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[+] Team Summaries

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Bowl Preview Part IV: The Rest of the Lot and the Best of the Lot

Sugar Bowl
Florida vs Louisville
Florida -14
If we look solely at resumes, Florida is easily the most accomplished team in the country. The Gators own impressive road wins over Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Florida State. At home they have beaten LSU and blown out South Carolina. Even their non-conference wins over non-BCS opponents have come against solid teams (Bowling Green and Louisiana-Lafayette). However, based on the eye test, and backed up by the stats, Florida may be elite team with the smallest margin for error. The Gators ranked just twelfth in the SEC on offense, ahead of a pair of teams that endured winless conference seasons (Auburn and Kentucky). That is actually lower than they ranked during their forgettable 2011 campaign when they ranked eighth in the SEC on in that category. The Gators did improve on defense, moving up from fifth in 2011 to an elite second in 2012. For the season, only Vanderbilt gained more than 350 yards against the Gators and only Louisiana-Lafayette averaged north of five yards per play. The Gators posted a pair of shutouts and held four other teams to just one offensive touchdown. The defense also continually put the struggling offense in prime position to score by forcing 29 turnovers (16th in the nation). That more than doubled their effort from 2011 when they forced just 14. Florida will attempt to take the ball away from a Louisville team coached by a familiar face. Charlie Strong was the Gators defensive coordinator from 2002-2009 and actually coached the team in the 2004 Peach Bowl. Strong has engineered quite a turnaround at Louisville, leading a team that had missed out on the postseason for three consecutive years to three straight bowls, and winning a pair of shared Big East titles in 2011 and 2012. Behind quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals posted the second best offense in the Big East. Bridgewater threw 25 touchdown passes on the year, the most by a Louisville quarterback since Brian Brohm was fooling folks into thinking he could be an NFL starter. If Louisville does not turn the ball over, this game could be very interesting. Florida relies on their defense and special teams to generate favorable scoring opportunities (similar to Jim Tressel's vintage Ohio State teams). Bridgewater is the type of accurate quarterback who could keep Louisville in this game against an elite defense by avoiding turnovers. However, even if Louisville plays a perfect game and doesn't commit a turnover, its hard to imagine them scoring more than two offensive touchdowns. I don't trust Florida to cover this large number, but under no circumstances would I advise you to lay any money on Louisville either.

Fiesta Bowl
Oregon vs Kansas State
Oregon -9
About six weeks ago, this was the presumed national championship game. Then both Kansas State and Oregon lost on the same night. Kansas State was blown out at Baylor, while the Ducks had their wings clipped at home by a powerful Stanford defense. Both teams rebounded from their respective defeats to easily win their season finales. Oregon beat their arch-rival Oregon State by 24 points and Kansas State beat Texas by 18. The win for Oregon locked up at at-large BCS bowl bid for the Ducks (their fourth straight such bid), but actually ended their run of conference titles at three in a row. For Kansas State, their win locked up just their second Big 12 title and first since 2003. Both teams boasted phenomenal turnover margins in their respective conferences. Oregon was +21 in their nine conference games, powered by an incredible 33 forced turnovers from their defense, while Kansas State was +19 in their nine Big 12 games thanks to just seven turnovers committed (nearly half of those --3-- came in their loss to Baylor). Not surprisingly, Oregon led the Pac-12 offense, cranking out over 530 yards per game against their league foes. The defense held its own as well, ranking a respectable fifth in the league. Outside of their loss to Stanford, when they scored just 14 points, the Ducks scored at least 43 points in each game! Head coach Chip Kelly plugged in a new starting quarterback (freshman Marcus Mariota) and the offense did not miss a beat. Mariota threw 30 touchdown passes, and also rushed for nearly 700 yards (690). While Oregon was led by a freshman under center, Kansas State relied on the play of a senior quarterback to post one of the best seasons in school history. Collin Klein, a Heisman Trophy finalist, threw 15 touchdown passes, but ran for 22, ranking fourth in the nation in rushing touchdowns one season after running for 27. With a good game on the ground, Klein could also top 1000 yards rushing for the second straight year (he currently has 895). I've made no secret of my affinity for Bill Snyder, so my view of this game is probably a bit tainted. Oregon is probably the better team, and this game certainly has blowout potential if Kansas State falls behind by say two scores or so, but my heart says the Wildcats hang with the Ducks.

Cotton Bowl
Texas A&M vs Oklahoma
Texas A&M -3
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops may deserve a Heisman vote after this season. His Sooners have already faced two of the Heisman finalists, Manti Te'O and Collin Klein, and now they get Hesiman winner Johnny Manziel in the Cotton Bowl. Stoops and Oklahoma fans hope this outcome is different from the first two against the other Heisman finalists. Those games both resulted in Oklahoma defeats, at home no less! On the season Oklahoma was well-balanced, ranking third on both offense and defense in the Big 12, and statistically rating out as the best team in the conference. Oft-criticized senior quarterback Landry Jones threw 29 touchdown passes, bringing his career total to a robust 122. Oklahoma did not have a 1000-yard receiver for the first time since 2007 (Kenny Stills has 897 so he could reach that number), but three Sooner receivers gained at least 750 yards and four caught at least 40 passes. The offensive line did a fine job giving Jones time to throw to those receivers, allowing just 14 sacks on the season which ranked 18th in the nation. The Sooners will attempt to win their fourth consecutive bowl game against a familiar foe. Until this season, Oklahoma and Texas A&M were division rivals in the Big 12, playing each season from 1996-2011. As you may have heard, the Aggies moved to the powerful SEC and acquitted themselves quite well this season, posting a 10-2 mark. Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy passing for over 3000 yards and rushing for nearly 1200 and accounting for 43 total touchdowns. His exploits helped power the Aggies to the top-ranked offense in the SEC. However, the other side of the ball was a different story, as the Aggies were a below-average eighth on defense. Of course the defense did have its share of playmakers, led by defensive end Damontre Moore who tallied 12.5 sacks (sixth in the nation). Unfortunately, at times it seemed like he was a one-man wrecking crew on that side of the ball as no other player had more than 2.5 sacks. Outside of the BCS National Championship Game, this is one of the bowl games I am most looking forward to, and I think Oklahoma is a solid play here. Under Bob Stoops, the Sooners are 11-2 against Texas A&M and while the Sooners may have under-achieved relative to their perennial sky-high expectations, they are still a very good team. Texas A&M is a little over-valued here, so take the Sooners plus the points.

BBVA Compass Bowl
Ole Miss vs Pitt
Ole Miss -3.5
Pitt fans probably do not need a BBVA Compass to find their way to this bowl game. This will mark the third straight year Pitt has ended their season in Birmingham meaning Pitt has participated in every iteration of this bowl game since BBVA Compass took over the sponsorship from Papa John's. The Panthers have split their previous two trips, handling Kentucky 27-10 two years ago, and losing to SMU 28-6 last year. This will be their first trip to Birmingham where their head coach in the bowl is the same as their head coach during the regular season. Dave Wannstedt was relieved of his duties prior to the Kentucky game and Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State prior to last year's clash with SMU. Head coach Paul Chryst has done a fine job motivating the Pitt team. The Panthers began the year with an embarrassing loss to IAA Youngstown State and followed that up with a loss to Cincinnati to fall to 0-2. They won their next two before again dropping two conference games to stand at 2-4 and 0-3 in the Big East at the season's halfway point. They won two more game to get back to .500 before blowing a late double-digit lead at Notre Dame. Still experiencing a bit of a hangover, the Panthers lost at Connecticut six days later to fall to 4-6, needing wins in their final two games to attain bowl eligibility for the fifth straight season. The Panthers crushed Big East leading Rutgers and a South Florida team playing out the string by a combined score of 54-9 to get to six wins. The Panthers will take on another 6-6 team playing under a rookie head coach. After going just 1-15 in the SEC during Houston Nutt's final two seasons, the Rebels won three conference games under Hugh Freeze and had opportunities to win several more, losing by three to Texas A&M, by a single point to Vanderbilt, and by six at LSU. This will be the Rebels first bowl game since 2009, and they will seek to win their fifth consecutive bowl, having not lost in the postseason since the 2000 Music City Bowl. Ole Miss was decidedly average on both sides of the ball in the SEC, ranking sixth on offense and seventh on defense. However, in a league with powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M, those middling numbers are not so bad. Quarterback Bo Wallace made his share of mistakes (his 15 interceptions were among the worst by starting quarterbacks), but he also provided a big-play threat, averaging 8.5 yards per pass (good for 14th in the nation). By my estimation, Ole Miss is a shade over-valued thanks to playing in the rugged SEC. The only bowl team they beat was in-state rival Mississippi State. Their other scalps included Arkansas and Auburn in the conference, and Central Arkansas, UTEP, and Tulane outside the league. Meanwhile, Pitt's national perception is still suffering thanks to their opening loss to Youngstown State. However, the Panthers could have easily won eight or nine games, but were 0-3 in one-score contests. The spread seems like it should be reversed. When you break things down, Pitt really has the better resume. Look for the Panthers to cover here, and if you are feeling really ambitious, take them on the moneyline. Bowl
Arkansas State vs Kent State
Arkansas St -4
Both these mid-majors are victims of their own success. Arkansas State won their second consecutive Sun Belt title, and lost their second consecutive coach to an SEC program. Guz Malzahn followed the trail blazed by Hugh Freeze from Jonesboro, Arkansas to the SEC West. The Red Wolves boasted the second best offense in the Sun Belt and the third best defense. The offense was led by senior quarterback Ryan Aplin (I'm all for dubbing this team The Aplin Dumpling Gang), who threw 23 touchdown passes and just four interceptions while rushing for 443 yards. Playing in his final game, Aplin will leave as the school's all-time leading passer and will seek to get the Red Wolves their first ever bowl win in their third bowl appearance. With Malzahn off to Auburn, the Red Wolves will be coached by defensive coordinator John Thompson (no, not that John Thompson). Thompson was the head coach at East Carolina from 2003-2004 and won just three games during his tenure. On the other sideline, Kent State enjoyed their most successful season in school history, winning a school-record eleven games, entering the AP Poll for the first time, and qualifying for just their second bowl game. That success resulted in head coach Darrell Hazell being hired away by Purdue. First off, let me just say 'Hooray for Hazel', as he is sticking around to coach the Golden Flashes in their first bowl game since 1972. Kent State has a pair of 1000-yard rushers in Trayion Durham and Dri Archer. Both rushed for over 1200 yards and combined for 29 touchdowns on the ground. Durham was a typical running back, averaging 4.88 yards per carry, bur Archer made defenses quiver, averaging an incredible 9.01 yards per rush. Archer also had the most catches (35), receiving yards (539), and receiving touchdowns (4) on the team. He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass against Army. He is a true do-everything player. Defensively, the Golden Flashes were very opportunistic, leading the nation with 38 forced turnovers. As a team, Kent State intercepted 23 passes and scored five defensive touchdowns. Those explosive plays helped prop up a team that was solid, but hardly elite on a down-to-down basis (fifth on offense and fourth on defense in the MAC). There doesn't appear to be any value in this line, but if forced to make a play here, I might take the Golden Flashes on the moneyline. Arkansas State is captained by an interim coach and just played in this same bowl game last season. Meanwhile, Kent State has their coach for one more game and is playing in their first bowl game in 40 years. Motivation could certainly be an issue here.

BCS National Championship
Alabama vs Notre Dame
Alabama -9
By now, I'm not going to be able to tell you anything about this game that you didn't already know. Two of the most storied programs in the game will meet for the sport's biggest prize. Some think this tilt of titans could break ratings records. I for one, am much more intrigued by this game than I was by last year's rematch between division rivals. I also happen to think the spread in this game is terribly wrong. Sure Notre Dame squeaked by a lot of teams this season, winning five games by a touchdown or fewer. But check out that seven-game stretch in the middle of the season: @ Michigan State, Michigan, vs Miami, Stanford, BYU, @ Oklahoma, and Pitt. Those seven teams range from good to very good. Plus don't forget the Irish ended the season with a cross-country road trip to Southern Cal. And there is some precedent for winning a few nailbiters. Remember Auburn from just two seasons ago? Seven of their fourteen wins came by eight points or fewer. As I recall, no one was questioning their championship credentials. I'll leave you with this, Notre Dame has given up just nine offensive touchdowns in their twelve games. I don't care who you play, that is pretty damn impressive. Despite playing their home games in Indiana, Notre Dame is an SEC team. If they had a rooster, a pig, a big G or an orange T on their helmets, fans all across the south would be living vicariously through this elite defense. I love the Irish catching nearly double-digits here.

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