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 2008
by Russell Levine and Brian Fremeau
Bowl season has hit the halfway point, and what have we learned?
We've certainly seen that the ACC is money in the bank -- if you pay attention to point spreads. My bowl-picking partner Brian Fremeau has ridden a wave of ACC success, including three teams that lost but covered the spread within a point of the number, to a 13-4 start in his picks, seizing the season-long lead in the process.
The ACC was such a mystery all year with four or five different teams at times looking like the league's best, but there has been know mystery this bowl season. ACC clubs have been a stone-cold lock, going 6-0 against the spread (but just 3-3 overall).
The lesson, as always: gambling changes everything.
There are four more ACC teams on this week's docket, and you probably don't need to read Brian's game previews below to know that we're both picking all four. Our only disagreement comes over which ACC squad to back with our Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week picks -- Brian favors Georgia Tech, while I prefer Boston College.
Brian also joins me on this week's podcast to break down the bigger games and to discuss some of the week's off-the-field news, including the suspension of perhaps Alabama's best player for the Sugar Bowl against Utah.
I hope you'll listen in.
Houston defeated both Tulsa and East Carolina, the best teams in Conference USA whereas Air Force fell to the top teams in the Mountain West: Utah, BYU and TCU. But the Falcons did win a rainy and windy mid-September clash against Houston and did so without completing a single pass. On the season, Air Force led the nation in rushing attempts per game. Houston was second in the country in passing attempts per game, and really hit their stride offensively late in the year, scoring at least 40 non-garbage points in each of its final four games. Air Force has the better field goal kicker, making 22 of 25 on the season, the fifth-best percentage in college football.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Houston | RUSSELL: Houston
A BCS bowl berth as a conference champion remained possible for both of these teams deep into November, a significant turnaround after each started the year on the wrong foot. After coughing up a hairball against Bowling Green in August, the Panthers clawed out victories over seven bowl-bound teams to not only save head coach Dave Wannstedt his job, but earned him a healthy contract extension. Oregon State is this year's reason USC isn't playing for the national championship. The Beavers upset the Trojans in Corvallis by controlling field position and continued to thrive in that area the remainder of the year, finishing the season ranked 10th nationally in Field Position Efficiency.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Pittsburgh | RUSSELL: Oregon State
Boston College has the longest bowl winning streak in the nation, in part because it hasn't faced a particularly formidable set of opponents in that span. Since joining the ACC, the Eagles have finished in no worse than a tie for second place in the ACC Atlantic Division and has lost the conference championship game two straight years. Yet, once again Boston College is relegated by the league to a less-prestigious bowl than they perhaps have earned. Their annual reward is a great opportunity to extend the streak, this time against the Commodores, losers of six of their last seven games including to Duke and Wake Forest, lesser ACC teams than Boston College. Vanderbilt was anemic offensively down the stretch, scoring more than 14 points only once in those final seven games. Bad news for Vandy: BC comes into the game with the No. 1 defense according to FEI.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Boston College | RUSSELL: Boston College (Edelstein Lock)
Two more teams with less than stellar finales face off in this game. On October 11th, the teams had a combined record of 9-2 -- since then, Kansas and Minnesota limped home with three wins in their final combined 11 games. The Jayhawks at least had an excuse, playing Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas in its schedule rotation of three Big 12 South teams. Minnesota managed to play -- and lose badly to -- only two FEI top-40 opponents (Ohio State and Iowa), fewer than any other BCS conference team faced this year. Stronger offense (Kansas) or stronger defense (Minnesota)? In the only other Big Ten vs. Big 12 match-up this bowl season, Northwestern held their own against Missouri. Can Kansas play with more motivation and focus than the Tigers did?
THE PICKS -- FEI: Minnesota | RUSSELL: Kansas
Defending national champions don't usually fall as far as the LSU Tigers did this season, and they were fortunate it wasn't worse. LSU erased a four-score second half deficit to Troy in mid-November and two of its three conference victories were by a single possession. The Tigers were only truly competitive in a loss once, a 31-30 finale against Arkansas. Georgia Tech's triple-option picked up steam in November, totaling at least 280 yards in each of its final four games and topping the 400 mark against Miami and Georgia to close out the year. The Yellow Jackets have the offense and defense to handle LSU and Paul Johnson's system is already running on all cylinders.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Georgia Tech (Edelstein Lock) | RUSSELL: Georgia Tech
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks thoroughly dominated North Carolina State in their season opener but never really looked the part again as they fought their way through what, in retrospect, appears to have been a less-than-stellar SEC schedule. Iowa stomped a few more teams, but the one-point victory over otherwise undefeated Penn State on November 8th is the only truly significant difference in the two resumes. The Hawkeyes can really play some defense, though, holding every oppponent offense it has faced under its average per-game scoring output. Offense has been a liability for South Carolina and a major culprit has been taking care of the football. The Gamecocks threw the second-most interceptions of any team this season (24) and lost another nine fumbles.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Iowa | RUSSELL: Iowa
It seems so long ago, but most experts pegged Georgia as a prime contender for the national championship this season. Conventional wisdom posited that the only thing that might trip them up was a difficult schedule including road trips to the likes of LSU, Arizona State and Auburn. Those three teams flaked out, but Florida, Alabama and Georgia Tech were all FEI top-10 teams in 2008 and all dismantled the Bulldogs, earning Mark Richt's team an SEC consolation prize once again. Michigan State was also steamrolled by the best teams it faced this season, and like Georgia, took care of business against the rest. The Spartans' workhorse Javon Ringer enters the game with 370 carries on the season, falling somewhere between Kevin Smith and Ray Rice on the abuse spectrum, and will need to carry another heavy load if MSU expects to win.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Michigan State | RUSSELL: Michigan State
Speaking of preseason expectations flushed away, Clemson went from darkhorse national contender to same old underachievers in the blink of eye this year, then underachieved some more leading up to the mid-season firing of head coach Tommy Bowden. It is nothing short of astounding that the team is now in a New Years Day bowl game. One big reason for the turnaround -- Bowden's Tigers collected only two opponent turnovers in four FBS games; interim and now head coach Dabo Sweeney's Tigers collected 16 turnovers in six FBS games. Nebraska very quietly won eight games under its new coach Bo Pelini, but a best win against the likes of Western Michigan tends not to resonate nationally. Against FEI top-60 opponents, the Cornhuskers gave up nearly 40 non-garbage points per game.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Clemson | RUSSELL: Clemson
The Rose Bowl hasn't featured the champion and best team from both the Pac-10 and Big Ten since 2003, but this year holds tremendous promise to restore the traditional luster of the "granddaddy of them all." Penn State and USC stood by in the shadows as the so-called "national semifinals" played out in the Big 12 and SEC, but FEI has ranked either the Nittany Lions or Trojans in one of the top-two spots more frequently this season (12 times, combined) than Florida and Oklahoma (10 times, combined). Both teams were very good at everything this year, USC somewhat moreso on defense and Penn State somewhat moreso on offense. Under Pete Carrol, the Trojans always appear to be most comfortable in their biggest games, but if Penn State can match that effortless swagger, they definitely have the talent to win the game.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Penn State | RUSSELL: USC
In their best season in forever, Cincinnati found itself on the wrong side of the scoreboard only twice this season. The losses to Oklahoma and Connecticut were dominant ones, however, whereas Virginia Tech lost a handful of games narrowly. The Hokies best game of the year also came in its finale, the ACC championship game blowout of Boston College, while the Bearcats turned in one of their worst that same day in a forgettable come-from-behind win over Hawaii. The overall profiles of these teams are similar, and the Big East has edged out two ACC teams in two hard-fought bowl games already this year. Unless the Florida and Oklahoma fans are already in town, there probably won't be a very big crowd on hand to see this one.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Virginia Tech | RUSSELL: Virginia Tech
Aside from the BCS championship, this is the only other bowl game pitting the SEC and Big 12. It also pits teams that provided two of the most defining moments of the season -- Texas Tech dramatically dealt Texas a knockout blow in the year's best game and Mississippi's one-point victory over Florida prompted Tim Tebow's soundbite of the year. Mississippi slugged games out defensively this season while Texas Tech fed quarters into the pinball machine. Red Raiders' games averaged 3.2 points per non-garbage possession while the Rebels' games were played at a much more pedestrian 1.9 points-per-possession rate. Whichever team takes charge of the game's pace will probably control the scoreboard as well.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Mississippi | RUSSELL: Texas Tech
East Carolina was the talk of college football after back-to-back victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia kicked off the season. They held a prolific Tulsa offense on its home field to its lowest output of the year in the Conference USA championship game. In between was a mishmash of non-competitive losses, narrow escapes, and modest successes. Which team will show up in the Liberty Bowl? Skip Holtz had his team playing on all cylinders in the Hawaii Bowl last season. Half that effort might be enough against a Kentucky Wildcat team that toppled exactly zero FEI top-80 teams.
THE PICKS -- FEI: East Carolina | RUSSELL: East Carolina
The Utes are the only undefeated team left in college football, but they've lived on the edge more than once this season. Their 2004 Utah counterparts wore the same uniforms but were a little bit more deserving of an elite opponent like Alabama. That Utah team obliterated nearly everyone it faced; this one escaped four games on the year by three points or fewer, against both the good (TCU, Oregon State) and bad (Michigan, New Mexico). That said, Utah did many things well this season offensively, defensively and on special teams. The Crimson Tide, however, will easily field the strongest defense and offense (even without suspended Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith) the Utes have seen all year.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Utah | RUSSELL: Alabama
Buffalo saved its best for last, knocking out previously undefeated Ball State in the MAC championship game and capping a magical year for coach Turner Gill's program. The International Bowl is the school's first bowl appearance ever, coming 50 years after the program turned down its only other bowl offer as a defiant stance against segregation and discrimination (the 1958 Tangerine Bowl bid was offered on the grounds that Buffalo's black players could not participate). To win this one, Buffalo will need to slow down the nation's top rusher, Connecticut's Donald Brown, averaging over 150 yards per game. They'll also need to keep drives moving against a stifling Huskies defense. Ranked No. 8 overall by FEI, Connecticut's defense held opponents to the 16th lowest third down conversion rate and the lowest fourth down conversion rate in the nation.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Connecticut | RUSSELL: Connecticut
The Ohio State team and fans can just order their usual favorites at the local restaurants in Phoenix, as the Buckeyes make their fifth January trip in seven years to Arizona. They will be reasonably familiar with the opponent as well, having squared off in a home-and-home series with Texas that sparked respective national championship appearances for the two teams in 2005 and 2006. The Longhorns have the edge in every phase of the game and navigated a Big 12 South guantlet for all but a few lousy seconds in Lubbock. Ohio State lost to both of the Rose Bowl participants, and whalloped No. 37 Michigan State in its only victory over an FEI top-40 team. The Buckeyes have, however, looked better and better as the year and quarterback Terrele Pryor have matured, and can certainly defeat Texas if the Longhorns still have the championship snub stuck in their spurs.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Ohio State | RUSSELL: Texas
Ball State and Tulsa may have 20 combined FBS wins, but they have the worst combined strength of schedule of any bowl match-up this season. The Cardinals' week two victory over Navy is the only FEI top-50 win by either team, one of only two games even played by either team against the top-50. Both teams blew their conference championship games as favorites. Both teams also feature prolific offenses -- Tulsa boasts the gaudier traditional numbers (total offense, scoring offense, etc.), but only has a 0.2 points per possession edge over Ball State when adjusted for pace of play.
THE PICKS -- FEI: Ball State | RUSSELL: Tulsa
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
|Visitor||Spread||Home||FEI Says||Russell Says|
|Oregon State||-2.5||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||Oregon State|
|Boston College||-3.5||Vanderbilt||Boston College||Boston College*|
|LSU||+4||Georgia Tech||Georgia Tech*||Georgia Tech|
|Georgia||-7.5||Michigan State||Michigan State||Michigan State|
|Penn State||+9||USC||Penn State||USC|
|Cincinnati||-2.5||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech|
|Mississippi||+4.5||Texas Tech||Mississippi||Texas Tech|
|Kentucky||+3||East Carolina||East Carolina||East Carolina|
|Ohio State||+8||Texas||Ohio State||Texas|
|Ball State||-2.5||Tulsa||Ball State||Tulsa|
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
|Last Week||Season Total|
108 comments, Last at 06 Jan 2009, 12:01pm by Scott P.