Friday, January 6, 2012

Are You Ready To Rumbleeeeeee...!

Tonight's the night - #8 KSU vs. #6 Arkansas!

Both KSU and Boise State could legitimately claim the rights to a place in the Sugar Bowl this year, but both got passed over for reasons having nothing to do with play on the field.  In fact, one prominent national CBS sports reporter publicly stated that he was personally told by a Sugar Bowl representative that they picked Virginia Tech simply because they were the 'easier' choice.  After all, VT has been there several times over the past decade or two, they're geographically closer, and if the Sugar Bowl wanted to kick sand in someone's face, they'd much rather do it to an interim Big 12 Commissioner than a long-standing ACC Commissioner.  None of that really it all better, but that's the reality.  What really sucks is that with the nose-burying SEC love being gushed out by ESPN and major media outlets nationwide, it's just a lot more obvious this time around that this kind of thing all too often dictates where teams go.  Did you know that of the six years KSU has been eligible for a BCS spot they've only actually gotten in once (in 2003, after winning the Big 12 outright and getting the guaranteed spot)?  Yeah, it's bias against anyone not located on a coast, but that's the way it is.  We move on.

Specifically, we move on to tonight's Cotton Bowl game, arguably the most promising match-up of the bowl season, including the 2nd Annual BCS Championship Game.  If you happened to miss the snooze-fest that was the 1st Annual BCS Championship Game back in November, LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in a bludgeonfest of completely non-epic proportions. As if that wasn't bad enough, we're all now supposed to be thrilled about being subjected to a repeat of that non-stellar dud of a game.  I should digress at this point to mention that one of the most overused mantras of opponents of a playoff system is that because there is no playoff, 'every regular season game counts'.  Is anyone else seeing the irony in replaying the championship game because every regular season game 'counted'?

Anyway, the Cotton Bowl presents some terrific unique perspectives.  It's the only game on Fox this year, so they've sunk all their eggs into making this basket a hum-dinger.  It's in the Jerrydome, a state of the art facility run by a media-savvy publicity hound who wants everything to look great.  It's within reasonable driving distance of both teams.  Both schools sold out immediately, and Cotton Bowl tickets were the hottest commodity outside of the 2nd Annual BCS Championship Game itself.  It's the only non-BCS bowl with Top-10 ranked teams.  All but one of the losses of the two teams playing came against BCS teams (the fourth was to OU, who finished with 10 wins).  As if all of those things weren't enough, it's also the only high-profile post season match-up between the Big 12 and the SEC.  That's no small thing right there, and it leads to an axe I'd like to grind a bit (but just stick with me, I promise it's not an irrational rant).

From what I've seen, pretty much everyone not living or working inside a national media outlet or two particular Southern states is really, really, REALLY sick of the SEC lovefest bandwagon, and would love to take the insufferable arrogance down a notch.  This game is the only opportunity to do that.  We know the SEC is good (they've won the last five national championships, yadda yadda yadda), but is the whole league that much better than anyone else?  I would argue no, and here's why:

Number of teams ranked in final polls
SEC: 4
Big 12: 4

Bowl eligible teams
SEC: 9 (out of 12 total, or 75%)
Big 12: 8 (out of 10 total, or 80%)

Current 2011-2012 bowl record
SEC: 4-2 (will finish either 6-3 or 5-4)
Big 12: 6-1 (will finish either 7-1 or 6-2)

Number of overall BCS Championship appearances
SEC: 7
Big 12: 7

In fact, the only clear difference between the success of the two leagues is that the SEC has won all seven of its championship appearances; the Big 12 has won only two.  From all this, I conclude that while the SEC has a couple of really elite teams that are absolutely top-notch every year, the league as a whole is actually a shade weaker than the Big 12.  I don't anticipate this changing much, either, with the Big 12 losing mediocre Missouri and Texas A&M teams to the SEC while gaining TCU (a team that has 10+ wins in nine of the last dozen years, including two perfect 13-0 years) and West Virginia, which just annihilated Clemson for 70 points in the Orange Bowl earlier this week.  Call me crazy, but I think it's unnecessary to permanently plant lips onto the SEC's backside, and ridiculous to crown them perpetual king of the college football world.

But back to the Cotton Bowl itself.  This looks to be a great match-up.  Both teams are scrappy, tough, and determined.  Both have faced the best of the best this year, and are striving to step out of the shadow of their BCS-participating league brethren.  How will they match up?  As a completely biased KSU fan, I like what I'm seeing.  A few points worth mentioning:

- KSU is a power running team, which is a style of offense that Arkansas has struggled against all year long
- KSU ranks 6th nationally in time of possession while Arkansas ranks 105th (though quick-strike teams like Oklahoma State, Oregon, and Baylor are all above 100, too, so this doesn't necessarily mean limited offensive output); the key here is that Arkansas wore down against ball-control, power-running teams like Alabama and LSU, falling into a 10-minute deficit in time-of-possession
- KSU QB Collin Klein is one of the nation's top rushers with 1,099 yards and 26 TDs (third in the nation); Arkansas ranks 76th against the run, allowing 174.3 ypg
- KSU ranks 5th nationally with a +13 turnover margin, another area where Arkansas has been weak against ranked teams; they turned the ball over 5 times against LSU and Alabama

This is not to say that Arkansas doesn't have its own advantages.  A couple of the big ones include a great passing attack and a tremendous punt/kick returner.  KSU is statistically weak against the pass, and is without its own top-notch returner, Tyler Lockett, who is out with an injury.  Make no mistake - this isn't going to be a walk in the park.  But it's not exactly imminent doom, either.

I think it's particularly interesting to look at the win-loss records of the opponents of both KSU and Arkansas.  If you count up the wins and losses of the teams Arkansas played this year, their collective record is 76-73, with six teams ending .500 or better.  KSU's opponents, however, have a combined record of 86-65, with eight teams ending .500 or better.  Not only does this support my conclusion about the relative strength of the two leagues, but it also tells me that KSU has had a tougher road to the Cotton Bowl.

Some of the other intangibles that I think should play into this include the fact that almost all of KSU's games have been very close, and the Wildcats have been through trial by fire on a weekly basis.  Most of their wins include come-from-behind game-winning moments (sometimes several of them), and they make plays when they've needed them.  They don't call 'em the Cardiac Cats for nothin'!  Also, Collin Klein has had time to heal up from a bruising, battering season.  His only ineffective games were those in which he was playing so injured that he didn't practice that week, and even then he did what needed to be done almost every time.  A healthy and practicing Klein is bad news for Arkansas.  And, of course, the supreme ace-in-the-hole, Bill Snyder.  Name a high-profile star on KSU's team.  Klein?  Statistically, sure, but has anyone outside of the Big 12 really heard much about him?  Nope.  This year has been an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and that is largely due to Bill Snyder's coaching and motivational genius.  You know he's going to have a few tricks up his sleeve that he'll pull out when he needs them.  He's also a master of in-game adjustments, so he'll shore up whatever holes the Razorbacks can exploit as the game goes on.

So, what do I think will happen?  A lot of people have said that a shoot-out favors Arkansas, but I don't completely agree.  Arkansas has scored a ton all year long, but KSU has scored 35+ points in seven games this year (including a mind-boggling stretch of 4 consecutive 50+ games), winning five of them.  KSU can keep up with the likes of OSU, they can keep up with anyone, including Arkansas.  The one obvious thing I get from looking at Arkansas' scores is that if they don't get rolling fast, they don't get rolling.  If KSU gets out to an early lead, it's game over.  KSU will hunker down on their bread-and-butter running game, eat up the clock, and starve Arkansas out of opportunities.  Special teams will be key - it's usually a strength for KSU, but they've got to be really careful to bottle up Arkansas' returner.  KSU hasn't exactly leaped out of the gates most games this year, though, so I think the most likely scenario is for Arkansas to take the lead early with their passing attack.  Once the initial dust settles, however, I think Snyder will make adjustments to minimize the Hogs' effectiveness, and the Collin Klein Show will grind it out and wear down Arkansas' defense.  They'll weather the storm, claw their way back into the game, and make just enough big plays at the end to pull out the victory.  Basically, a typical KSU win.

KSU 44, Arkansas 41.

Go Cats!

PS - I still maintain that Oklahoma State got shafted and deserved a spot in the championship game (which would have made it a genuine championship game).  Kudos to them for pulling out the W against a great Stanford team!

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