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2009 Champs Sports Bowl Preview

#16 Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3; Big Ten) vs. #14 Miami (9-3, 5-3; ACC)

December 29th, 2009 @ 8:00 PM (EST) – ESPN – Orlando, Florida

The Champs Sports Bowl has been a nomad of sorts since its inception in 1990. Originally called the Blockbuster Bowl, it was played in Miami until 2000, when it was moved to Orlando and re-christened the Tangerine Bowl to honor the nostalgia of the older and more revered game. In recent years, the newly-named Champs Sports Bowl has matched the Big Ten and the ACC (usually in a mismatch as the Big Ten’s 5th or 6th selection has faced the ACC’s 4th choice) and this will be the final meeting between the two leagues to conclude a four year deal as the Big East will take the Big Ten’s place next season. However, this edition provides the best (and most even) matchup between the two leagues yet.

Wisconsin will be making their second consecutive Champs Sports Bowl appearance and you can bet that the Badgers will be anxious to erase memories of their lopsided loss against Florida State last season. The Badgers returned to prominence in 2009 with an extremely strong showing in Brett Bielema’s 4th season. Bielema is now 37-14 in his four years in charge of the Badgers, though he only boasts a 1-2 bowl mark. Wisconsin also will be a test case for the argument that ‘Big Ten teams perform poorly in bowls due to an extended layoff’ as they traveled to Hawai’i on the season’s final day as a dry run for their bowl berth. With that in mind, expect the Badgers to be sharp in this game.

Wisconsin was surprisingly strong offensively in 2009, finishing 1st in the Big Ten and 21st nationally in scoring at 32.8 points per game. While the Badgers returned to their roots and averaged over 200 yards per game rushing (14th nationally) behind the thunderous running of ubertalented tailback John Clay, their improved passing game (though only 71st in the country) was really a major reason for their success. Quarterback Scott Tolzien completed 63.5% of his passes for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, making Wisconsin lethal off play action. The Badgers are really underrated offensively.

Defensively, the Badgers weren’t quite as impressive, finishing 41st in the country while allowing 22.4 points per game. Wisconsin was dominant on the ground, allowing opponents only 90 yards rushing per game en route to an 8th place national rank. However, they were no better than average through the air, finishing 66th. That said, when a team is as dominant in one aspect defensively as the Badgers were against the run, teams often have no choice but to throw. Wisconsin also tied for 20th in the country in two major categories: takeaways (26) and sacks (32). This is clearly a very capable defense.

Miami broke out of a multiyear slump in a big way in 2009, beating five bowl bound teams en route to the school’s best finish since 2005. It was also the second consecutive season of improvement under Randy Shannon, who now has a 21-16 record in his three years in charge of the Hurricanes. Miami exceeded expectations as they beat three ranked teams in their first four games, finished 2-0 against non-conference BCS foes and all three of their losses were to conference teams that finished with strong records.

Miami’s offense was very solid this season, scoring 31.7 points per game to finish 26th in the country in scoring. The Canes were only average on the ground with a 62nd national rank but their passing game came to life under sophomore Jacory Harris and they finished with a 27th rank through the air. The Canes only lost three fumbles all year but Harris’ 17 interceptions (10 in the 2nd half of the season) was one of the highest totals in college football. Despite some turnover issues, this is a solid offense that has the ability to move the ball against anyone.

The Hurricanes began to regain some of their defensive swagger in 2009, finishing 40th in the country in scoring at 22.3 points per game. This included a 28th ranked finish against the run and a 38th ranked finish against the pass, so they were very balanced. With such solid finishes in the individual categories, this unit clearly suffered from the offense’s turnover problems. However, they weren’t very good at creating takeaways of their own as their 18 turnovers was only the 87th best in the country. The Hurricanes have a lot of talent but their youth has made them a little inconsistent on defense.

These two teams have had eerily similar production. Wisconsin has only scored 13 more points all year while Miami gave up exactly one less point on defense! However, there are two significantly different styles of offense in play. Miami likes to air the ball out while Wisconsin likes to let John Clay run over defenders.

A few interesting facts: For once, the Big Ten has the layoff advantage as Miami played their last game a week before Wisconsin. Whether or not it makes a difference will be very interesting to see. Another major factoid is that while Wisconsin has had a dominant pass rush, Miami has had serious issues protecting Harris, finishing 90th in country while allowing 30 sacks! That’s a big advantage for the Badgers.

This will be a closely contested matchup. However, there are two major facts that have swayed my judgment: Miami has faced four top 50 rushing attacks (Wisconsin is 14th) and their record in those games is only 2-2. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has faced five top 50 passing offenses (Miami is 27th) and their record in those games is 4-1.

Furthermore, Wisconsin’s clear advantage in the turnover department (Wisconsin is 22nd in interceptions, Miami is 109th in interceptions thrown) and rushing Jacory Harris (Wisconsin is 20th in sacks, Miami is 90th in preventing them) seem to indicate that the Badgers are going to score points off of Miami mistakes. Furthermore, Wisconsin still has last year’s embarrassment in this game fresh in their minds and I think that will be a major motivational factor as they will want to erase their failures and show how much they’ve improved in one year’s time. Finally, John Clay is the best offensive player on either team and I can easily see him wearing down Miami’s young defense. Wisconsin will take advantage of Miami turnovers and will win the Champs Sports Bowl with their trademark powerful ground attack.

Champs Sports Bowl Pick: Wisconsin 33, Miami 24


by Matt Baxendell Staff Writer

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