An Exhaustive Bowl Games Preview, Part I: Dec. 19-28
Controversy continues to rage over the ineptness of the current method of choosing a champion in FBS college football, but whether or not a playoff system is ever implemented, one thing will likely remain, at least for the lower-tier teams: the bowl system.
While I personally believe a playoff system would be much preferable for choosing a national champion—which is obviously not the intention of the current system—I do love bowl games.
It's sort of analogous to March Madness, or even BracketBusters: two teams that usually don't play each other meeting in a neutral location (maybe warm Florida or Arizona, or maybe cold Toronto or Idaho), battling for the right to... All right, so maybe March Madness isn't the best comparison, but the mystery factor is intriguing nonetheless.
It must be a treat for the players to travel to a part of the country (or a different country, in the International Bowl's case) they've never been before and may never be again. (On the other hand, BYU players must be getting sick and tired of Las Vegas—more on that later.)
Don't forget all the free goodies the bowls give out too. Obviously every player would love to get in one of the "gift suites" (i.e. "Here's $400 to spend on electronics—knock yourself out"), but I'd be thrilled with just the sunglasses and watch from the Gator Bowl.
Wait, that's it? Even the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl participants get to party in the gift suite. I guess organizers figure a trip to Jacksonville is reward enough.
With my love for bowl games now professed, here's Part One of a look at all the matchups coming up this holiday season, covering the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 19 to the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl (What a mouthful!) on Dec. 28.
Unlike voters in the coaches' poll, I can't magically watch every single game and be aware of every team's detailed strengths and weaknesses, so I expect to be corrected by teams' fans on my predictions and write-ups. Let me know what I'm missing.
New Mexico Bowl: Fresno State vs. Wyoming, Dec. 19
Fresno State finished the regular season 8-4, with its losses coming against four tough squads (Wisconsin, Boise State, Cincinnati, Nevada) while beating just one team headed to the postseason (Idaho).
Running back Ryan Mathews (left) has rolled up 1,664 yards this year, second in the nation, in leading the Bulldogs to their second straight New Mexico Bowl. Fresno State ranks seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game with 231.6—a trend they'll look to continue against Wyoming's 91st-ranked rushing defense (170.5 rushing yards allowed per game).
The Cowboys snuck into bowl season for the first time since 2004 by nipping 3-9 Colorado State in their last game to finish 6-6. They were soundly defeated by each of the five bowl teams they faced and were actually shut out three times this season, contributing to their -10.3 scoring margin.
Do you see where I'm heading with this?
Fresno State may give up over 27 points a game, but so does Wyoming—and the Bulldogs score 17 more points per game. The Cowboys won't be able to keep up. Call it 38-20 Fresno State.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Rutgers vs. UCF, Dec. 19
It's a medieval battle in Florida as the Knights in Scarlet take on the plain old Knights.
After being pasted by Cincinnati to open the year, Rutgers posted an 8-4 mark in 2009, but only a 3-4 record in the Big East. The Scarlet Knights won twice against bowl teams (UConn and South Florida, the latter a 31-0 shutout), but their other wins came against two FCS squads and four teams with a combined 14-33 record.
Receiver Tim Brown (left) is a big play threat, averaging 20.6 yards on each of his 51 catches—this after averaging 20.9 per the year before.
Central Florida also finished 8-4, losing to four bowl teams but upsetting Houston at home and edging Marshall by a single point.
The Knights rank fourth in the country in rushing defense at just 82.5 yards allowed per game, but that may be because teams are too busy throwing all over their 112th-ranked pass defense to bother running the ball.
With the game about two hours away from UCF's campus in Orlando, this is a virtual home game for the Knights, and they'll look to take advantage. The Scarlet Knights get lulled into complacency by the balmy weather and fall behind early, but they get it together in the second half and win a close one by dint of superior talent, not superior effort. Rutgers wins 30-26.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: Southern Miss vs. Middle Tennessee State, Dec. 20
Middle Tennessee is back in a bowl game for the first time since 2006. Their 9-3 record doesn't boast any wins over bowl teams but does feature a number of decisive victories over Sun Belt opponents, as the Blue Raiders ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak.
The Blue Raiders are strong against the pass, with their 17 interceptions (tied for 12th nationally) helping them rank 20th in pass efficiency defense. The secondary is helped by a pass rush that ranks sixth nationally in sacks per game (3.2).
Dual-threat QB Dwight Dasher (left) sparks the offense, with 3,580 total yards (953 rushing) and 32 total touchdowns (11 rushing)—and he's got the name for it. If only they had a guy named Smasher too...
The Golden Eagles have two wins over bowl-bound teams (UCF, Marshall) and have ridden their offense (19th in scoring, 31st in yards per game) to a 7-5 mark.
This will be Southern Miss' eighth straight bowl game and fourth New Orleans Bowl in six years; they've won each of the previous three trips.
Part of the reason for the team's success in New Orleans may be the campus' proximity to the city—just 110 miles away—allowing fans to create a friendly atmosphere, assuming they're still excited about going to New Orleans.
The teams are evenly matched, and there's real potential for a shootout with both teams averaging over 30 points a game.
In the end, I think the Blue Raiders' enthusiasm for being in a bowl game beats out the Golden Eagles' "New Orleans again?" feeling and inspires Middle Tennessee State to a 36-34 victory.
MAACO Bowl Las Vegas: BYU vs. Oregon State, Dec. 22
First of all, let's get it straight: It's the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, not the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. Just think R+L Carriers Bowl New Orleans and you'll be fine...or confused. One or the other.
This matchup is already gathering hype as one of the best of the season. BYU is one of the country's top offensive teams (12th in scoring and passing). Quarterback Max Hall is the linchpin of the attack, ranking third nationally in QB rating, fourth in touchdowns, and eighth in passing yards.
Hall looks to finish his collegiate career with a win in BYU's fifth consecutive Las Vegas...MAACO Bowl...MAACO Las...whatever.
The Cougars posted a 10-2 mark this year, their fourth straight 10-plus-win season, with wins over bowl teams Oklahoma, Wyoming, Air Force, and Utah. However, they did get blown away by TCU and Florida State.
On a side note, is it just me, or is it completely ironic that the football team of America's largest religious university has made five straight postseason trips to "Sin City"? What do fans do while they're there for the game? Las Vegas must have some kind of wholesome entertainment...right? Better than going to San Francisco for the Emerald Bowl, I guess.
Meanwhile, Oregon State will have to shake off the blues from blowing its shot at the Rose Bowl for the second straight year and take solace in the many vices Las Vegas has to offer. On second thought, they'd better concentrate on the game.
The Beavers had three wins over bowl teams—Stanford, UCLA, and Cal—on their way to an 8-4 mark. Like BYU, their losses all came to bowl teams.
The Beavers rank 21st nationally in passing, 22nd in scoring, and 28th in total offense. Brothers James and Jacquizz Rodgers sit eighth and 18th respectively in all-purpose yardage, and Jacquizz is tied for third in touchdowns scored.
The teams are similar defensively—better than middle of the pack, but not elite—so this could well be a high-scoring showdown, a big change from Oregon State's 3-0 win over Pittsburgh in last year's Sun Bowl.
BYU boasts more quality wins and a better overall record. However, I'm picking Oregon State—not because of the quality of their wins, but the quality of their losses.
The Beavers lost to Cincinnati, Arizona, USC, and Oregon by an average of six points. The Cougars' two losses, on the other hand, were by an average of 28.5 points.
That—and gut feeling—is why I think Oregon State will triumph in Vegas, 33-24.
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Utah vs. California, Dec. 23
Another Pac-10-Mountain West showdown, another of the better non-BCS matchups as 9-3 Utah travels down to San Diego to take on 8-4 Cal.
After last year's 13-0, BCS-busting campaign, the Utes were bound to have a letdown, but they maintained their status as one of the better non-BCS teams in the country with a solid campaign despite switching QBs midseason and losing top running back Matt Asiata in the fourth game of the year.
Utah lost to the three best teams it played this year (Oregon, TCU, and BYU, all on the road), but the Utes beat everyone they were supposed to, including bowl teams Air Force and Wyoming. They did it with a solid defense (19th in points per game), especially against the pass (ninth in efficiency, 14th in yards).
Cal, Cal, Cal...it's always the same underachieving story. Once ranked No. 6 in the country, the Golden Bears were shot down by Oregon and USC in consecutive weeks by a combined score of 72-6. They turned it around and seemed to be on a roll after beating Arizona and red-hot Stanford, but they laid another egg in a 42-10 loss at Washington to end the season.
Cal can put up points with the best of 'em. Star running back Jahvid Best hasn't played since his Nov. 7 concussion and will miss the bowl game as well, but fellow tailback Shane Vereen has picked up the slack and then some, averaging 148 yards per game with four TDs since Best got hurt.
However, can the Bears keep the Utes off the scoreboard? Their pass defense is flat-out terrible, ranking 82nd in efficiency against and 102nd in passing yards allowed. That doesn't bode well for stopping the Mountain West's top receiver, David Reed (above), who hauled in 75 catches for 1,085 yards and five scores.
Like so many bowl matchups, the Poinsettia Bowl result will boil down to motivation and desire. Both teams are coming off tough losses to end the regular season, and it's likely neither team is completely satisfied with its work so far.
The difference is Utah's last game was a hard-fought, overtime defeat at the hands of archrival BYU—one that likely left a bitter taste the Utes are eager to wash out with a victory to end 2009. Cal's last game, on the other hand, was a lifeless loss to a team staying home this bowl season—one that gave the impression the Bears just wanted to go home.
I say Utah comes out with a fire that allows them to overcome Cal's slightly superior talent, giving the Utes a 24-17 victory.
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: SMU vs. Nevada, Dec. 24
The Hawaii Bowl will be a homecoming of sorts for SMU coach June Jones, a local hero after leading the Warriors to unprecedented success in his nine years leading the team.
Jones has orchestrated an even greater turnaround than he did at Hawaii with SMU, guiding the Mustangs to their first bowl in 25 years.
How did SMU finally shake off the last vestiges of the NCAA's death penalty? Surprise, surprise: the passing attack. SMU threw the ball 56.2 percent of the time, 14th most often in the nation; interestingly enough, only five of the 14 most frequent passing attacks made the postseason.
The Mustangs' best win came against Conference USA champion East Carolina, while their worst loss—by far—came at the hands of 1-11 Washington State. All of SMU's other losses were to bowl teams.
Nevada, on the other hand, runs the ball 66.7 percent of the time, fifth most in the nation and only behind the three military schools and Georgia Tech. The Wolf Pack, incredibly, boast three 1,000-yard rushers: running backs Vai Taua (above) and Luke Lippincott and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The Wolf Pack had a horrendous 0-3 start to the year before turning things around in dramatic fashion, ripping off an eight-game winning streak before falling to Boise State in their final game. They averaged over 51 points during the win streak, a step up from their already fifth-ranked scoring attack of over 40 per game.
It certainly will be a case of strength versus weakness, as Nevada ranks in the bottom six nationwide in passing efficiency and passing yards against, while SMU sits just 88th in rush defense.
However, the Wolf Pack's powerful attack routed two mid-level bowl teams this year, putting up 52 points on Fresno State and 70 on Idaho; I see no reason why the Mustangs' simply strong offense will be able to keep up. Call it 45-27 Nevada.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Marshall vs. Ohio, Dec. 26
The winner of this bowl meets the winner of the Papajohns.com Bowl in the Pizza Hut Bowl, seeking bragging rights and a prize of a lifetime supply of pizza...I jest. But doesn't it make you hungry just thinking about it?
Some college football snobs may scoff at the matchup of Conference USA's 6-6 Marshall against 9-4 MAC runner-up Ohio, but is it really any worse than the Insight Bowl's matchup of 6-6 squads Minnesota and Iowa State? Give the non-Big Six some respect, I say!
Marshall lost to five bowl teams this year but did beat Bowling Green and SMU. The Thundering Herd are in an awkward situation, having forced head coach Mark Snyder to resign at the end of the season despite being bowl eligible for the first time in his tenure.
Star running back Darius Marshall should be back in action for the bowl game after an ankle injury held him out of the Herd's last two contests. Marshall gained 1,054 yards in just nine games, good for 117 yards per game, 13th in the nation.
Despite middling offensive numbers, the Ohio Bobcats played their way into the bowl season by forcing the most turnovers in the country with 36. They also rank seventh in turnover margin, largely thanks to a strong pass defense.
Ohio got hot the last two-thirds of the season, winning seven of eight before falling to Central Michigan in the MAC championship game. Their last two losses were directly related to quarterback Theo Scott's health: His play suffered due to illness in a defeat to Kent State, and a sprained ankle hampered him against Central Michigan.
These two programs are very familiar with each other, having faced off annually in the Battle for the Bell before Marshall switched conferences in 2005. Whoever wins this game will have bragging rights when the series resumes next year.
Both teams are counting on their offensive stars to be at full strength, but my guess is that a healthy Scott trumps Marshall and Marshall by carving up the Thundering Herd's subpar pass defense to the tune of a 24-13 Ohio victory. Pizza for everyone!
Meineke Car Care Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. North Carolina, Dec. 26
Call it the Failed NFL Coaches Bowl: Dave Wannstedt's Pitt Panthers travel to the state of North Carolina to take on Butch Davis' Tar Heels, appearing in their second straight Car Care Bowl.
Pitt rolled through the Big East before losing a couple of heartbreakers to end the year, one to hated rival West Virginia and the other to Cincinnati in a virtual conference championship game.
But for a missed extra point, the Panthers would be in a BCS bowl hitting up a gift suite instead of finding space on their walls for their commemorative Richard Petty Driving Experience photo.
The Panthers rode freshman running back Dion Lewis all year long. Lewis finished third in the country in both total rushing yards and rushing yards per game. The passing game is nothing to sneeze at either: Quarterback Bill Stull ranked 11th in passer rating, with top target Jonathan Baldwin hauling in 54 catches for 1,080 yards, good for 20 yards per reception.
North Carolina beat five bowl teams this season, including solid victories over Virginia Tech and Miami—but also gave Virginia one of its three wins this year, along with losing to under .500 NC State.
The Tar Heels defense is the reason they won eight games, ranking sixth nationally in total defense, ninth in rushing defense, 13th in passing efficiency against, 13th in scoring defense, and 15th in passing defense.
They needed to be that good, because the offense didn't provide much help, limping in at 107th in total offense (102nd passing, 75th rushing).
North Carolina's defense is strong, but Pittsburgh's is nearly as good, and with the Panthers offense ranking 16th in the country at over 33 points per game, they'll keep the ball out of the Tar Heels' hands and come away with a clinical victory, 31-16, despite the Heels' home field advantage.
Immediately afterward, forgiving fans of the Bears and Browns welcome back Wannstedt and Davis respectively with open arms as their new head coaches...oh wait, this isn't the Bizarro World preview? My bad.
Emerald Bowl: USC vs. Boston College, Dec. 26
Is it right to feel sorry for USC? Isn't that like feeling sorry for the Yankees or the Cowboys?
Whether or not you have any sympathy for Pete Carroll's Trojans, there's no denying it's been a swift, sudden fall from grace. Yes, I realize it's all relative, and that the Emerald Bowl is actually quite an accomplishment for Boston College this year, but USC might as well have a peanut allergy for how appealing this bowl game is to the team and its fans.
USC only beat four bowl teams this season, chief among them the early season victory at Ohio State. Their first loss came to Washington the next week and was deemed a huge upset. Their second loss was a rout by Oregon, but the Trojans only dropped to a No. 12 ranking.
The massive loss to Stanford—Stanford!—alerted the nation that something was truly awry at USC, and their season-ending loss to Arizona, with a Holiday Bowl berth on the line, could hardly be called an upset any more.
There's no single cause for USC's troubles, but quarterback Matt Barkley (above) is definitely the most prominent one. Barkley played as inconsistently as you would expect a freshman QB to, posting five games with passer ratings under 115 and three over 180.
The defense was unusually vulnerable, ranking 42nd or worse in pass defense, rush defense, and scoring defense. The Trojans allowed 469 yards (325 rushing) to Stanford, 482 yards (153 rushing) to Oregon State, and 613 yards (391 rushing) to Oregon.
Boston College, meanwhile, continued its solid, generally unspectacular run of success, making a bowl game for the 11th straight season. Last year's loss to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl ended an eight-bowl winning streak.
The Eagles have a deceptive 8-4 record, as only two of their wins came against bowl teams (Florida State and Central Michigan), while they lost to three bowl teams by an average of 23 points. (They also lost to non-bowl team by choice Notre Dame 20-16.)
BC's offense is rather anemic but does feature stud sophomore running back Montel Harris, who amassed 1,355 yards rushing this year, albeit with 43 yards or less in three of BC's four losses. That said, Harris finished the year on a roll, averaging 140 yards per in the Eagles' last four games.
Like fellow ACC squad North Carolina, BC's strength is its defense, ranking 15th in rushing defense and 18th in scoring defense, though it does show some chinks in the armor versus the passing game (55th in passing yards against). Freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly finished second in the country in total tackles with 142.
You'd be hard-pressed to find two teams with identical records that are as different as these two squads. USC underachieved, while BC overachieved under first-year head coach Frank Spaziani (even predicted by some to go 0-8 in conference). USC consistently pulls top 10 recruiting classes, while BC just cracks the top 35 in a good year.
Once again, it's a battle of talent (USC) vs. motivation (Boston College). The Eagles will undoubtedly be pumped to knock off the big bad Trojans; can Pete Carroll motivate his charges to give it their all despite missing a BCS bowl for the first time since 2001?
Even if he doesn't, USC's superior speed, strength, and skill, along with the advantage of a West Coast crowd—not to mention the novelty of playing in a bowl game other than the Rose Bowl—will carry the Trojans to a slightly uncomfortable 25-16 victory.
Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl: Clemson vs. Kentucky, Dec. 27
Kentucky and Clemson meet in a rematch of the 2006 Music City Bowl, which the Wildcats won 28-20. C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford, who participated in that game, will be among the Tiger seniors looking for revenge.
This will be Clemson's sixth straight bowl game, and they'll be looking to break a three-bowl losing streak, which started against Kentucky three years ago.
The dynamic Spiller (left) has done it all this year: 1,145 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, 445 yards and four TDs receiving, one punt return touchdown, four kick return touchdowns on a 33.7-yard average (fourth in the nation), and even a passing touchdown.
It all adds up to 192.9 all-purpose yards per game, also fourth in the country, and a tie for fifth in the country with 20 touchdowns scored.
The offense isn't all Spiller though. Quarterback Kyle Parker had a solid, efficient year, and receiver Jacoby Ford also helped push the offense to nearly 32 points per game, helping the Tigers outscore their opponents by just about 11 points a contest.
Kentucky continues to defy expectations and give Wildcat fans something to follow other than basketball. They made a bowl game for the fourth straight year, a first in school history; they've won their last three bowl contests, including two Music City titles.
Kentucky picked up two big road wins against Auburn and Georgia among their seven wins but lost to the four other bowl teams they faced. Their pass defense led the way, ranking 23rd nationally in pass efficiency against, but their rush defense left much to be desired, finishing a terrible 100th in yards against.
Their rushing game was particularly strong, ranking 21st in yards per game, led by Derrick Locke and all-purpose maestro Randall Cobb. Similar to Spiller, though with greater quarterback skills, Cobb led the Wildcats in receiving yards, put up 6.4 yards per carry on the ground for over 500 yards, and picked up a punt return touchdown as well.
Some will point to Clemson and the ACC's challenges against the SEC—the Tigers were soundly defeated by South Carolina to end the regular season—as cause that the Wildcats can overcome Clemson's statistical superiority.
I believe, however, that Spiller will go out with a bang by running through and around Kentucky's suspect run defense. Meanwhile, Clemson's defense will dare the Wildcats' anemic passing game (114th in yards per game) to beat them and focus on stopping the rush attack.
In the end, Kentucky's weaknesses catch up to them, and Clemson pulls away for a 27-16 victory.
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl: Georgia vs. Texas A&M, Dec. 28
Before we get into the game, who is the sponsor of this bowl anyway? AdvoCare is a direct sales company (apparently the first to sponsor a bowl—take that, Amway!) that specializes in wellness products, one of which is the V100 multivitamin, which is—and this is important—an "NCAA compliant multivitamin that is permitted for coaches to give to their players."
Gee, I wonder if the players will be getting any vitamins in their gift packages. Probably not, really—after all, they didn't receive weed whackers when Poulan was the bowl sponsor.
Glad that's settled. Now, on to the game.
Georgia may be in a bowl for the 13th straight time, but at 7-5, the Bulldogs slumped to their worst season since the last time they missed a bowl (5-6 in 1996). They picked up four solid wins over bowl teams but couldn't get over the hump against against five others.
The main culprit for their troubles was the defense (giving up 26.4 points per game, 70th nationwide), particularly against the pass, ranking 90th in pass efficiency against. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez suffered the consequences, getting the axe after the season.
The offense also had difficulty replacing standouts Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, and it didn't help that receiver A.J. Green missed three games to injury, one of which was the home loss to Kentucky.
Texas A&M is back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus. The Aggies' recent bowl history has been a litany of losses, with 10 defeats out of the last 12 dating back to 1991.
At 6-6, the Aggies scraped their way into a bowl game on the strength of their offense, captained by quarterback Jerrod Johnson. Johnson (above) passed for 28 touchdowns, tied for sixth in the nation, and amassed over 3,200 yards passing and 450 yards rushing. He distributed the ball well, as five receivers caught over 30 balls on the year.
The rushing attack was nothing to sneeze at either. Both Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray rushed for over 750 yards, with yards per carry averages of 5.1 and 4.8 respectively.
It all added up to 465 yards of offense, a remarkable fifth in the nation, and nearly 34 points per game, 15th nationally.
There's a reason this team is 6-6, though—that reason is the defense, ranked a lowly 107th in total defense. A&M allowed 32.7 points per game, good for just 104th in the nation. Twice they allowed more than 60 points (62 to Kansas State, 65 to Oklahoma—both losses).
The Aggies went 2-4 against bowl teams, beating Texas Tech and Iowa State.
Did someone say barnburner? Georgia scored over 30 points six times; Texas A&M scored over 30 nine times. The Bulldogs allowed over 30 points five times; the Aggies did so eight times.
However, Georgia's defense is in turmoil right now, with nearly the entire defensive staff having been dismissed, while A&M's offense is firing on all cylinders. My guess is the Aggies will take their vitamins and triumph in a shootout, 44-39.