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Bowl season rolls on. We're on it.
Game: AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Time: Friday, December 28, ESPN, 2 p.m. (Independence Stadium, Shreveport)
Teams: Ohio Bobcats (8-4, 4-4 MAC) vs. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt)
How they got here: College Football Report darling Ohio U. suffered a sharp drop-off, losing four of their last five after starting 7-0. Opponents figured out that the Bobcats folded under an aggressive pass rush and brought the pressure. OU yielded 22 sacks in the four final losses of the season, limiting the effectiveness of star QB Tyler Tettleton.
The Warhawks jumped out to a similarly impressive record, including an upset over Arkansas (#8 at the time) in Week One. Though the Razorbacks proved unworthy of the preseason ranking, any win over the SEC by a Sun Belt team is remarkable. (Unless the SEC team is Kentucky, in which case it's to be expected.)
Louisiana-Monroe continued to overachieve, posting an 8-4 record both overall and against the spread to reach the program's first bowl game since joining the FBS (what was Division I) in 1994. Ohio didn't fare as well against the number, posting a 4-8 ATS record.
Comment: Ohio is no stranger to postseason play, most recently losing the 2010 New Orleans Bowl to Troy, which should aid handicappers trying to gauge how well the teams will play in the postseason, but there is no head-to-head history to draw from: The Bobcats and Warhawks have never faced each other.
A Sun Belt representative has never appeared in the Independence Bowl while MAC teams have only appeared twice, going 0-2 both straight up and against the number.
Bettors favor La-Monroe and probably for good reason: QB Kolton Browning posted solid numbers (2,830 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs) despite missing two games to injury, and has a pro prospect in WR Brent Leonard (97 catches, 1,042 yards, 10 TDs). The two anchor a La-Monroe offense that can put up points, averaging 35.5 points, and will look to carve up a Bobcats "D" that hasn't stopped anyone in recent games, yielding 80 points and 965 (!) total yards in the final two games.
A few fun facts about the Independence Bowl: Named after the nation's bicentennial, the Independence bowl was among the first to attract a corporate sponsor as the "Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl" in 1990.
We hated the Weed Eater as a young Reporter. The plastic string would come unspooled with no warning, and the spinning head would go cartwheeling over the lawn, requiring an hour of fiddling in 90-degree temperatures and 99% humidity. In other news, we never want to own a lawn.
Pick: We really like the Warhawks (-7) in this one. Favorites have seven straight wins ATS in the Independence Bowl and La-Monroe should get a big boost from the crowd in what amounts to a home game; campus is just 100 miles away.
Game: Russell Athletic Bowl
Time: Friday, December 28, ESPN, 5:30 p.m. (Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando)
Teams: Rutgers Scarlet Knights (9-3, 5-2 Big East) vs. Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6, 4-4 ACC)
How they got here: Rutgers blew a second-half lead over Louisville on November 29 in the final game of the season, relegating the Scarlet Knights to the Russell Athletic Bowl (not that there's anything wrong with that . . . ) while the Cardinals nabbed the Big East conference BCS bid and will play #4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The BCS game would have given Rutgers more exposure, and a heftier paycheck, but the conference was so underwhelming this year we expect either team would get pasted by the Gators. Even so, rookie head coach Kyle Flood has some notable marks on the line: Rutgers appears in its seventh bowl game in the past eight seasons, looks to record a 10-win season for the third consecutive year, and hopes to maintain a bowl winning streak dating back to 2005.
The Hokies fell short of a 10-win season for the first time in eight years, and needed a last-second field goal over in-state rival Virginia just to get to the Russell Athletic Bowl, not that there's anything wrong with the Russell Athletic Bowl. Va. Tech fans grew accustomed to strong seasons and January 1, if not BCS, appearances and the 6-6 record this season has left some in shock. Coaching legend Frank Beamer doesn't get paid $2,3 million to post .500 records.
Hokie QB Logan Thomas leads an offense that little resembles the road-grating running teams of the past. Thomas leads the team in rushing (528 yards), which is not a good sign: Tech has not had a QB lead the team in rushing since 1965. Keep in mind, a guy named Michael Vick played here and rushed for 636 yards in 2000.
Comment: Is it any coincidence that the words "boring" and "stinker" both share four letters with the Russell Athletic Bowl? We say no. We wish we had some kind words for the teams in the Russell Athletic Bowl, but we can't seem to put on our happy face about a game featuring an also-ran from a bad conference against a team with an unreliable (14 INTs) and overrated QB.
Pick: Rutgers fields a solid defense (sixth nationally in points) and should be able to play a field-position game, relying on Thomas to throw at least one costly pick. We will take the slight underdog (+2) Scarlet Knights.
Game: Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Time: Friday, December 28, ESPN, 9 p.m. (Reliant Stadium, Houston)
Teams: Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-6, 2-6 Big Ten) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)
How they got here: Minnesota has had a challenging season, not only in overall record, but in issues off the field (or at least off the field of play) as well. Coach Jerry Kill suffered a seizure, his third on a game day in the past two seasons, in a loss to Michigan State on November 24. Kill, who suffers from epilepsy, has dealt with numerous challenges with his team this season, including the departure of WR A.J. Barker (who alleged he was mistreated) and backup QB Max Shortell (who started the season but lost out to freshman Philip Nelson in October), who will also not return.
Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague sounds supportive of Kill and his efforts to lead the team despite any health concerns, but any coach in Kill's position (regardless of other complications) would be advised to win a bowl game following a 6-6 season.
The Red Raiders decided to play defense this season, much to the dismay of sports bettors who had gotten fat and happy taking the "over" in every Texas Tech game. (The Raiders finished 39th in total defense, up from 114th last season.) Tech's decent defense helped, but the toughest teams on the schedule still found a way to score in losses to #17 Oklahoma (41-20), #3 Kansas State (55-24), and #24 Oklahoma State (59-21).
But Tx-Tech did pull out a three-overtime victory over #23 TCU and an impressive 49-14 "W" over #5 West Virginia. The point totals (Texas Tech allows 31.8 points per game, 92nd in the country) weren't a concern, however, as the dominant passing game (361.9 yards per game, 2nd in the country) allowed the Raiders to build up margins and force opposing teams out of their comfort zone in an effort to keep up the pace.
Comment: Sorry, Gopher fans. We expect a high-scoring blowout.
Pick: Texas Tech (-13) and the Over (55.5).
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