According to one ex-football coach who is now a talking head on TV, there is no magic to figuring out the outcome of bowl match-ups. According to him teams will pretty much do what they did all season long. Also, if you follow his logic, there is no such thing as an upset in a bowl game.
I beg to differ and not just because I am a contrarian, which I freely admit to being. I would argue that even though the regular season is a good way to gauge bowl game performance, there are some intangibles at work which are more difficult to calculate. After the jump we will dig in and open ourselves up for the onslaught of arguments that will follow.
First, let's deal with relative team strength. The single most determinative factor would appear to be football recruiting rankings if one simply wants to determine which team is the strongest in a bowl game. No surprise here, Alabama and LSU have been two of the top recruiting teams in the nation over the past 4 years with Alabama being the consistent winner of all recruiting battles. LSU over the last four years has an average rank of 6th in the nation and Alabama has finished number 1 in the nation three out of the last four years.
However, as important as recruiting is there are anomalies that show up that defy recruiting. Watching the Clemson / West Virginia game, which I turned off before the end of the first half, it was clear to me that West Virginia was going to be too much for the Tigers to handle. How did that happen when Clemson is one of the better recruiting teams in the nation and West Virginia barely breaks into the top 40 on a consistent basis? My short hand explanation would be to say that "schemes expose this team." Clemson clearly gets the material advantage against a lot of teams but so far the coaching staff has yet to figure out how to keep another team's scheme from exposing their few weaknesses. See Clemson versus Georgia Tech.
In most of the other bowl games the team with the higher recruiting ranking over the last four years won. But it is the exceptions to this rule that I find intriguing. Georgia is one of the top recruiting teams in the nation year after year yet they were beaten by a team that does not even rank in the top 20 nationally in recruiting. I could leave it to a certain "dwag" fan to explain how that happened but I have my theories.
Then there is the Virginia Tech / Michigan game. Michigan has a higher ranking in terms of recruiting but I swear for the life of me I thought Virginia Tech looked much better as a team than did Michigan. Virginia Tech had five major fowl-ups on special teams, which is not supposed to happen, leading me to believe something else was going on in this bowl game other than shear athletic ability. Likewise, I have watched the replay several times now of the Virginia Tech touchdown that was called back and I am now convinced it was actually a touchdown. My point is that Virginia Tech was fully capable of winning except for certain intangibles which we will mention in a minute.
Two other games strike me as anomalies. Wisconsin could very easily have beaten Oregon even though Wisconsin barely makes the top 50 in recruiting and Oregon is consistently in the top 20 in recruiting. Tech and Utah are virtually even in recruiting if you throw out Utah's horrible 2008 class and yet Tech looked to be the better team for most of this game.
I would argue this about bowl games. If teams simply played at the same level they played at during the season anyone could pick the outcome of a bowl game and there would never be any surprises. But something intangible happens that I can only describe anecdotally. In the first quarter of the game between Clemson and West Virginia I saw something in the body language of the Clemson players. I know there is no way to prove this but here is what I saw. Players appeared to be saying in a non-verbal way, "Coach, you did not tell us these guys were going to be this good." Then they seemed to be waiting for something to happen that would make the game break their way. It was if the team said to itself, "This game is way harder than we wanted it to be but somebody on our team will surely make a big play and then we will get into our rhythm and we will be fine." Not too long after this a West Virginia player picked up a fumble and ran it 99 yards for a touchdown. I turned the TV off because I knew the game was over.
After one considers talent and coaching as determining factors in the outcome of bowl games there are at least three other factors that are far more difficult to quantify, though I freely admit someone with more time and analytical skill might be able to predict outcomes even with these factors if they had enough data. Here are the factors:
Team Resiliency Perhaps the knock against teams like Clemson and Georgia, both of whom performed well below their relative strengths based on recruiting, is that they did not play against enough strong teams during the year. I would argue that though that is a factor even more determinative is whether or not they played in games in which they were tested and had to dig down deep in order to survive. The reason this is an intangible is that one can not simply judge this by whether or not a team played a close game or whether they came back at the end of a game to pull out the victory. The question is whether or not the other team folded or whether the other team actually was playing with confidence until the bitter end. Michigan showed resiliency against Virginia Tech and Utah showed resiliency against Georgia Tech. I would further argue that these qualities were forged in both of these teams through the course of their season. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, seemed absolutely defeated once their touchdown was taken away by the referee's call. I know this is easy for me to say with hindsight but I was convinced in my mind that the kicker was going to miss his field goal after this play. Virginia Tech never had to show resiliency through the course of their season against a team that was highly motivated, talented and playing well.
Team Youthfulness Compounding Tech's problem against Utah was the fact that in many cases you had 19 year old players lining up against 25 and 26 year old players. These older players were not just physically more mature, they had in some cases already had more life experience either from Mormon Mission tours-of-duty or advanced graduate level studies. When I briefly flirted with football in high school I noticed that some players on the team were just boys and some were at entirely different levels of maturity. I believe this comparison continues into college. It is why some players need "father figures" as coaches and some are highly self-motivated. The intangible proof for me of a team that is young is one which needs lots of reassurance during the course of the game that "coach knows what is going on and will figure out a way for us to win this game." More mature teams already know exactly what is required to win and the individual players know exactly how they are going to do this and simply step up their game.
Team Motivation Some factors have a way of canceling each other out. For instance, both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech looked highly motivated for their bowl games but other factors previously mentioned had a mitigating effect. Still, motivation is probably the single most important factor even though it is the most difficult one to prove. Oregon was extremely motivated to win a Rose Bowl after hearing year after year that they could not win a bowl game. Tech, I believe, was similarly motivated but still had to deal with their own youthfulness as well as the other team's resiliency. West Virginia perhaps was sick and tired of hearing that the Big East is the worst conference in the country and could not wait to prove on a big stage that they play a good brand of football. Likewise, they had demonstrated lots of resiliency through the course of their season, something lacking in the under motivated Clemson squad. Finally, in Michigan State we saw a team motivated as well as excited to be in a bowl game. Georgia, even with far more raw talent, acted like they could just go through the motions and pull this one out.
Now let the second guessing begin. Can coaching overcome these intangibles? Can Alabama live up to the level of its athletic superiority and beat LSU? Next season will Florida State finally be as good as their recruiting rankings say they should be? Will Tech be a better team next season by virtue of being older and wiser? Will Clemson ever be as good as their talent? Will teams like Georgia and Virginia Tech figure out that they need to play and win difficult games during the season so they can build resiliency for bowl games? Will Oregon start to recruit better and better classes based on their rising national reputation? What are your insights on the intangible factors that determine bowl game outcomes?