Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

We ended the regular season with a winning week to push us two games over .500 on the year. However, we are still be below the gambler's break even percentage of .524. A 5-2 record (or better) over bowl season will put us above that mark. Let's get it!

Last Week: 4-3
Overall: 49-47-2

Cure Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Georgia State +6.5 Western Kentucky
In his first season in charge in Atlanta, Shawn Elliott guided the Panthers to their second bowl game in school history. That second bowl game will be a return trip to the Cure Bowl where they fell to San Jose State two years ago. Georgia State doubled their win total from last season, but the Panthers have fielded pretty much the same team both seasons. Last year's team averaged 19.9 points per game and allowed 26.6. This year's team averaged 19.7 points per game and allowed 25.5. Last year's team finished 1-2 in close games while this year's team was 4-1 in such contests. In football, as in life, randomness plays a large role in success. Last year's average to poor luck cost Trent Miles his job. This year's fantastic luck has bought Shawn Elliott goodwill in Atlanta. That goodwill will likely dissipate somewhat if the Panthers lose the Cure Bowl as it would mark their third consecutive loss. It would also behoove the Panthers to score some points, as they have managed just twenty total points in their last two games. The good news for the Panthers is their opponent in the Cure Bowl declined significantly after losing their head coach. Western Kentucky went 23-5 (an even more impressive 23-2 against teams not in the SEC) in 2015 and 2016 with consecutive Sun Belt titles. In those 28 contests, the Hilltoppers averaged nearly 45 points per game! As is the case with all mid-major programs, that success got their head coach an ostensibly better job. The Hilltoppers turned to Mike Sanford Jr. to lead them in 2017. Some regression was to be expected with the Hilltoppers losing seven starters on offense including a pair of 1000-yard receivers and a 1500-yard running back. However, the Hilltoppers scoring average dropped by nearly twenty points per game and their scoring margin actually fell into the red. The Hilltoppers cannot blame a brutal schedule for their decline, as half their wins came against teams that won two or fewer games (Ball State, Charlotte, and UTEP) and they only beat one team that finished bowl eligible (Middle Tennessee State). Neither team in this bowl game is good, as they both rank in the triple digits in the Sagarin Ratings. Western Kentucky is better than Georgia State, but after consecutive double-digit win seasons, how motivated will they be to face a team with as little national cache as Georgia State? These teams are much closer in quality than this spread indicates. Take the Panthers to keep this one close.

Las Vegas Bowl @ Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State +8 Oregon
The Boise State Broncos will be making their sixteenth consecutive bowl appearance when they take on the Oregon Ducks in fabulous Las Vegas. Since joining FBS in 1996, the Broncos have proven to be the most successful startup of all time. 2017 marks their twentieth consecutive winning season, their sixteenth consecutive year of appearing in the AP Poll at some point during the year, and their thirteenth conference title. The Broncos have dipped a little (by their standards) since Chris Petersen left for Washington, but they are still the most consistent mid-major program. The Broncos were solid on both sides of the ball this season, ranking third in the Mountain West in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked third in the conference, but thanks to some shrewd negotiating tactics when they joined the Mountain West, they were allowed to host the conference championship game despite having the same record and losing to the other title game participant. The home field likely made the different as the Broncos won a tight defensive affair to claim their first conference title since 2014. While the Broncos are an underdog in this game, they did manage to retain their head coach. Unfortunately, for Oregon, that is not the case. When the Florida State job came open, Willie Taggart headed back east. The Florida State job is one of the best in college football, so you can hardly blame him for leaving despite spending just one season in Eugene. That one season was successful as the Ducks improved by three games over their 4-8 disaster in 2016. Most importantly, the Ducks were able to fix their defense. In 2016, they ranked eleventh in the Pac-12, allowing nearly seven yards per play to conference opponents. They improved that number by more than a yard and a half and ranked third in 2017. In fact, had their quarterback not missed significant time, during which they went 1-4, the Ducks could have contended in the rugged Pac-12 North. Of course, while the Ducks did lose just a single game with Justin Herbert taking snaps, that was the softer portion of their schedule. Five of those seven games were at home, and just three came against teams that finished with winning records (and the Ducks lost one of those). Despite the improvement from 2016, Oregon is not the dominant force they were under Chip Kelly and for a bit under Mark Helfrich. I'm surprised Oregon is laying more than a touchdown with their coaching situation in flux against a quality, motivated mid-major opponent. Boise State has had a unique track record against Power 5 opponents under Bryan Harsin. When the Broncos are favored, they have won four of six games, but have covered just twice. When they are an underdog, they are just 1-2 straight up, but 2-1 ATS. The lone game they did not cover as an underdog came in Harsin's first game against what turned out to be a very good Ole Miss team. The Broncos will be the more motivated, hungry team here, and with them catching more than a touchdown, they are an easy play.

Birmingham Bowl @ Birmingham, Alabama
South Florida -3 Texas Tech
South Florida's game with Texas Tech has high stakes, as the Bulls will attempt to become the first team to win three Birmingham Bowls. That statement is not entirely true. When South Florida won the inaugural edition, it was sponsored by Papa Johns. The Bulls became the first team to win two editions of this bowl game when they knocked off South Carolina in overtime last season. The win allowed the Bulls to finish in the final polls for the first time in school history, and a win here would see them finish ranked in back-to-back seasons. A win would also be their third in a row against Power Five conference teams. And unfortunately for the Bulls, win or lose, this will mark the final game for quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers has accounted for 107 touchdowns during his career in Tampa and is 28 yards short of rushing for 1000 yards for the second straight season. He will leave South Florida ranked fourth on the school's all-time passing yardage list and with 44 yards rushing, the all-time leading rusher! Don't get the narrative twisted though. The Bulls are not an imbalanced team. Their defense actually ranked first in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed per play and the team improved their scoring defense by nine points per game from last season. The Bulls were very disruptive on defense, ranking ninth nationally in tackles for loss (fourth in tackles for loss per game) and three individual defenders racked up more than ten tackles for less (Bruce Hector, Greg Reaves, and Mike Love). The Bulls will take on a Big 12 team that is renowned for being imbalanced, but were actually mediocre on both sides of the ball. In Kliff Kingsbury's first four seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders ranked in the top half of the Big 12 in yards per play each season (twice finishing second) and in the bottom half in yards allowed per play (once finishing last and twice finishing second to last). The defense improved to fifth in yards allowed per play this season, their highest ranking since finishing third in the category in 2007. However, the offense regressed to sixth in yards per play and the net result was more of the same. The Red Raiders finished 3-6 in the Big 12 (same as 2016) and are now just 16-29 in conference play under Kingsbury. The Red Raiders did spring a pretty big bowl upset during his first year in charge, but the Bulls should be sufficiently motivated in facing a Power Five opponent and will want to send Flowers out in style. The Bulls should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Hawaii Bowl @ Honolulu, Hawaii
Fresno State +2.5 Houston
This Christmas Eve showcase features a pair of teams piloted by first year head coaches. For Houston, their first year head coach did a reasonable job guiding the team after Tom Herman departed for the more prestigious university in Austin. The Cougars went 7-4, but dropped three games by four points or less, so their record could have been much better. The Cougars ranked fifth in the American in yards per play and third in yards allowed per play. Their per-play differential ranked fourth in the conference behind the two participants in the conference championship game and South Florida. Meanwhile, Fresno State enjoyed a sensational season, especially considering the modest expectations they entered the year with. The Bulldogs went 1-11 last season and entered 2017 on a thirteen-game losing streak to FBS opponents. That number reached fifteen after the Bulldogs endured difficult road trips to Tuscaloosa and Seattle. However, once conference play started, the Bulldogs played exceptionally well under Jeff Tedford. They won seven of eight conference games and ranked second in the conference in per-play differential. Their defense was especially dominant, ranking first in yards allowed per play and permitting just eleven offensive touchdowns in eight conference games. The Bulldogs even crept into the top-25 of the AP Poll for a brief period. However, they dropped a tight game at Boise in the Mountain West Championship Game, missing out on their first conference title since 2013. One overlooked aspect of this game is that Fresno State has already played in Hawaii this season, beating the Warriors back in November. As the Bulldogs and Warriors have been in the same conference for a quarter century, they have made fourteen trips to the islands since 1992. Of course, that familiarity with the islands did not help them five years ago. Houston has only made one prior trip to Hawaii, losing to the Warriors in this very bowl game fourteen years ago. That game featured 102 combined points. With these two quality defenses, I would be very surprised if this total hit half of that. Houston came into their bowl game last season as a slight favorite against a Mountain West opponent. That didn't work out so well. This has been a trend for the Cougars, first under Herman and now under Applewhite. Each of their four losses under Herman came when the Cougars were favored and their five losses under Applewhite have come under similar conditions. Take the Bulldogs to not only cover, but win outright.

Quicklane Bowl @ Detroit, Michigan
Northern Illinois +5 Duke
After a one-year hiatus both the Huskies and Blue Devils are returning to the postseason. The Huskies will be playing in their ninth bowl game in the last ten seasons. However, this was not your typical Northern Illinois team. The Huskies did average over 30 points per game for the eighth consecutive season, but they ranked just tenth in the MAC in yards per play. The good news for the Huskies is that their quarterbacks who received the most playing time in 2017, Daniel Santacaterina and Marcus Childers, are a sophomore and a freshman respectively, so the offense should improve over the next few seasons. The Huskies relied on their defense to get them back to a bowl game. The team ranked second in the MAC in yards allowed per play and held their opponents to under twenty-one points per game. The Huskies spent so much time in opponents' backfields they should be required to pay property taxes, as they posted the most tackles for loss per game in the nation! Duke also has issues on offense, ranking thirteenth in the ACC in yards per play. Their defense was not much to write home about either as they ranked just eleventh in yards allowed per play. Overall, their per play differential ranked twelfth in the ACC. So how did they qualify for a bowl game? David Cutcliffe has done his best Bill Snyder impression and maximized Duke's odds of winning despite poor peripherals. The Blue Devils made over 80% of their field goal attempts, went for it on fourth down more often and converted more often than the national average, and returned four interceptions for touchdowns. Those little things helped the Blue Devils finish 6-6 despite meh per play numbers. Can Duke keep doing the little things and win their second consecutive bowl game? Northern Illinois is just 4-4 against Power Five opponents under Rod Carey, but they are 7-1 ATS. The Huskies have been underdogs in seven of the eight games (their lone turn as a favorite was a blowout win against Purdue) and seven of the eight games have come away from DeKalb. Detroit is not a short jaunt from home, but it is certainly a more MAC friendly location for the Huskies. Rod Carey has yet to win a bowl game as a head coach, so that does concern me somewhat, but this spread should be closer to a pick em. Catching more than a field goal makes the Huskies the easy play here.

Independence Bowl @ Shreveport, Louisiana
Southern Miss +16 Florida State
After a brief and sudden sojourn into awful irrelevancy, Southern Miss has returned to their rightful place in the college football pecking order. The Golden Eagles are a quality mid-major, but not quite good enough to win their league. Southern Miss won or shared three of the first four Conference USA championships, but once the new Millennium began, they only managed to win the title once in between 2000 and 2010 despite winning posting a winning record each season. The continued mediocrity eventually cost Jeff Bower his job. The first few years under Larry Fedora were not much different, with the Eagles winning seven, seven, and then eight games. However, the Eagles finally broke through in 2011. They won their division and then upset Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game. Fedora parlayed that into the North Carolina job and the Eagles sank like a stone under Ellis Johnson in 2012. Todd Monken engineered a slow rebuild and the Eagles were division champs in his third season. He departed for the NFL and Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson took over the program.  The Eagles have won fifteen games in Hopson's two season, including a win against Kentucky is his first game. However, six of their ten losses under Hopson have come when they were favored, including five of their six conference losses! Those point spreads seem to indicate the Eagles have better underlying talent that their opponents, but are not necessarily maximizing it. The yard per play numbers agree, as the Eagles ranked second in Conference USA in yards per play and fourth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked second behind Florida Atlantic. The Eagles will face another team that under-performed relative to their per play numbers. By now, everyone knows that Florida State had to reschedule a game with Louisiana-Monroe just to eke out bowl eligibility. The Seminoles lost their quarterback in the opener and lost their head coach just before the season ended. In between, they posted a 3-5 ACC record, their first losing conference record since 2006, despite a positive per play differential. Under offensive guru Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles ranked eighth in the ACC in yards per play, but were fourth in yards allowed per play. The Seminoles finished the season winning their final three by an average of nearly forty points per game. Those are very Florida State-like numbers. However, those wins came against Delaware State (FCS), a Florida team playing out the string, and Louisiana-Monroe. With the exception of Florida (and this year who knows) Southern Miss is better than all of those teams. The Eagles will have something to prove against a Power Five opponent, so they should be plenty motivated here. How motivated will Florida State be playing in Shreveport when they had hopes of ending the season in Atlanta? I don't think Southern Miss will win, but this number is way too high.

Citrus Bowl @ Orlando, Florida
Notre Dame +3 LSU
When I was perusing bowl spreads, this one stuck out like a sore thumb. LSU, a team that lost to Troy and was not competitive against Mississippi State is favored against a Notre Dame team that was ranked third in the nation at the beginning of November. Granted, Notre Dame did lose two of three down the stretch, but those games were on the road against top-fifteen teams. The Miami team they lost to did not lose at home this season. Ditto the Stanford team. Meanwhile, LSU did win six of seven to end the year after being upset by Troy, but outside of the Auburn win, none came against stout competition. In the SEC, LSU was solid, ranking sixth in yards per play and fifth in yards allowed per play. Their per play differential ranked fourth behind the three titans (Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia), but it was significantly behind those teams. Quarterback Danny Etling brought LSU above-average quarterback play for the first time since Zach Mettenberger was under center. Etling averaged over nine yards per throw and tossed just two interceptions on the year. Etling will be challenged by a Notre Dame defense that ranked fifteenth nationally by permitting just 6.2 yards per pass. Of course, Notre Dame will probably have issues of their own throwing against LSU. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush completed a little less than half of his passes, but made up for it by rushing for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns. As a team, the Irish rushed for over 3000 yards and ranked third nationally averaging 6.37 yards per carry. All signs point to this being a close game, but it feels like the wrong team is favored. Under Brian Kelly, the Irish are just 3-3 in bowl games, but when they are not facing elite teams like the Alabama team that won the national title in 2012 and the Ohio State squad that may have been the best team in the country in 2015, they are 3-1 with a pair of outright upsets, including one over LSU three years ago. The teams entered that game under similar circumstances, with Notre Dame having lost five of six after a hot start and LSU entering as winners of four of six. I expect more a repeat here with the Irish springing the outright upset.

You didn't think the bowl preview would only include picks for a few games did you? No, dear reader I have a few extra bits of statistical minutia for you. We'll begin with a trivia question.

By my calculations, seven bowl games feature exhibitions between teams that were once members of the same conference at the same time. Teams that happened to be Independent at the same time are not counted. Can you name them all? Extra credit if you get the last one, as they were conference mates before World War II.

As you probably would have guessed, the common bond between most of these teams is the Sun Belt. Since forming in 2001, the Sun Belt has been the home to 18 different FBS teams at one point or another. It is typically a destination for teams just moving up to FBS as half of its all-time membership began their FBS lives in the conference. The defunct Western Athletic Conference also had a revolving door of membership around the turn of the century, so it is represented multiple times here as well. New Mexico State and Utah State are well acquainted, sharing a conference (and nickname) four separate times in a quarter century. Missouri and Texas is the obvious example involving Power Five teams, but yes, national semifinalists Alabama and Clemson once shared a conference. Back when the world has but a dark void and the almighty had yet to create the SEC, or ACC for that matter, Clemson and Alabama (along with a nearly literal cast of thousands) called The Southern Conference home.

And before we leave conference affiliation, the Independence Bowl also features a clash of former conference mates (on the hardwood). Back in the late 80's and early 90's Southern Miss and Florida State did battle in the old Metro Conference (both teams even made the NCAA tournament in 1991) before the Seminoles moved to the ACC.

Before we sign off for 2017, let's discuss the unique Rose Bowl pairing. As any college football fan knows, the Rose Bowl historically pairs the Big 10 and Pac-10/12 champion. Even with the Rose's inclusion in the BCS and later College Football Playoff, this tradition was mostly observed. However, with the Rose serving as a semi-final game and no Big 10 or Pac-12 teams in the playoff, this will be the first time since 2001 that both participants are not from the Big 10 or Pac-10/12. That national championship Rose Bowl marked the first non-Big 10/Pac-10 clash since the forties. Including that game and this one, there have been nine non-traditional Rose Bowl participants since World War II.
Amazingly, the Big 12 has accounted for five of those spots, with Oklahoma and Texas making multiple appearances. Georgia will be the first SEC team to play in the Rose Bowl since Alabama following the 1945 season.

Well, that's all I have for you. Enjoy bowl season and check back a week or so after the National Championship Game for the first of the annual offseason posts examining each of the ten FBS conferences using YPP and APR. Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

Alabama 46

matt said...

It took me a while to figure out what you meant, but yes, Alabama was the last SEC team to play in the Rose in January of 1946 following the 1945 season. Post has been updated to reflect that. Also, it helps in comprehension to write in (somewhat) complete sentences. :)