The Bowl season is upon us, which presents a unique challenge for the bettor. Some factors to consider:
(1) Motivation--which teams care about the games they are about to play, and which teams have already achieved their goals for the season?
(2) Departing coaches--are teams fired up to win one last game for their beloved coach, or do they give less effort because no matter how strong their performance they cannot save their coach's job?
(3) New coaches--how quickly can teams adapt to wrinkles in the offensive or defensive gameplanning?
As for myself, for the most part I try to make my initial selections as if the situational factors did not exist, and then, when making my final selections, I add slightly more weight to the situational factors than I would during the regular season. By and large, I try to find the teams that are strong fundamental plays and also have favorable situational factors. Given that I majored in theology and not psychology this is easier said than done.
Remember, being a theology major does not make you a psychologist. It does qualify you for some jobs, though.
For the season, I currently sit at 71-61, a winning percentage of just under 54%--certainly a disappointing season by my own standards, but still more than good enough to make a straight bettor a profit for the season. Here are the bowl selections for the games to be played in calendar year 2006:
12/19: POINSETTIA BOWL, San Diego, CA
Texas Christian (-12) v. Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois' presence in this game is attributable, largely, to RB Wolfe, who has had an amazing career and had an astonishing first half of the season.
Unfortunately, he cooled off as the season wore on, and while he had a bit of a resurgence late at the end of the season after recovering from nagging injuries to his hamstring and shoulder (367 yds in the last two games), I still think he will struggle against a very strong TCU rush D that has only given up 64 ypg and 2.42 ypc on the ground this season. NIU's passing game should provide little relief; QB Horvath is apparently out and his replacement Nicholson is markedly less efficient, and in any event against the better pass Ds they have faced this season--OSU, Ohio, WMU, and Iowa--NIU is only averaging 5.82 ypp with a 4-6 ratio. There is little doubt that TCU's pass D--which has only given up as many as 7 ypp this season to BYU and New Mexico--is in this class. Previously noted in this space has been the late-season emergence of the TCU O with the decision to open up the offense, which has coincided with a large increase in production; in their last three games, TCU has thrown for 276 ypg and 9.73 ypp with a 7-0 ratio. NIU's pass D is among the worst in the nation--the only teams they have held under 200 yds passing this season are Toledo and EMU, both among the 10 worst passing attacks in the nation. Even though OSU is the only especially strong passing game NIU has faced--certainly they are the only team NIU has faced that has a better passing game than TCU does--they are still giving up 249 ypg and 7.69 ypp with a 20-7 ratio. TCU's running game is also legitimate--gaining 212 ypg over the last half of the season--and they should have little trouble moving the ball on the ground as well against a rather ordinary NIU run D. TCU HC Patterson has his eye on next season, and knows that a win in this game will put his team in a strong position in the 2007 preseason rankings, so he will want to impress in this spot.
Garrett Wolfe won't be doing this much, according to Solon.
12/22: NEW ORLEANS BOWL, New Orleans, LA
Rice (-4) v. Troy
There is a doubt regarding the availability of Rice QB Clement--undoubtedly superior to his backup Armstrong--for this contest, but I cannot imagine a scenario under which either Rice QB cannot get the job done with the line this short. Troy was able to top the Sun Belt this season, but in so doing they only averaged 25 ppg and 346 ypg; Rice's D is a joke, but they are certainly not too much worse than the average Sun Belt D. And, as of late, the Rice D has been playing better; in their last two games, they held ECU and SMU to an average of 22 ppg and 289 ypg (their first 6 ConfUSA opponents averaged 32 ppg and 446 ypg). Given that first-year Rice HC Graham was the former defensive coordinator at Tulsa, and that the Rice D was unquestionably among the worst in the nation at the season's start, there is little doubt the Rice D had nowhere to go but up and at long last they appear to be doing just that. Rice's O, on the other hand, has been strong for most of the season; in ConfUSA play, only ECU held them under 24 points, and they averaged 30 ppg, and only Houston (in the opener), Tulsa, and SMU were able to hold them under 400 yards. Troy's D played well in Sun Belt play, but none of those opponents have an O nearly as strong as Rice's. Troy made a splash on the national scene when holding FSU to 24 points in the second week of the season, but while FSU was a Top 10 team at the time, in retrospect that performance was not overly impressive. The next week GT scored 35 on Troy, and the two ACC teams--both of whom have very limited offenses--averaged 436 ypg on the Troy D, suggesting that when they step up in class they will struggle. To be fair, FSU rolled Rice early in the season, but the matchup problems FSU presented to Rice, i.e., a weak O and a strong D, is the worst possible matchup for Rice; Troy does not have the same strengths, and therefore that result is largely irrelevant. There is little doubt that each of these teams stepped it up in the second half of the season, but Rice did so against better opposition, and I think that will be the difference here.
12/28: HOLIDAY BOWL, San Diego, CA
Texas A&M (+5) v. California
I am a big fan of Jeff Tedford, so much so that in the two years I have written this column I have never officially selected against Cal, and have played them many times. I think this is a bad matchup for them, though; not only is Cal likely to be disappointed--if they had managed to beat Arizona, they would be playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 48 years--but A&M should be excited at the prospect of being the #3 team in the Big 12 after finishing 5-6 last season. I was high on Cal for much of the season, but a closer look at what they have accomplished suggests that their season may not be as good as it appeared at first blush; their two three most impressive wins--against 'Zona State, Oregon State, and Oregon--happened before October 7th, and since then their results have been very pedestrian. A&M, on the other hand, has been more impressive than their record, as they are actually quite close to being undefeated; Texas Tech and Nebraska each scored TDs with less than 30 seconds to go to defeat the Aggies, and HC Franchione's decision to twice kick FGs against OU in the last 10 minutes instead of going for a TD resulted in a 1-point loss to the Sooners. Cal's O was prolific at the season's start--after the Tennessee game--but QB Longshore has cooled off, and he has been much more average as of late; 187 ypg and 5.84 ypp with a 3-5 ratio. Admittedly, all of those pass Ds are better than A&M's, but I think it is unlikely that Longshore will suddenly produce as he was in September. Cal has a good running game, but A&M has been decent against the run this season, only being run on by the strong running games of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; Cal's running game only averaged 140 ypg in Pac 10 play and it is unlikely they will hit that number. On the other side of the ball, A&M's running game has been very impressive, running for 214 ypg and 5.10 ypc in Big 12 play; they are going up against a Cal run D that has been exploitable this season, giving up 198 yds to Tenn, 237 yds to 'Zona St, 163 yds to Washington, and 187 yds to UCLA. A&M QB McGee has been more than serviceable this season, averaging 7.29 ypp with a 10-2 ratio. Cal's pass D has been good this season, but this is primarily the product of 19 interceptions; it is unlikely that McGee will contribute too much to that number. All things considered, I would rate the teams as rough equivalents--A&M should do slightly better on the ground, and Cal should do slightly better through the air--and I think A&M stands a good chance to win this one outright.
Dennis Franchione should break a smile in his bowl game.
12/29: LIBERTY BOWL, Memphis, TN
South Carolina (-6.5) v. Houston
I am a little worried about South Carolina's mindset; after playing good teams tough all season long, they finally broke through with a win against Clemson last time out, and it is possible that they will consider their season's goals achieved. I do not doubt that if they come to play, their offense will have their way with the Houston D; South Carolina has played in fits and starts against quality opposition--most notably against Clemson, where they controlled the game despite the 31-28 scoreline--but in each of their losses they were playing defenses far superior to the unit that will be fielded by Houston. Houston's D has been uneven all season, mixing good and bad performances, but outside of Oklahoma State--who although they only scored 25 pts, gained 445 yards and averaged an amazing 9.27 ypp against the Cougars--this will be the best offense they have faced, and SCar WRs Rice and McKinley are as good as any WR faced by Houston this season (with the possible exception of Rice WR Dillard and Okla St WR Bowman--who combined for 11 catches, 200 yards and 2 TDs, despite it being Dillard's first game in a new offense), and I expect the SCar passing game to have serious production. Even with this, SCar has an even bigger advantage running the ball; teams with halfway-legitimate RBs have steamrolled Houston on the ground--Okla State had 162 yds (on only 26 carries), Miami (Fla) had 218 yds, La-Lafayette had 259 yds, and Central Florida had 248 yds. South Carolina's RBs are very strong; my only concern is that SOS tends not to use them enough, although that concern is alleviated somewhat by his use of them to great effect against Clemson, where their RBs had 175 yds rushing on 28 carries. Houston's O is no joke, and they will score some points; Miami is the only team to hold Houston under 20 points this season, and they averaged 32 ppg this season. South Carolina has been vulnerable against the run this season, but the RBs that have done the most damage are among the nation's elite; specifically, Clem RB Spiller and Ark RB McFadden--and, it's worth noting that while Spiller and McFadden combined for 374 yds on 35 carries, in those same games RBs Davis and Jones only had 72 yds on 32 carries. Houston RBs Battle and Aldridge are very good backs, but I would not put either in the class of Spiller or McFadden. I am also a big fan of Houston QB Kolb, and he has had a great season; certainly, he'll produce, but the SCarolina D has been facing his equivalent for much of the season and they will be well-equipped to deal with the Houston passing attack. I am hoping that SCarolina learns their lesson from last season and comes to play for 60 minutes; if they do that, I believe the South Carolina offense will be the story of this game.
12/29: INSIGHT BOWL, Tempe, AZ
Texas Tech (-7) v. Minnesota
I believe that the bottom 8 of the Big 10 this season is as bad as the bottom part of any conference in recent memory. As a result, I think there are some soft bowl teams from that conference that achieved their .500-or-better status as a result of each game having to have a winner; while I think Penn State is a fair squad with a legitimate D, I would put Purdue, Minnesota, and Iowa in this class. Purdue and Iowa catch breaks with their bowl matchups--Purdue's opponent lacks quality, while Iowa's lacks motivation--but this matchup does Minnesota no favors. Minnesota's resume is light--a home win over Iowa is their only win of note--and every team they have played that has a legitimate O has torn them up--Cal scored 42, Michigan scored 28 (and gained over 500 yds), Wisconsin scored 48, and Ohio State scored 44. Their pass D, in particular, is poor; BCS opponents have averaged 285 ypg and 8.60 ypp with a 22-10 ratio. TT will no doubt feel the loss of WR Hicks--a likely academic casualty--who had a strong game against Texas, but I am not sure how much difference it will make against a team that is so poor against the pass. Minnesota's O appears to have gotten it together lately, but I think the slate of opposition (Indiana, Michigan State, Iowa) might have as much to do with that as anything else. Minnesota does not have nearly as strong a running game as they have had in season's past; while they are still serviceable, they are not overly prolific, having yet to go for over 200 yards against a BCS team, and only hitting as many as 120 yds rushing 3 times this season. Texas Tech's run D is average, but they have faced some pretty strong running games and I believe they will hold their own against the Gophers. Minn QB Cupito is the strength of the Minn O; he is averaging 235 ypg and 7.52 ypp with a 14-8 ratio against BCS opponents. These are not bad numbers, but he will be without the man who is arguably his best weapon--All-American TE Spaeth--who is out with a separated shoulder. Additionally, the Texas Tech pass D is strong--the only QB that has had an especially good game against them this season was Oklahoma QB Thompson--and, for the season, they have only given up 187 ypg and 6.78 ypp with a 12-8 ratio in conference play, while only facing two poor QBs (Colorado's Jackson, and Baylor's backup QB Szymanski). Much like the Liberty Bowl, I think the underdog will score some points, but I expect the favorite to go off offensively and I do not expect the large pointspread to matter.
Mike Leach in a bowl game? Must-see-tv, me laddies. Yarr.