Friday, January 03, 2014

Bowl Preview: Part IV

The past two weeks have flown by. Unfortunately, there are only five more games left in this college football season. Enjoy them while you can, August is a long way away.

Discover Orange Bowl
Ohio State vs Clemson
Line: Ohio State -3
The Clemson Tigers return to the scene of one of their most infamous and grisly defeats on Friday night. This is an interesting time for Clemson football, as the Tigers have won at least ten games in each of the past three seasons, hoisted the ACC crown two years ago, and will finish in the top-25 for the fourth time in five full seasons under Dabo Swinney. However, they have also lost five consecutive games to in-state rival South Carolina and appear to have ceded control of the Atlantic Division to an old power. While they were clearly inferior to Florida State, Clemson was also clearly the second best team in the ACC in 2013. Behind senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, the receiving acumen of Sammy Watkins, and a fast paced offense, the Tigers ranked third in the ACC in yards per play. The defense also played well, ranking fourth in the conference in yards per play allowed. Outside of the Seminoles, Clemson won each of their conference games by ten points, and if not for a turnover implosion against South Carolina, may have beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia. The Tigers will face an Ohio State team also coming off a disappointing loss. With the national championship in their sights, the Buckeyes stumbled against an elite Michigan State team in the Big 10 Championship Game. The loss broke a 24-game winning streak for the Buckeyes and was their first under Urban Meyer. In the regular season, Ohio State was nigh unstoppable on offense, ranking first in the Big 10 by averaging a ridiculous 7.55 yards per play! Quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde both rushed for over 1000 yards and collectively the team averaged over seven yards per carry. Defensively, the Buckeyes were not quite as strong, ranking fifth in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed. However, they were adept at making plays in the backfield, garnering 40 sacks and 89 tackles for loss. Those numbers ranked sixth and 26th respectively in the nation. Methinks this will be a pretty high-scoring affair, and if Ohio State is motivated, they should win rather easily here.

AT&T Cotton Bowl
Oklahoma State vs Missouri
Line: Oklahoma State -1
These former conference mates (first in the Big 8 and later in the Big 12) face each other for the first time since 2011, when Oklahoma State beat Missouri by three touchdowns on their homefield. Both schools enter this game off losses that cost them shots at BCS bowl. For Missouri, the loss was particularly galling, as it potentially cost them a shot at the national title. Until they were eviscerated by Auburn's running game, the Tigers held up reasonably well on the defensive side of the ball in SEC play, ranking second in yards allowed per play. Defensive end Michael Sam was a mainstay in opposing backfields, racking up ten and a half sacks and eighteen tackles for loss. The Tigers also ranked a respectable fourth in the conference in yards per play. Quarterback James Franklin and his backup Maty Mauk both averaged 8.1 yards per throw, though they went about accumulating those numbers very differently. Franklin completed nearly two thirds of his passes, while Mauk was a more boom or bust passer, registering a completion rate of just 51.2%. The Tigers will look to lasso the Cowboys for the first time since 2005, Mike Gundy's first year at the school. The Cowboys won at least ten games for the third time in the past four seasons, but their last second loss to archrival Oklahoma not only denied them a Big 12 title, but also dropped them out of the BCS bowl picture altogether. The Cowboys were not as explosive on offense as they have been in the past, although they still ranked third in the Big 12 in yards per play. The real story was their defense which finished first in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed. The Cowboys don't have a fearsome pass rush, generating just 22 sacks all season (tied for 79th nationally), but they limit the big plays and force turnovers (30 on the season which ranks seventh nationally). This should be a very competitive game, and there does not appear to be a great deal of value on either side of the line. Sit back and enjoy this one, but don't make any plays.

BBVA Compass Bowl
Vanderbilt vs Houston
Line: Vanderbilt -3
To say James Franklin has been a little bit successful at Vanderbilt is a massive understatement. The Commodores, a perennial cellar dweller have qualified for three consecutive bowl, and this season beat their former east bullies Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee with the last two coming on the homefields of the Gators and Vols respectively. The Tennessee win had to be extra special, as it kept the Volunteers out of a bowl game for the third straight season. Despite the presence of Jordan Matthews, an NFL ready wide receiver, Vandy ranked just twelfth in the SEC in yards per play. The real strength of this team was the defense which ranked an impressive fourth in the SEC in yards per play allowed. The defense also forced 27 turnovers, a number that ranked 21st in the nation. The Commodores will face a Houston team that was also quite adept at forcing turnovers. The Cougars rebounded from a losing season by forcing a national best 40 turnovers for an insane turnover margin of +25. Overall, the defense ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in yards per play allowed. Offensively, Houston turned the reigns to freshman quarterback John O'Korn. O'Korn threw 26 touchdown passes on the year and completed nearly 60% of his throws. However, the Cougars finished a rather pedestrian sixth in the American in yards per play. The team was not able to run the ball effectively, particularly late in the year when they managed just 3.16 yards per carry over their final five games. While Houston was powered by an unsustainable turnover margin, they were also a little unlucky in 2013, losing four games by seven points or less. Houston should be sufficiently motivated in this matchup against the SEC. Vanderbilt is a quality team, but this spread should be closer to a pick em. Place a small wager on Houston on the moneyline.

GoDaddy Bowl
Ball State vs Arkansas State
Line: Ball State -7.5
The Cardinals from Ball State represent the MAC's last chance to nab a bowl win in 2013. Buffalo, Ohio, Bowling Green, and Northern Illinois all lost their respective bowl games. For Ball State, the period between their regular season finale against Miami of Ohio and their bowl clash with the Red Wolves had to have been filled with trepidation. Yet, the Cardinals did not lose their outstanding coach Pete Lembo to a higher profile gig. The Cardinals have improved their win total each season under Lembo, and now will look to win their first ever bowl game in school history. The Cardinals are led by their high-powered offense which ranked third in the MAC in yards per play. Senior quarterback Keith Wenning threw 34 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Two of his receivers, Willie Snead and Jordan Williams, gained over 1000 yards through the air, and with a great performance in the bowl, senior wideout Jamill Smith could join them (currently has 855 yards). The offensive line did a great job protecting Wenning as well, allowing just fourteen sacks on the year despite averaging nearly 40 pass attempts per game. The Cardinals will take on an Arkansas State team playing in their third consecutive Go Daddy Bowl. Unfortunately for the Red Wolves, their success has cost them yet another head coach. In 2011, Arkansas State played in just their second ever bowl under head coach Hugh Freeze. He left for the Ole Miss job. Last season, Gus Malzahn took the Red Wolves back to the postseason and he parlayed that into the Auburn job. This season, Bryan Harsin returned the Red Wolves to the postseason, and he is now the head coach at Boise State. John Thompson, the team's defensive coordinator will serve as the interim head coach in this game. While the Red Wolves won at least a share of their third consecutive Sun Belt title, they were hardly the imposing force they were under Freeze and Malzahn. In 2011, the Red Wolves finished 8-0 in the league and won five of their league games by double-digits. Last season, they went 7-1 in the Sun Belt, and won five by double-digits. This season, in a weaker Sun Belt, they went 5-2, but only two of their wins came by double-digits. In fact, on the year, Arkansas State was actually outperformed on a per-play basis by their conference mates. They ranked just seventh in the eight team league in yards per play and fifth in yards per play allowed. With the coaching upheaval and the pedestrian per play numbers they put up, its hard to see the Red Wolves winning here. Ball State should get their first bowl win and cover this number.

Vizio BCS National Championship
Florida State vs Auburn
Line: Florida State -8.5
The final BCS National Championship game features the team that played in the first three (though they were still Fiesta, Sugar, and Orange bowls respectively at that time). In Jimbo Fisher's fourth season, Florida State ran roughshod over the ACC, winning every game by at least fourteen points, holding seven opponents to one offensive touchdown or less, and dominating the yards per play metric. The Seminoles ranked first in the ACC in yards per play behind the eventual Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Winston averaged an absurd 10.9 yards per pass (first in the nation) and also rushed for nearly 200 yards. Defensively, the Seminoles were also top notch, ranking first in the ACC in yards per play allowed. Only Boston College and Pittsburgh averaged more than five yards per play against the Seminoles, meaning no team reached that threshold since late September. The Seminoles will face a Cinderella opponent in the title game (as much as an SEC team can be called a Cinderella). Auburn has enjoyed a rather up and down past few seasons, winning the national title behind Cam Newton in 2010, regressing yet still winning a bowl in 2011, and crashing hard last season. They canned Gene Chizik and hired the mastermind behind their 2010 success, Gus Malzahn. The Tigers coalesced on offense as the season progressed, won all the close ones, and enjoyed a few sublime plays to qualify for the SEC Championship Game where they shredded a fine Missouri team. For the year, Auburn ranked just fifth in the SEC in yards per play, but they have improved as of late. In their first three SEC games, the Tigers averaged 5.78 yards per play. Over their final five conference games, the Tigers have averaged 6.87 yards per play. Then in the title game against Missouri, they averaged nearly eight yards per play. Auburn will need to score a great deal against the Seminoles because their defense ranked eleventh in the SEC in yards per play allowed, and it did not show substantial improvement as the year progressed (the Tigers allowed over seven yards per play to Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri in their final three games versus SEC foes). Stranger things have happened in title games (Florida's seismic of Ohio State in 2006 springs to mind), but nothing Auburn has done all year indicates they will be able to stop the Seminole offense. Florida State won't shut Auburn down either, but they should should get enough stops to cover this number.

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