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December 23, 2008

SCS.comContrary to popular belief, some of the best bowls played during the bowl season happen before January 1st. A few of the Ďbestí bowls are created because top teams are slated to duke it out. Those marquee bowls tend to fall short of expectations. The majority of great bowl games, however, happen because teams are equally matched. In this article I am covering four bowls. None of the four bowls involve teams that are outclassed by their opponents. Several of the teams in these bowls limped to the end of the season. Overall, most fans of Miami (FL), North Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and possibly Florida State would call their seasons a disappointment. A bowl victory is a great way to cheer up fans and kick start the recruiting push. A loss leaves a bitter feeling until the Spring Game. Three ACC teams will play in hopes to earn conference respect, while two mid-majors will battle it out to get a rare bowl win for their programs.

Car Care | Champs Sports | Emerald | Independence

CAR CARE BOWL - West Virginia vs North Carolina
December 27 - 12:00 PM CST ESPN TV - Charlotte, NC

The matchup...

Seven weeks ago, if I told you West Virginia and North Carolina were playing in a bowl game, you would have guessed the Orange Bowl. However, late season implosions have sent both teams to the Meineke Car Care Bowl. West Virginia lost two of its last four games. The losses came against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, their main competition in the Big East. If WVU had beaten either one of these teams, they might have made a trip to the Orange Bowl. However, they lost both games by a combined seven points.
UNC was looking stellar after wins against Boston College and Georgia Tech heading into mid-November. Winning out would have given them a trip to the ACC championship game. Instead, they lost the next two games (Maryland 17-15, NC State 41-10). This bowl game is not where either team wanted to be, but a win will help soften the disappointment of the regular season.

When West Virginia has the ball...

West Virginiaís offense took a step backwards this season compared to previous seasons where scoring was as easy as breathing. WVU ranked 74th in the nation in scoring offense. They only scored more than 30 points four times this season (one of those performances was against Villanova). However, Pat White will do whatever takes to end his Mountaineer career on a high note. The elusive quarterback threw for more touchdowns than he ran for this season, something he has not done since his freshman year. Running back Noel Devine will play, which is key for the Mountaineers. He averages 6.3 yards per carry, but he has only found the end zone three times.
West Virginia should have some success against UNCís suspect defense. It is not good or bad. They give up 357 yards per game on average, but only 20.33 points. However, NC State scored 41 points on UNC in their 2nd to last game of the season. NC State ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns. They have only held four teams under 100-yards rushing.

When North Carolina has the ball...

West Virginiaís defense is the surprise of the team. They rank 9th in the nation in scoring defense. They will try to shut down UNC, who is not flashy but can put up points when called upon. When they need a big play, the Tar Heels will rely on junior quarterback T.J. Yates. Yates, who missed five games this season with an ankle injury, played well against Duke in the season finale. He threw for 190 yards and three touchdowns. Cameron Sexton is also a nice option as backup QB in case something happens to Yates.
The running game is led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 801 yards this year. However, Ryan Houston is the running back that is most likely to find the end zone. He has rushed for eight scores this season. He broke out against Georgia Tech with a 13 carry 74 yard performance. Hakeem Nicks is the go-to receiver. He caught 60 passes for 1005 yards and nine score this season. Shut Nicks down and the offense gets vanilla.

Star watch...

Hakeem Nicks makes UNCís offense tick. UNC is 6-0 when Hicks catches a touchdown pass. 2-4 when he does not. He is a physical receiver that has good enough speed to make moves in the open field and get big yardage after the catch. Once he gets a full head of steam, he is hard to bring down. West Virginiaís star player is Pat White. He has been their star player since he stepped on campus in 2005. If you let him get into the secondary, he has a chance to score. His passing skills are much improved from past seasons. He is more of a dual threat QB in 2008.

Deciding factor...

West Virginia is the more explosive team. They have more speed on offense and a better defense. However, UNC is a scrappy team. When they are firing on all cylinders, they are a top 20 team. Butch Davis has to have the running game involved so the Yates-Nicks connection is available. If UNC is one dimensional, it will be tough to beat White and the Mountaineers.

CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL - Wisconsin vs Florida State
December 27 - 3:30 PM CST ESPN TV - Orlando, FL

The matchup...

Wisconsin, who started the season 3-0, looked like they were dead in the water going into November 8th. They had dropped five out of there last six . However, they managed to win their final three games and sneak into a bowl games. However, those three wins came against a bad Indiana team, a struggling Minnesota squad, and Cal Poly (an FCS team). How legitimate are they?
Florida State was one game away from going to the ACC championship game. While FSU was getting crushed by rival Florida, Boston College squeaked by Maryland 28-21, sealing the Seminoles fate. FSU is 2-4 in its last six bowl games. Bobby Bowden might be in better physical shape than Joe Paterno, but his job security is not as rock solid as Joe País. No one is going to fire Bowden, but a bowl loss to Wisconsin would infuriate Seminole fans to the brink of disillusionment. He needs this win to keep the supporters on his side.

When Wisconsin has the ball...

When Wisconsin scores lots of points, they win. They score an average of 36.4 points per game in their wins. 17.8 in losses. Allan Everidge starting the season at quarterback, but he was eventually pulled and replaced by junior Dustin Sherer. Sherer is there to manage the game, not make plays. He needs to limit the turnovers and hand it off to P.J. Hill for the offense to be successful. Hill will look to have a big game running the ball with rumors of him bolting to the NFL. He is being called upon to do so much more since Travis Beckum was knocked out for the season in late October. Freshman John Clay will get just as many carries as Hill if the run game is working.
Florida State has always been known for their defense. This year is no exception. They have the 13th best defense in the nation. Their pass defense is 8th best in the nation, which is bad news for Sherer. Junior defensive end Everette Brown leads the ACC with 12.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He has had four multi-sack games this season. Wisconsinís powerful I-formation offense will have its hands full with FSUís defense.

When Florida State has the ball...

FSUís offense is not flashy, but they do tend to put up lots of points. They average 32.47 points per game. However, they did pad stats against their two FCS opponents, Western Carolina and Chattanooga (Who schedules two FCS schools?!). Just like the grass is green and sky is blue, FSU still has quarterback trouble. Christian Ponder has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns this season, but he does have the ability to tuck the ball down and run for big yardage. Antone Smith is the offenseís best player. He has 15 total touchdowns this year, including 753 yards. He has only had 20 or more carries three times this season, all wins.
Wisconsinís defense has not been the backbone of the team as in past years. They let Cal Poly run for 276 yards against them in the season finale. The week before that, it was Adam Weber and the Minnesota passing attack burning them for 202 yards and three touchdowns. If the Badgers want to win the Champs Sports Bowl, their defense is going to have to make big plays and big stops.

Star watch...

Florida State cannot rely on Ponder to lead this team to a bowl victory. The FSU offense does well when they run for over 100 yards. The only way to accomplish that is to feed Antone Smith. The senior deserves 20-25 carries. P.J. Hill has been absent in recent big games. However, like FSU, Wisconsinís QB play is unreliable. Hill, who has 13 touchdowns this year, has to find a way to consistently get good yardage on the ground.

Deciding factor...

Whichever team runs the ball with the most success will win this game. Running the ball will open up the play action pass, something both quarterbacks need to be successful. Ponder and Sherer must manage the game like a Baltimore Ravens quarterback. Avoid turnovers, be accurate, and let the running game, defense, and special teams put you in good situations.

EMERALD BOWL - Miami vs California
December 27 - 7:00 PM CST ESPN TV - San Francisco, CA

The matchup...

Miami, like the other ACC teams in this preview, had a shot at the ACC championship game. With two games left in the season, they were 7-3. Their defense was playing outstanding. The team looked destined for a BCS bowl. Then, Georgia Tech and NC State ran all over the Hurricanes. Those two teams combined for 691 yards rushing. Miami accepted a bid to the Emerald Bowl, in hopes of salvaging their season. I wonder if they knew their opponent when they accepted the bid?
The California Golden Bears did not seem dangerous five or six weeks ago. Before the explosion of Jahvid Best, they were 6-4. In his final two games, Best ran for 512 yards and scored seven total touchdowns. The expectations for Cal were low at the beginning of the season. A win in the Emerald Bowl would give the Bears a pleasant 9-win season. In my opinion, they are a strong favorite to win the Emerald Bowl. However, Miami head coach Randy Shannon is going to have his team fired up after the way they ended the season.

When Miami has the ball...

Miamiís offense is similar to Florida Stateís. Their quarterback play is less than stellar. They are best when they pound the ball. Playmakers are obviously there, but the stats are unimpressive. Freshman Jacory Harris will get all the snaps due to the suspension of Robert Marve. He has thrown for 1001 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He will be handing the ball off to Graig Cooper, who has ran for 778 this year. However, he has only had three games where he has rushed for over 100 yards.
Californiaís defense has been better than expected. They have the 24th ranked defense in the nation. Their forte is their pass rush. Cal has 33 sacks this year, 8.5 by senior linebacker Zack Follett. Only two teams forced more turnovers than Cal this year (Florida and Wake Forest). The pass rush has allowed the defensive backfield to excel. Their 23 interceptions leads the Pac-10. Miami will have a tough time moving the ball on the Bears, especially through the air.

When California has the ball...

California is a run first, pass second team. Best is the key cog in the offensive scheme. He will get an excessive amount of carries after his past two performances. Quarterback Kevin Riley has not been asked to do much with Best exploding late in the season. However, he can make big plays when necessary. Against Maryland early in the year, Riley threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns. Nyan Boateng and Cameron Morrah have combined for 13 touchdown catches this season.
Although Miami struggled defensively late in the year, that does not erase their previous accomplishments. They have the nations 13th ranked pass defense. They want to stop Best and Calís rushing attack, thus forcing Riley to put the game on his shoulders. Miami also does a good job of pressuring the quarterback. They have sacked the QB 30 times this season. Forcing Cal into 3rd and longs is a must-do.

Star watch...

Keep an eye on quarterback Jacory Harris. With Marve out of the picture due to suspension, Harris has a chance to make himself the clear leader for the starting job next year if he performs well enough in the Emerald Bowl. The freshman is getting better every game. Ask Kevin Riley about great bowl performances as a freshman. Last year he threw for 269 yards and three touchdowns in a bowl victory.

Deciding factor...

California won its final two games because of Jahvid Best. The Emerald Bowl will be no different. If Best goes off against Miami, the Bears will coast to a victory. If they can slow Best down, they have a chance to pull out a victory. Which Miami defense will show up? The one that kept seven of their first ten opponents under 100 yards rushing, or the one that let Georgia Tech and NC State run for a combined 600-plus yards against them in the final two games.

INDEPENDENCE BOWL - Northern Illinois vs Louisiana Tech
December 28 - 7:15 PM CST ESPN TV - Shreveport, LA

The matchup...

I understand that the Independence Bowl is not the most appealing bowl in history. Northern Illinois is 6-6 MAC team with a win over a FCS school. Louisiana Tech is a 7-5 WAC team, who also has a win over a FCS team. Neither team has a win over a ranked opponent, although Louisiana Tech did beat Mississippi State in week one. Nevertheless, the game is going to be played no matter how much you complain. Although the game is not ĎsexyĎ by any standards, it will likely be a close game that will have an exciting fourth quarter.
Northern Illinois looked to be a contender for the MAC East title after starting 5-3. They dropped three out their last four, but still managed to secure their 4th bowl bid in school history. Louisiana Tech had some impressive wins (Mississippi State, Fresno State), but they disappeared against ranked opponents Kansas and Boise State. Louisiana Tech is great at running the ball and stopping the run. If they do both those things, they should come away with their first bowl win since 1977.

When Northern Illinois has the ball...

Northern Illinoisís offense is led by their rushing attack. Freshman running back Meíco Brown is the leading rusher, with 508 yards. Four other players have over 200 yards rushing, including sophomore running back Chad Spann who has scored eight rushing touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Chandler Harnish has had an impressive freshman season. He has thrown for 1342 yards and rushed for 478 yards.
Louisiana Tech is in the WAC, a pass-first-ask-questions-later conference. Therefore, it should not surprise you when I say that they have the 11th ranked rushing defense in the nation, and the 116th passing defense in the nation. Tech is horrible against the pass. They have given up 370 or more passing yards four times this season. However, they are legitimately strong at stopping the run. Stopping the run will stop NIUís offense.

When Louisiana Tech has the ball...

Tech also favors the running game over the pass on offense. Junior running back Daniel Porter rushed for over 1000 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Senior Patrick Jackson, who scored eight rushing touchdowns as well, will see 10-15 carries. If the Bulldogs are going to pass, quarterback Ross Jenkins will likely be looking to throw to Phillip Livas. Livas caught 39 passes for 589 yards and two touchdowns this season. He also returned two punts for a touchdown this year. Techís offense is more balanced than NIUís, but it will still rely heavily on the run.
Northern Illinois had one of the MACís worst defenses last season. This year, they ended the regular season with the conferenceís best defense. They hold opponents to 303 yards and 18 points per game. Their pass defense ranks 5th in the nation. The front seven is led by defensive end Larry English, who will be playing his final game at NIU before moving on to the NFL.

Star watch...

Both star players are on the defensive side of the ball. For NIU, it is the aforementioned Larry English. English has eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss this season. When NIU has the ball, they will have to worry about All-WAC safety Antonio Bryant. Bryant leads Tech with 111 tackles. He also had three interceptions and two forced fumbles. These two future NFL defenders will try their best to shut the opposing offenses down. English will be invading Techís backfield while Bryant will be in on nearly every play finishing off tackles.

Deciding factor...

Both defenses are very good. However, both defenses have looked bad at times this season against strong offenses. The key to winning the Independence Bowl will be which defense shuts down the run and puts pressure on the quarterback. These teams are equally matched and will likely compete in one of the closest games of the bowl season. Which defense will get the stops in the fourth quarter?
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