Monday, December 31, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Outback Bowl
Tennessee -2 Wisconsin

The Tennessee Vols rode the golden arm of their senior quarterback and a great deal of luck to an SEC East and nearly, an SEC title. The Wisconsin Badgers began the season 5-0, but fell off the national radar after losing a close one to Illinois and then getting blown away by Penn State. Following the loss to the Nittany Lions, the Badgers won 4 of their next 5 with the only loss coming to Ohio State. Not a bad second act for Brett Bielema after his 12-win rookie season.

Both these teams won their fair share of close games. Wisconsin was 4-1 in one-score games and Tennessee was 3-1. These teams were extremely fortunate to finish where they did, or if you buy into the whole 'knowing how to win' deal, their experience allowed them to make plays while their opponents faltered. Tennessee, despite their impressive showing in the SEC Championship Game, was actually outgained on the season. Tennessee averaged a solid 399 yards per game (55th in the nation), but their defense struggled and allowed 408 yards per game (73rd in the nation). The strength of the Vols offense was the passing of Eric Ainge. Ainge threw 29 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions on the season while compiling a passer rating of 134.64 (41st in the nation among qualifying players). While Ainge has a great touchdown to interception ration, he averaged only 6.6 yards per pass attempt on the season (73rd among qualifying quarterbacks). In fact, he averaged under 6 yards per pass in 5 of the Vols' 13 games (Cal, South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt). Ainge was able to avoid a lot of mistakes because of the fantastic protection his offensive line afforded him. The line allowed only 4 sacks all season (best in the nation). The line also opened pretty big holes for running back Arian Foster. Foster gained 1162 yards and averaged 5.07 yards per rush.

As good as the Tennessee pass offense was, their pass defense was almost as bad. The Vols gave up 24 touchdowns through the air (93rd in the nation). The Vols also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 59.4% of their throws (70th in the nation). The Vols' pass defense played well in a few games (Arkansas, Georgia, Arkansas State, and Louisiana-Lafayette), but all those games were at home, and two were against Sun Belt teams.

The Badgers had a much healthier per game yardage differential. They gained about 414 yards per game (44th in the nation) while allowing 350 yards per game (36th in the nation). Offensively, the Badgers were very balanced. Behind running back PJ Hill, the rushing attack averaged 201 yards per game (19th in the nation). Senior quarterback Tyler Donovan helped the passing game average 212 yards per game (67th in the nation). In fact, Donovan actually finished one spot ahead of Eric Ainge in passer rating (40th in the nation among qualifying players). Donovan had only 16 touchdown passes (compared to 29 for Ainge), but he averaged over a yard more per pass (7.9 to 6.6).

Defensively, the Badgers were a notch above a much a middle of the road unit. They accumulated 28 sacks over 12 games (39th in the nation), allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 120.33 (46th in the nation), allowed 211 pass yards per game (35th in the nation), allowed 140 yards per game on the ground (49th in the nation), and permitted opponents to gain 4.26 yards per rush (73rd in the nation). Both teams are not quite as good as their sterling records (combined 18-7) would indicate. Tennessee has been throttled 3 times this season, once to a good team (Florida), but twice to some pretty average teams (Cal and Alabama). Good team don't lose by 39 points in my opinion. Wisconsin is a solid team, but they boast two blowout losses too (Penn State and Ohio State), and I expect them to take care of Tennessee.

The Pick: Wisconsin will cover the 2 point spread.

Cotton Bowl
Missouri -3.5 Arkansas

The Missouri Tigers got royally screwed by the BCS. They beat Illinois and Kansas, two BCS teams, and lost to Oklahoma (twice), another BCS team, yet find themselves on the outside looking in. Of course, with the BCS, someone's gonna get the shaft every season. That's the nature of the college football postseason, where money rules all. Still, a win in the very prestigious Cotton Bowl would likely give the Tigers a top-5 ranking at season's end. The Arkansas Razorbacks have gone through a great deal since when we last saw them giving LSU 'that wood'. Head coach Houston Nutt left town and ended up in Oxford, Mississippi. Arkansas then went on the prowl for a football coach, failing to close the deal (thankfully) on Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe, and instead swooping in and grabbing reputed scum bag Bobby Petrino. His tenure at Arkansas should be long and fruitful, unless of course another BCS school offers him $50 more per season to coach their team.

The Tigers' offense shouldered much of the load during their historic season. They averaged 493 yards of offense per game (5th in the nation). Quarterback Chase Daniel completed nearly 70% of his passes (69.7%) with 33 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. With a passer rating of 151.90, Daniel was the 12th rated passer in college football. While he is not in the same class as Vince Young as a runner, he also gained 284 yards on the ground and scored 4 touchdowns. On the ground, the Tigers spread things around. Tony Temple led the team in rushing with 758 yards, but 6 players rushed for at least 100 yards, and 4 surpassed the 200 yards mark. leading receiver Jeremy Macklin (77 catches for 1023 yards) was the team's second leading rusher, gaining 349 yards on just 46 carries.

Defensively, the Tigers were solid if not spectacular. The defensive unit allowed 380 yards per game (59th in the nation). In this game, the unit's rush defense will be put to the test. How did they do against other good running teams? The Tigers actually fared reasonably well. The only team to rush for more than 200 yards was Ole Miss. In the second week of the season, the Rebels gained 229 yards and averaged 6.03 yards per rush. Most of those were courtesy of Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis. He rushed 33 times for 226 yards. The Tigers only allowed more than 4.00 yards per rush in two other games--Kansas State and the second Oklahoma game. They should be able to do a decent job of containing the vaunted Razorback rushing attack.

Behind Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, the Razorbacks finished third in the nation in rushing yards per game (297 per) and averaged a robust 6.19 yards per rush (tops in the nation). While the running game was absurdly dominant, the passing game left a little to be desired. While quarterback Casey Dick did post a pass efficiency rating of 129.67 (52nd in the nation among qualifying players), he was very inconsistent and had a mix of piss poor and good games. He had 4 games with a quarterback rating under 100 (Kentucky, Auburn, Florida International, and Tennessee). He also had 4 games with a quarterback rating over 150 (North Texas, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Mississippi State). Suffice it to say, he's a tad inconsistent.

The Arkansas defense under Reggie Herring was a very good unit. They finished 45th in the nation allowing 359 yards per game. That number appears to be pretty mediocre until you look at the yards per play average. The Hogs permitted only 4.7 yards per play on defense (20th in the nation). They were especially good in pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks managed a cumulative passer rating of only 99.16 (5th in the nation). Opposing quarterbacks also averaged only 5.6 yards per pass (6th in the nation) and completed just 45.6% of their throws (tops in the nation). Arkansas' pass defense stats are inflated by their non-conference schedule (Troy, North Texas, Chattanooga, and Florida International), but they played pretty good pass defense against their SEC opponents. John Parker Wilson of Alabama, Andre Woodson of Kentucky, Blake Mitchell of South Carolina, and Wesley Carroll of Mississippi (a real WTF moment) had better than average games against the Arkansas pass defense. Chase Daniel won't be able to pick them apart, but the only way Arkansas will win this game is if Casey Dick plays well. Will he? He's been spectacularly inconsistent, so don't bet on it.

The Pick: Missouri will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Capital One Bowl
Florida -10.5 Michigan

Lloyd Carr's last game as Michigan coach has blowout written all over it. Against a similar spread offense in Oregon, the Michigan defense got shredded to the tune 624 yards and 8.1 yards per play. Tim Tebow has to be licking his chops. But before you go and put next month's mortgage payment on the Gators to cover, consider this.

1. Florida's defense is not nearly as dominant as last year's unit. Florida won the national title last season, not because of their spread attack, but because of their fantastic defense. The Gators permitted only 255 yards per game last season (6th in the nation). They held opposing passers to a quarterback rating of 98.28 (4th in the nation) and allowed only 2.74 yards per rush (6th in the nation). This season, the Gators are allowing teams to gain an average of 348 yards per game (32nd in the nation--still pretty good, but not great). Opposing quarterbacks posted an efficiency rating of 125.95 (65th in the nation) and they are allowing 3.02 yards per rush (14th in the nation). The Gator defense is still good, but don't expect them to put the clamps on the Wolverines like they did to the Buckeyes last season.

2. Michigan will be motivated to send their coach out on a winning note. While Lloyd Carr may seem very curmudgeony to outsiders and the media, his players seem to genuinely like him, and they will want to send him off a winner.

3. Florida may take Michigan lightly. Most observers and fans have already handed Florida this game and next year's SEC Championship as well. Don't be surprised if they start slowly.

4. Double digit favorites are just 4-12 since 2004 (including 0-2 this bowl season) against the spread. They are 10-6 straight up though.

Florida will come out slow and fall into a double digit hole before rallying to put the Wolverines away.

The Pick: Michigan will cover the 10.5 point spread.

Gator Bowl
Texas Tech -6 Virginia

The Virginia Cavaliers walked a tightrope this season, and despite getting blown out by Wyoming on the season's first weekend, finishing 100th in the nation in yards per game (329 per contest), and gaining on average 6 yards more per game than their opponents, the Cavs stayed in the ACC Atlantic Division race until the season's final weekend. They did it by going an amazing 6-1 in one-score games. Those 6 wins came by 12 total points. Three came by a single point, two were by 2 points, and the 'blowout' game was a 5-point decision. Scattered amongst the close wins were an 11-point beating of Duke, a 30-point thrashing of Pitt, and a 48-0 shutout of Miami to close the Orange Bowl. Fortunately for the ACC, and advertising executives, the Cavs were not able to garner the conference's automatic BCS bid, and instead get to play a pretty good Texas Tech team in the Gator Bowl.

Texas Tech is the lone Big 12 team to not have a losing record in the conference's history (since 1996). This season, the Red Raiders did what they always do under Mike Leach--pull off at least one big upset (Oklahoma), win at least 4 Big 12 games (4-4 record), and throw for a ton of yards (5707). Quarterback Graham Harrell had the highest completion percentage (72.7%) of any player. His passer rating of 160.49 was the sixth best among qualifying players and his 45 touchdown throws led the nation. The Tech offensive line did a fine job protecting Harrell too, permitting only 15 sacks all season (21st in the nation). Of course, any discussion of the Texas Tech offense would not be complete without mentioning freshman receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree hauled in an amazing 125 passes for 1861 yards and 21 touchdowns. Fellow receiver Danny Amendola also hauled in over 100 passes (103) and gained more than 1000 yards (1177).
The Red Raider defense is obviously overshadowed by the historic offense, but the unit was pretty solid in 2007. They allowed only 367 yards per game (50th in the nation) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 118.09 (41st in the nation). The most amazing defensive statistic for the Red Raiders is that they forced 33 fumbles, yet managed to recover only 9. Some regression to the mean (or progression in this case) in fumble recovery luck could mean the defense improves substantially in the number of points they allow next season.

It should be obvious to an fan or analyst that Virginia is not going to win a shootout here. Their offense lacks the firepower and the Tech defense is solid enough to prevent the Cavs from topping 27 points. The best chance the Cavs have for a victory is to keep this a low-scoring affair and win another close one. The Cavs need to look no further than the Cotton Bowl from two seasons ago for an example of this strategy. In that game, the Alabama Crimson Tide held the Red Raiders to a season-low 329 yards in their 13-10 win. Virginia's defense is not as stout as the one employed by Alabama in 2005, but they do one thing particularly well. Pressuring the quarterback. The Cavs racked up 40 sacks on the year (7th in the nation). 14 of them came from defensive end Chris Long. If Long and his mates are able to consistently get into the backfield against the quick Texas Tech passing game they will have a shot at pulling off the upset. Virgina should keep this game relatively close, but they lack the offensive firepower to hang with Tech.

The Pick: Texas Tech will cover the 6 point spread.

Rose Bowl
Southern Cal -13.5 Illinois

This is the biggest spread of the bowl season. All the reasons I listed in the Michigan/Florida preview apply here as well, with the notable exception of trying to send Ron Zook out a winner. The Zooker has bought himself at least a few more years in Champagne with his team's performance in 2007. However, the main reason Southern Cal will not cover the spread is their offense, or lack thereof. The Trojans finished only 41st in the nation in yards per game with 418 per contest. That ranking is directly below Air Force and directly above Kansas State. In fact even with solid performances against UCLA and Arizona State to close the season (945 yards in two games), the offense only averaged 388 yards per game and 5.2 yards per play over the last 7 contests. The Trojans managed to average 461 yards per game and 6.2 yards per play over the first 5 games because they played Idaho (86th in the nation in yards allowed per game), Nebraska (112th), Washington State (89th), Washington (102nd), and Stanford (97th). The Illini's defense is mediocre (41st in the nation allowing 355 yards per game), but it is much better than the aforementioned units the Trojans faced in their first 5 games.

Now, the Trojans themselves have a very stout defense. They finished 2nd in the nation allowing a scant 259 yards per game. Expect the Illini and Juice Williams to have trouble moving the ball (pre-Dixon-injury Oregon gained only 339 yards against them), but if they can get to 10 points they should cover the Mangino-sized spread.

The Pick: Illinois will cover the 13.5 point spread.

Sugar Bowl
Georgia -8 Hawaii

The Warriors are probably undeserving of their BCS bowl bid thanks to their easy schedule, but I won't shed a tear because a mid-major beat the system. Remember, Notre Dame has garnered 3 undeserved BCS bids this decade, by employing a similar strategy. But the question is, can Hawaii put up a fight (at least more so than those 3 Notre Dame teams)?

Hawaii struggled in 3 crucial road games this season: @ Louisiana Tech (a 1-point win), @ San Jose State (a 7-point win), and @ Nevada (a 2-point win). However, for all those road games they had to travel just a few days before the game. In fact, for the San Jose State and Nevada games, they played just 6 days after a home game (they got a full 7 days rest for the Louisiana Tech game). After the Louisiana Tech near debacle, the Warriors played at UNLV. Rather than return to the islands and fly right back, they stayed on the mainland. The result--a 35-point win. Now a blowout of UNLV does not mean the Warriors will roll over the Bulldogs, but it does lend some credence as to why Hawaii struggles on the road. It's the same reason teams struggle on the islands. Simple jet lag. The Warriors have had ample time to prepare for the Bulldogs and their fans will be out in full force. Hawaii will move the ball on the Georgia defense, but the key matchup will be whether or not the can contain the Bulldogs fabulous freshman Knowshon Moreno. If they can prevent him from having a huge day they will make the Sugar Bowl a competitive game.

The Pick: Hawaii will cover the 8 point spread.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Armed Forces Bowl
California -3.5 Air Force

If you were to ask a casual college football fan what Cal's record was, what would they say? Probably 8-4. Heck the team started 5-0, with wins over Tennessee and Oregon, but I remember them dropping that game to Oregon State where their quarterback took a sack as time ran out and they couldn't get the kicking team on in time to try a field goal. So ya, 8-4 sounds good. Since beating Oregon on the last weekend in September, the Golden Bears have won only once more--a 3-point home win over Washington State. They lost to good teams (Arizona State and Southern Cal are currently in the top-15), bad teams (Stanford upset them the last weekend of the season), mediocre teams (UCLA), at home (Oregon State), and on the road (Washington). Cal fans can take heart that their largest margin of defeat was only 14 points (against the Huskies). Still a 6-6 finish (3-6 in the Pac-10) has to have Jeff Tedford scratching his head. Their opponents, the Air Force Falcons are making their first bowl appearance since 2002, under first-year had coach Troy Calhoun. The Mountain West is already 4-0 in bowl games (with 1 to go), and the Falcons would like nothing more than to take down another 6-6 Pac-10 team like their conference brethren BYU.

For all the hoopla surrounding the Falcons run-dominated option offense, they were also pretty stout defensively. Opposing quarterbacks were only able to compile a passer rating of 117.51 (39th in the nation). The Falcon defense allowed only 13 touchdown passes all season (16th in the nation), while intercepting 15 errant throws (34th in the nation). The Falcons were also pretty good at shutting down the run, as only two teams averaged more than 4 yards per rush against them (Navy and Colorado State). For the season, Air Force allowed only 3.28 yards per rush (24th in the nation).

Offensively, the Falcons rely on their option offense to move the chains. The Falcons averaged 298 yards per game on the ground (2nd in the nation behind only Navy) and 5.43 yards per rush (6th in the nation). Three players had over 500 yards on the ground: wing back Chad Hall (1415 to go along with his team-leading 46 catches for 488 yards), running back Jim Ollis (581) , and quarterback Shaun Carney (529). When they did throw the ball, which was not very often (2nd fewest pass attempts), they were pretty effective. Their team passer rating of 133.44 ranked 40th in the nation.

Getting back to the Golden Bears, if you take a look at the numbers its easy to see why they lost 6 of their last 7 games. Through the first 5 games, the Bears turned the ball over only 4 times (2 picks and 2 fumbles). They also turned their opponents over 15 times in those 4 games (8 picks and 7 fumbles) for a margin of +11. In their last 7 games, they turned the ball over 21 times (12 picks and 9 fumbles). Quarterback Nate Longshore threw at least one interception in the last 6 games he started and the team as a whole turned the ball over at least 3 times in every game but one during the last 7 games. The team also collected only 9 turnovers in that span (2 picks and 7 fumbles) for a margin of -12. If the Bears are more careful with the ball and are fortunate enough to fall on a Falcon fumble or two, they can win this game going away.

The Pick: California will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Sun Bowl
South Florida -6.5 Oregon

Oh what might have been for Oregon. The Ducks were 8-1 and leading Arizona before an injury to quarterback Dennis Dixon effectively ended their season. In their first 9 games, they averaged nearly 511 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. In their last 3 games, the Ducks averaged 317 yards per game and 3.7 yards per play. Suffice it to say: Dennis Dixon meant a lot to this team. The what might have been refrain also fits into the Bulls' season. Standing 6-0 and ranked #2 in the nation, South Florida lost their next 3 games by a combined 15 points. In their first loss, a 3-point defeat at the hands of Rutgers, the Bulls had a touchdown overturned on review (blocked field goal and an illegal forward pass on the return) and the Knights used several trick plays to get in scoring position (fake field goal and fake punt). In their next loss, a 7-point defeat at Connecticut, the Bulls outgained the Huskies by 87 yards, but lost thanks to a pick-6 by the Huskies and 2 missed field goals by their kicker Delbert Alvarado. In their next loss, a 5-point defeat a home to Cincinnati (their only home loss of the season), the Bulls outgained the Bearcats by 106 yards, but lost thanks to 8 turnovers (4 picks--one of which was returned for a touchdown and 4 fumbles) and a blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown.

The previous few sentences may seem like a lot of excuses, but the Bulls really were one of the nation's best teams. They were simply undone by some poor luck and execution. The Bulls' defense was phenomenal, allowing only 327 yards per game (22nd in the nation). They were especially good at pass defense, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 102.16 (7th in the nation), allowing only 5.8 yards per pass (10th in the nation), holding opponents to a completion rate of only 51.1% (6th in the nation), and intercepting 23 passes (tops in the nation). The Bulls also did a solid job of pressuring the quarterback, registering 29 sacks (35th in the nation). The only disparaging remark to be uttered about the Bulls is that offensively, they were a one-man show. Sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe was not only the leading passer, but also the teams leading rusher (with 832 yards). Grothe threw only 13 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions, but he also rushed for 10 touchdowns. However, if Grothe gets hurt (shades of Dennis Dixon), the Bulls could struggle hardily on offense.

We discussed the Duck offense, or lack thereof sans Dixon, a few paragraphs ago. What about the defense? Depending on which stat you looked at, it was either pretty good or merely average. The Ducks registered 35.5 sacks on the year (18th in the nation), led by defensive linemen Nick Reed. Reed's 12 sacks ranked 6th in the country. Despite all those sacks, the Ducks still allowed 387 yards per game (62nd in the nation). All that pressure helped the secondary hold opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 116.76 (35th in the nation), but they also allowed 6.8 yards per pass (53rd in the nation). The Duck defense is middle of the road. It has its strengths--pressure, but also some weaknesses, big plays. The South Florida defense should shut down the Oregon offense, and Matt Grothe will do enough on offense to help South Florida win rather comfortably.

The Pick: South Florida will cover the 6.5 point spread.

Humanitarian Bowl
Georgia Tech -6 Fresno State

Another year, another 5-loss season for the Yellow Jackets. Chan Gailey was shown the door and Georgia Tech recently hired, in my opinion, the best NCAA football coach in Paul Johnson. Look for Johnson to work his magic relatively quickly and the Jackets will own an ACC Championship by 2012. First things, first, however. The Jackets must deal with a team that has a sterling reputation for taking on any challenge and knocking off some BCS-conference teams. The Bulldogs did beat Kansas State this season, but prior to that win, their last victory over a BCS-conference opponent came against Virginia in the MPC Computers Bowl. The Bulldogs had lost 7 straight contests against BCS -conference teams before their victory over the Wildcats.

Their are two key matchups in this contest.The first one will be the Fresno State offensive line against the Georgia Tech pass rush. The Jackets led the nation with 47.5 sacks, meaning they got to opposing quarterbacks nearly 4 times per game. They had at least 1 sack in every game and at least 2 in all but two games (Miami and Georgia). The Fresno State offensive line did a fine job of protecting quarterback Tom Brandstater, allowing only 16 sacks all season (25th in the nation). They also did a fine job of opening holes for the running game to the tune of 205 yards per game (16th in the nation) and 4.70 yards per rush (25th in the nation). Georgia Tech was very good at stifling the run game, allowing only 100 yards per game on the ground (12th in the nation) and 2.80 yards per rush (7th in the nation).

The second key matchup will be the Georgia Tech ground game against the Fresno State rush defense. Despite the absence of quarterback Reggie Ball, the Jackets were once again horrendous at this thing called the forward pass (finishing 116th in the nation in touchdowns passes with 8). But the running game would have brought a tear to the chiseled old face of Woody Hayes himself. Behind senior running back Tashard Choice (1310 yards), the Jackets averaged 202 yards per game on the ground (18th in the nation) and 4.78 yards per rush (22nd in the nation) despite no threat of a passing game. Stopping the run was not one of Fresno State's strengths. They allowed 183 yards per game (86th in the nation) and an even 5.00 yards per rush (108th in the nation).

Tashard Choice and the Jacket ground game will move the ball against the porous Fresno State rush defense. However, when they are forced to pass, Taylor Bennett won't be able to consistently convert 3rd downs. The Jackets are playing a long way from home, and may not be as motivated as the Bulldogs who always get up to face a team from a BCS conference (3-1 in bowl games against BCS-conference teams under Pat Hill). Look for the Bulldogs to pull off the upset. Also, if a pass is intercepted in this game, stop the presses. Georgia Tech picked off 5 passes all year (117th in the nation), while Fresno State nabbed only 3 (119th--last in the nation).

The Pick: Fresno State will cover the 6 point spread.

Music City Bowl
Kentucky -10 Florida State

The Wildcats are playing in their second consecutive and 12th bowl game in the school's history. Despite appearing in so few bowl games, this marks the 5th time in school history that the Cats have appeared in bowl games in consecutive seasons. Their opponent has a somewhat more storied history, as the Seminoles are appearing in their 26th consecutive bowl game. However, if we limit our scope to the past 2 seasons, Kentucky actually has a better record than the Noles--15-10 to 14-11.

The spread on this game was around 2.5 to 3 points before Florida State lost roughly a third of their team to academic suspensions. The spread then jumped to 10 points. It's a shame Florida State couldn't apply to the NCAA for some hardship waiver and pick up some players from other Florida schools. Heck Rusty Smith looked better in the New Orleans Bowl than any Nole quarterback since Chris Weinke.

Befitting a team that finished 7-5, the Noles finished in the middle of the pack (at best) in most statistical categories. They finished 82nd in the nation in yards per game (360 per), but did allow a respectable 350 yards per game on defense (36th in the nation). The addition of Jimbo Fisher cost the Noles roughly 3.6 points per game (down from 26.5 points per game to 22.9 per game), but added an additional 30 yards per game (up to 360 yards per game from 330 per). In other words, his addition meant basically nothing in Year 1. In what has been a common refrain in the recent past, the Noles struggled running the football (averaging under 4.00 yards per rush for the 4th time in 5 seasons) and suffered through inconsistency at the quarterback position with a cumulative quarterback rating of 121.39 (79th in the nation). It should be clear to the Florida State coaching staff that Drew Weatherford is the quarterback who should play in the bowl game and next season. He lacks the big play ability Xavier Lee has shown (Lee averages 14.73 yards per completion compared to 11.15 for Weatherford), but he has a higher completion rate (58.9% to 53.2%) and limits his mistakes. Weatherford threw only 1 pick in 270 pass attempts (0.37 interceptions per 100 passes), while Lee threw 5 in 124 pass attempts (4.03 interceptions per 100 passes).

The Wildcats don't have the problems the Noles have on offense. Quarterback Andre Woodson ranked 20th in the nation among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating (144.28). Woodson did throw 6 interceptions in the Cats' last 4 games (of which the Cats lost 3), but he also threw 10 touchdowns in that span. On the season, the offense averaged 439 yards per game (25th in the nation) and 36.7 points per game (15th in the nation). Keep in mind that the Cats may be without the services of leading receiver (in receptions not yards) Keenan Burton.

The defensive unit kept the Wildcats from being a contender in the SEC. They gave up 390 yards per game (65th in the nation). They finished much worse in the points per game department (80th in the nation at 29.8 per game) because opponents began so many drives with great field position (allowed 24.02 yards per kickoff return--106th in the nation).

With all the personnel losses, I don't see any way the Noles can win this game outright. However, Florida State has lost only 4 bowl games by 10 points or more under Bowden (17 points to Oklahoma in 1979, 32 points to Florida in 1996, 11 points to Oklahoma in 2000, and 13 points to Georgia in 2002). Also double digit bowl favorites are only 4-12 against the spread since 2004. Kentucky will win, but the Noles will cover.

The Pick: Florida State will cover the 10 point spread.

Insight Bowl
Oklahoma State -4 Indiana

This is the second of two bowl games the NFL Network will broadcast and unlike the first, a 20-13 defensive struggle between two mid-majors from Texas, this one should be must see TV. The Hoosiers are playing in their first bowl game since 1993, and will be playing to honor their late head coach Terry Hoeppner. This is the Hoosiers' 9th bowl game in school history, and amazingly 6 of those bowl appearances belong to former coach Bill Mallory, a vastly underrated college football coach. Mallory took the team to bowl games in 1986, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991, and 1993, a time when there were not 32 bowl games salivating at the notion to invite every 6-6 team to play in their corporately sponsored game. Oklahoma State is making their 5th bowl appearance in 6 seasons, and their second consecutive appearance following a 6-6 regular season.

You like offense? This is the game for you. The Cowboys give up points almost just as easily as they score them. They averaged 484 yards of total offense per game (9th in the nation), but they also gave up 446 yards per game (103rd in the nation). The Cowboys were pretty balanced on the offensive side of the ball. They averaged 246 yards per game on the ground (7th in the nation) and 248 yards per game through the air (48th in the nation). As a team, the Cowboys posted a cumulative quarterback rating of 142.91 (19th in the nation), behind sophomore signal-caller Zac Robinson. Unfortunately, their pass defense was one of the worst in the nation. Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 146.42 (108th in the nation) and and the defense allowed 292 yards per game through the air (116th in the nation).

Do the Hoosiers have the personnel to shred that deplorable Cowboy defense? I would say so. The Hoosiers 'only' averaged 238 yards per game through the air (49th in the nation), but they were very efficient throwing the football. Their passer rating of 136.18 was good for 30th in the nation. Sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis threw all but 3 of the Hoosiers passes on the season. He completed over 60% (60.9%) of his throws for 26 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Most of those passes went to James Hardy, a 6-7 beast tight end/wide receiver hybrid. Those 74 catches resulted in 1045 yards and 16 touchdowns. Lewis was also the teams leading rusher, gaining 653 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Hoosiers were hardly dominant, but they had their moments and areas. They allowed 394 yards per game (68th in the nation), but they finished 4th in the nation with 42 sacks. Defensive end Greg Middleton led the team with 16 sacks, registering at least one in 9 of their 12 games. That will be an important matchup in this game as the Cowboys allowed only 11 sacks on the year (5th in the nation).

Oklahoma State has a more prolific offense than Indiana, but also a much worse defense. Both teams will score, so don't be surprised if this one rivals the Motor City showdown between Purdue and Central Michigan as the highest scoring bowl game of 2007. Indiana should come up with a few more stops on defense, probably thanks to their insidious pass rush, and will win outright.

The Pick: Indiana will cover the 4 point spread.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Clemson -2.5 Auburn

The former Peach Bowl should be an interesting clash between two successful coaches who are less than revered at their respective institutions. It seems every season Tommy Bowden is in danger of losing his job. His teams either starts out hotter than a house of fire and limp to the finish line, or start slowly before turning on the jets to get expectations ramped up for the following season. Tommy Tuberville has done a superb job at Auburn, going 41-9 the past 4 seasons. However, prior to that 4-season span, Tuberville was the focus of a clandestine palace coup that ended up not going over so well. Auburn did lose 4 games this season, but all came to bowl teams, and two were to teams currently residing in the top 5.

Both teams boast stellar defenses. Clemson allowed only 297 yards per game (6th in the nation) and Auburn finished right behind them, allowing 298 yards per game (8th in the nation). Clemson held opposing quarterbacks to an efficiency rating of 108.25 (16th in the nation), while Auburn was slightly better, limiting opposing passer to a quarterback rating of 107.49 (11th in the nation). The one defensive statistic where Clemson was much better than Auburn was getting to the quarterback. Clemson finished a mediocre 46th in the nation with 27 sacks, while Auburn was only 93rd in the nation with a scant 19 sacks all year.

The two defenses were pretty close in most categories with a slight edge going to the Tigers (Clemson). However, since they will certainly be without two and possibly three starting linebackers, I'll give the Tigers (Auburn) a slight edge in defense heading into this one. However, on offense there is no comparison. Clemson gained a shade over 412 yards per game (47th in the nation), while Auburn only managed 328 yards per game (101st in the nation). This is not a one-year aberration for Auburn either. It is a somewhat disturbing trend. After finishing 25th in the nation in yards per game in 2004, they dropped to 37th in 2005, and then finished 76th in 2006. When it comes to throwing the football, the difference between the two teams is enormous. Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper completed 67% of his passes for 27 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions while posting a passer rating of 146.91 (17th among qualifying quarterbacks). Meanwhile, Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox completed 58.% of his passes for only 9 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a passer rating of 117.58 (84th among qualifying quarterbacks). Clearly the offensive edge goes to Clemson.

The Pick: Clemson will cover the 2.5 point spread.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Independence Bowl
Alabama -3.5 Colorado

Two of college football's most surprising teams have the stage to themselves on Sunday. The Crimson Tide had high expectations, and rightfully so at roughly $4 million per, in Nick Saban's first season. Things looked good after 8 games as the Tide stood 6-2, with a recently completed 41-17 thrashing of Tennessee. Then the wheels fell off. Alabama lost it's last 4 games, though the combined margin of defeat was only 26 points (none by more than 7). In fact, Alabama did not lose a single football game by more than 7 points, indicating that they may not be too far away from returning to glory under Saban. However, just because all their losses were close, that does not mean they are excusable. Alabama lost to Florida State (7-5 record and one of the nation's most disappointing teams), Mississippi State (7-5 record) for the second year in a row, and Louisiana-Monroe (6-6 record--with no other wins against D-IA teams outside the Sun Belt). They also narrowly escaped defeat against Houston with a 30-24 win (at 8-4, a good, but not great Conference USA team) and against Ole Miss in a 27-24 win (3-9 with zero SEC wins). So 6-6 is probably a pretty good indicator of how good they are. Colorado on the other hand, was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. After finishing 2-10 in 2006, the Buffs began the season 4-2. included amongst those wins was a home upset over a top-5 Oklahoma team. They fell back to Earth over the last half of the season losing 4 of 5 before rebounding to take care of Nebraska in the season finale and become bowl-eligible.

Befitting two teams that finished 6-6, neither did anything exceptionally well. The Tide passing game was very anemic, especially considering they had a seasoned starter at quarterback in junior John Parker Wilson. The Tide had a cumulative passer rating of only 113.30 (95th in the nation) and averaged only 6.1 yards per pass (100th in the nation). Senior receiver DJ Hall did have a few good games catching the football, grabbing 13 for 185 yards in the aforementioned whitewashing of Tennessee. He also topped 100 yards receiving against Ole Miss and Arkansas (two other Tide wins). However, in the 4-game skid to close the regular season, Hall only managed 13 catches for 183 yards and a solitary touchdown.

The Tide's best performance came on defense and special teams. They limited their opponents to a quarterback rating of 114.62 (28th in the nation). They were also fantastic at returning punts, ranking 12th in the nation with an average return of 13.70 yards. But their biggest strength was on kickoff coverage where they limited teams to an average of only 17.62 yards per return (6th in the nation).

The Buffs 4-game improvement in 2007 was all due to their offense. In 2006, they averaged only 16.3 points (107th in the nation) and 291 yards per game (102nd in the nation). Those numbers jumped to 27.6 points (63rd in the nation) and 377 yards per game (72nd in the nation) thanks to the insertion of freshman quarterback and son of head coach Dan Hawkins, Cody Hawkins, into the starting lineup. Hawkins had his share of ups and downs in his first season as a college football player, but overall he threw 19 touchdowns against 15 interceptions and posted a passer rating of 115.71 (higher than the 111.86 rating of the more experienced John Parker Wilson). As a team, the Buffs had a passer rating of 115.71 (86th in the nation); still relatively low, but a substantial improvement upon the 96.66 (114th in the nation) rating the team compiled in 2006. While the efficiency numbers were not as high as father Hawkins would have liked, the offensive line did a pretty good job of protecting the younger Hawkins. The Buffs allowed only 17.5 sacks on the season (35th in the nation). The line also opened holes for senior running back Hugh Charles. After not playing in the first two games, and notching only 4 carries for 9 yards in the third, Charles gained 993 yards over the last 9 games. Not surprisingly, a Colorado offense that averaged only about 45 yards per game and 1.70 yards per rush over the first 3 games, averaged 185 yards per game and 4.41 yards per rush over the last 9.

Despite all the improvements on offense, the Buffs only managed a 6-6 record thanks to some regression on the other side of the ball. After allowing 22.3 points (56th in the nation) and 341 yards per game (66th in the nation) in 2006, the Buffs allowed 29.4 points per game (78th in the nation) and 389 yards per game (64th in the nation) in 2007. The slight up tick in yards led to a larger change in points because the Buffs were not as fortunate in the turnover department (+8 in 2006 and -4 in 2007). Those extra turnovers and extended drives caused the defense to allow many more points, despite actually improving (in the national ranking) in the yards they allowed.

Like their opponent in the Independence Bowl, Colorado was pretty proficient at each aspect of special teams coverage. They finished 33rd in the nation in opponents' punt return average (6.87 yards per return), 18th in opponents' kickoff return average (19.33 yards per return), 38th in punt return average (10.28 yards per return), and 30th in kickoff return average (23.00 yards per return). In what should be a low scoring affair, look for Dan Hawkins to have a trick or two up his sleeve. The Tide will lose their 5th straight game, meaning Saban will collect roughly $666,666 per win this season.

The Pick: Colorado will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Wake Forest -2.5 Connecticut

The last time these two teams played, on September 16th, 2006, it was very non-descript early season affair. Wake Forest was fresh off a 4-7 season while Connecticut had just finished a 5-6 campaign. The Demon Deacons won 24-13, despite being outgained by 115 yards (a common refrain for both teams recently). Of course, Wake Forest finished a Cinderella season with an 11-3 record and played in the Orange Bowl. Connecticut meanwhile struggled through a 4-8 season. The Deacons enjoyed another solid season this year, finishing 8-4 and playing in a bowl game for the second consecutive year for the first time in school history. Connecticut rebounded this season, and actually was the Big East co-champion. They have a great deal in common with both the 2006 and 2007 Demon Deacons.

The past two season, Wake Forest has gone an incredible 9-5 in games where they were outgained (5-3 in 2006 and 4-2 in 2007). They have done this by creating a ton of turnovers and being very careful with the football. In 2006 their turnover margin was +13 (6th in the nation) and in 2007 it was +10 (14th in the nation). They have also excelled at scoring unconventional (special teams and defensive touchdowns). In 2006 they returned a blocked punt and 2 interceptions for touchdowns. In 2007, they returned a kickoff, a punt, 6 interceptions (3 apiece by corner Alphonso Smith and linebacker Aaron Curry), and 2 fumbles for touchdowns. In two seasons, that is 13 unconventional touchdowns!

Connecticut has done their best Wake Forest impression this season. In 7 of their 12 games, the Huskies were outgained. They won 4 of those games. The reason? Surprise. Surprise. A turnover margin of +13 (7th in the nation) and some unconventional touchdowns. The Huskies have returned a punt (fair-catch gate against Louisville), 2 kickoffs, and 5 interceptions for touchdowns. I guess what I'm saying is, don't be surprised if the defense and special teams do some scoring in this game.

So if we consider the defense, special teams, and turnover capabilities of both teams to be a wash, what will be the difference in this game? Both teams have very competent quarterbacks. Riley Skinner of Wake Forest finished second in the nation in completion percentage, connecting on 71.9% of his passes. However, most of those passes were dinks and dunks. As a team, Wake Forest averaged only 9.18 yards per completed pass (119th or dead last in the nation). For Connecticut, their quarterback Tyler Lorenzen, a junior college transfer, stepped in and improved the Huskie passing game substantially, from terrible to average. In 2006, the Huskies sported a cumulative passer rating of 103.94 (104th in the nation) and averaged 5.4 yards per pass (117th in the nation). This season the Huskies have a passer rating of 126.46 (63rd in the nation) and average 7.0 yards per pass (47th in the nation). Both quarterbacks are also fairly nimble. Skinner rushed for only 16 yards on the season on 55 rushes, but when you consider that yards lost due to sacks are subtracted from rushing yardage, and his numbers are not in the red, it is a little more impressive. As an ardent observer of Wake Forest football, I can tell you that Skinner makes his best plays when he moves around within the pocket and buys time waiting for his receivers to come open. Lorenzen on the other hand gained over 300 yards (304) rushing on the season.

Connecticut has a better point differential (+111 to +59), better per game yardage differential (+12 per game to -16.5), and a better yards per play differential (+.1 per play to -.1 per play), all while playing a more difficult schedule. Both these teams are very close, and Wake is a slight Vegas favorite. Connecticut should be the slight Vegas favorite.

The Pick: Connecticut will cover the 2.5 point spread.

Liberty Bowl
Central Florida -3 Mississippi State

While the Bulldogs are certainly not the worst bowl team this season (that distinction likely belongs to Memphis or Nevada), they are the worst participant from a BCS conference. The Bulldogs gave up 29 more points than they scored on the season (2.4 per game), 432 more yards than they gained (36 per game), and averaged 4.5 yards per offensive play while allowing 5.0 yards per play on defense. All 5 of their losses were by at least 12 points, and the average margin in those defeats was 22.6 points. So how did the Bulldogs win 7 games and qualify for a bowl? Their opponents fell on their own swords. Prior to the season, most observers would have counted on 4 sure victories for the Bulldogs--home dates with UAB, Gardner-Webb, and Ole Miss, as well as a road game at Tulane. Mississippi State won those 4 games, but they also achieved 3 relatively unexpected victories--at Auburn, at Kentucky, and a home game against Alabama. Mississippi State was outgained by 110 yards in the Auburn game, but won 19-14 thanks to a +4 turnover margin. Mississippi State did outgain Kentucky by 33 yards, but won 31-14 thanks mostly to a +5 turnover margin. In the 17-12 win over Alabama, the Bulldogs were outgained by only 59 yards and were only +1 in turnover margin. However, one of the two passes they intercepted was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by defensive back Anthony Johnson to close the first half and change a possible 12-3 or 16-3 deficit into a 10-9 lead. This is not meant to denigrate the job Sylvester Croom has done in bringing the Bulldogs back to a bowl game for the first time since 2000. Rather it is to serve as a reminder that luck and random chance played a significant role in sending the Bulldogs to Shreveport.

Consider that Mississippi State ranked a woeful 112th in the nation in total offense, averaging only 305 yards per game. While freshman quarterback Wesley Carroll was an extreme improvement over Michael Henig, who began the season under center, the offense still managed to average only 5.8 yards per pass (113th in the nation) and compile a passer rating of 101.41 (117th in the nation). What Carroll gave the Bulldogs was an improvement from terrible to sub-par in accuracy (53.2% completion percentage for Carroll to 47.4% for Henig) and a knack for not throwing interceptions. Carroll threw only 6 interceptions in 237 pass attempts (2.5 per 100 passes), while Henig threw 9 in only 76 attempts (11.8 per 100 passes). Once the Bulldogs were able to take better care of the ball, they could rely on their defense (28th nationally in yards allowed per game) to keep them close and perhaps generate some luck to nab a few upsets.

The Bulldogs will need to follow that same formula against the Golden Knights because the Knights are clearly the superior team. As you may have heard, UCF is led by their junior running back Kevin Smith. Smith currently has 2448 yards and 29 touchdowns through 13 games. Smith's emergence as a star has also coincided with the rise of senior quarterback Kyle Israel (who is the chicken and who is the egg?). Israel split time last season with Steven Moffett and posted a better completion percentage (65.1% to 55.3%), yards per pass (8.6 to 6.4), and passer rating (142.82 to 117.09). In his first season as a full-time starter, Israel has continued his solid play, throwing 15 touchdowns to only 8 interceptions while completing nearly 60% of his throws (59.9%).

The Golden Knights also have a solid, if not spectacular defense. They intercepted 23 passes on the year (tied for most in the nation). They were also able to pressure opposing quarterbacks, generating 38 sacks (18th in the nation in sacks per game). While senior linemen Leger Douzable had 7.5 and freshman linebacker Bruce Miller had 7, the remaining 23.5 sacks were split among 13 players.

So can the Bulldogs contain Kevin Smith, or more accurately can we expect the Bulldogs to hold Smith in check? Smith's lone sub-par performance (his lone game under 100 yards or 4.00 yards per rush) came against South Florida. Mississippi State has a good defense, but they are not in the class of the Golden Bulls. The Bulldogs allowed over 200 yards rushing to West Virginia and Arkansas (understandable) as well as Tennessee and Ole Miss (somewhat understandable) and Auburn (inconceivable). Look for Smith to have a solid game (he won't get to 200 yards though) and the Golden Knights to win by two scores.

The Pick: Central Florida will cover the 3 point spread.

Alamo Bowl
Penn State -5.5 Texas A&M

The Nittany Lions are playing in their 3rd consecutive bowl game. That's quite a feat for Joe Pa and the boys considering in the 5-year span from 2000-2004, the Lions played in only one bowl game. Opposing the Nittany Lions are the Aggies from Texas A&M. The Aggies did beat their archrivals in Austin for the second straight year, but other than that victory, the season was a huge disappointment. The Aggies were beaten by perennial doormats (Kansas), perennial powers (Oklahoma), and former powers (Miami) alike. To be fair, 3 of their losses were to teams currently ranked in the top-10 (Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri). But, besides Texas, where is the marquee win? The last 2 and 4 of the past 6 Alamo Bowls have come down to the wire. Can the 2007 version continue this trend, or will the Nittany Lions roll over the Aggies?

In keeping with their recent success, Penn State is led by their defense. For the 4th consecutive year, and 5th time in the last 6 seasons, the Penn State defense allowed fewer than 20 points per game. Penn State sacked opposing passers 45 times in 12 games (2nd in the nation behind only Georgia Tech). That consistent pressure and the resulting lost yardage helped the Lions finish 6th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (88 per game). They also finished 9th in total yards allowed per game (307 per game). When they didn't bring opposing quarterbacks down, they were susceptible to the pass. They finished only a solid 44th in the nation in opponents' quarterback rating (119.11) and 41st in the nation in yards per pass attempt allowed (6.5).

Offensively, Penn State was a run-first team. Senior running back Rodney Kinlaw, who came into the season with just 226 yards rushing on 80 carries, toted the rock 222 times and gained 1186 yards. His backfield mate, senior quarterback Anthony Morelli, had a decent season, substantially improving upon his 2006 numbers, but still keeping Penn State out of the national championship picture with his erratic play. He improved his quarterback rating from 111.90 to 126.97, but this number still ranked only 61st among qualifying quarterbacks. On special teams, Penn State was pretty good at returning punts (ranking 34th in the nation punt return average), but only decent at returning kickoffs (ranking 60th in the nation in kickoff return average). However, they did not do a good job covering kickoffs, allowing over 26 yards per kickoff return (116th in the nation).

Texas A&M was also a run-first team. In fact with 538 rush attempts, they were 17th in the nation in total runs. They were pretty proficient when they ran too, averaging 4.81 yards per rush (21st in the nation) and gaining 215 yards per game (13th in the nation). Their leading rusher was actually quarterback Stephen McGee who gained 858 yards. Their thunder-n-lightning running back combo of Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson gained 746 and 646 yards respectively. McGee had a decent season throwing the ball, albeit a significant regression from 2006 when he threw only 2 interception, but the Aggies live and die with the running game.

Defensively, the Aggies had trouble pressuring opposing quarterbacks, generating only 18 sacks all season (96th in the nation). That lack of pressure allowed opposing quarterbacks to get very comfortable. They compiled a cumulative quarterback rating of 141.77 (100th in the nation), averaged 7.8 yards per pass (102nd in the nation), and had three times as many touchdown passes as interceptions (21-7).

So in the Alamo Bowl, we have a team with a decent offense and very good defense facing off against a team with a good offense and a bad defense. So Penn State wins right? Not so fast. The Lions main defensive strength was sacking the opposing quarterback. The Aggies allowed only 14 sacks all season (18th in the nation). The Aggies main weakness on defense was stopping the pass. Penn State has a decent passing game, but their attack is predicated on the run. Finally, Penn State struggles at covering kickoffs, while Texas A&M ranks 20th in the nation in average kickoff return. The Aggie offense will have a hard time running consistently against the Penn State linebackers, but look for them to bust a few big plays and win the field position battle with their special teams.

The Pick: Texas A&M will cover the 5.5 point spread.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bowl Appetit

Champs Sports Bowl
Boston College -3.5 Michigan State

The Eagles go for their 8th consecutive bowl victory while the Spartans are making only their 4th bowl appearance in the last decade. The Eagles had their sights set on a possible national championship as recently as the first weekend in November and a BCS bowl bid as recently as the first weekend in December. Unfortunately, the Eagles lost 3 of their last 5 games to finish with a still exemplary 10-3 record. Michigan State meanwhile sandwiched a 1-5 midseason lull around a 4-0 start and a 2-0 finish. Both schools are led by a pair of first-year head coaches--Jeff Jagodzinski at BC and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State--who look to cap their inaugural seasons with a bowl win.

As mentioned earlier, Boston College lost 3 of their last 5 after an impressive 8-0 start. The main reason? Turnover margin. In their first 8 games, the Eagles forced 23 turnovers while committing only 12 for a margin of +11. In their last 5 games, the Eagles forced only 5 turnovers while committing 13 for a margin of -8. Ah the fickleness of turnovers. The other aspects of the team, especially the offense, have been remarkable consistent. In their first 8 games, the offense averaged 438 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play. In the last 5 games, the offense has averaged 434 yards per game and 5.7 yards per play. The defense has played a little worse over the last 5 games (355 yards per game and 4.9 yards per play versus 316 yards per game and 4.4 yards per play over the first 8). However, included in those first 8 games, were contests against Notre Dame (119th in yards per game), NC State (97th), Wake Forest (98th), Virginia Tech (99th) and UMASS (non-Division IA). So the defensive stats were probably inflated a bit by the early season competition.

So what can we expect from BC in this game? The Eagles will rush the passer (27th in sacks per game) and protect Matt Ryan (30th in sacks allowed per game). As for Ryan, well he's a tad overrated, finishing only 57th among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating. One spot above Chase Clement (you don't know he plays for Rice) and one spot below Matthew Stafford (you know he plays for Georgia). The real strength of the BC passing game is that they spread the ball around. 4 players had at least 50 catches (5 had at least 44) and 5 players had at least 500 yards receiving.

And what of the men of Sparta? It appeared not much had changed 10 games into this season. In a season eerily similar to most of John L. Smith's debacles, the Spartans squandered a hot start and stood only 5-5. They rebounded to win their last 2 games (against bowl teams Purdue and Penn State) to finish with 7 wins. All 5 of the Spartans losses were by 7 points or less and they were only 2-5 in one-score games. All the Spartans' losses were to teams that finished bowl-eligible, and with the exception of the loss to Northwestern, all the losses were respectable. The Spartans get things done on the ground. After losing senior quarterback Drew Stanton following the 2006 season, the Spartans decided to pound Javon Ringer early and often in 2007. Ringer responded with 1346 yards while averaging over 6 yards per rush. As a team, the Spartans finished 22nd in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging 200 per contest. Quarterback Brian Hoyer also played well in hist first season as a starter. Hoyer had fewer touchdowns (28-18) and yards (4258-2594), but he also had fewer interceptions (7-18), a higher completion percentage (61.5%-60.3%), more yards per pass (7.6-7.0) and a higher quarterback rating (138.90-128.52) than the more publicized Ryan. The Spartans did have some trouble protecting the passer, finishing 93rd in the nation in sacks allowed per game. That was the only thing the Spartans did not do well on offense.

Despite allowing all those sacks, the Spartans returned the favor on defense. The Spartans accumulated 3 sacks per game, good for 13th in the nation. They finished 40th in the nation in total defense, allowing 351 yards per game. That is only 20 more yards per game than the Eagles allowed, and the Spartans' schedule was at worst a shade tougher.

One final matchup to watch is the Eagles kickoff coverage against the Spartans kickoff return game. BC allowed only a shade over 17 yards per kickoff return (4th in the nation), while the Spartans averaged over 24 yards per kickoff return (9th in the nation). Interestingly though, the Spartans did not return a kickoff for a touchdown, making them the only team in the top 10 in kickoff returns to not house a kickoff.

Boston College buoyed their early season record and ranking by creating a ton of turnovers and simply not losing while others around them fell. In the last third of the season, those turnovers have dried up and the team has struggled. Michigan State only lost 13 turnovers all season (3rd in the nation), so there is a great chance they will not beat themselves. Look for Michigan State to upset the Eagles and turn their sights toward a bigger bowl game next season.

The Pick: Michigan State will cover the 3.5 point spread.

Texas Bowl
TCU -4 Houston

It's fitting that the eponymous bowl played in Houston, Texas would not only feature two teams from the state of Texas, but also one from the city of Houston. This is one of two bowl games on the NFL Network, so cable subscribers should either visit your friends with satellites, seek refuge at a sports pub, or watch Numb3rs.

TCU began the 2007 with dreams of a Mountain West title, and if things broke right, perhaps a spot in the BCS. The Horned Frogs lost 2 of their first 3 games, and after 10 games stood only 5-5. They did close the season by besting UNLV and San Diego State to finish 7-5 (4-4 in Mountain West play). However, it should be noted that 4 of TCU's 5 losses were by 7 points or fewer (combined 18 points). The lone loss by more than 7 points was at Texas (lost 34-13). Furthermore, 4 of their 5 losses were to bowl teams. Their defeat at Wyoming marked the only time they lost to a team with fewer than 8 regular season wins (5-7 record). On the flip-side of that logic, the Horned Frogs only managed to defeat one team that finished with a winning record. That win was a 37-0 trouncing of New Mexico (finished 8-4 in the regular season). As has long been the case under Gary Patterson, the Frogs won their games with fantastic defense. They finished 13th in the nation with 3 sacks per game, 16th in the nation in yards allowed per game (320 per), and 9th in the nation in opponents' quarterback rating (104.91). They were also very adept at returning punts, ranking 19th in the nation with an average of 12.79 yards per return.

The offense, or lack thereof, was the reason TCU did not live up to preseason expectations. In 2006 senior quarterback Jeff Ballard posted a quarterback rating of 138.11 and helped the Frogs average 408 yards per game (17th in the nation). His replacement(s) sophomore Marcus Jackson and freshman Andy Dalton (who received most of the playing time as the season wore on) only managed a cumulative passer rating of 116.22 and the offense dipped to 388 yards per game (64th in the nation).

The Houston Cougars meanwhile are the mirror image of their Texas brethren. They score points aplenty, but have trouble stopping their opponents. Despite losing quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cougars kept humming along under Art Briles' offense. Behind the two-headed quarterback monster of Case Keenum and Blake Joseph, they actually averaged a shade over 3 more points per game in 2007 than they did in 2006. Of course, a lot of that is due to senior running back (converted wide receiver) Anthony Alridge. Alridge had only 95 rushes in 2006, but still gained nearly 1000 yards (959) by averaging an unholy 10.09 yards per rush. He was featured more prominently in the offense in 2007, getting 244 rushes. His yards per rush did drop precipitously to a merely outstanding 6.43. Alridge stayed somewhat true to his wide out roots by catching 41 passes for 424 yards and 5 touchdowns. 4 Houston players had at least 40 catches, headlined by senior Donnie Avery who caught 81 passes for 1336 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Cougars finished around the middle of the pack allowing 366 yards per game (49th in the nation). That number belies how poor the Cougars were at stopping the pass. Opposing quarterbacks finished with a cumulative rating of 131.68 (78th in the nation) and averaged 7.5 yards per pass (87th in the nation). The interesting facet about the Cougars pass defense is that they allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only 50.6% of their passes (4th in the nation), yet they allowed a ton of big plays, permitting 14.76 yards per completion (118th in the nation).

TCU's defense will contain the vaunted Houston attack and their offense will do just enough to pull the game out. Look for the TCU offense to hit some big plays against the Houston secondary.

The Pick: TCU will cover the 4 point spread.

Emerald Bowl
Oregon State -5 Maryland

For some reason this bowl game reminds me of the Chaos Emeralds from the Sega Genesis Sonic games. Hopefully the trophy looks something like the above picture. Both these teams lived charmed lives in 2006. Oregon State went 5-1 in games decided by 7 points or less, including winning their last 3 games by a combined 6 points en route to a 10-4 finish. Maryland meanwhile went 6-1 in games decided by 7 points or less. They had a 5-game winning streak where their total margin of victory was 13 points. Needless to say, both teams looked like they were in for long seasons due to regression and the loss of a pair of senior quarterbacks--Matt Moore for Oregon State and Sam Hollenbach for Maryland. Oregon State began the season 2-3, being outscored by 52 points by D-IA competition in that span. They rallied to win 6 of their last 7, with the lone loss coming at Southern Cal. They held on to the rabbit's foot too, finishing 3-0 in one-score games. On the flip side, Maryland started strong (4-2 with one of the losses to West Virginia), but then lost 4 of 5 to stand at 5-6 heading into the finale at NC State. Their good fortune in close games had eluded them as they were only 2-4 in one-score games. The Terps crushed State on the Pack's homefield winning 37-0 and outgaining the Pack by over 200 yards to finish bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.

The Beavers are led by their defense. Their pass rush is outstanding. They accumulated 41 sacks on the season, finishing 4th in the nation in sacks per game. The majority of those sacks (33 of 41) were by defensive linemen, meaning the Beavers don't have to use fancy blitzes or schemes to get pressure on the quarterback. Led by Victor Butler and Slade Norris (18.5 sacks between them), the front four has become very acquainted with opposing quarterbacks. All that pressure has enabled the secondary to limit opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of only 115.27 (30th in the nation) and pick off 20 passes (8th in the nation). All those sacks also boost the rush defense ranking, since sacks are counted as lost rushing yards in college. The Beavers allowed an NCAA best 2.13 yards per rush, and were second in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (75 per). Aiding and abetting the Beaver defense was their kick coverage. They ranked 6th in the nation in opponents' punt return average (4.88 yards per return) and 8th in the nation in opponents' kickoff return average (17.97 yards per return).

As good as their pass defense was, the pass offense was that bad. Neither Sean Canfield nor more recently Lyle Moevao were very efficient. In fact as a team, Oregon State ranks 114th in the nation in quarterback rating (104.03), 107th in yards per pass (5.9 per attempt), 113th in touchdown passes (10), and 111th in interceptions thrown (20). Part of the problem is that fine receiver Sammie Stroughter has not played since the 4th game, but another part is frankly, Canfield and Moevao kinda suck. What little the Beavers do well on offense, is limited to running the football. Yvenson Bernard had a solid, if not outstanding senior season, gaining 1037 yards and averaging 4.38 yards per rush.

Maryland does not do anything particularly well, they rank 88th in total offense (actually worse than Oregon State) and 42nd in total defense, or particularly poorly, except...gulp...give up sacks. Maryland allowed 35 sacks on the year, good (or bad) for 106th in the nation in terms of sacks per game. If your short term memory is fading, getting to the quarterback is Oregon State's biggest strength. Ralph Friedgen has a pretty good track record of coaching in bowl games, winning his last 3 by a combined score of 95-17. The Terps have also shown an ability to beat good teams, knocking off Rutgers in New Jersey, taking care of Boston College at home, and the aforementioned beatdown of NC State. However, they also lost at North Carolina, at Florida State, and at home against Virginia. In a precarious pick give me the Beavers.

The Pick: Oregon State will cover the 5 point spread.