud wideouts (Jarvis Landry or Odell Beckham Jr) on third and long. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Mettenberger tore his ACL in the Tiger's regular season finale against Arkansas. In his absence, the Tigers will turn to freshman Anthony Jennings, who engineered the fourth quarter comeback against Arkansas. How will the freshman perform against one of the better defenses in the Big 10? That should go a long way in determining the winner here. LSU is notorious for not covering the spread under Les Miles. I would be hesitant to back them here, but at the same time, Iowa feels like the type of team LSU can dominate with their fantastic receivers. Sit this one out and save your money for better options.

Rose Bowl
Stanford vs Michigan State
Line: Stanford -6
Like the Republican Party, the football gods seem to be trying to take the Rose Bowl back to a simpler, more conservative time. After a 2012 game that saw Wisconsin and Oregon combine for 83 points and over 1100 yards, the 2013 game saw 34 points scored and just over 600 yards gained. Traditionalists, rejoice! The 2014 game is likely to be another low-scoring, albeit entertaining affair. Michigan State finally broke through to claim their first Rose Bowl berth since 1987. Amazingly, in three of the past four seasons, the Spartans have lost one or fewer Big 10 games! Michigan State featured by far the best defense in the Big 10, ranking first in yards per play allowed. And after a rough start, the offense coalesced, and actually ranked fourth in the Big 10 in yards per play. The elite Spartan defense will be missing a key component however, as linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for a violation of team rules. While Bullough will be missed, the Spartans have a host of other playmakers on that side of the ball, including linebacker Denicos Allen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The Spartans will face a Stanford team that is pretty formidable in its own right. While the Cardinal did rank second in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (behind Oregon), they also ranked (a perhaps surprising) second in yards per play. The offense, led by quarterback Kevin Hogan averaged nine yards per pass (ninth nationally) on the rare times they threw the ball (only eight teams threw the ball fewer times). Defensively, linebacker Trent Murphy finished the regular season with fourteen sacks, a number that currently ranks second in the nation. Stanford is probably the better team, but this game, even with the absence of Bullough, feels like it could go either way. Take the Spartans to cover here.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl
Baylor vs Central Florida
Line: Baylor -16.5
Congrats are in order for both of these squads that are making their first ever BCS bowl appearances. Baylor won its first outright conference title since 1980 when a certain Samurai was patrolling the middle. The Bears got a great deal of publicity early in the season for their offensive prowess, and why not? They scored at least 70 points in three of their first four and four of their first six games. However, lest we forget, Baylor's offense has been pretty good for about four years now. It was the defensive improvement that caused the Bears to jump from top-twenty team to national player. After allowing 50 touchdowns in Big 12 play last season (that equals about five and a half per game), the Bears allowed just 28 in their Big 12 contests this season (a little more than three per game). The Bears also ranked second in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed (of course they ranked first in yards per play). After averaging just over nineteen sacks per season in Art Brile's first five years on the Waco sideline, the Bears sacked opposing quarterbacks 31 times in 2013. The Bears will attempt to win twelve games for the first time in school history against a Central Florida team that has been living on the edge all season. While the Knights won eleven games and the inaugural American Athletic Conference title, they also pulled several Houdini acts. The Knights were 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and needed clutch fourth quarter play to beat four teams (Memphis, Temple, South Florida, and SMU) that finished a combined 12-36! Behind the play of future NFL quarterback Blake Bortles, the Knights ranked second in the American in yards per play. The defense, long a strength of George O'Leary's teams, ranked a respectable fourth in yards per play allowed. However, the Knights are probably the worst team to qualify for a BCS bowl this season. Previous warnings against double-digit favorites in the bowl season apply here, but this has all the makings of a Baylor blowout.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Alabama vs Oklahoma
Line: Alabama -15
If you only looked at the final records and the pedigree for this game, you might think this Sugar Bowl would be an instant classic. However, digging into how both teams achieved their respective records in 2013, you can see why the oddsmakers favor Alabama by such a large margin. We'll start with the Sooners who won at least ten games for the twelfth time in fifteen seasons under Bob Stoops. While the Sooners do own some impressive wins, including victories on the road at Notre Dame, at Kansas State, and at Oklahoma State, they were also crushed by Texas and Baylor, and narrowly escaped not ready for primetime outfits West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech at home. Overall, Oklahoma ranked fourth in the Big 12 in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. After enjoying the services of Landry Jones for four seasons, the Sooners struggled throwing the football in 2013, averaging just 6.6 yards per pass (tied for 89th in the nation). The Sooners will likely need to score a lot of point to hang with Alabama. The Crimson Tide actually led the SEC in yards per play as they averaged at least six yards per play against every league opponent except one (Mississippi State). Senior quarterback A.J. McCarron completed more than two thirds of his passes and threw 26 touchdowns on the year. Running back T.J. Yeldon rushed for nearly 1200 yards and averaged over six yards per carry. This Alabama team was not quite as dominant as the two that immediately preceded it, but I think you can make a pretty credible argument that Alabama is the second best team in the country. Previous warnings about double-digit favorites apply here, but Alabama is truly an elite team and a blowout by the Tide would not shock me here.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bowl Preview: Part II

Part II of our bowl preview will tackle the post-Christmas and pre-New Year's Eve bowl games. Enjoy.

Military Bowl
Marshall vs Maryland
Line: Marshall -2.5
Howdy neighbor! Despite residing in border states, Maryland and Marshall have yet to play a football game against each other. That will change on December 27th when the Terps and Herd clash in our nation's capital. Maryland is breaking a three year bowl drought and playing in their first bowl game under head coach Randy Edsall. The last time the Terrapins were in the postseason, they played in this very game against an opponent from Conference USA. And like the thunder, they rolled, dropping 51 points on a hapless East Carolina defense. The Terps have not seen a great deal of success since that exhibition, which was the final game coached by Ralph Friedgen. Since canning Friedgen, the Terps have managed just a 13-23 record, including a 6-18 mark in the ACC. Despite their struggles, the Terps actually began the year 4-0 and were ranked in the top-25 before Florida State eviscerated them in their first conference game. Outside of their win against Virginia Tech, the Terps did not beat a single IA team that finished with a winning record. Their other five IA scalps consisted of Florida International, Connecticut, West Virginia, Virginia, and NC State. If the Terps do manage to beat Marshall, it would arguably be their best win all season. So what about the Herd? What is their prospectus in this game? Marshall won nine games in the regular season for the first time since 2002, when legendary coach Bob Pruett was at the end of his spectacular run. The Thundering Herd played in the Conference USA Championship Game for the first time since joining the league and by the yards per play metric, were the top team in the regular season. Unfortunately, they had to go on the road in the title game, and the offense that poured in 50 touchdowns over eight regular season games managed just three in a loss to Rice. That game aside, the offense was a sight to behold with quarterback Rakeem Cato throwing 36 touchdown passes and adding six scores on the ground. Despite their showing in their most recent contest, Marshall is a quality mid-major. With a chance to prove their bonafides against a team from a major conference, I think they return to their winning ways and easily cover this small number.

Texas Bowl
Minnesota vs Syracuse
Line: Minnesota -4.5
Last year, Minnesota may have been the worst bowl team from a major conference, and this season they face what may be the worst bowl team from a major conference. First off, the Gophers deserve a huge round of applause. They won eight games in the regular season for the first time since 2003. Much like last season, a 4-0 start against a relatively soft non-conference slate got the Gophers two thirds of the way to bowl eligibility. However, unlike last season when they wheezed to the finish, winning just two of their final eight regular season games, this season the Gophers split their final eight, posting solid wins at Northwestern and Indiana and at home against Nebraska and Penn State. The Gophers were not extremely proficient on either side of the ball, ranking tenth in the Big 10 in yards per play and ninth in yards per play allowed. The Gophers ran the ball often, ranking 16th nationally in rushing attempts with 548. They passed on occasion, but were not very good at it, completing just a shade more than 52% of their throws. In fact, Minnesota receivers combined to catch just 124 passes on the year. The five teams that caught fewer passes all run some variation of the option (Air Force, New Mexico, Georgia Tech, Army, and Navy). The Gophers will attempt to win their first bowl game in a decade against a Syracuse squad that was outscored by 93 points over the course of their eleven games against IA opponents. When the Orange lost, they tended to lose big. Northwestern neat them by 21, Clemson beat them by 35, Georgia Tech beat them by 56, and Florida State also brained them by 56. The Orange did not do much to distinguish themselves in ACC play, ranking eleventh in yards per play and eighth in yards per play allowed. Orange quarterbacks averaged just 5.8 yards per throw, a number that ranked 112th in the nation. I can't come up with a very compelling reason to watch this game except that it is one of the few football games left until next fall. I also can't come up with a reason for you to make any plays here either. I could see the Orange losing in grisly fashion as they have many times this season. However, despite their embarrassing defeats, the Orange have beaten three bowl teams this season (Tulane, Maryland, and Boston College), so a Minnesota win, and more importantly perhaps, a Minnesota cover is far from assured. Sit this one out.

Fight Hunger Bowl
BYU vs Washington
Line: Washington -3
If Steve Sarkisian had not taken the Southern Cal job a few weeks ago, this game would be a homecoming of sorts. Sarkisian quarterbacked the Cougs in the mid-nineties, and enjoyed two solid campaigns as the starter. Before heading south, Sark guided the Huskies to their first eight-win regular season since 2001! A win over the Cougars could potentially get the Huskies into the nether regions of the final polls for the first time since that same season. Despite their four defeats, Washington was a formidable team in 2013. They just had the misfortune of playing Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona State in back-to-back-to back weeks. Those three were head and shoulders above the rest of the Pac-12, finishing a combined 28-4 in games against the rest of the country. Washington also dropped a road game at UCLA later in the year, but each of their eight wins came by at least ten points. In Pac-12 play, the Huskies ranked fifth in yards per play and fourth in yards per play allowed. Senior quarterback Keith Price threw 20 touchdown passes and just five interceptions as he moved into second place on the school's all-time passing yardage list behind Cody Pickett. Running back Bishop Sankey tallied nearly 1800 yards on the ground and if he returns for his senior season will almost certainly pass Napoleon Kaufman as the school's all-time leading rusher. The Huskies will attempt to win their ninth game with interim coach Marques Tuiasosopo, a former star quarterback, leading the team. To get win number nine, they must defeat a BYU team that has been somewhat of an enigma this season. The Cougars somehow lost to Virginia in the season opener, then started the Mack Brown death march with a shredding of the Texas run defense. The blew out bowl teams Middle Tennessee State, Utah State, Georgia Tech, and Boise State by a combined margin of 79 points, yet lost to the two best teams on their schedule, Wisconsin and Notre Dame by ten points apiece. The Cougars offense struggled in their four defeats, mustering an average of just fifteen points per game against Virginia, Utah, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. In those four games, quarterback Taysom Hill completed an abysmal 43% of his passes. Washington appears to be the kind of team that can shut down the erratic Hill and hold the Cougars under twenty points. However, the Washington offensive line did allow 30 sacks on the season (93rd in the nation), and while Cougar linebacker Kyle Van Noy only tallied four sacks in 2013 after accumulating thirteen last season, he remains a threat to set up shop in the backfield. Last season, he almost single-handedly won the Poinsettia Bowl for the Cougars. The interim coach and the Huskies propensity to give up sacks would give me pause about backing them here.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Notre Dame vs Rutgers
Line: Notre Dame -14
I know I wrote a few paragraphs up that Syracuse could be the worst bowl team from a major conference in 2013. If that distinction does not belong to the Orange, it certainly belongs to their northeast neighbor in New Jersey. First off, lets congratulate Rutgers for their eighth bowl appearance in the last nine seasons and their impending move to the Big 10. Before Greg Schiano was chasing off quarterbacks and pissing off other coaches in the NFL, he engineered one of the better turnarounds in college football history at Rutgers. His successor, Kyle Flood, kept the program afloat in his first season, racing out to a 7-0 and 9-1 start in 2012 before losing the final three games. Still, the Knights got to nine wins for the third time in four seasons and looked poised to be contenders in the watered down newly christened American Athletic Conference. The Knights then began 2013 with a 4-1 mark, albeit with none of the wins coming against eventual bowl teams. However, the defense, long a team strength, was beginning to atrophy. In their first five games, the Knights allowed 52 points twice, once in a loss at Fresno and again in a win over SMU. After the 4-1 start, the Knights wheezed to the finish, beating only Temple (1-11 record) and South Florida (3-9) to gain the elusive sixth win. Along the way, they allowed 49 points to Houston, 52 to Cincinnati, and 41 to Central Florida in grisly defeats. The Cincinnati game marked the first time Rutgers had allowed more than 50 points at home since 2001 against Virginia Tech, in the dark days of Rutgers football. All told, excluding games against Eastern Michigan and Norfolk State, the Knights allowed an average of 34.8 points per game in 2013 despite playing in basically a glorified mid-major conference. Yikes. Against this permissible defense, can volatile Irish quarterback Tommy Rees end his Notre Dame career on a high note? Rees has thrown 61 touchdowns in his Irish career, but has also tossed 37 interceptions. As a point of comparison, Derek Carr of Fresno State has thrown just 23 interceptions despite over 50% more pass attempts in his collegiate career. A.J. McCarron has just 13 career interceptions in roughly the same number of attempts. I guess what I am trying to say is that despite this deservedly large spread, Rees could potentially serve up an upset for Rutgers. Notre Dame has been a hard team to figure in 2013, as they own two phenomenal wins over Michigan State and Arizona State. They also played Stanford tight in a road loss and beat both Southern Cal and BYU. Of course they also lost to what ended up not being a high-quality Michigan team, narrowly edged the dumpster fire that was Purdue, squeaked by Navy, and lost to an average at best Pitt team. Notre Dame is a much better football team than Rutgers, of that there is no question. However, this line is way too large to make a play on the Irish. Previous discussions about double-digit favorites, found in the first preview, apply here. Notre Dame is not an elite team, so if you are hankering for a wager, take the Knights and the points.

Belk Bowl
Cincinnati vs North Carolina
Line: North Carolina -2.5
Numbers wise, Cincinnati is one of the more interesting teams of 2013. Most advanced stats, be they the SRS, Sagarin Ratings, FEI, or S&P ratings do not hold the Bearcats in a very high regard. Most see them as a middle of the road team. This is due to their non-conference performance, where they lost by four touchdowns to Illinois (perhaps that should prevent a team from being bowl eligible in itself), and scored only fourteen points against a winless Miami of Ohio outfit. For good measure, once conference play began, the Bearcats also lost to South Florida, though to be fair, they did not allow an offensive touchdown. Couple that with the relative weakness of the American Athletic Conference and you can see why despite nine wins, Cincinnati is seen as a middling team. However, I am inclined to disagree here. The Bearcats absolutely dominated the (inferior) competition in their conference, ranking first in yards per play and third in yards per play allowed. Their per-play margin was second only to Louisville in the conference and the Bearcats won four of their six league games by double-digits. The Bearcats had a strong offensive line, allowing just twelve sacks on the year. This was not a function of them being a team dedicated to the ground game either, as the Bearcats were in the top quartile nationally in number of pass attempts. They also generated 35 sacks on the year with the well-named Silverberry Mouhon registering nine and a half by himself. The Bearcats will likely have to deal with a hostile crowd to win a second consecutive Belk Bowl as the Tar Heels from Chapel Hill make the short trek west. North Carolina began the year 1-5, but rallied to win five consecutive games before missing out on an opportunity to instigate a fifteen-way tie in the Coastal Division of the ACC. Despite their 6-6 record, North Carolina posted strong peripheral number. They were fifth in the ACC in yards per play and third in yards per play allowed. Their per-play differential actually ranked fourth in the conference behind the Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State and Clemson and their own division-mate, Miami. The Tar Heels lost senior quarterback Bryn Renner to an injury still needing three wins to qualify for a bowl game. Sophomore Marquise Williams replaced him and averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt (21st nationally) while also rushing for nearly 500 yards. The Tar Heels also benefited from the marvelous punt return styling of Ryan Switzer. The freshman wide receiver returned four punts for touchdowns over a three-game span, including two in a tight win over Pittsburgh. Switzer also caught three touchdown passes on the season and threw one against rival NC State. Might there be a rushing touchdown in his future? Despite the homefield advantage and the solid per-play number for the Tar Heels, I think Cincinnati is undervalued by the nation at large. Take the Bearcats to cover here, and if you are feeling lucky, make a play on the moneyline.

Russell Athletic Bowl
Louisville vs Miami
Line: Louisville -3
After missing out on the postseason thanks to a self-imposed bowl ban in the first two seasons of the Al Golden regime, the Miami Hurricanes will make their triumphant return to the bowl season. This may come as a shock to some casual college football fans, but Miami has not won a bowl game since they edged Nevada in Boise back in 2006. That marked Larry Coker's final game as head coach of The U. Since that New Year's eve, Miami has been thoroughly mediocre, going 50-37 and depending on the outcome of this game, never losing fewer than four games in any season, and finishing in the final AP Poll only once. Early, and perhaps even midway through 2013, the Hurricanes appeared to be close to being back. They upset Florida in a turnover-fueled triumph that ended up not being that impressive at the end of the season and won their first seven games. However, the Hurricanes were revealed as frauds, losing their next three to Florida State, Virginia Tech, and ...gasp... Duke, with each loss coming by at least 18 points. They did rebound to beat Virginia and Pitt to finish with nine wins and an outside shot at being ranked in the final polls. Miami in 2013 was a team with a great strength (its offense) and a glaring weakness (its defense). The Hurricane offense finished second only to Florida State in the ACC in yards per play. Senior quarterback Stephen Morris, though mistake-prone with twelve interceptions, averaged a whopping nine yards per pass attempt (tied for twelfth in the nation). As a whole, the offense averaged nearly seven yards per snap in conference play. Even without stud running back Duke Johnson over the second half of the conference season, the offense remained explosive. However, the defense was another story entirely. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in the fourteen team ACC in yards per play allowed. Quarterbacks and running back alike rejoiced when the Hurricanes came out of the tunnel. In their final five conference games, the Hurricanes allowed over eight yards per pass attempt and over five yards per rush. Warren Sapp and other legendary retired 'Canes could probably have performed better. So what are Miami's prospects going against a talent like Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville? While Louisville did not win the inaugural American Athletic Conference as most had predicted, they were clearly the most dominant team. And believe it or not, the offense wasn't really the story. Sure, the Cardinals rated third in the American in yards per play, with Bridgewater completing over 70% of his passes and throwing 28 touchdowns versus just four interceptions, but the defense was outstanding, limiting conference opponents to under four and a half yards per play. Defensive ends Marcus Smith (twelve and a half) and Lorenzo Mauldin (nine and a half) combined for 22 sacks and ranked second and seventeenth respectively in the metric nationally. The Cardinals held ten of their twelve opponents to fewer than twenty points and were very close to finishing unbeaten. Last season, Bridgewater carved up an elite Florida defense in the Sugar Bowl. He has to be licking his chops at the chance to face Miami. This spread seems very small, perhaps thanks to the Miami national brand. Back Louisville in this one, as they have the firepower and defensive acumen to turn this into a rout.

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Kansas State vs Michigan
Line: Kansas State -4
What are you doing for an encore? After leading Kansas State to a surprising Big 12 championship and berth in the Fiesta Bowl, expectations were rather muted for Kansas State entering 2013. Despite the attrition and regression, the best coach in college football led Kansas State back to the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. Now, can the Wildcats manage to win their first bowl game in eleven years? Kansas State opened 2013 with a loss to IAA North Dakota State. However, the Bison have lost just two times over the past three seasons and are playing in their third consecutive IAA National Championship Game. In fact, the Bison have actually beaten a IA team each of the past four seasons. The Wildcats rebounded from that defeat to crush their other two non-conference foes, Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts. When conference play began, the Wildcats struggled on the scoreboard, losing competitive road games to Texas and Oklahoma State, while holding Baylor's potent offense in check at home in another sporting defeat. Then the schedule lightened and the Wildcats heated up. They won five of their final six games with all of the wins except one coming by at least three touchdowns. For the season, Kansas State actually ranked a surprising second in yards per play in the Big 12, behind only Baylor. Jake Waters and Daniel Sams alternated under center in replacing Heisman finalist Colin Klein. As a team, the Wildcats did not throw the ball often (only nine teams passed fewer times), but they were very explosive, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt (tied for fourth nationally). Elsewhere in the backfield, John Hubert needs just 32 yards on the ground to become the first Wildcat running back to top 1000 yards since Daniel Thomas in 2010. Hubert has already passed Thomas as the school's second leading rusher, but its unlikely he can pass Darren Sproles for the top spot (just 2064 yards behind). Defensively, the Wildcats ranked fourth in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed. The Wildcats ball-hawking secondary snatched sixteen passes from opposing quarterbacks, continuing a recent trend after grabbing eighteen in both 2012 and 2011. The Wildcats will seek to end their bowl losing streak against a Michigan team that disappointed in Brady Hoke's third season. True, they also lost five games last year, but each of their five defeats came to teams than finished in the final top-25, with four coming to teams than finished in the top-ten. The Wolverines cannot boast of such schedule misfortune this year. While the Wolverines did lose to the two best teams in the conference (Michigan State and Ohio State), they also fell to Iowa, Nebraska, and Penn State, three solid, but hardly elite teams. The Wolverines lost four of their final five games, and before rebounding to torch Ohio State, the Wolverine offense looked like it was playing in the nineteenth century. In a four-game stretch against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Iowa, the Wolverines scored just five offensive touchdowns, with two coming in overtime against Northwestern. In those four games, Michigan averaged just 217 yards per contest and an anemic 3.3 yards per play. For the season Michigan ranked eighth in the Big 10 in yards per play (which I suppose is somewhat impressive considering the aforementioned stretch). The defense ranked sixth in yards per play allowed, meaning Michigan was a pretty average (or below) Big 10 team, as also evidenced by their 3-5 league record. I don't feel supremely confident taking Kansas State to cover here, especially with their somewhat spotty bowl record under the Snyder, but I think a small play on the Wildcats is a solid investment strategy.

Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
Navy vs Middle Tennessee State
Line: Navy -6.5
After finishing 8-4 last season and missing out on a bowl game, the Blue Raiders from Middle Tennessee will make their first postseason trip since 2010. In their first season as a member of Conference USA, the Blue Raiders finished 6-2 in league play, and inflicted the only regular season conference loss on Marshall's resume. The Blue Raiders ranked second in Conference USA in yards per play and were eighth in yards per play allowed. The offense coalesced as the season progressed, and the schedule eased up, as the Blue Raiders scored more than 40 points four times in their last five games. The Blue Raiders featured a committee offense that did not have a single go-to playmaker. No receiver had more than 550 yards through the air, but five players had at least 200 yards receiving. Similarly, Jordan Parker led the team in rushing with just 727 yards, but four players had at least 200 yards on the ground. Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore did take the majority of snaps under center, and with a big game could pass Wes Counts as the school's all-time leading passer (370 yards behind Counts). The defense is similarly anonymous, with no player accumulating more than five sacks or ten and a half tackles for loss. The Blue Raiders will face a Navy team making their tenth bowl appearance in the past eleven seasons. The Midshipmen have lost five of their last six bowl games, including four of five under current head coach Ken Niumatalolo, but why focus on the negative?Navy won eight games in 2013, but none came against teams with winning records. Pitt, South Alabama, and San Jose State all finished 6-6. I suppose there is something to be said for beating the teams you should beat, as Navy's four defeats all came to teams with winning records (Western Kentucky, Duke, Toledo, and Notre Dame). Navy did what they have to do win games, run the ball (second nationally in rushing yards per game and thirteenth in yards per rush) and win the turnover battle (their margin of +12 tied for tenth). Navy appears to be a little overvalued here in giving nearly a touchdown to the Blue Raiders. I'm not overly confident laying money on either side here, but I would make a small play on the Blue Raiders plus the points. In addition, keep this little statistical minutia in mind: Under Rick Stockstill, the Blue Raiders are 8-2 in their last ten games decided by a touchdown or less. Not that this trend is in any way predictive, just something to keep in mind if the Blue Raiders do manage to squeak one out.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Ole Miss vs Georgia Tech
Line: Ole Miss -3
After imploding at the end of the Houston Nutt era, during which they managed a 1-15 SEC record over his final two seasons, Ole Miss is back in the postseason for the second straight year. Are the Rebels appreciably better than they were last season? Not really. In 2012, they managed a 3-5 SEC record and beat just one team that finished with a winning record. This season they were once again 3-5 in the SEC, and while their wins were more impressive (Vanderbilt and LSU in the conference and Texas outside of it), the Rebels are pretty much who they were last year, just with more disappointment. Ole Miss was below average on both sides of the ball in the SEC, ranking ninth in yards per play and eighth in yards per play allowed. The Rebels continued their streak of not having a player top 1000 yards on the ground or through the air since 2009. Though to be fair, receiver Donte Moncrief could get to that mark with a big game (currently 825 yards receiving). The defense struggled to get to the quarterback, registering just eighteen sacks on the year (tied for 96th nationally). The arrival of uber-hyped defensive end Robert Nkemdiche did not result in a series of quarterback takedowns that took the nation by storm. Nkemdiche was not a gamechanger, but most fans should be happy with two sacks and eight tackles for loss from a true freshman. He wasn't Clowney, but that is not where the bar should be placed. If I was a betting man, I would say Ole Miss won't get many sacks in this game either. Georgia Tech, as you may know, runs the triple option and only passes as a change of pace, or out of necessity. The Yellow Jackets will be playing in their 17th consecutive bowl game and sixth consecutive under head coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets continued their run of strong offensive performances under Johnson, ranking fourth in the ACC in yards per play. However, their achilles' heel, as it has been for sometime, was the defense. The Yellow Jackets ranked tenth in the ACC in yards per play allowed. Outside of their loss to Virginia Tech, when the defense allowed a scant seventeen points, the Jackets surrendered an average of nearly 45 points in their defeats at the hands of Miami, BYU, Clemson, and for a fifth consecutive year, Georgia. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, this should be a high-scoring, entertaining contest. These teams appear to be pretty evenly matched, so I'm surprised Ole Miss is laying a field goal. Paul Johnson has not exactly crushed it in bowl games at Georgia Tech, but I think the Jackets are a solid play on the moneyline here.

Valero Alamo Bowl
Oregon vs Texas
Line: Oregon -13.5
After all the rumor and innuendo, the news was made official a few days ago. Mack Brown will no longer be the coach of the Texas Longhorns following this Alamo Bowl appearance. The returns diminished towards the end of his tenure, but Mack won a national title and 158 games during his time at Texas. The Longhorns finished the season ranked thirteen times in his sixteen years on the sidelines (pending the final results this season), including six finishes in the top-ten. That's a pretty successful tenure. Unfortunately though, the prospects for sending Mack out a winner do not appear to be very strong. Despite a 7-2 mark in the Big 12, Texas was below average according to the yards per play metric. The Longhorns raked just seventh in yards play and fifth in yards per play allowed. Facing a team as dominant as Oregon, Texas could be in deep trouble in their home state. For the first time since 2008, Oregon will not end their season in a BCS bowl, though I think one could make the argument they are a more deserving participant than Oklahoma. Despite their two conference losses, the Ducks rated out as the best team in the Pac-12. The offense remained explosive despite the loss of head coach Chip Kelly, ranking first in the league in yards per play. Quarterback Marcus Mariota threw 30 touchdowns and averaged 9.5 yards per pass. Mariota also contributed nearly 600 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. You, dear reader, may also be surprised to know that the Ducks were also dominant on defense. They held Pac-12 foes to under five yards per snap, ranking first in the league in yards per play allowed. The Ducks didn't make a lot of plays in the backfield, netting just 26 sacks (54th in the nation) and 63 tackles for loss (99th in the nation), but they consistently limited opponents' gains. The first bowl preview post discussed the trend about double-digit favorites in bowl season, so I wouldn't lay a mortgage payment on this game. Still, by almost any metric, Oregon is elite and Texas is middling. If you have to make a play on this, I think this is much more likely to be an Oregon blowout than a close game reminiscent of last year's Alamo Bowl.

National University Holiday Bowl
Arizona State vs Texas Tech
Line: Arizona State -14
This game kicks at 10:15 Eastern Standard Time on December 30th. You might be better served heading to bed and reading about this one. If both these teams play as they did during the regular season, this one could get ugly. Arizona State won ten games and played for the Pac-12 title in Todd Graham's second season. The Sun Devils have three losses, but two of those came courtesy of Stanford. The other came to Notre Dame, so the resume does not have a single bad loss on it. They do have their fair shard of quality wins, beating Wisconsin, Southern Cal, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, UCLA, and Arizona. The majority of those games were not competitive, with the Sun Devils winning the five games against the Trojans, Huskies, Cougars, Beavers, and Wildcats by a combined margin of 134 points. Overall in Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils ranked sixth in yards per play, perhaps surprising because they averaged over 44 points per game in Pac-12 play. However, they were even stronger on defense where they finished third in yards per play allowed. The Sun Devils enter the postseason tied for the national lead with 40 sacks. Three players had at least seven and half sacks with bookends Carl Bradford and Davon Coleman tallying eight and half apiece. The Sun Devils should have ample opportunity to rack up some sacks against Texas Tech. In their first season of play under Kliff Kingsbury, the Red Raiders threw more passes than all but two teams in the nation. The Red Raiders actually began the year 7-0 before losing their final five, continuing a disturbing trend since Mike Leach left town. In the past four seasons, first under Tommy Tuberville, and now under Kingsbury, the Red Raiders have gone 22-6 from the beginning of the season to the penultimate weekend in October. Beginning with the last Saturday of October though, the Red Raiders have gone just 6-16. The must be scared of Samhain. Overall, the Red Raiders were an average Big 12 team and pretty deserving of their 4-5 league record. They ranked fifth in yards per play and seventh in yards per play allowed. Texas Tech has pulled off a huge bowl upset against a Pac-12 opponent in the somewhat recent past, but the odds they can do it again are very small. The warning against double-digit favorites in the bowl season applies here, but Arizona State appears to be one of the better heavy favorites to back this postseason.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bowl Preview Part I

It's that time of year again. There are only 35 college football games left on the schedule. Watch each and every one. You'll be missing it so bad in late May. These previews and the picks that accompany them are for entertainment purposes only. Best of luck to you in your office pools.

Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Washington State vs Colorado State
Line: Washington State -3.5
Rejoice! The longest active bowl streak among BCS conference teams has been broken! The year was 2003. Barack Obama was still a state senator and Bill Doba was taking the leftovers from the Mike Price regime to a Holiday Bowl win over Texas and a final top-ten AP ranking. The Cougars have not finished with a winning record since, but if they can knock off the Rams in the season's first bowl game, winners they shall be. Perhaps not surprisingly, under head coach Mike Leach, the Cougars lead the nation in pass attempts, throwing an average of 58 times per game. While the Cougars threw the ball a lot, they were more about volume than efficiency. The Leach offense ranked just ninth in the Pac-12 in yards per play. They were not much better on the other side of the ball either, finishing tenth in yards per play allowed. Truth be told, the Cougars are extremely lucky to be where they are. Four of their six losses came by at least 24 points and five came by double digits. In addition, while four of their losses came to teams currently ranked in the top sixteen of the AP Poll, half of their wins came against teams that combined for exactly a single win over a IA opponent (Southern Utah, Idaho, and Cal). In hindsight, their best performance of the season was likely the season opener where they lost by just a touchdown to Auburn (the Tiger's first of many close calls on the season). Their opponent will be a team also breaking a bowl drought, though the Rams is only half as long. Colorado State last played in a bowl in 2008, in this very game, where they upset Fresno State. Second year coach Jim McElwain has the Rams in position to win eight games for the first time since 2002. Under former coach Sonny Lubick, the Rams won at least eight games seven times in fifteen seasons. After a rough 2-4 start that included a relatively competitive loss at Alabama, the Rams won five of seven. Keep your eye on running back Kapri Bibbs who rushed for over 1500 yards and led the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns. As a team, the Rams finished third in the high-powered Mountain West in yards per play and a respectable fourth in yards per play allowed. While the Cougars are not a national brand, they are probably a little overvalued, thanks to their famous, or infamous coach. The Rams are a solid play here, especially on the moneyline.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
Southern Cal vs Fresno State
Line: Southern Cal -6.5
Fresno State might not get their chance against one of the big boys in a BCS bowl, but they will get a shot at one of the most regal programs in all of college football, the Trojans of Southern Cal. In just his second year at the helm of the Bulldogs, Tim DeRuyter guided them to their first outright conference title since they won the now defunct Big West in 1989. The Bulldogs were powered by their explosive offense. Quarterback Derek Carr completed his senior campaign with 48 touchdown passes (the most in the nation and ten more than Jameis Winston), while receiver Davante Adams caught 122 passes and led the nation with 23 touchdown receptions. In addition to Adams, receiver Josh Harper also had more than 1000 receiving yards. The Bulldogs scored at least 35 points in every game but one and hung half a hundred on teams four times. Currently ranked 21st in the AP Poll, a win here would give the Bulldogs their highest ever finish in the final polls (they finished 22nd in 2004 and 24th in 1992) and give them the school record for wins in a season with 12. Standing in their way is a Southern Cal team that is on their third different head coach this season. Lane Kiffin was dismissed in rather embarrassing fashion following a a blowout loss to Arizona State. Ed Orgeron took over the coaching duties and led the team to a 6-2 record, including an upset of Stanford at The Coliseum. Orgeron won six games in a little more than half a season after winning just ten games during his three year stint as head coach of Ole Miss. Perhaps an even more curious statistic is that each of Orgeron's wins at Southern Cal was in the conference. While head coach of the Rebels, Orgeron won just three conference games. Southern Cal may not have made the right move in hiring Steve Sarkisian, but they certainly made the right move in not making Orgeron the full time coach. Just ask any West Virginia fan. With Oregeron out of the mix, offensive coordinator Clay Helton will coach the team in the bowl game. The Trojan offense was pretty dynamic in its own right, scoring over 30 points seven times in perhaps the nation's toughest conference. These two teams have not met since their memorable clash in 2005. Southern Cal is probably the better team, but just like last season, motivation has to be considered before I would advise laying down a large sum on the Trojans. Stay away from this game and root for an entertaining Bulldog win.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Buffalo vs San Diego State
Line: Pick em'
This bowl game is an intriguing matchup of East Coast versus West Coast. From the east, the Buffalo Bulls will be making just their second ever bowl appearance in coach Jeff Quinn's fourth season. The Bulls have improved each season under Quinn's guidance, progressing from 2-10 to 3-9 to 4-8 to 8-4. Outside of their success in the MAC, where they went 6-2, the Bulls beat a team from a BCS conference (Connecticut) for just the second time in school history. The Bulls were led by their defense in 2013, a unit that ranked third in the MAC in terms of yards per play allowed. Linebacker Khalil Mack paced the Bulls and finished ninth nationally with ten and a half sacks on the year. The Bulls will seek their first bowl win against a San Diego State team making an unprecedented fourth straight bowl trip. Rocky Long took over after Brady Hoke departed for Michigan following the 2010 season and has kept the Aztecs in contention in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are 17-6 under Long in Mountain West play, and last season shared their first conference title since 1986. The follow up to their shared crown began rather inauspiciously, with a home loss to Eastern Illinois. Of course, the Panthers were one of the top teams in IAA. The Aztecs followed that disappointment up with a blowout loss to Ohio State and a tight home loss to Oregon State. However, after the 0-3 start, the Aztecs rallied to win seven of their final nine games, with the only losses coming to league champ Fresno State and bowl participant UNLV. Along the way, the Aztecs upset Boise State for the second straight year and continued their insane hot streak in close games. The Aztecs played in eight games decided by a touchdown or less and won six of them. The quality of the opponent did not seem to matter, as they lost tight contests to bowl squads Oregon State and Fresno State, while winning against Nevada (4-8 record), Air Force (2-10), New Mexico (3-9), and Hawaii (1-11) in equally slim fashion. All told, the Aztecs are 12-5 in games decided by one score under Long. Handicapping this game, Buffalo is probably a little overvalued as they feasted on the chaff of the MAC, notching only a single win against a team that finished with a winning record (Ohio). Their four losses, to Ohio State, Baylor, Toledo, and Bowling Green all came by at least ten points and were not really competitive. On the other hand, Long's bowl record, first at New Mexico and now at San Diego State is pretty atrocious. Still, I think the Aztecs are a shade better than the Bulls and should win here.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Louisiana Lafayette vs Tulane
Line: Pick em'
For the third consecutive year, the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette will end their season in the New Orleans Bowl. Cajun fans would love to end the season with a third consecutive New Orleans Bowl victory. However, considering where they were just a few weeks ago, this ending has to feel a little disappointing. After opening the year with non-competitive losses to Arkansas and Kansas State, the Cajuns reeled off eight wins in a row and with a split in their final two games could claim their first outright conference title as a IA program. However, the Cajuns dropped a tight game to their in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe, then were blown out by IA neophyte South Alabama. Still, the Cajuns shared the conference title with Arkansas State, and thanks to their head-to-head win over the Red Wolves, earned the tiebreaker. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cajuns bowl streak began when they hired Mark Hudspeth to lead them. Hudspeth led the the Division II North Alabama Lions to five playoff appearances in his seven years in Florence. Hudspeth is not only a fine coach, but also a pretty strong dude. The Cajuns ranked third on both sides of the ball in Sun Belt action in terms of yards per play, but the offense could be downgraded if quarterback Terrance Broadway is unable to play. Broadway broke a bone in his forearm and missed the South Alabama game. His status for the bowl is still up in the air. Broadway finished tied for tenth nationally in yards per pass, averaging a robust 9.2 yards per attempt. If Broadway is unable to play, that would be bad news against a Tulane defense that was one of the best in Conference USA. Under second year head coach Curtis Johnson, the Green Wave improved their record by five wins and qualified for their first bowl game since 2002. The defense ranked fourth in yards per play in Conference USA and finished 16th nationally with 34 sacks. However, generating success on the other side of the ball proved difficult for Tulane. Despite a solid family pedigree at quarterback, Nick Montana barely completed half his passes and the Green Wave ranked just 118th nationally in yards per pass attempt. Keep in mind, the Green Wave are 5-1 in the Superdome (their homefield) this season and an incredible 9-3 against the spread under Johnson in this building. The Green Wave have already beaten two teams from Louisiana this season, and will look to win an unofficial mid-major state title against the Cajuns. This should be one of the better matchups of the bowl season, and an under the radar treat. If you must make a play, take the Green Wave to defend their homefield.

Beef O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl
East Carolina vs Ohio
Line: East Carolina -14
The long and storied history of the Beef O' Brady's/St Petersburg Bowl continues in 2013 with East Carolina desperately seeking their first bowl win since 2007. This marks the Pirate's seventh bowl game in the last eight seasons and with a win, East Carolina would reach double digit victories for the first time since the 1991 team finished with eleven wins. Since taking over for Skip Holtz in 2010, Ruffin McNeill has guided the Pirates to three bowl appearances in four seasons and a 22-10 mark in Conference USA play. 2013 was his coup de grace as the Pirates bested both North Carolina and NC State in the same season for the first time in school history. Their three defeats in 2013 all came versus bowl squads, Virginia Tech, Tulane, and Marshall. The Pirates were well-balanced, finishing fourth in yards per play and third in yards per play allowed in Conference USA. Quarterback Shane Carden threw 32 touchdown passes on the year and receiver Justin Hardy topped 1000 yards for the second straight season. In fact, if Hardy accumulates 21 receiving yards in the bowl, he will move past Dwayne Harris for first place in receiving yards in school history. The Pirates will take on fellow mid-major Ohio, a team seeking its third consecutive bowl victory after notching zero wins in their first half-century of IA football. Ohio is making their sixth overall bowl appearance (and fifth consecutive) under Frank Solich. The former Nebraska head coach has taken the team to new heights, but the Bobcats have not won a league title since 1968. Ohio began the year rather poorly, getting blown out by Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville. They rebounded to beat what ended up being two quality mid-major outfits in North Texas and Marshall (a team that beat these same Pirates by 31 points). In fact, in early November, Ohio was actually 6-2 with control of their own destiny in the MAC East. They lost their next three games by a combined margin of 107 points before rebounding against woeful Massachusetts in the regular season finale to clinch a winning record. Ohio was mediocre on both sides of the ball in MACtion play, ranking eight in yards per play and fifth in yards per play allowed. This will be the final game for a number of Ohio skill position players as quarterback Tyler Tettleton (Mickey's son), running back Beau Blankenship, and receiver Donte Foster will exhaust their eligibility after this game. East Carolina is certainly the better team, but keep this little tidbit in mind: Double digit favorites are just 16-21 against the spread in bowl games since 2005. The teams that covered tended to be elite (eight ranked in the top-ten of the SRS) or the game involved a team from a power conference facing an overmatched mid-major (four such games including last year's Orange and Fight Hunger bowls). Of the sixteen teams that have covered, only one (BYU in 2010) had a worse SRS score than East Carolina (currently 53rd). The Pirates should win, but Ohio is a great bet to cover.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Oregon State vs Boise State
Line: Oregon State -3
The good people of Corvallis probably have a soft spot for bowl games played on the islands. When the Beavers ended their 35-year postseason drought in 1999, it was in the now defunct Oahu Classic. Since 1999, the Beavers have been no stranger to the postseason, as this marks their eleventh bowl in that span. Head coach Mike Riley, who took over for Dennis Erickson, who took over for Mike Riley (stay with me here), has crafted a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, and 2013 was one of the more interesting ones he has presided over. The Beavers opened the year with a loss to Eastern Washington, a high quality IAA program. The Beavers then reeled off six straight wins, and just when it looked like they could be contenders in the Pac-12, they lost their final five games. To be fair, the Pac-12 was a a very deep conference, and each of the five defeats came to bowl teams (Stanford, Southern Cal, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon). The offense was the team's strength with quarterback Sean Mannion throwing more passes than all but two players in college football. Most of his passes went to Brandin Cooks who finished second in catches with 120 and led the nation in receiving yards with 1670. Cooks continues a fine tradition of Oregon State receivers that includes Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Sammie Stroughter, Mike Hass, James Rodgers, and Markus Wheaton. The Beaver offense ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in terms of yards per play, but the defense finished a disappointing ninth in the same metric. Seven of their twelve opponents scored at least 30 points against the Beavers and three teams scored more than 40. The Beavers will seek to win their first bowl game since 2008 against a relatively familiar opponent. The Beavers and Broncos played for four consecutive years from 2003-2006 and again in 2010 with the Broncos winning three of the five contests. The Broncos, America's mid-major, are playing in their twelfth consecutive bowl game and have already clinched their thirteenth consecutive winning season. However, their great success has finally cost them their head coach. After eight seasons in Boise, Chris Petersen finally left for a bigger job in agreeing to lead the Washington Huskies. This was by far Petersen's worst season at Boise, with the Broncos losing four games in the regular season for the first time since 2001. The yards per play metrics still believe the Broncos were the best team in the Mountain West, and I have a hard time disagreeing. Their two conference losses both came on the road by a combined four points, while each of their six wins were by at least eleven points. As it has been throughout his tenure, the Boise defense, despite the lack of publicity, was the team's anchor. The unit ranked second in yards per play allowed in the Mountain West and was anchored by defensive end Demarcus Lawrence who finished ninth nationally with ten and a half sacks. With Petersen headed to Seattle and former Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin primed to take over, the Broncos will be captained in the bowl game by linebacker coach Bob Gregory. As with any bowl game involving an interim coach, you never know quite what to expect. However, Boise State is no stranger to facing teams from major conferences in bowl games, having won such a game each of the past two seasons. Take the Broncos on the moneyline here.

Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl
Bowling Green vs Pitt
Line: Bowling Green -6
College football elitists around the country were likely rooting hard for Bowling Green two weeks ago when the Falcons upset Northern Illinois and prevented the Huskies from playing in a second consecutive BCS bowl. The win marked the first conference title for the Falcons since 1992. Unfortunately for the Falcons, as is often the case with teams of their ilk, their success cost them their head coach. Dave Clawson recently accepted the head coaching position at my alma mater, Wake Forest. In Clawson's stead, Adam Scheier, the special teams and tight ends coach, will guide the Falcons in the Little Caesar's Bowl. Coaching changes aside, Bowling Green was a fantastic MAC team this season, ranking second in the conference in yards per play and first in yards per play allowed. The Falcons offense was led by a pair of sophomores with quarterback Matt Johnson averaging nine and a half yards per pass (tied for fourth nationally alongside household names like Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota) and Travis Greene gaining over 1500 yards on the ground. Greene will be gunning for his sixth consecutive 100-yard game against a Pittsburgh team anchored by the Nagurski and Lombardi Trophy winner Aaron Donald. As a defensive tackle, Donald led the nation in tackles for loss (26.5) and finished 13th in the nation with ten sacks. However, one need look no further to see that one superstar does not a great team make. The Panthers only accumulated 18 total sacks (ranking 96th in the nation) and finished eleventh in the ACC in yards per play allowed. The offense was not much better, ranking tenth in the conference in yards per play. The culprit here was some combination of the offensive line and quarterback Tom Savage. The Panthers allowed 41 sacks on the year, bested (or worsted?) by just four teams that combined for a 3-45 record! With the coaching upheaval and the relatively large spread, I would be hesitant to take the Falcons, but under no circumstances would I advise you to lay any money on the Panthers.

SD County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Northern Illinois vs Utah State
Line: Northern Illinois -1.5
Last season, both these mid-majors enjoyed phenomenal campaigns. Both lost just two games all year and finished ranked in the top-25. It was the Aggies first appearance in the final polls since they finished number ten in 1961. For Northern Illinois, it was their first finish in the final polls in school history. A win by the Huskies here would see them finish ranked for consecutive seasons. The biggest question in this game will be how motivated is Northern Illinois? In their last game, they lost out on a chance at a second consecutive BCS bowl berth and a third consecutive MAC championship. The Huskies are led, as you may have heard, by Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch. After accounting for nearly 5000 yards last season (4953 to be precise) and 44 touchdowns, Lynch only has 'only' mustered 4574 yards this season. However, he was made up for his modest yardage totals by scoring 46 touchdowns. In just two seasons of full-time action, Lynch ranks third on the school's all-time rushing list with 4304 yards. It would take a monster game for him reach the second spot (he only needs 638 yards to pass Michael Turner), but his legacy in DeKalb is secure. Oh, and don't sleep on the Huskie defense either, as that unit ranked second behind Bowling Green in the MAC in yards per play allowed. The Huskies will take on a Utah State team that is appearing in a third consecutive bowl game after making just two bowl trips in the previous five decades. The Aggies weathered the loss of head coach Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and an injury to quarterback Chuckie Keeton to qualify for the inaugural Mountain West Championship Game. The Aggies lost that game to Fresno and head into bowl action with five losses, but don't be fooled, this is a quality team with an outstanding defense. The Aggies ranked first in the Mountain West in yards per play allowed, and only Utah in the season opener was able to average over six yards per play against them. The Aggies were adept at stopping plays in the backfield, averaging eight per game, which ranks sixth nationally heading into bowl season. However, since Keeton went down with a knee injury the offense not been as explosive. In the two conference games Keeton started (admittedly a small sample size), the Aggies averaged 6.13 yards per play and scored 92 points (46 per game). In the six games Keeton missed with an injury the Aggies averaged just 5.31 yards per play and about 32 points per game. Utah State will represent the best defense Northern Illinois has faced this season, but I don't think they can score enough points to beat the Huskies. This one should be close, and Jordan Lynch will have to earn his yards, but the Huskies will prevail.