Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

Well, the regular season didn't necessarily go as we hoped. But, like Fresno State, we were awarded a postseason invitation despite a losing record. I will use my handicapping skills to give you the seven best bowl bets I see on the board. Let's enjoy the last fortnight or so of football as the offseason is long and arduous.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Western Michigan -1 Air Force
On the first Saturday of bowl season, we are treated to a quintet of games on ESPN and ABC. In the penultimate game, a pair of teams that improved dramatically face off in Boise, Idaho. Western Michigan and Air Force combined to go 3-21 in 2013. Under first year head coach PJ Fleck, the Broncos endured a typical 'Year Zero', losing all their games save one as they transitioned to a new administration. Meanwhile, after six consecutive bowl appearances under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons won just two games, their fewest in a season since 1980. Coming into this game, the Broncos and Falcons have a combined 17-7 mark, a full 14-game improvement. Despite finishing behind both Northern Illinois and Toledo in the MAC West, the Broncos may have been the best team in the conference. Statistically, they averaged the most yards per play in the conference, and their yards per play differential was also tops among MAC teams. Alas, the Broncos lost on the field to both the Huskies and Rockets and will have to be content with their first bowl win in school history to cap the season. The Falcons played in a tougher conference, but were quite fortunate to finish with nine wins. In conference play, they were outgained by nearly three quarters of a yard per play. The Falcons used their home field to their advantage, finishing 6-0 at home, including wins over league heavyweights Boise State and Colorado State. Away from the friendly confines of Falcon Stadium, Air Force went just 3-3, with the wins courtesy of Army, Georgia State, and UNLV. That triumvirate was a combined 7-30 in 2014. In this battle of improved teams, take the Broncos to win and cover this small number. Before we leave this game, here is a bit of bonus trivia for both teams. Did you know Bill Parcells once coached the Air Force Academy? His 1978 squad went just 3-8. In other coaching minutia, Jack Harbaugh coached Western Michigan. Yes, the father of Super Bowl winning coach John Harbaugh and super a-hole Jim Harbaugh was the Broncos fearless leader for five seasons beginning in 1982.

Miami Beach Bowl
Memphis -1 BYU
Before quarterback Taysom Hill went down with an injury in early October, some, in particular one genius blogger, fancied BYU a darkhorse contender for the college football playoff. Alas, the Cougars suffered a four-game losing streak upon losing Hill, but quietly rebounded to win their final four games. Despite owning eight victories, including three over teams from Power Five conferences, the Cougars only defeated a pair of teams (Houston and Texas) that are playing in bowl games. Meanwhile, all four of their losses came to bowl participants (all from the Group of Five). While the Cougars are playing in their tenth consecutive bowl game under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Memphis Tigers are playing in their first since 2008. The end of the Tommy West era, the entirety of the Larry Porter era, and the first two years of the Justin Fuente era produced just twelve victories, so the 9-3 campaign is certainly cause for a celebration. In fact, in the latest edition of the AP Poll, the Tigers are 29th, so a victory here could have them sitting in the final poll for the first time in school history. The Tigers are no fluke either, ranking second in the American Conference in terms of yards per play differential. They also acquitted themselves reasonably well outside the conference, playing a tight game at UCLA and giving Ole Miss a decent game despite losing by three touchdowns. Memphis is the better team and with a spread under a field goal, should be able to cover this small number.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Penn State +2.5 Boston College
These former northeast rivals on the Independent circuit will be playing for just the third time since 1992, and the first time in ten years. And they will be doing it in New York City! Boston College enters the game with seven wins and will look to end the season with eight for the first time since 2009. The Eagles were once a bowl winning machine under Tom O'Brien, emerging victorious in eight consecutive bowl games from 2000-2007. Alas, their winning ways have eluded them of late as they have suffered four consecutive postseason setbacks, with last year's debacle against Arizona the most recent. The Eagles were imminently average in the ACC in 2014, ranking eighth in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. Their primary strength was the running of quarterback Tyler Murphy who was the only non-triple option quarterback to rush for more than 1000 yards in 2014. Murphy and the Eagles will take on a Penn State team that was average in terms of their final record, but extreme in how they got there. The Nittany Lions ranked dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play, averaging a pathetic 3.72 yards per snap. However, the Nittany Lions also boasted a robust defense, ranking first in the conference in yards per play allowed. The Nittany Lions were particularly adept against the run as no team averaged four yards per carry against them in 2014. Look for the Nittany Lions to win a tight low-scoring affair in one of our nation's finest cities.

Texas Bowl
Texas +6 Arkansas
There really is no better time than bowl season to renew old acquaintances. These former Southwest Conference rivals, who once played every season from 1932 to 1991 will be getting together for the first time since 2008 and just the fifth time since Arkansas left for the SEC before the 1992 season. While Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong may not yet have the cache of Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles, their teams are better than their combined 12-12 records would indicate. While Arkansas managed just a pair of SEC wins, and are just 2-14 in the league under Bielema, the Hogs beat Ole Miss and LSU by a combined 47 points. In addition, four of their six conference losses were by a touchdown or less, and all six of their losses came to bowl bound teams. Outside the SEC, the Hogs dominated. The Hogs crushed eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, beat a an improved UAB team by four touchdowns, and throttled another former Southwest Conference rival (Texas Tech) by three touchdowns on the road. So why are they not the play here? For starters, a solid Texas team is catching nearly a touchdown. After a dismal 2-4 start that included wins against North Texas and Kansas, the Longhorns won four of their final six games. Like the Razorbacks, each team to defeat Texas will be playing in the postseason, so the schedule is partially responsible for the .500 record. Plus, and this factoid may shock you, Texas boated the best per play defense in the Big 12. The Longhorns held the dynamic Baylor offense under five yards per play. They also held the other powerful offenses in the Big 12, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU, under their season averages. Methinks this will be a low-scoring game that hearkens back to the old days of the Southwest Conference with a lot of running plays, and a game that is not decided until the final minutes.

Music City Bowl
Notre Dame +7 LSU
If you want to go by the always ephemeral 'momentum', neither team stands a very good chance of winning this game. The Irish began the year 6-0 before losing in controversial fashion to Florida State. They came out flat in their next gane, but still managed a double-digit win over Navy. Then the wheels came off. The Irish dropped a tough road game in the desert against Arizona State, were upset by Northwestern and Louisville in successive weekends at home, and capped their four-game losing streak with a blowout by the Trojans in Los Angeles. In their first five games, all wins, the Irish allowed an average of 12 points per game and 4.72 yards per play. Over their final seven games (2-5 record), the Irish allowed an average of 41.6 points per game and 5.88 yards per play. Granted, the competition improved, but allowing over 40 points per game over a half season's worth of games is not something one would expect from Notre Dame. The good news for the Irish is that LSU has struggled mightily moving the football, particularly late in the season. Before they 'exploded' (relatively speaking) against Texas A&M in the season finale the Tigers averaged just 4.43 yards per play over a six-game SEC stretch. Three of those games came against the strong defenses of Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss, but Arkansas, Auburn, and Kentucky were also included in that set of games. Suffice it to say, Cam Cameron didn't exactly earn his money this season. LSU will probably win this game, as they nearly always defeat non-conference foes under Miles, but I think they pull this one out the Les Miles way.

Fiesta Bowl
Boise State +3 Arizona
The Boise State program did not implode upon the exit of Chris Petersen. After a somewhat down year in 2013 that saw the Broncos lose five games for the first time since 1998, Petersen followed the coaching carousel to Washington. In his stead, the Broncos tabbed Bryan Harsin from Arkansas State (the new cradle of coaches). Harsin led the Broncos to their first outright Mountain West title since joining the conference in 2011. These Broncos are likely a little different than the teams you are used to watching. After ranking either first or second in terms of yards per play allowed among their conference brethren for each season from 2005 through 2013, the Broncos fell all the way to fourth in 2014 (gasp), but more than made up for it by fielding an outstanding offensive attack (second in the Mountain West to Colorado State in terms of yards per play). Running back Jay Ajayi enters the bowl with nearly 1700 rushing yards on the season and 25 touchdowns. Boise will seek their third Fiesta Bowl victory (Penn State holds the record with six Fiesta Bowl wins) against the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats will be making their first major bowl appearance since 1993, when they last played in the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats won seven of their nine regular season Pac-12 games, but were not very proficient at any one area. They ranked eighth in the conference in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. The Wildcats did fare quite well in more random aspects of play, finishing with a +9 turnover margin in Pac-12 play and winning six of their seven one score games. This was a phenomenal season for Arizona, and it is a shame they ran into an elite Oregon team in the Pac-12 Championship Game, denying the program their first outright conference title since they won the Border Conference in 1941. Arizona is a little over-valued here and Boise should enter this game reasonably motivated to knock off a major conference team. Look for the Broncos to pull off an outright upset here.

Citrus Bowl
Minnesota +6 Missouri
For the second consecutive year, SEC newcomer Missouri won their division. And then were summarily trounced in the SEC Championship Game. There is no shame in losing to Alabama, but the Missouri Tigers are now 0-4 in conference title games under Gary Pinkel as they seek their first conference title since they shared the Big 8 with Nebraska in 1969. Missouri was led by their defense in 2014, ranking first in the SEC in yards per play allowed. That number is likely a function of their easier eastern division schedule, but the defense was legitimately nasty. The offense on the other hand, was a slowly decomposing husk. After averaging 6.1 yards per play in their four non-conference games, the Tigers struggled mightily moving the ball in the SEC, averaging under five yards per play. That figure ranked ahead of winless (in the conference) Vanderbilt, and no one else. The Tigers will be challenged by a Minnesota team playing in their third consecutive bowl under Jerry Kill. The Gophers somehow lost to Illinois (much like the Tigers somehow lost to Indiana), but otherwise performed admirably in 2014, beating Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska, and losing to Ohio State, TCU, and Wisconsin. Minnesota does not do a anything particularly well, but against an offense as limited as Missouri's, they should be able to keep the margin in this game to a less than a touchdown.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XV

Alas, we have posted yet another subpar week, and with just one week to go in the regular season, it appears we will not finish the year with a winning record. Still, we have had a good time, and hopefully have not lost you too much money. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 47-51

Central Florida +7 East Carolina
The race for the crown in the American conference is yet to be decided. Memphis is in the clubhouse with a 7-1 mark and has clinched at least a share of the title. However, with one loss apiece, Central Florida and Cincinnati are still alive for a share of the title as well. If you are like me, and are pulling for sheer zaniness this weekend, Central Florida, Cincinnati, or Memphis could potentially grab one of the New Year's Six bowl games should Boise State lose in the Mountain West Championship Game. Yes, it is a long shot, but crazier things have happened. As for capping this game, were I a betting man, I would wager a significant amount on Central Florida. The Knights have one of the best mid-major defenses, and since losing to Connecticut on November 1st, have allowed just two offensive touchdowns in three games. East Carolina won't be held without an offensive score, but this spread should be closer to a pick 'em.

Arizona +14.5 Oregon @ Santa Clara
For the first time in the brief history of the Pac-12, the title game will be held at a neutral site instead of at the home of the team with the better conference record. A win by the Wildcats would not only give them their first outright Pac-10/12 title since joining the conference in 1978, it would also give them three wins over the Ducks in the past two seasons. For Oregon, a win certainly vaults them into the inaugural College Football Playoff, and would also give them their first conference title since 2011. It is unfair that some teams have to wait so long between championships. Arizona will keep this one close, but the Ducks will prevail sans a cover.

Marshall -12 Louisiana Tech
Despite their home loss to Western Kentucky last week, Marshall still has an incredible (unadjusted) profile. They outgained Conference USA opponents by over three yards per play (7.88 to 4.86)! Unfortunately, their dream season was shredded on a two-point conversion. Still, the Thundering Herd have a great deal to play for. A win here would give them their first conference championship since 2002. Plus, a solid performance by quarterback Rakeem Cato could land him an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony. The Thundering Herd will be opposed by an improved Louisiana Tech team. The Bulldogs finished just 4-8 in Skip Holtz's first season in charge, but improved to 8-4 this season behind the best defense in Conference USA. Holtz has won a pair of Conference USA Championship Games, both times as an underdog, but I think the Herd will be too much here, particularly at home.

Iowa State +33.5 TCU
With the release of the latest college football rankings, TCU appears to be just a win away from locking up a playoff spot. Now all they have to do is get by an Iowa State team that has not won a conference game since the end of last season. Iowa State has played TCU tough in their two contests as Big 12 members, with the Cyclones upsetting the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth two years ago, and losing a close contest in Ames last season. This one won't be as competitive, but the Cyclones should hold the margin of defeat under 30.

Missouri +14.5 Alabama @ Atlanta
The newbies from the Big 12 have now won twice as many SEC East titles in three seasons as Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt have combined to win in 23 seasons. The Tigers will be looking to exorcise a few demons from last year's title game when Auburn shredded their previously stout defense with nearly 700 yards of offense, including 545 on the ground. The Tigers enter this game once again boasting a stout defense, in fact the best in the SEC by yards per play. To be fair, the Tigers play in the SEC East, so some adjustment for strength of schedule is necessary, but the defense is still the strength of the team. This is especially true when considering quarterback Maty Mauk completed less than half his passes in five of eight SEC games. Alabama is clearly the better team, but as a double-digit favorite away from home, the Tide are 0-3 ATS this season. I think Missouri loves company, and keeps this one within two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech +4 Florida State @ Charlotte
I feel a little nervous jumping on that Georgia Tech bandwagon after their upset over Georgia last week. Everyone has been waiting patiently for Florida State to lose all season, and yet the Seminoles are unbeaten (and disrespected) as Championship Weekend approaches. If noting else, this game should be entertaining with two of the best offense in the ACC going head to head. The last time these two teams met was a classic (although no one was there to see it). Take the Jackets to win a tight one and open the door for either Ohio State or Baylor to sneak into the playoff picture.

Fresno State +21 Boise State
At the beginning of November, things looked bleak for the Fresno State Bulldogs. Fresh off a Mountain West title, the Bulldogs stood just 3-6 and were a loss away from missing a bowl for the first time under Tim DeRuyter. Then the Bulldogs reeled off three straight wins and thanks to their earlier win over San Diego State actually won the West division of the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it looks like they will enter bowl season with a losing record like Georgia Tech did in 2012. A win here would be a major upset, but a cover would not be unprecedented.