2010 Orange Bowl Preview
#9 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2, Big Ten At-Large) versus #10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (11-2, ACC Champion)
January 5th, 2010 - FOX - 8:00 PM EST in Miami Gardens, Florida
It might surprise some fans to know that the Orange Bowl is the 4th oldest bowl game in the country. First played in 1935, the Orange Bowl was originally played in the Orange Bowl Stadium in Little Havana until 2000, when it moved to Land Shark Stadium, home of the Dolphins.
Some of the most historic games in college football have taken place at the Orange Bowl. Miami burst onto the national scene with a shocking 31-30 win over Nebraska in 1984 that gave the Hurricanes their first National Title and since the inception of the BCS the O.B. has hosted the National Championship Game three times, most recently last season. Suffice to say, the Orange Bowl is one of the most glamorous and important bowl games every January.
YEAR IN REVIEW
#9 Iowa (10-2) This will be the second Orange Bowl appearance for the Hawkeyes and their 2nd BCS appearance overall. They will hope to do better than their 2002 showing, where USC beat them soundly after an 11-1 regular season. Iowa also represents the 9 th Big Ten team to earn an at-large bid since the inception of the BCS.
Kirk Ferentz, finishing his 11th year in charge of the Hawkeyes, is an institution at the University of Iowa. His efforts this season earned him recognition as the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the 3rd time and he is generally considered one of the best coaches in the country. Ferentz’s career record at Iowa is 80-55 and this season marks the second consecutive excellent year for the Hawkeyes, who have posted a 19-6 record during that time period. Finally, his career bowl record is a stellar 4-3 during his time in Iowa City.
Iowa entered this season with strong expectations that were quickly tempered by multiple injuries in the backfield and a daunting road schedule that would feature five bowl-bound teams. However, the Hawkeyes persevered and began the season with a 9-0 record, including big wins at Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin. An unfortunate injury to starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi led to a shocking 17-10 home loss to Northwestern that ruined their perfect season and their Big Ten Championship dreams ended the next week in overtime in Columbus. However, the Hawkeyes fell back on their excellent defense to close out the season with a victory and a top ten ranking.
Iowa’s record was not the product of their offense, which finished 85th in the nation in scoring with a paltry 23.1 points per game showing. Their passing game was mediocre at 56 th in the country and their run game was even worse, averaging less than 110 yards per game and finishing 102 nd overall! This was the byproduct of a vicious string of injuries that at one point had the Hawkeyes starting their 4 th string tailback. However, Iowa always seemed to have a knack at making timely plays until starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi was lost against Northwestern and that carried their offense through their unbeaten start. The good news is that Stanzi is expected to start at full health for Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Despite demonstrating a ton of intangibles in clutch situations, the Hawkeyes are at best average on offense.
The strength of their team in 2009 was clearly the defense. Iowa finished 10 th in the country in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 15.5 points per game! Their impressive finish was anchored by their 7 th ranked pass defense, highlighted by 21 interceptions, the 4 th highest total in the country. Their run defense was also quite stout, finishing 32 nd nationally. However, that statistic is somewhat exaggerated as teams simply couldn’t pass against the Hawkeyes and spent a large portion of their time trying to gain yards on the ground. In terms of personnel, the Hawkeyes are talented on all three levels and their defensive line is one of the best in America. Keep an eye on ballhawking safety Taylor Sash as well: He was among the nation’s leaders in interceptions this season.
#10 Georgia Tech (11-2) Georgia Tech has never played in a BCS game, so this year’s contest will be a special occasion for the Yellow Jacket faithful. While the program has a ton of history, highlighted in the last two decades by Joe Hamilton’s Heisman candidacy in the late 1990s and sharing their 5 th National Championship in 1990, Tech has recently been considered a lower tier ACC team until last year’s hire of Paul Johnson from the Naval Academy.
Johnson’s second season in Atlanta built upon his excellent first campaign. Johnson, who coached Navy to six consecutive bowl berths before coming to Tech, has a combined record of 20-6 in his two years in charge and has been named the ACC Coach of the Year in consecutive seasons. His innovative option offense has brought newfound prosperity to a program which struggled for a decade after the departure of former coach George O’Leary. Johnson has been successful for his entire tenure as a head coach (he coached D-1AA Georgia Southern to two national championships) and his career record of 124-44 certainly bears that out. His only blemish has come in bowl games, where his Navy and Tech teams have only combined to finish with a 2-4 mark, most recently suffering a blowout at the hands of LSU in last year’s Chik-Fil-A Bowl.
2009 started off rather well for the Yellow Jackets. Their high powered offense was the driving force behind a solid start that eventually led to a 7-1 finish in ACC play. However, they were beaten in the final week of the regular season by archrival Georgia, putting a damper on their accomplishments. Luckily, they had the ACC Championship Game to redeem themselves and their 39-34 shootout win over the Clemson Tigers lofted the Yellow Jackets back into the top ten and into the BCS for the first time.
Georgia Tech’s offense is extremely prolific, scoring 35.3 points per game, good for 11 th in the country. Their offense was built upon the strength of their 2 nd ranked rush attack, which features two players who will finish the season with 1,000 yards in 2008 Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer and quarterback Josh Nesbitt. The Yellow Jacket offensive philosophy usually leaves the team with consistently makeable 3 rd downs and their 53.5% conversion rate is 2 nd in the country! However, Tech’s offense is almost exclusively ground-based as the Yellow Jackets finished 110 th passing. That said, their passing offense is still extremely dangerous because defenses cheat up to defend the run and that allows Tech to slip a wide receiver (usually DeMaryius Thomas, who has the lion’s share of their aerial contributions with 46 catches for 1154 yards and 8 touchdowns) behind the defense for a huge play. There is no doubt that their offense is the primary reason that the Yellow Jackets are the ACC Champions.
Tech’s offense looks even more impressive when you consider how poor their defense has performed this year. The Yellow Jackets feature the country’s 58 th ranked defense in scoring at 24.8 points per game and they’re only 77 th against the run and 71 st against the pass! That’s extremely bad considering that the Tech offense leads the nation in time of possession. Things really got ugly down the stretch as the Techies allowed their last two opponents to rush for over 300 yards and score an average of 32 points per game! Needless to say, Paul Johnson’s defense has some serious issues.
KEY MATCHUP: TECH’S #2 RUSH OFFENSE vs. IOWA’S #32 RUSH DEFENSE
Every college football fan in the country knows that Georgia Tech’s game plan will be to control the clock with their powerful option attack and put a lot of points on the scoreboard. As the national leader in time of possession, Tech will pound the ball and set up 3 rd and short, which is the biggest reason that they’re 2 nd in the country in 3 rd down conversion rate.
Meanwhile, Iowa is going to be a formidable opponent to run against. They’ve only allowed an average of 122 yards per game on the ground and their front seven is one of the elite units in the country. Expect a stout defensive line and a mobile unit of linebackers to provide a stiff test for the Yellow Jackets.
However, as crazy as it sounds, I think that Iowa’s exceptional secondary could be the difference in this matchup. Cornerback Amari Spievey has the skills to play Thomas one on one and I wouldn’t be surprised whatsoever if the Hawkeyes cheated safety Brett Greenwood up to the line to help out against the run. That would leave Sash back in a Cover One defense and would essentially turn Iowa’s defense into a 4-4-3 unit.
Finally, the biggest key to defending against an excellent rushing offense like Georgia Tech’s is sound fundamentals in tackling. Tech gets a lot of big plays that stem from missed tackles and assignments. With a full month to prepare for the option attack, I expect that Iowa will have their assignments on lockdown as Ferentz’s defenses are always extremely disciplined. Don’t expect a lot of missed tackles from the Hawkeyes.
So who will win this major matchup? I’m picking Iowa for three reasons. The first reason is that they will have plenty of time to prepare for the Tech option, a task that many teams struggle to accomplish during a regular week. A month to focus on keeping assignments against the option will be invaluable to the Hawkeyes. The second reason is that I believe that Iowa is the best tackling team that the Yellow Jackets have faced all year and that should help prevent Tech from breaking too many big plays.
But the third and final reason that I’m picking Iowa is that Georgia Tech has only faced three other top 40 rush defenses this year and their record against those teams is a paltry 1-2. Even more telling, Tech’s average output in those games is a lowly 21.7 points! In short, it appears that Tech has run into problems against good rush defenses and that would seem to indicate that Iowa has an advantage in Orange Bowl’s key matchup.
The theme of motivation is a major discussion point in the postseason, especially as pertains to teams who fall short of their season’s stated goals. With Iowa losing in overtime in a de-facto conference championship, it would seem on the surface that they would be a strong candidate for disappointment in the postseason. However, I don’t think that will be the case because Iowa was admittedly shorthanded down the stretch without their starting quarterback and this will be every single player on the team’s first BCS appearance. I expect the Hawkeyes to be hungry to end their season on a high note after falling short of a championship in overtime.
Meanwhile, I’m actually concerned about Tech’s mental mindset heading into this game. They are the ACC Champions and are facing off against the runner up from the Big Ten, which doesn’t exactly get much respect in the South. After falling just short last season in the ACC chase, I wonder if the Jackets won’t head into the Orange Bowl with a level of complacency after achieving their preseason goals with a conference title.
Also working against the Yellow Jackets is Paul Johnson’s bowl history. Last season, Tech headed into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the country and appeared primed to run over 7-5 LSU en route to a ten win season. However, LSU was more than prepared for the option attack and blew Tech out of the water. I have to wonder if the option’s effectiveness is reduced with ample preparation time.
Also a concern is that Johnson’s two bowl victories have come against noted powerhouses New Mexico and Colorado State, so he has a lot to prove when it comes to preparing his team for this game. As Tech’s last bowl win came in 2004, no Georgia Tech player has played on a team that has won a bowl game, so Johnson will have to grow with his team into a group that can win a BCS game.
Meanwhile, Ferentz has a much better track record in preparing his teams for bowl games, highlighted by last year’s blowout victory against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. However, his one poor postseason showing came in the Orange Bowl after the 2002 season in his only BCS appearance, so you can be sure that he’ll have his team ready to play this time around. His winning career bowl record and track record of strong postseason preparation leads me to believe that his team will be better prepared than Georgia Tech.
However, this is a different season and we need to look at 2009 to find any major trends that could favor one team over the other. Two notable indicators would be:
Now that we have scoured both teams’ resumes, the big question is how they will perform on January 5 th in south Florida. Neither team is a complete team: Iowa’s offense has struggled while Tech’s defense has been terrible. However, this will be interesting as it will be strength on strength (Tech O vs. Iowa D) and weakness vs. weakness (Iowa O vs. Tech D), leading me to conclude that this game will be a close affair.
But I keep coming back to two major statistics when looking at this game. The first statistic is the respective head coaches’ bowl records. Kirk Ferentz’s 4-3 bowl record includes a stellar 3-1 record against the SEC and two of his three losses have come in extremely competitive games. It is really hard to fault a man with bowl losses to USC, Florida and Texas on his resume.
On the other hand, Johnson’s bowl losses have come against Texas Tech, Boston College, Utah and LSU, none of which were considered world beaters at the time. In fact, I would argue that Johnson’s teams have underachieved in bowl games compared to their regular season performance while Ferentz’s teams have lived up to their billing. So clearly, the track record of both men in the postseason seems to favor Iowa.
The other major statistic (and the one I lend most credence to) is Georgia Tech’s showing against top run defenses in 2009. With a record of 1-2 against top 40 rush stoppers, that doesn’t seem to bode well. Add in the fact that they’ve scored less than 22 points per game in those contests, two touchdowns less than their season average, and it looks like bad news for Tech. Remember, Iowa is ranked 32 nd against the run.
Here’s how I expect this game to go down: Both teams will have similar game plans: Run the ball and control the clock. However, I think that Iowa’s defense is going to be extremely well prepared to stop Tech’s run game and their superior tackling and line play will show. Meanwhile, having Ricky Stanzi back is going to provide an emotional lift to the Hawkeyes and I expect them to win the first half by frustrating Tech’s attack and taking advantage of their porous defense.
In the second half, the Hawkeyes will try to sit on their lead but I expect Tech to adjust and make some plays on offense. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas beat them deep for a big pass play to jump start the comeback effort. When it all boils down, this game is going to be close in the 4 th quarter. But when push comes to shove, Iowa has been winning games all year with strong 4 th quarter showings and their ability to make plays in the clutch is going to be the difference in this game as I expect the Hawkeyes to win the Orange Bowl on a late field goal.
Orange Bowl Pick: IOWA 27, GEORGIA TECH 24
by Matt Baxendell
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