National Championship Preview

January 10, 2011

National Championship Game: Auburn (13-0, -3) vs. Oregon (12-0)

What a baffling game. Throughout most of the bowl season, I’ve been able to latch on to a certain theory and use it to pick a winner. In this game, I haven’t been able to do that. Everyone seemingly has a theory as to who will win this game. The problem is they all seem persuasive to me. My preview will be as scattered as my own thoughts on the game:

Theory #1: Just pick the SEC champion. I’m a sucker for these blanket conference rules – just look through my blog on my thoughts on the MAC, Big Ten, and Conference USA. The SEC champion has qualified for the BCS Championship Game six times previously. They are 6-0, including four national titles in a row. None of those four games were even particularly close.

The SEC isn’t quite as good as they have been the last three years. In each of the last three years, you could make a persuasive argument that two of the best three teams in the nation were from the SEC. Not so this year, but it is still pretty clearly the best conference in the nation. This will be the Pac-10’s first crack at the SEC in the title game, so you can argue that the SEC champion theory shouldn’t apply. Still, there’s no need to be a hero – go with the safe bet.

Theory #2: Auburn isn’t as good as they are lucky. The Tigers trailed by at least 13 points in games against Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. They also were tied or trailed in the fourth quarter against Kentucky, Arkansas, and LSU. Oregon has been far more dominant – aside from an early 21-3 deficit to Stanford, they haven’t trailed by more than a touchdown this season. Only Cal (15-13) stayed within single digits. Oregon is far better than the teams that Auburn trailed and they won’t be able to recover if they fall behind.

Theory #3: Auburn knows how to win. Using the same facts above, in the words of Al Davis, the Tigers “just win baby!” Including the Mississippi State game that the Tigers won by a field goal, Auburn has been in eight dogfights in thirteen games. They have won all of them. Oregon played a weaker schedule and, other than the Cal game, hasn’t had to dig deep and pull out hard-fought victories.

Theory #4: The Tigers are prone to defensive lapses and Oregon will take advantage. Oregon is the best offense that Auburn has faced this year. Auburn fell behind 17-0 against Clemson, 20-7 against South Carolina, 21-7 against Georgia, and 24-0 against Alabama. With their high-octane offense, Oregon will not let off the gas like the rest of these teams. In every game this season, the Ducks have gotten better in the second half – if the Tigers fall behind early, that could be game over.

Theory #5: Both teams have speed but only Auburn has size. This argument mainly applies on the defensive side of the ball. Everyone seems to assume that both offenses are just plain fast. However, Auburn is much bigger than the Ducks on defense. Eventually, this will catch up with the Ducks and they won’t be able to keep up if the game turns into a shootout. Meanwhile, the Tigers won’t have the same problem – Cam Newton is bigger than most of Oregon’s defense.

Theory #6: When in doubt, go with the best player. Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was by far the best player in college football this year. He passed for 2,589 yards and 28 touchdowns and ran for 1,409 yards and 20 touchdowns. He is flat-out unstoppable.

Theory #7: Heisman Trophy winners struggle in big games. Heisman Trophy winners have struggled in BCS Championship games. The results of Heisman winners in the BCS era: Chris Weinke (won in 2000); Eric Crouch (lost in 2001); Jason White (lost in 2003); Matt Leinart (won in 2004); Reggie Bush (lost in 2005); Troy Smith (lost in 2006); Sam Bradford (lost in 2008); Mark Ingram (won in 2009). That’s only 3-5 – not very impressive at all.

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So what’s all this mean? Hell if I know. I went with Oregon for the small at the start of the bowl season. I’ll go with Auburn this time…that way I can’t be wrong. Considering my 1-3 NFL weekend, that’s probably a smart move. The Tigers win 34-31.


BBVA Compass Bowl Preview

January 7, 2011

Kentucky (6-6) and Pittsburgh (7-5) meet tomorrow morning in the BBVA Compass Bowl.* In a bowl season that included such gems as Ohio vs. Troy, Toledo vs. Florida International, and Army vs. SMU, there’s a pretty serious case to be made that this is the worst game of the bunch. No other bowl can compete with the sucktitude that this bowl offers: mediocre teams, unmotivated players, suspended starters, fired coaches, sponsors no one’s heard of, and domestic assault charges. On the plus side, the game is on at 11 am and it’s something to watch before the NFL playoff games. So there’s that.

* From Wikipedia: “BBVA Compass is a Southeastern and Southwestern financial holding company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with US$65 billion in assets.” Now you know.

Kentucky finished 6-6 this season and owns one quality win – a 31-28 upset victory over SEC East champion South Carolina. They also played Auburn tough in a 37-34 loss, so they are definitely capable of playing quality football. This story should sound familiar. The Wildcats have finished either 6-6 or 7-5 in each of the five seasons since 2006. I find this astounding. That’s five consecutive years of consistent mediocrity. They’re like the According to Jim of college football teams. According to Jim somehow lasted eight seasons despite being a completely mediocre and forgettable sitcom. That kind of extended mediocrity is not easy – you almost have to have a commitment to doing just enough to be average in every way.

Of course with that said, you have to question the Wildcats’ motivation. Here are the Wildcats’ bowl destinations in the last five years: Nashville, Nashville, Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham. That’s five years of traveling to bowls that are closer to Lexington than any SEC team save Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It was probably fun the first time, but I feel like my reaction to another close bowl bid would be “Seriously? We have to bus to the game again?” In their defense, they have won three of four games (losing only to Clemson last season), so maybe I’m way off-base here. But a team can finish .500 and go to weak bowl games only so many times before it starts to wear on them.

Kentucky’s senior starting quarterback Mike Hartline was suspended for this game after a DUI arrest in early December. However, backup quarterbacks Randall Cobb and Morgan Newton are not typical backups. Cobb is a quarterback-turned-star wide receiver who the Wildcats like to put in the Wildcat formation.* Newton is a sophomore in line to be starter next year after Hartline graduates. He only saw action in three games this season in mop-up duty, but started eight games for Kentucky last season after Hartline broke his collarbone. He performed fairly well and led the Wildcats to a 5-2 record in their last seven regular season games just to qualify for a bowl game. In short, the Kentucky offense won’t suffer much without Hartline.

* Cobb’s stats this season are fantastically diverse: 5-10 passing for 58 yards and 3 touchdowns, 52 rushes for 401 yards and 5 touchdowns, and 79 catches for 955 yards and 7 touchdowns. Now that is what you call a dynamic player.

Besides the quarterback injury, Kentucky is basically the same team they have been since I can remember – a solid offense and a terrible defense.

Pittsburgh finished the season with a rocky 7-5 record. Like Kentucky, they are the same team that we have come to expect. The Panthers have a solid defense, a questionable offense, and underachieved for the 19th consecutive year. The Panthers opened up 3-0 in the weak Big East and needed only to win three of their last four games to earn a BCS berth. After a loss to Connecticut, Pitt needed to beat rival West Virginia at home in the Backyard Brawl to win the conference. As a three-point favorite, they failed to win in spectacular fashion, fumbling the ball six times (losing three) and throwing an interception in a 35-10 loss. Typically, I would say that they will be unmotivated in this game after blowing a potential BCS bid, but a team that loses by 25 in a rivalry game at home that they need to win to qualify for a BCS game was not going to be motivated in the first place.

Then there is the matter of the Pitt coaching carousel. After another disappointing season, Pitt fired career underachiever Dave Wannstedt. Probably a good move in the long-term, but in the short-term, Wannstedt was a player’s coach and this year’s players were stung by the firing. The school hired Miami-Ohio’s head coach Mike Haywood on December 16 and promptly fired him on January 1 after he was arrested on New Year’s Eve for allegedly assaulting his baby’s mama in a custody dispute.

This coaching carousel prompted a Pitt fan at the Covers.com forums to post “Pitt is an absolute mess right now. I’m hearing rumors of players threatening not to play at all.” Well then.

The best thing that either one of these teams has going for them is that somebody has to win. I think it will be Kentucky by default. Pitt is not a particularly good team in the first place. Now they find themselves in Birmingham when they were practically a shoo-in to win the weak Big East Conference’s BCS bid as late as mid-November, while simultaneously trying to not be distracted as the school attempts to break the record for most coaches in a 5-week period. This could be the first time that a bowl team that lost their starting quarterback to a DUI is the more focused team, but I think that will be the case. Kentucky wins 20-10.


GoDaddy.com Bowl Preview

January 6, 2011

After two and a half weeks of bowl action we’ve finally hit the big games, starting with tonight’s GoDaddy.com Bowl between Miami of Ohio and Middle Tennessee State. 6-6 Middle Tennessee (third place in the Sun Belt) is favored by two points over 9-4 MAC Champion Miami. The line reeks of Vegas either a) knowing way more than we do; or b) just throwing their hands up in confusion like the rest of us. Choice a is more likely, but I’m not ruling out choice b – there’s a lot of college football for these guys to watch over the course of the year and neither team was on the bowl radar for most of the season. After a 1-11 record last season, Miami started out an improved 4-4 but still needed to win their last five regular season games just to make it to a bowl (8-4 Temple from the MAC was left out). Middle Tennessee started 3-6 and needed to win their last three games – including an upset on the road over Sun Belt champion Florida International – plus get some help from other conferences just to make it into a bowl. So it’s not like Vegas insiders were intently watching these two teams’ games all season trying to get an edge come bowl time.

Miami RedHawks (9-4)

The Miami RedHawks were the feel-good story of the college football season. Led by second-year coach/domestic assault arrestee Mike Haywood, the RedHawks won four of their first seven games after winning only three games combined over the previous two seasons. They won their first three conference games over MAC bottom dwellers Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and Central Michigan and were the cute “they control their own destiny” team of the conference that no one actually believes will win.*

* “Control their own destiny” is usually code for “There’s no way in hell this team is going to keep winning.” Like Baylor this year, which led the Big 12 South with three games to go…only those three teams happened to be Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M (they lost the three games by a combined 68 points).

But then the RedHawks kept winning. After a loss to Ohio, Miami rolled off three wins in a row in ugly fashion – a 12-point win over 2-5 Buffalo, a 3-point win over 2-7 Bowling Green, and a 5-point win over 0-10 Akron. Still, heading into the last weekend of the season, they needed to upset 8-3 Temple and have Ohio lose to 4-7 Kent State in their season finale. Stunningly, the RedHawks dominated Temple 23-3 and Kent State beat Ohio 28-6 to send the upstart squad to the MAC title game. They entered the title game as 14 1/2 point underdogs to #25 Northern Illinois (10-2, 8-0 in the MAC). And of course they won.

The RedHawks don’t do anything particularly well. They have a decent passing offense and a potential professional receiver in Armand Robinson, but their starting quarterback Zac Dysert went out with three games left in the season with a ruptured spleen. Freshman backup Austin Boucher has been adequate as his replacement – throwing for four touchdowns and only one interception – but starting a freshman backup isn’t typically a recipe for success in bowl games. They also have a decent rushing defense, which will help against the Dwight Dasher-led Blue Raiders rushing offense. Miami can’t run the ball (114th in FBS), can’t score (103rd), and is only okay at stopping the other team (46th in scoring defense).

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (6-6)

The Blue Raiders finished 10-3 with a bowl win last year but got off to a rocky start this year. Star quarterback Dwight Dasher missed the first four games and the team got off to a rocky 2-2 start. Even after Dasher came back in Week 5, the team was out of synch – they lost 4 of 5 and were completely dominated by Troy, Georgia Tech, and Arkansas State. Sitting at 3-6 with three games to go, the Blue Raiders won all three to qualify for a bowl game.*

* The MAC commissioner must be terrible at his job. The MAC has 13 teams and only three bowl tie-ins plus one additional tie-in if other conferences don’t have enough .500 or better teams (which will happen every year with all these games). The Sun Belt has nine teams and only one tie-in but two additional tie-ins if other conferences don’t have enough qualifiers. Middle Tennessee had an automatic bid to a bowl after finishing 6-6 while 8-4 Temple and 6-6 Western Michigan from the MAC were the only eligible teams not selected for a bowl game. I’d call that not doing your job.

In many ways, Middle Tennessee is Miami’s polar opposite. The Blue Raiders have a solid rushing attack – 32nd in FBS, but that includes the four games without Dasher. They are decent at pretty much everything else and not really terrible at anything. Looking at the statistics, this team should be substantially better than a 6-6 team with only one win over a .500 or better team (28-27 over Florida International).

Prediction

The key matchup for the game will be Middle Tennessee’s rushing offense versus Miami’s rushing defense. Sticking with my theory on the superiority of Sun Belt athletes over MAC athletes (2-0 so far this bowl season), I think Dwight Dasher and the Blue Raiders rushing offense will win this battle and put up a few touchdowns. I just can’t trust a freshman backup quarterback to do the same against a defense that will be faster than any he’s faced before. Although I don’t typically like picking the underachieving team over an overachieving team, the pick is Middle Tennessee 28, Miami 14.


Orange Bowl Preview: Stanford vs. Virginia Tech

January 3, 2011

This Orange Bowl matchup is a little disappointing to me. Not because there’s anything wrong with the matchup – I think it will be a very good game – but these were two under-appreciated teams that I liked all year. Stanford finished 11-1 (only losing on the road to #1 Oregon) and have the best quarterback in the nation in Andrew Luck, yet they’ve been tragically undervalued all year. They finished 4-0-1 against the spread in their last five games and those four weren’t even close – they beat Washington 41-0 (favored by 7), Arizona 42-17 (favored by 7.5), Cal 48-14 (favored by 6.5) and Oregon State 38-0 (favored by 14). They were unfortunate to have to play the Ducks on the road this year; if that game was in Palo Alto, there’s a very good chance Stanford is in the national championship game. I can’t help but think that if the Cardinal’s jerseys said “USC” on them, they wouldn’t be nearly as disrespected. Luck leads one of the best offenses in the country and the Cardinal defense – which was shaky early in the season in giving up 52 points to Oregon and 35 to USC – buckled down at the end of the season, giving up only 45 points in their last five games combined.

Meanwhile, the Hokies have quietly put together a very good season following the early debacle against James Madison. Like Stanford, they’ve been undervalued all year. Whereas Stanford has been hurt by the name on their jerseys, Virginia Tech has been hurt by that one game against James Madison. The Hokies won their last 11 games and covered the spread in 10 of those games. Only Georgia Tech (14 point underdogs) lost to the Hokies by single digits (28-21). Although the Hokies’ defense is slightly below their typical very-high standard (giving up 33 points to Florida State backup E.J. Manuel!), they are still much better than average. And notoriously unpredictable QB Tyrod Taylor has been fantastic this season after the shaky start.

All this is to say it’s unfortunate that the Cardinal and Hokies are playing against each other: I would pick either to beat any other team in the BCS not named Auburn or Oregon. I’d typically pick the Pac-10 team over the ACC without thinking twice because of the quality of competition, but the Pac-10 has been outrageously bad this year.* Virginia Tech’s competition tells us something though – the two best quarterbacks that the Hokies faced were Boise’s Kellen Moore and NC State’s Russell Wilson. In those two games, the Hokies gave up 33 and 30 points (although they did pick off Wilson three times). Luck is better than both Moore and Wilson and I’d guess that the Hokies will struggle to contain him.

* Quick trivia question: which conference has the worst record in the BCS? It’s not the Big East – that’d be way too easy and not deserving of an asterisk at all. No, it’s the ACC – by far. ACC teams have gone 2-10 since the BCS was created in 1998 (Florida State beat then-Big East member Virginia Tech in the 2000 championship game and Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl). Incidentally, the Big East (6-7) actually has a better BCS winning percentage than the Big 12 (8-10) and Big Ten (10-12), although the latter two conferences obviously played stronger opponents. The SEC has faired the best at 14-5 while the Pac-10 is 8-5.

On the other side, the Hokies have the sometimes dynamic but always terrifying Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. The ninth or tenth-year senior (I forget how long exactly he’s been there, but I’m pretty sure it’s been the entire decade) has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Hokies fans for his tenure as Virginia Tech’s quarterback. After passing for 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions combined in his first three years, Taylor has stepped it up with 23 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions and a career-high 60.6% completion rate. Taylor has been especially terrific in his last eight games, throwing for 15 TD passes (including three games of three TD passes each) and only one interception.

All things considered, we have two great offenses and two good defenses. I expect both quarterbacks to perform well so it comes down to a tiebreaker question: of the following two statements, which makes me feel more comfortable?:

A. “And Stanford will get the ball back with two minutes left down by four with no timeouts left. Let’s see if Andrew Luck can work some magic.”

B. “And Virginia Tech will get the ball back with two minutes left down by four with no timeouts left. Let’s see if Tyrod Taylor can work some magic.”

Yeah, I just can’t shake my Taylor fears. Stanford wins 34-27.


New Years Day Bowl Recap

January 1, 2011

I wanted to do an NFL preview for a Sunday morning column, but I picked the wrong time to start this blog. Week 17 is just too much of a crapshoot; I made it about four games into my predictions before I got too annoyed and gave up on having a clue. I’d recap how much it sucks to make picks in Week 17, but Bill Simmons already did that, so I’ll let you go read his column if you want. Instead, I’ll go with a New Years Day bowl recap where I can gloat/express my frustration with Michigan State.

I nailed three of the four early games and the Rose Bowl on the head. Texas Tech beat 45-38 and didn’t cover the 8 point spread against Northwestern. Florida used a late TAINT against Penn State to win 36-24 in a game that played out as close as I thought it would. And Mississippi State dominated Michigan 52-14. I apparently gave the Wolverines even more credit than they deserved in picking the Bulldogs to win 31-10. In the late game, I predicted that TCU would contain Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing offense in a close win. They did just that in a 21-19 victory.

So far, so boring. I like predicting how games play out, but it’s surprisingly melodramatic. I’m a perfectionist, so I tend to dwell on the games that I missed. And of course, a day after I write an article arguing that motivation means more than I thought in bowl games, Alabama comes out and DOMINATES Michigan State in a 49-7 victory (and yes, all CAPS were necessary). Alabama was one of the eight teams I highlighted that were favored by more than a touchdown but may not, for various reasons, be motivated to play in their bowl game. I thought Alabama would come out flat – they were ranked #1 for the first half of the season before losing and were playing for a BCS bid as late as the second half of the last game of the season. On the other hand, I figured that Michigan State would play like they had something to prove after being doubted throughout the year.

Oh boy. I’m not even quite sure where to start with this one. Surprisingly, I think Michigan State did come out playing like they had something to prove. They weren’t bad by any means, but Alabama was just that much better than them. Not only did Alabama come out motivated, they may have played their best all-around game of the year. If I were a Crimson Tide fan, I’d actually be upset after this game – if they played like this for the entire season, they absolutely would have gone undefeated and played in the national championship game for the second straight year. How does Saban get his guys up for the Capital One Bowl but come out flat against South Carolina and LSU? It’s beyond me, but it just goes to show how much of a crapshoot these games are.

We’ve now played seven games between an unmotivated TD-plus favorite and a motivated underdog. Keeping with the trend I outlined earlier, the favorite has now either covered the huge spread (three times) or lost straight up (four times). As I type, Oklahoma is beating Connecticut 34-10, so it’s probably safe to chalk up a 4-4 record for the unmotivated favorites. If UCONN somehow comes back, it’s probably worthy of its own post, so we’ll deal with that then.

So where does that leave us with my unmotivated team theory? I’m sticking with it. If anything, the Alabama/Michigan State game showed that picking these games really are a crapshoot. In the future, I’ll pick Alabama – the far more talented team – for a low amount. No more being a hero: that Michigan State picked looked pretty stupid by the time I even flipped the game on at 12:15, 15 minutes after kickoff.