Articles By Steven Lassan
Texas is arguably the No. 1 job in college football, and the first assignment on new athletic director Steve Patterson’s plate was to pick a replacement for Mack Brown. After a three-week coaching search, Patterson hired Charlie Strong away from Louisville to lead the Longhorns back in national title contention.
Strong compiled a 37-15 record in four seasons at Louisville. Over the last two years, the Cardinals were 23-3 and claimed bowl victories over Florida (Sugar) and Miami (Russell Athletic). Prior to taking over at Louisville, Strong cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator at Florida and South Carolina. He also made stops as an assistant at Ole Miss and Notre Dame.
Although Texas slipped at the end of Brown’s tenure, he guided the Longhorns to nine consecutive seasons (2001-09) of at least 10 wins, including a national title in 2005. In addition to his success on the field, Brown was a perfect fit in Austin. The job demands at Texas are a little different than some other BCS programs, and Brown was able to master the booster glad-handling and television obligations with the Longhorn Network.
With Brown’s tenure and job obligations in mind, it brings us to an evaluation of Charlie Strong. Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives for Texas, followed by the final grade.
Positives for Texas’ Hire of Charlie Strong
Strong is simply a football coach
It’s a simple statement, but Strong isn’t particularly keen on media obligations or anything other than coaching football. While there are more responsibilities at Texas other than the X’s and O’s, Strong excels when he’s recruiting, developing talent or getting his players ready to play. Louisville went 15-21 in the three seasons prior to Strong’s arrival. During his four-year tenure with the Cardinals, Strong compiled a 37-15 mark and led Louisville to four consecutive bowl games. The Cardinals also finished No. 13 in the final Associated Press poll in 2012. While Louisville never worked its way into national title consideration under Strong, the program clearly improved under his watch. And given what Strong accomplished at Louisville (a top 25-30 job), he should be able to win at a high level at a program with more resources. Strong isn’t the flashiest coach, but he wins games and knows how to build a program.
Strong is one of the best defensive minds in college football
Before he was selected by Tom Jurich to be Louisville’s coach in 2010, Strong was regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation. Strong coordinated South Carolina’s defense from 1999-02 and Florida’s from 2003-09. Both of those units had several highlights under Strong, and Louisville ranked inside of the top four in the American Athletic/Big East in total defense in each of the last four years. The Cardinals finished No. 1 nationally in total defense in 2013, allowing just 4.2 yards per play. Strong could bring Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford (a former Texas defensive back) to Austin, which should ensure the Longhorns own one of the nation’s best defenses under his watch.
Talent developer and toughness
It’s a bit of a cliché, but Strong is going to bring toughness to Austin. While that element is tough to put into statistics, something was missing from Texas over the last few years. Under Strong, the Longhorns certainly won’t be accused of not having a physical team. And while Texas can reel in top-five recruiting classes with ease, that talent has to be developed more successfully. Expect Strong and his staff to do a better job of turning recruiting hype into All-Big 12 talent. According to 247Sports.com, in four years at Louisville, Strong never recruited a top-25 class. He should have no trouble with recruiting at Texas, but to win 37 games (23 in the last two years), with no top-25 recruiting classes shows how much talent development and coaching matters. Expect that to continue for the Longhorns.
Negative for Texas’ Hire of Charlie Strong
As mentioned above, a chunk of Mack Brown’s tenure at Texas was filled with obligations to the Longhorn Network or other media duties. Who knows what Strong and Patterson worked out, but this setup seems a little odd. Strong isn’t crazy about media obligations, yet is taking over a job with a television network and a larger media presence? With the extra resources and staff in place, Strong should be able to have some extra help to ensure he’s not overwhelmed with game preparation and media. In addition to the media, booster glad-handling will be a part of the job. Is Strong ready to give up some of his football time to appease those areas?
There’s very little to dislike about this hire for Texas. Strong is easily one of the top-25 coaches in the nation, and his recruiting connections in Florida will only add another area for Texas to expand its reach. Strong will add some much-needed toughness in Austin and should develop talent better than the previous staff has done over the last few years. So while this seems to be a good hire for Texas – and one with few negatives – on the surface, this feels like a strange fit. As we mentioned earlier, Strong could have agreements already in place to minimize his obligations with the media, boosters and Longhorn Network, but it’s a concern for a coach who prefers to focus only on what transpires on the football field. Expect Strong to win a lot of games at Texas, and once we see how things transpire with the off-the-field obligations by next year, this hire could be upgraded to an A.
Grading Texas’ Hire of Charlie Strong: B+
After receiving interest from Penn State regarding its head coach vacancy, Al Golden has decided to remain at Miami. Golden is a former Penn State player, so the Nittany Lions’ interest in the Miami coach was no surprise.
Miami has made steady gains under Golden, recording a 22-15 mark over the last three seasons. Prior to taking over in Coral Gables, Golden led Temple to a 27-34 record in five years.
While Golden is making progress, Miami has yet to play for the conference title since joining the ACC. But with a top 10-15 recruiting class coming to campus next year, the Hurricanes could start 2014 as the favorite to win the Coastal Division.
After a 37-15 record in four seasons at Louisville, Charlie Strong has decided to leave to take over the top spot at Texas. Strong inherited a program that won just 15 games in the three seasons prior to his arrival and quickly moved Louisville back into bowl contention, playing in four consecutive postseason games.
The Cardinals are 23-3 over the last two seasons and finished 2013 by demolishing Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Although Strong is leaving, the program is still in good shape. Louisville has one of the best athletic directors in college football in Tom Jurich, and the Cardinals are set to join the ACC in time for the 2014 season.
Louisville has good resources and facilities, so this job will garner plenty of interest from coaches around the nation.
Who will replace Strong in Louisville? Here are some possible candidates for the Cardinals:
10 Candidates to Replace Charlie Strong at Louisville
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt
Admittedly, it seems unlikely Franklin would leave Vanderbilt for Louisville, especially if he has interest in Penn State or the NFL. But the Cardinals have excellent resources, good facilities and money to throw in Franklin’s direction. In three years with the Commodores, Franklin has a 24-15 record, including back-to-back bowl victories. Considering how difficult it is to maintain success at Vanderbilt, playing in three consecutive bowl games and an 18-8 record from 2012-13 is a testament to how good of a coach Franklin is. Vanderbilt has made facility improvements over the last few years, but Louisville is a better job and it’s easier to win nine games a season in the ACC. It’s a longshot, but Jurich and Louisville would be wise to inquire about Franklin.
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Cincinnati native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999. After two years with the Longhorns, he stayed in the Lone Star State with stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. After four stops in Texas, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-11. And after three years with the Cyclones, Herman was hired by Urban Meyer to coordinate the Ohio State offense. Under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points a game in 2012 and 46.3 points a contest in 2013. Much like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Herman is due for a chance to run his own program. However, is Herman ready to take the top spot at a top 25-30 job in 2014? Or does he want to make another run at a national championship with Ohio State next season?
Mark Hudspeth, head coach, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth has quietly built an impressive resume from a handful of stops, including the last three years as the head coach of the Ragin’ Cajuns. Louisiana-Lafayette is 27-12 under Hudspeth’s direction, and the Ragin’ Cajuns claimed a share of the Sun Belt title in 2013. The 27 wins under Hudspeth are the most in a three-year span in school history. Prior to taking over at Louisiana-Lafayette, Hudspeth spent two years as a receivers coach at Mississippi State (2009-10) and worked as the head coach at North Alabama from 2002-08. In seven years at North Alabama, Hudspeth recorded a 66-21 mark.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo doesn’t have the name recognition of a Chad Morris or James Franklin, but he’s a rising star in the coaching ranks and has been a successful coach at three different stops. The New York native went 44-14 stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. From 2006-10, Lembo guided Elon to a 35-22 mark and one playoff appearance. In three years at Ball State, the Cardinals are 25-12 under his watch. Lembo has also led Ball State to back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history. Moving from Ball State to Louisville would be a sizeable jump, but Lembo is ready to lead a BCS program in 2014.
Derek Mason, defensive coordinator, Stanford
Mason has been a key piece of Stanford’s success under David Shaw, and some early reports seem to indicate he will be in the mix at Louisville. Prior to joining Stanford’s staff in 2010, Mason worked in the NFL with the Vikings as a defensive backs assistant from 2007-09. Mason’s first college job was in 1994 at San Diego Mesa College, followed by stops at Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico State and Ohio. Under Mason’s direction, Stanford has finished first or second in the Pac-12 in total defense in each of the last three years. Mason also has an important connection for this job. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich was at Northern Arizona when Mason was a defensive back with the Lumberjacks.
Jim McElwain, head coach, Colorado State
McElwain is a former Louisville assistant, spending 2000-02 with the Cardinals under John L. Smith. And the Montana native has developed a solid resume since leaving the Cardinals, working from 2003-05 at Michigan State and in 2006 in the NFL with the Raiders. In 2007, McElwain coordinated the Fresno State offense to an average of 419.5 yards per game. After one season with the Bulldogs, McElwain was hired by Nick Saban to call the plays for the Crimson Tide. Alabama’s offense improved under McElwain’s watch, finishing 64th nationally in total offense in 2008 and then jumping to 31st nationally in 2011. McElwain has spent the last two years at Colorado State, guiding the Rams to a 12-14 mark. Colorado State won the New Mexico Bowl this season, which was the school’s first postseason victory since 2008.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football and just finished his third season calling the plays at Clemson. Under Morris’ direction, the Tigers have averaged at least 440 yards per game in each of the last three years. Clemson has also averaged at least 40 points a contest in in back-to-back seasons. In one season as Tulsa’s offensive coordinator (2010), the Golden Hurricane averaged 505.6 yards per game and 6.5 yards per play. As if it wasn’t obvious by those numbers, Morris is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. However, his only head coaching experience was on the high school level. While Morris may experience a few ups and downs as a head coach, his offensive background is worth the risk.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi turned down Connecticut, but openings at Penn State or Louisville certainly provide intrigue for the 47-year-old coach. Narduzzi’s coaching career started at Miami (Ohio) in 1990 and continued there until 1992. From 1993-99, Narduzzi worked at Rhode Island and spent the following three years (2000-02) at Northern Illinois. Narduzzi’s first chance to coordinate a defense on the FBS level was in 2003 at Miami (Ohio), and he joined forces with Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. Since 2004, Narduzzi has worked under Dantonio and has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2013. The Spartans finished second nationally in total defense and allowed just 4.0 yards per play this season. Narduzzi’s defense at Michigan State was a key reason why the Spartans claimed the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford this year. The only downside to Narduzzi’s resume is no head coaching experience.
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama
Smart’s name has popped up for a few jobs over the last few years, but the former Georgia defensive back can afford to be patient in choosing his first head coaching gig. Smart has worked under Saban for eight years, starting in 2004 at LSU and continuing in the NFL with the Dolphins. He followed Saban to Alabama in 2007 and has served as the defensive coordinator since 2008. The Crimson Tide’s defense has ranked No. 1 in the SEC in total defense every season since 2008, and this unit led the nation in fewest points allowed in 2011-12. As we mentioned earlier, Smart does not have any head coaching experience, which seems to be the only concern on his resume. Is Smart waiting for a job in the SEC to open? Or is he willing to take a job outside of the conference?
Shawn Watson, offensive coordinator, Louisville
Watson is no stranger to Louisville fans, as he joined Charlie Strong’s staff in 2011 and served as the team’s offensive coordinator for the last three years. Prior to coming to Louisville, Watson coordinated offenses at Nebraska and Colorado, while also spending time as an assistant at Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern. After averaging 333 yards per game in 2011, Watson’s offenses improved in 2012 and 2013 – largely due to the development of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater – as the Cardinals averaged at least 400 yards per game over the last two years. Watson has one previous stint as a head coach, recording an 11-22 mark in three years at Southern Illinois (1994-96).
Other Names to Watch
Vance Bedford, defensive coordinator, Louisville
Bedford is a Texas native and played his college ball with the Longhorns. Even though he’s paid his dues as an assistant and was a key piece to building Louisville’s defense over the last four seasons, Bedford is likely following Strong to Austin.
David Cutcliffe, head coach, Duke
Cutcliffe’s name has popped up in the rumor mill to replace Strong, but it seems unlikely he leaves Duke for another ACC school. Cutcliffe is 31-43 in six seasons with the Blue Devils, including a 16-10 mark over the last two years.
Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals
Gruden is a former Louisville quarterback and has played a key role in developing Andy Dalton for the Bengals. While Gruden is a solid offensive mind, he has no head coaching experience on the college level and may be more interested in NFL jobs. And depending on the Bengals’ postseason success, Gruden may not be capable of taking a job until mid-January.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State
Mississippi State is one of the toughest jobs in the SEC, but Mullen has guided the Bulldogs to four consecutive bowl games. Mullen has a solid team returning next year, which could be the best of his tenure in Starkville. It seems like a longshot for Mullen to leave, but Louisville’s a better job and it’s easier to win in the ACC than coaching in the SEC West.
Bobby Petrino, head coach, Western Kentucky
Petrino went 41-9 in four years at Louisville from 2003-06. However, it’s hard to envision Petrino returning to a BCS job in 2014, especially since what transpired at Arkansas following the 2011 season. You never say never, but all signs seem to indicate it's a longshot for Petrino to return to Louisville.
Rich Rodriguez, head coach, Arizona
Rodriguez seems to be content (and has a pretty good job) at Arizona, but Louisville would be wise to inquire to see if there’s any interest. In two years with the Wildcats, Rodriguez is 16-10 overall. While his stint at Michigan didn’t not go particularly well, Rodriguez has been successful at each of his other stops, including a 60-26 mark at West Virginia from 2001-07.
Matt Wells, head coach, Utah State
Wells worked at Louisville in 2009 and did an outstanding job at Utah State in 2013, guiding the Aggies to a 9-5 record despite losing quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a knee injury. Although Wells was the Mountain West Coach of the Year, it’s probably too early to expect him to move to a BCS job.
Charlie Strong has decided to leave Louisville for Texas, ending a successful four-year run with the Cardinals.
Reports surfaced on Friday night that Strong was Texas’ top pick, but he waited to accept the job until he had a chance to meet face-to-face with athletic director Tom Jurich on Saturday.
In four years at Louisville, Strong compiled a 37-15 record. Over the last two years, the Cardinals were 23-3 and won back-to-back bowl games.
A source confirms to WDRB that Charlie Strong has told U of L AD Tom Jurich that he is leaving for the Texas football job.— rickbozich (@rickbozich) January 5, 2014
Art Briles was mentioned by many as one of the leading candidates to replace Mack Brown at Texas. And with Baylor’s season complete, the rumor mill has been in full effect over the last few days, as Briles’ name came up in regards to a possible interview with Texas athletic director Steve Patterson.
However, Briles tweeted his support of the school (and his current job) on Friday. And the school also released a statement from Briles, which confirmed his intentions to stay in Waco.
At the beginning of the season, Auburn and Florida State were considered longshots to play for the national championship. Fast forward to Jan. 6 in Pasadena, and that’s the unlikely, yet highly anticipated matchup to determine college football’s 2013 champion.
In addition to crowning the No. 1 team in the nation, this game is also the final matchup in the BCS era. Next year – for better or worse – college football’s postseason shifts to a four-team playoff format.
The BCS era has been kind to both Florida State and Auburn. The Seminoles opened the BCS era with an appearance in the national championship, losing 23-16 to Tennessee after the 1998 season. But Florida State won the national title the next year and played for it again after the 2001 season. Auburn has only one previous appearance in the BCS title game, a 22-19 victory over Oregon to claim the championship for the 2010 season.
Auburn’s ascension into the national championship game was more of a surprise than Florida State, but the Seminoles didn’t have an easy path to their 13-0 record. Florida State had to replace six assistant coaches, and 11 players from last year’s team were selected in the NFL Draft. But coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well, and the Seminoles’ roster was able to quickly reload in time for 2013. And Fisher’s hires on the coaching staff were outstanding, including the additions of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri.
After a 3-9 record last year, Auburn parted with Gene Chizik and brought former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn back to the Plains as head coach. Recruiting talent hasn’t been an issue for the Tigers, so it was no surprise the Tigers were one of the most-improved teams in the nation. However, no one could have expected what transpired at Auburn in 2013. Sure, the Tigers caught a few lucky breaks, but this team improved throughout the season and finished the year on a nine-game winning streak.
Auburn and Florida State have 18 previous meetings. The Tigers own a 13-4-1 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1990. There are some current ties between the two programs, as Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig worked under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State from 2010-12. And Fisher worked at Auburn from 1993-98 under Terry Bowden.
Auburn vs. Florida State
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7.5
Three Things to Watch
Florida State’s run defense vs. Auburn’s offense
The Seminoles are loaded with talent on defense. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought a new scheme to Tallahassee, but the production didn’t drop from 2012. Florida State ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense last year and led the nation in fewest yards allowed per play (3.9). Despite seven new starters, the Seminoles were dominant once again, holding opponents to 10.7 points per game and just 3.9 yards per play in 2013. Florida State’s defense held Clemson’s high-powered offense to just 14 points and only one opponent scored more than 20 points in 2013. But the Seminoles’ defense will be tested by an Auburn offense that finished the regular season on a tear. The Tigers averaged 47.8 points per contest over their final four games, largely due to their rushing attack. Quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason combined to rush for 2,644 yards this season, and both players averaged at least five yards per carry. Marshall is a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, as he is adept at carrying out the fakes and reads to run Auburn’s offense. Of course, no offense is successful without a good offensive line, and the Tigers have a solid front five. Left tackle Greg Robinson is the headliner, but center Reese Dismukes is one of the best in the nation. Can Auburn’s offensive line continue to win the battle in the trenches against Florida State? The Seminoles have held their last six opponents to under 3.3 yards per carry, and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is one of the best in the nation, but end Mario Edwards Jr. is stout against the run and is a key piece for Florida State’s defense on Jan. 6. Which unit will win the battle at the point of attack? If Auburn’s rushing game has success, it will help to keep the Seminoles’ offense on the sidelines and control the tempo of the game. However, Florida State wants to put the Tigers into long-distance situations and force Marshall to beat the defense with his arm.
Auburn’s secondary vs. Florida State’s passing attack
Turnovers and special teams
We could talk about several areas in this section, but in the national championship, every area of the game is magnified. One small mistake could be end up as a game-changing play, which is why turnovers and special teams should be monitored throughout Monday night’s matchup. Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo is one of the best in the nation, connecting on 19 of 20 attempts in 2013. And the Seminoles are set on returns with Kermit Whitfield (kickoffs) and Kenny Shaw (punts). Punter Cason Beatty was average this year, managing 40.8 yards per kick. Much like Florida State, Auburn’s special teams have been solid. Kicker Cody Parkey has connected on 14 of 19 attempts, and punter Steven Clark averaged 42.5 yards per punt, while placing 23 inside the 20. The Tigers are also in good shape on returns, with Chris Davis averaging 20.1 yards per punt return (with one touchdown), while Tre Mason and Quan Bray take the lead on kickoff returns. In the turnover department, Florida State has an edge. The Seminoles have forced 34 turnovers this year, creating a margin of +17. Auburn is even in turnover margin, forcing only 18 turnovers in 2013.
Key Player: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall is the x-factor in this game. Florida State will load up to stop Auburn’s rushing attack, which should leave Marshall with opportunities to make plays through the air. The junior made progress as a passer in his first season with the Tigers, finishing 2013 with 1,759 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 60.4. Marshall’s rushing ability is a perfect fit for this offense, but his arm will be a critical aspect on Monday night. Auburn doesn’t have the standout playmakers like Florida State has in the receiving corps, but Sammie Coates (22.1 ypc), Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis and Quan Bray form a solid group of options for Marshall. If the Seminoles jump out to an early lead, the Tigers won’t be forced to abandon the run, but more will be placed on Marshall’s arm. If Auburn does fall behind by two or three scores, is Marshall up to the task to pass his team back into the game? And on the flipside, the junior averages 6.6 yards per carry and will be a key cog in the rushing attack on Monday. Marshall has thrown only five interceptions this year. He needs to another mistake-free game on Monday night for Auburn to claim another national championship.
Last year’s BCS Championship between Notre Dame and Alabama was a total dud. Expect things to be different on Jan. 6. Florida State and Auburn should provide an entertaining game, with two teams bringing contrasting, but still high-scoring offenses to Pasadena. The Tigers are a run-first team, while the Seminoles are balanced and capable of hurting opposing defenses in a variety of ways. A key question to watch on Monday night: Can Auburn get pressure with its defensive line? Or will the Tigers have to blitz? If Auburn has to blitz, Winston and Florida State’s receivers will hit on several big plays. But if the Tigers can control the battle in the trenches by getting pressure on Winston with their front four, Auburn will be in good shape. When the Tigers have the ball, they have to stay out of long-distance yardage situations. Although Auburn can throw the ball effectively, its offense just isn’t built to rally from a three-score deficit. Florida State has simply dominated this year. Will the Seminoles pickup where they left off in the ACC Championship? The Tigers navigated the SEC with one loss but seemed to get better each week. Will Auburn once again find a way to win a close game?
|Steven Lassan||Florida State 38-34||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Mitch Light||Florida State 37-34||Devonta Freeman, RB, FSU|
|Mark Ross||Florida State 35-27||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Braden Gall||Auburn 41-38||Dee Ford, DE, Auburn|
|Nathan Rush||Florida State 42-33||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Rich McVey||Florida State 45-35||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|David Fox||Auburn 38-35||Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn|
Georgia Tech’s offense will have a new quarterback next season, as Vad Lee has decided to transfer following the Yellow Jackets’ bowl loss to Ole Miss.
Lee was Georgia Tech’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, throwing for 1,561 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushing for 513 yards and eight scores.
Why is Lee leaving Georgia Tech? Check out this tweet:
GT QB Vad Lee said he will transfer. "The triple option was never really my thing," Lee said.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 3, 2014
With Lee transferring, Justin Thomas is likely to open spring practice as Georgia Tech's No. 1 quarterback.
If you like offense, Friday night’s Orange Bowl matchup between Clemson and Ohio State will be must-see television. The Tigers and Buckeyes combined to average 86.5 points a game during the regular season, and there’s little to suggest a defensive struggle is in store at Sun Life Stadium.
Outside of the National Championship, the Orange Bowl matchup between the Buckeyes and Tigers might be the most intriguing bowl from the 2013-14 postseason.
Ohio State was a win away from playing for the BCS title, while Clemson capped off its best three-year stretch in program history with a 10-2 mark during regular season. The Buckeyes only defeat came in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State, while the Tigers lost 51-14 to No. 1 Florida State and 31-17 to rival South Carolina.
Clemson and Ohio State have played only once – and what a meeting it was. These two teams played in the 1978 Gator Bowl, with the Tigers winning 17-15. But a Clemson victory wasn’t the biggest storyline from that game. Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass with less than two minutes to go, which sealed the victory for the Tigers. However, after he was tackled along the Ohio State sideline, Bauman was punched by Buckeyes’ coach Woody Hayes. The incident resulted in the end of Hayes’ coaching career at Ohio State.
Clemson vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 3. at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
Ohio State's secondary vs. Clemson's receivers
The biggest weakness on Ohio State’s defense is the secondary. The Buckeyes ranked 11th in the Big Ten against the pass, allowing 259.5 yards per game and 26 passing scores. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60.5 percent of their throws against Ohio State’s defense this year. The Buckeyes are strong in the trenches with an outstanding defensive line, but the secondary has not played at an elite level. In the last four games of 2013, Ohio State allowed at least 288 passing yards and gave up seven passing scores in its last two contests. Making matters worse for coach Urban Meyer is the status of top cornerback Bradley Roby. The junior suffered a knee injury in the Big Ten Championship and is not expected to play. With Roby sidelined, sophomore Armani Reeves is listed as the backup and would slide into the starting lineup. But without Roby, the pressure also increases on the rest of the secondary, including the other starter at cornerback (Doran Grant) and senior safeties Corey Brown and C.J. Barnett. Even if Roby was able to play, Ohio State’s secondary would have its hands full against Clemson’s passing game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has thrown for 11,526 yards and 102 touchdowns in his career and has completed 67 percent of his throws in back-to-back years. Boyd also has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including the explosive Sammy Watkins (14.6 ypc, 10 TDs), Adam Humphries (41 receptions), and Martavis Bryant (20.5 ypc). If Ohio State can generate a consistent pass rush, it would help take the pressure off a questionable secondary. However, if Boyd has all day to throw, the senior will torch the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Despite a three-game suspension to start the season, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten by averaging 140.8 yards per game and finished only 160 yards behind Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for the conference rushing title. The senior averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his last eight games, including a ridiculous 10.3 average against Illinois. Clemson’s rush defense finished ninth in the ACC, allowing 152.6 yards per game. At first glance, those numbers would appear to be a huge problem for the Tigers. However, a deeper look at the statistics shows Clemson hasn’t been awful against the run, as giving up 248 to Georgia Tech and 323 to Syracuse skewed the numbers. Winning the battle in the trenches will be critical for the Tigers, especially against an Ohio State offensive line that features four senior starters. The Tigers can counter in the trenches with an underrated defensive front. End Vic Beasley was an All-American in 2013, and there's depth at end with Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Shaq Lawson. The tackle spots are in good shape with Grady Jarrett, D.J. Reader, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams. There’s no question the Buckeyes want quarterback Braxton Miller to throw downfield. However, the run game helps to set the table for the offense. While Clemson can’t solely focus on stopping Hyde, keeping Ohio State in long yardage situations is critical to its Orange Bowl title hopes.
Clemson's secondary vs. Braxton Miller
As we mentioned above, the defensive backfields will be under fire on Friday night. Ohio State’s secondary struggled during the regular season and could be shorthanded in the Orange Bowl. Clemson’s secondary finished third in the ACC in pass defense and 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, the Tigers are thin on depth in the secondary, as three freshmen are listed on the depth chart. Safety Jayron Kearse finished tied for second on the team with three interceptions, but fellow freshman Jadar Johnson played in less than 100 snaps this year. Needless to say, Clemson cannot afford an injury in this unit on Friday night. While depth may be an issue, there is talent for coordinator Brent Venables. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland had an All-ACC caliber season, and senior Darius Robinson picked off three passes on the other side. Ohio State doesn’t have a No. 1 option like Sammy Watkins, but the Buckeyes aren’t short on talent at receiver. Corey Brown led the team with 55 catches, while Devin Smith averaged 15.6 yards per catch, and tight end Jeff Heuerman quietly recorded 25 receptions. Evan Spencer, Chris Fields and freshman standout Dontre Wilson are also options to watch. And the triggerman for Ohio State’s offense is junior quarterback Braxton Miller, who threw for 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. Miller missed two games due to injury but also rushed for 1,033 yards in 2013. When healthy, the junior is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and makes the Ohio State offense go. Clemson didn’t play a plethora of elite quarterbacks this year but allowed 444 passing yards to Florida State and Jameis Winston. If Clemson struggles to stop Carlos Hyde on the ground, Miller and his receivers should have no trouble carving up this secondary.
Key Player: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
With cornerback Bradley Roby expected to sit due to a knee injury, and the suspension of defensive end Noah Spence, there’s even more pressure on Shazier to set the tone for Ohio State's defense. Shazier led the team with 134 tackles (22.5 for a loss) and recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles in 2013. The junior will be tasked with keeping Clemson running back Roderick McDowell from breaking any big plays, while also cleaning up any missed tackles all over the field. The Tigers are always capable of throwing a trick play or two at opposing defenses, which makes having a veteran leader in the linebacking corps even more valuable. And most importantly, Shazier is the heart and soul (and leader) for this defense. With a dangerous offense on the other sideline, Shazier will need to play one of his best games in an Ohio State uniform for the Buckeyes to earn the victory.
Get ready for an offensive showcase. Ohio State and Clemson are loaded with talent on offense, including two of the best quarterbacks in the nation (Tajh Boyd and Braxton Miller). While Boyd and Miller should put on a show, the outcome of this game will be determined by which defense can get the most stops or create a turnover at an opportune time. The Buckeyes’ secondary is a huge concern, but the front seven should get pressure on Boyd to disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. With Hyde and four senior starters on the offensive line, Ohio State will grind the clock in the fourth quarter, with Miller tossing a late score that gives the Buckeyes their first victory in the Orange Bowl since 1977.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Clemson 34
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien has accepted the head coaching job with the Houston Texans. O’Brien went 15-9 in two years with the Nittany Lions.
O’Brien inherited a challenging situation at Penn State, as the program was hit by NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal prior to his first season in Happy Valley.
Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s top jobs, but it isn’t without challenges. The school has uncertainty surrounding its athletic director position and is ineligible for a bowl game for the next two years.
Here are 10 replacements for Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
Texans are expected to introduce Bill O'Brien as their new head coach by Saturday, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 1, 2014
After a two-year stint at Penn State, Bill O’Brien has decided to leave for the NFL and the Houston Texans. O’Brien guided Penn State through a difficult period, which included scholarship sanctions and a bowl ban due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
O’Brien went 15-9 at Penn State, with 10 of those victories coming in Big Ten play. Despite winning records in both seasons, NCAA sanctions prevented the Nittany Lions from participating in a bowl over the last two years.
There’s no question O’Brien is a NFL guy, as he interviewed for openings last season and spent from 2007-11 with the Patriots.
O’Brien brought stability to Happy Valley after the NCAA sanctions were announced and recruited solid talent, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Even with two more years of a postseason ban, Penn State is still one of the top jobs in the Big Ten. However, there’s some uncertainty about who will serve as the school’s athletic director in the coming years. Will that deter a big-name coach from Penn State?
Candidates to Replace Bill O’Brien at Penn State
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt
Franklin is one of the hottest names in coaching circles for open vacancies. The Pennsylvania native’s name has popped up for the jobs at Texas, Penn State and in the NFL. In three years at Vanderbilt, Franklin is 23-15 and has guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games. Vanderbilt’s three straight bowl games are a school record and 23 wins over a three-year period is one of the best stretches in the program’s history. As a Pennsylvania native, this is a chance for Franklin to return home. However, he could have his pick of offers – including college football’s No. 1 job in Texas.
Al Golden, head coach, Miami
Much like Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Penn State represents an opportunity for Golden to return to a familiar setting. Golden grew up in Colts Neck, N.J. and played at Penn State from 1987-91 under Joe Paterno. Golden also coached linebackers with the Nittany Lions in 2000. In addition to his one-year stint at Penn State as an assistant, Golden worked at Virginia and Boston College before taking over at Temple in 2006. Under his direction, the Owls went from being one of the worst teams in the nation to a bowl team. Temple went 27-34 during Golden’s five seasons, but the Owls went 17-8 in his last two years. Golden inherited a mess at Miami due to an off-the-field scandal and has brought improvement to the Hurricanes. In three years under Golden, Miami is 22-15 and is 10-6 in the ACC over the last two seasons. After cleaning up from one NCAA scandal at Miami, would Golden want to finish another at Penn State?
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Cincinnati native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999. After two years with the Longhorns, he stayed in the Lone Star State with stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. After four stops in Texas, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-11. And after three years with the Cyclones, Herman was hired by Urban Meyer to coordinate the Ohio State offense. Under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points a game in 2012 and 46.3 points a contest in 2013. Much like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Herman is due for a chance to run his own program. However, is Penn State willing to gamble on an assistant with no head coaching experience? If the Nittany Lions are, Herman would be an outstanding hire.
Larry Johnson Sr., assistant coach, Penn State
Johnson is a bit of a longshot, but if Penn State wants to move quickly in replacing O’Brien, he should be near the top of the list. The North Carolina native has worked at Penn State since 1996, serving as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien. Johnson is regarded as an excellent defensive line coach and recruiter, and his presence will be key in keeping the 2014 signing class together. Johnson’s only head coaching experience occurred in high school at two different locations.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo wouldn’t be a big-name hire like James Franklin or Al Golden, but the New York native is a coach that is due for a promotion to run a BCS program. Lembo has been a successful head coach at three different stops, starting with a 44-14 stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. From 2006-10, Lembo guided Elon to a 35-22 mark and one playoff appearance. In three years at Ball State, the Cardinals are 25-12 under his watch. Lembo has also led Ball State to back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football and should be ready to run his own program after spending the last four years as an offensive coordinator in the FBS ranks. Under Morris’ direction, Clemson has averaged at least 440 yards per game in each of the last three seasons. The Tigers also averaged 40.2 points a game in 2013. There’s no question Morris is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. But his only head coaching experience took place at the high school level. Would Penn State take a chance on Morris? Or does he need to take another head coaching job at a smaller program before having a chance to run a program like Penn State?
Mike Munchak, head coach, Tennessee Titans
Munchak’s status with the Titans is up in the air for 2014. However, his future in Tennessee may not matter now that Penn State is open. Munchak played at Penn State from 1979-81 and was drafted by the Oilers in 1982. After a 12-year career in the NFL, Munchak retired and joined Houston’s coaching staff in 1994. He worked with the Oilers and Titans in an assistant capacity until 2011, as he was promoted to head coach after the team parted ways with Jeff Fisher. In three seasons as the Titans’ head coach, Munchak is 22-26. Munchak has no experience coaching on the college level, but he is a Pennsylvania native and a former Penn State player. With strong ties to Happy Valley, Munchak figures to be a strong candidate for athletic director Dave Joyner.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi turned down Connecticut, but a job with the profile of Penn State would certainly provide intrigue for the 47-year-old coach. Narduzzi’s coaching career started at Miami (Ohio) in 1990 and continued there until 1992. From 1993-99, Narduzzi worked at Rhode Island and spent the following three years (2000-02) at Northern Illinois. Narduzzi’s first chance to coordinate a defense on the FBS level was in 2003 at Miami (Ohio), and he joined forces with Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. Since 2004, Narduzzi has worked under Dantonio and has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2013. The Spartans led the nation in total defense this year and allowed just 3.9 yards per play. The only downside to Narduzzi’s resume is no head coaching experience.
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Roman was in the mix the last time the Penn State job was open and should be a candidate to replace O’Brien this year. Most of Roman’s experience has been in the NFL, starting with the Panthers in 1995, continuing with the Texans in 2002, the Ravens in 2006 and the 49ers in 2011. Roman worked with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2009-10. Although he has no head coaching experience, Roman has worked under one of the best coaches in the NFL (Harbaugh) and is an excellent offensive mind. How quickly Roman would be available depends on how far San Francisco goes in the NFL playoffs.
Greg Schiano, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano recently joined the ranks of the unemployed, as he was fired after Tampa Bay’s Week 17 loss to New Orleans. While Schiano was just 11-21 in two years with the Buccaneers, he had a much better stint in college at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights struggled mightily prior to Schiano’s arrival, but he led Rutgers to six bowl appearances in his final seven years. The Scarlet Knights also won at least eight games in five out of the last six seasons. Schiano is also regarded as an excellent recruiter in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. Considering his losing record at Tampa Bay, Schiano could be a tough sell to Penn State’s fan base.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher agreed to a contract extension with the school prior to the ACC Championship and now the agreement is official. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Fisher has signed a new contract with Florida State, increasing his salary to around $4 million a season.
Fisher’s contract will reportedly include incentives and upgrades in pay for his assistants.
In four years at Florida State, Fisher is 44-10 and is 3-0 in bowl games. The Seminoles will play for the national championship on Jan. 6 against Auburn.
Jimbo Fisher signs new contract 4 about than $4.1 million/year, per Tall. Democrat. Agreement first reported by PB Post 1 month ago.#FSU— Tom D'Angelo (@tomdangelo44) December 31, 2013
North Texas and UNLV cap off surprising 2013 seasons with a matchup in the Heart of the Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. Dallas has seen plenty of good bowl games on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl, but the North Texas-UNLV matchup could be lost in the New Year’s Day shuffle, as the Heart of the Dallas bowl kicks off at the same time as the Gator, Capital One and Outback Bowls.
If you think there are too many bowl games – you haven’t studied this matchup. North Texas and UNLV were picked by many to finish near the bottom of their respective conferences. However, both teams were two of college football’s biggest surprises, combining for a 15-9 mark.
These two teams have met four times, with UNLV winning all four matchups. The last meeting between the Rebels and Mean Green was in 2000. In the last two games between these two teams, UNLV has outscored North Texas 64-3.
This is UNLV’s first appearance in a bowl since the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl. The Rebels are 3-0 in previous bowl matchups.
North Texas is 1-5 in six bowl appearances. The Mean Green has lost two in a row, with the only victory coming in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
North Texas vs. UNLV
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: North Texas -6.5
North Texas’ Key to Victory: Stop UNLV RB Tim Cornett
Running back Tim Cornett had an underrated and very productive career at UNLV. Cornett finished the 2013 regular season with 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns and is only the second player in school history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Cornett is also UNLV’s career leading rusher. North Texas has been solid against the run this year, limiting opponents to only 125.1 rushing yards per game. The Mean Green allowed only six rushing scores in eight Conference USA contests and limited both Rice and MTSU – the top two teams in conference-only games in rushing offense – to less than 140 yards on the ground. The strength of North Texas’ defense is in the front seven, with linebacker Zach Orr as the headliner (114 tackles). UNLV’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Brett Boyko (second-team All-Mountain West), and this unit gave up just 21 sacks and helped to pave the way for the Rebels to average 4.5 yards per carry. This is a strength versus strength scenario. If UNLV wins the battle in the trenches, Cornett should easily top the 100-yard mark. But if North Texas is able to establish its edge in the trenches, Cornett will struggle, forcing the Rebels to lean more on quarterback Caleb Herring.
UNLV’s Key to Victory: Make North Texas win the game with the pass
Much like UNLV, North Texas prefers to lean on its ground game to win. Leading the way for the Mean Green’s rushing attack is Brandin Byrd (1,023 yards, 5.6 ypc) and Antoinne Jimmerson (428 yards, 4.3 ypc). The running backs get the attention in Denton, but the offensive line is a veteran unit, led by guards Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo. This line will be critical to North Texas’ hopes at victory, especially with a struggling UNLV defense. The Rebels ranked ninth in the Mountain West against the run, allowing a whopping 222.6 yards per game on the ground. No UNLV defender garnered all-conference honors this season, so this is a unit looking for answers in the bowl practices. While North Texas has proven it can run the ball, the passing attack has left a little to be desired. Of course, with a strong defense and rushing attack, quarterback Derek Thompson doesn’t need a huge performance each week. In eight Conference USA games, the Mean Green ranked eighth in the conference in passing offense, throwing eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. How important is it to force the Mean Green out of their comfort zone? In eight wins, the offense is averaging 25.9 pass attempts. In four losses, North Texas averaged 38.3 attempts. Stopping the run has been an issue for UNLV, but it’s essential the Rebels slow Byrd and Jimmerson on Jan. 1.
Key Player: Caleb Herring, QB, UNLV
Herring finished the fall as the team’s No. 2 quarterback behind Nick Sherry. But after a slow start by Sherry, Herring took over the No. 1 job and was a key cog in UNLV’s turnaround. The senior threw for 2,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, but most importantly, he completed 64.3 percent of his throws and tossed only four interceptions. Herring’s emergence gave the Rebels’ offense balance and allowed the team to take advantage of a solid group of weapons at receiver, including Devante Davis (77 catches, 1,194 yards). Herring will need another efficient effort on Jan. 1, as North Texas’ secondary allowed just five passing scores in conference games. The Mean Green also picked off 12 passes. With North Texas likely to stuff the box to stop Cornett, UNLV’s offense needs Herring to have success early in the game.
Both programs should be excited to be in this bowl. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck began the year on the hot seat but earned a contract extension with a 7-5 season. After a 9-15 start under Dan McCarney, North Texas nearly won Conference USA’s West Division with an 8-4 record. Both programs are pointed in the right direction, and this game is a reward for a breakout year. Quarterback play will be critical for both teams on Jan. 1. If Herring has success early, UNLV should be able to establish its running game. And the same can be said for North Texas, but Herring was more efficient than Derek Thompson in 2013. The Rebels have an edge in offensive talent with Herring and Cornett, but the Mean Green has the better defense and a home-field advantage. Those two factors should be the difference in this game.
Prediction: North Texas 31, UNLV 24
The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the final college game in the 2013 calendar year, and this season’s version features two teams making their first appearance in this postseason classic. Duke and Texas A&M meet in Atlanta on Dec. 31, in what is one of the more intriguing pre-Jan. 1 bowl matchups.
David Cutcliffe has transformed Duke from an afterthought on the gridiron to Coastal Division champion. The Blue Devils went 10-82 from 2000-07, but Cutcliffe has brought steady improvement to Durham, guiding the Blue Devils to back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history. A 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship didn’t diminish the 2013 season for Duke, as the program has a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history and earn its first bowl victory since 1961 on Dec. 31.
While Duke enters this game coming off arguably the best season in school history, there’s a slight sense of disappointment on the Texas A&M side. Of course, spending the New Year in Atlanta is never a bad outcome, but the Aggies had hopes of contending for a SEC Championship. Texas A&M lost by seven points to Alabama and by four to Auburn and finished the season with back-to-back losses to LSU and Missouri. 8-4 certainly isn’t a bad season, but most preseason predictions placed the Aggies around the top 10-15 teams in the nation. With Kevin Sumlin inking an extension after the season and a renovated stadium on the way, Texas A&M is poised to continue its climb up the SEC ladder.
This will be the first meeting between Duke and Texas A&M on the gridiron. The Blue Devils are 3-6 in nine previous bowl appearances and have lost three in a row in the postseason. The Aggies have won back-to-back bowl games, including a 41-13 victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last season.
Duke vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas A&M -12.5
Three Things to Watch
Can Duke’s defense stop Johnny Manziel?
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was unable to match the hardware in 2013 he accumulated from his standout freshman season. However, the sophomore was a better all-around quarterback in 2013, throwing for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns. Under Manziel’s guidance, Texas A&M scored the most touchdowns in the SEC (71) and averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per play. Kevin Sumlin decided to shake up his coaching staff before the bowl, as Jake Spavital takes over as play-caller, with Clarence McKinney staying on staff as a running backs coach. Manziel makes the Texas A&M offense go, but he’s certainly not the only piece for this team. Receiver Mike Evans is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs, and the Aggies have one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Duke didn’t face many elite offenses this season and allowed 5.5 yards per play. But the Blue Devils had a knack for making timely plays. Duke forced 26 turnovers in 2013 and held six out of its last eight opponents under 30 points. There’s no easy formula or answer to stop Manziel. Can the Blue Devils find any answers over the next few weeks? Duke’s secondary does have talent, starting with cornerback Ross Cockrell and continuing with safeties Deondre Singleton, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. The depth is here for the Blue Devils to defend Texas A&M’s receiving corps. Can Duke force Manziel and this offense to earn their yardage? Or will the Aggies be able to dictate the tempo and easily gash the Blue Devils’ defense?
Texas A&M’s run defense
It’s no secret how much Texas A&M has struggled on the ground this year. The Aggies rank last in the SEC in rush yards allowed per game, giving up 221.3 in each contest. The problem for Texas A&M isn’t necessarily talent, but this unit is inexperienced and had to replace four starters in the front seven this preseason. And complicating the run defense’s problems even more was a suspension for the bowl to linebacker Darian Claiborne. The true freshman tied for the team lead with 89 stops. Duke averages 31.6 points a game, but Cutcliffe and the offensive staff would like to avoid a shootout. With a veteran offensive line, the Blue Devils should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Aggies. Leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for a year, but Josh Snead (6.1 ypc), Shaquille Powell and Juwan Thompson are capable options. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns and will factor prominently into the gameplan. The bowl practices should help Texas A&M’s younger players, but Duke’s rushing attack will be able to find running lanes. If the Aggies can keep the Blue Devils in long-yardage situations and minimize the damage on the ground, Duke will be facing an uphill battle on offense.
The Turnover Battle
With Texas A&M entrenched as a heavy favorite, Duke has to have a couple of breaks in order to spring the upset. Outside of playing keep away with their ground attack, the Blue Devils can keep within striking distance of the Aggies if they can force a couple of turnovers. Texas A&M wasn’t overly generous with turnovers, but Sumlin’s team did lose 21 this season. The Aggies were -1 in turnover margin for the season. Winning the turnover battle was a key element to Duke’s Coastal Division title. The Blue Devils forced a few timely turnovers, which played a key role in wins against NC State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Duke finished +3 in turnover margin and forced 26 takeaways this year. Can the Blue Devils replicate that formula in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? In addition to forcing turnovers, Duke cannot afford to give Texas A&M’s offense any help. With the firepower on the Aggies’ sideline, a turnover by the Blue Devils would put this team in a significant hole that could be too tough to dig out of.
Key Player: Anthony Boone, QB, Duke
With Manziel on the other sideline, Boone is the forgotten quarterback in this game. The junior had his share of ups and downs in 2013, finishing with 1,833 yards and 10 touchdown tosses to 11 interceptions. Boone completed 63.9 percent of his throws and did not toss a pick in three out of his final four games. When Boone makes mistakes, they seem to come in bunches. In wins against Virginia Tech and NC State, the junior tossed seven picks. Against Florida State, Boone threw two picks on 40 attempts. There’s no doubt Duke has to have production from its passing game, and there’s plenty of playmakers available with receivers Jamison Crowder and Brandon Braxton and tight end Braxton Deaver. Boone doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards, but he can’t afford any mistakes and has to convert on third downs to keep drives alive. The junior has mobility (3.1 ypc), which will be needed if the pocket collapses. Expect Duke to establish the run and keep Texas A&M’s offense on the sideline. However, Boone will have to make a handful of plays just to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance.
Duke has been a Cinderella story this year. Do the Blue Devils have one more upset in them or has the clock hit midnight for this team? Texas A&M’s offense is one of the most-explosive units in the nation but managed just 31 points over its final two games. Manziel didn’t appear to be 100 percent late in the year, and the month to prepare should help the sophomore quarterback. Manziel should be sharp, and receiver Mike Evans will be a tough matchup for the Duke defensive backs. If Duke’s offense has success running the ball, then Cutcliffe’s team is going to give the Aggies all they can handle. Texas A&M’s offense is simply too explosive for the Blue Devils, but the Aggies’ struggling defense keeps Duke within striking distance until the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Duke 31
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.
The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl didn’t go according to plan for Buffalo. The Bulls were easily defeated by San Diego State, and an onside kick in the fourth quarter was an epic fail.
Punter Tyler Grassman attempted an onside kick, but instead of giving his team a chance to recover, the ball barely moved off the tee.
Wisconsin’s 2014 Big Ten title hopes received a boost on Friday, as running back Melvin Gordon announced his intention to return for next season.
Gordon is only a junior but could have left early for the NFL Draft, as he redshirted after playing sparingly in 2011.
Gordon rushed for 1,466 yards and 12 touchdowns on 181 attempts in 2013.
Gordon should be one of the top returning running backs in college football next season.
A new trend has popped up in recent years for college football teams, as some have scheduled games in baseball stadiums. Illinois-Northwestern played at Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium in New York hosts the Pinstripe Bowl.
Boston College and Notre Dame will continue this recent trend, scheduling a game for Fenway Park in 2015.
This will be the first football game in Fenway Park since 1968. Needless to say, this is a pretty awesome setting for a football game.
Notre Dame 2014-16 schedules include at Lucas Oil Stadium vs. Purdue in '14, Fenway Park vs. BC in '15, Alamodome vs. Army in '16— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) December 20, 2013
Oregon announced it will have new Nike “Mach Speed” uniforms for its Dec. 30 bowl matchup against Texas.
This uniform is also a sneak peek at what to expect from the Ducks in 2014.
According to the Nike release, here's a sample about what's new about these uniforms:
It’s all about speed. For the last decade Nike has continually evolved college football uniforms for the country’s best teams. Among these, the Oregon Ducks football uniforms are on the cutting edge of innovation, with the clear goal of optimizing athlete performance and speed on the field. On December 30, Oregon will take the field wearing the latest Nike Pro Combat “Mach Speed” uniform, the most innovative Nike Pro Combat system of dress to date.
The uniform features an all-new chassis including the latest in lightweight fabric innovation built for maximum speed, ventilation and comfort. Drawing inspiration from some of the fastest athletes in the world, Nike has applied research and design across multiple sports to create one of the fastest uniforms on the field. Taking insights from Nike’s Swift Suit technology, the new Nike Mach Speed Football uniform fabric construction features an articulated fit to match the athlete’s motion of play. Ultimately this allows the athletes to move with the uniform fabrics, rather than against them.
Click here to view a full gallery of images for Oregon’s uniforms.
Jon Gruden is back in the coaching rumor carousel once again. Last year the former NFL coach was mentioned prominently as a name to watch at Tennessee. Now the rumor mill has placed Gruden in the mix at Texas. If you are following along on Twitter, the hashtag is appropriate and catchy: #Grumors.
Gruden’s name popping up for coaching jobs seems to happen every offseason, but the Ohio native has a pretty cushy job – and a nice contract – in the Monday Night Football booth.
Is it just rumor or is there some truth to the Gruden to Texas rumors? My guess is its somewhere in the middle.
Gruden hasn’t coached since he was fired at Tampa Bay in 2008. Yes, that is five seasons ago. Also, Gruden hasn’t coached in college since 1991. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.
A week ago, Athlon Sports posted a look at the top 10 candidates to replace Mack Brown at Texas. Gruden isn’t on our list, but if he’s interested, Texas will inquire.
Although Gruden might be interested in coming to Texas, the Longhorns would be wise to look in another direction. Sure, Gruden has a Super Bowl ring and is 95-81 at two different NFL stops. But for a program like Texas, is Gruden the right fit? Shouldn’t Texas target candidates with recent head coaching experience in college football?
Gruden will end up coaching once again, but our guess is it’s in the NFL – not on the sidelines in Austin.
Five Reasons Why Jon Gruden Would be a Bad Fit at Texas
1. Lack of College Experience
It’s one thing to coach in the NFL, but it’s another to win in the college ranks. UCLA’s Jim Mora is 18-8 in two years, but Bill Callahan was just 27-22 in four seasons at Nebraska. Steve Spurrier and Bobby Petrino each had success after spending time in the NFL, but both coaches got their start on the collegiate level. There’s no doubt coaches that come from the NFL can bring a lot of knowledge to a program, however, it’s not always easy relating to the players. Trying to implement a complicated offense is much easier in the NFL, especially since collegiate athletes have fewer hours to spend in the film room. Considering Gruden’s lack of head coaching experience in college, there would certainly be a transition period – and it may not be pretty early on – for Texas. Adapting to the college game takes time and even though Gruden has been intrigued by the no-huddle, spread offenses, he was a West Coast disciple in the NFL. Could he blend the two schemes together? Or would he revert to the West Coast? At Texas, the Longhorn Network requires some extra attention by the head coach in terms of media obligations. Also, there's the booster meet and greets that the head coach has to attend. Even though Gruden has been a good addition to the Monday Night Football booth, the extra media obligations and booster attention may be something he is not interested in taking on.
2. An Eye to the NFL?
Even if Gruden jumps at the opportunity to coach at Texas or anywhere else in the collegiate ranks, what’s to stop him from getting back into the NFL? Contracts for college football coaches usually mean very little, and Gruden could spend two years in college, then choose to depart for the NFL. Texas should be able to offer a hefty contract and could put provisions into the deal to protect the program from a coach leaving after a year or two. However, you never know how long a coach is going to stick around, but considering Gruden’s NFL background and how he exited, it’s a safe bet that he wants another shot. If Gruden was hired at Texas and left after two years, there’s no question the Longhorns would have a long list of interested coaches. However, transitioning from one coach to another, especially one with different styles, can set the program back a few years.
3. Recruiting and Building a Coaching Staff
Gruden could probably recruit successfully off of his name only, at least for the first two or three years of his college tenure. However, what happens after that has to be a concern. It’s been over 20 years since Gruden had to hit the recruiting trail. And this isn’t just a six-month process – it lasts all season. Gruden is a relentless worker and there’s always the fear he could get burned out after just a few seasons. The former NFL coach would also have to put together a staff that would be good recruiters, but that shouldn’t be an issue at Texas where money is plentiful. Building a staff without many college connections isn’t easy, and a collection of NFL assistants wouldn't necessarily work at Texas.
4. The West Coast Offense
The spread and high-scoring offenses are becoming the norm in college football, and there’s always been doubt the West Coast offense can work outside of the NFL. Although Gruden’s offense at Oakland finished three times in the top 10 of scoring offense, his teams at Tampa Bay never finished higher than 18th in the NFL in total offense. Obviously, it’s a different league, so it’s hard to take a lot away from those statistics. And of course, total offense numbers aren’t necessarily the best indicator of success. However, it’s also important to note 59 of the 125 teams in the nation are averaging at least 30 points a game, with 13 scoring at least 40 points per contest. Even though Alabama owns one of the nation’s best defenses, the Crimson Tide are averaging 38.8 points a game. Florida State – the No. 1 team in the nation – ranks third nationally in total defense and sixth in total offense. Again, those totals for Alabama and Florida State aren't necessarily the best indicator of success, but it showcases how some of the top teams in the nation are built. While Gruden’s background on offense is appealing, implementing a West Coast offense takes a lot of time. Nebraska (Bill Callahan) and Syracuse (Greg Robinson) implemented a similar scheme with limited results. During his time in the NFL, Gruden’s playbook might have been one of the deepest in the league. Although the schemes, plays and formations have worked in NFL, there’s simply no way Gruden can copy that offense in college. It’s not impossible for the West Coast offense to work in college, but Gruden would have to do a lot of simplifying to his playbook and be willing to adapt to more of a spread approach.
5. Too Difficult to Play For?
There’s no question Gruden would bring passion and energy to the sideline or to any program, but that may not translate well at the college level. Criticism is most players least favorite word, but NFLers are more likely to handle it better than college athletes. Although Gruden’s intensity could be a good thing for some players who have underachieved or aren’t putting in the proper hours, it’s a very fine line to walk with college players who don’t have the amount of time NFL players can put into perfecting their game. Gruden could land at a college and work out just fine. However, if he gets the reputation of being too difficult or too demanding to play for, his tenure will go south in a hurry. On name value alone, Gruden would have coaches lining up to join his staff. However, he’s a relentless worker. Would assistant coaches eventually get burned out from working with him?
Arkansas State has hired North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as its new head coach. Anderson will replace Bryan Harsin, who left to replace Chris Petersen at Boise State.
This is Anderson’s first head coaching job, but he has served as a coordinator since 2002. Prior to joining North Carolina’s staff in 2012, Anderson worked with Larry Fedora at Southern Miss from 2008-11.
Anderson also has experience from stints at UL Lafayette, MTSU, New Mexico and Trinity Valley College.
Anderson will be Arkansas State’s fifth coach in five years in 2014.
Think there are too many bowl games this year? Don’t tell that to Colorado State and Washington State. The Rams and Cougars are set to open the bowl season in Albuquerque, and even though the combined record of these two teams is 13-12, this game could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowl matchups.
Washington State is back in the postseason after a nine-year absence. The Cougars’ last bowl appearance was a 28-20 win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
Under coach Mike Leach, Washington State made significant progress from 2012 to 2013. The Cougars won only three games last year, but Leach’s team rebounded with a 6-6 mark this season, which included wins over Arizona and USC.
Colorado State’s last bowl appearance came in 2008, which was a 40-35 New Mexico Bowl win over Fresno State. Under the direction of second-year coach Jim McElwain, the Rams improved their win total by three games from 2012 to 2013.
The Rams didn’t beat a team with a winning record, but this team played tough against Boise State and Utah State in conference play and trailed Alabama only 17-6 going into the fourth quarter.
This is the first meeting between Colorado State and Washington State. The Rams are 5-7 in previous bowl appearances, while the Cougars are 6-4.
Colorado State vs. Washington State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington State -3.5
Colorado State’s Key to Victory: A big game from Kapri Bibbs
This game features a stark contrast in styles. Colorado State’s offense is based on the ground, led by sophomore running back Kapri Bibbs. On the other side, Washington State prefers to air it out, leading the nation with 698 passing attempts this year. Which style will win out? For Colorado State, establishing Bibbs and keeping the Cougars’ offense on the sideline is the key to its hopes at hoisting the New Mexico Bowl trophy. Despite not recording a game of over 20 carries until the seventh contest of the year, Bibbs finished 13th nationally with an average of 120.9 rushing yards per game. The sophomore produced some huge efforts, gashing Nevada for 312 yards and New Mexico for 291. Bibbs was slowed late in the year by an ankle injury, but the sophomore should be at full strength for the bowl. If Bibbs gets on track, it will open up play-action passes for quarterback Garrett Grayson. The junior tossed only 10 picks this season and finished the year by throwing six touchdown tosses over the final three games. Stopping Bibbs will be a challenge for Washington State. The Cougars ranked ninth in the Pac-12 against the run and allowed an average of 243.6 yards on the ground over the final five games.
Washington State’s Key to Victory: Control the offensive tempo
As we mentioned above, this game is a matchup in contrasting styles. Time of possession is an overrated stat in college football, but if Colorado State has success on the ground and controls the clock, Washington State will be in trouble. Quarterback Connor Halliday wore out his right arm this season, throwing 656 times for 4,187 yards and 28 touchdowns. As expected with a high number of attempts, Halliday tossed 21 picks but completed 62.8 percent of his throws. The junior will be throwing to a receiving corps that features eight players with at least 34 receptions. Gabe Marks is the headliner (69 catches), but River Cracraft (13.2 ypc) and Dominique Williams (16.5 ypc) are names to watch. The Cougars don’t run the ball often (18.7 attempts per game) and average only 3.1 yards per attempt. However, a little balance is needed to keep the Rams' defense on their heels. Colorado State’s front seven has to get pressure on Halliday to disrupt the timing of Washington State’s offense. The good news for defensive co-coordinators Marty English and Al Simmons is the Rams have four senior starters in the front seven, including standout Shaquil Barrett. The senior recorded 20.5 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks this season. If Barrett and Colorado State’s front seven can’t get to Halliday, it could be a long afternoon for the secondary. The Rams allowed 265.4 yards per game through the air and ranked 100th nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Key Player: Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State
The Rams hope they can keep Washington State’s offense off the field and this game in the 27-24 type of final. Should the Cougars jump out to an early lead or this bowl turn into a shootout, Grayson will have to shoulder more of the offensive focus. The junior threw six touchdowns to only two interceptions over his final three games and finished 2013 with a 62.2 completion percentage. Grayson has a good group of weapons at his disposal, including true freshman receiver Rashard Higgins and tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright. In his two games against BCS opponents this year, Grayson threw for 429 yards and no touchdowns. If Colorado State wants to win, Grayson has to be efficient and keep the offense on schedule for Bibbs to have favorable down and distance situations in run downs.
Last year’s New Mexico Bowl was one of the most entertaining games of the postseason, with Arizona winning a 49-48 thriller over Nevada. Could we see another back and forth affair this season? Despite contrasting styles, Colorado State and Washington State combine to average 65.1 points a game this year. The turnover battle is worth monitoring, as the Cougars were -5 and the Rams were +2. In a tight game, a turnover could be the difference. Led by senior center Weston Richburg, Colorado State’s veteran offensive line should be able to open rushing lanes for running back Kapri Bibbs. If the Rams eat up the clock and keep the Cougars’ offense on the sidelines, Colorado State will have a chance to score the upset. Washington State’s gameplan on offense should be to score quickly early in the game, putting the Rams behind schedule on offense. Bibbs will have success, but the Cougars’ passing attack is the difference in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Washington State 38, Colorado State 30
Fresno State and USC are separated by less than 300 miles, but the two California programs have met only twice on the gridiron. That number will change on Saturday, as the Bulldogs and Trojans are set to kickoff the first weekend of bowl action with a matchup in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Fresno State was on the doorstep of playing in a BCS bowl, but the Bulldogs lost a 62-52 shootout to San Jose State on Nov. 29, knocking Tim DeRuyter’s team out of contention for one of college football’s premier postseason destinations. But all was not lost for Fresno State, as the Bulldogs won 11 games for the first time in school history since an 11-3 record in 2001. And thanks to a 24-17 win over Utah State on Dec. 7, Fresno State claimed its first outright conference title since 1989.
While 2013 was mostly a good year for Fresno State, this season was a roller-coaster ride for USC. The Trojans started 3-2, and after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Lane Kiffin was fired as the team’s head coach. Ed Orgeron was promoted to the top spot, guiding USC to a 6-2 finish and a third-place finish in the Pac-12 South. Orgeron was not promoted to the full-time gig and chose to leave Los Angeles after Steve Sarkisian was hired from Washington. Sarkisian won’t take over until after the bowl game, leaving offensive coordinator Clay Helton as the interim coach.
Fresno State and USC have split the all-time series, with the Bulldogs winning in 1992 and the Trojans claiming a victory in 2005. Fresno State is 0-4 in its last four bowl appearances, but it has won its last four postseason games against BCS foes. Last year’s loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl snapped a four-game winning streak for USC in bowl games. The last time the Trojans played in the Las Vegas Bowl, they were defeated 10-6 by Utah.
Fresno State vs. USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: USC -6.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Stop USC’s rushing offense
During USC’s 6-2 finish under Ed Orgeron, the rushing attack seemed to find its stride. The Trojans averaged 173.8 rushing yards per game over their final six victories and recorded at least 240 yards on the ground in three out of the last five games. Depth in the backfield is a little thin due to injuries, as Silas Redd and Tre Madden are questionable to play. With Redd and Madden likely sidelined, Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac will become the go-to backs against Fresno State. The Bulldogs held up relatively well on the ground this year, limiting opponents to 147.7 yards per game. As evidenced by its 98 tackles for loss, Fresno State’s defense is active around the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Ejiro Ederaine leads the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, while safety Derron Smith (69 tackles, 6 INTs) is another playmaker to watch. USC’s passing attack (10th in the Pac-12) isn’t quite as effective as its ground game, but quarterback Cody Kessler has not thrown an interception over his last four games. If the ground game gets on track, Kessler should be able to take advantage of Fresno State’s secondary and connect with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor on big plays downfield. The Bulldogs need to make USC one-dimensional and force other receivers outside of Lee and Agholor to step up.
USC’s Key to Victory: Get pressure on Derek Carr and minimize the big plays
Fresno State’s offense has been lethal all season. Only two defenses (Cal Poly and San Diego State) managed to hold the Bulldogs under 400 yards. Behind quarterback Derek Carr and an excellent group of receivers, Fresno State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. Although Orgeron isn’t coaching the team, coordinator Clancy Pendergast is calling the plays in the Las Vegas Bowl, and he was a key reason why USC’s defense improved to No. 2 in the Pac-12 in yards allowed this year. The Trojans are loaded with talent on defense, starting in the trenches with sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams (13.5 TFL, 6 sacks), and continuing into the back seven with linebacker Hayes Pullard (89 tackles) and safety Dion Bailey (5 INTs). Each level of the defense has an All-Pac-12 performer, with Williams taking home Athlon Sports third-team All-America honors this year. Fresno State’s offensive line has allowed only 11 sacks in 2013, but USC’s defense is easily the toughest unit it has faced. The Trojans have registered 34 sacks through 13 games and held opponents to just five yards per play. USC’s secondary ranks 21st nationally in efficiency defense, and this group will be under the microscope on Saturday, with Fresno State having three receivers with at least 79 catches. Getting pressure on Carr is critical to slowing down the Bulldogs’ passing attack. Even if the Trojans don’t record a lot of sacks, just disrupting the timing of Fresno State’s offense will have a huge impact on this game.
Key Player: Davante Adams, WR, Fresno State
We could mention a couple of players here, including Fresno State left tackle Austin Wentworth or USC quarterback Cody Kessler. But let’s highlight Adams, who did not get enough credit nationally for his 2013 season. Adams led the nation with 122 receptions, averaged 13.5 yards per catch and caught 23 touchdowns. The sophomore is clearly Derek Carr’s go-to receiver, and he could be counted on even more if Josh Harper is unable to play due to a groin injury. USC has not allowed a team to throw for more than 300 yards in its last seven games. Can Fresno State change that on Saturday? If the line protects Carr, Adams will have a chance for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game.
Motivation is a key factor in every bowl. USC didn’t seem interested to be in the Sun Bowl last year – will 2013 be any different? The Trojans are now on their third head coach, and the staff is shorthanded with Orgeron and line coach Peter Jenkins leaving the team after the regular season. Talent isn’t an issue for USC, but the motivation is clearly on Fresno State’s sideline. This is the final game for quarterback Derek Carr, and receiver Davante Adams could declare early for the NFL Draft. And if Carr has a huge game against the Trojans, his draft stock will only continue to climb before pre-draft workouts. If USC is motivated to play, the Trojans will win this game. However, the guess here is USC isn’t as interested in this bowl as Fresno State, and the Bulldogs pull a slight upset in Las Vegas.
Prediction: Fresno State 31, USC 27
Bowling Green is coming off a MAC Championship, but coach Dave Clawson left for Wake Forest after the victory over Northern Illinois. The Falcons have picked Clawson’s replacement, choosing Eastern Illinois’ coach Dino Babers to take the top spot at Bowling Green next year.
Babers is considered a rising star in the coaching ranks and has a wealth of experience on his resume.
Babers started his coaching career at Hawaii in 1984 and worked at a handful of programs, including Purdue, San Diego State, Arizona, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, UCLA and Baylor.
Babers has spent the last two years at Eastern Illinois, recording a 19-7 mark in the process.
With a good chunk of their roster returning in 2014, the Falcons should be picked near the top of the MAC East.