Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bowl Preview Part I

It's that time of year again. There are only 35 college football games left on the schedule. Watch each and every one. You'll be missing it so bad in late May. These previews and the picks that accompany them are for entertainment purposes only. Best of luck to you in your office pools.

Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Washington State vs Colorado State
Line: Washington State -3.5
Rejoice! The longest active bowl streak among BCS conference teams has been broken! The year was 2003. Barack Obama was still a state senator and Bill Doba was taking the leftovers from the Mike Price regime to a Holiday Bowl win over Texas and a final top-ten AP ranking. The Cougars have not finished with a winning record since, but if they can knock off the Rams in the season's first bowl game, winners they shall be. Perhaps not surprisingly, under head coach Mike Leach, the Cougars lead the nation in pass attempts, throwing an average of 58 times per game. While the Cougars threw the ball a lot, they were more about volume than efficiency. The Leach offense ranked just ninth in the Pac-12 in yards per play. They were not much better on the other side of the ball either, finishing tenth in yards per play allowed. Truth be told, the Cougars are extremely lucky to be where they are. Four of their six losses came by at least 24 points and five came by double digits. In addition, while four of their losses came to teams currently ranked in the top sixteen of the AP Poll, half of their wins came against teams that combined for exactly a single win over a IA opponent (Southern Utah, Idaho, and Cal). In hindsight, their best performance of the season was likely the season opener where they lost by just a touchdown to Auburn (the Tiger's first of many close calls on the season). Their opponent will be a team also breaking a bowl drought, though the Rams is only half as long. Colorado State last played in a bowl in 2008, in this very game, where they upset Fresno State. Second year coach Jim McElwain has the Rams in position to win eight games for the first time since 2002. Under former coach Sonny Lubick, the Rams won at least eight games seven times in fifteen seasons. After a rough 2-4 start that included a relatively competitive loss at Alabama, the Rams won five of seven. Keep your eye on running back Kapri Bibbs who rushed for over 1500 yards and led the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns. As a team, the Rams finished third in the high-powered Mountain West in yards per play and a respectable fourth in yards per play allowed. While the Cougars are not a national brand, they are probably a little overvalued, thanks to their famous, or infamous coach. The Rams are a solid play here, especially on the moneyline.

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl
Southern Cal vs Fresno State
Line: Southern Cal -6.5
Fresno State might not get their chance against one of the big boys in a BCS bowl, but they will get a shot at one of the most regal programs in all of college football, the Trojans of Southern Cal. In just his second year at the helm of the Bulldogs, Tim DeRuyter guided them to their first outright conference title since they won the now defunct Big West in 1989. The Bulldogs were powered by their explosive offense. Quarterback Derek Carr completed his senior campaign with 48 touchdown passes (the most in the nation and ten more than Jameis Winston), while receiver Davante Adams caught 122 passes and led the nation with 23 touchdown receptions. In addition to Adams, receiver Josh Harper also had more than 1000 receiving yards. The Bulldogs scored at least 35 points in every game but one and hung half a hundred on teams four times. Currently ranked 21st in the AP Poll, a win here would give the Bulldogs their highest ever finish in the final polls (they finished 22nd in 2004 and 24th in 1992) and give them the school record for wins in a season with 12. Standing in their way is a Southern Cal team that is on their third different head coach this season. Lane Kiffin was dismissed in rather embarrassing fashion following a a blowout loss to Arizona State. Ed Orgeron took over the coaching duties and led the team to a 6-2 record, including an upset of Stanford at The Coliseum. Orgeron won six games in a little more than half a season after winning just ten games during his three year stint as head coach of Ole Miss. Perhaps an even more curious statistic is that each of Orgeron's wins at Southern Cal was in the conference. While head coach of the Rebels, Orgeron won just three conference games. Southern Cal may not have made the right move in hiring Steve Sarkisian, but they certainly made the right move in not making Orgeron the full time coach. Just ask any West Virginia fan. With Oregeron out of the mix, offensive coordinator Clay Helton will coach the team in the bowl game. The Trojan offense was pretty dynamic in its own right, scoring over 30 points seven times in perhaps the nation's toughest conference. These two teams have not met since their memorable clash in 2005. Southern Cal is probably the better team, but just like last season, motivation has to be considered before I would advise laying down a large sum on the Trojans. Stay away from this game and root for an entertaining Bulldog win.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Buffalo vs San Diego State
Line: Pick em'
This bowl game is an intriguing matchup of East Coast versus West Coast. From the east, the Buffalo Bulls will be making just their second ever bowl appearance in coach Jeff Quinn's fourth season. The Bulls have improved each season under Quinn's guidance, progressing from 2-10 to 3-9 to 4-8 to 8-4. Outside of their success in the MAC, where they went 6-2, the Bulls beat a team from a BCS conference (Connecticut) for just the second time in school history. The Bulls were led by their defense in 2013, a unit that ranked third in the MAC in terms of yards per play allowed. Linebacker Khalil Mack paced the Bulls and finished ninth nationally with ten and a half sacks on the year. The Bulls will seek their first bowl win against a San Diego State team making an unprecedented fourth straight bowl trip. Rocky Long took over after Brady Hoke departed for Michigan following the 2010 season and has kept the Aztecs in contention in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are 17-6 under Long in Mountain West play, and last season shared their first conference title since 1986. The follow up to their shared crown began rather inauspiciously, with a home loss to Eastern Illinois. Of course, the Panthers were one of the top teams in IAA. The Aztecs followed that disappointment up with a blowout loss to Ohio State and a tight home loss to Oregon State. However, after the 0-3 start, the Aztecs rallied to win seven of their final nine games, with the only losses coming to league champ Fresno State and bowl participant UNLV. Along the way, the Aztecs upset Boise State for the second straight year and continued their insane hot streak in close games. The Aztecs played in eight games decided by a touchdown or less and won six of them. The quality of the opponent did not seem to matter, as they lost tight contests to bowl squads Oregon State and Fresno State, while winning against Nevada (4-8 record), Air Force (2-10), New Mexico (3-9), and Hawaii (1-11) in equally slim fashion. All told, the Aztecs are 12-5 in games decided by one score under Long. Handicapping this game, Buffalo is probably a little overvalued as they feasted on the chaff of the MAC, notching only a single win against a team that finished with a winning record (Ohio). Their four losses, to Ohio State, Baylor, Toledo, and Bowling Green all came by at least ten points and were not really competitive. On the other hand, Long's bowl record, first at New Mexico and now at San Diego State is pretty atrocious. Still, I think the Aztecs are a shade better than the Bulls and should win here.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Louisiana Lafayette vs Tulane
Line: Pick em'
For the third consecutive year, the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette will end their season in the New Orleans Bowl. Cajun fans would love to end the season with a third consecutive New Orleans Bowl victory. However, considering where they were just a few weeks ago, this ending has to feel a little disappointing. After opening the year with non-competitive losses to Arkansas and Kansas State, the Cajuns reeled off eight wins in a row and with a split in their final two games could claim their first outright conference title as a IA program. However, the Cajuns dropped a tight game to their in-state rival Louisiana-Monroe, then were blown out by IA neophyte South Alabama. Still, the Cajuns shared the conference title with Arkansas State, and thanks to their head-to-head win over the Red Wolves, earned the tiebreaker. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Cajuns bowl streak began when they hired Mark Hudspeth to lead them. Hudspeth led the the Division II North Alabama Lions to five playoff appearances in his seven years in Florence. Hudspeth is not only a fine coach, but also a pretty strong dude. The Cajuns ranked third on both sides of the ball in Sun Belt action in terms of yards per play, but the offense could be downgraded if quarterback Terrance Broadway is unable to play. Broadway broke a bone in his forearm and missed the South Alabama game. His status for the bowl is still up in the air. Broadway finished tied for tenth nationally in yards per pass, averaging a robust 9.2 yards per attempt. If Broadway is unable to play, that would be bad news against a Tulane defense that was one of the best in Conference USA. Under second year head coach Curtis Johnson, the Green Wave improved their record by five wins and qualified for their first bowl game since 2002. The defense ranked fourth in yards per play in Conference USA and finished 16th nationally with 34 sacks. However, generating success on the other side of the ball proved difficult for Tulane. Despite a solid family pedigree at quarterback, Nick Montana barely completed half his passes and the Green Wave ranked just 118th nationally in yards per pass attempt. Keep in mind, the Green Wave are 5-1 in the Superdome (their homefield) this season and an incredible 9-3 against the spread under Johnson in this building. The Green Wave have already beaten two teams from Louisiana this season, and will look to win an unofficial mid-major state title against the Cajuns. This should be one of the better matchups of the bowl season, and an under the radar treat. If you must make a play, take the Green Wave to defend their homefield.

Beef O' Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl
East Carolina vs Ohio
Line: East Carolina -14
The long and storied history of the Beef O' Brady's/St Petersburg Bowl continues in 2013 with East Carolina desperately seeking their first bowl win since 2007. This marks the Pirate's seventh bowl game in the last eight seasons and with a win, East Carolina would reach double digit victories for the first time since the 1991 team finished with eleven wins. Since taking over for Skip Holtz in 2010, Ruffin McNeill has guided the Pirates to three bowl appearances in four seasons and a 22-10 mark in Conference USA play. 2013 was his coup de grace as the Pirates bested both North Carolina and NC State in the same season for the first time in school history. Their three defeats in 2013 all came versus bowl squads, Virginia Tech, Tulane, and Marshall. The Pirates were well-balanced, finishing fourth in yards per play and third in yards per play allowed in Conference USA. Quarterback Shane Carden threw 32 touchdown passes on the year and receiver Justin Hardy topped 1000 yards for the second straight season. In fact, if Hardy accumulates 21 receiving yards in the bowl, he will move past Dwayne Harris for first place in receiving yards in school history. The Pirates will take on fellow mid-major Ohio, a team seeking its third consecutive bowl victory after notching zero wins in their first half-century of IA football. Ohio is making their sixth overall bowl appearance (and fifth consecutive) under Frank Solich. The former Nebraska head coach has taken the team to new heights, but the Bobcats have not won a league title since 1968. Ohio began the year rather poorly, getting blown out by Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville. They rebounded to beat what ended up being two quality mid-major outfits in North Texas and Marshall (a team that beat these same Pirates by 31 points). In fact, in early November, Ohio was actually 6-2 with control of their own destiny in the MAC East. They lost their next three games by a combined margin of 107 points before rebounding against woeful Massachusetts in the regular season finale to clinch a winning record. Ohio was mediocre on both sides of the ball in MACtion play, ranking eight in yards per play and fifth in yards per play allowed. This will be the final game for a number of Ohio skill position players as quarterback Tyler Tettleton (Mickey's son), running back Beau Blankenship, and receiver Donte Foster will exhaust their eligibility after this game. East Carolina is certainly the better team, but keep this little tidbit in mind: Double digit favorites are just 16-21 against the spread in bowl games since 2005. The teams that covered tended to be elite (eight ranked in the top-ten of the SRS) or the game involved a team from a power conference facing an overmatched mid-major (four such games including last year's Orange and Fight Hunger bowls). Of the sixteen teams that have covered, only one (BYU in 2010) had a worse SRS score than East Carolina (currently 53rd). The Pirates should win, but Ohio is a great bet to cover.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Oregon State vs Boise State
Line: Oregon State -3
The good people of Corvallis probably have a soft spot for bowl games played on the islands. When the Beavers ended their 35-year postseason drought in 1999, it was in the now defunct Oahu Classic. Since 1999, the Beavers have been no stranger to the postseason, as this marks their eleventh bowl in that span. Head coach Mike Riley, who took over for Dennis Erickson, who took over for Mike Riley (stay with me here), has crafted a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, and 2013 was one of the more interesting ones he has presided over. The Beavers opened the year with a loss to Eastern Washington, a high quality IAA program. The Beavers then reeled off six straight wins, and just when it looked like they could be contenders in the Pac-12, they lost their final five games. To be fair, the Pac-12 was a a very deep conference, and each of the five defeats came to bowl teams (Stanford, Southern Cal, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon). The offense was the team's strength with quarterback Sean Mannion throwing more passes than all but two players in college football. Most of his passes went to Brandin Cooks who finished second in catches with 120 and led the nation in receiving yards with 1670. Cooks continues a fine tradition of Oregon State receivers that includes Chad Johnson, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Sammie Stroughter, Mike Hass, James Rodgers, and Markus Wheaton. The Beaver offense ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in terms of yards per play, but the defense finished a disappointing ninth in the same metric. Seven of their twelve opponents scored at least 30 points against the Beavers and three teams scored more than 40. The Beavers will seek to win their first bowl game since 2008 against a relatively familiar opponent. The Beavers and Broncos played for four consecutive years from 2003-2006 and again in 2010 with the Broncos winning three of the five contests. The Broncos, America's mid-major, are playing in their twelfth consecutive bowl game and have already clinched their thirteenth consecutive winning season. However, their great success has finally cost them their head coach. After eight seasons in Boise, Chris Petersen finally left for a bigger job in agreeing to lead the Washington Huskies. This was by far Petersen's worst season at Boise, with the Broncos losing four games in the regular season for the first time since 2001. The yards per play metrics still believe the Broncos were the best team in the Mountain West, and I have a hard time disagreeing. Their two conference losses both came on the road by a combined four points, while each of their six wins were by at least eleven points. As it has been throughout his tenure, the Boise defense, despite the lack of publicity, was the team's anchor. The unit ranked second in yards per play allowed in the Mountain West and was anchored by defensive end Demarcus Lawrence who finished ninth nationally with ten and a half sacks. With Petersen headed to Seattle and former Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin primed to take over, the Broncos will be captained in the bowl game by linebacker coach Bob Gregory. As with any bowl game involving an interim coach, you never know quite what to expect. However, Boise State is no stranger to facing teams from major conferences in bowl games, having won such a game each of the past two seasons. Take the Broncos on the moneyline here.

Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl
Bowling Green vs Pitt
Line: Bowling Green -6
College football elitists around the country were likely rooting hard for Bowling Green two weeks ago when the Falcons upset Northern Illinois and prevented the Huskies from playing in a second consecutive BCS bowl. The win marked the first conference title for the Falcons since 1992. Unfortunately for the Falcons, as is often the case with teams of their ilk, their success cost them their head coach. Dave Clawson recently accepted the head coaching position at my alma mater, Wake Forest. In Clawson's stead, Adam Scheier, the special teams and tight ends coach, will guide the Falcons in the Little Caesar's Bowl. Coaching changes aside, Bowling Green was a fantastic MAC team this season, ranking second in the conference in yards per play and first in yards per play allowed. The Falcons offense was led by a pair of sophomores with quarterback Matt Johnson averaging nine and a half yards per pass (tied for fourth nationally alongside household names like Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota) and Travis Greene gaining over 1500 yards on the ground. Greene will be gunning for his sixth consecutive 100-yard game against a Pittsburgh team anchored by the Nagurski and Lombardi Trophy winner Aaron Donald. As a defensive tackle, Donald led the nation in tackles for loss (26.5) and finished 13th in the nation with ten sacks. However, one need look no further to see that one superstar does not a great team make. The Panthers only accumulated 18 total sacks (ranking 96th in the nation) and finished eleventh in the ACC in yards per play allowed. The offense was not much better, ranking tenth in the conference in yards per play. The culprit here was some combination of the offensive line and quarterback Tom Savage. The Panthers allowed 41 sacks on the year, bested (or worsted?) by just four teams that combined for a 3-45 record! With the coaching upheaval and the relatively large spread, I would be hesitant to take the Falcons, but under no circumstances would I advise you to lay any money on the Panthers.

SD County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
Northern Illinois vs Utah State
Line: Northern Illinois -1.5
Last season, both these mid-majors enjoyed phenomenal campaigns. Both lost just two games all year and finished ranked in the top-25. It was the Aggies first appearance in the final polls since they finished number ten in 1961. For Northern Illinois, it was their first finish in the final polls in school history. A win by the Huskies here would see them finish ranked for consecutive seasons. The biggest question in this game will be how motivated is Northern Illinois? In their last game, they lost out on a chance at a second consecutive BCS bowl berth and a third consecutive MAC championship. The Huskies are led, as you may have heard, by Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch. After accounting for nearly 5000 yards last season (4953 to be precise) and 44 touchdowns, Lynch only has 'only' mustered 4574 yards this season. However, he was made up for his modest yardage totals by scoring 46 touchdowns. In just two seasons of full-time action, Lynch ranks third on the school's all-time rushing list with 4304 yards. It would take a monster game for him reach the second spot (he only needs 638 yards to pass Michael Turner), but his legacy in DeKalb is secure. Oh, and don't sleep on the Huskie defense either, as that unit ranked second behind Bowling Green in the MAC in yards per play allowed. The Huskies will take on a Utah State team that is appearing in a third consecutive bowl game after making just two bowl trips in the previous five decades. The Aggies weathered the loss of head coach Gary Anderson to Wisconsin and an injury to quarterback Chuckie Keeton to qualify for the inaugural Mountain West Championship Game. The Aggies lost that game to Fresno and head into bowl action with five losses, but don't be fooled, this is a quality team with an outstanding defense. The Aggies ranked first in the Mountain West in yards per play allowed, and only Utah in the season opener was able to average over six yards per play against them. The Aggies were adept at stopping plays in the backfield, averaging eight per game, which ranks sixth nationally heading into bowl season. However, since Keeton went down with a knee injury the offense not been as explosive. In the two conference games Keeton started (admittedly a small sample size), the Aggies averaged 6.13 yards per play and scored 92 points (46 per game). In the six games Keeton missed with an injury the Aggies averaged just 5.31 yards per play and about 32 points per game. Utah State will represent the best defense Northern Illinois has faced this season, but I don't think they can score enough points to beat the Huskies. This one should be close, and Jordan Lynch will have to earn his yards, but the Huskies will prevail.

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