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The bowl game in Tempe will be a last chance to build any sort of momentum for both Michigan State and TCU into 2013.
The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (formerly the Insight Bowl) puts together two teams that have not won back-to-back games since September. For Michigan State and TCU, the season has not gone entirely as planned.
After 22 wins the last two seasons, Michigan State opened the season in the top 15 despite the departure of veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins. Despite a top-five defense nationally, new starter Andrew Maxwell struggled to fill the shoes of the Spartans’ leader the last two years. A hard-luck team, Michigan State’s five Big Ten losses came by an average of 2.6 points.
In Fort Worth, TCU won its first four games before the departure of quarterback Casey Pachall in early October thrust Trevone Boykin into unexpected starting duty. Though the most notable absence, Pachall’s was only one of a handful of departures -- either through injury or legal issues -- to befall the Horned Frogs in 2012. Despite the turmoil, TCU went 4-5 in its first Big 12 season, including road wins over Baylor, West Virginia and Texas.
As for the coaches, the bowl trend works in Gary Patterson’s favor. Patterson has won six of his last seven bowl games, the lone loss to undefeated Boise State in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. Meanwhile, Dantonio is 1-4 in bowl games at Michigan State with last year’s Outback Bowl victory over Georgia ending the losing streak.
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - Michigan State (6-6) vs. TCU (7-5)
Date and time: Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m. Eastern
Location: Tempe, Ariz.
When Michigan State has the ball:
The Spartans offense revolves around running back Le’Veon Bell and a stout offensive line. Bell led the nation in carries with 350, and after a midseason lull, he finished the season strong. Bell rushed for 587 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry in three November games. The same hot streak couldn’t be said of the quarterback Maxwell, who completed only 43.1 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions in the final month of the regular season. Maxwell and his undistinguished group of receivers will try to crack the TCU defense which includes an elite cover corner and one of the nation’s best freshmen in the pass rush. Jason Verrett intercepted six passes, and freshman end Devonte Fields had nine sacks and a Big 12-leading 17.5 sacks.
When TCU has the ball:
Boykin showed enough flashes to prove he’s the quarterback of the future, but it was clear he was forced into unexpected duty as the starter. He can make plays with his legs, but he completed 57.3 passes with nine interceptions in his eight games as starting quarterback. Josh Boyce can be a game-breaking threat in the receiving game. TCU uses a running back rotation with 5-foot-9, 185-pound B.J. Catalon and 6-1, 227-pound Matthew Tucker. Both will run into a formidable run defense led by All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. The Spartans ranked fourth nationally in total defense and pass efficiency defense and eighth in rush defense. If there’s any crack in the Spartans’ D, it’s in the pass rush. William Ghoston struggled in his junior season, leading the team with merely 3.5 sacks. The secondary will also be without the services of top cornerback Johnny Adams, as the senior is dealing with an injured toe and will be replaced by Mitchell White.
Expect a defensive chess match. Patterson and Dantonio are among the best defensive coaches in the country. Despite shortcomings on offense for both teams, the defenses held for most of the season. Oddly enough, the two teams went a combined 4-9 overall at home and 1-7 in home conference games. Perhaps a change of venue will do both teams good, but the potential of Boykin, who never had a chance to fully prepare to become the starter, may give the Horned Frogs an edge in the bowl game.
Prediction: TCU 21, Michigan State 17
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The stakes aren’t quite as high the last time Kentucky and Louisville met, but -- hey, who are we kidding -- the stakes are always high in this series.
The national title game isn’t on the line as it was when Kentucky defeated Louisville 69-60 in the Final Four. Still, it’s not difficult to find a good reason one team in the Bluegrass State needs to defeat the other.
For Kentucky, the Wildcats are looking to re-establish themselves as a national contender. Holdovers from the Final Four meeting on the Kentucky side of the bench are few and far between. Instead, this new cast of characters from Lexington needs to reclaim its footing after losses to Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor.
As opposed to last season, Louisville enters the game as the title contender, but the Cardinals have a handful of veterans who have never defeated Kentucky. The last Louisville win in the series was a 74-71 victory over a Billy Gillispie-coached Wildcats team. Ending a four-game losing streak would go a long way to erasing memories of the Final Four and building momentum into the Big East season.
Game of the week
Kentucky (8-3) at Louisville (11-1)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
Where: KFC Yum! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Kentucky probable starters
G Ryan Harrow (6-2/170, So.)
G Julius Mays (6-2/192, Sr.)
G Archie Goodwin (6-5/198, Fr.)
F Alex Poythress (6-7/239, Fr.)
F Nerlens Noel (6-10/228, Fr.)
Louisville probable starters
G Peyton Siva (6-0/185, Sr.)
G Russ Smith (6-1/165, Jr.)
F Wayne Blackshear (6-5/230, So.)
F Chane Behanan (6-6/250, So.)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-11/245, Jr.)
Louisville again is paced by its high-scoring backcourt duo of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva. Smith continues to be a tantalizing player to watch with his high-risk, high-reward game, but it’s paying off this season. He’s making 43.3 percent of his shots from the floor and 33.8 percent of his 3-pointers despite averaging nearly 15 shots per game. As much as Louisville values Smith’s 19.7 points per game and Siva’s 11.4, they are just as important on the defensive end of the floor. Louisville is forcing a turnover on 27 percent of its opponents’ possessions, a figure that leads the nation and is up from 18.9 percent a year ago. Kentucky has struggled to get its backcourt in order, starting with an absence from point guard Ryan Harrow. Freshman Archie Goodwin stepped into his place as point guard for a time. Goodwin leads Kentucky in scoring (16 ppg), but he’s coming off a 4-of-17 performance from the field against Marshall. Harrow has a 16-to-3 assist-to-turnover ratio in the four games since the Baylor loss. Goodwin has a 14-to-12 ratio since then.
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Nerlens Noel has delivered so far in the defensive end for Kentucky. The freshman is averaging 3.7 blocks, 2.7 steals and 9.1 rebounds per game. Louisville may not have anyone to counter his length around the basket, especially if Gorgui Dieng is not in in pre-injury form. Like many of Kentucky’s players, freshman Alex Poythress is still feeling his way through the game. He fouled out of his last game against Marshall and went 2-of-8 from the floor against Lipscomb a week earlier. Meanwhile, Louisville’s frontcourt is showing signs of improvement. Sophomore Wayne Blackshear has shown a more physical edge since recovering from a shoulder injury that kept him out most of last season. He’s also added a perimeter game that wasn’t there as a recruit. If Blackshear and Chane Behanan can match the play of Louisville’s starting guards, the Cardinals will solidify themselves as a Final Four contender. Stephen Van Treese has done a solid job in place of Dieng, but it would be a major upgrade to have the junior playing at 100 percent.
Anthony Davis headlines top performances in College Basketball in 2012
Louisville’s Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer, started the season in a dreadful shooting slump, but he’s shown signs of breaking out of it in recent games, partly because he’s taking fewer shots. Hancock is 6 of 12 from 3-point range in the last four games. What’s never slumped has been Hancock’s leadership, which was praised from Day One. Louisville coach Rick Pitino has also been pleased with guard Kevin Ware’s production off the bench in place of Russ Smith. For Kentucky, sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, one of the team’s more experienced players, has been relegated to the bench. Kentucky needs him to be a consistent outside threat, but he’s been streaky. A lack of point guard depth, given the struggles of Harrow, has been evident for Kentucky.
The return of Louisville center Gorgui Dieng after more than a month could be a major development in Louisville’s favor. The Cardinals have played just fine without Dieng, a 6-foot-11 defensive force down low who suffered a broken wrist on Nov. 23. Louisville may be the better team regardless if Dieng is at full strength, but his return would help even up the size deficiency between Louisville’s frontcourt and Noel. At first, Dieng was projected to return Jan. 2 against Providence. Although Rick Pitino says he'll start with no limitations in playing time, Dieng’s effectiveness and conditioning will be worth watching.
Prediction: Louisville 72, Kentucky 63
Kentucky returned to form since the back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, but the Wildcats did so against Samford, Portland, Lispcomb and Marshall. Facing Louisville will be a different challenge. Though Calipari may be more confident in his point guard situation than he was earlier this month, Louisville’s propensity to force turnovers may be a poor matchup for the Kentucky guards.
If you like offense, the Holiday Bowl is one of the postseason’s must-watch matchups. Baylor and UCLA each averaged over 35 points and 470 yards a game, so this game could be one of the highest-scoring contests of the bowl season
UCLA has claimed back-to-back Pac-12 South titles, but this season's team showed big improvement after finishing 6-8 last year. New coach Jim Mora assembled an excellent staff, while making the Bruins more relevant on the recruiting trail. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone deserves a ton of credit for his work with quarterback Brett Hundley, who ranked as one of the top redshirt freshmen in college football in 2012. The Bruins lost four games in Pac-12 play but nearly beat Stanford in the conference championship and knocked off USC 38-28 to win the division title.
The post-Robert Griffin III era at Baylor went the way most expected. Well, sort of. The Bears started 3-0 but lost their next four games. However, both sides of the ball found their rhythm late in the year, which allowed Baylor to finish with victories in four out of its final five games. The Bears knocked off conference champ Kansas State in mid-November, came within eight of beating Oklahoma and defeated Oklahoma State in the regular season finale.
Holiday Bowl – UCLA vs. Baylor
Date and Time: Dec. 27 at 9:45 p.m. ET
Location: San Diego, Calif.
When the UCLA Bruins have the ball:
After dealing with injuries and inconsistency at quarterback over the last couple of years, UCLA finally found its answer with redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. In 13 games this year, he threw for 3,411 yards and 26 touchdowns, while adding 365 yards and nine scores on the ground. Hundley is a perfect fit for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread attack, as the offense allows the redshirt freshman to quickly deliver the ball to the receivers, while taking advantage of his mobility on read-option plays.
When Hundley throws, his favorite receivers this year have been Shaquelle Evans and tight end Joseph Fauria. Evans leads the team in receptions (53) and yards (795), while Fauria ranked first with 11 scores. Jerry Johnson, Steven Manfro and Jordan Payton are other key targets for Hundley, but expect Evans and Fauria to see most of the targets.
Although the offense took a huge step forward thanks to Hundley’s development, the play of running back Johnathan Franklin shouldn’t be overlooked. The senior recorded his second 1,000-yard season of his career in 2012, rushing for 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns on 268 attempts. Franklin is a key factor in the passing game, catching 32 passes for 319 yards and two scores.
Baylor’s defense was expected to be better in coordinator Phil Bennett’s second year, but the Bears finished 119th nationally in yards allowed and gave up 38.2 points a game. However, this unit played showed some signs of life at times, holding Kansas State to 24 points and ended the year with 25 forced turnovers.
The Bears will have their hands full in this matchup, as UCLA was held under 20 points only two times this year. The Bears have to find a way to slow down Franklin on early downs, while keeping Hundley in the pocket. Baylor hasn’t generated much pressure this year, so forcing turnovers will be a priority.
When the Baylor Bears have the ball:
Despite having to replace Robert Griffin, Baylor’s offense finished first nationally in total offense and averaged 44.1 points a game. Senior Nick Florence isn’t as mobile as Griffin, yet finished with 531 rushing yards and nine scores. Through the air, Florence tossed 31 touchdowns and 4,121 yards on 451 attempts.
With USC’s Marqise Lee and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin stealing the national spotlight, Baylor’s receiving corps often gets overlooked. However, the Bears have one of the top receiver trios in the nation, starting with senior and Biletnikoff finalist Terrance Williams. The senior grabbed 95 receptions for 1,764 yards and 12 scores this season. Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson were solid No. 2 and No. 3 options, each catching 51 balls this year. Levi Norwood chipped in 39 receptions and Antwan Goodley stepped up late in the season by catching seven passes over his final three games.
Baylor’s offense became even more dangerous late in the year with the emergence of Lache Seastrunk at running back. The Oregon transfer had only 15 carries through the first five weeks but closed out the regular season with four 100-yard efforts in his final five contests. Seastrunk provides big-play ability in the backfield, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and had an 80-yard touchdown run this year.
UCLA’s defensive stats weren’t as bad as Baylor but were nothing for Jim Mora to be pleased about. The Bruins ranked in the second half of the Pac-12 in total, scoring and pass defense but made up for the yards allowed by generating 3.3 sacks a game. Linebacker Anthony Barr was shifted from offense in the preseason and was a pleasant surprise for this unit. The junior generated 13.5 sacks and finished third on the team with 74 tackles.
This game is a huge test for the Bruins’ secondary, which has to matchup against one of the nation’s top receiving corps. Even if UCLA finds a way to slow down Williams, Reese and Sampson are capable of connecting with Florence on big plays. Considering the depth and talent in Baylor’s receiving corps, the Bruins have to get a consistent pass rush on Florence, which will help reduce the amount of pressure on the secondary. UCLA lost a key piece of the secondary for this game in late December, as safety Tevin McDonald was suspended due to a violation of team rules.
There should be no shortage of yards and points in this game. The Holiday Bowl is usually one of the more entertaining postseason matchups, so this game should be one of the top-10 bowl games in 2012. Considering the offensive ability on both sidelines, timely stops and turnovers will be crucial. Baylor and UCLA will have plenty of highlights on offense, but the Bruins are slightly better on defense, which is just enough to pull out the victory.
Prediction: UCLA 41, Baylor 38
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Good thing the Belk Bowl in Charlotte is only a drive of two hours or so from Durham.
After all, Duke fans are a little out of practice in making their way to bowl games. The Blue Devils will play in a rare postseason game not involving Mike Krzyzewski when they face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. The 6-6 season clinched Duke’s first postseason berth since 1994 the Hall of Fame Bowl. Since then, the Blue Devils have had four winless seasons.
It’s been a long road to respectability for the Blue Devils, who have remade their image in five seasons under David Cutcliffe. But if Duke is going to earn its first winning season in 18 years, the Blue Devils need to reverse their momentum. Since earning its sixth win with a 33-30 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 20, Duke has lost four in a row before the bowl game.
While Duke is in rare territory, Cincinnati is in a spot all too familiar -- playing in a bowl game without its coach. The Bearcats lost their third consecutive coach to a bigger job when Butch Jones followed Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio out of town. In 2009, interim coach Jeff Quinn oversaw a 51-24 rout to Florida in the Sugar Bowl, but three years before that, Kelly took over in the 2006 International Bowl for a 27-24 win over Western Michigan.
Defensive assistant Steve Stripling will coach Cincinnati against Duke before former Texas Tech Tommy Tuberville takes over after the season.
Belk Bowl - Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Duke (6-6)
Date and time: Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. Eastern
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
When Cincinnati has the ball:
Cincinnati changed quarterbacks during the final third of the season, but the bread and butter of the Bearcats’ offense remains the run game. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound senior George Winn was an effective centerpiece for the Bearcats’ offense, rushing for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns. Redshirt senior Brendon Kay started the final four games of the year. Kay doesn’t bring the same “wow” factor as Munchie Legaux, but he was the steadier hand late in the season. Cincinnati’s offensive line does not include a senior starter, but the Bearcats had two first-team All-Big East performers in tackle Eric Lefeld and guard Austen Bujnoch.
This isn’t the same offense Brian Kelly directed at Cincinnati, but the Bearcats shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball on Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils finished 10th or worse in the ACC in the four major defensive categories and gave up at least 40 points in each of their six losses this season. Winn could have a big day ahead of him against a Duke defense that allowed opponents to rush for 5.6 yards per carry and 258.6 yards per game over the final seven games.
When Duke has the ball:
Where Cutcliffe goes, successful quarterbacks follow. Senior starting quarterback Sean Renfree has been a reliable signal-caller for the Blue Devils, topping 2,500 passing yards for the third consecutive season. Duke will test Cincinnati downfield with the receiver tandem of Jamison Crowder and Conner Vernon, who both topped 70 catches and 900 yards this season. Although Cincinnati led the Big East in pass efficiency defense, the league’s two best passers, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, both had success against the Bearcats.
As on offense, the Bearcats’ defense had to adjust to changing personnel during the second half of the season when Walter Stewart’s career. Stewart was one of the league’s best defensive players and the Bearcats’ key pass rusher. Linebackers Greg Blair and Nick Temple and defensive end Dan Giordano took charge late in the season to anchor the Bearcats’ D.
Duke has had a special season, but the Blue Devils were a flawed team on defense and in the run game. While Cincinnati’s last bowl game under an interim coach -- the lopsided loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl -- is tough to forget, Cincinnati is the pick here. The Bearcats should be able to make enough stops on defense, and George Winn could be in for a big day against a struggling Duke front seven.
Prediction: Cincinnati 28, Duke 14
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No college football head coaching search ever goes according to plan. However, anytime a job opens during or after the season, there’s a good idea of which candidates will be interested or the most likely targets. Despite having a general feel of where a particular program might go with its hire, there are times where a school makes a decision that blindsides or surprises everyone. Arkansas made a solid hire when it pulled Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin, but the move came as a complete surprise.
What other coaching moves came out of nowhere or caught everyone off guard? Check out these 12 coaching moves of the BCS era.
College Football's Most Surprising Head Coach Hires of the BCS Era
Bret Bielema, Arkansas from Wisconsin (2012)
With the rise of social media, keeping a coaching search under wraps for any program is nearly impossible. Somehow, Arkansas kept its courtship of Bielema off the radar and was able to hire him away from Wisconsin just after winning the Big Ten Championship. Considering Bielema’s background as a player in the Big Ten and his successful stint at Wisconsin (68-24 and three consecutive Rose Bowls), it was a surprise to see him make the move to Arkansas. Moving to Fayetteville will help Bielema pay his assistants a little more, but making the jump from the Badgers to the Razorbacks really isn’t a huge leap in terms of moving up the coaching ladder.
Rich Brooks, Kentucky from unemployment (2003)
Brooks was instrumental in jumpstarting Oregon as a top-25 program. He led the Ducks to 91 victories from 1977-94, which included a Rose Bowl appearance and a nine-win season in 1994. After his tenure with the Ducks, Brooks jumped at an opportunity to go to the NFL but was fired after a 13-19 record in two years with the Rams. The California native served as a defensive coordinator for the Falcons for the next four years and was selected as Kentucky’s head coach in 2003. Brooks was not a popular hire at Kentucky, especially considering he was out of football for two years before coming to Lexington. The California native only added fuel to the fans' disappointment, starting his tenure with a 9-25 mark through the first three years. However, credit athletic director Mitch Barnhart for sticking with Brooks after a bad start. Kentucky made four consecutive bowl appearances from 2006-09 and finished in a tie for third place in the SEC in '06.
Bill Callahan, Nebraska from the Oakland Raiders (2004)
Callahan is regarded as an excellent assistant but probably isn’t built to be a head coach. Even though he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl in the 2002 season, Oakland slumped to an awful 4-12 mark the next year, which resulted in Callahan’s firing. After the terrible 2003 season with the Raiders, Callahan somehow managed to land at Nebraska. Yes, there’s something appealing about a coach with NFL experience, but Callahan rode the coattails of former Raider head coach Jon Gruden to get Oakland to a Super Bowl and lost the team the next year. Callahan led Nebraska to a 27-22 mark during his four seasons, which included a Big 12 North division title in 2006. However, the Cornhuskers were just 15-17 overall in Big 12 play under Callahan’s watch and recorded two seasons with just five victories.
Bob Davie, New Mexico from ESPN (2012)
For a program that was trying to recover from the disastrous Mike Locksley era, Davie seemed to be a good fit in Albuquerque. The veteran coach brought some much-needed stability and helped the Lobos improve their win total by three games from 2011 to 2012. Although Davie wasn’t a bad hire, it came as a surprise when you consider his last coaching experience came in 2001. Working as an ESPN analyst certainly helped Davie keep in touch with the latest trends in college football, but it’s never easy returning to the sidelines after a 10-year absence.
Gerry DiNardo, Indiana from the XFL (2002)
DiNardo had some success in his career, recording a 19-25 mark in four seasons at Vanderbilt and started his tenure at LSU with three winning campaigns. However, the Tigers trailed off during DiNardo’s last two years, and he was fired with one game remaining in 1999. After spending one year out of football, the New York native resurfaced in the XFL with Birmingham and then turned up at Indiana after the XFL folded. Although DiNardo won 51 games during his previous two college stops, it was a strange to see Indiana make this hire, especially after the way his tenure at LSU ended.
Randy Edsall, Maryland from Connecticut (2011)
Dream job. That’s how Edsall summed up his decision to leave Connecticut for Maryland. While it’s a stretch to say Edsall moved up far on the coaching ladder, this move caught everyone by surprise. The Pennsylvania native was coming off of a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010 and led the Huskies to four consecutive postseason appearances. In two years with the Terrapins, Edsall is just 6-18 but seems to have the program back on track after a miserable debut in 2011.
Jim Mora, UCLA from Fox (2011)
The Bruins had an extensive coaching search to find Rick Neuheisel’s replacement at the end of the 2011 regular season. Some big candidates (Chris Petersen) weren’t interested in leaving their current school, and when the pool of candidates began to get thin, UCLA decided to go with Mora as its next head coach. Considering he had no collegiate coaching experience since 1984 and was just 31-33 in four seasons as a NFL head coach, Mora’s hire came as a big surprise. However, Mora has been a good fit so far, assembling an excellent coaching staff and leading the Bruins to the Pac-12 South Division title in 2012.
Paul Pasqualoni, Connecticut from the Dallas Cowboys (2010)
Even though Pasqualoni is a Connecticut native and recorded a 107-59-1 mark during his tenure at Syracuse, this hire made little sense at the time and has not worked out well for the Huskies. Pasqualoni was out of college football for six seasons, spending all of that time in the NFL. Considering the last three years of his Syracuse tenure resulted in a 16-20 record, coupled with his time away from the college game, Connecticut’s hire of Pasqualoni made little sense.
Bill Snyder, Kansas State from retirement (2009)
After a failed three-year stint under Ron Price, Kansas State re-hired the most successful coach in its school history. While it’s no surprise that Snyder is having tremendous success in his second stint in Manhattan, it was a mild shock the retired coach decided to dust off his purple jacket and return to the Wildcats’ sideline. Snyder's first tenure at Kansas State ended with back-to-back losing seasons, so it was fair to wonder if the program had slipped. Snyder was always expected to be restless throughout his retirement, but a return to full-time coaching seemed like a distant possibility.
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati from Texas Tech (2012)
The marriage between Tuberville and Texas Tech always seemed a little odd from the start. However, no one could have expected Tuberville to jump from Texas Tech to Cincinnati, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding the Big East. If anything, Tuberville was expected to get in the mix for openings at Tennessee and Arkansas. The Arkansas native has left each of his three stops with a winning record and led Texas Tech to a 20-17 mark in three years. As a program, Cincinnati has upside. And the Bearcats are making a commitment to facility upgrades, which should help the program become more attractive for future conference realignment. Tuberville wasn’t expected to stick around at Texas Tech for 10 years, but he also wasn’t expected to land at Cincinnati or in the Big East.
Charlie Weis, Kansas from Florida offensive coordinator (2011)
Weis started off his career at Notre Dame with a solid 19-6 mark, which included back-to-back appearances in BCS bowls. Despite the early success, Weis was never able to elevate the program into national title contention and never won more than seven games in each of his final three years in South Bend. After getting fired from Notre Dame, he spent one year with the Chiefs and then one season with Florida as its offensive coordinator. Although Weis is a highly regarded assistant, he’s done little to suggest he can lead a program for the long haul. The Jayhawks went 1-11 in his first season in Lawrence, which continues to raise the question of why Weis got a second head coaching gig after his performance at Notre Dame.
Ron Zook, Illinois from Florida (2004)
With an elite recruiting base and the success of Florida under Steve Spurrier, Zook’s 23-14 record was a major disappointment in Gainesville. The Gators never won more than eight games in a season under Zook’s watch and he was fired with two games remaining in 2004. Considering his less than stellar stint at one of the nation’s top programs, Illinois’ decision to hire Zook didn’t make a lot of sense. Zook did lead Illinois to a Rose Bowl appearance but had four losing seasons. The Ohio native was always regarded as an excellent recruiter but was never able to mesh the talent with results on the field.
Just off the radar
Gene Chizik, Auburn from Iowa State (2009)
Chizik was not a popular hire at Auburn but led the Tigers to the 2010 national championship. However, his success was short lived, going 11-14 over the last two years. Chizik had some success in his career, but at the time, it was hard for Auburn to justify hiring a coach that went 5-19 in two years at Iowa State.
Stan Parrish, Ball State from offensive coordinator (2008)
With the success of Brady Hoke, it’s understandable the Cardinals wanted to stick with continuity and promote Parrish to head coach. However, his last tenure as a head coach was awful, recording a 2-30-1 mark in three seasons at Kansas State. Of course, winning in Manhattan isn’t easy, but Parrish was a poor fit for a program that was coming off of 19 wins from 2007-08.
Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky from unemployment (2012)
Considering what transpired at Arkansas, it’s no surprise Petrino was forced to land at a non-BCS school. However, there will still be some shock involved when Petrino leads the Hilltoppers out of the tunnel for their season opener next year.
Buddy Teevens, Stanford from Florida assistant coach (2002)
Why? That’s about the only word to sum up Teevens’ hire at Stanford. He went 11-45 in five years at Tulane and considering all of his coaching experience was East of Texas, Teevens was an odd fit on the West Coast. As expected, Teevens didn’t produce any results, going 10-23 in three years with Stanford.
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Two of the nation’s most talented and exciting dual-threat quarterbacks will share the spotlight when Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe face each other for the first time. The Bobcats, led by junior signal caller Tyler Tettleton are playing in their fourth straight bowl after winning eight or more games for the fourth straight season. However, all has not been positive for Ohio lately, as the team has dropped four of its last five games, after starting the season 7-0 and earning a top 25 national ranking.
On the other side, Louisiana-Monroe finds itself in unchartered territory as the Warhawks are playing in their first-ever bowl game. An accomplishment made possible by a season-opening overtime upset of then No. 10-ranked Arkansas, which was orchestrated by junior quarterback Kolton Browning. Besides beating the Hogs, the Warhawks also nearly beat Auburn on the road, lost by just five points to Baylor, and tied for second in the Sun Belt Conference with a mark of 6-2. Head coach Todd Berry was named Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year after leading ULM to its most wins in nearly 20 years.
This matchup should feature plenty of offensive fireworks, as both teams are averaging more than 435 yards of total offense and 30 points per game.
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl – Ohio (8-4) vs. Louisiana-Monroe (8-4)
Date and Time: Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Shreveport, La.
When the Ohio Bobcats have the ball:
Tettleton is the engine that powers the Bobcats’ balanced attack, one that averaged more than 200 yards per game both running and throwing the ball. Tettleton’s own numbers have not been as impressive this season compared to last, when he accounted for nearly 4,000 yards of offense and 38 total touchdowns.
Hampered somewhat by injuries, Tettleton has been responsible for 2,713 yards of total offense and 21 total scores thus far. He has done another solid job of protecting the ball, as he has just three interceptions on the season. Junior wide receiver Donte Foster is Tettleton’s favorite target, as his 56 catches, 629 yards and seven touchdowns lead the team. Tettelton himself has caught two passes for 52 yards and a score this season.
After rushing for 658 yards last season, Tettleton has seen his carries decline this fall due to the emergence of junior running back Beau Blankenship. Blankenship leads the team with 1,500 yards rushing, as his 125 yards per game average is good for 10th in the nation, and 11 touchdowns. He’s had eight 100-yard efforts, including the last two contests, and earned second-team All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) honors.
Louisiana-Monroe’s defense is on opposite ends of the national rankings when you compare how the unit has fared against the run to the pass. The Warhawks are 30th in rushing defense, allowing 135.8 yards on the ground per game, but 104th in passing yards allowed (271.5 ypg). One thing that has helped mitigate the damage done by teams through the air, however, are the 15 passes the defense has picked off, which ties it for 23rd in the FBS ranks. The Warhawks also have forced a total of 24 turnovers, a reason why they find themselves ranked more in the middle of the pack (tied for 62nd) in scoring defense, giving up less than 28 points per contest.
When the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks have the ball:
The Warhawks’ offense revolves around Browning, who was named Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year after piling up 3,271 yards of total offense and accounting for 34 total touchdowns. Browning is the team’s leading rusher with 441 yards and seven scores on the ground, while throwing for another 2,830 with 27 touchdown passes.
Browning has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes and has thrown just seven interceptions on the season. Senior wide receiver Brent Leonard leads the way with 97 receptions for 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns and was named first-team All-Sun Belt. Juniors Je’Ron Hamm and Tavarese Maye complement Leonard and have combined for 110 catches and nine scores. All told, 17 different Warhawks have caught a pass and 10 have at least one touchdown reception.
While Browning leads the team in carries, yards and rushing touchdowns, junior running backs Jyruss Edwards and Monterrell Washington also help carry the load. The duo has combined for 790 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
Statistically, teams have had better success running the ball on Ohio’s defense, as opposed to passing it. The Bobcats are giving up more than 164 yards on the ground per game, compared to nearly 230 yards through the air. They have surrendered an average of 25.7 points per game, but that has risen to 35.3 during their current three-game losing streak.
Both of these teams come into this game with eight wins and an impressive non-conference win on their resumes. While Louisiana-Monroe upset a then-ranked Arkansas team at home to open its season, Ohio took down Penn State in Happy Valley in its first game as well. However, that was back in September, and a lot has happened since then. The Warhawks are not only playing in their first-ever bowl game, they are entering it on a two-game winning streak, while the Bobcats have dropped their last three in a row. These appear to be teams headed in opposite directions with ULM is looking for the most wins the program has had in nearly 20 years, while Ohio is wondering what might have been after starting the season 7-0 and earning a top 25 ranking. Momentum looks to be on the side of the Warhawks, who will ride Browning’s arm and the energy generated from playing in their home state to finish a memorable and history-making season on a winning note.
Prediction: Louisiana-Monroe 35, Ohio 27
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NFL Week 17 previews and predictions for every game on the schedule, broken down into tiers in regards to what they’re playing for (in order of likelihood) on the last Sunday of the regular season:
Texans (12-3) at Colts (10-5)
Houston can wrap up a first-round bye with a win or a tie; or a New England loss or tie; or a Denver loss. The Texans will earn home-field advantage with a win; or a tie and a Broncos loss or tie; or a Patriots loss or tie as well as a loss by the Broncos. Houston has lost two of its last three games. But the Texans’ lone win during that stretch was a 29–17 victory over the Colts. Indianapolis has already clinched a playoff berth, becoming just the second team in history to win 10 games after losing 14 or more in the previous season.
Texans by 3
Chiefs (2-13) at Broncos (12-3)
Denver will clinch a first-round bye with a win or tie; or a New England loss or tie. The Broncos can claim home-field advantage with a win coupled with a Texans loss or tie; or a tie along with a loss by Houston. The Broncos are 6–1 at Mile High this season, giving Peyton Manning and Co. plenty of motivation to hand the Chiefs their 12th loss in 13 weeks. Denver beat Kansas City 17–9 in Week 12.
Broncos by 15
Packers (11-4) at Vikings (9-6)
There is plenty on the line for both Green Bay and Minnesota in this black-and-blue NFC North division rivalry game. The Packers earn a first-round bye with a win; or a tie and a loss or tie by the 49ers; or a San Francisco loss and a Seattle loss or tie. The Vikings punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win; or a tie and a loss or tie by the Bears; or the trifecta of a Cowboys loss or tie, Giants loss or tie and Bears loss. Green Bay beat Minnesota, 23–14, in Week 13.
Packers by 1
Dolphins (7-8) at Patriots (11-4)
New England clinches a first-round bye with a win coupled with a loss by either Denver or Houston. The Patriots can claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win, and a loss by both the Broncos and Texans. The Pats have made the Super Bowl in five of the six playoffs that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have entered as a No. 1 or 2 seed.
Patriots by 13
Cardinals (5-10) at 49ers (10-4-1)
San Francisco will be NFC West champions with a win or tie. The Niners can earn a first-round bye with a win or tie and a Packers loss or tie. San Fran beat Arizona, 24–3, in Week 8.
49ers by 14
Rams (7-7-1) at Seahawks (10-5)
Seattle will be NFC West champions with a win coupled with a loss by San Francisco. The Hawks can clinch home-field advantage — where they are an undefeated 7–0 — with a win and a loss by both the 49ers and Packers.
Seahawks by 9
Cowboys (8-7) at Redskins (9-6)
The flex-schedule Sunday night prime time game features a classic rivalry as well as a do-or-die playoff play-in showdown between two teams that control their own destiny.
Redskins by 1
Bears (9-6) at Lions (4-11)
After losing five of its last seven contests, Chicago must win and hope for a Minnesota loss or tie in order to sneak into the playoffs.
Bears by 2
Eagles (4-11) at Giants (8-7)
The defending Super Bowl champs need the dominoes to fall — with a win and losses by the Cowboys, Bears and Vikings.
Giants by 5
Buccaneers (6-9) at Falcons (13-2)
Atlanta has wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the NFC Playoffs as well as the NFC South crown.
Falcons by 9
Ravens (10-5) at Bengals (9-6)
Baltimore is the AFC North champ, while the Bengals have already clinched a playoff berth.
Bengals by 3
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (7-8)
Believe New Orleans wants revenge for its 35–27 loss at Carolina in Week 2.
Saints by 6
Browns (5-10) at Steelers (7-8)
Big Ben hopes to do what Charlie Batch didn’t during a 20–14 loss at Cleveland in Week 12.
Steelers by 9
Jets (6-9) at Bills (5-10)
New York soared to a 48–28 win over Buffalo in Week 1. That sure seems like a long time ago.
Bills by 3
Raiders (4-11) at Chargers (6-9)
The supposed final game of the Norv Turner era is a rematch of a 22–14 Bolts win in Week 1.
Chargers by 8
Jaguars (2-13) at Titans (5-10)
Tennessee handed Jacksonville its only home win of the year with a 24–19 loss in Week 12.
Titans by 4
Last week: 10–6 // Season: 160–80
Athlon Sports' weekly rankings of NFL teams. The Atlanta Falcons have flown back into the top spot after locking up home-field advantage throughout the NFC Playoffs. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs remain the on the bottom of the totem pole.
Here are our NFL Power Rankings following Week 16 of the season:
1. Falcons (13-2) Earn home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs.
2. Seahawks (10-5) Russell Wilson throws four TDs to defeat 49ers.
3. 49ers (10-4-1) Letdown loss at Seattle after win at New England.
4. Patriots (11-4) Rally from 10–0 deficit for comeback win at Jags.
5. Packers (11-4) Score 50 or more points for first time since 2005.
6. Texans (12-3) Held out of the end zone for first time since 2006.
7. Broncos (12-3) Riding 10-game win streak after beating Browns.
8. Ravens (10-5) Ray Lewis activated on 53-man roster for Week 17.
9. Colts (10-5) Fourth-quarter comeback clinches berth in playoffs.
10. Bengals (9-6) Josh Brown game-winner comes with four ticks left.
11. Redskins (9-6) Aiming for first NFC East division title since 1999.
12. Cowboys (8-7) It’s win or go home after loss to New Orleans in OT.
13. Vikings (9-6) Adrian Peterson needs 102 yards to reach 2,000.
14. Bears (9-6) Defense scores two more TDs in victory at Arizona.
15. Giants (8-7) Outscored 67–14 in losses at Atlanta, at Baltimore.
16. Steelers (7-8) Miss playoffs for just second time in Mike Tomlin era.
17. Rams (7-7-1) Jackson nearing eighth straight 1,000-yard season.
18. Saints (7-8) Playoff hopes ended by Vikings’ victory over Texans.
19. Dolphins (7-8) Reggie Bush scores three TDs in win over Buffalo.
20. Panthers (6-9) Cam Newton apologizes for bumping game official.
21. Buccaneers (6-9) Lose five turnovers, turnover on downs twice in loss.
22. Chargers (6-9) Antonio Gates passes Lance Alworth with 82nd TD.
23. Jets (6-9) Greg McElroy sacked 11 times in loss to San Diego.
24. Titans (5-10) Held scoreless until 1:39 remaining in 48-point loss.
25. Bills (5-10) Have missed playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons.
26. Browns (5-10) Richardson tops Jim Brown rookie rushing record.
27. Cardinals (5-10) Throw four pick-sixes, zero TDs in last four games.
28. Lions (4-11) Megatron can’t transform records into better record.
29. Eagles (4-11) Mike Vick doesn’t see Week 17 start as “audition.”
30. Raiders (4-11) Palmer, Leinart, Pryor all see action at QB in defeat.
31. Jaguars (2-13) Break inaugural 1995 season record for most losses.
32. Chiefs (2-13) Jamaal Charles’ 226 rushing yards still not enough.
The year in sports was full of both highlights and lowlights. There were great moments like Usain Bolt’s 100-meter dash at the London Olympics and LeBron James winning his first NBA championship. But there were even more blunders made on and off the field by players, coaches and entire leagues. Here’s a look at the bottom 10 worst sports moments of 2012:
1. Golden Tate’s replacement referee TD
The Replacement Refs went out with a bang, making a controversial call of simultaneous possession on a game-winning touchdown “catch” by the Seahawks’ Golden Tate to beat the Packers in prime time on Monday Night Football.
After watching the scab refs throw yellow flags, hand out fourth timeouts, put more or less than the right amount of time on the clock, spot the ball on the wrong yard-line, call college football rules in an NFL game or create an environment of casual chaos on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays from Weeks 1-through-3 this season, Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL owners finally decided enough was enough after one of the wildest finishes in NFL history.
2. Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Armstrong said in a statement declaring he would not continue his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “For me, that time is now.” And with that, Armstrong’s reputation was wiped out mere mortal cyclists on the Pyrenees or Alps, his seven Tour de France titles were stripped and the signature Livestrong yellow wristbands became fodder for South Park jokes. The cancer survivor was cast away into the asterisk purgatory of Barry Bonds, as the greatest cheater his sport has ever seen.
3. Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle wreck
The ultimate April Fool, the 51-year-old married father of four wiped out on his motorcycle with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, a blonde former Arkansas volleyball player turned football program employee. When the neck brace was off, it turned out that the young Dorrell had accepted some $20,000 in gifts used for a car, vacation and wedding expenses — that’s right, she was engaged to be married.
Petrino lost his job, but not before making himself into a national punch-line and reminding everyone not to use a company phone (especially if working for a state school) when trying to keep an inter-office affair hidden from your wife and boss.
4. National Hockey League lockout
The NHL owners declared a lockout of the NHL Players’ Association, canceling the scheduled Oct. 11, 2012 start of the season. The Commissioner Gary Bettman-led NHL owners want to reduce the NHLPA’s previous guaranteed share of 57 percent of hockey related revenues. The league canceled NBC’s Thanksgiving Showdown on Black Friday as well as the 2013 NHL Winter Classic, and seems set on turning the “Big Four” team sports into the “Big Three.”
5. Mark Sanchez’s “butt fumble” season
While Tim Tebow sat on the bench and watched from the sideline, the Jets’ face of the franchise formerly known as New York’s “Sanchize” quarterback was “butt-fumbling” on the field. Sanchez threw 13 TDs and 17 INTs for a 67.9 quarterback rating, while also coughing up the football with 12 fumbles, seven of which were recovered by the opposing defense — none more memorable than the one during a 49–19 loss to division rival New England in an instant classic Thanksgiving Day play.
6. Alex Rodriguez’s playoff performance
The world’s most overpaid athlete hit .120 (3-for-25) with two walks and one run scored over seven games in the playoffs. Plus, A-Rod produced the ultimate A-Rod moment when he allegedly attempted to get the phone number of Australian model Kyna Treacy by sending a souvenir baseball to her in the stands during Game 1 of the ALCS. A-Rod shut down his flirting bar fly from the bench routine when the Captain, Derek Jeter, broke his ankle hustling for the team in extra innings.
7. Miami Marlins’ fire sale trade(s)
After spending over $500 million in public money from taxpayers and the city of Miami in order to build Marlins Park, notoriously bad owner Jeffrey Loria pulled a classic bait and switch — trading away nearly every player on the roster worthy of having his own baseball card. Is a ball club better with or without Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Mark Buehrle, Omar Infante, John Buck, Emilio Bonifacio, Heath Bell, Randy Choate, Edward Mujica and Gaby Sanchez? Doesn’t take a Sabermetrics statistician to answer that one.
8. Amare Stoudemire’s fire extinguisher fight
The Knicks’ big man punched through the glass box of a fire extinguisher following a 104–94 loss to the Heat in Game 3 of the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. Massive bleeding and near nerve damage ensued. Following a handful of stitches, Stoudemire tweeted out a gruesome picture of the hand. Luckily, Stoudemire’s hand has healed (and prompted an Office Space-inspired GIF); it is his bad back that has kept him out of the lineup this year despite a contract with three years left and over $60 million still owed.
9. U.S. Ryder Cup team’s choke job
In an epic meltdown that Greg Norman, Jean Van de Velde, or any member of the 1999 European Ryder Cup team could relate to all too well, the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team folded like a Medinah spectator’s golf chair at the 38th Ryder Cup. On the comfortable confines of U.S. soil and in front of 40,000 rowdy American fans, Team USA led 10–6 on Sunday — needing just 4.5 points out of 12 singles matches. But the lineup assembled by Captain David Love III hacked their way to one of the worst letdown losses in the 85-year history of the international competition.
10. USC Trojans’ fall from No. 1 to unranked
Lane Kiffin’s club was ranked preseason No. 1 and had a storybook season ready for a Hollywood ending. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley returned to lead the Trojans out of the darkness of NCAA-imposed sanctions and into the BCS spotlight. Five losses later, USC is getting ready for the Sun Bowl rather than the national title game in Miami, the city where Reggie Bush, the man responsible for the punishment in the first place, is now allowed to play for pay. Adding insult to injury — or injury to insult as it were — Barkley suffered a right shoulder injury and is hoping to prove himself healthy in the El Paso bowl.
Seemingly half-man, half-machine, Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson — the All-Pro wideout known simply as “Megatron,” a nickname inspired by the Transformers character, broke the single-season receiving yards record held by Jerry Rice — the retired Hall of Fame pass-catcher known to many as the “G.O.A.T.,” or “Greatest of All-Time.”
Johnson hauled in 11 catches for 225 yards in prime time on Saturday night, during a 31–18 defeat to the Falcons. The sixth-year receiver out of Georgia Tech now has 1,892 yards and counting, surpassing the previous mark of 1,848 yards set by Rice as a member of the 49ers in 1995.
“I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life, dating back to watching Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry as a kidd, and I’ve coached in this league for 19 years,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. “I’ve seen a lot of Hall of Famers, but I’ve never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson. He just broke a record set by Jerry Rice, who is arguably the best player in the history of this league.”
Johnson also broke the NFL records for consecutive 100-yard games (with his eighth straight) and consecutive games with 10 catches or more (with his fourth straight), while tying Michael Irvin’s record with his 11th 100-yard game this season.
“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen and, like I said, I’ve seen a bunch of them,” said Schwartz. “To see somebody do what he’s done when every game plan is designed to stop him. It says a lot about Calvin.”
The 6'5", 235-pounder has awed fans and foes alike this season, with both his on-field exploits and off-field demeanor.
“Calvin is one of the best players in the game and I think everybody is a big fan of his,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, after the game. “He’s one of the most genuinely nice people you could meet.”
With one game remaining, Johnson needs just 108 yards to reach the 2,000-yard receiving mark. With another 162 yards, Johnson would top Barry Sanders’ team record of 2,053 yards rushing set in 1997. Another 213 would best Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105 rush yards.
The Bears, however, stand in between Johnson and the 2,000-yard club. Earlier this season, he was held to a season-low 34 yards receiving during a 13–7 loss at Chicago in Week 7.
“It’s going to be a tough task,” Johnson told NFL Network, when asked about possibly becoming the first receiver in history to break the 2,000-yard mark in a single season.
“We have a tough Bears defense that we have coming into our place. So we have to be on our P’s and Q’s this week, eliminate a lot of errors we have on film (from Saturday), and push forward. Finish this season on the right note.”
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for December 26.
• Soccer star Alex Morgan went to Hawaii for the holidays and donned a bikini. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, photgraphers were there to record the occasion.
• I know many of you aren't all that anxious to celebrate another title game appearance with entitled Bama fans, but this is pretty cool.
• ICYMI, Ed Reed and Bryant McKinnie ushered in the holidays with a memorable rendition of Silent Night.
• Merrill Hoge hates Tim Tebow. I think we knew this, but I'm not sure we knew the true level of disdain.
• Danilo Gallinari was serving knuckle sandwiches for Christmas dinner yesterday.
• While you were sleeping off your Christmas calories, Arizona's Nick Johnson had this sick game-saving block against San Diego State.
• Scottie Pippen portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge on stage to make a little girl's wish come true. Apparently, this is typecasting; waiters have been known to call him "No tippin' Pippen."
• Bowl season's already brought us a few clunkers, but nothing quite like this: The biggest blowouts in sports history.
• Gotta love R.A. Dickey letting his nerd flag fly. He tweeted out a picture of himself in a Star Wars onesie.
• Hulk Hogan is opening a restaurant that he describes as "Hooters times 10." Can't wait.
• In today's video, Santa shows his mad ups.
--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Only a few years ago, Western Kentucky was a highly successful Division I-AA program under Jack Harbaugh, father to NFL coaches Jim and John. Now, one of Jack Harbaugh’s top former players has taken the Hilltoppers to new heights.
Willie Taggart led Western Kentucky to its first bowl game in program history in only its fourth season as a full member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. In the grand scheme of things, four years separating an FBS debut and a bowl game is quick work, but it’s a year too late for Western Kentucky.
A year ago, the Hilltoppers were a bowl snub despite finishing 7-5 overall and 7-1 in the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky’s chip on its shoulder will be a key storyline in the the bowl against Central Michigan, especially with the momentum the hometown Chippewas bring to Detroit. Taggart won't be on the sideline for this game, as he left to be the new coach at South Florida.
While Western Kentucky lost three of its last four, Central Michigan is on a hot streak entering the bowl game by winning four of its last five and three in a row. The late-season rally landed Central Michigan in its fifth bowl game since 2006 but its first under Dan Enos, who went 6-12 in his first two seasons with the Chippewas.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl - Central Michigan (6-6) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
Date and time: Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Detroit, Mich.
When Central Michigan has the ball:
Central Michigan has a veteran quarterback in Ryan Radcliff, but the Chippewas leaned on all-name team running back Zurlon Tipton late in the season. Tipton rushed for 956 yards and 14 touchdowns during the second half of the season. Creep up too much on Tipton, and Western Kentucky can expect Radcliff to test the Hilltoppers defense down the field. Receiver Titus Davis averaged 20 yards per catch (43 for 860 yards) with eight touchdowns but is suspended for the bowl game. Look for Cody Wilson to be Radcliff's top target against Western Kentucky.
Western Kentucky led the Sun Belt in total defense and placed 23rd nationally at 344.4 yards allowed per game, but the defense took a hit with a season-ending injury to defensive end Quanterus Smith. The 6-foot-5 defensive end led the nation in sacks but was lost for the season Nov. 17 to a torn ACL. Western Kentucky did not record a sack in its final game without Smith. Even without their star pass rusher, the Hilltopers still have a veteran-laden defense. First-team All-Sun Belt selection Andrew Jackson led the league in tackles, and free safety Jonathan Dowling led the league in interceptions (six).
When Western Kentucky has the ball:
Taggart, a disciple of multiple Harbaughs, preferred the power run game. In the 6-foot, 211-pound Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky has great foundation, regardless of who calls the plays in the bowl game. Andrews rushed for 468 yards in the final two games, propelling him to 1,609 yards for the year. He’s also a standout returner (12.8 yards per punt return, 28 yards per kickoff return). Central Michigan’s first task will be to limit the damage from the Hilltoppers’ back. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes can be mistake-prone with eight interceptions in his final six games, including three against FAU. But he has one of the nation’s most productive tight ends in Jack Doyle.
Central Michigan will be hard-pressed to beat Western Kentucky up front as the Chippewas were near the bottom of the MAC in sacks and tackles for a loss. The Chippewas gave up at least 200 rushing yards in five games this season. If Western Kentucky goes to the air, Central Michigan safety Jahleel Addae has been a capable ball hawk with four interceptions in the final six games, including one in each of the last two.
Central Michigan’s finish should be greeted with skepticism. The Chippewas defeated four opponents whose combined record was 8-40, and all of their six losses came by at least 11 points. Behind Andrews, Western Kentucky should be able to run the ball on the Chippewas’ defense, which could be bad news for the local team.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 35, Central Michigan 14
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Two teams that posted impressive turnarounds in the win column this season meet for the first time ever as either San Jose State or Bowling Green will get to unwrap one late Christmas gift – a season-ending victory. The Spartans will be looking to cap their best season since 1987, but will have to do so without Mike MacIntyre, who left on Dec. 10 to become the head coach at Colorado. The Spartans rank top 30 nationally in four major team statistics, and their only two losses have come by three points to Pac-12 champion and Rose Bowl-bound Stanford and a 10-win Utah State team.
Bowling Green is playing in its second bowl game in four years under head coach Dave Clawson thanks in large part to a defense that’s ranked among the top 14 in the nation in the four major categories. With a victory over the Spartans, the Falcons would claim both their first nine-win season and bowl win since 2004.
Both of these teams went 5-7 last season, meaning they have already combined to win five more games in 2012 than they did collectively in 2011.
Military Bowl – Presented by Northrop Grumman – San Jose State (10-2) vs. Bowling Green (8-4)
Date and Time: Dec. 27 at 3 p.m. ET
Location: Washington, D.C.
When the San Jose State Spartans have the ball:
The Spartans are No. 30 in the nation in total offense, but the bulk of their damage is done through the air. They are averaging more than 327 yards passing per game as junior David Fales has impressed in his first season as a starter.
Fales is seventh in the FBS in passing yards with 3,798 and his 31 touchdown passes are tied for eighth. Better still, he has thrown just nine interceptions in 408 pass attempts, placing him third nationally in passing efficiency. Wide receivers Noel Grigsby, Jabari Carr and Chandler Jones have combined to catch 176 passes for 2,380 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Grigsby is the team’s leading receiver (79-1,173-9), while tight end Ryan Otten also has done his part with 44 catches for 706 yards and four scores. Both Grigsby and Otten earned first-team All-Western Athletic Conference (WAC) honors this season.
San Jose State ranks near the bottom (102nd) in rushing offense at less than 125 yards per game, but does have a productive option in senior De’Leon Eskridge. The Minnesota transfer has rushed for 992 yards this season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and has scored 10 touchdowns.
Bowling Green’s defense is seventh in the nation in total defense (289.7 ypg) and pass defense (173 ypg), ninth in scoring defense (15.8 ppg) and sacks (3.1 spg), and 14th in rushing defense (116.7 ypg). The Falcons held five opponents to 10 points or fewer and only gave up more than 27 twice. The defense is led by senior tackle Chris Jones, the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Defensive Player of the Year. Jones is tied for fourth in the nation with 12.5 sacks and he also has posted 19 tackles for loss. San Jose State’s passing offense versus Bowling Green’s pass defense will be one of the matchups to watch.
When the Bowling Green Falcons have the ball:
The Falcons have had trouble this season producing a consistent offensive attack and putting points on the scoreboard. They rank 85th in total offense with 373.9 yards per game and 91st in scoring offense at 23.1 points per contest.
The running game, led by Anthon Samuel, has fared a little better than the passing game for Bowling Green. The sophomore back has had to deal with some minor injuries, but he’s still been productive, as he’s already eclipsed his rushing yard (966) and touchdown (11) totals this season compared to his 2011 MAC Freshman of the Year campaign.
Unlike Samuel, however, junior quarterback Matt Schilz has taken a step back in his production. Last season Schilz threw for 3,024 yards with 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. This season, Schilz has passed for only 2,426 yards, 14 scores and 12 picks, while also seeing his completion percentage fall from 59.5 to 56.1.
Not surprisingly, no Falcons receiver has more than 47 receptions, 647 yards or six touchdowns this season. Those numbers belong to freshman Chris Gallon, who has come on strong over his last three games.
San Jose State’s defense is top 30 nationally in terms of total yards (351.4, 28th), points (21.4, 25th) and rushing yards (123.7, 19th) allowed, as well as sacks (3.3, 5th). They are only 52nd in passing defense, but the 227.8 yards the Spartans give up through the air per game is still more than the 216.5 the Falcons gain on average per contest via the pass, so don’t expect Bowling Green to exploit this weakness, if you will. Just like the Falcons, the Spartans are led on defense by an all-conference honoree. Senior defensive lineman Travis Johnson took home WAC Defensive Player of the Year honors this season after leading the conference in both sacks (12) and tackles for loss (19). Besides being seventh in the nation in sacks, Johnson also became the WAC’s all-time leader in the category this season with his 31 career quarterback takedowns.
San Jose State may be without Mike MacIntyre, the head coach that led them to its first 10-win season in 25 years, but this is a senior-laden team that wants to finish on a winning note. The Spartans have won six in a row with the closest victory being a six-point margin over BYU. Bowling Green has put together an impressive campaign of its own, which would not have been possible without the huge contributions of its defense. However, the Falcons’ inability to put long drives together and points on the scoreboard catches up to them in our nation’s capital against the Spartans. Even with interim coach Kent Baer calling the shots in place of MacIntyre, San Jose State tacks one more in the win column by controlling both sides of the ball and wearing down the Bowling Green defense in the second half.
Prediction: San Jose State 27, Bowling Green 17
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Self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd and knuckleball pitching sensation R.A. Dickey tweeted out a picture of his favorite Christmas present yesterday. The picture (as seen below) included the tweet: "Maybe my favorite gift all year. Thank you Lucas Film."
Maybe my favorite gift all year. Thank you Lucas Film. twitter.com/RADickey43/sta…— R.A. Dickey (@RADickey43) December 26, 2012
With the holiday season upon us, we started thinking: If Santa can make a list, why can’t Athlon? So we asked dozens of athletes, agents, coaches, journalists and other experts to identify the nicest athletes in sports today. Here’s our roster:
With 347 Division I teams, following college basketball can be overwhelming. Let Athlon Sports start your college hoops week each Monday with a look at some of the most intriguing, most important and most interesting stats from around the sport:
15-for-15: Khalif Wyatt from the free throw line against Syracuse
The biggest win of the weekend came from Temple over undefeated No. 3 Syracuse in the World's Most Famous Arena. The crowd at Madison Square Garden watched the Owls outlast the Orange down the stretch with clutch free throw shooting. Wyatt was the game's top scorer with 33 points, with 15 of those coming from the free-throw line. He didn't miss a freebie all game, including 6-for-6 in the final 56 seconds. The win marked the fifth consecutive season in which Temple has defeated a top-10 team.
25: Career-high points by Derrick Nix in the win over Texas
Michigan State's senior center was the star of the show in Saturday's win over feisty Texas. He scored career-high 25 points on 7-of-10 shooting. He also added 11 rebounds and providing four steals. How much was this game a departure from Nix's career production? This was his 13th game of the season, and he had scored in double figures just twice with a high of 11 against mighty Tuskegee. In 116 career games for Michigan State, he had scored in double figures 16 times before going off against the 'Horns. He averaged 7.5 points per game for the year before the offensive explosion. As a side note, the biggest news of the hoops weekend came when the NCAA announced a 23-game suspension for Texas guard Myck Kabongo. The suspension was reduced from a season-long ban only after the Longhorns appealed. He will return Feb. 13 against Iowa State, giving him eight regular season games of conference play and plenty of time to earn key wins for the Longhorns. In addition to the Cyclones, Texas will play NCAA Tournament contenders Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor after Kabongo's return.
5: Unbeaten teams remaining
Entering Saturday, eight undefeated teams remained in college basketball. Five are left standing. New Mexico lost at home to Nate Wolters-led South Dakota State. Syracuse lost to Temple at the Garden. And Illinois lost to rival Missouri before a raucous crowd in St. Louis. Some of the remaining undefeated teams are not total surprises: Athlon tabbed Duke and Arizona as favorites in their respective conferences, for example. But if you had Cincinnati (Big East), Wyoming (Mountain West) and Michigan (Big Ten) as the last unbeaten teams in their respective leagues at Christmas, then you would have won some serious money. (Note: Arizona tipped at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday against Miami in the Diamond Head Classic.)
1-for-17: Phil Pressey in the first 39:26 against Illinois
Part of the reason the Fighting Illini are no longer unbeaten is because of Missouri guard Phil Pressey, but not his scoring. Pressey did his best John Starks impersonation, starting 1-for-17 from the field against Illinois before making two layups in the final 34 seconds. Yet, in front of a raucous split crowd in St. Louis, the Mizzou floor leader stuffed the stat sheet with 11 assists (against four turnovers), seven rebounds and was 6-of-6 from the free-throw line. And he scored a key layup with 34 seconds left in a five-point game. Laurence Bowers (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Alex Oriakhi (13 points, 14 rebounds) give this team plenty of size — and national championship experience — so if Pressey develops into the nation's best point guard (which he might already be), this Tigers team will make a run at a Final Four.
40: Points per game for UCLA freshmen Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad
In the six power conferences, Muhammad leads freshmen in scoring at 18.8 points per game in nine games with the Bruins. Adams is No. 2 among all power conference freshmen with 18.2 per game. Ben Howland's team has no excuse for what happened against Cal Poly and is still working on developing team chemistry. But losses to Georgetown and San Diego State will be nothing to be ashamed of come Selection Sunday. That said, a huge home game with Missouri kicks off the tough part of the season on Dec. 28. Has the remarkable scoring by the freshmen been a preview of more to come or will conference play and the grind of big-time college hoops slow the dynamic duo down? Additionally, Jahii Carson (17.9 ppg) of Arizona State is third among all power conference freshmen, giving the Pac-12 the three highest-scoring major-conference freshmen in the nation. So they have that going for them.
NFL football is the greatest reality TV program of all time. The Giants and Colts made sure of that back in 1958. Each NFL fall weekend is a completely new and original experience for every player, fan and coach alike. New stories, new personalities, new winners and new losers. And new statistics.
Here are the most important, most intriguing and most bizarre statistics from Week 16 of NFL play:
81: Two words: Calvin. Johnson.
Megatron was unstoppable this season. The lone bright spot for the 4-11 Lions has shone brighter than any wide receiver in history. Johnson set the single-season receiving record after catching 10 passes for 204 yards in the loss to the Falcons on Saturday night. He broke Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record (1,848). And at 1,892 yards for the season, Johnson can be the first receiver to reach the 2K mark in the final game. The performance against Atlanta also set an NFL record with eight consecutive games with at least 100 yards and broke the record for most 100-yard games in a season with 11.
4,183: Andrew Luck's NFL rookie passing yards record
Cam Newton set the single-season NFL rookie passing record with 4,051 yards last season with the first 4,000-yard rookie season. The record stood for just one season as Andrew Luck passed for 205 yards and one game-winning touchdown over the Chiefs this Sunday. He has 4,182 yards passing and has accounted for 27 total touchdowns. Most important, Newton lost 10 games during his record-setting first season while Luck's Colts won their 10th game of the year and clinched a playoff spot. Indianapolis is only the second team in NFL history to win 10 or more games one year after losing 14 (Miami, 2008).
14: Seconds left in a tie game when Big Ben was intercepted from his own 29
The Steelers snapped the ball in a game tied at 10 from their own 29-yard line. Facing elimination, Pittsburgh inexplicably called a pass play, and then even more inexplicably, Ben Roethlisberger rolled right, threw across his body and into the waiting arms of Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton then completed one pass to A.J. Green for 19 yards to put the Bengals into a position to clinch a playoff spot. One Josh Brown 43-yard field goal later and the Steelers had been eliminated from the playoffs. It was some of the worst decision making of the year. Not making the postseason continues a bizarre 13-year trend for Pittsburgh of missing the playoffs every three seasons.
6: First- or second-year QBs in playoff spots today
Rookie Russell Wilson and second-year man Colin Kaepernick faced off Sunday night in the game of the week in Seattle. Wilson got the better of Kaepernick behind four passing touchdowns, a 71.4-percent completion rate, one of the best home crowds in football and a tenacious defense. Both young quarterbacks have led their teams into the postseason — with honorable mention going to former Niners starter Alex Smith. If the season ended today, second-year quarterback Christian Ponder and rookie Robert Griffin III also would be playing in postseason games. In the AFC, rookie Andrew Luck and 2011 draft pick Andy Dalton have already secured their spot in the tournament as well. Half of the best 12 teams in the league are being led by guys who haven't finished their second full season yet. Never have three rookie quarterbacks made the playoffs but the Class of 2012 will do it if RG3 wins next weekend against Dallas. The names of the veteran quarterbacks in the playoffs? Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Matt Schaub — or otherwise, Matt Schaub and a bunch of scrubs. Seattle has won its last three games by a combined score of 150-30, and Wilson is two touchdowns away from Peyton Manning's rookie TD record of 26.
9-for-9: Blair Walsh's NFL single-season record for made field goals of 50 yards or more
The rookie for the Vikings has a been a big part of why the Minnesota is 9-6 and poised for a playoff appearance. He connected from 56 yards early in a close game against the Texans to set the NFL single-season record for most made field goals of 50 yards or more. He hasn't missed one yet, either. He made two other field goals (41 yards, 39 yards) to outscore the Texans by himself. He is 7-for-9 from 40 to 49 yards, 7-for-8 from 30 to 39 yards and 9-9 from less than 30 yards. That is 32-for-35 if you are counting at home in his first NFL season. He is 32-for-32 on extra points this year as well.
103: Jason Witten's NFL season record for catches for a tight end
The former Tennessee tight end caught six passes for 60 yards in the crushing overtime loss to the Saints at home. But those six receptions gave Witten 103 this year, breaking Tony Gonzalez's all-time single-season NFL tight end record of 102. As a leader, blocker and pass catcher, few players have ever been as good as the Cowboys' all-time leading receiver (799 catches).
1,456: Yards rushing for Jamaal Charles (has anyone noticed?)
Adrian Peterson is chasing history this season — he is 102 yards from 2,000 after 86 against Houston — but he isn't the only star running back doing amazing things following a torn ACL. Jamaal Charles also ripped apart his knee last season and has returned to electric form, rushing for 226 yards and one long touchdown in Week 16. He has a chance at finishing second in the NFL in rushing after jumping Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and Arian Foster in the standings this Sunday. He is third in the NFL, trailing only Marshawn Lynch's 1,490 yards for second. The Chiefs lost again — for the 13th time in 15 games — making Charles' performance all the more impressive (and quiet).
Fresno State and SMU will be spending Christmas on Christmas Island at the Hawaii Bowl, as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
The game will be a homecoming of sorts for SMU coach June Jones, who guided Hawaii to a 76–41 record over nine seasons from 1999-2007. Jones’ last season on Oahu, he led the Warriors to an undefeated 12–0 regular season and a BCS berth in the Sugar Bowl, where Hawaii lost to Georgia.
Hawaii Bowl — Fresno State (9–3) vs. SMU (6–6)
Date and Time: Dec. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
When the Fresno State Bulldogs have the ball:
Fresno State fourth-year junior quarterback Derek Carr — the younger brother of the Houston Texans’ No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, current New York Giants backup and former Fresno State star David Carr — has been lights out since taking over as the starter last season. The 6’3”, 210-pounder has threw for 3,742 yards, 36 TDs and five INTs.
Carr’s top target is redshirt freshman Davante Adams, who had 89 catches for 1,168 yards and 13 trips to the end zone. The Bulldogs’ top playmaker is senior running back Robbie Rouse, who had 1,468 yards and 12 TDs on the ground, 58 catches for 406 yards and two TDs, and a one-yard TD pass this season.
SMU’s defense could have trouble containing a Fresno State offense that averges 40.2 points per game. The Mustangs allowed 40 or more points four times this season, going 1–3 in those games — losing to Baylor, Texas A&M and UCF, while beating Houston. SMU will lean heavily on the senior leadership of defensive end Margus Hunt and linebacker Ja’Gared Davis, a pair of first-team All-C-USA defenders. If the game comes down to a field goal, Hunt owns the NCAA career record for blocked kicks (17).
When the SMU Mustangs have the ball:
Jones doesn’t have a record-breaking passer like he did with Hawaii’s Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, but SMU does have a highly decorated transfer from Texas under center. Garrett Gilbert — who replaced Colt McCoy in the 2010 BCS title game against Alabama — threw for 2,720 yards, 14 TDs and 13 INTs. But the heart and soul of the Mustangs offense is senior Zach Line, who rushed for 1,207 yards and 12 TDs.
First-year Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter was defensive coordinator at Texas A&M and has the luxury of a stop-unit led by senior safety Phillip Thomas — the first player in school history to be a unanimous All-America selection. The Bulldogs ranked 27th in scoring defense (22.3 ppg) and could put the clamps on an inconsistent SMU attack that was held under 20 points five times.
This will be the seventh meeting between Fresno State and SMU, with all six meetings coming between 1999-2004 when both schools were members of the WAC. The Bulldogs hold 5–1 edge in the series. Expect that trend to continue, as Fresno State says “Aloha” — hello and goodbye — to Jones’ Hawaii homecoming.
Prediction: Fresno State 42, SMU 33
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Too often these days, fans and athletes alike focus on the negative side of sports, whether it's a fight that breaks out on the field or trash talk off the field. Still, there are many instances of athletes taking the high road and doing the right thing. Here are five perfect examples of athletes showing us what sportsmanship is all about.
The New York Giants will try and keep their playoff hopes alive by handing the Baltimore Ravens a fourth straight defeat when they meet at 4:25 p.m. ET this afternoon on FOX. The defending Super Bowl champion Giants (8-6) must rebound from last week’s disheartening 34-0 loss in Atlanta if they want to have any chance at a possible repeat, while the Ravens (9-5) would like to turn things around in their quest to win a second straight AFC North crown.
When the New York Giants have the ball:
New York’s offense is sixth in the NFL in scoring at 26.6 points per game and 10th in total offense at 364.6 yards per game. The Giants have been fairly balanced on offense, ranking ninth in passing (249.6 ypg) and 15th in rushing (115 ypg). The ground game has been a collaborative effort, as running back Ahmad Bradshaw leads the way with 869 yards rushing, but his inability to stay on the field has presented opportunities to both Andre Brown and rookie David Wilson. Brown, who has a team-high eight rushing touchdowns, broke his leg in Week 10 and won’t be eligible to return until the Super Bowl, if the Giants even make it that far. Wilson has been productive (155 yards rushing last two games) after finally receiving sustained playing time, and he and Bradshaw could provide a productive one-two punch out of the backfield. That would be a huge help to quarterback Eli Manning, who has struggled at times during the season and has just 20 touchdown passes compared to 15 interceptions. Manning has several legitimate weapons in wide receivers Victor Cruz (79-1,019-9), Hakeem Nicks (53-692-3) and tight end Martellus Bennett (five TD catches). They just haven’t been able to do as much damage this season compared to last year when Manning had nearly 5,000 yards passing, 29 touchdowns and only 16 picks. The offensive line has done its job keeping Manning’s jersey clean, allowing a league-low 16 sacks, and other than the interceptions, the team has fumbled it away just six times. Turnovers have not been a big issue, as the team’s +13 differential between giveaways and takeaways ranks fourth overall.
Baltimore’s defense has not been nearly as stout this season as it has in the past. The Ravens, one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses for years, ranks just 26th in total defense, as the unit has given up nearly 375 yards per game. It has done a good job of mitigating the damage, as they are allowing less than 22 points per contest, which places them 13th in the league in that category. The Ravens have been susceptible to both the run (132.2 ypg, 26th) and pass (242.1 ypg, 22nd), as injuries have resulted in several key players, such as Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb, missing a significant number of games. They are in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks (32) and have forced a total of 25 (13 INTs, 12 fumbles) turnovers. One other interesting stat to note: the Ravens are tied for first in the NFL in fewest touchdown passes allowed with 13, but 26th in rushing scores surrendered (14).
When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
Baltimore’s offense has had its share of ups and downs throughout the season, one of the reasons why offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was recently relieved of his duties. The Ravens are 21st in the NFL in total offense (339.6 ypg) and 12th in scoring (24.9 ppg). They rank 22nd in rushing offense (105.1 ypg), as Ray Rice has surpassed 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season. Baltimore is 14th in passing offense (234.6 ypg) with quarterback Joe Flacco throwing twice as many touchdowns (20) as interceptions (10). Wide receiver Torrey Smith is the team’s deep threat (17.4 ypc, seven TDs), but he needs to be more consistent on a week in, week out basis. Fellow wideout Anquan Boldin is a reliable target for Flacco, as is Rice out of the backfield, while tight end Dennis Pitta is tied with Smith for the team lead in touchdown catches with seven. The offense has done its part in holding on to the ball, as the team has turned it over just 15 times (third-fewest in AFC) so far.
New York’s defense has been fairly generous this season as it applies to yards allowed, but that hasn’t been the case when it comes to the story on the scoreboard. The Giants rank near the bottom (28th) in total defense at 377.4 yards per game, but are 12th in scoring defense, allowing less than 22 points per contest. Unfortunately, over its last three games, wins over Green Bay and New Orleans and a significant loss to Washington, this unit has seen its yards allowed average to rise to 417 per game. The passing defense (253.7 ypg) has been the biggest culprit and scapegoat this season, but the rushing defense (123.7 ypg, 22nd) has had its own issues. The key for this defense has been in keeping opponents out of the end zone and generating turnovers. Even with all of the yards gained against them, the Giants have yielded just eight rushing touchdowns (tied for sixth-fewest in the NFL) and only 23 touchdown passes. The defense is in the middle of the pack when it comes to sacks (32, tied for 16th), but this unit has forced the third-most turnovers (34) and also is third in the league in interceptions with 20.
Both New York and Baltimore could really use a win here, but for entirely different reasons. The Giants need a victory just to stay alive in the NFC East race, as the defending Super Bowl champions find themselves looking up at both the Redskins and Cowboys with just two games remaining. The Ravens have already clinched a playoff spot, but still have business to take care of to wrap up a second straight AFC North title, and also just need to win to put an end to their current three-game losing streak. The Giants have been in this situation before, as they needed to win their final two games last season just to make the playoffs as the NFC East champions, so this is really nothing new to this veteran team. The Ravens have plenty of experience of their own, but appear to be a team finding its way, especially on offense. That’s never a good sign, but especially this late in the season. So even though the Giants are on the road and have their backs to the wall, I think the reigning champs find a way to get it done against the Ravens, as Eli Manning and the passing attack leads the way to victory. Rookie David Wilson also chips in with a key kickoff return at some point in the second half to set up a critical scoring drive as well.
Giants 27, Ravens 23
The NFC West could be decided when the San Francisco 49ers take on the Seattle Seahawks at 8:20 p.m ET tonight on NBC. A win would clinch a second straight division title for the 49ers (10-3-1), while handing the Seahawks (9-5) their first home loss of the season. The Seahawks are currently seeded fifth in the NFC playoff bracket, but four teams are right behind them at 8-6, so they still have work to do to secure their postseason berth. San Francisco beat Seattle 13-6 back in Week 7, but the 49ers have a different starting quarterback under center this time around.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
More known for its defense, San Francisco’s offense has more than held its own this season, as they 49ers rank 11th in the NFL in total offense with 361.7 yards per game and eighth in scoring at 25.5 points per game. The 49ers have the league’s second-best rushing attack (162.9 ypg), led by running back Frank Gore. Gore is eighth in rushing yards with 1,118, his sixth 1,000-yard campaign in eight seasons with the team. The passing offense may rank 26th in yards with less than 200 per game, but it’s been more than effective. The 49ers have a total of 20 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions, tying them for the fewest picks in the NFC. Colin Kaepernick initially replaced opening-week starter Alex Smith at quarterback in Week 11 after Smith sustained a concussion the prior week. Kaepernick hit the ground running, leading the 49ers to an impressive win over Chicago on “Monday Night Football,” and hasn’t looked back. In five games as the starting quarterback, Kaepernick has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,083 yards, seven touchdowns with just two interceptions, and has led his team to a 4-1 record. He’s also rushed for 202 yards with two scores during this span and is second on the team for the season with five rushing touchdowns. Michael Crabtree is the team’s leading receiver with 73 catches for 868 yards and seven touchdowns. Tight end Vernon Davis is a dangerous weapon as well, but he and Kaepernick have had trouble developing chemistry to this point. Even with his mobility, Kaepernick has been sacked 13 times since becoming the starter, and overall the 49ers have given up 39 sacks. However, this is a team that doesn’t beat itself, as evidenced by its 14 total turnovers.
Seattle’s defense is ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in each of the four major categories. The Seahawks are third overall in total defense (303.9 ypg) and passing defense (197.6 ypg), second in scoring (15.6 ppg), and tenth in rushing defense (106.3 ypg). The unit has allowed a total of 21 offensive touchdowns this season, including a league-low 13 touchdown passes. The Seahawks do a good job getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks (35 sacks), and excel at generating turnovers. The defense has forced 28 turnovers thus far, including 16 interceptions. It also has made the most of some of their opponents’ mistakes, as the defense has scored four touchdowns off of turnovers. As good as Seattle’s defense has been overall, it has been at its best at home. The Seahawks are surrendering fewer than 12 points per game and less than 280 yards of offense to the opposition in the six home games they have played. New England (475 yards) is the only team to gain more than 300 yards and score more than 20 points against Seattle at CenturyLink Field to this point.
When the Seattle Seahawks have the ball:
Seattle’s offense is powered by one of the league’s top rushers and a rookie quarterback who has opened many eyes with his play. The Seahawks are 16th in the league in total offense with 350.1 yards per game and 11th in scoring at 25 points per contest. They have the No. 3 rushing offense, thanks to running back Marshawn Lynch, who trails only Adrian Peterson in rushing yards with 1,379. They rank just 27th in passing offense with less than 190 yards per game, but that only tells part of the story when it comes to rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks’ third-round pick in April’s draft, Wilson has completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 2,697 yards, 21 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He is the league’s eighth-rated passer (95.5), higher than Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Andrew Luck to name a few, and he is currently tied with Cam Newton for the second-most touchdown passes by a quarterback in his rookie season. Wilson also has produced with his legs, including the three rushing touchdowns he had in last week’s 50-17 rout of Buffalo in Toronto. Wilson has done a good job of staying alive in the pocket and either getting the most yards he can after taking off or throwing it away, as he has been sacked just 26 times. He also loves playing at home, where he has a 12:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has yet to lose (6-0) in his brief career. Wide receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate are the top two leading pass-catchers and have each hauled in seven touchdown passes. The Seahawks as a team have turned the ball over only 17 times, including just eight fumbles.
San Francisco’s defense is No. 1 in the league in scoring defense (15.6 ppg) and second in total defense at 293 yards per game. The 49ers are ranked third against the run (91.1. ypg) and fifth against the pass (201.9 ypg), which is saying something since they have faced Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady already this season. Along those lines, the defense has allowed only 14 touchdowns passes, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and just six rushing touchdowns (third-fewest). The defense has 35 sacks, led by Defensive Player of the Year Aldon Smith’s 19.5. The linebacker is tied with Houston’s J.J. Watt for the league lead, and each is just three away from tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record of 22.5. Besides Smith, the 49ers have All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman as the cornerstones of their defense. This defense may not force a lot of turnovers (22 total), but it more than makes up for it with its athleticism, physicality, tackling prowess and nasty disposition.
San Francisco and Seattle are similar in many ways. Both teams’ game plans are built around running the ball and playing strong defense. Statistically they rank either right behind or very close to one another in several categories, both offensive and defensive. And they are both led by young, athletic quarterbacks capable of making plays with both their arm and their legs. It’s not surprising that the first game was a close-knit affair, which was won 13-6 by the 49ers in Week 7 in San Francisco. Now the scene shifts to Seattle, where the Seahawks are unbeaten in six games. They have their last three games overall and have put 50 or more points on the scoreboard the past two Sundays. The 49ers are riding some momentum of their own, however, after beating New England 41-34 last Sunday night to end the Patriots’ December home winning streak at 20 games. It also just so happens that the last team to beat the Seahawks at home was the 49ers, who won 19-17 in Seattle in Week 16 last season. A year later, the biggest change between these two teams is the quarterbacks. As well as Russell Wilson has played for Seattle, he struggled in his first game against his division rival, while Colin Kaepernick had just one carry against the Seahawks back in Week 7. Kaepernick is the starter now and he has been a difference-maker for the 49ers’ offense since taking over. Look no further than his four-touchdown performance on the road against the Patriots. While I don’t think he will repeat the four touchdowns tonight, I do expect Kaepernick to make enough plays and then let the defense do the rest as San Francisco turns out its second straight impressive road showing and wraps up back-to-back NFC West titles in the process.
49ers 20, Seahawks 16
The Cincinnati Bengals can secure a second-straight playoff berth with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers when the two square off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. The Bengals (8-6) find themselves in the driver’s seat thanks to last Thursday’s 34-13 dismantling of Philadelphia at home. The Steelers (7-7), losers of four of their last five games, must win to keep their postseason hopes alive and avoid the sight of the rival Bengals celebrating on their home field. Pittsburgh has won the past five matchups with Cincinnati, including a 24-17 win back in Week 7.
When the Cincinnati Bengals have the ball:
Cincinnati’s offense has done a good job of maximizing its possessions into points. Consider that the Bengals rank 18th in the NFL in total offense at 347.6 yards per game, but are ninth in scoring at 25.4 points per game. The running game has picked up lately, as the Bengals are 11th in the league in rushing offense (120.3 ypg) and come in at No. 17 in passing offense (227.4 ypg). Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has already set a personal-best with 1,080 rushing yards this season and has gone over 100 yards in four of his past five outings. Even though quarterback Andy Dalton is just 15th among his peers in passing yards with 3,313, his 26 touchdown passes place him sixth. Wide receiver A.J. Green has caught 11 of these, putting him second in the league in this category, and he’s also among the top eight in both receptions (85) and yards (1,208). Turnovers have been somewhat of an issue for the team, as Dalton has thrown 14 interceptions and the Bengals have fumbled the ball away nine times. Dalton also has been sacked 38 times thus far, the third-most among quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh’s defense leads the NFL in both total (273.3 ypg) and passing (180.6 ypg) defense, and also is among the top eight in rushing (92.7 ypg, fourth) and scoring (20.8 ppg, eighth) defense. Injuries continue to be an issue for this unit, however, as the Steelers are without the services of cornerback ike Taylor and have had to call on several unknown and inexperienced defensive backs throughout the season. This defense hasn’t produced many sacks (27, tied for 23rd in the NFL) or turnovers (13 total), which combined with the numerous injuries makes its statistical production look even more impressive. The bottom line, however, is winning games, and Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been able to make that key stop late or force that critical turnover, which is a reason why the Steelers are now in a must-win situation.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Pittsburgh’s offense has been limited all season by a lack of consistent production from the running game and a revolving door along its offensive line. The Steelers are 19th in the league in total offense at 345.1 yards per game, with nearly 75 percent of the yards gained coming via the pass. They are near the bottom (26th) in rushing offense at 96.5 yards per game, and only managed 69 yards rushing in last week’s overtime loss in Dallas. Jonathan Dwyer has been getting the bulk of the carries recently, but he’s averaging just over four yards per carry for the season and had only 22 on the ground against the Cowboys. The team has other options in Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey and Rashard Mendenhall, but really need someone to step up and offer some consistent gains on the ground. Because of the lack of production from the running game, the Steelers have relied on the pass more, which is why they rank 10th in passing offense (248.6 ypg). Having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center certainly helps, as he’s the league’s sixth-rated passer with just six interceptions, and his mobility in the pocket (been sacked just 24 times) has helped an injury-ravaged offensive line. Big Ben, however, also has missed three games because of injuries he sustained after getting sacked in Week 10 against Kansas City, and he is just 21st in passing yards with 2,911, to go along with 22 touchdown passes. The overlying issue for the offense has been scoring points. The Steelers are 20th in scoring at 21.6 points per game and have hurt themselves on more than one occasion with turnovers. Even though Roethlisberger has just six picks, his replacements have thrown six more when they have been under center and the team has 15 fumbles, the third-most among AFC teams. Couple that with the defense’s inability to force a lot of turnovers, and the Steelers have a -14 turnover differential, the third-worst ratio in the AFC.
Cincinnati’s defense has been a pleasant surprise this season, ranking sixth in the league in total defense (320.4 ypg) and 10th in scoring (20.9 ppg) defense. The Bengals are ninth against the run (101 ypg) and 12th against the pass (219.4 ypg), and have produced a league-leading 43 sacks. The unit has yielded just 15 touchdown passes, the sixth-fewest in the league, and has had much more success compared to Pittsburgh’s defense when it comes to forcing turnovers. The Bengals have 26 takeaways so far, including 15 fumbles. In last Thursday’s 34-13 win in Philadelphia, the defense forced five turnovers (four fumbles and an INT) and returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown.
Pittsburgh has been the dominant team in this series lately, having won the past five matchups. However, this is not the same type of Steelers team from recent years, and it’s Cincinnati, not Pittsburgh, who is in the driver’s seat for a wild-card berth. The Steelers did beat the Bengals 24-17 back in Week 7, but even though they dominated the stat sheet (had 431 total yards to Bengals’ 185), they needed a Chris Rainey touchdown with less than a minute remaining to secure the victory. Since that game, Cincinnati has gone 5-2, while Pittsburgh is just 4-4. The Steelers’ defense did a superb job of limiting the Bengals’ offense the first time around, but several players, most notably Ike Taylor, who were a part of that first victory, won’t be playing in this one. Cincinnati’s running game, which managed just 80 yards against the Steelers’ defense in Week 7, has been much more productive as of late as well, which should help open things up for Andy Dalton and the passing attack. Pittsburgh may be playing at home, but the Steelers have dropped their last two games at Heinz Field. In the end, I just think this is a team that’s simply too beat up and not all that together, on the same page. With a second straight playoff berth squarely in their sights, I think the Bengals earn a hard-fought road victory and gain some much-needed confidence headed into the postseason. On the other side, this season-deciding loss for the Steelers shifts the focus to potential changes forthcoming in the offseason amid the questions concerning the team’s outlook for 2013 and beyond.
Bengals 23, Steelers 20
A betting preview of every game (against the spread) in Week 16.
Locks of the Week
Two divisional rivalry showdowns plus another two matchups of the haves and have nots look like good picks in a tough week to call.
49ers (-1) at Seahawks
Seattle is 6–0 at home this season; but New England had won 20 straight at home in December before last week’s San Fran upset.
Bears (-6) at Cardinals
Ken Whisenhunt is probably on his way out anyway, might as go out with a Dennis Green-style rant after a Chicago loss.
Redskins (-6.5) at Eagles
RG3 is set to play against Philly, a team he went 14-of-15 with four TDs against during a 31–6 blowout win in Week 11.
Patriots (-14.5) at Jaguars
The Pats has won by 15 or more points in four of their seven road games — against the Titans (34–13), Bills (52–28), Rams (45–7) and Jets (49–19).
Saturday Night Fever
With no Thursday of Monday night games, the NFL schedule breaks out its first Saturday night prime time affair.
Falcons (-4.5) at Lions
Detroit has lost six straight, with three road games by five or more points and three home games by a combined nine points.
Straight Up Upset
This field goal spreads could come down to just that; but the game-winning kick might just come from the foot of an underdog.
Ravens (+3) vs. Giants
Baltimore has lost three straight contests, while New York has fallen in its last three road games — including a 34–0 whipping at Atlanta last week.
Bad Teams, Worse Opponents
The Ryan brothers have been up and down — mostly down — this year, but the Bolts and Aints have had even harder times.
Jets (-2.5) vs. Chargers
San Diego has gone 7–16 in games played in the Eastern Time Zone under Norv Turner.
Cowboys (-3) vs. Saints
New Orleans is 2–5 on the road, while Dallas has won five of its last six, including three of its last four at home.
Steer clear of these games unless you happen to be a degenerate or a hometown homer who has to have action on every game, all the time.
Buccaneers (-3) vs. Rams
St. Louis is 2–3–1 on the road, with wins over bottom feeders Arizona and Buffalo the past two weeks.
Steelers (-4) vs. Bengals
Cincinnati is riding a five-game losing streak against the AFC North rivals from Pittsburgh.
Dolphins (-4.5) vs. Bills
Buffalo beat Miami, 19–14, in Week 11 during a game that featured four FGs and a punt return TD.
Colts (-7) at Chiefs
Indy has only one win by eight or more points this season, on the road at Jacksonville.
Panthers (-9) vs. Raiders
Oakland is 0–4 in the Eastern Time Zone this year, but Carolina can’t be trusted.
Texans (-9) vs. Vikings
Adrian Peterson’s quest to join the 2,000-yard club may hit a Watt wall in Houston.
Packers (-12.5) vs. Titans
Tennessee may need CJ2K to break another 90-plus-yard TD run to stay within a Lambeau Leap.
Broncos (-13) vs. Browns
Peyton Manning will pull off the win, but Cleveland is improved with a 3–1 record the last four weeks.
Why isn’t the World Series trophy named after a person, like the Stanley Cup (NHL), Lombardi Trophy (NFL) and Larry O’Brien Trophy (NBA)? I think it should be named the Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson Memorial Cup.
— John Daneluk, Beverly, Mass.
Each year, MLB hands out the rather blandly named Commissioner’s Trophy to its champion. Like you, we think the name could use a little more personality. Your suggestion, while featuring two worthy candidates, is a little too cumbersome, but limiting it to one player is difficult. There’s no executive as worthy as the NBA’s O’Brien; the first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, would be a candidate if he hadn’t been a roadblock to integration. Here’s one thought: Casey Stengel, who managed the Yankees to 10 World Series appearances in his 12 years at the helm (1949-60). He’s baseball’s closest approximation to Lombardi. But we’re open to suggestions.
— Charlie Miller, Editorial Director
Why is it that the NFL is the only major sport that does not induct game officials into its Hall of Fame?
— Dr. Norman Jones, Crystal Lake, Ill.
We kicked this one over to veteran NFL writer Gordon Forbes, who had this to say: “A number of officials have been nominated over the years, but none has made it to the final 25 cut. Dr. Jones should know that fans can nominate players, coaches, contributors, etc., by simply sending a letter to the Hall of Fame, which is why there are usually 100 or more individuals nominated each year. Among today’s officials, the best-known and one of the most respected is Ed Hochuli, but the first official I would name to the Hall of Fame would be former referee Jim Tunney.”