Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
18 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
Buckle up, everybody. The bowl season undercard is upon us. It’s time for the mid-majors to get their chance to shine on ESPN -- even in primetime. Can the Mountain West further assert itself as a big-time conference? Can Southern Miss win its fourth New Orleans Bowl in six seasons? Can the chip on Boston College's shoulder offset its disadvantages in the talent and geography departments? Can Ohio University exact five years of (ahem) deserved revenge on its former conference mate, Marshall? Can the 7th Day Adventure writers convince you to watch some games about which you previously didn't give a damn?
(Teams are listed according to BCS rankings.)
Critics often complain about the ridiculous number of bowl games, saying that it dilutes the positive impact of making a bowl, that it rewards mediocrity, and that nobody watches. Well, ask Wyoming fans if they care. In its first season under former Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, Wyoming improved to 6-6, and the reward is a trip to beautiful Albuquerque (seriously, it's lovely) to face Fresno State, bruising back Ryan Mathews (1,664 rushing yards in a 220-pound package), and the balanced Bulldogs offense. Fresno will put points on the board -- will Wyoming? The 20,000-foot strategy is simple for Wyoming: score, win. The Cowboys are undefeated when scoring 11 points or more this season; the problem is that they've scored 10 points or fewer six times. This is Fresno's second straight trip to the New Mexico Bowl, and while it's possible that the Bulldogs will not rise to the occasion, they hold the talent and experience advantage in this battle.
The Picks -- Rob: Fresno St. | FEI: Fresno St. | S&P+: Wyoming
The Big East has a pretty decent bowl record during the last few years, nabbing the silly "Bowl Challenge Cup" distinction with an undefeated 2006 and winning seven of 11 games in 2007 and 2008. But most of the victories have been of the ho-hum variety -- like this one for instance. Central Florida’s distinctions in 2009 include losing to Miami and Texas by a combined 62-10. Oh yes, and the (non-Scarlet) Knights were able to topple high-flying Houston back in November, certainly a better win than Rutgers was able to muster this season in posting a sub-.500 conference record. The Scarlet Knights did finish best in the nation in turnover margin (plus-20) contributing to its No. 2 ranking in field position advantage. Wideout Tim Brown will likely be the game’s biggest playmaker if Rutgers has time to throw -- Central Florida ranked seventh in the nation in sacks.
The Picks -- Rob: Rutgers | FEI: Rutgers | S&P+: UCF
Sun Belt champ Troy is off to the GMAC Bowl, opening the door for the red-hot Middles, who have won six straight and finished a strong 9-3. The entertaining Blue Raiders feature the Tony Franklin version of the spread, which was booed out of Auburn but found a home in Murfreesboro, thanks to slick quarterback Dwight Dasher, a holiday name if there ever was one. Middle Tennessee had turnover issues this season -- a common theme among teams newly embracing a spread attack -- but compensated with a solid defense, which had enough takeaways to rank the team ninth nationally in turnover margin. The defense will be hard pressed to stop a balanced Southern Miss offense that features running back Damion Fletcher and wide receiver DeAndre Brown, who suffered a terrifying leg injury in last season’s NOB but rebounded to lead the team in receiving. Quarterback Martevious Young has been steady in replacing injured starter Austin Davis. This should be an entertaining and high-scoring affair.
The Picks -- Rob: Southern Miss | FEI: Southern Miss | S&P+: MTSU
The Las Vegas Bowl pits the fifth choice from the Pac-10 against the first choice from the Mountain West. The placement seems nice for BYU until you remember that Utah and now TCU have exceeded dreams of a Christmas in Vegas and reaped BCS rewards, leaving their Mormon rivals to "revel" in Sin City (as the joke goes, BYU fans travel with a copy of the Ten Commandments and a $100 bill, and don’t break either). The Cougars will have a tough enough time without coveting their neighbor’s BCS elevation, facing a powerhouse Oregon State attack led by the Brothers Touchdown, James and Jacquizz Rodgers, and outstanding quarterback Sean Canfield. Beavers coach Mike Riley is 5-0 in bowl games and is under orders from Howard Hughes and the Las Vegas city council to provide more excitement than last year’s 3-0 Ambien Bowl win over Pitt. BYU answers with superb senior quarterback Max Hall, who threw for 30 touchdowns and won his 31st game as a starter this season. It should be a show worthy of skipping the Blue Man Group for an evening.
The Picks -- Rob: Ore. St. | FEI: Ore. St. | S&P+: BYU (LOCK)
With TCU stuck facing the WAC champion in the Fiesta Bowl, next Tuesday and Wednesday represent the Mountain West's best opportunity to buy more "We deserve that BCS auto bid" ammo. After Tuesday's Commandments and Ambien comes Utah's Wednesday attempt to knock off a Cal team that has responded to the loss of Jahvid Best (perhaps for good) by, well, being every bit as inconsistent without him. How to do you make a prediction for a Golden Bears game? This is a team capable of winning at Stanford and getting smoked at Washington, of beating Arizona and laying down for the worst USC team in almost a decade. If Good Cal shows up, they could win by 21. But watch out for Bad Cal. Either way, you can almost guarantee that the Utes will play well -- they always do in bowls. Their last bowl loss? The 1996 Copper Bowl. They have won eight in a row, and their defense is more than capable of shutting down California if the Bears' Kevin Riley isn't dialed in.
The Picks -- Rob: California | FEI: California | S&P+: Utah
The Wolfpack can boast the biggest point spread of the 2009 bowl season, in large part thanks to a mid-season tear through a mostly pathetic WAC conference schedule and an extraordinarily explosive offense. After ripping off more than 51 points per game in eight straight victories in October and November, Nevada fell short in a regular season finale upset bid against Boise State. Led by dual-threat, loaded-pistol quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the Wolfpack had top-5 finishes in total offense and scoring offense. Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott join Kaepernick to form the first backfield in NCAA history with three 1,000-yard rushers. On the other sideline, witness a death penalty resurrection as SMU returns to a bowl for the first time in 25 years. Mustangs head coach June Jones should be comfortable in the islands, having coached Hawaii to six bowl berths in nine seasons -- including four wins out of five in bowl games in the Aloha state.
The Picks -- Rob: Nevada | FEI: SMU (LOCK) | S&P+: Nevada
Time for a Brent Musberger impersonation. Kick up the dramatic music.
"For years, Ohio has waited, hoping their moment would finally come. Five seasons ago, the Bobcats missed a field goal in the waning seconds, losing a 16-13 heartbreaker to the Marshall Thundering Herd. Marshall then left for another conference before Ohio could exact revenge. Five years of agony, five years of faith that their day for revenge would soon come. Well, that day is now. In front of
tens of thousands of fans at Ford Field in Detroit, Frank Solich and the Ohio Bobcats get a chance to re-write the history books. Is this a pie-in-the-sky dream? Will Marshall get their just desserts? It's the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl on ESPN!
"You're looking liiiiiiiive on Detroit, Michigan ..."
(Admit it, you are 60 percent more likely to watch this game after reading this ...)
The Picks -- Rob: Ohio | FEI: Ohio | S&P+: Marshall
The Panthers were on the doorstep of stealing the Big East BCS bowl berth from Cincinnati at the end of the year, but losses to the Bearcats and Mountaineers by four total points demotes Pittsburgh to the league’s No. 3 spot. Disappointing, yes, but the Panthers are especially youthful at the skill positions on offense, and even a less-prestigious bowl bid can be a springboard to a breakaway 2010 for sophomore receiver Jonathan Baldwin (seven 100-yard receiving games) and freshman running back Dion Lewis (nine 100-yard games and 16 touchdowns rushing). Lewis will be matched up against a very stingy Tar Heels run defense that surrendered only 2.8 yards per carry on the year. Their defensive line is anchored by Robert Quinn, ranked in the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss. North Carolina plays in its home-state bowl game for the second straight season -- the game featured the fourth-best attendance in bowl games in 2008.
The Picks -- Rob: Pitt | FEI: Pitt | S&P+: Pitt
When the season kicked off in August, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone predicting a bowl game between the Trojans and Eagles. Heck, by mid-season such a matchup would have seemed preposterous -- through almost all of October, USC still had its eyes on a Pac-10 championship, and Boston College couldn’t move the ball or score away from home. Two teams with wildly different finishes and emotions? Put ‘em on the same sideline in the Emerald Nuts bowl! After navigating the bizarro AT&T Park set-up -- on top of the sideline quirk, the left field wall and first base dugout are virtually in the field of play -- this one will come down to which team is most focused. At their best, USC’s Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight played with purpose this year, and tight end Anthony McCoy and safety Taylor Mays are among the nation’s most treacherous threats. Boston College brings its own batch of star power in the form of an anonymous, efficient defense and a chip on the team’s shoulder.
The Picks -- Rob: USC (LOCK) | FEI: BC | S&P+: BC
At first blush, you’d pick Clemson as the more successful program in a Nashville second. But in the postseason, it’s been the Wildcats who have outclawed the Tigers, winning three straight bowl games to Clemson’s three consecutive losses, including a 28-20 Kentucky over Clemson win in this very bowl back in 2006. Clemson running back C.J. Spiller’s stock has never been higher, even as his team has slid in damaging late-season losses that relegated them to this minor bowl slot. Assuming Spiller is healthy (which can seldom be assumed -- Spiller is as fragile as he is talented), he should put on a stellar swan song for the Orange faithful. The absence of Kentucky’s best defender, linebacker Sam Maxwell (shoulder surgery), can only help Spiller find room on the perimeter. Kentucky will rely on a potent ground game, regardless of whether quarterback Mike Hartline can make it back from injury in time for the game. Wide receiver Randall Cobb is Spiller-lite, an electrifying player who gets the ball in a variety of fashions, while running back Derrick Locke provides a more traditional slant to the rushing attack.
The Picks -- Rob: Kentucky | FEI: Clemson | S&P+: Clemson
Rob Weintraub: On consecutive days next week, teams from the Pac-10 will tangle with Mountain West heavyweights. In the Las Vegas Bowl, BYU plays Oregon State. The following day, in the Poinsettia Bowl, Utah plays Cal. Frustrated fans in the Rockies, desiring a more equitable playing field for the MWC, have wanted Pac-10 expansion for years, with the Utah duo front and center. The Pac-10 has no desire to share the wealth or dilute what it sees as a strong mix of sporting and academic institutions. But with no playoff system on the horizon, something needs to be done to include the MWC heavyweights in the power conference greedfest called the BCS. A resounding double shot of wins by the Salt Lake State pair over strong Pac-10 teams would give the MWC’s cause another shot in the arm.
Brian Fremeau: I watched every minute of every bowl game last season -- an experiment I likely won’t repeat, and one I very cautiously recommend doing at least once. I certainly can’t say every game was memorable -- I know there was a Texas Bowl last year, but God help me if I can recall any details of it. On the other hand, I do remember a number of stand-out bowl game performances I might not have witnessed or appreciated had I not put myself and the DVR through such a marathon. I vividly remember a scrappy little guy named Gartrell Johnson rushing for 285 yards and catching 90 more (FBS bowl record for yards from scrimmage) in last year’s wildly entertaining New Mexico bowl. The same day, Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner threw a perfect 11-for-11 game in a victory over Navy, the first "perfect" game in bowl history. Neither game would have had my attention in any other year, and neither individual performance resonated on a national scale. But bowl games are perfectly suited for such exhibitions of modest distinction -- especially this first week. Enjoy, in moderation.
Bill Connelly: Thank you, Big Ten. In what is typically the single most boring week of the college football, the Big Ten filled the void with talks of expansion. (Of course, for the next year, they'll just be talking about whether to talk about expanding, but still.) Suddenly, the week was filled with speculation and buzz. Who would be the top candidates if the Big Ten were to add a team? Should they just stop at one? Should they go for a (ridiculous) home run attempt like Texas? The Big Ten stole the week with out playing in (and losing) a single bowl game.
For the record, here is the list of viable expansion candidates without a major hole in their candidacy:
That's it. Cincinnati doesn't bring enough to the table academically and athletically. Syracuse might not bring enough to the table, plus it doesn't really make sense for them to move for any reason other than football. Louisville is ... too southern? I don't know -- it has just never felt Midwestern enough for me to take seriously. But the three teams above pass most tests (Rutgers is last because I simply do not believe the "They would bring the New York market into play" logic, and they don't offer a whole lot athletically), and I believe all three would accept an offer. (Yes, Missouri would accept. Unless you live in Big 12 country, you probably do not get a very good grasp on the underground disgruntlement teams not named Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M or Nebraska feel about being treated like second-class citizens. Plus, it would make sense from both a money and academics perspective.) Do any of those three teams offer enough to make expansion worthwhile? We shall see. But it made for an entertaining week of speculation, did it not?
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|New Mexico||Fresno State||-11.5||Wyoming||Fresno St.||Fresno St.||Wyoming|
|St. Petersburg||Central Florida||+2.5||Rutgers||Rutgers||Rutgers||UCF|
|New Orleans||Southern Miss||-3.5||Middle Tenn. St.||USM||USM||MTSU|
|Las Vegas||Oregon State||-2.5||BYU||Ore. St.||Ore. St.||BYU*|
|Meineke Car Care||Pittsburgh||-3||North Carolina||Pitt||Pitt||Pittsburgh|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|2 Wks. Ago
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44 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2009, 9:50pm by Rocco