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Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Bowl Mania: The Smart Picks

By Graham Hays

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By Graham Hays
ESPN Fantasy Games

You're forgiven.

Maybe it was your daughter's dance recital, a chemistry midterm or a really good West Wing episode that kept you from watching Louisville battle TCU on ESPN in November. Whatever the reason, we understand. It's a long season, and even the most diehard of college football fans probably missed at least a few of the 56 teams playing in a bowl game.

But just because you don't know Lionel Gates (Louisville running back) from Tim Gilligan (Boise State wide receiver), that's no reason to give up hope of winning your Bowl Mania group.

Just remember, you may care more about USC vs. Michigan and Oklahoma vs. LSU than any other bowl, but that doesn't mean you have to make them your big picks. Many people will automatically assign big points to the teams with which they're familiar, even if those teams are pitted in evenly-matched games.

The Gimmes
Give the bowl organizers credit. Even with .500 teams like Northwestern and unheralded squads like New Mexico dotting the landscape, only five games feature one team favored to win by 10 or more points. But in looking to pile up Bowl Mania points, those five games are a good place to start.

  • GMAC Bowl: Louisville vs. Miami (OH)
    It's no surprise to see a Miami team the prohibitive favorite in a bowl game, but it's a little surprising the team is from Oxford, Ohio. Miami acquitted itself well in an opening loss to Iowa and scored 30- and 20-point road wins over Northwestern and Colorado State, respectively, before breezing through the competitive MAC with a 30.2-point average margin of victory. Meanwhile, Louisville dropped two of its last four games, including a 30 point home loss against Memphis.
  • Confidence Vote: 25 points

  • Tangerine Bowl: Kansas vs. North Carolina State
    When in doubt, pick against the team that doesn't have a winning record. Kansas enters the Tangerine Bowl at 6-6, losing five of the final seven games and getting soundly drilled by the best of the Big 12. North Carolina State is just one game better but played a non-conference schedule including Ohio State (loss) and Texas Tech (win). Granted, the Wolfpack dropped their final two games to Florida State and Maryland, but talent beats momentum most days.
  • Confidence Vote: 28 points

  • Fort Worth Bowl: Boise State vs. TCU
    From BCS contender to big underdog in your home state, it's been a wild ride for TCU. Boise State lost by two at Oregon State in their only real test, but they beat up on the WAC to such a degree -- including a 17-point win on the road against Hawaii -- that it's tough to ignore them. And is the WAC really that much worse than Conference USA -- a league TCU hardly dominated despite all the wins? TCU got the national attention because their loss came late, but there's a reason Boise State is such a big favorite.
  • Confidence Vote: 27 points

  • Hawaii Bowl: Houston vs. Hawaii
    Hawaii went 2-4 on the road this season, making them a dangerous pick in a bowl-game scenario ... if the Rainbows weren't playing their postseason tilt in Hawaii. The Boise State anomaly aside, Hawaii is nearly unbeatable on their home turf. Houston will have the benefit of preparation time, but when a team's five losses come by an average of 25.4 points, they aren't equipped to deal with adversity of any kind.
  • Confidence Vote: 26 points

  • Houston Bowl: Navy vs. Texas Tech
    Navy looked impressive rolling over Central Michigan and Army in their final two games, but this is also a team that lost big against Rutgers and couldn't handle Div. I-AA Delaware -- one of two I-AA schools on the schedule. By contrast, Tech's non-conference slate included games against three bowl teams -- wins against New Mexico and Mississippi and a loss against North Carolina State -- as well as conference games against Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. So why is this our upset special of the potential blowouts? Take one look at Tech's 62-31 loss against option-minded Missouri, where QB Brad Smith ran for 291 yards and five touchdowns and RB Zack Abron tacked on 139 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Confidence Vote: 18 points

    The Difference Makers
  • New Orleans Bowl: Memphis vs. North Texas
    The standings don't differentiate between ugly wins and blowouts, but don't ignore them when making your picks. It would be a nice story for a school like North Texas to come out of the Sun Belt and score a big win in New Orleans, but aside from big wins against Baylor and Arkansas State, North Texas hardly dominated very inferior competition. Memphis had some confounding losses, but they also scored impressive wins against the likes of Mississippi and Louisville. Stick with the Tigers.
  • Confidence Vote: 25 points

  • Peach Bowl: Tennessee vs. Clemson
    An early October swoon featuring losses to Auburn and Georgia killed Tennessee's title hopes, but the Vols are up there with Texas when it comes to teams with gripes about missing out on a BCS bowl. Clemson is not. The Tigers made a nice late-season run, capped by a win against Florida State, but top-tier teams don't loss by 28 at Wake Forest in November -- even if supporters want to say that loss woke up the Tigers and propelled them to new heights. Stick with the proven Tennessee talent.
  • Confidence Vote: 24 points

  • Silicon Valley Bowl: Fresno State vs. UCLA
    Both schools lost to Oklahoma by more than 30 points, so at least they have that in common. The logic of picking against .500 teams continues, even when it comes up against the logic of sticking with major conferences. Fresno State played a tough non-conference schedule -- losing to Tennessee, Oklahoma and Colorado State and beating Oregon State -- so it's unlikely they'll be overwhelmed or outclassed. And while 150 miles isn't exactly next door, the Bulldogs should have plenty of support in San Jose. Take 'em over a team coming off four consecutive losses.
  • Confidence Vote: 23 points

    The Coin Flips
    From potentially farewell performances for Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning to the Arkansas-Missouri border war and a rematch in the Orange Bowl, most of these games will draw plenty of media attention. Enjoy the stories, just don't use them as the basis of your title run. The oddsmakers know what they're doing, and even they don't know what to make of these pairings with spreads of fewer than three points.

    Las Vegas Bowl: New Mexico vs. Oregon State
    Continental Tire Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Virginia
    Liberty Bowl: Utah vs. Southern Mississippi
    Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Arkansas
    Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma State vs. Mississippi
    Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Miami