Monday, December 14, 2015

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We strung together two solid weeks in a row to close the regular season. Now we will try and do the same for the bowl games. As you may notice, I picked a lot of dogs in these games. Let's see if these spreads are indeed too damn high. When applicable, home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 4-3
Regular Season: 49-47-2

New Mexico Bowl @ Albuquerque
New Mexico +9.5 Arizona
While it may not appear these teams have much of a history on the surface, septuagenarian fans of both teams likely remember their yearly battles as members of the Border and later Western Athletic Conference. Arizona got called up to the Pac-8 (now the Pac-12) conference in 1978 and the teams have faced off just five times since. In fact, New Mexico won the last two games (in 2007 and 2008) and both losses were quite costly to the Wildcats. The 2007 defeat kept the Wildcats out of a potential bowl as they finished 5-7 and the 2008 loss likely prevented the Wildcats from finishing in the final AP Poll. The teams paths have diverged since that 2008 game. Arizona rebounded to finish 8-5, and played in bowl games in both 2009 and 2010. A step back in 2011 cost Mike Stoops his job, but the Wildcats upgraded by grabbing Rich Rodriguez as his replacement. They have played in four consecutive bowl games under his watch including last year's Fiesta Bowl. After last year's surprising run to the Pac-12 title game, the Wildcats struggled in 2015, posting an average Pac-12 offense, but finishing tenth in the twelve team league in yards allowed per play. The absence of Scooby Wright certainly contributed to their struggles, but can one player, particularly a linebacker, make that much of an impact? For New Mexico, it has been rough sledding after the 2008 victory over Arizona. The Lobos dropped their final four games of 2008 to finish 4-8, head coach Rocky Long resigned, and the team whiffed on their next hire as Mike Locksley finished with about the same number of scandals as wins during his time in the Land of Enchantment. Bob Davie was lured out of the ESPN booth to right the ship, and while the Lobos were instantly competitive, they won just eleven games over his first three seasons. This season, the Lobos were 4-4 after eight games, but bowl eligibility seemed like a longshot as the schedule concluded with four eventual bowl teams, including Mountain West powers Boise State and Utah State. The Lobos pulled off huge upsets in three of those games, beating Utah State, Boise State, and Air Force as a double-digit underdog to clinch their first bowl bid and winning season since 2007. I think the Lobos are a good play here for several reasons. While Scooby Wright may indeed play for Arizona, the Wildcats are 6-6 for a reason. That being, they are not very good. In two of their three previous bowl games under Rich Rodriguez, the Wildcats have been solid favorites over teams from the Mountain West. They needed a furious rally to beat Nevada in this very game three years ago and they fell to Boise State last year. Plus, New Mexico is playing on their home field in their first bowl game in eight years against a team from a Power 5 conference. I don't have the gumption to call for an outright upset, but New Mexico will keep this one close.

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas
BYU +2.5 Utah
One of the tragedies of conference realignment is that some traditional rivalries have disappeared. BYU and Utah had been conference mates since their days in the Rocky Mountain Conference. From 1922 through 2013, with the exception of a brief hiatus from 1943-1945 when BYU did not field a team (wonder what could have been going on then), the teams played each season. The teams did not play in 2014 nor the 2015 regular season, but are scheduled to play next season and through 2020. Thankfully the powers that be decided a little more than two years was more than enough time between Holy Wars. Utah began the 2015 season 6-0 and rose to third in the AP Poll. However, they stumbled to the finish, losing three of their final six games. The defense was the rock for the Utes, ranking second in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play. The offense struggled, particularly over the latter half of the season, ranking just tenth in the Pac-12 in yards per play. BYU also entered the AP Poll for a brief moment early in the season after victories against Nebraska and Boise State. Following a blowout loss to Michigan, the Cougars dropped out of the poll and were pretty anonymous for the rest of the year as they played just one Power 5 team after September (and lost). After the season ended, head coach Bronco Mendenhall surprisingly agreed to become the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers. Mendenhall will stick around to coach the Las Vegas Bowl, which I guess is kind of awkward. Even with that delicate situation, motivation or lack thereof, should not be a factor for BYU here as they are facing their arch-rival. Utah is probably a little overvalued here as they are not nearly as strong as they were in the early part of the season. Plus the underdog has covered in the last five games in this series. Look for that trend to continue.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu
San Diego State +1.5 Cincinnati
San Diego State began the season 1-3. Sandwiched between the expected road defeats to Cal and Penn State, the Aztecs lost at home to FBS neophyte South Alabama. However, once conference play began, a practically new team emerged. The Aztecs won all their regular season conference games by at least 14 points and then squeaked by Air Force in the Mountain West Championship Game to win their first outright conference title since 1986. The Aztecs were strong on both sides of the ball, ranking second in the Mountain West in yards per play, but were a prohibitive number one on the other side of the ball, allowing nearly a yard less per play than the second best Mountain West defense (Utah State). The Aztecs are also 30th in the latest AP Poll, so a win over the Bearcats could move them into the final poll for the first time since 1977. And speaking of the Bearcats, Cincinnati was far and away the best offense in the American Athletic Conference, but failed to contend for the conference crown thanks to a poor defense (ninth in the league in yards allowed per play) and a propensity for turning the ball over (their 23 in-conference turnovers were second most in the AAC). San Diego State will be without starting quarterback Maxwell Smith who was injured in the regular season finale, but Christian Chapman filled in quite well in the Mountain West Championship Game. Plus, San Diego State only throws the ball a little more than 18 times per game (122nd of 128 FBS teams). They prefer to rely on their running game and stand a good chance of having two backs with more than 1000 rushing yards after this game. Look for the Aztecs to win this one outright.

St. Petersburg Bowl @ St. Petersburg
Marshall -4.5 Connecticut
I believe the 2015 season served as a great referendum on Marshall head coach Doc Holliday. While I question some of his in-game decisions (I remember him eschewing a fourth down attempt with a lead that could have won the game against in-state rival West Virginia and don't get me started on his OT strategy against Middle Tennessee this year), after losing a great deal of pieces from a dominant 2014 team, the Herd were in contention for the conference championship up until the final weekend of the regular season. The offense predictably declined, but still ranked in the upper half of Conference USA in yards per play (sixth). Meanwhile, the defense ranked second in the conference in yards allowed per play. A win in this prestigious bowl would give the Herd ten wins in three consecutive seasons. To get there, they will have to take out a Connecticut team playing in their first bowl game since getting trounced by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl five seasons ago. Like Marshall, the Huskies are led by their defense, ranking fourth in the AAC in yards allowed per play. However, unlike Marshall, their offense is not even competent. Outside of a 40 point outburst against UCF, the Huskies averaged just under 16 points per game in their other eleven contests. Marshall played well defensively in every game save their regular season finale against Western Kentucky. Connecticut does not even play the same game as the Hilltoppers. Points will be at a premium here, but Marshall should win by at least a touchdown.

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport
Tulsa +13.5 Virginia Tech
As you may have heard, this exhibition will be the final game in the storied career of Frank Beamer. While Beamer has certainly been one of the best coaches in the history of college football, it was probably time for a change in Blacksburg. After playing in the ACC Championship Game in 2011, capping a remarkable run of five division titles in seven seasons, the Hokies have gone just 16-16 in the ACC over the past four years. The majority of the time, the weak link of the football team was the offense, and 2015 was no exception. The Hokies ranked twelfth in the conference in yards per play. Only Wake Forest and the historically bad offense in Chestnut Hill were worse. The defense was stout, but not elite, ranking fifth in the conference in yards allowed per play. The result was yet another mediocre finish in a division they previously dominated. The Hokies will look to send Beamer off with a victory against a Tulsa team led by first year coach Philip Montgomery. Montgomery is an Art Briles disciple, having served as Baylor's offensive coordinator before getting the Golden Hurricane head job. He brought the fast pace and tempo to Oklahoma, as Tulsa ran the third most plays per game (83.3) in college football. However, the offense only marginally improved over their 2014 showing. The defense also marginally improved, but was still poor, ranking eleventh in yards allowed per play (or next to last in the AAC). So how did the Golden Hurricane triple their win total despite modest improvement? They can thank the schedule makers (and the precipitous decline in Orlando). The Golden Hurricane beat five teams (Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Monroe, SMU, Tulane, and UCF) that combined for a 10-51 record. I expect Virginia Tech to have one of their best offensive showings here, but nearly two touchdowns is too much for them to be laying when not playing at home.

TaxSlayer Bowl @ Jacksonville
Penn St +6.5 Georgia
Would you believe these two traditional powers have only met one previous time on the gridiron? That game was the Sugar Bowl following the 1982 season where number two Penn State defeated number one Georgia to win their first national championship. The stakes here will not be quite as high. While Georgia plays in the SEC, if you took away the uniforms and the big 'G' on their helmets, you might confuse them for a Big 10 team this season. Their defense is pretty good, ranking fourth in the SEC in yards allowed per play, but their quarterback is limited as a passer (when not playing South Carolina), and they have a pretty good running game. The one thing Georgia will not have in this bowl game is Mark Richt on the sidelines. Richt was let go after the regular season ended and Bryan McClendon, a former Georgia receiver and current receivers coach will lead the team in the bowl game. Penn State, on the other hand, has been hard to get a grasp on this season. The Nittany Lions have solid peripherals, ranking third in the Big 10 in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. However, against the three best teams on their schedule (Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State), Penn State was mostly non-competitive, losing those games by a combined 79 points. The Nittany Lions have an alleged next level quarterback in Christian Hackenberg who has completed 56% of his career passes. Those numbers would be great in 1982, but are below average in the current offensive environment. Georgia should probably be the favorite here, but over their last six games, they have scored 9, 3, 27, 20, 23, and 13 points. It's hard to imagine them putting a lot of points on the board here. Couple that with the fact that Penn State head coach James Franklin was a Georgia tormentor at Vanderbilt, covering twice in three games, including an outright upset in 2013, and Penn State is the play here.

Cactus Bowl @ Phoenix
West Virginia pick Arizona State
The Cactus Bowl features one of the statistical darlings of the 2015 season. Despite a middling 7-5 record, West Virginia ranks as one of the better teams in the country by a few advanced metrics. The Mountaineers lost, and were not competitive, on the road against three of the stronger teams in the Big 12 (Baylor, Oklahoma, and TCU). They also took Oklahoma State to overtime at home and lost by a point on the road to Kansas State thanks to some vintage Bill Snyder wizardry. In the other seven games on their schedule, West Virginia outscored their opponents by 203 points. Some of their opponents were not great (looking at you Kansas and Maryland), but it does include a pair of bowl bound squads in Georgia Southern and Texas Tech. The interesting thing is that West Virginia won with their defense despite being coached by an offensive guru. The offense ranked just eighth in the ten team Big 12 in yards per play, but were fourth in yards allowed per play. Their opponent, Arizona State, is much more deserving of their 6-6 record. The Sun Devils were below average on offense, ranking seventh in the Pac-12 in yards per play. Of course, that didn't stop offensive coordinator Mike Norvell from getting a head coaching job. However, the real issue was on the other side of the ball where the Sun Devils ranked eleventh in yards allowed per play (ahead of only the putrid outfit at Oregon State). This game is in Arizona, so maybe the Sun Devils deserve a semi-home field adjustment. However, on paper, this looks like one of the bigger mismatches of the bowl season. Take the Mountaineers to win easily here.

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