Articles By Steven Lassan
by Mark Ross
Beef O’Brady’s Bowl
Florida International (8-4) vs. Marshall (6-6)
Date: Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
So what happens when a Golden Panther meets up with a Thundering Herd? That’s what we will find out come Dec. 20 when Florida International (FIU) and Marshall meet for the first time ever on the football field in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. This is the second straight bowl appearance for Florida International, whose football program started in 2002, while it represents Marshall’s first bowl since 2009.
Fifth-year head coach Mario Cristobal has already led this Panthers team to a school-record eight wins and is looking for second straight bowl win to cap the season. On the other side, second-year head coach Doc Holliday had to rally his Herd to win their last two games just to become bowl eligible, including the crucial sixth win in overtime against East Carolina.
Both teams went 5-3 in their respective conferences, FIU in the Sun Belt and Marshall in Conference USA, so the difference in their overall record comes down to non-conference games.
FIU defeated Louisville, who is playing in the Belk Bowl, with its other non-conference opponents being UCF (win), Duke (loss) and Akron (win). Those last three combined for an overall record of 9-27.
Marshall’s non-conference slate featured four bowl teams, including two headed to BCS bowls. The Herd, like the Golden Panthers defeated Louisville, but lost to Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl), West Virginia (Orange) and Ohio (Idaho Potato).
Taking a closer look at their games against Louisville, Marshall had more total yards of offense against the Cardinals (353 to 293) compared to the Golden Panthers and the Herd surrendered considerably less on defense (281 to 363).
The difference in FIU’s 24-17 win over Louisville was a first-quarter interception returned for a touchdown and two long touchdown passes, while Marshall scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game to earn a 17-13 victory over the Cardinals. Will the Louisville game serve as a sign of what to expect on Dec. 20?
WHEN FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL HAS THE BALL:
The Golden Panthers’ offense enters the bowl game on a roll, averaging 33.3 points per game during their current three-game winning streak. Prior to that, they were averaging 23.8 points per game.
FIU runs a balanced offensive attack that’s directed by senior quarterback Wesley Carroll. Carroll has 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions this season. He has done a much better job of taking care of the ball this season, compared to his junior year when he threw 16 interceptions.
FIU’s primary playmaker is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is the school’s all-time leader in receptions (221), receiving yards (3,443), touchdowns (24) and total touchdowns (36), as the senior is also a dangerous return specialist. Hilton finished second in the Sun Belt in both receiving yards (950) and all-purpose yards (145.8 ypg) this season.
On the ground, the Panthers have turned to Kedrick Rhodes as their main ball carrier. Rhodes rushed for more than 1,100 yards this season and his 93.4 yards per game ranked him third in the Sun Belt. He and Hilton were tied for the team lead with eight touchdowns.
FIU should be able to move the ball against Marshall’s defense, but needs to be wary of standout defensive lineman Vinny Curry, Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Curry was second in the nation in tackles for loss (1.8 per game) and sixth in sacks (11 in 12 games). The Panthers’ offensive line has done a good job of protecting the quarterback this season, ranking 17th in the nation in sacks allowed (1.1 per game).
Marshall, coming from Conference USA, is no stranger to defending potent offensives, having already faced the likes of Houston, Southern Miss and Tulsa, all ranked in the top 25 in the country in total offense, this season. FIU’s offensive capability simply doesn’t match up with these teams, so it will be interesting to see if the Golden Panthers can take advantage of a defense that has allowed more than 400 yards and 30 points per game on the season.
WHEN MARSHALL HAS THE BALL:
Unlike FIU, Marshall is considerably less experienced under center with freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato running the offense. Cato has started a total of eight games this season, including the last two that Marshall won to become bowl eligible.
Cato resumed the starting role after sophomore A.J. Graham went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. On top of that, current back up freshman Blake Frohnapfel underwent a procedure on his shoulder in late November, putting his status for this game up in the air. With Graham done for the season and Frohnhapfel questionable, Marshall’s quarterback depth pretty much starts and ends with Cato.
Cato is coming off his best game of the season, completing 23 of 29 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime win over East Carolina. For the season, Cato has completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,833 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Marshall’s top rushers, Tron Martinez and Travon Van, are also young, with Martinez a sophomore and Van a redshirt freshman. The duo has basically split the carries and combined have rushed for 1,120 yards on 276 carries (4.1 ypc) with six touchdowns.
As a team, Marshall gained an average of 123.1 yards per game on the ground, whereas FIU surrendered 120.9, which ranked them 23rd in the nation in rushing defense. If the Herd can’t run the ball against the Panthers defense, it will put even more pressure on Cato and the passing game.
Marshall’s top threat in the passing game is junior wide receiver Aaron Dobson, whose 10 touchdown receptions put him third in Conference USA. In order for Dobson to have a chance to add to his touchdown total Marshall’s offensive line will need to protect Cato from FIU’s pass rush, which ranks 14th in the nation in sacks with 34 (2.8 per game) coming into the bowl game.
The Golden Panthers have a significant advantage when it comes to special teams thanks to the aforementioned Hilton, who is third in the nation in kickoff returns with 32.0 yard per return average. He’s also returned a punt for a touchdown and as team, FIU ranks first in the nation in punt returns (15.9 yards per return) and sixth in kickoff returns (26.3 ypr). Contrast that to Marshall, which comes into this game ranked 64 in the nation in punt return yardage defense and 82nd in kickoff returns.
Both kickers are fairly accurate with FIU’s Jack Griffin having almost twice as many field goal attempts (21 of 25) compared to his counterpart, Marshall’s Tyler Warner (10 of 13).
Although they are from the Sun Belt, FIU should not be taken lightly. The Golden Panthers’ three losses in conference were all to winning teams, two of which earned bowl bids, and outside of an 18-point loss to Sun Belt champion Arkansas State, their other three total losses were by a combined nine points.
FIU’s defense comes into the game ranked 33rd in the nation in total defense, giving up 347.6 yards and allowing less than 20 points per game, and also does a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. The Panthers’ offense is balanced and their return units are among the best in nation.
Marshall’s offense is among the least productive in the nation, averaging 335.3 yards per game and 22 points per game. The defense is steady against the run, but susceptible to the pass and needs the offense to sustain drives so it can stay fresh.
Marshall needs to keep this game close, as that has been its winning formula this season. Five of its six wins have been by seven points or less, while the Herd’s average margin of defeat in their six losses has been 27.5 points per game.
On paper, it looks like Marshall will have trouble moving the ball against FIU’s defense and the Panthers’ offense should be able to chip away and at some point take advantage of a defensive breakdown by the Herd. The Panthers’ special teams prowess will put even more pressure on the Herd and a big kick return will help FIU pull away in the second half.
Florida International 27, Marshall 17
Bowl season kicks off on Saturday, Dec. 17 in Albuquerque and ends on Jan. 9 in New Orleans with the BCS Championship. With 35 games on the docket, there's plenty of options to keep college fans interested over the next month.
Athlon's editors offer their predictions for all 35 games with a slight twist. The picks were made with confidence points, 1 being the least and 35 being the most.
The six editors were split on the Rose Bowl, but all are picking Alabama to knock off LSU in the national championship.
|Braden Gall||Charlie Miller|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Wyoming (4)||Wyoming (11)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Utah State (5)||Utah State (1)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||UL Lafayette (6)||UL Lafayette (20)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (7)||FIU (9)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||TCU (34)||TCU (30)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (31)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Nevada (8)||Southern Miss (28)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||Missouri (17)||Missouri (8)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Purdue (23)||Purdue (15)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||Louisville (27)||NC State (13)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (24)||Air Force (12)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||California (3)||Texas (10)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (25)||Florida State (18)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (30)||Baylor (33)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (2)||Tulsa (19)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (22)||Rutgers (6)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (9)||Mississippi State (29)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (29)||Oklahoma (32)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (21)||Texas A&M (24)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Utah (20)||Georgia Tech (2)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (33)||Vanderbilt (21)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||UCLA (11)||Illinois (14)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Auburn (26)||Auburn (27)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (31)||Penn State (17)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (16)||Georgia (7)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (12)||South Carolina (4)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Ohio State (15)||Florida (3)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Oregon (28)||Wisconsin (5)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Stanford (1)||Stanford (23)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Michigan (19)||Virginia Tech (16)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (14)||Clemson (34)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (32)||Arkansas (26)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh (10)||Pittsburgh (25)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (18)||Northern Illinois (22)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (13)||Alabama (35)|
|Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Temple (6)||Temple (31)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Utah State (13)||Utah State (32)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||San Diego State (3)||San Diego State (22)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (30)||Marshall (21)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||TCU (31)||Louisiana Tech (4)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (35)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Southern Miss (25)||Southern Miss (9)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||Missouri (24)||Missouri (23)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Western Michigan (10)||Purdue (24)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||NC State (2)||Louisville (10)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (15)||Toledo (25)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||Texas (11)||California (2)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (29)||Notre Dame (26)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (33)||Baylor (20)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (16)||Tulsa (11)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (4)||Rutgers (12)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (34)||Mississippi State (27)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (32)||Oklahoma (33)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (21)||Texas A&M (28)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Georgia Tech (22)||Georgia Tech (29)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (19)||Vanderbilt (19)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||Illinois (1)||UCLA (7)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Virginia (12)||Virginia (8)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (7)||Penn State (18)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (18)||Georgia (5)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (9)||South Carolina (6)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Ohio State (20)||Ohio State (13)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Wisconsin (5)||Oregon (3)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State (23)||Oklahoma State (17)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Michigan (8)||Michigan (16)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (27)||Clemson (34)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (28)||Arkansas (30)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh (14)||Pittsburgh (14)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (26)||Northern Illinois (15)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (17)||Alabama (1)|
|Mark Ross||Patrick Snow|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Temple (34)||Temple (27)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Ohio (16)||Utah State (17)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||UL Lafayette (11)||San Diego State (23)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (33)||FIU (18)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||Louisiana Tech (9)||TCU (33)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (35)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Southern Miss (17)||Southern Miss (14)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||North Carolina (1)||Missouri (26)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Western Michigan (2)||Purdue (8)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||NC State (22)||Louisville (7)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (3)||Toledo (16)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||Texas (4)||Texas (19)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (28)||Florida State (15)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (25)||Baylor (34)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (21)||BYU (13)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (12)||Rutgers (6)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (30)||Mississippi State (32)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (23)||Oklahoma (29)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (32)||Texas A&M (28)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Utah (5)||Utah (5)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (6)||Vanderbilt (24)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||Illinois (29)||UCLA (1)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Virginia (19)||Virginia (9)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (20)||Penn State (12)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (7)||Georgia (22)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (31)||Nebraska (4)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Florida (18)||Ohio State (31)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Oregon (15)||Wisconsin (2)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State (26)||Oklahoma State (21)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech (8)||Michigan (10)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (14)||Clemson (20)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (24)||Arkansas (25)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||SMU (13)||Pittsburgh (11)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (27)||Northern Illinois (3)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (10)||Alabama (30)|
USC’s 2012 national title hopes hinge squarely on the NFL decision of two players – quarterback Matt Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil. The Trojans were dealt their first blow for next season on Thursday night, as Kalil decided to forego his final year of eligibility and will enter the NFL Draft. He is expected to be one of the first 15 picks off the board in April.
Barkley has yet to make a decision on his future, but most believe the two players are a package deal. However, the junior quarterback could still return to USC, but will be missing arguably his top offensive lineman next season.
Kalil’s departure is huge loss for a team that was just starting to find the right mix on the offensive line. The Trojans finished first tied for first nationally with just eight sacks allowed in 2011.
With a gaping hole at left tackle, USC could move Kevin Graf from the right side to fill Kalil’s spot. One bit of positive news for USC: The rest of the group should return intact. Center Khaled Holmes earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors this season and should be one of the top linemen in the conference in 2012. Also, guard Marcus Martin was one of the top freshman linemen in college football this year.
With Kalil’s decision out of the way, the focus shifts to Barkley. If he returns, the junior will likely be the Heisman frontrunner, as well as leading the Trojans to a top-five ranking in preseason polls. Considering USC has been on a bowl ban the last two years, there is an opportunity for Barkley to lead this team back to a BCS bowl or a spot in the national title game. But will that be enough for him to stick around?
Barkley is widely-regarded as the No. 2 quarterback on most draft boards, just behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. And considering he would likely be one of the first five players selected in the NFL Draft, it’s unlikely he will return to Los Angeles for his senior year – especially with Kalil announcing his departure.
If Barkley goes to the NFL Draft as expected, three candidates will battle for the starting quarterback job in the spring: Jesse Scroggins, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
Even though all three candidates are inexperienced, the cupboard wouldn’t be totally bare for the new quarterback. The receiving corps is among the best in the nation, as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee should contend for All-American honors. Also, tight end Randall Telfer had a solid freshman campaign and figures to be a bigger part of the attack in 2012. The Trojans also have a good stable of running backs, led by Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan.
If Barkley joins Kalil as an early entrant into the NFL Draft, USC’s national title hopes will take a back seat in 2012. However, coach Lane Kiffin has done a good job on the recruiting trail and the talent in the program is back on the rise. Even if the Trojans aren’t a national title contender next year, with all of the coaching changes and turnover in the Pac-12 South Division, it’s very likely they will remain the favorite to play Oregon in the 2012 conference title game.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
One year after winning the national championship, Gene Chizik is looking at a turning point in his tenure at Auburn.
Chizik’s coaching staff took a hit over the last few weeks, with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof departing for other jobs. Malzahn left to be the head coach at Arkansas State, while Roof left to become the defensive coordinator at UCF.
Roof’s defenses never finished higher than 60th in total defense and 53rd in scoring in his three years at Auburn. The 2011 version ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing, total and scoring defense, while the pass defense finished last in the conference. Youth and a lack of proven depth were to blame for much of the issues this season.
Chizik is going to call the plays for the defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia, but will hire a coordinator in the offseason. Florida State’s Mark Stoops has been rumored as a possible target by Auburn and other names are sure to emerge.
Malzahn’s departure is clearly a bigger loss for Chizik. The Tigers finished 17th nationally in scoring in 2009 and seventh last season.
Auburn will certainly pay well for its coordinators next season, so Chizik will be able to attract some top talent to rebuilding his coaching staff. However, it won’t be easy to replicate Malzahn’s system. The Tigers have recruited to run Malzahn’s spread offense, so choosing a different scheme could add transition time. Considering the question marks on defense and strength at running back, Auburn may not want to continue its with up-tempo offense.
With quarterback Cam Newton leaving early to the NFL, the offense was never the same this year. The up-tempo scheme never took off, and the Tigers averaged only 20 points in SEC play this year. Quarterback was a question mark all season, as Clint Moseley, Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier all took snaps for Auburn. And neither was able to clearly separate from the others as the No. 1 guy.
Quarterback won’t be the only question mark for Auburn’s offense this offseason. Running back Michael Dyer is suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and isn’t a lock to return to the roster for next season. The sophomore rushed for 1,242 yards and 10 scores this year, which followed up a terrific freshman campaign.
With Dyer sidelined for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason will be forced to shoulder the workload in the backfield. McCalebb rushed for 532 yards this season, while Mason added 97.
If Dyer does not return to the team in 2012, the outlook in the backfield won’t be much better. McCalebb and Mason will return, while Florida transfer Mike Blakely will be eligible next season. While that trio isn’t bad, Auburn – assuming he does not return – will miss Dyer’s ability to be the clear go-to back. And there’s also the issue of who will be Auburn’s quarterback next year?
It’s unfair to say Chizik is on the hot seat one year removed from winning the national title. However, his tenure has reached a critical juncture. Take away last season’s record and Auburn is 15-10 in two years under Chizik. With Malzahn and Roof departing, Chizik has another chance to put his stamp on the program.
There’s no question the Tigers have talent in the program. After all, this team has ranked among the best in college football in recruiting over the last couple of seasons.
Another 7-5 season won’t sit well in Auburn and there will be a lot of turnover and uncertainty facing this team going into 2012.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4)
Date: Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho
The second matchup of bowl season features a battle on the blue turf in Boise. Although this game won’t register much interest on the national radar, this one could be one of the most entertaining pre-Christmas bowls.
The last four winners of this bowl have scored 40 points, so a shootout isn’t out of the question.
Although Utah State finished 7-5, it was a season of several close calls. The Aggies were unable to hold onto a lead late in the fourth quarter against Auburn, lost by one point to Colorado State, were defeated by three points to BYU and fell by a touchdown to eventual WAC champion Louisiana Tech. Since losing to the Bulldogs, the Aggies have won five in a row.
Ohio enters this matchup with victories in five out of its last six games. However, the Bobcats closed out the season on a disappointing note. Ohio led Northern Illinois 20-0 at halftime in the MAC title game, but the Huskies rallied for a 23-20 victory. Although two weeks have passed since that loss, it’s fair to wonder if the Bobcats will carry the disappointment from that loss to Boise.
This is Utah State’s first postseason appearance since playing in this bowl in 1997 against Cincinnati. The Aggies are 1-4 in bowl trips, with their lone victory coming against Ball State in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl.
Ohio is 0-5 in bowl appearances, including a 48-21 blowout loss to Troy in last season’s New Orleans Bowl.
WHEN OHIO HAS THE BALL:
In first season as the starter, Tyler Tettleton has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the MAC. The sophomore threw for 3,086 yards and 26 scores, while adding 635 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. His dual-threat ability has been a huge asset in the development of Ohio’s offense this year.
Tettleton isn’t the only player doing damage on the ground for the Bobcats, as running back Donte Harden is 61 yards away from getting to 1,000. The senior has only two rushing scores, but is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has caught 23 passes this year.
Senior LaVon Brazill is Tettleton’s go-to target in the passing game. Brazill caught 66 passes for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Riley Dunlop, Donte Foster, Jordan Thompson and Phil Bates will all factor into the receiving corps, giving the Bobcats a deep group of targets for their passing attack.
The Aggies gave up 28.3 points a game this year, but led the WAC in total defense and finished second in the conference against the run. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the nation’s top defenders from outside of the BCS conferences, recording 140 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions this season.
Stopping Tettleton is likely to be Utah State’s No. 1 priority on defense. However, it would be a surprise if the Aggies are able to completely shut down Ohio’s offense. Utah State’s defense held its last two opponents to 21 or fewer points, but gave up at least 31 in the three prior contests.
WHEN UTAH STATE HAS THE BALL:
Running back Robert Turbin missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but has showed no ill-effects from that injury. Turbin rushed for 1,416 yards and 19 scores on 229 attempts this season, while catching 16 passes for 164 yards and four touchdowns. Turbin is clearly Utah State’s go-to back, but Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams will also get touches. Both players add more big-play ability in the backfield, as Smith averaged seven yards a carry, while Williams averaged 6.7 yards per attempt.
The Aggies will lean on their rushing attack (277.5 yards per game), but Ohio won’t be pushed around in the trenches. The Bobcats owned one of the MAC’s top defenses, ranking 30th nationally against the run and allowing only 11 touchdowns on the ground this year. Three Ohio defenders earned second-team All-MAC honors, including linebacker Noah Keller, who has to play a key role in slowing down Turbin.
Chuckie Keeton was one of the top freshman quarterbacks in the nation before an injury against Hawaii forced him to miss the final four regular season games. Adam Kennedy assumed the starting job in Keeton’s absence, throwing for 700 yards and eight touchdowns in the final four contests. Keeton is expected to be available to play, but Kennedy will start.
With their success on the ground, Utah State has been averaging only 23 passing attempts a game this year. However, Kennedy and Keeton are capable passers and are averaging 12.5 yards per completion. The Aggies don’t have an incredibly deep group of receivers, but Matt Austin (34 receptions) and Stanley Morrison (25 receptions) are solid options.
Ohio kicker Matt Weller earned second-team All-MAC honors this season, connecting on 24 of 33 attempts. He displayed good long-range ability, nailing 6 of 14 attempts from 40 yards or more.
The Bobcats also got a solid year from Donte Harden on kickoff returns, as he averaged 26.3 yards on 21 returns.
Utah State kicker Josh Thompson attempted just nine field goals this season, but connected on six. Punter Tyler Bennett averaged 44.2 yards per punt and downed 19 inside of the 20.
Kerwynn Williams was one of the top kickoff returners in the WAC last season, but his averaged dipped from 27.2 per return in 2010 to 22.7 this year. Williams and Eric Moats will handle the bulk of punt return duties.
If you are hungry for college football action this Saturday, this should be the game to watch. Both teams aren’t lacking for talent on defense, but all signs point to a high-scoring affair. The Aggies seem to have turned a corner under coach Gary Andersen and a victory over Ohio would be their eighth of the season – equaling their best win total since 1979. Expect a back and forth game, but Utah State’s rushing attack will be the difference in the end.
Utah State 31, Ohio 27
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
With Todd Graham leaving for Arizona State, Pittsburgh has to embark on its third coaching search in the last two seasons. Mike Haywood was hired to replace Dave Wannstedt last December, but was fired two weeks later due to a domestic violence charge. Graham was hired from Tulsa to replace Haywood, but chose to depart after just one season.
Who will replace Todd Graham at Pittsburgh?
Steve Addazio, head coach, Temple – Addazio is in his first season as a collegiate head coach, leading Temple to an 8-4 regular season record and a berth in the New Mexico Bowl. He is regarded as a good recruiter and has spent time as an assistant at Notre Dame, Indiana and Florida. Addazio is very familiar with the East Coast, as he grew up in Connecticut and worked there as a head coach on the high school level. There's very little track record as a head coach on the FBS level, but Addazio's ability to recruit and success with the Owls in 2011 makes him an intriguing candidate for Pittsburgh.
Teryl Austin, defensive backs coach, Baltimore Ravens – Austin’s name popped up in last season’s coaching search and will likely do so once again. He played at Pittsburgh from 1984-87 and was born in Sharon, Pa., so there's certainly a lot of familiarity with the Panthers. He has plenty of experience on the college level, working at Penn State (1991-92), Wake Forest (1993-95), Syracuse (1996-98), Michigan (1999-02) and at Florida in 2010. Austin has never been a head coach, but he has a solid resume and NFL experience.
Tom Bradley, interim Penn State coach – Bradley nearly landed the Pittsburgh job last season and figures to be in the mix once again. However, he is also in the running to keep the full-time spot at Penn State. Bradley was born in Johnstown, Pa. and has spent his entire coaching career at Penn State. His blue-collar attitude and approach would work well in Pittsburgh, but he has very limited experience as a head coach. One tricky question that must be answered: Is Bradley too toxic after the situation at Penn State? Although Bradley would be a solid hire, it would be difficult for Pittsburgh to hire him after what transpired in Happy Valley this season.
Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst is a highly-regarded offensive mind and seems ready for his first head coaching position. Under his direction, Wisconsin has led the Big Ten in scoring offense for three consecutive years and finished fourth nationally in scoring with an average of 44.6 points a game in 2011. Chyrst has stops as an assistant at Oregon State and in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers. He graduated from Wisconsin in 1988, so he may not be anxious to leave Madison. However, Bret Bielema is entrenched as the head coach, so he will have to look outside of Wisconsin for a chance to lead a program. Chryst wouldn't be flashy, but all signs point to him being a successful head coach.
Frank Cignetti, offensive coordinator, Rutgers – Cignetti is a Pittsburgh native, and it would be a major surprise if he didn't have interest in the position. He has been a successful assistant throughout his career, making stops with Fresno State, North Carolina, California and Rutgers, along with NFL experience in Kansas City, New Orleans and San Francisco. Cignetti had a short stint as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator under Dave Wannstedt from 2009-10. Although he has never been a head coach, Cignetti’s background and experience at Pittsburgh has to be attractive for athletic director Steve Pederson.
Mario Cristobal, head coach, FIU – There's no question Cristobal is one of the top coaches from a non-AQ school. But is he ready to make the jump to a BCS job? Cristobal inherited a disaster at FIU and has recorded a 24-37 record in five seasons, while leading the Golden Panthers to back-to-back bowl games. He played at Miami and has spent most of his coaching career in South Florida, so he may not be eager to take a job out of the state. Hiring Cristobal would be a home run for Pittsburgh, but the interest may not be mutual.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – Coaching at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. The Eagles have had just two seasons of at least six victories since 1988. English went 2-22 in his first two seasons in Ypsilanti, but led Eastern Michigan to a 6-6 record in 2011. He also has made stops as an assistant at San Diego State, Arizona State, Michigan and Louisville. English’s background on defense and blue-collar approach would be a good fit in Pittsburgh. Like Paul Chryst, English would not be a flashy name, but would be a good hire for a program that needs stability.
K.C. Keeler, head coach, Delaware – Keeler has very successful on the FCS level, leading Delaware to an 81-46 record over the last 10 years. Also, the Blue Hens have made four playoff appearances under his watch, including a FCS championship in 2003. Before coming to Delaware, Keeler was also a successful head coach at Rowan, posting an 88-21-1 record in nine years. He grew up in Emmaus, Pa., but graduated from Delaware, so he may not be too interested in leaving - even for a chance to land a good FBS job.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson – Morris recently inked a lengthy extension at Clemson, but an opportunity to be a head coach could be enough to convince him to leave Death Valley. He has experienced a quick rise through the coaching ranks, as he has spent just two seasons on the FBS level. Morris coordinated a Tulsa offense that averaged 41.4 points a game last season, while leading the Tigers to an average of 33.6 this year. Before coming to Tulsa in 2010, Morris was a high school coach at Lake Travis in Texas. Not having collegiate head coaching experience has to work against Morris, but he’s emerging as one of the top offensive minds in college football.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State – Narduzzi has been steadily moving up the coaching ranks over the last 10 years. He worked at Miami (Ohio) in 2003 as defensive coordinator, before jumping to take the same position at Cincinnati with Mark Dantonio in 2004. He joined Dantonio at Michigan State in 2007 and has developed one of the top defenses in college football this season. The only blemish on Narduzzi’s resume is the lack of head coaching experience. It's only a matter of time before Narduzzi lands a FBS head coaching gig - but is he ready to lead a BCS school? Considering Pittsburgh needs stability, choosing someone with no head coaching experience could be risky.
Paul Rhoads, head coach, Iowa State – Luring Rhoads away from Iowa State won’t be easy. But it would be a mistake if Pittsburgh didn't at least call about his interest. Rhoads has been one of the nation’s most underrated coaches over the last three years, leading the Cyclones to an 18-19 record and two bowl appearances. He previously coached at Pittsburgh as the defensive coordinator from 2000-07. Rhoads is a coach with a blue-collar attitude, which will work well in Pittsburgh. Considering Rhoads is from Iowa, leaving behind the Cyclones could be difficult. However, winning at Pittsburgh in the Big East (until 2014) is an easier road to handle than the Big 12.
Sal Sunseri, outside linebackers coach, Alabama – Although he has no extended head coaching experience, Sunseri has to be an attractive target for Pittsburgh. He played with the Panthers from 1978-81 and worked at the school from 1985-92 as a defensive assistant. Sunseri also has stops as an assistant at Louisville, LSU, Michigan State and with the Carolina Panthers. He joined Alabama’s staff in 2009, working with the outside linebackers and serving as an assistant head coach to Nick Saban. Considering Sunseri’s playing and coaching experience, he would likely consider this a destination job and wouldn’t be looking to bolt anytime soon (if ever).
Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida State – Stoops has been rumored to be a target for the open Auburn defensive coordinator position, but for now, appears to be staying at Florida State. Stoops is due for his first coaching position soon, and he’s paid his dues as an assistant, working at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston, Miami and Arizona. He has no connections to Pennsylvania, but grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, so he is somewhat familiar with the area. And his recruiting connections in Florida could pay dividends if he is hired at Pittsburgh. Florida State is bringing back one of the top defenses in college football next season, which could entice Stoops to stick around and raise his profile for 2012 openings.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart signed an extension at Western Kentucky this offseason, but that likely won’t stop Pittsburgh from pursuing him if it is interested. The Hilltoppers won just two games in the two years prior to his arrival, but Taggart has brought steady improvement, leading Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. He worked under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09 and is one of the youngest head coaches (35) in college football.
Bud Foster, defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech – Despite opportunities to interview as a head coach – including Pittsburgh last season – Foster has been content to remain an assistant with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. He has coordinated the Hokies’ defense since 1995, emerging as one of the top assistants in college football during that span. With the Panthers moving to the ACC in 2014, would Foster want to compete against Beamer? Or is he content to remain a defensive coordinator? Considering Foster's history of sticking around in Blacksburg, it would be a surprise if he left for Pittsburgh.
Todd Haley, former Kansas City Chiefs coach – Haley spent a good chunk of his youth in Pittsburgh, as his dad (Dick Haley) worked as the Steelers’ player personnel director from 1971-1990. Although Haley is certainly familiar with the area, he does not have any collegiate head coaching experience. However, Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson hired a NFL dropout (Bill Callahan) at Nebraska, which makes Haley one to keep on the radar.
Jeff Jagodzinski, former Boston College head coach – It’s been a surprise Jagodzinski hasn’t landed another college head coaching position after two successful years at Boston College. He did not have an amicable divorce from the Eagles, as he was fired for interviewing with the Jets for their head coaching position at the end of the 2008 season. Since getting canned from Boston College, he has spent one year with the Buccaneers and one with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State – If you are looking for a wildcard to watch in this search, Lembo is the name to remember. He recorded a 44-14 record and two FCS apperances in five seasons at Lehigh, before leading Elon to a 35-22 record and one playoff appearance in five years. After finishing with six victories in the two years prior to Lembo’s arrival, the Cardinals won six games in 2011. Lembo is a bright offensive mind and has had success at every stop.
Randy Shannon, former Miami head coach – Shannon has no ties to the Pittsburgh area, but has head coaching experience, posting a 28-22 record in four years at Miami. Although he didn’t have tremendous success on the field, Shannon helped to cut down the off-the-field incidents and improve the Hurricanes’ work in the classroom. After a disappointing tenure at Miami, he is hungry to get back in the mix and prove he can have more success on the sidelines than he did with the Hurricanes.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in college football, working as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator since 2004. He is a Kansas native and has only coached in the Midwest, so it seems unlikely he would jump at an opportunity to coach at Pittsburgh.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
New Mexico Bowl
Temple (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-4)
Date: Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
The 2011-2012 bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, N.M. with a matchup of two 8-4 teams. Wyoming is making its second bowl appearance under coach Dave Christensen, while Temple is led by first-year coach Steve Addazio.
Christensen has engineered quite a turnaround after a 3-9 record last year. The Cowboys closed the regular season with wins in three out of their last four games and nearly knocked off TCU in early November.
Temple has been on the rise over the last few seasons. Before departing to Miami, former coach Al Golden went 27-34 in five seasons with the Owls and successfully resurrected the program into a contender in the MAC. Addazio has picked up where he left off, leading Temple to a season of at least eight victories for only the second time since 1979.
This is the Cowboys’ second trip to the New Mexico Bowl, as they defeated Fresno State 35-28 in 2009. Wyoming is also riding a two-game winning streak in bowls after beating UCLA 24-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2004.
Temple is making just its fourth bowl game in school history. The Owls’ last postseason appearance came in 2009, losing 30-21 to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl.
WHEN TEMPLE HAS THE BALL:
Don’t expect to see the ball in the air much when the Owls are on offense. Junior running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown led the way for Temple to rank seventh nationally in rushing at 256.7 yards per game. Pierce earned first-team All-MAC honors this year, finishing sixth nationally with 125.6 rushing yards per game. He also posted 25 rushing scores.
Chris Coyer assumed the starting quarterback job for Temple’s final three regular season games, but suffered a shoulder injury against Kent State and his status for the New Mexico Bowl is uncertain. Coyer threw only 23 passes in his three starts, but proved to be an effective runner, finishing the regular season with 491 yards and three scores. If Coyer doesn't start, expect to see Chester Stewart or Mike Gerardi under center.
When Temple decides to throw, tight end Evan Rodriguez is the No. 1 target. The senior leads the team with 33 receptions and 427 receiving yards. Rod Streater adds big-play ability to the receiving corps, averaging 18.9 yards per reception this season.
Wyoming’s defense will be tested early and often in this game, particularly on the ground. The Cowboys allowed 230.1 rushing yards per game (115th nationally) and gave up 26 touchdowns on the ground. Temple’s offensive line has a significant size advantage in the trenches, as the Owls average 318.8 pounds per offensive lineman, while Wyoming checks in at 270.3 per defensive lineman.
Although the Cowboys have struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks, the secondary finished 34th nationally against the pass. And safeties Luke Ruff and Tashaun Gipson earned second-team All-Mountain West honors.
Even though Wyoming may give up some yards, it has done a good job of winning the turnover battle this year. The Cowboys have forced 31 turnovers and will need to create a few to win on Saturday afternoon.
The Owls finished seventh in the MAC in total offense, but ranked 10th nationally in time of possession. If Temple wants to win its first bowl since 1979, controlling the clock and getting Pierce on track is essential.
Considering Wyoming’s issues against the run, it has to find a way to get Temple in obvious passing situations. Also, the defense could get some help from the offense, especially if it can get up by two scores and force the Owls to throw.
WHEN WYOMING HAS THE BALL:
The Cowboys are averaging 27 points a game, but that will be put to the test against a solid Temple defense. The Owls rank third nationally in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and 15th nationally in yards allowed per game (315.5). Only two opponents (Ohio and Toledo) have managed to score more than 21 points against the Owls this year.
Freshman quarterback Brett Smith is the focal point of the Wyoming offense. He has thrown for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns, while adding 645 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Smith has been careful with the football, throwing only eight interceptions this season.
While Smith has been a major contributor on the ground, he’s not the team’s only option. Alvester Alexander leads Wyoming with 678 yards, while Brandon Miller and Kody Sutton combined for 446.
The Cowboys have a solid group of receivers, but No. 1 target Chris McNeill is out for the remainder of the season with an arm injury. With McNeill sidelined, Smith will rely more on Mazi Ogbonna, Dominic Rufran, Josh Doctson and Robert Herron even more and each has at least 32 receptions this season.
Some of the credit for Wyoming’s success on offense goes to the offensive line. Led by senior left tackle Clayton Kirven, the front five has allowed only 11 sacks this year. This group will be tested by an active Temple defensive line, which is registering 2.7 sacks a game. Ends Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown earned All-MAC honors this season.
Considering the Temple defense has been a strength all year, this won't be an easy matchup for Wyoming. The Owls will focus on stopping Smith – especially on the ground – and getting pressure on him when he throws. Also, Temple’s offense and ball-control attack will help keep the ball away from the Cowboys.
A slight edge goes to the Owls in this department.
Temple punter Brandon McManus earned second-team All-MAC honors after averaging 45.9 yards per punt this season. McManus placed 15 punts inside of the 20. He also connected on 13 of 19 field goal attempts.
Junior running back Matt Brown is a dangerous option on special teams for Temple, averaging 26.7 yards per kick return and 10.1 on punt returns.
Wyoming punter Austin McCoy had a solid regular season, averaging 40.3 yards per punt on 72 attempts. Kicker Daniel Sullivan nailed 7 of 10 attempts, but only one from beyond 40 yards.
The Cowboys will likely use freshman Blair Burns on punt returns, while Dominic Rufran will lead the way on kickoffs.
Three of the five previous matchups of the New Mexico Bowl were decided by eight points or less. And another close one can be expected this season.
These two teams had one common opponent: Bowling Green. Temple lost to the Falcons 13-10, while Wyoming won 28-27.
There’s really no secret to how this game will be decided. If the Cowboys find a way to stuff the Owls’ rushing attack, they will win the game. If Wyoming’s rush defense struggles, expect Temple to come away with the victory.
Temple 27, Wyoming 24
Putting together an All-America team is never easy and that’s certainly the case in 2011. Several players didn’t make the cut on Athlon’s All-America team, but that doesn’t take anything away from the season they had.
On defense, sorting out the best of the best in the linebacking corps and in the secondary was difficult. On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon was an easy selection at one receiver spot, but the other was a close call between Western Michigan’s Jordan White, USC’s Robert Woods and Baylor’s Kendall Wright.
How does the postseason team compare to the preseason? Take a look at our preseason All-American team and see who we got right and wrong.
Related: How did Athlon's 2011 All-American team rank as Recruits?
2011 Athlon All-America Team
QB Robert Griffin, Baylor
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
WR Kendall Wright, Baylor
TE Dwayne Allen, Clemson
C Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OG David DeCastro, Stanford
OG Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OT Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
OT Barrett Jones, Alabama
DE Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DT Devon Still, Penn State
DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
CB Morris Claiborne, LSU
CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
S Mark Barron, Alabama
S Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State
K Randy Bullock, Texas A&M
P Brad Wing, LSU
KR Greg McCoy, TCU
PR Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
AP Sammy Watkins, Clemson
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
(Published December 8th, 2011) Click here to view Athlon's updated top 25 for 2012.
It's never too early to start thinking about next season. There's a lot that's going to change over the next few months, including coaches and players leaving for the NFL Draft. With that in mind, this is a very, very, very early look at how the preseason top 25 could appear when Athlon's 2012 college football magazine is released.
Keep in mind, this is more an off-the-cuff early ranking, as we will dive more into the schedule and depth chart once the season is finished. Expect lots of changes when we release a pre-preseason top 25 in January.
Related: 2012 SEC Schedule Analysis
Related: Athlon's 2011 All-Americans as Recruits
1. LSU – Regardless of what happens in the national championship game, expect to see the Tigers start the year ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls. The offense will have to replace quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, but Zach Mettenberger is talented, and the offense can lean on a talented rushing game to ease him into the starting lineup. The defense suffers a few losses, but cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and end Sam Montgomery will keep this unit among the nation’s best. One scheduling break: LSU will host Alabama next season.
2. USC – Will he or won’t he? That’s the question surrounding quarterback Matt Barkley. If the junior decides to enter the NFL Draft, the Trojans will tumble in our next release of a very early preseason top 25. However, should Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil decide to return for their senior year, it could be a special season for USC. And if both players return, the Trojans may overtake LSU for the No. 1 spot.
3. Oregon – The Ducks have claimed the Pac-12 title for three consecutive seasons and could be in line for a fourth. If Matt Barkley returns to USC, Oregon will likely be picked just a couple of spots behind the Trojans in preseason polls. Should Barkley leave, the Ducks will likely be in the top three of many preseason polls. Running back LaMichael James is likely leaving for the NFL, but replacements Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas are more than capable of keeping this offense among the best in the nation.
4. Alabama – Trent Richardson is likely off to the NFL, and the defense will have to replace several key contributors. However, don’t expect that to stop Alabama from contending for the national title next season. Quarterback AJ McCarron will have to carry this team early on, but the offense will get a boost from running back Dee Hart, who missed all of 2011 with an ACL tear. The Crimson Tide open the year with an intriguing non-conference battle against Michigan.
5. Georgia – Expect the Bulldogs and South Carolina to be picked at the top of the SEC East once again next season. With Texas A&M and Missouri coming into the conference, the schedules for both teams are up in the air, but that matchup could go a long way towards determining the division champ. Aaron Murray returns as the SEC’s top quarterback, and the defense will remain among the nation’s best. However, the offensive line will be a major question mark entering spring practice.
6. Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 record this season, expect the Buckeyes to rebound in a big way in 2012. Urban Meyer was a home run hire, and it won’t be long before Ohio State is back in the national title discussion. Quarterback Braxton Miller should thrive in Meyer’s spread offense, while a young group of receivers should be better next year. The offensive line has a few holes, which loses center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams. Unless defensive lineman John Simon bolts for the NFL, the Buckeyes will have nine returning starters on defense.
7. Oklahoma – Quarterback Landry Jones could enter the NFL Draft, but appears more likely to return for Norman for his senior year. The Sooners clearly missed receiver Ryan Broyles since his ACL tear, but spring practice will allow the offense plenty of time to get Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and Kameel Jackson more acclimated into roles that will allow the passing game to click. The Sooners should be strong on defense, but will miss defensive end Frank Alexander.
8. Florida State – Sure, the Seminoles may have been one of 2011’s most disappointing teams, but there’s too much talent to expect another 8-4 record. Injuries to quarterback EJ Manuel and the receiving corps early in the year slowed the progress of the offense. In order for Florida State to win the ACC, the rushing attack and offensive line has to be better next season. The defense is filled with talented underclassmen and should be one of the best in the nation.
9. Michigan – 10 wins – including one over Ohio State – was a terrific debut for Brady Hoke at Michigan. But 2012 could be even better. Quarterback Denard Robinson returns, along with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to form a potent one-two combination on offense. The line must replace two starters, including center David Molk, but left tackle Taylor Lewan is a good building block. The defense showed major progress this season and should only get better next year.
10. Virginia Tech – It’s a close call between the Hokies and Florida State for the very early No. 1 spot in the ACC predictions. For now, the edge goes to the Seminoles. The Hokies fell short of winning the ACC Championship this year, but return a solid core for 2012. Quarterback Logan Thomas will only get better with another round of offseason practices, while Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles should emerge as the new go-to threats at receiver. The biggest concern on offense will be the line, which has to replace four starters. Running back David Wilson could also depart for the NFL. The defense is likely to only lose one or two players, and should challenge Florida State for the best unit in the conference.
11. Arkansas – Bobby Petrino has led the Razorbacks to a 20-5 record over the last two seasons, but can this program knock off LSU or Alabama for the SEC West title? Barring any schedule changes due to realignment, Arkansas is slated to host those two teams next season, which is huge for its chances of winning the division. The offense will remain one of the best in the SEC, despite the departure of Joe Adams and Jarius Wright at receiver. Knile Davis will add some punch to the running game, after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury. There’s no question Arkansas has the offensive firepower to win the conference. However, the defense has to be much better if the Razorbacks want to return to Atlanta.
12. Clemson – The defending ACC champions are in great shape heading into next season. The offense returns mostly intact, with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins one of the top pass-catch duos in college football. Clemson was also proactive in keeping offensive coordinator Chad Morris, which is essential to its ACC title hopes in 2012. The defense will have some holes to fill, as nose guard Brandon Thompson, defensive end Andre Branch and free safety Rashard Hall are all departing. The Tigers also have to travel to Tallahassee for a key Atlantic Division showdown.
13. Michigan State – Replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins won’t be easy, but the Spartans should be able to lean on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses and a solid rushing attack to contend once again in the Legends Division. Michigan State finished the regular season ranked fifth nationally in total defense, while allowing only 17.5 points a game. Next year’s schedule is challenging, featuring non-conference games against Boise State and Notre Dame, while hosting Ohio State and Nebraska in Big Ten play and road matchups against Michigan and Wisconsin. Coach Mark Dantonio has turned the Spartans into a consistent contender for the Big Ten title.
14. Nebraska – Michigan is the frontrunner to win the Legends Division, but the Michigan State-Nebraska debate for second place is going to be very interesting in the spring. The Cornhuskers return quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, but the offensive line is expected to have three new starters. Linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard must be replaced on defense, and the run defense has to be better after finishing eighth in the Big Ten this year.
15. South Carolina – The Gamecocks just missed out on back-to-back SEC East titles, but should push Georgia in the division once again next year. Running back Marcus Lattimore will be back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-October. Quarterback Connor Shaw played well in the final two regular season games, but needs to translate that into a full year. The Gamecocks will also need a new No. 1 receiver, as Alshon Jeffery is likely gone to the NFL. The defense finished No. 4 in the SEC in yards allowed this year, but are losing end Melvin Ingram, linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore could leave early for the NFL.
16. Notre Dame – Brian Kelly is moving the Irish closer to contending for a BCS bowl, but it may not happen in 2012. Standout receiver Michael Floyd is gone, and the jury is still out on Tommy Rees' future as Notre Dame's No. 1 quarterback. Running back Cierre Wood is back, and the offensive line should be in good shape, despite the departure of guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Taylor Dever. The secondary must be revamped, but the front seven on defense should be stout. The schedule isn’t easy, featuring road dates at USC, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
17. Texas – The Longhorns are making a slow climb back into Big 12 title contention. After finishing 5-7 in 2010, Texas rebounded with a 7-5 record and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. There’s plenty of talent in Austin, but it’s also young and inexperienced. Quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash will likely battle for the No. 1 job in spring practice, but the one-two punch of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron at running back can carry the offense early next year. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should still be one of the best in the conference.
18. West Virginia – It’s still up in the air which conference the Mountaineers will be in next year. West Virginia has sued for its release from the Big East, but the conference has no intention of letting it leave early. The guess here is things will be resolved, and the Mountaineers will play 2012 in the Big 12. Adjusting to a new league won’t be easy, but West Virginia’s spread offense is a good fit for the Big 12. However, the Mountaineers have to work on stabilizing the offensive line in spring practice, along with developing a consistent rushing attack.
19. Wisconsin – With Russell Wilson out of eligibility, there’s no question the Badgers are going to take a step back in 2012. However, things could get worse. Running back Montee Ball and center Peter Konz could declare for the NFL Draft, which would be another setback for the offense. Who will replace Wilson? Keep an eye on Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist. Just like Wilson, Crist decided to transfer with one year of eligibility remaining and could be another short-term fix for Wisconsin’s quarterback situation.
20. Boise State – The Broncos short voyage in the Mountain West will conclude next season after accepting a bid to join the Big East in 2013. With TCU off to the Big 12, it would be a major surprise if Boise State does not finish conference play unbeaten. However, there are a lot of holes to fill on the depth chart for coach Chris Petersen. Quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin and left tackle Nate Potter will leave big shoes to fill on offense. The defensive line also takes a hit, as tackles Billy Winn and Chase Baker and ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McClellin are all gone.
21. Baylor – Just like USC, Baylor’s preseason ranking will weigh heavily on its quarterback’s NFL decision. Robert Griffin will likely be a first-round pick if he chooses to leave school early, which would be a huge loss for the Bears. If Griffin returns, despite the losses of running back Terrance Ganaway and receiver Kendall Wright, the offense will remain one of the best in the Big 12. The defense should also show improvement in the second year under coordinator Phil Bennett.
22. Kansas State – The Wildcats were easily one of 2011’s biggest surprises. Can they follow that up with another 10-win season? It’s unlikely Kansas State will fly under the radar once again, especially with quarterback Collin Klein returning for his senior year. The biggest question mark on offense will be replacing three starters up front. After a disappointing 2010 season, the defense showed improvement this year. However, the Wildcats have to replace five starters, including cornerback David Garrett and nose tackle Ray Kibble.
23. Louisville – The Cardinals came up just short of winning the outright Big East title this season. However, the future looks very bright. Louisville had a plethora of young players see time this season, including true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The offensive line struggled this year, but should be better in 2012 with a full season from center Mario Benavides. With West Virginia off to the Big 12, the Cardinals should be the favorite to win the Big East.
24. Washington – Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies on the right track and should take another step forward in 2012. Quarterback Keith Price had a solid year in his first as the starter and there’s no shortage of weapons coming back in 2012. Tight end Austein Seferian-Jenkins and receivers Kasen Williams and James Johnson will form a talented trio of options for Price next season. The defense has been an issue over the past few seasons and will be a question mark once again. The defensive line loses two starters, but will get end Hau’oli Jamora back from a torn ACL. Washington also has to do a better job in pass defense, as it finished 116th nationally in yards allowed.
25. TCU – The Horned Frogs’ maiden voyage through the Big 12 won’t be easy. But there’s also plenty of reasons to be optimistic next season. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after a solid debut year as the starter. The offense also has talented weapons at receiver in Skye Dawson and Josh Boyce, while running backs Matthew Tucker, Waymon James and Ed Wesley form a deep trio of options. Expect the defense to remain a strength under coach Gary Patterson, but linebacker Tank Carder departs, and the secondary loses three starters.
Others to watch
Arizona State – There’s talent to work with, but the collapse at the end of the year was puzzling. Also, who will be the coach next season?
Auburn – With only five returning starters coming into 2011, the Tigers were expected to take a step back. With a year to grow into the starting lineup, will Auburn jump back into SEC West title contention?
California – Are the Golden Bears back on track? California finished with wins in three out of its final four games, but need more improvement from quarterback Zach Maynard.
Florida – A disappointing 6-6 record has coach Will Muschamp searching for answers this offseason. The Gators will have to find a replacement for quarterback John Brantley, but the defense should be solid.
Georgia Tech – Not much was expected of the Yellow Jackets in 2011, but they finished 8-4 and return a good chunk of their starting lineup next season.
Iowa – The Hawkeyes are coming off a disappointing 7-5 season, but return quarterback James Vandenberg and running back Marcus Coker. The defensive line will be a concern going into next year.
North Carolina – Quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard are solid building blocks for the new head coach. Losing end Quinton Coples, tackle Tydreke Powell and linebacker Zach Brown will hurt the defense.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden finishing his eligibility and receiver Justin Blackmon off to the NFL, the Cowboys will take a step back. However, Oklahoma State shouldn’t fall too far, but a deep Big 12 could push it to a finish of fifth or worse next year.
Stanford – Without quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal will fall in the Pac-12 North standings. Coach David Shaw has done a good job on the recruiting trail, so the Cardinal should still remain a bowl team.
Utah – The Utes need more from their offense in 2012 and will get a boost from the return of quarterback Jordan Wynn from a shoulder injury. Expect the defense to remain one of the best in the Pac-12, despite losing end Derrick Shelby and two starting linebackers.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Finally. After losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC in September and West Virginia to the Big 12 in late October, the Big East is ready to expand. According to CBSSports.com, the conference will formally add Boise State, Houston, San Diego State, SMU and UCF. The Big East is expected to announce the additions on Wednesday.
Houston, SMU and UCF will join for all spots, while Boise State and San Diego State may send its other sports to the WAC.
All five teams are expected to join in time for the 2013 season. However, there could be some leeway with that date. The Big East plans to hold Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia to its exit agreement (27 months). However, the Mountaineers are suing to leave the Big East in time for the 2012 season.
If West Virginia does leave the conference next season, could Boise State join in time for 2012? The Broncos would have to pay a large exit fee, but it would be worth it for the automatic bid into the BCS. Boise State is rebuilding next season, but assuming West Virginia leaves, the conference race is wide open.
With the defections of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the future of the Big East was uncertain. However, the conference has stabilized – at least for now – with the addition of five teams.
Despite the expansion, the Big East can’t let its guard down. Rutgers and Connecticut have been rumored as possible targets for future ACC expansion, while Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati are believed to be on the radar for the Big 12.
Although the Big East could lose teams in the future, getting the conference to 12 members by 2013 or 2014 will at least help to build a solid foundation.
The Big East is expected to add two more teams – likely Air Force and Navy – in the near future. However, Air Force is still trying to decide if it wants to make the move or not. If the Falcons do not join the Big East, Temple or East Carolina would figure to be the next team to get an invitation. BYU was believed to have some interest in joining the Big East, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement.
Although the geography and the name of the conference make this an odd fit, it makes sense for both parties. The Big East needed to do something to assure its survival. Without any expansion, the conference was looking at having just five football teams in place for 2014.
For the teams joining the conference, this allows Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF, SMU, Navy and Air Force a chance to have an automatic bid into the BCS for at least one season. There may be changes to the BCS bowls starting in 2014, but it seems unlikely automatic qualification will be completely removed from the equation. Also, this move should benefit the revenue stream for the incoming schools. The Big East is expected to sign a new television deal, which will help with exposure and money.
A history of the five new Big East teams and their previous conferences (Since 1970)
Boise State: Big Sky (1970-95), Big East (1996-00), WAC (2001-2010), Mountain West (2011)
Houston: Independent (1970-75), Southwest (1976-95), Conference USA (1996-current)
San Diego State: Pacific Coast (1970-77), WAC (1978-98), Mountain West (1999-curent)
SMU: 1970-95 (Southwest), 1996-2004 (WAC), Conference USA (2005-current)
UCF: Independent (1996-01), MAC (2002-04), Conference USA (2005-current)
Here’s what the Big East could look like in 2014 – assuming Air Force and Navy join.
Navy – Expected to join
San Diego State
Quick thoughts on the five new Big East members
Boise State – There’s no question Boise State is the crown jewel of Big East expansion. The Broncos have been one of the most successful teams in college football over the last 10 years and have played in two BCS bowls. Boise State is making facility and stadium improvements, as well as finding ways to keep coach Chris Petersen happy. The Broncos heavily recruit Texas and California, so playing in a division with San Diego State, Houston and SMU makes a lot of sense.
Houston – Although a loss to Southern Miss ended the Cougars’ chances of getting to a BCS bowl, this has emerged as a consistent winner in Conference USA. Also, Houston is making a commitment to upgrading the facilities, which are needed to continue moving up the ladder in program/conference rankings. Another solid recruiting area and television market for the Big East.
San Diego State – The Aztecs have had only two winning seasons since 2000, but has made back-to-back bowls. In order for Boise State to join the Big East, it wanted to have a Western partner, and San Diego State is a good fit. The Aztecs are taking a step down in basketball, but this should help with exposure for their football program.
SMU – The Mustangs are a team on the rise in Conference USA, making three consecutive bowl games under coach June Jones. SMU is also located in Dallas, a good television and recruiting market for the Big East.
UCF – The Knights are finally in the Big East. After years of wanting to get into the conference, UCF is ready for its debut in a BCS conference. The Knights are located in a terrific state for recruiting and opened a new stadium in 2007. Everything seems to be in place for UCF to be a consistent winner in the Big East.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Whether you are for or against it, the rematch is set for Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime victory. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, no conference has had two teams play for the national championship. However, that's about to change as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will invade New Orleans for their second meeting of 2011.
What does Alabama need to win the national title? Athlon will have an extended breakdown before Jan. 9, but here's five things to watch when the game kicks off in New Orleans.
1. AJ’s Time to Shine – Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron has done a nice job in his first season as the starter, throwing for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns to only five interceptions. In the 9-6 loss to LSU, he completed 16 of 28 throws for 199 yards. However, McCarron tossed a costly interception, which allowed LSU to tie the game 6-6 in the third quarter. With LSU aiming to take away Alabama running back Trent Richardson from the gameplan, McCarron will have to step up once again. It's unfair to say the national title rests solely on McCarron's arm, but he has to have a good performance if Alabama wants to win.
2. Special Teams – This was an area of concern in the first matchup, as Alabama missed four field goals and got virtually nothing on kickoff returns. If the Crimson Tide wants to get revenge for LSU’s win in Tuscaloosa, they have to be better in this department. Kicker Jeremy Shelley connected on 16 of 20 attempts during the regular season, while Cade Foster hit on only 2 of 9. Considering Alabama missed four field goals and nearly won, one play on special teams in the rematch could be the deciding factor. The bottom line is Shelley and Foster have to be better, while the team also needs Marquis Maze or Trent Richardson to step it up on returns on Jan. 9.
3. Trick plays? – In the first meeting between these two teams, Alabama went into its bag of tricks for a wide receiver pass by Marquis Maze, but it proved to be a costly call. Maze’s pass was intercepted on the goal-line, ending a solid Crimson Tide drive and the chance to put points on the board. While calling the wide receiver pass wasn’t a terrible idea, Alabama doesn’t need to get too cute on offense to win this game. The Crimson Tide outgained LSU 295 to 239 in the first meeting, but has to do a better job of cashing in on opportunities once it gets past midfield.
4. Load up the box – Slowing down the LSU offense is pretty simple: Crowd the line of scrimmage and force the quarterbacks to beat you. Alabama did a good job of limiting LSU’s rushing attack to 148 yards in the first matchup, but that’s double the yardage the Crimson Tide allowed on average per game this season (74.9). One reason the Tigers continue to be successful – even against crowded line of scrimmages – is a deep backfield. Michael Ford leads the team with 755 yards, but Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are all capable running backs. Even though LSU may not get much yardage early, the depth will take its toll on any defense in the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide has to limit the success of the Tigers on first and second down, forcing Jefferson or Lee to make plays in third and long situations.
5. Stop the Honey Badger – There’s no question LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is one of the nation’s most exciting players with the ball in his hand. He has forced six fumbles this season, while taking two of those back for a touchdown. Mathieu has been a dynamic returner, taking two back for touchdowns and averaging 16.2 yards per punt return. While he may not have the every play impact of Trent Richardson, Mathieu can be a game changer for LSU. Eliminating his impact on defense will be tough, but expect Alabama to kick away from him on returns.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Whether you are for or against it, the rematch is set for Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime victory. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, no conference has had two teams play for the national championship. However, that's about to change as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will invade New Orleans for their second meeting of 2011.
What does LSU need to win the national title? Athlon will have an extended breakdown before Jan. 9, but here's five things to watch when the game kicks off in New Orleans.
1. Stop Trent Richardson – Much like defenses trying to stop LSU’s offense, the way to beat Alabama is to take away its rushing attack. In the first meeting between these two teams, Richardson was held to 89 yards on 23 attempts. The junior leads the SEC with an average of 131.9 yards per game in conference play. Richardson also made a big impact in the passing game in the first matchup, catching five passes for 80 yards. Stopping the run is priority No. 1 for the Tigers, but they also have to do a better job of keeping Richardson contained out of the backfield.
2. Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee? – Jefferson took control of the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after the win over Alabama, but did not play well in the SEC title game against Georgia. Jefferson completed only 5 of 13 throws for 30 yards and one touchdown against the Bulldogs, while Lee has tossed only 12 passes in the last five games. In the first matchup between these two teams, Jefferson and Lee combined for just 91 yards on nine completions. Alabama’s secondary is one of the best in the nation, which won’t make life easy for the quarterbacks. However, LSU might want to shake up the offense and get both players involved. Lee would allow the Tigers to open up the passing game more, while Jefferson can hurt the defense with his legs. LSU doesn't need 300 passing yards, but can it win with under 100 yards again?
3. Unleash the Honey Badger – Alabama probably isn’t going to give Tyrann Mathieu many opportunities to touch the ball on special teams. Why not give the Honey Badger a shot on offense? Of course LSU can’t ask Mathieu to play 20 plays on offense, but how about less than 10 snaps? Mathieu is averaging 16.2 yards per punt return and 9.8 yards on fumble returns this season. Why not get him in the game on a reverse or running out of the Wildcat? If nothing else, Alabama will have to devote attention to Mathieu, which could open up the possibility for a big play by someone else on the LSU sideline. Considering points and first downs will be at a premium, getting Mathieu involved on offense isn’t a bad idea.
4. Win the Turnover Battle – LSU finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 30 and only lost eight on offense. In the first matchup between these two, the turnover battle was tied at two. Considering how close the first contest was, a fumble or interception could be the deciding factor. Neither team has a big-play offense, but the Tigers could probably use more help in this area, particularly with an inconsistent passing game. Although LSU rallied to beat Arkansas and Georgia, it does not want to face an early deficit.
5. Let the Punter Win the Game – Seriously. That’s not a joke. LSU punter Brad Wing is among the best in the nation, averaging 44.1 yards per punt and placing 23 of his kicks inside of the 20. While it may seem strange to lean on your punter, Wing can flip field position and back opposing offenses deep into its own territory. Although LSU or Alabama can’t win the national title by being ultraconservative, there’s no reason to take unnecessary chances either. With Wing’s ability to pin opponents inside of the 20, LSU doesn’t need to be afraid to punt the ball and put its defense back on the field.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Which bowls should you tune into? Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid.
35. Little Caesars Pizza Bowl – Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6) – Dec. 27
Despite being less than 200 miles outside of Detroit, this is Western Michigan’s first appearance in this bowl. The Broncos should have a homefield advantage over the Boilermakers, who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2007. If you are looking for an individual matchup to watch, keep an eye on Western Michigan receiver Jordan White against Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen. White caught 127 passes for 1,646 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Allen was selected by the coaches as a second-team All-Big Ten defensive back.
34. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7) – Dec. 31
Is there really much to get excited about this one? Both teams will have interim coaches and combined for a 12-13 record this year. It’s just over a six-hour drive from UCLA to San Francisco, which should make this a home game for the Bruins. However, as it is with many bowls, whichever team wants to be there more after a disappointing regular season will win.
33. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl – FIU (8-4) vs. Marshall (6-6) – Dec. 20
Coach Mario Cristobal continues to push the FIU program to new heights, posting a school-record eight victories this year. This is also the Golden Panthers’ second bowl appearance after beating Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl last season. Marshall is returning to the postseason after a one-year absence and this is a good spot for a team that recruits heavily in Florida. FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the nation’s top all-around players and will be a handful for the Thundering Herd’s defense.
32. Compass Bowl – Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. SMU (7-5) - Jan. 7
Out of the 35 bowl games, Birmingham has to be one of the least desirable locations for a postseason trip. And Pittsburgh certainly isn’t thrilled to be in this game after making a trip to Birmingham last year. This is SMU’s third consecutive bowl appearances, but will coach June Jones make the trip? Jones is rumored to be in the mix at Arizona State and UCLA. Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham went 2-2 against the Mustangs while he was Tulsa’s head coach from 2007-10.
31. Poinsettia Bowl – TCU (10-2) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4) – Dec. 21
Coach Sonny Dykes did an underrated job with the Bulldogs this year, leading this team to a WAC title and their first bowl appearance since 2008. The Horned Frogs were on the doorstep of a BCS berth, but didn’t reach the top 16 in the latest release of the BCS standings. This is the first matchup between these two teams and interestingly enough, both enter with seven-game winning streaks.
30. New Mexico Bowl – Wyoming (8-4) vs. Temple (8-4) – Dec. 17
Bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, with Temple making the long trip from Philadelphia to take on the Cowboys. Wyoming has quietly put together a nice season behind freshman quarterback Brett Smith. The Owls were left out of the postseason last year, but are making their second bowl trip in the last three years. Coach Steve Addazio did a good job in his first season at Temple, leaning on running back Bernard Pierce for a solid 8-4 record.
29. New Orleans Bowl – San Diego State (8-4) vs. UL Lafayette (8-4) – Dec. 17
One of the nation’s top first-year coaching jobs went to UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 8-4 after a 3-9 record last season and are back in the postseason for the first time since 1970. The Aztecs are making back-to-back bowl appearances in program history. This could be the final game at San Diego State for running back Ronnie Hillman, who ranks third nationally with 138 rushing yards per game. The sophomore is eligible for the NFL Draft at the end of this season. It’s a short drive from Lafayette to New Orleans, so this should be a virtual home game for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
28. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4) – Dec. 17
2011 was a season of near misses for Utah State. The Aggies lost close games to Auburn, BYU and Louisiana Tech, but closed out the year with a five-game winning streak. Coach Gary Andersen is a rising star and will eventually get a shot at a BCS program. Ohio is 0-5 in previous bowl appearances and doesn’t have much time to erase a disappoint loss in the MAC title game. Both teams are averaging over 30 points a game, so a shootout appears likely.
27. Music City Bowl – Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Wake Forest (6-6) – Dec. 30
Nashville is all about music, but it will be a different type of noise invading LP Field. The Bulldogs will be bringing their cowbells from Starkville for their first appearance in the Music City Bowl. The Demon Deacons are also making their first bowl appearance in Nashville and will look to earn their third consecutive postseason win in a row. After giving up 297 rushing yards in the season finale to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest’s rush defense will be under attack from Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard.
26. Pinstripe Bowl – Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6) – Dec. 30
The first Pinstripe Bowl ended up as a classic between Syracuse and Kansas State and this one seems to be another even matchup. The Cyclones have made two bowl appearances in three seasons under coach Paul Rhoads, while the Scarlet Knights are happy to be back in the postseason after a disappointing 4-8 record last year. This will be the first meeting between these two teams.
25. Hawaii Bowl – Southern Miss (11-2) vs. Nevada (7-5) – Dec. 24
The Golden Eagles are disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Liberty Bowl, but can you really complain about Hawaii in mid-December? Look for this matchup to be a high-scoring affair, as both teams rank in the top 15 of total offense and are averaging over 30 points a game. Nevada quarterback Cody Fajarado missed the season finale against Idaho with an injury, but should be back under center for this matchup. One question to ponder: Is Larry Fedora Southern Miss’ coach by the time this one kicks off?
24. Armed Forces Bowl – BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4) – Dec. 30
This matchup could be one of the hidden gems of the bowl season. BYU won eight out of its last nine games, largely sparked by a quarterback change. Riley Nelson took the starting spot from Jake Heaps and finished with 16 passing scores to only five interceptions. Tulsa had a similar finish to the season, winning seven out of its last eight games. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is an underrated player nationally, throwing at least 22 passing scores in each season at Tulsa. The Cougars rank 29th nationally against the pass, but will be tested by Kinne and a solid group of receivers.
23. Military Bowl – Air Force (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4) – Dec. 28
With Navy not qualifying for the postseason, Air Force was a logical replacement for this game in Washington, D.C. With nearly a month to prepare, Toledo will have plenty of time to develop a game plan to stop the Falcons’ option attack. The Rockets ranked 28th nationally against the run this season and allowed opponents to manage only 13 rushing scores. Toledo’s offense should provide plenty of fireworks after scoring at least 40 points in each of its final five games.
22. Chick-fil-A Bowl – Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5) – Dec. 31
The Cavaliers were one of the biggest benefactors of Virginia Tech’s BCS berth. Virginia was likely headed to the Music City Bowl, but jump over Florida State to land in Atlanta. With several young players stepping into key roles, Auburn took a step back in the standings after winning the national title last season. Points could be at a premium, as both teams averaged under 25 points a game this year. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is usually a solid matchup, but this year’s game is not that inspiring.
21. Independence Bowl – Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5) – Dec. 26
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels and Tigers, the Dec. 26 date for this bowl means spending the holiday season in Shreveport. It’s not an ideal location, but both teams have to be happy to be in the postseason. The 2011 season did not get off to an ideal beginning for either team, as Butch Davis was fired by North Carolina in late July, while Missouri got off to a 2-3 start. This will be the Tigers’ final game as a member of the Big 12, as they will be joining the SEC for the 2012 season.
20. GoDaddy.com Bowl – Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Arkansas State (10-2) – Jan. 8
This bowl is the last one before the national title. And it’s actually a pretty solid matchup. Both teams averaged over 30 points a game and are led by starpower at quarterback. Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin led the Sun Belt with an average of 320 yards of total offense per game, while Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is averaging 332.6 per game. Expect plenty of points in the appetizer to the big one in New Orleans a day later.
19. Belk Bowl – Louisville (7-5) vs. NC State (7-5) – Dec. 27
A matchup of 7-5 teams usually won’t register on most national radars, but there is some intrigue with this one. Both teams will be bringing a lot of talent back next season and should easily threaten more than seven wins. The Wolfpack won three out of their last four to get to seven wins, while the Cardinals got on track after a 2-4 start. NC State quarterback Mike Glennon will test a Louisville secondary that ranks 61st nationally in stopping the pass.
18. Liberty Bowl – Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3) – Dec. 31
After disappointing 2010 seasons, both teams have to be excited to ring in the New Year in Memphis. The Commodores won only two games last year, while the Bearcats finished with a disappointing 4-8 record. James Franklin has done a terrific job in one season with Vanderbilt, and a win over Cincinnati would give the program its second winning record in the last four years. One aspect to watch over the next couple of weeks will be the health of Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros. He suffered an ankle injury in the Nov. 12 loss to West Virginia and did not play in the final three games. Collaros could return for this game, which would provide a boost for the Cincinnati offense.
17. Sun Bowl – Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Utah (7-5) – Dec. 31
Even though the Utes missed out on a chance to play for the Pac-12 title game, a lot of credit is due to coach Kyle Whittingham. In its first season of Pac-12 play, Utah managed a winning record, despite losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn early in the year to a shoulder injury. This game will be decided in the trenches, as Georgia Tech ranks third nationally in rushing offense, while the Utes rank seventh nationally in rush defense. Utah doesn’t want to get into a shootout, but the Yellow Jackets are averaging 34.9 points a game.
16. Meineke Car Care Bowl – Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6) – Dec. 31
Can the Wildcats snap their bowl drought? Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949 and have lost its last eight postseason trips. Texas A&M has lost its last five bowl contests and with a coaching change, one has to wonder if this team will be motivated for this one. Assuming the Aggies are motivated, this should be an entertaining matchup. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa should light up a Texas A&M secondary that ranked 113th nationally against the pass.
15. Insight Bowl – Iowa (7-5) vs. Oklahoma (9-3) – Dec. 30
Considering the Sooners were picked by many to win the national title this year, landing in the Insight Bowl is definitely a disappointment. Iowa appeared in this game last season, beating Missouri in an entertaining 27-24 contest. An intriguing storyline to this matchup will be Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. He played at Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1979-1982 and this will be his first game on the Sooner sideline against his alma mater. After a disappointing regular season, will Oklahoma be motivated for this bowl game?
14. Holiday Bowl – Texas (7-5) vs. California (7-5) – Dec. 28
2004 may be seven years ago, but has California forgotten? The Golden Bears appeared to be on the way to the Rose Bowl, but some late politicking by Texas coach Mack Brown propelled the Longhorns into that spot. While that might be in the back of the mind for California coach Jeff Tedford, it won’t factor any into this one. Texas is making a slow climb back into Big 12 contention, and will catch a break with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron returning to full health after missing time throughout November. California closed out the year on a high note, winning three out of its last four games.
13. Capital One Bowl – South Carolina (10-2) vs. Nebraska (9-3) – Jan. 2
With both teams struggling on offense at times this year, the Capital One Bowl might not be the most entertaining to watch. The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore to a torn ACL in mid-October, but finished with a 4-1 record the rest of the way. Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten was solid, but fell short of preseason expectations to reach the conference title game. Whichever quarterback gets on track through the air – Connor Shaw (South Carolina) or Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) – will likely be the deciding factor.
12. TicketCity Bowl – Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3) – Jan. 2
It’s rare to see a 9-3 Penn State team fall so far in the Big Ten bowl pecking order, but considering all that has transpired in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were not an attractive team during bowl selections. The Cougars also had quite a fall, losing the Conference USA title game and missing out on a BCS bowl. This matchup will come down to whether or not Penn State running back Silas Redd can get going. If the Nittany Lions can get their rushing attack on track, it will be their best chance to slow down Houston’s wide-open passing attack.
11. Cotton Bowl – Kansas State (10-2) vs. Arkansas (10-2) – Jan. 6
The Wildcats were one of the most surprising teams in college football this year, getting picked near the bottom of the Big 12, but finishing with a 10-2 record and nearly earning a berth in a BCS bowl. The Razorbacks have also had quite a year, but lost to the top two teams in the nation (Alabama and LSU). Kansas State’s secondary ranked 104th nationally in stopping the pass, which is going to be under fire from Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and a deep group of receivers.
10. Las Vegas Bowl – Boise State (11-1) vs. Arizona State (6-6) – Dec. 22
Kellen Moore vs. Vontaze Burfict. What an interesting contrast in personalities. The Broncos just missed out on a BCS bowl, while the Sun Devils will hope to salvage some pride after a disappointing finish to the season. This will be the final game for Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who was fired after the regular season finale against California. Boise State appeared in this game last season, defeating Utah 26-3.
9. Gator Bowl – Florida (6-6) vs. Ohio State (6-6) – Jan. 2
There is no shortage of storylines for this one – even with two 6-6 teams squaring off in Jacksonville. Urban Meyer won’t be coaching in this bowl game, but he will be in the spotlight as he gets ready to take over in Columbus after this game. It’s been a disappointing year for both teams, but the bowl is a chance to at least salvage a winning season.
8. Sugar Bowl – Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2) – Jan. 3
The decision to choose the Hokies over Kansas State or Boise State certainly raised some eyebrows when the bowl schedule was released. Although Virginia Tech’s selection into the game was a surprise, this should be a relatively close matchup. And the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both feature a dynamic, mobile quarterback and defenses that are allowing 17 points a game. Michigan has only played in the Sugar Bowl once (1984), while Virginia Tech is 1-2 in three previous trips.
7. Alamo Bowl – Washington (7-5) vs. Baylor (9-3) – Dec. 29
If you like offense, this game is for you. The Huskies rank 116th nationally against the pass, which is bad news with Baylor and quarterback Robert Griffin averaging 356.2 yards a game through the air. Washington began the year 5-1, but lost four out of its last six games. The Bears were headed in the opposite direction during that stretch, winning their final five games to finish 9-3 overall.
6. Outback Bowl – Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3) – Jan. 2
Conference pride will be on the line on Jan. 2, as the Outback Bowl is one of three matchups featuring the Big Ten against the SEC. The SEC has won the last two games in the Outback Bowl, but on paper, this one looks like a tossup. Both teams are strong on defense, ranking in the top 10 of yards allowed this season. The Bulldogs could benefit the most from the long layoff, as the time off will allow running back Isaiah Crowell to return to 100 percent after an ankle injury late in the year. These two teams met in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, with Georgia winning 24-12.
5. Orange Bowl – Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3) – Jan. 4
The last three Orange Bowl matchups have been short on excitement, but that should change with this one. Clemson-West Virginia was a good draw and a game that should provide plenty of offensive fireworks. The Tigers snapped out of a late-season funk in the ACC title game, defeating Virginia Tech 38-10. The Mountaineers were part of a three-way tie atop the Big East standings, but get the BCS berth due to the higher rank in the BCS standings. If West Virginia’s offensive line can hold up against Clemson’s defensive front, this should be a high-scoring matchup.
4. Champs Sports Bowl – Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4) – Dec. 29
In terms of name value alone, this has to be one of the most intriguing bowls outside of the BCS. Both teams began the year with BCS bowl hopes, but neither matched preseason expectations. Considering there’s a lot of young talent returning at both programs for next season, this could be a springboard to a big 2012. The Seminoles’ defense is one of the best in college football, but will be tested by Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd and running back Cierre Wood. Florida State owns a 4-2 edge over the Irish in previous matchups, including a 31-26 Orange Bowl victory in 1996.
3. Fiesta Bowl – Oklahoma State (11-1) vs. Stanford (11-1) – Jan. 2
The Cowboys are certainly disappointed about missing out on the national title game, but has to be excited about making a BCS bowl for the first time in school history. Stanford is making a return trip to the BCS after demolishing Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game, so the scoreboard operators will be busy. The Cardinal’s secondary has been vulnerable this year, which is bad news against Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon.
2. National Title – LSU (13-0) vs. Alabama (11-1) – Jan. 9
Some may be disappointed with a rematch, but these are the two best teams in college football. The Tigers won 9-6 in overtime in the first meeting, but the last four games in this series are split 2-2. LSU has navigated a difficult schedule outside of winning in Tuscaloosa, including wins over Georgia, West Virginia, Oregon and Arkansas. Will the rematch produce a different result? Expect another close game and one that may be decided on a field goal once again.
1. Rose Bowl – Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (11-2) – Jan. 2
The matchup of Oregon’s speed and hurry-up offense against Wisconsin’s power will be one of the most interesting contrasts of styles of the bowl season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game and rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense, so a high-scoring game can be expected in Pasadena. If the Badgers can control the clock and keep the Ducks high-powered offense on the sideline, they should get revenge for last season’s Rose Bowl loss to TCU.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
North Carolina is the only ACC school likely to make a coaching change this season. After an off-the-field scandal and a NCAA investigation, Butch Davis was fired as the team’s coach in July. Everett Withers served as the team’s interim coach, leading the Tar Heels to a 7-5 record. Although Withers will have a chance to retain the job on a permanent basis, North Carolina will interview other candidates.
Who will coach at North Carolina in 2012?
Troy Calhoun, head coach, Air Force – Calhoun is one to watch if you are looking for a under-the-radar option in North Carolina’s coaching search. In five seasons at Air Force, he has compiled a 41-23 record and five consecutive bowl appearances (counting 2011). He has served as an assistant at Ohio and Wake Forest, while working in the NFL with the Broncos and Texans. Although Calhoun runs an option offense at Air Force, his background in the NFL suggests he would adapt to whichever offensive style is necessary to win. Calhoun is a solid coach and would be a terrific hire for North Carolina. However, he graduated from Air Force, so it would take a lot to make him leave Colorado Springs for Chapel Hill.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora is going to have plenty of options on where he can coach next season. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record and a Conference USA East title this year. Fedora also has stops as an assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State. There’s no shortage of suitors for Fedora, so North Carolina will have to move quickly if he is at the top of its list.
Bud Foster, defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech – Foster has been one of the top defensive coordinators in college football over the last 10 years. He has interviewed for a few head coaching jobs, but has spent his career as an assistant. Foster would not be a flashy hire and his lack of head coaching experience could work against him. However, there’s no question he deserves a shot to run his own program – if he’s interested in leaving Virginia Tech.
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt – Franklin has only been at Vanderbilt for one season, but he made quite an impression. The Commodores finished the regular season with a 6-6 record and a likely berth in the Liberty Bowl. Franklin has experience coaching in the ACC, working at Maryland from 2000-04 and 2008-10. Although North Carolina may be interested in him, it’s unlikely Franklin would accept the job. Vanderbilt is working on a contract extension, which would keep him in Nashville for the immediate future.
Skip Holtz, head coach, South Florida – With the Big East’s uncertain future, Holtz may be looking to land at a job with more stability. In two years at South Florida, he has compiled a 13-11 record and led the Bulls to a berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season. Before landing in South Florida, Holtz posted a 38-27 record at East Carolina and led the Pirates to two Conference USA titles. He also has the reputation of running a clean program, which has to appeal to North Carolina after the end of the Butch Davis era. Holtz also has an outgoing personality, which would be a hit with the fans and boosters.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – After a disappointing 4-8 record last season, Jones has Cincinnati back on the right track. The Bearcats are 8-3 with one game remaining and still have a shot to win the Big East. Before coming to Cincinnati, Jones went 27-13 in three years at Central Michigan. He also has experience as an assistant from 2005-06 at West Virginia. Jones has maintained he is happy at Cincinnati, but his name has popped up in searches at Illinois and UCLA.
Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator, Auburn – Malzahn is regarded as one of the top offensive coordinators in college football and is ready for his first head coaching gig in college. His only head coaching positions came on the high school level in Arkansas at Hughes and Shiloh Christian. In addition to his current job at Auburn, he worked as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas (2006) and Tulsa (2007-08). Athletic director Bubba Cunningham was at Tulsa during Malzahn’s tenure there, so there is plenty of familiarity between these two. Although he has never been a head coach at the college level, Malzahn is one of the most desired names in coaching searches this offseason. Also, his high-powered offenses would have no trouble attracting talent to Chapel Hill.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State – Mullen’s name has been in the rumor mill over the last week, popping up as one of the favorites in the Penn State coaching search. As a Pennsylvania native, he is expected to be high on the list to be the Nittany Lions’ next coach. Could Mullen be interested in North Carolina? Winning at Mississippi State is not easy, especially in a difficult SEC West. In three years in Starkville, he has compiled a 20-17 record. Although Mullen has denied he will depart Mississippi State this year, he might get a call to gauge his interest in the North Carolina position.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – Petersen’s name always comes up with any BCS opening, so he appears on many coaching lists by default. His name has been mentioned in connection with the UCLA opening, but it’s very unlikely he will leave Boise State. If Petersen ends up at North Carolina, it will be a major surprise.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – The Tar Heels are another team in the growing line of suitors for Sumlin. He has been rumored to be in the mix at Kansas, Arizona State, UCLA, Ole Miss and Illinois. It’s no surprise Sumlin is a hot commodity in coaching searches, as he has a 35-16 record in four seasons at Houston. The Cougars are also one win away from playing in a BCS game. Sumlin will have his pick of jobs, which means North Carolina needs to move quick if he is their No. 1 candidate.
Everett Withers, interim head coach, North Carolina – Withers inherited a difficult situation this year, taking over for former coach Butch Davis in late July. The Tar Heels finished with a solid 7-5 record and had close losses to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami. However, Withers probably hurt his chances of getting the job with his comments about NC State in early November and he has no other head coaching experience. Although Withers was a solid replacement for this year, it’s unlikely he will keep the full-time position.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After four seasons in College Station, Texas A&M has decided to fire coach Mike Sherman. Under his watch, the Aggies posted a 25-25 record and did not win any bowl appearances. After a 9-4 finish last year, Texas A&M appeared to be on the right track, appearing in many preseason top-10 lists. However, the Aggies had trouble finishing games and closed with a disappointing loss to Texas on Thanksgiving night. With Texas A&M headed to the SEC, this is an important hire for athletic director Bill Byrne and president R. Bowen Loftin.
Art Briles, head coach, Baylor – Briles has been a successful coach on the high school and college level, with all of his experience coming in Texas. After working at the high school level from 1979-1999, he made a stop as a Texas Tech assistant from 2000-02, then accepted the head coaching spot at Houston. Briles led the Cougars to a 34-28 record in five seasons, including four bowl appearances. He has spent the last four seasons at Baylor, recording a 23-25 record. Although Briles has a losing record with the Bears, he has significantly upgraded the talent and overall competitiveness of this team since his arrival. Briles seems content at Baylor, but Texas A&M is a step up on the coaching ladder and the opportunity to work in the SEC.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora has been mentioned as a target for Ole Miss, Illinois, Kansas, Arizona State and UCLA. While Fedora could be interested in any of those jobs, Texas A&M is probably much more appealing. He was born in College Station and played at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Fedora also has stints as an assistant at Baylor, Air Force, MTSU, Florida and Oklahoma State. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record with one Conference USA East title. Fedora would be a good fit at Texas A&M, but Sumlin is believed to be target No. 1.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – Jones has done a good job of turning around struggling programs, making a stop at Hawaii from 1998-07 and SMU since 2008. The Warriors went 76-41 under Jones, while the Mustangs are 23-28 in four seasons. He also has NFL experience, spending time with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones has to be appealing in the Aggies’ coaching search, thanks to a high-powered passing attack and his recent experience coaching in Texas. He is also expected to be in the mix at UCLA or Arizona State, so there could be a lot of interest for his services. Also, Jones is paid very well for a non-BCS coach, and it would likely take a hefty contract to pry him away from SMU.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson – Out of the seven coaches mentioned on this list, Morris is probably the biggest longshot. He has spent just two years on the FBS level, jumping from Lake Travis High School to Tulsa offensive coordinator in 2010 and taking over the same position at Clemson in 2011. Morris is one of the rising stars in the assistant ranks and runs an up-tempo scheme that averaged 41.4 points a game at Tulsa last season and 33.3 at Clemson this year. Morris graduated from Texas A&M in 1992, but is lack of experience at the FBS level has to hurt his chances of getting the full-time position.
Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator, Alabama – Smart is another hot name in coaching searches and is believed to be drawing interest from Ole Miss. He has worked under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007, and has additional stops as an assistant at Georgia, LSU and Valdosta State. Smart has one year of NFL experience, spending the 2006 season with Saban and the Dolphins. Smart is due for a shot to lead a program, but current Saban assistants (Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley) haven’t been a smashing success as a head coach. Also, how much of Alabama’s defensive success is due to Saban?
Charlie Strong, head coach, Louisville – Strong recently signed a contract extension at Louisville, but could be in the mix at Texas A&M. He has done a terrific job in just two years with the Cardinals, posting a 14-11 record and a Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl victory last season. Strong has a wealth of experience as an assistant, making stops at Texas A&M, Florida, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and South Carolina. There’s no question Strong is a rising star in the coaching ranks, but is he ready to leave Louisville? The Cardinals could be a preseason top 25 team next season and will be the likely frontrunner in the Big East. If he waits another year, his stock could be higher.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin is a wanted man. His name has jumped into consideration at Kansas, Arizona State, UCLA, Illinois and now Texas A&M. In four years at Houston, he has compiled a 35-16 record and is one win away from taking the Cougars to a BCS game. Sumlin has a solid resume as an assistant, working at Oklahoma under Bob Stoops from 2003-07 and from 2001-02 at Texas A&M under R.C. Slocum. Considering Sumlin’s previous experience in College Station and Houston’s successful 2011 season, he has to be the clear frontrunner for Texas A&M.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 14
1. When commissioner Larry Scott envisioned the first Pac-12 title game, a 6-6 UCLA team is probably not what he had in mind. However, that’s the predicament the conference is in, thanks to USC’s probation and Utah’s loss to Colorado last Friday. The 6-6 finish cost coach Rick Neuheisel his job, and the Pac-12 title game will be his last on the UCLA sideline. The Bruins are heavy underdogs and with nothing to lose, will throw everything they have at the Ducks. Could we see Neuheisel and his staff empty the bag of trick plays? But will it even make a difference? UCLA has lost four out of the last five matchups to Oregon, including a 60-13 meeting in Eugene last season. The Bruins rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rush defense and will have their hands full trying to stop the Ducks’ big-play rushing attack. Unless UCLA is able to force a couple of turnovers and find a way to keep Oregon’s offense off the field, all signs point to a big mismatch on Friday night in Eugene.
2. Friday night’s viewing menu consists of only two games: UCLA-Oregon and the MAC title game between Northern Illinois and Ohio. This is the first meeting between the Huskies and Bobcats in the MAC Championship. Ohio has won five out of the last six matchups during the regular season between these two teams, including a 38-31 shootout in 2009. The Huskies finished the regular season ninth in scoring offense and have one of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks calling the shots in senior Chandler Harnish. He ranks seventh nationally in total offense per game and has reached the endzone 34 times this season. The Bobcats also have their own interesting story at quarterback, as Tyler Tettleton is the son of former Major League Baseball player Mickey Tettleton. The Huskies averaged 39.6 points a game this season, but face a tough Ohio defense that is allowing just 22 points a game. Although the MAC title game is often lost in the shuffle with other championship matchups, this one should be more entertaining than the Oregon-UCLA matchup on Friday night.
3. With West Virginia’s win over South Florida on Thursday night, there is finally clarity to the Big East title race. If Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday, the Mountaineers will win the conference title. If the Bearcats lose, Louisville will get the conference’s automatic BCS bid, thanks to a victory over the Mountaineers earlier this season. The Big East has been a punching bag for critics all year, but the race has been one of the more interesting battles to watch in November. And with West Virginia headed to the Big 12, this should be Louisville’s conference to win in 2012. The Cardinals are loaded with young talent, and coach Charlie Strong is the top coach in the conference.
4. After knocking off Tulsa 48-16 and clinching the Conference USA West Division title last Friday, the stakes are even higher for Houston this Saturday. With a win over Southern Miss, Houston will strengthen its hold for an at-large spot into a BCS game. The Golden Eagles won’t be an easy out, as they enter this game 10-2 and defeated Virginia 30-24 on the road earlier this year. These two teams have met once before in the Conference USA title game, with Houston winning 34-20 over Southern Miss in 2006. The Golden Eagles knocked off the Cougars 59-41 last season, but Houston quarterback Case Keenum was out due to a knee injury. These two teams lead Conference USA in scoring offense, so there should be no shortage of points. And there’s been plenty of speculation surrounding the future of both coaches – Larry Fedora (USM) and Kevin Sumlin (Houston) – as they have been mentioned in searches at Ole Miss, Kansas, Arizona State, Texas A&M, North Carolina and UCLA. With a large payout ahead if it can make a BCS bowl, this is one of the most important games in Houston football history.
5. With Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Alabama’s Trent Richardson finished for the regular season, Baylor’s Robert Griffin has one more chance to make a Heisman statement. Griffin missed the second half of last week’s victory against Texas Tech with a concussion, but is expected to start on Saturday. In addition to a Heisman statement, Griffin has a chance to elevate the Baylor program another notch. With a victory over the Longhorns, the Bears will have their first nine-win season since 1986. Texas is coming off a huge 27-25 victory over rival Texas A&M, but could be in trouble if its offense continues to sputter. The Longhorns should be able to take advantage of their rushing attack against a porous Baylor rush defense. Texas’ best shot at winning rests with controlling the clock and keeping Griffin and his receivers on the sideline. With Texas visiting Waco, a chance to earn six Big 12 victories for the first time in school history and an opportunity for Griffin to boost his Heisman hopes, this has to be one of the most important games for Baylor under coach Art Briles.
6. Barring an unexpected change in the polls, all signs point to a LSU-Alabama rematch in the national title. The Crimson Tide finished their regular season with a win over Auburn last week, but the Tigers still have one more game remaining, playing in the SEC title game against Georgia. Since starting the season 0-2, the Bulldogs have been on a roll. They have won 10 in a row, rank fifth nationally in total defense and quarterback Aaron Murray has thrown 14 touchdown passes in his last four games. These two teams have met twice in the SEC Championship, with each winning once. Although LSU won in Athens last season, Georgia has won three out of the last four in this series. Any chance the Bulldogs have of pulling the upset rests with the health of running back Isaiah Crowell. The freshman injured his ankle in the win over Kentucky and did not play against Georgia Tech. If Crowell is able to play, it will give Georgia’s offense some much-needed balance. With a spot in the national title game likely assured, will LSU suffer a letdown? The Bulldogs are a dangerous opponent and will give the Tigers all they can handle.
7. Round two of Clemson-Virginia Tech matchup could look a lot different than how the first game played out in early October. The Tigers won 23-3 in Blacksburg, but a lot has changed since that meeting. The Hokies are a different team, largely due to the progress made by quarterback Logan Thomas. Since the loss to Clemson, the sophomore has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Tigers have also cooled after their 8-0 start, winning only one out of their last three games. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has struggled recently as well, throwing seven interceptions over his last four games. The problems for the Tigers aren’t limited just to offense, especially with a defense that is allowing 186.5 rushing yards a game. With Thomas getting better each week, combined with running back David Wilson’s rushing, the Hokies should win their third ACC Championship in four seasons.
8. With Oklahoma State’s loss to Iowa State and Oklahoma’s defeat to Baylor, the Bedlam series lost a bit of its national appeal. There is still plenty on the line on Saturday night, as the winner of this game will claim the Big 12 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cowboys have not played since their 37-31 loss to Iowa State, while the Sooners bounced back with a victory over the Cyclones last week. Oklahoma State has not defeated Oklahoma since 2002, but due to realignment in the Big 12, will get a shot at the Sooners for the second year in a row in Stillwater. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones has not thrown a touchdown pass in his last two games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners need Jones and his receiving corps to step up on Saturday night, especially with a high-powered Oklahoma State attack on the other sideline. Even though the possibility of a national championship berth is likely gone, the Cowboys have plenty of motivation to end an eight-game losing streak to Oklahoma and make their first trip to a BCS bowl.
9. Championship Saturday brings two rematches from the regular season. Clemson and Virginia Tech are set to square off in Charlotte, but the Wisconsin-Michigan State rematch is surrounded more by intrigue. The first meeting was decided on a Hail Mary pass and it will be hard to beat that on Saturday night. However, the first Big Ten title game should be one of Week 14’s most competitive matchups. Wisconsin’s offense leads the Big Ten with 477.1 yards per game, but Michigan State ranks third nationally in total defense. The Badgers could get some good news on their offensive line this week, as center Peter Konz is close to returning from an ankle injury. Getting Konz back into the lineup would be huge, especially against a Spartans’ defensive line that has recorded 37 sacks this season. Winning the battle in the trenches is going to be critical to winning this game. If the Badgers can get their rushing game on track, they should get revenge for the loss in East Lansing earlier this year. However, if the Spartans control the line of scrimmage, the rematch swings in favor of a Michigan State victory.
10. Most of the news surrounding Hawaii this season has not been positive. Allegations of point shaving, a coach on the hot seat and an injury to quarterback Bryant Moniz have made it a disappointing season in Honolulu. The Warriors need one more win to get bowl eligible, but it won’t be easy with BYU visiting Aloha Stadium on Saturday night. These two teams are old WAC rivals, but this is the first matchup since 2002. The Cougars are expected to have quarterback Riley Nelson back in the lineup after missing a game due to lung and cartilage damage suffered in the victory over Idaho. Hawaii considers BYU one of its biggest rivals, and a win on Saturday night could help save Greg McMackin’s job, while getting the Warriors bowl eligible.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 14 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Northern Illinois 34, Ohio 31
Oregon 48, UCLA 17
Cincinnati 31, Connecticut 20
Pittsburgh 27, Syracuse 20
Kansas State 34, Iowa State 20
Oklahoma State 34, Oklahoma 31
Baylor 27, Texas 24
BYU 30, Hawaii 24
Houston 45, Southern Miss 31
LSU 27, Georgia 17
Virginia Tech 31, Clemson 20
Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 24
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 14
Will Tom Bradley be Penn State's coach in 2012?
Beating Indiana likely saved Purdue coach Danny Hope's job for another season.
Where does Randy Edsall and Maryland go after an awful 2011 season?
The Miami Herald does a good job breaking down Miami's 2011 season.
Should the Sooners slow down their offensive tempo for Saturday's game against Oklahoma State?
A bye week came at a perfect time for Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.
In order for Clemson to win the ACC title, it needs quarterback Tajh Boyd to get back on track.
Two Floida players are planning to transfer at the end of the semester. Since April, 11 players have decided to transfer from Gainesville.
Junior college players have played a key role in Kansas State's success this season.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Win or lose on Saturday, LSU should already have a spot clinched in the national title game. So what’s there to play for? Only the coveted SEC title. Despite what the Tigers have to look forward to on Jan. 9, don’t expect any letdown on Saturday afternoon.
It’s been a wild ride for Georgia in 2011. Coach Mark Richt entered the year on the hot seat and things didn’t get better after an 0-2 start. The Bulldogs rebounded from their slow start, finishing the regular season with 10 consecutive victories and earning their first trip to Atlanta since 2005.
Georgia and LSU have met twice in the SEC title game, with each team winning once. The Tigers have lost three out of the last four overall meetings against the Bulldogs, but won in Athens 20-13 last season.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Quarterback Aaron Murray makes the Georgia offense go, but whether or not the Bulldogs can win on Saturday rests largely with the rushing attack.
Running back Isaiah Crowell did not play against Georgia Tech with an ankle injury, but is expected to return against LSU. The freshman has rushed for 832 yards and five scores this season, and his presence will be needed to establish balance.
Georgia’s offensive line will also have to step up, as it has allowed 25 sacks this season. The Tigers own one of the nation’s most relentless pass rushes, averaging 2.8 sacks per game.
If the Bulldogs can establish Crowell, it will help slow down LSU’s pass rush. Another factor that could help Georgia’s rushing attack is Murray’s mobility. He has 121 yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season, and he may need to make a few plays with his legs to keep the chains moving for the Bulldogs’ offense.
As if trying to slow down the LSU pass rush wasn’t enough, Murray and his receivers will have their hands full against its secondary. The Tigers have allowed only six passing scores this season, while quarterbacks are completing just 52.8 percent of their throws against this secondary.
Murray set Georgia’s single-season touchdown record with 32 this season and has tossed only 10 picks.
The Bulldogs have no shortage of talented receivers for Murray. Freshman Malcolm Mitchell leads the team with 582 receiving yards, while tight end Orson Charles ranks second with 530 yards. Tavarres King, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Marlon Brown will also pitch in.
LSU got plenty of preparation for Georgia’s passing attack last week, as it held Arkansas’ quarterback Tyler Wilson to only 207 yards and one touchdown. However, the Bulldogs have a better rushing attack, which should help take some of the heat off of Murray.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers certainly aren’t going to wow anyone with their offense, but it isn’t exactly easy for opposing defenses to stop.
While LSU’s offense may not seem like a big-play group, it is averaging 38.2 points a game, which ranks 13th nationally.
The success starts up front with an offensive line that has allowed only 12 sacks and has paved the way for players to average 4.9 yards per rush.
The Tigers’ rushing attack will be tested by a Georgia defense that is allowing only 94.8 yards per game. Michael Ford leads the team with 721 yards, but Spencer Ware (687), Alfred Blue (445), Kenny Hilliard (248) will also see time.
Quarterback play has been an interesting storyline for LSU this season. Jarrett Lee assumed the starting role after Jordan Jefferson was suspended before the season opener, but has played sparingly since the victory over Alabama. Jefferson has been solid over the last three weeks and has tossed only one interception on 70 attempts.
There’s no question LSU wants to establish its rushing attack and control the time of possession. However, Jefferson has to hit a few plays through the air to keep Georgia’s defense from crowding the box to stuff the run.
When Jefferson drops back to pass, keep an eye on linebacker Jarvis Jones. The sophomore leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss, and his presence will be critical in keeping Jefferson under wraps.
Georgia’s defense has recorded 29 takeaways this season and if it wants to have any chance at upset victory, winning the turnover battle is going to be critical aspect on Saturday.
Expect LSU's offensive gameplan to remain the same as it has been all year - establish the run and take a few shots downfield. The Bulldogs have to find a way to keep the Tigers' rushing attack in check and force Jefferson to beat them in third and long situations.
Give LSU the edge in this department.
Georgia kicker Blair Walsh has surprisingly struggled this season, connecting on 18 of 29 attempts. Walsh was regarded as one of the top kickers in the nation coming into 2011.
LSU’s Drew Alleman has hit on 16 of 18 attempts, including all three attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Punter Drew Butler is having a solid year for the Bulldogs, averaging 43 yards per punt and has placed 16 inside of the 20. LSU's Brad Wing has been outstanding this year, matching Butler’s 43 yards per attempt, while placing 21 inside of the 20.
Georgia’s Brandon Boykin is averaging 23.6 yards per kick return and 9.8 yards on punt returns.
Morris Claiborne is having a terrific year on kickoff returns, averaging 27.5 yards on 15 attempts, while taking one back for a score.
Tyrann Mathieu is averaging 13.7 yards per punt return and took one back for a score in last week’s win against Arkansas.
Even though LSU has a spot in the national title game likely already under wraps, don’t expect a letdown.
Georgia will give the Tigers all they can handle, but it won’t be enough in the end. The Bulldogs have come a long way since the 0-2 start, but LSU is the better team and has navigated a more difficult schedule. Georgia will keep things close, but the Tigers pull away late in the fourth quarter.
Tigers 27, Bulldogs 17
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Paul Wulff's teams showed progress in his four seasons at Washington State, but it wasn’t enough to keep his job. Athletic director Bill Moos decided to fire Wulff on Tuesday, after recording a 9-40 record in his tenure in Pullman. Although the final tally was not impressive, the Cougars made significant strides this season and there is plenty of returning talent for the next head coach.
Who will replace Paul Wulff at Washington State in 2012?
Gary Andersen, head coach, Utah State – Don’t let the 14-21 record at Utah State deceive you: Andersen is a good coach and deserves a chance at a BCS job. The Aggies have slowly improved under Andersen’s watch and nearly upset Auburn in Week 1 this season. He also coached as an assistant under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham at Utah from 2004-08. Andersen is a defensive-minded coach, which doesn’t fit what Moos and Washington State would like to hire. However, he is a rising star in the coaching ranks and someone to keep a close eye on over the next couple of weeks.
Mike Bellotti, former Oregon head coach – After Rich Brooks left for the NFL, Moos promoted Bellotti to head coach in 1995 at Oregon. Could that happen again? It’s certainly a possibility. Bellotti has been out of coaching since leaving the Ducks in 2008 and has been mentioned as a candidate at Arizona State and UCLA. However, Moos indicated this week he is uncertain if Bellotti wants to get back into coaching. It’s a longshot, but the familiarity between these two makes Bellotti worth a mention.
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – Could Washington State hire a Washington alum as its head coach? Don’t rule it out. Christensen played from 1980-82 at Washington under Don James. He has stops as an assistant with the Huskies (1988), Toledo (1990-96) and Missouri (1997-08). Christensen has worked as Wyoming’s head coach for the last three seasons, recording a 17-19 record and a bowl appearance in 2009. Moos would like to hire a coach with an offensive background, which certainly makes Christensen an attractive target. He has done a good job of developing quarterbacks at each stop of the way, including two freshmen starters at Wyoming. Christensen probably isn’t the favorite, but if the Cougars strike out with some of their A-list candidates, he is one to watch.
Paul Chyrst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst’s stock has been on the rise the last few seasons. The Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense over the last three seasons and rank 12th nationally in total offense this year. Chryst has experience coaching in the Pacific Northwest, serving as Oregon State’s offensive coordinator from 2003-04. He graduated from Wisconsin in 1999, so leaving Madison could be difficult. Chryst does not have any head coaching experience.
Bryan Harsin, offensive coordinator, Texas – Harsin’s first year at Texas wasn’t an overwhelming success, but there was progress after an offensive disaster in 2010. The Longhorns finished 21st nationally in rushing offense and averaged 29.1 points a game. The 2011 numbers did not equal the totals he helped to coordinate while at Boise State, but Harsin is regarded as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. He has never been a head coach, but has plenty of experience on the West Coast, coaching at Eastern Oregon (2000) and Boise State (2001-10).
Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator, Oregon – Helfrich is considered a rising star among the assistant ranks, helping Chip Kelly craft the Ducks' high-powered offense. In addition to Oregon, he has spent time as an assistant at Arizona State, Boise State and Colorado. Helfrich is also familiar with the Pacific Northwest, graduating from Southern Oregon in 1996. Not having head coaching experience certainly hurts his chances, but has the offensive background Moos is looking for.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – If Moos is going to target coaches with an offensive background, Jones has to be near the top of the list. He has resurrected programs at Hawaii and SMU, compiling a 99-69 record over the last 13 seasons. Jones is paid very well for a non-BCS head coaching gig ($1.7 million), so he’s not going to come cheap. He is also familiar with the Pacific Northwest, spending time in his college career at Oregon and Portland State.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – Leach is a hot name in coaching searches, and appears likely to return to the sidelines for 2012. He is expected to gather interest from Illinois, Kansas, Arizona State and UCLA. While there is some baggage from the end of his tenure at Texas Tech, there is no doubt Leach is a proven winner and his offenses will generate excitement. Moos already mentioned he likes offense, which will help the Cougars’ improve their attendance and overall excitement regarding the program. Leach seems to be a great fit at Washington State, especially with solid personnel returning in 2012 – quarterback Jeff Tuel, receiver Marquess Wilson and running back Rickey Galvin. However, there will be no shortage of interest in Leach’s services, so Washington State will have to move fast if it wants to make him the next head coach.
Robin Pflugrad, head coach Montana – The last three coaches at Montana (Mick Dennehy, Joe Glenn and Bobby Hauck) have moved on to take a job in the FBS ranks. Will Pflugrad make it four? In two years as the Grizzlies’ head coach, he has recorded a 16-6 record and a trip to the FCS playoffs this season. Pflugrad is familiar with Moos, working at Oregon from 2006-08. He also has stops as an assistant at Arizona State and Washington State. Pflugrad does not appear to be a leading candidate in Pullman, but has a solid resume and could be on the radar for future hires on the West Coast.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin has plenty of suitors – Illinois, Arizona State, Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina – and it’s no surprise that the Cougars are interested. He has Houston the doorstep of making a BCS bowl this season, while leading it to a 35-16 record through four seasons. Sumlin’s offenses at Houston have been among the nation’s best, and he has worked as an assistant to Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Sumlin’s resume is solid, and he will be in high demand by several schools. Although Washington State can be a good landing spot, he may want to aim for a higher-profile job.
DeWayne Walker, head coach, New Mexico State – Walker does not fit Moos’ plan to hire an offensive coach. However, he has built a solid resume in his coaching career, making stops at Utah State, Oklahoma State, California, USC and UCLA. Walker also has NFL experience, coaching with the Patriots, Giants and Redskins. He has worked as New Mexico State’s head coach for the last three years. While a 9-29 record with the Aggies may not be impressive on the surface, they have improved considerably since his arrival and has a 4-8 record entering the final week of the regular season.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Tennessee – While Moos is targeting offensive-minded coaches, Wilcox would be an interesting fit in Pullman. He is a highly regarded coordinator, and has done a good job in two seasons at Tennessee, despite not having a full cupboard to work with. Wilcox coached at Boise State from 2006-09 and at California from 2003-05, so he's certainly familiar with the Pac-12.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Ohio State is coming off its worst season since 1999, finishing with a 6-6 record and not earning at least a share of the conference title for the first time since 2004. While the 2011 season had plenty of drama and a disappointing record, the Buckeyes won’t be down for long.
Just how soon can Ohio State fans start to think about a trip to the Big Ten title game? Try 2012.
With Urban Meyer taking over as the coach in Columbus, Ohio State will be in the Big Ten title game in 2012. Predictions are always subject to change over the next couple of months, but the Buckeyes should be the early favorite to win the Big Ten in 2012.
Here are five reasons why Ohio State will win the Big Ten in 2012
1. Urban Meyer is a proven winner – Big Ten championships are expected at Ohio State. Under Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes had seven seasons of at least 10 victories and played in eight BCS games. The bar is set high, but that won’t be a problem for Meyer. In six seasons at Florida, he won at least eight games every year, including three 13-win campaigns. The Gators made three BCS games in his tenure. Meyer also led Utah to a 12-0 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2004. Every program is going to have its ups and downs, so an eight or nine-win season will happen. However, Meyer has proven he is a national championship coach and a year off has charged the batteries for another run at a title.
2. Braxton Miller – In his opening press conference, Meyer did nothing to hide his excitement about Miller’s potential in 2012. Meyer has developed some solid quarterbacks in his career – Josh Harris at Bowling Green, Alex Smith at Utah, Tim Tebow at Florida – so Miller is in good company. He is a perfect fit for Meyer’s spread offense, possessing the mobility needed to execute the scheme, and figures to only get better as a passer this spring. Miller finished the 2011 regular season with 997 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, while adding 695 yards and seven scores on the ground. After a stellar freshman season, Miller has an enormous amount of potential and could develop into the Big Ten’s top quarterback next season.
3. The 2012 schedule – It’s not overwhelmingly easy, but it’s favorable enough to only expect one or two losses. The Buckeyes should sweep their non-conference slate – Miami (Ohio), UCF, California and UAB. In Big Ten play, Ohio State hosts Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan, while making road trips to Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin. Playing at Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin won’t be easy, but when you break down each opponent, it looks favorable. The Spartans will have one of the conference’s best defenses next season, but have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Nittany Lions are arguably the biggest mystery, as they will likely have a new coach and still need more offensive production. The Badgers lose quarterback Russell Wilson and may have to replace running back Montee Ball. Considering the question marks surrounding the road games, Michigan should be Ohio State’s toughest opponent next year.
4. The Big Ten’s Best Defense? – Despite returning only four starters this year, the Buckeyes finished in the top 30 in scoring, total and pass defense. While the 2011 Ohio State defense wasn't as dominant as some of the previous versions, there’s plenty to like next season. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the draft, which would be a big blow to the defense if he leaves. However, assuming Simon returns, Ohio State will have nine returning starters, including a secondary that should be among the best in the Big Ten. Meyer has yet to pick a defensive coordinator, but whoever gets the job is inheriting a talented group with lots of upside.
5. Young Talent Ready to Emerge – While Miller is going to get most of the offseason spotlight, there is a handful of other young players ready to step up next season. Freshman Devin Smith led the team with 247 receiving yards, while sophomore Carlos Hyde rushed for 549 yards and six scores. Freshmen Curtis Grant (LB), Michael Bennett (DL), Doran Grant (DB), Ken Hayes (DL), Steve Miller (DL) and Ryan Shazier (LB) were all part of one of the nation’s top 2011 recruiting classes and each received some playing time this year. With an opportunity to get a full round of practices this offseason, each should make a bigger contribution next season. The Buckeyes’ 2012 recruiting class is ranked by most experts outside of the top 15, but that will change before signing day. Meyer was a terrific recruiter at Florida and his connections to the Sunshine State can only help Ohio State’s recruiting efforts there. It’s difficult to bank on freshmen making an immediate impact, but the Buckeyes will land some prospects that can help right away, especially with depth on the offensive line and at running back.
Anytime there is a coaching change, there is always the potential for a transition period. The Buckeyes will have their rough moments during the switch from Fickell to Meyer, but it should not be as drastic as some programs have experienced.
What could keep Ohio State from winning a Big Ten title next year? The first concern is obviously the NCAA and any bowl ban that is handed down from a recent investigation. And the other involves personnel. The Buckeyes have some key losses on the offensive line, including center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.
While there are few personnel concerns surrounding this team next season, the Buckeyes are probably a year away from contending for the national title.
There’s plenty of time to revise and study predictions for 2012, but considering the returning personnel and Meyer’s arrival in Columbus, Ohio State is the early favorite to claim the Big Ten title.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After four seasons, UCLA has announced Rick Neuheisel’s tenure will end after the Pac-12 Championship. Neuheisel came to Los Angeles with a lot of promise, but never got the Bruins into conference title contention. The Bruins were 21-28 under Neuheisel and made just one bowl appearance.
Who will replace Rick Neuheisel at UCLA?
Gary Andersen, head coach, Utah State – If UCLA wants to target an up-and-coming coach, Andersen would be the perfect fit. During his tenure at Utah State, the Aggies have recorded a 14-21 record. While that may not seem impressive, the program has turned a corner this year, earning its first bowl game since 1997 this season. He also has coaching stops at Northern Arizona, Utah and Southern Utah.
Mike Bellotti, former Oregon head coach – Bellotti had a very successful run as Oregon’s head coach from 1995-08, recording a 137-80-2 record. He also led the Ducks to 12 bowl games, including a Fiesta Bowl win over Colorado in 2001. Bellotti is a California native, playing at UC Davis from 1970-72 and working at Chico State from 1984-88. The only downside to Bellotti is his age – he will be 61 when the 2012 season starts. If he wants to get back into coaching, UCLA would be a good fit.
Art Briles, head coach, Baylor – Briles has spent his entire coaching career in Texas, so it would be a surprise to see him leave. However, UCLA is a better job than Baylor and he may be ready for a new challenge after leading the Bears to a 23-25 record over the last four seasons. Before coming to Baylor, Briles compiled a 34-28 record in five seasons at Houston. It’s a longshot that Briles would leave coaching in Texas, but he’s a successful coach and someone UCLA should at least inquire about his interest.
Tom Cable, offensive line coach, Seattle Seahawks – Cable is certainly familiar with UCLA, serving as its offensive coordinator from 2004-05. He also has stops as an assistant at Idaho, UNLV and California. Cable has worked in the NFL since 2006, including a stint as the Oakland Raiders head coach (17-27). While Cable has a solid resume, his four-year run as Idaho’s head coach was awful. The Vandals went 5-6 in his first year and only won five games in the remaining three seasons. Winning at Idaho is no easy task, but Cable's record is cause for concern. It would be a surprise if Cable got the full-time job at UCLA.
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – While Houston’s Kevin Sumlin and Southern Mississippi’s Larry Fedora have gotten the most attention from the non-BCS ranks, keep a close eye on Christensen. He played at Washington from 1980-82 and served under Don James as the offensive line coach in 1988. Christensen coordinated Missouri’s offense from 1997-08, before taking the head coaching gig at Wyoming. In three seasons, he has recorded a 17-19 record and a bowl appearance in 2009. Christensen has done a good job of getting results with young quarterbacks at Wyoming, and the Bruins need a jumpstart on offense.
Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst would not be a flashy hire, but has a strong resume and is regarded as one of the top assistants in college football. The Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense over the last three seasons and finished among the top two in the conference in rushing over the last five years. Chryst has coaching stops with the San Diego Chargers and as Oregon State’s offensive coordinator, but is a Wisconsin alum, so pulling him away from Madison won’t be easy. The only downside to Chryst is no head coaching experience.
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Texas – Diaz is a rising star in the assistant coaching ranks and is ready for his first head coaching gig. He has made stops at MTSU, NC State, Mississippi State before joining Texas as its defensive coordinator this year. The Longhorns enter the final week of regular season play ranked ninth nationally in total defense and are allowing only 21 points a game. Diaz does not have any ties to the West Coast, but is young, energetic and a good recruiter.
Sonny Dykes, head coach, Louisiana Tech – Dykes has done a good job in just two seasons at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record and WAC title this year. He also has experience coaching in the Pac-12, spending 2007-09 as Mike Stoops’ offensive coordinator at Arizona. Dykes has only two years of head coaching experience, but his resume is solid and has a good background working as an assistant. He is also an offensive guru, something that is needed at UCLA after finishing 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense this season.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – Jones is a name that has been popping up this season for open jobs, including North Carolina and Illinois. With the Big East facing an uncertain future, Jones could be looking to land a job with more stability. He does not have any experience coaching west of Michigan, but has a 39-24 record in five seasons as a head coach. Although Jones seems like an odd fit at UCLA, his track record as a proven winner has to be attractive for a program that needs to get this hire right.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – Jones has resurrected two programs – Hawaii and SMU. Is it time to consider a BCS job? Jones took a Hawaii team that won five games in three seasons prior to arrival to post 12 victories in the next two. He also led SMU to back-to-back bowl games (2009-10) for the first time since 1983-84. He has NFL experience, working with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones is regarded as one of college football’s top offensive minds and will implement a high-powered passing attack if hired.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – There have been mixed signals on whether or not Leach is a candidate at UCLA. However, he is someone the Bruins have to seriously consider. Although there is plenty of baggage from the end of his tenure at Texas Tech, Leach recorded an 84-43 record with 10 bowl appearances. Although most of Leach’s coaching experience has been in the Midwest, he was born in Susanville, Calif.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – It seems Petersen will be mentioned with every BCS job opening. However, it would take a lot for him to leave Boise – and it’s an extreme longshot he would leave for UCLA.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Arizona State, Kansas, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Illinois and now UCLA. That’s the list of expected suitors for Sumlin this offseason. Needless to say - assuming he wants to leave Houston - Sumlin will have his choice of jobs. During his four seasons with the Cougars, Sumlin has compiled a 35-16 record and has the them in the hunt for an-large spot in the BCS with a win over Southern Miss. He also has a strong resume as an assistant, working under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Joe Tiller at Purdue.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart inherited a difficult situation at Western Kentucky, with the Hilltoppers winning only two games in the two seasons prior to his arrival. After finishing 2-10 in his first year, Western Kentucky finished 2011 with a 7-5 record and is in the mix for its first bowl appearance. He has some experience coaching on the West Coast, working under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09. Taggart is not a big name, but has done a good job at a difficult place to win. And it’s only a matter of time before he gets a shot at a BCS job.
DeWayne Walker, head coach, New Mexico State – Walker is a name most UCLA fans are probably very familiar with. He worked under Karl Dorrell from 2006-08 and served as the interim coach in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2007. Walker took a difficult job at New Mexico State, but the Aggies have made steady progress, posting a 4-8 record with one game remaining this year. He has built a strong resume as an assistant, spending time at Oklahoma State, California, USC and in the NFL with the Patriots, Giants and Redskins. Walker may not be the flashiest of hires, but is a solid coach with familiarity with the program.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Arizona State was widely considered the favorite to represent the South Division in the first Pac-12 title game. With USC ineligible for the conference championship, the Sun Devils had an open path and got off to a solid 6-2 start. However, the wheels fell off in November. Arizona State finished with four consecutive losses, including disappointing efforts against Washington State and Arizona. The collapse cost Dennis Erickson his job after five seasons in Tempe. Erickson recorded a 31-30 record, and he was never able to capitalize off a 10-3 record in 2007.
Who will replace Dennis Erickson at Arizona State in 2012?
Gary Andersen, head coach, Utah State – Andersen is an under-the-radar name to watch in Arizona State’s coaching search. In three years at Utah State, he has recorded a 14-21 record. The Aggies enter the final week of the regular season with a 6-5 record and have already accepted a bowl bid. Andersen also worked at Utah under Urban Meyer (2004) and Kyle Whittingham from 2005-08. While the overall record is not overly impressive, it's clear Utah State has turned a corner under Andersen.
Mike Bellotti, former Oregon head coach – Although Bellotti seems to be interested in making a return to the sidelines, it may be a longshot to see him in Tempe. After canning Dennis Erickson, Arizona State may be looking to get younger. Bellotti will be 61 when the 2012 season starts and seems unlikely to coach for more than 10 seasons. It's not out of the question Bellotti could end up at Arizona State, but he has a better chance to land the job at UCLA.
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – Christensen is building a solid resume through three seasons at Wyoming. The Cowboys have a 17-19 record in his tenure, but made a bowl trip in 2009 and will likely do so once again this year. He also has experience as an assistant under Gary Pinkel at Missouri, and is familiar with the Pac-10 (now Pac-12), thanks to playing at Washington under Don James from 1980-82.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – While English has cut his teeth as an assistant in the Big Ten and as a defensive coordinator for Lloyd Carr at Michigan, his roots are on the West Coast. He played at California from 1987-90 and coached as an assistant at Northern Arizona, San Diego State and Arizona State. English has an 8-28 record in Ypsilanti, but winning at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. He led the Eagles to a 6-6 record this year, which is just their second season of at least six victories since 1988. Considering his familiarity with the program, English has to be near the top of Arizona State’s wish list.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – If Fedora wants to leave Southern Miss, he is going to have plenty of options. His name has already been mentioned at Ole Miss, North Carolina and Illinois. In four seasons at Southern Miss, Fedora has recorded a 32-19 record and one division title (2011). He has a solid resume as an assistant, spending time at Florida and Oklahoma State. Although Fedora will likely take a BCS job this year, he does not have any coaching experience in the Pac-12. It seems more likely Fedora will land at Ole Miss or Illinois, but Arizona State would be a good landing spot for an offense-first head coach.
Mark Helfrich, offensive coordinator, Oregon – Helfrich is an unknown on the national radar, but is someone that is going to get more consideration for head coaching jobs that open on the West Coast. He worked as an assistant at Boise State from 1998-00, Arizona State from 2001-05, Colorado from 2006-08 and at Oregon since 2009. Helfrich is only 37 years old, but would fit with Arizona State’s plan to likely hire a younger coach after parting ways with Dennis Erickson. A downside to Helfrich is that he has no head coaching experience.
June Jones, head coach, SMU – After turning around Hawaii and SMU, Jones could be ready for a challenge at a BCS school. He has a 99-69 record in 13 seasons as a college head coach, while also making stops in the NFL with the Oilers, Lions, Falcons and Chargers. Jones is known for his high-powered offenses, which would fit well with the current personnel in Tempe. However, his salary at SMU is very competitive for a non-BCS school. Jones is a proven winner and would be a great hire for Arizona State. But is he ready to leave SMU?
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – Just like Kevin Sumlin and Larry Fedora, Leach’s name has popped up for several vacant coaching positions this season. Although his exit from Texas Tech has left him with some baggage, Leach would be a strong hire at Arizona State. Considering the returning offensive personnel next season, his Air Raid offense would be a great fit in Tempe. Most of Leach’s coaching experience has been in the Midwest, but he was born in California and spent one season as an assistant at Cal Poly.
Noel Mazzone, offensive coordinator, Arizona State – The Sun Devils may not have to look far for their next head coach. Mazzone is a well-traveled assistant, spending time at Colorado State, TCU, Minnesota, Ole Miss, Auburn, Oregon State, NC State and in the NFL with the Jets. He became Arizona State’s offensive coordinator in 2010, directing the offense to an average of 33.1 points a game over the last two years. Mazzone does not have any head coaching experience, which could hurt his chances of landing the full-time job in Tempe.
Randy Shannon, former Miami head coach – Shannon was fired after working as Miami’s head coach from 2007-10. During his tenure with the Hurricanes, he recorded a 28-22 record and led the team to three bowl appearances. Although his on-field success at Miami was limited, Shannon was praised for his team’s graduation rates and eliminating off-the-field incidents. While it may seem like an odd fit, reports out of Miami have indicated Shannon would be interested in a coaching position in Arizona. Shannon will likely land another coaching gig this offseason, but it’s a longshot he is coaching on the sidelines in Tempe next year.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – With every BCS job that opens, it’s a safe bet Sumlin is going to be mentioned. He has a 35-16 record in four seasons at Houston and a chance to earn a BCS bowl trip with a win over Southern Miss. In addition to his current position, Sumlin made stops as an assistant at Purdue, Minnesota, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. There are few (if any) holes in Sumlin’s resume and he will be one of the most-sought after coaches on the market this offseason. He is believed to be near the top of Arizona State’s wish list, but it will have competition from Kansas, Illinois, North Carolina and Ole Miss.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, Tennessee – Wilcox has made a quick rise through the coaching ranks over the last 10 years. He worked under Jeff Tedford as California’s linebacker coach from 2003-2005, before jumping to become Boise State’s defensive coordinator from 2006-09. Wilcox left the West Coast to become Derek Dooley’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee before the 2010 season. The Volunteers struggled on defense last year, finishing 69th nationally in total defense. However, Tennessee finished 2011 ranked 28th nationally in total defense and allowed 22.6 points a game. Wilcox played at Oregon, so he is familiar with the Pac-12. He has no head coaching experience, but is due for a shot in the next few seasons.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After just two seasons at Kansas, Turner Gill was fired on Sunday. Gill’s record through two years was an awful 5-19, winning only one Big 12 game. Although the Jayhawks began this season with a 2-0 record, they lost 10 straight to close the year and only two of those defeats were by less than 10 points.
Who will replace Gill as Kansas’ next head coach?
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman might be more inclined to wait for a job in the Big Ten, but has been a solid coach at Toledo through three seasons (21-16). The Rockets fell just a victory short of winning the MAC West this year. He has Big 12 coaching experience, working under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State from 2007-08. Would the Jayhawks go to the MAC again after Gill’s failed stint at Kansas?
Dave Christensen, head coach, Wyoming – Christensen is a name that Kansas' fans are certainly familiar with, as he worked at Missouri under Gary Pinkel from 1997-08. He has served as Wyoming’s head coach for the last three seasons, leading the Cowboys to a 17-19 record during that span. Wyoming played in a bowl in 2009 and will likely make a postseason trip this year. Christensen is known for his offenses and has done a good job at Wyoming, especially working with inexperienced quarterbacks.
Manny Diaz, defensive coordinator, Texas – Diaz has made a quick climb up the coaching ladder. He started his career as a graduate assistant at Florida State in 1998, before jumping to NC State in 2000. Diaz later became MTSU’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and took the same position at Mississippi State in 2010, before leaving after one year to coach at Texas. Diaz is a high-energy coach and one of the nation’s top defensive minds. Considering the struggles of Kansas’ defense this year, Diaz would be someone who can immediately help on that side of the ball. The only drawback? No head coaching experience.
Sonny Dykes, head coach, Louisiana Tech – Dykes has quietly done a good job at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to an 8-4 record and a WAC title this season. He has just two years of head coaching experience, but a solid resume as an assistant at Arizona, Texas Tech and Kentucky. His father (Spike) was the head coach at Texas Tech from 1986-99 and led the Red Raiders to an 82-67-1 record. If Kansas doesn’t want to go after Mike Leach, why not one of his disciples from Texas Tech?
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Just like Houston’s Kevin Sumlin, Fedora is going to be mentioned for nearly every BCS job that comes open this offseason. In four seasons at Southern Miss, he has recorded a 32-19 record and led the Golden Eagles to a Conference USA East Division title this year. Fedora spent time as an assistant at Florida and Oklahoma State, so he is certainly familiar with what it takes to win at the BCS level. Considering Fedora could be in the mix at Illinois, North Carolina and Ole Miss, Kansas is going to have competition for his services.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – Considering what transpired at Texas Tech, Leach certainly comes with some baggage. However, his results on the field are impressive. In 10 years with the Red Raiders, he recorded an 84-43 record and 10 bowl appearances. Kansas has not made a bowl appearance since 2008, so the program needs a shot in the arm. Leach’s high-powered offenses would be entertaining, but would need a year or two to build personnel if he takes over at Kansas. He is expected to be in the mix for coaching jobs at Arizona State and Illinois.
Jim Leavitt, former South Florida head coach – Leavitt had a messy exit from South Florida in 2009, when he was fired after an investigation into allegations about his treatment of a player during halftime of a game against Louisville. While his exit was not ideal, Leavitt built the South Florida program from scratch, turning it into a consistent bowl team. The Bulls made a bowl every year from 2005-09, but never finished higher than third in the conference. Leavitt played at Missouri and coached at Kansas State from 1990-95, so he’s certainly familiar with the Big 12. Like Leach, Leavitt has some baggage, but has produced solid results on the field.
Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida State – Stoops is one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks. He joined the Seminoles in 2009 as the defensive coordinator, with previous stops as an assistant at Arizona, Miami, Houston, Wyoming and South Florida. Florida State’s defense has shown big progress in two seasons since Stoops took over, with the Seminoles finishing in the top 20 of scoring defense both times. He does not have any head coaching experience, but has developed a strong resume as an assistant. A longshot, but Stoops is a coach that is going to get a shot at a BCS job in the near future.
Mike Stoops, former Arizona head coach – Stoops was fired at Arizona midway through this season. He posted a 41-49 record through eight seasons in Tucson, including three consecutive bowl trips. Stoops left Arizona in a much better position than he inherited it, but was unable to turn it into a contender in the Pac-10 (and now Pac-12). He is very familiar with coaching in the Big 12, thanks to stops at Kansas State (1992-98) and Oklahoma (1999-03). Stoops is a longshot, but considering his familiarity with the Big 12, is someone to watch during the search.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin is one of the hottest names in coaching searches this season. He has been mentioned as a candidate for Ole Miss, Arizona State, North Carolina and Illinois. In four years with Houston, Sumlin has a 35-16 record, and has the Cougars on the doorstep of their first appearance in the BCS. He also has a solid resume, spending time as an assistant at Minnesota, Purdue, Texas A&M and under Bob Stops at Oklahoma. Sumlin will have his choice of jobs this offseason, so the Jayhawks will have to move quick if he is their No. 1 target.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top assistants in college football since joining Bob Stoops at Oklahoma in 1999. He has worked as the Sooners’ defensive coordinator and associate head coach during his time in Norman. Venables is a Kansas native and coached at Kansas State from 1993-98. He is certainly due for a shot at a BCS school, but could be sought for the Illinois, Arizona State or Ole Miss jobs. Needless to say, Venables can be very selective with his decision on where to become a head coach.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Post-Week 13 Big East Power Rankings
Check out all of our college football rankings.
1. West Virginia (8-3) – Thanks to conference realignment, Friday night’s Backyard Brawl might be the last one for a couple of years. What a shame if that’s the case. The Mountaineers rallied from a 14-0 hole to knock off Pittsburgh 21-20, moving their record to 8-3 this season. The offensive line has been a sore spot all year for West Virginia and was an issue against the Panthers, as quarterback Geno Smith was sacked four times and threw for only 244 yards. However, the rushing attack came alive in the second half, and the defense sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri 10 times. The Mountaineers close out their regular season with a date at South Florida on Thursday night. If West Virginia wins on Thursday, along with a Cincinnati victory against Connecticut, the Mountaineers will claim the Big East's BCS spot.
2. Cincinnati (8-3) – The Bearcats kept alive their Big East title hopes, defeating Syracuse 30-13 for their eighth win of the season. After quarterback Munchie Legaux struggled against Rutgers, coach Butch Jones opened up the quarterback competition and gave Jordan Luallen some playing time against the Orange. Luallen gave the offense a spark, rushing for 77 yards on eight carries and completing two of three passes. Cincinnati closes out its regular season with a home date against Connecticut. If the Bearcats win and West Virginia loses to South Florida, they will represent the Big East in the BCS.
3. Louisville (7-5) – After a 2-4 start, not many expected the Cardinals to be in position to play in a BCS game. How things have changed since mid-October. Louisville knocked off South Florida 34-24 on Friday, giving it five wins in its last six games. Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had an outstanding performance against the Bulls, completing 19 of 28 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns. The Cardinals’ defense also delivered, limiting South Florida to 64 rushing yards and forcing three turnovers. Louisville has finished its regular season, but will have to wait until next Saturday to see if it will represent the Big East in the BCS.
4. Rutgers (8-4) – Winning the turnover battle has been a critical staple for the Scarlet Knights’ success this year. However, that wasn’t the case on Saturday against Connecticut. Rutgers committed seven turnovers against the Huskies and suffered his worst defeat of the year (40-22). The loss to Connecticut ended any hopes the Scarlet Knights had of representing the Big East in the BCS. Rutgers has finished its regular season and will now wait for its postseason destination, likely the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City on Dec. 30.
5. Pittsburgh (5-6) – The Panthers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but West Virginia staged a furious second-half rally to win the Backyard Brawl 21-20. Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered in the final two quarters, largely due to an offensive line that was manhandled by a relentless pass rush by the Mountaineers. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was sacked 10 times, with four coming on the final drive. With the loss to West Virginia, the Panthers were eliminated from the Big East title race. And with one game remaining, Pittsburgh has to focus on getting bowl eligible. Syracuse visits Heinz Field next Saturday in the regular season finale.
6. South Florida (5-6) – With one game left, the Bulls have their backs against the wall. After a 4-0 start, South Florida is in danger of missing out on the postseason. The Bulls had a chance to get bowl eligible on Saturday, but watched an early lead evaporate for a 34-24 loss to Louisville. Quarterback B.J. Daniels was sidelined with a shoulder injury, but replacement Bobby Eveld was solid in relief, completing 20 of 35 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown. However, the Bulls were unable to get their rushing attack going, and the offense committed three turnovers. South Florida will have one more shot to get bowl eligible, hosting West Virginia on Thursday night.
7. Connecticut (5-6) – An interesting trend has developed for the Huskies over the last five weeks. Connecticut has alternated wins and losses during that span, capped by a surprising 40-22 victory over Rutgers on Saturday. The Huskies managed only 290 yards of offense, but the defense forced seven turnovers and sacked Scarlet Knight quarterbacks six times. Connecticut’s regular season will conclude next Saturday at Cincinnati. The Huskies need a win to get bowl eligible, while the Bearcats will be playing for a shot at the Big East title.
8. Syracuse (5-6) – After last season’s 8-5, all signs pointed to the Orange going in the right direction. However, thanks to a 30-13 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday, Syracuse still needs one win to get bowl eligible. Since pulling a 49-23 upset over West Virginia, the Orange has lost four straight. The culprit for the struggles this season rests with both sides of the ball. The offense ranks near the bottom of the Big East in rushing, while the defense is giving up almost 30 points a game. If Syracuse wants to salvage this season, getting a victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday would keep alive the possibility of back-to-back winning seasons.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Ron Zook era had a few highlights, but his seven-year tenure at Illinois was mostly met with mixed results. During Zook’s watch, the Fighting Illini played in the 2008 Rose Bowl, but followed that up with a disappointing 5-7 season. Illinois showed improvement last season, finishing with a 7-6 record and a Texas Bowl win over Baylor. And things were looking up after a 6-0 start this year. However, the Fighting Illini lost six in a row, including a disappointing showing in the finale against Minnesota.
Who might replace Zook at Illinois?
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman is a rising star in the non-BCS ranks, leading Toledo to a 21-16 record over the last three seasons. The Rockets fell just short of winning the MAC West title this year, but have earned a bowl trip for the second season in a row. Beckman also has coaching stops as an assistant at Bowling Green, Ohio State and Oklahoma State.
Paul Chyrst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst has quietly become one of the top assistants in college football. Under his direction, the Badgers have led the Big Ten in scoring offense for three consecutive seasons. Before joining Wisconsin as the offensive coordinator in 2005, he coached at Oregon State from 2003-04 and with the San Diego Chargers from 1999-01. However, he does not have any head coaching experience. Chryst graduated from Wisconsin in 1988, so pulling him away from Madison won’t be easy.
Dave Doeren, head coach, Northern Illinois – Doeren has only been a head coach for one season, but the results are impressive. The Huskies finished the regular season with a 9-3 record and a spot in the MAC title game against Ohio. He has Big Ten coaching experience, working at Wisconsin from 2006-10. Doeren is probably a longshot considering his overall limited head coaching experience. However, he appears to be a name to watch for BCS coaching searches in the next few years.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – Coaching in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. English has made steady improvements, starting 2-22 through his first two years, but leading the Eagles to a 6-6 record in 2011. While six wins may not seem like much, before this season’s record, Eastern Michigan had only two seasons of at least six victories since 1988. English has Big Ten coaching experience, working under Lloyd Carr at Michigan from 2003-07. He may not be the flashiest name, but he’s a no-nonsense coach and someone who can get results at a bigger program.
Larry Fedora, head coach, Southern Miss – Fedora’s name has popped up in a couple of coaching searches – Ole Miss, North Carolina, Arizona State and Kansas – and probably won’t be at Southern Miss next season. If this is Illinois’ target, it will have to move fast. Fedora has led the Golden Eagles to a 32-19 record in four seasons and a Conference USA East title this year. Before coming to Southern Miss, he coached at Florida and Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator. Fedora does not have any Big Ten coaching experience, but has built a strong resume from his time with the Golden Eagles.
Hugh Freeze, head coach, Arkansas State – Just like Fedora and Hudspeth, Freeze is going to be a hot commodity this offseason. In one year as Arkansas State’s head coach, Freeze led the Red Wolves to a 9-2 record and a shot at the outright Sun Belt title. He worked as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2005-07 and went 20-5 in two seasons as the head coach at Lambuth. Freeze is regarded as a great recruiter, but does not have any experience in the Big Ten. He is also expected to be targeted by Memphis and Ole Miss to fill its vacancies this offseason.
Mark Hudspeth, head coach, UL Lafayette – Hudspeth has had a quick rise through the coaching ranks over the last few seasons. He was the head coach at North Alabama from 2002-08, leading it to a 66-21 record and four playoff appearances. Hudspeth worked under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State from 2009-10 and took over the head coaching spot at UL Lafayette this year, leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to an 8-4 record and a berth in the New Orleans Bowl. Hudspeth is expected to be in the mix at Ole Miss, so Illinois will have competition if it is interested.
Butch Jones, head coach, Cincinnati – With the uncertainty surrounding the Big East, Jones could be looking to land with a job with more stability. Before an injury to quarterback Zach Collaros this year, the Bearcats were in complete control of the conference and an automatic spot into a BCS bowl. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas hired Jones from Central Michigan to Cincinnati, so there is certainly plenty of familiarity between these two.
Mike Leach, former Texas Tech head coach – There’s some baggage with Leach, but he’s a proven winner. During his 10 seasons at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders recorded an 84-43 record and made 10 bowl appearances. Leach’s offense wouldn’t fit well with the current personnel at Illinois, but would be a difficult matchup once he gets the right pieces in place. Leach is also expected to be targeted by Arizona State and Kansas for its openings.
Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator, Alabama – Nick Saban assistants have not fared tremendously well – Derek Dooley, Tennessee, Will Muschamp, Florida and Jimbo Fisher, Florida State – but McElwain should get consideration in coaching searches. He has done a good job during his tenure with Alabama, helping to coordinate the Crimson Tide’s offense over the last four seasons. Despite having a first-year starter at quarterback, Alabama finished third in the SEC in scoring offense this season. And the Crimson Tide won the national title with a first-year starter in 2009. McElwain has never been a head coach, but is a proven coordinator with some NFL experience – 2006 with the Oakland Raiders.
Garrick McGee, offensive coordinator, Arkansas – While Bobby Petrino calls the plays, McGee is a highly-regarded assistant. He nearly landed the job at Tulsa last offseason, but withdrew his name from consideration. McGee has also made stops at Northwestern, Toledo and UNLV. He is a longshot to earn the job, but is someone that is due for a shot as a head coach.
Paul Rhoads, head coach, Iowa State – Rhoads has arguably one of the toughest jobs in the Big 12 at Iowa State. However, he has led the Cyclones to an 18-18 record in three years and will likely make a bowl trip this season. Before taking the job in Ames, Rhoads coached as the defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Auburn. He also spent one season as a graduate assistant at Ohio State (1991). Rhoads wouldn’t be the flashiest of hires, but is a proven winner and his results at Iowa State are impressive.
Kevin Sumlin, head coach, Houston – Sumlin has done a terrific job in four years at Houston, leading the Cougars to an undefeated 2011 regular season and two previous bowl appearances in 2008-09. Despite his recent ties to Texas and Oklahoma, Sumlin actually has a Big Ten background. He played at Purdue from 1983-86 and coached in the Big Ten at Minnesota from 1993-97 and at Purdue from 1998-00. In addition to his Big Ten ties, Sumlin coached under Bob Stoops from 2003-07 at Oklahoma. There are few (if any) holes in Sumlin’s resume, and he will be one of the most-sought after coaches this offseason.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart inherited a difficult situation at Western Kentucky, a program that had only won two games in the two years prior to his arrival. After a 2-10 record in his first season, Taggart led the Hilltoppers to a 7-5 record and a likely bowl appearance this year. He does not have any experience coaching in the Big Ten, but coached under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top assistants in the nation. He does not have any head coaching experience, but has worked under two of the best in college football: Bill Snyder (Kansas State) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma). While Venables is likely to come up in this search, he could be more interested in the opening at Kansas.
Kirby Wilson, running backs coach, Pittsburgh Steelers – Wilson is a wildcard to watch in the coaching search. He played at Illinois from 1980-81, but has no head coaching experience. Wilson has spent a majority of his career in the NFL, with his last collegiate experience coming in 2001 as an assistant at USC. Although Wilson is a former Illinois player, not having head coaching experience could hurt his chances of landing the job.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Post-Week 13 Big 12 Power Rankings
Check out all of our college football rankings.
1. Oklahoma State (10-1) – The Cowboys had a bye on Saturday and return to action against rival Oklahoma this week. The off week came at a good time for Oklahoma State, especially after the Nov. 18 loss to Iowa State. Although the Cowboys’ national title hopes are likely over, there is still plenty to play for. With a win over the Sooners, Oklahoma State will clinch a BCS bid – the first in program history. A loss to Oklahoma would likely send the Cowboys to the Cotton Bowl.
2. Oklahoma (9-2) – It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sooners, but they found a way to earn a 26-6 victory over Iowa State. Losing receiver Ryan Broyles has clearly had an effect on the offense. Jaz Reynolds also missed Saturday’s game due to a suspension, leaving Dejuan Miller and Kenny Stills as the team’s top two receivers. Quarterback Landry Jones has not thrown a touchdown pass in the last two games, while tossing three picks. Oklahoma will have a chance to win the Big 12 crown next week, as it travels to Stillwater to take on rival Oklahoma State. Despite the personnel losses on offense, the Sooners won’t be an easy out for the Cowboys.
3. Kansas State (9-2) – Although a bye week before the last game of the season isn’t ideal, it probably came at a good time for the Wildcats. Quarterback Collin Klein has been banged up and practiced little over the last two weeks. However, the down time should give the junior quarterback time to heal and return 100 percent for the finale against Iowa State. Kansas State is still in the mix for a BCS bowl, but is likely ticketed for the Cotton or Alamo Bowl.
4. Baylor (8-3) – No Robert Griffin? No problem. Griffin was knocked out of the game late in the first half with a concussion, forcing Nick Florence to end his redshirt season for the second half against Texas Tech. Florence completed 9 of 12 throws for 160 yards and two scores, leading the Bears to a 66-42 blowout win over the Red Raiders. Running back Terrance Ganaway also delivered, rushing for 257 yards and three scores on 43 attempts. Baylor has one remaining regular season game, as it hosts Texas on Saturday. If the Bears can knock off the Longhorns, they will have their first nine-win season since 1986.
5. Missouri (7-5) – The final chapter – at least for now – in the Border War goes to Missouri. The Tigers rebounded from a slow start to knock off Kansas 24-10 and close out the regular season with a 7-5 record. Saturday’s win against the Jayhawks also saw the return of coach Gary Pinkel to the sideline after a one-game suspension due to an off-the-field incident. Quarterback James Franklin struggled early against Kansas, but also threw for 187 yards and two touchdowns. Missouri will enter the bowl game with a three-game winning streak.
6. Texas (7-5) – Timely. That’s really the only word to describe the Longhorns’ offense in the victory over Texas A&M. With less than three minutes to go, quarterback Case McCoy led Texas into position for the winning score, and kicker Justin Tucker nailed the 40-yard field goal as time expired. The Longhorns finished with just 237 yards, but also got help from the defense with four forced turnovers, including one that was return for a score in the third quarter. Texas still has a ways to go before getting back into Big 12 title contention, but 2011 was a step in the right direction.
7. Texas A&M (6-6) – A disappointing season in College Station came to a close with a heartbreaking 27-25 defeat to Texas. The Aggies took the lead with under three minutes to go, but was unable to get a stop on the Longhorns’ final drive. Running back Cyrus Gray was sidelined with a shoulder injury, but Ben Malena showed flashes of promise with 83 yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill did not have a great performance against the Longhorns, throwing for 224 yards and tossing three picks. Although it has been a disappointing year for Texas A&M, head coach Mike Sherman is expected to return in 2012, as the Aggies embark on their inaugural journey in the SEC.
8. Iowa State (6-5) – One week after beating Oklahoma State, the Cyclones were unable to build off the momentum and lost 26-6 to Oklahoma. Iowa State’s defense did a respectable job of keeping the Sooners’ offense in check with four forced turnovers, but the offense was unable to get on track. Quarterback Jared Barnett finished with only 126 passing yards, while Jeff Woody led the ground attack with 59 yards. Iowa State finishes the regular season next Saturday against Kansas State. There’s no question the Cyclones are going bowling, but a win over the Wildcats could probably improve their destination.
9. Texas Tech (5-7) – For the first time since 1992, the Red Raiders finished with a losing record. Saturday’s 66-42 defeat assured Texas Tech of a 5-7 record, along with no postseason trip. Since beating Oklahoma on Oct. 22, the Red Raiders are winless and scored more than 27 points only once. Coach Tommy Tuberville has done a good job of bringing talent into Lubbock, but it has to translate into wins next season. The offense has plenty of weapons, but the defense ranked among the worst in the nation this year.
10. Kansas (2-10) – A dismal year in Lawrence was capped by a 24-10 defeat to rival Missouri. The Jayhawks started the year 2-0, but finished the season with 10 consecutive losses and some of the defeats weren’t close. The dismal close to the year and little progress on the field cost coach Turner Gill his job. The Jayhawks have some reasons to be optimistic next year, as the team has a talented stable of running backs returning. However, the defense will have to show major improvement next year to turn Kansas into a bowl team.