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.

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