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Bowl Journal, Part 2

   by Larry Ness - 12/25/2009


The college bowls take a Christmas Day break, as the NBA and ABC/ESPN treat us to a five-game TV marathon beginning with the Heat/Knicks and ending with Nuggets/Blazers. In between it's the Celtics at the Magic and LeBron vs Kobe, which also features the return of Shaq to LA (which is getting old). Over in the NFL, the Chargers and Titans open NFL Week 16.


The bowl season is just six games old but favorite and under bettors are already broke. Rutgers (-2.5), a 45-24 winner over Central Florida, is the lone favorite to cover so far and the Hawaii Bowl, SMU's 45-10 win over Nevada, is the only bowl game to stay under the total.


SMU made a triumphant return to the postseason on Christmas Eve, led by former Hawaii coach June Jones and a true freshman QB (Kyle Padron) who threw for an SMU-record 460 yards (32-of-41 with 2 TDs and 0 INTs). SMU racked up 534 yards of offense while Nevada was held to just 314, including 137 yards rushing. The Wolf Pack averaged 362.3 yards rushing during the regular season and had averaged 51.6 PPG and an incredible 445.6 YPG rushing (8.4 YPC) during an eight-game winning streak (Oct 3-Nov 21).


However, this "Christmas Story" was about SMU's dominating win in its first bowl game since 1984, as well as the school's first bowl appearance since it received the NCAA's "death penalty" in 1987. The 35-point win was the largest margin in school bowl-game history (previous largest margin of victory in a bowl game for SMU had been just eight points). The Mustangs finished the season at 8-5 after going 1-11 in 2008. The seven-win increase is the largest in FBS this season.


Then of course there was June Jones, who is used to directing 'monster' turnarounds. He joined the University of Hawaii as its as head coach and inherited a team which was on an 18-game losing streak, including going 1-12 in 1998. However, Jones led the Warriors to a 9-4 record and a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship in the 1999 season, making it the most dramatic turnaround in NCAA football history.


This past Tuesday and Wednesday, MWC schools BYU and Utah continued that conference's recent outstanding play in bowl games, as No. 15 BYU beat No. 16 Oregon St 44-20 in the Las Vegas Bowl and No. 23 Utah beat Cal 37-27 in the Poinsettia Bowl. MWC schools are now 13-4 in bowl competition since 2006.


Utah fell behind Cal 14-0 but then scored 27 consecutive points in winning the school's ninth straight bowl game. Like SMU, Utah was led by a freshman QB (Jordan Wynn), who passed for a career high 338 yards with three TDs and one INT. Utah's nine-game bowl winning streak is the longest active winning streak of any school and tied for the second-longest of all time. The Utes are 12-3 all-time in bowl games, a winning percentage of .800. That represents the highest bowl winning percentage of any FBS school with a minimum of 10 bowl appearances (that's 74 schools!).


The bowl schedule resumes on Saturday with three games and then the Music City Bowl (Kentucky/Clemson) on Sunday. Underdogs are now 5-1 SU and ATS through six games, with five of the six games going over. The Hawaii Bowl, with a closing total of right about 70, is the only game to have stayed under, as bowl games have averaged 64.8 PPG.


Frank Solich came to Athens in 2005 and has led the Bobcats to two MAC championship games, losing to Central Michigan both times (in 2006 and in 2009). The Bobcats return to Ford Field for the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl on Saturday to face former MAC member (now of C-USA), Marshall. The Thundering Herd are playing in their first bowl game since a 32-14 loss to Cincinnati in the 2004 Fort Worth Bowl, despite losing THREE of their last four regular season games to finish the year 6-6. Mark Snyder resigned one day after the team's regular season finale, having gone a disappointing 21-37 in five seasons and the despite the fact that the Thundering Herd gave West Virginia assistant John "Doc" Holliday a five-year contract December 17 to coach the team, Rick Minter (former Cincinnati coach) will be the team's interim coach for this game. The Bobcats go for their first 10-win season since their famous 1968 team, in just the school's fourth all-time bowl appearance (0-3). The MAC went 0-5 SU and ATS in bowl games last year (first try this year), while Marshall is the fourth C-USA school to play this bowl season (1-2 SU and ATS). Ohio is favored by three points and the total is 49.


No. 17 Pitt (9-3) will meet 8-4 North Carolina in the Meinke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, NC. Both schools had hoped for better bowl venues. Pitt lost 19-16 loss at West Va on Nov 27 but still had a chance to secure the Big East title (and a BCS Bowl bid) by beating Cincinnati at home on Dec 5. However, the Panthers blew a 31-10 lead to the Bearcats, losing 45-44 as Cincinnati scored 21 fourth-quarter points, including the go-ahead TD with 33 seconds left. North Carolina had a chance for its first five-game winning streak in more than eight years, the Tar Heels blew a 10-point halftime lead in Raleigh, falling 28-27 to rival NC State on Nov 28.


Dave Wannstedt's Panthers can earn a 10th win for the first time since Dan Marino led them to an 11-1 record as a junior in 1981. RB Dion Lewis finished third nationally in rushing yards per game (136.7) while scoring 17 TDs and is just 46 yards shy of Tony Dorsett's 36-year-old Pitt freshman record of 1,686 rushing yards. Pitt will also have the motivation of erasing last year's mistake-filled 3-0 Sun Bowl loss to Oregon St on New Year's Eve, the lowest-scoring bowl game in a half-century. Butch Davis and the Tar Heels are back in Charlotte (just over a two-hour drive from Chapel Hill) for the second straight year and are hoping for a better result. North Carolina led West Va heading to the fourth quarter of last year's game before the Mountaineers rallied for a 31-30 win. Pitt is favored by two points with a total of 44 1/2.


Boston College has become the 'king' of late-December bowls, as the Eagles will be making their 11th straight bowl appearance in this year's Emerald Bowl. Like Saturday's game, all of BC's 10 previous bowls during this current streak have taken place from Dec 25-31. BC had won eight straight bowl games before a 16-14 loss to Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl last year. What makes this year's game different is the quality of the program BC is facing.


USC had won at least 11 games and a share of the Pac-10 title each of the last seven years, finishing all of those seasons in the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl. However, the 2009 Trojans finished 8-4 (same as BC) and when they lost at home to Arizona on Dec 5, fell out of the AP top-25 poll after 130 straight weeks of being ranked. USC is favored by seven points and the total is 44.


It's a busy Sunday in the NFL but at the end of the day, Kentucky will take on Clemson in the Music City Bowl. Clemson could have been in the Orange Bowl this year but lost 39-34 to Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Dec 5 (would have been the school's first league title since 1991). As for Kentucky, the Wildcats will be playing in their fourth straight bowl game in head coach Rich Brooks' eighth season and their third Music City Bowl in that span. Clemson will be trying to avoid a fourth straight bowl loss (last win came in the '05 Champs Sports Bowl, 19-10 over Colorado).


Kentucky may not be all that happy about another trip to Nashville but the Wildcats are bowl eligible for the fourth straight year which is a school record (this isn't Kentucky basketball, remember?). The Wildcats won at Auburn this season for the first time since 1961 and at Georgia for the first time since 1977, so all in all, it hasn't been a bad year.


Losses in its final two games (before losing in the ACC title game, the Tigers lost at South Carolina) put a damper on Clemson's first full season under coach Dabo Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden in October of 2008. Last year's team lost 26-21 to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl and the CJ Spiller and Co. surely don't want an 0-3 finish to this season. Spiller was the ACC's player of the year and had 233 yards rushing and four TDs in the loss to Ga Tech. He ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (194.0 per game) and is the only player in the country to score a TD in every game this year (broke the school record with 20). He has 7,416 career all-purpose yards, third-best in NCAA history. He accounted for TDs in five different ways this season, rushing, receiving, throwing, KO return and punt return. Spiller wasn't enough to get by Ga Tech and will this "one-man show" be enough to get past Kentucky (and cover)? Clemson is favored by 6 1/2 points and the total is 52.


Good luck, Larry

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