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December 27, 2007

Independence Bowl: Alabama vs. Colorado

Independence Bowl: Who has the edge? | Rivals.com Bowl Central | Bowl schedule, results

INDEPENDENCE BOWL
ALABAMA (6-6) vs. COLORADO (6-6)
WHEN: 8 p.m., Sunday.
WHERE: Independence Bowl Stadium, Shreveport, La.
WEATHER: Partly cloudy, about 54.
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones will do play-by-play, with Bob Davie as the analyst).
THE LINE: Alabama by 3.5
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Alabama 3-5, Colorado 2-4
RECORD VS. BCS TOP 25: Alabama 1-3, Colorado 1-4
BCS RANK: Alabama N/A, Colorado N/A.
SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Alabama T-10th, Colorado 30th.
COACHES: Alabama - Nick Saban (4-5 in bowls); Colorado - Dan Hawkins (2-2 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: The Independence Bowl annually produces a tightly contested game, even though it often features teams that had relatively disappointing seasons. Six of the past eight Independence Bowls have been decided by four or fewer points.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Colorado LB Jordon Dizon will be the best player on the field, but Colorado CB Terrence Wheatley may provide a better barometer for his team's chances of success. Wheatley has a knack for coming up big in Colorado's biggest wins. Wheatley held Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly without a catch in a 27-24 upset of the Sooners and picked off three passes in a 31-26 upset of Texas Tech.

Don't blame Troy coach Larry Blakeney if he feels a little jilted each time watches a bowl.

If he tunes in to Sunday's Independence Bowl, he will find Colorado and Alabama squaring off in a battle of .500 teams. Or he can watch the Insight Bowl on New Year's Eve and find Oklahoma State, another .500 team that lost to Troy earlier this season.

Seven teams are going bowling despite finishing the regular season 6-6. The Independence Bowl matches two .500 teams for the second consecutive season.

All those .500 teams capitalized on their conferences' favorable bowl tie-ins to advance to the postseason ahead of Troy, which is home for the holidays despite going 8-4. Troy was the only team with a winning record that failed to earn a bowl bid.

"It's sort of like how old Coach (Bear) Bryant used to say that a tie is like kissing your sister," Blakeney said. "That's sort of like kissing your sister, when you accept a bowl bid (with a .500 record). Now, some of us have pretty sisters, but when you accept a bowl bid and you're not a winning team, it's almost like they had to give you one."

The bowls have to make room for at least some .500 teams as long as college football's postseason schedule remains so crowded, with 32 bowls. That explains why more than half of the 13 teams that finished the regular season 6-6 received bowl invitations.

"It seems to me you should have a winning record to go to a bowl game," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Six-and-six is not a winning record. On the flipside, there are quite a few bowl games in this day and age. If you eliminate all the 6-6 teams I haven't done the math, but you might not have enough teams to fill the slots."

Whittingham is correct. Troy was the only full-fledged I-A team with a winning record that failed to reach a bowl this season. Western Kentucky went 7-5 and didn't get a bowl bid, but the Hilltoppers are still making the transition to I-A status.

So why not reward all the teams with winning records before handing out bowl bids to .500 teams? Troy was left out of the mix because the Sun Belt's lone bowl tie-in is with the New Orleans Bowl, which gives an automatic invitation to the league champion. Troy's hopes of winning the Sun Belt title vanished when Florida Atlantic upset the Trojans 38-32 in the final week of the regular season.

Teams with winning records get priority over .500 teams when at-large bowl bids are handed out. Blakeney would like the rule to go one step farther: He believes a team with a winning record should receive priority even over a .500 team from a conference with tie-ins to a particular bowl.

Under that scenario, for instance, the Independence Bowl could have invited Troy ahead of Alabama or Colorado even though it has partnerships with the Southeastern Conference and Big 12. The Independence instead had to invite the SEC and Big 12 representatives because of its contracts with those leagues.

"We've got two 6-6 teams playing in the Independence Bowl," Blakeney said. "I think they're better than that. But they're not allowed to do any better than that, the way it sounds to me."

Independence Bowl officials naturally disagree with that assessment. They like having tie-ins with BCS conferences that are sure to bring in big-name programs, even if they haven't necessarily had outstanding seasons. Even having two teams with .500 records isn't necessarily a drawback if the programs have as much tradition and name recognition as Alabama and Colorado.

"It's like last year," Independence Bowl media relations director Patrick Meehan said. "With the teams knowing one of them is going to have a losing season and one of them is going to have a winning season, that's a big deal."

The Independence Bowl's recent history supports that theory. Although last year's Independence Bowl was the only postseason game to match two .500 teams, it still produced an exciting game. Oklahoma State edged Alabama 34-31 on a 27-yard field goal with 8.9 seconds remaining.

Six of the past eight Independence Bowls have been decided by four or fewer points, even though this will mark the fourth consecutive season the game's victor will have finished the season as a seven-win team.

"Even if we get a 6-6 SEC or Big 12 team, it's a great matchup, as it proved last year," Meehan said. "We love our conferences. They're two of the best if not the best in the country."

UNJUSTLY REWARDED?
The following teams earned bowl bids after going 6-6 during the regular season.
TeamBowl
AlabamaIndependence
CaliforniaArmed Forces
ColoradoIndependence
MarylandEmerald
NevadaNew Mexico
Oklahoma StateInsight
UCLALas Vegas
(NOTE: Iowa, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisville, Northwestern, Ohio and South Carolina didn't earn bowl bids after going 6-6 this season. Troy went 8-4 and was the only full-fledged I-A member that failed to reach a bowl despite posting a winning record).
And, of course, some 6-6 teams earned their bowl bids much more than others.

Alabama enters the Independence Bowl on a four-game losing streak. Armed Forces Bowl-bound California lost six of its last seven regular-season games, while UCLA fired coach Karl Dorrell at the end of the regular season and used defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker as an interim coach for the Las Vegas Bowl.

On the other hand, Colorado's 6-6 mark represented a substantial upgrade from the Buffaloes' 2-10 record last season. Maryland overcame all sorts of injuries and earned its Emerald Bowl bid with a 47-0 victory over North Carolina State in its regular-season finale.

"Obviously I'd like to finish 7-6," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said before his team's 21-14 loss to Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl. "A winning season is better than a losing season. But the fact we got to a bowl after we faced the adversity that we have speaks for itself."

Friedgen's comments reflect the feelings of most of the teams that enter bowls with 6-6 records. Sure, they might not have met all their goals this season, but they aren't about to apologize for their presence in a bowl.

Even the coaches who don't like seeing .500 teams in the postseason can understand that attitude.

"In my way of thinking, you should have a winning season to be rewarded with a bowl game," Whittingham said.

"But as soon as we're 6-6, I'll change my stance on it."

Independence Bowl Alabama vs. Colorado
Alabama run offense vs. Colorado run defense
EDGE: Alabama Alabama TB Terry Grant has rushed for 891 yards this year, though he did much of his damage in the first four weeks of the season. Grant could find plenty of running room against a Colorado defense that has allowed nearly 4 yards per carry.
Alabama pass offense vs. Colorado pass defense
EDGE: Colorado Colorado is 101st in the nation in pass defense, but that's a bit misleading. Because Big 12 teams throw the ball so often, six of its members are ranked 100th or below in pass defense. Colorado has enough talent in its secondary to bother Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson, who has thrown five interceptions with only one touchdown pass in his past three games.
Colorado run offense vs. Alabama run defense
EDGE: Colorado Hugh Charles rushed for at least 100 yards in four consecutive games during one midseason stretch and closed the regular season with a 169-yard performance against Nebraska. It will be interesting to see how well Charles fares against an Alabama defense that allows less than 3.5 yards per carry.
Colorado pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense
EDGE: Alabama Colorado QB Cody Hawkins played better as the season wore on, but he still has 15 interceptions. He must avoid turnovers against an Alabama defense that has picked off 17 passes this season. Hawkins also must watch out for Alabama E Wallace Gilberry , who has 17.5 tackles for loss in his past seven games.
Alabama special teams vs. Colorado special teams
EDGE: Alabama Alabama's Leigh Tiffin has gone 22 of 31 on field-goal attempts, while P.J. Fitzgerald averages 38.2 yards per punt. Colorado's Kevin Eberhart is 15 of 23 on field-goal attempts, while Matt DiLallo averages 40.1 yards per punt. Colorado doesn't have a return man quite as strong as Alabama's Javier Arenas, who has averaged 15.4 yards per punt return this season.
Alabama coaching staff vs. Colorado coaching staff
EDGE: Alabama Dan Hawkins did an exceptional job at Boise State and quickly has rebuilt Colorado's program, but he doesn't have Nick Saban's national championship background.
Alabama will win if
Wilson must reverse the late-season slide that helped cause the Tide to lose their last four games. In a best-case scenario, Grant runs so effectively that it takes some of the pressure off Wilson.
Colorado will win if
The Buffaloes need their defense to play better than it did down the stretch. Colorado has given up 137 points in its past three games. Colorado's offense is good enough to score in the 20s against Alabama. If the Buffs have to score in the 30s or 40s, they probably won't win.
X-factor
Most teams don't expect their defensive tackles to do any more than stop the running game, but Colorado's George Hypolite gives the Buffaloes a pass rusher in the middle of the line. Hypolite leads Colorado with six sacks and had two each in games against Florida State and Iowa State. Alabama could have trouble winning this game if Hypolite spends much time in the Tide's backfield.
The picks
Megargee's pick: Alabama 24-21
Other Rivals.com expert picks:
Olin Buchanan, national college football writer: Alabama 23-21
Mike Huguenin, national college editor: Alabama 27-17
Bill King, Rivals Radio host: Alabama 21-17
Check out the rest of the Rivals.com Expert Picks.

Steve Megargee is a national Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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