College Football Picks: Arkansas Razorback vs. Wisconsin Badgers
Looking for a free pick on the Capital One Bowl? The Capital One Bowl, hereafter referred to as the Former Florida Citrus Bowl, happens in Orlando, and often boasts the close, the wild and the wacky. This same Wisconsin team pulled off a pretty big 24-10 upset over Auburn last year; two years ago, Iowa connected on a last-second Hail Mary to stun LSU; in 2004, Georgia toppled Purdue in overtime; in 2003, Auburn beat Penn St. 13-9.
This year's game will feature college football's best freshman running back, Wisconsin's P.J. Hill (1,533 yards rushing, 15 TDs) against college football's best sophomore running back, Heisman finalist Darren McFadden (1,558 yards rushing, 14 TDs). At this point in their careers, McFadden is the more dangerous player, and is a true home-run threat on every play, while Hill is a big (242 lb.), downhill runner who punished Big Ten opponents almost every chance he got in '06.
The real question surrounding the FFCB is: How "real" is Wisconsin's 11-1 record? They only played one very good team, and lost at Michigan, 27-13. Their non-conference schedule included Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego St. and Buffalo, for which they should be ashamed. (Arkansas may have played cupcakes like Utah St., Southeast Missouri St. and Louisiana-Monroe, but at least they hosted USC.) By a quirk of the schedule, Wisconsin also avoided Ohio St. this year, and while they did win at traditionally tough places like Purdue and Iowa, the Big Ten was most certainly down again in 2006. So the excellent cumulative numbers the Badgers amassed in '06 are at least a little suspect. Sure, statistically Wisconsin boasts the nation's second-best pass defense, the third-best overall defense, and the third-best scoring defense in the country, but their only ranked opponent, those pesky Wolverines, scored a season-high 27 on them, and ran for 111 yards while throwing for 199. Arkansas's rushing attack is at least as good as Michigan's (and McFadden is a better player than Mike Hart). I can't see any way the Badgers hold the Razorbacks to fewer than 150 yards on the ground.
That said, I don't think that necessarily disqualifies them from winning this game. Wisconsin's defensive plan will be to key on McFadden like crazy, and try to limit his breakout ability (as well as his backup Felix Jones's). The Badgers will try and put the ball in the hands of Arkansas quarterbacks Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain, who've done nothing this year to show they're capable of carrying a team (combined, they've thrown 19 TDs and 13 INTs -- 16 TDs with 11 INTs in SEC play -- and barely eclipsed a 50% completion rate). The Badgers only gave up 139 yards passing per game (second in the country), and allowed six TD passes compared with 13 interceptions. There's little question Houston Nutt and Arkansas will have to devise a game plan to do some damage via the air, and I think that'll be hard for Dick and Mustain to get that done.
On the other side of the ball, Hill has the advantage of running behind OT Joe Thomas, who could be a top-five pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. But unlike Arkansas, Wisconsin has shown they can throw it a little: they rated 48th nationally in pass yards per game (and 26th rushing), and will especially be buoyed by the return of starting QB John Stocco, who separated a shoulder and missed the Badgers' final two games. TE Travis Beckum (team-high 56 receptions for 821 yards) will be a tough target for the Razorbacks' linebackers to stay with, and Stocco (15 TDs, four picks) will spread the ball around to his wideouts. Arkansas gets a great pass rush from DE Jamaal Anderson, and the team was decent against the rush (3.7 yards per carry and 124 yards per game, 47th nationally).
For me, this game comes down to whether McFadden's unquestionable star power overcomes Arkansas's lack of offensive balance. We're talking about the #4 rushing attack and the #105 passing attack. The Badgers won't be able to stop McFadden and Jones, but if they can slow them down, that might be enough. Wisconsin is 8-1 against the spread in their last nine non-conference games, 19-7-2 ATS in their last 28 games as an underdog, 4-0-1 ATS in their last five against teams with winning records, and 7-2-1 in their last 10 after straight-up wins. By contrast, Arkansas is 1-5 ATS in their last six non-conference tilts, and 0-5 ATS in their last five in games following contests in which they allowed 200 or more rushing yards (and 2-5 ATS in their last seven following a straight-up loss). It's scary to rely on a Wisconsin team that wasn't challenged by a particularly tough schedule, and it's scary not to pick the team who'll feature the best player in the game. If Arkansas can find the run-game explosiveness that devastated Auburn (at Auburn), Wisconsin won't have a shot in hell. But I think the Badgers can limit McFadden's huge plays (they'd better), make the quarterbacks carry more of the load, and create enough long drives of their own on offense to keep the game extremely close. For these reasons, and for the trends I've mentioned, I'm taking Wisconsin (+2) over Arkansas in the FFCB. And I hope by Monday afternoon, when you ask me what's in my wallet, I'll have a little more to show.
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