It was a pretty good week for the Bowl Pick'em Guide. We were 4/4 on our predictions, calling the Marshall upset while staying strong with TCU, Boise State, and Southern Mississippi. The first two days of the week leadig up to New Year's Day brings us a trio of games.
I'll be running several editions of this guide over this week, as the bowl pace picks up, so keep an eye out for the latest updates. As with last week, the guide will discuss the various games, evaluate the numbers and the intangibles, and make a pick as well as a confidence rating. Happy picking!
Advocare v100 Independence Bowl (Missouri vs. North Carolina, December 26th, 4:00 P.M., CDT, ESPN2)
This is one of those bowls that forces us to ask the question: how much does a school's conference affiliation really matter? When is a 7-5 record not really a 7-5 record? The Independence Bowl features two teams with identical records, but from conferences that are considered to be vastly different in strength. The first, Missouri, is playing its last year in the Big 12 conference before jumping ship to the SEC. North Carolina meanwhile is stuck in the barely-should-be-an-automatic-qualifier conference that is the ACC.
Both teams are 7-5. Missouri is 2-3 in their games against the Top 25 competition, with losses to Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State. They had wins against Texas and Texas A&M. But, they also lost to Arizona State, a team that finished 6-6 and just got pasted by Boise State. The line currently has Mizzou favored by just about five points. The Tigers' most impressive stat is easily their 11th ranked rushing attack. it's one of the better ones in the country, led by backs Henry Josey and James Franklin.
On the other side of the ball, we have the Tar Heels. Also 7-5, but this time out of the ACC. They went 0-3 against teams from the top 25, losing to Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Virginia Tech. They have no real impressive stats on their side, but they do have a pretty good quarterback in Bryn Renner. He's got a 68.8% completion percentage on the season, and a 23/12 TD to INT ratio. He's had major passing games against even teams with decent defenses, like Virginia Tech (8th nationally).
That last part might be very relevant to the outcome of this bowl game. You see, the Missouri secondary is... well... not good. In several of their last major games they've given up some serious passing yardage to opposing offenses: 315 (1 TD) against Texas Tech, 247 against Texas, 406 (3 TDs) against Baylor, 317 (3 TDs) against TAMU, and 338 (3 TDs against Okie State). Basically they've been torched. They've managed to score a boatload of points themselves, but will it be enough?
The intangibles weigh a bit against North Carolina. Their interim coach, Everett Withers, will be coaching his last game for the Tar Heels, as he'll be replaced by Larry Fedora (who just coached Southern Mississippi to a victory over Nevada) in the 2012 season. Withers is off to Ohio State to work under the newly hired Urban Meyer. There was also a minor flap last week when North Carolina's top receiver, Dwight Jones, was briefly declared ineligible after his name and likeness appeared on a party promotion flier. He's been reinstated, however, and will play on Monday.
Now, normally I have a standing rule: I don't like to pick teams that have suffered a coaching change. I dislike the instability it inevitably produces. However, that Mizzou secondary just worries me too much. I can't say I'm confident in this pick at all, but I'd go with the upset here.
Pick: North Carolina
Little Caesar's Bowl (Western Michigan vs. Purdue, December 27th, 3:30 P.M., CDT, ESPN)
The first bowl game to feature a Big Ten team in action sees a seriously depleted Purdue squad take on the Western Michigan Broncos out of the MAC. Western Michigan is 7-5, 3rd in the MAC West, with an 0-1 record against the top 25. They lost to Michigan 34-10, and to Illinois 23-20. They also lost a ridiculous game to Toledo late in the season, 66-63.
The Broncos have the 8th ranked passing attack in the country, largely anchored by the top receiver in the country Jordan White. White leads the nation in receptions and reception yards (1,646), and is second in receiving touchdowns. The quarterback, Alex Carder, has over 3,400 passing yards on the year along with a 67% completion rate. Western Michigan is, however, a one trick pony. They have virtually no run game, and their passing game really does revolve around the skills of White. Their next best receiver has half as many receptions and receiving yards. This fact could be highly relevant to this bowl, as we'll see in a second.
The Boilermakers are 6-6 and the last bowl team out of the Big Ten. They've got a 1-2 record against the top 25, with losses to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa. They had wins against Illinois and Ohio State (in overtime). Most of their tough losses came at the hands of bruising run attacks or highly mobile quarterbacks, something that Western Michigan does not have. This is likely because Purdue has one of the better cornerbacks in the country in Ricardo Allen. If Allen can shut down Western Michigan's passing attack, the Broncos might have a tough time finding the end zone.
On most days, I'd say that was that and go with the Boilermakers. Except... Purdue has suffered a few setbacks to put it mildly. It started with Ralph Bolden, the starting running back, tearing his ACL in the regular season finale against Indiana. Then, leading linebacker Dwayne Beckford was arrested for an alleged DUI. They also lost two of their primary wide receivers to academic eligibility issues.
Let's see. Out a starting running back, two starting wide receivers, and your leading tackler? I don't like that one bit. The line might favor Purdue by 2.5 points, but can you really say this limping mess is actually the Boilermakers? I'm not so sure.
Pick: Western Michigan
Belk Bowl (Louisville vs. North Carolina State, December 27th, 7:00 P.M., CDT, ESPN):
North Carolina state is 7-5 in the ACC, 4th in the Atlantic Division. They are 1-1 against the top 25, with a loss to Georgia Tech and a victory over Clemson. They have no real impressive stats to speak of. But, it should be noted that this is a team that has only gotten better as the season has gone on, in large part thanks to returning a bunch of a starters as the season has worn on.
Louisville meanwhile is also 7-5, but out of the Big East. The Cardinals had an impressive year, riding several freshman starters to a share of the Big East conference championship. They are 1-0 against the top 25 with a victory over West Virginia. They did, however, lose to North Carolina 14-7, a team that NC State beat 13-0.
On paper, we've got two pretty evenly matched teams. This is one of those pairings in which I think the intangibles matter a great deal. I've already mentioned my general rule against picking teams with coaching instability. Well I've also got a rule against picking teams that start a lot of freshman. I don't like freshman in bowl games. Especially freshman quarterbacks. Yeah, maybe it's an unfair generalization, but I really think the pressure of the big stage of a bowl game tends to get to freshman in a way that it doesn't to more experienced players.
Did I mention that Louisville is helmed by a freshman QB? To make matters worse for the Cardinals, they lost their best receiver in Michael Harris to a knee injury. He led the team in receptions. So this means we've got a freshman quarterback, on a big stage on national television, without his favorite target to throw to. Can you guess who I'm picking?
Pick: North Carolina State