Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bowl Picks, Part 1: Lessons Learned for Picking Bowl Winners

Click to read Part 2 or Part 3

The bowl game is the most unique form of postseason in American sports. Yes, there are many that would rather see a playoff. But in the absence of a playoff, college football delivers two-plus weeks of postseason games across the country. It is utterly fascinating and I love everything about it.

However, one of the bowl season's best qualities is that picking games is nearly impossible. There are a million variables that create head-scratching results. What's important? What's not important?

Attendance means nothing

There is a lot made about whether a team can travel or if the fan base is excited about a particular bowl game. This is important to bowl directors, conference commissioners and the bottom lines for rich folks. It means absolutely nothing to the players and the coaches. As an example, Michigan State is having trouble unloading Cotton Bowl tickets since something like 60,000 MSU fans were in Pasadena last year. Do you think Mark Dantonio or the players care? They want to beat Baylor, period.

Motivation is different for everyone

washington byu 2013
“Does a team want to be here?” That is the most asked question from football analysts in early December and if you can correctly answer it, you may steal a few winners. But don't forget that motivation constitutes different goals for different teams. Just because a team got passed over for a better bowl or had a disappointing season doesn't mean they have nothing to play for. A good coach can motivate his players for any game.

Coaching transitions are usually a black flag – but not always

Last year, playing for an interim head coach, Washington came out like a team possessed and absolutely annihilated BYU in a very surprising result. USC, playing for its third coach of the 2013 season, played an inspiring game in the Las Vegas Bowl – a game seemingly beneath them – and laid waste to Fresno State. An interim coach is bad news 70% of the time, but in that other 30%, it can be a very positive factor.

Forget conference affiliation

The bowl results are important for relative conference strength. Individual games, however, are not an indication. A good team can come from a bad conference and an overrated team can come from a good conference. The Big Ten is a Vegas underdog in every single one of their bowl games. Do you really think they're going 0-10?

There's no such thing as momentum

The bowl games are essentially a different season. Coaches have 15 practices to work young players and the final games of the season are way in the rear-view mirror by bowl time. Don't pick a team just because they won their last two or three games.

Coaching means that much more

Everything we've discussed above is really a long-winded way of saying coaching really, really matters. If you are confident in a coach, then back him and go for it. In last year's BCS, Bob Stoops, Dabo Swinney and Mark Dantonio came away with wins because they had their teams ready to play and they had specific schemes that exploited the weaknesses of opponents. In all 3 games, the less talented and less heralded team won. It didn’t have anything to do with motivation or desire (sorry Alabama) but one team executing a better game plan.

Never underestimate senior leadership

While much is made of how bowls are springboards for next season, they are also the final games for many players. Many will never play football competitively again in their lives. Regardless of coaching changes, fan travel or achievable goals: these players do not want to lose their last game. Never forget that.

Regular Season Record: 79-88-1
Best Bet: 6-9
Upset Special: 7-7-1

So...my quest to finish .500 ended in horrific fashion, with a 2-9 showing on Championship Weekend. If you read my rules for picking bowl winners, maybe you should just do the opposite of these pics?

Louisiana-Lafayette (-1) over Nevada
This game kicks off at 11 am ET, which is 10am in New Orleans and 8am in Nevada. Will the Nevada players get adjusted in time? Furthermore, this is La-Lafayette’s annual home bowl game – it is their fourth straight trip to the New Orleans Bowl. They have won the last three in front of huge crowds, culminating in more than 54,000 for last year’s game versus Tulane.

new orleans bowl crowd
The fans, understandably, have been suffering from fatigue and “only” 11,000 may make the trip. That doesn’t matter. This is the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Super Bowl and they will treat it as such. Save for one misstep against Appalachian State, they were superior to its Sun Belt competition all year long. They will win their fourth-straight New Orleans Bowl.

Utah State (-10.5) over UTEP
Utah State’s Matt Wells is my favorite young coach in the country. I am shocked a bigger program hasn’t nabbed him yet. Utah State was down to their fourth-string QB by the Boise State season finale yet was still playing for a Mountain West Mountain division title. They have quality wins over Air Force and BYU and are simply a far superior team. Utah State is not the type of program that can overlook bowl games and ESPN exposure – they will be making a statement.

Colorado State (+4.5) over Utah
Jim McElwain just left for Florida. Utah has sold out its ticket allotment while Colorado State is struggling. Utah is a ranked Pac-12 team. Colorado State is an unranked Mountain West team. It feels like Utah should win easy, right?

Wrong. Colorado State was probably the best Group of Five team for most of October and November. Their loss to Air Force clouded things, but losing to an option team is never cause for great concern – it’s an anomaly. Colorado State has a ton to play for and I would expect them to put forth a huge effort despite losing their coach. Also, I’ve been going against Utah all year long and I’m not changing now.

Air Force (+1) over Western Michigan *Best Bet*
I must be missing something because this line makes no sense. Air Force is a superior team, with wins over Boise State, Navy and Colorado State – three wins better than anything Western Michigan has. Maybe Air Force isn’t thrilled about a bowl game in Boise? They will show up.

South Alabama (-3) over Bowling Green
I’m making this pick because I think Bowling Green stinks. I watched them get obliterated in their last two games by Ball State and Northern Illinois, while South Alabama nearly beat Navy and is playing in their first bowl game ever.

memphis football 2014
Memphis (-1) over BYU
I really wish this game had a better time slot, because a game this good should not kick off at 2 p.m. on a random Monday. Now, I’ll be off and watching it…but more people should.

As for the game itself, this feels like a total toss-up but I’m leaning to Memphis because they were so dominant for the last two months of the season. BYU was a different team when Taysom Hill went out and they righted the ship only when the schedule got real, real easy.

Northern Illinois (+10) over Marshall *Upset Special*
Northern Illinois crushed the spread in their last two games and I was right there to enjoy it. Absolutely no reason to jump ship now, especially with this disrespectful spread – NIU is a better team than Marshall.

San Diego State (-2.5) over Navy
So many reasons to like SDSU here. For starters, they played two option teams – New Mexico and Air Force – and shut both of them down. Secondly, it is a literal home game. Third, Navy has not lived up to preseason expectations and looked far from imposing in close wins over South Alabama and Army. Feels like this could be an easy Aztec victory.

Central Michigan (+3) over Western Kentucky
I liked the video of Central Michigan discovering they were headed to the Bahamas. Also, I just like picking all the bowl games.

Fresno State (+1.5) over Rice
Rice gave up 76 points in its last game to Louisiana Tech. This pick isn’t about momentum, it’s about the fact Rice is a bad football team. Fresno, at 6-7, is not exactly a world-beater. But of their 7 losses, four were to currently ranked teams and a fifth was to Nebraska. And they gave Boise a decent game twice in two trips to the Smurf Turf. They also have a great coach and I feel they will have extra motivation to make up for their face plant in the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl.

Illinois (+6) over Louisiana Tech
I am fully aware that this game will take place in a half-empty (at best) Cotton Bowl the day after Christmas. But isn’t Illinois uniquely prepared to play in front of 50,000 empty seats? Rim shot!

Seriously – Illinois is not a touchdown worse than Louisiana Tech. Beating Penn State and Northwestern may not mean much to many but it was hugely impressive for Illinois. They also beat Minnesota, which is an order of magnitude better than any win Louisiana Tech has. When in doubt, always pick against Skip Holtz.

Rutgers (+3) over North Carolina
I hate North Carolina because they made no sense all year. Yes, I picked them to win the ACC and they made me look foolish. They went from destroying Duke to getting destroyed by North Carolina State and that pretty much sums up their season.

As for Rutgers, I believe they are ready to make people like me eat their words. They pulled off a stunner to end the season over Maryland yet still got shipped to Detroit while the Terps get Stanford in California. I think the Knights want to stick it to the Big Ten and show why they are above getting stuck in Detroit.

UCF (-2) over North Carolina State
UCF’s season-finale against East Carolina was a nice microcosm of their season – they were the better team, almost blew it and yet still pulled it out. This is another virtual home game and you know AAC teams – all of them – enjoy playing and beating Power Five teams. It may be tight but UCF will pull it out late.

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