BCS National Championship Game Handicapping Factors
by Trevor Whenham - 1/6/2010
With the BCS National Championship Game between Alabama and Texas looming, one way we can work to handicap the game is by looking back to see what we can learn from the games that have already been played during this bowl season. Each bowl game is a unique entity, but patterns start to emerge the further in we get, and we can start to look for some theories or ideas based on what we have seen. Here are three such possible theories to help you with your handicapping of the last, biggest game.
Conference strength has been a good indicator - Wisconsin came out on Dec. 29 and convincingly beat up on Miami. That was the first of the Big Ten's top tier of teams to play, and it gave us a clue that perhaps the conference was better this year than it was getting credit for. That opinion was certainly backed up when they got two big New Year's Day wins from Penn State and Ohio State, and a heck of an effort from Northwestern in an overtime loss as nine-point underdogs. Based on that you could have guessed that Iowa was in a good place for the Orange Bowl, and they wound up covering the spread by 16. The Big Ten finishes just one game above .500 in bowls this year, but it's about far more than just the record - by looking closer at the real situation you could see that the teams that matter were doing their job.
Now to apply that to this game. Both conferences have a winning bowl record so far - the Big 12 is 4-3, while the SEC is 5-4. The SEC gets points for having more bowl eligible teams, but we need to look closer to see what we have really learned. The Big 12, despite the positive record, hasn't had a uniformly good bowl season. Nebraska was thoroughly dominating, but the only other ranked team, Oklahoma State, was terrible. Oklahoma won but didn't cover, Iowa State barely beat Minnesota in one of the worst games I have ever watched, and Texas Tech beat a Michigan State team that had had half of their roster suspended. On the other hand, Missouri and Texas A&M were humiliated (by a middling SEC team in the latter case). Overall, Texas Tech gets points for heart in a rough situation, but Nebraska is the only Big 12 team that truly outshone expectations. Texas isn't riding a positive conference wave.
So what about Alabama? The SEC has had two ranked teams play already. Florida won by daylight over an outmatched Cincinnati team, while LSU lost by two to Penn State. Tennessee and South Carolina didn't show up, Arkansas and Auburn needed overtime to get past opponents that were solid underdogs, and Kentucky had no answer for Clemson. Mississippi gets style points for beating up on Oklahoma State, and so does Georgia. The SEC's overall bowl performance has been better than the Big 12's - especially because it features a 2-0 record against the conference - but it hasn't been perfect by any means. Alabama gets the edge here, but not by a massive margin.
Defenses will probably hold up - The cliche that defenses win championships will be proven true on Thursday regardless of what happens because these are the second and third best defenses in the country based on yards allowed. What we have learned this bowl season is that these top defenses are very likely to do their jobs well under the pressure of the big games. Just look at the rest of the Top 12 defenses. TCU lost, but not because their defense was lousy. Florida rolled, and Ohio State was convincing against a strong offense. North Carolina played Pittsburgh tough. Oklahoma and Penn State won. Nebraska was all but perfect defensively. Air Force rode their defense to an overwhelming win. Iowa and Boise State got BCS wins. There isn't a single defense there that disappointed, and several shut down very potent offenses. In other words, if your assumption is that one of the two offenses is going to have a huge day you might want to rethink that.
The poll voters don't always have it right - In fact, this year, they almost never do. There have been eight bowl games played between two ranked teams. In just one case - BYU's demolition of Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl - the higher ranked team has beaten the lower ranked one. Since then, the lower ranked team has come out on top seven straight times - Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State, Florida, Boise State and Iowa. There are a lot of reasons to like Alabama, but the fact that they are the higher ranked team is far from a good one.
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