Monday, December 28, 2009

Bowl Preview II

Hope your holidays are treating you right, and I hope you've had the opportunity to catch at least a smattering of football in between meals and parties. Here now, is part deux of our little preview. Once again, your best bowl bets have asterisks and bold print. This preview covers games up through January 2nd.

Humanitarian Bowl
December 30
Bowling Green vs Idaho
Bowling Green -1
The Vandals from Idaho, had won 3 games in the first 2 seasons of head coach Robb Akey's tenure. They more than doubled that number this season, going 7-5 and qualifying for their 2nd ever bowl game and first since 1998. The Vandals also played in the Humanitarian Bowl that season and won as huge underdogs against Southern Miss. 2009 was a tale of 2 seasons for the Vandals. They began the season 6-1, with their lone loss coming at Washington. However, the schedule toughened up over the second half and the Vandals lost 4 of 5 with their lone win coming by a single point over Louisiana Tech. The offense actually improved over the second half of the season, as the Vandals averaged 494 yards per game in their last 5 after averaging 420 yards per game in their first 7. The defense on the other hand, was a different story. After allowing 364 yards per game through their 6-1 start, the Vandals allowed 509 yards per game in their 2nd half swoon. All told, the Vandals finished 8th in the conference in defense (ahead of only New Mexico State). It should also be noted that the WAC is not exactly known for its defensive acumen. Over in Ohio, Bowling Green followed a similar script en route to a 6-2 finish in the MAC. The Falcons, under first year coach Dave Clawson finished 11th in the 13-team MAC in defense, but made up for it by finishing 4th in offense. The amazing thing is last season, the team's strength were exactly the opposite as the Falcons boasted the 9th ranked offense, but 2nd ranked defense. Go figure that wacky MAC. The Falcons offense is centered around their explosive passing attack. With a great game, senior quarterback Tyler Sheehan could leave as the school's all-time leading passer (he needs 551 yards to reach the precipice). The Falcons also boast the nation's leading receiver (in terms of catches) in fellow senior Freddie Barnes. Barnes has 138 catches on the season, after catching 143 passes in his first 3 years at the school. This should be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season featuring 2 teams with very good offenses, but lackluster defenses. If you're itching to make a play, take Bowling Green or have a look at the over (currently sitting at 68.5), but don't sink too much into this one.

*Holiday Bowl*
December 30
Arizona vs Nebraska
Arizona -1.5
Nebraska very nearly turned the BCS upside down and allowed an unsung interloper (either Cincinnati or TCU) to waltz into the title game. Alas, the officials put time back on the clock and Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence made a clutch kick to send the Longhorns to Pasadena. While Nebraska deserves all the credit in the world for hanging with the Horns, its clear their offense is one of the worst in the nation. With Joe Ganz at the helm last season, Nebraska boasted the 3rd best offense in the Big 12, and the top-ranked unit in the North. This season, Nebraska finished dead last in the Big 12 in offense. That's right, even behind Colorado. While the Buffs may have their numbers inflated by playing the worst defense in the Big 12 (Texas A&M), while Nebraska drew the best defense in one of their games against the South (Oklahoma), its accurate to say Nebraska was awful on offense. They did make up for it by featuring a stout defense that finished 2nd in the league. However, it was easy to see the team's shortcomings in the Big 12 Championship Game. Nebraska gained 106 yards over the course of the game and nearly won! That continued a season long trend. In 5 of their 6 Big 12 wins, Nebraska gained under 300 yards, pinning their hopes for victory entirely on the defense. The defense obliged more often than not, but that's usually not a winning strategy. A little further west, Arizona will be making their 2nd straight bowl appearance after taking a decade off. If the ball had bounced their way a few more times, the Wildcats could be playing in Pasadena on New Year's Day. They'll have to settle for their biggest bowl game in 11 years. Arizona was extremely balanced this season, finishing 4th in the Pac-10 in offense and 3rd in defense. Half of Arizona's losses this season came to teams currently ranked in the top-10 (Oregon and Iowa). The Wildcats are much better than you think and have steadily improved in each of Mike Stoops' 6 seasons as coach. Arizona should be favored by about 3 or 4 points, so getting them at nearly a pick 'em makes this one of your best bets of the bowl season.

Armed Forces Bowl
December 31
Houston vs Air Force
Houston -4.5
This is the rubber game in the historic Air Force/Houston rivalry. After never having played before last season, this is the 3rd meeting between these teams in 15 months. Air Force won the first game in September 2008 by 3. Houston won the bowl game last December by 6. For Air Force, this is their 3rd consecutive appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl. They dropped their first game to Cal and then fell to Houston as previously mentioned. In fact, the Falcons are seeking their first bowl victory since 2000. The Falcons were solidly the 4th best team in the Mountain West, behind the hydra of mid-major powers at the top of the league (BYU, TCU, and Utah). The Falcons managed only a 5th place finish in offense, but made up for it by fielding the best defense in the league this side of TCU. The Falcons also won the turnover battle quite handily, going +13 in the Mountain West play (tops in the league). The Falcons throw so few passes (139 attempts was more than only Navy) that interceptions are rare (only 3 all season). The Falcons are not a flashy team, but like their brethren at the Naval Academy, they win by not making mistakes. Meanwhile, the Houston Cougars win by outscoring their opponents. The Cougars finished number one in Conference USA in offense (by a large margin), but finished second to last in defense (ahead of only Memphis). Their lapses on defense cost them in games against UTEP and UCF which the Cougars lost despite scoring 41 and 32 points respectively. Their defense also let them down in the Conference USA Championship Game which they also lost despite scoring 32 points (4 turnovers did not help). The Falcons will be able to move the ball against the generous Cougar defense, but I don't think they will be able to score enough to actually win the game. Still, Houston is no stranger to failing as a favorite, particularly away from home. In addition to the 3 games already highlighted, the Cougars also needed an onside kick recovery to beat a bad Tulsa team by a point away from home. Astute wagerers will want no part of this game.

Sun Bowl
December 31
Oklahoma vs Stanford
Oklahoma -8
Oklahoma is a team that most computer rankings still regard rather highly despite their 7-5 record. This is because all their losses, save the Texas Tech game, were close. The Sooners lost to BYU, Miami, Texas, and Nebraska by a combined 12 points. In addition to the closeness of the losses, each loss, again save for the Tech game, came against teams currently ranked in the top-20. The Sooners also balanced their close losses with huge wins. They beat Tulsa by 45, Baylor by 26, Kansas by 22, Kansas State by 12, Texas A&M by 55, and Oklahoma State by 27. On a down by down basis, the Sooners were again amongst the best teams in the Big 12. They finished 3rd in the league in offense and boasted the league's number one defense. The Sooners did have interesting home/road splits though. In their 4 Big 12 home games, they averaged 513 yards per game. In their 3 Big 12 road games, they averaged 324 yards per game. The Sooners defense yielded 242 yards per game in their Big 12 home games and 345 in their Big 12 road games. Part of this difference is due to schedule strength. The Sooners faced Baylor and Texas A&M in half of their league home games, the 2 worst defenses in the league. On the road, the Sooners had to tangle with the best offense in the league, Texas Tech. Of course, they also got to deal with the league's worst offense (Nebraska) on the road, and while the Aggies from Texas A&M did have a deplorable defense, they also had an offense that finished 2nd in the league. The Sooners appear to be an extremely different team away from Norman. Unfortunately for the Sooners, this game is played in El Paso. Stanford put together a solid season and was actually in contention for the Rose Bowl until a late loss to Cal sealed their fate. Behind running back (and Heisman candidate) Toby Gerhart and freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal posted the 2nd best offense in the Pac-10 (behind only Oregon). They did have issues on defense, finishing 8th in that category, but the end result is the most wins (and first bowl bid) for the program since 2001. Obviously, I'm inclined to agree with the computers on the relative strength of Oklahoma. That being said, they do appear to be a far different (worse) team away from Norman. 8 points is entirely too much to lay against a solid Stanford team. Enjoy the Sun Bowl and save your money for better games.

Texas Bowl
December 31
Missouri vs Navy
Missouri -6.5
After losing so many key skill players from a team that had won consecutive Big 12 North titles, the Missouri Tigers figured to take a step back in 2008. It turns out, that step wasn't was far as many observers predicted. The Tigers overcame an 0-3 start in league play to win 4 of their last 5 and finish with a .500 or better conference record for the 5th consecutive season. The Tigers also finished 4-1 against teams from their division making them 13-2 against North teams since 2007. Behind sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the nation's leading receiver (in yards), Danario Alexander, the Tigers remained near the top of the league in offense, finishing 4th. The defense was only 7th in the league, but a little regression was to be expected with the team breaking in 7 new starters. Methinks its time to start mentioning Gary Pinkel as one of the more underrated coaches in college football. Missouri's opponent, the Naval Academy will be making their 7th consecutive bowl appearance, an unthinkable accomplishment at the beginning of the decade when the Midshipmen were 3-30 from 2000-2002. This season's incarnation of the Naval Academy has their strength on the defensive side of the ball. Navy is currently allowing just 334 yards per game, the best defensive numbers they have posted since their run began in 2003. That's a good thing as the offense is posting its worst output (344 yards per game) since the Midshipmen returned to the ranks of the college football living. The Missouri Tigers have far more talent than the Naval Academy, but so did Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and Ohio State, teams the Midshipmen either beat or played very close. Missouri will probably win this game, but I wouldn't feel comfortable playing this game unless the line were below a field goal.

Insight Bowl
December 31
Minnesota vs Iowa State
Minnesota -2.5
When people float the opinion that there are too many bowl games, this matchup serves as their ammunition. This game features what are likely the 2 worst bowl participants from BCS conferences. Both teams went 3-5 in their respective leagues, and neither masked that poor record with a solid underlying performance. The Gophers from Minnesota finished dead last in offense in the Big 10 for the second consecutive season. They averaged a feeble 2.9 yards per rush. That's a far cry from the fantastic running game the Gophers consistently fielded under Glen Mason. The Gophers didn't play defense particularly well either, finishing 7th in the Big 10 in that category. Don't feel sorry for Minnesota though. When a no-account program fired the best coach they've had in a half-century, well they got what was coming to them. Meanwhile, in Ames, Iowa, the Cyclones got rid of a no-account coach and are now going to their first bowl game since 2005. Only a crazy man, or super-genius, would have predicted that in the offseason. Paul Rhoads is the first coach in Cyclone history to lead Iowa State to a bowl game in his maiden voyage. In one season, Rhoads surpassed his predecessor's (Gene Chizik) wins at the school (5) and conference wins (2). Seems he should be in line for the Alabama job now right? While the Cyclones were a great story, and a team I will certainly be rooting for in bowl season, they did not really play any better than they did last season. The Cyclones finished 8th in the Big 12 in offense both seasons and 10th in defense both season. Their winless league campaign in 2008 was the result of bad luck in close games (0-3 in one-score league games), a poor turnover margin (-2 in league play), and probably a dose of bad coaching (as you can probably guess, I'm not a huge Chizik fan--at least as a head coach). This season, the Cyclones were 2-2 in one-score conference games and their in-conference turnover margin of +8 was second only to Texas. Oh, and Chizik is no longer the coach. As I said before, I'll be rooting hard for the Cyclones in this game. However, rooting does not equate wagering. Don't put a dime on this game wither way.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
December 31
Virginia Tech vs Tennessee
Virginia Tech -4.5
The Virginia Tech Hokies look to become the first ACC team to win the bowl formerly known as the Peach since 2003 when Clemson beat...wait for it...Tennessee. Speaking of the Vols, they improved from 3-5 in the SEC in Phil Fulmer's last season to 4-4 in Lane Kiffin's first (controversy-filled) season thanks to improvement on offense. In 2008, the Vols featured the 2nd worst offense in the SEC (ahead of only Mississippi State). In 2009, they improved and finished in the middle of the pack (6th in the SEC). However, the team failed to contend for the SEC East title thanks to the decline of the defense. Last season under John Chavis, the Vols finished number one in the entire SEC in defense. This season, with Kiffin's father Monty coordinating the defense, the Vols fell to the middle of the pack (6th in the SEC). Perhaps Kiffin's charges had a hard time adjusting to a more pro-style coach and a more pro-style defense. Still, Tennessee's defense was nowhere near as strong as it was in 2008. Meanwhile, for Virginia Tech, it was business as usual. Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokies have finished either 1st or 2nd in the conference in defense. 2009 marked their 2nd consecutive finish as the top of the league in defense. The offense was not fantastic, but it was above-average (5th in the ACC) and marked a stark improvement from 2008 when they were only 10th in the ACC. This may be one of the better games of the bowl season. Tennessee is probably a little better than their 7-5 record as they were only 1-3 in one-score game. A little better luck, and they could be heading into the bowl with a shot at 10 wins. The difference in this game (shocker) could come down to special teams. The Hokies scored 3 touchdowns on special teams this season and they allowed none. The Vols scored none and allowed 2. The Hokies will probably win this game, but this spread is too high to make any wagers.

Outback Bowl
January 1
Auburn vs Northwestern
Auburn -7.5
After stumbling through a lackluster 5-7 season in 2008 when they struggled moving the football (finishing 9th in the SEC in offense), the Auburn Tigers hired Gus Malzahn as their offensive coordinator. The team immediately improved to 3rd in the league in offense and, especially early on, looked to be unstoppable. Unfortunately, the defense, which showed flashes of awfulness in the early season win over West Virginia (the Tigers won despite allowing 509 yards of total offense to the Mountaineers), ultimately proved to be the team's undoing, as they finished 8th in the SEC. The Tigers also struggled on the road, winning only once in 4 tries. The Tigers will take on a Northwestern team making their second consecutive bowl appearance. The Wildcats went 47 seasons between their first bowl appearance in 1948 and their second in 1995. This Outback Bowl will mark their 7th bowl appearance in the past 15 seasons, an unthinkable notion at the dawn of the 1990's. By some measures, the Wildcats appear to be a solid team coming out of the Big 10. They finished 3rd in the league in offense and 4th in defense. However, the Wildcats finished 6-1 in one-score games, meaning their margin for error is razor thin. Only 2 of their 8 wins came against bowl teams (Iowa and Wisconsin). They also lost to Syracuse in the non-conference season and barely outlasted winless Eastern Michigan by 3 points. Their SEC pedigree and scoring margin would suggest Auburn will have an easy go of it on New Year's Day. However, trust Gene Chizik at your own peril. Were I a betting man, I'd be inclined to take the Wildcats and the points.

Capital One Bowl
January 1
Penn St vs LSU
Penn St -2.5
Despite losing to both Iowa and Ohio State (at home no less), Penn State rated out as better than the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes thanks to possessing the top-ranked offense in the Big 10 and 3rd best defense. Outside of those 2 teams, Penn State played only 3 additional bowl squads (Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan State). The Nittany Lions crushed all those teams, but neither of the 3 are elite. Despite posting the best offense in the Big 10, Joe Pa's charges were held in check against the 2 best defenses they faced--Iowa and Ohio State. The Nittany Lions netted only 307 yards against Iowa and a putrid 201 yards against Ohio State. They also scored 17 total points in those 2 games. LSU is solid on defense, but by SEC standards, they were hardly elite in 2009. The Tigers finished 5th in the SEC in defense and an unbelievable 11th in offense (ahead of only Vanderbilt). The Tigers boosted their record by going 5-1 in one-score games and scoring 4 non-offensive touchdowns that provided the winning margin in 3 of those one-score games. I would look for this game to be a very low-scoring defensive struggle, but take either of these teams to cover at your own risk.

Gator Bowl
January 1
West Virginia vs Florida St
West Virginia -3
Bobby Bowden's last game as coach of Florida State will be against the team he coached for 6 seasons in the 1970's. Bowden won 42 games in 6 seasons at West Virginia and led the Mountaineers to 2 bowl games. He moved on to Tallahassee and has become one of the most successful coaches of all time. His career has not concluded as he would have liked as his Seminoles have lost more games this decade (44) than they lost in the 80's and 90's combined (41). Some folks have been complaining that the Seminoles at 6-6 did not deserve a bid to a bowl as prestigious as the Gator Bowl. True, it may have required some back room dealing, but in reality, if you aren't playing in the BCS National Championship Game, you're really only playing in a glorified exhibition. The Gator Bowl did what they had to do to sell tickets and manufacture a television audience. As for the game itself, Florida State comes in with the dubious distinction of having the best offense in the ACC and the worst defense in the conference. The problems on the defensive side of the ball led to the resignation of long-time Bowden lieutenant Mickey Andrews who will also be coaching his last game in the Gator Bowl. As for West Virginia, they were about average within the Big East on both sides of the ball, finishing 4th in the conference in offense and 3rd in defense. The Mountaineers should be able to move the ball consistently against the Seminole defense, but don't be surprised if Florida State picks up chunks of yardage as well. If you're must make a selection on this game, take the Seminoles on the moneyline as a victory here is a real possibility.

Rose Bowl
January 1
Oregon vs Ohio St
Oregon -3.5
After opening the season with a pair of lackluster performances (the shellacking at Boise and then a tight 2-point home win over Purdue where the Ducks scored 2 defensive touchdowns), Oregon rebounded to win the Pac-10. In the process, Oregon posted both the league's best offense and defense. Their lone defeat within the league was a 9-point setback at Stanford that begat Toby Gerhart's near successful Heisman campaign. Statistically, the Ducks were the best team in the Pac-10, but they were also somewhat fortunate to end up 10-2. They were 4-0 in one-score games (including their last 2 games of the regular season when they upended fellow contenders Arizona and Oregon State by a combined 7 points) and they scored 6 non-offensive touchdowns. The Ducks will be matching up against the Ohio State Buckeyes who finished with at least a share of the Big 10 title for the 5th consecutive season. Ohio State boasted the league's best defense, but even with Terrelle Pryor under center, finished a distant 8th in the Big 10 in offense. It seems patently unfair for a quarterback of Pryor's talents to be hamstrung under such an ancient offensive system as that run by Jim Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. Ohio State won games this season as they always have under Tressel, by utilizing a great defense, winning the turnover margin (Buckeyes were tops in the Big 10 at +12 in league play), and scoring on defense and special teams (5 non-offensive touchdowns). Ohio State is a team I never want to take a favorite as they seem content to win by the thinnest of margins, but as a dog they are an enticing play. The Buckeyes have covered in their 2 games as underdogs this season (vs Southern Cal and at Penn State) and covering a 3rd time would not surprise me. Still, there are much better values on the board than laying any cash on this game.

Sugar Bowl
January 1
Florida vs Cincinnati
Florida -11.5
Now before you go laying this month's mortgage on the Gators to cover this large number, let me point out a few things. Since the start of the 2005 bowl season, double digit favorites are 5-14 against the spread (including 0-2 this postseason). Those favorites are a somewhat solid 12-7 straight up (including 0-2 this postseason), but its clear, the dog has been the way to go in games like this one. The Bearcats will have a hard time stopping Florida (they finished as the 4th best defense in the Big East), but they will probably be able to mount a few drives of their own (number one offense in the Big East) even sans Brian Kelly. Plus, its not as if Florida doesn't have some coaching controversy of their own as you may have heard. And another thing, it was just 2 years to the day when the Gators were poised to destroy a team from the mid-west as double digit favorites. In fact, that mid-western team had lost to Appalachian State earlier in the year. However, that team from the mid-west not only covered, but they beat the Gators straight up. I'm not saying Cincinnati has what it takes to win this game, just that it will probably be a lot closer than you imagined.

International Bowl
January 2
South Florida vs Northern Illinois
South Florida -7
Thank goodness for the Bulls this game is played indoors. After once again harboring conference title and BCS bowl aspirations in late September, the Bulls staggered to the finish line and will have to settle for a nondescript bowl bid. Since joining the Big East in 2005, the Bulls are 19-3 in games played in August or September. In that same span, the Bulls are 20-21 in games played in October, November, December, and January. Of course, the August and September slate includes games against overmatched non-conference opponents, but playing in the Big East may afford the Bulls a climate disadvantage compared to other teams from Florida. Consider the 3 other major programs in Florida (Florida, Florida State, and Miami) all play in southern leagues. Miami and Florida State could potentially have to travel to Boston College, Maryland, Virginia, or Virginia Tech in October or November games. Florida could potentially have to travel as far north as Arkansas, Tennessee or Kentucky. However, the Bulls can go as far north as Rutgers (New Jersey), West Virgina, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Louisville (Kentucky). Plus, since their schedule only includes 7 conference games, those contests usually all fall later in the season. In the offseason, I plan on taking a more comprehensive look at South Florida's performance outdoors in the cold. Back to this game. South Florida was thoroughly mediocre in the Big East. They finished 5th in the conference in both offense and defense, and outside of a home win over West Virginia (3rd in their last 4 games with the Mountaineers) only managed to defeat the dregs of the conference (Syracuse and Louisville). Northern Illinois is playing in their second bowl game in a row under coach Jerry Kill, who took the reigns prior to the 2008 season. Kill was successful at previous stops at Saginaw Valley State and Southern Illinois where he posted a combined 93-46 record. Kill's defenses have been particularly good at Northern Illinois thus far, leading the MAC in defense in both 2008 and 2009. The offense has improved slightly, finishing 10th last season and 8th this year. With the departures of quarterback Dan LeFevour and coach Butch Jones at Central Michigan, Kill may be poised to lead the Huskies to a MAC title next season. In the interim, don't be surprised if his charges give the Bulls at lot of trouble in the early afternoon hours of January 2nd. The Bulls certainly have better athletes than the Huskies, but the coaching prowess of Kill may be enough to keep the Huskies in this one.

Papa Johns Bowl
January 2
South Carolina vs Connecticut
South Carolina -4.5
One season after finishing with the best defense in the Big East and an offense that struggled throwing the football, Connecticut had the best offense in the Big East this side of Cincinnati, but the worst defense in the entire conference. With a decent game from running back Andre Dixon (967 rush yards on the season), the Huskies will have 2 backs top the 1000-yard mark. Dixon and Jordan Todman have combined for over 2100 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground. While the Huskies may well boast 2 1000-yard rushers by games end, South Carolina has not had one since 2000! The Gamecocks do boast a strong defense (4th in the SEC behind the behemoths at Florida and Alabama and the surprisingly strong defense from the Rebels at Ole Miss) and perhaps the best quarterback in Spurrier's tenure at the school in Stephen Garcia. While Garcia struggled somewhat with accuracy (completing only 56.6% of his passes), he did a good job of avoiding turnovers, throwing only 9 interceptions all season. South Carolina is far from a polished offensive unit, but they should be able to move the ball against the weak Connecticut defense. I will be fortunate enough to watch this game in person, and while some may be tempted to lay a few dollars on the Gamecocks, I would strongly caution against it. The Gamecocks have allowed at least 31 points in each of their 3 bowl games under Spurrier. If Connecticut gets to that number, the Gamecocks probably will not cover.

Cotton Bowl
January 2
Ole Miss vs Oklahoma State
Ole Miss -3
The Rebels from Ole Miss were somewhat of a disappointment this season, finishing with only 4 league wins, just a year removed from an out of nowhere 5-win conference campaign. Last season, the Rebels were statistically the 3rd best team in the conference, behind both Alabama and Florida. This season, the Rebels were once again the 3rd best team in the conference behind both Alabama and Florida. What was the big difference? Turnovers. Last season Ole Miss passers threw 10 interceptions in league play (9 by quarterback Jevan Snead and 1 by running back Dexter McCluster). The Rebels also lost 7 fumbles against SEC foes for a total of 17 turnovers. This season, Snead upped his total to 15 interceptions in league play and the Rebels lost 5 fumbles for 20 total turnovers in SEC play. However, in 2008, the Rebels forced 16 turnovers (10 interceptions and 6 fumbles) for a net turnover margin of -1, hardly devastating. In 2009, the Rebels only forced 7 turnovers in SEC play (3 interceptions and 4 fumbles) for a net turnover margin of -13. That number is devastating, and is the biggest reason Ole Miss failed to live up to the preseason hype. While 2009 was disappointing for Ole Miss, it was bittersweet for Oklahoma State. After finishing with above-average Big 12 offenses for 3 straight seasons and below average defenses for even longer, the Cowboys finally fielded a solid defense (4th in the Big 12) only to have their offense, through injuries and suspensions let them down (7th in the Big 12). The Cowboys still had an outside shot at an at-large BCS bid until they were shutout by Oklahoma in the regular season finale. Even with that bitter defeat, the Cowboys have a chance at 10 wins for the first time since 1988. This rematch of the 2003 Cotton Bowl (Eli Manning's last college game) seems pretty evenly matched. If Ole Miss can actually create some turnovers in this game, instead of just giving the ball away, they should walk out of Dallas with their second straight Cotton Bowl win.

Liberty Bowl
January 2
Arkansas vs East Carolina
Arkansas -8
Exactly 4 weeks to the day after winning the Conference USA Championship against a team with a great offense and a lousy defense, the Pirates from East Carolina will match up with another team with a great offense and a lousy defense. The Razorbacks from Arkansas finished 2nd in the SEC in offense (behind only Ole Miss), but failed to contend in the SEC West thanks to a defense that ranked dead last in the conference. Bobby Petrino's prolific passing attack scored at least 30 points in 9 of their 12 games and was only held in check by Alabama (7 points), Florida (20 points), and Ole Miss (17 points). East Carolina was good on defense, finishing 2nd in Conference USA, but a good defense in Conference USA is usually a lot different from a good defense in the SEC. Thankfully for the Pirates, they did field their best offense yet under Skip Holtz (5th in Conference USA). East Carolina will probably need to score at least 35 points and finish at least +3 in turnover margin to win this game. Stranger things have happened, and while I think Arkansas will win this game, I don't know that they can cover this number.

Alamo Bowl
January 2
Texas Tech vs Michigan State
Texas Tech -8.5
Texas Tech did what they always do under Mike Leach. They finished 1st in the Big 12 in offense and 5th in defense. They yacked up one game you didn't expect them to (Texas A&M), but they made up for it by pulling off at least one upset (Oklahoma). Michigan State had a good run of back luck, finishing 2-5 in one-score games, including 3 straight such defeats beginning against Central Michigan. Michigan State was solid on offense, finishing 4th in the Big 10, but they had issues on defense finishing 8th. Michigan State only lost one game all season by more than 8 points, but it came against the only very good team they played--Penn State. The Spartans beat one bowl team all season--Northwestern. This one has all the trappings of a Texas Tech blowout. If the spread was under a touchdown, I'd be all over the Red Raiders. As it is, the Red Raiders may be a good play, but the size of the line has scared me off.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bowl Preview I

It's that time of year once again. The time when a pair of 6-6 teams travel to exotic locales to battle it out in glorified exhibition games. But don't forget, these next 2 and a half weeks of football are all we have 'til next September. Enjoy 'em while you can. Here at statistically speaking, I'll be previewing all 34 bowl games in the coming days and offering you dear reader, just a little insight. I'll also offer my best bowl bets for those of you who want to make this holiday season a little more interesting. Those games will have an asterisk placed beside them and the bowl name will be in bold so you don't miss 'em. Let's get right down to the preview of the first set of games (up to December 30th). And one more thing, all rankings listed below consider conference games only.

New Mexico Bowl
December 19
Fresno State vs Wyoming
Fresno State -11.5
The first bowl game of the season matches up a solid mid-major team still coasting on their rep from earlier this decade (really, Fresno has not beaten a BCS-conference opponent that finished with more than 8 wins since their epic upset of Colorado in 01) against perhaps the worst bowl team of this year. I don't mean to bad mouth Wyoming, but really the 'Pokes have not been adept at anything this year except winning close games against bad teams. 3 of their 4 total league wins came by a combined 7 points. Outside the conference, they beat Florida Atlantic by 2 and IAA Weber State by 7. After finishing 8th in the Mountain West in offense last season, the 'Pokes dropped to 9th (or dead last) this year. They were shut out thrice and held to 10 points thrice more. The 'Pokes quadrupled their league win total from 2008 for one reason only. They stopped turning the ball over. In 8 league games in 2008, Wyoming was an amazing -22 in turnover margin! This season they were +4. Despite not playing appreciably better (actually worse) on both sides of the ball, they avoided the disastrous plays and did just enough to eke by some teams with similar ability. The Bulldogs are not anywhere close to an elite team, finishing in the middle of the pack in both offense and defense in the relatively weak WAC, so I'd stay away from this game, but it one has the potential to get very ugly.

St. Petersburg Bowl
December 19
Rutgers vs UCF
Rutgers -2.5
Could we see our first upset of the bowl season (and first non-BCS over BCS victory) on the first day? I think there is a good chance we could. After finishing as the number one offense in the Big East last season, the loss of a senior quarterback (Mike Teel) and 2 of the school's best receivers (Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood) left the Knights struggling to move the ball. One season after leading the league in offense, Rutgers plummeted to dead last in the same category. The Knights got back to a bowl game (and to 8 wins for the 4th straight season) by parlaying an incredibly soft non-league schedule (a pair of IAA schools, Maryland--perhaps the worst team in the ACC, Florida International--perhaps the worst team in the Sun Belt, and Army--the best Army team in a while, but still Army) with a positive turnover margin in league play (+4). That offense will be challenged in this game as they face the number one defense in all of Conference USA. Before anyone starts lamenting the talent level of Conference USA, remember these Knights (formerly Golden) also held Miami to 50 yards below their seasonal output. To be fair, they also faced Texas, who gained about 105 more yards against the Knights than they did against the average of the rest of their schedule, but Rutgers ain't Texas. The Knights were not as proficient on offense, finishing in the middle of Conference USA, but it marks a stark improvement over their last place finish in that category in 2008. The Knights are quarterbacked by Wake Forest transfer (at least one Deacon will be in a bowl game) Brett Hodges. The last game I saw Hodges play in person was a 3-point loss to Nebraska in 2007 during which he threw a late interception in the end zone (no I'm not bitter). Hodges played moderately well this season, throwing 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while posting a passer rating of 133.4. If you are interested in any action on this game, you might as well take the Knights (from Florida) straight up.

New Orleans Bowl
December 20
Southern Miss vs Middle Tennessee State
Southern Miss -4
Looks like former disgraced Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has landed on his feet. After being shown the door halfway through the 2008 season, Franklin was hired in the offseason to coordinate the slumping Blue Raider offense. The results thus far have been impressive. After finishing last in the Sun Belt in offense in 2008, the Blue Raiders improved to third this season. Correlation certainly does not equal causation, but I'd be inclined to believe the Franklin spread had a little to do with the improvement. Meanwhile, Southern Miss is playing in their 2nd straight New Orleans bowl and 4th in 6 seasons. This appearance has to be somewhat of a disappointment as the Golden Eagles had designs on a Conference USA championship after winning their final 5 games of the 2008 season after a 2-6 start. Again in 2009, Southern Miss started out slowly (3-3) before winning 4 of 5 and setting up a winner take all showdown with East Carolina for the Conference USA East title. The Pirates won, and the Golden Eagles were destined for yet another December in New Orleans. Southern Miss was a little below average on offense and a little above average on defense against Conference USA foes, making them a mediocre team. Last year's Golden Eagles outgained their conference foes by about 100 yards per game. This year's team outgained their conference foes by 20 Southern Miss is not as good as they were last season when they outlasted Troy 30-27 in OT in the New Orleans Bowl. This should be a very good game, and one you'll probably want to refrain by laying any cash on, but if you must make a play on this game, take the Blue Raiders straight up.

*Las Vegas Bowl*
December 22
Oregon State vs BYU
Oregon State -2.5
For the second straight season, the Oregon State Beavers had their Rose Bowl dreams dashed by their archrivals from Eugene. Last season the Beavers headed to El Paso and the Sun Bowl after losing at home to the Ducks. This season they head to Sin City after losing at Oregon. In last year's Sun Bowl, the Beavers won a game that echoed back to the early days of college football when they knocked off the Pitt Panthers 3-0. Mike Riley's Beavers have been remarkably consistent in the Pac-10 over the past 2 seasons. In both seasons, they have been very balanced, finishing 3rd in offense and 4th in defense. While this is Oregon State's first trip to Las Vegas since 2003, the Cougars from BYU are making their 5th straight December appearance in Sin City, and 4th in a row as a ranked team. The Cougars were far and away the best team in the Mountain West not named TCU. But questions abound as to how good they really are. The Cougars upset a then top-5 Oklahoma outfit on the season's opening weekend in Jerry Jones' shiny new stadium. However, a mere 2 weeks later, their BCS dreams were dashed when they were crushed at home by a mediocre Florida State team. Since he embarrassment to the 'Noles, BYU has played 2 ranked teams, both at home. They were throttled by TCU 38-7 and held off archrival Utah 26-23 in OT. At number 15, the Cougars are a little overvalued by the media and public at large. That is reflected in the relatively small line for this game. Couple with that the fact that Mike Riley has never lost a bowl game as head coach at Oregon State (5-0) and the Beavers are one of the season's best bowl bets laying only 2 and a half points.

*Poinsettia Bowl*
December 23
Cal vs Utah
Cal -3
Like the Las Vegas Bowl the night before, this game also matches up the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences. While the Cal Bears managed yet another winning record in Pac-10 play (their 5th in 8 years under coach Jeff Tedford), statistically, they were the worst Pac-10 team this side of Washington State. The Bears combined a middling offense (5th in the league) with a terrible defense (9th--ahead of only Washington State), and were extremely fortunate to win as many games as they did. Consider that 3 of their 4 wins not against Washington State came by 2 (Arizona State), 6 (Stanford), and 8 (Arizona) points. Each of their 4 conference losses came by at least 17 points. In Pac-10 play, the Bears were outscored by 48 points and outgained by 394 yards. And that includes their dismantling of Washington State. Utah quietly followed up their Sugar Bowl win over Alabama with a 9-win season. All 3 of their losses came on the road. 2 came against BCS bowl participants (Oregon and TCU), and a third came against a team with 10 wins (BYU). Besides the TCU game, the others were close. The Utes fell by 7 at Oregon and by 3 in OT at BYU. For the season, the Utes finished as both the 3rd best offense and 3rd best defense in the Mountain West. Like Mike Riley, Kyle Whittingham seems to have an innate ability to motivate and game plan for bowl games as his teams are 4-0 in bowls in his short career. This game should be a pick 'em at worst, so Utah as an underdog is another one of your best bowl bets.

Hawaii Bowl
December 24
Nevada vs SMU
Nevada -14
Let's start this preview out with a hearty congratulations to the SMU Mustangs who will be making their first postseason appearance since the 1984 Aloha Bowl. Since losing their football program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons, the Mustangs had gone through 4 coaches with none leaving with a winning percentage higher than .393. After going only 1-11 in his first season, including no victories over IA opponents, June Jones led the Ponies to 7 victories, with 6 coming in conference play as SMU tied Houston for the Conference USA West title. While the end results have been nice, the actual improvement by SMU has been more subdued. Consider, SMU was outscored on the season by 14 points, outgained by nearly 300 yards, and lost to Washington State (the Cougars lone win on the season). The improvement in Conference USA had much more to do with the defense and ball security than Jones' run and shoot offense. SMU finished 9th in offense in Conference USA in both 2008 and 2009, but improved their defense from 10th to 5th. In addition, the Mustangs threw 17 interceptions and committed 23 turnovers in league play last season. This season, they improved those numbers to 6 and 16 respectively. The offense may be coming around though after a midseason quarterback change. Jones replaced Bo Levi Mitchell who took the majority of the snaps as a freshman in 2008 with freshman Kyle Padron in the 7th game. Padron has outpaced Mitchell in every notable passing category thus far, completing a higher percentage of his throws (64.4 to 56.0), averaging more yards per pass (9.1 to 6.5), having a better TD:Int ratio (2:1 to 6:5), and posting a better passer rating (152.6 to 117.9). On the other sideline, the Nevada Wolfpack have not had any trouble whatsoever moving the football. In fact, the Wolfpack are the first team in history to boast 3 1000-yards rushers. Running back Vai Taua leads the team with 1345 yards, followed by quarterback Colin Kaepernick with 1160, and then by running back Luke Lippincott with 1034. For the second straight season, Nevada boasted the best offense in the WAC. Their weakness in 2008 was a porous defense that ranked only 6th in the league. They improved to 3rd in the league in 2009 and ran roughshod over every WAC team not named Boise State. They outscored their other 7 WAC opponents by over 28 points per game. The Wolfpack should not have any trouble moving the ball against the Mustangs, and if they can avoid the turnover bug, they can probably cover this large number. Still, the Mustangs play in a somewhat stronger league than Nevada so it is hard to extrapolate just how good the Nevada defense really is. This number is way too big to have any confidence betting either way. Stay up a little later on Christmas Eve and enjoy the Pistol offense run by Nevada and SMU's first bowl bid in a quarter century.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl
December 26
Ohio vs Marshall
Ohio -2.5
After going 38 years between bowl bids (the 1968 Tangerine Bowl was their last until the GMAC Bowl in 2006), the Ohio Bobcats are making their 2nd bowl appearance in 4 seasons. All told, head coach Frank Solich has produced 3 bowl-eligible seasons in his 5 years at the school, including a pair of MAC Championship Game appearances and 9-win seasons in 2006 and 2009. The Bobcats will be seeking their first ever bowl victory in Detroit on the day after Christmas. It may be hard to believe, but on a down-by-down basis, the Bobcats were probably better against conference foes last season when they went just 3-5 in the league (went 7-1 this year). How is that possible you ask? The two bug-a-boo stats that are notoriously inconsistent year-in and year-out--turnover margin and performance in close games. Lats season Ohio was tied for last in the MAC in turnover margin within the league at -11. This season the Bobcats were second at +10. Last season Ohio was 2-2 in one-score conference games (2-4 overall) en route to a 4-8 record. This season, Ohio was 4-0 in one-score conference games (5-1 overall) en route to a 9-4 record. The Bobcats have been better at forcing turnovers, better at holding onto the ball, and the football has bounced their way on occasion. It also helps that they have 8 non-offensive touchdowns this season. Meanwhile, Marshall has certainly improved upon last season's performance. Unfortunately, it was not enough to save Mark Synder's job as he was fired/resigned after the team's final regular season game (a loss to UTEP). Assistant and former Cincinnati head coach Rick Minter will coach the team in the bowl game. Minter was 53-63-1 in 10 seasons with 4 bowl appearances, including one in the Motor City Bowl (what this game was known as before the recent economic crisis) against...wait for it...Marshall. The Thundering Herd are playing in their first bowl game in 5 years thanks to their defense. Marshall finished a distant 10th in the league in offense, but boasted the league's 3rd best defense (behind only UCF and East Carolina). It should be noted that Marshall did put up their 2 best offensive games of the season in their final 2 contests against SMU and UTEP. Of course, considering their track record before that, I wouldn't call them Houston-east just yet. To be honest, I'm shocked Ohio is favored in this game. I figured the line would be 2 and a half points the other way. Conference USA is widely regarded as a solid mid-major league, a little stronger than the WAC, and a little weaker than the Mountain West. On the other hand, the MAC is historically only stronger than the Sun Belt among Division IA conferences. With that being the case, if you're going to make a pick in this game, I suggest the Thundering Herd on the moneyline. I wouldn't be too concerned with the interim coach deal. This is the first bowl game for this set of Marshall players so motivation, and more specifically lack of, should not be a factor.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
December 26
Pitt vs North Carolina
Pitt -3
This is what a bad snap on an extra point has wrought the Pitt Panthers. After seeing a potential Orange Bowl bid slip away in the closing seconds against Cincinnati, the Panthers were passed over by the Gator Bowl in favor of West Virginia. Instead of a trip to south or central Florida, the Panthers get to play at the home of the NFL's Panthers--Bank of America Stadium. As you could have probably surmised from their tight game with Cincinnati, the Panthers were the Bearcats equal in league play, and if you want to be very frank about it, were statistically actually a hair better (remember this is league games only, so Pitt's loss to NC State and the Bearcats impressive win at Oregon State is not included). Pitt boasted the league's 3rd best offense and the number one defense in the entire Big East. Pitt led the nation with 45 sacks, finishing with multiple sacks in each game save the loss to NC State. The Panthers were very socialistic in their pass rush as no player had more than 8, but 8 players had 4 or more. The Tar Heels also know a thing or two about defense, finishing as the 3rd best defense in the ACC (behind perennial defensive whizzes Virginia Tech and Clemson). Unfortunately, the Tar Heel offense was MIA for much of the year, finishing 10th in the league (ahead of only BC and Virginia). After losing his top 3 receivers from 2008, quarterback TJ Yates regressed as a junior tossing just one more touchdown pass (12) in nearly 200 more pass attempts. For all the problems North Carolina has on offense, I don't think its hyperbole to say this will be the best defense Pitt has faced all season. This is a game to stay away from, but if you're feeling lucky try the Tar Heels on the moneyline.

Emerald Bowl
December 26
Southern Cal vs Boston College
Southern Cal -9
The king is dead (for a season at least). After reigning over the Pac-10 for the better part of this decade, the Trojans finished in a tie for 5th place with Cal. The Trojans lost at least 4 games in the conference for the first time since 2000 (the year before Pete Carroll arrived). In fact, the Trojans had lost only 5 league games over the past 5 seasons! Let's be clear though, this 5th place finish was not a fluke. The Trojans finished 7th in the Pac-10 in offense and 6th in defense. For the first time in a long time, the Trojans didn't do anything particularly well (except piss off UCLA). Boston College has also had a pretty successful decade, winning at least 8 games for the 9th straight year. However, at Chestnut Hill, the end may be near. In the past, Boston College has been criminally underrated each season, yet managed to put together solid season after solid season with similar strong underlying performances. That has not been the case this season. True, the Eagles have won, but they have been rather lucky in doing so. Boston College finished 11th in the ACC in offense (ahead of only woeful Virginia). This is not the first season their offense has been subpar (they were 7th last year), but their defense was only average (6th in the ACC after finishing 3rd last season). The Eagles won 5 games in the ACC, but 4 of their wins (over Wake Forest, Florida State, Virginia, and Maryland) came by a combined 16 points. They did manage to beat NC State by 32, but that certainly wasn't the norm. Their 3 conference losses (to Clemson, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina) came by a total of 70 points. They won 2 games away from home all season, against the dregs of the ACC (Virginia and Maryland), and will be traveling across the country for this game. The spread on this game seems a little high since the public appears to still be infatuated with the Southern Cal brand, despite their mediocre performance. However, Boston College had a less than mediocre performance this season and is playing a long way from Massachusetts. Avoid this game at all costs. Spend your day after Christmas with this game on in the background while you mock the Trojans fall from preseason top-5 outfit to Emerald Bowl participant.

Music City Bowl
December 27
Clemson vs Kentucky
Clemson -7
3 weeks ago Clemson was riding high on a 6-game win streak heading into their annual showdown with state-rival South Carolina. The Tigers lost that game and then fell in a highly entertaining ACC Championship Game to finish the regular season 8-5. Having lost the conference title game, the Tigers have been relegated to the Music City Bowl in Nashville. In the ACC, Clemson made their mark, as they have for the past 4 seasons with defense. The Tigers were 2nd in the league in defense behind only Virginia Tech. This marked the 4th straight season Clemson has finished either 1st or 2nd in the ACC in defense. The offense, despite the presence of Heisman candidate CJ Spiller was middling at best, finishing 7th in the conference. However, it did appear the Clemson offense found their footing as the season progressed. After averaging just 304 yards in their first 3 league games, the Tigers average 419 over their last 5. In addition to this, despite what some ACC bashers may say, the Tigers played a reasonably tough schedule. 3 of their 5 losses came to teams that will be playing in BCS bowls, and 4 of their 5 losses came by 5 points or fewer. While Clemson is a mainstay on the postseason circuit, the same cannot be said for Kentucky. That is, until recently. This Music City Bowl will mark the Wildcats 4th consecutive postseason trip, including their 3rd Music City bowl appearance in 4 years. The Wildcats have won their 3 previous postseason soirees and win or lose, are already assured of a 4th consecutive winning season. Kentucky last put together this many winning seasons when they had 11 straight from 1946 to 1956. The Wildcats were coached from 1946-1953 by a name you may be familiar with--Paul 'Bear' Bryant. Rich Brooks is certainly not in his league, but the rebuilding jobs he has done at Oregon and Kentucky should be properly evaluated upon his retirement and could earn Brooks a place in the College Football Hall of Fame despite his career losing record. But I digress. Despite their 7 wins, and place in the SEC, the Kentucky Wildcats are not what I would call a 'good' team. They finished 10th in the league in offense, but made up for it by finishing 11th in defense (their 5th consecutive finish of 10th or worse on defense). Kentucky played a Charmin-soft non-conference slate with Miami of Ohio (1-11), Louisville (4-8), Louisiana-Monroe (6-6), and Eastern Kentucky (IAA) as their opponents. The Wildcats did manage road upsets over a pair of bowl teams (Auburn and Georgia) in conference play, but they also lost at home to Mississippi State. The number for this game is too large for me to feel confident taking the Tigers, but also too small for me to feel comfortable taking the Wildcats. Some may trumpet Clemson's motivation in this game after they failed in their primary goal of winning the league title earlier this month. While I'm no psychologist, and have no idea what the mood is around this Tiger team, these Tigers do seem 'different' under coach Dabo Swinney. They fought back from a huge deficit on the road in the first Georgia Tech game, they didn't implode after the shocking loss to Maryland, and they played well in the ACC Championship Game one week after they were humbled by their archrival. Stay away from this game, but I wouldn't expect the Tigers to be as listless as they were in this same spot 3 years ago.

Independence Bowl
December 28
Georgia vs Texas A&M
Georgia -7
This has been by far the most disappointing season of the Mark Richt era between the hedges. True, the Bulldogs also finished 4-4 in the SEC in 2006, but at least their underlying performance that season was solid. This was not the case in 2009. For the first time under Richt, the Bulldogs were definitively mediocre on both sides of the ball. They were 7th in offense and 9th in defense. The cracks on the defensive side of the ball began to show last season when the Bulldogs slipped to 8th in the league in defense. However, the powerful offense led by Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno made up for the defensive shortcomings as the Bulldogs finished 2nd in offense behind only Florida. With a brand new backfield, the offense could not make up for the issues on defense and a disappointing season followed. And let's be clear, it could have been worse. Overall, the Bulldogs were 4-2 in one-score games. If a few bounces go the other way, Georgia could have been looking at 6-6 or even 5-7! In SEC play, the Bulldogs were outscored by 18 points over the course of the season. This was not a good team. Of course, the same can also be said for Texas A&M. The Aggies finished 6-6, but beat only a single team with a winning record--Texas Tech. Amazingly, they beat the Red Raiders on the road by 22 one week after losing at Kansas State by 48, and also one week after the Red Raiders won at Nebraska by 21. Go figure. Now, that doesn't mean Texas A&M didn't do anything well. On the contrary, they finished with the 2nd best offense in the Big 12, behind only Texas Tech. However, their defense, if you can call it that, was dead last in the league. While this game could be entertaining to watch, it won't be a lot of fun to bet on. Avoid this one at all costs, but don't be totally shocked if Texas A&M somehow pulls the outright upset.

Eagle Bank Bowl
December 29
UCLA vs Temple
UCLA -4.5
With Navy's victory over Army, the UCLA Bruins clinched a bowl bid. Their reward? A cross-country trip to a pretty cold locale (it was frigid last year when I attended the inaugural Eagle Bank Bowl). After finishing 8th in offense in the Pac-10 in Rick Neuheisel's first season, the Bruins managed another 8th place showing is his second campaign (hooray progress). The defense regressed from 2nd in the league to 5th. So how did the Bruins get to be bowl eligible? Well they finished 3-5 in the league both seasons, so the answer lies in the non-conference schedule. In 2008, the Bruins upset Tennessee in the season opener, were waxed the next week by BYU, and lost a close game to Fresno State 2 weeks after that. This past season, the Bruins opened with a relatively easy win over San Diego State, upset Tennessee again thanks to 4 Volunteer turnovers, and beat a Kansas State team that had yet to find its footing. All told, the Bruins play about the same in 2008 as they did in 2009. That's not exactly praise for Neuheisel either considering the Bruins were not terribly impressive in either season. While the Bruins are a staple in postseason play, the Temple Owls are making their first bowl appearance since 1979. Prior to their season ending loss to Ohio, the Owls won 9 consecutive games after their loss to Penn State dropped them to 0-2. The Owls made their mark on defense where they finished 3rd in the MAC. The offense was only 7th in the league, but it represented a stark improvement over 2008 when the Owls were dead last in the MAC moving the football. Freshman running back Bernard Pierce led the Owls with 1308 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. To put those numbers in perspective, the Owls leading rushers from the previous 3 seasons, combined for 1711 yards and 12 touchdowns on nearly twice the carries. This is a tough game to call. To their credit, UCLA played only one non-BCS foe (an easy win over San Diego State), so they did not pad their mediocre record against cupcakes. Temple played only one BCS-foe, a closer than expected (but still not very close) 31-6 loss to Penn State. Temple will surely be jacked for their first bowl game in my lifetime, and its fair to question whether UCLA will be as well with a cross-country flight in their immediate future. Still, if motivation is all you can hang your hat on, its best to keep it on your head. Pull hard for Temple, but don't desecrate your wallet by betting on this game.

Champs Sports Bowl
December 29
Miami vs Wisconsin
Miami -3
This is an intriguing matchup of 2 teams that finished better that what most folks expected in the preseason. On the one sideline, we have Miami, or The U as they are commonly known (BTW, check out the ESPN 30 for 30 feature 'The U' when you get a chance). I think its great when Miami is a force in college football, and while they may be on their way back, they are not totally back just yet. You could see the beginnings of the return last season when the offense was clicking, finishing 3rd in the ACC. However, the historically powerful defense managed only a 10th place finish (ahead of only Duke and NC State). The offense stayed strong this season, with another 3rd place finish, and the defense improved from bad to acceptable, finishing 5th in the league. Still this could have turned into another ho-hum 7-5 season if the 'Canes didn't catch a few breaks. Miami opened the season with a dramatic win over state rival Florida State, but the victory was not secured until a 4th down pass by the Seminoles fell incomplete. The 'Canes later edged Oklahoma by a single point and needed a muffed punt and a late scoring drive to edge Wake Forest by a point. Miami was 3-1 in one-score games (losing in OT at home to Clemson) and played noticeably poorer away from home. Wisconsin came into the season with no preseason hype after a 7-6 finish in 2008 (the same as Miami), but ended the regular season with a 9-3 record (the same as Miami). In the Big 10, the Badgers finished 2nd in offense (behind a suddenly proficient passing attack) and 4th in defense. 2 of their losses on the season came to BCS bowl participants (Ohio State and Iowa). The 3rd came by 2 points at Northwestern. Of course, the Badgers also won their fair share of close games. They beat Northern Illinois by 8, Fresno State by 3 in OT, Michigan State by 8, Minnesota by 3, and Indiana by 3. All together, the Badgers were 5-1 in one-score games. In addition, their 5 league wins all came against teams that are currently 6-6 or worse. Wisconsin certainly has a shot to win this game, but I think Miami is the stronger team. I don't have the gumption to take them minus 3 points though.