Cotton Bowl Preview: Missouri vs. Arkansas

AT&T Cotton Bowl
Jan. 1, 8:30 a.m. PST
Missouri (11-2) vs. Arkansas (8-4)
Dallas, Texas
Payout: $3,000,000
Spread: Missouri – 3.5

The 2007 Missouri team is similar to the 2006 Wisconsin team in that they only lost one game to a highly ranked opponent and yet was left out of the BCS mix. In fact, if there weren’t a conference championship game in the Big 12, Missouri would be playing for the national championship against Ohio State. They certainly don’t have a national title caliber defense, but the spread offense is methodical and can light up the scoreboard with the best of them. In Arkansas they’ve found one of those teams. Both teams rank in the top 10 in scoring offense and the top 20 in total offense. Arkansas has a fairly different approach from the pass oriented Missouri team but due to a dynamic duo at running back, it is no less effective. This should be a fun way to get rid of that awful new years hangover. If you’re on the west coast, you may as well just stay up and keep drinking.

Arkansas might come with the second billing in this game but running back Darren McFadden is the best in the country. Any team that passes on him in the upcoming NFL draft will feel like those who passed on Adrian Peterson last year. McFadden is good enough to start for several NFL teams right now and the Arkansas offense does its best to exploit all of his talents, using him at quarterback to lessen the burden on starter Casey Dick. McFadden isn’t a precise passer, but his ability to throw the ball keeps the secondary in coverage. The Missouri defense has faced some powerful offenses this year, including Oklahoma twice. That along with their quick-score offense has skewed their defensive stats somewhat. That said, nobody’s been able to keep McFadden and backup Felix – don’t call me a backup – Jones in check all season. The two should have a big day against Missouri and keep them in the game until the very end.

Unfortunately for Arkansas, head coach Houston Nutt is gone and new coach Bobby Petrino isn’t there yet. Interim coaches rarely have success, in this case it’s defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. He’s known for his aggressive style and playing tight man coverage on the outside. In this game against a quarterback with the skills of Missouri’s Chase Daniel, that could be their demise.

Daniel, a Heisman finalist, threw for 4,170 yards, 33 TD’s and 10 interceptions while completing 69 percent of his passes. He doesn’t just key in on one man though as six players have at least 37 receptions. Tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker are two of the best in the Big 12 and are used as much as any in the nation. The game breaker is Jeremy Maclin. Just a freshman, Maclin has 15 total TD’s. He leads the team in receiving yards, is second in rushing and is one of the top return men in the country. He is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball and Missouri tries to get him as many touches as possible. Arkansas won’t be able to shut down this offense. If they ignore the running game, Tony Temple will have enough running room to break off big runs. Despite only getting more than 20 carries twice this year and sitting out a few games due to injury he has run for 758 yards and 8 TD’s. The Arkansas defense has to take him into account or he’ll slowly chip away yardage and time.

Missouri could be playing in the national championship game right now, Arkansas doesn’t really have a head coach. The difference will be on the scoreboard, but it won’t be much.

Prediction:
Missouri 49 – Arkansas 45

Outback Bowl Preview: Wisconsin vs. Tennessee

Outback Bowl
Jan. 1, 8 a.m. PST
Wisconsin (9-3) vs. Tennessee (9-4)
Tampa, Florida
Payout: $3,100,000
Spread: Tennessee – 2

For all the flack the Big 10 catches about being overrated and slow compared to the SEC, here’s two teams that bucked the “trend” last year. Tennessee lost to Penn State in the Outback Bowl and Wisconsin beat Arkansas in the Capitol One Bowl. So is the Big 10 really overrated and slow? Maybe, but not at Wisconsin. The Badgers have speed all over the field and will remind Tennessee of the Cal game earlier in the season.

Tennessee is in a difficult position preparing for this game. Two assistant coaches have already taken jobs at different schools but will remain with the Vols through the bowl game. Several starters were also declared academically ineligible, including weak-side linebacker Rico McCoy, defensive tackle Demonte’ Bolden and leading receiver Lucas Taylor. Amid all of this uncertainty, head coach Phillip Fulmer might have a hard time getting his players adequately prepared for a team as good as Wisconsin.

At the start of the season many thought Wisconsin would be a national championship contender. Injuries derailed those hopes and a few poor performances derailed those hopes. They can still record their third consecutive 10-win season and a win over the Volunteers would go a long way to restoring faith in the Big 10. Tailback PJ Brown is healthy but won’t get the start. Instead true freshman Zach Brown, who is more of a speed guy, will start in his place. Also expect sophomore Lance Smith to take a few carries. The Badgers will try to win this game on the ground and with the ability to use three different players with different styles, they’ll be able to keep Tennessee off balance. The Volunteer run defense wasn’t a great one to begin with. Losing Bolden and McCoy really hurts. Linebacker Jerod Mayo will show off his talent but without Bolden’s big body in the middle he might get caught up in the wash and get taken out of a number of plays.

UW quarterback Tyler Donovan is a pretty good athlete and he’s another reason the Vols will miss McCoy. McCoy’s athleticism would’ve helped in tracking down Donovan when he gets out of the pocket. Donovan isn’t a great passer though and if the Badgers have to throw the ball to win this game they’ll lose. Tennessee has a number of good athletes in the defensive backfield but the loss of Demetrice Morley this year really hurt. They’ve been forced to play younger players and some good has come out of that. True freshmen Brent Vinson and Eric Berry have shown flashes of pro-potential, but they’ve also shown their inexperience. Donovan might be able to take advantage of that if the running game is able to move the sticks. Play action passes to versatile tight end Travis Beckum could be a back breaker for Tennessee.

Tennessee’s offense also relies on a steady ground game but have a far better passing game to complement it. Arian Foster is the workhorse. He’s 225 lbs and has run for 1,162 yards and 12 TD’s but if not for quarterback Erik Ainge the offense would be anemic. Ainge has thrown for 3,157 yards, 29 TD’s and only 10 interceptions while completing 63 percent of his passes. Without leading receiver Lucas Taylor, Ainge will have to be comfortable completing passes to a less inspiring group of receivers. Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe will shoulder the load but tight end Chris Brown’s contribution might be the difference.

Wisconsin has given up some points this year. They can’t afford for that to happen in this game because they don’t have an offense that can keep up if this turns into a shootout. Corner Jack Ikegwuonu will have to take away one side of the field altogether. If Ainge is able to work the whole field he’s smart enough to get rid of the ball and avoid sacks but the Wisconsin linebacking corps has good speed and might be able to force some turnovers. This Badger defense has potential to be the best in the country next year if everyone comes back. Tennessee will need to come out firing on all cylinders to beat them.

Wisconsin, if they don’t need Tyler Donovan to win the game for them, should grind out a close, relatively low scoring victory. Next season they’ll be taking another run at the Big 10 championship while Phillip Fulmer tries yet again to hang onto his job at Tennessee.

Prediction:
Wisconsin 20 – Tennessee 17

Rush and Iceman Prevail To End 2007 With a Bang

GSP Matt Hughes

On a night where there were basically two main events, UFC 79: Nemesis did not disappoint.

Canada’s own George ‘Rush’ St. Pierre dominated highly touted Matt Hughes to move a step closer in retaining his welterweight championship title. On the other hand, Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell went toe-to-toe for three rounds with Wanderlei ‘The Axe Murderer’ Silva before claiming victory by a unanimous decision. 

GSP came out motivated and focused to beat one of the greatest welterweights of the sport, Hughes. From the get-go, the Montreal native attacked Hughes as he took the 34-year-old down two minutes in. The first round saw GSP on top, not allowing much offense from the two-time 170-pound division champion. Then in the second, GSP, who was sporting a fleur-de-lis on his blue trunks, took Hughes down with a slick judo throw and applied the armbar. Thus, causing Hughes (43-6) to verbally submit.

“I think Georges St. Pierre has the potential to be the greatest 170-pounder ever,” said trainer Greg Jackson. “He’s just phenomenal. The scary thing is he keeps getting better.” 

GSP will now face Matt Serra to determine the title holder for real in Montreal on April 19 at the Bell Centre. Serra, who was slated to fight Hughes in defense of his gold, injured his back during practice. Therefore, St. Pierre and Hughes fought for contendership. The last time Serra and St. Pierre met, “The Terror” upsetted the 26-year-old to capture his first welterweight championship.

St. Pierre (15-2) made Canada proud, as chants of GSP could be heard throughout Mandalay Bay Events Centre, and even at the Shark Club in downtown Vancouver. Not bad for the most recognized UFC fighter north of the border, and I’m sure he’ll be pumped to be able to fight for the gold in his hometown.

Liddell Silva

The other high profile battle on the fight card ended as a bloodbath. Yes, Silva was sent to the hospital after the match for a CAT scan.

It was no surprise as the match saw both crazed-maniacs throw punch after punch at each other, yet failing to knockout the opponent. The match lasted for three rounds, with the result decided by the judges. The UFC president had three words to describe the brawl.

“A great fight,” said Dana White, who spent six years trying to make the matchup of these two former UFC and Pride champions. 

The Liddell-Silva fight basically stole the show. Even light-heavyweight champion Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and middleweight title holder Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva were on their feets cheering the duo on. Both of these men came in having lost their last two matches, but the in-media trash talking drew up the hype for this light-heavyweight fight.

Both men had chances to finish their opponents off, as Liddell (21-5) fell twice, once due to slipping and the other punch related. Silva failed to capitalize on those opportunities, as the Brazilian usually would have taken advantage in those situation. On the other hand, a bloodied Silva was cornered against the cage a few times, yet the fast-fist-flying 38-year-old failed to end the fight and put ‘The Axe Murderer’ out.

When asked why later, Liddell said, “Because he’s a tough man.” 

That was indeed a true statement as Silva absorbed punch after punch, and threw some counter jabs of his own. It was indeed a match to remember, as the excitement and entertainment level was intense.

The other winners of the night included the undefeated Brazilian Lyoto Machida (12-0), who submitted the highly praised light-heavyweight Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (4-2) in the second round with an arm triangle hold. The worst part for the Cameroon fighter was that it was his UFC debut.

It was a night that started with bitterness, as Rich Clementi forced hated rival Melvin Guillard to tap out from a rear naked choke in the first round. ‘The Young Assassin’ tried to charge ‘No Love’, who taunted him after the match, but had to be refrained by security. 

In the end, fans went home satisfied as the UFC ended the year with entertainment and bloodshed not matched by any other sport. It was definitely not for the faint of heart.

Absolutely Perfect

Randy Moss Tom Brady

The New England Patriots defeated the New York Giants 38-35 in one of the most exciting and competitive games of the season from East Rutherford, N.J. as they achieved a perfect 16-0 regular season record.

Give the Giants and fourth-year quarterback Eli Manning (who completed 22 of 32 passes for 251 yards and four touchdown receptions) credit because they fought tooth and nail and pushed the Patriots defence and offensive weapons Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney to make big plays and key points in the game, which Bill Belichick’s squad did and that is why they went undefeated all season.

New England is also the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to enjoy a perfect season, which is a feat in itself.  That being said, the most impressive quality about the 2007 New England Patriots is just how they went about being a perfect team.

Individually, the Patriots were dominant and all four of the new NFL single-season records walk hand-in-hand with the individual performances of Moss, Brady, Maroney and the diminutive, yet explosive Wes Welker who caught 112 passes for 1,175 yards on the season.  

On a night when the main focus was on achieving a perfect regular season record, Brady broke the NFL record for most touchdown passes in one season by connecting 49 times with his receivers in the end-zone.  Moss broke the NFL single-season record for most touchdown receptions with 23, surpassing Jerry Rice’s 22 touchdowns.  As a team, the Patriots set the single-season record for points scored in a season with 589, surpassing the 1998 Minnesota Vikings who recorded 556 points that year.

Not only did the Pats set four single-season records to solidify their perfect season, but they led the league in total yards per game with 411.2 and passing yards per game with 295.7. 

Bill Belichick

If there is one question mark with this team going into the playoffs, it will be their defence.  Defence wins championships, but it may just be said that Belichick’s theory of defence is that the best defence is a great offence.  It is hard for opposing teams to score points when their offence is kept off the field by Brady and the various offensive weapons he has to choose from.

One point worth making as the NFL regular season comes to a close and the real football begins, is that not a whole lot of people wanted the Patriots to achieve a 16-0 record.  At The Point in Port Moody, B.C. last night, the majority of football fans there wanted to see the Giants pull off the upset, which they almost did anyways. 

It seems like a bit of a sad commentary on the sporting world when the fans that go to the games, the pubs and watch the NFL from their living room television want to see a team not achieve perfection.  Some of that has to do with the spygate controversy from earlier in the season, but once Belichick was disciplined for his deception, his team simply went on a tear and systematically picked apart their opposition.

Whether you like the Patriots or not, you have to give them every ounce of respect you can for this team.  They went 16-0 and did it in such a dominating fashion that the exclamation point may not be able to fit Gillette Stadium.

Now that the Pats have achieved their perfect season, they turn their attention to the Super Bowl.  As impressive as their season was, it would be even more impressive if they went on to the win the prize that really matters. 

Now, the new season begins and the Patriots, like the the other 11 teams that will compete for the Super Bowl, are one loss away from elimination.

Humanitarian Bowl Preview: Fresno State vs. Georgia Tech

Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl
Dec. 31, 11 a.m. PST
Fresno State (8-4) vs. Georgia Tech (7-5)
Boise, Idaho
Payout: $750,000
Spread: Georgia Tech – 4.5

One has to wonder about Georgia Tech’s approach to this game. For one, the game is in Idaho, 2,000 miles from home. They’ve also just had their head coach fired. Chan Gailey, after six mediocre seasons and six losses to arch-rival Georgia, was canned. Interim coach and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta was given the chance to lead the team into the bowl, but how the team will respond is unknown. The weather will also play a factor as it’s expected to be in the thirties. Fresno State will be used to the cold atmosphere of Boise, thanks to conference rival Boise State, but the Yellow Jackets rarely play in such cold weather. One has to wonder if they will be motivated enough to win this game.

Fresno State, on the other hand, missed out on bowl season altogether last year and should be happy to crash the party once again. Talent wise they look over matched and since running the ball is their forte, they’ll be in trouble against a tenacious Georgia Tech front seven. It doesn’t help that a trio of Fresno runners are trying to recover from injuries. Ryan Matthews is said to be out of the lineup while Lonyae Miller and all-purpose back Clifton Smith are still working their way back to 100 percent. Smith is third on the team in receptions and rushing. He’ll give Tech linebackers fits in the open field if he’s able to contribute. Sophomore Anthony Harding has stepped up in their absence, running for over 100 yards in the final two games of the year.

Georgia Tech’s front seven, if they show up to play, should dominate the point of attack and put the game in the hands of Fresno QB Tom Brandstater. Brandstater has improved significantly from last season. He had his best game of the year in a win over Kansas State where he threw for 313 yards, 2 TD’s and no interceptions while completing 79 percent of his passes. If he has a repeat performance against Georgia Tech, they’ll win this game handily. The Tech secondary doesn’t need to force turnovers, which is good because they haven’t been able to this year, but they do need to keep everything in front of them because a big play in a game like this is demoralizing and may send Tech into a downward spiral.

I’m not sure what to expect from the Georgia Tech offense. Some have said freshman quarterback Josh Nesbitt will see time over incumbent Taylor Bennett. After last year’s Gator Bowl Bennett gave hope for an improved Tech passing game, but he has fared little better than his often criticized predecessor Reggie Ball. For incoming head coach Paul Johnson’s triple option offense, Nesbitt would be a far better fit. His athleticism gives the Jackets an extra dimension on offense for teams to prepare for. The Fresno State defense doesn’t have the horses to compete with an offense like that, but if the Jackets remain one-dimensional and stick to the ground game with Tashard Choice, the Bulldogs will stick around and have a shot at winning.

There’s no reason for Georgia Tech to lose this game other than their own lack of concentration. If they’re prepared and show up to play they can win easily, if not, it’s the 2002 Sillicon Valley Classic all over again when the Jackets were six point favorites and lost 30-21. I think the smothering front seven of Georgia Tech will be too much for Fresno’s running game and while Brandstater might keep things close, he won’t open it up enough to pull off the upset.

Prediction:
Georgia Tech 13 – Fresno State 6

Music City Bowl Preview: Florida State vs. Kentucky

Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl
Dec. 31, 1 p.m. PST
Florida State (7-5) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Nashville, Tennessee
Payout: $1,600,000
Spread: Kentucky – 3.5

This game bares some similarities to the Champs Sports Bowl between Michigan State and Boston College. One of the top senior quarterbacks in the nation will face a defense depleted by suspensions.

Kentucky QB Andre Woodson should have a big day. Despite running the gauntlet that is the SEC schedule, Woodson threw for 3,351 yards, 36 TD’s and just 10 interceptions. Even with WR Keenan Burton doubtful for the game, he still has three players with over 50 receptions to throw to. WR’s Steve Johnson and Dicky Lyons as well as tight end Jacob Tamme have had excellent years. Running back Rafael Little is also a threat out of the backfield, with 34 catches on the year despite missing three games. Little’s versatility will have FSU linebackers on their toes especially with a few teammates out of the game.

The more important of the FSU suspensions are defensive linemen Budd Thacker and Neefy Moffett, linebacker Dekoda Watson and corner Patrick Robinson, all starters. Talented defensive players aren’t hard to find on Florida State’s roster but the losses of these starters could result in the loss of the game. Kentucky’s offense has enough firepower to outscore FSU even with those players in the lineup. Linebackers Geno Hayes and Derek Nicholson will be the two Seminoles with the opportunity to change the game. They have to neutralize the running game with only seven in the box, sometimes six, and key on Rafael Little. They can give their secondary a chance but it will all hinge on their ability to stop the pass.

Two starting offensive linemen were also suspended for the Seminoles, right guard Jacky Clause and left tackle Daron Rose. For an offense that hasn’t found it easy to move the ball despite a plethora of talent, that doesn’t help matters. Kentucky’s defense won’t scare anyone but without Rose at left tackle, defensive end Jeremy Jarmon will be in quarterback Drew Weatherford’s face all day. If Weatherford isn’t playing well there’s no viable option to replace him with. Backup Xavier Lee was one of the many suspended.

Florida State will have to resurrect its running game. If running back Antone Smith isn’t at full strength from his shoulder injury, WR Preston Parker will carry the load. Parker played admirably against Maryland, running for 143 yards and a touchdown but was shut down by Florida in the final game of the year. If either back can get into a rhythm there won’t be much on the Kentucky side of the ball to stop them. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is one of the best in the SEC but someone else needs to step up to give their offense some breathing room. Parker playing in the backfield means someone else will have to make catches at WR. He leads the team with 54 catches. Weatherford, wide receivers De’Cody Fagg and Greg Carr will need to stretch the Kentucky defense or they won’t keep up.

This would have been an excellent football game if Florida State had its full complement of players. Unfortunately they may not be able to withstand the offensive onslaught Kentucky can bring to the table. I expect Andre Woodson to light up the FSU secondary. Though the Seminoles might put some points on the board, it won’t be enough. Andre Woodson finishes his career at Kentucky in fine form.

Prediction:
Kentucky 41 – Florida State 31

Sun Bowl Preview: Oregon vs. South Florida

Brut Sun Bowl
Dec. 31, 11 a.m. PST
Oregon (8-4) vs. South Florida (9-3)
El Paso, Texas
Payout: $1,900,000
Spread: South Florida – 6.5

At the half-way-point of the year, this could have been the national championship game. But neither could live up to those lofty expectations.

Oregon is a different football team without quarterback Dennis Dixon. His ability is magnified by the spread offense the team runs. Without his athleticism at QB, the Ducks have found their way to the Sun Bowl instead of a BCS bowl. It’s a testament to how important the quarterback is to the spread offense. The season is in two pieces for Oregon, with Dennis Dixon (8-1) and without him (0-3).

South Florida was disappointed some with their three-game losing streak after climbing to No. 2 in the polls but this isn’t a No. 2 caliber team. The three loses were all to good football teams as Rutgers, UConn and Cincinnati will all be in bowl games. This season was still a big step for the young program and they’ll get their first 10-win season if they beat Oregon.

The USF defense will destroy a Dixon-less Oregon offense. Future NFL running back Jonathan Stewart may be the Ducks only chance. He’s run for over 1,400 yards and 10 TD’s this year. He’s 230 lbs and has game breaking speed. If there’s one player the strong USF defense will have trouble with, it’s Stewart, but expect the defense to be ready for him and stack the box with defenders accordingly. If they can force him to move laterally along the line of scrimmage and string out plays to the sidelines, they may just bottle him up. Oregon won’t have much success through the air, making Stewart’s contributions all the more important. USF corners Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams are two of the best in the country. The speed of Oregon’s WR’s won’t bother them much, especially if the Oregon QB (either Cody Kempt or Justin Roper) can’t get them the ball.

Because of their anemic offense, the Duck defense will have to win this game for UO. They’ll have their hands full with freelancing USF quarterback Matt Grothe. He is a capable runner but he tends to press and force the issue when the team is struggling. If the Ducks can get out in front early then their athletic defense will be able to keep them out in front. If they don’t South Florida will be able to burn clock with a newfound running back in Mike Ford. He’s only a freshman even though he signed with Alabama out of high school in 2005. In the past three games he’s taken the bulk of the carries and run for over 300 yards with six TD’s. Oregon uses a 4-2-5 alignment defensively and it can be inviting for a good running game. Ford should have a big game. Corners Walter Thurmond and Jarius Byrd can’t get beat deep. It’s important for this team to put USF in third and long situations and get off the field when they can. Oregon’s offense will need every possession it can get if they’re going to win this game.

I expect turnovers and a lot of them. The Oregon defense knows they can’t give up an inch and they’ll keep this game low scoring. If South Florida controls time of possession they’ll win this game. Oregon needs someone on offense to take the burden off of Stewart or it won’t be close.

Prediction:
South Florida 17 – Oregon 10