New Years Day Bowl Previews

January 1, 2011

Happy New Year’s Day to everyone! A fairly exciting slate of games (finally!) highlighted by the TCU/Wisconsin Rose Bowl matchup later this afternoon. Here are my predictions:

Ticket City Bowl: Texas Tech vs. Northwestern

My picks: Northwestern +8, Over 62, Texas Tech 21 confidence points

In the day’s first game, 7-5 Northwestern, missing their starting quarterback Dan Persa, takes on 7-5 Texas Tech, which underachieved all year. No wonder the game ended up on ESPNU. Texas Tech is a heavy favorite in this game, almost entirely because the Wildcats’ Persa is out, but I’m not buying into that for two reasons: 1. backup freshman QB Evan Watkins isn’t terrible; and 2. the Big 12 has really turned their bowl season into a fiasco. Watkins is no Persa, but he’s just not bad enough to make two otherwise evenly matched teams that different. Big 12 teams are now 1-4 in bowl games – Oklahoma State is the only team that has bothered to show up. I’ll take Texas Tech to win, but just barely: TTU 38-35.

Capital One Bowl: Alabama vs. Michigan State

My picks: Michigan State +9, Michigan State 1 confidence point

In keeping with my new motivation theory, I’ll stick with Michigan State here. I’m just not all that impressed with this Alabama team – only 5-3 against bowl teams, and of the top four teams they faced (Arkansas, South Carolina, LSU, Auburn), they only beat Arkansas. Plus, I can’t imagine how Alabama gets up for this game after being ranked #1 for the first six weeks of the season and blowing a 24-point lead against Auburn in the last game of the season to cost them a berth in the Sugar Bowl. And lest we forget what happened last time Alabama came into a bowl game unmotivated as a heavy favorite – Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and never looked back in pulling the biggest upset so far by a non-BCS team in a BCS game.

Meanwhile, I think the Spartans are underrated. Style points are certainly not their forte, but they get the job done: 6-1 against bowl teams this season. With the exception of Utah, no team that has been in the top ten this year has been doubted as much as the Spartans. I think they play with something to prove and pull the upset. Sparty 21-17.

Capital One Bowl: Florida vs. Penn State

My picks: Florida 25 confidence points

This would have been a fantastic matchup ten years ago. Now we have powerhouse Florida on a down year and Penn State, which seems to make a New Years Day Bowl every year despite having at least three losses.* My first instinct was that Florida would dominate in Urban Meyer’s last game. Upon further reflection, I’m not so sure. It feels to me like he’s sort of abandoning them.** I think the Gators come out motivated, but not as much as people think. That and the Gators’ offense shouldn’t be favored by seven over anybody. I think Florida slips by a not-very-good PSU team 21-17.

* Nittany Lion fans have to have a weird relationship with Joe Paterno. Having a coach with that reputation is both good and bad. Bad because he clearly can’t perform as well as he used to, and the Nittany Lions haven’t been a legitimate national title contender for years. Good because, with this recognition, no matter how rough of a season PSU has, they get a better bowl game simply because of JoePa’s name recognition. Weird situation; of course no PSU fan can really utter these words, lest God strike them down.

** Anyone else hoping that Urban Meyer becomes the Brett Favre of coaching retirements? I sure hope a couple USC players fly to Gainesville at some point next season begging Meyer to come out of retirement and save them from Lane Kiffin.

Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Michigan

My picks: MSU -4, MSU 31

Michigan is the most overrated team in college football this year. How do I know this? They are 0-8 against the spread in their last eight games. That’s staggering. Denard Robinson has two good games to start the season that the public seems to remember and it turns into an early Christmas present for degenerate gamblers everywhere. Mississippi State finished 8-4, but their four losses were to top ten teams Auburn (by three), LSU, Arkansas (in two overtimes), and Alabama. The fact that the Bulldogs are way better than people think and Michigan is way worse makes this an easy play. ┬áMSU wins 31-10.

Rose Bowl: TCU vs. Wisconsin

My pick: TCU 16 confidence points

The most intriguing game of New Year’s Day by far. No one knows what’s going to happen this game. That doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion on it. Afterwards, half of the people will get to say “I told you so” while the other half will have to shrug and agree. But that’s going to be 20/20 hindsight – everyone is just guessing. I could make arguments for either side:

Why TCU will win: unlike other non-BCS teams, this team is really fast; they are a non-BCS team in conference name only; Andy Dalton is a big-game quarterback and would have been invited to the Heisman ceremony if Kellen Moore didn’t exist; Wisconsin hasn’t faced a defense this good yet

Why Wisconsin will win: TCU hasn’t seen anything like the speed and raw power of the Badgers’ offensive line and rushing attack; the Badgers are peaking now while TCU peaked a little too early in the season; even if TCU plays tight in the first half, the Badgers will gradually wear the Horned Frogs down with superior depth

I buy a little bit of both arguments, so I’m not going to pretend I know any more about this game than anyone else. I’m going to go with TCU in this game because I think Wisconsin’s offense is a bit overrated because Bert Bielema is a bully that runs up the score. Before the Badgers put up the PlayStation-like scores of 83-20, 48-28, and 70-23 to close the season, I don’t remember anyone talking about how amazing the rushing attack was. Good yes, but great no. And that makes sense, because even after rushing for 1,024 team yards in their last three games, they finished only 12th in the NCAA with 247.3 yards per game. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that TCU’s rushing defense is infinitely better than anything Indiana, Michigan, or Northwestern provides. TCU pulls out the victory 24-21.

Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma vs. Connecticut

My picks: Connecticut +15, Oklahoma 33 confidence points

Another motivation pick. Connecticut has heard a solid month of analysts saying they don’t deserve to be there. Oklahoma has heard the same thing. Sure, it’s a BCS game, but I don’t think that inspires the Sooners as much as it would other teams. After being in a BCS bowl six of the last eight years, I think Oklahoma will have a “been there, done that” attitude and will be a little bummed about playing in the worst of the BCS games. And as we’ve seen, the Big 12 kinda sucks.

Of course with all that said, motivation can only take a team so far against a far more talented team. Oklahoma wins, but doesn’t cover, 35-21.

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Rethinking the motivation factor

January 1, 2011

One of the main theories on predicting bowl games takes into consideration how much motivation a team has coming into the game. Typically this is when a team narrowly misses out on a BCS or national title game. Think Boise State this year falling to the MAACO Bowl this year after missing a last second field goal against Nevada that would have sent them to the Rose Bowl or Alabama in 2008 after their loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game cost them a berth in the National Championship. It shows up in more subtle ways too – think every team in the preseason top 25 that finished 6-6 or 7-5 and ended up in a bowl with a sponsor that 94% of the country has never heard of.

Prior to this season, I generally discounted the motivation factor in bowl games, mostly because I usually do not bet on the spread in the individual games and only enter into a few straight-up pools. My theory was that I couldn’t afford to lose the confidence points that I’d forsake if a heavy favorite ended up winning and I bet on the underdog to win. After my bowl pool picks went into the garbage yesterday, I may have to rethink this strategy.

Yesterday, SMU was upset at home by a weak Army team. The Mustangs’ starting quarterback (and a few other players) expressed dismay at not being able to travel anywhere for a bowl game. Despite this red flag, I picked SMU to win because I thought they were a far better team that Army. Sure enough, SMU came out flat: their first half drives ended with a fumble (returned for a TD), missed field goal, interception, interception, punt, out on downs. They fell down 16-0 at half and couldn’t recover in a 16-14 loss.

Later that night, I unfortunately witnessed the Nebraska/Washington debacle.* As a parting gift, the Big 12 sent the Huskers to the Holiday Bowl – fifth in the Big 12 pecking order, despite coming up only a field goal short of winning the conference. There, they were matched up with 6-6 Washington, which had been destroyed by the Huskers 56-21 earlier this year in a game that single-handedly sent Jake Locker’s draft status from potential number one overall pick to a late first-early second rounder. Unsurprisingly, the Huskers barely seemed to care about this one, coming out flat in the first half and even flatter in the second half. Washington’s domination was both extremely surprising and extremely unsurprising. Surprising because it would be something way short of an understatement to say that the Huskers are a way more talented team. Unsurprising because I don’t recall a single bowl game in Husker history where the fans were more apathetic about the result than this one; we shouldn’t be shocked to find that the players felt the same way.

* Brett Favre is impressed by how fast Taylor Martinez went from Big Man on Campus to walking train wreck in less than three months.

Finally, we have Central Florida’s 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. My thoughts on Conference USA are plenty clear so I found this game a bit shocking. What I missed is that this was another one of those subtle motivation games. Although Georgia won four of six to become bowl eligible, I missed the bigger picture – this was a Bulldog team ranked in the Top 25 to begin the season that was projected to win the SEC East as late as October 29th. Of course they weren’t going to care about competing with UCF, a team far inferior, talent-wise.

Three games, all of which I (and the vast majority of the public, I assume) placed high confidence amounts on. Hindsight being 20/20, three outcomes that look somewhat obvious in retrospect.

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So what’s the common theme with these games? I’ll use an NCAA Tournament analogy. Previously I equated these upsets to a 14 seed beating a 3 seed or a 15 seed beating a 2 seed. Sure, it’s pretty amazing if you pick the upset, but the potential points to be lost if the higher seeded team moves on is too much, especially if they advance all the way to the Elite Eight or Final Four.

In reality, the motivation factor makes these more like a 12 seed versus a 5 seed. Most fans are familiar with this upset – since the tournament expanded to 64+ teams in 1985, at least one #12 seed has beaten a #5 seed every tournament except for 1988 and 2007. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is this: often a #12 seed is a high-major team that rallied to make the tournament or a mid-major with something to prove; on the other hand, the #5 seed is often a top ten team that peaked too early and limped into the tournament or an overrated high-major team that received a high seed based mostly on the strength of their conference. The #12 seed tends to come in more motivated and the underperforming #5 seed struggles in the upset. Sound familiar?

Now it’s pretty much a given that at least one #12 seed will be a #5 seed each year, just like it’s a given that at least one really motivated football team will be an underachieving team in a bowl game. The much harder part is picking which #12 seed will win.* After all, it doesn’t much matter that you’re aware of an important trend if you can’t capitalize on it.

* This can get pretty annoying, as it was this year when I picked Utah State and UTEP to win as #12 seeds. Both lost, but #12 Cornell beat #5 Temple, in a game I was sure Temple would win.

Here’s a list of games this year that have some element of the motivation factor for any number of reasons (undermotivated teams listed first):

Boise State vs. Utah

Hawaii vs. Tulsa

Oklahoma State vs. Arizona

SMU vs. Army

Nebraska vs. Washington

Georgia vs. Central Florida

Alabama vs. Michigan State

Oklahoma vs. Connecticut

There may be others, but these are the ones that stand out to me. I picked each of these favorites by 20 or more, with the exception of Alabama (I picked Michigan State in a small upset). So far, the undermotivated team has blown out the underdog twice (Boise and OSU), been blown out once (Hawaii, playing at home once again), and lost three close games (SMU, Nebraska, and Georgia). This illustrates the trouble with these games – no one wants to give up the points and look stupid within minutes of the opening kickoff when the upset pick gets blown out. The Tulsa/Hawaii outlier aside, there’s usually two possible results: the favorite dominates or the underdog eeks out a victory. Amazingly, in these six games that the unmotivated team was favored by at least a touchdown, the favorite either covered or lost straight up.

So here’s my strategy on these games in confidence pools going forward.* I’ll talk a big game now, 350-some days until next year’s picks are due, but let’s be honest: I’m not going to have the guts to check the box next to a double-digit underdog to win straight up next year. Instead, I’m going to forsake the so-called easy points and drop these favorites down in my confidence point list. Whereas before I was concerned about giving up easy points, in reality, I think there’s more to be gained than lost in these games. A majority of people pick these games for 30+ points, so I’m not actually going to gain on them by doing the same. Sure, when the picks do come through, my opponents will get 30-some points and I’ll get 10 or so. But I’ll still have chances to get the 30-some points back in other games. The 111 points I lost on Hawaii, SMU, Nebraska, and Georgia, I’ll never get back.

* And they get a big STAY AWAY from me as single bets.