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This game might has well be titled The Zoloft Consolation Prize Bowl.
Texas comes into San Antonio after losing the season finale with a chance to win the Big 12 title outright. Oregon — who probably deserved to be playing Alabama in the Sugar Bowl instead of Oklahoma — was one win away from the Pac-12 North championship before crumbling under the pressure (twice).
This game will be Mack Brown’s much talked about (and much anticipated by some) swan song as the Texas head coach. He is familiar with the Alamodome as his Horns’ topped Oregon State in dramatic fashion in last year’s edition. On the flip side, Mark Helfrich is coaching in his first career bowl game as a headman. And with Marcus Mariota already announcing his return for 2014, the first-year coach needs a critical win to build momentum and expectations for next season. A third disappointing upset in his final five games of this season would leave a bitter and unusual taste in the mouths of Ducks everywhere.
These two powerhouses have played only five times previously. Oregon topped Texas 35-30 in the 2000 Holiday Bowl in the only game between the two since 1971. Texas won the first four meetings between 1941 and 1971.
Oregon vs. Texas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30. at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -13
Three Things to Watch
Texas' emotional goodbye to Mack
Mack Brown is 18-17 in the Big 12 in the last four seasons at Texas, so his time had come in Austin. But he has coached for 16 years at Texas with class and dignity, gaining respect for his persona along the way. Will his players rally around him in his final time to stalk the sideline in the Burnt Orange? Motivation is a huge determining factor for most bowl games as it is nearly impossible to pinpoint what the attitude is like in either team’s locker room — or on the practice field for the last month. Especially, for two teams that are likely disappointed to be in this bowl game. Can his counterpart Mark Helfrich get his team up emotionally to play in a game that largely means nothing for the Ducks? Who holds the focus and motivational edge in this game will go a long way in determining a winner.
The Ducks relentless running game
Texas’ struggles stopping the run has been a major issue for the past few seasons and it reached a low point earlier this season when BYU totaled 554 yards rushing against the Horns. They finished 81st nationally in rushing defense and are now charged with stopping one of the most powerful ground games in the land. Oregon can throw Byron Marshall, De’Anthony Thomas, Thomas Tyner and Marcus Mariota at a defense in endless formations and play calls. And it all happens at a tempo matched by few teams in the country. Has Texas improved under “new” defensive coordinator Greg Robinson? Yes. Are they capable of stopping the Oregon Ducks rushing game that averages nearly 300 yards per game?
The Horns' depleted roster
The Longhorns are a two-touchdown underdog in this game for a variety of reasons and Texas’ depleted roster is one of the big reasons why. Starting backfield David Ash and Johnathan Gray have been out for most of the last few months, as defensive stars Jordan Hicks and Chris Whaley were lost for the season a month ago as well. To literally add insult to injury, Texas had to suspend Kennedy Estelle, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet due to academic issues for this game as well. This depth chart has taken major hits over the last few weeks and only continues to crumble. Can the backups — most of whom are big-time recruits in their own right — step in against an elite opponent and answer the bell for Bevo?
Key Player: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
If the Ducks quarterback is fully healthy and firing on all cylinders, this Ducks team could roll up a big number on the Longhorns. Mariota’s ability to run and pass is second to none in the nation when he is operating at full speed and Texas won’t have an answer for him. However, if his knee isn’t 100-percent (which is likely) then he will become a one-dimensional passer (albeit a very talented one) that is easier to gameplan for defensively. Mariota holds the keys to victory for both teams.
The Ducks are a better team. They have a healthy, more talented roster, a better quarterback, a better defense and boast a significantly better winning percentage this year and over the past few seasons. But the Longhorns have a clear edge in the motivation department as they attempt to send their head coach out as a winner. Expect the Horns to play much better than anticipated (i.e., the Vegas point spread) but simply don’t have the horses (or steers) to keep up with the mighty Ducks. Oregon pulls away in the end and catapults itself into a critical offseason for a team eyeing a preseason top 5 ranking in 2014.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Texas 28
Two of college football powerhouses meet in the Gator Bowl to end what has been a bizarre season for both Georgia and Nebraska.
Both teams entered the season with major conference championship aspirations, but critical injuries riddled both rosters, eventually leading to eight combined losses between the two. Nebraska was without Taylor Martinez for much of the season, while Georgia lost key playmakers on offense — Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell — for various lengths of time. Both teams were left wondering what could have been in 2013 had their teams stayed healthy.
And when both teams take the field this bowl season, neither team will have what many call the best QB (statistically) in each team’s history. Martinez - the Huskers all-time total offense record holder - won’t play in the Gator Bowl, and Georgia lost franchise quarterback Aaron Murray to a torn ACL against Kentucky last month.
Both coaches need a win for momentum heading into a critical 2014 campaign, and 9-4 looks a lot better than 8-5. These two staffs know each other well as the Bulldogs topped the Cornhuskers in the 45-31 in the Capital One Bowl last year. It was only the second meeting between these two proud programs as Nebraska won the first meeting 45-6 in the 1969 Sun Bowl.
The rubber match should give fans of both teams a glimpse of the future as Hutson Mason will make his second career start for Mark Richt, while Tommy Armstrong starts in place of Martinez.
Nebraska vs. Georgia
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1. at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Georgia -9
Three Things to Watch
Which star running back is more effective
While all eyes will be on the signal callers under center, the most pivotal players for both offenses will be the running backs. And Georgia's Todd Gurley and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah are two of the best in the nation. Gurley is a workhorse that physically imposes his will inside and outside of the tackles with power, speed and quickness. Despite missing three full games and big chunks of others, he finished with 903 yards rushing on 6.3 yards per carry and scored 15 total touchdowns. Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing with 1,466 yards, including a string of eight consecutive 100-yard games, and 10 total touchdowns. Both players made critical plays in key spots for his team and each will be leaned on a big way in this old school SEC-Big Ten showdown.
Which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes
When it comes to quarterback play, much is unknown about what to expect from both. Tommy Armstrong has played more football this season (seven career starts) than his Georgia counterpart Hutson Mason (one career start). Mason, however, is a more talented passer and has three years in the system as opposed to the Nebraska freshman. He struggled mightily out of the gate against Georgia Tech but bounced back to lead an improbable comeback against the rival Jackets. Mason is a more polished passer but Armstrong is more athletic, so whichever team gets more efficient and mistake-free play from its quarterback will likely win the game.
Bo Pelini's sideline behavior
Bowl matchups feature risk taking and trick plays like no other football games, and Pelini has had some interesting and tension-filled moments on the sidelines during his up-and-down tenure in Nebraska. While he has settled down as his time at Nebraska has gone along, he has had some tenuous moments with his fan base, administration and players in 2013. His facial expression following the Hail Mary against Northwestern is absolutely priceless. In a critical bowl game in front of a restless fan base, will Pelini maintain his cool or will the emotion of the game get the better of him? Either way, anytime Pelini and the Huskers take the field in a big game, it’s appointment viewing. Especially, if the Huskers lose the fourth quarter 14-0 like they did against the Dawgs in last year’s bowl game.
Key Player: Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
Jordan Jenkins was supposed to be the break out star for Todd Grantham’s aggressive 3-4 defense this year, but Floyd has been the freshman surprise this season. He finished seventh on the team in tackles (47), posted 8.5 tackles for loss and led the team in sacks (6.5) and forced fumbles (2). Stopping Abdullah from reaching the edge and getting pressure on a freshman quarterback will be the primary objective of the 6-foot-4, 230-pound star freshman playmaker for Georgia. Keep an eye on No. 84 in the Black and Red.
Georgia busted open a close game in last year’s Capital One Bowl with two touchdowns in the final quarter to top Nebraska 45-31 behind a huge game from Aaron Murray. It’s safe to say neither quarterback will play the type of game Murray posted last year (427 yards, 5 TD), so both running backs will be on full display. Both defenses have had their share of issues this fall but both have shown flashes of better days ahead. The Bulldogs have the clear edge in terms of overall talent and their quarterback is better suited to create balance on offense. Look for a similarly close game through three quarters before Todd Gurley takes over in the final frame to the Dawgs.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 27
Conference play for many leagues will begin this week, meaning most teams have had plenty of time to take stock of where they stand.
The non-conference schedule has established, more or less, the contenders for the top teams in the NCAA Tournament field, the teams that can continue their momentum and expect a spot in the bracket and those that still need a fair amount of work to do between now and Selection Sunday.
In other words, this is the perfect time to project the teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Our first NCAA Tournament projections tended to have a more egalitarian approach when it comes to the non-major conferences. This may change in the coming weeks as teams in the Atlantic 10, Mountain West or even the American see their schedules diluted by the lower halves of their respective leagues.
For now, all teams included have done enough in their non-conference schedules to warrant a spot in the field of 68.
NCAA Tournament Projections: Dec. 30
Top-four seed material: Syracuse, Duke
Feeling good: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida State
Barely in: Virginia
On the outs: Maryland, Notre Dame
Notes: Undefeated Syracuse picked up a top-10 win with a defeat of Villanova on Saturday. Duke’s two losses came against KenPom.com top 10 teams Kansas and Arizona. ... No team has better non-conference wins than North Carolina’s victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, but the knack for baffling losses persists. ... Florida State keeps getting better. Noles are 0-2 against the Big Ten but picked up key win over UMass on Saturday. ... Virginia will be on the bubble with a loss to Tennessee on Monday. ... Tough to see Notre Dame thriving without Jerian Grant, but not impossible.
Top-four seed material: Louisville, Memphis
Feeling good: Connecticut, Cincinnati
Barely in: SMU
Notes: No shame in losing to Kentucky and North Carolina away from home, but Louisville’s best non-conference win is Southern Miss. ... Memphis’ win over Oklahoma State and close call with Florida signals good things. ... Cincinnati’s ugly win over Pittsburgh erases some sting from losses to New Mexico and Xavier. ... SMU’s first three conference games (at Cincinnati, Connecticut, at Louisville) are huge.
Atlantic 10 (4)
Feeling good: UMass, VCU
Barely in: Saint Louis, George Washington
On the outs: Dayton
Notes: UMass had a quality non-conference schedule in its 11-1 start, but the Lobos will count on LSU, New Mexico, BYU and Florida State to be NCAA contenders. ... VCU went 3-1 against ACC teams. ... Beating Vanderbilt on the road Monday will be a boon for Saint Louis. ... Dayton’s win over Gonzaga is great, but losses to Illinois State and USC make it look like fool’s gold. ... George Washington has wins over Creighton and Maryland.
Big 12 (5)
Top-four seed material: Oklahoma State, Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor
Barely in: Texas, Kansas State
On the outs: Oklahoma
Notes: Kansas’ brutal schedule is starting to yield good wins again (New Mexico, Georgetown). The Jayhawks return to Lawrence against Toledo and San Diego State. ... Iowa State is the Big 12’s last undefeated team with nice wins over Michigan, Iowa and Boise State. ... Baylor’s win over Kentucky looks even better after Wildcats win over Louisville. ... Oklahoma’s best non-conference win is over Alabama. The Sooners will figure out where they stand by opening Big 12 play against Texas, Kansas and Iowa State. ... Texas’ win over schizophrenic North Carolina was key for Rick Barnes. ... Kansas State’s December wins over Ole Miss and Gonzaga signal a team getting better.
Big East (4)
Top-four seed material: Villanova
Feeling good: Creighton, Marquette, Xavier
On the outs: Butler, Providence
Notes: Villanova still looks like the class of the Big East despite giving up an early lead against Syracuse. ... Creighton’s only losses are on neutral courts to San Diego State and George Washington. ... Marquette hasn’t lost to a bad opponent, but the Eagles need a nice Big East record. .... Xavier’s resume needs work, but defeating Cincinnati, Alabama and Wake Forest in consecutive games was a start. ... Butler has surprised, but that non-conference schedule is lacking.
Big Ten (6)
Top-four seed material: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State
Feeling good: Iowa
Barely in: Michigan, Indiana
On the outs: Minnesota, Illinois
Notes: Notre Dame’s epic collapse kept Ohio State undefeated, but Buckeyes have one win over a KenPom.com top-50 team (Marquette). ... Wisconsin also opens Big Ten play undefeated. .... Michigan State is battling through bumps and bruises but still beat Texas easily on Dec. 17. ... No shame in Iowa’s losses to Villanova in Iowa State, but wins over Notre Dame and Xavier may fade in stature. ... Michigan fans have reason for concern with Mitch McGary going in for back surgery. ... Minnesota’s win over Florida State will keep the Gophers worth watching.
Missouri Valley (1)
Top-four seed material: Wichita State
On the outs: Indiana State
Notes: After navigating a non-conference schedule including BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama, Wichita State may flirt with an undefeated season. ... Indiana State has a road win over Notre Dame and split games against Belmont to put the Sycamores on the bubble.
Mountain West (3)
Top-four seed material: San Diego State
Feeling good: New Mexico
Barely in: Boise State
On the outs: UNLV, Utah State
Notes: San Diego State will hope Creighton and Marquette go toe-to-toe for the Big East title. The Aztecs defeated both, and they face Kansas in Lawrence on Sunday. ... New Mexico also has a win over Marquette, plus a win over Cincinnati and a split with rival New Mexico State. ... Boise State held Iowa State to a season-low 70 points in a loss in the Diamond Head Classic.
Top-four seed material: Arizona, Oregon
Feeling good: Colorado, UCLA, Arizona State
Barely in: Stanford
On the outs: Cal, Utah
Notes: Undefeated Arizona has wins over Duke and Michigan away from home. ... Oregon can only get stronger with Dominic Artis returning to the lineup as transfers gain chemistry. ... Colorado has a good win over Kansas, its only losses are to Oklahoma State and Baylor away from Boulder. ... UCLA pulled away from Alabama to avoid a not-so-pretty loss at home. ... Arizona State is among a handful of teams hoping wins over Marquette and UNLV will still be respectable in March. ... Stanford had an OK pre-Christmas stretch with win at UConn and three-point loss to Michigan.
Top-four seed material: Florida, Kentucky
Feeling good: Missouri, LSU
Barely in: Tennessee
On the outs: Arkansas, Ole Miss
Notes: Kentucky finally got the signature win it needed against Louisville. ... Florida has no bad losses and wins over Kansas, Memphis and Florida State. ... Missouri’s only loss is by 1 to Illinois. ... Arkansas’ schedule will be lacking unless SMU, Minnesota and Clemson turn out to be good wins. ... Tennessee’s home game against Virginia on Monday will be critical.
West Coast (1)
Feeling good: Gonzaga
On the outs: Saint Mary’s, Pacific, BYU
Notes: Gonzaga played a lackluster non-conference schedule by the Bulldogs’ standards and still lost to Dayton in Maui plus Kansas State. ... Saint Mary’s started 9-0 but lost to South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason in the Diamond Head Classic.
One-bid leagues (21)
America East: Stony Brook
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast
Big Sky: Montana
Big South: Charleston Southern
Big West: UC Santa Barbara
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Horizon: Green Bay
MEAC: Norfolk State
Ohio Valley: Belmont
Patriot: Boston University
Southland: Stephen F. Austin
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
SWAC: Texas Southern
WAC: New Mexico State
Nothing says the New Year quite like a good end of the year list.
For this college football countdown to end 2013, we look back at the best individual performances from the calendar year — from the New Year’s Day bowl games to today.
We’ve taken a handful of factors into account: Statistical and clutch production, importance of the game and quality of opponent. The year saw many record-breaking performances, but not all will be included here. And, yes, football’s a team game and so on, but these individual single-game performances wowed everyone.
Year in Review: The best single-game performances of 2013
1. Tre Mason vs. Missouri in the SEC Championship Game (Dec. 7)
This single game turned Auburn’s Tre Mason into a Heisman Trophy finalist with good reason. Mason shattered the SEC title game rushing record with 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in a 59-42 win over Missouri to seal Auburn’s trip to the national title game. Of the six 300-yard rushing performances this season, none was against a defense as highly regarded as Missouri’s (ranked second in the SEC in rush defense).
2. Eddie Lacy vs. Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game (Jan. 7)
Alabama extended the SEC’s national title streak to seven with an overwhelming performance against the stout Notre Dame defense. Heisman runner up Manti Te’o would never look as out of place on the field as he did against Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. The running back rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries while adding a TD catch in the 42-14 win.
3. Jameis Winston vs. Clemson (Oct. 19)
Pinpointing the signature performance for Florida State’s Heisman winner could be tough — he was 25 of 27 in his debut against Pittsburgh and threw five touchdown passes against Maryland. In the end, it’s tough to argue with his season-high 444 passing yards in the 51-14 rout of Clemson on the road. His 22-of-32 performance with three touchdown passes and a rushing score secured Florida State as a national title contender and Winston as a Heisman frontrunner.
4. Johnny Manziel vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl (Jan. 4)
Heisman winners have had a checkered history in bowl games, but not the one for Texas A&M in a 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Manziel demolished former conference foe Oklahoma by completing 22 of 34 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and an interception to go with 229 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. His pair of TDs allowed him to join the 20 rushing and 20 passing touchdown club with Auburn’s Cam Newton, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Florida’s Tim Tebow.
5. Myles Jack vs. Washington (Nov. 15)
Two-way players continue to be a rarity, but with UCLA’s Myles Jack only a freshman, the possibilities for his future are boundless. Jack emerged in the middle of November by rushing for 59 yards and four touchdowns in 13 carries against Washington in the same game in which he contributed five tackles and a pass breakup from his linebacker spot in the 41-31 win.
6. Jadeveon Clowney vs. Michigan in the Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)
The game for South Carolina defensive end will be remembered largely for the single play, a thundering tackle behind the line that knocked the helmet from Vincent Smith’s head and the ball from his hands. The turnover was a game-turning play in a 33-28 win over Michigan that set a tone Clowney couldn’t possibly live up to during what is presumably his final season in college. He finished the game with four tackles and two tackles for a loss.
7. Clint Chelf vs. Baylor (Nov. 23)
The Oklahoma State quarterback who began the season as a starter, lost the job after six passes and regained it midseason, stunned Baylor with a flawless performance in a 49-17 win. Chelf completed 19 of 25 passes for 370 yards with three touchdown passes and a rushing TD. Chelf completed 12 of 13 passes in the first half alone.
8. Jordan Lynch vs. Ball State (Nov. 13)
Lynch twice rushed for 300 yards in a game this season on the way to becoming the all-time leading rusher for quarterbacks, but both games came against two of the worst teams in the MAC. Instead, the 48-27 win over Ball State is more representative of why Lynch became a Heisman finalist. Lynch completed 26 of 32 passes for 345 yards with two touchdowns and rushed for 123 yards and two scores on 20 carries against the Cardinals.
9. AJ McCarron vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 14)
The Alabama quarterback continued to prove he was up to the task of competing in a shootout by completing 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards with four touchdowns in the 49-42 win in College Station.
10. Mike Evans vs. Alabama (Sept. 14)
In one of the Texas A&M receiver’s two 200-yard games this season, Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards with a touchdown. Johnny Manziel found him early and often in the game, but his 95-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter narrowed A&M’s deficit to a touchdown in the 49-42 loss.
11. Ka’Deem Carey vs. Oregon (Nov. 23)
If an argument can be made that the wrong two running backs went to New York for the Heisman ceremony, this game by Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey may be it. He stunned Oregon for 206 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries in a 42-16 win over the Ducks. A loss in a rout and a loss to an unranked team shocked the Ducks, but Carey was nothing if not automatic: He rushed for at least 119 yards in every game he played this season.
12. Carlos Hyde vs. Michigan (Nov. 30)
Ohio State needed Carlos Hyde’s power running to lead the way on several occasions this season but he may have been most critical in the 42-41 win over Michigan on the road. Hyde capped a 12-0 regular season with 226 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in the win.
13. Khalil Mack vs. Ohio State (Aug. 31)
Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack was a one-man wrecking crew in a 40-20 loss to Ohio State that nevertheless put a scare into the Buckeyes as late as the third quarter. Mack, an NFL prospect, finished with nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 45-yard interception for a touchdown.
14. Taysom Hill vs. Texas (Sept. 7)
In the game that likely sealed the end of the Mack Brown era at Texas, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill led the most overwhelming rushing performance against the Texas defense in Longhorns history. Hill rushed for 259 of BYU’s 550 yards on the ground in the 40-21 win.
15. Jeremy Gallon vs. Indiana (Oct. 19)
Indiana’s defense was a mess this season, but Michigan needed every single one of Jeremy Gallon’s 369 receiving yards and two touchdowns to beat the Hoosiers 63-47. Gallon’s mark was second in FBS history and only 36 behind the record set by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998.
16. Aaron Murray vs. South Carolina (Sept. 7)
Before an overwhelming rash of injuries, Georgia looked like the class of the SEC East in September. Murray rebounded from the loss to Clemson with clutch performance in the 41-30 win over South Carolina the following week. Murray was 17 of 23 for 309 yards with four touchdown passes in the win.
17. Tajh Boyd vs. Georgia (Aug. 31)
Back in September, Clemson had the profile of a national title contender, largely due to the performance of quarterback Tajh Boyd against Georgia. The Tigers quarterback completed 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns to go with 42 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground in the 38-35 win.
18. Aaron Donald vs. Syracuse (Nov. 23)
In the game that clinched the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi awards for Aaron Donald, the Pittsburgh defensive tackle had nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a blocked extra point ... in a one-point win over Syracuse.
19. Andre Williams vs. Maryland (Nov. 23)
Boston College’s Andre Williams had rushed for 339 yards a week earlier against NC State, but rushing for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in a road game against Maryland sealed him as a Heisman finalist.
20. Tyler Lockett vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 23)
Kansas State’s receiver cracked the 200-yard receiving mark in the first half alone, thanks to TD catches of 48, 30 and 90 yards in the second quarter. Lockett finished with 278 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches in the 41-31 loss. He averaged 32.4 yards per kickoff return to finish with 440 all-purpose yards.
21. Ty Montgomery vs. Washington (Oct. 5)
Ty Montgomery’s all-purpose ability saved Stanford on multiple occasions this season, none more than against Washington. Montgomery returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and caught 39-yard TD pass in the second quarter to beat the Huskies 31-28. Montgomery finished with 290 all-purpose yards.
22. Jameis Winston vs. Boston College (Sept. 28)
Florida State’s 48-34 win at Boston College remains the Seminoles’ closest game of the season. Winston turned in highlight reel plays as he was 17 of 27 for 330 yards with four touchdowns. He also rushed for season highs of 14 carries and 67 yards in this game.
23. Derek Carr vs. Boise State (Sept. 20)
The Fresno State quarterback would have other more prolific games this season (500-yard passing efforts against New Mexico and San Jose State), but none was more important to Fresno State’s season as the 41-40 win over Boise State in September. Carr completed 39 of 60 passes for 460 yards and four touchdowns in Fresno State’s first win over Boise State since 2005.
24. David Fales vs. Fresno State (Nov. 29)
Derek Carr finally met his match at quarterback in San Jose State’s David Fales. The Spartans spoiled Fresno State’s bid for a BCS game thanks to Fales completing 37 of 45 passes for 547 yards and six touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown, in a wild 62-52 win.
25. Trent Murphy vs. Oregon State (Oct. 26)
Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy may have been the most underrated defensive player in the country, but not for Oregon State. Murphy disrupted the Oregon State passing game with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a blocked extra point in the 20-12 win.
While Middle Tennessee and Navy will play each other for the first time ever in Fort Worth, Texas, this year’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl will have a distinct Tennessee flavor.
Navy is playing in its 10th bowl in 11 years thanks to a record-setting season by sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds. A true dual-threat who now holds the single-season mark for rushing touchdowns (29) by a quarterback, Reynolds is from Antioch, Tenn., which is less than 30 miles from MTSU’s campus in Murfreesboro.
The Midshipmen (8-4) won eight games for the second season in a row and 10th in 11 overall on the strength of the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack. The signature triple option, which was first introduced by former head coach Paul Johnson (currently at Georgia Tech) and has been continued by Ken Niumatalolo, has churned out an average of 322 yards rushing per game.
Navy has gone 3-6 during its current bowl streak and has lost its last two postseason games. This also represents the Midshipmen’s fifth bowl game played in the state of Texas and first since the 2009 Texas Bowl in Houston against Missouri. That also was the last bowl game the Midshipmen won, as they beat the Tigers 35-13 in Reliant Stadium.
Middle Tennessee (8-4) is playing in its first bowl game in three seasons after the Blue Raiders posted their second straight eight-win regular season. Despite beating Georgia Tech in 2012 and finishing with eight victories, MTSU was left out of the bowl picture in its final season as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Now in Conference USA, head coach Rick Stockstill’s team made the most of their new surroundings. The Blue Raiders tied with East Carolina for second place in the East Division with a 6-2 conference mark.
The Blue Raiders have won five games in a row and a victory over Navy would give them their second-most wins (9) in a season since the program moved to the FBS ranks (formerly known as Division 1-A) in 1999. MTSU last played in a bowl game in 2010, when it lost to Miami (Ohio) 35-21 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
MTSU vs. Navy
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 11:45 a.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Navy -6.5
MTSU’s Key to Victory: Lean on past experience
Last season, the Blue Raiders’ signature victory came when they beat Georgia Tech 49-28 in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets are coached by Paul Johnson who was at Navy from 2002-07 and introduced the triple option offense to the Midshipmen. That offense is still in place under Ken Niumatalolo, so MTSU does have some experience in defending it. The key to stopping the triple option is limiting the damage done on the ground; something the Blue Raiders did pretty well in that road upset victory last September. Georgia Tech finished with 238 yards rushing but needed 53 carries (4.5 ypc) to get to that total. MTSU used Tech’s own medicine against it, rushing for 264 yards on 44 carries (6.0 ypc) behind a monster game (217 yards, 5 TDs) from Benny Cunningham, who now plays for St. Louis in the NFL. The Blue Raiders will certainly need to muster plenty of offense from quarterback Logan Kilgore (above, right) and its multi-headed ground game, but any hope of victory begins and ends with slowing down the second-ranked rushing attack in the nation. The Midshipmen average 322 yards rushing per game and as a team average 5.5 yards per carry. They have been held under their average just four times and one of those came against a ranked Duke team. MTSU has held up pretty well against the run in its five games versus bowl teams (BYU, East Carolina, Marshall, North Carolina, North Texas), allowing just 218 yards on the ground per contest, but Navy’s triple option is unique. Fortunately the Blue Raiders have played against something very similar not too long ago and maybe that recent experience will pay dividends against the Midshipmen.
Navy’s Key to Victory: Hold onto the ball
It is no secret that the Midshipmen’s game plan is to try and beat you by running the ball early and often. After all, Navy led the nation with 708 rushing attempts or an average of 59 per game. Contrast that to just 139 total pass attempts in 12 games, which is less than 12 per contest. Put it all together and 84 percent of Navy’s total offensive plays were runs. And while the 322 yards rushing per game is certainly impressive, good for second in the nation, what’s even more impressive is the fact that the Midshipmen have lost a total of four fumbles this season. Combine that with four interceptions and Navy’s eight total turnovers are the fewest among the 125 teams in FBS. The Midshipmen forced 20 takeaways on defense and special teams giving them a plus-12 turnover margin, tying them for 10th in the nation. Ball security is obviously critical to any productive offense, but especially a run-centric one like Navy’s. It’s also important in this game because MTSU is right behind Navy when it comes to turnover margin. The Blue Raiders were a little more careless with the football, committing 20 turnovers (13 INTs, 7 fumbles), but they produced 31 takeaways, including 16 fumbles. The fumble recoveries tie them for the third-most in the nation, and the 31 total takeaways tie them for fifth. The overall plus-11 turnover margin puts them one behind the Midshipmen and is just another reason why Navy’s ball carriers will want to make sure they have a good grip on the pigskin.
Key Player: Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
A two-time All-State selection when he was at Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn., Reynolds didn’t stay close to home and go to nearby MTSU. Instead he enrolled at the Naval Academy where he became just the third freshman in program history to start at quarterback. After rushing for 649 yards and throwing for 898 in his first season, Reynolds has taken his game to historic levels this season. A 1,200-yard rusher and 1,000-yard passer, Reynolds has accounted for 37 total touchdowns, including a NCAA-record 29 rushing scores. He has seven games with at least three rushing touchdowns and set another NCAA mark with seven scores on the ground in a three-overtime win at San Jose State in late November. Even though he’s attempted just 121 passes, Reynolds has posted a respectable 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. MTSU has done a decent job against the run this season, allowing 185.8 yards rushing per game, but the Blue Raiders know full well that Navy’s triple option represents a unique challenge. Is MTSU up to the task or will Reynolds cap off a historic season with a big game against his hometown team?
Navy may appear one-dimensional, but the Midshipmen do that one thing – run the ball – very well. MTSU has balance on offense and made a healthy living off of turnovers, but the Blue Raiders are 1-4 against teams that finished with a winning record. Navy’s defense didn’t exactly shut opponents down and it will be tested by MTSU’s offense, but I think the Midshipmen’s ability to control the clock with its triple option attack will be the key to this one. Tennessee native Keenan Reynolds, the Midshipmen’s record-setting quarterback, also has the added incentive of facing his hometown Blue Raiders. Besides, in the Armed Forces Bowl isn’t it obvious which team you should pick?
Prediction: Navy 35, MTSU 31
The Landsharks of Ole Miss (7–5, 3–5 SEC) and Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech (7–5, 5–3 ACC) will converge on Music City on the eve of New Year’s Eve. Much like their travel routes — west from Oxford, Miss, and east from Atlanta, Ga. — the Rebels and Yellow Jackets have taken different routes to reach exactly the same 7–5 record and Music City Bowl destination, roughly four hours from either team’s home base.
Both Ole Miss and Georgia Tech started the season 3–0, each with signature victories — with the Rebels winning big at Texas (44–38) and the Jackets taking down eventual ACC Coastal Division champion Duke (38–14). The good vibes abruptly ended, as three-game win streaks were immediately followed by three-game losing streaks for both teams. Ole Miss was devastated by a brutal stretch at Alabama (25–0), at Auburn (41–38) and Texas A&M (41–38). Georgia Tech also fell to the trio of bowl-eligible squads Virginia Tech (17–10), at Miami (45–30) and at BYU (38–20).
The Rebs and Jackets both rallied to the seven-win mark before suffering painful losses in overtime to bitter in-state rivals — as Ole Miss lost at Mississippi State, 17–10, at the Egg Bowl and Georgia Tech lost at home to Georgia, 41–34, in double-overtime of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. The outcome of this year’s Music City Bowl will go a long way toward defining the narrative of the 2013 season for the Rebels and Yellow Jackets, both of whom have had up-and-down roller-coaster seasons.
This will be the fourth meeting between Ole Miss and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lead the all-time series, 2–1, while the Rebels won the most recent matchup, 41–18, in the 1971 Peach Bowl. Ole Miss is 0–1 in the Music City Bowl, falling 49–38 to West Virginia in 2000; Georgia Tech is making its first appearance in the Nashville bowl that dates back to 1998.
Strangely, the underdog has won the Music City Bowl in 10 of its 15 games, with the biggest upset coming when 10-point dog Kentucky brought Big Blue Nation down the road to beat Clemson, 28–20, in 2006. An SEC team has played in the Music City Bowl in 14 of the 15 years, posting a disappointing 6–8 record — with lowly Vanderbilt and Kentucky combining for four of those victories, while traditional powers Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee combined to go 0–4.
Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 30 at 3:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ole Miss -3
Georgia Tech has the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing attack (311.7 ypg), with 3,740 yards (5.63 ypc) and 45 TDs on the ground this season. On the flip side, Tech’s passing game ranks 118th in the country (129.0 ypg), with 1,548 yards, 11 TDs and 12 INTs this year. And there are no Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas-type deep threats at wideout. The Yellow Jackets are reliant almost exclusively on their triple-option running game led by quarterback Vad Lee (489 yards, 8 TDs) and running backs David Sims (846 yards, 11 TDs), Robert Godhigh (694 yards on 10.1 ypc, 6 TDs) and Zach Laskey (458 yards, 7 TDs).
Ole Miss’ rushing defense ranks a middling 53rd in the nation (155.3 ypg), having given up 1,863 yards (4.01 ypc) and a staggering 26 TDs on the ground. But in four of their five losses, the Rebels allowed at least 40 carries for 240-plus rush yards and multiple TDs. In losses to Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and Missouri, the Rebs allowed a combined 184 carries for 1,037 yards (5.6 ypc) and 13 TDs. In just four games, Ole Miss allowed 55.7 percent of its rushing yards and 50 percent of its rushing TDs for the season.
Georgia Tech’s Key to Victory: Force Bo Wallace Into Mistakes
There’s good Bo Wallace and bad Bo Wallace. The Ole Miss signal-caller accounted for 16 total TDs and two turnovers in seven wins, but just five total TDs and nine turnovers in five losses. Wallace infamously fumbled into the end zone in overtime to seal a seven-point loss to Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. The junior knows Hugh Freeze’s offense — after following the Rebs coach from Arkansas State via East Mississippi CC — but Wallace can be the other team’s best player when he is not sharp.
The Yellow Jackets are 78th in the country in turnover differential (-3), having gained 19 turnovers (13 INTs, 6 fumbles) but lost 22 turnovers (12 INTs, 10 fumbles). The 19 turnovers forced ranks 75th in the nation. Although 13 INTs is not an impressive number, eight players have combined for the total and the group has made the most of their picks with 255 return yards (19.6 ypr) and two TDs, including a 95-yarder. Four players have two INTs this year, Chris Milton, Louis Young, Tyler Marcordes and Quayshawn Nealy. But the real difference maker could be senior pass rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 15.5 tackles for a loss and 12.0 sacks in 12 games this season. Ole Miss true freshman tackle Laremy Tunsil (questionable to play with a knee injury) will have his hands full keeping Attaochu away from Wallace.
Key Player: Robert Nkemdiche, DL, Ole Miss
The consensus No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2013, Nkemdiche has been a starter on the Rebels defensive line from Day 1. The younger brother of Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche has shown the versatility to line up anywhere along the line. At 6’5”, 294 pounds, Nkemdiche has been a force of nature as an edge-rushing defensive end as well as a 3-technique defensive tackle, applying pressure to the pocket and clogging running lanes — a skill that will be essential against Georgia Tech. Nkemdiche has battled injuries as a true freshman, but his impact has been far more meaningful than his eight tackles for a loss and two sacks would indicate.
Paul Johnson has struggled in bowl games since arriving at Georgia Tech, going 1–4 with the lone win coming against a deflated USC team (sans Matt Barkley) in last year’s Sun Bowl. Even then, the margin was just 21–7 against a group of Trojans that barely bothered to show up in El Paso after their embarrassing fall from preseason No. 1. Johnson went 2–2 in bowls at Navy and was a two-time FCS national champion back in the day at Georgia Southern. Freeze is 1–0 in bowls at Ole Miss, winning last year’s BBVA Compass Bowl, 38–17, against Pittsburgh. The recent history speaks for itself. When teams have a month to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ unique offense, they are usually up to the task when game day finally arrives. Colonel Reb will be honky-tonkin’ in Nashville after this one.
Prediction: Ole Miss 35, Georgia Tech 31
The sports world bid farewell to some legends in 2013. We mourn their passing, but celebrate the memories they leave behind.
Bud Adams, Titans owner
Died Oct. 21, Age 90
The colorful Adams had owned the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise from its creation in 1960, turning a $50,000 investment into a billion-dollar operation. Adams, a founding father of the American Football League, won AFL championships in 1960 and 1961, the first two seasons of the league’s existence. His relationship with the city of Houston deteriorated over the lack of a new stadium to replace the once-innovative-turned-dilapidated Astrodome, prompting Adams to move his franchise to Tennessee. After a rocky start, the newly christened Tennessee Titans made a memorable “Music City Miracle” run to Super Bowl XXXIV in their first season with their new name, logo and stadium.
Walt Bellamy, NBA Hall of Fame center
Died Nov. 2, Age 74
"Bells" languished in the shadow of NBA titans like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain while fighting a reputation for a lack of motivation, but history has been kind to the NBA Hall of Famer. The starting center on the 1960 U.S. gold medal team at the Rome Olympics, Bellamy earned Rookie of the Year honors after one of the greatest debut seasons in league history — 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game. For his 14-year career, Bellamy averaged 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds and gained entry into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
Jerry Buss, Lakers owner
Died Feb. 13, Age 80
Buss ranked among the most successful owners in sports history, winning 10 NBA Titles as owner of the Lakers during a tenure that spanned from Showtime to Shaq. In their entertaining, fast-paced style, Buss' Laker teams mirrored their owner, whose colorful lifestyle included a Hefner-esque reputation for dating younger women. Upon his death, six of his seven children worked for the Lakers organization.
Todd Christensen, former Raiders tight end and broadcaster
Died Nov. 13, Age 57
Christensen was a remarkably productive tight end for the Raiders, earning five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (1983-87), winning two Super Bowl rings, and leading the NFL in catches in 1983 (with 92) and 1986 (with 95). After his retirement, the athletic BYU product had a couple of baseball tryouts before embarking on a successful second career in Masters Track and then becoming a highly regarded NFL color analyst in the early 1990s. Christensen died from complications of liver transplant surgery.
L.C. Greenwood, Steelers Pro Bowler
Died Sept. 29, Age 67
Shock over learning of Greenwood's death was matched by the shock of learning that he's not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps the most colorful member of the legendary Steel Curtain defense in Pittsburgh in the 1970s thanks to his gold shoes and Hollywood aspirations, Greenwood made six Pro Bowls and won four Super Bowl rings as an end for one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. In Super Bowl X alone, Greenwood sacked Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach four times.
Don James, former University of Washington football coach
Died Oct. 20, Age 80
James' 18-year stint as coach of the Washington Huskies saw the creation of a formidable college football power in the Great Northwest. James won 153 games as the Huskies' no-nonsense boss, leading UW to six Pac-8/Pac-10 championships and four Rose Bowl wins. His 1991 Huskies, one of the greatest teams in conference history, shared the national title with Miami. James resigned in the wake of NCAA sanctions — protesting the University's decision not to fight the penalties — with a coaching record of 178–76–3 in 22 seasons (four of them at Kent State).
Deacon Jones, NFL Hall of Famer
Died June 3, Age 74
One of the greatest defensive players in NFL history, Jones was a fixture at defensive end from 1961-74 with the Rams, Chargers and Redskins, earning unanimous All-League honors in five consecutive seasons as an anchor for the Rams' Fearsome Foursome. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980. Sports Illustrated named him their "Defensive End of the Century," and as of this season, the award for the leading sacker now honors the player who actually coined the term.
Chuck Muncie, All-Pro running back
Died May 13, Age 60
The bespectacled Muncie was the 1975 Heisman runner-up as a senior at Cal and then had a productive NFL career (6,702 rushing yards, three Pro Bowls) that was derailed by cocaine use that eventually led to homelessness and a stint in prison. Muncie overcame his drug problems to establish a foundation that worked with at-risk youth before his death of a heart attack in May.
Stan Musial, Baseball Hall of Famer
Died Jan. 19, Age 92
The inscription on his statue outside Busch Stadium reads: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight." It's not an exaggeration. One of the greatest ballplayers ever to put on spikes, Stan the Man was arguably the most iconic and popular figure in St. Louis' rich sports history, a 24-time All-Star, a three-time MVP, seven-time batting champion, three-time World Series champion and a man of incomparable decency and humility.
Ken Norton, former heavyweight champion
Died Sept. 18, Age 70
Norton was a titan of the golden age of heavyweights, famously breaking Muhammad Ali's jaw in a 12-round split decision on ABC's Wide World of Sports in 1973. Norton fought Ali twice more, losing the third bout on a particularly controversial decision at Yankee Stadium but in the process establishing himself as one of the division's all-time greats. His post-boxing years were marred by a near-fatal car accident in 1986 and a series of strokes that left him in a nursing care facility at the time of his death.
Bum Phillips, former Oilers and Saints coach
Died Oct. 18, Age 90
Ironically, Bum and his former boss, Bud Adams, came into the world in the same year (1923) and departed within three days of one another some 90 years later. Phillips had a style all his own, wearing a ten-gallon hat on the sideline at away games but not home games because, “Mama always said that if it can’t rain on you, you’re indoors” — which he was at Houston’s Astrodome and New Orleans’ Superdome. Phillips retired from coaching with a record of 86–80, with three playoff appearances, including two AFC title game losses to the Steelers.
Pat Summerall, former NFL kicker and legendary play-by-play announcer
Died April 16, Age 82
Hearing Pat Summerall's voice meant that there was something on worth watching. Whether it was the Super Bowl, The Masters, the U.S. Open tennis tournament or a routine September NFL Sunday, Summerall provided the essential soundtrack for countless classic sports moments that were elevated by his familiar, low-key delivery. Prior to his legendary broadcasting career, Summerall had spent a decade in the NFL as a placekicker, kicking a field goal in the Greatest Game Ever Played, the Colts' 23–17 win over the Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship.
Dick Trickle, NASCAR driver
Died May 16, Age 71
His unusual name became something of a running joke on ESPN, but his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound — due, apparently, to struggles with chronic pain — brought a tragic, sobering end to a life cut short. Trickle was a dirt-track legend who never found Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup circuit but was a popular and respected wheelman among fans and his peers.
Ken Venturi, U.S. Open champion and golf broadcaster
Died May 17, age 82
Golf is not often thought of as a test of endurance, but at the 1964 U.S. Open, Venturi fought through heat exhaustion and near-100-degree temperatures on the 36-hole final day to win by four shots, earning PGA Tour Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year honors as a result. The win helped Venturi overcome the disappointment of letting The Masters slip away in 1956, when he was poised to become the only amateur to win the tournament until a final-round 80. Venturi later turned to broadcasting, serving as lead analyst for CBS for some 35 years, making him the longest-serving network analyst in any sport.
Earl Weaver, Orioles Hall of Fame manager
Died Jan. 19, Age 82
The feisty, irascible Weaver is probably best remembered for his dirt-kicking, cap-turning tantrums that led to nearly 100 ejections (he was ejected from both games in a doubleheader three times), but in his approach to the game — "pitching, defense and the three-run homer" — he was ahead of his time. He also led some of the greatest teams in American League history, winning four pennants and a World Series. The 1996 Hall of Fame inductee died of an apparent heart attack while on an Orioles fantasy cruise.
Jack Butler, NFL Hall of Famer
Charlie Coles, former Miami (Ohio) basketball coach
Joe Dean, former LSU basketball player and AD and longtime announcer
Art Donovan, NFL Hall of Famer, frequent guest on Letterman
Ron Fraser, former University of Miami baseball coach
Phil Henderson, former Duke guard
Thomas Howard, Raiders linebacker
Dick Kazmeier, last Ivy Leaguer to win Heisman Trophy
Bob Kurland, basketball Hall of Famer
Jason Leffler, NASCAR driver
Tommy Morrison, former heavyweight champion
Clarence “Ace” Parker, oldest Pro Football Hall of Famer
Jack Pardee, former NFL player and coach
George Scott, former Red Sox and Brewers first baseman
Bill Sharman, basketball Hall of Fame player and former Lakers coach
Jim Sweeney, former Fresno State football coach
Michael Weiner, Executive Director of the MLB Players Association
Suffice to say, Kansas State and Michigan probably didn’t expect to meet in the same bowl game this season.
Michigan started the season with aspirations of winning the Big Ten Legends division with budding star Devin Gardner at quarterback. The Wolverines’ quarterback dazzled with his play at times, but he could also be infuriating with turnovers. Michigan fell out of Big Ten contention by November, finishing 3-5 in the league.
Meanwhile, Kansas State entered 2013 in a rebuilding year after Collin Klein led the Wildcats to the Big 12 title last year. A season-opening loss to North Dakota State appeared to signal a long year for the Wildcats. By midseason, Kansas State became one of the toughest outs in the Big 12, winning five of its last six.
So as Kansas State arrives at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a major victory, Michigan arrives after a let down of a season.
The next question is if those opposing emotions play a role in Tempe.
Kansas State vs. Michigan
Kickoff: Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Kansas State by 3.5
Three Things to Watch
Ryan Mueller vs. Taylor Lewan
The meeting of Kansas State star defensive end Mueller and Michigan first-round prospect at left tackle in Lewan may be the most important matchup of the game. Mueller, a former walk-on, emerged this season with 11.5 sacks and six pass deflections. He’ll try to pressure Michigan quarterback Shane Morris into mistakes, but he’ll have to go through the 6-8, 315-pound Lewan to do it.
If Michigan State’s Jeremy Gallon and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett are getting the ball, this game could turn into a shootout. Lockett finished with 71 catches for 1,146 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing two games this season. He has two 200-yard receiving games this season, neither against teams to pad stats (he did it against Texas and Oklahoma). Gallon has a 369-yard game under his belt this season against Indiana. Beyond Gallon, Michigan has plenty of talent on offense, including tight end Devin Funchess, provided Morris can get them the ball. Kansas State’s defense, though, will get a boost from the return of veteran safety Ty Zimmerman, who missed the last two games with an apparent ankle injury.
Kansas State’s quarterback rotation
Kansas State has been the rare team to make a two-man rotation at quarterback work. Jake Waters is the more complete quarterback, especially as a passer, but Daniel Sams has been difficult to stop all season with 784 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns to go with 452 passing yards. Sams only played one series in the finale against Kansas, a development coach Bill Snyder said was mistake.
Key Player: Shane Morris, Michigan
Devin Gardner suffered a foot injury in Michigan’s 42-41 loss to Ohio State, and the junior will sit out the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State. Gardner’s play was inconsistent at times in 2013, but he was the Wolverines’ best option under center and will be missed against the Wildcats. Morris will take Gardner’s place in the lineup, and the true freshman has thrown just nine passes this year. Michigan’s offense will change with Morris under center, but the freshman needs more help from the supporting cast. Morris doesn’t have to win this game on his own. But with little margin for error, any mistake Morris makes will be magnified.
The first meeting between Kansas State and Michigan could be one of the more unpredictable bowl games of 2013-14, especially if both teams are in top form. Michigan finally played to its potential on offense and gave Ohio State all it could handle in the last week of the regular season. Kansas State can match that kind of production if John Hubert is steadily moving the chains and Tyler Lockett hits the big play. But there’s a reason both teams are playing in Dec. 28 bowl game.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Michigan 24
Locks of the Week
Inner division games featuring teams in must-win (or must-lose) mode are ripe for the picking in the regular-season finale.
Colts (-11) vs. Jaguars
Indy stampeded J-Ville, 37–3, in Week 4. The Colts are fresh off of big wins over the Texans (25–3) and Chiefs (23–7).
Patriots (-8.5) vs. Bills
EJ Manuel’s season is over, leaving Thad Lewis in charge of staggering Buffalo. Take Tom Brady at home in December.
Titans (-7) vs. Texans
Houston is a loss away from locking up the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Tennessee needs a win to save Mike Munchak’s job (maybe).
Panthers (-6.5) at Falcons
Cam Newton returns to his hometown of Atlanta with a chance to clinch the NFC South crown and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
49ers (-1) at Cardinals
Essentially a pick ‘em, San Francisco dusted Zona 32–20 in Week 6. But the red-hot Redbirds have won seven of their last eight games.
The Crescent and Queen Cities have been nearly unstoppable at home lately. Ride the hot hands in N’Awlins and Cincy.
Saints (-12.5) vs. Buccaneers
New Orleans is 7–0 at home, where Drew Brees has thrown 23 TDs and just three INTs under the lights at the Superdome.
Bengals (-6.5) vs. Ravens
Cincinnati is 7–0 at home and has scored 40 or more points in each of its last four games at Paul Brown Stadium.
These games may not be straight up upsets, but the numbers are big enough to bank on tight fights in these inner division games.
Cowboys (+6.5) vs. Eagles
Dallas will lose in the most painful way possible, it’s nearly guaranteed. That means there will be hope — false hope — in the fourth quarter.
Jets (+6) at Dolphins
The J-E-T-S are fighting to save the job of R-E-X Ryan and should be able to hang tough with a Fins club off a 19–0 loss at Buffalo.
Stay away from these games unless you’re a degenerate or a hometown homer who has to have action on all the action.
Broncos (-12.5) at Raiders
This number seems high, but Denver has won eight of its games by two touchdowns. So there’s that.
Seahawks (-11.5) vs. Rams
All Seattle has to do is win or tie and the “12th Man” will be rocking the Pacific Northwest with home field advantage.
Chargers (-9.5) vs. Chiefs
Kansas City is 2–4 following a 9–0 start to the season. What’s up, Andy Reid?
Steelers (-7) vs. Browns
Pittsburgh needs to win and have the Dolphins, Ravens and Chargers all lose in order to make the playoffs. Is that all?
Giants (-3.5) vs. Redskins
Finally. The end is here. If there’s a way for both of these teams to lose, they’ll make it happen.
Vikings (-3) vs. Lions
Detroit has five losses in its last six games and has been eliminated from the playoffs. But don’t boo Jim Schwartz.
Packers (-3) at Bears
Be careful out there, Aaron Rodgers. Watch your collarbone, buddy.
Since joining the bowl party in 1990, the Russell Athletic Bowl has been known as the Blockbuster Bowl, CarQuest Bowl, MicronPC Bowl, Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl, Mazda Tangerine Bowl and, most recently, Champs Sports Bowl. The location of the game was Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami Gardens from 1990-2000 before moving to Orlando in 2001.
By any name, in any city, this year’s Russell Athletic Bowl is a great matchup — although Louisville (11–1, 7–1 American) and Miami (9–3, 5–3 ACC) enter this contest with decidedly different outlooks on life.
The Cardinals entered the season with expectations of an undefeated season. But a 38–35 loss to UCF under the lights on Friday night back on Oct. 18 ended the U of L’s quest at a shot at the BCS national championship crystal. Rather than a trip to Pasadena — or, more realistically, rather than complaining about being left out of the big game and settling for a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where UCF is slotted — the Cards are going to Disney World.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes are excited to be going anywhere after a two-year self-imposed bowl ban as a result of NCAA violations from the Nevin Shapiro scandal. Miami has not played in a bowl game since losing to rival Notre Dame, 33–17, in the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 2010. That game was coached by interim Jeff Soufland, who had replaced recently fired Randy Shannon. The U has not won a bowl game since squeaking by Nevada, 21–20, at the MPC Computers Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 2006. Ironically, that was Shannon’s first game as coach after replacing the recently fired Larry Coker.
This will be the 12th all-time meeting between Louisville and Miami. As expected, the Hurricanes have a 9–1–1 series edge. But the Cardinals won the most recent showdown, 31–7, at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2006. Miami carries a 2–1 record in the Russell Athletic Bowl, having won in South Florida in 1996 and 1998, but lost in Orlando in 2009. This will be Louisville’s first appearance in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Louisville vs. Miami
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -3.5
Three Things to Watch
Two NFL-caliber Quarterbacks
It’s not Sunday yet, but NFL fans will soon be watching Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Miami’s Stephen Morris on RedZone Channel. Both have prototypical size, next-level arm talent and a solid track record of success. As a result, the Cardinals enter with the 18th-ranked passing offense in the nation (302.9 ypg) and the Hurricanes with the 29th-ranked passing offense in the country (274.3 ypg).
Bridgewater (6’3”, 196) entered the season with as much hype as any quarterback this side of Johnny Football, after his coming out party upset win over Florida in last year’s Sugar Bowl. The junior had a solid season by most reasonable standards, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 3,523 yards, 28 TDs and only four INTs. But Bridgewater did not lead the U of L to an undefeated record and was not invited to New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy — his two lofty goals heading into the season.
Although less-heralded, Morris (6’2”, 218) has had a strong senior season, completing 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,868 yards, 21 TDs and 12 INTs. Eight of those picks came in just three games, with four in a 27–23 win at North Carolina, two in a 45–30 win over Georgia Tech and two in a 41–14 loss at Florida State. Morris also delivered a signature win, taking down in-state rival Florida, 21–16, on Sept. 7 to set the tone for the 2013 season.
Sunshine State Speed
The Citrus Bowl seems as good a place as any to hold a track meet. And there is guaranteed to be speed on the field in Orlando. A whopping 39 Louisville players hail from the state of Florida, including 23 from the Miami area — most notably Bridgewater, who played at powerhouse Miami Northwestern High School as the successor to former Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. Obviously, the Hurricanes are loaded with 57 players from the Sunshine State.
Of the many notable athletes who will be playing this bowl game in front of home state fans, the headliners are Miami’s first-team All-ACC linebacker Denzel Perryman, second-team All-ACC wideout Allen Hurns and safety Deon Bush, along with Louisville’s first-team All-AAC cornerback Charles Gaines and first-team All-AAC safety Calvin Pryor. Although they play in different conferences at schools separated by 1,100 miles, many of the Cardinals and Hurricanes grew up together and have some of the same names and numbers in their iPhones.
Head Coaches With Upside
Will this be the final game on the sideline for U of L coach Charlie Strong? Gambling website Bovada had the 53-year-old Strong as the opening line favorite (2-to-1) to take the vacant University of Texas job. What about 44-year-old Miami coach Al Golden? He has been a hot candidate for just about every job opening east of USC. Although both men claim to be happy where they are, there is little doubt that Strong and Golden are two of the hottest commodities in the college coaching game today. Strong has a 36–15 record at Louisville with a 2–1 record in bowls. Golden is 22–14 at Miami and making his first bowl appearance, despite winning (then declining) the ACC Coastal Division title last season.
Key Player: Marcus Smith, DE, Louisville
The AAC Defensive Player of the Year will be overshadowed pregame by the pretty-boy, future-millionaire quarterbacks and hot-shot, rumor-mill head coaches. But once the whistle blows, a stacked Miami offensive line — led by guards Brandon Linder and Jon Feliciano, and tackle Seantrel Henderson — will need to contain Smith, who is a splash play waiting to happen. The 6’3”, 252-pounder from Columbus, Ga., posted 16.5 tackles for a loss of 104 yards this season, including 12.5 sacks for 95 lost yards. Smith also had three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick. He’s not the fastest or the flashiest, but Smith could be the difference in the game.
This year’s Russell Athletic Bowl has it all — with a pair of future NFL quarterbacks, two of the hottest coaches in the game, childhood and regional rivalries being rekindled, and motivation coming from both sides of the spectrum. The question is whether or not Louisville will be disappointed by a non-BCS bowl and pack it in? And whether or not Miami will be “happy to be here” rather than hungry to win? The most likely scenario, however, is that bowl the U of L and “The U” bring their A-games. After all, the leadership at the top — Strong-Bridgewater and Golden-Morris — is as strong as just about any coach-QB pairing in the country outside of Saban-McCarron or Fisher-Winston. Expect a blur of a game with speed and big plays galore. Like going to Disney World.
Prediction: Louisville 38, Miami 35
A New York City triumvirate of Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z could not have come up with a better matchup for the Pinstripe Bowl than Notre Dame (8–4) and Rutgers (6–6, 3–5 American). Call your own shot and start spreading the news because Yankee Stadium will be in an Empire State of mind when the Fighting Irish take on the Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.
This will be Notre Dame’s first appearance in the Pinstripe Bowl, which will host its fourth game since arriving on the bowl landscape in 2010. It has been a long fall for the Golden Domers, who lost 42–14 to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game last season. The dip in on-field product was somewhat expected following the unexpected academic suspension of quarterback Everett Golson and the graduation of Butkus Award winning linebacker Manti Te’o.
Rutgers and Syracuse have alternated victories in the brief history of the Pinstripe Bowl. And it’s the Scarlet Knights’ turn again this year. SU beat Kansas State, 36–34, in 2010 and West Virginia, 38–14, last year. RU knocked off Iowa State, 27–13, in 2011 and hope to pull off one of the major upsets of the postseason against Notre Dame this year.
The series history, much like the Las Vegas betting line, heavily favors Notre Dame. The Irish are 4–0 against the Knights, with a 197–17 all-time combined margin of victory — including a 42–0 humiliation in their most recent meeting in 2002.
Notre Dame vs. Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 12:00 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Notre Dame -14
Notre Dame’s Key to Victory: Exploit Rutgers’ Pass Defense
The McCourty Twins are not walking through that door. Unlike the NFL-caliber defensive backs of recent Rutgers memory, this year’s Scarlet Knights have been abused through the air. Opponents of RU have completed 64.1 percent of their passes for 3,737 yards, 31 TDs and eight INTs. Rutgers’ pass defense has allowed an average of 311.4 yards per game — more than the averages of either Louisville (302.9 ypg) or Oregon (294.7 ypg), pass-happy teams with Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota, respectively, running the shows. The Scarlet Knights’ pass defense ranks 120th in yards allowed. Only five teams allowed more passing TDs — Idaho (40), Colorado State (33), Wyoming (32), UAB (32) and California (32).
That’s good news for Notre Dame team MVP TJ Jones, who has 65 catches for 1,042 yards (16.0 ypc) and nine TDs this season — team highs in each category. Jones is just the seventh Irish wideout to top the 1,000-yard mark in a single season, joining Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Tom Gatewood and Jack Snow. Neither Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown nor Rocket Ismail topped 1,000 yards in a single season. Expect ND quarterback Tommy Rees to look Jones’ way early and often against a RU secondary that has been overmatched by less talented wideouts thus far.
Rutgers’ Key to Victory: Chas Dodd Masterpiece
The senior quarterback became more famous for his art than his football after being benched for the better part of two seasons. But Dodd is back under center for the Scarlet Knights, replacing Gary Nova for the final two games of the season — a 28–17 loss at Connecticut and a 31–6 win over South Florida to clinch a berth in the Pinstripe Bowl. Over his first two seasons at RU, the South Carolina native and former Byrnes High School star threw for 21 TDs and 14 INTs. He lost the job to local Don Bosco (N.J.) legend Nova in 2012, attempting (and completing) just one pass.
This season, Dodd had just 46 pass attempts in mop-up duty before taking over for the final two games, throwing a combined two TDs and two INTs with a 1–1 record. If Rutgers has any chance to pull off the upset, Dodd will have to play the game of his life. And he may have to do so without the Knights’ top wideout, sophomore Leonte Carroo, who is listed as doubtful with an upper-body injury. Carroo had 28 catches for 478 yards (17.1) and nine of the teams 21 receiving TDs in only nine games played this season.
Key Player: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s strength over the past two seasons has been its interior defensive line, most notably Tuitt and nose guard Louis Nix III (a.k.a. “Irish Chocolate”). But with Nix III out for the season with a torn meniscus and out of the college game for good after recently signing with an agent, the burden falls to Tuitt. The 6’7”, 312-pound junior out of Monroe, Ga., may very well be playing in his final game for the Fighting Irish before heading to the NFL. Notre Dame will need Tuitt to be a terror in the trenches against a Rutgers offense with a quarterback controversy and the 97th ranked rushing offense.
Brian Kelly has a 1–2 record in bowl games at Notre Dame, but he was 2–1 at Cincinnati and has also sat out two bowl games — after leading Central Michigan to the Motor City Bowl in 2006 and Cincinnati to the Sugar Bowl in 2009. Prior to stepping up to the FBS, Kelly won back-to-back Division II national championships at Grand Valley State. On the other sideline, Kyle Flood is making just his second bowl appearance in his second season since taking over at Rutgers for Greg Schiano. Last year, the Scarlet Knights lost a heartbreaker 13–10 to Virginia Tech in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl.
Expect this year’s Pinstripe Bowl to be green and gold. The Fighting Irish faithful will take over Yankee Stadium and the Golden Domers will crush the Scarlet Knights.
Prediction: Notre Dame 30, Rutgers 10
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 27.
• With the Sochi Olympics approaching, it's time to get to know skier Julia Mancuso. That's her in the picture.
• Week 17 in the NFL is especially meaningful this year: 13 of the 16 games have playoff implications. Here's a rundown.
• Apparently, Shaq still fancies himself a rapper. He's also gotta be pushing four bills. So in that sense, he's in Biggie Smalls territory.
• Nothing captures the spirit of bowl season quite like Frank Beamer dancing in a sombrero.
• More evidence that pro athletes live in a different world than you and I do: What they got and gave for Christmas.
• These Portuguese parents took a page out of the Jimmy Kimmel playbook and trolled their child on Christmas morning with a camera rolling.
• Arnold Palmer is just the best. He proved it to some kids at Christmas.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
For the second year in a row, Cincinnati will try and defeat an ACC team with a distinct home-field advantage in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. This year the Bearcats’ opponent is North Carolina, as the Tar Heels return to the postseason following a one-year ban handed down by the NCAA.
Cincinnati finished 9-3 in its first season under head coach Tommy Tuberville, finishing third (6-2) in the American Athletic Conference’s (AAC) inaugural season. The Bearcats are aiming for their third straight 10-win season and sixth overall since 2007.
The Bearcats are making their second straight Belk Bowl appearance, defeating Duke 48-34 last season. Cincinnati is playing in its third straight bowl and 11th since 2000 and is looking to run its postseason winning streak to three games in a row.
North Carolina (6-6, 4-4 in the ACC) is back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus, but only because Larry Fedora’s team rattled off five straight wins. The Tar Heels started off the season 1-5 before making a switch at quarterback and righting the ship to finish at .500. The Heels won five of their last six games with the only loss being a two-point defeat to ACC Coastal champion Duke to close out the regular season.
The Tar Heels are playing in their fifth bowl in the past six seasons, with the only miss a result of last season’s NCAA-mandated postseason ban. North Carolina has gone 1-3 during this span with its only win coming against Tennessee in the 2010 Music City Bowl.
North Carolina is 2-0 all-time against Cincinnati. The last time these teams played was on Sept. 14, 1991 in Chapel Hill, N.C., a game the Tar Heels won easily 51-16.
Cincinnati vs. North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: North Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch
Cincinnati and North Carolina both had to make quarterback changes during the season because of injury and both offenses took off after the switch was made. The Bearcats lost starting quarterback Munchie Legaux in the second game, opening the door for senior Brendon Kay to step in. Kay went 8-2 as the starter, throwing for 3,121 yards and 22 touchdowns, helping the Bearcats reel off six straight wins at one point. Kay has dealt with some injuries of his own, but still managed to become just the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He also has played on this stage before, throwing for 332 yards and four touchdowns in Cincinnati’s victory over Duke in last season’s Belk Bowl. North Carolina entered the season with senior Bryn Renner under center. A three-year starter, Renner was poised to completely rewrite the Tar Heel record books coming off of a 2012 campaign in which he threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns. Renner and the offense struggled out of the gates, leading to more snaps for sophomore Marquise Williams. A true dual-threat, Williams took over as the starter after Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against NC State on Nov. 2. With Williams at the helm, Fedora’s up-tempo offense took on new life, as the more athletic and mobile quarterback made plays with both his arm (1,527-14-6) and legs (team-high 490 yards rushing, 6 TDs) and was a big reason the Tar Heels won five games in a row. In the six games in which Williams saw the majority of the time at quarterback, North Carolina averaged 451.5 yards and 38 points per game. With both firmly entrenched as the leader of their respective offenses, it will be interesting to see which quarterback makes the most noise on the field in Bank of America Stadium.
The Battle in the Trenches
Both offenses average more than 430 yards per game, but lean more on the pass than the run. Cincinnati averages around 170 yards rushing per game, while North Carolina gains a little more than 146 on the ground per contest. Neither team has a workhorse in its backfield. The Bearcats have three running backs with at least 90 carries and 400 yards rushing, but 14 different players have had at least one rushing attempt and seven have scored a touchdown on the ground. The Tar Heels’ leading rusher is quarterback Marquise Williams, but four running backs have posted at least 53 carries and one rushing touchdown. Both teams use the committee approach in their respective backfields, meaning it will fall to the defenses to stop more than one ball carrier. From a defensive standpoint, Cincinnati enters this game ninth in the nation in total defense (313.2 ypg) and fifth against the run. The Bearcats have allowed less than 100 yards rushing per game, while the Tar Heels have been considerably more generous at 183.6. However, North Carolina’s defense has improved as the season has progressed, and the Tar Heels’ up-tempo, spread-oriented offense typically presents a different kind of challenge for opposing defenses. So while both offenses are perfectly capable of slinging the ball all over the field, whichever team gains the most (or gives up the least depending on how you look at it) on the ground will more than likely finish the season on a winning note.
Putting the “Special” in Special Teams
If North Carolina has a clear edge in any aspect of this matchup against Cincinnati, it’s on special teams. The Tar Heels are No. 1 in FBS in punt returns thanks to the explosiveness and play-making ability of freshman Ryan Switzer. A first-team All-ACC punt returner, Switzer also was named Athlon Sports' first-team All-American punt returner and All-Freshman return specialist after leading the country with four punt returns for touchdowns. Switzer is averaging 20 yards per punt return and also has made an impact as a wide receiver, ranking third on the team in receptions (29), receiving yards (319) and touchdown catches (3). Besides their work on punt returns, the Tar Heels are averaging more than 23 yards per kickoff return and running back T.J. Logan has a 99-yard return for a score. Cincinnati needs to be very wary of Switzer when it has to punt since it has struggled in this department. The Bearcats are 113th among 125 FBS teams in punt return defense (12.9 ypr), although they have yet to give up a touchdown on a return. Earlier this season Switzer became just the second NCAA player in history to return a punt for a score in three straight games. That streak may have come to an end, but Switzer would no doubt like to add to his touchdown total in this game. The question is will Cincinnati even give the dynamic freshman a chance to return a punt. And if not, how effective will the Bearcats’ punter be in kicking away from him? Field position always matters, but especially in a game like this with two productive offenses going head-to-head.
Key Player: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
A 6-4, 245-pound junior, Ebron is a tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He leads the team in receptions (55) and receiving yards (895) and he is averaging 16.3 yards per catch. He’s caught three touchdowns and has already been named first-team All-ACC, first-team All-America by ESPN.com and second team by both the Associated Press and Athlon Sports. A finalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end, Ebron has already announced he will forego his senior season and enter the 2104 NFL Draft. He is believed by many to be the top tight end prospect available and could end up being selected in the first round. Ebron gives North Carolina’s passing attack something that most teams don’t have – an athletic, large target that can make big plays regardless of where he lines up – and he will pose a challenge for Cincinnati’s linebackers and secondary. Ebron’s mere presence on the field also helps open up things on the outside for wide receiver Quinshad Davis (47-724-10) and others. The Bearcats rank among the nation’s best when it comes to stopping the run, so it will be critical for quarterback Marquise Williams and the Tar Heels to make some plays through the air. So don’t be surprised if Ebron gets a lot of targets in his final game in a North Carolina uniform.
Cincinnati needs one more victory for its sixth 10-win season in the last seven. The Bearcats have one of the nation’s most explosive offenses supported by one of the stingiest defenses, and had their six-game winning streak snapped in overtime by a ranked Louisville team. North Carolina needed a five-game winning streak just to become bowl eligible and is giving up more than 400 yards per game. However, this is not the same Tar Heels team that started the season 1-5, as both the offense, behind the emergence of sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams, and the defense have made strides. While the Bearcats may have the edge on paper, I think the Tar Heels will feed off of the built-in home-field advantage of playing in Charlotte, N.C., and put together one of their best all-around performances. North Carolina has a lot of talent returning next season and the Tar Heels give a glimpse of what 2014 could hold by finishing off ’13 with a hard-fought, close victory over a solid Bearcats team.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Cincinnati 31
The Rose Bowl this game is not. The Texas Bowl between Minnesota and Syracuse barely has the buzz of the bowl game in Shreveport.
Both teams finished 4-4 in their respective conferences, but that should be a small victory itself.
Minnesota was one of the stories of the season in the Big Ten as the Gophers went 4-3 in the Big Ten under acting coach Tracy Claeys, including wins over Nebraska and Penn State. Claeys has been in charge since Oct. 5 when head coach Jerry Kill stepped aside to treat epilepsy.
Meanwhile, Syracuse quietly defeated three bowl teams, including two in conference. Little was expected of the Orange as Syracuse moved into the ACC under a first-year coach.
Minnesota vs. Syracuse
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Minnesota by 4
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Control the run game
It’s no secret what Minnesota is going to do on offense: The Gophers attempted only 237 passes this season, 92 fewer than Wisconsin for the fewest in the Big Ten. Behind an improved offensive line and running back David Cobb, Minnesota’s run game powered the four-game winning streak in October and November. When it ran into superb defenses from Wisconsin and Michigan State, though, Minnesota averaged only 2.8 yards per carry and scored one offensive touchdown. The good news for the Gophers: Syracuse isn’t Michigan State or Wisconsin. The Orange also may be without leading tackler Durell Eskridge in the secondary.
Syracuse’s Key to Victory: Continuing the momentum under Terrel Hunt
Syracuse had a quick hook with Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who began the season at quarterback. Terrel Hunt started the third game of the season and flourished against Wagner and Tulane. He struggled against the better teams in the ACC but regained his form late in the year. The sophomore completed 47 of 71 passes for 429 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the final two games against Pittsburgh and Boston College.
Key player: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
The Gophers 6-6, 311-pound nose tackle has been a wrecking crew all season with 11 tackles for a loss and an interception. He’ll be matched up with Syracuse’s second-team ACC center Macky MacPherson in a meeting of strength on strength. Hageman will have a major size advantage over the 6-2, 290-pound MacPherson, so Hageman should expect double teams.
Syracuse will be out to prove its 6-6 season wasn’t one of smoke and mirrors. Two of the Orange’s signature wins came against teams (Maryland, Boston College) shorthanded on offense due to injury. Syracuse is also plenty tested against the Big Ten, but those have tests have resulted in futility. Syracuse is 0-4 the last two seasons against Big Ten teams, including a 17-10 loss to Minnesota in 2012. Minnesota, meanwhile, will have the best defensive player on the field (Hageman) and the best unit of any team on the field (its run game). Minnesota has all the advantages to achieve its first nine-win season since 2004, a total that would match the total wins in Kill’s first two seasons.
Prediction: Minnesota 35, Syracuse 28
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
With a late flurry of big games, Boston College’s Andre Williams has set himself atop the ACC record book in more than one way. He broke Virginia running back Thomas Jones’ single-season ACC rushing record (1,798) by a wide margin by becoming just the 16th player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 yards. He broke Wake Forest back John Leach’s single-game rushing record (329) with 339 yards against NC State in Week 12. Williams is just five carries (329) shy of breaking the single-season ACC rushing attempts record (334) set by both Jones in 1999 and Maryland’s Charlie Wysocki in 1980. Williams carried BC to an impressive 7-5 bowl season one year after going 2-10.
No player in ACC history has thrown more touchdown passes or accounted for more total scores than Boyd. In just three full seasons as the starter for Clemson, Boyd threw for 11,526 yards and 102 touchdowns through the air while rushing for 25 more on the ground. His 102 passing scores and 127 total touchdowns are both all-time ACC records. Boyd passed NC State’s Philip Rivers for both benchmarks.
8: Anthony Harris' nation's leading interceptions
The Cavaliers didn't have too many bright spots as they lost their final nine games and finished 2-10 on the season. The lone bright spot was the junior defensive back from Chesterfield, Va. Anthony Harris led the nation in interceptions with eight picks in seven different games. It was the most interceptions by a Wahoo since Ronde Barber led the ACC in 1994.
3-5: ACC's record against the SEC
In the first game of the year, South Carolina quickly jumped out to a lead over North Carolina and held on for a relatively easy win over the Tar Heels. That same weekend, Alabama — well, all but one play — completely stifled Virginia Tech in Atlanta while Clemson outlasted Georgia in a Death Valley shootout for the ages. On the final weekend of the regular season, the SEC won the rivalry games 3-1 with wins from Georgia over Georgia Tech, South Carolina over Clemson and Vanderbilt over Wake Forest. Florida State was the lone ACC winner on rivalry weekend. Between those two weekends, the Hurricanes topped No. 12 Florida in Miami. So while the season had some high moments, the league is still playing second fiddle in a big way to the SEC. Duke will face Texas A&M, Georgia Tech will face Ole Miss and, of course, Florida State will see Auburn in the BCS National Championship. In theory, the ACC could post a winning record against the SEC this year.
1978: Woody Hayes punched a Clemson player in the Gator Bowl
There are a lot of great stats concerning the Ohio State-Clemson Orange Bowl matchup this winter. The game marks the 10th BCS bowl for the Buckeyes, the most by any team in the nation. The trip to the Orange Bowl is the first for Ohio State since 1976. But more importantly, it will be the first meeting between Ohio State and Clemson since Woody Hayes famously punched Clemson’s Charlie Bauman at the end of the 1978 Gator Bowl. Clemson won the only meeting between these two that day 17-15 and Hayes was fired the next day.
The Louisville-Kentucky matchup will still have the Bluegrass State at a fever pitch, but Big Blue Nation and Cardinals fans may be holding back just a little bit.
Both sides have enough questions about their own teams to feel too confident about taking shots at a rival. (But, then again, this is Louisville-Kentucky. Anything goes.)
Kentucky, with three losses, is probably more concerned than Louisville at this stage of the season. Although none of UK's defeats were at home, Baylor and North Carolina are sitting near the end of the top 25. The talent remains clear, but the chemistry is still a work in progress.
For comparison's sake, Kentucky’s national title team in 2012 lost twice all year, once on a buzzer beater at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final. Kentucky hopes 2010-11 is a better corollary. The Wildcats lost twice in the non-conference but lost to SEC also-rans on the road ... all that before reaching the Final Four.
Louisville fans have received less negative feedback about their team, but the Cardinals haven’t really given them much opportunity to get frustrated. Like Kentucky, Louisville lost to North Carolina, but Louisville has faced only one other team in the top 100 on KenPom.com (Southern Miss).
With four losses between the two teams, the rivalry game lacks the high rankings expected back in the preseason, but the significance hasn’t diminished.
Conference play begins in the coming weeks, meaning Kentucky and Louisville are both seeking their last chance for a major non-conference win.
Related: Stories from those on both sides of Louisville-Kentucky
Louisville at Kentucky
Time: Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Jones has been outstanding for most of the season in taking over for veteran point guard Peyton Siva, but he’s hit a bit of a hiccup in the last three weeks. Jones averaged 14.9 points as of Dec. 7 while causing havoc in the defensive end. The junior college transfer suffered a wrist injury on his shooting hand to miss one game before struggling to a degree in his last two games. Jones still contributed six assists, five steals and no assists against FIU on Sept. 21. He may be back to form with a week to rest. Louisville coach Rick Pitino may find out Saturday if Jones is the top flight-point guard the Cards need to defend their national title.
Top Matchup: Kentucky’s Julius Randle vs. Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell
Even on a team filled with talent at every position, Kentucky hasn’t proven it can win if Randle is having difficulty. The forward went 3 of 9 in the loss to North Carolina and 5 of 10 in the loss to Baylor. He came back to score 29 points with 10 rebounds against an overmatched Belmont frontcourt. Just as important, Randle had only one turnover against Belmont in a season in which he’s averaged 3.3.
Key Stat: 66.5 percent. Combined free throw shooting for both teams
Despite leading the nation in free throw attempts per game, Kentucky is averaging 67.5 percent on free throws, an Achilles heel at times this season. Louisville has been even worse at 65.5 percent. Even Russ Smith has been struggling from the line, shooting seven percentage points lower than last year’s mark. This will be worth watching in the event of a close game.
Louisville’s Key Storyline: Russ Smith's and Chris Jones’ defensive pressure
Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison hasn’t been quite the second coming of other John Calipari point guards — though many of the Calipari greats have struggled early. Harrison faces another quality Louisville pressure defense as Smith and Jones have led a Cardinals team that forces turnovers on 26.3 percent of possessions (second after VCU). The U of L duo hasn’t been tested since facing North Carolina.
Kentucky’s Key Storyline: Chemistry
If you’re the kind of person who likes to keep tabs on chemistry and body language, Kentucky will give you a field day. Frustration has been clear for Kentucky as Calipari has been trying to coax this team into chemistry. Randle responded to the call from Calipari in the win over Belmont on Saturday, but the young Wildcats may encounter more adversity against Louisville even than a close call against the Bruins.
Michigan State’s Rose Bowl hopes took a hit on Thursday, as head coach Mark Dantonio announced linebacker Max Bullough has been suspended for the Jan. 1 matchup against Stanford. Bullough was suspended for a violation of team rules.
Bullough ranked third on the team with 76 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and recorded one forced fumble and 1.5 sacks.
The senior was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and the coaches this season and finished his career in East Lansing with 299 tackles and eight sacks.
Bullough is a big loss for a Michigan State defense that led the nation in rush defense and allowed just 12.7 points a game.
Senior Kyler Elsworth is listed as Bullough’s backup, but there’s plenty of talent for coordinator Pat Narduzzi to mix if necessary. Senior Denicos Allen and junior Taiwan Jones are solid players and will anchor the outside spots in the linebacking corps in the Rose Bowl.
Michigan State LB Max Bullough has been suspended for the Rose Bowl - http://t.co/ODE0rVkxSS— Eye on College FBall (@EyeOnCFB) December 26, 2013
After both teams finished with a losing record in 2013, Marshall and Maryland have rebounded back into the postseason, and the Thundering Herd and Terrapins are set to make the short drive to Annapolis to meet in the Military Bowl.
The Military Bowl has moved to Annapolis, Md. after the first five matchups in this game's history were in RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
This season has been a year of near-misses for Marshall. The Thundering Herd lost by three points to Ohio, two points to MTSU and by eight to Virginia Tech in overtime. Marshall’s biggest loss occurred in the Conference USA Championship, dropping a 41-24 game to Rice. While the Thundering Herd didn’t get much national attention, they were just a few plays away from an unbeaten regular season.
Maryland has experienced an up and down 2013 campaign. The Terrapins started 4-0 before losing to Florida State 63-0. Maryland lost three out of its next four games but ended the year by winning two out of the last three contests. Under coach Randy Edsall, Maryland has increased its win total in each of the last three years.
Marshall is 7-2 in nine previous bowl appearances. The Thundering Herd has not played an ACC team in a postseason appearance. Maryland is 11-11-2 in its bowl history. The Terrapins are 5-1 in their last six bowl appearances, including a 51-20 victory over East Carolina in the 2010 Military Bowl.
Less than 500 miles separate the campuses for Maryland and Marshall, but these two teams have never played in a regular season or bowl matchup.
Marshall vs. Maryland
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -2.5
Marshall’s Key to Victory: Contain Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown
Brown missed two games due to an injury this season, but when healthy, the senior is Maryland’s best offensive player. Injuries to receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs have limited the passing game over the second half of the season, but Brown has rushed for at least 100 yards in two out of the last three contests. In the Conference USA Championship loss to Rice, Marshall allowed 248 rushing yards on 48 attempts. And the Thundering Herd finished the regular season seventh in Conference USA in run defense, allowing 4.2 yards per carry and 183.7 yards per game. All four of Marshall’s losses came against teams with mobile quarterbacks, and this defense has allowed at least 28 points in three out of the last four games. Brown isn’t the lone threat for Maryland on the ground, as running backs Brandon Ross and Albert Reid average over four yards per carry. Brown doesn’t have a 300-yard passing game this season, and the Terrapins hope they can keep their pass attempts under 30 in this game. Marshall had only two defenders earn all-conference honors, but both players were in the front seven (defensive lineman James Rouse and linebacker Jermaine Holmes). Rouse and Holmes need to contain Brown on running plays, while the Thundering Herd’s offense can help by winning the battle to control the tempo.
Maryland’s Key to Victory: Find a way to slow down Rakeem Cato
Marshall’s offense has been one of the best in the nation over the last two seasons. Piloting the offense is junior quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for 73 touchdown passes and 7,780 yards over Marshall’s last 25 games. As a freshman, Cato threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns in the Thundering Herd’s 20-10 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl win over FIU. While Cato is the triggerman for Marshall’s offense, he isn’t the only weapon. Essray Taliaferro leads the team with 1,059 rushing yards, while Steward Butler (762) is another reliable option the ground. The receiving corps is loaded with options, including Tommy Shuler (97 catches), tight end Gator Hoskins (13 TD catches) and Penn State transfer Devon Smith (17.6 ypc). Maryland’s defense was hit by a few injuries this season, especially in the secondary where true freshman William Likely was forced into action at cornerback. The Terrapins were gashed by Florida State and Clemson but held their last four opponents under 30 points. Marshall is averaging less yards per game in 2013 (502.3) than it was in 2012 (534.3). But the Thundering Herd has been more efficient, averaging 6.4 yards per play in 2013, up from 5.9 in 2012. Stopping Cato and his supporting cast is a tough assignment for coordinator Brian Stewart. One of the biggest strengths for the Terrapins has been getting pressure on the quarterback (34 sacks), which will be a key role in this game, especially since Marshall has allowed 25 sacks in 2013. If Maryland gets pressure on Cato, the junior can make plays with his legs (279 yards).
Key Player: Marcus Whitfield, LB, Maryland
Whitfield was one of the ACC’s most underrated defenders from 2013. In 12 games, he recorded 50 stops (14.5 tackles for a loss) and nine sacks. Whitfield also forced two fumbles and broke up three passes. The senior is clearly one of Maryland’s top playmakers on defense and will be a critical part of the gameplan to stop Marshall’s offense. The Thundering Herd average 291.2 passing yards per game, and quarterback Rakeem Cato is one of the top passers from a non-BCS conference. Stopping Cato is no easy task, especially with Marshall having more balance on offense this year. However, the key to stopping the Thundering Herd is to get pressure on Cato, which Maryland should be able to do. End Andre Monroe and Whitfield have combined for 17.5 sacks this year, and Marshall’s offensive line allowed 25 sacks in 2013. Whitfield doesn’t necessarily have to get sacks but getting pressure on Cato will prevent the junior from getting too comfortable in the pocket.
Maryland should have an edge in fan support, as Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is less than 40 miles from College Park, Md. But despite the edge in fans, this game should be close. Marshall’s offense is explosive, and if Rakeem Cato gets off to a good start, the Terrapins could have trouble keeping up with the Thundering Herd. Maryland needs to control the tempo and flow of the game and allow quarterback C.J. Brown to make plays with his legs. One underrated factor to watch will be the turnover battle. The Terrapins were -6 in turnover margin, while Marshall was +2. If the Thundering Herd protect Cato and win the turnover battle, Doc Holliday’s team should head back to Huntington with a bowl trophy.
Prediction: Marshall 31, Maryland 27
From the files of strange timing: UMass has decided to fire coach Charley Molnar. In his two years as the coach of the Minutemen, Molnar went 2-22 and both victories came against MAC teams.
The timing of this decision is odd, especially since UMass has missed out on a couple of weeks of a coaching search, plus recruiting for the new regime.
Molnar had a difficult task at UMass, as the program was transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level and had to play games at Gillette Stadium instead of an on-campus facility.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 26.
• Rachel Washburn went from the sidelines as an Eagles cheerleader to tours of duty in Afghanistan as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Ladies and gentlemen, the Hottest American Hero.
• Paul Rudd replicated Dennis Green's legendary postgame meltdown. Paul Rudd is who we thought he was.
• Cool story: In the wake of Tony Romo's injury, the Cowboys have plucked retired QB Jon Kitna out of a Tacoma high school. That high school is where all his Cowboys earnings are going.
• Wanna see pure joy? Watch this Auburn kid open his BCS tickets on Christmas morning.
• Now that Christmas is over, let the year-end countdowns commence in earnest. Here are the 15 best viral videos of the year. And here are the 50 best sports pics of 2013. And the 10 most ridiculous shots in the NBA in 2013.
• This Mike Woodson reaction reel pretty much sums up the Knicks' abysmal season.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The end of the year is a time of reflection.
In that spirit, think back to the highlight of the first day of college football season. On that Thursday in August, Ole Miss defeated Vanderbilt 39-35 in a game that featured two lead changes in the final two minutes.
The game, it turned out, was a perfect preface to the SEC season, even if neither the Rebels nor the Commodores would be the most dramatic team of the year. They weren’t even the most dramatic SEC team of the first month (that would be Georgia).
The 2013 season will be remembered as the Auburn made magic. Our countdown of the top 10 moments of 2013 starts on the Plains. College football fans love to debate anything and everything, but there’s little room for argument here.
Top 10 College Football Moments of the 2013 season
1. Auburn’s Kick Six
It will go down as perhaps the most memorable play in the history of college football: Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal as time expired that gave Auburn a 34–28 win over rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The victory secured the SEC West title for the Tigers, who are now playing for the BCS National Championship.
2. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare
In any other season, this would be the play of the year. Georgia scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter at Auburn to take a 38-37 lead, but Auburn wasn’t finished. Nick Marshall heaved a desperation pass that bounced off the hands of Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and into the waiting arms of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored the game-winning 73-yard touchdown.
3. Nebraska’s Hail Mary to beat Northwestern
A tumultuous season in Lincoln delivered at least one highlight when Ron Kellogg III, a reserve quarterback, tossed a Hail Mary to beat Northwestern 27–24 on Nov. 2. Kellogg’s heave as time expired deflected off a host of players ahead of the goal line into the hands of Jordan Westerkamp in the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
4. Ed Orgeron’s big win over Stanford
Ed Orgeron made it OK to root for USC again, especially when the interim coach helped set up a celebration at the Coliseum after the Trojans ended Stanford’s national title hopes with a 20–17 win. Andre Heidari kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining for the Trojans’ victory.
5. Jameis Winston bursts onto the scene against Boston College
Before the Boston College game Sept. 28, Jameis Winston was a freshman phenom. He left as a true Heisman contender. With the game tied in the waning seconds of the first half, Winston escaped the rush to hit Kenny Shaw for a 55-yard touchdown pass.
6. Aaron Murray’s two-step
Before Auburn, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was the king of late-game drama in the SEC. Murray finally got over his big-game bugaboo with a win over South Carolina on Sept. 7 and followed it with a back-and-forth fourth quarter in a 44–41 win over LSU two games later. Alas, Georgia’s injury bug finally caught up to him in November.
7. Texas A&M challenges Alabama again
In the most anticipated game of September, Alabama fell behind by two touchdowns, scored the next 35 points and ended up clinging to a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. The offensive explosion in College Station signaled a new kind of season in the SEC.
8. Baylor clinches the Big 12
Oklahoma State’s Bedlam loss earlier in the day turned Texas-Baylor into a Big 12 championship game. The Bears returned to their early season form just in time to beat the Longhorns 30–10 to cap an 11–1 season and Baylor’s first outright conference title since 1980.
9. Duke beats North Carolina for 10-win season
It’s not often that the Duke-North Carolina game has football implications, but the Blue Devils’ 27–25 win in Chapel Hill sealed one of the best seasons in Duke history. Coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to the ACC title game and the first 10-win season for the program.
10. The SEC championship track meet
A season that began with SEC teams running up and down the field ended with the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game in history when Auburn and Missouri combined for 101 points and seven lead changes. Tre Mason rushed for 304 yards to lead Auburn to the national championship game and himself to the Heisman ceremony.
Mack Brown’s final Red River win. It hadn’t become official yet, but this year’s Red River Rivalry certainly seemed to be Mack Brown’s last even at the time. The Longhorns made it memorable with a 36-20 win that was rarely in doubt.
Minnesota wins for Jerry Kill. With their coach sidelined as he took steps to treat epilepsy, the Gophers put together a banner season. The biggest win came Oct. 26 with a 34-23 over then-No. 24 Nebraska.
UCF swipes undefeated season from Louisville. Louisville’s bid to play for a national title ended when UCF’s Blake Bortles threw a touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to win 38-35. Both teams finished with one loss, but UCF was the one that earned a BCS bid, the first in school history.
Penn State’s wild finish to beat Michigan. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg solidified his spot as future star with a sensational game-tying drive against Michigan. After both teams exchanged missed kicks, Penn State won 43-40 in the fourth overtime.
Oklahoma’s Bedlam win. One of the most lopsided rivalries in college football will remain that way despite Oklahoma State’s major strides over the years. Blake Bell, a former starter and the third quarterback in the game for OU, led the game-winning drive in the final 19 seconds for a 33-24 win to spoil Oklahoma State’s bid for a Big 12 title.
Washington will try and cap off the program’s most successful season since 2000 with a win over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park in San Francisco. And if the Cougars weren’t enough of a challenge, the Huskies will play this game with an interim head coach on the sideline.
After leading Washington to eight wins and a third-place finish (5-4) in the Pac-12’s North Division, head coach Steve Sarkisian left Seattle to take over at USC. The Huskies hired Boise State’s Chris Petersen as Sarkisian’s replacement, but former quarterback and now position coach Marques Tuiasosopo will lead the team in the bowl game against BYU, which also happens to be Sarkisian’s alma mater.
The Huskies are in their fourth straight bowl game, but have dropped their last two postseason contests. Two years ago Washington was overwhelmed in the Alamo Bowl by Baylor and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, as the Bears beat the Huskies 67-56 in the highest-scoring regulation bowl game in college football history. Last season, Washington fell to Boise State 28-26 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A win over BYU would be Washington’s ninth of the season and the most by the Huskies since Rick Neuheisel’s 2000 team went 11-1, with its only loss being to Purdue in the Rose Bowl.
BYU has enjoyed considerably more success over the past 14 years, as the Cougars have won at least seven games in each of their past eight campaigns. In fact, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has yet to post a losing record in his nine seasons in Provo, Utah, and has led his team to a bowl game every year.
In their third year as a FBS Independent, BYU went 8-4, including a five-game winning streak that included victories over Utah State, Georgia Tech and Boise State. The Cougars’ schedule this season also featured games against five other bowl teams – Houston, MTSU, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin – and they went 6-2 in those contests.
Under Mendenhall, BYU is 6-2 in bowl games and have won its last four. Last season the Cougars defeated San Diego State 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, which was played in San Diego.
Washington and BYU have split their eight all-time meetings, but the Cougars have won the last three. The last one took place in 2010 in Provo, a 23-17 BYU victory.
BYU vs. Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -3
Three Things to Watch
Washington’s Coaching Transition
Huskies athletic director Scott Woodward made a terrific hire in luring Chris Petersen away from Boise State after Steve Sarkisian departed for USC. The problem is it truly won’t be Petersen’s team until after the bowl game, as Marques Tuiasosopo will serve as the interim head coach against BYU. A former star quarterback for Washington, Tuiasosopo served as the quarterbacks coach for Sarkisian, but he has added quite a bit more to his plate. The good news for the Tuiasosopo and the Huskies is that both coordinators – Eric Kiesau on offense and Justin Wilcox on defense – stayed, at least for the bowl game. What changes Petersen makes to the coaching staff after this game remains to be seen, but the coaches, as well as the players who will be back next season, know they are being evaluated by the new head coach. With so much uncertainty in the locker room and the attention already being shifted to 2014, how will this Huskies team and its skeleton coaching staff close out the ’13 campaign?
BYU’s Run Defense vs. Washington’s Ground Game
The third-ranked defense in the country last season, BYU took a few steps backwards this fall. The Cougars are still a respectable 52nd in total defense, but have seen their yards allowed per game rise from 266.1 per game in 2012 to 383.8. Against the run, BYU was No. 2 in FBS last season, giving up just 86.9 yards per game on the ground. This season the Cougars have surrendered 157.4 (56th) per contest and have given up more than that in four of their past five games. BYU will need to tighten up its run defense if it wants to slow down Washington’s potent ground game led by running back Bishop Sankey. The junior enters this game third in the nation in rushing yards per game with 147.9 and is averaging nearly six yards (5.8) per carry. Sankey has been held under 100 yards rushing just three times this season and also has gone over 200 on three different occasions. As a team, Washington is averaging 243.1 yards rushing per game and has scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. BYU’s defense is giving up fewer than four yards (3.8) per carry and has surrendered just nine rushing touchdowns, but this unit has a tough task ahead of it in trying to slow down Sankey and company.
Can the Huskies Force the Cougars to Throw?
As productive as Washington’s running game has been, BYU has posted even better numbers on the ground. The Cougars are 10th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 274.7 yards per game. Both quarterback Taysom Hill (above, right) and running back Jamaal Williams have rushed for more than 1,200 yards and they will draw plenty of attention from Washington’s defense. The Huskies enter this game giving up about 160 yards rushing per game, but have held four of their past five opponents to 131 yards or fewer. In Washington’s four losses opponents have rushed for an average of 245 yards per game. If the Huskies can make things tough on the Cougars’ running game, it will fall to Hill to make plays through the air. Hill has thrown for 2,645 yards this season, but he’s completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman is a legitimate playmaker, but he has just 45 catches for 727 yards and five touchdowns after posting 100 receptions for 1,248 yards and 11 scores last season. BYU is clearly comfortable running the ball, but is the offense too one-dimensional? Can Washington’s defense force Hill to rely on his arm instead of his legs? The Huskies are hoping they get a chance to find out.
Key Player: Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
A 6-3, 245-pound linebacker, Van Noy is the senior leader of the Cougars’ defense. His numbers have not been as impressive this season as last season, but he’s still a difference-maker who is capable of changing the direction of a game on any given play. Last season, Van Noy had 13 sacks, along with 22 tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks. This season, he has four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. He also is no stranger to saving his best for last, as he was named defensive MVP following BYU’s 23-6 win over San Diego State in last season’s Poinsettia Bowl. Van Noy owned the fourth quarter against the Aztecs, scoring two touchdowns, one on a fumble return and the other on a 17-yard interception return, to bring his Cougars from behind for the win. He also had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks and blocked a punt. Many thought that Van Noy might forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft following that performance but he returned to school and now has the opportunity to post one more impressive postseason stat line to finish out his BYU career.
Washington is a team in transition with its coaching staff so it would be understandable if the Huskies didn’t bring their “A” game to San Francisco. On top of that, BYU’s offensive strength – running the ball – has been a point of weakness at times for Washington’s defense. That said, I believe the Huskies have been energized by the hiring of Boise State’s Chris Petersen and will look at this game as an opportunity to impress their new head coach. I’m also not convinced that the Cougars will be able to throw the ball consistently against Washington’s defense, which makes their offense a little too one-dimensional. In the end, the Huskies’ running game, led by Bishop Sankey, and the aerial attack orchestrated by senior quarterback Keith Price, will be just enough to outlast the Cougars as Washington ushers in the Petersen era in Seattle with a win to close out 2013.
Prediction: Washington 31, BYU 30
Unless you’re still a Garrett Hartley owner, there’s no reason to switch kickers now.
Matt Prater, Stephen Gostkowski, Adam Vinatieri all got you here and none of them are playing for anything this week. No pressure.
Justin Tucker, Mason Crosby, Nick Novak, Dan Bailey, each of them do have postseason aspirations on the line. Tons of pressure. But they have come through for the most part this season.
But if you do want to get cute and need to find a sleeper, look at Graham Gano. He and his Carolina Panthers have an NFC South title on the line against an Atlanta team allowing the most to kickers, including 10 points to Gano in Week 10.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Kickers
|1||Matt Prater||DEN||at OAK|
|2||Stephen Gostkowski||NE||vs. BUF|
|3||Steven Hauschka||SEA||vs. STL|
|4||Justin Tucker||BAL||at CIN|
|5||Mason Crosby||GB||at CHI|
|6||Nick Novak||SD||vs. KC|
|7||Dan Bailey||DAL||vs. PHI|
|8||Adam Vinatieri||IND||vs. JAC|
|9||Phil Dawson||SF||at ARI|
|10||Nick Folk||NYJ||at MIA|
|11||Jay Feely||ARI||at SF|
|12||Blair Walsh||MIN||vs. DET|
|13||Caleb Sturgis||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|14||Shaun Suisham||PIT||vs. CLE|
|15||Graham Gano||CAR||at ATL|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
PATs = 1 point
39 yards and under = 3 points
40-49 yards = 4 points
50-59 yards = 5 points
60+ yards = 6 points
Carolina has been a double-digit scoring defense/special teams 11 times this season, and gets an Atlanta team that was one of those 11.
The Panthers will go for the NFC South title against a Falcons team that they scored 21 against in Week 9, and have scored in double digits four more times in the seven games following.
It gets a little shaky projecting a good defense after that.
The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, and their solid DSTs, are battling each other for playoff spots. San Fran won the DST score 14-6 in Week 6, but Arizona has been on fire the last few weeks.
Seattle is back at home and likely fuming from a rare home loss to an NFC West opponent last week in Arizona and now gets a Rams team it scored 13 against in Week 8.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Defense/Special Teams
|1||Carolina Panthers||at ATL|
|2||San Francisco 49ers||at ARI|
|3||Seattle Seahawks||vs. STL|
|4||Denver Broncos||at OAK|
|5||Arizona Cardinals||vs. SF|
|6||Cincinnati Bengals||vs. BAL|
|7||New England Patriots||vs. BUF|
|8||Miami Dolphins||vs. NYJ|
|9||Kansas City Chiefs||at SD|
|10||Cleveland Browns||at PIT|
|11||New Orleans Saints||vs. TB|
|12||New York Jets||at MIA|
|13||Indianapolis Colts||vs. JAC|
|14||St. Louis Rams||at SEA|
|15||Tennessee Titans||vs. HOU|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
0 points allowed = 12 points
1-6 points allowed = 10 points
7-13 points allowed = 8 pts
14-20 points allowed = 6 points
21-27 points allowed = 2 pts
28+ points allowed = 0 points
Safeties = 2 points
Fumbles recovered = 2 points
Interceptions = 2 points
Sacks = 1 point
Defensive/Special Teams TDs = 6 points
Jimmy Graham, the game’s top tight end, will be trying to help the Saints keep pace for an NFC South title Sunday against a Tampa Bay team he destroyed near the beginning of the season. His 10 catches for 179 yards on 16 targets were all season highs in Week 2. He also scored a TD against the Buccaneers, who have held TEs to six scores this season.
Vernon Davis had scored a touchdown in five straight games entering Monday night, and only been held off the scoreboard in three games. He is killing it in TD-only leagues and PPR leagues, and gets an Arizona team had eight catches, 180 yards and two scores on 11 targets — all season highs — in their Week 6 meeting.
Green Bay’s Andrew Quarless should be a decent sleeper against a Chicago team that has allowed a TD to the position in three of the last five games, and 5.6 catches per game to tight ends. Quarless had a dud last week, but had back-to-back 15.6-point games the two weeks prior.
2013 NFL Week 17 Fantasy Football Rankings — Tight Ends
|1||Jimmy Graham||NO||vs. TB|
|2||Vernon Davis||SF||at ARI|
|3||Greg Olsen||CAR||at ATL|
|4||Julius Thomas||DEN||at OAK|
|5||Jason Witten||DAL||vs. PHI|
|6||Tony Gonzalez||ATL||vs. CAR|
|7||Martellus Bennett||CHI||vs. GB|
|8||Antonio Gates||SD||vs. KC|
|9||Charles Clay||MIA||vs. NYJ|
|10||Jordan Cameron||CLE||at PIT|
|11||Coby Fleener||IND||vs. JAC|
|12||Delanie Walker||TEN||vs. HOU|
|13||Tim Wright||TB||at NO|
|14||Heath Miller||PIT||vs. CLE|
|15||Brandon Myers||NYG||vs. WAS|
|16||Marcedes Lewis||JAC||at IND|
|17||Andrew Quarless||GB||at CHI|
|18||Anthony Fasano||KC||at SD|
|19||Zach Ertz||PHI||at DAL|
|20||Logan Paulsen||WAS||at NYG|
Rankings are based upon Athlon Sports' standard scoring system:
All touchdowns are 6 points
1 point for 25 yards passing
1 point for 10 yards rushing/receiving
Receptions are .5 points
Interceptions/fumbles are minus-2 points