In Part 1 of my Bowl Primer, I’ll be looking at the first 11 bowls of the season. You know, those bowls that are being played on ESPN 8, the Ocho, at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, right after World Series of Poker. OK, that’s not entirely the case; some games like the Las Vegas Bowl and the San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl offer decent match ups and even a few ranked teams, but for the most part, these games are there just to fill time and whet the appetite just like a Bloomin’ Onion when you take your in-laws out to dinner. But enough with my bad analogies, let’s get into the games.
(Note: At the end of each match up, I’ll be giving a prediction that is based off my new normalized margin of victory. If it works, feel free to revere me; if not, send all hate mail to IHave5Readers@unread.com.)
Gildan New Mexico Bowl – Washington St. vs. Colorado State
This is a matchup of two teams gaining ground under second-year coaches. Mike Leach leads the Cougars, who went 4-5 in the Pac-12 during his second season in Pullman. Despite finishing 6-6 and having a 38-point victory over FCS Southern Utah, the Cougs still finished the season with a negative point differential after hefty losses to the Cardinal, Beavers, Ducks and Sun Devils. They’ll be facing a Colorado State team that’s biggest loss came to Alabama by just 25 points. But they did lose to Pac-12 doormat, Colorado by 14 points. The Rams have been playing better of late, though, and that makes them a 2.5-point favorite.
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl – (20) Fresno State vs. (25) USC
The Bulldogs came within one win of being BCS busters, but a loss to San Jose State (who’s not bowling this season, despite being 6-6) knocked Derek Carr and company out of the running. Now they’re playing before Christmas, although they did draw a ranked USC team. The Trojans have had their issues this year, resulting in the firing of Lane Kiffin (Lane is not the only Kiffin that should be fired this year, but that’s another story). However, they come into this game five of their last six, including a big upset over then-4th ranked Stanford. USC could likely take advantage of Fresno’s soft defense, but ultimately, I project Fresno as favorites by 3.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Buffalo vs. San Diego State
The Bulls and Aztecs meet up in one of the colder bowls of the season, with temperatures at kickoff slated to be in the low twenties. This should also be one of the least attended bowls, as well. With Buffalo coming from the East Coast and nobody in the right mind leaving San Diego in December, this promises to be a have plenty of empty seats. (Side note: I was able to attend the Potato Bowl a few years ago when Fresno State faced off against Northern Illinois. I’m not exaggerating when I say that 95 percent of the seats were empty. Boise loves their Broncos but they could care less when a MAC team from New York faces off against a BSU foe; especially one that beat the Broncos this season.) Buffalo comes into this game a surprising 8-4 after winning just nine games combined over their previous three season. But their seven wins over FBS teams came against teams who had a cumulative winning percentage of just .214. San Diego State managed to finish 7-5 after a 0-3 start but won only one game all season by double-digits; a 10 point victory over New Mexico State. You also have to question a team that is coming off a 26-point loss to UNLV. The numbers show Buffalo as 10.5-point favorites.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl – Tulane vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Tulane enters this game being bowl-eligible for the first time since 2002 when they were led by future Buffalo Bills and Las Vegas Locomotives quarterback, J.P. Losman. After having just two wins in each of the last two seasons, the Green Wave seem to be turning around under coach Curtis Johnson, finishing 7-5. They’ll meet the Ragin’ Cajuns, who have won the Sun Belt three straight years, as meager of an accomplishment as that may be. Mark Hudspeth’s team appeared to be heading for a 10-2 record and perfect mark in the Sun Belt before they fell to rival Louisiana-Monroe and South Alabama in back-to-back weeks. Tulane has been a much more consistent team and comes in at 3.5-point favorites.
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg – East Carolina vs. Ohio
Quick aside: has there ever been a bowl name that has been worded more poorly? It couldn’t be the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl or the St. Petersburg Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl? They had to go with that naming choice? Who named this, Yoda?
OK, aside over.
East Carolina comes into this game having been ranked multiple weeks in my rankings before laying an egg against Marshall. So instead of finding themselves in the Military Bowl or the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, they’re now playing before Christmas. Luckily for them, they’re facing an Ohio team that backed its way into the postseason, having lost three of its last four, including a 31-point drubbing at the hands of Kent State. They do have a strong proven quarterback in Tyler Tettleton, but the Bobcats have been a below-average football team ever since losing to Central Michigan. Ohio will enter the game as 15-point underdogs.
Sheraton Hawaii Bowl – Boise State vs. Oregon State
The battle of disappointing seasons! Both teams started off the season ranked, only to suffer humiliating losses (each in their own way) on opening weekend. The Broncos were coming off a 11-2 campaign and were ranked 19th when the Washington Huskies crushed them, ending any BCS hopes early. The Beavers were the darlings of the Pac-12 in 2012 and followed up their strong season by losing to FCS foe, Eastern Washington, on the road. Oregon State looked as they had rebounded, winning their next six before tumbling and losing their final five. At least they get to enjoy a nice trip to Hawaii to kick off their Christmas break. They will bring in their high-powered passing attack against Boise State’s fallible defense. Unfortunately for the Beavers, their defense may be even worse. The Broncos don’t have the high-powered attack they possessed under Kellen Moore but should be able to put up points on the 96th-ranked scoring defense. This puts the Broncos as 5.5-point favorites.
Little Caesars Bowl – Pittsburgh vs. Bowling Green
This isn’t quite the lopsided match up it appears to be, but it’s close. Bowling Green entered this year mostly as a MAC afterthought, finishing with the sixth-best record in the conference last season. This year, they rebounded in incredible fashion — minus an embarrassing loss to Indiana — capping off a 10-2 regular season with a 20-point victory over the 14th-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies in the MAC Championship. They’ll be facing the Panthers, who were up and down all year and finished their third-straight regular season at 6-6. Pittsburgh may have been a .500 team, but they played well above their numbers. Despite having a -14 point differential, Pitt was constantly holding their opponents below their season averages, which is why they were the second-best 6-6 team in the country (as faint praise as that maybe). So even with the huge discrepancies in win totals and point differentials, Pitt is just a 7.5-point underdog.
San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl – Utah State vs. (23) Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois brings in its Heisman candidate, Jordan Lynch, to face off against the Mountain West’s best defense. Lynch and his Huskies mushed their way up to 14th in the BCS rankings before falling to Bowling Green in the MAC Championship. Utah State won the WAC championship while going 11-2 in 2012, but struggled with the increased strength of schedule in the Mountain West. They’ll be no pushover, though; the Aggies lost to Pac-12 schools Utah and USC by a combined seven points and hung with the high-flying Fresno State Bulldogs in last week’s Mountain West Championship. Performances like these forecast Utah State as 2.5-point favorites in my upset special!
Military Bowl – Marshall vs. Maryland
Marshall comes into the Military Bowl on somewhat of a hot streak, having won five of their last six. Their one loss, however, was a 17-point defeat by Rice in the Conference USA Championship that wasn’t as close as the score made it seem. They’ll be facing a Terrapins squad that ascended to 25th in the AP Poll before getting lambasted by Florida State. After that, Maryland was a mixed bag of results, compiling both impressive wins (Virginia Tech) and maddening losses (Wake Forest). The more-consistent Marshall enters as 9-point favorites.
Texas Bowl – Syracuse vs. Minnesota
Syracuse and Minnesota head to Houston to duke it out in the first of six bowl games hosted in the state of Texas. The Orange come in with one of the worst offenses in the nation, scoring just 22.8 points per game (which is tremendously aided by a 56-point outburst against FCS Wagner). They’ll have a tough time scoring points on a good Minnesota defense that has helped lead its team through adversity. The Golden Gophers had their highest win total in 10 years (eight) despite dealing with a series of seizures by head coach Jerry Kill, including four-straight Big Ten wins. Even with Kill’s status uncertain, the Gophers are seen as 8.5-point favorites.
Fight Hunger Bowl – BYU vs. Washington
These two 8-4 teams will square off in one of the better early bowl games. BYU comes in boasting one of the nation’s elite running programs, rushing for over 274 yards per game. Quarterback Taysom Hill — who turned down Stanford — will look to continue his strong sophomore campaign, having gained over 3850 yards of total offense for the Cougars. Washington, fresh off their hiring of coach Chris Peterson, will look to counter punch-for-punch with a strong run game of their own as well as a strong aerial attack led by Keith Price. This offensive balance gives the Huskies a 3-point advantage.