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Bowl Previews

   by Scott Spreitzer - 12/28/2010

The New Year brings a swarm of good cheer and a terrific array of college football bowl games. During the regular season, analyzing matchups on the field are essential, but it can be less so during bowl season. Some teams want to be here, a reward for a better than expected season, while others team could be upset about not making a bigger bowl of, like Alabama, not running the table after being No. 1 in September. Here's a look inside some of the upcoming bowls:

Cotton Bowl (Jan. 1): This game pits the Big 10 against the Big 12 as Northwestern heads deep in the heart of Texas to battle Texas Tech. The Wildcats will play in a bowl game for the third consecutive season, quite a few for a coach like Pat Fitzgerald. Remember, he is only 36 years old and was thrust in coaching position when Randy Walker tragically died in June of 2006. Northwestern has lost both bowl games the last two years, but went 2-0 ATS as dogs of +7 and +12 against Auburn and Missouri.

But the biggest concern for the Wildcats is who is going to play quarterback? They lost mobile star senior QB Dan Persa (15 TDs, 4 picks) in a 21-17 upset of Iowa (ruptured Achillies tendon in his right foot), done for the year, and got blown out by Wisconsin the last game, 70-23. Freshman QB Evan Watkins (2 TDs, 4 picks) has been forced in and has struggled. He was 13 of 22 for 123 yards and 3 picks against the Badgers. And this defense has been lousy, giving up 27.7 ppg, including 48 to Illinois, 70 to Wisconsin, and 35 each to Michigan State and Penn State. They are on a 6-3 run over the total.

The team they play, Texas Tech (7-5), has been a money-burner at 4-7-1 against the spread. But the might have extra incentive for this one as they are playing under a first-year coach in Tommy Tuberville. They have no QB problems, as QB Taylor Potts (31 TDs, 9 INTs, 3,357 yards) leads an uptempo attack that averages 32.1 points and 314.8 yards passing (No. 8 in the nation). The Red Raiders are 3-1 SU, 1-3 ATS the last four years in bowls, and all went over the total with scores of 41-31, 47-34, 31-28 and 44-41. Speaking of which, Tuberville is looking for a defensive coordinator, as James Willis recently stepped down.

Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1): Motivation is a key element to examine with bowls and this one pits Michigan State and Alabama. The Spartans got shut out of BCS bowls despite an 11-1 season. The Spartans have a balanced and potent offense (31.3 ppg), averaging 237 yards passing, 169 rushing behind junior QB Kirk Cousins (20 TDs, 9 INTs, 2,705 yards), senior WR Mark Dell (761) and RB Edwin Baker (1,187 yds, 6.1 ypc). However, Michigan State will be without junior WR B.J. Cunningham (611 yards) for its Capital One Bowl matchup against Alabama. Cunningham suffered a broken foot during practice. Michigan State is 0-3 SU, 1-2 ATS the last three years in bowls. They've been highly motivated all year, but one has to wonder if not making a BCS bowl is a concern.

Meanwhile, defending champion Alabama (9-3 SU/6-5 ATS) had larger expectations that playing in the Citrus Bowl. There's no denying the talent on this squad, with senior QB Greg McElroy (19 TDs, 5 picks, 2,767 yards), RB Mark Ingram (816 yards, 5.6 ypc), Trent Richardson (658 yds, 6.5 ypc) and WR Julio Jones (1,084 yards), a group that whipped opponents by a 34.6-14 average and should have beaten Auburn, a 28-27 loss blowing a 24-0 lead. On the other hand, two years ago they were blown out 31-17 by Utah as a 9-point favorite in the Sugar Bowl after losing the SEC title game, clearly a disappointed group.

Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): TCU against Wisconsin: So what's your preference, offense or defense? This will be a fun one. TCU (12-0 SU/6-5 ATS) Coach Gary Patterson has a loaded team, great balance on offense and the top defense (11.4 ppg allowed) in the country. Senior QB Andy Dalton (26 TD, 6 INTs, 2,638 yards) has been playing since his freshman season, his top three targets are back, while the backfield is terrific with sophomore RBs Matthew Tucker (694) and Ed Wesley (1,065 yds, 6.6 ypc), with the offense averaging 43.3 points, 230 yards passing and 261 rushing. They are 21-14-1 under the total the last three+ years (7-4 under this season).

Patterson said the history and aura surrounding the Rose Bowl are no longer at the forefront of his players' minds and he hasn't emphasized the hype and history of the game. "We're just talking about winning," he said. "They understand all the history and that they're only one of five teams outside of the Pac-10 and Big Ten. It's going to be a really cool thing to be a part of, but outside of that our whole goal is to go win."

Wisconsin (11-1 SU/7-4 ATS) has a loaded offense behind fifth-year junior QB Scott Tolzien (16 TDs, 6 INTs, 2,300 yards) and power senior RB John Clay (936 yards, 5.3 ypc) and freshman RB James White (1,002 yards, 7.0 ypc), averaging 43.3 points, 247 yards rushing and 209 passing, along with WRs Nick Toon and David Gilreath. They were good enough to beat then-No. 1 Ohio State (31-18) and No. 15 Iowa (31-30). They are on a 12-4 run over the total and 4-2 ATS the last six years in bowls, winning three straight up as a dog (including a 20-14 win over Miami a year ago as a +3 dog).

Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1): UConn versus Oklahoma has the biggest point spread (-17) in the bowls. The only note worth mentioning on this one is that the Sooners have lost 5 straight BCS games and the players are very much aware of that: "The Fiesta Bowl hasn't been good to us," said Sooner senior defensive lineman Pryce Macon. "I still remember going home on the bus. Quiet. Silence. I don't want to have a repeat of that."

Sugar Bowl (Jan. 4): A great contrast in styles as Arkansas has a pro-style attack that loves to throw the pigskin behind Coach Bobby Petrino, while Ohio State loves the ground game and physical defense. The SEC and Big Ten met just once this past season, with Alabama trouncing Penn State 24-3 in September at home. Arkansas (10-2 SU, 8-2 ATS) Coach Bobby Petrino's pass happy attack has senior QB Ryan Mallett (30 TDs, 11 INTs, 3,592 yards), third in the nation in passing (338 yds per game) and 37.3 points per contest. Arkansas is on a 6-1 run over the total and 6-0 SU/ATS its last 6 games. QB Mallett actually played against Ohio State in 2007 as a Michigan freshman before he transferred.

Ohio State (11-1 SU/9-2-1 ATS) plays great defense (13.3 ppg allowed, No. 3 in the country) and prefers the ground game. They average 39.4 points, 219 yards rushing and 229 passing behind junior QB Terrelle Pryor (25 TDs, 11 INTs, 2,551 yards), who is second on the team with 639 yards rushing. Jim Tressel is 1-3 SU, 2-2 ATS the last four bowls, though 6-2 ATS the last 8 bowls.

BCS Title Game (Jan. 10): Can they make a total high enough for this No 1 vs. No 2 unbeaten showdown? Auburn and Oregon, two teams that average over 287 yards rushing! Both teams have brilliant offensive minds in Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and Oregon Head Coach Chip Kelly. The Auburn (13-0 SU/9-3 ATS) offense (42.7 ppg) is potent under new Heisman winning 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior QB Cameron Newton (28 TDs, 6 INTs), with 2,589 yards passing, 1,409 yards rushing (5.8 ypc). The ground game averages 287.2 yards, No. 6 in the country, with the help of 5-9 freshman RB Michael Dyer (950 yds, 5.9 ypc) and sophomore RB Onterio McCalebb (763, 8.6 ypc). Auburn has run the Wildcat formation 109 times this season, or 12.6 percent of the time.

Coach Gene Chizik called for more tailbacks and less Newton after the second game, but, at halftime of the third game, everything changed. Newton's role increased dramatically against Clemson when the game was on the line, and the Tigers leaned on him the rest of the way. The Auburn defense is not great (24.5 ppg, 54th in the nation) but has come up big when needed. The defense gave up 35 points in last year's bowl, a 38-35 win over Northwestern as 7-point chalk.

Oregon (12-0 SU/7-4 ATS) is No. 1 in the nation in points (49.3 ppg), with 233.7 yards passing and 303.5 yards rushing per contest. They run the no-huddle which can wear down teams in the second half behind sophomore QB Darron Thomas (28 TDs, 7 INTs, 2,518 yards) and soph RB LaMichael James (1,682 yards, 6.0 ypc). The Ducks beat rival Oregon State, 37-20, as the Beavers' blitzes got to quarterback Darron Thomas and the Ducks sometimes sputtered, so look for Auburn to dial up the blitz. Oregon has reached 50 points 6 times in 12 games and is on a 13-4 run over the total. Can an SEC team win the title for the 5th straight year? I'll bet It won't be 7-7 at the half!

There's your January bowl primer. May you end up well-ahead of the books when the BCS title game comes to an end.

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