Covering you all the way through New Year’s, here are the picks for the two New Year’s Day BCS games, one of which will be well broadcast on ABC, and the other badly on Fox.
The Rose Bowl Presented by Citi (Pasadena, CA)
(13) Illinois (9-3) at (7) Southern California (10-2) (-13.5)
That’s right, there is a two touchdown favorite in a BCS game. It’s partially because USC is just that good. They’re just plain loaded and finally playing well. The problem with USC is twofold: first, what I just said about them could have been and was said about them at the beginning of the season. The second problem is that, while they tend to dominate their bowl games, their only real blow out was against Oklahoma in the national championship game in the 2004 Orange Bowl. They destroyed Michigan in the Rose Bowl twice, the games weren’t close, but both wins were only by 14 points. Same thing with their 38-17 win over Iowa in the 2002 Orange Bowl. That game should have been a 40 point win, if you guessed the score based upon the performance of the two teams. So this 13.5 points USC is giving makes me a little nervous.
It took half a season, but the offense finally started to figure out how to utilize all those running backs. Turns out John David Booty isn’t nearly as good as everyone thought too. He’s a good leader and good enough to not totally screw the Trojans, but he’s very inaccurate and only seems comfortable when rolling out and dumping the ball to his running backs, which is exactly what USC’s passing game consists of now. It’s hard not to be a little disappointed in USC, even though they’ve made the Rose Bowl.
USC’s defense, however, is world class. They’re talented at every position and could stop pretty much every offense in the country, and maybe even some NFL offenses too. There’s just a ton of talent on that team, but I’m in no mood to name-drop guys. You know who they are. That, or you’ll hear their names repeatedly on New Year’s Day as they obliterate Illinois players. This was the one part of the pre-season predictions about USC that turned out to be right, and this might be Pete Carroll’s best defense during his tenure at USC.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a huge deal for Illinois football to make a BCS game. It’s a major step forward for a formerly moribund program. They just have no business there this season. Missouri, who beat them, was totally snubbed because the Rose Bowl Committee thinks we care about traditional matchups. They seem to forget that the Texas/Michigan game a couple years ago was excellent theater, and it wasn’t a traditional matchup. Why is it so important that Big Ten and Pac-10 teams play in January? It’s one thing to keep the bowl format instead of a playoff system, but it’s another thing to bow to “tradition” at every opportunity when it just makes the BCS look stupid.
Chances are that Illinois will just get embarrassed on national television after having a real breakout season and taking a major step as a program. I like their players, even. J. Leman is a great linebacker and totally the equal of James Laurinaitis and Dan Connor this season. I even like Juice Williams, though whoever heard of a quarterback that can’t throw? But Illinois’ chances rest solely on the shoulders and legs of Rashard Mendenhall. The only way they win is if he has a huge, HUGE game. The problem is all USC has to do to win defensively is stop him. Illini fan may see this as a Vince Young-situation on a smaller scale. Maybe a mobile quarterback can stump the Trojans again. Like I said, I like Juice Williams, I’ve watched Juice Williams, and Juice Williams is no Vince Young.
Then again, the last time USC was heavily favored in a seemingly innocuous game, we all know what happened.
Update: USC 49 Illinois 17. 11-15. This may be the first off-season in which the rumors of Pete Carroll leaving aren’t rampant. Illinois just couldn’t deal with USC’s speed and power. Everyone saw it coming, but this season, it was rare that things actually turned out that way. Sorry, Illinois fan, you really didn’t have any business in the BCS this season. Still, great respect for the accomplishments and the fact that you’re getting virtually everyone back next season. Then again, so is USC.
Allstate Sugar Bowl (New Orleans, LA)
(10) Hawai’i (12-0) at (5) Georgia (10-2) (-7.5)
Speaking of “undefeated in regulation” (eat it, LSU fan) it’s the Hawai’i Warriors! If Hawai’i wins this game over an SEC team, they should be your national champions. Especially if LSU wins. It’d be a legitimate embarrassment if they didn’t.
This game is all about the contrast in styles, and styles make fights. Georgia is the conservative, boring, but talented SEC team that is reflected in their utterly nondescript head coach, Mark Richt. He’s the first reason it’s hard to like Georgia here. It’s hard to think of what they’re playing for. Hawai’i has a legitimate chip on its shoulder, but Georgia backed into this game and got the at-large team from a non-BCS conference. Mark Richt isn’t exactly a rah-rah kind of coach, so how he’ll motivate them is questionable.
Knowshon Moreno is extremely talented and dangerous, and he’s the primary threat to Hawai’i's chances of winning this game. And he’s only a freshman. Yes, I know about Matt Stafford, but he doesn’t seem to be developing very well under Richt, does he? It’s year two, but he’s still a mediocre, inaccurate passer. Plus Georgia really loves to run max-protect passes with two, maybe three options for Stafford to throw to. That’s how you create a 55% passer who only averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. Even Hawai’i can cover three guys.
Hawai’i is all about innovation and defying conventions. Yes, a team can go undefeated throwing 60 times per game. Colt Brennan is a fantastic quarterback and can make all the throws, but he’s become the heart and soul of this team. As good as he is, Hawai’i's receivers are nearly as good. They’re really freaking fast and have that ESP connection with Brennan at this point. It’s a sight to see when they’re on. It’s entirely possible that Matt Stafford could be a 70% passer in that system too, but he’s stuck at Georgia.
Hawai’i hasn’t faced a team that’s as athletic as Georgia yet this season. Boise State plays just as physically, but Georgia is much bigger and more powerful. The best matchups in this game are Hawai’i's receivers against Georgia’s defensive backs and Hawai’i's defensive front seven against Georgia’s running game. Hawai’i will have to play mistake-free offense in this game. Georgia is going to take away the deep ball, so they’ll have to work their way down the field a few yards at a time. That means Brennan and his guys need to be perfect.
Hawai’i's defense can stop Georgia’s passing game, but Georgia doesn’t really like to pass in the first place. If the Bulldogs start running downhill and dominating the line of scrimmage, Moreno could get 300 yards.
It’s a good bet that Georgia can overpower Hawai’i, but that brings us back to Hawai’i's motivation. If they show they can play with the big boys and maybe even beat them, it will legitimize their undefeated season and show that the BCS schools aren’t as great as we think. It’s nice to see a non-BCS team in a BCS game again, but they’re getting very little respect now that the game is only a couple of days away. 7.5 points means the oddsmakers think Georgia is close to blowing them out. All Hawai’i has to do is shut them up.
Update: Georgia 41 Hawai’i 10. 11-16. Hawai’i earned their way into the BCS by going undefeated and then proved that they couldn’t compete with the big boys in the Sugar Bowl. They went out in a mess of turnovers and sacks while Georgia did was Georgia always does, namely, vanilla offense and pressure defense. Hawai’i even had the advantage of knowing exactly what Georgia was going to throw at them, while they could use their offense and be creative to surprise the Bulldogs.
Instead, the Bulldogs came out and dominated from the beginning. Knowshon Moreno gashed the Warriors nearly every time he got the ball and he only had six carries for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Matt Stafford was his usual self, completing 14 of 23 passes for 175 yards. Georgia supporters will say he managed the game well, while I say he did nothing to win it, only enough to not lose it. Maybe next year he won’t play so safe, though chances are that Mark Richt will ride Moreno into the ground. Be perfect, guys.