Orange Bowl Recap; Sugar Bowl Preview

January 4, 2011

Orange Bowl: Stanford 40, Virginia Tech 12

At least this game was close for a half. I expected that Stanford would stop Tyrod Taylor’s Hokies more times than Virginia Tech would stop Andrew Luck’s Cardinal. I just didn’t expect just how many stops Stanford was capable of.

Stanford looked like the better team in the first half. They entered halftime up only 13-12, but 9 of the Hokies’ points came on Tyrod Taylor’s touchdown pass after an insane scramble and a Stanford offensive lineman taking the single most boneheaded safety I’ve ever seen. You just got the feeling that Stanford would eventually take the game over.

And they did. The second half turned into one of the more dominating performances I’ve seen in a BCS game – offhand, I can’t remember a team dominating a half like this in a BCS game since USC destroyed Oklahoma in the first half of the 2004 Championship Game. Some stats from the second half (discounting each team’s last drive meant to kill the clock and get the waterboys some playing time) to help put this in perspective:

Virginia Tech: 5 drives, 56 yards, 5 sacks, 4 punts, 1 interception, 0 points

Stanford: 4 drives, 4 touchdowns, 22 plays, 315 yards, 5 plays of 50 yards or more, gained positive yardage on 17 of 22 plays

Complete and total domination. Yesterday I argued that Stanford is playing better than any team in the country, would probably be in the title game if Oregon had to come to Palo Alto this year, and everyone would agree with the previous two statements if the team had “USC” written on the front of their jerseys. The Cardinal hammered this lesson home last night at the expense of Virginia Tech, putting up a season-high 40 points on the Hokies and holding them to a season-low 12 points.

This leads to a larger point about the BCS. Playoff proponents will undoubtedly spend the offseason pointing to Mountain West champion TCU finishing the season undefeated but not getting the chance to play for the National Championship. And rightly so: TCU’s win over Wisconsin was undoubtedly the best win ever by a non-BCS team in a BCS game. While undefeated Utah’s victory over 1-loss in the Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl was impressive, it was easier for pundits to discount because Alabama came in unmotivated after a loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game cost them a chance at the National Championship. There was no such excuse for Wisconsin here – they peaked at the end of the season, came out motivated, and presented a tougher matchup for TCU than any other 1-loss team because of their size. TCU is simply a better team than Wisconsin and proved it in the Rose Bowl.

But with all that said, Stanford might even present a better argument for a playoff than TCU. Stanford is a perennial basement dweller in the Pac-10. Jim Harbaugh deservedly gets a ton of credit for leading the Cardinal to an 8-5 record last season and a 12-1 record this season after eight consecutive losing seasons between 2001 and 2008.* But Harbaugh should probably get even more credit – Stanford is a school everyone is familiar with, so we sometimes forget just how terrible they have been throughout history. Since 1971, the Cardinal have qualified for a grand total of one Rose Bowl – the bizarre 1999 season when they finished the regular season unranked with an 8-3 record that was somehow good enough to win the Pac-10 Championship.** Their bowl appearance this year was only their 11th of the past forty years. They have finished with double-digit wins only three times in school history – 12 this year and 10 in both 1940 and 1926.

* Seriously, is there anyone in the world in any profession with a higher stock than Jim Harbaugh right now? I remember coach’s with high stock before, but nothing like this – ESPN is reporting that he will have his pick of head coaching job between the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, or his alma mater University of Michigan Wolverines. This is insane – the guy was coaching at FCS mid-major University of San Diego four years ago and now can PICK which job he wants between any of the three most desirable coaching jobs on the market right now. Well done, Mr. Harbaugh, well done.

** Most surprising fact I found in this research? In John Elway’s four years there, Stanford had one winning season (6-5 in 1980), a 20-23 overall record, and zero bowl appearances. Lest you think that Elway’s college career was overrated, the Cardinal went 1-10 the year after Elway graduated. Now THAT is a bad program.

This year, Stanford caught lightning in a bottle. Thanks to a unique combination of an excellent coach, one of the best quarterbacks in the country who happened to have the academic qualifications required to attend Stanford, and a team of hard-nosed role players led by two-way player Owen Marecic, Stanford had their best season in the last seventy years (and probably best in school history). Next season, their coach will move on to much greener pastures, their quarterback will leave school early to be the #1 pick in the NFL draft, the 15 fans that made the trek to the Orange Bowl* will move on and Stanford will again descend into mediocrity. There’s no program-building here: this was Stanford’s one great season and they won’t make a BCS bowl until the next time the planets align in their favor.

* Was that stadium even half full last night? You’d think an academic destination school like Stanford would have a diaspora throughout the country – shouldn’t there be at least a handful of Stanford alums in South Florida?

So yeah – it’s unfair to TCU that they didn’t get a chance to play in the National Championship Game, but Gary Patterson has built a program down in Fort Worth that will be good for some time – so good in fact that the Big East invited TCU to join in 2012 to save their own BCS bid. The Horned Frogs will be a fringe National Title contender for some time; Stanford, meanwhile, won’t even be in the discussion. At the end of this season, the Cardinal are arguably playing better football than any other team in the country. They reached the Top 5 for the first time since before World War II. But they were denied a chance for a Championship because they had the audacity to have their one magical season in an even year: if only they waited until 2011, they would have played Oregon at home and probably gone undefeated. Instead, they’ll have to wait another seventy or so years until another unique confluence of events makes Stanford a title contender again. Now THAT is unfair.

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Sugar Bowl: Ohio State vs. Arkansas

On to the Sugar Bowl, or the Noika Who-Cares-About-This-Game-We-Already-Know-The-SEC-Is-Better-Than-The-Big-Ten Bowl. My initial inclination was to go with Ohio State in this game because I just don’t think Arkansas is all that good. But then the Big Ten takes that collective dump on New Year’s Day and now my head’s spinning. On the other hand, didn’t we already know that the Big Ten was bad? I picked against the conference in four of their five losses on New Year’s Day. I only missed my Michigan State upset pick over Alabama, but that wasn’t exactly a surprise – I even argued in my preview that Michigan State was either going to win straight up or Alabama was going to destroy the Spartans by multiple touchdowns, I just happened to pick the wrong result.

This seems like a perfect game to tackle from a different angle – instead of trying to decide which team to pick, I’ll try to decide which team not to pick. In bullet-point form:

Why Not to Pick Ohio State:

– 0-9 all-time against SEC teams in bowls and 0-4 since 2000.

– The Big Ten sucks. They are not very good in BCS games (this was going to be an asterisk, but I decided instead to make it a whole post later)

– The Buckeyes played only one game against a team that finished the regular season in the Top 25 – a 31-18 loss at Wisconsin.

– The Big Ten sucks.

– The SEC is 7-3 in the Sugar Bowl – the only BCS bowl game in SEC country – since the inception of the BCS.

– Depending on who you talk to, Arkansas might be the second-best team in the country. They lost only to Auburn and Alabama and blew fourth quarter leads in both games.

– The Big Ten sucks.

Why not to pick Arkansas:

– They have the worst defense of any BCS team. Cam Newton put up 65 points on the Razorback defense. Even though Terrelle Pryor is only half as good as Newton, half of 65 is still a lot of points.

– They needed overtime to beat East Carolina in their bowl game last year.

– Might only be the fourth best team in the SEC. They finished the season in a near dead-heat with Alabama and LSU (each of the three teams went 1-1 against the others) and were fortunate to get both teams at home this season (they beat LSU and lost to Alabama).

– After he threw two interceptions in the last five minutes to blow the Alabama game, can we really trust Ryan Mallett?

– Although they played a much tougher schedule, they didn’t really do much better than Ohio State. They beat LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State (in double overtime), but lost to Auburn and Alabama for a 3-2 overall record against the top 25.

That’s 7 to 5 for Arkansas…and yes I stand by my triple-count of how bad the Big Ten is. For the first time this season I’m going to change my bowl pick from my initial selection. The Razorbacks win 35-24.

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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.