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Major Wager Bowl Preview Series: Gator Bowl (Bowl #24)...By S.H. Austin

GATOR BOWL (Jacksonville)
1/1, 1 p.m. ET CBS

West Virginia by 10.5 points, total of 47.5
Note that the line jumped 3 points when it was announced Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball was declared ineligible for academic reasons.

West Virginia: 10-2
Georgia Tech: 9-4
It's hard to preview a game involving a quarterback with no experience. So, we'll pick our spots with some topics within the categories. In some of the earlier previews, we mentioned that West Virginia was one of those "bully" teams that loves to run up the score on patsies, but often gets pushed off the line of scrimmage when they have to play quality opposition. It might seem odd to some of you (maybe many, maybe almost all!) that we'd be referring to a 10-2 team in that light, particularly when they went 11-1 the prior season. Is it possible for a pseudo-pretender to go 21-3 over two seasons? Yes, it is if they're in a mid-major conference...which the Big East will continue to really be until more of the middle of the pack teams pick up the pace. And, it's possible to accomplish if you schedule non-conference foes who either don't match up well with you or are otherwise inferior. What about the win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last year? That was a big win to be sure. As we've said a bunch of times, if major conference teams don't take opponents like this seriously, they will get upset. There's a difference in class, but it's not SO great that it can't be trumped because the better team is flat.

It's also hard to make the case to people that West Virginia gets pushed off the line of scrimmage when they have good looking run defense stats. How could the theory be right if few teams run the ball for good numbers? First, many teams fall behind West Virginia and can't afford to play catch up with runs. If you play teams with shaky quarterbacks, your defense looks great in the numbers. Secondly, good teams are now mixing in short high percentage passes with their running game. These sorts of "extended handoffs" count against the passing game.

Louisville was 19-26-354 passing vs. West Virginia Pittsburgh was 28-37-341 passing vs. West Virginia South Florida was 22-30-279 passing vs. West Virginia Rutgers was 19-26-278 passing vs. West Virginia

South Florida and Rutgers aren't passing teams! Yet, with safe short passes they completed a great percentage for big yardage. Note the number of incomplete passes in those lines...7, 9, 8, and 7. If you counted short passes as handoffs, there would be less of an impression that West Virginia plays strong defense.

Somebody wanting to make the case that West Virginia is a true national title contender can cherry-pick stats and results that make it seem obvious. If the Mountaineers played in the SEC or Big Ten, their lack of physicality would be much more obvious to the naked eye a lot more often. Georgia took them lightly in the Sugar Bowl. Not EVERY team like that would ALWAYS take them lightly.

West Virginia: 39-21 versus the 42nd ranked schedule
Georgia Tech: 24-17 versus the 68th ranked schedule
There's just not much to say about Tech because all of their stats came with Ball. He was a pretty bad quarterback anyway...but as a senior he was still much more experienced than the replacement is going to be. Tech's strength of schedule seems a bit deflated. They did play Notre Dame and Georgia in non-conference action (losing 14-10 and 15-12). The ACC was pretty weak...but there were some decent defenses. Tech ended up playing eight games against teams who went to bowls. Their schedule seems better than 68th given all that. By game day, we'll have a much better sense of how the ACC stacks up against everyone else.

West Virginia: 5-6 versus the spread
Georgia Tech: 5-5-1 versus the spread
I Didn't mention this in the usual place. West Virginia was preseason #6 in Athlon, #17 in Phil Steele (who confusingly had them well ahead of Pittsburgh in his national rankings by behind Pittsburgh in his Big East rankings). The Mountaineers turned out not to be as good as the early national championship hype. They started the year 3-1 ATS, but finished 1-4 ATS. Georgia Tech was inconsistent.

West Virginia: +138.8, with a season turnover differential of +6
Georgia Tech: +30.9, with a season turnover differential of +5
West Virginia has bully yardage. The biggest games were 591-185 vs. Eastern Washington, and 641-340 at Pittsburgh. This offense really can pile up the points on soft defenses. The head coach calls off the dogs when the team gets into the 40's. They had seven games this year between 41-52 at the end of regulation. They still gain yards even if the dogs are called off the scoreboard.

West Virginia: 13-8, much more of a running team than a passing team
Georgia Tech: 22-15, absurd number of picks for a senior QB

We've talked enough about West Virginia. Let's add that they have a fantastic running back this year, and a quarterback who's also excellent at scampering. Teams who can't contain those guys get routed. Teams who can contain them will keep themselves right in the game. Georgia Tech tries to throw about 25 passes per game, even if their QB is just as likely to hit a cheerleader as a receiver. They run the ball a lot vs. good defenses even if they're just running into a wall. Tech had less than 150 rushing yards in eight of their 13 games this year. Your typical ACC team, in other words. Strong defense, poor offense. Only Clemson topped 400 yards on Georgia Tech this year. Eight opponents couldn't even reach 300 yards. You should probably consider Tech as a "Milton Berle" kind of team (see pre-series article). You can't trust them to win huge (1-3-1 ATS as favorites of more than a touchdown). They were 2-1-1 ATS as underdogs this year. The defense helps them hang with people. The lack of offense keeps them from blowing teams out.

West Virginia played Maryland, who's a good match. The Mountaineers won 45-24 thanks to a 5-0 turnover advantage and a couple of non-offensive touchdowns. Total yardage was only 383-333. South Florida and Rutgers are good matches. You know West Virginia had trouble with those guys at the end of the season. Part of the reason they struggled was the fact that QB Pat White was hobbled in the S. Florida game, and out of the Rutgers game. The defense didn't exactly sparkle in those games though, allowing 27 and 23 points in regulation, and over 350 yards both times. West Virginia can definitely win a rout here if they force a big turnover edge. That's possible against a new QB. If Ball's replacement doesn't represent much of a real drop-off, this line is way too high.

Georgia Tech didn't play anyone truly similar to West Virginia. Tech pretty much plays the same against everyone anyway.

West Virginia may consider it as a downer after playing Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last year, and after thinking they would have a great chance to make the BCS this year. Heck, back in late October, FOX-TV said it was pretty much certain that the West Virginia/Louisville winner would be in the championship game. Tough to get up for an ACC team that just lost their quarterback. That's been shown in the past to be a huge motivation killer. When a team suspends a star or two, the opponent often shows up flat as a pancake.

Georgia Tech was probably depressed at first about missing the BCS. All they had to do was score 10 points on Wake Forest to go to the Orange Bowl. Now, the news about Ball may inspire the other players to show up. They have to feel disrespected about seeing +11 by their names in the newspaper every day. The team was embarrassed in last year's postseason...losing huge to Utah when they no-showed the Emerald Bowl. The guys who got drilled in that game may show up here. Before the Ball announcement, we might have had a slight motivational edge for the dog based on reversals from last year's bowls. It's probably a bigger edge now. That won't matter if the backup QB is helpless. It could matter a lot if he can manage the game.

West Virginia beat Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl, winning yardage 502-501
Georgia Tech lost to Utah 38-10 in the Emerald Bowl (as a 9-point favorite), losing yardage 560-385.

West Virginia lost their prior three bowl appearances to the Georgia upset in uncompetitive fashion, casting doubt on Rich Rodriguez's preparation...and further embarrassing the ESPN studio pundits who were always picking West Virginia as a possible championship contender (Lee Corso annually couldn't resist that great talent and weak schedule).

Georgia Tech is 3-2 ATS their last five bowl appearances, with all of those coming in minor early games. As was the case with Tennessee, all five of those games missed the Vegas spread by double digits. They've covered spreads by 32, 35, and 16 points, but failed to cover by 15 and 37 points.

If the Georgia Tech quarterback is as green as broccoli, they're going to have troubles in this one. It's very unlikely they can play from behind if he has to throw a lot of passes. But, if he can get some first downs and play the field position game, then it's just South Florida or Rutgers all over again from the West Virginia perspective. Tech matches up VERY well, as Berle's often do with bullies. If motivation is a factor, it favors Tech as well.

West Virginia does have obvious strengths on offense. It's up to the Tech defense to neutralize those. They did that against the Notre Dame passing game early in the season, and the Wake Forest rushing game in the season finale (allowing only 9 points in the ACC championship game).

I'd rate the percentages this way:

60% that Georgia Tech plays motivated, and uses their edges in physicality to stay within this very tall number. Within this percentage pocket, it might be as high as 35/25 for an outright victory. We see that all the time in bowls with backup QB's starting. LSU beat Miami 40-3 last year with a backup QB. Ironically, the suspension of Ball may have made an upset MORE likely because it reduced West Virginia's motivation and intensity. The line jump of 3.5 points resulted in a much higher moneyline, even though the chances of a Tech upset may have gone up. Definitely worth thinking about.

40% that West Virginia jumps out to an early lead, then forces a bunch of interceptions when the newcomer has to pass more than he's comfortable doing. Some of these margins will be huge. If you hate having a moneyline bet on the dog in a game you could lose 38-0, don't go that route.

If you like Tech, you probably like the Under too. You don't have a chance unless the defense plays very well, as they have most of the season. If you like West Virginia, you probably like the Over. You see cheap points off the turnovers, and big games from White and RB Steve Slaton. So...the totals percentages would mirror the team side percentages in our scenarios. But, since they're duplications, there's no need to do both. That's just kind of doubling up your original play.

Because West Virginia's garbage time defense has been weak, there is a backdoor possibility in an Over game. West Virginia could be up 37-20 late, and the Tech scrubs take it in late to make it 37-27. So, the percentages probably favor the dog more than the Under. We'll call it 60% Georgia Tech, and just a lean to the Under.

S.H. Austin

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