Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
28 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
The first week or so of the bowl season began with a series of upsets and continued on with some intriguing games. Our second batch of games starts with a potential offensive explosion and continues with a lot of good defenses -- Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Tennessee -- taking the reins. Join us for a walkthrough of what to expect between now and New Year's Eve.
(Teams are listed according to BCS rankings.)
Alert the scoreboard operator in Shreveport -- this game matches the No. 70 (UGA) and No. 104 (A&M) scoring defenses in the nation. The new defensive coordinator in Athens -- whoever he may be, several coaches have already passed -- will have an opportunity to see his new charges try and stop the electric Aggie quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who could become a 2010 Heisman candidate. UGA's awful 2008 pass rush improved this year with 28 sacks, led by sophomore defensive end Justin Houston, an impact rusher in passing situations (7.5 sacks). The back seven has been poor, so getting to the slippery Johnson will be paramount. The return to health of wide receiver A.J. Green will help the Bulldogs keep pace, as will the emergence of freshman running back Washaun Ealey. Senior quarterback Joe Cox was hit or miss in '09 -- he completed only 55.9 percent of his passes, but his eight yards per attempt was 19th among qualifying passers.
The Picks -- Rob: Georgia | FEI: Georgia | S&P+: A&M
Is there a less traditional bowl pairing this season than this Pac-10 vs. MAC clash? The Bruins were officially the last team into the postseason dance, having to wait an extra week for Army (!) to fall short of bowl eligibility, which secured their vacation trip from sunny southern California to wintry D.C. They'll meet the upstart of all upstarts in the Owls, winner of nine games against FBS opponents, three fewer than they totaled in the previous six years combined. Comparing Al Golden to Rick Neuheisel on wins alone isn't exactly fair, of course -- UCLA faced six FEI top-30 teams to Temple's one in 2009. Nevertheless, a victory for either team would be only its second of the year over an opponent with at least six wins. Watch for the Owls' James Nixon on kick returns. He ranks eighth nationally in yards per return and kick coverage has been a problem area for the Bruins.
The Picks -- Rob: Temple | FEI: Temple | S&P+: Temple
This game in the Magic Kingdom pits one of the more entertaining teams to watch against one of the dullest. Miami averaged 31.7 points per game, led by the electric, if erratic, quarterback Jacory Harris. Wisconsin ran it 539 times, more than all but four non-option teams, led by the rhino-like charges of RB John Clay. Defensively, the two squads were almost identical -- The U giving up 268 points; The W giving up 269. The Canes are setting up for next season, when its revamped roster from the past couple of years should pay dividends. Wisconsin rebounded nicely from getting massacred by Florida State in last year's CSB. Whichever team establishes its offensive will on the other side will emerge with the Champs Sports Trophy, which presumably comes in sizes S-XXL.
The Picks -- Rob: Miami (LOCK) | FEI: Miami | S&P+: Wisconsin
Sure, Idaho must be thrilled to be returning to a bowl game for the first time in 11 years. But did the destination have to be Boise? The Vandals have dropped 191 points in their last three games on the blue turf, though, mercifully, Boise State won't be on the other sideline in this game. Bowling Green also got smoked by the Broncos this fall, so at least the teams will have something to talk about at the banquet. Idaho's defense has been abused by virtually everyone this year (35.5 points per game), ranking No. 119 in defensive FEI. Falcons quarterback Tyler Sheehan (305 yards per game) has to be licking his chops, facing the Vandals' No. 117 S&P+ defense against the pass.
The Picks -- Rob: BGSU | FEI: BGSU | S&P+: BGSU
During the last three weeks, Ndamukong Suh has gone from shamefully overlooked superstar to improbable household name. Deservedly so -- Suh led the Cornhuskers to a No. 2 national rank in fewest points allowed per game (11.2) and an across-the-board top-10 unit in FEI and S&P+ defensive measures. Arizona's been a bit more anonymous, finishing in the thick of the Pac-10 upper crust, but never demonstrating much national credibility or consistency. The strongest section of either team's resume might be found in their narrow losses to good teams -- Virginia Tech and Texas for Nebraska, Iowa and Oregon for Arizona. In order for Arizona to win, they'll have to create short-field opportunities. The Cornhuskers gave up only six touchdowns this year on 120 drives that began at or inside the opponent's 30-yard line.
The Picks -- Rob: Nebraska | FEI: Arizona | S&P+: Nebraska
Air Force made the ghost of General LeMay weep by running the ball 62 times per game, tops in the nation. The Cougars made enemy defensive backs weep by chucking it 54 times per game, likewise tops in the nation. Therefore, the Armed Forces Bowl sets up as an intriguing war game between competing philosophies -- infantry charge against carpet bombing. Last year, the flyboys got the last laugh, winning in this same bowl game 34-28. Ironically, it was Houston quarterback Case Keenum's two running touchdowns that made the difference. One clue to how the rematch should turn out -- Houston was first in the nation in scoring; Air Force was 57th. For the future F-117 and Stealth Bomber pilots to pull the upset, they will have to take advantage of Houston's porous rush defense (allowing 213 yards per game) with running backs Jared Tew and Asher Clark. The Falcons have never won at Amon Carter Stadium in Ft. Worth, host of the AFB, and will presumably be facing a pro-Cougars crowd.
The Picks -- Rob: Houston | FEI: Houston | S&P+: Air Force
Their coaches were rumored for every job from Notre Dame to Kansas to Florida (for five seconds) to the pros. Their best quarterbacks (Andrew "Don't Call Me Oliver" Luck, Sam Bradford) won't be playing. Their best players (Toby Gerhart, Gerald McCoy) will soon be jumping to the NFL. The Sun Bowl is why picking bowl games is a fool's errand. After three straight Big 12 titles, will Oklahoma care about playing in the Sun Bowl? And how will senior Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard play in his final game, stepping in for injured freshman Luck? Here's what we know for sure: The most intriguing matchup the Sun Bowl presents is Gerhart and Stanford's eighth-ranked rushing offense taking on McCoy and Oklahoma's fifth-ranked rushing defense. If the Cardinal can't get going on the ground, the Sooners and quarterback Landry Jones should generate enough offense to win, no matter what kind of protection Jones gets from an offensive line still healing from eleventy billion injuries.
The Picks -- Rob: Stanford | FEI: Stanford | S&P+: Oklahoma (LOCK)
Forty-nine years and one day since the last time these two teams met, the Midshipmen and Tigers are set to rumble in a sold-out Reliant Stadium. Missouri seems to hold the advantage in most categories, but then again so did Notre Dame and Ohio State. Despite losses to Temple and Hawaii, Navy tends to save its best performances for its biggest opponents, and an upset of the Tigers would surprise nobody. Two matchups, however, could wreck Navy's plans: (1) Navy's 83rd-ranked S&P+ pass defense has given no indication that they can slow down a Missouri passing game that has been next to automatic this season when Blaine Gabbert has been healthy, and (2) the Navy offense is not built to take advantage of Missouri's biggest weakness -- passing downs pass defense. If the Middies can't pass when they have to, then it will be the 1961 Orange Bowl all over again (a 21-14 Navy loss).
The Picks -- Rob: Navy | FEI: Navy (LOCK) | S&P+: Missouri
Two teams most fans didn't know were actually bowl eligible, playing on a network a good portion of the country doesn't get. A cynic would point out that most of the players in this game won't ever see another opportunity to be seen on the NFL Network, but instead we'll just mention that these two cold-weather schools should have pretty good representation in the warm-weather climate of Arizona, and they are rather evenly matched. What Iowa State's defense lacks in play-to-play consistency, they make up for in the big play department -- they have forced 20 fumbles this season (and believe it or not, all 20 did not happen in the Nebraska game), and turnovers and decent special teams have led to a Field Position Advantage ranking much higher than their overall production would suggest. In the end, this game could be decided by the fact that, amid these teams' rather unimpressive rankings, Minnesota's defense has been the statistically best unit on the field. They rank 20th in the country in standard downs defense, and a large number of passing downs could put Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud in an awkward (and probably untenable) position.
The Picks -- Rob: Minnesota | FEI: Minnesota | S&P+: Minnesota
The traditional final game of the calendar year should lead nicely into the Peach Drop outside the Georgia Dome. Running and defense are what both teams do best -- neither quarterback, Tyrod Taylor of Tech or Jonathan Crompton of Tennessee, scares opponents. Indeed, win or lose, and despite his 26-touchdown season, Volunteers fans will be celebrating the end of Crompton's eligibility. Volunteers' Thorpe Award-winning safety Eric Berry returns to his native Atlanta for his collegiate swan song, but fans will surely get to see Berry ply his trade on Sundays. The Hokies defense has no single standout but held opponents to a mere 15.8 points per game, good for 11th in the nation. Both sides have thousand-yard backs, Montario Hardesty for the SEC reps and ACC Freshman of the Year Ryan Williams for the Hokies. Tech has lost twice in Atlanta already this season, to Alabama and Georgia Tech. A third will provoke Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer to channel General Sherman and burn the city down.
The Picks -- Rob: Tennessee | FEI: Va. Tech | S&P+: Va. Tech
Rob Weintraub: Urban Meyer's retirement lasted about 24 hours, but in that short amount of time, Florida's two main rivals got a shot in the arm. Georgia and Tennessee are mired in mediocrity at the moment, but they now sense an opening to vault right back to the top of the SEC East, given Meyer's likely lessened intensity and the blunted edge that will surely accompany the Gators program. Both the Bulldogs and Volunteers play this week in otherwise uninspiring bowls. Now Mark Richt and Lane Kiffin can propel their teams into next season with strong performances before the new year. Before the SEC title game, UF seemed poised to dominate the East for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, question marks abound, especially with Tim Tebow finally leaving Gainesville.
Bill Connelly: Meyer's aforementioned 24-hour retirement, apparently retracted without the immediate knowledge of the family by whom he swears he is doing right, has distracted from what has really been an enjoyable first week (or so) of the bowl season. Wyoming rode a pair of true freshmen to a superb overtime comeback. Middle Tennessee quarterback Dwight Dasher overcame what looked like two separate career-threatening knee injuries to, uh, dash for 201 rushing yards against Southern Miss. A ridiculous wind led to a couple of six-yard punts in a generally entertaining BYU blowout of Oregon State in Vegas. SMU proved that you can come back from the death penalty (it only takes a mere couple of decades) by destroying Nevada in Hawaii. Pitt gave North Carolina its second straight last-minute Meineke Car Care Bowl loss. Others, including Utah-Cal, USC-Boston College, and Clemson-Kentucky, have been pleasing to the eye as well. Meyer will continue to dominate the headlines this week, but let's not lose sight of the games themselves.
Brian Fremeau: How's your bowl confidence pool looking? Nevada and Fresno State were the only double-digit opening line favorites of the 2009-10 postseason. Both lost. The underdog won five of the first six games and almost every result to date has created more questions than answers about regular season team and conference results. Has the Pac-10 been as severely overrated as the uninspiring Cal and Oregon State performances may indicate? Is the Mountain West's 3-0 start further validation of TCU's national credentials, and are they about a week away from taking the WAC's Boise State behind the woodshed? There are a ton of bowl games, but with only about one a day so far, it's hard to resist making broad brush assessments after each final whistle blows. I'm looking forward to the potential for another wave of surprises.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Armed Forces||Houston||-4||Air Force||Houston||Houston||Air Force|
|Chick-Fil-A||Virginia Tech||-4.5||Tennessee||Tennessee||Va. Tech||Va. Tech|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|First 10 Bowls
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