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SOLON'S CAPPER: BOWLING FOR PICKS.

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This is my favorite time of the year.

Not because of Christmas or any of that bollocks, but because the Bowl games are here--and they always bring us some great matchups, and lots of betting value if you know where to look.

So, in honor of the bowl season, I bring you some great gambling memories from bowl seasons past.

(I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, because I've taken plenty of hits betting on bowl games. As a matter of fact, the first big gambling loss during my betting career was in the 1987 Gator Bowl, where I had South Carolina -3.5 against LSU, and LSU beat my ass 30-13. Truth be told, I could probably write a much longer column on the hits I've taken--damn, I get depressed just thinking about some of them.)

Here are the best winners, in chronological order, with the backstories that made each of them great:

1992 Rose Bowl (Azusa, CA)
Washington (-6.5) 34, Michigan 14
To this day, 1991 Washington remains the best CFB team I have ever seen--only 1995 Nebraska comes close. For those who don't remember, the 1991-1992 bowl season had a lot of interesting matchups, and #2 Washington playing #4 Michigan was the pick of the litter--or, at least, it was until the games started.

The win was made all the sweeter by a prediction from a good friend of mine, Gay F. During a conversation between me and my friend Lex regarding whether Steve Emtman was the greatest defensive player ever or just right then, Gay F decided to chime in with "(Michigan 1st team AA OL Greg) Skrepenak is going to dominate Emtman." Uuuhhh...no. I mean, shit man, that was HeismanPundit Boise-Georgia wrong.

The definitive sequence in this game was just before halftime. Washington had controlled the game, but only held a 13-7 lead. Billy Joe Hobert threw an interception and Michigan had the ball at the Washington 30 with about 1:30 to play in the half. What happened next?

1st down: Steve Emtman sacked Grbac for a loss of 11 yards.
2nd down: Andy Mason and Steve Emtman sacked Grbac for a loss of 3 yards.
3rd down: an inside handoff to Wheatley who runs wide right; Chico Fraley and Tommie Smith tackled him for a loss of 1 yard.

So good God had to strike him down to save the universe from certain sackdom.

And, for all intents and purposes, that was the game. Perhaps the greatest thing about this sequence was that after the sack on 2nd down, the ABC cameras caught Michigan HC Moeller on the sidelines, and the look on his face was the biggest WTF? look that you'll ever see.

One of the football scars from the past that I still carry is the fact that this Washington team had to share the title with Miami.

It pisses me off that 100 years from now, when everyone's died off and all that remain are the scores on paper, people aren't going to know which one of these two teams was better, even though it couldn't have been more obvious if you watched the teams play.

1994 Fiesta Bowl (Las Vegas, NV)
Arizona (+6) 29, Miami (Florida) 0
I've always loved the state of Arizona, and damn near every year they are halfway decent I have the 'Cats winning in my brackets. I'm not sure why this is--I spent a lot of time there when I was younger, I have family there, and the Grand Canyon is about the most amazing thing I've ever seen--but it still doesn't account for the joy I get when 'Zona or ASU rise up and do something of note.

Oddly enough, 'Zona's Rose Bowl chances in 1993 took a hit against UCLA soon after I got back from watching Anthone Lott call a TO just before Georgia scored a tying TD against the Gators in the 1993 edition of the Cocktail Party. Certainly it made for a rough night, but 'Zona recovered and played their way into the Fiesta to take on perennial power Miami. Even though this was not a vintage Miami edition, they were still well-regarded enough to be favored by a TD over the offensively-challenged Wildcats.

As luck would have it, I found myself in the Las Vegas Hilton the day of the game and was professing my love for the Wildcats in the Fiesta to a couple of my friends, when some asshair decided he was going to break the game down for me. The conversation went something like this:

A: You think Arizona's gonna beat Miami?
S: Yes.
A: Did you see what happened when they played UCLA?
S: Uuuuhhh...yeah.
A: Whoomp, there it is.

Surely if you have been reading my column this season you can see how I would appreciate such in-depth analysis. Unfortunately, the asshair decided to skip out before the game; I can only assume afterward that he heard about just about the most dominant defensive performance ever seen in a legitimate bowl game, where mighty Miami couldn't even get inside the 'Zona 40.

1995 Florida Citrus Bowl (Las Vegas, NV)
Alabama (-3.5) 24, Ohio State 17
At this point I can't really remember the others, but this game was the hook on a 3-team parlay for me. The truth is, actually, my attention was focused on the Hall of Fame Bowl, where I had a big straight bet on Wisconsin (-8) against Duke.

For those who have never been to a Las Vegas sportsbook, over the course of the games you find out who the other people are cheering for, and often times you'll talk to the people that have the same side as you about the games you've got bets on. On this particular day, me and my friends got there around 5.30 AM, and a couple other guys showed up soon after and we started talking about the games. I told them that one of my best bets of the day was Alabama -3.5. My thinking was that 'Bama, during those Jay Barker years, just never lost, so with a pointspread this small they wouldn't have any trouble covering the number (now, of course, I realize that 3.5 points is an enormous amount, but that's beside the point). Whatever my argument was, it was strong enough to convince one of the guys to bet on 'Bama. This worked out for me; I was able to focus entirely on the Wisconsin game, because I couldn't help but know what was going on in the 'Bama game by listening to the guy cheer or bitch.

And this guy was bitching like mad--he kept asking me, over and over again, "Are they going to cover? Do you still think they are going to cover?"--not in a ballbusting way, but the way you would if you had every penny of your net worth on the game. Given how important it was to him, I couldn't let on that there was any doubt, especially since he'd only bet the game because of me. In an almost comical fashion, I never let on that there was any fear that they wouldn't cover the number, even when the score was 17-17 in the 4th. And sure enough, Jay Barker hit Sherman Williams to score on a 50-yard TD to get 'Bama ahead of the number, and 24-17 was the final.

Only afterward did I realize how comical my faux hubris had been--the final TD pass happened with 42 seconds left in the game. Keep in mind that this was before OT, so essentially I needed for that screen to go for a TD to win the bet, and that was what happened.

2000 Outback Bowl (Tampa, FL)
Georgia (+5.5) 28, Purdue 25 (OT)
This game was memorable for numerous reasons, not the least of which was that me and several of my friends (Kanu, Brain, Blunt, Tasso, Davis, and T-Double) foolishly operated under the assumption that Georgia would make it to a New Year's Day bowl game, and that we would all ring in the millennium together wherever it was. Fortunately for us, it worked out and we were off to Tampa, and I put a fat bet on the Dawgs to add a little spice to the game.

The bet didn't look so hot early on, as Purdue jumped out to a 25-0 lead. The Dawgs scored a TD to make it 25-7, and after Purdue drove to the Georgia 13 and faced 3rd and 4 just before the half, the key incident that turned the game around happened. Most hardcore Georgia fans will tell you that Jamie Henderson's interception is what turned the game around, but me and my friends know that it was something more nuanced that really made the difference.

We were sitting in the Purdue end zone before that play, and just behind us sat the worst kind of redneck--drunk, and convinced that he was funny. To make matters worse (for me, at least), he was a hardcore Georgia fan. Almost every play, he uttered some nonsensical comment at the top of his lungs, and followed it up with a hearty laugh. To give you some idea, one line of his that stands out in my mind due to its utter ridiculousness, which he said after Quincy stumbled on a scramble, was "You need to get some Wal-Mart shoes, 'cause those K-Mart ones ain't workin'!" I wish I could remember more, but suffice it to say, all of his comments were in the same vein. Or, at least they all were until Purdue faced a 3rd and 4 at the Georgia 13, up 25-7, when he decided to offer up a little something different.

We were all sitting there, waiting for the key play, and as the Purdue team came to the line of scrimmage, this guy said, in a much lower and more ominous voice:

"Get that boy in the butt."

To a man, my group of 7 all looked at each other with our peripheral vision, trying to figure out if we had heard what we thought we had heard. I'd half think it was all bullshit and I was hearing things--even now--except that everyone in our group heard the exact same thing. So as the key play happened, we were all cheering, but at the same time trying to come to terms with the fact that this guy, at this point apparently straight out of "Deliverance," was in the row immediately behind us.

I don't know what cosmic force heard that line, but the effect was immediate and dramatic--Henderson picked off the pass, Georgia got a FG just before the half that turned the momentum, and ended up winning the game in OT. Purdue, despite being at the Georgia 13 when the line was uttered, and having already scored 25 points in less than a half of football, didn't score again. I'd thank the guy but the whole thing was just way too creepy.

2003 Fiesta Bowl (San Francisco, CA)
Ohio State (+475) 31, Miami (Florida) 24 (2 OT)
(First things first, this was a money-line bet, meaning that if Ohio State won outright, no pointspread, I'd make $4.75 on the dollar. OSU wasn't getting 475 points.)

So much has been said about this great game already that I really have little to add. For me, though, it will always be a pivotal game, because Ohio State's win might be the only reason I still bet on the games. I'd flown out to SF, and in the midst of the trip I rented a car and headed up to Tahoe, just to place two bets: $500 on Washington State on the money line against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, and $500 on Ohio State on the money line against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. For those that don't remember, Washington State got the ever-loving shit kicked out of them in the Rose, and in the days between the Rose and the Fiesta (which I think was only two days actually), I started to wonder if it was worth it, given that I'd gone a whole season waiting to pick my spots, and then blown $500 on a bet that was so obviously off.

Then, when the Fiesta started and Ohio State took control, all those thoughts were forgotten, but they came back when Miami tied it, and took the lead in OT. A lot of people have an opinion about that pass interference call in OT, but to me the referee's flag was manna from heaven for my gambling career.

But, now that I've cashed my ticket--yeah, it was a bullshit call.

For the regular season, my record was 79-58, a winning percentage of 58%. Let's hope the break does not mess with my ability to pick winners. Here are the selections for the bowl games:

LAS VEGAS BOWL--December 22nd
California (-7) v. Brigham Young
Cal's team this season is not too different than that of last season's...with the obvious exception of a precipitous decline in production in the passing game. Their D is still solid, which they will need because BYU has a legitimate O. Unfortunately for BYU, they are not battle-tested and when they have run into legitimate Ds this season the results have been ugly. They scored 3 pts against BC, 10 against SDSU, and 23 against ND. Cal's D will be the best they have faced this season and they will be hard-pressed to match their 32 ppg average. Cal's running game is probably better than last season despite the loss of RB Arrington, and they have managed over 200 yds rushing this season in all but 3 games (and in two of those they gained 190 and 161 yds). BYU has a decent run D but against the few decent run Os they have faced, they have struggled; Utah ran for 253 yds, SDSU for 265, and New Mexico for 185--and none of these rushing attacks can match Cal's. BYU is particularly vulnerable against the pass, as EVERY 1-A opponent they have played this season has thrown for at least 218 yds. Even new Cal QB Levy should do just fine against this D, and if he can avoid mistakes Cal should have little trouble getting ahead of this number.

One concern--I just found out that the Bears are staying at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. This could cause some serious distractions, as anyone who has seen the collection of women there will attest. Take this into account when placing wagers on this matchup.

MOTOR CITY BOWL--December 26th
Memphis (-5.5) v. Akron
Akron is a team I can't quite put my finger on. Arguably, the best team on their schedule was Northern Illinois, whom they played twice. Against Northern Illinois, they averaged 37 ppg and 410 ypg passing. Against the other 10 teams on the schedule, they averaged 20 ppg and 223 ypg passing. In other words, their O was pretty great against N Ill and pretty average against everyone else. Memphis is vulnerable against the pass but I am willing to wager that the games against Northern Illinois were aberrational and Memphis will hold their own. Memphis has a pretty good run D, and, in any event, the Akron rush attack is one of the worst in the nation. I believe this game will be won with the Memphis running game, which is one of the best in the nation. Memphis has only been held under 200 yards on three occasions--once when their QB was hurt on the 1st play of the game (against Ole Miss); once when stud RB Williams did not play, although they still managed 149 yds (against UT); and also against Central Florida, where they still ran for 175 yards. Akron has given up more than 190 yds rushing to Purdue (211), CMU (232), Miami (O) (199), Army (194), BG (193), and Northern Illinois (251). Williams is better than any back they have faced this season--the only one remotely comparable is Northern Illinois RB Wolfe, who just ran for 270 yds against them--and I think the Memphis dominance of the line of scrimmage will be enough to get them the cover.

MPC COMPUTERS BOWL--December 28th
Boston College (-1) v. BOISE STATE
Simply put, the Boise O is not the Boise O this season. The difference is their passing game, which is still prolific but not Boise-level prolific. The engine that runs their offense this season is their running game, and that is going to be a problem against BC. BC has given up 91 ypg rushing and 2.64 ypc this season, and the largest yardage production against them--187 yds by VT--was managed only after VT amassed 50 carries. In fact, no team has managed as many as 4 ypc against the BC D. BC is pretty good against the pass as well, only giving up 6.08 ypp and 9 TDs on the season, and it is unlikely that QB Zabransky, with his obvious limitations, will light them up. The BC O is balanced and serviceable with a big OL, and the similar sorts of teams on the Boise schedule (Fresno, Georgia) are the ones that have given them the most trouble. I do realize that this game is a home game for Boise, and they have a long winning streak at home, but I would say (1) this is the worst Boise team since that streak has began, and (2) this is the best opponent that they will have faced at home during that streak.

EMERALD BOWL--December 29th
Georgia Tech (-7.5) v. Utah
Georgia Tech really can't catch a break when it comes to bowl games, although a lot of this is down to their tepid fan support. This season will be the 4th out of the last 5 that they have to come to the West for a bowl game--and, this season, their fall in the pecking order is the least justified of the lot. So, I'm concerned about their mental state, but as long as their heads are in the game they should not have too much trouble. Utah's offense is not nearly as good as last season's, but it has still done fairly well (28 ppg); it is the Utah D that is responsible for their 6-5 record. Georgia Tech's O is pretty average but they should be able to do well against this bunch. In particular, I expect GT to run the ball well against a porous Utah run D. On the other side of the ball, Utah will likely be in trouble against a solid GT D. This will be, by far, the best D they have faced this season, and they have struggled against the other legitimate Ds they have faced: 20 pts against 'Zona (on offense), 17 pts against TCU (in regulation), 17 pts against UNC, and 19 pts against SDSU. GT is giving up 18 ppg and 294 ypg against a solid slate of offenses; and, if you take out the VT outlier (where VT scored 51 despite only gaining 337 yds), they are giving up only 15 ppg. I expect the GT D to step it up and control this game, and put their O in a position to get ahead of this number.

MUSIC CITY BOWL--December 30th
Minnesota (-3) v. Virginia
Minnesota, during the Glen Mason era, has one of my favorite teams to play. They dominate lesser opponents, and get stuffed by those to whom they are inferior. By and large, there's little guesswork. Virginia has disappointed me this season and they are up against it here. The Minnesota running game is no joke, running for at least 264 yds in each of their wins--and if you are able to shut it down, you will likely win the game--in three of their losses, they rushed for 117, 182, and 129 yds (and it took a monumental collapse to lose the other one, against Wisconsin). As it stands, the Virginia run D is ill-equipped to shut the Minnesota running game down; Maryland and BC both went for over 200 yds rushing against them, and VT went for 334. The only halfway decent performance by UVA against a decent running offense was the 136 yd performance against GT--and even then, GT averaged over 5 ypc. The Virginia offense should produce against an average Minnesota D but they will not be able to keep up, and as the game wears on the Virginia D will get worn down more and more, and the end result should be a comfortable Minnesota cover.

LIBERTY BOWL--December 31st
Tulsa (+7) v. Fresno State
Fresno is a good squad but their results have been much more impressive than their actual performances. In particular, the final scores of the games against Toledo and Hawaii were a little deceptive--and other than Toledo, Boise is the only other bowl team Fresno has defeated. Fresno has a decent running game, but the real strength of their O is the passing game, particularly recently--they have thrown for 352 ypg in their last five contests. Unfortunately for them, the Tulsa pass D is one of the better in the nation, and will be the second best they have faced this season (USC, who had 4 interceptions, was the best). For the season, Tulsa has given up 6.54 ypp and an 8-20 ratio. Pinegar has thrown 9 ints in his last 4 games and that will likely continue here. Tulsa's O is legitimate, and Fresno's D has been decidedly average recently, giving up 39 ppg in their last two against WAC also-rans Nevada and La Tech. The Fresno run D, carved up by USC RB Bush, actually had a worse performance this season, giving up 205 yds on 29 carries against a SJSU squad that only matched that output against an 0-12 NMSU team. Tulsa's run O has produced on occasion this season, and ran for 206 in the Conference USA championship. In addition, the Tulsa pass O is fairly efficient, with only 1 int in their last 5 games and a 20-7 ratio for the season, and even though that is the strength of the Fresno D, they should produce in that area as well. I view these teams as equivalents, and an outright Tulsa win would not surprise me.

COTTON BOWL--January 2nd
Alabama (+3) v. Texas Tech
I do not think Texas Tech is all that great. In fact, I would rate them as worse than last season's Texas Tech team that went 7-4. Fortunately for them, the conference as a whole is down and that, combined with a weak non-conference slate, has resulted in their cobbling together 9 wins. As it stands, they were remarkably fortunate to win their games against Nebraska and Oklahoma, and those two contests remain their only wins of note (an unimpressive home win over Kansas is their only other win against a bowl team). For all of their problems, few would argue that any of those teams are in the class of Alabama. Despite Alabama's limitations on O, their D has really only played one bad quarter this season (the 1st against Auburn) and they will present Texas Tech with a defense the likes of which they have not seen since the matchup with Texas. 'Bama is giving up 10 ppg, and against the pass they are giving up 155 ypg and 5.42 ypp. Admittedly, 'Bama has not played too many great offenses, but they held Florida to 3 pts, LSU to 10 pts (in regulation), and while Auburn scored 28 they only gained 257 yds, and Auburn scored TDs on 40 and 31 yard drives. While those teams all run different systems, I suspect that all things considered they present a stiffer challenge than the one that Alabama will face in the Cotton. Texas Tech's strength on D is their pass D, but 'Bama has been ridiculously efficient this season in the passing game, throwing only 4 ints on the season. Texas Tech is vulnerable to the run, giving up 282 in their loss to Oklahoma State, and 205 in the loss to Texas. I think the 'Bama running game will be able to run the ball on the Texas Tech D, and keep the Texas Tech O off the field, and that combined with the stingy 'Bama D will limit their opportunities to score. I like 'Bama to win this one outright.

FIESTA BOWL--January 2nd
Ohio State (-4) v. Notre Dame
This is the battle of what the Brits would call the "nearly men"--as in, both of these teams came close to knocking off the Rose Bowl participants, but fell just short. Since both lost at home, neither is really in a position to complain and I suspect both are pleased with the end result of each of their seasons. I have long contended that Ohio State is the 2-loss team worthy of the highest ranking this season, not Notre Dame. NDs resume, as has been pointed out by many, is rather light; other than the home loss to USC, they have not accomplished much, with the exception of a win over Michigan where they were aided by an injury to RB Hart early in the contest. The only other bowl teams ND has defeated are BYU and Navy. In addition to their light resume, ND has some limitations on the footballing side. RB Walker is not a quality RB and as a result the ND running game is not a threat. ND ran for 34 yds against BYU and 61 yds against Tennessee, and now they have to face an Ohio St run D that I rate as the best in the nation, having held Texas to 115 yds, Penn State to 116 yds, Michigan State to 116 yds, NW to 98 yds, and Michigan (with Hart) to 34 yds. Only Minnesota, who ran for 182 yds, had any measure of success against them. ND will likely be held well under 100 yds, and Quinn will have to win the game by himself. Ohio State is vulnerable against the pass, but they are not as vulnerable as ND will be against the Ohio State passing game. I rate the passing attacks as the 2nd (Ohio State) and 3rd (Notre Dame) best in the nation (Louisville has the best), but ND has shown itself to be overmatched against good passing attacks. ND has given up over 300 yds passing in 6 of 11 games this season, and gave up over 400 yds passing to Pac-10 doormat Washington. Since the loss to PSU, Ohio State has averaged a ridiculous 10.65 ypp with an 11-2 ratio, and ND will likely not present too many problems for them.

ORANGE BOWL--January 3rd
Penn State (-7.5) v. Florida State
Despite what people are saying, Florida State is a worthy ACC champion this season, having beaten both VT, Miami, and BC--the three 'best' teams in the conference--on the field. The fact that this is the case is more an indictment of the ACC than anything else, however. Despite the win over VT, this is not a good FSU team. The job the FSU D did against the VT run O was impressive, but PSU will provide a stiffer test, and Robinson is more likely to exploit the FSU pass D than Vick was. The big problem for FSU remains on the offensive side of the ball, where FSU has struggled all season against good Ds. Against bowl teams, FSU averaged 17 ppg and 286 ppg, and many of those points were defensive (BC) or scored on special teams (VT). In fact, if not for a 477 yd effort on O against UVa, the Seminoles would be averaging a rather anemic 254 ypg against these squads. And, in any event, the PSU D is better than those they have faced; the only ones comparable are Miami and VT, both of which held the FSU O in check but were done in by offensive ineptitude. And, for all the talk about how good Bowden is in bowl games (19-8-1), Paterno is his near equal in this regard (20-10-1), and I expect an easy win and a comfortable cover for Paterno here.

Other games of note:
SUGAR BOWL--January 2nd
West Virginia (+7.5) v. Georgia
WV fits the mold for the perfect way to beat Georgia--play good defense, avoid mistakes, run the ball. This is how Florida beat them (albeit without DJ), and how Arkansas and GT almost did (Auburn didn't play particularly good D, but they did run, run, run, and it paid off for them as well). WV is a lot like GT, except that they have a much more powerful running game; it will be the best run O that Georgia has faced this season. Teams that can run have run on Georgia--Boise ran for 178 yds, Arkansas ran for 216, Florida ran for 154, Auburn ran for 195, and GT ran for 172. The West Virginia D held the mighty Louisville O to 24 pts and 371 yds in regulation, which is a great feat considering that the Louisville O was at full strength for the game. VT did light WV up for 34 pts and 375 yds, but Georgia's performances on O against the two best Ds they have played this season (14 pts and 275 yds against GT, and 27 pts (on O) and 250 yds against LSU) do not convince me that they will be able to match the VT or Louisville outputs. I suspect that WV will try to play Georgia the same way Florida did; it should be low scoring battle, in which case more than a TD is invaluable. Not a play, though, because it is entirely possible that WV Freshman QB White will shit his pants when he sees the Georgia D and have a nightmare of a game.

ROSE BOWL--January 4th
Southern California (-6.5) v. Texas
I don't really have much an opinion on this game, but it would be crazy not to comment on it. These teams clearly have separated themselves from the rest of college football, and few would argue that the winner of this matchup is not a worthy champion.

Bottom line for me? No matter how dominant they've been this season (and they've been just as dominant as USC, if not moreso), I just don't buy that Texas is really that much different than they've been in years past, when they kept losing to Oklahoma. I know they beat Ohio State on the road--but I can't help but think that was more down to Tressel having no clue regarding his QB, and the inability of their TE inexplicably being unable to catch a TD pass when in open space than anything Texas really did. To a large extent, Mack Brown benefited from the opposing coach doing a Mack Brown. Some bad news for Mack Brown--Pete Carroll will not do a Mack Brown. Add to this that USC just has too much shit going down on offense for anyone to defense, and that PC tends to tear teams apart when you give him a month to prepare, and I think USC will get the job done in the end.

But, man, this Texas team is damn good and I really wouldn't be surprised at all if they won. So, I lean to USC, but there's no play.

Happy holidays to all; may you cash many winning tickets during the holiday season.