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December-22-2006,
Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Independence Bowl (Bowl #10)...By S.H. Austin

INDEPENDENCE BOWL (Shreveport)
OKLAHOMA STATE VS. ALABAMA
12/28, 4:30 p.m. ET ESPN

POINTSPREAD AT PRESS TIME
Oklahoma State by 2 points, total of 51

WON-LOST RECORDS
Oklahoma State: 6-6
Alabama: 6-6
Alabama was certainly hoping for a better season. They were ranked in the mid 30's by most preseason pundits entering the 2006 campaign. That means you're supposed to finish over .500 but not really venture into the top 25 unless you catch some breaks. The Tide was 10-2 last year, but only returned four starters on defense. They weren't supposed to slide THIS far though. Oklahoma State was picked 81st in the preseason numbers by the Athlon publication. So, they definitely overachieved a bit here. It's tough to enter every season knowing you're going to be an underdog in most of your conference games. State did that and managed to earn a bowl bid anyway.

AVERAGE RESULT
Oklahoma State: 35-25 versus the 56th ranked schedule
Alabama: 22-18 versus the 39th ranked schedule
Oklahoma State ran up the score to an insane degree in their patsy games. So, that's a misleading stat line. As double digit favorites or in non-board action, they won by scores of 52-10, 35-7, 48-8, and 66-24, posting a 3-0 ATS mark. They didn't have a positive differential against bowl caliber opposition. Alabama's numbers actually reflect the performance of a team ranked in the mid 30's. They did have a tough schedule, drawing Florida and Tennessee from the other half of the SEC, and hosting Hawaii in their season opener. You should probably think of them as being slightly better than 6-6.

ATS RECORDS
Oklahoma State: 5-4-2 versus the spread
Alabama: 4-8 versus the spread
Here's where we see expectations reflected. Alabama didn't win as often as people expected, and they had trouble scoring enough points to cover some of the games they did win. Oklahoma State had few expectations entering the season. The same kind of general performance put them slightly over the top of the pointspread hurdles.

AVERAGE YARDS PER GAME/TURNOVER INFLUENCE
Oklahoma State: +37.6, with a season turnover differential of +4
Alabama: +53.3, with a season turnover differential of +5
It's important to pay attention here. Oklahoma State looked much better in the raw score because of those patsy blowouts. Many of their points were triggered by special teams points or defensive touchdowns. They weren't moving the ball at will in those games. In fact, the yardage advantages were just 443-334, 338-188, 432-215, and 510-355 in those blowouts. Normally, if a score is 52-10 or so, you see yardage somewhere in the neighborhood of 500-180 if it was a point of attack victory (I'm generalizing). Oklahoma State had a penchant for cheap points in the patsy games. Alabama had better yardage numbers versus a tougher schedule. That's a very strong point in their favor. We've talked a few times about that Milton Berle article that ran here at MW before the bowl previews started. Alabama would be a lesser version of the Berle team in this matchup. They don't just "do enough to win," but they don't showboat in the patsy games either. Okie State is the bully that loves to run up the score, inflating the numbers in such a way that you've got to make mental adjustments.

QUARTERBACK TD/INT RATIOS
Oklahoma State: 26-10, very solid numbers in the context of bowl teams
Alabama: 17-9, better than you might have thought
Alabama's head coach Mike Shula was let go at the end of the season because he couldn't get the offense in gear. This stat at least shows that he had the percentages working in his favor within his conservative passing game. It just wasn't enough to be an SEC or national contender.

TEAM CHARACTERISTICS
Oklahoma State is one of those teams that either makes big plays or doesn't. When they do, they look like they can play with anybody. These guys beat Big 12 North champion Nebraska 41-29, racking up almost 500 yards of offense. They also gave eventual champ Oklahoma a thrill in a 27-21 loss in the season finale. Okie State won yardage in that game 362-315. Instead of being competitive with Texas, though, they lost 36-10 and got outgained 510-203. They also allowed over 500 yards on a road loss at CUSA champion Houston. Feast or famine. When they play patsies, all of the feast things kick in and they win by very big scores (helped typically by special teams and defensive points). This year, some of the feast games also came against strong opponents. That's a very good sign for the future of the program, as is the fact that their starting quarterback was just a sophomore.

Alabama plays what we've been calling the "Rutgers approach" in some of these write-ups. It's was an Alabama approach long before it was a Rutgers approach. But, Rutgers is the team that made the most news with it this year. Alabama comes at you with a hard-hitting defense, and a run-based offense that's meant to grind you down. Two years ago, the defense ranked 2nd in the nation, while the offense was just 64th. Last year, the numbers were 2nd on defense and 67th on offense. Shula had been brought in initially to lift the offense so the total sum of the parts could be championship caliber. That never happened.

GAMES VERSUS SIMILAR OPPONENTS
Oklahoma State's game with Oklahoma is actually a good stylistic matchup. Oklahoma is a run-based team that plays great defense. They're better than Alabama is this year with that approach. Okie State lost at home 27-21, winning yardage 362-315. Texas A&M is a pretty good match too. Okie State lost at home in overtime 34-33 (27-all in regulation), losing yardage 423-359. Texas plays physically on defense, and the Cowboys only scored 10 points on 203 yards in that game. Looks like the range of expectations would be in the 17-24 range for points, with about 300-350 yards as a best expectation for the offense. The Oklahoma State defense is a "tweener," meaning they look great some weeks and bad others. They won't overpower Alabama. But...if they'll take advantage of any mistakes Alabama makes, then they can win the game.

Alabama didn't really play any ideal matches. Oklahoma State's a flaky team, and the SEC doesn't have many of those. Vanderbilt is a lesser version of that, and Alabama only beat them 13-10 as a 16-point favorite early in the season. Hawaii's an extremely pass heavy version of that, and Alabama only won 25-17 as a 14-point favorite. Note that Alabama was winning, just not covering. Against Oklahoma State, a win is a cover.

MOTIVATION FOR THIS GAME
Oklahoma State is probably about as excited as you could get about playing in Shreveport. They didn't go to a bowl last year, and they weren't expected to have a banner season this year. The Independence Bowl isn't famous for seeing motivated efforts though. The fact that State is coming off two losses probably helps them here. Teams want to finish with a good taste in their mouths. State lost tough games to Texas Tech and Oklahoma to wrap up November. That means they were playing pretty well, and they'll have a chip on their shoulder. That's a good combo.

Alabama can't be motivated about this. They were hoping for big things this year after going 10-2 last season. If you play in the Cotton Bowl one year, but the Independence the next...it's not the game in Shreveport that gets your juices flowing. Alabama is also coming off some losses...three to be exact. Two of those were to LSU and Auburn. So, this does represent stepping down in class from what they've just been battling. The fact that the coach was fired may not inspire peak intensity here. Recent headlines suggest that NOBODY of importance wants this job right now. Can't see how that builds any confidence.

LAST YEAR'S BOWL PERFORMANCES
Oklahoma State didn't play
Alabama beat Texas Tech 13-10 in the Cotton Bowl, winning yardage 420-329

RECENT BOWL TRENDS
Oklahoma State is 0-2-1 ATS this century, which may be more of a strike against former coach Les Miles (currently at LSU) than of this regime. The low point was a 33-7 loss to Ohio State in the Alamo Bowl as a 3-point favorite in 2004.

Alabama is 1-2 ATS this century, and 1-4 ATS going back their last five bowls. The last three bowl games have been very low scoring, landing on totals of 23, 36, and 27.

WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
It looks like everything comes down to Alabama's motivation. If they show up in the mood to play, they can definitely make this a tight low scoring game. Oklahoma State has ZERO experience playing that style, and would be at a disadvantage. Flaky teams always do...which is one reason Texas Tech lost to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl last year.

On the other hand, if Alabama just goes through the motions because of turmoil surrounding the program, and because it's demoralizing to go 6-6 while losing all of your big games...then this one could get very ugly. Oklahoma State knows how to take candy from a baby. All six of their straight up victories this year were by double digits.

It's either an Oklahoma State blowout, or a nailbiter that would probably favor Alabama in a defensive battle. There's not much precedent this year for Alabama winning games easily. They were neck-and-neck with lowly Duke until a couple of late scores pushed them to a 30-14 victory. They only beat Vandy 13-10. Ole Miss had a bad year, and Alabama had to go overtime to beat them at home. Mississippi State struggled, and Alabama couldn't beat them at home.

If you could count on Okie State, this would be a logical nominee for one of those "Game of the Year" kind of plays that the services tout. When the Cowboys win, they win big. It's hard to see why they won't win if Alabama doesn't show up for the game. Can you count on Okie State? We went back to look at their outings away from home to make sure there was evidence that they can thrive when not in friendly territory.

OKLAHOMA STATE AWAY FROM HOME: Lost at Houston 34-25 as a 1-point favorite Lost at Kansas State 31-27 as a 3-point favorite Beat Kansas 42-32 as a 3-point underdog Lost at Texas 36-10 as a 17-point underdog Lost at Texas Tech 30-24 as a 6-point underdog

That's 1-4 straight up, and 1-3-1 ATS. So, you may not be able to count on Okie State!

I'd rate the percentages this way:

65%: Alabama doesn't show up with any fire, and Oklahoma State parties their way to a comfortable victory. It would be nice if you could count on Oklahoma State to perform when needed. You can't. So, we can't make this something like 75% or 80%. As long as the line stays under a field goal, there's some insurance for them getting a cover even if they play flaky and make some mistakes. If the line goes up over a field goal, you should probably drop this to 55-60% for the Cowboys.

35%: Alabama does show up with a chip on its shoulder after three straight losses, and takes advantage of its experience playing that physical style to earn the upset. They did have good yardage stats against a tough schedule. And, they play the percentages well.

What about totals? You'd have to think that all of the 35% for Alabama is an Under that would look like last year's Cotton Bowl, or many of their SEC games this year. When Oklahoma State is partying, it creates garbage-time games that skew Over with late points. Let's say that the 65% for Oklahoma State breaks down 45/20 for for the Over. Add it all up, and we get 55% for Unders, and 45% for Overs.

The way that works out, we're firing at cross purposes. The sums favor Oklahoma State and the Under, even though you tend to think of Oklahoma State playing Overs and Alabama playing Unders if each is able to force its respective tempo on a game. In away, that's a hedge. It's hard to imagine Alabama winning a shootout, and that's what it takes to beat an Okie State and Under combo.

Based on the early indicators, it seems like Okie State minus the short line is the best percentage way to attack the game. If Alabama shows up, you still have a chance to cover late anyway with the Cowboys.

12-22-06
S.H. Austin
Majorwager.com
austin@majorwager.com



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