Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part I

The bowl season is an entertaining way to end the college football season. While it may not be a perfect way to crown a champion, it does allow hardcore football junkies like myself to get their fix for another three weeks. With that in mind, Statistically Speaking will preview all 35 bowl games over the coming days and give you the five biggest locks of the bowl season. Enjoy these 35 games. There won't be anymore until late August.

The Game: New Mexico Bowl
The Teams: Temple vs Wyoming
The Line: Temple -7
After enduring nearly three decades of ineptitude after their win in the Garden State Bowl following the 1979 season, the Temple Owls have miraculously risen from the dead. This season marks their third straight with at least eight wins. The rejuvenation began under Al Golden, now the head man at Miami, and continued under first-year coach Steve Addazio. The Owls were lead by their defense, which was the second best in the MAC behind Kent State. They pitched two shutouts on the season (versus Ball State and Buffalo) and held the Maryland Terrapins to just seven points. The Owls will seek their first bowl win since 1979 against a Wyoming team that surprised many by winning eight games in the regular season. The eight wins were their most since 1998, and a win in this bowl would give then the most wins since a certain mustachioed spread-offense trailblazer was stalking the sidelines. While the 'Pokes do own eight wins, they actually failed to outscore their opponents on the season (scoring and allowing 324 points). Five of their eight wins came against either IAA teams (Weber State and Texas State) or against the dregs of IA (Colorado State, New Mexico, and UNLV). Wyoming was also 5-0 in one-score games, while each of their defeats came by at least eleven points. The close game phenomenon has become something of an odd-year quirk under head coach Dave Christensen. In his first season (2009), the Cowboys went 6-0 in one-score games en route to a New Mexico Bowl win for a 7-6 mark. Last season, the Cowboys were just 2-3 in one-score games and fell to 3-9. Christensen better carry his lucky rabbit's foot with him because Temple appears to be the better team. Wyoming's special season is more a function of a fantastic turnover margin and close game randomness than anything else. Temple should win this game, but there are much better games to wager on.

The Game: Idaho Potato Bowl
The Teams: Utah State vs Ohio
The Line: Utah State -3
At 7-5, the Utah State Aggies have clinched their first winning season since 1996. The Aggies enjoyed or endured depending on your point of view, one of the stranger seasons by a mid-major in quite sometime. They opened the season, you may remember, by nearly beating Auburn in Jordan Hare. They followed that up with more late game failures, in losing to Colorado State, BYU, and Louisiana Tech by a combined eleven points. In between, they crushed IAA Weber State and bowl bound Wyoming by a combined 81 points, so despite a very good scoring margin, they stood just 2-5 after seven games. After that, they didn't play quite as well in the meat of their WAC schedule after their starting quarterback Chuckie Keeton was injured against Hawaii, but they won their final five games, with none coming by more than seven points (total margin in those five games of 19 points). Adam Kennedy replaced Keeton for the final four and a half games and performed quite well. Against their WAC brethren, the Aggies were good on offense, but a shade below Nevada and Fresno State, and good on defense, but a shade below Louisiana Tech and Nevada. The Aggies will head to Idaho attempting to win just their second bowl game ever against the Ohio Bobcats. The rebuild under Frank Solich is in its seventh season and going quite well. The Bobcats played in their third MAC Championship Game under Solich and fell by three on a last second field goal to Northern Illinois. That loss, coupled with their three bowl defeats under Solich and two under Bill Hess in the 1960's mean the Bobcats are still waiting on their first postseason win. This is probably their best chance. The Bobcats have their best offense yet under Solich. Compared to their MAC brethren, the Bobcats have only been above-average on the offensive side of the ball one other time in the Solich-era (that was 2006). That offense was less than a quarter of one standard deviation above-average. This season, led by sophomore quarterback Tyler Tettleton (Mickey's son) and senior receiver LaVon Brazill, the Bobcats were three quarters of one standard deviation above average. This is hardly a lock, but if you must wager on this game, take the Bobcats straight up.

The Game: New Orleans Bowl
The Teams: San Diego State vs Louisiana-Lafayette
The Line: San Diego State -5
After going to just one bowl game from 1992-2009, the Aztecs will be playing in their second straight down in the Big Easy. Brady Hoke may have headed east to Michigan, but he left a solid foundation for Rocky Long. Long, you may remember, is no stranger to postseason games, having led New Mexico to five of them in eleven seasons as head coach. In the past two seasons, only two players have rushed for more yards than San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman. LaMichael James of Oregon is first at 3377 yards. Bobby Rainey of Western Kentucky is second with 3344 yards. Hillman has 'just' 3188 yards in the past two seasons (oh, and he is only a sophomore). San Diego State will be taking on the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette, who are making their maiden postseason voyage this season. Under first-year head coach Mark Hudspeth the Ragin' Cajuns boasted the second-best offense in the Sun Belt and were involved in a number of high-scoring affairs. Five times in their twelve games, the Ragin' Cajuns and their opponents both netted at least 30 points (3-2 record in those games). And lest you think Mr. Hudspeth is a one-year wonder at Lafayette, keep in mind he had a pretty successful seven-year run at Division II North Alabama. The Lions went 66-21 in his seven seasons, with four postseason appearances and a pair of trips to the national semifinals. This should be one of the more entertaining matchups of the bowl season. And since the Ragin' Cajuns are playing in their home state, they wouldn't be a bad play straight up.

The Game: Beef O'Brady's Bowl
The Teams: FIU vs Marshall
The Line: FIU -4
After winning a share of the Sun Belt championship last season, in just their ninth year of playing football (and seventh year in IA), much was expected in of FIU in 2011. I think its fair to say they disappointed a little. While they did set a school record with eight wins, they actually finished in fourth place in the Sun Belt, behind Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, and Louisiana-Lafayette. The problem was the offense. After boasting both the second-best Sun Belt offense and defense in 2010, the offense regressed to second-to-last in 2011. The defense remained strong, falling to just third in the conference. Meanwhile, Marshall will be playing in their second bowl game in three seasons under second-year coach Doc Holliday. While the Herd are bowl bound at 6-6, they hardly qualify as a good team. They were outscored by nearly 100 points over the course of the season, and five of their six wins came by a touchdown or less. The Thundering Herd did somehow manage to defeat Southern Miss (Conference USA champion) and Louisville (Big East co-champ also beaten by FIU). However, their other four wins came against Rice, UAB, Memphis, and East Carolina (combined record of 14-34). Marshall was equally unimpressive in their ranking amongst Conference USA schools, finishing tenth in the conference on offense and eighth on defense. This game is in Florida and appears to be a pretty solid mismatch. For this reason, FIU is my first lock of the bowl season.The Game: Poinsettia Bowl
The Teams: TCU vs Louisiana Tech
The Line: TCU -10.5
It's not quite the Rose Bowl they played in last year, but the Poinsettia is still a red flower, and TCU still enjoyed a very good season. Win or lose, they should finish the season ranked for the fourth straight season. A fourth straight season in the top-10 is a long shot, but at least within the realm of possibility. TCU has run off seven straight wins after a lackluster 3-2 start that included losses to fellow Texas private schools Baylor and SMU. During the win streak, the Horned Frogs upset Boise on the smurf turf, a loss that may have cost the Broncos a shot at the national title. The Frogs defense, which was torched on the opening Friday night of the season by eventual Heisman Trophy winner RG3, has returned to prominence. While they are not quite at the elite level of the past three seasons, the defense has allowed just 308 yards per game in the seven-game win streak (after allowing 410 per game in the 3-2 start). In this game, the Frogs will be facing off against the best defense in the WAC. The Air Raid attack Sonny Dykes intended to bring to Ruston has yet to take off, but in his second season at the helm, the Bulldogs won their first WAC title since 2001. The Bulldogs also had a spate of near misses in the non-conference, losing by two points to eventual Conference USA champion Southern Miss, by a single point to Conference USA runner-up Houston, and in overtime to a bowl team from the SEC (Mississippi State). Like TCU, the Bulldogs closed the year with a seven-game win streak. Five of those seven wins came on the road, including wins against the two teams tied for second in the WAC (Nevada and Utah State) and Ole Miss. Keep these two things in mind if you plan on wagering on this game. Louisiana Tech is probably better than you think, and since 2005, double-digit favorites in bowl games are just 9-17 ATS (Against the Spread).

The Game: MAACO Las Vegas Bowl
The Teams: Boise State vs Arizona State
The Line: Boise State -14
Boise State is always looking to get a shot at a BCS-conference opponent, but this is probably not what they had envisioned as their postseason reward. Arizona State closed the season with four consecutive defeats, including losses against Washington State and Arizona. The losing streak not only cost Dennis Erickson his job, but also put UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Erickson will coach the bowl game before he rides off into the sunset. Boise should have their way against a poor Arizona State defense. The Sun Devils finished ahead of only sieves Arizona and Colorado in defensive acumen in the Pac-12. In fact, during their four-game skid, the Sun Devils allowed 496 yards per game. If you feel like making a play on one of the early double-digit favorites to cover, I think Boise State is a much safer bet than TCU.

The Game: Hawaii Bowl
The Teams: Southern Miss vs Nevada
The Line: Southern Miss -6
This Christmas Eve showcase is a clash of the surprise Conference USA champ and the preseason favorite to win the WAC. Southern Miss is playing in their tenth consecutive bowl and has clinched their 18th consecutive winning season. However, for most of those 18 years, the Golden Eagles were stuck in a six to eight win rut, consistently good, but not quite good enough to be among the nation's elite mid-major programs. The Golden Eagles won nine games just four times in that span before this season. In addition, they had not won a conference title since 2003. That all changed this season as the Golden Eagles won ten games for the first time since 1988, and with their upset over Houston in the Conference USA Championship Game, set a school record with their 11th win. Southern Miss boasted the best defense in Conference USA and proved their mettle in the championship game by becoming the first team this season to hold Houston below 30 points. Still, one has to wonder what might have been. The Golden Eagles lost two games to a pair of teams they were much better than. They opened conference play by losing at Marshall, a team that as previously mentioned, was outscored by nearly 100 points on the year. Then, after an eight-game winning streak that included a road win against a surprising Virginia team, the Golden Eagles somehow lost to UAB, a team that won only thrice all season while giving both Tulane and Florida Atlantic their only IA wins. Thus, instead of a BCS showdown with a team like Michigan, they must travel to the islands to take on the most prolific offense in the WAC. Nevada absorbed the loss of their ostrich-like superman quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, and followed up their 13-1 virtuoso performance with another workmanlike 7-5 mark. Apparently, dual-threat quarterbacks grow on trees down in Reno, as head coach Chris Ault plugged in freshman Cody Fajardo who rushed for 680 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing for over 1600 yards in splitting time with senior Tyler Lantrip. Fajardo also did a pretty good job of coaching one young lady on how to throw the football as well.
Southern Miss is rightfully favored and is in the midst of one of the best season's in school history. However, they are undergoing a great deal of turmoil now as Larry Fedora moves on to his new job with North Carolina. Plus, with losses to the likes of Marshall and UAB, they have proven to be far from invulnerable. Big upsets always happen in the bowl season, and this may be the best chance for one happening prior to Christmas.

The Game: Independence Bowl
The Teams: Missouri vs North Carolina
The Line: Missouri -4.5
North Carolina weathered the Butch Davis scandal relatively well, in winning seven regular season games and qualifying for their fourth consecutive bowl. Perhaps surprising many casual fans, the Tar Heels boasted one of the ACC's best offenses, finishing third in that category behind Clemson and Virginia Tech. The Tar Heels were led by a pair of young studs in the backfield, with sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner and freshman running back Giovani Bernard each having good seasons. Missouri was also led into a brave new world by a pair of young backfield mates. Sophomore quarterback James Franklin took over for the departed Blaine Gabbert and posed a threat both running (13 touchdowns) and throwing (20 touchdowns). Sophomore running back Henry Josey became the first Missouri running back to top 1000 yards since Derrick Washington in 2008. Missouri was solid on both sides of the ball, finishing fifth in the Big 12 on offense and fourth on defense. Based on the abundance of offensive firepower in the Big 12, I think its safe to say Missouri's offense is a bit overrated while their defense is a bit underrated. Their defense should be the difference in what should be one of the better games of the bowl season.

The Game: Little Caesar's Bowl
The Teams: Purdue vs Western Michigan
The Line: Purdue -2.5
The Purdue Boilermakers are bowl-eligible for the first time under third-year coach Danny Hope. Of course, in this day of bowl creep, that doesn't necessarily mean they're good. The Boilermakers won four of their games by a touchdown or less. They nearly lost to Middle Tennessee State. They did lose to Rice. Still, against a team with the strengths and weaknesses of Western Michigan, this could be one of the more entertaining games of the bowl season. The Broncos featured the third best offense in the MAC behind junior quarterback Alex Carder and his 28 touchdown passes. The Broncos also feature the nation's leading pass catcher in senior receiver Jordan White (127 catches for 1646 yards). Unfortunately, the Broncos defense was the second worst in the conference (ahead of only Ball State). Western Michigan faced three teams from BCS conferences this season, losing handily to Michigan, losing by three to Illinois, and upsetting Connecticut. All of those games came on the road, so you can bet the Broncos are looking forward to this neutral site clash. Purdue may be the more name brand, but Western Michigan has the better players. They should probably be a small favorite in this game, and for that reason, they are my second lock of the bowl season.The Game: Belk Bowl
The Teams: NC State vs Louisville
The Line: NC State -3
It may not seem possible, but this clash in Charlotte will mark the first time NC State has played in consecutive bowl games since the 2002 and 2003 postseasons. The Wolfpack qualified for this bowl after staging a furious rally in their regular season finale versus Maryland. The Wolfpack scored the final 42 points of that contest after trailing 41-14 in the third quarter. The win marked a fine closing streak for NC State. After losing their first three games against IA foes, the Wolfpack won five of their last seven, including an annihilation of eventual ACC champ Clemson. Like the Wolfpack, the Cardinals from Louisville closed the season on a good run. After a 2-4 start that included losses to Florida International and Marshall, the Cardinals won five of their final six games and actually shared the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati. Both teams put up very similar statistics in their respective conferences. NC State had the second worst offense in the ACC, but the second best defense. Similarly, Louisville had the second worst offense in the Big East, but the third best defense. That would lead one to believe a low-scoring game is at hand. This should be a good one. Take Louisville to pull off the small upset if you're feeling lucky.

No comments: