Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part II

The Game: Military Bowl
The Teams: Toledo vs Air Force
The Line: Toledo -3
Air Force is playing in their fifth straight bowl under head coach Troy Calhoun, and for the second straight year, the Falcons won the coveted Commander in Chief Trophy by beating the other two service academies (Army and Navy). In fact, Air Force is the lone service academy represented in this year's postseason. Unfortunately for Air Force, while the schedule was conducive for a very special season, the Falcons lost to every bowl team they played (Boise State, Notre Dame, San Diego State, TCU, and Wyoming), and ended the regular season tied for the fewest wins of the Calhoun era. The Falcons will take on another team that narrowly missed taking flight, the Toledo Rockets. Toledo lost close non-conference games at Ohio State and Syracuse (the latter in a game there the officials failed to make the correct ruling when the Orange missed a crucial extra point). The Rockets rolled through the MAC at 7-1, but their lone loss came in a nailbiter to Northern Illinois, so they lost out on the MAC West tiebreaker and were forced to watch as the Huskies won the MAC championship against Ohio. Toledo had the best offense in the MAC and one of the better mid-major offenses in the nation. Look for the Rockets to get their share of big plays and win a very high-scoring game.

The Game:Holiday Bowl
The Teams: Texas vs Cal
The Line: Texas -3
The two combatants in this year's Holiday Bowl have a great deal in common. Both missed bowl games last season for the first time under their respective coaches (Cal did not play in a bowl in Jeff Tedford's first season because they were ineligible for the postseason). Both teams boast strong defenses (Texas had the best defense in the Big 12 this year and Cal had the second best in the Pac-12). Both offenses are below average. Texas ranked eighth in the ten-team Big 12, while Cal was a more passable sixth in the Pac-12. Finally, both teams lost numerous times to teams that are currently ranked. Three of Cal's five losses came to teams in the current AP top-10 (number four Stanford, number five Southern Cal, and number six Oregon). Four of Texas' five losses came to teams in the current AP top-20 (number three Oklahoma State, number eleven Kansas State, number fifteen Baylor, and number nineteen Oklahoma). Thus, while both teams have combined for ten losses, this matchup may be better than it seems on the surface. Go with the Golden Bears in a defensive struggle.

The Game: Champs Sports Bowl
The Teams: Florida State vs Notre Dame
The Line: Florida State -3
Before the season began, if I told you the Irish and Seminoles were renewing old acquaintances in the postseason, you probably would have assumed it was a BCS bowl. While both teams failed to live up to their preseason hype (yet again), they remain two very strong teams. Consider: Florida State lost four games. Their four losses came by 21 total points. Six of their eight wins came by more than 21 points. Two of their losses came to teams currently ranked in the top-20 (Clemson and Oklahoma). Meanwhile, Notre Dame also lost four games. While two of their losses were by more than a touchdown, they did come to teams currently ranked in the top-5 (Stanford and Southern Cal). Five of their eight wins came against bowl teams, including beatdowns of Michigan State, Purdue, and Air Force by a combined 72 points. Both these teams should be highly ranked in the preseason next year and may be able to actually live up to expectations (for real this time). In the interim, take the Seminoles to win here.

The Game: Alamo Bowl
The Teams: Baylor vs Washington
The Line: Baylor -9
RG3, or Robert Griffin the Third, has barely had time to polish off his Heisman before heading down to San Antonio to take on the Washington Huskies. Griffin's phenomenal season helped lead Baylor to their first nine-win regular season since 1980, when a certain Samurai was intimidating opposing ball-carriers. Make no mistake, Griffin, and his fellow playmakers on offense, receiver Kendall Wright (101 catches, 1572 yards, 13 touchdowns) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1347 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns) are the main reason for Baylor's success. The Bears ranked number one in the Big 12 on the offensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, they also ranked dead last in the conference on the other side of the ball (yes, even worse than Texas Tech and Kansas). The Bears were quite fortunate to win nine games, as they managed a solid 4-1 record in one-score games. Remember, despite their much ballyhooed wins over Oklahoma, TCU, and Texas, the Bears also needed overtime to escape a terrible Kansas team. It's precisely for that reason that I wouldn't be very comfortable taking Baylor to cover in this game. The Bears nearly meet the double-digit favorite criteria previously mentioned in Part I of the bowl preview (they are just 9-17 ATS since the 2005 bowl season). Washington is an average Pac-12 team, neither great not awful on either side of the ball, but if you are feeling lucky, take them to win this game straight up. The last Heisman winner from a team not playing in the BCS National Championship Game brought his team into the bowl season as a heavy favorite, but left with a straight-up loss.

The Game: Armed Forces Bowl
The Teams: BYU vs Tulsa
The Line: BYU -2
Tulsa may be the best four-loss team in the nation. And they are without a doubt, the best four-loss mid-major. The four teams the Golden Hurricane have lost to (Boise State, Houston, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State) have a combined six losses between them, and all are currently ranked in the top-20. Against the other eight teams they played, Tulsa was absolutely dominant, winning just once by fewer than 17 points. While their victims were relatively weak, only SMU and Marshall are bowl bound, their dominance is still indicative of a good team. Their opponent in the Armed Forces Bowl, BYU, has won eight of nine since a 1-2 start, with the lone loss coming to red-hot TCU. The Cougars have been a completely different team since Riley Nelson took over at quarterback in their fifth game against Utah State. In the six games started by Nelson, the team has averaged 484 yards per game. In the six games started by Jake Heaps, the team has averaged just 338 yards per game. Nelson also threw for more yards than Heaps despite nearly 100 fewer pass attempts! If Nelson had started from the beginning, the Cougars could have positioned themselves for a BCS-bowl bid. As it is, they must settle for a potential ten-win season (would be their fifth in seven years under head coach Bronco Mendenhall). To me this game is a toss-up, and Tulsa is criminally underrated. Take the Golden Hurricane to pull off the straight-up win here.

The Game: Pinstripe Bowl
The Teams: Rutgers vs Iowa State
The Line: Rutgers -2
Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads is on the verge of accomplishing something very special in just his third season in Ames. With a win in the Pinstripe Bowl, he would tie former coach Dan McCarney for the school record in bowl wins. Granted, it would only be his second, but the Cyclones have been playing football for 114 years, so that would still be pretty special. While Rhoads is just 18-19 in his three seasons at the school, I would argue he has done more with less than most coaches in college football. His charges routinely pull off at least one huge shocker per season. In 2009, Iowa State won as twenty point underdogs against Nebraska in Lincoln (first win there since 1977). In 2010, they helped throw dirt on Texas' season when they won in Austin as twenty point underdogs. This season, they not only helped bring about the rematch no one outside of Dixie wanted when they beat Oklahoma State as a nearly four-touchdown underdog, but they also put Tommy Tuberville on the hot seat when they won against Texas Tech in Lubbock as (merely) fifteen point underdogs. The Cyclones have been money in the bank under Rhoads as double-digit underdogs. In his three season, the Cyclones are 10-5 Against the Spread (ATS) in such situations. Unfortunately, in the showdown with Rutgers, the Cyclones are only a small underdog. After missing out on a bowl game last season, the Scarlet Knights are back in the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Knights boasted the best defense in the Big East this season, and if not for their offensive struggles (sixth out of eight Big East teams in that category) could have represented the league in the Orange Bowl. Iowa State doesn't do anything well, except for cover large spreads and get up for big games. Rutgers plays fantastic defense and is playing this one pretty close to home. The Scarlet Knights are my third lock of the bowl season.

The Game: Music City Bowl
The Teams: Mississippi State vs Wake Forest
The Line: Mississippi State -7
As a life-long Wake Forest fan, I think I am qualified to weigh in on just how unusual this season has been. The Deacons won five games in the ACC, representing the fourth time in head coach Jim Grobe's eleven seasons that they have at least broken even in conference play (a much greater accomplishment than that may seem). The Deacons beat bowl teams Florida State and NC State at home, hung tough with the eventual ACC champ Clemson in Death Valley, and even gave Notre Dame a run for their money. They also lost to Syracuse, and were destroyed by a pair of mediocre bowl teams (North Carolina and Vanderbilt) by a combined margin of 59 points. In league play, the Deacons were not very good on either side of the ball, finishing ninth in the conference on offense and eleventh (second to last) on defense. While Wake enjoyed an unusual season, Mississippi State's was resoundingly disappointing. Some believed the Bulldogs were a sleeper in the tough SEC West. The Bulldogs proved that they could beat the dregs of the conference (Kentucky and Ole Miss), the dregs of IA (Memphis and UAB), and a IAA school (Tennessee-Martin), but not much else. Their lone win over a team with a winning record came in overtime at home against Louisiana Tech. To be fair, five of their six losses did come to teams currently ranked in the AP top-20, but outside of a 14-12 defeat at the hands of South Carolina, none were particularly close. Mississippi State is probably the better team, but not by much.

The Game: Insight Bowl
The Teams: Oklahoma vs Iowa
The Line: Oklahoma -14
After beginning the season as the AP Preseason number one team, a holiday trip to the Insight Bowl has to be a little disappointing for Oklahoma fans. The Sooners failed to qualify for a BCS bowl after losing two of their final three games; to Baylor for the first time ever and to Oklahoma State for the first time since 2002. Still, its not like the Sooners were a bad team. They ranked third in the Big 12 on both offense and defense, and were probably the league's best team, but were undone by a poor turnover margin in conference play. This wasn't a typical Bob Stoops' Oklahoma juggernaut, but they were pretty damn good. The Sooners will be taking on Stoops' alma mater in the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes were pretty average in 2011. In their ten games against BCS conference opponents (eight conference games and non-conference clashes with Iowa State and Pittsburgh), the Hawkeyes scored 265 points and allowed 255. Not surprisingly, they went 5-5 in those games. The Hawkeyes best performance of the year was easily their home upset over Michigan in early November. However, outside of that game, there are not a lot of beefy wins on the schedule. Oklahoma fans can take heart that the Sooners are 3-1 in non-BCS bowl games under Stoops. However, betting this game and its double-digit margin would not be advisable.

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