The holiday season is upon us and that means many different things for different people ï¿½ shopping, family, presents, etc. ï¿½ but for me it means lots of football. Yes, I am a football addict and I will watch every single bowl game. I love the match-ups between teams that do not normally play each other. We finally get to see which conferences are really the strongest and which team is truly the best in the countryï¿½well, at least some of the time. Picking bowl games are never easy because teams may not have an equal motivation and some teams are more easily distracted by the festivities of the week prior to the game, but Iï¿½ll give it a try and point out some aspects of the games to watch.
New Orleans Bowl: Dec. 20 ï¿½ Southern Miss (6-5; 5-3) vs. Arkansas State (6-5; 5-2), 8:00 PM EST, ESPN
The first bowl game will bring back memories of one of the biggest storylines in college football this year ï¿½ the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The game obviously cannot be played in New Orleans and had to be moved to Lafayette, LA., home of Ricky Bustleï¿½s Raginï¿½ Cajuns football teams. The Indians (soon to have their name changed) won the Sun Belt Conference in a tiebreaker over the directional Louisiana schools in Lafayette and Monroe. Arkansas State gained the conference title, in part, because of an exciting come-from-behind victory over Ricky Bustleï¿½s squad on a field goal at the gun. Southern Miss, on the other hand, finished second in the East Division of Conference USA, losing out to the surprising Central Florida Golden Knights.
The Sun Belt Conference would have to be considered the weakest Division 1 conference and I would even rate the 1-AA Atlantic 10 Conference as stronger overall. Basically, Arkansas State would be a decent 1-AA school, but really should not be in a bowl game. Southern Miss was the preseason favorite to win their division, but underachieved, losing games to Houston and Memphis late in the season. The Golden Eagles gave N.C. State a tough battle and soundly defeated Central Florida 52-31, so playing in this game has to be a bit of a disappointment for the team.
Southern Miss is led by senior QB Dustin Almond (#9, 6-2 214) on offense and the Coley twins on defense. Kevis Coley (#45, 6-1 223, Sr.) plays middle linebacker and his identical twin, and probably best player on the team, Trevis Coley (#18, 6-1 216) plays free safety. However, Trevis may not be able to play in the game due to a shoulder injury. Southern Miss has struggled running the ball this year, so establishing a ground game against an outmanned Arkansas State team will be a key to watch. The Indians are led by the senior running back tandem of Antonio Warren (#42, 5-11 205, 1046 yards rushing) and Shermar Bracey (#23, 6-2 228, 659 yards rushing) on offense and strong safety Tyrell Johnson (#16, 6-1 195, r-So.) on defense. Arkansas State will try to establish a balanced attack on offense, but the teams are too mismatched in talent for this game to be close ï¿½ Southern Miss by 18.
GMAC Bowl: Dec. 21 ï¿½ Texas-El Paso (8-3; 5-3) vs. Toledo (8-3; 6-2), 8:00 PM EST, ESPN
Both teams were runners-up in their respective divisions after suffering late season losses that cost them their division titles. UTEP was upset by UAB and SMU after defeating division winner Tulsa 41-38, and Toledo lost to Northern Illinois 35-17 which cost them the tiebreaker for the Mid-American West Division title. Both teams have strong offensive units, so this game should be an exciting, high-scoring affair.
The Miners are led by Carson Palmerï¿½s brother, Jordan (#5, 6-5 230, Jr.) who has thrown for 3,340 yards. UTEP has one of the fastest receiving corps in the country, led by Johnnie Lee Higgins (#21, 6-0 180, Jr., 47 catches for 807 yards) who runs a 4.18 40. The rushing game can also be explosive and is led by UCLA transfer Tyler Ebell (#2, 5-9 190, r-Sr., 536 yards rushing) and Marcus Thomas (#8, 6-1 195, So., 720 yards rushing). On defense, UTEP is led by outside linebacker Thomas Howard (#11, 6-3 240, r-Sr.) who has exceptional speed having been timed at 4.38 in the 40.
Toledo is led by record-setting QB Bruce Gradkowski (#7, 6-2 222, Sr.) who had 2,171 yards passing this year as well as 280 yards rushing. The Rockets have one of the more balanced attacks in the country with a solid ground game as well. Trinity Dawson (#38, 5-10 202, Sr.) led the rushing attack with 1,170 yards this year. On defense, Toledo is led by inside linebacker Anthony Jordan (#40, 6-3 240, Sr.) and strong safety Keon Jackson (#6, 5-11 211, r-Sr.).
The key to this game should be Toledoï¿½s ability to slow down UTEPï¿½s high-powered passing attack and prevent the big play. The Miners have struggled on defense, particularly later in the season, so the Rockets should be able to move the ball both on the ground and in the air. I see Toledo coming out on top of a game that could end up with both teams scoring at least 40 points ï¿½ Toledo by 4.
Pioneer Purevision Las Vegas Bowl: Dec. 22 ï¿½ Brigham Young (6-5; 5-3) vs. California (7-4; 4-4), 8:00 PM EST, ESPN
If you like passing, this should be the game to watch. Both teams like to air it out, so we should see lots of scoring. Not much was expected of Brigham Young this year, so finishing second in the Mountain West has to be considered somewhat of a surprise. The Cougars were involved in one of this seasonï¿½s most exciting games, losing 51-50 to eventual Mountain West champ TCU. California had a disappointing season with numerous injuries keeping the Golden Bears from challenging USC for the Pac 10 title (not that they wouldnï¿½t have been overmatched anyway). The most disappointing loss had to be the heart-breaking last minute loss to UCLA 47-40 in which the Bruins rallied from a 12 point deficit late in the fourth quarter.
On offense, Brigham Young is led, as always, by their QB John Beck (#12, 6-2 210, Jr.) with 3,357 passing yards. Curtis Brown (#6, 6-0 205, Jr.) led the rushing attack with 1,095 yards, as well as catching 48 passes for an additional 409 yards. Defensively, the Cougars are led by defensive end Manaia Brown (#99, 6-3 310, r-Sr.) and middle linebacker Cameron Jensen (#35, 6-2 230, r-Jr.).
Offensively, California is led by talented sophomore running back Marshawn Lynch (#10, 5-11 200, So., 1,052 rushing yards) who missed a couple of games with an injury. The passing game has some heavily-recruited, big-play wide receivers in Robert Jordan (#11, 5-11 160, So.), DeSean Jackson (#1, 6-0 175, Fr.), and Lavelle Hawkins (#7, 5-11 175, r-So.), but highly-touted JUCO QB Joseph Ayoob (#18, 6-3 215, Jr.) was inconsistent in his first year after replacing Nate Longshore (#9, 6-5 230, r-Fr.) who was injured in the first game of the season. Steve Levy (#3, 6-1 220, Jr.) started the last game against Stanford and there is a possibility that Longshore will be able to play in the game, so the QB position looks to be uncertain going into the bowl game. The Golden Bears have an excellent secondary, when healthy, led by strong safety Donnie McCleskey (#21, 5-10 195, Sr.), cornerback Daymeion Hughes (#13, 6-2 180, Jr.), and free safety Harrison Smith (#11, 6-2 200, Sr.). Up front California is talented as well led by defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (#52, 6-3 290, Jr.).
Without question California is the more talented team, but the Golden Bears have struggled this year, partly because of an unusual number of injuries as well as inconsistent quarterback play. Brigham Young has overachieved, but I donï¿½t believe they have the speed, particularly in the secondary, to hold down the California offense. I see California winning a high-scoring battle that should be fun to watch ï¿½ California by 14.
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Dec. 22 ï¿½ Colorado State (6-5; 5-3) vs. Navy (7-4), 10:30 PM EST, ESPN2
Both Colorado State and Navy performed about as expected this year with solid seasons. The Rams finished third in the Mountain West and Navy had a good season as an independent, only losing to Maryland (23-20), Stanford (41-38), Rutgers (31-21), and Notre Dame (42-21) while winning both of the all-important games against the other military academies. Navy, of course, will run the option and try to control the ball on the ground whereas Colorado State will try to win through the air.
Offensively, the Rams are led by QB Justin Holland (#8, 6-3 207, Sr.) with 2,804 passing yards. His favorite target, and one of my favorite college players, is wide receiver David Anderson (#4, 5-11 195, Sr.) who has exceptional hands and seems to always find a way to get open. Defensively, Colorado State has struggled losing their best player, free safety Ben Stratton (#3, 6-2 207, Sr.) early in the season. Up front the Rams are led by powerful defensive tackle Blake Smith (#97, 6-2 290, So.) and in the secondary by cornerback Robert Herbert (#6, 6-1 200, r-Jr.).
The Midshipmen run a multi-option offense that can be difficult for defenses to handle. The leading rusher for Navy this year is quarterback Lamar Owens (#2, 5-9 185, Sr.) with 830 yards. He also added 1,155 yards passing. Navy will use a number of backs behind a very small, but efficient offensive line with the fullbacks, Adam Ballard (#22, 6-1 240, So.) and Matt Hall (#36, 5-9 216, Jr.), getting a lot of carries. On defense, Navy is led by defensive end Jeremy Chase (#49, 6-2 270, Sr.), outside linebacker David Mahoney (#40, 5-9 216, Jr.), and strong safety Jeremy McGown (#8, 5-11 184, Jr.).
The key to this game is obviously Colorado Stateï¿½s ability to stop the Navy option attack. The Rams defeated the only other option team they faced this year, Air Force, 41-23, but that game was decided mainly by the Falcons inability to stop the Colorado State offense (551 total yards) more than the Rams stopping the run (Air Force had 227 rushing yards). I see Navy being able to move the ball on the ground and the Midshipmenï¿½s secondary will be able to hold down the passing attack of Colorado State enough to get the win ï¿½ Navy by 5.
Iï¿½ll have more previews and predictions for the upcoming bowl games on Friday, including statistical projections for the games involving ACC teams (Clemson vs. Colorado in this case). For now I have to venture back out to the shopping malls and finish my Christmas shopping ï¿½ thank goodness for football!