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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Poinsettia Bowl (Bowl #1)...By S.H. Austin

12/19, 8 p.m.ET ESPN2

TCU by 12 points, total of 47

TCU: 10-2
Northern Illinois: 7-5

TCU was the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West conference. Early losses to Brigham Young and Utah derailed those hopes. It was still an impressive year for a team that's now 21-3 the past two regular seasons. Northern Illinois was one of many teams expecting to contend for the Mid American conference crown. After arguably being the best team in the MAC at the end of last year, they had to be disappointed with this year's performance.

TCU: 29-13 versus the 89th ranked schedule
Northern Illinois: 27-20 versus the 113th ranked schedule
Both teams played soft schedules. Even with road games at Ohio State and Iowa on the ledger, Northern Illinois couldn't crack the top 100 in schedule strength. TCU's non-conference slate included Cal-Davis, Army, and Baylor - though a win over Texas Tech was impressive. It's tough for teams in the mid-majors to rate well in this area because so many conference games come against poor teams.

TCU: 7-4 versus the spread
Northern Illinois: 4-7 versus the spread
No surprises here. Northern Illinois was disappointed with their season, and they failed to live up to public expectations. TCU bounced back from those early losses to finish 5-2 ATS. The Horned Frogs were an impressive 7-0 ATS in those first halves. When motivated against a weaker foe, this is a team that goes out and grabs the game by the throat. It should be noted that Northern finished the season with their two best-played games of the year. They had been 2-7 ATS, but routed eventual MAC champion Central Michigan 31-10 and Eastern Michigan 27-0. Over their final four games, both teams were 3-1 ATS.

TCU: +152.7, with a season turnover differential of +6
Northern Illinois: +39.7, with a season turnover differential of +3
Before venturing out on these bowl previews, we posted an article about how you have to adjust for the styles teams play when you're studying the stats (that was the "Milton Berle" article for those of you who've read it). If you haven't read it, we do encourage you to look it up in the archives because it will have a direct bearing on many of the bowl games this year. TCU qualifies as a bully who loves to run up the stats on weaker opposition. That's why they have the monster yardage advantage. In the last three games of the season, TCU outgained San Diego State 623-88, Colorado State 606-300, and Air Force 377-142. Imagine how far the average drops if you take out those three games! Don't think of TCU as a team that is +150 every game. Think of them as a bully that posts huge edges vs. teams that can be intimidated, but a team that looks pretty mortal when the opponent stands up to the pressure. The key to Northern's hopes to stay competitive in this bowl revolve around whether or not they can handle the physicality of TCU.

TCU: 14-5, not a lot of passing, but few interceptions
Northern Illinois: 16-14, poor ratio for a bowl caliber team
Northern prefers to put the ball in the hands of star running back Garrett Wolfe. When they HAVE to pass, it's kind of a coin flip as to whether or not it's going to turn out well. TCU prefers to keep the burden of scoring off their quarterback as well. They'd prefer to throw incomplete passes and punt rather than force a pass where it doesn't belong.

TCU is a physical powerhouse that has had success in recent years by intimidating the softer teams in the Mountain West. They don't play well from behind, which is why they couldn't catch up with BYU in what turned out to be the conference championship game back in late September. Against the right kinds of opponents, they are dominant. They prefer to emphasize the ground game on offense, and they have a strong defense that knock people silly. It's an SEC style in the Mountain West conference.

Northern Illinois tries to be balanced, but ends up doing most of its damage on the ground with its star running back. They tend not to do well when they have to pass, but can move the ball in the air if the defense is worried about the run. When you go 7-5 straight up against a weak schedule, it's safe to say that you never really got things figured out. The defense allowed more than 400 yards four times before settling down late.

TCU played a soft schedule, which means they played a lot of teams who are similar in power ratings to Northern Illinois. You've already seen that they posted some big stats in playing those low rated teams. But, let's point out that away from home some of the scoring margins weren't too big. TCU won by 10 at Baylor, 14 at Army, 15 at UNLV, and 6 at New Mexico. Those margins do offer up some hope that Northern can be competitive at this high spread.

Northern Illinois played road games at Ohio State and Iowa. Those two games can provide insight about how well Northern will handle the physical athletes of TCU. Not too many teams in the MAC have Texas high school athletes who run fast and hit hard. Northern lost to Ohio State 35-12, and lost to Iowa 24-14 (a cover at +16). The yardage was ugly in both games...with OSU owning a 488-343 edge, Iowa owning a 405-196 edge. Luckily, TCU isn't Ohio State. But the stat problems at Iowa should be cause for concern if you're thinking about the dog here.

TCU really doesn't have much of any. They won their bowl game last year, beating Iowa State in the Houston Bowl. They only won that game 27-24, and didn't send the message many were expecting from a 10-1 team that wanted to be thought of as BCS caliber. Iowa State wouldn't be bullied, and TCU looked mortal with a better team than they play in this bowl game. You know the Horned Frogs were hoping for a better bowl than this one. The fact that they ended their regular season with three routs in conference play also suggests they may have trouble getting up for this one. There's just nothing to prove with a big win here.

Northern Illinois actually does have some motivation. You may have forgotten that they didn't get to play in a bowl last year because some committees decided ahead of time that they would beat Akron and earn the MAC's automatic bid. They were 13-point favorites in the MAC title game, but lost outright when Akron put together a miracle rally. So, the Huskies went from being a sure thing in the final minutes to not even going to a bowl! These players are now finally in a bowl. It's not likely they'd pull a no-show emotionally. Northern Illinois would see this as a great scalp to get.

TCU is 2-2-1 ATS their last five bowl games. Last year's win over Iowa State was a push. In the prior two bowls they hung tough with Boise State as an 11-point underdog in a 34-31 loss played on their home field in the 2003 Forth Worth Bowl; and they beat Colorado State 17-3 as a 5-point dog in the 2002 Liberty Bowl. It is easier to be more motivated as a dog than as a favorite.

Northern Illinois beat Troy 34-21 as a 3-point underdog in the 2004 Silicon Valley Bowl in their only recent bowl appearance.


Looks like the keys are going to involve TCU's motivation, and Northern Illinois' ability to hang tough physically. You could imagine another TCU rout if Northern decides they can't match up in a war. You could imagine a flat TCU struggling against a motivated Northern squad in a game that goes right down to the wire if the Huskies don't blink.

I'd rate the percentages this way:

40%: Northern follows the path of most double digit dogs in bowls and brings a motivated effort. They've learned enough from their road games at Ohio State and Iowa about what it takes to stand up to physical play. TCU comes in overconfident and arrogant, and doesn't take the game seriously enough. They get caught flat footed when Northern doesn't lay down the way SDSU, Colorado State, and Air Force did in those late regular season games. More than half of this hunk represents an outright upset for the big dog. Those upseta are more common than people realize in these early bowls. We'd argue that it's about a 25% chance in the big picture that the Huskies spring the shocker, meaning you could consider the moneyline if it's offering better than a 3-1 return.

20%: TCU continues its late season tear, and Northern just doesn't have the weaponry to hang tough for the full 60 minutes. TCU's run defense is strong, which matches up well against Northern. If this were a regular season game in October, we might have had this mark at 60% or higher. A motivated TCU team could easily rout a floundering Northern Illinois team. But, TCU doesn't have much motivation here, and Northern isn't floundering any more. Within this 20% would be some blowout scores. TCU could win by something like 38-7, or 40-14 very easily if things broke the right way.

40%: Northern is fired up enough to make this a ballgame, but TCU's superior defense puts them in position to cover the game anyway. The encounter swings on a pendulum in the 7-17 area...with the pointspread cover coming down to late game execution, potentially in garbage time as Northern tries to get a score to save some face on the scoreboard. Half the games go Northern's way ATS, and half go TCU's way in this section.

If you split the latter category in half, it all adds up to 60% for the big underdog that's probably going to have the motivation edge, and 40% for the big favorite that may have trouble getting up for the game. We think that sums it up fairly well, particularly when you factor in the long term bowl history that favors underdogs (especially big underdogs) in these early games. TCU's capable of winning a rout. It always surprises people every year how few superior teams actually express those perceived advantages in bowls.

We don't see any total advantages in the early outlook. The weather forecast might influence the thinking closer to game day. Looks like a good total unless the field is a mess.

S.H. Austin

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