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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bowl Preview Part I: The Pre-Christmas Games

Hi. My name is Matthew Melton. I'm terrible at introductions. I run a little blog on the interwebs called Statistically Speaking where I blog about college football. I've been told by at least one person not related to me that it has some decent content from time to time. Scott has graciously invited me to contribute to this blog, and while I held out for better offers, none were forthcoming. Over the long and arduous offseason, I'll be contributing semi-regular posts about some stats and the like that I find interesting. I don't possess the statistical abilities that most of the fine posters here have, but I do love numbers. Before the offseason arrives though, I thought I would jump in and preview all 35 bowl games. I'll dig deep and try to find some statistical minutiae about each bowl you may not have known about, and for the degenerates who peruse this site, I'll offer you betting advice about the games I think are the 'locks' of the postseason. As a primer on what statistics I use, when I refer to how well a team did in conference play, I will be referencing Standard Deviation Power Index, a concept used by Eddie Epstein in his book Dominance. It determines how many standard deviations a team is above or below average in a closed system (i.e. conference play) in terms of yardage. I will also be using the Adjusted Pythagorean Theorem, created by yours truly, which functions much like the normal Pythagorean Theorem created by Bill James, with the exception that it focuses only on offensive touchdowns and touchdowns allowed (field goals, defensive touchdowns, and special teams touchdowns are ignored). Sit back and enjoy while I preview the pre-Christmas bowl menu.

Gildan New Mexico Bowl
Arizona vs Nevada
Arizona -9.5
The first game of the 2012-2013 bowl season has the potential to also be one of the more entertaining. Both teams enter this game with dynamic offenses, but very suspect defenses. Within the confines of their respective conferences, Nevada and Arizona both ranked second in offense. Nevada finished behind the revitalized Bulldogs from Fresno State, while Arizona of course played second fiddle to the Mighty Ducks of Oregon. Unfortunately, Nevada also ranked eighth in the ten team Mountain West on the other side of the ball, while Arizona finished dead last in the that category in the Pac-12. Yes, behind even the woeful Colorado Buffaloes. Suffice to say, points may not be hard to come by in this bowl game. While both teams are quite prolific on offense, they also share similarities in how they go about moving the ball. Nevada averages 260 rush yards per game, good for seventh nationally. Arizona is not too far behind them, averaging 230 rush yards per game which ranks 15th in the nation. While both teams are not one-man shows on offense, they each have a workhorse running back that ranks at or near the top of the national leader boards. Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona leads the nation in rush yards per game (146) and is second nationally in total rush yards (1757). Carey posted an absurd stat line against Colorado when he rushed 25 times for 366 yards and five touchdowns back in mid-November. Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson is no slouch himself. He is second nationally in rush yards per game (142) and fourth in total rush yards (1703). He didn't post any ridiculous yardage totals in any one particular game, though he did have six rushing touchdowns against Hawaii. Both teams also have mobile quarterbacks that contribute to the ground game as well. Barring an injury or a total 360 by the Arizona defense, Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo should top 1000 rush yards on the season in this game (he currently has 981). Arizona quarterback Matt Scott won't be able to get to 1000, but he does enter the game with 485 yards on the ground himself. But wait, the similarities don't end there. Both teams also struggle to stop the run. Nevada allows 213 rush yards per game (112th nationally) and Arizona permits 190 per game (89th nationally). This game marks the eighth consecutive bowl for the Nevada Wolfpack. Even in this age of 30+ bowl games, that is quite an accomplishment. However, the Wolfpack are just 2-5 in bowls during this streak. For Arizona, despite the coaching change after last season, this is actually their fourth bowl in five seasons. Rich Rodriguez will be seeking his first bowl win since the Gator Bowl victory over Georgia Tech following the 2006 season. Arizona is probably the better team, but I trust them with this relatively big spread about as much as I trust the B---- in Apartment 23. There are much better games on the board than this one, so just sit back and relax and watch the points roll in.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Utah State vs Toledo
Utah State -10
Rare is the occasion when one of the first bowl games features a team ranked in the polls. However, that is the case in Boise, Idaho where the Utah State Aggies make their second consecutive appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Aggies are certainly deserving of their current spot in the AP Poll (18th) as they have but two losses on the season. Both came on the road (at Wisconsin and at BYU) and were by the slimmest of margins (two and three points respectively). Utah State does not own any great wins, but they did manage to beat WAC-mates San Jose State and Louisiana Tech on the road in taking the final WAC football championship, and outside of Utah, whom they beat in overtime, the Aggies bludgeoned their other seven overmatched opponents by an average score of 39-11. Within the confines of the WAC, Utah State boasted the top defense and second-best offensive attack (behind the powder keg that was Louisiana Tech). The Aggies also rank 15th nationally in total defense, permitting just 323 yards per game. The Aggies are guided into the postseason by fourth year head coach Gary Andersen. The Aggies did not see dramatic improvement immediately after Andersen took over, posting back-to-back 4-8 campaigns in his first two seasons. However, like the Pointer Sisters and Conway Twitty sang, sometimes it is better to have a man with a slow hand. The Aggies began their third season under Andersen by nearly knocking off the defending national champions Auburn Tigers on the Plains. Though they returned to relative obscurity after that game, the Aggies did manage to win seven games and qualify for their first bowl game since noted investment czar and resident psychopath John L. Smith was coaching the team in 1997. The Aggies lost an exciting game to Ohio by a final score of 24-23, continuing their run of tight contests, as ten of their 13 games last season were decided by seven points or fewer. Opposing the Aggies in this game will be the Rockets of Toledo. The Rockets themselves were ranked at one point this season, climbing as high as 23rd after upsetting Cincinnati. Like the Aggies, the Rockets have no bad losses, falling only to bowl teams Arizona, Ball State, and Northern Illinois. Within the MAC, the Rockets finished with the third best offense, but were a little below average on defense, ranking seventh in a 13-team league. The Rockets are captained by the youngest coach in IA football, Matt Campbell. Campbell took the reigns and the launch codes from Tim Beckman prior to last season's bowl game when Beckman landed the Illinois job. The Rockets are 10-3 overall under Campbell and appear to have returned to their status of perennial contenders in the MAC. The track record of double-digit favorites is not a good one in recent bowl history. Straight up, they are 20-9 since 2005, a solid performance, but probably a little worse than what we might expect given the large point spread. Against the spread, they are a poor 11-18. Six of the eleven teams that covered were truly elite and finished with a top-10 ranking. Two of the remaining five teams that covered featured members of BCS conferences against teams from non-BCS conferences. The other three instances of double digit favorites covering that did not meet either of those criteria were TCU against Northern Illinois in 2006, BYU against UTEP in 2010, and Oklahoma against Iowa in 2011. I like Utah State, but backing big favorites is a way to go broke around the holidays. Save your money for better games.

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
BYU vs San Diego State
BYU -3
The holidays are a fine time to renew old acquaintances and that is precisely what we get in the Poinsettia Bowl as BYU and San Diego State renew an old Mountain West and an even older WAC rivalry. Heck, one team (San Diego State) is even playing in their home stadium making this just like those old annual clashes. San Diego State enters this game having claimed a share of the Mountain West title (with Boise State and Fresno State) in their final year in the league. This marks their first conference title of any type since winning the WAC outright in 1986. While the Aztecs won the league, both sets of power rankings I use believe they were quite fortunate to do so. Within the Mountain West, San Diego State was a below average sixth on offense. While they did rank a respectable third on defense, Boise and Fresno were far superior on a play-by-play basis. Plus, based on their touchdowns scored and allowed (the lifeblood of the Adjusted Pythagorean Theorem), they should have won about five league games instead of seven. Still, give credit where credit is due. With some clutch play, a little bit of luck, or some combination therein, the Aztecs managed to win nine games despite starting an inexperienced sophomore under center for the latter half of the season. Adam Dingwell replaced an injured Ryan Katz against Nevada and led the Aztecs to a comeback win. He then proceeded to win his last four starts, including a huge upset over Boise State on the Smurf Turf. While that transition occurred during the year, the Aztecs also had to replace one of the best running backs in school history in the offseason. Ronnie Hillman ground out over 3200 yards on the ground in just two seasons and is now in the NFL. Sophomore Adam Muema helped fill his rather large shoes by rushing for 1355 yards in his first season as a starter while averaging a healthy 6.4 yards per attempt. Leading the Aztecs into battle is head coach Rocky Long, who has kept the program humming after Brady Hoke's departure for Michigan (17-8 in two seasons). The former New Mexico head man has a solid track record as a mid-major head coach, leading the Lobos to five bowl games in his final seven seasons at the helm in Albuquerque. Opposite the Aztecs will be the BYU Cougars, playing in their eighth consecutive bowl and third consecutive different bowl game. I mention that only because they played in five consecutive Las Vegas Bowls beginning in 2005. While San Diego State was fortunate to finish with nine wins, BYU checks in at the other end of the luck spectrum. In their eleven games against IA competition (excluding their game versus Weber State), the Cougars scored 40 offensive touchdowns, while their opponents scored just 15. Based on those splits, one would have expected the Cougars to finish about 10-1. Instead they went just 6-5 in those games. Part of that disconnect is luck, as the Cougars managed just a 1-4 mark in one-score games. Another part is their inconsistent offense led by quarterback Charles Nelson Riley Riley Nelson. Nelson posted mediocre numbers, tossing 13 touchdowns, but also 12 interceptions. In the season finale against New Mexico State, an injured Nelson watched from the sidelines as his backup, James Lark, threw for 384 yards and six touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers certainly, but I think if one had exhumed the corpse of Red Grange, he could have thrown at least two touchdown passes against the woeful Aggies. Regardless of who starts, the BYU defense should be able to keep the game within striking distance. Only five of their eleven IA opponents (New Mexico State, Notre Dame, Oregon State, San Jose State, and Utah) scored multiple offensive touchdowns against the stout Cougar defense. The Cougars also held eight of those eleven teams under 300 yards of offense and for the season rank third nationally in total defense, allowing a paltry 266 yards per game. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy is one of the many strong forces in the defensive front. His 11.5 sacks ranks tenth nationally. Under current head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cougars have been very good in bowl games, winning five of seven. While Rocky Long has done a fine job of getting his teams to the postseason, they have won only once in six tries. In addition, the Cougars are 5-1 versus San Diego State under Mendenhall (including five consecutive wins in the series) and they were also 4-0 versus New Mexico teams coach by Long. Those trends and their elite defense make BYU one of the safer plays of the bowl season. In fact, they are so safe, I wouldn't think twice about betting your mortgage payment on it.

Beef O'Brady's Bowl
Central Florida vs Ball State
Central Florida -7
See you at Beef's. Personally, I have never been to a Beef O'Brady's, but I am intrigued by this matchup. On one sideline, you have the Knights from Central Florida who are making their fifth bowl appearance in the last eight seasons. You may remember them from their last bowl game, an upset win over Georgia on the final day of 2010 that marked the school's first ever bowl victory, propelled the Knights into the top-25 of the final AP Poll, and cemented the first, and thus far only, losing season of Mark Richt's career in Athens. The Knights stumbled in their follow-up campaign, losing six games by a touchdown or less in 2011, but rebounded this season to win their division and play in the Conference USA Championship Game where they fell in overtime to Tulsa. The Knights also had moderate success outside the conference, playing a competitive game against Ohio State in Columbus and narrowly missing out on another SEC victory in their home loss to Missouri. Still, despite their 7-1 league record, the Knights were far from dominant, ranking just eighth in the twelve team league on offense and fifth on defense. One reason for their great record despite less than elite per play numbers was the hidden yardage they accumulated thanks to wide receiver Quincy McDuffie. The senior receiver only returned 17 kickoffs all season, but he took three all the way to the endzone. Only Reggie Dunn of Utah, with four, had more kickoff return touchdowns. Another receiver, sophomore JJ Worton contributed on punt returns, averaging a solid eleven yards per return despite not taking any to the house. The Knights will seek their second ever bowl win against a team still searching for their first. Under second-year head coach Pete Lembo, Ball State will be making their first postseason appearance since playing in back to back bowl games following the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons. Lembo has proven to be a great hire for the Cardinals. The former coach at Lehigh and Elon has had just a single losing season in twelve years as a head man. The Cardinals went 6-6 in his inaugural season as a IA head coach in 2011 and improved to 9-3 this year. Of their 15 wins under Lembo, three have come against teams from BCS-conferences. Granted, two have come against Indiana, and the other was against a poor South Florida team, but wins are wins. The Cardinal went 6-2 in the MAC this year, and their team was clearly tilted toward the offensive side of the ball. Their offense was second only to Northern Illinois, but their defense was a below average ninth in the thirteen team league. The offense notched some notable milestones in that running back Jahwan Edwards became the team's first 1000-yard rusher since 2008 and Willie Snead became the team's first 1000-yard receiver since 2007.  Ball State lost thrice on the season, but each loss came to a team currently ranked in the top-25 of the AP Poll (Clemson, Kent State, and Northern Illinois). Central Florida is playing close to home, but the Knights are just 1-3 in bowl games under coach George O'Leary, and O'Leary is just 3-5 as a coach in bowl games including his time at Georgia Tech. This is not a vintage Central Florida defense, so Ball State should be able to move the ball and keep this one close. If they are able to keep this one within striking distance, note that Ball State is an amazing 11-2 under Lembo in one-score games!

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl
Louisiana-Lafayette vs East Carolina
Louisiana-Lafayette -6
It says a great deal about conference strength when a team that went 7-1 in Conference USA is a solid underdog to a team from the Sun Belt. While East Carolina did manage seven wins within their league, they did not fare nearly as well in their non-conference games. Against South Carolina, North Carolina, and Navy, the Pirates were beaten by at least three touchdowns in each game and allowed an average of nearly 44 points per game. To be fair, all three teams qualified for for bowls (or would have if not for Butch Davis), but the Pirates were extremely non-competitive. For the second straight year, the Pirates finished with both the fourth best offense and defense in Conference USA. So how did the Pirates go winning half their league games to nearly winning the East division? Turnovers. In 2011, they committed 25 turnovers in eight league games and finished with a margin of minus 11. This season, they committed just 11 turnovers in league play and finished in the black with a plus four margin. Making their sixth bowl appearance in the last seven years and second in three seasons under Ruffin McNeill, the Pirates will be playing what almost amounts to a road game against a Louisiana-Lafayette team returning to the scene of the crime. Head coach Mark Hudspeth has guided the Ragin' Cajuns to a 17-8 record in his two seasons after a successful run as the head coach at Division II North Alabama. Last season, in their first bowl appearance, the Cajuns beat San Diego State on a 50-yard field goal at the horn. The hero from that game, Brett Baer, achieved an interesting stat line during his time in Lafayette. He has missed more extra points (six) than he has field goals (five). Those numbers are a bit misleading as he has made a higher percentage of extra points (95%) than field goals (89%), but interesting nonetheless. Outside of Baer, who also doubles as the punter, the Ragin' Cajuns are led by their offense, an attack that ranked first in the Sun Belt this season. That fact is even more impressive when you consider that last year's starting quarterback Blaine Gautier was injured for the majority of the season. Terrance Broadway was handed the reigns and the offense continued to excel, averaging over eight yards per pass attempt for the second straight season. The offensive line did a fine job of protecting Broadway as well, as Cajun quarterbacks were only sacked twelve times all season (15th fewest in the nation). However, the reason the Cajuns did not win the Sun Belt was thanks to their porous defense. The Cajuns ranked dead last on that side of the ball in the Sun Belt, as league opponents averaged 458 yards of total offense against them. With a defense that bad, I don't think you can trust them here. This should be a high-scoring, entertaining affair, so if you're itching to make a play, take a peek at the Over which currently stands at 64.

MAACO Las Vegas Bowl
Boise State vs Washington
Boise State -5
The most name brand mid-major is making their third consecutive trip to Las Vegas and eleventh straight postseason trip overall. However, before you blindly dump all your excess holiday cash (which if you're like me is not much) on the boys in blue, take a second to remind yourself these are not the Kellen Moore Broncos of yore. Consider this factoid. With Moore at quarterback, the Broncos won three games against schools from non-BCS conferences by a touchdown or less in four seasons (at Nevada in 2008, at Tulsa in 2009, and versus TCU in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2009 season). That's it. They crushed all other teams from non-BCS conferences. This season, the Broncos have equaled that total (home against BYU, at New Mexico, and at Nevada). These are not your vintage Broncos, at least on offense. They remain perhaps the most elite mid-major defense, ranking first in the Mountain West in that category and ninth nationally in total defense. They do a great job of getting after opposing quarterbacks, totaling 33 sacks (15th nationally), while allowing just eight (fourth in the nation). The Broncos will face another strong defensive team in Sam Boyd Stadium. The Washington Huskies finished second only to Stanford in defensive prowess in the Pac-12. Unfortunately, the offense did not pull its weight, ranking tenth in the league, and the Huskies were never in contention for the Pac-12 crown. Still, a third straight bowl appearance ranks as the best Washington has done since attending eight straight bowls from 1995-2002. Washington can also lay claim to beating a team that beat Boise. In the season opener, the Huskies downed San Diego State, a team that eventually beat Boise and tied for the Mountain West title. The Huskies also closed the season on somewhat of a hot streak, winning four of five. However, three of those wins came against the worst of the Pac-12 (Cal, Colorado, and Utah) as did the loss in the season finale to Washington State. The Broncos have won the last two Las Vegas Bowl against current Pac-12 teams in rather grisly fashion, dispatching Utah (then a member of the Mountain West) and Arizona State by a combined score of 82-27. On the other hand, prior to this season's loss to Michigan State, the only other time Boise tasted defeat against a BCS-conference foe was against Washington in 2007. The loss came on the road, and was the first defeat the Broncos suffered under Chris Petersen, after cruising to an undefeated mark in 2006. I like Boise State to win this game, but they are just 5-6 Against the Spread as a favorite this season. Sit this one out. By the way, these two will be getting back together in Seattle to kick off the 2013 season when Boise visits the Huskies. Perhaps there will be some value in that spread.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Fresno State vs SMU
Fresno State -12.5
While Boise State is perhaps the most recognized mid-major, Fresno State may have actually played the best this season. Since losing to the Broncos, the Bulldogs have reeled off five consecutive victories, topping the 40-point barrier in each game, en route to claiming a share of their first conference title since nabbing a third of the WAC championship in 1999. The Bulldogs had been in a rut under former head coach Pat Hill, losing at least five games in each of his final four seasons and six times in his last seven. Into the mix stepped Tim DeRuyter and the results were fantastic. The Bulldogs finished with the best offense in the Mountain West and ranked second on defense behind Boise State. Their dynamic offense was led by a trio of talents. Under center, junior quarterback Derek Carr threw 36 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, nearly equaling the fantastic numbers his brother David put up when the Bulldogs introduced themselves to the nation in 2001. Joining Carr in the backfield was senior running back Robbie Rouse who rushed for 1468 yards and 12 touchdowns. Rouse has gone over 1000 yards three straight seasons and will leave as the school's all-time leading rusher. Finally, hauling in 89 of Carr's passes was redshirt freshman receiver Davante Adams. Adams hauled in 13 scoring passes on the season, ranking fourth in the nation. Stay up late on December 24th, even if it means Santa (or Belsnickel) won't be paying you a visit until the wee hours of the morning to watch this trio together one last time. Defensively, Fresno posted a rather amazing statistical quirk in 2012. They rank 15th nationally in sacks, accumulating 33 on the season. However, 21 players recorded at least half a sack with no player garnering more 4.5. Looking to send the Bulldogs back to Silicon Valley with a loss will be the Mustangs from SMU. After going a quarter-century between bowl games, the Mustangs will be making their fourth consecutive postseason appearance under head coach June Jones. The Mustangs were unable to get things on-track on offense in Conference USA, ranking just tenth in the twelve team league. They did finish a solid third on defense, but that was probably more a function of the other defenses in the league simply being more terrible. Consider that in non-conference action, Baylor put up 59 points on the Mustangs while Texas A&M dropped 48. Illustrating the relative weakness of Conference USA, the Mustangs sole win over  a bowl team came in the regular season finale against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane had no incentive in that game, having locked up the West division of Conference USA the week before, while the Mustangs obviously needed a win to get to 6-6. Still, there are plenty of reasons to watch this game even if SMU may not exactly qualify as a 'good' team. For starters, running back Zach Line will be playing his final college game. With 1207 rush yards, the unheralded star has eclipsed 1200 yards for three consecutive seasons and in the process is now SMU's second all-time leading rusher, trailing only Eric Dickerson. In fact, with a mere 337 yards in this game he would pass Dickerson and be in sole possession of first place. Another reason to tune in would be to check out the 6-foot 8-inch defensive lineman Margus Hunt. The Estonia native has blocked 17 kicks over his four seasons in Dallas, and leads the team with six sacks this season. As for handicapping this game, the previous admonition about double-digit bowl favorites applies here (just 11-18 Against the Spread since 2005). In addition, the Mustangs have won twice as underdogs in bowl games under Jones. They upset Pitt as a slight field goal underdog last season, and three years ago in this very game (on this very night) ambushed Nevada 45-10 as a thirteen point underdog. There are better values out there than this game. Pound a 5-Hour Energy with your eggnog and stay up late but don't make any plays here.


  1. I'm not so sure about the BYU game. At least, not mortgage payment sure. I may sound like Lee Corso, but I'd say "BYU, by a field goal."

    1. My two cents on BYU? Classic lumber mill game. SDSU runs 66% of the time and BYU is 2nd nationally in yards/carry allowed, and BYU has played teams that know how to run the ball: Georgia Tech, Utah St., Notre Dame. I'm biased on this one, but I foresee a very long day for the Aztecs. But it is BYU so you can't be sure of anything. If I did have a mortgage payment it would be staying under my mattress where it belongs.

  2. To me, BYU/SDSU is a classic matchup of a team that is under-valued (BYU) versus a team that is over-valued (SDSU). Couple that with the bowl track records of the two coaches, while there is no such thing as a sure thing, this line seems to have great value.

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