Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Bowl Preview: Part III

Enough with the hor d'oeuvres, lets dig into the main course of college football. This penultimate post will preview all the bowl games up to the Orange Bowl on January 3rd.

Meineke Car Care Bowl
Charlotte, North Carolina
Clemson versus South Florida
Clemson -6
While it may not seem like it on the surface, this game has pretty big implications for Clemson. The Tigers enter this game with a disappointing 6-6 record. A loss here would give the Tigers their first losing season since 1998, and only their second since 1995! The Tigers could have had a much better season if their offense cooperated. The Tigers boasted the best defense in the ACC, but their offense ranked only 10th. Quarterback Kyle Parker took a huge step backward in 2010, throwing just 12 touchdowns after tossing 20 in 2009. The running game and special teams also took a hit with the loss of CJ Spiller. The Tigers averaged 4.81 yards per rush in 2009 (19th in the nation), but fell 4.09 yards per rush in 2010 (70th in the nation). In addition, after scoring 6 touchdowns on special teams in 2010 (5 by Spiller), the Tigers scored just one in 2010. On the other sideline, South Florida didn't do a whole lot very well in 2010, ranking 6th in the Big East on offense and 5th on defense. They did do a good job of hanging around and attempting to use the patented Skip Holtz close game magic. 7 of South Florida's 12 games were decided by 8 points or less, and the Bulls managed to win 4 of them (not quite up to his ridiculous standard at East Carolina). This game has low-scoring defensive struggle written all over it. Clemson is probably the better team, but 6 points is a little too much to feel comfortable laying on a team without an offense.

Sun Bowl
El Paso, Texas
Miami versus Notre Dame
Miami -3
While the two teams in the Sun Bowl have a relatively mediocre 14-10 combined record, the 'name' brands are pretty strong. Miami enters the game looking to send its senior class out with their first bowl win (Hurricanes haven't won a bowl game since 2006), and set the stage for a revival under new coach Al Golden. Golden won't coach the 'Canes in the bowl (offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has a chance to rank as either the best or worst coach of all-time in terms of winning percentage), but with the job he has done at Temple, you have to figure Miami is in good hands. By all accounts, the Hurricanes should have finished much better than 7-5 in 2010. The offense was the best by far in the ACC, and the defense was solid (5th in the conference). However, the Hurricanes committed 32 turnovers (only Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State committed more) en route to a not-so-bad turnover margin of -4. However, those turnovers all seemed to come at once. In their 5 losses, they committed 20 turnovers (compared to just 12 in their 7 wins) and forced only 5 for a turnover margin of -15. If they did a better job of holding onto the ball, the Hurricanes could have contended for the ACC title. For the Irish, a 7-5 mark certainly represents progress, and compared to where they were in early November, the record is a success. On October 30th, the Irish lost at home to Tulsa to 4-5 with games remaining against a ranked Utah squad and a date at Southern Cal, a team the Irish had not beaten since 2001. The Irish held Utah to only 3 points and then took advantage of quarterback Matt Barkley's injury to upset the Trojans in LA. Notre Dame is a decent team with no bad losses (all 5 of the teams that beat them are playing in bowls), but this field goal spread seems about right. Miami is a very helter-skelter team though, so don't go laying any significant amount of money on them to win or cover.

Liberty Bowl
Memphis, Tennessee
Georgia versus Central Florida
Georgia -6.5
The Bulldogs are in danger of enduring their first losing season since 1996! They needed a win over their in-state rival Georgia Tech over Thanksgiving Weekend to even qualify for postseason play. This has been by far the worst season Georgia has experienced under head coach Mark Richt. In fact, in the past two seasons, Georgia has lost 9 SEC games. When Richt took over the reigns of the Bulldogs in 2001, he did not lose his 9th conference game until 2005! Of course, Georgia is probably a little better than their 6-6 record would indicate. The Bulldogs were just 1-3 in one-score games and 4 of their 6 losses came to teams ranked in the current top 25. Georgia was middle-of-the-road on both sides of the ball in the SEC. Their offense, led by a redshirt freshman quarterback (Aaron Murray), ranked 6th in the SEC, and the defense ranked 5th. Georgia will be facing a team with their own star freshman quarterback (Jeff Godfrey) looking for their first ever bowl win (0-3 in their previous appearances). The Knights from UCF paced Conference USA in defense the pair of BCS-conference teams they faced this year fits in close losses. They held NC State quarterback Russell Wilson to his worst game as a collegian (completed just 10 of 30 passes for 105 yards) and Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas had one of his worst rushing days against UCF (76 yards on 22 carries). In addition, for the first time since Kevin Smith left following the 2007, UCF also had a solid offense. While they ranked only 7th in Conference USA on offense, their attack was very efficient. Jeff Godfrey ranked 8th nationally in pass efficiency, completing over 68% of his passes and averaging 9.8 yards per throw. Godfrey also hurt defenses with his feet, gaining over 500 yards on the ground and rushing for 10 touchdowns. UCF is a very dangerous team, representing the best defense Georgia has faced since their Cocktail Party date with Florida, and potentially the second best defense they have faced all year. Georgia will also have their hands full defending Godfrey and the efficient UCF offense. UCF may not win this game, but they will give Georgia a serious challenge.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
Atlanta, Georgia
South Carolina versus Florida State
South Carolina -3
Steve Spurrier versus Florida State, does it get any better? Did you know its been over 9 years since Spurrier last coached against Florida State? November 17, 2001 marked the last time Spurrier coached against the Seminoles. One of Spurrier's best Florida teams crushed the 'Noles 37-13. Two weeks later with a spot in the Rose Bowl (the national title game for 2001) on the line, the Gators were upset at home by Tennessee. Florida went on to crush Maryland in the Orange Bowl and Spurrier left to coach the Washington Redskins. In his absence, the Gators endured the Ron Zook era and then won a pair of national titles under Urban Meyer. Spurrier did not enjoy his collegiate success in the nation's capital, and returned to the coaching ranks at South Carolina. Under his guidance, the Gamecocks won the SEC East for the first time ever and with a win here, will finish in the top 25 for the first time since 2001 (eery coincidence eh?). South Carolina was solid on both sides of the ball, ranking 4th on both offense and defense in the SEC. The offense is led by quarterback Stephen Garcia, but freshman running back Marcus Lattimore has given the offense a new dimension this season. From 2008-2009, the Gamecocks rushed for 19 touchdowns as a team. Lattimore rushed for 17 himself in 2010 (as well as 1198 yards). He has a long way to go to catch George Rogers on the all-time Gamecock rushing list (5204 yards), but if stays healthy he will easily be the at worst the second best back in school history. For Florida State, this is their first bowl game since the 1971 Fiesta Bowl without coach Bobby Bowden. A win for the Seminoles would allow them to end the season ranked for only the second time since 2005 (consider the 'Noles were ranked in the top 10 of the final polls for every season 1987-2000). Florida State appeared to be the class of the ACC early in league play, but stumbled down the stretch. In their first 4 ACC games, the 'Noles averaged 424 yards per game and allowed an average of 295 yards per game (they were 4-0 in those games). In their last 4 ACC games, the 'Noles averaged 352 yards per game (failed to gain more than 374 yards) and allowed an average of 416 yards per game (they did manage a split in those 4 games). Florida State appears to be on a downward trajectory after their early season success. South Carolina should probably win this game, which would represent only the second bowl win for the Gamecocks since Spurrier took over.

Ticket City Bowl
Dallas, Texas
Texas Tech versus Northwestern
Texas Tech -9.5
Is this the year? Can Northwestern finally break their bowl winless streak that stretches back to nearly World War II? Since winning the 1948 Rose Bowl against Cal, the Wildcats have lost 7 straight bowl games. To be fair, the Wildcats have been underdogs in each of those games, and have been substantial underdogs (at least a touchdown) in 6 of them. The Wildcats have come close to breaking the streak the past two seasons, losing in OT both years. If Northwestern is to break the streak, they will have to do so without quarterback Dan Persa who was lost for the year while throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against Iowa. Without Persa, the Wildcats averaged over 100 fewer yards of total offense per game in their final two Big 10 games than they did in the first 6 with Persa. Of course, the defense also bears a great portion of the blame for those two defeats, surrendering a combined 1118 yards and 118 points in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin. On the season, the Wildcat defense ranked just 9th in the Big 10, ahead of only Indiana and Michigan. If the Wildcats are to break the bowl losing streak, the burden will almost certainly rest with the offense. Their opponent in the Ticket City Bowl is the worst Texas Tech team in a decade. Not only did Tommy Tuberville severely cripple the offense (their ranking of 5th was the worst for any year I have SDPI data for), but the defense was among the worst in the Big 12 (tied with Baylor, ahead of only Kansas). The Red Raiders finished 3-5 in the Big 12, their first losing record in league play since Mike Leach's first season in 2000. The red Raiders were also very fortunate to qualify for a bowl. They won each of their Big 12 games by a touchdown or less (outscored by 80 points in their Big 12 games), won only two road games versus New Mexico (1-11) and Colorado (5-7), and even when factoring in their relatively soft non-conference slate, were outgained on the year. Texas Tech is a very shaky team to be favored by so much. Northwestern may not end their postseason victory drought, but they should do enough to cover. The Wildcats are your 4th lock of the bowl season.

Capital One Bowl
Orlando, Florida
Alabama versus Michigan State
Alabama -10
The Capital One Bowl features Nick Saban's current school versus (one of) Nick Saban's old school. With a win, Michigan State would guarantee themselves of a finish inside the top 10 for the first time since Nick Saban's 1999 team ended the year ranked number 7. Despite their disappointment in not playing in the Rose Bowl, its been a pretty special year for Michigan State. The Spartans have won 11 games for the first time in school history, beaten Michigan 3 times in a row, and won a share of the Big 10 title for the first time since 1990. The Spartans had an average offense by Big 10 standards (6th in the league), but it was very efficient. Kirk Cousins completed over 67% of his passes and ranked 19th nationally in pass efficiency. Running back Edwin Baker quietly rushed for nearly 1200 yards at over 6 yards per carry. The defense on the other hand, was very good, ranking second in the Big 10 (behind the always stout Ohio State unit). To win their first bowl game in nearly 10 years, the Spartans must contend with an Alabama team that was able to defend neither its national nor conference title. After not losing a regular season conference game since 2007, the Tide lost 3 in 2010, including one at home against archrival Auburn that likely would have doused their national title hopes. Alabama was solid, but not spectacular at any phase of the game in 2010, finishing 5th in the SEC on offense and 3rd on defense. Alabama is rightly favored in this one, as Nick Saban is one of his generation's best college coaches. However, don't count the Spartans out, as Saban is only 6-6 career in bowl games and this falls into one of the double digit favorites categories. Don't be surprised if the Spartans hang with the Tide and cover the number, and maybe even win outright.

Outback Bowl
Tampa, Florida
Florida versus Penn State
Florida -7
This will be the final game (for now) for one of these coaches, and amazingly, it is not Joe Paterno. Urban Meyer's successful, but short tenure at Florida will draw to a close at the conclusion of this game. Both teams come into this game with identical 7-5 records hoping to ease the sting of a relatively disappointing season. For Florida, which finished atop the polls in 2008 and at number 3 in 2009, 2010 will either find them outside the final polls or in the nether regions of the top 25. The Gators struggles this season were all on one side of the ball--offense. The defense was the best in the SEC, but the offense only managed a 9th place showing. Sans Tim Tebow, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez and a few others, the offense could never find its footing. As a team, the Gators threw just one more touchdown pass (12) than interceptions (11). The team also averaged just 4.35 yards per rush, after averaging over 5 yards per carry during each year Tebow was the starting quarterback (2007-2009). Penn State also failed to meet expectations after finishing in the top 10 of the final polls in both 2008 and 2009. Perhaps this was to be expected without an experienced quarterback heading into the season. However, not only did the offense disappoint (7th in the Big 10), but the defense did as well (also 7th in the Big 10). On the bright side, the offense did appear to step it up a notch after quarterback Matthew McGloin was earned the starting quarterback job. In their first 3 conference games, when Robert Bolden started, the Nittany Lions averaged just 296 yards and 16 points per game. In their final 5 games, all started by McGloin, Penn State averaged 425 yards and just over 30 points per game. How will McGloin fare against the strong Florida defense with such a long break? Its anyone's guess. Florida is probably the better team, but laying a whole touchdown seems a bit steep here.

Gator Bowl
Jacksonville, Florida
Mississippi State versus Michigan
Mississippi State -5
Rich Rodriguez may be coaching for his job in the Gator Bowl. In his 3rd season at the helm of the Wolverines, he has finally gotten them bowl eligible. However, for the 3rd consecutive season, the Wolverines are saddled with a losing Big 10 record. Rich Rod's record against the Big 10 in his 3 seasons is now a sorry 6-18. In 2008, Michigan beat Wisconsin and Minnesota, which both finished 3-5 in Big 10 play. In 2009, the Wolverines only managed to beat Indiana which finished 1-7 in the Big 10. This year, the Wolverines beat Indiana, Illinois, and Purdue. Indiana once again finished 1-7, Purdue went 2-6, and the Illini went 4-4. The win over Illinois marks the Wolverines only win over a conference opponent that finished with at least a .500 league record. Michigan was the epitome of unbalanced in 2010. Their offense was the best in the Big 10 (even without Denard Robinson for significant portions) and their defense was the worst in the conference. 7 of their 8 conference opponents (all save Purdue) scored at least 34 points against the Michigan defense. The good news for Michigan is that their opponent in the Gator Bowl may not be able to take advantage (at least not significant advantage) of that glaring weakness. Mississippi State is back in the postseason for the first time since 2007 and just the second time since the turn of the century. A win in the game would give the Bulldogs 9 wins for the first time since 1999 and have them ranked in the final polls for the first time since 2000. That would be quite a coup for second year coach Dan Mullen. While Mullen's forte is offense, the Bulldogs won this season with a solid defense. Their offense ranked just 11th in the SEC (ahead of only lowly Vanderbilt), but their defense 6th (ahead of the defense of eventual SEC champ Auburn). The Bulldogs won with good defense, but they also won with good fortune. They went 4-2 in one-score games and recovered an amazing 14 of 17 opponent's fumbles. This should be a very interesting game. Can Mississippi State's weak offense exploit Michigan's obscenely weak defense and can Michigan's powerful offense exploit Mississippi State's solid defense? If you are itching to make a play here, take Michigan on the moneyline. Otherwise, leave this one alone.

Rose Bowl
Pasadena, California
TCU versus Wisconsin
TCU -3
Thanks to some special teams gaffes on the part of Boise State, the Horned Frogs will be proud participants in the granddaddy of em all. A win by TCU would likely land them their highest end of season poll ranking since they won the national title in 1938. Win or lose, TCU will likely finish in the top 10 of the final polls for the 3rd consecutive year (Alabama and Ohio State are the only other teams that can join TCU in that club--for Ohio State it would mark a 6th straight year of top 10 finishes). TCU was uber-dominant for the 3rd consecutive season in the Mountain West, easily ranking as the best offense and defense in the conference. With the exception of their 5-point win over San Diego State, they won each league game by at least 27 points. TCU has won 25 of their past 26 conference games, with the lone loss coming at undefeated Utah in 2008. Of those 25 wins, only 3 have come by single digits. In their never-ending struggle to earn national respect, Wisconsin will serve as a fine opponent. The Badgers have not lost since early October when they were turned away by 10 points at Michigan State. Since escaping Iowa by a single point on October 23rd, the Badgers have won their final 4 league games by a combined 151 points, twice scoring at least 70. In those final 4 games, the Badgers have averaged 505 yards per game (including 299 on the ground) after averaging just 362 yards in their first 4 league games (185 on the ground). TCU allowed only two opponents (ground conscious Air Force and rival SMU) to gain more than 100 yards rushing this season. The onus will be on Wisconsin to push around the TCU defense. With TCU being such a dominant team and such a small favorite, they are the 5th and final lock of the bowl season.

Fiesta Bowl
Glendale, Arizona
Oklahoma versus Connecticut
Oklahoma -17
Congrats to the University of Connecticut who have gone from IAA to IA Independence to the Big East to the Fiesta Bowl. That being said, I don't know that the Huskies are actually that good. For starters, they lost to a team that finished last in the Big East (Rutgers), were shut out by a 6-6 (now 7-6) team (Louisville), were beaten by Temple (a solid team, but one a BCS bowl participant should not lose to), and scored just 10 points in a loss to a terrible Michigan defense. Their offense ranked just 7th in the Big East and their defense was not much better at 6th in the conference. The Huskies were able to grab the Big East's BCS bid thanks to a solid record in one-score games (3-1), including narrow wins over fellow conference co-champs West Virginia and Pitt, and a great turnover margin. The Huskies won their final 5 games after a 3-4 start, and in that span the Huskies committed just 5 turnovers while forcing 17 for a margin of +12. You will win a lot of games with a margin that high. For the Huskies to have any shot at actually winning this game, they will need to force a ton of turnovers. Oklahoma comes into this game looking to get off the BCS bowl snide, having lost 5 consecutive BCS bowls since winning the 2002 Rose Bowl. Their two losses in the Fiesta Bowl were especially painful as they were touchdown favorites over both Boise State in 2006 and West Virginia in 2007. In those games, the defense was torched for a combined 91 points! That shouldn't happen this year as Oklahoma comes into the game with the 3rd best offense and defense in the Big 12. The Sooners may not cover this large number (see the previous explanations of the trouble with double-digit favorites), but a loss here would mark one of the largest bowl upsets in history.

Orange Bowl
Miami, Florida
Stanford versus Virgina Tech
Stanford -3
After the potential bloodbath in the Fiesta Bowl, the BCS offers up a fantastic showdown in the Orange Bowl. Both Stanford and Virginia Tech are strong teams that both ranked second overall in their respective conferences. After losing their Heisman contending running back Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal got better thanks to another Heisman in quarterback Andrew Luck. The Cardinal boasted the second best offense in the Pac-10 (behind Oregon), and they complimented that strength with the second best defense in the conference as well (behind Cal). Outside of close wins over Southern Cal and Arizona State, the Cardinal laid the wood in their other 9 wins. They beat solid teams like Notre Dame and Arizona by 23 and 25 points. They pounded average teams like Washington, Cal, and Oregon State by 41, 34, and 38 points. Outside of their second-half meltdown against Oregon, the Cardinal may have been the best team in the nation. Virginia Tech was certainly not an elite team, but they were very good. After opening the year with close losses to Boise State and James Madison, the Hokies reeled off 11 consecutive victories, with just one (a 7-point win over Georgia Tech) coming by fewer than 11 points. Ironically, it was the Hokie offense that carried the team, ranking second in the ACC. The defense was solid (6th in the conference), but not its usual outstanding self. This game should be one of the better ones of the bowl season. Stanford is the favorite, and rightly so, but methinks Virginia Tech will give the Cardinal a good game.

Friday, December 24, 2010

2010 Bowl Preview: Part II

Round 1 covered the bowl games up through December 26th. It was mostly a collection of mid-majors (with Louisville being the lone exception) taking on each other. Now we come to the second week of the bowl season where we may just find a few more household names.

Independence Bowl
Shreveport, Louisiana
Air Force versus Georgia Tech
Air Force -3
If you like option football, this is the game for you. Georgia Tech and Air Force were two of the most unlikely teams to throw a pass in 2010. Only Navy and Army attempted fewer passes over the course of the 2010 season. Both coaches, Troy Calhoun at Air Force, and Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, have used the option to great success at their current destinations. Calhoun is in his 4th season at the academy, and has guided the Falcons to at least 8 wins and a bowl appearance in each season. In 2009, Paul Johnson guided the Yellow Jackets to their first conference title since they shared the ACC in 1998, and first outright conference title since they shared the national title in 1990. The Yellow Jackets also finished ranked in the final polls in Johnson's first two seasons (that won't happen this year as they enter this game with a 6-6 record). That marked the first time the Jackets had finished consecutive seasons ranked since the end of the George O'Leary era when they did it 5 straight years (1997-2001). Both option offenses played well in their respective leagues. Air Force finished second to TCU on offense in the Mountain West, and Georgia Tech was 3rd in the ACC (behind Miami and Virginia Tech). The difference in these teams was their acumen on defense. Air Force ranked 4th in the Mountain West, while Georgia Tech was 9th in the ACC. The Jackets outstanding senior quarterback, Joshua Nesbitt, may miss this game, but the offense seems to have found a rhythm under sophomore quarterback Tevin Washington. With Washington under center, the Yellow Jackets put up 30 and 34 points in their final 2 games against Duke and Georgia after being held to 10 in Washington's first start against Miami. Air Force appears to be the better team, but I think the most prudent wager on this contest would be to take Georgia Tech straight up on the moneyline. The Air Force offense, while very good, may actually be one of the few offenses Georgia Tech will be able to stop thanks to their familiarity to the option.

Champs Sports Bowl
Orlando, Florida
West Virginia versus NC State
West Virginia -3
This year's incarnation of the Champs Sports Bowl features one of the postseasons best matchups of strength versus strength. NC State, led by quarterback Russell Wilson, ranked 4th in the ACC on offense, while West Virginia led the Big East in defense, and was one of the more elite defensive units in the nation. No team topped 21 points against the Mountaineers (and amazingly, that feat was accomplished by Marshall) and no team gained more than 364 yards against them (again, Marshall was the culprit). West Virginia gave up the fewest offensive touchdowns in the nation, surrendering just 15 over 12 games. Over their final 7 games, the Mountaineers allowed exactly 7 offensive touchdowns. Yet, they somehow lost 2 of those games, including one to Connecticut that eventually cost them the Big East's BCS bowl berth. The blame for those losses can be squarely placed on the shoulders of the offense, and their inability to hang onto the ball. In their 3 losses this season, the offense turned the ball over 9 times, and the defense created only 3 turnovers for a margin of -6. In their 9 wins, the Mountaineers turned the ball over 14 times and the defense created 19 turnovers for a margin of +5. In all likelihood, West Virginia should be able to contain the NC State offense, especially considering how different NC State was away from home. In their 5 home games versus IA teams, the Pack averaged 432 yards per game, 5.63 yards per play, and scored 19 (3.8 per game) offensive touchdowns. In their 6 road games (all came against IA foes), they averaged 371 yards per game, 4.77 yards per play, and scored 18 offensive touchdowns (3 per game). Their home and road schedule was not vastly different in terms of the defenses they faced. In fact, the road schedule may have been easier. The Pack did play some good to solid defensive teams on the road (UCF, Clemson, North Carolina, and Maryland), but they also played a bad defense (Georgia Tech) and perhaps the nation's worst defense (East Carolina). At home they played a very good defense (Boston College), two solid defenses (Florida State and Virginia Tech), and two bad defenses (Wake Forest and Cincinnati). For whatever reason, be it conservative playcalling, or maybe just a case of the yips, NC State did not play nearly as well on offense away from Raleigh. For that reason, and also because of West Virginia's elite defense, the Mountaineers are your second lock of the bowl season.

Insight Bowl
Tempe, Arizona
Missouri versus Iowa
Missouri -3
This year's incarnation of the Insight Bowl matches up what I like to call a pair of solid second tier major conference teams. While Iowa and Missouri have enjoyed their fair share of success lately (Iowa played in and won the Orange Bowl last season), neither of these teams have the cache of the dominant powers in their conference (Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio State). The Missouri Tigers are in the midst of a run of nearly unprecedented successes. The Insight Bowl marks the Tigers 6th consecutive bowl appearance and their 7th in the last 8 seasons. Not bad for a team that played in just a pair of bowl games from 1984 through 2002. Missouri has already won 10 games for the 3rd time in 4 seasons and finished tied for the Big 12 North title with Nebraska. However, methinks they may not be quite as good as their record would indicate. Based on SDPI numbers, they were a pretty middling Big 12 team, ranking 6th in the conference on offense and 4th on defense. Their overall SDPI rank (6th), while above average was well below that of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State, the 3 teams that ranked at the top of the conference. Secondly, Missouri played in the much easier half of the Big 12. They feasted on all the bad teams in that division (Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State). To be fair, they did manage to win 2 of their 3 games against the South, including a much more impressive than it appeared at the time road win over Texas A&M. As you may remember, they also knocked off Oklahoma at home. Still, they also receive a few demerits for losing to the worst Texas Tech team in a decade. As for Iowa, they come limping into this game having lost their number two receiver to drug charges, and a plethora of running backs to injury and academic issues. Oh, and they also lost 3 straight to end the season, including an embarrassing loss at sad-sack Minnesota. Of course, the season could have been much better if Iowa had been a little more fortunate in one-score games. They were 1-5 in such contests, with no loss coming by more than 7 points. In fact, though they have lost 11 games since the beginning of the 2008 season, none has come by more than 7 points. Their average loss has been by 3.6 points. Of course, when we look at SDPI numbers, Iowa appears to have finished right about where they should have in terms of the Big 10 standings. They ranked an unappealing 9th on offense in the Big 10, ahead of only Minnesota and Purdue, and their usually stout defense finished just 5th in the conference. Missouri is rightly favored in this game, but under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have covered their last 4 bowl games as a betting line underdog, and have won 3 of those games straight up, including last year's Orange Bowl versus Georgia Tech. If you must make a play on this game, go with the Hawkeyes straight up.

Military Bowl
Washington, DC
Maryland versus East Carolina
Maryland -7
Heading into the 2010 season, these teams couldn't have been any different. East Carolina was coming off consecutive Conference USA titles and 4 straight bowl appearances overall. The Pirates won games under former coach Skip Holtz with a stout defense and an opportunistic offense (and an unbelievable record in one-score games). Meanwhile, the Maryland Terrapins were coming off a woeful 2-10 season and seemed to be trending downward. The 2-10 mark was the Terrapins 4th losing season in the past 6 after winning 31 games in the first 3 years of the Ralph Friedgen regime. But my, how things can change in just one season. The Pirates went from having one of the most consistently strong defenses in Conference USA to having the worst defense in the league, and arguably the worst defense in the nation (120th in total and 118th in scoring defense). While the defense was imploding, the offense was taking flight, finishing a respectable 5th in Conference USA. Led by quarterback and Boston College transfer Dominique Davis, the Pirates threw for 37 touchdowns on the season as a team. In 2008 and 2009, the Pirates combined to pass for just 30 touchdowns. While East Carolina exchanged a good defense for a bad one and a below-average offense for a good one, Maryland improved on both sides of the ball. While their offense ranked only 9th in the ACC (the same as 2009), they were much closer to average in terms of standard deviation (about a third of a standard deviation below average versus a whole standard deviation below average). The defense on the other hand, improved substantially, going from 9th in the ACC to 4th. Maryland was also much more fortunate in close games, finishing with a 4-1 record in one-score games, after a 2-5 mark in those games last season. East Carolina has not come close to stopping anyone since they held Marshall to 10 points in late October. The Pirates gave up at least 42 points in each of their last 5 games, and allowed an average of 54.8 points in those games! Still, with their offensive firepower, they were able to win one of those games (versus UAB) and came close to winning another (lost to SMU in overtime). Maryland is probably the better team, but I wouldn't trust them laying this relatively high number. This will mark the final game of the Ralph Friedgen era. Friedgen was coach at Maryland for 10 seasons, posting a 43-37 ACC record (with 6 seasons of at least a .500 record in conference play). While this record may seem pedestrian, in the 10 seasons prior to Friedgen's arrival, the Terps went just 22-57 in the ACC with just one .500 conference season. While Maryland has certainly seen diminishing returns in the recent past under Friedgen, one would think the university would have allowed a man who had done so much for his school (and alma mater) to leave on his own terms.

Texas Bowl
Houston, Texas
Baylor versus Illinois
Baylor -1.5
2010 was quite an historic year for the Baylor Bears. They appeared in the polls for the first time since 1993, qualified for their first bowl game since 1994, clinched their first winning season since 1995, and won as many Big 12 games as they lost for the first time ever! In his 3 seasons as coach at Baylor, Art Briles has won 7 Big 12 games (and lost 17). In the previous 12 seasons of Big 12 play (under 4 different head coaches), Baylor had won just 11 conference games (versus 85 losses). Behind the play of star quarterback Robert Griffin, and the coaching wizardry of Art Briles, the Bears boasted the second best offense in the Big 12 (behind Oklahoma State). That was necessary because the defense remained deplorable. The Bears were tied for 10th in the Big 12 on defense (tied with Texas Tech and ahead of only lowly Kansas). While 2010 is certainly a time for celebration for Baylor, it should also be noted that the Bears were extremely fortunate to go bowling. One reason for their awakening from their postseason hibernation was the schedule. Outside the conference, the Bears beat Sam Houston State (IAA), Buffalo (2-10), and Rice (4-8). Inside the Big 12, they benefited from drawing 3 of the weaker teams from the Big 12 North. In their games against the North division, they drew Colorado (5-7), Kansas State (7-5), and the team formerly known as Kansas (3-9). They avoided both of the North powers Nebraska and Missouri. Since they won all 3 of their games against the North, it obviously means they went only 1-4 versus their Big 12 South opponents (with the lone win coming against reeling Texas). This, is nothing new. Since the Big 12 formed in 1996, Baylor has never won more than one game versus teams in their own division! They beat Texas in 1997, Texas A&M in 2004 (after losing 33 straight division games), Oklahoma State in 2005, Texas A&M in 2008 (the first division foe they ever beat twice), and of course Texas this past season. Their overall division record since 1996 in a putrid 5-70. In addition to the schedule, Baylor was also fortunate in one-score games, going 3-1 in such contests. Sorry for the Baylor-bashing, but I want you, dear reader, to have all the facts before you go laying next month's mortgage payment on the Bears. Before closing the book on this preview, seems it may be prudent to take a look at their opponent in the Texas Bowl. Ron Zook likely saved his job for at least one more year by getting the Illini to the postseason for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. While Baylor is probably a little worse than their record, the Illini are in fact probably a little better. For starters, half of their losses came to teams currently ranked in the top-15 (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Missouri). The Illini also had a poor record in one-score games, going just 1-3 in close games. The Illini also appear to be much more balanced than Baylor. Their offense, while not spectacular, ranked 4th in the Big 10 and their defense was a solid 3rd (furthering the case that Vic Koenning is one of the more underrated defensive coordinators). You'd have a hard time convincing me to throw down a lot of money on Ron Zook, but the Illini are probably worth a small play on the moneyline here.

Alamo Bowl
San Antonio, Texas
Oklahoma State versus Arizona
Oklahoma State -6
I think its safe to call this game the Disappointment Bowl. On Halloween, Arizona was 7-1 and ranked 9th in the country. A brutal closing stretch that included both Pac-10 powers Oregon and Stanford, as well as former Pac-10 power Southern Cal, and archrival Arizona State has left the Wildcats licking their wounds after 4 straight defeats. The loss to Arizona State to end the regular season was perhaps the most cruel, as Arizona kicker Alex Zendejas missed an extra point late in regulation that would have won the game, and then for good measure missed one in overtime that would have tied it. Its fair to say the Wildcats are on an upward trajectory under Mike Stoops, as they have already clinched their 3rd straight winning season (the first time that's happened since 1992-1994). But have they peaked, and how motivated will they be for this game? This may come as a surprise to most folks, but the Wildcats were actually the 3rd best team in the Pac-10 in 2010. Though they were well below Oregon and Stanford, the Wildcats were above average on both sides of the ball ranking 4th in the Pac-10 on offense and 5th on defense. Their opponent in this game is probably a little disappointed with how the season ended as well. Hosting archrival Oklahoma over Thanksgiving Weekend, the Cowboys had the opportunity to win their first Big 12 South title. Alas, their little brother status continued as Oklahoma won the game and the division. Still, the Cowboys won 10 games for the first time since 1988, and with a win here could finish the season ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1984. That would be quite an accomplishment for a team most pundits and observers believed would finish in either the basement or close to it in the Big 12 South. As you may have heard, Oklahoma State features one of the nation's most explosive receivers in Justin Blackmon who finished 3rd in the nation in reception (102) and yards (1665), and first in touchdowns (18), despite playing two fewer games than the national leader in catches (Ryan Brolyes from Oklahoma caught 118 in 13 games) and yards (Greg Salas had 1675 receiving yards in 13 games). Blackmon helped the Cowboy offense rank number one in the Big 12. Unfortunately, the defense was still somewhat lacking, finishing a middling 8th. If there is one thing I have learned by watching a great deal of football over the years, its you never know what Mike 'Lesser' Stoops is going to do. Just when you think they have turned the corner, BAM! they lose to New Mexico as a 10-point favorite (2008). And just when you think they will pack it in and roll over BAM! they win 3 straight as a double digit underdog (2006). If you forced me to make a play here, I would take Arizona +6, but this one should only be watched, not bet on.

Armed Forces Bowl
Dallas, Texas
SMU versus Army
2010 marks the first time these 2 programs have both participated in the postseason since 1984. Since 1990, SMU and Army have been among the bottom of IA football in terms of winning percentage. In those 21 seasons, Army has gone 81-158-1 (.340 win %) with just 3 winning seasons (a win here would mark the 4th), while SMU has gone 72-166-3 (.305 win %) with just 2 winning seasons (a win here would give them a 3rd). SMU began their revival last season when they played in (and won) their first bowl game since the 1984 Aloha Bowl. Under 3rd year head coach June Jones, the Mustangs reached their first ever Conference USA Championship Game this year, but fell to Central Florida. While Jones has a reputation (quite deserved) for running prolific offenses, the Mustangs were actually led by their defense which was 2nd in Conference USA. Of course, their offense was still quite good, finishing a very respectable 4th in Conference USA. The Mustangs are only 7-6, but part of that record can be explained by a punishing non-conference schedule. The Mustangs played at bowl-bound teams Texas Tech and Navy and at home against the best team in Texas (TCU). Those 3 games represent half of their 6 losses. The Mustangs also lost winnable league games against Houston and UTEP, but for the most part, they beat the teams they were supposed to. Army also comes into this game with a relatively new head coach (Rich Ellerson is in his second season at the Academy) who has brought the team back to respectability. Army won 5 games in Ellerson's first season, and improved to 6 wins this season. Congratulations are certainly in order for the Cadets, as they are back in a bowl game for the first time since 1996. However, when evaluating Army's schedule, its not too difficult to see how they got to bowl eligibility. Their 6 wins have come against Eastern Michigan (2-10), North Texas (3-9), Duke (3-9), Tulane (4-8), VMI (IAA), and Kent State (5-7). When your best win is either Kent State or Duke, you are probably not that good. Of course, on the flip side, the Cadets do not really have a bad loss either, with 4 of the 6 coming to bowl teams (Hawaii, Air Force, Notre Dame, and Navy), one coming to a winning team that failed to garner a bowl bid (Temple), and the other coming against a Big East opponent (Rutgers). Army is better than they have been in a long while, but it would be hard to picture them being able to score enough points against a solid SMU defense to be able to pull this one out.

Pinstripe Bowl
Bronx, New York
Kansas State versus Syracuse
Kansas State -1
For the first time since 2004, the Syracuse Orange will be playing in the postseason. Under second-year head coach Doug Marrone, the Orange won more league games (4), than the did in the duration of the Greg Robinson regime (3). Kansas State is also heralded back into the postseason under a successful second-year head coach. Bill Snyder, in his second stint as head coach in Manhattan, has the Wildcats bowling for the first time since 2006. The Orange will go bowling thanks to a solid, and very underrated defensive unit. The Orange ranked 3rd in the Big East on defense. They needed all the help the defense could supply because the offense ranked dead last in the Big East. Quarterback Ryan Nassib avoided turnovers (only 8 interceptions after Greg Paulus threw 14 last season) and Delone Carter had his second straight 1000-yard rushing season, but the Orange failed to consistently move the ball in Big East play. The remedy for a team lacking such offensive firepower is a team like Kansas State. While the Wildcats are 7-5, they may be the worst bowl team from a BCS-conference. Consider, Kansas State ranked 9th in the Big 12 on both offense and defense, they beat one team destined for the postseason (Central Florida), and their lone road wins came against woebegone Kansas (3-9) and North Texas (3-9). Now that doesn't mean Kansas State lacks star power. On the contrary, their stud running back Daniel Thomas has rushed for nearly 2800 yards since joining the Wildcats from junior college in 2009. However, the Wildcats lack a consistent passing attack, especially by Big 12 standards, so when Thomas fails to move the chains, the offense gets bogged down (hence their 9th place standing on offense). This game is in New York (where Syracuse is located if you didn't know) and the wrong team is favored. Based on those facts, this is your third lock of the postseason. And since I'm a nice guy, here are a couple of interesting tidbits. The last win by Syracuse in a bowl game? Why the 2001 Insight Bowl versus...Kansas State. In addition, if Delone Carter has a decent game (40 yards rushing) he will pass Larry Csonka as the third-leading rusher in Syracuse history!

Music City Bowl
Nashville, Tennessee
North Carolina versus Tennessee
North Carolina -2
Despite pedestrian records these two squads have overcome their fair share of adversity to make it to the postseason. North Carolina began the season under a cloud of NCAA investigations and for good measure lost their first 2 games. Tennessee also had a little offseason drama of its own with head coach Lane Kiffin skipping town and Derek Dooley stepping in to replace him. The Vols began the season 2-6, including a heart-breaking loss at LSU where they thought they had held the Tigers out of the endzone on the game's final play, only to be called for too many men on the field. With the extra down, LSU won the game, and Tennessee appeared to be in the midst of a lost season. However, Tennessee won their final 4 games, though none came against teams with winning records and only one came against a bowl team (Kentucky), to become bowl-eligible. Over the course of the season, Tennessee did not do anything particularly well. Their offense ranked just 10th in the SEC, ahead of only Mississippi State and atrocious Vanderbilt. Their defense was not much better, ranking just 9th in the SEC. Now, the Vols did have success in their final 4 league games when freshman quarterback Tyler Bray took over for Matt Simms. The offense averaged 409 yards per game in their final 4 conference games after averaging just 272 in their first 4. Of course, some of this is schedule-related, as 3 of their final 4 opponents were ranked as the worst defenses in the SEC (Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Vandy), while 3 of their first 4 opponents were the best defenses in the SEC (Florida, LSU, and Alabama). Before anointing Bray as the Messiah of the Vol offense, keep in mind two things: schedule strength and small sample size. As for North Carolina, they were not particularly adept an anything either. The offense ranked 7th in the ACC and the defense was 8th. They were both still a bit above average (based on standard deviations from the conference mean), but not special by any means. The Tar Heels did get a pretty good season out of departing quarterback TJ Yates who posted career highs in both completion percentage (67.6%), passing yards (3184), yards per pass (8.3), and touchdown passes (18). North Carolina is probably the better team, as Tennessee is probably a little overvalued after their closing stretch (remember schedule strength is vitally important when evaluating teams), but I wouldn't waste your money picking either side to win or cover.

Holiday Bowl
San Diego, California
Nebraska versus Washington
Nebraska -14
Some things don't need sequels. Joining Gigli and E.T. the video game comes Washington versus Nebraska II: Electric Boogaloo. If you have a short memory and have forgotten that these two teams already faced off this season, consider yourself lucky, as Washington would just as soon forget that too. Way back on September 18th when Cam Newton was not a household name and before the Texas Rangers had ever won a playoff series, these two teams faced off in Seattle. Nebraska annihilated the Huskies 56-21 and held Jake Locker to just 4 completions in 20 attempts. Since that game, the Huskers have maintained a solid season, winning the Big 12 North with the top-ranked defense in the conference and giving Oklahoma quite a tussle in the Big 12 Championship Game. The Huskies actually upset Southern Cal in their next game, but lost 4 of their next 5 to seemingly fall out of bowl contention. Then out of nowhere, they won their final 3 games (none over teams with winning records) to qualify for their first bowl game since 2002! The Huskies do not do anything particularly well, ranking 6th in the Pac-10 on offense and 7th on defense. Despite their 6-6 record, they have been outscored by over 100 points on the year (109 to be exact) and were a very fortunate 4-1 in one-score games, including a pair of one-point wins over Southern Cal and Oregon State. This game should not be competitive, but the previous advice about double-digit favorites applies here, as does motivation. Nebraska may not be 'up' for this game, considering they kicked the Huskies collective ass just 3 months ago, while Washington may be extremely amped, as this is their first bowl game since the current players were in middle school. I wouldn't make any plays on this game.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010 Bowl Preview: Part I

Hello again dear readers. Alas, the regular season is over, but that means we can now commence the bowl after-party. Bowl season begins December 18th and does not end until the early morning hours of January 11th. That's nearly 3 and half weeks and exactly 35 games of postseason action. While it may not be a perfect way to determine a champion, it sure is a fun one. Join Statistically Speaking as your guide through each bowl game with nuggets of information not found anywhere else on the world wide web. As a note, any mention of a team's ranking in its conference refers to the SDPI numbers. And as a special treat, I will designate 5 bowl games as my 'locks of the postseason'. so you can feel safe laying your hard-earned money on those games. :) Without further adieu, let the preview begin.

New Mexico Bowl
Albuquerque, New Mexico
BYU versus UTEP
BYU -11.5
The bowl season kicks off with an interesting clash between the Cougars of BYU and the Miners of UTEP. BYU is making its 6th consecutive trip to the postseason under coach Bronco Mendenhall while UTEP is enjoying postseason success for the first time since 2005. Both teams come into this game heading in opposite directions. BYU began the season 2-5 before winning 5 of their final 6 games to get to bowl eligibility, while UTEP began the year 5-1 before stumbling to the finish line with just a single win in their final 6 games. The relative disappointment of BYU's 6-6 record and the good fortune of UTEP's 6-6 mark can be explained by schedule. Every loss for BYU has come to a team involved in the bowl season, with 4 coming against teams currently ranked in the top 25 (TCU, Nevada, Utah, and Florida State). BYU only beat a pair of bowl teams (Washington and San Diego State) on their schedule, but that easily tops UTEP. The Miners wins this season have come against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (IAA), New Mexico State, Memphis, New Mexico, Rice, and SMU. While SMU did win the Western half of Conference USA and finish 7-6, their other 5 victims combined for just 8 wins over IA teams (against 41 losses). The Miners appear to be overmatched here, finishing in the bottom half of Conference USA in both offense (10th) and defense (7th), while BYU was right at average in the Mountain West on offense (5th) and second only to national power TCU in defense. However, before you go betting the farm on the Cougars, I must give you a warning. In the last 5 bowl seasons, double digit favorites are only 6-15 against the spread, and a respectable (but hardly impervious) 14-7 straight up. In addition, double digit favorites not ranked in the top 10 (non-elite) at the time of the game, are just 3-12 against the spread and 10-5 straight up. Remember, it was just last year in this very same bowl game where Fresno State came in as a heavy favorite over Wyoming (10 to 10.5 points), only to lose in overtime. There are much better bowl games on the board. Get your Christmas or Kwanzaa shopping done and watch this one strictly for the entertainment.

Humanitarian Bowl
Boise, Idaho
Northern Illinois vs Fresno State
Northern Illinois -1.5
If there was one thing you could count on for the past few bowl seasons, it was teams from the MAC losing. In the 4 most recent postseasons (2006-2009), MAC teams went just 2-15 in bowl games, with league overlord Central Michigan notching both of the wins. The conference has not fared much better against the spread either, going 3-13-1, with two of the three covers, and the one push coming via Central Michigan. With that in mind, it may also pay to take a look at the team psychology of the MAC representative in this game. Heading into the MAC Championship Game, Northern Illinois was easily the top team in the MAC, having run roughshod over the conference to the tune of an 8-0 league record (the 3rd straight year the MAC West champ has gone unbeaten against league foes). However, for the second time in 3 seasons, the MAC West champ was also upset in the league title game. While that may not be reason enough to go against the Huskies, keep in mind that a mere 48 hours after the heartbreaking loss to Miami in the title game, coach Jerry Kill accepted the offer to become head coach at Minnesota. That means the Huskies will be led by linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz in the bowl game. Having lost not only the league title, but also their coach in the past few weeks, the Huskies may not be as motivated for the trip west to Boise. As for Fresno State, they were clearly fourth in the WAC pecking order this season, ranking well below the top 3 teams (Boise, Nevada, and Hawaii). However, the Bulldogs did boast the league's 3rd best defense and also defeated a pair of teams from BCS conferences. Of course, no one will confuse Cincinnati and Illinois with elite teams, but the Bulldogs have proven they are at least comparable to mid-level major conference teams. If you must place a wager on this one, consider taking the Bulldogs straight up. In their last 8 bowl games under Pat Hill, the Bulldogs are 0-5 straight up as betting line favorites and 3-0 straight up as betting line underdogs.

New Orleans Bowl
New Orleans, Louisiana
Troy versus Ohio
Troy -1.5
For the 5th straight season, the Troy Trojans won at least a share of the Sun Belt title. The resident dominant program is now 32-5 in Sun Belt play since 2006. Troy is also no stranger to the New Orleans Bowl, having played in the game following the 2006 and 2008 seasons. Troy walloped Rice as a 5-point underdog in 2006 and fell in overtime to Southern Miss as a 4-point favorite in 2008. This season, the Trojans were the Sun Belt's number one offense, scoring at least 28 points in 7 of their 8 league games. The Trojans accomplished this with a freshman quarterback in Corey Robinson. While Robinson was a freshman, his passing was greatly aided by 3 solid senior receivers. Jerrel Jernigan (Troy's all-time leading receiver), Jason Bruce, and Tebiarus Gill, finished 1-2-3 on the team in both receptions and receiving yards. Troy's offense had to be stellar because their defense did not acquit itself well in the Sun Belt. The Trojans were tied with North Texas for the second worst defense in the Sun Belt (only Florida Atlantic was worse). Meanwhile, in Athens, Ohio, Frank Solich is quietly at work building a MAC power. Since Solich arrived on campus prior to the 2005 season, only Central Michigan (34-13) and Northern Illinois (30-17) have a better MAC record than Ohio (30-18). Unfortunately, Solich has not been able to end the school's all-time postseason jinx. Ohio is 0-4 in bowl games and 0-2 in MAC Championship Games. Can he get the Bobcats off the snide this year? In conference play, Ohio won games with their defense, finishing with a below average offense (8th in the 13-team MAC) and solid defense (5th). Ohio has already played one Sun Belt team this season, edging a pretty bad Louisiana-Lafayette team 38-31 in Athens. Troy is a much tougher opponent and with their lack of playmakers on offense, Ohio should struggle to take advantage of Troy's defensive inadequacies. With Troy being such a small favorite, they are the first lock of the bowl season.

St. Petersburg Bowl
St. Petersburg, Florida
Louisville versus Southern Miss
Louisville -3
After 3 straight seasons of missing out on the postseason under Steve Kragthorpe, Charlie Strong has the Cardinals back in the bowl picture for the first time since their spectacular Orange Bowl season of 2006. Louisville was a solid Big East team, finishing fourth in the conference in both offense and defense. Louisville also owns the distinction of being the last team to beat eventual Big East champ Connecticut. Louisville shut the Huskies out 26-0 on October 23rd. Though 6-6 is surely better than what most fans and prognosticators expected from Louisville this season, the results could have been even better had Louisville been a little more fortunate in close games. In games decided by one score (8 points or less), Louisville managed only a 1-5 mark. A few lucky bounces here or there and Louisville could have been looking at an 8-win regular season. As it is, Louisville will look to clinch their first winning season in 4 years against a sneaky good Southern Miss squad. The Golden Eagles are making their 9th consecutive bowl appearance and 13th in 14 seasons. Entering play with an 8-4 mark, Southern Miss has already clinched their 17th consecutive winning season, and with a win would post their first 9-win season since 2006. Like Louisville, Southern Miss was quite proficient on both sides of the ball, finishing 3rd in Conference USA on offense and 4th on defense. Like Louisville, Southern Miss could have had a much better season if they had a few more fortunate bounces. Southern Miss was just 1-3 in one-score games, including a pair of one-point losses to East Carolina and UAB that effectively cost them a shot at the Conference USA title (they beat league champ UCF on the road by 10). This game appears to be a tossup, so if you are feeling lucky, you may wanna take Southern Miss straight up on the moneyline. I know this is a matchup of BCS league versus non-BCS league, but Southern Miss is 1-1 on the season versus BCS conference schools, losing at Steve Spurrier's best South Carolina team, and beating the husk of the formerly formidable Kansas Jayhawks. Louisville is not close to South Carolina's class, but is also several notches above Kansas, at least this season. This should be one of the more entertaining games of the early bowl season.

Las Vegas Bowl
Las Vegas, Nevada
Boise State versus Utah
Boise State -17
Thanks to a couple of missed kicks versus Nevada, this is Boise's destination instead of Pasadena. Despite the relatively low-level bowl destination, with a win here, Boise actually has a chance to finish in the top 10 for the second consecutive season and 3rd time in 5 seasons under coach Chris Petersen. The Broncos were statistically the most dominant team in the WAC, and you would have a hard time convincing me they were not one of the 5 or 6 best teams in the nation. Meanwhile, Utah was statistically only the 4th best team in the Mountain West (below TCU, BYU, and Air Force), but the Utes managed to finish all alone in second place thanks to some clutch play. Utah won 4 games by 5 points or less. Those wins all came against good teams (Pitt, Air Force, San Diego State, and BYU), but against the lone elite team they faced this season (TCU), the Utes were blown off their own field by 40 points. The hangover from that loss continued the next week on the road when they managed only a field goal in an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame. This game has all the makings of a Boise blow out, but I would advise you to avoid it, thanks to the aforementioned double digit favorite factor as well as two other reasons. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is unbeaten in bowl games (5-0), winning twice as nearly double digit underdogs (versus Georgia Tech a 9-point dog in 2005 and famously versus Alabama as a 9-point dog in 2008). In addition, while Boise is 2-0 under Chris Petersen in BCS bowls (winning the 2006 and 2009 Fiesta Bowls as underdogs), they are 0-2 in non-BCS games (losing the 2007 Hawaii Bowl as a 10-point favorite to East Carolina and falling by a single point to TCU in the 2008 Poinsettia Bowl). Perhaps that just reflects a random split, or perhaps the Broncos are not as motivated when not playing under the biggest, brightest lights. Either way, there are much safer bowl games to waste your hard-earned money on.

Poinsettia Bowl
San Diego, California
San Diego State versus Navy
San Diego State -4.5
Welcome back to the postseason Aztecs! For the first time since 1998, and just the second time in the last 20 years, San Diego State is bowl bound. The Aztecs improved by 4 games in their second season under Brady Hoke, reversing their record from 4-8 to 8-4. Now, can the Aztecs actually win their first bowl game since 1969? San Diego State was pretty balanced this season. Their offense was the 3rd best in the Mountain West behind the blistering performance of TCU and the solid play of Air Force. The Aztecs have some below the radar stars on that side of the ball. Freshman running back Ronnie Hillman rushed for over 1300 yards, including an impressive 228 yards at Missouri early in the season. Junior quarterback Ryan Lindley enjoyed another solid season, throwing more than 3500 yards and 26 touchdowns. Lindley's passing was the epitome of boom or bust. Among qualifying quarterbacks, he ranked 11th nationally in yards per pass (8.9), but 84th in completion percentage (56.5%), Lindley threw to a pair of receivers who gained more than 1000 yards. Seniors Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson each gained over 1100 yards through the air. The Aztecs were one of only 4 teams nationally to produce a pair of 1000-yard receivers in 2010 (Hawaii, SMU, and Western Michigan were the others), and along with Hawaii, were the only team have two players top 1100 yards. Defensively, San Diego State was a little below average, ranking 5th in the 9-team Mountain West. In the Poinsettia Bowl, the Aztecs will be taking on a team that is very accustomed to playing in the postseason in the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen will be making their 8th consecutive bowl appearance and 3rd appearance in the 6th annual Poinsettia Bowl. The Midshipmen are 1-1 all-time in Poinsettia Bowls, winning the first edition of the game in 2005 over Colorado State and losing to Utah in 2007. Navy has a pretty good track record, at least against the spread, in their recent bowl history. In their 7 previous bowl appearances, since they started making bowls again in 2003, the Midshipmen are just 3-4 overall, but an impressive 5-2 against the number. Their overall record is even more impressive when one considers they have been underdogs in 6 of the 7 bowl games. Navy has been a very interesting team this season. It's not incorrect to say they are just a few plays away from an unbeaten campaign. Each of their 3 losses have come by 8 points or fewer. However, one of those losses somehow came to Duke. In addition, Navy has won 4 games by 7 points or fewer, including a pair of one-point wins over bad Wake Forest and Central Michigan teams. Of course, they also whipped a bowl-bound Notree Dame team by 18, and dropped 76 points on an admittedly porous, but nonetheless bowl eligible East Carolina team. I think the Midshipmen are a good bet to cover this number despite the fact that San Diego State has already faced one triple-option team this year (Air Force). San Diego State won that game, but the Falcons put up 487 yards on them, with 312 coming on the ground. Methinks Navy would also be a solid play on the moneyline here.

Hawaii Bowl
Honolulu, Hawaii
Hawaii versus Tulsa
Hawaii -11
For the second time in 3 seasons under coach Greg McMackin, the Hawaii Warriors will end their season playing in the Hawaii. Bowl. This marks Hawaii's 6th appearance in the Hawaii bowl in the past 9 seasons. In their previous 5 trips (or stays as it were), the Warriors are 3-2, so a victory, even on the friendly confines of the islands is not assured. Surprisingly, in the offensive friendly environment of the WAC, the Warriors boasted the league's second best defense (though it was still a great deal worse than league leader Boise's). Don't worry, the Warriors didn't become the WAC's version of Boston College overnight. The offense still ranked 3rd in the WAC, a notch below Nevada and Boise. The Warriors come into the game on a good roll, having won 10 of 11 after a 1-2 start. Their lone loss in that span was of course their trip to the blue turf in Boise where they were crushed 42-7 and outgained by over 500 yards. Outside of that loss, the Warriors were very dominant in their last 11 games, with only a single win coming by fewer than 20 points (their 27-21 home win over Nevada). Their opponent, looking to spoil their Christmas Eve fun, is the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. After a little bump in the road last season, when they went just 5-7, Tulsa is back in the postseason for the 5th time in 6 seasons and a win would give them at least 10 wins for the 3rd time in coach Todd Graham's 4 seasons. Tulsa won games in Conference USA with their offense, ranking first in the league in that category. The Tea Party would begrudge the Golden Hurricane offense as it took a very Socialistic approach to moving the football. Though they rushed for 219 yards per game (15th nationally), their leading rusher was quarterback GJ Kinne, who totaled just 557 yards. Their second leading rusher was a wide receiver (Damaris Johnson) who tallied just 462 yards, but also led the teams in receptions (53) and receiving yards (771). All told, 9 players gained at least 100 yards on the ground for the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa also ranked 16th nationally in passing yards per game (284 per), but as previously mentioned, Johnson led with only 53 catches (tied for 77th nationally) and 771 yards (67th). However, once again, they had 5 players catch at least 21 passes and 10 catch at least 12. Of course, with all those offensive weapons, there had to be a reason Tulsa failed to win Conference USA right? Of course. And that reason was defense. The Golden Hurricane ranked 9th in the league in defense, and their inability to bat down a Hail Mary against East Carolina in the season opener cost them the Conference USA West championship. Hawaii appears to be the stronger team in this game, and is playing at home. However, the previous rule of double digit bowl game favorites applies here (there are 6 double digit favorites in this bowl season, so that trend will be tested). Enjoy this game while you wait up on Saint Nick (or Kwanzaa-Bot or The Chanukah Zombie), but don't spend your holiday bonus wagering on it.

Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl
Detroit, Michigan
Toledo versus Florida International
Toledo -1.5
Congratulations to the Golden Panthers. Just 9 years into their existence, just 7 years into Division I status, and just 3 years removed from a 23-game losing streak, Florida International is a conference champion and bowl participant. The Golden Panthers began the season by playing very competitively in losses to Rutgers and Texas A&M (5 and 7-point losses). They also hung with Maryland (14-point loss), and then stayed with Pitt for a bit. After the 0-4 start, the Golden Panthers won 6 of 7 in the Sun Belt to set up a showdown with Middle Tennessee State for the outright Sun Belt title on the first weekend in December. Florida International lost by a point and had to settle for a share of the Sun Belt title with Troy. Still, the Golden Panthers can take solace in the fact that they have the tiebreaker over the Trojans (thanks to their head-to-head win) and perhaps more importantly were statistically the best team in the league. Unlike Troy, Florida International was balanced with their offense ranking second to Troy in the Sun Belt, and their defense ranking second to Western Kentucky. While Toledo is a great deal more experienced in the postseason than Florida International, they had suffered through 4 straight losing seasons before breaking out with an 8-4 record in 2010. The Rockets featured one of the better offenses in the MAC, ranking 3rd behind Northern Illinois and Western Michigan. The offense really seemed to hit its stride over the final 4 games when freshman quarterback Terrance Owens assumed the role of full-time starter. In those games, the Rockets averaged 443 yards per contest. In their first 4 MAC league games, the team averaged just 331 yards per contest. Toledo's defense was just about average by MAC standards, ranking 7th in the 13-team league. This should be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. What it lacks in marquee star power, it more than makes up for with hungry players and potentially upwardly mobile coaches. Look for the Rockets to have a little too much firepower in this one.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Fab Five: Week XIV

I continued my solid prognosticating last week with a 6-4 mark, bringing my yearly record to 68-61-1). Can we end the season with 3 straight weeks in the black? As always, home teams are in Bold.

5 Dogs I Like

Last Week: 2-3
Overall: 29-35-1

Arizona State +6 Arizona
The Sun Devils from Arizona State have been one of the most unlucky teams in 2010. They stand 5-6 after 11 games, but 4 of those losses have come by a combined 9 points, including a pair of one-point defeats at Wisconsin (when an extra point was blocked) and at Southern Cal (when an extra point was blocked and returned for a two-point score). Their only losses by more than four points have come against Oregon (11 points) and at Cal (33 points). 3 of the last 5 in this rivalry have been decided by exactly 3 points. Look for that trend to continue in a nailbiter in Tucson.

Fresno State +5.5 Illinois
The last BCS conference team to make a trip west to face Fresno ended up losing by two touchdowns. The Illini are a little better than Cincinnati, but there are plenty of reasons for fans to be concerned about this game. Since 2007, Fresno State has hosted 3 BCS conference teams. They are 2-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming by three points. Illinois has to make a cross-country trip to face a hungry foe. This one will definitely be close.

SMU +9 Central Florida
For the third time in the event's existence, UCF will play host to the Conference USA Championship Game. The Golden Knights posted the league's best record with a 7-1 conference mark and a 9-3 overall record. However, according to SDPI, SMU is a hair better. The Mustangs are a close second to UCF in defense and are a little better offensively, at least in league play. Thus, if the game was in Dallas, SMU should be favored. I don't think its a mistake to favor UCF at home, but nearly a double-digit spread seems a tad high. This game should be very tight.

Louisiana Tech +9.5 Nevada
Nevada has assured themselves a share of the WAC title with last weeks historic upset of league overlord Boise State. Oh, wait a minute, the Wolfpack still have one more league game to go before they can proclaim themselves league champs. The Wolfpack are coming off perhaps the biggest win in the program's IA history and are going on the road to take on a team fighting for bowl eligibility. Nevada has not exactly dominated away from Reno against competent foes, losing to Hawaii and edging Fresno State by a single point. Look for the Bulldogs to keep this one close.

San Jose State +13.5 Idaho
With a win here, Idaho would have 14 wins over the past two seasons. That total is one fewer win than they had in the 6-season span from 2003-2008. Of course, don't take that to mean that Idaho is a good team. The Vandals are a hair better than the cesspool that sits at the bottom of the WAC (Utah State, New Mexico State, and San Jose State), but should not be favored by nearly two touchdowns over any IA team.

Five Faves I Like

Last Week: 4-1
Overall: 39-26

Northern Illinois -17.5 Vs Miami (Ohio)
First off, congratulations are in order for the Redhawks. After going 1-11 last season (1-7 in the MAC), the Redhawks flipped the script and finished the regular season 8-4 (7-1 in the MAC). The Redhawks did it by winning all the close games. 5 of their 7 league wins were by a touchdown or less. Unfortunately, outside the conference, they did not fare so well. The Redhawks lost to BCS conference members Florida, Missouri, and Cincinnati by an average of 34 points per game. Northern Illinois is the closest Miami will come to facing a BCS conference team in the MAC. The Huskies are currently ranked in the top-25 and come in riding a 9-game winning streak. In that span, only 3 wins have come by fewer than 17 and a half points (Minnesota by 11, Temple by 14, and Western Michigan by 7). The Huskies are far and away the best team in the MAC and they should roll here.

Troy -4.5 Florida Atlantic
In all likelihood, with a win here, Troy will become the second Sun Belt bowl team (joining first time champ Florida International). The Trojans are one of the nation's more imbalanced teams, boasting both the Sun Belt's best offense and worst defense. The good news for them here is that Florida Atlantic not only has the worst offense in the Sun Belt, they also have one of its worst defenses (ahead of only Troy and North Texas). This spread should be closer to a touchdown. Look for Troy to win a high-scoring game here.

Florida International -5 Middle Tennessee State
Speaking of Florida International, the Panthers can lock up their first ever winning season (in just their 9th season of play) with a win at home against the Blue Raiders. The Blue Raiders could still capture a bowl bid if things break right for them, so they have motivation. Unfortunately, they are not very good. Florida International is clearly the Sun Belt's best team, and playing at home should be more than a touchdown favorite here.

Virginia Tech -4 Florida State
The first ACC Championship Game in Charlotte is actually a rematch of the first ever ACC Championship Game. In that contest 5 seasons ago, the Seminoles upset the Hokies at two-touchdown underdogs and advanced to the Orange Bowl. Could history repeat itself? I doubt it. The Seminoles did not play well down the stretch, losing two of their last four conference games, and needing a great kick to squeak by Clemson. The Seminoles looked great in the trouncing of Florida last week, but SDPI favors Virginia Tech in this one. The spread should probably by closer to a touchdown here.

Boise State -38 Utah State
Pencil in your typical Boise blue turf smackdown here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fab Five: Week XIII

After a long, dry spell, I finally hit it big in Week XII. I managed my best record of the year, 8-2 (including a fantastic 5-0 on favorites) to bring my overall record to a 62-57-1). We'll try to make it two good weeks in a row. As always, home teams are in Bold.

5 Dogs I Like

Last Week: 3-2
Overall: 27-32-1

West Virginia +3 Pittsburgh
This backyard brawl has down-to-the-wire struggle written all over it. Not only have the last 3 in this series all been decided by 4 points or fewer, but these are clearly the two best teams in the conference. Based on my SDPI numbers, West Virginia is slightly better, with a very dominant defense. Its hard to have much faith in either head coach, but when in doubt, go against the Wannstache.

Southern Miss +3.5 Tulsa
The Golden Eagles have got to be kicking themselves. They have lost a pair of conference games by a single point. If either game had gone the other way, Southern Miss would be playing this game for an opportunity to host the Conference USA Championship Game. As it stands now, they must win and hope for the near impossible (a Memphis upset of UCF). Championship or not, the Golden Eagles have played the best on a down-to-down basis of any team in Conference USA. Thus, they should probably be a slight favorite here.

BYU +9 Utah
What looked like a lost season for the Cougars in early October (1-4 start) has actually evolved into yet another fine campaign. If they can manage to get past Utah in their final game as conference rivals, the Cougars would actually finish in a tie for second place in the Mountain West. Based on SDPI, BYU is actually a hair superior to Utah, and thus them getting nearly double digits is an excellent bet.

Florida Atlantic +4.5 Middle Tennessee State
I'm not sure why the point spread continues to favor Middle Tennessee State so much. Make no mistake, the Blue Raiders are a bad team. The worst in the Sun Belt by SDPI. Last week, they needed a 99-yard fumble return to edge Western Kentucky by a single point, one week after losing at home to North Texas. They may win against the Owls, who are no great team themselves, but it should be close.

Western Kentucky +13 Troy
The Hilltoppers have played much better in their first season under head coach Willie Taggart than their 2-9 record would indicate. They have lost 4 games by 7 points or less, including a pair of one-point defeats. They boast the best defense in the Sun Belt by a large margin, and have one of college football's hidden gems in running back Bobby Rainey. Rainey has accumulated nearly 1500 yards on the ground and scored 13 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Troy needs one victory in their final two games to be bowl eligible for the 5th straight season. the Trojans have the league's top-ranked offense, so their matchup with Western Kentucky's defense should be entertaining. However, their defense also happens to be the worst in the Sun Belt. Even if Troy scores a lot of points, their defense (or lack thereof) will probably make this game very close.

Five Faves I Like

Last Week: 5-0
Overall: 35-25

Toledo -4 Central Michigan
The Rockets have performed well in coach Tim Beckman's second season, clinching both their first winning season and bowl bid since 2005. Meanwhile, Central Michigan has struggled in the first year of the Dan Enos regime, clinching their first losing season since 2004. Toledo is better on both sides of the ball than the Chippewas and is playing at home (where they have yet to lose in conference play). This spread should be closer to a touchdown.

SMU -1 East Carolina
The East Carolina defense has disintegrated, particularly recently, as the Pirates have allowed at least 42 points in their last 4 games, and in that span have twice allowed more than 60. On the season, the Pirates rank dead last nationally in both total and scoring defense. Amazingly, in conference play, they rank just second to last (narrowly edging Rice). Meanwhile, SMU, for all the talk of June Jones and his spread offense, actually has the best defense in all of Conference USA. The Mustangs can clinch a spot in the Conference USA Championship Game with a win here, and they should do just that.

Western Michigan -6.5 Bowling Green
The Broncos from Western Michigan will try to attain bowl eligibility for the 4th time in 6 seasons with a win in their road finale. When Western Michigan has won, it has been big. Their 5 wins have all come by at least 15 points, with 3 coming by at least 30. The Broncos are statistically one of the MAC's better teams, while Bowling Green only rates as better than winless Akron. The Broncos must win here and pull against a few major conference teams (Texas and Georgia to name a pair) to have a shot at a bowl bid.

Florida International -5 Arkansas State
The Sun Belt's best team (both statistically and in the standings) has a chance to lock up their first ever conference title on Saturday. Just 4 short seasons ago, the Panthers of Florida International were winless, and in the midst of a 23-game losing streak. Now they are on the cusp of a league crown. Arkansas State is better than their 4-7 record would indicate, but will not be able to cover this relatively small number on the road.

Louisiana Tech -11.5 San Jose State
I thought this was a misprint when I first saw the spread. San Jose State is not only the worst team in the WAC, they may also be the worst team in the nation. The Spartans have yet to beat a single IA foe, going 1-1 against a pair of IAA teams. They rank last in the WAC in the SDPI measures of offense and defense. All they have going for them here is that this game is at home. Louisiana Tech should be favored by about 3 touchdowns here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fab Five: Week XII

Another week, another disappointment. I went a discouraging 4-6 last week to drop my overall record to a game under .500 (54-55-1). In the last few weeks of the season, I'll make a push to get back in the black. As always, home teams are in Bold.

5 Dogs I Like

Last Week: 2-3
Overall: 24-30-1

Eastern Michigan +7 Buffalo
Believe it or not, this is not sour grapes directed at a Buffalo team I was all over as a slight favorite last week. Eastern Michigan is a little better than their 1-9 record would indicate. They have had the misfortune of facing 3 BCS schools in the non-conference, while also playing in what I consider the tougher MAC division (West) and drawing two of the tougher teams from the East (Ohio and Miami). Meanwhile, Buffalo is somehow a 7-point favorite despite owning a single IA win this season. That win by the way, came by two points. Look for Eastern Michigan to keep this one close, and perhaps pull off an outright upset.

Miami +2.5 Virginia Tech
Virgina Tech has basically locked up the Coastal division of the ACC, needing just one more win, either in this game or at home next week against Virginia, to win the Coastal for the 4th time in 6 seasons. Oddly though, the SDPI numbers view Miami as the bets team in ACC. Unfortunately for them, their odd loss at Virginia will likely keep them from bringing home the division crown even if they win this game. Miami has the numbers and the homefield, so take them especially when getting points.

NC State +2.5 North Carolina
The Wolfpack control their own destiny in the ACC Atlantic division race, needing wins in their final two games against North Carolina and Maryland to guarantee passage to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game. Much like Miami, the SDPI numbers also love NC State, ranking them just a smidge behind Miami and Virginia Tech. The numbers do not have such kind fondness for North Carolina, ranking them 9th in the ACC (ahead of only Virginia, Duke, and Wake Forest). Tom O'Brien has not lost to North Carolina since taking over at NC State. Look for that trend to continue as NC State should set up a win-and-you're-in game against Maryland over Thanksgiving weekend.

Western Kentucky +5 Middle Tennessee State
For some odd reason, the spread numbers have not caught on to the fact that Middle Tennessee State is just not a good team this season. The Blue Raiders lost last week at home to a lameduck North Texas squad, and have also suffered setbacks to Memphis (1-9) and Minnesota (2-9). Western Kentucky has the top-ranked defense in the Sun Belt and is coming off a heart-stopping upset of Arkansas State (went for two points when they scored in OT). The Hilltoppers have been very competitive this season, with 3 of their 4 conference losses coming by a combined 13 points. Middle Tennessee should not be a road favorite over any team, so the 'Toppers are the pick here.

Arkansas State +13.5 Navy
Navy has continued their winning ways under head coach Ken Niumatalolo since he took over for the much easier to spell Paul Johnson. Coach Ken is 25-13 as Navy head coach and has beaten Notre Dame twice. However, one area where the Midshipmen have not performed well under coach Ken is covering the spread as a favorite. In his nearly 3 seasons as the helm, the Midshipmen are just 5-9-1 ATS as a favorite. Keep that in mind with a spread nearing two touchdowns.

Five Faves I Like

Last Week: 2-3
Overall: 30-25

Pittsburgh -3 South Florida
Pitt burned me last week when they lost as about a touchdown favorite at Connecticut. Naturally, I'm all in on getting burned again (once bitten). The Panthers are still statistically the best team in the Big East, while the Bulls have not done anything exceptionally well this season except win close games (3-1 in one-score games). Hopefully, this one will not be close.

Western Michigan -3 Kent State
The Broncos from Western Michigan are a third of the way through their closing stretch where they must win every game to attain bowl eligibility. The good news is that if they can get by Kent State, they will likely be favored in their final game at Bowling Green. Western Michigan is only 3-3 in the MAC, but have outscored their 6 league foes by a combined 56 points. They have lost one game to the league's best team (Northern Illinois) by 7, and another to their archrivals (Central Michigan) by 4. Kent State could also qualify for a bowl game by winning out (they close with Ohio), but Western Michigan appears to be a much stronger team and is playing at home.

Tennessee -8.5 Vanderbilt
Has Tennessee finally found a quarterback? Freshman quarterback Tyler Bray has thrown 8 touchdowns over the past two games (10 over the last 3 if we count his work against South Carolina). Of course, Memphis and Ole Miss are not exactly defensive wiz kids. The good news for Tennessee this week is that Vanderbilt also sucks at defense. While Vandy enjoyed one of their finest offensive performances of the season against Kentucky last week, they still allowed the Wildcats to roll up 580 yards and were never really a factor in the game in the second half. Vanderbilt has been a big dog in 5 straight SEC games and has failed to cover in each one. This represents the smallest spread in that string. Look for Tennessee to cover easily here.

Louisiana-Monroe -1 North Texas
Fresh off a kneecapping at the hands of LSU, Louisiana-Monroe returns home for two games, hoping to lock up their first bowl bid in school history. The Warhawks face off against a North Texas team that has been very competitive in the last 3 games, beating Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, and losing by only 6 to Troy. Still, thanks to their 1-6 start, the Mean Green have only pride to play for and with great motivation, the Warhawks should be able to win this game.

Arkansas -3.5 Mississippi State
Outside of Auburn, what team in the SEC is playing their best football now? Gotta be Arkansas. Even discounting their beatdown of UTEP, the Razorbacks have also crushed SEC East champ South Carolina in their own stadium. And let's not forget the win over Texas A&M from earlier in the season that is looking better and better. Arkansas is going to put a lot of points on the board (probably at least 24). Mississippi State has a hard time scoring, especially in the conference, being held 14 points or fewer 4 times in 6 games. Look for Arkansas to win this one by about a touchdown.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fab Five: Week XI

I stopped the bleeding a tad last week with a 5-5 performance. Ironically, I nailed the dogs for one of the few times all season going 4-1, but totally whiffed on the favorites, going 1-4. That brings the yearly tally to 50-49-1. As always, home teams are in Bold.

5 Dogs I Like

Last Week: 4-1
Overall: 22-27-1

Southern Miss +10 UCF
My SDPI numbers say Southern Miss is the best team in Conference USA. While my eyes disagree, and give the benefit of the doubt to UCF, this spread still seems a bit too high. This should a be a competitive battle between the two best teams in the east division.

Texas +5.5 Oklahoma State
The Longhorns have plummeted to depths most (if not all) felt were impossible. They must either win this game against the Cowboys or the finale against Texas A&M to become bowl eligible (this is assuming they beat Florida Atlantic in between). Still, even with their struggles this season, the Longhorns have the statistical profile of a strong team. They have the top SDPI defense in the Big 12 and are 5th nationally in total defense. To me, this feels a lot like the Nebraska game where the Longhorns were counted out, but held the Huskers powerful offense in check en route to an upset win.

Ole Miss +2 Tennessee
Amazingly, the loser of this game is out of the running for the postseason. The Rebels have fallen on hard times with the loss of quarterback Jevan Snead, running back Dexter McCluster, and defensive lineman Greg Hardy following the 2009 season. Tennessee has fallen on hard times with the 11th hour coaching change. Ole Miss is solid offensively, and awful on defense while Tennessee is pretty bad on both sides of the ball. In that case, take the team that at least has something to hang its hat on.

Louisiana-Monroe +32.5 LSU
This one has the makings of a 31-0 or 35-3 Tiger win. Remember: Les Miles = great at winning (especially ugly), awful at covering the spread (especially as a favorite).

Western Kentucky +12 Arkansas State
Believe it or not, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (in just their second season in the Sun Belt) have the league's top-rated SDPI defense. That unit will be put to the test against the second best offense in the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky has bene surprisingly competitive as of late, as just one of their past 5 losses has come by more than 12 points.

Five Faves I Like

Last Week: 1-4
Overall: 28-22

Pitt -6 Connecticut
As wary as I am of taking a Dave Wannstedt team on the road, consider that Connecticut ranks dead last in the Big East in both offense and defense. Meanwhile, Pitt has gotten over their early season struggles and have reeled off 3 straight wins, each by at least 17 points. Connecticut managed to upset West Virginia in their last home game thanks to West Virginia fumbles. If Pitt holds on to the ball, they should win this one rather handily.

Buffalo -3 Ball State
Was it really just two short years ago when Ball State ended the regular season with a 12-0 record? Since finishing the 2008 regular season 12-0, the Cardinals have gone just 5-19 with losses to the likes of New Hampshire (IAA), Liberty (IAA), and North Texas. Ironically, Buffalo began the Cardinals decent into the abyss with a MAC Championship Game upset. The Bulls have also suffered through a bit of a lost season, defeating just a single IA foes this year (Bowling Green). Last week, Ball State tried with all their might to give Akron their first win of the year before prevailing in overtime. Look for Buffalo to be able to finish the job.

Tulane -4 Rice
Tulane is one of the more undervalued teams in the nation. According to the SDPI numbers, they rank 6th in Conference USA. However, they have had the misfortune to play the teams ranked first (Southern Miss), second (SMU), fourth (Houston), and fifth (Tulsa) in the league already. Hence their seemingly poor 1-4 league record. Meanwhile, Rice has outpaced only Memphis in terms of performance in the league. This spread should be about four or five points higher. Tulane should win by at least a touchdown.

NC State -19 Wake Forest
Think Russell Wilson is licking his chops as he prepares to face the Deacon secondary? Wake Forest ranks 110th in the nation in opposing quarterback rating (150.02), having allowed 24 touchdown passes on the season while notching just 7 interceptions. The only teams to not have outstanding games through the air against Wake were a pair of option teams (Georgia Tech and Navy). Wake has not come closer than 31 points in any of their four road games this season. Look for that trend to continue Saturday.

Louisville -3 South Florida
This spread is surprisingly low considering how improved Louisville appears to be this season. The Cardinals are a win away from bowl eligibility and 3 of their 4 losses have come by a single score. South Florida is also a win away from bowl eligibility, but in games against legit IA competition (games not involving Stony Brook, Western Kentucky, or Florida Atlantic) have struggled on both offense and defense. Louisville should probably be favored by at least a touchdown here.