Monday, December 12, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

The last week of the regular season pushed us just below the gambling break even line. a 4-3 mark in bowl season will push us back over. Let's get it.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 49-45-4

Cure Bowl
Arkansas State +6 Central Florida
Back in October, it looked like Arkansas State might see their bowl streak end at five. The Red Wolves lost their first four games (all non-conference) to good teams (Auburn and Toledo), mediocre teams (Utah State), and FCS teams (Central Arkansas). That start meant the Red Wolves would need six wins in Sun Belt play to get back to the postseason. They got seven, and a share of their second straight league title (their fifth Sun Belt title in the last six seasons). Arkansas State is in relatively uncharted territory as Blake Anderson just completed his third season as head coach. After Steve Roberts coached in Jonesboro for nine years, the next three Arkansas State coaches lasted just one year apiece before moving on to better jobs. Once conference play began, the typically dynamic Red Wolves were led by their defense. In Sun Belt action, Arkansas State ranked second in yards allowed per play and allowed just eleven touchdowns in eight league games. Their opponent in this game also played pretty good defense. Despite being led by Scott Frost, a former college quarterback at Nebraska and offensive coordinator for Oregon, the Knights were a defensively minded team in 2016. The Knights ranked dead last in the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (just like they did last year when they were 0-12), but ranked second in the league in yards allowed per play after finishing last in the category last season. Points will probably be scarce here, and despite the fact that this game is in Orlando, I like Arkansas State to keep it close.

Bahamas Bowl
Old Dominion -3 Eastern Michigan
This game features a team making its first ever bowl appearance and a team makings its first since the late 80s. Plus, I don’t even need to consult The Weather Channel to know that Nassau is a little warmer than Norfolk and Ypsilanti this time of year. Suffice it to say, motivation, or lack thereof, should not be a factor here. In their third season of play in Conference USA, Old Dominion tied with Western Kentucky for the East division crown and won nine games. The Monarchs ranked fourth in Conference USA in yards per play, but the reason they surged was their improvement on defense. In their first two seasons in Conference USA, the Monarchs finished twelfth and seventh respectively in yards allowed per play. This season, they moved up to third. Western Kentucky shredded the Monarchs, as they did to almost everyone, but they held up pretty well against the rest of their opponents. Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan won seven games for the first time since 1989. The seven wins were more than double the total from Chris Creighton's first two seasons. The improvement was mostly isolated to one side of the ball. While the defense did go from sieve to merely bad (moving from dead last in the MAC in yards allowed per play to tenth), it was the offense that carried the team. The Eagles soared to third in the MAC in yards per play, behind heavyweights Western Michigan and Toledo. When the Eagles are on defense, keep an eye on Pat O'Connor. The defensive lineman led the team with eight sacks and after toiling for bad teams through his first three seasons (6-30 record) and injuries in his fourth (missed all of the 2015 season with an injury), this bowl game will serve as a fine sendoff. Despite the presence of O'Connor, Old Dominion has by far the better defense and should win by at least a touchdown here.

Independence Bowl
Vanderbilt +4 NC State
Both these teams pulled off mild to large upsets in their regular season finales to get to 6-6 and qualify for postseason play. For Vanderbilt, this marks their first bowl under Derek Mason and for those who were not paying attention, the Commodores were pretty good on offense down the stretch. After averaging just 4.09 yards per play and scoring four offensive touchdowns in their first five SEC games, the Commodores averaged 6.76 yards per play and scored thirteen offensive touchdowns in their last three conference games. The passing game, led by quarterback Kyle Shurmur, improved dramatically, and was able to hit several explosive plays. In those first five conference games, Shurmur completed exactly half his passes and averaged just 4.82 yards per throw (excluding sacks). Over those last three conference games, Shurmur completed 59% of his throws and averaged over ten yards per pass. Overall, Vanderbilt still ranked twelfth in the SEC in yards per play, but that was primarily due to the how poorly they played over the first half of the conference season. The Commodores will face an NC State team that endured a very uneven season in 2016. The Wolfpack won at North Carolina, nearly won at Clemson, and pounded a solid Old Dominion team. However, they also lost at East Carolina and dropped a home game to a bad Boston College team. Overall, NC State was a pretty mediocre ACC team and quite deserving of their 6-6 record. Through over 1100 plays in ACC action, the Wolfpack were outgained by one one-hundredth of a yard per play. NC State has not done a good job of beating Power 5 teams not named Syracuse or Wake Forest under Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack are 6-2 against the Orange and Deacons, but just 4-22 against all other Power 5 foes. With Vanderbilt catching more than a field goal, they are a solid play here.

Holiday Bowl
Minnesota +6 Washington State
If Washington State did a better job of scheduling FCS cupcakes, the luster of these past two seasons would have been even shinier. However, after the horrors that began in 2008, most Cougar fans will settle for nine wins even if it includes an FCS loss. The Cougars were in contention for the Pac-12 title up until the final weekend of the regular season, but dropped their final two games to the Pac-12 Championship Game participants. Under Mike Leach, the Cougars are perhaps not surprisingly near the top of the Pac-12 in yards per play, ranking third. Defensively, the Cougars are more middle of the pack, ranking seventh in yards allowed per play. In the Holiday Bowl, the Cougars will take on a team that is almost exactly their total opposite. To me, Minnesota is a more likable Iowa since they are not paying Tracy Claeys a kings ransom to get to the Outback Bowl. The Gophers are not flashy, but with a few breaks here or there, could have enjoyed a special season. Minnesota played four teams that are currently ranked and lost all four, However, three of those losses came by a touchdown or less. As it were, the Gophers did not quite have the offense to pull those games out, averaging just under 17 points per game in those four defeats. I expect more of the same here with Washington State pulling out a close win and Minnesota covering.

Texas Bowl
Texas A&M -2 Kansas State
The only thing my main man has not been able to do since returning to the sideline in 2009 is win bowl games. The Wildcats are just 1-5 in postseason play since Bill Snyder’s return. I have a pet theory as to why this is so, if you will indulge me. Kansas State outperforms their peripheral numbers pretty much every season. For example, this year they had a negative per play margin in Big 12 action, but managed a 6-3 league record. For whatever reason, be it the snail’s pace they play at that reduces the number of possessions or their great play on special teams or some other reason, Bill Snyder appears to have hacked football. Against conference opponents they are familiar with, they consistently punch above their weight class. Since Kansas State is usually better than their record, they often end up playing a quality opponent in their bowl game. Once they get to a bowl game, the Wildcats play a team that is foreign to them and are unable to rely on that familiarity to pull off an upset. Again, just a theory. Anyway, Kansas State once again plays a team that, on paper, is superior to them. Remember when Texas A&M was fourth in the initial playoff rankings? What strange times those were. While the Aggies did lose their final four games against Power 5 opponents, two of them came against elite opponents (Alabama and LSU) and quarterback Trevor Knight missed one with an injury (Ole Miss). The Aggies were led by their offense this season as they ranked fourth in the SEC in yards per play, but a disappointing eighth in yards per play allowed. I'll point out here that defensive coordinator John Chavis is the highest paid assistant coach in the SEC. Trevor Knight's status for the bowl game is still somewhat uncertain, but even if Jake Hubenak is forced to play, the Aggies should continue Bill Snyder's postseason struggles.

Liberty Bowl
Georgia -1 TCU
In the preseason, a bowl pitting these two teams together would probably bring to mind an upper-tier game, or even a New Year’s Six contest as both were in the AP top 20. Both struggled in early season games against FCS competition that portended their eventual mediocrity. TCU went just 5-6 after failing to put away South Dakota State while Georgia went 5-5 after scraping by Nicholls State. TCU put up better numbers than their overall won/loss record would indicate, and will probably be due for a bounce back season next year, but this looked a lot like the 2012 and 2013 versions that struggled moving the ball when they joined the Big 12. The Horned Frogs ranked eighth of ten teams in the Big 12 in yards per play with Kenny Hill suffering through inconsistency and Foster Sawyer looking more like (Charles) Foster Kane when he was forced into action. Defensively, the Frogs remained stout, sort of, ranking first in the Big 12 in yards allowed per play. However, while they were competent against the pass, they showed a susceptibility to the running game, with Arkansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia combining to average 269 rushing yards per game and 5.99 per carry against them (not counting sacks). Georgia also struggled moving the ball, ranking thirteenth in the SEC in yards per play, but most of that was due to their anemic passing game. The Bulldogs averaged just over six per pass in SEC play (and that is not counting yardage lost from sacks). However, their duo of running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, averaged 4.70 yards per carry against SEC defenses. Georgia has their issues on offense, but they appear to be ready made to take advantage of TCU’s defensive weakness. Georgia was also solid defensively in SEC play, ranking fourth in yards allowed per play (you may want to do a little mental adjusting down as the Bulldogs played in the easier division), but it’s hard to see TCU scoring a lot against this defense. As a point of reference, Arkansas, holder of the worst SEC defense in yards allowed per play by a significant margin, shut TCU out in Fort Worth in the first half and held them under 30 points in regulation. When handicapping bowl games, I think it pays to look at motivation, and while Georgia is probably disappointed to be playing in this game, TCU is hardly pleased either, so there should not be any significant motivation asymmetry. With this spread being so low, a Georgia win likely means a Georgia cover, so take the Bulldogs here.

Orange Bowl
Florida State +7 Michigan
Michigan is perhaps the best team not in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have two losses, but Michigan led until the final play in both games. Now the Wolverines will have to settle for an Orange Bowl berth and with a win, a top five finish for the first time since 1999 (which is the last time they played in the Orange Bowl). Michigan was well-balanced, finishing second in the Big 10 in yards per play and first in yards allowed per play. The offense did struggle down the stretch, averaging just 3.86 yards per play and 20 points per game in their final three Big 10 games after averaging 6.90 yards per play and over 45 points per game through their first six. Part of that is competition, as Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State rank in the top half of the Big 10 defensively, and part of it is the injury to quarterback Wilton Speight. Another aspect is the fact that two of those games came on the road, something Michigan avoided for the most part in 2016, as they played just four games away from home. This game will not be in Ann Arbor and it will be against a team that has coalesced over the second half of the season. Florida State is playing in their fifth consecutive BCS/New Year's Six Bowl under Jimbo Fisher. It looked like Florida State might endure a four or five loss regular season as they lost two of their first five games, with one defeat in particular coming in grisly fashion. However, following their last second loss to North Carolina, the Seminoles won six of their last seven games with the only loss coming in very competitive fashion to eventual playoff participant Clemson. These teams seem to be heading opposite directions and outside of their trip to Rutgers, Michigan has struggled away from home this season. With Florida State playing much closer to home and catching a touchdown, they are a solid play here.

Other Bowl Thoughts
No picks here, just some things to keep an eye on.

Las Vegas Bowl
Houston Vs San Diego State
With Tom Herman gone, will Houston stop dropping games to teams they are more talented than? Can Donnel Pumphrey break the NCAA rushing record?

Camellia Bowl
Appalachian State Vs Toledo
Great mid-major matchup. Perhaps the best team in the Sun Belt versus the second best team in the MAC. Will pollsters pay attention and rank the winner or will a four loss also ran from a Power 5 finish the year ranked 25th? You already know the answer.

Quick Lane Bowl
Boston College Vs Maryland
The two worst Power 5 bowl teams square off. Which fan base will have unrealistic expectations heading into 2017?

Citrus Bowl
LSU Vs Louisville
How will Lamar Jackson perform against an elite defense? If Louisville wins, will LSU be the best five-loss team in the country? Or will Auburn have an argument for that title?

Peach Bowl
Alabama Vs Washington
Alabama is good, and perhaps the best team of the modern era, but are they susceptible to elite quarterback play? Chad Kelly shredded the Crimson Tide back in September and Austin Allen moved the ball effectively through the air against them. Of course, the Tide defense scored four non-offensive touchdowns in those two games, so they made some big plays themselves. Can Jake Browning lead the Huskies to points and avoid mistakes (at least game-changing mistakes) against an Alabama defense that has not allowed more than 16 points in their last seven games?

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