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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bowl Preview Part III: New Year's Smorgasboard

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Vanderbilt vs NC State
Vanderbilt -7.5
The ACC did not have a very good season in 2012, and this is one of their final chances to make a statement against their big brothers from the SEC. If you stopped paying attention to college football following the 2010 season you would probably think the betting line beside Vanderbilt was missing a vertical bar. No way Vandy is a touchdown favorite, even playing in Nashville right? Sorry friends, this ain't your big brother's Vanderbilt. This marks the second consecutive bowl game for the Commodores under head coach James Franklin. Franklin has already done amazing things at Vanderbilt, winning seven SEC games in just two seasons. Steve Martin Bobby Johnson, arguably the most successful football coach Vanderbilt has had since Dan McGugin roamed the sidelines before World War II, and a man who nearly won a IAA national title at Furman, won just 12 SEC games in his eight seasons at Vanderbilt. In fact, with a win here, Vandy would tie the school record for wins in a season (9) set in 1915! The best player for the Commodores is probably junior receiver Jordan Matthews, who hauled in 87 passes for 1262 yards, becoming the first Vandy receiver with 1000 yards in a season since Earl Bennett in 2006. Vanderbilt will be opposed by a team that just fired its head coach despite making its third straight bowl trip and fourth in five seasons. However, to be fair, the Wolfpack did lose at least five games in five of the six seasons they were led by Tom O'Brien. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1979 to find the last time NC State won an ACC title! The Wolfpack won seven games in 2012, but their lone win of consequence was a one-point win at home against Florida State. After that, their second best win is probably Connecticut, and it only gets worse from there. Even without their head coach, the Wolfpack will probably be somewhat motivated in this game to send senior quarterback Mike Glennon out on a winning note. Glennon threw 61 touchdown passes in his two seasons as a starter and is and is rated as a top-10 quarterback prospect. Vanderbilt is the better team based on their body of work, but I don't fell comfortable laying more than a touchdown. Enjoy the clash of former Southern Conference rivals, but don't waste your money here.

Hyundai Sun Bowl
Southern Cal vs Georgia Tech
Southern Cal -10
For the second straight year, Georgia Tech will head to the west Texas town of El Paso to try for a postseason win. This is Georgia Tech's 16th consecutive trip to the postseason, but they are currently riding a seven-game bowl losing streak, having not won a bowl game since the 2004 Champs Sports Bowl. Georgia Tech was solid in the ACC, going 5-3 while ranking fourth on offense and fifth on defense. However, outside the league, the Yellow Jackets did nothing but embarrass themselves. They lost by 21 points at home to Middle Tennessee State of the Sun Belt, by 24 at home to BYU, and by 32 on the road at Georgia. Unfortunately for the Jackets, Southern Cal is not an ACC team. However, they were a major disappointment this season. They opened the year ranked number one, but ended the year with five losses. To be fair, three of their losses came to teams currently in the top-10 (Notre Dame, Oregon, and Stanford), a fourth came to UCLA (currently ranked 17th), and a fifth came to Arizona (8-5 record). The Trojans did not have any head-scratching losses like Georgia Tech's flop at home to Middle Tennessee. The Trojans were especially prolific on offense, ranking third in the Pac-12, behind the Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley threw 36 touchdown passes and sophomore receiver Marqise Lee led the nation with 112 catches for 1680 yards (second in the nation). Defense was another issue as the Trojans were a disappointing seventh on that side of the ball. Thanks to their prior malfeasance, this is actually Southern Cal's first bowl game since 2009. It also represents just the second bowl game of Lane Kiffin's career (his Vols were blown out in the 2009 Chick-Fil-A Bowl). Double-digit favorites are usually not a good investment in the postseason, especially when they may not be fully motivated. Plus, Matt Barkley will not be playing in this game. I'm not bold enough to predict a Georgia Tech win or cover, but there are much better lines on the board.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Iowa State vs Tulsa
Iowa State -1
Things could get windy in the Liberty Bowl as the Tulsa Golden Hurricane face off against the Iowa State cyclones. But don't get it twisted, this could be one of the better bowl games on the docket. This game is actually a rematch as Iowa State beat Tulsa in Ames, Iowa on the season's opening weekend. The Golden Hurricane, playing in their seventh bowl in the past eight seasons, have become bowl mainstays. However, this is the first time since 2005 that they will enter the postseason as champions of Conference USA. Tulsa beat Central Florida in overtime on their home field to hoist the crown. Statistically, they were the top team in the conference, ranking second on both offense and defense. On offense, they prefer to move the ball on the ground, ranking eighth in the country with 629 rush attempts on the season. While they do not have a 1000-yard rusher (yet), Trey Watts (959 yards) and Ja'Terian Douglas (857) form a dynamic duo in the backfield. Watts is the son of former Oklahoma standout and Congressman J.C Watts and also contributes heavily on special teams. His kickoff return for a score provided the winning margin against Marshall in the regular season, and his punt return touchdown tied the Conference USA Championship Game in the fourth quarter. Iowa State is making their third bowl appearance in four seasons under head coach Paul Rhoads. Despite ranking dead last in the Big 12 on offense and just eighth on defense, the Cyclones managed to win a third of their league games and qualify for a bowl. Rhoads has done a fantastic job in four seasons in Ames, winning three Big 12 games each year in a very deep league. His predecessor won just two conference games in two seasons before he was somehow promoted to the SEC. Maybe now Rhoads is qualified to coach Alabama? As the spread indicates, this game is a tossup and there is no value in this line. Enjoy the Liberty Bowl before you head to your New Year's festivities, but don't make a play here.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl
LSU vs Clemson
LSU -5
This annual ACC/SEC clash features a pair of Tigers going at it, and is the first bowl game of the 2012 season to feature two teams currently ranked in the AP Poll. Clemson will be making their eighth straight bowl appearance and the Tigers have actually been bowl-eligible for 14 consecutive years. However, the Tigers are just 4-8 in their last twelve bowl games, including 1-3 under current head coach Dabo Swinney. However, outside of their postseason struggles, the Tigers have enjoyed a great deal of success under Swinney. The Tigers have won ten games for the second consecutive season and last season won their first ACC title since 1991. Win or lose in this game, they will likely finish the season ranked for the second consecutive season. That will mark the first time the Tigers have done that since they finished a run of six consecutive finishes in the final polls in 1991. This season, the Tigers ran roughshod over the ACC, posting the best offense in the conference. Quarterback Tajh Boyd averaged a phenomenal 9.4 yards per pass, good for third in the nation. However, their defense continued to struggle ranking just tenth in the twelve-team league. The other Tigers in this contest, those from the bayou, were a hard team to figure out this season. In the SEC, the Tigers scored 17 touchdowns and allowed 19. With normal luck, a team with such a statistical profile would be expected to win about three conference games. The Tigers doubled that number, losing only to Florida and Alabama. LSU enjoyed a 5-2 record in one-score games helping contribute to their great record. They also forced 22 turnovers in their eight league games (most in the conference) and only lost ten (second fewest in the SEC). Their turnover margin of +12 was tops in the SEC. This is not a vintage LSU team, and I have a feeling this game may be close. For the most part, LSU has played up or down to the level of their competition. They beat a horrible Auburn team by just two points, the same margin by which they beat a very good South Carolina team. They squeaked by Ole Miss and Arkansas by six and seven points respectively, after beating Texas A&M by five earlier in the year. Clemson has real issues on defense and Les Miles has a history of crushing and creaming ACC teams in this bowl game, but I would be hesitant to make a play on either Tigers here. Gator Bowl
Mississippi State vs Northwestern
Mississippi State -2
Is this the year? Can Northwestern finally break the curse? Can the Wildcats win their first bowl game since 1948? To be fair, the Wildcats went nearly 50 years between bowl appearances (1948 and 1995), but they have lost nine straight postseason games beginning with that Rose Bowl on January 1st 1996. This Gator Bowl marks Northwestern's fifth straight bowl game under Pat Fitzgerald, a linebacker on that 1995 team. The last five seasons have been an unprecedented run of success for the Wildcats. They have won 39 games, finished with a winning Big 10 record three times, and with a win here would finish in the final polls for the first time since the 1996 season. Northwestern played a relatively strong non-conference schedule, facing three fellow BCS-conference teams, including two that are also playing in the postseason (Syracuse and Vanderbilt). In fact, of their nine wins, eight came against teams from BCS-conferences. Only ten other teams in the nation can also make that boast (Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, Kansas State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Stanford). That is some pretty good company. Northwestern will seek their tenth overall win and ninth against a BCS-conference team against a Mississippi State team making its third straight bowl trip. While the Bulldogs were far from postseason mainstays in the early part of the 21st century, they have actually won five consecutive bowl games dating back to 1998, including a perfect 2-0 mark under current coach Dan Mullen. Despite playing in the SEC, Mississippi State played a soft schedule, and did not beat a single team playing in the postseason. In fact, the only bowl eligible team they beat was Middle Tennessee State. The Bulldogs enter the postseason having lost four of five after a 7-0 start. Is this the year the six plus decade postseason streak is snapped? I wouldn't guarantee it, but this is the best chance Northwestern has had in a long time.

Heart of Dallas Bowl
Oklahoma State vs Purdue
Oklahoma State -17
Purdue's coach, Danny Hope, was rewarded for his second consecutive bowl bid by being fired. Is that fair? Well, Purdue did not beat a single bowl-eligible team and posted the second worst defense in the Big 10 (ahead of in-state brethren Indiana), but this was a team with a pretty barren trophy case until Joe Tiller arrived in 1997. Seen through that lens, perhaps Hope, a coach with a solid track record at his previous stop at Eastern Kentucky should have been given another season or two. Purdue does seem to have made a solid hire by tabbing Kent State's Darrell Hazell as Hope's replacement. Hazell will take over after he coaches Kent State in their bowl game. In the meantime, wide receivers coach Patrick Higgins will handle the duties against Oklahoma State. This matchup with the Cowboys will mark Purdue's first bowl against a non-MAC school since the 2006 Champs Sports Bowl. That game didn't turn out so well, and in fact, Purdue has not won a postseason game versus a non-MAC school since the 2002 Sun Bowl against Washington. That trend appears likely to continue against an Oklahoma State team that is quite good despite their middling 7-5 record. Despite a plethora of injuries to their starting quarterbacks, the Cowboys still posted the fourth best offense in the high-powered Big 12. In fact, they had three quarterbacks throw for over 1000 yards and two throw at least eleven touchdown passes. No matter who was under center, the Cowboys protected them well, allowing just ten sacks all season (ninth best in the nation). Running back Joseph Randle went over 1000 yards on the ground for the second consecutive season, giving Oklahoma State a 1000-yard rusher for the sixth straight year. This is Oklahoma State's seventh straight bowl under Mike 'Solomon' Gundy. The Cowboys are 4-2 in those postseason contests and appear well on their way to a fifth such win. The only concern I have here is that this spread is so high, Purdue could creep on through the backdoor despite not being competitive for the majority of the game. Unless you are a Purdue or Oklahoma State fan, this one should be fourth on your one o'clock New Year's rotation.

Outback Bowl
South Carolina vs Michigan
South Carolina -6.5
Is the Michigan program back among the national elite? While some may see this bowl game as a referendum on the issue, take it from me, they are back. The Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl last season, and while they have lost four games this season, take a look at that schedule. Three of their four losses have come to the teams currently ranked first, second, and third in the AP Poll (that would be Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State). The other loss came to a Nebraska team that won the Legends Division of the Big 10. In addition, all those losses came away from the Big House. The Wolverines were about average on offense in the Big 10, ranking seventh. However, on the defensive side of the ball, they were an elite unit, ranking second in the conference (to Michigan State). The offense has also come around in recent weeks since Devin Gardner took over under center. Denard Robinson was injured early in the Nebraska game and his replacement, Russell Bellomy performed pitifully in his absence, completing just three of 16 passes and throwing three interceptions. Gardner started the next four games and averaged a robust 11.2 yards per pass attempt while throwing eight touchdown passes. Robinson has not thrown a pass since the Nebraska game, though he has contributed to team in rushing for 220 yards against Iowa and Ohio State. Robinson will probably line up at multiple positions in this game, and will certainly throw a pass at some point on a gadget play, but Gardner is the quarterback and appears to be a pretty good one. The Wolverines will take on a South Carolina team accustomed to playing in the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks are seeking their second consecutive eleven-win season and a second straight appearance in the top-10 of the final polls. Like Michigan, South Carolina is an elite defensive team, ranking third in the SEC behind Alabama and Florida. The Gamecocks pass rush is quite formidable. They accumulated 40 sacks on the season, good for seventh in the nation. That pass rush was led by perhaps the most unblockable defensive lineman in the country, Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney finished tied  atop the national leaderboard with 13 sacks. However, the three gentlemen he is tied with (Bjoern Werner of Florida State, Kyle Van Noy of BYU, and Anthony Barr of UCLA) have all played 13 games, while Clowney got his total in just eleven (he sat out the game against Wofford). He saved his best performance for last, tallying 4.5 sacks against arch-rival Clemson. Points should be at a premium in this game, but this game should be closer to a pick em rather than a touchdown margin. Of all the New Year's Day games, Michigan is the safest bet on the board.

Capital One Bowl
Georgia vs Nebraska
Georgia -10
This game is a perfect microcosm for how significant each game is in the college football season. A month ago, both these teams were playing in their respective conferences title games. Nebraska had an opportunity to win their first conference title since 1999 and play in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Georgia had an even bigger prize in their sights, a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. Both teams lost, Georgia in heartbreaking fashion, while Nebraska was mauled by Wisconsin. Will either team be motivated to play in this game, or will the specter of missed opportunities cloud their focus? Nebraska finished 7-1 in the Big 10 during the regular season, ranking third on offense and fourth on defense in the conference. The Cornhuskers had their share of close shaves, winning four Big 10 games by a combined 14 points on their way to the Legends Division crown. Quarterback Taylor Martinez enjoyed a solid season, throwing 21 touchdown passes and rushing for nearly 1000 yards (973). Only a junior, at a school with a history of running quarterbacks, Martinez is already the school's all-time leading passer. The Cornhuskers will need all the points Martinez can muster with his feet and arm because Georgia finished with the second most prolific offense in the SEC (behind only Texas A&M). Georgia had two freshman running backs average over six yards per rush. Todd Gurley averaged 6.33 per clip while Keith Marshall averaged a stellar 6.63 per rush. The two combined for nearly 2000 yards in the ground. Georgia was also solid on defense as well, ranking fourth in the SEC. Double-digit favorites are typically a bad bet in the postseason, but Nebraska is no stranger to blowout losses, as five of their seven defeats in the past two seasons have come by at least 17 points. Still, Nebraska is probably a little under-valued after the egg they laid in the Big 10 Championship Game. If you are thinking about making a play on this game, take the Cornhuskers and the ten points.

Rose Bowl
Stanford vs Wisconsin
Stanford -6.5
The Stanford Cardinal are making their third straight BCS-bowl appearance, but perhaps their more impressive achievement was winning their first conference title since 1999 without the services of Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck. The Cardinal ranked a slightly below average seventh on offense in the Pac-12 (perhaps to be expected after losing Luck), but were the number one defense in the conference. Only three teams, Arizona, Oregon State, and UCLA, were able to score more than twenty points against the Cardinal defense. The Cardinal were especially great at getting after the quarterback, ranking first in the nation with 56 sacks! Linebacker Trent Murphy led the team with ten sacks, but three players on the team accumulated at least 7.5. Of course, the offense was not an anchor holding the team down. Running back Stepfan Taylor topped 1000 yards on the ground for the third straight season since taking over for Toby Gerhart. And speaking of great running backs, Montee Ball of Wisconsin helped the Badgers to their third straight Big 10 title by rushing for 1730 yards. After a slow start, Ball topped the 100-yard barrier seven times in his last eight games. As a team, the Badgers ranked fourth on offense (despite replacing Russell Wilson under center) and third on defense in the Big 10. While the Badgers did lose five games during the regular season, each loss came by either three points or in overtime. However, the success the Badgers have enjoyed over the past few seasons cost them their head coach. Bret Bielema took the Arkansas job in the down time between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the bowl season. The Badgers have already tabbed former Utah State coach Gary Andersen to be their new leader. However, in the interim, a familiar face will lead the Badgers into Pasadena. Barry Alvarez won 117 games in 16 seasons in Madison while leading the Badgers to eleven bowl games. Alvarez was a stellar 8-3 in bowl games during his tenure and 3-0 in Rose Bowl games. Don't be fooled by their five losses, Wisconsin is a top-20 team. They will be motivated playing under Alvarez, and catching nearly a touchdown makes them a must-play this postseason.

Orange Bowl
Florida State vs Northern Illinois
Florida State -13
The talking heads at ESPN took great exception to the BCS-bowl bid given to Northern Illinois. My take? Quit your bitching. Who would have ever thought that the computer portion of the BCS formula that doesn't take margin of victory into account would yield some curious results? You mean a one-point win is not the same as a thirty-point win? If you don't want teams running up the score, cap margin of victory in your formula. I'm sure there are nerds out there (ahem, Scott) who could or have already written such an algorithm. And while we're at it, maybe don't let coaches vote on which teams get in the big money games. Think there may be a conflict of interest there? A faulty system leads to faulty results. Deal with it. Plus, outside of The Game, every other bowl game, regardless of whether its in Las Vegas or Pasadena, is nothing more than a glorified exhibition. Rant over. Now, does Northern Illinois stand a chance in this game? The Huskies are playing in their fifth straight bowl game and have actually won at least six games in twelve of the past 13 seasons. Joe Novak built a solid mid-major program in DeKalb before giving way to Jerry Kill who gave way to Dave Doeren. Doeren is off to NC State, and his offensive coordinator Rod Carey will be coaching in this game and beyond. The Huskies boasted the best offense in the MAC this season with quarterback Jordan Lynch leading the way. In the grand MAC tradition of Dan LeFevour and Chandler Harnish, Lynch was a true do-everything quarterback. He rushed for 1771 yards and 19 touchdowns while throwing 24 touchdown passes and nearly 3000 yards. The Huskies, a BCS neophyte will face off against a Florida State team making its seventh BCS bowl appearance and 31st straight bowl trip overall. Florida State has a chance to return to elite status under Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles are currently ranked 13th in the AP Poll, and with a win here could finish in the top-10 for the first time since 2000! The Seminoles will look to chase down Jordan Lynch with defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine who combined for 24 sacks on the season. I will be pulling for Northern Illinois, and double-digit favorites are usually a bad bet in the bowl season, but I have a feeling Florida State will be highly motivated to silence their critics here. Don't make any plays and enjoy some MACtion on New Year's Evening.


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