Monday, December 31

The Gator Bowl: Because It's Not Enough To Have Just One Likely Blowout at 1 PM EST on New Year's

The Gator Bowl, hosted in Jacksonville, FL, has recently had a strong Virginia history. Since 2001, every Gator Bowl has had a team from either North Carolina, Virginia, or West Virginia. Hm. After a few floppers, the last three Gator Bowls have been pretty good and increasingly more and more competitive.

Honestly, with this matchup, who knows what we'll get. Virginia's still tough to read and Texas Tech tends to show up if they feel like it.

Texas Tech (by Coach Lawrence)

Like seemingly every Mike Leech team, Texas Tech leads the nation in passing, runs the ball on occasion, and has a mediocre defense. Midway through October, nobody had held them below 35 but the Red Raiders managed to lose a game in which they scored 45 points. Then they got blown out by a strong Missouri team, lost a shocker to Colorado, and were run over by Jamaal Charles and Texas. In a showdown with Oklahoma, TTU took advantage of an injury to Sam Bradford to win a pseudo-shootout.

Texas Tech figured to have a strong season for their QB, as the system favors it and Graham Harrell is probably the best talent that Leech has had yet. What wasn't expected was the rapid ascension of freshman phenom receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree destroyed the freshman TD record with 21, and his 155 ypg receiving is tops in the nation by 22. Sure, his drop cost TTU the OK State game and a 7-0 start, but for the most part it's been catch after catch on the way to an historic individual season.

Defensively, Jamar Wall is the standout in an otherwise pedestrian secondary. But the run defense... ouch, they give up 171 ypg. Indeed, Tech is one of a very small number of teams who can be successful despite getting outrushed by 110 ypg... I guess +281 passing makes up for that.

Keys to Victory:
1) Good isn't Good Enough for Graham Harrell. Check out these numbers: 147 QB rating, 69.6% completions, 485 ypg. Those are Harrell's numbers when they lose. With Mike Leech's offense, Harrell needs to be completing 75% of his passes and throwing 4 TDs minimum with at most 1 INT. It's a daunting task, and here's my hint: look for Crabtree.

2) Okay, you're gonna give up yards on the ground. You can't turn bad into good. But you can minimize its damage with more aggressive schemes. When the Red Raiders lose, they give up 269 rushing yards a game. In victory, that's down to 121. We're not asking the world of this defense, but just keep 7 or 8 committed to stopping the run and see if Jameel Sewell can outduel Graham Harrell.

3) Stay committed to the (above) gameplan. Last season they were pretty much getting run out of the Insight Bowl by Minnesota before Harrell caught fire... all they did was complete the biggest comeback in division 1 history. This offense is deadly and no QB save for Colt Brennan can go head to head with Harrell and win. Stop (or slow down) the run, throw the ball 60 times. That should do it.

Virginia (by Coach Pendley)

So the Cavaliers went 9-3 this season, but how? Well, they bookended a 9-1 season with big losses to Virginia Tech (understandable) and Wyoming (wtf n00b?). In between, they stole wins against UNC, Georgia Tech, MSTU, UConn, Maryland, and Wake Forest. How?
- Getting outgained 399-350 against UNC but hitting 5 FGs, two from beyond 45 yards. Includes what should’ve been a drive-stalling sack, but UNC committing a personal foul to prolong UVA’s drive, which resulted in a 48-yard FG.
- INT return for a TD against Georgia Tech provides the winning score
- K Chris Gould nailed a 34-yard FG as time expired to beat MTSU
- UConn completely squandering their +1 turnover margin and fumbling at the UVA 4 with time winding down in the 2nd quarter
- Maryland being …well, Maryland, and letting Chris Turner get sacked for a safety (final score: 18-17 UVA)
- Sam Swank missing a game-winning FG to preserve the win over Wake Forest

So yeah, when people say that UVA is the luckiest team in the country, they’re not kidding around. The offense? Anemic – Cedric Peerman is the team’s leading rusher and he hasn’t even played since the MTSU game. None of their receivers averages over 40 yards a game. They have more punts per game than anyone in the ACC but Virginia Tech and Duke. Even the nausea-inducing Maryland offense scored more than these guys did on the year.

What about on D? Well, they do have a pretty good run defense thanks to Chris Long (19 TFL). However, since they’re playing Texas Tech, nobody really cares about that. How do they defend the pass? They allowed about 210 yards per game through the air and a 15/11 ratio, which sounds great, but:
- they missed the two best passing teams in the ACC, BC and Clemson
- the two “best” passing offenses the Cavs did play – UNC and NC State – passed for 339 and 347 yards, respectively
So …yeah. Now they get to face a TTU offense that has passed for under 400 yards just once on the year – with a 48/15 ratio.

Keys to Victory:
1: Ball possession. I don’t really know – nor do I really care – how they hold onto the ball, but they’ll need to. 35 minutes is a minimum; predictably, TTU doesn’t hold onto the ball that long, but they’re going to get points, so there’s not a whole lot else to do other than try and shorten the game. The good news is that TTU's run D is less than stellar, so ...maybe Mikell Simpson can run 4 yards and fall down. 35 times.

2: No empty possessions. Chris Gould is going to have to kill it – we’re talking no missed FGs here; get into the end zone. Don’t even bother punting – TTU will likely drive the field anyway.

3: Reach out and pull in a horseshoe. Seriously, they’re going to have to get a bit lucky – maybe Michael Crabtree misses a key third down catch, maybe Graham Harrell has his worst game yet this season. It doesn’t matter how they get lucky, but they will have to get lucky.

The Capital One Bowl: Begging the Question, Does College Football Have a Mercy Rule?

The Capital One Bowl has hosted fun games over the years. Earlier this century, it was the Big Orange Parking Lot, as Tennessee kept on making trips here thanks to finishing behind UF and/or UGA in the SEC East. This year, it's Florida's turn to come down here, and the guy who said that you can't spell Citrus without UT - the one, the only Steve Spurrier - gets to sit on the sidelines and cry. Phil Steele's Team of Glory didn't really make it anywhere other than the buffet line.

Still, that's neither here nor there at this point, and this bowl has been one of the few places where the Big 10 / SEC arguments have actually seen some kind of results (along with the Outback Bowl). Of course, last year's results - a 2-0 sweep by the Big 10 teams - ended up not proving much, as the rest of the conference laid an egg along with Florida beating the tar out of Ohio State.

As for this year's Capital One game, will it be fun? Will it be exciting? Will it give Big 10 fans something to be happy about?

Probably not.

Michigan (by Coach Lawrence)

Michigan has had about as disastrous of a season as you can have while still finishing 8-4 and landing a January bowl. For those of you who have spent the latter half of 2007 living under a rock, UM lost their season opener at home to I-AA Appalachian State (congrats on 3 straight lower division championships) in pretty much the biggest upset in college football history. Then they got the shit rocked out of them by Oregon, hello 0-2. The Wolverines won 8 games that everybody expected them to win – ok, maybe Illinois was semi-impressive – before getting run out by Wisconsin in a meaningless game where UM decided not to play their starters and completely shut down by Ohio State in a game whose 14-3 score was a lot closer than the second half looked. Say goodbye to Lloyd Carr, and hello to Les Miles... no, Greg Schiano... no, Rich Rodriguez. For an embarrassing series of rejections, they wound up with a pretty good coach, who now faces mission impossible of getting this particular defense up to stop Tim Tebow after getting gashed by Armanti Edwards and Dennis Dixon.

To make matters worse, we’re not sure if Chad Henne or Mike Hart will be playing. Hart figures to be the key man, but Henne is needed to keep the defense from stacking 8. For the purpose of this gameplan, let’s assume both are healthy and able to play four quarters.

Keys to Victory:
1) 175 yards rushing by Mike Hart. Hell, they might need 225. Is he ready to play and get these seniors their only bowl win? UM needs to control the ball and the clock, allowing their defense to collect itself to make a few key stops and prevent the Florida offense from getting into a rhythm.

2) Chad Henne must return to his 2006 form. I don’t care how mediocre Florida’s young defense is, they’re not going to just throw up their hands and let Hart run for 200. Michigan has a great WR corps – Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington should have huge totals, but in these big losses they don’t.

3) Turnovers may be more important than stops. If Hart’s running the ball and eating up clock, Florida might get just 8 or 9 possessions. If the offense scores 28 and the defense forces 3 TOs, UM only needs to stop Tebow on one or two other possessions to win. Surely they can do that... if nothing else, you figure some holding penalty will turn a 3rd and 3 into 3rd and 13.

4) It’s gotta be all three. The offense needs to shorten the game while putting up points. The defense needs to force turnovers to limit the number of times they have to stop Tebow on 3rd down. All of the pieces must fall into place, and even then it’s going to be tough. Good luck.

Florida (by Coach Pendley)

Florida has about as good of a season as you could expect fielding a JV team on defense for the first three or four games of the year. It didn't hurt matters that their offense was completely ridiculous - it's not even that they were that good, it's that Tebow will have to be nerfed in NCAA Football '08 to make the game playable. It was that scary. Either way, that potent offense was rendered moot by both LSU and Georgia. That would've been bad enough in its own right, but Auburn PK Wes Bynum going taunt-master on the Gators after nailing a game-winning FG pretty much sunk the team's shot at a SEC East title and confined them to this game. Fortunately, they pretty much steamrolled the rest of their competition - including a 66-20 thrashing of the Volunteers. (This will get overturned in 2010 when we find out Tebow is actually 26.) Some of the games were closer than they rightfully should've been, but this offense is next to impossible to stop.

The unofficial motto of the Gators this year was "no running back, no problem." Ignore Tebow's 22 rushing TDs - he was their short yardage back - and you'll see that both Tebow and WR Percy Harvin carried the ball way more than they would've in a traditional running game. This is partly a function of Urban Meyer's offense and partly a function of having shit for running backs. Still, Harvin would get way more publicity if he wasn't sharing carries with Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson. WR Andre Caldwell is a legitimate playmaker, and WR Riley Cooper spent most of the season either filling in for Caldwell or being injured himself, but he gives the Gators a 2/3 type WR who can catch balls when Harvin is attracting too much attention.

As for the defense ...who cares? These guys didn't. Well, that’s not quite true – they didn’t care about their pass defense. Their rush D was the best in the SEC, allowing just under 100 yards per game on the ground and 3.02 ypc average. Only LSU and Georgia were able to gain over 100 yards on the ground, and both those teams wrecked the front seven to the tune of 247 and 196 yards, respectively.

Keys to Victory:
1: Exploit offensive speed. Michigan has ….how do we put this delicately …struggled with the spread offense and running QBs this year. In addition, Harvin is probably faster than almost everyone the Wolverines have faced all year. There’s no reason that the Gators shouldn’t bring out all of the Tebow options – Tebow left, Tebow right, Tebow middle – and basically play their game. I don’t think Michigan has the playmakers to stop it.

2: Stay honest on D. Florida shouldn’t need a ton of stops to come out victorious, but staying at home and at least keeping a bead on the running game should help speed the process along. Henne, Manningham, and Arrington form a serious receiving trio, but it hasn’t been anything Florida hasn’t seen; in addition, I’d be more concerned about stopping Hart than Henne and/or Mallett, as Henne is likely one shot away from becoming Mallett, who’s …beatable.

It feels like a copout to only have those keys be it, but UF seems designed to be the type of offense to give UM fits. As long as they play the way they’ve played all year on offense and don’t totally shit the bed on D they should win this.

The Cotton Bowl: This Season's non-BCS Winner

The Cotton Bowl is a rarity among the bowls; it’s a big deal almost entirely of its own accord. It’s obviously not of BCS caliber (although nobody would be surprised if it got there at some point), but it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of history – all the way back to the Big Eight conference and beyond – and they get a lot of good teams to play in it. As a result, the matchups are normally at worst entertaining; the most recent negative example to that was Tennessee’s dismantling of Texas A&M back in ’04, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

This year doesn’t look to be any different. Thanks to the stupidity of both the Rose Bowl (big surprise) and the Orange Bowl (mild surprise), the Cotton was lucky enough to land a team that’s only lost to one other team all year. The only problem: they lost to said team twice. For some reason, that wasn’t good enough for the Orange Bowl, so they took the team that these guys were the only team to beat all year. We’re not sure how that works, but that’s how it did work. Oh well, it’s not Missouri’s fault people are stupid.

As for the other team, they feature one of the most explosive backs in college football alongside Darren McFadden. Felix Jones is every bit as dangerous as McFadden and he’d be a feature back at about 110 other schools, but he’s relegated to the change-of-pace back behind McFadden, who’s simply a beast. Sure, Arkansas doesn’t have much of a passing game and has occasionally good defense, but it’s hard to say they’re not entertaining.

So while everyone else is sitting around watching the Gator Bowl or Outback Bowl, the Cotton may – once again – feature the best overall game. It’s good to be the fallback sometimes.

Of course, one big ol’ strike on the Cotton Bowl is that they were the first prominent bowl to move to Fox. Now Fox gets to do all the BCS games as only they can (read: worse than NBC’s coverage of Notre Dame). Nobody really wins when that happens, and unfortunately the Cotton Bowl was the first to make the leap. It’s not a huge mark on them, but it is a mark.

Missouri (by Coach Lawrence)

Following a devastating 39-38 choking in the 2006 Sun Bowl, Missouri improved upon their offense with the addition of speedster Jeremy Maclin and made below-the-radar preparations for a Big 12 title run. In the most underappreciated (at the time) game of the season, Mizzou began their season with a neutral-field victory over Illinois, getting out to a huge lead and holding on to win with a late interception. Along the way, the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in Norman and beat everybody they should have. In the regular season finale, they matched up against an unbeaten Kansas and just dominated the first three quarters, gaining a 31-14 lead in the 4th. Passive playcalling made the final score 36-28, but regardless they were the only team to boast of beating the Jayhawks. Alas, in a rematch with Oklahoma they thought they could win, it was the Sooners pulling away to turn a 14-14 halftime tie into a 38-17 domination.

It’s funny how the smallest seemingly irrelevant details can make all the difference. If the Big 12 didn’t have a conference championship game – or hell, if Missouri was in the Big 12 South (never thought I’d say that) – the Tigers would have one loss to Oklahoma and be matched up against Ohio State for the BCS Championship. Of course, Missouri did play against Oklahoma twice, and they lost both times. Game one was winnable in Norman, but the rematch was only interesting for the opening half. Of course, what happened next was beyond mere mental retardation. Missouri finished as the Big 12 runner-up and 6th in the final BCS standings. With the Rose Bowl set to pick their second team, the top four teams had automatic tie-ins and the #5 team, Georgia, was veto-able by the Sugar Bowl who had lost LSU. Okay, #6 Missouri vs #7 USC sounds pretty awesome. Oh, they picked Illinois... #13 and with a loss to the Missouri Tigers. Um, sure, okay take tradition over an awesome matchup. Now it’s up to the Orange Bowl. Missouri and West Virginia are both on the table... WVU being the best choice (despite a lower ranking) and Missouri being a good choice that the Fiesta’s probably pressuring them for. So they take Kansas. Zero quality wins, loss to Missouri, ranked two spots below Missouri. This may be the biggest BCS at-large shafting yet, and go figure that the Rose Bowl (courtesy of Jim Delany) is at the heart of it. But while the Tigers were the losers of all this, the Cotton Bowl was clearly the winner. Arkansas vs Missouri? That’s arguably one of the top three bowl matchups.

Missouri features one of the nation’s top offenses, led by junior quarterback Chase Daniel. Six receivers average over 30 ypg, led by Jeremy Maclin at 78.7. Martin Rucker and William Franklin are both among the nation’s top 5 tight ends. When these two TEs and their 3 starting WRs all line up, everyone’s over 6 feet tall (three stand at 6’5”) which makes it tough for the defense to put bodies on these guys. To compliment the 327 ypg aerial attack, Tony Temple provides power and agility for a ground game that averages 165. Yep, nearly 500 ypg total offense. Scary.

Defensively, Missouri is actually two teams. The athletic, aggressive unit that half Kansas to 7 points through 3 quarters, and the prevent unit who blew the Sun Bowl last year. Seriously in half of their games, they win by about a TD after having late leads in the 15+ category. As I blogged earlier, the split stats tell the tale of a team who plays not to lose when they have the lead. When they are playing to win, though, William Moore is a beast in the secondary with 7 INTs and 9 tackles for loss on the season. Pig Brown’s loss in the 8th game of the season appeared devastating, but the unit hasn’t really given up much more passing ypg since then, especially when you consider that their final two games were against Kansas and Oklahoma.

Keys to Victory:
1) Stay two-dimensional on offense. Despite all that receiving power, Tony Temple brings a balance that really makes this offense go. You can’t drop everyone back when he’s gashing your defense for 4.7 ypc, and forcing the linebackers to play up can lead to monster games for the TEs who are too big for Arkansas’ safeties to cover one on one. (besides that, safety coverage of the TEs leaves Maclin one-on-one with a corner)

2) Get Maclin involved. He’ll be one of the fastest players in this game; a threat to score on deep passes, reverse runs, and kick returns. In addition to the standard passes and special teams, I’d have a special play designed for him in each quarter. Two if they’re working.

3) Blitz the hell out of Arkansas. Giving up the big play isn’t a big deal as your offense should be able to put up good points, and an 80-yard TD puts Daniel & Co back on the field a lot more quickly than a 10-play methodic drive. Stopping first and second down for short gains (or losses) will force the ball into Casey Dick’s hands on 3rd down. lolz.

Arkansas (by Coach Pendley)

Man, if this team could only play defense, they’d be everyone’s Hard-On of the Year. How could you not like a team that played in a killer conference with a great running game and defense? McFadden is a stud and a half, Felix Jones is still one of the top backs in the SEC, and if they could hold teams to under even 24 points on average, these guys would be 11-2 at worst. Instead they’re 8-4 with some completely unexplainable losses (Alabama, mainly). What could’ve been, huh?

So here’s what you already know: both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are in the top 5 of SEC rushers; McFadden has 1,725 yards and 15 TDs and Jones has 1,117 yards and 11 TDs (that’s with being very limited in the Tennessee game, too). What you might not know – although I’ve been trying to trumpet this for a while now – is that Felix Jones is averaging over 9 yards a carry. That’s including 16 rushes over 20 yards in only 123 carries. McFadden only has 15 rushes of over 20 yards in over 300 carries. Jones is the real big play threat, but McFadden is a beast.

Arkansas’s QB is Casey Dick; he’ll throw it sporadically and hand off to those two backs and Peyton Hillis, who normally blocks for McFadden and Jones but has 300 yards of his own on the year, but he only saw significant time with the ball in three games. However, Hillis is also the primary receiving threat, which …yeah, that’s all you need to know about the Arkansas air attack.

Arkansas’s run defense is virtually non-existent, but their pass defense is vicious. Ignore the yardage totals – teams passed 38 times a game against them. Take a look at the 21/19 ratio and the QB rating under 100; that’s fifth in the nation. However, that comes with a caveat; Arkansas did pad its stats against bad passing teams – although Mississippi State inexplicably went off for 421 yards in the air against the Hogs, but that was at the cost of four picks. Speaking of that, Arkansas has had 4 INTs or more in three different games this year.

Not surprisingly, Arkansas is +9 on the season in turnover margin. What is surprising is that Arkansas doesn’t even keep the ball for 30 minutes a game; maybe their ground game is too good?

Keys to Victory:
1: Don’t go Wildhog crazy. It’s not like Missouri’s 1st team doesn’t practice against a mobile QB on a daily basis anyway, so while the formation is definitely unique, it won’t be as effective as you’d figure. Now, that’s not to say that you don’t want both McFadden and Jones in the backfield for 15-20 plays a game – you definitely want that – but any more than five Wildhog plays will be overdoing it. I think five is going to be a bit much, too; keep the explosiveness on the field but not at the expense of trick packages.

2: Spartan rushing. As in, “THIS. IS. SPARTA.” In short, Arkansas may need 300 combined yards on the ground to win against an excellent Missouri D. The good news is that their defense doesn’t play well to the strengths of Arkansas’s attack, so while they probably will stack the line (I expect Arkansas to see eight in the box on 50+% of their plays from scrimmage), McFadden is strong enough to break tackles to get to the second level and Jones is fast enough to blow by everyone. It doesn’t matter how they get 300 yards, but they’ll need that much. Bonus points for getting that many yards: the ball stays out of Chase Daniel’s hands. Challenge points: nobody’s even topped 200 yards against this Tiger D.

3: Force Daniel to beat you with his arm. Yes, he certainly can do that – he’s the best passer Arkansas’s seen all year – but Arkansas’s run D scares me more than their pass D. Stopping Tony Temple – and WR Jeremy Maclin, who will likely see a few plays with the ball – will be key to force the game into Daniel’s hands. Yes, I know it’s a strange idea, but doing this will basically turn the game into Daniel v. McFadden, which is Arkansas’s best chance to win. (Well, technically their best chance would be a freak snowstorm stranding Missouri at the hotel, but that won’t happen.)

The Outback Bowl: Kicking Off 2008!

You can’t spell Outback without UT, right? Of course, the line was a little better when Spurrier was 1) talking about the Citrus Bowl and 2) coaching a good team, but Tennessee was in Tampa last year and they’ll be there again this year, too. This will be Wisconsin’s third visit to the Outback Bowl, winning in 1995 against Duke (!) and losing in 1998 against Georgia.

As for the bowl itself, it’s the first bowl of the New Year. East Coasters will normally get a kick out of rolling out of bed and nursing a hangover while watching this game (or the Cotton Bowl). West Coasters will curse this damn bowl for kicking off at 8 AM while they’re still drunk off their ass, because hello, you have to call your brother on the East Coast at 7 AM to piss him off, but there’s a bowl game in four hours, so: fuck. And if you actually follow one of these teams when you’re on the West Coast and you’re at a party the night before, well, it sucks to be you.

Tennessee (by Coach Pendley)

From the hot seat to the SEC East crown, it was a nice year for Phil Fulmer. Of course, there’s the question of if it was even needed for Fulmer to be on the hot seat; after all, his teams have consistently gotten at least 8 wins a year with the exception of 2005 (which you can blame the offense for – thanks, Randy Sanders!), but complacency is the enemy of impatient fans. That was definitely the case in Knoxville this year, as opening the season with road losses to Cal and Florida bookending a not-terribly-impressive win over Southern Miss had the fanbase restless.

And then something funny happened – the Vols started to win. They had a huge statement win over Georgia and a tougher-than-it-looked win over Mississippi State. Losing to Alabama left the Vols at 4-3, 2-2 and it wasn’t likely that the Vols could carry the conference. Five straight wins (and a Georgia win over Florida, an LSU win over Florida, and an Auburn win over Florida) later, the Vols ended up in the SEC Championship game. They played a mostly even game, losing due to an Erik Ainge misreading of coverage turning into a pick six and a second misread effectively ending the game.

Of course, it’s tough to get too upset at Ainge, because without him Tennessee was likely headed for a 7-5 season. He provided most of the offense, passing for over 3,100 yards on the season with a 63% completion percentage and a 29/10 ratio. More than anything else, he’s been consistent; he still completes passes above 60% in losses and while the 7/4 ratio in losses isn’t great, it’s certainly not terrible. It also helps that Tennessee’s O-line only allowed 4 sacks on the season, no mean feat given the way this offense set up.

What will hurt is losing WR Lucas Taylor for the Outback Bowl; Taylor had been the Vols’ best receiver with an even 1,000 yards on the season. Without Taylor, the pass-catching duties fall to WRs Austin Rogers and Josh Brisco and TE Chris Brown Rogers has been the more consistent of the two options, but Brisco is still solid. Brown is more of a short-yardage TE than a real deep threat, but he catches a lot of the passes thrown his way.

Tennessee’s rushing offense was slightly less than expected this year, but that was due to LaMarcus Coker getting kicked off the team. Arian Foster took back the starting duties and excelled – rushing for 1,162 yards and 12 TDs – but Tennessee didn’t have a consistent second option. Montario Hardesty came closest, running for 4.12 yards per carry and 3 TDs.

On defense, Tennessee was less than impressive, giving up 162 yards a game on the ground and 245 yards a game through the air. The pass defense did shore up greatly in November and the run D did get a little better after a disastrous September It probably didn’t help matters that the D-line had issues getting to the QB, registering only 22 sacks on the year. Sure, that was 18 more than they gave up, but that’s a function of their offensive line, not drastically improved pass rushing.

Keys to Victory:
1: Hold P.J. Hill to less than 100 effective yards. One of the oddities of the UT / Arkansas game is that while McFadden did get 117 yards, they were almost all ineffective yards. I don’t’ particularly care if Hill is getting 5 yards on 3rd and 8, but I do care if it’s on 1st and 10. Stop Hill when they need to and it won’t matter a ton what happens on the meaningless rushes.

2: 100/50. A minimum of 100 yards for Foster, 50 for Hardesty. Wisconsin has either limited offenses to around (or less than) 50 yards on ground or around 150 and up. Not coincidentally, the teams that got stopped lost handily; if teams were able to top 200 yards on the ground against Wisconsin they went 3-1. The 100/50 is a minimum, but my hunch is that if Foster and Hardesty can get those minimums they’ll get enough yardage around the edges to approach the magical 200.

3: Keep Wisconsin’s secondary honest. The key to beating the Badgers lies in an effective running game, but since Tennessee will be able to field two solid WRs and an annoying matchup in Chris Brown, they should be able to keep seven in the box most of the game. If the running game is working, they won’t need 300+ yards from Ainge, but they will need some solid game management. Fortunately, Ainge can provide that.

4: Don’t let the coaching losses bother you. OC David Cutcliffe is gone after the season to Duke and WR/RB coach Trooper Taylor (who Vols fans damn near adore) is leaving to become the co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State – but they’re not gone yet! Play hard in their last game.

Wisconsin (by Coach Lawrence)

Following a 12-1 campaign in 2006 and a bizarre bowl win over Arkansas in which they were outgained 386-201 but the Razorbacks imploded with 12 penalties for 123 yards, Wisconsin was the preseason favorite to finish second in the Big Ten to Michigan – the only team to beat the Badgers in 2006. When Michigan started off 0-2 (eventually 3-2) and Wisconsin 5-0, things looked promising for Wiscy. But beneath the record, Wisconsin had looked terrible in unnecessarily close wins over UNLV, Iowa, and Michigan State... even The Citadel hung with them for three quarters. Blame Tyler Donovan, who looked pretty good in week 1 vs Washington State before steadily declining over the course of the early season. And so the stage was set for an epic upset by upstart Illinois, rebounding to a 4-1 start after losing their opener to equally upstart Missouri. On their home turf, the Illini rode a +2 turnover margin and dominating ground games by Mendenhall and Williams to a 5-point victory. Okay, the season’s not over... what’s this? 31 point loss at Penn State? Now the Badgers were struggling and really missing the leadership (and arm) of John Stocco as teams were loading the box against PJ Hill. Wisconsin rebounded to annihilate Indiana and Northern Illinois before hosting Ohio State. A 10-3 halftime lead quickly evaporated in a second-half beatdown, and the Badgers chances of a New Year’s bowl hinged on beating Michigan – the team who was picked to finish first and were riding an 8-game winning streak. Anti-climactically, the Wolverines didn’t even play Mike Hart and rested Chad Henne after just five attempts, and the Badgers went on to dominate. In the season finale, Minnesota managed to make the game entertaining against Wisconsin, but ultimately the 250 yards gained by Zach Brown were too much to handle.

Wisconsin is successful when they pound the ball over and over; from the Ron Dayne era when the BCS kicked off through the success behind PJ Hill the last two seasons... even when Zach Brown is playing, Wiscy runs and runs to the tune of 45.5 carries and 201.5 yards a game. Donovan has at times provided strong support through the passing game, but really his job is to keep the defense honest and not turn the ball over. However, the Badgers do sport arguably the best tight end in the nation, the team’s leading receiver Travis Beckum who averages 80 ypg in catches and leads the team in TD catches with 6.

Defensively, nothing really stands out. Wisconsin gives up 139 yards rushing and 210 yards passing per game – neither terrible nor great. Fans might be concerned that the defensive numbers have been average against below-average offenses, hmm. Then again, the Big Ten has posted a 2-1 record in their December bowls, so their streak of four straight seasons without a winning bowl record may be nearing an end? We’ll see how all that shapes out.

Keys to Victory:
1) The running game. Try 243 yards in victory, 75 yards in defeat – that’s what the split stats on Wisconsin’s ground game say. It is absolutely critical that the Badgers are able to ride the legs of Hill and Brown. If both played I’d say 150/75 should be their yardage goals, but we don’t know how much Hill will be in the game so Brown may need to be prepared to post 175+ by himself. He’s ready for the responsibility, as the Michigan game demonstrated.

2) Donovan and Beckum need to hook up for 100 yards. Passing the ball at all keeps the defense honest, but Beckum demands help from the linebackers and safeties, which keeps the running lanes a little more clean. Furthermore, Donovan needs to throw more TDs than INTs. 1:0 is fine if it’s that.

3) Load the box, stop Foster and Hardesty. The goal should be 100 yards or less total rushing. While Erik Ainge is a strong QB, Tennessee lacks the receiver corps of last season to make up for, say, a 150 yard deficit in the ground game.

The Insight Bowl

I'll be honest: I don't know a damn thing about the Insight Bowl – other than it was the Copper Bowl - and based on the teams that are playing and have played there, nobody else does either. Near as I can tell, it's basically an excuse to hand out paychecks to a couple of .500ish BCS conference teams and call it a night. Hey, whatever works. At least it's an opportunity for the Big 10 to get a win.

Apparently the bowl has bounced around Arizona since its inception; this year it’ll be in Tempe. The good news is that three out of the last four years have been interesting; the bad news is that most of those years also involved Pac-10 teams. Not this year...

Indiana (by Coach Lawrence)

Check out this stat: In 2003, Indiana won just 2 games. The following season it was 3, then 4, and then 5 in 2006. Great pace for bowl eligibility, eh? Ten games into the season, Indiana was 6-4 having gone completely chalk – beating Indiana State, Western Michigan, Akron, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ball State while losing to Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. But the 2007 Big Ten is a conference where mediocrity is the norm (seven teams went 3-5, 4-4, or 5-3 in conference and the best nonconference victory was Ohio State over the Pac 10’s last-place finisher Washington... yeah) and everybody beat up on I-AA/MAC teams, so 6 wins wouldn’t cut it as the entire conference, save for a should-be-relegated Minnesota, finished bowl eligible. Chalk be damned, Indiana lost a 3-point game against a Northwestern team who couldn’t beat Duke, then with the season on the line beat Purdue with a 49-yard field goal. Insight Bowl, here we come.

Offensively, Indiana defines what it means to be a one-receiver team. Not counting the QB’s passing yards, James Hardy averages 90 ypg receiving and nobody else averages over 55 ypg receiving or rushing. In fact, QB Kellen Lewis is the leading rusher (54 ypg) as the team both gains and gives up 155 ypg on the ground.

Keys to Victory:
1) The ground game must support Hardy. When Indiana is successful (ie, wins) they gain 200 ypg on the ground between a cadre of rushers. In losses, they’re held under 100 total. In case you didn’t know, Oklahoma State has a pretty good receiver of their own in Bowman, and I’m not sure Lewis can win a straight up QB battle.

2) And Hardy has to bring it. The split stats don’t really say anything dramatic here, but it’s simple logic. Oklahoma State has a pretty good offense; Indiana probably can’t shut them down so they will need big productivity from their biggest star.

3) Defensively, key on Savage. Oklahoma State carries the ball 12 more times in wins than in losses, and actually throw for more yards per game when they lose. Despite having a good air game, OK State would prefer to keep it on the ground. If Indiana can force them to abandon that and if Hardy can match Bowman in receiving, then they will have a great chance to win.

Oklahoma State (by Coach Pendley)

The good news: when your team scores enough points to have your offensive coordinator hired by another team, it means that you're doing something right. The bad news: when teams laugh at your defensive coordinator calling in asking about coaching vacancies, it means you can't even stop Iowa State. Such is life in Stillwater. At this point, Oklahoma State is eerily similar to Texas Tech in their offensive levels of production and overall team performance. Again, that’s not a bad thing necessarily, it’s just a thing. There’s no shame in having the kind of offensive firepower that most teams can only dream about, but – again – if they could actually stop anyone they’d be a BCS contender.

As for OSU’s actual performance this season, it’s reminiscent of their other recent seasons. They’ll win a few conference games (.500 in-conference, yet again) but suffer some head-scratching losses along the way (Troy? At home?).

At least Bobby Reid is Mike Gundy's man - except for the fact that 1) Zac Robinson is the QB and 2) Mike Gundy is a damn loon. Other than that, he's totally right. Robinson put up 2,364 yards and a 19/8 ratio – along with another 757 yards and 7 TDs on the ground, so he did well for himself. Still, in this offense the QB is going to put up numbers anyway, and if you're looking for an offensive problem blame WR Adarius Bowman going and getting himself injured, since that means Dez Bryant (who?) is now the #1 WR. On the ground, Dantrell Savage has been a beast, running for 100 yards in all but the first game of the year with 8 TDs to boot. If you're looking for a defensive problem you can probably get away with blaming the team, though.

So yeah, pick your poison with the Oklahoma State defense. Do you like the nearly 30 ppg allowed? How about 154 yards per game on the ground? What about allowing 292 yards a game in the air – turning every QB that plays them into Andre Woodson? The good news is that they do a half-decent job of getting to the QB (21 sacks), but the bad news is that unless it’s the QB, the front 7 will have issues getting in the backfield (64 tackles for loss).

Keys to Victory:
1: Limit the non-James Hardy players on offense. Hardy is simply a beast, and because the pass defense rhymes with “mucks”, I don’t expect them to be able to shut Hardy down. What they can do is shut down his other WRs, as both Andrew Means and Ray Fisher aren’t anything worth calling home over. Indiana doesn’t do much on the ground; QB Kellen Lewis is their leading rusher, for god’s sake. OSU should be able to take care of that.

2: Accurate passes. Indiana’s pass D allows nearly a 61% completion rate, but they also have an 18/18 ratio. They’ll take chances to make a big play on D if they can; CB Tracy Porter has 6 INTs on the season and CB Christopher Phillips has returned one for a TD, so Robinson will need to be on target with his throws.

3: Run it like it’s going out of style. Indiana’s rush defense isn’t great at all – not only do they allow 3.73 ypc anyway, that balloons to 4.42 ypc against winning teams. Also of note: Illinois, who runs a similar offense, ran for 288 yards against the Hoosiers. I’m not saying they need to do exactly what Illinois did, I’m …wait, I am saying they need to do just that. Savage and Robinson should be able to have big days on the ground.

The Music City Bowl: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

As I’ve gone through the bowl season looking at more games, I'm struck with a less-than-satisfactory conclusion: a lot of these games suck. Sure, some of them happen to be entertaining, but that's as much a function of two bad teams happening to gel at the right moment as it is two teams actually being good.

Of course, sometimes you end up with two teams playing but only one team actually being even decent. (This year, we call that the Emerald Bowl.) Those type of bowls are often clunkers; sure, sometimes the 25-point dog keeps it close for a bit to make it actually look like a contest, but it's just as likely they'll fold like deck chairs on the Titanic. It's even rarer that you'll actually see two good teams pitted against each other; even though that's ostensibly the whole point of the bowl season, it actually rarely happens. Heck, even the bowls that are supposed to be good don't have that happen every year (I'm looking at you, Orange Bowl).

What's the point of all this navel gazing? Because the Music City Bowl might've qualified for the 2nd level of bowl game before Florida State went and got its whole damn team suspended; now I'm halfway expecting the bowl to rescind its invitation and bring in someone more deserving - Appalachian State comes to mind. Seriously - FSU was going to have a tough fight on its hands anyway, and now it goes and decides to give itself a degree of difficulty? Way to go.

Kentucky (by Coach Pendley)

Kentucky’s already theoretically high-scoring offense added another touchdown this year to actually become high-scoring at 33.7points per game. QB Andre Woodson went from early-season Heisman contender to the leading passer in the SEC with a 36/10 ratio and over 3,300 yards passing on the season. His targets have been a combination of WR Keenan Burton (62 ypg, 6 TDs), WR Steve Johnson (77.3 ypg, 11 TDs), WR Dicky Lyons Jr. (48.1 ypg, 7 TDs), and TE Jacob Tamme (48.7 ypg, 5 TDs), so there’s some matchup problems to be found. When healthy, RB Rafael Little has been effective; however, he fought through some nagging injuries during the regular season. If he gets hurt, there’s not much on the ground; Derrick Locke and Tony Dixon aren’t much to call home about.

Kentucky’s non-existent defense was still not there this year, as they still allowed nearly 30 ppg this year. Their secondary was the only good thing about them, allowing just over 200 ypg in the air with a 23/15 ratio. They’re pretty much ineffective at getting into the backfield for either sacks (23 on the season) or tackles for loss (65 on the season). So that’s about the long and short of it – great on offense, shoddy on defense.

Keys to Victory:
1: 60% completion rate. Florida State’s defense will put them in a position to win if they can hold their opponents to under a 55% completion percentage (5-1 when that happens, 2-4 when it doesn’t). Aim for 60% to be safe – considering Woodson’s season completion percentage is 63%, this shouldn’t be too hard to do.

2: Make Florida State regret being smart about suspending players. Yeah, they should’ve suspended players without a doubt, but considering that most of the D-line rotation, a couple of LBs, and CB Patrick Robinson (6 INT) are all out – obviously among others – it’s almost like Kentucky has free rein to be a prick about things. I’d almost want Kentucky to adopt a ground-intensive gameplan; since the Seminoles won’t have any depth, grinding it out early means they’ll start getting huge runs in the 4th quarter.

3: Lock down Carr and Fagg. Drew Weatherford will be the Noles’ only QB this game, so if the Wildcats can lock down at least one of his favorite targets – especially Carr – that’ll make the win much easier. Of course, Carr is a 6’6” beast and even has a play named after him in the FSU playbook – “Jumpball Carr.” Okay, maybe he doesn’t, but that seems like half the plays to him.

Florida State (by Coach Lawrence)

FSU’s season started off with so much promise. Before the opening kickoff, they destroyed UCLA in the 2006 Emerald Bowl and then fired offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden. Check and check. Okay, so an opening loss to Clemson was tough... but they stood at 4-1 a month later. Really only the Miami game was an unacceptable loss, although Wake Forest was certainly a disappointment. Okay, another 7-5 season. At least it was a one game improvement despite a schedule with four road games against ranked teams.

But in the wake of a major academic cheating scandal, the Noles have suspended 36 players, including 18 from the 2-deep roster. Basically, Weatherford, Carr, and Fagg will all be playing and they’d better play damn well. I’ve never seen anything like this, but no sympathy for a team where cheating was that rampant. From Bowden to the other coaches to the other players, somebody should have known and put a stop to it before things snowballed. Two players from both the offensive and the defensive lines will be missing, both TEs, the leading interceptions cornerback, and a starting linebacker. It’s not hopeless, but this is basically what USC was facing when they lost to Stanford, and Stanford is no Kentucky nor for that matter does FSU have the depth of USC.

Keys to Victory:
1) Get on the same page. Each unit will be starting at least four new players and the subs may not have much game time. Illegal formations, false starts, miscommunication... that stuff will kill you in a game like this.

2) Weatherford, Carr, and Fagg must carry the team with leadership and yardage. The offense may not be as well-oiled (lol) and the defense may give up some plays. These three need monster games to keep the score close and they need to do everything else to keep the team moving forward. Particularly Weatherford – this is his team today.

3) Bowden needs to earn that paycheck with the pre-game and halftime speeches of his life. Let’s be honest, of everyone going to the bowl game (that is, aside from the suspended players themselves), the head coach gets the lion’s share of the blame for the systemic cheating that has left FSU in this situation. He’s going to need to say something to get the team he does have available fired up to play to 100% of their potential – they’re playing against a rather large handicap with literally half the team missing.

The Sun Bowl: Oh, What Might Have Been...

For some reason, I always think the Sun Bowl is less exciting than what it actually is. On the surface, it doesn’t look that fun: pick a slightly disappointing team from the Pac-10 and the Big East, stick ‘em in Arizona, and see what happens. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. And yet, it is – as long as you hate defense. It’s seen some wild games, including last year’s 39-38 Oregon State win. Matter of fact, since 1999 only 2 games have had a margin of victory greater than a TD, and the lowest number of points scored in that timeframe was 20.

Of course, this year doesn’t look like it’ll be as much fun … right? After all, it involves an Oregon team that lost its first two starting QBs and went into an offensive shelll down the stretch – they rebounded a bit against Oregon State, but the damage was already done. On the other hand, South Florida has yet to show an actual passing game in its entire history. However, both teams rank among the top 10 in the nation in tackles for loss, meaning we should see a lot of blown-up plays and defensive momentum. If you’re into that sort of thing, this game should be a blast for you – but you may want to look elsewhere if you want offensive showdowns and lots of firepower. This game may disappoint you.

South Florida (by Coach Lawrence)

In just their sixth season of division I-A football, the South Florida Bulls sent notice that they would be back with a mission in 2007, winning their 2006 season finale on the road over then-top 5 West Virginia and dominating the Bowl en route to a 9-4 finish. The 2007 season looked to be an historic one for the school – a two easy victories sandwiching a road upset over Auburn made the Bulls 3-0 going into their showdown with WVU. A pick-six by defensive leader Ben Moffit and a 55 yard TD bomb to freshman addition (and eventual leading receiver) Carlton Mitchell gave the Bulls a quick 14-0 lead, and the rest of the game was merely denying the Mountaineers a comeback bid with their ferocious defense. Two weeks later, the Bulls annihilated UCF and Kevin Smith for a 6-0 start and the nation’s #2 ranking.

Whether the gas ran out or they didn’t know how to deal with success, the Bulls were upset in consecutive road games against Rutgers and Connecticut before the season hit a low point, a home loss to Cincinnati. But the Bulls turned it around to finish the season with three straight conference wins in which they scored an impressive 48 ppg. None of those three teams will be bowling this winter, but hey whatever.

Defense is where it starts for the Bulls, so let’s lookee there. USF has a very active front seven, with senior LB Ben Moffit leading the team emotionally and in solo tackles while finishing second in total tackles (94) and tackles for loss (12). Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie leads the team in tackles, but it’s sophomore lineman George Selvie whose 31.5 tackles for loss are the consistent drive-killers. The defensive backfield may be the strength of the all-around impressive unit, intercepting 23 passes while allowing just 17 TDs and a QB rating just over 102. Trae Williams leads the team with six interceptions and has returned three of those for touchdowns.

Offensively, this is Matt Groethe’s team. While most would categorize him as a dual threat QB, he is in fact a triple threat – throwing, running, and turning the ball over (the threat to his own team). On the one side, he is the team’s leading rusher at just under 70 ypg to compliment 206 ypg passing. On the other, his TD:INT ratio is a mere 13:12, and in that three game losing streak he threw for two scores and seven picks. But if we throw out those three losses as a temporary rut, we see that for the rest of the season he has a healthy 139.7 QB rating and 62.3% completion percentage. So much of how this team does comes down to how this kid plays. Freshman back Mike Ford chips in 58 ypg rushing and four receivers average between 30 and 45 ypg receiving.

Keys to Victory:
1) Matt Groethe must play well. Every passing statistics – TD:INT, QB rating, completion percentage, etc – is like night and day in victory versus defeat. It’s not enough for Groethe merely to not kill his own team; he must provide the bulk of their offense with his arm and his legs. It’s a fine line between playing smart and playing too conservative, and every game the offense asks him to find the right balance. Do it one more time.

2) Force turnovers. In nine wins, USF has forced an outstanding 35 turnovers. That’s four per game; no wonder they’ve won those! Since losing Dennis Dixon, Oregon has averaged 3 turnovers per game, mostly interceptions. One of the NCAA’s elite secondaries will have excellent opportunities to confuse a pair of unseasoned QBs into a few easy TOs. I would say 2 is the magic number here – two or more INTs, and USF is in a good position to win.

3) The focus of the entire front seven must be to stop J-Stew. At least two linebackers, if not all three, should be dedicated to clogging the running lanes while the d-line needs to be filling their gaps more than pressuring the QB. Again, year-long stats are out the window with the Ducks. Against Oregon State (when they lose but scored 31), Stewart had 162 yards rushing on 39 carries. In offensively pedestrian losses to Arizona and UCLA, Stewart totaled 164 yards on 41 carries… and subtracting the three drives Dixon played against UA, that’s only 106 yards on 34 carries. Three games is a small sample to judge from, but it’s reasonable to say that without Dixon in the lineup, UO becomes a team who will lean heavily on their star RB.

Oregon (by Coach Pendley)

What could’ve been had Dennis Dixon stayed healthy. An incredibly promising 8-1 start had really only one warning sign: Dixon was playing hurt. It wasn’t anything terrible, but he was definitely banged up. Most of Oregon’s major hurdles had been cleared, including a victory over Pac-10 title contender USC and a game against Cal decided by – literally – the bounce of a football. Of course, they had already completely destroyed Michigan in their house before conference play even began and ran up 339 yards against eventual 8-game winner Houston. All Oregon had to do was beat Arizona and UCLA – two middling Pac-10 teams – in order to be set up with a final deciding game against Oregon State to make it to the title game.

But …yeah, that Arizona game didn’t exactly go as planned; Dixon tore his ACL and Arizona rode that – along with an excellent first-half D – to a large enough margin to hold off UO, as Brady Leaf couldn’t lead the team back for the win. And then Leaf went down, causing the offense to completely crater against UCLA, no mean feat considering that even Notre Dame was able to ring up points against their D. Closing out the season was a close loss to rival Oregon State, and an 8-1 dream season turned into …well, a Sun Bowl berth.

Once Dixon went down, the team’s success was largely predicated on its defense. They were one of the best teams in the country at both getting to the QB with 35.5 sacks on the season (although I don’t know how they ended up with only half a sack; did an O-lineman fall on him or something?) and at tackles for loss with 112 – over 9 a game. Oregon also has a +5 turnover margin on the season – although it should be noted that margin was at +9 before Dixon went down. Still, the Oregon State game had a couple of good signs to it; Oregon only turned the ball over once compared to 4 times each during the Arizona and UCLA games.

So what can the Ducks do on offense now? Well, they can set up an automatic handoff machine to go to Jonathan Stewart, who’s run for nearly 1,500 yards on the season on just over 21 carries a game. WR Jaison Williams is the team’s leading receiver with 804 yards receiving and 7 TDs. That’s about it, as both QBs who will take snaps in this game are a little ….um, unseasoned.

Keys to Victory:
1: Protect the QB. Whether it’s Justin Roper or Cody Kempf – let’s hope for Oregon’s sake it’s the former – under center, it’ll be critical to Oregon’s success to keep him upright. That’s definitely easier said than done, as South Florida has 29 sacks on the season. Roper should be able to make plays, provided he can stay upright and …

2: Keep USF’s defense from setting up shop in your backfield. That begins with consistently stopping wrecking-crew DL George Selvie, who has 31.5 TFL on the year, and extends to at least LB Ben Moffitt (12 TFL), DL Aaron Harris (9 TFL), and LB Tyrone McKenzie (7 TFL). Winning the game means stopping at least three of those guys, preferably including Selvie in that group. As an extension of this, Stewart will need to be able to make adjustments when needed to avoid big play losses.

3: Set up shop in USF’s backfield. QB Matt Grothe is a legitimate two-way threat, but he’s still a slightly better runner than he is a passer at this point. Mike Ford isn’t great, but South Florida also lets a lot of plays into the backfield (6.75 per game). If USF starts to fear running the ball early then the DBs will be free to cover and make plays.

4: Win the red zone battle. Both USF and Oregon are excellent at avoiding TDs when their opponent gets into the red zone (both at under 50% for the year), but while Oregon has been getting into the end zone 63% of the time, USF is only at 59%. It’s not a huge difference, but one TD traded for a FG could make all the difference.

Saturday, December 29

MPC Computers Bowl: Happy almost-New Year from the Blue Turf

Bowl games are normally a time for teams to celebrate the season - take a couple of weeks off enjoy the extra game that comes with a successful season. There's a lot of beautiful, warm places that hold bowls - Hawaii, San Diego, Miami, New Orleans, etc. - so there's no reason to think that the teams involved won't enjoy themselves.

And then there's the two teams that shove off to Boise, Idaho. I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea, large stadium with blue turf or no. This is more of a punishment for those teams that were either too good or too bad to make it to a bowl that actually mattered. Sure, the date of the bowl (December 31st) is at least kind of a big deal, and the matchups are normally entertaining, but if the main benefit of the bowl is "at least the guys have time to get someplace warm for New Year's", it's probably not a good sign for the lifespan of your bowl. The fact that the bowl in the wild blue yonder is called the Humanitarian Bowl is …well, irony.

This was one of the many bowls that fell victim to the massive overnaming of bowls; the MPC Computer bowl matchup in Boise, Idaho only makes me confident in their ability to ineffectively advertise. That’s it. Fortunately for them, the last three games have all been decided by a touchdown or less.

Georgia Tech (by Coach Lawrence)

A 35 point outburst in last season’s Gator Bowl against West Virginia looked to be a vision of things to come in the post-Reggie Ball era at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets started this season by giving Notre Dame their first loss ever in the Jimmy Clausen-era, 33-3. Clearly a great team, they went on to beat Samford 69-14. Eventually, though, things went like they always do at GT. No real QB, 1-4 record against ranked teams, 7-5 overall. Tarshard Choice leads a rushing attack that averages 202 ypg but Taylor Bennett fell off after the first two games, having a QB rating of 104 (6 TD, 9 INT) and just 182 passing ypg for the team. A +70 ypg differential has been largely offset by a -4 TO margin for the season.

Defensively, Georgia Tech is excellent against the run, allowing 100 ypg and just 2.8 ypc. Indeed, in victory GT outrushes the opposition 261-71! Senior linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Gary Guyton and junior tackle Vance Walker lead a defense that has 110 tackles for loss on the season (9/game). With Tech, it comes down to controlling the line and pounding the ball with their all-conference RB.

Keys to Victory:
1) Run, run, run. In seven wins, GT averages 261 yards rushing and 5.4 ypc. In five losses, those numbers drop to 120 ypg and 3.6 ypc. That’s an absolutely huge difference in both categories; this is in fact going to be one of the key stats determining the outcome of this bowl game. Tech needs to have several run packages ready so that they can counter a Fresno gameplan that will undoubtedly be focused on stopping Choice.

2) Not ironically, stop the run. While the raw numbers aren’t as big either way, GT does give up twice as many rushing ypg in losses than in wins. For Fresno, Tom Brandstater has not been able to fill the shoes of Paul Pinegar, and like GT the Bulldogs run for 248 yards per game in victories and just 112 in defeat. (in fact, they pass for more yards in losses than in wins – due to not preferring that playstyle). GT has one of the top 3 front sevens in the ACC (BC, VT); this group needs to win their battles.

3) Don’t let Bennett lose it! Would anybody be surprised that GT has thrown 8 interceptions in 5 losses, with a 48% completion percentage in those games (it’s not much better – just over 50% - in victories). I’d actually avoid throwing in “obvious passing” situations, just run draws or something. If the defense sees this coming, Tech fans may be hoping it’s merely incomplete. Throwing the ball should be done on playactions and second and short.

Fresno State (by Coach Pendley)

Fresno State has built its reputation on willing to play the mid-major and true-major major teams at their house without requiring a return game. It’s not a bad idea – they’ve done surprisingly well doing that, and I actually kind of like it for both teams involved. A win over Fresno State looks – at first glance – like a solid victory no matter the season simply because of their reputation, and the payouts are normally solid enough for Fresno that they do an excellent job of keeping their facilities funded. It also gives them a bonus – intentional or not – of getting some free attention for recruiting.

This method works even better if they actually win their road games, but taking TAMU to the limit (and arguably winning the game before a questionable call decided it) was nearly good enough. Getting blown out by Oregon wasn’t, but beating Kansas State isn’t terrible. They were the third-place team in WAC play, behind the twin powers of Hawaii and Boise State; Fresno lost to both of those teams (played Hawaii within a TD at Hawaii, no mean feat) but beat everyone else in-conference.

On offense, QB Tom Brandstater has matured this year, but he’s not quite at the level of former Fresno QBs. Yes, that does mean he’s not as good as David Carr, but we’re talking the college version (good) and not the pro one (Akili Smith-esque). He and his 14/5 ratio will return next year. The running game is of the two-headed beast variety, with freshman RB Ryan Matthews and sophomore RB Lonyae Miller combining for 1,431 yards and 21 TDs. They led Fresno State to a staggering 4.70 yards per carry.

As for the Fresno State defense, it could be accurately characterized as “11 chickens running around with their heads cut off.” The pass defense is solid, although they showed an astounding inability to pick off passes (only 3 on the year). The run defense? Well, let’s not talk about that – 192 yards a game, 5 yards a carry, etc. The good news is that they seemed to do better with conventional rushing attacks than they did spread / spread run option-type attacks, although Boise State still rolled them for 282 yards.

Not surprisingly, Fresno State is -9 on the season in turnovers; giving up 21 on the season isn’t terrible, but when your defense simply refuses to actually take the ball it puts the team in an awkward position of not affording mistakes. The impressive part of consistently losing the turnover battle is that Fresno is still averaging 31:30 with the ball.

Keys to Victory:
1: Stop Tashard Choice. I’m not even above a cheap shot – although I don’t openly support the idea of a cheap shot, if a D-lineman happens to “accidentally” not hear the whistle, what can I do about it? Get better helmets. Seriously though, stopping Choice will basically kill Tech’s offense, and forcing the game into Taylor Bennett’s hands is a good thing. He’s no Reggie Ball, but nobody’s going to confuse him with a good QB anytime soon.

2: Season averages for Matthews and Miller. While that sounds pretty simple, Georgia Tech only allows 100 yards per game on the ground. Even if nobody else gets any yardage, Matthews and Miller will have combined for 120 yards, which is significant against a team who’s only allowed 2 teams to top 120 yards.

3: Keep Brandstater upright. Georgia Tech’s D didn’t lead the nation in sacks because they played Notre Dame; they excel in harrying the QB to the point of distraction. This will be GT DC Jon Tenuta’s last game there, so he’s going to try and go out with a flurry. I don’t expect Fresno to keep Brandstater’s jersey clean, but if they can limit the sacks to less than three and avoid hurries and unnecessary hits, the O-line will have done their job.

Chic Fil-A Bowl: Tigers and Tigers and Tigers, oh my

The Peach – wait, Chick-fil-A – Bowl is pretty well established. It’s held the spot of “Last Bowl of the Year” for at least a few years now; not only is it on the 31st of December, it also starts the latest. While it’s supposed to match up some of the upper-divisional finishers in both the ACC and SEC, the games have been total blowouts more often than not. Witness Maryland’s dismantling of Tennessee back in ’02 and Matt Flynn leading a LSU team to complete annihilation of Miami three years later. (You can also look at 2003, 2004, 2000, 1999, etc.) Of course, there was also the Virginia Tech / Georgia game last year, which looked like a blowout for a while until the Bulldogs woke up.

This year is shaping up like so many years past, which is surprising given the current state of the ACC (largely crappy, with the obvious exception of Virginia Tech and the possible exceptions of Boston College, Virginia, and Clemson). Fortunately, one of the debatably good ACC teams is playing in this game against what’s likely the SEC’s ugliest team. Auburn plays a nasty game on offense highlighted by an ineffective and often-injured QB and a two-pronged rushing attack. On the other side, Clemson has once again fielded an excellent offense but the defense – and the effort – has been questionable at times. Still, it should at least be an interesting game, but it’d be better if it was called the Peach Bowl. Damn sponsors.

Clemson (by Coach Pendley)

With the graduation of QB Will Proctor last year, everyone was figuring on the Clemson offense turning to a ground-based assault. However, that was definitely not the case – new QB Cullen Harper has been more effective than his predecessors. He’s more of a pocket passer than either Proctor or Charlie Whitehurst, but that’s not a mark against him at all. Considering he has both James Davis and CJ Spiller in the backfield with him, he doesn’t need to do much else other than serve as a pocket passer. When he does pass, he’ll get the ball to Aaron Kelly, who was the only ACC receiver over 1,000 yards on the season – and the only one with more than 10 receiving TDs. Tyler Grisham is the #2 after Jacoby Ford’s injury; Grisham is solidly in the “just good enough to make you think twice about doubling Kelly” category.

Still, it’s not as much fun to talk about the passing game, because I have a thing for two-back backfields – and this one is arguably the second-best in the country behind Arkansas. Davis is the bruising, every-down back and CJ Spiller is the super-duper change of pace back. I hate comparing them to the McFadden / Jones combo, but if you haven’t seen these guys, Davis is about 85% McFadden and Spiller is about 90% Jones. Considering the headaches those guys cause, this isn’t a totally unflattering comparison, as Clemson’s offense would probably be effective with a Weeblie under center. (Arkansas has tried that, with semi-effective results.)

But what about the other side of the ball? They have a solid rush D, allowing only 112 yards per game, including no teams rushing for over 100 yards in the second half of the year. Their pass defense is 13th in the country – tops in the ACC – allowing only 185 yards per game through the air and an 11/15 ratio. Heck, they’re +12 in turnover margin, too.

So how the hell did they lose three games? Well, they played ranked teams – and apparently seeing a number next to a team’s name kills the running game. They only averaged 1.03 yards per carry in their losses… and those teams were not coincidentally the three best rushing defenses in the ACC. Pass production is down (28/2 ratio in wins, 2/4 in losses), turnover margin dies (+15 in wins, -3 in losses); in other words, they just don’t do anything right.

Keys to Victory:
1: D-line run penetration. Auburn’s pass blocking and passing game aren’t stellar, so I expect Clemson to be able to put pressure on the Tigers’ O-line when QB Brandon Cox drops back to pass. However, it’ll be critical for them to marginalize either RB Ben Tate or RB Brad Lester; neither guy is a true #1 at this point in time yet, but they’re both 1.5-type backs, meaning they can be effective but they’ll likely need help to reach their true potential. Penetration begins at the defensive line, and forcing the backs to make decisions before reaching the line of scrimmage will reap benefits both early and late.

2: Offensive balance. I don’t know if this is Tommy Bowden’s fault or if it rests with the OC, but Clemson has turned into more of a pass-happy team than they probably should given their personnel. Auburn will be perfectly content to milk every second of clock they can on the offensive side of the ball, so if Clemson can keep the ball out of their hands and in the hands of Davis and Spiller, it’ll work in their favor. Spiller and Davis are both better than Auburn’s backs, so it’ll be critical for them to be effective when they get the ball – and they should be getting the ball a lot. I’d like to see a 60% run / 40% pass split; anything on the wrong side of 50/50 should be avoided. (They’ve averaged 45% run / 55% pass on the season.) Another reason to run the ball more: Auburn only allows 5.8 yards per attempt and has only given up 11 TD passes to 14 INTs on the season.

3: Exploit the two-back sets. Auburn will have seen them before, but they’ve also seen Arkansas’s setup, not Clemson’s. Using both Davis and Spiller in the same formation should create results, even if it’s Bowden decides not to use them in running situations, keeping Davis in and sending Spiller out should cause some results. They both require their own gameplan, so the more complex they make Auburn’s defense, the more likely someone will miss their assignment. It’ll also help if they ignore Auburn’s run defense, which only allows 119 yards per game – and 3.48 yards per carry.

Auburn (by Coach Lawrence)

From 2004-06, the Auburn Tigers compiled a 33-5 record including 2-1 in January bowl games. The Tigers have always featured a tough defense, but since losing a trio of offensive stars from their unbeaten team in the first round of the NFL draft in 2005 they have been inconsistent on that side of the ball (13.2 ppg in 5 losses).

The 2007 season began with a disastrous start – losing back to back home games against South Florida and Mississippi State. The Tigers responded winning four in a row and six of their final eight, losing only to a pair of BCS teams, LSU and Georgia. While the Georgia game was a blowout, Aubie came within seconds of beating LSU, who won it on their last pass of the game in a back and forth 4th quarter.

Statistically, Auburn is not a terribly impressive team. Behind tailback duo Brad Lester and Ben Tate, the Tigers rack up 154 ypg rushing but give up 119. Brandon Cox’s QB rating is a mere 117... 173 yards per game through the air and a ghastly 9:12 TD:INT ratio. If the offense did a little better, they’d be in better position to take advantage of a defense that holds opposing QBs to 179 yards and a 107 rating (11 TD, 14 INT).

While Lester and Tate are a pretty solid backfield (and Cox may be underrated), the receiver position is in trouble. Only Rodgeriqus Smith (4.0 cpg, 55.0 ypg) averages over 30 ypg in receptions! This has allowed teams to stack 8 or 9 in the box and just blitz without hesitation in holding the Tigers to under 4 yards a carry.

Powers and Lee anchor the secondary with 4 INTs apiece; the defensive back four are a scary group who have allowed more passing TDs than INTs in just three games – two of those being LSU and Georgia. In fact LSU is the only team who’s thrown 3 TD passes against this group. This forces teams to look to the ground, and remember that this defense also held Arkansas to 67 yards rushing. Again it was LSU and Georgia who had success, as balance is clearly needed to best this group.

Keys to Victory:
1. Frustrate the Clemson rushing attack. The other Tigers have this really strange offensive play that they like to run a lot. I call it “giving the ball to someone other than James Davis or CJ Spiller.” I don’t know why they do it, but they do it a lot, and they lose games because of it... let me tell you a story called “56 touches combined in their three losses” that includes stunning chapters like “12 rushes for Davis & Spiller, 11 rushes for Harper to get killed by Va Tech.” It’s a tragic tale of human stupidity that would leave Mack Brown wondering what they were thinking. Seems like if you stuff the big two for the first 10 minutes, Clemson kinda forgets that they exist.

2. Keep running. Not only does this get the ball out of Cox’s hands, but the key stat against Clemson seems to be rushing attempts, not yards per carry (which is exactly the same for their defense in wins and in losses). Auburn’s offensive stats and Clemson’s defensive averages make it look like yards will come slowly, but if Tate and Lester can get about 20 carries each they should be in good shape.

That’s really what Auburn needs to win. If Harper’s throwing against this secondary, I like their chances of giving up 17 points or less. Tate and Lester should be able to pound out 20 points, assuming Byrum makes his field goals (76% accuracy).

The Armed Forces Bowl: soldiers-in-training vs hippies

I’m kind of glad to see the Armed Forces Bowl actually …y’know, have a team from the armed forces playing in it. My theory is that’s going to be a one-time thing, a fluke spawned by Air Force having a pretty good year. It’s not like it happened before – the only team even kind of close to a service academy is …Houston? Maybe? With the head coaching change at Navy, it may be a little while before we see any team other than Air Force in a bowl, so it’ll balance out. Maybe.

Can someone explain to me why the second-place team from the Pac-10 plays on the 27th of December but the 5th-place team plays on the 31st? I don’t care about bowl prestige and/or whether or not people actually care about the bowls; it just looks really goofy to see a possible BCS contender serving as the functional opening act of bowl season. It’s like throwing a middleweight championship match on as the first bout of a card and having an amateur match at the #2 fight.

California (by Coach Pendley)

If I was going to preview this team properly, I’d write about 3,000 words on their season history and their players and about 25 on actual strategy. It’s impressive to see a team basically self-destruct on itself without really any impetus; they held an excellent win over Oregon (which seemed bigger at the time than what it turned out to be), but that was about it once the second half of the season rolled around. Lose to USC, lose to Arizona State, lose to Stanford – heck, by the Transitive Property of Football, they’re worse than Notre Dame! That’s got to sting a bit.

Still, it’s not like they’re not talented on both sides of the ball. QB Nate Longshore is an excellent talent; he’s a drop-back pocket passer who theoretically has a good grasp on head coach Jeff Tedford’s offense. He ended up throwing for over 2,500 yards and 16 TDs, but the 13 picks were a killer – including 10 in the losses. In addition to that, his ratios bit it over the last three months of the year; from September on, he threw 9 TDs to 11 INTs.

RB Justin Forsett probably does miss his old backfield mate Marshawn Lynch a bit, but Forsett excelled in limited duties last year and he’s done an excellent job stepping up to the plate this year as well. He finished 2nd in the Pac-10 with 1,406 yards rushing and 13 TDs, and unlike Longshore, didn’t totally tank once September rolled around; he averaged 5.14 ypc in October.

WR Desean Jackson looked like a Heisman contender early in the season (helped on by his punt return TD against the Vols in the season opener for both teams), but nagging injuries derailed his productivity. Heck, WR Lavelle Hawkins finished with more yards (841 to 681), more yards per catch (12.19 to 11.35), and more receptions per game (5.8 to 5.5) than Jackson.

As for the Cal rush D, it was like the rest of the team – good in September (3.62 ypc), horrid in November (4.98 ypc). The passing game was a little more respectable; it actually showed an improvement as the year went on, but while the yards per attempt stayed virtually constant (hovering around 6.4 yards per attempt), the number of attempts went way down – probably because teams were gouging them on the ground.

Hell, even their turnovers followed the same path - +11 in September, -5 in October, -6 in November, -1 in December. Red zone opportunities were way down (24 in September was more than the other three months combined) as was TD conversion percentage (70% in September to around 55% at all other times). So yeah, the gameplan should be pretty obvious – play like it’s September, not November.

Keys to Victory:
1: Shake off the second half. There’s a reason this team opened at 5-1, and it will do the Golden Bears a world of good to remember why they were that good to open the season. Yeah, I suspect that the losing probably snowballed a bit as the season wore on, but that’s one of the many reasons why the bowl games are so far after the end of the year. Cal is unquestionably a more talented team than Air Force; if they play like it they’ll win handily.

2: Play against either the new offense or the old offense, but not both. Air Force’s new head coach Troy Calhoun is trying to install more of a spread-based offense, but he has old HC Fisher Deberry’s personnel in starting roles. As a result, Air Force’s offense is kind of a mix of the two schemes – dangerous when working, but likely to be only firing half the time. (Only a handful of offenses can do both at once, West Virginia’s chief among them.) Cal can’t defend both the spread and the option at the same time, so if they focus against one and only one at a time, they’ll limit Air Force’s effectiveness. It’ll likely be easier for them to defend against the option and leave the corners on an island. Playing, say, a modified Cover-3 and sending a corner across to challenge the option is only going to result in headaches for the defense.

That’s about it, really. If Cal plays like they should they’ll win the game, but their defense has to play smart too – easier said than done.

Air Force (by Coach Lawrence)

After bring bowl eligible every season from 1994 through 2003, Air Force had suffered three straight losing seasons coming into 2007. Following a weird win over TCU and consecutive losses to BYU and Navy, that academy’s season looked like it could go either way. The Falcons rose to the occasion, winning 6 of their final 7 including being the last team who was able to defeat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. At 9-3, this is their best regular season finish since 1998, when the Falcons won the Oahu Classic bowl to finish 12-1.

As we’d expect from a service academy, Air Force relies on a complex triple option offense. Three players, including QB Shaun Carney, average 9+ carries and 44+ yards per game. The leading rusher is wingback Chad Hall, at 17.5 carries and 118 yards a game. Overall, AFA runs the ball an average of 55 times per game, with just over 16 pass attempts to compliment that. As we’d also expect, the Falcons are a little undersized on the defensive line (avg wt 260) and get high productivity from the linebackers and secondary – 4 LBs and 3 DBs combine to be the leading seven tacklers. But the defensive performance is adequate, giving up 131 ypg rushing and 226 ypg passing.

As far as meaningful statistics, look no further than the offensive rushing totals. In nine wins, 333 yards/game and 5.7 ypc... in three losses, 194 ypg and 4.4 ypc.

Keys to Victory
1) Open up the offense. Without much of a passing game, it’s difficult to move the ball down the field 5 yards at a time. The triple option needs big plays, and Chad Hall is the man to provide those IF he can find space. Forcing the defense to play everything honestly will give him more opportunities to bust a big one, as they will be keying on him.

2) Don’t give up the deep ball. It’ll be tempting to send 8 to try to stop Forsett, but quick TD passes to Jackson and Hawkins are exactly what the AFA doesn’t need. When you’re a running team, you don’t want to give up quick scores which can really put pressure on your offense to respond.

3) Proper fundamentals and decision-making on the toss. Running option is of course a big risk of turnovers... and the AFA has fumbled 6 times in 3 losses compared to just 7 times in 9 wins. Frankly, that’s damn impressive to run the ball 55 times at all and average less than one fumble per game (in their victories), but to do that while running that many option plays is just amazing. Even their overall total – 13 fumbles in 12 games – is impressive considering the offense. Keep it up.

Friday, December 28

The Independence Bowl: something to watch during MSL's offline qualifiers

(disclaimer: if you don’t follow Starcraft, there’s going to be some comparisons that make no sense. But this game sucks – we had to do it to keep ourselves entertained.)

The Independence Bowl holds the distinction as the post-Christmas bowl most likely to slide into the ocean without anyone really caring. It's held in that bastion of civilization known as Shreveport, LA (population: you, if you're there) and routinely features teams that would travel well if they were actually good. Instead, the teams that end up here are often the kind of teams whose seasons not only derailed, but they plowed into the town center and killed a few innocent pedestrians along the way. (Remember Nebraska playing in the snow here a few years back? Yeah, it's like that.)

Occasionally they get lucky and run across some team that should've overachieved to get to where they are, but most of the time those fans are disappointed too. Bottom line: nobody really wants to go to Shreveport. Can you blame them?

Anyway, this year's teams fall into the first category; Alabama should've gone 9-3 if you listen to their fans, but realistically 7-5 was the likeliest outcome. Saban the sAviOr needs some time to take another job, rebuild the program. That's no excuse for losing to Louisiana-Monroe, though – they’re the 910 of 1-A. On the other hand, Colorado beat Oklahoma and spent the rest of the past three months spinning its wheels. Seriously, it's like these guys shouldn't have even played the season. They started the season at .500, and that's where they are after the end of the season.

Fun fact: if Colorado wins this game, Alabama finishes the season 6-7 - the same record that got Mike Shula canned. Bet Saban won't get the same treatment.

Fun times: bring up Alabama’s bowl record from ’68 to ‘75 to a long-time fan. Then run like hell – they went 0-7-1.

Alabama (by Coach Pendley)

By the numbers, this team should probably be 8-4. Of course, by the numbers, six teams outscored them, so them's the breaks. It didn’t help that the Crimson Tide went into a crater like – fittingly – sAviOr v. Bisu, losing their last four in a row, none by more than a TD. The glass-half-full optimist will tell you that the team didn’t lose a single game by more than 7 points; he’s probably the same guy who keeps thinking Reach’s dynamite PvT is finally going to win him another starleague. Meanwhile …yeah, they lost four in a row. Thanks for showing up, guys.

QB John Parker Wilson is A) one hell of a honky and B) the fourth-leading passer in the SEC, provided you just look at his ypg. However, he has accuracy issues (54.9 completion percentage) and only a 15/11 ratio, putting him at 11th in passer rating in the SEC ahead of only MSU’s Wesley Carroll. Their running game is led by redshirt frosh Terry Grant, who averaged 4.95 ypc and scored 8 TDs. Personal favorite Jimmy Johns was a non-factor running the ball, spending most of his time blocking. The only truly dangerous player on the Crimson Tide offense is WR D.J. Hall, who was 2nd in the SEC at 78.9 ypg.

While DB Simeon Castille is the leader of the secondary, he passed the title of Ball Hawk on to Rashad Johnson, who pulled down 6 picks. DT Wallace Gilberry finally started living up to his billing, picking up 9 sacks on the season. Yardage-wise, they’re good but not great, but their peripherals aren’t spectacular – they allow 39% success on 3rd-down conversions, 65% success on 4th-down conversions, and 89% scores/possessions in the red zone.

Keys to Victory:
1: Win 3rd down. Colorado has a pitiful rate of conversions to begin with (only 34% success), so it’ll be up to Alabama to at least hold them to their season average (Colorado’s, not ‘Bama’s). They’re not a great punting team, either. On the other side of the ball, Alabama needs to get at least 40% of their conversions; if they can’t do that, then they’re putting it on the leg of P.J. Fitzgerald, who …sucks. 38.25 yards per punt.

2: Spire tech – go to the air against Colorado’s corners. Terrence Wheatley is an excellent corner (including his 5 picks on the season), but they allow 260 yards a game in the air. Their road pass D allows completions at a 60% rate, which is a full 8% better than their home D, so they can be beaten away from home. Wheatley defends Colorado’s main well, but their expansions are vulnerable; WR Matt Caddell should see some success.

3: Get it in the red zone. Yeah, I know that’s an obvious one, but as bad as Alabama’s D was in the red zone, Colorado’s was worse (91%). Since Colorado will likely score on ‘Bama once they hit the red zone, it’ll be critical to keep the scores even. Trade expansions if you have to, but they’ll need to trade the useless expos for Colorado’s valuable ones; if they can get TDs while limiting CU to FGs, that’ll add up.

Colorado (by Coach Lawrence)

With his crazy hook n ladders and assortment of other trick plays, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, aka “The Dreamer,” recently stepped up from coaching at Boise State to a position in the Big 12 powerhouse Colorado MagicNs. Okay, if you consider that to even be a lateral transfer... well, good for you. Walking into a disaster scenerio, CU didn’t have the personnel to run Hawkins’ offense and didn’t even make it out of Big 12 North group play in 2006, finishing 2-10.

If you want something done right, do it yourself... and it you’re a few decades past eligibility, bring in your son. Since Cody Hawkins came in to take over the CU quarterback position, Colorado has... scored points on offense. Yeah, I know. The scarabs are pathing better and the storms are right where they should be, as Colorado has improved their passing totals from 118 ypg (!) in 2006 to 227 this season. A 2-0 conference start with a shocking upset of Oklahoma had CU thinking golden mouse, until they lost to both Kansas teams, got 5-pooled by Missouri, and blew a close one to Iowa State. It came down to their classic rivalry game with Nebraska, neither team defended well but Colorado used a big running game, trick plays, and +3 turnovers to win a 65-51 shootout. And with that, CU advanced to the elimination... oh wait no.

This is a very creative offense, using big plays and misdirection to eek out a near 4 ypc average on the ground (Hugh Charles averages 5.4) and compliment that with an adequate if non-stellar passing game – with no 50 ypg receiver. It’s come down to turnovers – 21 takeaways and 25 giveaways... when those have happened has pretty much determined win or lose. CB Terrence Wheatley has been absolutely huge in that department, picking off five passes on the season. The other player to watch out for has been inside linebacker Jordon Dizon, seemingly involved in half the defensive plays and returning a pick the distance himself.

Keys to Victory:
1. Protect your expansions... and the ball. In 6 victories Colorado is +4 TO; in 6 losses they’re -12. When you’re not great on offense and alright but not great on defense either, that’s going to be a pretty critical stat.

2. Stork-style pressure game... go 9/10 and keep the zeals coming. Colorado simply doesn’t have the talent to go Bisu-style FE into delayed harassment against the sAviOr’s Bama team. CU has the talent at cornerback to make a few big plays on defense if Wilson’s making hurried decisions, and this will help their rush defense which has at times been manhandled by the more physical teams (165.5 ypg allowed in losses).

3. Cannon-whore! Against Bama, it’s all about your defense. Whether the Swarm... er, Tide... wins or loses, their defensive stats stay about the same against both the run and the pass. However, they run for 68 more yards in wins than in losses, and pass for 64 more yards in wins than in losses. A Big 12 team not named Oklahoma might not know much about defense (Kansas doesn’t count since they faced only one offense), but that’s what it’s going to come down to. Don’t give Bama extra possessions, and limit them on the ones they do have.

Thursday, December 27

Alamo Bowl (not Historically Based)

Some bowl games feature up-and-coming teams and excited fan bases. They play games that people will be talking about for years to come, epic tilts that end up immortalized on ESPN Classic for 25 years And then there’s clunkers like this year’s Alamo Bowl team, which includes:
- two fanbases with unrealistic team expectations, but they travel well
- two teams that couldn’t even top .500 in-conference
- two teams whose out-of-conference slate included Fresno State and the Chess Club Champions of 1-A football (plus Notre Dame)

Yes, Penn State and Texas A&M combined for a 15-9 record, but don’t think either team is good. Yes, both teams have storied histories, but one of them hasn’t even won a game on January 1st or later since 1986. And given Texas A&M’s 264.2 ypg allowed through the air, maybe they could use the 12th man on defense if the refs would agree not to flag them for it. And you just know they're going to be making fun of the Longhorns because they're playing in a later bowl game (even though it's way less prestigious).

Fun fact that’s not related to this game at all: of the 12 teams Notre Dame played, 5 of them finished in the top 20 nationally in sacks – not including Boston College, who’s 22nd. Georgia Tech (9 sacks against) and Penn State (6 sacks against) are 1-2 overall. Is that a product of great defenses or Notre Dame’s O-line – who, for completeness sake, allowed 58 sacks on the season? You make the call!

Penn State (by Coach Pendley)

Did you know that Penn State played their first football game in 1881? Yeah, Joe Paterno wasn’t on the sidelines yet, although given the map of the world currently on his face, you’d be forgiven for thinking he did. Since he’s come on board, the Nittany Lions have gone 22-10-1 in bowl games, which is impressive any way you slice it. (And yes, that includes the “who wants it less” Orange Bowl of 2006.) Of course, that’s also a nice way of saying he’s old as dirt, but: duh. He’s an excellent coach, and that really can’t be stated enough at this point, recent struggles or no.

After Austin Scott spent most of the season pissing his chance away, the rushing load was picked up by Rodney Kinlaw, who ran for 1186 yards and 10 scores. QB Anthony Morelli was excellent at home, throwing for ~1400 yards and an 11/4 ratio. (Ignore his road numbers – not great – and his hideous second half numbers, the least of which is a 4/7 ratio.) The WRs aren’t complete world-beaters, but Deon Butler, Derrick Williams, and Jordan Norwood all average between 40 and 50 yards a game.

On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s defense kept them in tons of games. They have the 8th-best scoring D in the country (allowing just under 18 points), which is helped by their 2nd-in-the-country sack squad. Also helpful: the 6th-best rushing defense – in the run-happy Big 10, holding your opponents to 2.57 ypc is impressive. Just ignore the fact that their run defense gets worse in the second half and spread / spread rush offenses gave them fits (216 yards on the ground against Illinois, 145 against Michigan State).

Keys to Victory:
1: >=3 sacks. Yeah, it sounds like a lot, but Penn State has won every game they’ve gotten to the QB at least 4 times – and lost every game they didn’t. This’ll be difficult against an Aggie team who only averages 28.8 passes a game – and has only allowed 14 sacks on the year.

2: Shake off the running QB. Steven McGee is a threat between the 20s, but it’s Jovorski Lane who’s the threat to score – 16 TDs on the year and the kid’s a beast – 6’0” and 268. McGee will cause coverage fits, but Lane will have to be stopped somehow. Actually, this Aggie team has everything that causes the PSU front seven to lose sleep – a mobile QB and a two-headed RB attack (Mike Goodson is the “normal” RB).

3: Solid second half. It’s already been documented here that the Nittany Lions seem to play worse in the second half; if they can maintain their first half production through the final 30 minutes, they’ll have an excellent chance to come out and win.

4: Hypnotize Morelli into thinking it’s a home game. While his raw stats aren’t that worse on the road – he does have more passing yards, but also another 5 attempts a game – he doesn’t look as comfortable playing in a hostile environment (PSU fans would use harsher language than that). If he thinks it’s a home game, then he should be fine. Maybe someone can pay off the PA announcer to play “Zombie Nation” after every first down or something.

Texas A&M (by Coach Lawrence)

Since their ’99 Alamo Bowl shutout defeat, A&M has gone bowling just 4 times in six seasons, compiling a 1-3 record. However, A&M appeared to turn things around last season, finishing with a 9-3 regular season mark and a win over archrival Texas before getting pummeled by Cal in the Holiday Bowl. This season didn’t look much better, losing to the hapless Miami Hurricanes and getting blown out by Texas Tech, with a string of games against the conference’s top four teams to close out their season. However, after losses to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, A&M got the win they really wanted against Texas once again, spoiling the Longhorns’ late-season momentum and propelling the Aggies into this late December bowl.

A&M does one thing well: run the ball. Their rushing defense is average, passing offense and defense below average, but they rank 13th in rushing at 215.6 ypg. Three players average over 50 ypg rushing in their option offense, led by QB Sam McGee at 71.5 ypg. Jorvorskie Lane is the bruiser-back at 268 lbs, while Mike Goodson’s speed and agility makes him the big play threat. Defensively, though, A&M gives up 4 ypc and 151 ypg rushing, and the pass defense allows a QB rating of 141.8.

Keys to Victory:
1. Spread the ball equally with the option. Penn State is too good defensively (2.5 ypc rush, #6 rushing defense at 87.9 ypg) for the Aggies to get predictable. A&M has a lot of variety in their running game and they use a traditional option of shotgun formation with two backs.

2. Set up the pass – to Goodson - with the McGee/Lane running. If you watched the Texas game, you saw Goodson clearly being their best receiver, regardless of what ypg receiving statistics may say. He is a big play threat off of the kind of passes that McGee can actually complete, and indeed he leads the team in TD receptions with 4.

3. Stack the line, force Morelli to beat you. Penn State also really likes to run the ball... I think, even if Morelli has some early success, he’s not the kind of QB who is going to score a lot of points on his own or win big games on his own. In my opinion, he was one of the most overrated QBs this preseason, and not much this season has proven me wrong (127 rating, 18 TD 9 INT). Penn State’s rushing average is 214 in wins, 134 in losses... go ahead, put 8 or 9 in the box.

Liberty Bowl - A Bowl With History

Fun fact: the Liberty Bowl is the oldest pre-Jan. 1 bowl still going. It began – fittingly – in Philly before moving to Atlantic City for a year and ending up in Memphis in 1965. In more recent times, it’s been home to some pretty good mid-major teams – most notably the mid-major BCS bowl of Louisville/Boise State back in 2004. Each of the last three has been decided by 8 points or less - Louisville/Boise St., a QB duel between Paul Smith and Paul Pinegar in 2005, and a Spurrier-style shootout victory for South Carolina last season. Of course, this game won’t be nearly as high-flying as that one was; this is the kind of game that would make old Big 10 fans proud, as neither of these teams can pass worth a damn.

Of course, this year and last year have been some mid-level SEC team facing off against a solid mid-major. Last year it wasn’t all bad, as has already been mentioned. Heck, the last three years of this bowl have all been within one score – this year could easily be the same. Fun fact: Mississippi State is 1-1 in the Liberty Bowl (6-6 overall), and UCF will play its first game in the Liberty Bowl (and second overall, losing 49-48 to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl in ’05).

University of Central Florida (Coach Lawrence)

In the previous three seasons, UCF has finished 0-11, 8-5 (bowl loss on missed PAT!), and 4-8. This season they’re 10-3, fresh off a CUSA Championship blowout of Tulsa. According to George Bush’s view, that means they’re statistically indistinguishable from a .500 team like Louisiana-Monroe... if we replayed the season they’d be just as likely to finish with a losing record. According to Al Gore’s view, at this rate they’ll be winning over 30 games per season by 2015. I mean, was anyone else terrified when Congress briefly got involved with the BCS?

Back to the Knights, there is really just one thing you need to know about this team. They are Kevin Smith. Smith averages 188 ypg rushing – 11 ypg more than the #2 guy with #3 not even visible in his rearview – and 5.9 yards a pop. If KS were his own team, he’d rank #33 in rushing offense... as it is, the Knights are 10th.

Keys to Victory:
1. Victory begins and ends with KS. Okay, that works so much better with VY. Here’s what I’m saying... but the ball in Kevin Smith’s hands time and again. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be involved in the play at least somehow (playaction is fine) unless it’s a 3rd and 40 hail mary. Even then, halfback draws have been known to bust a 50 yarder.

2. Did we mention that Mississippi State gives up 159 ypg rushing? POUND SMITH, DAMMIT!

3. Miss State also prefers to run the ball, although they’re not nearly as good at it (135 ypg avg, but 173 in victory and 82 in defeat). That’s because their QBs – all three of them – really suck. The original starter has 9 INTs and just 1 TD, and the others are a little closer to mediocre but definitely not better than that.

Mississippi State (by Coach Pendley)

Sylvester Croom is a pretty good coach. Ignore the 16-30 record; Jackie Sherrill left the Bulldogs in shreds in 2003 (and that team wasn’t any good to begin with). Croom was basically dealt a hand of crap – turn this shoddy team with recruiting sanctions into a contender in one of the toughest divisions in the country. And amazingly, he did. After three consecutive 3-8 seasons, Croom rewarded his supporters with a 7-5 record – including 4-4 in-conference with wins over Auburn, Alabama, and Kentucky. Yeah, for most teams we’ll mock them for finishing 7-5, 4-4, but that’s often because they were expected to do much better than that – nobody expected a damn thing out of this team. When Lincoln Financial shows five of your games, that’s the sign that you’re supposed to go 4-8.

Of course, things won’t get any easier in the future for this Bulldog team – if all the coaches currently in the SEC West stay on their teams (always debatable with Tuberville), Croom may be one of the worst coaches in the division come 2008. That’s not an insult, though – Les Miles, Bobby Petrino, Tommy Tuberville, Houston Nutt (with a different team), and Nick Saban will all be coaching against Croom in the division. Yikes.

The 2007 Bullldogs were greater than the sum of their parts. Their offense was abysmal – think Anthony Dixon and that’s it – and they couldn’t do much on defense either. Heck, they allowed 29 more points than they scored all year. They can’t even punt, either (averaged just under 40 yards/punt). How’d they go 7-5? As odd as it sounds, pick sixes. INT returns for TDs served as less than the margin of victory in both wins over the ‘Bama teams (Alabama and Auburn), including a 99-yarder against Alabama. What also helped MSU was only allowing scores on 72% of their opponents’ red zone possessions – and 2/14 4th down conversions.

So what players do you want to watch? On offense, Anthony Dixon rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and 13 TDs on the season facing eight in the box on most downs. Jamayel Smith and Tony Burks are the team’s leading receivers; Burks doesn’t have his ungodly 24+ ypc like he did back in 2006, but 13.75 ypc isn’t terrible. Smith and Burks form most of the passing offense, averaging about 80 ypg combined between the two. QB Wesley Carroll is way better than the rest of the dreck lining up under center for the team – I’m lookin’ at you, Michael Henig.

On defense, DBs Anthony Johnson and Derek Pegues lead the team with 3 INTs each – including 3 TD returns between the two. DL Titus Brown led the team with 8 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss on the season.

Keys to Victory:
1: Force the big play on D. UCF’s QB Kyle Israel sucks. We all know that UCF isn’t going to do much through the air, but they’ll need to punish them when they do.

2: 100 yards for Dixon. Mississippi State is 3-1 when Dixon runs for over 100 yards – heck, they’re 5-1 when he tops 84 – but it’s bowl season, so you have to top your best. UCF has the best run defense in C-USA, which is kind of like having the best New Wave haircut, but someone’s gotta be #1.

3: Limit Smith to 125. Kevin Smith is the best RB that the Bulldog D has faced all year – and yes, I’m including McFadden in that. The good news is that MSU held McFadden to under 100 yards, so holding Smith to 125 would be an achievement.