How do I know that college football has too many bowl games? Because there are three bowl games involving mid-majors and average BCS schools in non-BCS bowl games. Why these games cannot be played in late December is beyond me. However, the four mid-major schools that are playing in these four bowl games are very deserving. East Carolina, Buffalo, Ball State, and Tulsa all had their moment in the sun. East Carolina started 3-0 with wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Buffalo upset Ball State to win the MAC. Ball State, before the loss to Buffalo, was in the top 15 and undefeated. Tulsa was 8-0 before falling to Arkansas 30-23. These four teams want to reiterate the success they had earlier in the year by winning their bowl games.
Heading into week four, East Carolina looked to destined to be the mid-major school to represent the little guys in a BCS bowl. However, after a 3-0 start, ECU fell apart. Three straight losses sent the Pirates tail spinning out of the top 25 faster than they jumped into it. However, they managed to right the ship and finish the season a respectable 9-4. Head coach Skip Holtz was seemingly on his way to Syracuse to fill their coaching vacancy before he shocked everyone by deciding to stay at ECU. Holtz definitely wants the season to end how it started, with a huge win over a BCS conference opponent.
That BCS conference opponent, Kentucky, is arguably the nation’s most undeserving bowl team. They ended the season with a 6-6 record after starting 4-0. Two of their wins came against Norfolk State and Western Kentucky. Rich Brooks has done a great job as head coach of Kentucky, but fans are not pleased with how far the program fell this year, only winning two SEC conference games this season (Arkansas and Mississippi State). A bowl win would severely help his job security.
When Kentucky has the ball...
Kentucky had some serious struggles on offense this year, finishing the year 105th in the nation in total defense. The offense did begin to play better when freshman Randall Cobb got more playing time halfway through the season. The mobile quarterback still has a long way to go before he becomes an elite quarterback, but he does have the skill set to make big plays. He had a great game against UGA, rushing for 82 yards and three touchdowns while throwing for 105 yards. Senior Tony Dixon is the team’s leading rusher. He ran for 341 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Kentucky’s best player on offense is receiver Dicky Lyons. The senior has caught 18 career touchdowns as a Wildcat.
ECU’s defense started the season shutting down solid opponents. However, during their three game losing skid, the defense fell apart. ECU gave up 35.3 points per game during the losing streak, 15 more points than their final season average. After their 35-20 loss to Virginia, no one scored more than 24 points against the Pirates, including Tulsa’s high powered offense. ECU forced 32 turnovers this season, including 21 interceptions. The defense is full of star players, including defensive end C.J. Wilson (18.5 TFL and 10.5 sacks), linebacker Pierre Bell (92 tackles and 9.5 TFL), and free safety Van Elkridge (four interceptions, 89 tackles, and two forced fumbles).
When East Carolina has the ball...
The offense starts and ends with senior quarterback Patrick Pinkey. Pinkey is mobile enough to avoid defenders, but prefers to stay in the pocket and throw the ball. He threw for 2379 yards and 12 touchdowns this year. The running backs are by committee, with three players having over 380 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Senior Davon Drew is ECU’s most reliable pass catcher. The tight end caught 38 passes and led the team with three receiving touchdowns. The offense was not stellar, ranking 79th in the nation in scoring offense, but they can be productive when the game is on the line.
If Kentucky can take something away from this average season, it can be that the defense played well all year long. They rank 34th and 38th respectively in total and scoring defense. The star of the defense is cornerback Trevard Lindley. The junior had 37 tackles and four interceptions, one of which he took to the house. If Kentucky wants to win this game an finish over .500 for the third year in a row, the defense is going to have to shut down a very athletic ECU offense.
The way to beat a young quarterback is to get pressure on him. Defensive end C.J. Wilson is the man for the job. Wilson had 10.5 sacks this season. He was held without a sack in only four games. Cobb will likely dump the ball off to receiver Dicky Lyons when he gets pressured by ECU. Lyons, as a senior, wants to go out with a win before throwing his name into the NFL draft. He is Kentucky’s best player maker and needs to touch the ball at least 15 times if Kentucky plans on beating ECU.
Randall Cobb will be the deciding factor in the Liberty Bowl. Did he mature over the bowl practices, or will he continue to make the freshman mistakes that may hold back his team from beating a solid ECU team? If he can make plays with his arm as well as his feet, avoid sacks, and keep turnovers to a minimum, Kentucky will win this game.
The International Bowl, the only bowl game to be played outside of the United States, is one of the most evenly matched games to be played this bowl season. Buffalo is fresh off beating Ball State in the MAC championship game. That win put head coach Turner Gill on the map, but he was never offered a head coaching job at a BCS school. Gill returns to Buffalo to lead the Bulls to their first ever bowl game in school history. If you thought he was emotional after UB beat Ball State, imagine if the Bulls win the International Bowl.
Connecticut had high expectations heading into the 2008 season. The Big East was wide open with West Virginia’s early seasons struggles. However, Connecticut struggled to win the big games, finishing the year 7-5 after going 9-4 in 2007. However, it is obvious the program is going in the right direction with Randy Edsall as head coach. A win over Buffalo would be an impressive win now that Buffalo has shown that they can beat a top 25 team. The International Bowl is a battle for Northeast supremacy. Which cold weather team will come out on top?
When Buffalo has the ball...
Buffalo has a veteran offense that is more dangerous than they get credit for. The team is led by quarterback Drew Willy, but the best player is running back James Starks. Starting with the senior, Willy had an amazing final season at UB. The maturation of Willy has been amazing. In his freshman season, he threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The next season, six touchdowns and six interceptions. He has combined for 40 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his final two seasons. His 5-1 TD to INT ratio this season is only rivaled by elite quarterbacks such as Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow. Starks is the true offensive weapon. He ranks eighth in the nation with 1308 yards and 15 touchdowns. Do not forget speedster Naaman Roosevelt at receiver, his 1312 yards and 13 touchdowns make him Willy’s favorite target.
Connecticut will not have an easy time stopping UB, however their defense is up to the challenge. They rank 10th in the nation in total defense. However, there have been games where the defense disappeared, big games to be exact (North Carolina scored 38, West Virginia 35, Pittsburgh 34). UCONN is the strongest up front, where they have two monster defensive ends pressuring the QB. Cody Brown led the team with nine sacks and 14 TFL. Julius Williams had seven sacks and 10.5 TFL.
When Connecticut has the ball...
Connecticut is not trying to hide anything. They are a running team, and they will run it down your throat and there is not to much you can do about it. With the 106th passing offense in the country, there is not much question to what UCONN’s gameplan is. And why not? Donald Brown is the nation’s leading rusher with 1822 yards and 17 touchdowns. Brown is a bruising back, carrying the ball 338 times this year. He owes a lot to a tremendous offensive line for opening up huge holes all season long. The offense has been held back by poor quarterback play. Zach Fraser has thrown two touchdowns and six interceptions this season. He was often replaced by Tyler Lorenzen, who finished the year with two touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Buffalo’s defense is their biggest weakness, however, it won them the MAC title (four fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns). Safeties Mike Newton and Devonte Shannon combined for 214 tackles this season. However, they only combined for two interceptions. The defensive philosophy will be to stop the run and make UCONN beat them through the air. UB might not have the best defense, but the BSU game showed anything is possible.
Drew Willy has had an unbelievable season, throwing 25 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He is arguably the conference’s best quarterback, although Nate Davis would beg to differ. His leadership and lack of turnovers make him unbelievably valuable. This game will be a great showcase for two of the best running backs in the nation. Starks and Brown are both strong runners that get solid yardage after the first hit. Brown was held under 100-yards twice, Starks five times.
Can UCONN pass the ball if the run is stuffed by UB? UB has Drew Willy, but who does UCONN have? It might be a recipe for disaster to put the game in the hands of Frazer or Lorenzen. That is why UCONN fell flat in big games. The same will happen if they do not make UB respect the passing game at least a little bit.
Ball State was arguing for a BCS bowl bid before the MAC championship game. Nate Davis for Heisman posters littered BSU games. The Cardinals were flying high. Then, on December 5th, everything changed. UB upset the highly ranked Cardinals, crushing their hopes at reaching a BCS bowl. However, there is still a lot to play for. Another loss would make Ball State 0-2 to end the season. Most people would call that a fluke. A win will solidify one of the best seasons in Ball State history. This will be Brady Hoke’s final game before he takes off for not-so-greener pastures at San Diego State.
BSU will battle Tulsa, the runner up in Conference-USA. Although Tulsa ended the season on a losing skid (3 out of their last 5), they still had a very successful season. Their balanced offense often overpowered Conference-USA opponents. Head coach Todd Graham signed a ten-year extension on New Year’s Day. Since Steve Kragthorpe left in 2006, Tulsa has steadily improved. The GMAC is one of the most intriguing non-BCS bowl games. Both of these teams were once ranked and have great offensive talent.
When Tulsa has the ball...
Tulsa prides itself on 500 yard/50-point performances. They averaged 47 points per game (2nd in the nation), and 565 yards per game (2nd in the nation). They are very balanced, averaged 310 passing and 254 rushing. Senior Tarrion Adams rushed for 1316 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He also caught 20 passes for 192 yards and one score. David Johnson threw the ball 375 times, so you can imagine his stats are quite gaudy. He threw for 43 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Four players caught seven or more touchdowns, none more special than 1st team All-Conference USA receiver Brennan Marion. Marion caught 32 passes for 1112 yards and eight touchdowns. He averages nearly 26 yards per reception. The offense is handful to stop, but it did sputter against better opponents in November (Arkansas, Houston).
Ball State may not be known for their defense, but it is stronger than many think. If you take out the UB game that involved two defensive touchdowns and four fumbles, BSU never gave up more than 24 points. Strong Safety Sean Baker, a freshman, led the team in tackles (91) and interceptions (6). He also scored two defensive touchdowns. He is going to have to play a great game if BSU plans on shutting down the Tulsa passing attack. Getting pressure on Johnson to force turnovers is one way to attack the Hurricane’s offense, but they ranked 82nd in the nation in sacks this season.
When Ball State has the ball...
BSU has the number one offense in the MAC, averaging 459 yards and 36 points per game. Quarterback Nate Davis leads the team. He played flawlessly until the UB fiasco. This season, Davis threw for 26 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Take into account this was without Dante Love, arguably the best receiver in America, who was unfortunately paralyzed against Indiana in BSU’s fourth game. Ball State relied more on its running game after the Love incident. MiQuale Lewis, who was injured in 2007, surprised everyone rushing for 1701 yards and 22 touchdowns. Lewis is small and shifty, rushing for over 95 yards in every game except one. Tight end Darius Hill is a future NFL draft pick. Hill caught 38 passes this season for 633 yards and seven touchdowns.
Tusla’s defense has not been a factor in many games this season, since the games early in the season were over at halftime. However, the defense was torched by Houston for 70 points. BSU’s offense should be able to score early and often against Tulsa’s defense. Linebacker Mike Bryan led the team with 112 tackles. However, James Lockett is the stud on the defense. Lockett, a strong safety, led the team with 8.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and 15.5 tackles for loss.
Although passing is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of these two teams, their running games are the most important facet of their offenses. MiQuale Lewis will find his way into the end zone, leading the nation with 22 touchdowns. He is also a strong receiver, catching 34 passes this year. Tulsa’s Tarrion Adams helps balance out the Tulsa offense. If Adams, who averages 5.77 yards per carry, can start strong, it will make BSU respect the run more than it wants to, creating passing lanes for Johnson and company.
Both teams have amazing offenses. They can beat you with their rushing attack of their passing game. But the key to winning the GMAC Bowl will be which defense decides to make key stops in the red zone (force field goals, force turnovers). In games with big offenses, one defense will usually step up and somewhat shut down the opponent’s big offense. Whoever that is will likely win the game.