HOLIDAY BOWL (San Diego)
CALIFORNIA VS. TEXAS A&M
12/28, 8 p.m. ET ESPN
POINTSPREAD AT PRESS TIME
California by 5 points, total of 52
Texas A&M: 9-3
Both teams had good seasons, but California was hoping for a bit more coming in to the season. Cal was preseason #8 in the Athlon publication, and #16 in Phil Steele's publication. They thought this could be the year where they took the Pac 10 crown away from vulnerable USC. On November 4th, they were 8-1 and highly ranked in the polls and the BCS. They lost the next two games, and their dreams of playing in a big bowl. A&M was 28th in Steele, and 33rd in Athlon preseason. With Oklahoma and Texas in their division of the Big 12, this represents about as good as the team could reasonably have hoped for before the season started. Once the games were played, the Aggies beat Texas in Austin, and only lost to Oklahoma by a point. It wasn't all wonderful, but Dennis Franchione's guys have a lot to be proud of.
California: 32-20 versus the 6th ranked schedule
Texas A&M: 29-19 versus the 72nd ranked schedule
We need to mention again that the Pac 10's schedule strength was greatly overrated by USA Today (the sources of the schedule strength rankings throughout this series of bowl previews). It was a tough conference, but not the toughest conference in the history of the planet. Outside the Pac 10, California lost badly to Tennessee 35-18, getting outgained 514-336. That provided evidence right there that the Pac 10 wasn't an overpowering juggernaut. The other two non-con opponents were Minnesota and Portland State. That plus the Pac 10 equals the 6th ranked schedule? A&M had a very week non-conference slate. They played The Citadel, Louisiana Lafayette, Army, and Louisiana Tech. You definitely have to discount their stats in light of those opponents. Still, they played so well in conference play against decent opposition that it's not going to be that big of an issue. If they were laying 8 points against a mid-level team, you'd have to be cautious. As a dog against a good team, there will be plenty of samples to look at.
California: 5-6 versus the spread
Texas A&M: 8-2-1 versus the spread
As we've seen in many games already, the pointspread results paint a very clear picture of how preseason expectations misled the oddsmakers and public. California was supposed to be a BCS contender, and turned out not to be. Texas A&M was supposed to be a Big 12 also-ran, and instead played some very exciting, competitive football. You'll hear many critics say that you should discount pointspread records because teams aren't out on the field trying to cover spreads, they're trying to win games. Fine, don't evaluate teams on the ATS records. Evaluate the reasonableness of the expectations. Evaluate the ability of the oddsmakers and public to adjust to reality. Evaluate how teams do ATS versus different kinds of opposition (are they bullies versus patsies, or Milton Berle's?). ATS results aren't useless or pointless. You just have to use them for the right tasks.
AVERAGE YARDS PER GAME/TURNOVER INFLUENCE
California: +43.3, with a season turnover differential of +5
Texas A&M: +91.6, with a season turnover differential of +5
This is where you have to adjust for Texas A&M's strength of schedule. They're not really 100 yards better than that slate. They're a lot of yards better than non-con patsies and Baylor, but reasonably competitive with good opposition. California has a pretty good mark considering the schedule. It should be noted that it's not "BCS caliber." You'll see later that USC was +94.1 yards versus a schedule that was almost as tough. Florida was +129.3 against a tough schedule. There were statistical indicators much of the season suggesting Cal wasn't quite ready to join the big time.
QUARTERBACK TD/INT RATIOS
California: 24-13, good, but a few too many picks
Texas A&M: 12-2, safe, but strong numbers for a run-based team.
California is all things to all people. If the color announcer likes the power running game, the Bears have a stud running back in future pro Marshawn Lynch. If the color announcer is a former quarterback, then all the talk is about how head coach Jeff Tedford creates NFL prospects with a pro-style passing game. Some of that talk has subsided since Kyle Boller turned out not to be very good, and Aaron Rodgers is so poorly thought of in Green Bay that the Packers wouldn't even play him in mop up duty last year. Then, highly touted juco transfer Joe Ayoob turned out to be awful last season too. Nate Longshore has had several good games this year...so the hype is back at the QB position. The defense is considered to be more physical than the typical Pac 10 fare. You hear all that, and you think Cal is some kind of super-team that can't be stopped. They're not. They're a 9-3 team that underachieves when the opponent isn't intimidated.
Texas A&M had been a classic bully for a few years. They'd schedule soft teans, pound that soft schedule, then get overwhelmed once league play began. Last year they didn't even earn a bowl bid with 17 returning starters on a preseason top 25 team. This year they looked to have taken things up a rung on the ladder. They used a powerful running back and an energetic defense to score conference victories over bowl bound Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Texas. They lost a 17-16 heartbreaker to Oklahoma. Instead of no-showing the next week, they lost a 28-27 heartbreaker to Nebraska. Last year's team finished 107th in the nation in total defense. This year's team held Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas to less than 300 yards in its last three games of the season. It's a run-heavy team that has a QB who likes to scamper on option plays. Consider it the Rutgers model with a more active quarterback and a fullback the size of a hummer.
GAMES VERSUS SIMILAR OPPONENTS
California didn't fare all that well against physical teams. They're at their best when the other team is soft and easily intimidated. Tennessee is physical, and they crushed California. Arizona isn't all that great, but they play low scoring physical games. In November Arizona upset Cal 24-20. UCLA plays like that. Cal did beat the Bruins 38-24, but they got outgained 516-433. USC's tougher physically than people realize. Cal lost 23-9 in the Coliseum, getting outgained 358-275. This isn't a very good bowl matchup for Cal at all in that sense. They would have been better suited to play a finesse team, or someone from a mid major.
Texas A&M played well vs. bowl caliber opponents, as we've already documented. California was trying to be a BCS team. The Aggies almost beat Oklahoma, and did beat a Texas team that was doing their own version of the California fade in the final weeks of the regular season. It's starting to sound like we're turning the Aggies into some kind of unrecognized powerhouse. To keep things in perspective, they did have to sweat the Army game back in September, an inexplicable, close 28-24 win. They didn't beat Kansas by much. They only beat Baylor 31-21 despite gaining over 500 yards. They're not an unrecognized powerhouse. They're a darn good live dog though. The Aggies were 4-0-1 ATS as dogs this year, with a 3-2 straight up record.
MOTIVATION FOR THIS GAME
California may be thinking about sending a message about next year's preseason rankings. On the other hand, California may be demoralized about not playing in the Rose Bowl or any other BCS game. They really thought that was going to happen. The loss to Tennessee was just a blip on the radar because Cal played their way back into the mix. If they won the Pac 10, they go to the Rose Bowl regardless of the Tennessee result. How you read the emotions could determine who you're going to like in this game. A fired up Cal team could very easily outplay an Aggies team that scored a huge win for the program in their regular season finale.
Texas A&M has to be excited about going to the Holiday Bowl the year after posting a losing record. The only monkey wrench is that upset of Texas. Bowl history is ripe with teams playing flat in their bowls if they upset an archival in the last game of the season. What helps here is the fact that the Aggies are an underdog. Many of those flat performances come when a bowl favorite "no shows" against a boring opponent right after beating a hated rival. That's not quite what we have here. Still, it should temper the live dog enthusiasm just a bit.
LAST YEAR'S BOWL PERFORMANCES
California beat BYU 35-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl, winning yardage 473-448
Texas A&M didn't qualify for a bowl
RECENT BOWL TRENDS
California has played in three straight bowls after a long layoff. They covered the first game in a 52-49 upset thriller against Virginia Tech in the 2003 Insight Bowl. The next year they were stunned by Texas Tech 45-31 as an 11-point favorite in this very Holiday Bowl. Last year's win over BYU wasn't a cover, so the team is 2-1 straight up, 1-2 ATS.
Texas A&M lost its only bowl game under Dennis Franchione 38-7 to Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl after the 2004 season. The Aggies were 4-point favorites in that game.
WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Aggies are going to make sense as an underdog at the current line. If they can hang with Oklahoma, and beat Texas in Austin, then they can certainly stick with the team that got routed by Tennessee, and played without confidence in the second halves of their biggest games of the season. It's an excellent matchup for the Aggies, and a poor one for Cal in terms of how these teams like to play. Cal needs to play opponents who are intimidated, A&M won't be. The biggest monkey wrench for potential Aggies backers is that upset of Texas in the season finale. That win meant something. It was easily the biggest win of the Franchione era. It wasn't just their hated rival, it was the defending national champion...ON THE ROAD!
I'd rate the percentages this way:
65% that the Aggies show up and make it a game. Within this % is arguably a 50/15 split that they win the game outright. California doesn't match up well against this style. If the Aggies are in the mood to play, they're going to make sense on the moneyline to win outright.
35% that California takes advantage of a flat Aggies team to make their first statement for the 2007 college season. QB Longshore is just a sophomore. The Bears could start lobbying tonight that next year is going to be the big one.
The total looks about right to us. The Aggies play more wide open games than you'd expect for this kind of team. The defense ended the year with fantastic play, but they weren't universally fantastic all year. California has a lot of weapons, and a head coach who's hyped as an offensive genius. It can be a 24-20 game either way just as easily as a 30-27 game either way. If California controls the game, it can be 31-14 just as easily as 38-17.
Pending late developments or inclement weather (like San Diego ever has inclement weather), we'll pass the total and look for the Aggies to be a feisty underdog once again.