I've always found bowl pick'em competitions to be one of the more entertaining aspects of the college football season. Sure, doing pick'ems during the regular season can be fun too, but the bowl season always carries that extra layer of uncertainty. If you know what you're doing and keep reasonably on top of your college football news and stats, getting 80-90% of regular season game picks in specific conferences or the top 25 isn't terribly difficult. But bowl games... well that's a whole different matter. Very often, the two teams in any given bowl haven't seen each other that season, or possibly even have any opponents in common. And even if they have, there's no guarantee that the second time around will look anything like the first (I'm looking at you Nebraska and Washington).
As with the NCAA Tournament, you're left with evaluating teams based on records and stats that might bear no relationship to the final result on the scoreboard when the clock ticks to :00. It's for this reason that, as with the NCAA Tournament, I tend to rely on the intangible factors when making my picks. Who has a new coach? Who's never been to a bowl game? Who hasn't won a bowl game since 1949? And so on and so forth. Unfortunately, delving into such things is often time consuming and quite possibly mind numbing. Fortunately for you, I get paid to do this.
So welcome to SB Nation Chicago's bowl pick'em guide. In this issue we're taking on four games, from December 20th- December 24th. Next week we'll continue on with other games, but for now we're limiting it to these four. Let's take a look at what the odds are for these games...
Beef O'Brady's Bowl: Florida International vs. Marshall (Tuesday, Dec. 20th, 7:00 P.M. CDT, ESPN):
Our first matchup features the Panthers from FIU, out of the Sun Belt conference taking on the Thundering Herd of Marshall and C-USA. Don't you just love how... riveting ... these beginning bowl matchups are? Yeah, me too.
A glance at the records tells us that FIU is 8-4, good for 4th in the Sun Belt, while Marshall is at 6-6, 2nd in the C-USA East. In passing yards, rushing yards, and overall points scored the Panthers are ranked in the high 60's in DI-A football, with the only stat of note being their 16th overall ranking for defense, as they allow just 19.4 points per game. Marshall is superficially worse, ranking from the 70s-90s in all four major categories.
Against the AP Top 25, the Thundering Herd has gone 0-3, losing to Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Houston. The Panthers, meanwhile, did not play a single team ranked in the top 25 this year. In fact, they have just one win against a team with a winning record - 7-5 Louisville out of the Big East. All of their others wins came against lesser competition (including some real stinkers). As far as common opponents go, the teams share two, Louisville and UCF. Marshall beat Louisville 17-13, while FIU garnered a 24-17 victory. FIU beat UCF 17-10, while Marshall lost 16-6.
The rankings, records, and line all favor the Panthers. What about the intangibles? The only news of note so far is that there has been much speculation about the future of FIU's head coach Mario Cristobal. He's been mentioned in connection with several open head coaching jobs, most recently the job at Pitt left open by the departure of Todd Graham. I usually pick against teams that have departing head coaches or rumors related to it - I dislike the distraction that inevitably gets to the players. I also don't entirely believe in FIU's record... had they played a few ranked teams like Marshall did during the regular season, would they still be an eight win team? I'm not so sure. Even so, because these factors are at odds with the numbers, I'm not confident in this pick. If your pick'em is of the confidence variety, I wouldn't weight this game too heavily.
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsetta Bowl: No. 18 TCU vs. Louisiana-Tech (Wednesday, Dec. 21st, 7:00 P.M. CDT, ESPN)
Up next we have one of the more awkwardly named bowls of the season, which sees the 18th ranked Horned Frogs take on the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. TCU ended this year with a 10-2 record, but somehow still ended up stuck in this dreadful bowl... quite a fall far from the Rose Bowl. Sucks to be in a non-AQ conference.
As noted, TCU finished 10-2, good for first in the MWC, while the Bulldogs were 8-4, first in the WAC. The Bulldogs played no top 25 opponent s this year, while the Horned Frogs are 1-0, after edging out Boise State 36-35. TCU has the 9th ranked offense in the country, scoring over 40 points per game on average, with a 20th ranked rushing attack and 60th ranked passing attack. Their defense is ranked 30th. The Bulldogs on the other hand have a middling rank, in the 30s-40s for all stat categories except their rushing offense, which is ranked 70th. The teams share no common opponents. The line currently has TCU as a 10.5 pt favorite.
As far as intangibles go, there's only two factors to consider. TCU lost one of its offensive coordinators, as Memphis hired way assistant coach Justin Fuente. There's also a questionable motivation factor - will TCU players give a full effort when they're stuck in such a crappy bowl game instead of in the BCS?
Still, I don't think the intangibles are significant enough here to go against the numbers. Losing an offensive coordinator isn't great - but he's one of two at TCU, which should blunt the impact. As far as effort goes, while I wouldn't be surprised to see TCU a bit lethargic out of the gate, the statistical gap is so wide that they'd really have to punt the game to chalk up a loss.
Maaco Bowl Las Vegas: Arizona State vs. No. 7 Boise State (Thursday, Dec. 22nd, 7:00 P.M. CDT, ESPN)
If you want to talk motivation problems, try this game. If not for a blown field goal against TCU, the Broncos are playing in the BCS this year. Instead, they're stuck in Las Vegas playing the dregs of the Pac-12. Sucks to be in a non-AQ conference, doesn't it?
So. Boise is 11-1, good for 2nd place in the MWC, while the Sun Devils are just 6-6, 3rd in the Pac-12 South. The Broncos have a top-10 passing attack, scoring offense, and scoring defense, while Arizona State... doesn't. Well the Sun Devils do have the 11th ranked passing offense, but that's about the only notable statistic. Against the top 25, Arizona State is 2-1, with wins against USC and Mizzou, and a loss to Oregon. BSU is 1-0, after their season opening win against Georgia. The teams don't have any opponents in common.
As far as intangibles go, they weigh heavily in favor of the Broncos. Arizona State is dealing with the transition that comes from a new coach, after they hired Todd Graham away from Pitt. Meanwhile, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore will be playing in his last college game before graduating and departing for the NFL Draft. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he'll want a win to close the book on his college career. The line is also heavily in favor of Boise, currently a 14 point favorite.
Pick: Boise State
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl: Nevada vs. No. 21 Southern Mississippi (Saturday, Dec. 24th, 7:00 P.M. CDT, ESPN)
I feel like this year is the first time in forever in which Hawaii is not playing in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me I'm not entirely wrong, though coincidentally the Wolf Pack has been here before, losing miserably to SMU in 2009.
Anyway. Nevada is 7-5, second in the WAC, while Southern Miss is 11-2, first in the C-USA East. Nevada is 0-2 against top 25 competition (losses to Oregon and Boise State), while the Golden Eagles are 1-0, with a victory over Houston in the C-USA championship game. Southern Miss has the 14th ranked scoring offense, while Nevada has the 8th ranked rushing attack. The teams share one opponent, Louisiana Tech. The Wolf Pack lost to them 24-20, while the Golden Eagles opened the season with a 19-17 victory. Statistically speaking, the teams are relatively even. The line currently has Southern Miss as a 6.5 point favorite.
Two intangibles go against the Golden Eagles, however. First, their coach Larry Fedora is essentially a dead man walking. He accepted the head coaching job at North Carolina, and though he'll be on the sidelines for the Hawaii Bowl, he's a goner after that. Second, you have to wonder, did Southern Miss already have their big win of the year against Houston in the C-USA conference game? After a victory like that, a game against Nevada might be a little bit of an afterthought.
I don't like teams with coaching instability. But... perhaps this situation is one that the Golden Eagles can overcome. They will still be coached by Fedora, and it's not as though he has any bitterness directed at the institution. And while the players are certainly disappointed, they do have a certain amount of national respect on the line in this bowl game. Win and they'll hit 12 victories for the first time in program history and be ranked in the end of the season poll. Lose and they're just another fluke team out of a non-AQ conference. So...
Pick: Southern Mississippi