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Which Team Wants It More? December 16, 2015

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 Who wants it more?  More to the point, which team is happier to be there?  That is the most important question in determining the outcomes of the upcoming bowl games.  It is not easy, but it will be the make-or-break factor.  It affects the performance of the team.  If they are not that motivated to be there, but the underdog team is, the actual odds favor the latter.  Therefore, the real question becomes, which team will show up to play?  To create a better understanding of this condition, allow me to offer Exhibit A:

The season was that of 1998.  Kansas State was rising up in the polls throughout the year.  They defeated mighty Nebraska (yes, the Cornhuskers were still very vaunted then) for the first time in three decades.  The Wildcats went undefeated for the regular season, and were poised, at the No. 2 national ranking, to go to the first ever championship game of the Bowl Championship Series, which that year would be the Fiesta Bowl.

Kansas State’s only hurdle to clear to make that coveted berth was the Big XII Championship game, in which they were naturally favored.  Yet underdog Texas A&M had other plans, and managed to upset K-State that game.  Gone were the Wildcats’ national championship hopes, but it was worse than that:  other teams had already secured major bowl slots, so K-State was demoted all the way down to the Alamo Bowl.  Coincidentally, they would play Purdue, which was the team I was on as a freshman staff member.  We were happy to be there:  Kansas State, however, was disappointed to be there.  Come game time (Dec. 29, 1998), it showed.  Even though the Wildcats were still ranked at a feared No. 4 while we were unranked, we nevertheless led them throughout most of the game.  Despite a late 4th-quarter touchdown that put them temporarily in the lead, we answered by marching right down the field for a game-winning score with only about a minute remaining.

On paper, K-State should have beaten us by at least two touchdowns.  But the final, actual score said otherwise.  Why?  Though, the Wildcats were clearly the better team on paper, we wanted to be there more than they did, and by a considerable margin.

Such a scenario has played itself out many times in the years since then (and no doubt in the years before), which is what makes bowl game prognostication for more unpredictable than just comparing regular season records and major stats.  The upcoming line-up of bowl games asks this very question more than a few times.  To wit:

Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 19, 3:30 PM EST, ABC

BYU (9-3) vs. No. 22 Utah (9-3)

The Utes are the higher-ranked team.  At one point they were ranked as highly as No. 3 in the nation.  Surely they must have had higher bowl aspirations.  On the other hand, the Cougars are dealing with coaching turmoil since their head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, just bolted for the Virginia job.  My conclusion is to therefore not out-think things, and go with the odds, which slightly favor the Utes.

Hyundai Sun Bowl, Dec. 26, 2:00 EST, CBS

Miami (FL) (8-4) vs. Washington State (8-4)

Beware the deception of identical records.  For whereas the Cougars have had Mike Leach in place for a couple of seasons now, the Hurricanes are going through coaching changes, having fired Al Golden mid-season, leaving assistant coach Larry Scott to serve at the helm in his temporary stead.  Incoming head coach Mark Richt will watch from the stands.  The Miami players claim they’ll show up motivated, but can these kids overcome the coaching transitions while the Washington State players will enjoy stability?

Foster Farms Bowl, Dec. 26, 9:15 PM EST, ESPN

UCLA (8-4) vs. Nebraska (5-7)

The Bruins surely had much higher bowl aspirations as the season began, and at one point enjoyed a top-ten ranking.  Getting upset at home to Arizona State did not help their campaign, though, neither did losing to Washington State, either.  The losses to both Stanford and a resurgent USC can be excused.  Be all that as it may, they’re in this particular bowl, which lacks the prestige of bowls in the days that follow.  Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers are one of those lucky dog teams who, at 5-7, are very fortunate just to get a berth.  Why?  Because Big Ten fans travel in DROVES.  Expect a sea of red in Santa Clara, Calif., and a closer game than the records suggest.  You might even take the under on Nebraska.

Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 29, 5:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 10 North Carolina (11-2) vs No. 17 Baylor (9-3)

On paper, this is a very marquee matchup between two very good teams.  The problem?  Both teams feel as though they deserved better bowl games.  Last year, the Bears were in the Cotton Bowl, for goodness sake.  Meanwhile, as strong as a team as the Tarheels have been, one would think they would have grabbed a more prestigious berth, too.  What therefore makes this scenario unique is that BOTH teams will likely come in under-motivated (we’re dealing with 19/20 year-old kids, after all).  The question becomes, which team will be less under-motived than the other?  Since UNC started out with lower aspirations, they might end up making this game very, very interesting.

Birmingham Bowl, Dec. 30, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Auburn (6-6) vs. Memphis (9-3)

Tigers vs. Tigers?  That alone is intriguing.  But the War Eagle variety surely had higher bowl aspirations (they started out the year ranked No. 6) than the variety from Memphis, who turned out to be a surprisingly strong team.  Auburn likely views this bowl berth as both a come-down and a quasi-home game at the same time.  But Memphis might be glad just to make it to a bowl game, since their postseason appearances have been far fewer than those of their opponent.  The Vegas odds favor Auburn by 2.5.  That is enough of a margin of error for Memphis to win by a close one, provided they appear with just enough motivation.

Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30, 10:30 PM EST, ESPN

No. 25 USC (8-5) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)

Late enough for you out east?  Regardless, there are varying degrees of motivation with these two teams.  If you’re Wisconsin for example, who would not be happy to spend late December in beautiful San Diego?  If you’re USC, you’ll be glad to be there after all the coaching and leadership turmoil with which you had to contend earlier in the season.  The kicker?  That particular turmoil is now behind the Men of Troy.  New head coach Clay Helton has clearly righted the ship, and the program is headed in the proper direction again.  That’s good.  But, he just fired 4 of his assistant coaches.  That’s bad, especially when the Trojans only have a handful of practices to prepare for a game with a depleted coaching roster (using grad assistants to fill in some of the roles) while Wisconsin lacks this disadvantage.  The Badgers, furthermore, always show up well to bowl games:  they are one of the most reliable programs in that regard.  The odds-makers in Vegas still give USC a 3-point advantage, meaning that there is potential for an upset.

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 18 Houston (12-1) vs. No. 9 Florida State (10-2)

The Seminoles likely see having to play the lowly Cougars, while the latter will likely feel honored to play in such a relatively prestigious bowl game.  Should this scenario play out, the respective motivational levels are to be adjusted accordingly, giving us potential for one of the biggest upsets of this bowl season.

Rose Bowl Game Pres. By Northwestern Mutual, Jan. 1, 5:00 PM EST, ESPN

No. 6 Stanford (11-2) vs. No. 5 Iowa (12-1)

Since when would a team show up to the Rose Bowl under-motivated?  It is the Granddaddy of them all, folks!  But in the case of Stanford, they likely had the goal to make it to the playoffs instead.  Meanwhile, Iowa is going to their first Rose Bowl in 25 years.  To the Hawkeyes, this is a once-in-a-generation Super Bowl.  Granted, Iowa is a good team, but Stanford, on paper, is much better.  Under normal circumstances, Stanford should win by two touchdowns.  But with Iowa being especially focused and disciplined, expect a tough, close game that could go either way.

Taxslayer Bowl, Jan. 2, 12:00 PM EST, ESPN

Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)

This used to be the Gator Bowl, fyi.  Georgia seems to be the stronger team on paper, but they just lost their head coach and will be coached by assistants in this bowl game, while Penn State has stable leadership in James Franklin.  Expect the Nittany Lions to therefore pull off the upset, unless the interim head coach at Georgia can effectively rally his troops.

College Football Week 13 Awards November 30, 2015

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The Bedlam Series between OU and OKST was supposed to be one of the best games of the week but it turned out to be a rout instead.  Photo by Mark J. Rebilas, USA Today Sports

(Note:  All rankings are current CFP [week 13] unless otherwise noted.)

 

COACHES

Wish I were him: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State

Glad I’m not him: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Lucky guy: Gary Patterson, TCU

Poor guy:  Art Briles, Baylor

Desperately seeking a wake-up call: Mike Riley, Nebraska

Desperately seeking a P.R. man: Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky

Desperately seeking sunglasses and a fake beard: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State

Desperately seeking … anything:  Chad Morris, SMU

TEAMS

Thought you’d kick butt, you did: Memphis (see below)

Thought you’d kick butt, you didn’t: Oregon (defeated Oregon State 52-42)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you did: Central Florida (lost to South Florida 44-3)

Thought you’d get your butt kicked, you didn’t:  South Carolina (lost to No. 1 Clemson 37-32)

Thought you wouldn’t kick butt, you did:  Western Kentucky (defeated Marshall 49-28)

Dang, they’re good: Ohio State

Dang, they’re bad:  Purdue

Can’t Stand Prosperity:  Oklahoma State

Did the season start? Baylor

Can the season end?  SMU

Can the season never endOklahoma

GAMES

Play this again:  No. 17 TCU 28, No. 7 Baylor 21

Play this again, too:  No. 9 Stanford 38, No. 6 Notre Dame 36

Never play this again: Memphis 63, SMU 0

What? Washington 45 No. 20 Washington State 10

Huh?  USC 40, No. 22 UCLA 21

Double-huh?  Houston 52, No. 15 Navy 31

Are you kidding me?  No. 9 Stanford 38, No. 6 Notre Dame 36

Oh – my – GodNo. 17 TCU 28, No. 7 Baylor 21

NEXT WEEK

Ticket to die for: Michigan State vs. Iowa for the B1G Championship

Also: North Carolina vs. Clemson for the ACC Championship

Best non-Power Five vs. Power Five matchup: none

Best non-Power Five matchup: Temple @ Houston in the AAC Championship

Upset alert: USC vs. Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship

Must win: Baylor @ TCU (Friday, Nov. 27)

Offensive explosion: Washington State @ Washington (Friday, Nov. 27)

Defensive struggle: Alabama vs. Florida in the SEC Championship

Great game no one is talking about: Air Force @ San Diego State

Intriguing coaching matchup: Larry Fedora of UNC vs. Dabo Swinney of Clemson

Who’s bringing the body bags? Texas @ Baylor

Why are they playing? Texas State @ Arkansas State

Plenty of good seats remaining: New Mexico State @ Louisiana-Monroe

They shoot horses, don’t they?  Troy @ Louisiana-Lafayette

Week 13 Random Thoughts:

Order seems to have been restored in the Big XII Conference, with Oklahoma having emerge from the recent carnage intact and the clear conference front-runner. Going into the Bedlam Series game against rival Oklahoma State, they were already ranked highly enough to clinch a playoff berth. After defeating the Cowboys on the road in a very convincing fashion, they ought to remain in that coveted spot.

Poor Art Briles. First Oklahoma derailed their championship aspirations, then they lost in the near-freezing rain to TCU. One cannot help but feel for him and his team’s inability to catch a break this year. Better luck next season.

Still, in Briles’ defense, when facing a foe in a constant monsoon of a rain (one where the ambient temperate is roughly 38 degrees), such adverse weather conditions tend to skew teams’ performances unpredictably.  Witness unranked Louisville’s upset over then-No. 5 Florida State back in 2002.

Is it too early to point out that we do not know what sort of team we are getting from Texas week-to-week? This same team got off to an horrendous start, albeit to some tough teams, then when everyone left the Longhorns for dead, they upset heavily-favored Oklahoma – the same Oklahoma team that is now surely headed to the playoffs. Then the team turns around and lays a massive egg against lowly Iowa State, embarrasses themselves against West Virginia, and then makes just enough mistakes to lose at home to Texas Tech. This inconsistency is a matter of coaching, as sad as I am to say.

Even though Alabama was supposed to kick butt against Auburn, the Tigers nevertheless made it an engaging, entertaining game, because it was the Iron Bowl.

All that said, this was an excellent weekend for the sport, and the champion games next week are all poised to be entertaining and engaging.

Hello Nebraska. Remember how you fired Bo Pelini because he only went 9-3? How is his replacement, Mike Riley and his 5-7 record work out for you?