Sometimes you get it all wrong, and on New Years day, my inner “sharp” took a taxi out of town, and left me empty handed when the Rose and Sugar Bowl’s came to a conclusion. Perhaps a bit too hyped by cleaning up during week 17, or perhaps it was just a rare down year for the SEC, regardless the results from our first National Championship went both with and against sharp expectations (the smart money in Vegas was on FSU +9.5, and on Ohio State +8.5).
Going into wild card weekend and prepping for the National Championship a week away, a few questions should probably be answered regarding what these bowl results actually mean. I thought the Ryan and Russilo show got it right when they premised their show with the questions: Was this a movement [for the Big 10] or a moment? Not surprisingly I’ll go with the latter, with one distinct qualification.
The SEC, Pac-12, and to some extent Big-12 and Mountain West have largely dominated bowl season since the turn of the century. One bowl season in which the Big-10 did not humiliate itself is not likely to get me to change my perception of its relative strength (remember, the Big-10 currently stands at a middling 4-4 this bowl season, perhaps underlining the lack of depth in the conference, while the cream was a superb 3-0 (with Michigan State pulling off that miracle come from behind victory over Baylor)), but the hirings of Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh just might render some of the Big-10’s issues moot. Both coaches national scale recruiters, with the talent and skill to lure five star recruits to Ann Arbor and Columbus without any problem whatsoever, a skill they’ll definitely need considering the overall decline in the size of the talent pool in the upper Midwest and the Rust Belt.
What of the SEC? Well, some had predicted this fall coming, and even Chuck Thompson had detailed exactly how and why the SEC maintains its position more on reputation than actual reality (when SEC teams lose, they are rarely penalized severely in the rankings, and indeed, conference losses in the SEC are typically upheld as reinforcing logic for the toughness of the conference, rather than evidence of potential weakness, and with the SEC continually paired with a Big-10 that had been in decline for more than a decade, their bowl record was consistently artificially inflated by results against the worst performing of the Power 5 conferences (the SEC, has nearly tripled the Big-10’s win total over the past 8 years, and until this bowl season, had not had a losing record since 2002. The Big-10 playing .500 bowl football for the first time since 2005 isn’t remotely enough reason to argue the Big-10 is back. It might be more accurate to simply say that caught Baylor napping, just as Baylor had caught TCU napping three months earlier, that Wisconsin needed OT to beat a bad Auburn side, and that Ohio State beat probably the worst Alabama team of the Saban era. They deserve credit, no doubt, as usually the conference gets pounded in these games, but one year of results, sandwiched by 8 consecutive years of misery strikes me as more of an abberation than anything else. If the Big-10 can lean on anything, it’s the presence of Harbaugh, and Meyer, likely to be two of the best coaches in all of college football in the years to come, and Michigan rising from the dead after eight years or irrelevance should only help the conference which has seen both Wisconsin and Michigan State rise to prominence in their absence.
What else can we make of the Bowl Season? Well FSU really was a fraud, at least defensively, and the Pac-12 really has risen to a locked in position of 2nd place overall among conference on the strength of outstanding quarterbacking and offensive play. The Conference is a peerless 6-2 in bowl games, with no embarrassing performances (Arizona, and Washington lost games in which a single score proved the difference) and beyond that, everything is in flux. As for the National Championship to come, the line is perfectly set and I wouldn’t suggest taking either side, the under looks like the reasonable bet considering it is steadily rising (74 at last check). But I’d stay away, there’s no value in those lines.
Wild Card Weekend:
It’s got to be the most disappointing Wild Card Weekend in recent memory. Due to some unfortunate results down the stretch and some disappointing tiebreakers, we got a collection of largely uninteresting match ups including a divisional rivalry we’ve already seen twice (Pitt-Baltimore), an ugg-fest of two teams that have no business being in the playoffs (7-8-1 Carolina versus an Arizona starting a third string QB and sporting a 2-4 record in the final stretch of the regular season), a pairing of two interesting teams with their star receivers limping and out (Cincy and AJ Green), and limping and barely in (Indy and TY Hilton), and round it off with Dallas going toe to toe with a Detroit squad that hasn’t one a playoff game since they defeated Dallas 22 years ago, their lone playoff win since Dwight Eisenhauer was president, and Bobby Layne was their QB. What can we expect?
Carolina 24 Arizona 9 in Uggfest
I took Carolina at -4.5 when the lines opened and I was lucky, as the line swung 2 more points in two days, settling on -6.5 for the time being, a product of Arizona unable to field a proper rushing attack without Ellington, or a passing attack without Palmer or Drew “should be a third stringer” Stanton. This game should be horrific on the ideas and should be avoided at all costs. I expect Carolina to cover without too much trouble. It’s hard to see how Arizona has any chance in this one unless Michael Floyd can catch some deep balls and Arizona can get some special teams/pick 6 defensive magic.
Take Carolina at -4.5 if you can get it anywhere, or even -5.
Pittsburgh 31 Baltimore 27
I took Pittsburgh at -3 thinking Bell was good to go and now he isn’t. Incredibly disappointing. Historically these games are quite tight, and typically low scoring until both teams fell on hard times in recent years. Neither defense is up to snuff in handling strong passing attacks, so don’t be surprised if its an aerial game, even in the rain that’s predicted, though Baltimore figures to use Forsett to try to chew clock.
Avoid the bet.
Indy 34 Cincy 24
I’d avoid betting this one at all costs. You’ve got two teams with immense liabilities. Indy has no defense, and no run game, while Cincy has Andy Dalton, no AJ Green, and some injuries in general to cope with. If this were in Cincy, I’d pick the Bengals on the idea that Jeremy Hill would be the offense, and keep Luck on the sidelines to boot. But with it in comfortable domed Indy, it’s hard to see Luck falling in this contest. It’s a classic toss up where you could go with the defense and the better running game, or the better QB and home field advantage. I wouldn’t touch this line, though I might touch the over (48 if memory serves).
Dallas 34 Detroit 17
Detroit has 1 playoff win since 1957, and Stafford has a record of 0-16 in games against opponents with winning records on the road. I’m utterly stunned at the line. Shocked it isn’t -8, or -8.5. Dallas will struggle to run the ball but shouldn’t have trouble passing, and the passing should eventually open up running plays for Murray in the second half. Detroit should be able to exploit a Dallas defense incapable of stopping anyone, but this is Detroit, this is Stafford and the game is on the road, where Detroit averages 2 TD’s and a field goal per game. Ain’t no way 17 points is going to carry this contest, and I have a hard time imagining Dallas will be limited to 21 or 24 points in this contest. Dallas should win without too much trouble barring an injury to Romo. Take Dallas and the 6.5
It should set a very interesting Divisional Round:
Carolina @ Seattle
Pittsburgh @ Denver
Dallas @ Green Bay
Indy @ New England