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
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
Rutgers vs UCF
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
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 yards...total. 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*
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.
Cal vs Utah
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.
Nevada vs SMU
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
Ohio vs Marshall
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
Pitt vs North Carolina
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.
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
Clemson vs Kentucky
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.
Georgia vs Texas A&M
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
UCLA vs Temple
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
Miami vs Wisconsin
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.