There’s two college bowl games going this weekend, both bracketing the NFL playoffs in terms of time slots and serving as the college bridge to Monday’s night battle for the BCS National Championship. Here’s a look at both…
SMU-Pitt (Sat,1 PM ET, ESPN): Am I the only one who saw this game and thought of the 1982 Cotton Bowl, when SMU had the Pony Express of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, while Pitt had Dan Marino playing his final game? That one was played in a freezing Dallas rain and it ended up 7-3. This one will be in Charlotte, so the weather will be just a tad better. SMU’s 7-5 season was disappointing, and they had problems throughout the year stopping the run. Those difficulties were underscored when Navy was able to beat them without completing a single pass. The Mustangs’ own rush game was solid, but running back Zach Line is injured and will miss this game. The burden falls on Josh McDermott, often inconsistent at quarterback, to carry the load in this game.
Pitt’s pass defense is beatable and they’re a team going through a coaching transition, as Todd Graham left for Arizona State and Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is on the way in. Pitt’s own top running back, Ray Graham, missed the last few weeks of the season and also won’t be healthy for this one, but Pitt was able to have some success with Zach Brown and they played good football down the stretch, beating Louisville and only losing by a combined four points to Cincinnati and West Virginia. The Big East has stood up well for itself this bowl season, most notably West Virginia’s astonishing demolition of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and I think the conference picks up another win here.
Northern Illinois-Arkansas State (Sun, 9 PM ET, ESPN): These are the champions of the MAC and Sun Belt respectively, and Arkansas State brings a tough defense to the game. The Red Wolves’ only losses came early, to Illinois (at a point when the Illini were still interested in football) and to Virginia Tech. They were overmatched up front, a problem they won’t have to contend with Sunday night. Northern Illinois had similar problems in their non-conference schedule, but while getting buried by Wisconsin up front is understandable, having it happen against Kansas is less so. The Huskies were also beaten in the line of scrimmage by Central Michigan. NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish is a tremendous all-around talent, but when a good defense can key on a single player that can usually neutralize him and that’s what I expect to happen here. The MAC-Sun Belt is the midmajor version of the Big Ten-SEC, which means that I’ll sit down to root for Northern Illinois and end up frustrated and disappointed by night’s end.