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.

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