December 23, 2007

Why the Gator Bowl matchup intrigues

Hydrophobic Red Raider fans would eagerly watch their team sand plywood or recite the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It requires no great magic, therefore, to convince them to watch Texas Tech play in a New Year's Day bowl game.

But put yourself in the boots of the average college football fan in Minot, North Dakota or Yazoo City, Mississippi. Why should Phil Kaplugnut and Cletus Hooten, Jr. watch Tech battle Virginia in the Gator Bowl rather than play video games or watch Rudy for the 87th time?

Lots of reasons!

If you're a big believer in expert opinion, for instance, the Gator Bowl has already received some pretty sterling advanced billing. Rivals' Mike Huguenin has gone on record placing the Gator at #8 in his rankings of the 32 bowl games. That puts it in the top 25% for those of you even more mathematically incompetent than yours truly.

Huguenin likes this one for the contrast in styles between the two teams and coaches. And he certainly has a point. The Red Raiders are the Potentates of the Pass, the Tyrants of the Toss and the Satraps of the Screen.

The Cavaliers? Well, they don't really believe in offense. Their quarterback is a bit of a scrambler who throws as many interceptions as touchdowns; their running backs don't have many more yards than Tech's, and their best receiver is a lumbering tight end who has fewer touchdown catches than Michael Crabtree makes in the average quarter.

But defense is a different story entirely. Virginia practices stopping the ball with the fervor of an old Southern gentleman interdicting some Yankee scalawag trying to lure young Scarlet out for a ride in his buggy.

The Red Raiders, on the other hand, are still apprentices at this defense thing. Every now and then they show some interest in the obscure side of the game and Mike Leach will fire a coordinator or the defense will get a three-and-out. But for the most part Tech is still acquiring a taste for defense, much like the average cotton farmer on the outskirts of Lazbuddie is acquiring a taste for bird's nest soup.

All in all, therefore, these are two programs with very different identities and emphases. And just as styles make fights, so they make good football games.

Huguenin's reasoning for wanting to see the Gator Bowl is rather sophisticated in comparison to Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel. The latter points out that the Cavaliers possess a gibbering, slobbering beast of a defensive end in Chris Long, and that the Red Raiders sport a Tommy Gunner of a quarterback in Graham Harrell. One's the irresistible force and the other iss the immovable object, although which is which is a matter for philosophers to puzzle out. Either way, Mandel just wants to see the Big Bang played out again and again and again.

And he may get his wish, although the Red Raiders certainly hope he doesn't. In any event, you best believe that Harrell will chuck the ball a good 50 times, 70 if he has his druthers. And Long will come blasting through like a steam drill every one of those times. It will, indeed, be very interesting to see how Tech's superior pass protecting offensive line will hold up against Long and how Harrell is able to avoid the inevitable rush. The outcome of the game could well hinge upon this game within the game.

But for my money the Gator Bowl will be fascinating because of recent history. A year ago the Red Raiders fell behind the Minnesota Gophers 35-7 late in the third quarter of the Insight Bowl. They then proceeded to author one of the most miraculous and improbable comebacks in the history of college or professional football.

The Red Raiders, of course, remember this well. The Virginia Cavaliers are also aware of that game. And should UVa jump out to a big lead, you know darn well everybody will be on the edge of their seats waiting for the real show to begin. The worried Cavaliers could very well create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this time the stage will be even bigger and grander, and the deed magnified even further.

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