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Virginia Football is Heading in the Right Direction – Despite the Last 2 Games

It’s a shame that disappointment was the overriding sentiment among Virginia faithful as the regular season came to a close on Saturday in Charlottesville. The current sentiment is understandable but should not be the prevailing sentiment when looking at the full body of work and the progress Virginia football demonstrated during the year. That said, I get the current feelings of disappointment and pondering what might have been.

Two weeks prior, Virginia completely dominated the #3 team in the country, on the road, for two and a half quarters before falling apart and adding an expected, but still disappointing loss to the 2017 record. Overmatched and on the road, Virginia looked like they could play with some of the best teams in the country before mistakes and fatigue showed that they couldn’t.

If I’d have been offered the following bet prior to this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech – if UVA holds VT to 10 points in the game, would you bet $ 100 that UVA wins the game? – I would have taken the bet in a heartbeat…which reinforces the reasons why I’m not much of a gambler. Virginia’s defense played very well against a respectable Virginia Tech offense, while Virginia’s offense posted its worst performance of the year against a solid but far from great Virginia Tech defense.

Virginia Tech feasted on wimpy opponents to start the year, bolstering its defensive stats by smashing lousy Delaware, ODU, and ECU teams while pitching shutouts in two of those three scrimmages. On Saturday however, Virginia’s offense helped the Hokie defense look like 1975 Steelers. It is hard to fathom that this was the same Virginia offense that racked up 28 points and 440 yards of total offense the prior week against a far more talented Miami defense. The Virginia offense had a couple of chances to score enough points to beat Virginia Tech, but unlike several games prior, dropped passes, overthrown balls, and a fatigued offensive line sealed Virginia’s fate.

Virginia fans know this drill. So close, but no cigar. Hence, the pervasive and familiar feeling of disappointment.

I’d suggest that Virginia fans need to shake off the disappointment and recognize that the 2017 football season was not only a success but could be a turning point in the return to football respectability. Optimistic projections entering the 2017 campaign predicted 5 wins in ’17. Many fans would have seen progress if not success in more than doubling last season’s win total with a 5-win season.

While close-but-no-cigar is recognizable territory for Virginia fans across the athletic spectrum, “close” has not really been part of the equation for football for the past 5 years. Not only was Virginia close in most of their games this season, they won 6 of them and are going bowling for the first time since 2011.

While a bowl game is a significant achievement for a previously 2-10 team and a nice reward for seniors who worked hard to turn the fortunes of Virginia football around, the best outcome of making a bowl may not be apparent until next season. Making a bowl means an extra month of practice for a Virginia team that sports a plethora of red-shirt and true freshman in their 2-deep. An additional month of practice gives Bronco and his staff the opportunity to give younger guys significant practice time and more first-team reps than usual. This extra practice time is invaluable for young teams working to build on a successful season.

Virginia fans can do their part in the turn around of Virginia football by forgetting the disappointment of 2 losses to end the season plus the distraction of a nice start to basketball season by turning out for the bowl game this year. Most projections have Virginia playing in the Military Bowl in Annapolis which is right in the drivable heart of the Virginia fan base. If Virginia draws the short straw and ends up in Detroit at the Quick Lane Bowl I understand that is a slightly less desirable trip and may not see a stellar Cavalier turnout.

Given the breaks of the last two games, I think this team is overdue for a bit of good luck. See you in Annapolis!

Big Ten Bowl Predictions

Here are my predictions for all ten bowl games.

Holiday Bowl – Wisconsin vs. University of Southern California

It still is unclear to me and many others how good or bad this team really is but they will have a golden opportunity to prove they are for real when they take on USC in the Holiday Bowl . The Badger defense will face its hardest test of the year when they take on the highly-talented Cody Kessler but don’t expect a blowout or for USC to overpower the Wisconsin defense. This defensive unit is extremely talented and aggressive, constantly pressuring the opposition with Joe Schobert and is No.1 nationally in scoring defense. As for USC, the Trojans front seven will be licking their chops as they take on an injury-riddled offensive line, a turnover prone quarterback in Joel Stave and a run game missing its top threat in Cory Clement. Nonetheless, I predict a close game and that the Badger defense will give Stave a chance to atone for his shortcomings this year late in the game. Wisconsin wins 27-24.

Citrus Bowl – Michigan vs. Florida

Both Florida and Michigan made coaching switches before the season and those moves have paid off tremendously as each program shattered expectations. Also, both teams boast killer defenses but are offensively challenged particularly rushing the ball (Florida – 104th, Michigan – 93rd). I’m not sure how well Michigan can move the ball especially going up against a deep, athletic front seven and a secondary that gave up just 175 yards per game even with a healthy Jake Rudock. Conversely, Treon Harris has been highly inconsistent and the Wolverines defense has allowed the opposition to complete just 48% of their passes on the year with seven touchdowns. However, Florida has kicking problems as Austin Hardin has converted just 5/14 field goals and in what looks like a close, defensive battle, points will be hard to come by. I predict a Michigan win because after being humiliated by OSU, I can guarantee this team will not let Harris run free like J.T. Barrett did. Wolverines win 20-10.

Outback Bowl – Northwestern vs. Tennessee

The Northwestern Wildcats are aiming to put an exclamation point on a solid season by winning 11 games for the first time in history and the Tennessee Volunteers want to close out 2015 with six straight victories. The Volunteers high powered offense will have to work hard against one of the country’s stingiest defenses as the Wildcats have allowed just five passing touchdowns and tallied 12 picks while giving up 200 rushing yards twice. However, if Tennessee can somehow manage to solve the defensive puzzle and score, it could be a long day for Northwestern. They do not do well playing from behind as their offense lacks firepower – they only topped 200 passing yards once this year and are No. 120 in passing yards per game. Also, Joshua Dobbs presents problems with his dual-threat ability and has had time to heal. If Dobbs can perform the way he did against Florida and Georgia, it’ll be a tough task for the Wildcats to contain him. I see the Vols taking this one, 24-14.

Pinstripe Bowl – Indiana vs. Duke

Duke comes into this game losing four of its last five games while Indiana is just excited to be in a bowl game since 2007 and a chance for a rare winning season. The Hoosiers are the definition of polar opposites as their defense was one of the worst in the nation, allowing 37 points per game while their offense was a high-octane juggernaut, averaging 36 points a contest and scoring 41 points in the final three games even against Michigan. As for the Blue Devils, they will look to exploit the porous defense with dual-threat quarterback Thomas Sirk, but Duke has yielded 30 or more points in five of their last six games. This game has shootout written all over it and if that’s the case, then I have to give the edge to Indiana, 38-31.

Foster Farms Bowl – Nebraska vs. University of California-Los Angeles

Nebraska is like Jekyll and Hyde. Are they the bad-ass team that beat Michigan State even if it was controversial or are they the soft, pedestrian team that lost to Illinois? Its hard to gauge how good or bad this team is as six of their seven losses were by no more than eight points but will prove its worth versus UCLA. Speaking of which, despite having true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen throw over 3350 yards and 20 touchdowns, they were also inconsistent and had their own hiccups like a 19-point thrashing by USC. I feel the battle in the trenches will play a pivotal role as Nebraska ranked 8th in the country in stopping the run while the O-line was reliable, giving up only 13 sacks. However, Rosen gets to face a suspect Husker defensive backfield that ranks No. 13 in Big Ten pass defense and Tommy Armstrong faces a unit that allowed 394 ypg. Both teams are very evenly matched but I believe in the kid over the veteran and will take UCLA 21-17.

Quick Lane Bowl – Minnesota vs. Central Michigan

Minnesota had a tough year with close losses to TCU and Michigan, the retirement of Jerry Kill and comes in losing five of the last six games. Central Michigan is red-hot, winning five of their past six and features a high flying offense that averages 313 yards passing per game and if they get ahead, Minnesota’s maligned offense will have a hard time keeping up. Also, the Chippewa’s allowed only one 300-yard passing game and Minnesota is not built to go toe-to-toe passing the pigskin either. Their hope lies in getting the ground game going though it ranked 11th in the conference. Now Central Michigan has not yielded over 180 yards rushing in any of the last six games but teams that could pound the ball did against them and Minnesota could have a breakout game on the ground. Plus, the Gophers have a very strong secondary (15th overall) and while I see Cooper Rush making some plays, it won’t be enough as Minnesota ends their season on a positive note, 23-17.

Rose Bowl – Iowa vs. Stanford

Iowa has a chance to prove that they are an elite team and this year wasn’t a fluke in their first Rose Bowl game since 1990 while Stanford wants to make a statement about missing the playoff. The Achilles heel for Stanford has been their run defense as Northwestern ran for 225, Oregon for 231 and Notre Dame for 299, resulting in two losses and a near third. Iowa has manufactured 200 or more rushing yards seven times and averaged 192 per game on the season. If they can run the ball, Stanford could find itself in a hole. On the other side, the stout Iowa defense will have their hands full with Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey and veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan but if they can force them to pass, they’ll have a chance especially with the Big Ten’s best corner, Desmond King. Both teams will have shining moments in this game but I feel with the defense and C.J. Beathard, Iowa will do just enough to win a close one, 20-17.

Cotton Bowl – Michigan State vs. Alabama

Michigan State will not beat itself with costly turnovers, silly penalties and will control the pace of the game as veteran quarterback Connor Cook is savvy enough to move the chains. Alabama will be looking to attack a weak, suspect secondary that gave up 200 or more passing yards in four of its last six games as the Spartans run defense has been solid all year, and with time to prepare, will be ready for Derrick Henry – though containing him is a different story. I will also be watching how the Spartans offensive line matches up with the athletic front seven that lead the nation in sacks with 46 but keep in mind, MSU’s also one of the few teams that could possibly hold up itself against the Crimson Tide’s lines as it proved that against Ohio State. Now, Michigan State has a chance if it can attack Alabama’s secondary with Aaron Burbridge but I think the Alabama defensive line will apply good pressure and prevent Cook from having a clean pocket. And I think Henry will wear down this defense as the games goes on. Alabama wins 28-20.

Fiesta Bowl – Ohio State vs. Notre Dame

Ezekiel Elliott is the heart and soul of this offense and considering it’s his final game as a Buckeye, I expect OSU to pound away against Notre Dame and lean on him. If the Irish do succeed in bottling him up, OSU still should be able to control the game with the speed and elusiveness of J.T. Barrett. As for the Irish, I see them pounding the interior of the defensive line as Adolphus Washington will be suspended to set up play action and manageable third downs for quarterback Deshone Kizer. The Buckeyes secondary also hasn’t faced a receiver like Will Fuller, who found the endzone 13 times and averaged 20.5 yards a catch though, the Silver Bullets were second in scoring defense and sixth in efficiency, allowing over 17 points only twice in the last 11 games. With all that said, I think Urban Meyer will have his team focused and ready to play. Plus, Ohio State has more talent. Buckeyes win 35-21.

Taxslayer Bowl – Penn State vs. Georgia

The Nittany Lions have little offense as they rank 110th in total yards per game (325) and score 24 points a game (101st), and to make matters worse, Georgia features the top passing defense in the country, allowing just 146 yards per game. The Nittany Lions are No. 83 in passing offense, averaging 209 yards per game. However, Penn state also has an elite defense (No. 12 in total defense) andGeorgia has a flimsy passing game (103rd; 187 ypg) so it relies on its ground game and I see PSU loading the box to make Bulldogs quarterback Greyson Lambert beat them. Lambert is not an NFL prospect like Christian Hackenberg but he is a good game manager and will take care of the ball. I see this as a low scoring defensive battle with each offense grasping for any foothold and I believe in the Bulldogs run game with Michel running effectively en route to victory. Georgia wins 17-10.