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.
31 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly, Brian Fremeau, and Rob Weintraub
The upsets and drama just keep pouring in this bowl season. In the last batch of 10 games, six underdogs won straight up, and only a couple things are clear: Don't mess with the Mountain West or the service academies, and the Pac-10 should stop talking about being underrated for a while. Or at least until Oregon gets the chance to knock off Ohio State tonight. Let's take a look at the next batch of bowls!
(Teams are listed according to BCS rankings.)
Ah, nothing like an 11 a.m. kickoff to get your couch potato on. It may be hard to take a team that lost to Syracuse seriously, but Northwestern's spread attack can move the ball. Unfortunately, Auburn's spread is a little better. The Big Ten version is predicated on a short passing game orchestrated by quarterback Mike Kafka. That puts enormous pressure on the opponent to tackle, and Auburn's back seven has been strong in that regard in '09 (the Tigers rank 29th in passing defense). Gus Malzahn's version run by Auburn leans more heavily on the ground game, which makes sense because running backs Ben Tate and sensational frosh Onterio McCalebb are in uniform. The Wildcats aren't big in the trenches, and might get pushed around by the physical Auburn offensive line. Northwestern may have to resort to some trickeration and get some breaks to pull the upset.
The Picks -- Rob: Auburn | FEI: Auburn | S&P+: Auburn
Often bowl games are a chance for teams hit by injuries in the regular season to get healthy and turn in surprisingly strong performances. Then there is LSU, who limps into the Capital One Bowl (during Capital One Bowl Week) weaker than at any point in the season. The running game is decimated, leaving the attack in the hands of quarterback Jordan Jefferson, whose mobility was limited by leg injuries late in the campaign as well. His tall, strong wide receivers are LSU's strength -- Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver are a handful. The question is whether Jefferson will have the time to look for them. Penn State is tied for tenth in the nation with 35 sacks, and its pass rush, led by defensive tackle Jared Odrick, will be a handful for LSU's underachieving offensive line. LSU's best hope may lie with punt returner Trindon Holliday, a diminutive sprinter who will test the Nittany Lions' porous special teams (fifth from the bottom in punt return yards allowed in '09). On offense, JoePa's bunch will try hammer away at a physical LSU defense in what will be an interesting test of wills. Field position will be at a premium in this one.
The Picks -- Rob: LSU | FEI: LSU | S&P+: Penn St.
It's Bobby Bowden's last game on the Seminoles sideline, and daggummit if it just ain't gonna be the same in Tallahassee without him. That's kind of the point of forcing his exit, of course, since FSU really hasn't been "itself” in a while. The Seminoles defense was among the most fearsome units in college football during their decade-plus domination of the ACC, but this year has been downright ugly. They've allowed 6.8 yards per play on the season, and any offense with a pulse has cleared 400 yards against them without breaking a sweat. FSU's offense -- No. 8 FEI, No. 15 S&P+ -- must run circles around them in practice. The heartbeat of the West Virginia's attack is Noel Devine, a junior likely playing in his last game for the Mountaineers and looking to rubber-stamp his NFL draft potential.
The Picks -- Rob: WVU | FEI: FSU | S&P+: WVU
It's been a bizarre month for head coaching drama, and USF's Jim Leavitt appears to have emerged from his player-abuse accusation saga unscathed (aside from the busted nose, of course). South Florida managed to win only two of its last seven games in 2009, a slide that coincided with its traditional October/November swoon, and one that was precipitated by the season-ending injury to Bulls program poster-child Matt Groethe. B.J. Daniels has been erratic in relief, completing better than 50 percent of his passes in only three of nine games as a starter. The Bulls are only minus-1 in turnover margin, but the resulting field position has been an issue. South Florida has allowed more than twice as many drives (18) to start in their territory than they've managed themselves (8). NIU has been much stronger in FPA, a key ingredient in their victories, and in their narrow losses to the likes of Wisconsin and Idaho.
The Picks -- Rob: S. Florida | FEI: NIU | S&P+: S. Florida
The Cotton Bowl hardly represents a disappointing season, but both schools had higher aspirations when the season began (both were preseason top-five teams). Ole Miss stomped Texas Tech in this bowl last season, but if the team bus pulls up to the place they played last January, the Rebels will be all alone. The Cotton Bowl no longer takes place at the Cotton Bowl -- it has moved to JerryWorld, aka Dallas Cowboys Stadium. That humongoid video screen should get a workout. Ole Miss spent the first part of the season inexplicably burying its best player, Dexter McCluster. The sensational Run/Catch-DMC is close to topping the 1,000/500 yard marks in rushing and receiving, respectively. Controlling him will be Cowboys' defensive coordinator Bill Young's priority. Oklahoma State has the sixth best rushing defense in the country, mainly thanks to a fleet group of linebackers led by the man in the middle, Donald Booker, who stepped in for injured Orie Lemon with stellar play. When the Cowboys have the ball, massive left tackle Russell Okong will try to move out a tough Ole Miss defensive line.
The Picks -- Rob: Ole Miss | FEI: Ole Miss | S&P+: OSU
Only Notre Dame (10) played in more single-possession games than Connecticut (9) this season, and it was a 33-30 overtime victory for the Huskies over the Irish that broke Connecticut out of its midseason funk and spurred them towards bowl eligibility. South Carolina went 4-1 in single-possession games, a better winning percentage than all but six other teams with as many tight contests in 2009. The resume booster for the Gamecocks came in the team's finale, a 34-17 drubbing of rival Clemson with a particularly impressive 223 yards on the ground. UConn's Randy Edsall has as many bowl victories in the last decade (2) as Steve Spurrier, whose career in Columbia has been, well, put him down for a bogey. Finishing strong hasn't been the Gamecocks' M.O. of late -- after 6-1, 7-3, and 6-2 starts the last three seasons respectively, South Carolina finished 0-5, 0-3, and 1-3.
The Picks -- Rob: UConn | FEI: UConn | S&P+: S. Caro.
The victim of a brutal schedule, an Arkansas team powered by Ryan Mallett and one of the nation's best offenses (first in offensive S&P+, 12th in offensive FEI) takes on an East Carolina team that capitalizes on mistakes better than just about any team in the country. The Pirates, potentially powered by a new home-field logo that is downright outstanding, are 16th in the country in Field Position Advantage despite the fact that they do not rank in the top 40 in any major S&P+ or FEI category. In what seems like one of the rare bowls in which coaching carousel (or just drama) is a main storyline (ironic, considering who coaches Arkansas), there is at least a decent possibility for a shootout -- Arkansas lost two of their top three tacklers to the dreaded "violation of team rules." That might make it at least a little easier for the Pirates to keep up with Mallett and star receiver Greg Childs.
The Picks -- Rob: ECU | FEI: Arkansas | S&P+: Arkansas
So ... are they still playing this game? It seems a legitimate question to ask considering the fact that Michigan State has suspended eleven players for this game for brawling in a residence hall. We're also not actually sure if Tech has managed any practice time this week, what with their having to answer non-stop questions about ESPN personalities and lawsuits and sheds and YouTube videos, and, now, Tommy Tuberville. Mike Leach's firing this week has begun to reveal an apparently split locker room between Tech players who would kill for Mike Leach and ... those who just sometimes wanted to kill Mike Leach. If you have any idea what either of these teams is bringing to the table Saturday night, you are just lying to yourself.
The Picks -- Rob: Texas Tech | FEI: Texas Tech | S&P+: MSU
One of the more underrated matchups of the bowl season, the GMAC Bowl pits the Sun Belt champs against the MAC champs, two programs that have been the class of their respective conferences over the last half-decade. Troy has the distinction of being the single most confusing team in FBS this year -- they have amassed a respectable S&P+ ranking of 39th, powered by sturdy passing and passing downs performances and a solid rushing defense, while simultaneously managing only a 90th-place FEI ranking, due mostly to a mightily inefficient defense. Can their secondary slow down a Central Michigan attack in Dan LeFevour's final game? CMU doesn't scare anybody with its running game, but LeFevour (154.1 passer rating, 27 touchdowns, six interceptions) and receiver Antonio Brown (97 receptions, 1,020 yards, nine touchdowns) have put together some pretty silly stats this year. It is Troy's speed versus Central's experience in this one.
The Picks -- Rob: CMU | FEI: CMU* | S&P+: Troy
Rob Weintraub: The Terrelle Pryor paradox -- Ohio State's quarterback says he has a slightly torn PCL ligament in his left knee, but he has been running at his best down the stretch. Pryor says the injury is "no big deal," which just goes to prove that football players have a different definition of a big deal than the rest of us. His mobility is critical for the Buckeyes, because a strong ground game led by Pryor's zone-read running is Ohio State's path to victory in Pasadena. Oregon's smallish front seven is quick,and stood up reasonably well against the stud running backs of the Pac-10 (allowing 3.41 yards per carry). But depth is a concern, and getting leaned on by Ohio State's improving offensive line for 40 minutes would be a major problem.
Ball control is important -- slowing Oregon's multi-faceted Quack Attack will be a chore even for a tough defense like Ohio State's. The Buckeyes don't have the star power of recent years, but the unit is deep, fast, and technically sound. Tackling is the most important factor when playing against Oregon, whose offense is designed to get its speed guys in one-on-one space . The running of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and backs LaMichael James and LeGarrette Blount garners most of the attention, and deservedly so -- Oregon piled up 236 yards per game on the ground in '09. But wide receiver Jeff Maehl may be the key element to the Ducks' attack. His emergence as a deep threat (five touchdowns in the last four games) prevented defenses from moving safeties up to corral the runners, and if Ohio State cannot check him man to man, Oregon will be very difficult to stop.
The game could come down to Pryor making enough plays with his arm to move the chains, punishing the Ducks for stacking the box, and keeping Masoli & Co. on the sidelines. I'm not sure he has enough good throws in him to pull it off.
FEI Key to the Game: Tressel Ball. Ohio State has consistently ranked among the top teams in Field Position Advantage every year of the Tressel era. The Buckeyes have won the field position battle in nearly 80 percent of their games under Tressel, most especially thanks to strong defense and conservative play calling. Ohio State attempts fourth-down conversions less frequently than any other team in the country and 23 percent of Ohio State's punts occur in opponent territory. The net effect? Witness last year's Fiesta Bowl, in which the Buckeyes started six drives outside their own 25-yard line, compared to only one such drive for the explosive Texas Longhorns. Ohio State managed to hang around long enough and make just enough plays offensively to nearly topple a heavy favorite.
S&P+ Key to the Game: Ohio State's passing efficiency. The Buckeyes have managed a pretty respectable 33rd-place ranking in Passing S&P+, but that is powered by big-play ability (they are 17th in Passing PPP+). They are not very efficient at all (76th in Passing Success Rate+), and while Oregon has given up a few big plays, they are one of the best defenses in the country in limiting the other team's efficiency (10th overall in Close-Game Success Rate+). Big plays will obviously be helpful, but sustained offense is needed to counteract Oregon's high-powered attack, and Terrelle Pryor will need to be quite efficient to lead the Buckeyes to victory.
The Picks -- Rob: Oregon | FEI: Oregon | S&P+: Oregon
Rob Weintraub: The easiest way to prevent Urban Meyer's arachnoid cyst (isn't that what gave Peter Parker superpowers?) from sending him to the hospital is for his Florida Gators to remove all stress from the game. Fortunately for Meyer's health insurance provider, the Bearcats aren't likely to spike the coach's blood pressure.
Florida's defense was last seen getting its reputation splattered all over the Georgia Dome turf by Alabama's big uglies. The Tide rolled up 272 yards on the ground, but Cincy's passing attack plays more favorably to the Gators' strength, much like Oklahoma's pass-happy scheme in last season's BCS title matchup. The return of Sleepy Carlos Dunlap to the lineup will balance Florida's pass rush, allowing it to alter the timing of Cincy quarterback Tony Pike. The Bearcats only allowed 11 sacks on the season, but they haven't faced a stunt-and-twist-heavy rush with athletes like the Gators' defensive linemen. Pike was outstanding when given time to throw, but his lack of mobility is a liability when he isn't. Backup Zach Collaros is actually better suited to go against Florida, but he isn't the decision-maker Pike is. Cincy's best player, wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, will draw the attention of an excellent secondary led by All-America cornerback Joe Haden.
Amazingly, the Meyer Saga has relegated the Tim Tebow Swan Song storyline to the back burner. The mediocre Cincinnati defense should allow Tebow to gallop into the sunset with a good game running and passing, harp chords strumming and choir at full voice. Unlike the many SEC defenses that slowed Florida this season, the Bearcats simply don't have the manpower to get to Tebow and force him into check-down situations, where he struggles to make quick enough reads. Look for a jump-pass touchdown, and a long, sustained standing ovation when Meyer pulls him from the game early in the fourth quarter.
FEI Key to the Game: Three-and-Outs. The Bearcats rate miles ahead of the Gators in terms of raw Offensive Efficiency, a measure of a team's per-possession scoring adjusted for starting field position. But there's a dirty little secret buried in that statistic. Cincinnati has been very successful after it gets itself moving, but suffers more three-and-outs than any team with that kind of firepower ought to get away with. Only 67 percent of Cincinnati's drives travel at least 10 yards, good for the No. 36 ranking in that category (Florida's offense ranks No. 2 at 78 percent). The Gators defense also ranks in the top-10 in forcing three-and-outs. That initial first down on every drive for Cincinnati will be critical.
S&P+ Key to the Game: Cincinnati's run defense. The Sugar Bowl clearly brings two great offenses to the table, but the Bearcats' defense is the weakest unit on the field. They rank 49th in Rushing S&P+, and they are taking on a Florida offense that ranks first in Rushing S&P+. If they can't stop the Gators from eating up chunks of yards and keeping third downs manageable, then it will be pretty hard to keep up.
The Picks -- Rob: Cincinnati (Lock) | FEI: Cincinnati | S&P+: Florida
Rob Weintraub: TCU may have been in the national championship game, had Colt McCoy's brain freeze taken just a hair more time. Does that put the Horned Frogs in the bizarre situation of being disappointed with a BCS bid? Amazingly, Boise State, despite another undefeated season and a throttling of Oregon in the opener, is once again a perceptible underdog, even against another non-automatic qualifier.
TCU's defense is once again outstanding, led by defensive end Jerry Hughes. Unfortunately for Boise, their right tackle, Garrett Pendergast, suffered a broken ankle in practice and will miss the game. That means quarterback Kellen Moore may not have the cozy pocket he has grown accustomed to this season. His favorite target, wideout Austin Pettis, was injured in the season finale, and, even if he plays, he won't be the Pettis we all know and love. That puts a lot of pressure on Boise to run it against the No. 3 rushing defense in the nation (one that shut down Boise on the ground a year ago).
Boise's national rep is that of offensive juggernaut, but the Broncos defense is formidable -- just ask Oregon. The unit took the ball away from the opposition 32 times this season, and TCU's offense put the ball on the ground quite a bit -- 15 times, to be exact. Look for the Broncs to be stripping away. TCU quarterback Andy Dalton is efficient and doesn't throw many picks, so don't be surprised if the Frogs put it in the air more often than normal.
FEI Key to the Game: Game Efficiency (or lack thereof). On a per-possession basis, these were two of the most efficient teams in the nation every week in 2009. They controlled their opposition from the opening kickoff this season and were rarely threatened late in any game. Boise State ranks first nationally in percentage of possessions played with at least a two-score lead (67 percent); TCU ranks second (62 percent). The Horned Frogs rank first in percentage of possessions played with at least a three-score lead (46 percent); the Broncos rank second (42 percent). I don't expect a lopsided affair, and for either team, that is uncharted territory. How will each team respond?
S&P+ Key to the Game: Boise State's pass defense. These are two of the more well-rounded teams in the country, but the best matchup comes when TCU throws the ball. They are a sneaky fourth in the country in Passing S&P+, while Boise's defense comes in at seventh. The Broncos held the Horned Frogs to a respectable 5.5 yards per pass when these two teams met last year, but this is a much improved Frogs' aerial attack.
The Picks -- Rob: TCU | FEI: Boise St. | S&P+: TCU
Rob Weintraub: Much as the comedy equation is tragedy plus time, the formula for stopping Georgia Tech's triple option is discipline plus time. Having the extra practice sessions to prepare for the various ways Tech attacks is crucial -- witness LSU's stomping of the Jackets in last season's Chick-Fil-A Bowl. How much Iowa's defensive players learned in the last few weeks is the key to the game.
Of course, having players like linebacker Pat Angerer helps Iowa's cause. The Nagurski Award nominee is fifth in the nation in tackles per game, and possesses the instincts and violent tendencies to play well against the option. Defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn had 18 tackles for loss in the regular season, and he will be counted on to add to that total. The main question will be not whether Iowa can stop Teach, but whether they can do it for four quarters. Tech wears down opponents by never wavering from its option, and quarterback Josh Nesbitt is particularly effective in the final 15 minutes. His occasional forays to deep threat Demaryius Thomas may be the big plays needed to loosen Angerer and Co. and get them thinking -- the worst thing a defense can do against the triple option.
Iowa's dream of an unbeaten season and a trip to the BCS title game died when quarterback Ricky Stanzi went down against Northwestern with an ankle injury. Stanzi is back, but Tech can nevertheless expect a steady diet of inside-the-tackles running by Iowa's stable of backs, led by Adam Robinson. Teams have neutralized Tech DE/LB Derrick Morgan by running at him and keeping him off the edge. Hawkeyes left tackle Bryan Bulaga is a pro prospect, and his matchup with Morgan will be fascinating, although Tech likes to move Morgan around and may line him up more often on the right side. Either way, Iowa should be able to move the ball.
One aspect all the stats and matchups cannot predict is how a team like Georgia Tech responds to the moment. This is The Institute's first-ever BCS game, and the pressure can either spur the team to new heights ... or squish them into a turnover-filled letdown. Tech has been impressive at winning time in '09. How the team keeps its poise down the stretch in the first game of '10 will be the deciding factor.
FEI Key to the Game: Long Drives. The Yellow Jackets rank first nationally in Offensive FEI and the Hawkeyes rank third in Defensive FEI. All eyes will be on how either unit responds to facing its strongest opposition to date, though it's worth noting that Georgia Tech faced FEI top-20 defenses five times while Iowa hasn't faced a top-20 offense yet this year. It might seem cliche, but Iowa just has to get Georgia Tech's triple-option attack off the field and not let them control possessions. The Yellow Jackets rank first in the country in percentage of drives of 10 or more plays (11.4 percent). Nesbitt and Dwyer can be explosive on occasion, but they're at their most lethal in five-to-eight-yard bursts, over and over and over again.
S&P+ Key to the Game: Iowa's running game. It is the proverbial resistible force versus movable object when Iowa runs the ball Tuesday night. The Hawkeyes have one of the least efficient rushing attacks in the country (105th in Rushing Success Rate+), while the Yellow Jackets' defense has struggled to prevent big plays on the ground (96th in Rushing PPP+). While most eyes will be on how a sturdy Iowa defense handles Georgia's option, Iowa will need to move the ball too, and if they can on the ground, they take a large step toward winning their first ever Orange Bowl.
The Picks -- Rob: Iowa | FEI: Iowa | S&P+: Iowa
Rob Weintraub: It goes without saying that I'm furious that mid-major darlings Boise State and TCU have to play one another for the second straight season, instead of embarrassing some "name" school from the precious BCS conferences. Better to simply pay them off, shut them up, and go on with the good life, right, BCS? A disgrace. Granted, the situation is different -- instead of the Poinsettia Bowl, the Broncos and Frogs will put their unbeaten seasons on the line in the Fiesta Bowl. A nation of fans will tune in to see this one, as opposed to the minimal viewership of last season's game (won by TCU 17-16). Glendale was the site of Boise's memorable Schoolyard Sensation, the thrilling upset of Oklahoma in the Janurary 2007 game. Boise is a little better than that year's Broncos, which is fortunate because TCU is better than OU was in 2006. It should be a close and fascinating game, but TV ratings be damned -- let's see these teams against traditional powers Florida and Georgia Tech for once.
Bill Connelly: I'm all for a college football playoff and everything -- I have written about it and all -- but this bowl season has once again reaffirmed the fact that we simply must keep the bowl system in place if we add a playoff structure. There are plenty of ways to have both. Never mind empathy -- even if you couldn't care less about fans of Idaho, Wyoming, Temple, SMU, or any of the other teams tasting the bowl spectacle for the first time in a while (and in a lot of cases, winning too), there have been quite a few simply spectacular games this time around. The bowls are the socialist balance (Did you go 6-6? Congrats! You're almost definitely going to a bowl!) to the oligarchy that is the top tier of football money and power, and they give us a chance to see so many players we didn't even know existed. Guys like Austyn Carta-Samuels (Wyoming), Akeem Ayers (UCLA), Dwight Dasher (Middle Tennessee), Nathan Enderle (Idaho), and Ndamukong Suh (oh wait, we already knew about him) have put on a show for us, and I've been entertained almost every night.
Brian Fremeau: It's too much to ask for, I know, but I'd really love to see a year in which the BCS bowl games were the most memorable games of the postseason. This isn't about validating the current system or anything -- it's about the idea that the great spectacle of college football deserves a crescendo finale, playoffs or no playoffs. For the first time in BCS history, the top 10 in the final standings are all playing in the top five games. There are no automatic qualifiers from weak conferences muddying up the waters, and every game has the potential to be an instant classic. As dazzling as it was, I don't want to be sitting around this off-season remembering the Humanitarian Bowl as the year's best. Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange: Let's bowl.
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Capital One||LSU||+2.5||Penn State||LSU||LSU||Penn St.|
|Gator||Florida State||+2.5||W. Virginia||WVU||FSU||WVU|
|International||N. Illinois||+6.5||S. Florida||S. Florida||NIU||S. Florida|
|Cotton||Ole Miss||-3||Oklahoma St.||Ole Miss||Ole Miss||OSU|
|PapaJohns.com||Connecticut||+4.5||S. Carolina||UConn||UConn||S. Caro.|
|Alamo||Michigan St.||+8||Texas Tech||Tex. Tech||Tex. Tech||Mich. St.|
|Fiesta||Boise St.||+7.5||TCU||TCU||Boise St.||TCU|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Second 10 Bowls
22 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2010, 8:21am by Alternator