The Big 12 has spent the regular season building a credible record as the nation’s best conference, with nine of ten teams going to bowl games, with Kansas State being a legitimate part of the national elite and Oklahoma not far behind. But just as championships aren’t won in September, nor is an honor for the nation’s best conference. The Big 12 needs to make a definitive case in the bowls, on Saturday night there are two noteworthy games. Texas plays Oregon State, followed by TCU matching up with Michigan State in an ESPN sequence beginning at 6:45 PM ET. It’s these two games that will serve as TheSportsNotebook’s focal point, as we preview the 11 games coming up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as college bowl season heats up.
Texas has been one of the country’s harder-to-figure teams all year. They beat a pretty good team in Oklahoma State, and then gave up 63 to archrival Oklahoma. The Longhorns were supposed to be a good defensive team with quarterback issues. Instead, they struggled to stop people all year, while David Ash took the reins behind center and completely nearly 68 percent of his passes, while throwing effectively down the field with minimal mistakes.
Just when it seemed like UT had it figured out and was coming on in November, they threw a clunker at TCU on Thanksgiving night that cost them a shot at major bowl bid, then dropped a 42-24 decision to Kansas State that ended any hopes of playing in the Cotton Bowl—what would have been the ultimate grudge match opportunity against former conference rival Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
Oregon State is the reverse. They don’t haul in the five-star recruits the way Texas does, and you can’t say the Beavers have the same kind of upside, but what you can say is that Oregon State is consistent. They’ve beaten Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona, BYU and Arizona State. Two of the Beavers’ three losses were close, against Washington & Stanford. And even a 48-24 loss to Oregon wasn’t terrible, given how explosive the Ducks can be.
Mike Riley’s offense is built on the passing game, and targeting top receivers in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. The quarterback position has been in a little bit of flux. Sophomore Sean Mannion had the job and made some improvement off an interception-prone freshman year when he was thrown into the fire. But not enough, and even though it took an injury to get him out of the lineup, once Cody Vaz got a shot, he stepped up the caliber of play. Vaz drastically cut down on the interceptions, while still maintaining a higher yards-per-attempt than Mannion. Unsurprisingly, it’s Vaz that will get the start in San Antonio.
I’ve hated picking games involving Texas all year, because they have the capacity to make one look foolish in either regard. But given the opportunities they’ve cost themselves, how excited are they going to be to play Oregon State? And given how good Oregon State has been, should we make Texas’ motivation the only factor? There are just more reasons to like the Beavers in this game and that’s the direction I’m going.
Now we come to TCU. You can look at the Horned Frogs’ 3-4 finish to the season, a record compiled with freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin, who got the job after Casey Pachall was suspended, and figure it’s a team that’s fading. But look closer—three of those losses were competitive games against Oklahoma, Kansas State and a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Texas Tech. TCU had the aforementioned win over Texas when the Longhorns had much more at stake. So it’s true that this is not a vintage Horned Frog defense, the kind that gave them national prominence, but it’s also true that this is a team that’s played well against much better teams than the one they’ll face Saturday night in Tempe.
Whether you like Michigan State or are down on them—and with a 6-6 record in a conference that was terrible in non-league play, you’d be justified to be in the latter group—say this for Sparty. They play close games. Of their five losses, two were in overtime and the three regulation defeats were by a combined ten points. Conversely, they needed overtime to beat Wisconsin and barely escaped Indiana.
The strengths and weaknesses of Michigan State make it apparent what the reason is. They can play defense with anyone, and that includes a good showing in an non-conference win over Boise State and a decent showing against Notre Dame, a game they lost 20-3 with no help from the offense. The Spartans also run the ball very well with bruising back Le’Veon Bell. They just can’t throw it to save their life. Andrew Maxwell completes a low percentage, can’t complete it down the field and makes too many mistakes. Did I leave anything out?
I like Michigan State’s coach, Mark Dantonio. I believe he’ll have his team well-prepared and I think they’ll play hard. But I’m not picking any Big Ten team unless you can identify a clear reason why the opposition won’t be motivated. I suppose its possible TCU might not care—but I suspect that Gary Patterson will want to send a message that his team is ready to be a Big 12 contender in 2013. And as one who believes in the quality of this conference, I’m not going to pick them to lose both Saturday night games. Look for the Horned Frogs to get the win.
There have been eight bowl games so far, and in previous games I’ve picked an outright winner, a pointspread winner, and the Over/Under totals line. Further down is the full disclosure part of this column, with the complete record. Here is the complete picks for Saturday night’s featured doubleheader, followed by comments and picks on the nine games building up to that, starting on Thursday afternoon…
Outright Winner: Oregon State
Pointspread Winner: Oregon State (-2)
Totals: Over 57.5
Outright Winner: TCU
Pointspread Winner: TCU (-3)
Totals: Over 40.5
Outright Winners: 5-3
Pointspread Winners: 4-4
Totals Line: 5-3
THURSDAY’S TRIPLE CROWN
San Jose State-Bowling Green (3 PM ET, ESPN): San Jose is a much better team, with David Fales being one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. He’s only a junior, so keep on him next season. And the MAC, where Bowling Green hails from, is 0-2 in the college bowl season, with two blowouts to show for their trouble. On the other hand…San Jose is without its coach, as Mike McIntyre left for Colorado. So while I like the Spartans enough to pick them, I can’t lay seven.
Outright Winner: San Jose State
Pointspread Winner: Bowling Green (+7)
Totals Line: Over 44
Cincinnati-Duke (6:30 PM ET, ESPN): Duke’s a little nicked up in the secondary, but is being overly cynical to suggest that given how much Duke’s defense has struggled, it probably doesn’t make any difference? Look for the points to flow in this game, as Blue Devil quarterback Sean Renfree can put up the yardage against anyone, but the Bearcats can run the ball with George Winn and since the insertion of Brendan Kay into the quarterback spot, they’ve been much more efficient throwing the ball. On the surface, Cincy would be the better team, but this is another team that lost its coach. And consider this intangible—Duke’s playing in its first bowl game since 1994 and the game will be played in Charlotte, where their students can make the trip. I like the motivated Dookies in a shootout.
Outright Winner: Duke
Pointspread Winner: Duke (+8)
Totals Line: Over 61
Baylor-UCLA (9:45 PM ET, ESPN): Think the points might be flying in San Diego? Las Vegas certainly does, with the total posted at 82, and it’s actually nudged up a point since the original posting. Baylor is a better version of Duke, in that an offense led by Nick Florence throwing the ball to Terrance Williams is churning out the yardage and points. The Bears are playing their best football of the season in November, with the shocking 52-24 rout of Kansas State that reshaped the national title race being the prime example (any chance Nick Saban sent Baylor coach Art Briles a little Christmas gift?).
Then there’s the Baylor defense—never mind considering whether they can stop UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin on the ground. They can’t. Can they even tackle him? UCLA could run a big-play offense doing nothing more than running Franklin off-tackle. Oh, and the Bruins can throw the ball with freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who’s improved as the year went along. This is also the first year for the UCLA program under Jim Mora Jr., and I’m thinking he’ll want to seal a nice opening campaign with a bowl victory. If this were a few years down the road, maybe UCLA wouldn’t be motivated after losing the Pac-12 title, but right now I think they will be.
Outright Winner: UCLA
Pointspread Winner: UCLA (-3)
Totals Line: Over 82
THREE MORE ON FRIDAY
Ohio-UL Monroe (2 PM ET, ESPN): In the category of “I need to get a life”, my excitement for this game, certainly qualifies. Tyler Tettleton for Ohio and Kolton Browning at UL-Monroe are two outstanding mid-major quarterbacks and both of these teams made some noise against BCS conference teams. Ohio won at Penn State, a win that looks even more impressive now. Monroe won at Arkansas, a win that looks less impressive now. The ball will be in the air and the points should flow in Shreveport.
Outright Winner: UL-Monroe
Pointspread Winner: Ohio (+7)
Totals Line: Over 61
Rutgers-Virginia Tech (5:30 PM ET, ESPN): I can’t imagine either team’s real thrilled about being in Orlando. Virginia Tech because they’re not accustomed to dragging into the postseason at 6-6, and Rutgers because they blew a Sugar Bowl bid by coughing up a two-touchdown lead at home to Louisville, in spite of having a top-caliber defense. I’m betting on Rutgers to have the hangover and the Hokies to be looking for at least some modest redemption. If it’s a close, low-scoring game—and with a totals line of 41, the smart money seems to think it will—then that makes special teams more important, which points to Virginia Tech. Finally, when in doubt, do you bet on Kyle Flood or Frank Beamer? There’s only correct answer to that latter question, regardless of the outcome on Friday and for me it’s the final seal on a Va Tech pick.
Outright Winner: Virginia Tech
Pointspread Winner: Virginia Tech (-1.5)
Totals Line: Under 41
Minnesota-Texas Tech (9 PM ET, ESPN): This game is a complete mismatch. Minnesota is a borderline team from the worst power conference in the country. Texas Tech had a decent year in one of the best leagues in the nation. That’s why the line is set with the Red Raiders giving 12.5 points. But let’s consider the intangibles—Minnesota is thrilled to be in a bowl game. Texas Tech finished the season a little sluggish, and not only lost its coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati, but Tuberville walked out on a dinner with recruits to take the job and never returned. Add to that, the complete lack of interest the Red Raider players surely have in playing the 6-6 Gophers. Can you spell upset? I’m too chicken to go that far, but I will spell “closer than the experts say.”
Outright Winner: Texas Tech
Pointspread Winner: Minnesota (+12.5)
Totals Line: Over 55
THE FIRST THREE ON SATURDAY
Rice-Air Force (11:45 AM ET, ESPN): Meaning no disrespect to the men and women of the Air Force Academy, nor to the kids at Rice who took advantage of a schedule backloaded with its weaker games to get bowl-eligible, but I can’t think of one good reason to watch this game. I like Owls’ quarterback Taylor McHargue, but Air Force is a little more disciplined and after a disappointing 6-6 year I think they’ll be like Virginia Tech and ready to get a bit of atonement. The flip side? This is a Conference USA underdog facing a Mountain West team—just like the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, and in that one SMU smoked Fresno State 43-10, my worst pick of the young college bowl season. But I’ll go to the well with the Mountain West one more time.
Outright Winner: Air Force
Pointspread Winner: Air Force (-2.5)
Totals: Under 60.5
West Virginia-Syracuse (3:15 PM ET, ESPN): Geno Smith deserved the Heisman Trophy, even if the rest of his West Virginia team—especially the defense—was far from the same level. With WVA now in the Big 12, this is the rare road trip a lot of their fans can make, with the game being in Yankee Stadium. I look for that to neutralize any home crowd effect for the Orange and the Big 12 to trump the Big East.
Outright Winner: West Virginia
Pointspread Winner: West Virginia (-3.5)
Totals Line: Over 74.5
Navy-Arizona State (4 PM ET, ESPN2): Arizona State is a heavy two-touchdown favorite and given the quality of the Pac-12, I certainly concede they’re the better team here in San Francisco. The passing game led by sophomore Taylor Kelly can put the Middies into an air war they can’t keep up in. And the last time Navy came west for a bowl game like this was 2010 when they were manhandled by San Diego State. The spread has a hook on the far side of two touchdowns and for that reason, I’m going to go with the dog. But the Sun Devils should have this one in control from the outset.
Outright Winner: Arizona State
Pointspread Winner: Navy (+14.5)
Totals Line: Over 56