Thursday, December 28, 2006

Bowl Preview: Independence, Holiday, and Texas

Record: 8-1

Independence Bowl: Alabama versus Oklahoma State

Rumor has it Alabama will be using the latest technological advances in genetics and cloning to create an amalgamation of Bear Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Bud Wilkinson to coach the team next season. Using the latest advances in time travel, I can tell you that Alabama will fire Bear Alonzo Wilkinson at the conclusion of his fourth season. All kidding aside, the Independence Bowl should be an entertaining bout between two teams that could not be more different.

The Crimson Tide are led by their defense. While not at the elite level it attained last season, the defense is still quite good. The Tide were pretty good against the run, holding opponents to 3.84 yards per rush. The Tide were gouged on the ground by LSU, Arkansas, and Duke?!, but held their own in the other 7 games. The Tide pass defense was probably the team’s strong suit. Only two quarterbacks (Chris Leak and JaMarcus Russell) had good games against their pass defense. Collectively, opponents completed 56% of their passes for an average of 6.77 per attempt with 14 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. If we remove those two stars from the equation, those numbers fall to 53%, 6.31 per attempt, 9 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.

Offensively, Alabama is solid, but hardly spectacular. Their running game is rather ho-hum. Collectively, Tide rushers averaged only 3.54 yards per carry, and the team scored only 8 rushing touchdowns. The Tide passing attack was the offenses strength. Quarterback John Parker Wilson will not be confused with Colt Brennan or Brady Quinn, but he protected the ball well (only 9 interceptions) while throwing 16 touchdowns.

On the other sideline, the Cowboys rebounded nicely from a forgettable 2005 season. After averaging only 20.2 points per game last season, their offense dramatically improved, increasing their average to 35.3 per game. The Cowboys improved from 4-7 (1-7 in Big 12 play) to 6-6 (3-5 in Big 12 play). The Cowboys were also much better than their record as they were an unlucky 0-4 in close games. Oklahoma State is strong in both the running game and passing games, at least on offense. They averaged 5.19 yards per rush and had 25 touchdowns on the ground. Through the air, the Cowboys love to bomb away. Quarterbacks completed only 55% of their passes, but those passes traveled an average of 8.29 yards meaning there were a lot of throws down the field. There were also 26 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Quarterback Bobby Reid not only throws a good deep ball, but he is also a dual-threat as a runner (over 450 yards and 5 touchdowns). Also keep a look out for receiver Adarius Bowman. He had only two games over 100 yards, but one of them was a 13 catch 300 yard day against Kansas.

The reason the Cowboys were 6-6, and part of the reason they lost so many close games, is because they are very weak in the two other aspects of football: defense and special teams. The Cowboys did a decent job stopping the run, allowing only 4.10 yards per rush. However, the Cowboys allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete over 61% of their passes and throw for 19 touchdowns. The Cowboys also intercepted only 9 passes on the year. And special teams? The Cowboys are awful covering both punts (102nd nationally) and kickoffs (91st) in terms of average yardage allowed per return. To be fair, the Cowboys do return both punts (17th nationally) and kickoffs (8th) very well.

Prediction: Despite the fact that Oklahoma State is about as close to a one-trick pony as you will find in this year’s postseason, their offense will simply overwhelm Alabama. Expect some real fireworks for both sides on special teams’ returns in this game.

Holiday Bowl: California versus Texas A&M

For the fifth straight year, Cal has won at least 7 games and for the fourth straight season, Cal is in a bowl game. Not bad for a team that was 1-10 the year before Jeff Tedford arrived. Don’t worry Cal fans, the Pac 10 title will come, but for now The Bears must concentrate on playing better in the Holiday Bowl than they did two years ago when they were spanked by an underdog from Texas.

As is usually the case under Jeff Tedford, Cal is very efficient on offense. Their running game averages over 4.7 yards per rush and their passing attack has accumulated 24 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions all year. Cal is also fairly strong on defense, at least more so than they are given credit for. They stop the run reasonably well (3.7 yards per rush) and opponents have thrown more interceptions (20) against them than touchdowns (16).

The Golden Bears also usually have good field position after their defense makes opponents punt. The Bears are fourth in the NCAA averaging 17.26 yards per return. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson has taken four kicks back to the house and is reason enough to not slip off to the fridge when the Aggies are punting.

Speaking of the Aggies, Dennis Franchione may have saved his job, at least until he loses to Texas again, after going 9-3. 8 of their 12 games were decided by 6 points or less. The Aggies went 5-3 in those games, so they were good, but hardly incredibly lucky. On offense, the Aggies run the football (5 yards per rush and 32 touchdowns) and are safe with the football when they throw it (only 3 interceptions all season). Sophomore quarterback Stephen McGee threw 11 of the teams 12 touchdown passes while adding over 600 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground.

On defense, the Aggies were solid, but not particularly stout. Opponents averaged 4 yards per rush, but the good running teams (Oklahoma State and Oklahoma) were able to run the ball effectively. The Aggies were only able to grab 10 interceptions (and 4 of those came in the finale against Texas) on the year while allowing 13 touchdown passes.

Texas A&M is a solid team with a very small margin for error as evidence by the plethora of close games they played. They needed every small advantage they could get, and they were able to generate that advantage in the area of kickoff returns. The Aggies ranked second in the league in average kickoff return (27.57 per return) enabling them to begin drives with very good field position. That should help the Aggies hand with a Cal team that is simply better. However, the Aggies do have one glaring weakness on special teams—punt coverage. The Aggies finished 81st nationally in average yards allowed per punt return. If your memories short, the Bears brought 4 punts back for scores. Draw your own conclusions.

Prediction: The Aggies have played their fair share of close games, so don’t be surprised if this one goes down to the wire. Still, the Aggies advantage on kickoff returns should be neutralized by the Bears advantage on punt returns. The Bears offense is more prolific and their defense is stronger, so they will win.

Texas Bowl: Kansas State versus Rutgers

The Texas Bowl offers viewers with the NFL Network an intriguing look at two teams with similar pasts. Roughly 15 years ago, Kansas State was in Rutgers’ position—a completely worthless program that was being rebuilt and rejuvenated by an excellent coach. In the years since their rise, the Wildcats have competed for both conference and national titles before falling back on hard times. The Scarlet Knights would like to emulate most of what the Kansas State program has accomplished (sans the falling on hard times) and they can get a good start by winning their first ever bowl game.

The Scarlet Knights are powered by their running game and stellar defense. Sophomore Ray Rice went over 200 yards thrice on his way to a 1600 yard season. He also accounted for 19 touchdowns while averaging 5.22 yards per rush. The Knights will need Rice to perform well on first and second down so they can avoid putting quarterback Mike Teel in too many 3rd and longs. Teel completed only 55% of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (13).

Defensively, the Knights are phenomenal. They are giving up only an eyelash over 3 yards per rush (3.01). They are also allowing quarterbacks to complete only 52% of their passes, 13 of which have been intercepted while allowing only 8 touchdowns through the air. The Knights also hope to use their solid punt return game to change field position. While the Knights rank only 49th in average per return, they have returned two punts for scores.

Glossing over the Wildcats team statistics, they hardly have the look of a 7-5 team. Their running game has been solid, averaging a respectable 4.18 yards per carry. However, whenever the Wildcats are forced to throw the football, well suffice it to say they may be better off punting on 3rd and long. Kansas State quarterbacks have completed only 52% of their throws and only 10 of those have gone for touchdowns against 18 interceptions. On the other side of the ball, Kansas State does a pretty good job of stopping the run holding opponents to under 4 yards per rush (3.95). Opponents have passed the ball pretty well against the Kansas State defense tossing 16 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions on the year while completing over 58% of their passes. So how has Kansas State won 7 games? Special teams.

The Wildcats are 32nd in the country in punt return average (11.18 per return and two scores) and they are even better at kickoff returns where they rank first in the country (27.94 per return and three scores). The Wildcats are also 11th in the country at covering kickoffs allowing only 17.31 yards per return. The Wildcats are only 64th in the country at covering punts, but to paraphrase Meatloaf, three out of four ain’t bad.

Prediction: Reasons to believe Kansas State can upset Rutgers? Motivation: Rutgers was a few plays away from playing in the Orange Bowl and are now exiled to play in a bowl game most of the country couldn’t watch if it wanted to. Special Teams: The Wildcats are great at returning both punts and kickoffs while the Knights are poor a kickoffs (93rd in the nation) and even worse at covering punts (100th in the nation). Reasons to believe Rutgers wins their first bowl game? Manhattan: Kansas State won only one game away from the Little Apple. Offense: Rutgers is better. Defense: Rutgers is better. It’s so simple when you break it down like that. Rutgers may give up some big plays on special teams, but they are stronger than Kansas State on offense and defense, so they should eventually cover the 7 to 7.5 point spread.

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