Thursday, December 18, 2008

The First May Be Best on Saturday

The 2008-09 bowl season begins on Saturday with four bowl games — the EagleBank Bowl at 10 a.m. (Central) on ESPN; the New Mexico Bowl at 1:30 p.m. (Central) also on ESPN; the St. Petersburg Bowl at 3:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2; and the Las Vegas Bowl at 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN.

There are many more bowl games to be played, of course, and there will be a college football game played every day between now and Jan. 3 (with three more games, including the national championship game to be played between Jan. 5-8) with the exception of next Monday (in deference, I suppose, to Monday Night Football) and Christmas Day.

But the fact is that there won't be another day that has this many college football games scheduled to be played until New Year's Eve.

It's possible to see almost all of the games if you wish, since three of the four are on the same cable channel and the other is on a sister channel. But I think it's only fair for you to be warned that the first one — the EagleBank Bowl — will probably be the best one — although the last one, the Las Vegas Bowl, shows some promise.

EagleBank Bowl

One of the things to recommend a game featuring Wake Forest (7-5) and Navy (8-4) is that it is a rematch. Navy beat Wake Forest, 24-17, on Sept. 27 — but Wake Forest leads the all-time series with Navy, 6-3.

Neither team was particularly strong in its passing game — in fact, Navy's was about the worst in the country, averaging slightly more than 63 yards per game — but Navy had the best running game in the nation, averaging nearly 300 yards per contest. Running back Shun White had touchdown runs of 87 and 71 yards and averaged 8.7 yards per carry en route to a 1,021-yard season.

I haven't seen the numbers on this, but I would imagine that, by relying on its ground game, Navy controlled time of possession.

Although Wake Forest struggled on offense, the Demon Deacons have the statistical advantage on defense. Wake Forest was 17th in points allowed, 19th in total defense, 21st in run defense and 28th in passing defense. Cornerback Alphonso Smith was one of the nation's leaders in interceptions with six.

If Wake Forest's defense can stop Navy's running game, I think it could come down to a field goal — if so, there are few college kickers I'd rather have than the one on the Navy sideline, Matt Harmon, who tied for third in field goal accuracy this season (89.5%). For his career, Harmon has succeeded on 31 of 40 attempts, and his longest of the year was 49 yards against Ball State.

New Mexico Bowl

The matchup between Colorado State (6-6) and Fresno State (7-5) amounts to nothing more than a couple of average or slightly above average teams whose solitary bright spots seem to cancel each other out — i.e., CSU's passing game is the team's offensive strength while Fresno's pass defense is its defensive strength.

Colorado State was 24th in the nation in passing yards per game, led by QB Billy Farris, who threw for 2,677 yards and 17 touchdowns. He completed 61.7% of his passes and was sacked 20 times. His top targets were Dion Morton (who had 10 TD receptions) and Rashaun Greer (who accumulated more than 1,000 yards receiving).

As I mentioned, Fresno State wasn't bad against the pass. The Bulldogs ranked 50th in the nation. But their interception leader, defensive back Marvin Haynes, had only two picks all season.

For that matter, Fresno wasn't bad, just not inspiring, throwing the ball. QB Tom Brandstater threw for nearly 2,500 yards and completed nearly 60% of his passes. He might enjoy some success against CSU's pass defense, which was 84th in the nation.

Neither defense put up impressive numbers against the run, which might benefit Fresno State, since its running game was 35th in the nation. But Fresno's leading rusher barely cracked 700 yards for the season. Colorado State ranked 79th in rushing, but at least the Rams had a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Gartrell Johnson.

Both gave up about 30 points a game, and that's about how many points Fresno's offense averaged this season. Colorado State averaged about 24 points per game.

St. Petersburg Bowl

On offense, Memphis (6-6) vs. South Florida (7-5) comes down to a battle between Memphis' 18th-ranked running game and South Florida's 39th-ranked passing attack.

When Memphis has the ball, it seems likely that RB Curtis Steele will be the focus of attention — he ran for 1,175 yards and seven TDs during the season. QB Arkelon Hall's name may be mentioned a few times as well, but perhaps not for passing. Hall carried the ball 73 times during the season and scored two rushing TDs.

Even so, Hall threw for more than 2,000 yards during the season, which leads me to believe he'll be throwing the ball from time to time.

When South Florida is on offense, QB Matt Grothe's aerial attack will be in the spotlight. Grothe also led the team in rushing yards, but the run game appears to have been pretty balanced, since RB Mike Ford led the team in rushing TDs. It was ranked 51st in the nation.

South Florida has a big edge in almost every defensive category — including run defense, which will be critical against Memphis. South Florida ranked ninth in run defense, holding opponents to an average of less than 100 yards on the ground.

But there may be some hope for Memphis' defense against the South Florida passing game. Memphis ranks 47th in the nation against the pass and thus may be able to counter South Florida's 39th-ranked passing game.

Las Vegas Bowl

The Las Vegas Bowl is the only game on Saturday that features a team that is ranked in the BCS rankings — Brigham Young. BYU is 10-2 and will face 7-5 Arizona.

The team records would suggest that BYU will win in a romp.

But remember, BYU plays in the Mountain West (with Utah and TCU, it's true, but also with San Diego State, Wyoming, New Mexico and UNLV, who combined for an overall record of 15-33 and a conference record of 6-26 — BYU outscored these four teams, 148-50, but went 0-2 against TCU and Utah) while Arizona plays in the more competitive Pac-10 (with USC, Oregon, Oregon State and California — Arizona went 1-3 against them but was only outscored 118-114).

The team rankings in the various categories indicate a game that might be closer than you think.

On offense, BYU's Max Hall had the 12th-best QB rating in the nation and he completed nearly 70% of his passes for more than 3,600 yards. Wide receiver Austin Collie led the country in receiving yards, and he made 95 receptions, of which 15 were touchdowns.

BYU's passing game was seventh in the nation, but Arizona's was a respectable #40. QB Willie Tuitama was 24th in passing efficiency and logged more than 2,700 passing yards.

Arizona actually was ranked higher throwing the ball than running it, but running back Nicholas Grigsby amassed 1,066 yards rushing, gaining more than 100 yards on the ground five times.

Consequently, Arizona's running game was ranked higher than BYU's, although the Cougars' Harvey Unga ran for 1,061 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Both teams ranked in the top 20 in scoring. BYU was 19th (averaging 35.3 points per game) and Arizona was 16th (averaging 37.1 points per game).

Arizona plays in a conference that isn't noted for its defense, but the Wildcats have a statistical advantage, at least, over the Cougars in most defensive categories. The most significant edge happens to be the most important for a BYU foe — pass defense. Arizona was 14th in the nation in passing yards allowed, and cornerback Trevin Wade had four interceptions.

If the game comes down to field goals, neither team seems to have an advantage. Both Arizona's Jason Bondzio and BYU's Mitch Payne hit more than 80% of their attempts, and both have connected on attempts longer than 45 yards.

In fact, both of Payne's misses came in the same game — Oct. 3 against Utah State.

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