Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bowl Preview: Part III

The Game: Texas Bowl
The Teams: Texas A&M vs Northwestern
The Line: Texas A&M -10
The Aggies came into the season riding high, ranked eighth in the nation and dreaming about their first Big 12 championship since the days of RC Slocum, Dat Nguyen, and Dante Hall in 1998. The Aggies played well, but were doomed by second half collapses and a poor turnover margin. The Aggies actually boasted the fourth best offense and second best defense in the Big 12, but struggled in close games. Five of their six overall losses came by a combined 17 points. Meanwhile, only one of their six wins came by fewer than 16 points. Alas, those solid peripheral number could not save Mike Sherman's job. However, if the team is motivated, it could mean another year of postseason misery for Northwestern. This bowl game marks the fourth consecutive postseason trip for the Wildcats, but unfortunately the Wildcats have not emerged victorious in a postseason game since winning the 1948 Rose Bowl over Cal. The Wildcats boasted the Big 10's second best offense, behind senior quarterback Dan Persa. However, their defense was among the worst in the conference, ranking ahead of Indiana only. Northwestern beat a single bowl bound team in 2011, upsetting Nebraska in Lincoln. Their other five wins came against Boston College, Indiana, Rice, Minnesota, and Eastern Illinois (IAA). Boston College, Indiana, Rice, and Minnesota combined to post a 12-36 record. Oh, and for good measure, Northwestern also lost to Army. This game is far from a lock, especially with Texas A&M's penchant for second half collapses, but the odds are seriously stacked against Northwestern ending their postseason victory drought.

The Game: Sun Bowl
The Teams: Georgia Tech vs Utah
The Line: Georgia Tech -3
Year Four of the triple option at Georgia Tech looked like it was to be one for the ages at midseason. The Yellow Jackets were 6-0 and averaging 554 yards and 46.5 points per game. Since then, the Jackets have gone just 2-4 while averaging 366 yards and 23.3 points per game. Looking back though, its clear the early barrage of points and yards were accumulated against less than capable defenses. Of the first six victims, Western Carolina is a IAA school, Middle Tennessee State ranked 104th, Maryland ranked 108th, and Kansas ranked 120th (or dead last) in total defense. Only NC State (39th) and North Carolina (40th) were respectable defensive squads. Over the second half of the season, the Jackets faced teams ranked third (Georgia), 14th (Virginia Tech), and 29th (Virginia) in total defense, and only one team (Duke) ranked in the bottom half of the national total defense rankings. The bad news for Georgia Tech is that Utah is pretty good defensively. In league play, the Utes featured the third best defense in the conference, and nationally, they were 30th in total defense. Utah did not get off to a blazing start in their new BCS conference, as they opened Pac-12 play with four consecutive defeats. They did win their next four heading into the regular season finale against Colorado (a team that came into the game with a 2-10 record). A win against the Buffaloes would have sent the Utes to the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game for a shot at the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Naturally, Utah lost and UCLA backed into the game. Utah won seven games, but missed out on a special season because their offense was garbage. Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn went down with an injury in the fourth game and has not played since. Without him, the Utes finished dead last in the Pac-12 on offense. Utah's defense should keep them in this game, but methinks Georgia Tech will find a way to win their first bowl game since the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl.

The Game: Liberty Bowl
The Teams: Vanderbilt vs Cincinnati
The Line: Vanderbilt -2
After waiting more than a quarter century between their last two bowl bids, the Vanderbilt Commodores decided an abbreviated postseason drought was more to their liking. Head coach James Franklin is the first Vanderbilt coach to lead the Commodores to a bowl game in his inaugural season. If Vanderbilt can win this game, he would become the first Vanderbilt coach to record a winning record in his first year since Fred Pancoast in 1975. If the Commodores had performed a little better in close games, they would already have a winning record. Vandy lost four games by less than a touchdown, with each loss coming to an SEC school (Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee). By contrast, five of Vandy's six wins came by at least 20 points. On the season, Vanderbilt has outscored their opponents by 73 points, their largest scoring margin since 1974. While Vandy went just 2-6 in the SEC, they are actually betting line favorites over Cincinnati, a team that tied for the Big East championship. The Bearcats rebounded from a poor 2010 season by winning (at least) nine games for the fourth time in five seasons. The Bearcats were not particularly adept on either side of the ball, finishing just below average on offense and defense in the Big East. However, they won the close ones (3-1 in one-score games) and avoided the turnover troubles that plagued them in 2010 (second worst margin in the nation at -15). This spread on this game seems about right. Vanderbilt is better than you think and Cincinnati is a shade worse. Look for the Commodores to win just their third bowl game in school history here.

The Game: Fight Hunger Bowl
The Teams: Illinois vs UCLA
The Line: Illinois -2.5
I know its weird to say, but Illinois actually had the makings of a decent team in 2011. Their defense was tied with Wisconsin as the best in Big 10 play. Their offense was poor, ranking just tenth in the twelve team league, but it wasn't historically bad. One could have reasonably expected a team with their down-to-down profile to win about half their league games. Instead the Illini went just 2-6 in the conference, dropping their final six games and costing Ron Zook his job. The Illini lost those games thanks to the offense's inability to score (averaged just eleven points per game in the skid) and proclivity for turning the ball over (16 turnovers in the last six games). To put the turnover number in perspective, the offense committed nearly twice as many turnovers in the last six games (16) as they scored touchdowns (9). The 1985 Chicago Bears would have had difficulty winning games with an offense like that. Still, in the bowl spirit of rewarding mediocrity, the Illini will get to play a 13th game against a team that has also fired its coach. Rick Neuheisel came to Los Angeles intending to end Southern Cal's death grip on the Pac-10. The Trojans have ceded control of the conference, but not to their cross-town neighbors. Neuheisel leaves Los Angeles with an 0-4 record against the Trojans, with each loss coming by at least 14 points. Miraculously though, his team did 'win' the Pac-12 South thanks to the Trojans' probation and the general ineptitude of the rest of the division. For their 'victory', they received a thrashing at the hands of Oregon, and now head into the bowl season with a 6-7 record. The Bruins become the first team to enter the postseason with a losing record since North Texas in 2001. Of course, that team did at least win its conference. Neither team in this superfluous bowl game is very good, as indicated by their combined 12-13 record. However, when in doubt, take the team that does at least one thing well. Illinois is legit on defense, and should do just enough to win here.

The Game: Chick-Fil-A Bowl
The Teams: Auburn vs Virginia
The Line: Auburn -3
Welcome back to the postseason Virginia! After becoming bowl stalwarts under George Welsh and continuing the run at the beginning of the Al Groh era (15 bowl games in 19 seasons from 1987-2005), the Cavs fell on hard times. Hearkening back to their days at the bottom of the ACC, the Cavs played in just one bowl game from 2006-2010. They had also lost three straight games to Duke entering the 2011 season. To the surprise of nearly everyone, Virginia won twice as many as they lost and were in contention for the Coastal Division title until being thumped by Virgina Tech in their final regular season game. Mike London, winner of a national title as coach of Richmond in 2008, has guided the Cavs to a bowl game in just his second season. The Cavs were probably not as good as their 8-4 record would indicate, as they posted a phenomenal 5-1 record in one-score games. The Cavs seemed to play close games regardless of the competition. Two of their narrow wins were over dregs Indiana and Idaho, while the other games came against decent (Miami) to good (Georgia Tech and Florida State) competition. Speaking of close games, Gene Chizik must have acres of four leaf clovers in his backyard. Since losing to Alabama in the regular season finale of 2009 by a score of 26-21, the Tigers have reeled off eleven straight one possession wins, including seven last season when they claimed the BCS National Championship. They were 3-0 in such games in 2011, helping to explain how they won seven games overall despite being outscored by 61 points on the season. Both teams were pretty average in their respective conferences and appear pretty evenly matched here. That being said, take a flier on Virginia to win this one outright.

The Game: Ticket City Bowl
The Teams: Houston vs Penn St
The Line: Houston -5.5
This is the consolation prize for the Houston Cougars. About a month removed from hosting the Conference USA Championship Game, a win away from a BCS bowl berth, the Cougars must instead settle for a trip to Dallas to take on a Penn State team in disarray. The Cougars are led by their offense, featuring record-breaking quarterback Case Keenum, and a stable of senior wide receivers. Patrick Edwards and Justin Johnson both went over 1000 yards through the air, and if Tyron Carrier has a good game in the Ticket City Bowl (comes in with 914 yards receiving), he would join them, giving the Cougars three 1000-yard receivers for the second time in three seasons (Edwards and Carrier joined James Cleveland as 1000-yard receivers in 2009). Penn State enters this game having lost two of three since an 8-1 start. The Nittany Lions also have their fare share of drama going on off the field. What impact will that have on this game? Its impossible to tell, so lets focus on what we do know. Penn State's offense, particularly their passing offense is bad. As a team, Penn State completed less than half their passes (112th in the nation in completion percentage) and threw just nine touchdown passes (116th in the nation) with four of those coming against Eastern Michigan. The Lions were a little better running the ball, with Silas Redd gaining nearly 1200 yards on the ground. The Lions defense was solid, but far from an elite unit, ranking fifth in the Big 10. Houston is probably better than Penn State, and they should be sufficiently motivated with a chance to finish the season ranked for the first time since 1990. However, in their lone game versus a BCS conference opponent this season, the Cougars narrowly escaped UCLA by a 38-34 score at home. Houston will probably win, but I wouldn't lay the five and a half points.

The Game: Gator Bowl
The Teams: Florida vs Ohio St
The Line: Florida -2.5
This seems like a battle between these two schools' JV squads. With both teams coming into the game with 6-6 records, one will leave with a losing record for the first time in a long time. Florida has not finished with a losing record since they lost (almost) all their games in 1979. Meanwhile, Ohio State last finished below .500 in 1988. This game is being called the 'Urban Bowl' by some even though:
1) Urban Meyer has not coached Florida in a calendar year.
2) Urban Meyer will not coach Ohio State until next September.
3) Urban Meyer will not coach this game.
By this logic, next season when Arkansas hosts Ole Miss, we should refer to it as the 'Nutt Bowl'. What this game possesses in terms of name recognition, it more than makes up for in lack of appreciable football talent. Here's a composite list of the twelve teams these two have beaten: Florida Atlantic, UAB, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Furman, Akron, Toledo, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Those twelve victims include just three bowl teams (Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Wisconsin), and only two of those wins came on the road (Kentucky and Illinois). These teams should have been playing in late-December, not early January. That being said, I'll give a slight nod to Florida in this one because the game is in Florida and the Gators appear to have a better defense.

The Game: Outback Bowl
The Teams: Georgia vs Michigan St
The Line: Georgia -3.5
Last season the Outback Bowl hosted a pair of teams (Florida and Penn State) that entered the game with a combined ten losses. While there was certainly some name recognition with the Gators and Nittany Lions, this season the bowl features better teams. Georgia and Michigan State combined to go 14-2 in their respective conferences and have just six losses combined. In fact, as both these were losers in their respective conference title games, they actually had just four combined losses in the regular season. Georgia is no stranger to double-digit wins, having won ten games seven times in the last ten seasons. Michigan State on the other hand, has posted back-to-back seasons of at least ten wins for the first time in program history. In fact, Michigan State has gone a Big 10 best 14-2 in league play over the past two seasons, but has no Rose Bowl (or other BCS bid) to show for it. Ah, the vagaries of a three-way tiebreaker. Michigan State was hardly excellent on either side of the ball, but they were very solid, finishing fourth in the Big 10 (which now was 12 teams) on both offense and defense. Their solid play and a little bit of luck in close games allowed them to win seven games in the conference for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, down south, the Georgia Bulldogs followed up the first losing season of the Mark Richt era with an 0-2 start, putting the current longest-tenured SEC head coach squarely on the hot seat. The Bulldogs responded by riding a relatively easy schedule (no Alabama, Arkansas, or LSU) to ten straight wins. While the schedule certainly made it easier for Georgia to win ten games, it didn’t do it for them. The Bulldogs played very well in their SEC games, finishing a distant third in my SEC SDPI ratings (behind the behemoths at Alabama and LSU). The one thing Mark Dantonio has not done well at Michigan State is win bowl games. The Spartans are 0-4 in bowl games under his guidance, including a loss to Georgia in the state of Florida (though not in this bowl game) after the 2008 season. Look for that trend to continue here with Georgia winning a close one.

The Game: Capital One Bowl
The Teams: South Carolina vs Nebraska
The Line: South Carolina -2.5
South Carolina began the season in the top-10 and despite the best efforts of now-departed quarterback Stephen Garcia, have a chance to finish there for the first time ever. As a resident of Columbia, and part time Gamecock fan (they can sometimes be a little insufferable here), I followed the season closely. Without a doubt, while the Gamecocks have enjoyed an historic season, but it could have been much better had they not squandered a home game against a very beatable Auburn team. That was Garcia’s last hurrah, and a prime example for how not to manage the clock in the two-minute drill. The Gamecocks gave Garcia the boot, or spur (for real this time) and handed the keys to Connor Shaw. Shaw went through some growing pains, as would be expected from an inexperienced player, but the Gamecocks won each game he started save for their trip to Arkansas. For the season, the Gamecocks finished fifth in the SEC on offense (quite an accomplishment considering the injuries and quarterback play) and fourth on defense (behind the impenetrable forces that were Alabama and LSU and to a lesser extent Georgia). The Gamecocks will face a team that also began the year with grandiose expectations. The Nebraska Cornhuskers began the year ranked number ten, but were quickly exposed in their first game against an elite team, losing in grisly fashion to Wisconsin. The Huskers would also lose to Michigan in a similar fashion and in an upset at home to those nerds from Northwestern. For the first time under Bo Pelini, the Huskers were less than elite on defense. The Huskers were middle of the pack in the Big 10 on defense, finishing sixth in the twelve-team league. They were gouged by several teams, most notably in their three losses where they gave up an average of 457 yards and 40.3 points per game. South Carolina appears to be a safe pick to win here. The only thing that would give me pause from picking them is their poor performance in bowl games under Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks have won just once in five postseason trips under the Ol’ Ball Coach. Not only are they 1-4, but they have actually been favored in every game save for the Outback Bowl versus Iowa following the 2008 season. Still, this Gamecock team seems to be different. Take them to win, but I still don’t quite trust them to cover.

The Game: Rose Bowl
The Teams: Oregon vs Wisconsin
The Line: Oregon -6
This year’s Rose Bowl is the postseason game I am most looking forward to. Both participants boasted their respective league’s strongest offense. Wisconsin, behind transfer Russell Wilson and a stout offensive line ran roughshod over the Big 10, dominating their foes outside of a pair of close to defeats to Michigan State and Ohio State. Meanwhile, Oregon continued their high-octane ways under Chip Kelly. The Ducks cranked out the best offense in the Pac-12 for the sixth season in a row (this is Kelly's fifth season with the team and third as head coach). The Ducks lost just once in league play, against a revitalized Southern Cal team. Ultimately, that loss may have cost them a place in the BCS National Championship Game. Still, the Rose Bowl is not a bad consolation prize. What about defense? Does any team stand a chance at stopping the other, or is this destined to be the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever (surpassing the 1991 game). This may come as a surprise, but Wisconsin actually boasted the best defense in the Big 10 (tied with Illinois). Oregon on the other hand, was hardly a pushover defensively, finishing fourth in the Pac-12, but they were not an elite unit. The last time Oregon came into the Rose Bowl as a solid favorite against a Big 10 team, they left an outright loser, with their offense never quite getting on-track. This game should be tilted in Wisconsin’s favor much more than the six-point spread. For that reason, the Badgers are my fourth lock of the bowl season.

The Game: Fiesta Bowl
The Teams: Oklahoma St vs Stanford
The Line: Oklahoma St -3.5
Oklahoma State was oh so close. Instead of playing for the national championship, the Cowboys will have to settle for their first conference title since 1976 and first outright conference title since 1948! Despite their gaudy record and laundry list of victims, Oklahoma State was somewhat of a house of cards in 2011. They did rank second in the Big 12 on offense, but their defense was just seventh in the conference. They won games with a ridiculous turnover margin. They were second nationally with a +20 turnover margin (behind LSU at +22). They intercepted 23 passes on the year and also recovered an amazing 19 of the 25 fumbles they forced! They will need to force their fair share of turnovers against Andrew Luck and Stanford as the Cardinal should be able to move the ball against the Cowboys. Stanford ranked just a shade behind Oregon on offense in the Pac-12, and actually boasted the conference's top-ranked defense! Both teams should be motivated here, with a chance to finish in the top-3 and perhaps even as high as number two depending on the outcome of the BCS National Championship Game. Since they are getting points, take Stanford to win this one outright if you insist on making a wager.

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