Monday, January 02, 2012

Bowl Preview: Part IV

The Game: Sugar Bowl
The Teams: Michigan vs Virginia Tech
The Line: Michigan -3
Congratulations are in order for Virginia Tech. The Hokies stole earned the ACC’s first ever at-large BCS bid. Did they deserve it? Probably not. However, every game that is not the BCS National Championship Game, be it the Rose Bowl or the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, is nothing more than a glorified exhibition. The powers that be choose who they want to play in those games, and we the public have just three options available to us. To watch, to not watch, or to sort of watch while playing Words With Friends. While the Hokies may not deserve this bowl game, it still presents an intriguing matchup. Virginia Tech suffered two losses all season. Unfortunately, both defeats came at the hands (or paws) of the Clemson Tigers, preventing the Hokies from winning their fifth ACC Championship since joining the conference in 2004. While the Hokies won eleven games, their non-conference schedule was especially soft (Appalachian State, East Carolina, Marshall, and Arkansas State), and their only wins of note in the conference were over Georgia Tech and Virginia. Still, the Hokies were plenty dominant against their soft schedule, finishing with the third-best defense in the ACC and the second-best offense. The Hokies will be taking on a Michigan team making its first BCS bowl appearance since the Rose Bowl following the 2006 season. Michigan lost that game in unflattering fashion, lost the 2007 season opener to Appalachian State, pushed Lloyd Carr out the door, hired Rich Rodriguez, fielded the worst three defenses ever at the school under his watch, and culminated his tenure with a thrashing at the hands of an SEC also-ran. But now the Wolverines appear to be back on the right track under his successor Brady Hoke. The Wolverines maintained the offensive efficiency they developed under Rodriguez (finishing third in the twelve-team Big 10), and also improved their defense (finishing third after ranking last in 2010). The Wolverines also defeated Ohio State for the first time since 2003, though it should be noted the Buckeyes managed just a 6-6 record, so there was no parade. Michigan is probably the better team, but the Wolverines lack of a smooth passing attack has caused them to bog down (see games against Michigan State and Iowa) when facing a strong defense. For that reason, a play on the Hokies to win outright may not be a bad idea.

The Game: Orange Bowl
The Teams: Clemson vs West Virginia
The Line: Clemson -3
Clemson and West Virginia. A rematch of the 1989 Gator Bowl. Can the Mountaineers gain a measure of revenge for the Tigers abuse of Major Harris more than 20 years ago? Eh, maybe the rematch angle is a little overblown, seeing as how the majority of the key players in this game were not even in utero during that game. For Clemson, this Orange Bowl appearance is their first since they won the National Title in 1981 and their first conference title since 1991. After suffering their first losing season since 1998 last year, the Tigers hired a former high school offensive coordinator (Chad Morris) and played at a much faster pace. Add in a stud freshman receiver (Sammy Watkins), an NFL-bound tight end (Dwayne Allen), and a solid quarterback (Tajh Boyd), and voila—the best offense in the ACC. Despite their offensive firepower, the Tigers struggled at the end of the regular season, losing to Georgia Tech, barely escaping Wake Forest at home, getting annihilated at NC State, and struggling to find any semblance of an offense in their annual rivalry game with South Carolina. Then, in the ACC Championship Game, it was suddenly October again. The Tigers mauled Virginia Tech for the second time this season and secured their Orange Bowl bid. West Virginia did not wait quite as long between conference titles, though it must have seemed that way to fans. After three years of Bill Stewart (and just a share of one conference title), the Mountaineers brought in Dana Holgorsen to lead the offense and replace Stewart after this season. However, as to be expected, Stewart did not enjoy being a lame-duck coach, and long story short, Holgorsen took the big job a year earlier than expected. The Mountaineers posted the best offense in the Big East, and won the three-way tiebreaker with Louisville and Cincinnati to take the BCS bowl bid. For the most part, West Virginia won the games they were supposed to, save for a huge upset at the hands of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Clemson is probably a better team, and should certainly have sufficient motivation in playing in their first-ever BCS bowl game. However, ACC teams are just 2-11 in BCS bowl games. Keep that in mind if you plan on wagering on this game

The Game: Cotton Bowl
The Teams: Arkansas vs Kansas State
The Line: Arkansas -8.5
Win or lose, Kansas State will remain one of the most surprising teams of 2011. After failing to win more than seven games in any season since 2003, the Wildcats already have ten wins and will be clawing for their eleventh against Arkansas. The Wildcats won ten games despite ranking just ninth in the ten-team Big 12 on offense and fifth on defense. Their statistical profile befits a team that went 6-6 or 7-5, not 10-2. How did they do it? For starters, their turnover margin of +13 ranks sixth in the nation. They also added five non-offensive touchdowns and went an amazing 8-1 in one-possession games. That's not to say the Wildcats don't have players. Quarterback Calvin, err Collin Kelin ran for an amazing 26 touchdowns! Klein is somewhat limited as a passer, but the Wildcat offense is built around the running game. Arkansas on the other hand, is built around the passing game. Quarterback Tyler Wilson helped lead the third-best offense in the SEC (behind Alabama and Georgia). Wilson tossed 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions on the year. On paper, this seems like a walk in the park for Arkansas. However, Hogs were below average on defense, finishing ninth in the SEC. Plus, outside of South Carolina, the Hogs don't really have any great wins. Sure they beat bowl teams (Texas A&M, Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State), but none of those teams were especially strong. Look for Kansas State to keep this one close, but I don't think they have the firepower to win outright.

The Game: BBVA Compass Bowl
The Teams: Pittsburgh vs SMU
The Line: Pittsburgh -3
SMU and Pittsburgh have quite a bit in common. At least more than you probably think. Both were college football powers in the late 1970's and early 1980's, with Pitt winning a national title in 1976 and SMU finishing in the top-10 in 1981, 1982, and 1984. Both went through serious dips in the 1990’s with Pitt suffering five straight losing seasons from 1992 through 1996. SMU was given the Death Penalty thanks to their cavalier attitudes toward boosters during their run in the early 80’s. They were forced to shutter the program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. When they returned to playing football in 1989, they endured eight straight losing seasons and did not play in a bowl game until 2009. Both also had ties to the most recent Arizona State coaching search. SMU coach June Jones initially interviewed for the job, and was apparently ready to accept the position until the Sun Devils went in another direction. That direction was due northeast. Pitt coach Todd Graham accepted overtures from the Sun Devils to become their coach and left Pitt after just one season guiding the Panthers. Thus there is quite a bit of drama for a bowl game featuring teams that enter with a combined 13-11 record. Despite their 6-6 mark, Pitt actually performed quite well in Graham’s first and only season at the helm. The Panthers boasted the third ranked offense and second ranked defense in the Big East, but were undone by a poor record in close games (2-4). The Mustangs from SMU seemed poised for a breakthrough season when they upset TCU and beat defending Conference USA champ UCF on consecutive weekends to stand 5-1 in early October. They proceeded to win just two of their final six games, losing in non-competitive fashion to Houston, Tulsa, and Southern Miss (lost by 85 combined points in those games). Surprisingly, SMU has yet to feature the dynamic offense that Jones was known for at Hawaii. The Mustangs ranked just eighth in Conference USA on offense and have yet to finish higher than fourth in any of Jones’ four seasons (cue Frankie Valli) at the helm. Pitt is the better team and should win, but with the turmoil (on both sides) and the motivation factor (SMU would love to knock off a team from a BCS conference) I wouldn’t feel confident taking them to cover here.

The Game: Bowl
The Teams: Arkansas State vs Northern Illinois
The Line: Arkansas State -1
Very quietly, Arkansas State has positioned themselves to be a Sun Belt power for at least the next season or two. It started when they hired Hugh Freeze to direct the offense after a disappointing 2009 campaign. The 2009 team finished with the worst offense in the Sun Belt, and hired Freeze to heat things up. The Red Wolves responded by posting the third best offense in the Sun Belt in 2010. However, the team posted a poor record in close games (1-5) en route to a 4-8 finish and head coach Steve Roberts was canned. Freeze was promoted to the top job and the offense continued clicking, this time ranking first in the conference. The defense also improved (ranking first in the conference as well) and the team blitzed through Sun Belt play unbeaten. The Red Wolves became the first Sun Belt team to win ten games in the regular season (joining the 2009 Middle Tennessee State team as the only other Sun Belt team to win ten period). They are also ranked 28th in the latest AP Poll, so with a win here, they could conceivably become the first Sun Belt team to ever be ranked in the top-25 as a Sun Belt member (North Texas was ranked once back in the day). Of course, as is often the case at schools like Arkansas State, success usually means your coach is leaving. Sure enough, Ole Miss tabbed Freeze to become their next coach. Not to worry though, the Red Wolves pulled off one of the biggest coups in finding their next coach when Gus Malzahn agreed to lead the team. Malzahn is an offensive innovator, and while his offense at Auburn struggled in the SEC without Cam Newton, Malzahn’s previous track record at Arkansas and Tulsa indicates the offense should remain in good hands. Arkansas State will be battling a fellow mid-major conference champion in the Northern Illinois Huskies. The Huskies won the MAC for the first time since 1983 in Dave Doeren's first season as coach. The Huskies were especially good on offense, where they ranked second in the MAC, but much less so on defense, where they ranked just seventh. This is one of the better, more under-appreciated bowl matchups of 2011. It’s a little off the beaten path, but tune in to see a pair of established signal callers, Ryan Aplin of Arkansas State (can we call them the Aplin Dumpling Gang?) and Chandler Harnish of Northern Illinois (a poor man’s Dan LeFevour who was a poor man’s Tim Tebow), running a pair of entertaining offenses. If you feel like making a play, take the Red Wolves in this one.

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