I originally planned to start this blog before bowl season to have my game analysis in print when I inevitably went perfect for the season.* That didn’t happen. Luckily, Fresno State took care of my perfect season anyway by dropping a turd in the second game of day one. More on that a bit later. Anyway, here’s a few quick thoughts on the games that have already happened, along with my picks that you’ll have to trust me on.
* Quick tangent:** I argue that bowl season is the best event in sports. Of course the first weekend of the NCAA tournament is more exciting than anything college football has to offer, but who cares about the tournament after the first weekend? Brackets are already busted and the Cinderellas are gone. At least with confidence picks in the bowl games, there’s always hope.
** And yes, this is a tribute to the great Joe Posnanski in my very first sentence. It needed to be done.
BYU 52, UTEP 24
My pick: BYU -12; BYU 32 confidence points
Sometimes these things are just too easy. BYU wins 4 of 5 to close the season (and lose by 1 to a decent Utah team on a blocked last-second field goal). UTEP loses 5 of 6 to close the season. Also, Conference USA sucks. Really sucks. I’ll have a writeup of this on my Military Bowl preview, but rule of thumb number one in bowl season: when in doubt, always go against Conference USA. They couldn’t make the spread high enough for me – BYU was a gimme. My only regret was a small bet on the under after I assumed UTEP wasn’t going to be able to score on BYU. Little did I know that a) BYU would almost cover the over by themselves, and b) UTEP would add a couple junk touchdowns after falling behind by 28.
Northern Illinois 40, Fresno State 17
My pick: Fresno State – 1 1/2; Fresno State 10 confidence points
How far has Pat Hill’s star fallen in the past couple of years? Someone needs to teach this guy the sell high, buy low principle. I distinctly recall him being mentioned as a candidate for several BCS school jobs after play-anybody-anywhere-anytime Fresno took undefeated USC to the brink of defeat in 2005. Now I can’t even imagine that his job at Fresno is safe, particularly with the move to the Mountain West Conference in two years. The Bulldogs have gone 34-33 (in the WAC!) since losing the 50-42 thriller to USC in 2005. It blows my mind that they couldn’t capitalize on the press that game received to bring in recruits. And to think Pat Hill could have had a BCS coaching job. It absolutely would have turned into a Dan Hawkins-like catastrophe, but the man could have cashed in.
Anyway, the Bulldogs are now 1-4 in bowl games since 2005. I knew this. They burned me in 2008 when they got beat by a mediocre Colorado State team in the New Mexico Bowl. They burned me in 2009 when they got beat by an awful Wyoming team in the New Mexico Bowl again. Apparently, I thought the Humanitarian Bowl would be different, because I came back for more this year. Classic overthinking. I picked Fresno because I thought Northern Illinois would struggle after Coach Kill left to Minnesota before the game. Northern Illinois relies heavily on the run and they struggled against the only decent rush defenses they played in the season; I thought Fresno could contain them fairly easily. Instead, my thinking should have followed this logic:
1. Fresno State lost to a worse team in a bowl game in 2008.
2. Fresno State lost to a far worse team in a bowl game in 2009.
3. Fresno State is even worse this year.
4. Why did it take me four steps to solve this connundrum? Just stop betting on Fresno State in bowl games. Stop. Stop now.
Troy 48, Ohio 21
My pick: Troy 8 confidence points
I liked Troy – 2 1/2 in this game, but didn’t get around to betting it. Amazing that I just didn’t give up after this day one. Anyway, this leads me to my third rule of bowl picks: if MAC and Sun Belt teams seem equal, always take the Sun Belt team. Sun Belt players are simply way faster than MAC players. I only caught bits and pieces of this game at a restaurant, but it took about eight seconds of watching before it was clear that Troy was going to dominate. Including Florida International’s win over Toledo this year, Sun Belt teams are 3-1 in bowl games over the last four years against MAC teams. The MAC’s lone win was 2009 MAC champion Central Michigan (12-2 and won eight of nine conference games by double digits) needing double overtime to beat a 9-4 Troy team. The moral of the story: MAC teams will have better overall records than Sun Belt teams, but don’t let the gaudy numbers fool you. Sun Belt teams tend to play way stronger non-conference schedules. Troy played Bowling Green, Oklahoma State, UAB, and South Carolina; Ohio played Wofford, Ohio State, and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Louisville 31, Southern Miss 28
My picks: Louisville -3, Under 60; Louisville 19 confidence points
Another anti-Conference USA pick. Southern Miss has a good offense and a terrible defense. Louisville has a good defense and a terrible offense. When in doubt, go against Conference USA. My only regret was Southern Miss jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead by catching Louisville’s D off-guard; otherwise, Louisville would have covered both the spread and hit the under.
Boise State 26, Utah 3
My picks: Boise State -17, Under 59, Boise 26 confidence points
This was a tough pick, because I actually do like Utah despite their poor showing at the end of the season. With the way the Utes were dominated by TCU and Notre Dame and their struggle to beat a mediocre BYU team, they were going to be an underdog against almost any decent team in a bowl game. I like Utah as an underdog against most teams. But Boise State is really, really good.
Chad Millman on ESPN.com had a good writeup on the motivation factor in bowls and how wiseguys were betting heavy on Utah in this game because Boise State wouldn’t be motivated. I usually agree with this, but I would argue there was a bit of reverse motivation here. The most recent example of the so-called lack of motivation argument was in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, when Utah upset 12-1 Alabama, which was coming off a loss to Florida in the SEC Championship game in what turned out to be a playoff for a berth in the National Championship game. Going into that game, it was pretty clear that, regardless of the outcome of the Utah game, fans would consider Alabama to be the third best team in the nation. The motivation factor would act as a sort-of built-in excuse for the Tide. However, in Boise’s case, they dropped all the way to 10th in the polls after losing to Nevada, falling behind 2-loss Arkansas and Oklahoma. Anyone who realistically thinks that those two teams are better than Boise hasn’t stayed up late enough to watch the Broncos play.* So it seemed to me that Boise had something to prove that Alabama didn’t in 2008. Furthermore, I would argue that non-BCS teams don’t have the lack of motivation factor in the same way that BCS teams do. If Alabama loses to Utah, it has no effect on their future years – if they finish undefeated the next season, they will be in the national championship game. A non-BCS team, on the other hand, absolutely needs to begin the next season with a high ranking in the polls if they want to make it to a BCS bowl game. A bowl win will help accomplish this. For this reason, a bowl game will almost always mean more to a non-BCS team than a BCS team, so I’m not sure the motivation factor applies nearly as much. Still, I thought they’d come out juuuust a little flat (which they did), but quickly get it together (which they did).
The under was the easier pick this game. Utah’s offense has struggled recently and backup Terrence Cain was under center. Boise’s defense is drastically underrated, particularly after they gave up 34 to Nevada. In their last eight games besides the Nevada game, the Broncos gave up a total of 69 points — about 8.5 points per game. I thought Utah would struggle to score more than a touchdown and Boise wasn’t going to cover the spread by themselves. Turns out both were true in Boise’s 23-point victory that really wasn’t even that close.
* Cue the haters: “Durrr…Boise plays a weak schedule!” To which I reply: “Have you seen Ohio State and Michigan State’s schedule this year?” Seriously, look at #6 Ohio State’s schedule. I don’t even know what the best win on that schedule is. A 3-point win over an 7-5 Iowa team? A 24-point win over 7-5 Penn State? If pressed, I’d have to say the 37-7 win over 7-5 Michigan, which was really the only game in which the Buckeyes looked dominant when playing a halfway decent team. Either way, I can’t buy the strength of schedule argument after Ohio State beat a grand total of zero teams that finished the regular season better than 7-5. Is Ohio State a very good team? Absolutely. My point is I’m tired of hearing a blanket strength of schedule argument applied against Boise when other BCS schools have opponents just as bad.
San Diego State 35, Navy 14
My picks: San Diego State -5.5, Under 58, San Diego State 12 confidence points
I tend to struggle with the service academies in bowl games, as it’s never quite clear to me how good they are with their independent schedules. How do you pick a team that dominates Notre Dame one week and then loses to Duke the next? Anyway, this was more of a pick for San Diego State than against Navy. I caught a few Aztec games this year — very fast and well-coached. The under was the easier pick. I have few rules in life. One of them is to always take the under in a game played on a flooded field after a record-setting torrential downpour. Easy money.
Tulsa 62, Hawaii 35
My picks: Hawaii – 10 1/2, Hawaii 27 confidence points
Sometimes you just have to throw your hands up after a game like this. Hawaii, a 10 1/2 point favorite at home, coming in having won nine of ten (losing only to Boise State) playing against a 9-3 Conference USA team. Granted, Tulsa had won six in a row, but four of the six were one-score games against weak competition. The analysis on this one seemed pretty simple. Both teams can pass the ball, but Tulsa can’t stop the pass and Hawaii can stop it sometimes. So of course Tulsa comes out and wins by 27. And of course my dad, meaning to pick Hawaii for 33 confidence points, accidentally clicks the box for Tulsa. Of course.
I’m adding a new rule for myself next year – stop betting Hawaii at home on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Every year I think I have a read on the Hawaii Bowl, and every year I seem to get further away. The problem is no one ever watches the Christmas Eve game, yet I still think I have a grasp on it. The red flag should have been that no score surprises me when I check it after the game. Check out these results from Hawaii on Christmas Eve/Day (I watched none of them and was surprised by the results of none of them, despite losing many, many confidence points):
2010 – Tulsa (9-3) 62, Hawaii (10-3) 35
2008 – Notre Dame (6-6) 49, Hawaii (7-6) 21
2006 – Hawaii (10-3) 41, Arizona State (7-6) 24
2004 – Hawaii (7-5) 59, UAB (7-4) 40
2003 – Hawaii (8-5) 54, Houston (7-5) 48
2002 – Tulane (7-5) 36, Hawaii (10-3) 28
1999 – Hawaii (8-4) 23, Oregon State (7-4) 17
The Lesson: Stop pretending I know anything about Hawaii.
Florida International 34, Toledo 32
My picks: Florida International +1, Over 56, FIU 15 confidence points
The best bowl game of the season so far, presumably watched by 23 people, 15 of which only tuned in because the Philly/Minnesota NFL game was postponed. The last five minutes of the game alone featured a blocked punt, field goal, 80-yard touchdown drive with one fourth down conversion, a successful two point try, a hook and ladder play on 4th and 17 that resulted in a 2-minute booth review, and a game-winning field goal with no time on the clock. Does it matter which team did what? Absolutely not. It’s Florida International versus Toledo. Who really cares? Anyway, see the Ohio/Troy game above for the logic behind this pick. The logic worked again, albeit with quite a bit more sweat than the previous game.
AirForce 14, Georgia Tech 7
My picks: Air Force -2.5, Over 56, Air Force 6 confidence points
Why did I pick the over on this one? I have no idea, but I feel that I owe my bank account an apology. Looking over my notes, I have the under underlined three times. Not very often does Vegas give a gift like this: two teams that run the triple option, keep the clock running, and have defenses that face the triple option in practice everyday. I said no thanks to this gift for reasons that are unclear. In my defense, Accuscore projected this game as Air Force 32, Georgia Tech 26. I can only assume that an intern somewhere dropped the ball on the stat transcription. Not much more to say about this game, especially since I missed the second half. Judging by the score, I’ll be able to catch plenty of reruns on ESPN Classic soon though.
NC State 23, West Virginia 7
My picks: Over 49, West Virginia 13 confidence points
Anyone who thinks they know how to pick Big East games this year is clearly guessing. I picked West Virginia early in the season when my confidence picks were due, but changed my mind after watching the Louisville game. The Big East had six of the top 21 defenses in the nation. It was impossible to tell whether it was great defenses, terrible offenses, or somewhere in between. Naively, I went with the somewhere in between theory and liked West Virginia to win this game something like 31-21. At this point in the bowl season, I’m pretty convinced that terrible offenses is the answer. Louisville gave up 28 points to Southern Miss – the third most points they’ve given up this year and more than they gave up in any of their last six conference games. Message received: Big East defenses are overrated. I would have picked NC State +3, but I hate rooting for a favorite to win and a small underdog to cover, so over was the pick. Of course, neither team could hold up their end of the bargain. The Wolf Pack made it to the red zone seven times and came away with only 23 points on two TDs, three FGs, a missed FG, and a ridiculously awful fake FG attempt. In the second half alone, West Virginia committed four turnovers, missed a chip shot field goal, and mustered 146 total yards. Fantastic. I suppose my red flag should have been when the Mountaineers fired their coach in December, effective for the 2012 season.
Iowa 28, Missouri 24
My picks: Mizzou -1, Mizzou 23 confidence points
This one stings. A real testament to Mizzou and Gary Pinkel’s incompetence. The public was on Iowa on this one, but this seemed fairly easy to me – an underrated Tiger team playing a shorthanded Iowa team that lost four in a row to close the season. Enter Blaine Gabbert. Up four with the ball on Iowa’s 30 and five minutes left in the game, Gabbert channels his inner Brett Favre and throws a TAINT to lose the game. I’m annoyed just typing that. Add Gabbert to the list of athletes I will now hold an irrational grudge on.
That sums up the early games. I’ll have my 12/29 bowl game predictions up shortly.