Articles By Steven Lassan
by Rob Doster
BBVA Compass Bowl
SMU (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Date: Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.
The Panthers, who played in the Compass Bowl following the 2010 season as well, make the return trip to Birmingham to face June Jones' pass-oriented Mustangs. Pitt was a few breaks away from a 10-win season but instead is coming off a roller coaster ride that saw the Panthers fail to post back-to-back wins after Week 2 and included heartbreaking losses to Iowa and Notre Dame in nonconference action and Cincinnati and West Virginia in Big East play. And now, they're arriving without a head coach, as Todd Graham took the job at Arizona State (a message he relayed to his team via text). Nevertheless, the only season of the Graham era did produce some highlights, including a 21–14 win over Big East co-champ Louisville and a season-ending 33–20 win over Syracuse that clinched bowl eligibility.
The Mustangs are bowling for the third consecutive season, but they limp into Birmingham having lost four of six, three of them by significant margins. In particular, SMU struggled against C-USA's upper echelon, losing to Southern Miss, Houston and Tulsa by an average score of 34–6. The Mustangs did post a signature win — a 40–33 overtime victory over TCU — so it would be foolish to discount their chances.
WHEN PITTSBURGH HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Tino Sunseri regressed a bit during his junior season, as his TD-to-interception ratio fell from 16-9 to 10-10. The Panthers suffered a devastating loss with a knee injury to running back Ray Graham in a win over Connecticut, putting extra pressure on Sunseri and the passing game; Graham had rushed for 964 yards in eight games, an average of 120.5 yards per game. The Mustangs boast a more-than-respectable defense, although they had trouble producing turnovers, with only five interceptions all season.
WHEN SMU HAS THE BALL:
The key for the Mustangs: Protect the football. Jones' crew ranked dead last in the nation in turnover margin (-1.42) thanks to 31 giveaways, including an alarming 19 interceptions. The Mustangs live and die on the arm of quarterback J.J. McDermott, who had four 300-yard outings, including a 349-yard, four-touchdown masterpiece against TCU. McDermott also had four games with multiple interceptions, and the Mustangs were 1–3 in those games. Pitt was vulnerable against the pass, ranking 71st in the nation at 233.3 ypg, so expect the Mustangs to throw early and often.
Not much to see here. Neither team has an especially reliable kicker, nor does either cause much heartburn in the return game. SMU's Richard Crawford does rank ninth nationally in punt return average (12.67) but he did most of his damage with a 141-yard performance against UCF.
Both teams could use a boost of momentum heading into the offseason, but Todd Graham's messy departure has left a cloud over the Pittsburgh program. Expect the Mustangs to muster enough offense to outscore the Panthers.
SMU 28, Pittsburgh 24
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.
What teams will struggle to match its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Boise State – 2012 will be the Broncos’ final year in the Mountain West, before making the move to the Big East in 2013. Boise State should be picked as the preseason conference favorite, but it’s unlikely it will finish in the BCS top 10 at the end of the year. Quarterback Kellen Moore departs after a fantastic career, leaving big shoes to fill under center. Joe Southwick, Grant Hedrick, Jimmy Laughrea and incoming freshman Nick Patti will battle to replace Moore in spring practice. Running back Doug Martin also departs, but D.J. Harper is expected to get another year of eligibility after two season-ending knee injuries. The offensive line loses three seniors, including valuable left tackle Nate Potter. The defense is also hit hard by senior departures, as linemen Tyrone Crawford, Billy Winn, Chase Baker, Shea McClellin and Jarrell Root are all out of eligibility. Although the backups up front have some experience, it’s still a lot to replace. Linebackers Byron Hout and Aaron Tevis, along with defensive backs George Iloka and Cedric Febis are also out of eligibility. Although Boise State still deserves a spot in the preseason top 25, it’s going to be very difficult to repeat another top 10 finish in the BCS. Expect the Broncos to take a step back in 2012, before jumping back into the top 10-15 in 2013.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon departing, it’s going to be very difficult for the Cowboys to repeat as Big 12 champs. In addition to replacing one of the nation’s top pass-catch duos, Oklahoma State’s offense will lose All-American tackle Levy Adock and two other starters on the offensive line. The defense returns mostly intact, but ends Jamie Blatnick and Richetti Jones must be replaced, along with safety Markelle Martin. Oklahoma State’s 11 regular season wins in 2011 was its first double-digit victory total since posting 10 in 1988. The Big 12 won't get any easier next season, as Texas is expected to improve, while TCU and West Virginia are joining the conference. Coach Mike Gundy has raised the bar in Stillwater, but even though the program is in a much better position to handle the departures, the Cowboys will still take a step back in 2012.
Stanford – Just like Oklahoma State, Stanford is in a better position than it was five years ago to soften the blow of some of the defections. However, losing quarterback Andrew Luck is enough for this team to slip out of most preseason top 25 lists. The Cardinal will likely have an open competition for the job, with sophomore Brett Nottingham the early leader going into spring practice. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have to break in some new receiving targets, as tight end Coby Fleener and receiver Chris Owusu are out of eligibility. Also, the offensive line will need some work, as guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin have declared for the NFL Draft. The secondary will have to be revamped, but linebacker Shayne Skov will give the defense a boost with his return from a knee injury.
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Kansas State vs. Arkansas
Date: Jan. 6, 8:00 PM ET
Location: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
This game looks to be the most anticipated non-BCS contest of the postseason, and it quickly sold out Cowboys Stadium after the pairing of Top 10 teams was announced. Arkansas and Kansas State both went 10-2 this season, with the Razorbacks relying on a high-octane passing attack and the Wildcats riding a solid ground game and excellent turnover margin to double-digit wins. Arkansas plays in the brutal SEC West, and the two best teams in the country — Alabama and LSU — gave the Hogs their only two losses. Both of Kansas State’s defeats were also to quality teams — Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — in a rugged Big 12 schedule.
Arkansas missed the postseason in 2008, coach Bobby Petrino’s first season in Fayetteville. However the Razorbacks have rebounded with three straight January bowls, including last year’s BCS appearance in the Sugar Bowl. The former Southwest Conference member will be making its 12th Cotton Bowl appearance. K-State did not get to a bowl from 2007-09, but the Wildcats returned to the postseason last year in the Pinstripe Bowl. Bill Snyder has the rescued the program for a second time, and he will receive many Coach of the Year honors for this season’s performance. This will be the 14th bowl in KSU history, and Snyder has been the coach for 13 of those postseason games.
WHEN KANSAS STATE HAS THE BALL:
Junior quarterback Collin Klein had a breakout season in Manhattan, running for over 1,000 yards and scoring an amazing 26 touchdowns on the ground. He played wide receiver as a freshman and received some backup duty at quarterback as a sophomore. Klein became the starter this season and threw for 1,745 and 12 touchdowns along with his rushing accomplishments. Running back John Hubert added 933 yards and three scores on the ground this season. The Wildcats rushing duo accounted for 481 of the team’s 566 carries in 2011.
K-State’s leading receiver is Chris Harper, who finished with 39 catches for 536 yards and five touchdowns this season. Sophomore Tramaine Thompson was second on the team with 281 receiving yards and will serve as Wildcats’ return man. Unfortunately, productive freshman Tyler Lockett (nephew of K-State great, Aaron) was lost for the season with a lacerated kidney in the Oklahoma State game.
Arkansas struggled in rushing defense, ranking 80th in the country. Senior linebacker Jerry Franklin led the Hogs in tackles for a fourth-straight season. He totaled 93 stops this year along with 10 tackles for loss. Safety Tramain Thomas was second on the team with 87 tackles and also added five interceptions. The Arkansas defensive line must play well in this game to give Franklin and Thomas a chance to get stops against a solid K-State running game.
WHEN ARKANSAS HAS THE BALL:
Arkansas gunslinger Tyler Wilson does his damage through the air, throwing for over 3,400 yards and 22 scores this season. The junior signal caller did a solid job in his first year as a starter, and he did not have the benefit of star tailback Knile Davis running the ball. Davis had over 1,300 yards in 2010 but missed this season with a severe ankle injury. There have been rumors that he could return for the Cotton Bowl, but Davis would lose a year of eligibility in that case.
The Hogs have a highly productive receiving group, and the leader in 2011 was Jarius Wright. The senior wideout had 63 catches for 1,029 yards and 11 scores. Senior Joe Adams (630 yards) and junior Cobi Hamilton (516 yards) are also solid targets, while tight end Chris Gragg had a productive season with 40 catches for 492 yards and two scores. Arkansas used a committee approach to the running the ball with Davis out. Dennis Johnson led the way with 637 yards and three touchdowns, but Ronnie Wingo Jr. and short-yardage back Broderick Green will also get carries.
The Kansas State gave up plenty of yards this season in the high-scoring Big 12. The Wildcats did not get much pressure opposing quarterbacks, which contributed to allowing over 267 passing yards per game. Linebacker Arthur Brown blossomed after transferring (Miami) back to his home state, leading the team with 95 stops this year. Cornerback Nigel Malone also had an excellent season with 57 tackles and a Big 12-leading seven interceptions. K-State will need to cause some turnovers to slow down the Razorbacks’ attack.
Both teams are fairly solid in this critical area. Arkansas arguably has the best punt returner in the nation in Adams, who averaged a nation-leading 16.2 yards on 16 returns and took three to the end zone. The Hogs will split kick returns between Johnson and Marquel Wade, both of whom averaged over 25 yards per kick return and scored once this season. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged a stellar 45.2 yards on 49 punts, including putting 14 of them inside the 20-yard line. Sophomore kicker Zach Hocker was 18-for-24 on field goals with a long of 50 yards.
Kansas State had a top returner in the aforementioned Lockett, who averaged a whopping 35.2 yards on 16 kick returns with two touchdowns before his injury. Thompson should handle both sets of returns in this game, and he had a solid average of 13.2 yards on just nine punt returns. Junior kicker Anthony Cantele had a quality season, going 17-for-22 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. Junior Ryan Doerr averaged 40.5 yards on 59 punts, with 13 placed inside the 20-yard line.
It will be fun to watch the Arkansas aerial wizardry against Mr. Klein and K-State’s efficient rushing attack. There will be plenty of points scored as Jerry Jones watches his alma mater at Cowboys Stadium. The key to this game will be turnovers, a factor that the Wildcats have relied on heavily this year.
Wilson threw the ball over 400 times this year, but he had only six interceptions. Kansas State will challenge the Arkansas defense with Klein starring in the game, but I’ll take Wilson to lead the Razorbacks to an exciting Cotton Bowl victory.
Arkansas 37, Kansas State 31
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3)
Date: Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.
The ACC and Big East are often criticized for being the two worst BCS conferences, but the 2012 Orange Bowl should be a showcase for two of the top offenses in college football.
It’s been an up and down year for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Coming off a 6-7 record in 2010, not much was expected from the Tigers in 2011, especially with a new offensive scheme implemented. However, all of the new pieces seemed to fit and the Tigers began the year 8-0 and emerged as a threat to play for the national title. Despite the hot start, Clemson dropped three of their next four games, before rebounding to dismantle Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship.
Although Swinney has led Clemson to two ACC title game appearances under his watch, offensive coordinator Chad Morris deserves much of the credit for the success of this team in 2011. The offense finished 10th in the ACC in scoring last season, but showed dramatic improvement this year, averaging 33.6 points a game and ranking 29th nationally by averaging 440.6 yards per game.
This is Clemson’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since this system’s inception in 1998. The Tigers have three previous trips to the Orange Bowl, with the last coming in 1982 against Nebraska.
West Virginia had some offseason turmoil, as Bill Stewart was forced out in early June, prompting Dana Holgorsen to become head coach a year earlier than expected. Although the coaching transition resulted in a few uneasy moments while the situation was sorted out, most expected this would have little impact on the 2011 season. And that’s exactly how it played out. Holgorsen’s arrival helped to ignite a struggling offense, while defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel navigated some key departures to keep this defense among the best in the Big East.
Although there’s a battle in the courtroom still to play out, this appears to be West Virginia’s last season in the Big East. And if this is indeed its finale in the conference, the Mountaineers will be going out on top. After losing to Syracuse and Louisville, West Virginia’s Big East title hopes looked bleak in early November. However, a win over Cincinnati on Nov. 12 and a loss by Louisville on that same weekend vaulted the Mountaineers back into conference title contention.
The Mountaineers have claimed a share of the Big East title in three out of the last five seasons. This is West Virginia’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl and its first BCS bowl trip since the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
These two teams have met only once, with Clemson claiming a 27-7 victory in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
WHEN CLEMSON HAS THE BALL:
In addition to hiring Morris, the emergence of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins has helped to ignite this offense. The Tigers scored 30 or more points in nine games this season and led the ACC with 284.8 passing yards per game.
In his first season as the starter, Boyd threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns, which prompted his selection as the ACC’s first-team all-conference quarterback. He finished with 186 yards and five scores on the ground, but Morris would like to get a little more production from him in that department.
Watkins has emerged as one of the top receivers in college football, catching 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 scores. He has chipped in 229 yards on the ground, while also averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return. Watkins is one of the nation’s most dangerous players with the ball in his hand, and Clemson will look to get him 10-15 touches in this game.
There’s no shortage of weapons outside of Watkins, as DeAndre Hopkins caught 62 passes and tight end Dwayne Allen also chipped in 48 catches, with eight going for scores. Running back Andre Ellington is another dangerous weapon, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Mike Bellamy is the team’s top backup rusher, but he is suspended for this game, leaving Clemson with very little depth behind Ellington.
West Virginia’s defense had to break in seven new starters coming into this season, but finished 27th nationally in total defense and 31st in pass defense. The Mountaineers struggled to stop the run, finishing 51st nationally with 140.8 yards per game allowed.
West Virginia’ secondary was already under fire with Boyd and Watkins, but was dealt another blow when safety Terence Garvin was ruled out of this game due to knee surgery. He finished third on the team with 72 tackles, while adding two interceptions and recording 3.5 sacks. The Mountaineers allowed only 199.6 passing yards a game during the regular season, but that will be tested without Garvin as they try to stop Clemson’s offense.
Coordinator Jeff Casteel did a good job keeping West Virginia’s defense among the best in the Big East this year, but it will be put to the test with the question marks in the secondary. The Mountaineers have to get pressure on Boyd and not allow him to hit big plays to Watkins, Allen or Hopkins. West Virginia’s defense allowed 2.3 sacks per game, and Clemson’s offensive line allowed 2.3 a contest. Considering the Tigers’ have struggled to protect Boyd at times, the Mountaineers need to get pressure and disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. If West Virginia struggles to get after Boyd, it could be a long evening for the defense with the playmakers on the other sideline.
WHEN WEST VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:
The transition to Holgorsen’s offense hasn’t been a smooth one for the Mountaineers – but it hasn’t been a debacle either. West Virginia finished seventh nationally in passing offense, but ranked 100th in rushing offense.
Quarterback Geno Smith makes West Virginia’s offense go, throwing for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns this year. The junior attempted 483 passes and tossed only seven picks. Smith does not like to run, but can make a few plays with his legs if needed.
Smith has no shortage of talented receivers, starting with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Bailey led the team with 1,197 yards and 11 receiving scores, while Austin paced the team with 89 receptions. Ivan McCartney, Devon Brown and Tyler Urban are also solid options in the receiving corps.
Clemson’s secondary ranks 38th nationally in pass defense and has allowed 20 passing scores this year. However, the Tigers rank 56th nationally in pass efficiency defense. There’s no question Smith and his receivers are going to get their yards. However, Clemson cannot afford to let West Virginia’s passing offense consistently hit big plays downfield.
Perhaps the biggest key to slowing down West Virginia for the Tigers is winning the battle in the trenches. Clemson end Andre Branch collected 10.5 sacks in the regular season and will be one of the players to watch in this game. The Mountaineers allowed 2.2 sacks per game and if they cannot protect Smith, Clemson’s defense will take the upper hand.
In addition to struggling to protect Smith, West Virginia’s offensive line had its share of troubles opening up holes for the rushing attack. The Mountaineers shook up the front five late in the year and it’s uncertain who will start in the Orange Bowl. Regardless of which players get the call to start, this group will be under fire.
Although it isn’t crucial for this team to rush for 200 yards every game, the Mountaineers have to get some production on the ground. Dustin Garrison led the way with 742 yards, and Shawne Alston chipped in 339 yards and 10 touchdowns. Garrison suffered a knee injury in practice and won't be able to play against Clemson. Look for Alston and freshman Andrew Buie to shoulder the workload at running back.
This unit has been an adventure at times for West Virginia. Mike Molinari and Corey Smith have traded the punting job throughout the year, with Smith gaining the upper hand at the end of the season. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has connected on 16 of 22 attempts, including 3 of 4 from beyond 40 yards.
Austin is one of the top return men in college football, averaging 26.5 yards per kick return and 14.1 on punt returns. He has scored twice on kickoffs this season.
Clemson can match West Virginia on returns, as Watkins averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro connected on 20 of 25 attempts for Clemson, while punter Dawson Zimmerman averaged 38.2 yards per punt.
With two high-flying offenses, this matchup has the potential to be one of the highest-scoring games of the 2011-2012 bowl season. However, with the long layoff, it may take a quarter for both offenses to find their rhythm.
Both teams will have their moment, but Clemson’s defensive line will be able to disrupt West Virginia’s offensive timing and get after Smith in all four quarters. The Tigers also have more balance on offense, which is eventually the deciding factor.
Clemson 34, West Virginia 27
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
It's never too early to start thinking about next season, and Athlon kicked off our lookahead to 2012 with a very, very early top 25. Of course, a lot is going to change between now and when our official preseason poll is released in May, but we are taking an early glimpse of how things could look.
What teams will surpass its 2011 win total in 2012? Here are three candidates:
Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 regular season record in 2011, expect the Buckeyes to jump back into 10-win territory in 2012. Most importantly, Ohio State is not expected to have any suspensions impact the offense like it did this season. However, the Buckeyes were hit with a one-year bowl ban, so this team will be ineligible to compete for the Big Ten title. Quarterback Braxton Miller should shine in new coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense, especially with a group of young receivers getting better next year. The Buckeyes will have three key losses on the offensive line – tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, along with center Mike Brewster – but Miller’s mobility should help ease the concerns about this group. Ohio State had an uncharacteristic season on defense, finishing sixth in total and scoring in the Big Ten. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the NFL Draft, and the secondary will lose Tyler Moeller, but the rest of the defense is expected to return intact. With a lot of new faces seeing time this year, Ohio State’s defense should finish near the top of the Big Ten in 2012. Meyer is a proven winner and is putting together a terrific recruiting class in a short amount of time. With Wisconsin losing quarterback Russell Wilson and the ongoing uncertainty at Penn State, expect Ohio State to begin the year as the favorites in the Big Ten Leaders Division - without a chance to play in the conference title game.
Texas – There’s been much speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future in Austin, but all indications point to his return on the sidelines in Austin for 2012. And there’s a lot of reasons for Texas to be optimistic next season. The Longhorns made a two-win improvement from 2010 this season and a similar jump isn’t out of the question. Coordinator Bryan Harsin was brought in from Boise to jumpstart the offense, but the Longhorns finished eighth in the Big 12 in scoring. Quarterback play was an issue all year, but Case McCoy and David Ash should be better with another offseason to work with the offense. However, Texas would probably be better off by settling on one quarterback and developing the scheme around him. Expect the Longhorns to focus on the run next season, especially with four starters coming back on the offensive line, along with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. The backfield will also get a boost with incoming freshman Jonathan Gray – ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Athlon Consensus 100. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should remain one of the best units in the Big 12. There’s a lot of pressure on Mack Brown to win next season and the pieces are in place to expect nine wins.
Washington – The Huskies have made steady progress under coach Steve Sarkisian, posting back-to-back seven-win seasons. And the future looks bright for 2012. Quarterback Keith Price was solid in his first year as the starter, throwing for 2,625 yards and 29 scores, while tossing 11 picks. Price battled injuries most of the year and a full offseason to heal should allow him to be 100 percent next season. He should have no shortage of weapons in the receiving corps, as Kasen Williams and James Johnson are proven targets, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins could contend for All-American honors next season. Running back Chris Polk declared for the NFL Draft, which leaves Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey to battle for the No. 1 role in the backfield. The Huskies also have to replace the left side of their offensive line. The defense has been a sore spot under Sarkisian, and coordinator Nick Holt was canned following an after the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. If Washington wants to push Oregon for the Pac-12 North title next year, the defense has to improve. The line will lose end Everrette Thompson and tackle Alameda Ta’amu, while linebacker Cort Dennison and cornerback Quinton Richardson also depart. Even with Polk departing, the Huskies should be picked second in the Pac-12 North and could start the year in many preseason top 25 lists.
by Mark Ross
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)
Date: Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.
Michigan and Virginia Tech seem to have a lot in common. Not only do they have similar statistics when it comes to offensive and defensive production, both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks, 1,000-yard running backs, didn’t win their respective conferences and don’t deserve to be in a BCS bowl.
While the first four claims are fact, it’s the last one that’s purely opinion, and it’s an opinion that seems to be shared by the majority of college football fans and pundits alike.
Surprise is probably the best word to use in describing the reaction after Sugar Bowl officials picked No. 13 Michigan and No. 11 Virginia Tech for its Jan. 3 match up. In the process, these same officials not only bypassed two teams — No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State — that were ranked higher in the BCS standings, but also a Michigan State team that defeated the Wolverines earlier this season and was the runner-up to Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin in the Big Ten.
Regardless of your opinion of the BCS system and its flaws, this much is clear — Sugar Bowl officials wanted Michigan and Virginia Tech and that’s what they got. Now it’s up to both of these teams to seize the chance on the big stage and prove to the fans and pundits that the Sugar Bowl made the right choice.
For one, Michigan is more than happy to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. The program is enjoying a revival under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who led the Wolverines to double-digit wins for the first time since 2006.
That may not seem like a big deal to most programs, but this is Michigan we are talking about, who has the most wins (894) in college football history and had made a bowl game 33 straight years before going 3-9 in 2008 under Rich Rodriguez.
Michigan did get back to a bowl last year, its first in three seasons, but got thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed by Mississippi State in a 52-14 Gator Bowl debacle. So besides showing the nation that the football program is back among the elite, the Wolverines also want nothing more than to make last year’s poor bowl performance a distant memory.
Virginia Tech may have more than 200 less wins than Michigan, but as far as recent history goes, the Hokies arguably have more claim as one of the sport’s elite programs than the Wolverines. Virginia Tech currently has the third-longest bowl steak in the nation at 19 straight postseason appearances and has won 10 or more games eight straight seasons.
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer has the most wins among FBS active head coaches with 250. He’s just 8-10 in bowl games, however, with a 1-4 record in BCS bowls, including last year’s 40-12 disappointing showing against Stanford in the Orange Bowl.
Virginia Tech made it to the ACC Championship Game once again this year, but fell to Clemson, 38-10, to deny the Hokies a fourth ACC title in five seasons. Clemson is the only team to defeat Virginia Tech this season, as the Tigers also beat the Hokies 23-3 in Blacksburg, Va., back on Oct. 1.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:
The little engine that makes Michigan’s offense go is dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson. The junior, affectionately known as “Shoelace,” has kept opposing defenses in knots the past two seasons with both his legs and arm.
Robinson is averaging nearly 100 yards rushing a game, which ranks him 28th in the nation. His total rushing yards are down (1,163 to 1,702) compared to last year as is his yards per carry average (5.6 to 6.6), but he’s had fewer attempts (208 to 256) and scored more rushing touchdowns (16 to 14).
Robinson also has attempted fewer passes (237 to 291) to this point than last season, while throwing for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns. He’s not the most accurate passer, completing 56.1 percent of his attempts thus far, and has tossed 18 interceptions.
Even though his overall numbers are down compared to last season when he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, he is still an extremely dangerous weapon as he ranks 29th in the nation in total offense with 268.3 yards per game.
Part of the reason Robinson’s rushing attempts are down is because of the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. A sophomore, Toussaint established himself as Michigan’s lead back in the second half of the season. The first Wolverine not named Robinson to rush for 1,000 yards or more in a season since Mike Hart in 2007, Toussaint has 112 carries for 678 yards (6.1 ypc) in the past five games alone.
Robinson and Toussaint have combined to rush for 2,174 yards and 25 touchdowns. They are the main reason the Wolverines have the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack, averaging more than 235 yards on the ground alone.
Four different Wolverines have caught at least 18 passes this season led by Junior Hemmingway’s 32 receptions for 636 yards. Senior tight end Kevin Koger is the team leader in touchdown receptions with four.
Michigan’s offensive line has done a good job all season opening up running lanes and protecting Robinson when he stays in the pocket. The line is a veteran group led by senior center David Molk, who was awarded this year’s Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. Molk also was named the Big Ten’s top offensive lineman and has started 41 games in his career.
Michigan is averaging more 420 yards of total offense and 34 points per game. By comparison, Virginia Tech’s defense has allowed that many yards and points in a game twice. Once to Miami (Fla.) in a 38-35 win and to Clemson in the ACC title game loss. The Hokies will look to continue their defensive consistency against the Wolverines.
Virginia Tech has already faced several dual-threat quarterbacks similar to Robinson, most notably Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (twice) and Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, so Robinson won’t necessarily be a new challenge. However, the Hokies will need to limit Michigan’s entire rushing attack if they want to force the Wolverines to throw more, which is not Robinson’s strong suit.
The Hokies are one of the more solid defenses in the nation, performing well against both the run (107.8 yards per game allowed, 17th in the country) and pass (206.2 ypg allowed, 40th). They also are giving up less than 18 points per game and are 11th in sacks per game with nearly three a contest. It will be interesting to see how much pressure they can get on Robinson, and if they will be able to bring him down before he gets out of the pocket.
Two Hokies to watch for on the defensive side are Jayron Hosley and Kyle Fuller. Not only are the two defensive backs good in pass coverage, combining for four interceptions, but they also are capable of rushing the passer. Fuller is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks and it will be interesting to see if Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster uses him or Hosley as a “spy” on Robinson or blitzes with them often to try and pressure the Wolverine’s signal-caller.
As long as they can contain Robinson, the Hokies should be able to force a mistake or two out of him, as they have already picked off 15 passes this season.
WHEN VIRGINIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
Virginia Tech has its own dual-threat quarterback in Logan Thomas, but it also has David Wilson, the ACC Offensive Player and Player of the Year, in its backfield. Wilson is fifth in the country with 1,627 rushing yards (125.2 per game), is averaging more than six yards per carry, and has scored 10 total touchdowns.
The junior has rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of 13 games and has a chance to break Virginia running back Thomas Jones’ ACC single-season record of 1,798 yards, which he set in 1999 in 11 games.
Wilson is a fast and explosive runner who is deceptively strong for his size (5-10, 205) and does not go down easily. He’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield and, when given the chance, as a returner. Josh Oglesby serves as the Hokies’ change-of-pace back for Wilson and has 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.
While Michigan’s Robinson and Tech’s Thomas may both be dual-threat quarterbacks, they do it in different ways. Thomas is 6-6, 254, which has brought out comparisons to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
At times this season, Thomas has played like Newton, using his size and strength to bowl over defenders on quarterback draws and sneaks, or shaking off pass rushers long enough to prolong the play and come up with big yards. The sophomore is the latest in a line of successful dual-threat Virginia Tech quarterbacks, most notably Michael Vick and last season’s starter, Tyrod Taylor.
Thomas doesn’t rush nearly as often as Robinson, mostly due to Wilson’s presence in the backfield, but he does have more than 400 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He has completed close to 60 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.
Thomas has spread the ball out to his receivers with six different Hokies catching at least 14 passes. Jarrett Boykin leads the team with 57 catches, while Danny Coale has the most receiving yards (787) and Boykin and Marcus Davis are tied with five touchdowns each. Those three and D.J. Coles have combined for 172 catches, 2,466 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The starting offensive line consists of four seniors and one sophomore and has done a good job of keeping Thomas upright, allowing just over a sack a game. Michigan’s defense comes into this game 27th in the nation in sacks with 2.3 per game and will try and get to Thomas and slow down Wilson with a trio of defensive linemen in Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen.
The Wolverines are surrendering less than 130 yards rushing per game, so one of the key battles to watch is their run defense against Wilson and Ogelsby. If Virginia Tech can find success on the ground, it should open up things downfield for Thomas and the receivers to make some noise.
Michigan’s defense has been solid all year, one of the biggest reasons for its turnaround this season. Last year the Wolverines gave up nearly 450 yards and 34 points per game, which ranked them in the bottom 20 of the nation in both categories. This season, the Wolverines are currently 18th in the nation in total defense, surrendering less than 320 yards per game, and are giving up less than 18 points per game, which ranks them seventh overall.
With improvement like that, it’s easy to see why the Wolverines went from 7-5 last year to 10-2 this season. Now they get to see if they can maintain this level of performance against the Hokies.
Both Michigan and Virginia Tech rank near the bottom when it comes to net punting and kickoff returns. Virginia Tech is the only team with either a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown this season. Virginia Tech’s Hosley can be dangerous as a returner and has two punt return touchdowns in his career.
Virginia Tech has a reputation for its special teams play, most notably its propensity to block kicks, but the Hokies have just one punt block to this point. Michigan also has one blocked kick this season.
Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons has connected on all but one of his 53 PAT attempts. The sophomore has made 10 of 14 field goal attempts, but just two of those makes were between 40-49 yards.
Cody Journell, like Gibbons, is a sophomore and has missed just one PAT (43-of-44) this season. The Virginia Tech placekicker also hasn’t attempted a field goal from beyond 50 yards, but he has made 14 of his 17 field goal tries overall, including three of four from 40-49 yards.
As noted above there are a lot of similarities between these two teams, but let’s concentrate on the ones that matter to the game itself. Both Michigan and Virginia Tech feature strong defenses that don’t give up a lot of yards or points. Both also have offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks and 1,000-yard running backs. So either something has to give or this is going to be a low-scoring affair.
I’ll lean towards the former as while I see neither team exploding offensively, I do think Virginia Tech has a slight edge on Michigan when it comes to overall offensive makeup. Robinson is by far a better and more dangerous runner, especially in the open field, than Thomas, but Thomas has the edge as a passer and also has a better receiving corps. Toussaint has been extremely productive as the Wolverines’ lead back recently; while Wilson has been doing it all season for the Hokies.
Both teams are on a mission to prove to everyone that they belong in a BCS bowl, but as everyone knows, only one can win. Both teams are no stranger to a BCS bowl, but Virginia Tech was here just last year, and while the Hokies may not have the best record in the BCS spotlight, they are more familiar with it than the Wolverines, who haven’t been in a BCS bowl since 2007.
In the end, I think Virginia Tech’s experience, coupled with its offensive balance and special teams prowess, will be enough to slow down this “young” and hungry Michigan squad.
Virginia Tech 27, Michigan 24
by Nathan Rush
Ohio State (6–6) vs. Florida (6–6)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
Coined the “Urban Meyer Bowl” this year’s Gator Bowl pits the two-time BCS national title-winning coach’s former team, Florida, where he coached from 2005-10, against his new team, Ohio State, where he will coach beginning in 2012.
The Buckeyes had national championship aspirations for 2011. After all, coach Jim Tressel had proven capable of winning it all and quarterback Terrell Pryor was returning for his senior season.
But those expectations vanished faster than TP2’s black-on-black Nissan 350Z, after NCAA investigation led to Tressel being fired, Pryor entering the NFL supplemental draft and OSU’s top playmakers — running back Daniel Herron and receiver DeVier Posey — being suspended indefinitely. Interim coach Luke Fickell took over a program backpedaling in shambles, but was still able to lead the Buckeyes to a bowl.
Gator Nation was sad to see Meyer “retire” after the 2010 season, but excited about the arrival of Will Muschamp — an energetic then-39-year-old defensive coordinator who had won a BCS title at LSU under Nick Saban and been the head coach in-waiting at Texas under Mack Brown before arriving in Gainesville. Muschamp also brought three-time Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis with him to the Swamp.
Many expected the Gators to contend for the SEC East title and possibly a BCS berth. But those illusions of grandeur were quickly squashed, as UF lost six of its last eight games. The Gators only notched one win against a team in a bowl this year — a 26–21 nail-biter over Vanderbilt.
Both traditional football powers have fallen on hard times, with identical 6–6 records, and will need to win this rematch of the BCS national title game following the 2006 season — when the Gators upset the Buckeyes, 41–14 — in order to avoid a losing mark. Florida has not finished below .500 since 1979, while Ohio State’s last losing season was in 1988.
WHEN OHIO STATE HAS THE BALL:
After being suspended for the first six games of the season, “Boom” Herron exploded onto the scene to rush for 596 yards and three TDs over the last six contests — including a 160-yard workhorse effort against Wisconsin, OSU’s best win of the year. Last season, Herron totaled 1,155 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. This will be the 5’10”, 205-pounder’s final game in scarlet and gray, expect him to see plenty of action running behind a quality O-line led by center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.
Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller has been Pryor-lite this year, passing for 997 yards, 11 TDs and four INTs, while scrambling for another 695 yards and seven TDs on the ground. The stage is set for a coming out party of sorts for the 6’3”, 210-pound Huber Heights, Ohio, native. The Buckeyes have no receivers of note, with only three players catching over 10 passes this year.
Florida’s defense ranks ninth in the nation (299.58 ypg) and 25th in scoring (20.58 ppg), but has been susceptible to the run, ranking 40th (132.33 ypg). With so many four- and five-star recruits, more “splash” plays were expected from the Gators stop-unit, which had only eight INTs and four fumble recoveries this season. Linebacker Jon Bostic and safety Matt Elam have been the best of the bunch.
WHEN FLORIDA HAS THE BALL:
Following Weis’ departure for Kansas, interim offensive coordinator Brian White will call the shots in the Gator Bowl, which will be quarterback John Brantley’s last stand. The one-time Texas commit and longtime Tim Tebow backup was never able to put it all together at Florida — passing for 1,912 yards, 10 TDs and six INTs in his final campaign. True freshmen Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are waiting in the wings if the oft-fragile Brantley goes down again.
There is plenty of speed in the backfield, with 2010 NCAA Indoor Track 60-meter champ (6.56 seconds) Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey combining to rush for 1,329 yards and eight TDs this season. Both runners are a threat to take it the distance at any time. Receiver Andre Debose is also a big-play threat, with 423 yards and four TDs on just 15 catches (28.2 ypc).
Ohio State has struggled against the run, allowing 142.42 yards per game. However, the Buckeyes did limit Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball to just 85 yards. End John Simon has been disruptive, with seven sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. In a down year for the Buckeyes, Simon, safety C.J. Barnett and linebacker Andrew Sweat were the only defenders to be named either first- or second-team All-Big Ten.
Gators kicker Caleb Sturgis was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, after connecting on 21-of-25 field goals — including three from beyond 50 yards — and all 28 extra points this year. Demps (25.0 ypr, 99-yard TD vs. Georgia) is a dangerous kick returner, as are Rainey and Solomon Patton. Rainey has a punt return TD as well.
Ohio State’s Jordan Hall gives the Bucks solid starting field position on kick returns (28.1 ypr), and kicker Drew Basil is adequate (15-of-18 FGs). But there are no Joey Galloways or Mike Nugents on special teams for OSU.
Meyer’s new team will ground-and-pound his old squad, as Muschamp’s first season train wreck ends in a Gator Bowl loss. After a bitter start to the season, Ohio State’s year will end with a sweet win over Florida, its most-hated intersectional rival.
Ohio State 27, Florida 20
by Rob Doster
Teams: Michigan State (10–3) vs. Georgia (10-3)
Date: Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
This game, one of the most intriguing matchups of bowl season, is a rematch of the 2009 Capital One Bowl, won by Georgia 24–12, and also another chance for the Spartans to redeem themselves against an SEC foe after losing in embarrassing fashion to Alabama 49–7 in last year's Capital One Bowl. In fact, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is still looking for his first bowl win as the boss in East Lansing (0–4). Similarly, the Bulldogs are seeking redemption after an embarrassing 10–6 Liberty Bowl loss to UCF last season.
Raymond James Stadium will play host to two 10-win teams who lost conference championship games and still have something left to prove. The Bulldogs overcame an 0–2 start to race to the SEC East title but squandered early opportunities in the SEC Championship Game and were ultimately pounded by LSU, 42–10. Meanwhile, the Spartans squandered an eight-point fourth quarter lead against Wisconsin and lost the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game 42–39.
Still, both teams seem to be headed in a positive direction, and the winner will get an extra boost of momentum heading into the stretch drive of recruiting season. Mark Richt has kept the wolves at bay and fashioned a 10-win team that boasts an elite defense, while Dantonio has led a Spartan surge on the strength of a balanced offensive attack that has averaged 38.6 ppg over MSU's last five games. The key could be the ability of the Spartans defense to contain record-setting Georgia signal-caller Aaron Murray, who set a new standard in Athens with 33 touchdown passes this season.
WHEN MICHIGAN STATE HAS THE BALL:
Watching Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins try to find the weak spots in Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense will be one of the highlights of bowl season. The Bulldogs are third nationally in total defense, allowing only 268.5 yards per game, but they'll have their hands full against Cousins and his complement of weapons. The Spartans turned a corner offensively after a 24–3 loss to Nebraska, scoring no fewer than 31 points over their next five games, a stretch during which Cousins has thrown 13 touchdowns with only two interceptions, including a 281-yard, three-touchdown performance against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the season, Cousins ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency (151.37). Providing balance is sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell, who rushed for 900 yards and 11 scores and posted 100-yard rushing games against Iowa and Wisconsin. The Spartans were effective in protecting the football, committing only 15 turnovers all season. Leading the charge for the Dawgs defense will be explosive sophomore linebacker Jarvis Jones, who ranked third nationally in sacks with 1.04 per game and forced two fumbles.
WHEN GEORGIA HAS THE BALL:
The Dawgs will be tested by a Spartans defense that finished just a couple of notches behind Georgia in total defense (5th) and allowed only 17.5 ppg. Georgia showed nice balance on offense this season, rushing for 172.7 yards per game while throwing for 255.4. Murray shared the wealth, throwing touchdown passes to 10 different receivers this season, and he was at his best down the stretch in rivalry games against Auburn (four touchdown passes) and Georgia Tech (252 yards, four TDs) — Georgia's only two victims who posted winning records on the season. Running back Isaiah Crowell has been something of a disappointment to some Dawg fans despite leading SEC freshmen in rushing with 847 yards. The Georgia offense will try to use Crowell to loosen the Spartans defense and make things easier for Murray and top targets Malcolm Mitchell, Orson Charles and Tavarres King.
Both teams boast experienced kickers, although Georgia's Blair Walsh was uncharacteristically inconsistent this season, missing 12 field goals after missing only 13 in his first three seasons in Athens. Bulldogs punter Drew Butler is a weapon, ranking 12th nationally at 44.3 yards per boot. For Michigan State, Keshawn Martin is a effective punt returner, averaging 11.78 yards per return and taking one back for a score against Northwestern.
This matchup has everything a college football fan could want — namely, two superb quarterbacks with weapons and two imposing defenses. So which team can overcome the heartbreak of a championship game loss and find redemption in Tampa? Both squads have shown resiliency and toughness this season, but the Spartans' lack of success against SEC foes has to be a bit of a red flag. Look for the Dawgs to do just enough to win, as they have so often during the Mark Richt regime.
Georgia 24, Michigan State 21
by Nathan Rush
Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Location: Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas
The first-ever Big Ten vs. Conference USA postseason matchup is a surreal pairing of two teams in the middle of downward spirals — albeit of decidedly different natures — led by interim head coaches.
Houston is hung over after having its BCS bowl dreams dashed and undefeated season ruined by Southern Miss during a 49–28 loss in the Conference USA title game. Then, Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin, who was 35–17 in four seasons at UH, left to take the Texas A&M job. Special teams coordinator, inside-receivers and tight ends coach Tony Levine will take over the top spot for the TicketCity Bowl. But make no mistake, the Coogs will rely heavily on the leadership of record-breaking sixth-year senior quarterback Case Keenum, who will be making the final start of an historic career.
On the other side, no one is smiling in Happy Valley these days, following the disgraceful exit of iconic coach Joe Paterno and disgusting criminal charges of child abuse filed against JoePa’s longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. In the wake of the shocking scandal, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley took over as interim coach, posting a 1–2 record — losing to Nebraska (17–14), winning at Ohio State (20–14) and getting blown out at Wisconsin (45–7) in the regular season finale.
WHEN HOUSTON HAS THE BALL:
The Cougars’ high-octane attack ranks No. 1 in total offense (599.0 ypg), passing (443.8 ypg) and scoring (50.8 ppg).
Keenum orchestrates Houston’s scoreboard fireworks display; but the signal-caller has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Receivers Patrick Edwards (1,524 yards, 18 TDs), Justin Johnson (1,081 yards, 11 TDs) and Tyron Carrier (914 yards, 5 TDs), and running backs Charles Sims (782 yards, 9 TDs) and Michael Hayes (707 yards, 11 TDs) give UH a variety of playmakers capable of putting up big numbers in any given game.
Speaking of numbers, Keenum has taken the video game-gaudy statistical tradition of former Houston passing legends Andre Ware and David Klingler to another level. The 6’2”, 210-pounder from Abilene, Texas, owns the all-time FBS records for total offense (19,572 yards), passing yards (18,685) and passing TDs (152). This season, the 23-year-old — who was granted a medical redshirt after suffering a knee injury last season — led the nation in both passing yards (5,099) and passing TDs (45), while completing 71.7 percent of his passes and throwing just five INTs.
On paper, the Nittany Lions appear to have a formidable defense, ranking fifth nationally in points allowed (15.7 ppg) and 10th in total defense (300.9 ypg). But Penn State played only two offenses ranked in the top 40 nationally in scoring — Wisconsin (4th) and Alabama (16th). PSU went 0–2, losing by a combined score of 72–18 in those contests.
WHEN PENN STATE HAS THE BALL:
If Coach Bradley has his way, the Nittany Lions will play ball-control football, squeeze the air out of the pigskin, dominate time-of-possession and keep Keenum and Co. off the field. That is Penn State’s only realistic formula for victory; PSU will not be able to win a shootout against Houston.
This season, Penn State’s season-high was 41 points, scored against lowly Indiana State in the opener. The Nittany Lions topped 30 points two other times, against Eastern Michigan and at Northwestern. Houston, however, scored over 40 points in 10 games this year and failed to score 30 points only once — scoring 28 in its lone loss to Southern Miss.
Stud sophomore running back Silas Redd (1,188 yards on 5.2 ypc, 7 TDs) will have to dominate a Cougars run defense that ranked 77th nationally, allowing 171.8 yards per game and 12 rushing TDs in 13 games this season.
If Houston scores often that just means more kick return chances for Penn State ace Chaz Powell, who averages 28.3 yards per return and has a 95-yard TD on his resume. Kicker and punter Anthony Fera is also a weapon, having connected on 14-of-17 field goals while averaging 42.0 yards per punt. But Fera will need to be careful punting to Cougars returners Patrick Edwards and Damian Payne, who combined to score two TDs and average 17.3 yards per return. Tyron Carrier is a force on kickoff returns, with a 24.8-yard average and a 100-yard TD. Houston hasn’t punted much or kicked many field goals (10-of-12).
Houston sends Keenum out in style, while Penn State ends an ugly season with an embarrassing loss. The Cougars’ offense will run past a Nittany Lion defense — and program — that is licking their wounds after the JoePa, Sandusky disaster.
Houston 42, Penn State 20
by Nathan Rush
Oklahoma State (11–1) vs. Stanford (11–1)
Date: Jan. 2, 2012 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country — Oklahoma State and Stanford — go toe-to-toe in this year’s Fiesta Bowl, which features two of the three one-loss teams remaining from BCS conferences (with Alabama being the third one-loss squad and LSU, of course, the lone undefeated).
More than that, University of Phoenix Stadium will host the nation’s top-ranked team from outside the Southeastern Conference as well as the consensus No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2012 NFL Draft.
Both the Cowboys and Cardinal fell just short of the BCS national title game. But with so many players either set to graduate or expected to bolt for the NFL following this game, expect both sides to be motivated to end their impressive seasons on a high note with a BCS Fiesta Bowl statement.
After starting the year 10–0, main “man” Mike Gundy’s Pokes lost at Iowa State, 37–31 in double-overtime, in a Friday night thriller in their penultimate game — before dominating Oklahoma, 44–10, in the Bedlam finale to end an eight-game losing streak to OU, clinch their first-ever Big 12 title and first outright conference championship since winning the three-team Missouri Valley in 1948.
On the other side, first-year Cardinal coach David Shaw was off to a 9–0 start at Stanford before a disappointing 53–30 letdown to Oregon ended any Pac-12 North division, Pac-12 Conference or BCS national title hopes on The Farm. The Cardinal bounced back, however, with a 31–28 win over Cal in the Big Game and a 28–14 victory over Notre Dame in prime time.
The boys in Vegas are expecting a shootout in this one, with a 74-point over-under, which is the second-highest on the board — trailing only the Alamo Bowl (79) between Baylor and Washington. Expect a scoreboard scorcher in the desert.
WHEN OKLAHOMA STATE HAS THE BALL:
The Cowboys have the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (49.33 ppg), No. 2 passing offense (386.25 ypg) and No. 3 total offense (557.0 ypg).
Quarterback Brandon Weeden is a former minor league pitching prospect who was drafted by MLB’s New York Yankees in the second round of the 2002 draft, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the 2003 Kevin Brown deal and picked up by the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 Draft before arriving on campus in Stillwater. The 28-year-old Oklahoma City native has been throwing strikes for O-State all season — passing for 4,328 yards, 34 TDs and 12 INTs.
Only the second-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, Justin Blackmon is the nation’s top wide receiver. The 6’1”, 215-pound junior has 113 catches for 1,336 yards and 15 TDs, but will need a whale of a game in Glendale to match his 2010 stat line of 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs, along with four carries for 77 rush yards and one score on the ground. Blackmon is joined by Tracy Moore (672 yards, 4 TDs) and Josh Cooper (660 yards, 3 TDs), but there is no doubt about who is Weeden’s top target.
The Pokes’ running game has a solid one-two punch in feature back Joseph Randle (1,193 yards, 23 TDs) and sidekick Jeremy Smith (645 yards, 9 TDs). But O-State is powered by its dominant O-line — led by first-team All-Big 12 left tackle Levy Adcock (6’6”, 322) and center Grant Garner (6’3”, 292).
Stanford’s defense struggled against the top two offenses it faced this season, allowing 53 points in a loss to Oregon and 48 points in a triple-overtime win at USC. The unit ranked a respectable 23rd nationally in scoring defense (20.33 ppg); but the Cardinal’s 78th-ranked passing defense (241.08 ypg) is cause for concern against the Cowboys. All-Pac-12 safety Delano Howell must avoid getting beat over the top; end Ben Gardner and linebacker Chase Thomas will have to bring their A-game.
WHEN STANFORD HAS THE BALL:
Andrew Luck is being touted as the greatest NFL quarterback prospect since Tennessee’s Peyton Manning in 1998 and possibly since Stanford’s own John Elway in 1983. The son of former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck was coached up by former NFL quarterback and current San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh prior to this, his fourth-year junior season. Luck has the size (6’4”, 235), arm, athleticism, leadership and “it” factor to lead any team to victory.
Plus, the quick-triggerman plays behind arguably the top offensive line in the country — with a top-10 pick candidate at left tackle in Jonathan Martin (6’6”, 304) and a mauling All-Pac-12 guard David DeCastro (6’5”, 310).
This season, Luck completed 70 percent of his passes —albeit on far fewer attempts than Weeden, who threw 522 passes in O-State’s spread attack compared to Luck’s 373 attempts in Stanford’s pro-style offense — for 3,170 yards, 35 TDs and nine INTs, while rushing for two TDs and hauling in a highlight-reel diving 13-yard catch for good measure.
Luck has a solid running back corps behind him — with Stepfan Taylor (1,153 yards, 8 TDs), Tyler Gaffney (445 yards, 7 TDs) and Jeremy Stewart (8 TDs) — but lacks speedy downfield receiving threats. Instead, the Luck’s Cardinal use a Tom Brady, New England Patriots-style tight end attack with Coby Fleener (648 yards, 10 TDs), 6’8” Levin Toilolo (325 yards, 6 TDs) and H-back Ryan Hewitt (277 yards, 5 TDs) providing most of the plays. Griff Whalen (664 yards, 4 TDs) is the top receiver, while oft-concussed Chris Owusu (376 yards, 2 TDs) is a question mark.
O-State has the nation’s 61st-ranked scoring defense (25.83 ppg) and 102nd-ranked pass defense (265.58 ypg). On first glance, those numbers seem to favor Luck and the Cardinal. But the Cowboys’ top playmakers on defense are pass rusher Jamie Blatnick, roaming safety Markelle Martin and cover corner Brodrick Brown — players who could make Luck’s last game a tougher test than expected.
Also, the Pokes faced four of the top six passing offenses this season — Arizona (third), Oklahoma (fourth), Baylor (fifth) and Texas Tech (sixth) — posting a 4–0 record and winning by a combined score of 206–54. That defense against the pass doesn’t look too bad upon further review.
Cowboys kicker and punter Quinn Sharp is a valuable field-position weapon, averaging 46.6 yards per punt with a long of 60. He has also been steady inside of 46 yards, connecting on 20-of-23 field goals this season. Kick returner Justin Gilbert is quicksilver with the ball, averaging 25.8 yards per return with two TDs — including a 100-yarder to paydirt.
The Cardinal kicking game has struggled lately, with Jordan Williamson (12-of-15 on FGs) and Eric Whitaker (4-of-5) combining to miss three of their last four attempts — two from long range (48 and 49 yards) and one chip-shot (33). The return game is not much better, although kick returner Ty Montgomery did score on a 96-yarder earlier this year.
Oklahoma State is too powerful for Stanford. After all, Luck doesn’t play defense; and there’s only so much the future No. 1 overall pick can do with the limited offensive weapons at his disposal. Gundy will break out the big guns and the Pokes will have people asking why they aren’t playing for the national championship when the sand settles at the Fiesta Bowl.
Oklahoma State 48, Stanford 34
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Wisconsin (11-2, 6-2) vs. Oregon (11-2, 8-1)
Date: Jan. 2 at 5:10 p.m. ET
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
When the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions square-off in the 98th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All, there should be no shortage of pyrotechnics. The Oregon Ducks, who topped UCLA with ease in the Pac-12 title game, will play in its third consecutive BCS Bowl. Chip Kelly’s squad is still looking for its first BCS bowl win, however, after getting handled along the line of scrimmage by both Ohio State and Auburn in its last two postseason trips.
Wisconsin outlasted Michigan State in the Midwest’s version of the rematch in the inaugural Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The second edition was just as entertaining as the first, as the 42-39 come from behind victory sent the Badgers to their second straight Rose Bowl. They, too, lost a BCS bowl last season as the TCU Horned Frogs claimed the 2011 Rose Bowl championship 21-19.
Wisconsin holds the lead in the all-time series between the two squads 3-1 with wins coming in 1977, 1978 and 2000. Oregon won the last match-up in 2001 when current Badgers’ athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Ducks’ A.D. Mike Bellotti split a home-and-home.
WHEN OREGON HAS THE BALL:
Most offensive coordinators can’t even dream about designing an offense around the Oregon Ducks skill position players. Former Doak Walker Award winner LaMichael James led the nation in rushing yards per game for the second straight season. Backup Kenjon Barner posted 1,041 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Freshman DeAnthony Thomas rolled-up 1,934 all-purpose yards and scored 16 total touchdowns in three different ways.
And it is quarterback Darron Thomas’, who threw 30 touchdown passes for the second straight season, responsibility to distribute the football accordingly. A knee injury and some ineffective play slowed Thomas’ season at the midway point, but the second-year starter has rallied and played his best football of late. He has accounted for eight touchdowns and 571 yards of total offense over the last two games.
The speed of the Oregon offense will challenge the Wisconsin front seven that is led by all-league linebackers Mike Taylor (137 tackles) and Chris Borland (131 tackles). Stopping the run has proven to be key in the last two non-conference losses for Oregon. LSU held Oregon to 95 yards on 28 attempts earlier this season and Auburn controlled the Ducks’ line to the tune of 75 yards rushing on 32 carries.
The last Wisconsin loss came because the Badgers could not stop the ground attack. Boom Herron rushed for 160 yards and freshman quarterback Braxton Miller torched UW for 99 yards and two big touchdowns. Stopping the four-headed rushing attack of the Ducks will be a tall order for Big Red.
WHEN WISCONSIN HAS THE BALL:
Wisconsin brings one of the nation’s most balanced attacks in to Pasadena. Quarterback Russell Wilson has a chance to finish with the most efficient passing season in NCAA history (191.60) and is only the fourth Big Ten quarterback to ever throw 30 touchdown passes in a single season. He has thrown a touchdown pass in an NCAA record 37-straight games. He will look to dependable targerts Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen.
Make no mistake, however, the Badgers are still a ground and pound football team. The Big Ten’s top rushing attack was led by record-setting Heisman finalist Montee Ball. The do-everything tailback led the nation in rushing at 1,759 yards and is one touchdown away from breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA touchdown mark of 39. He has scored 17 times since the loss to the Buckeyes on Halloween weekend. His 17.5 points per game easily led the nation. Back-up James White added 683 yards and six scores of his own.
The key to defeating Oregon not only involves slowing their fast-paced rushing attack but controlling the ball on offense. The Ducks have allowed an average of 195 yards rushing and 47.8 attempts per game in their last five losses. Wisconsin will use a physical offensive line in an effort to control the line of scrimmage. The last two teams Oregon faced with this M.O., LSU and Auburn, ran for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
Heading into the Big Ten title game, Abbrederis was leading the nation in punt returns. His 16.1-yard average instead finished third nationally giving the Badgers a great threat in the return game. Punter Brad Nortman averaged a Big Ten third-best 42.1 yards per punt but Bret Bielema’s special teams have had trouble blocking for him — and whomever is attempting field goals.
The Ducks are even better on special teams. Oregon finished No. 2 nationally in net punting (41.7 ypp) and De. Thomas led the Pac-12 in kickoff returns. His remarkable speed makes him one of the most dynamic return men in the country.
While the return game should be exciting for both teams in a positive way, the field goal attempts could bring a much different type of excitement to the table. The Ducks’ kicker Alejandro Maldonado has made 71-of-72 extra points but has yet to attempt a field goal since missing against USC — and costing Oregon an unbeaten Pac-12 season. Wisconsin’s Kyle French and Phillip Welch have shared place-kicking duties this fall with Welch finishing the season as the starter. He made only four field goals all season.
This game will feature two of the most dynamic, complete and exciting offense in all of college football. What makes this match-up that much more exciting is the dichotomy of styles. The Ducks will spread it out, speed up the tempo and rip off huge chunks of yards with big-play threats like James and De. Thomas. Wisconsin will line-up and physically impose their will upon opposing front sevens before hitting the secondary with picture-perfect play-action fakes and bootlegs. Whoever has the ball last wins.
Oregon 41, Wisconsin 38
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Capital One Bowl
Nebraska vs. South Carolina
Date: Jan. 2, 1:00 PM ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
This is one of the better bowls each postseason, matching up powers from the SEC and Big Ten. Both South Carolina and Nebraska will bring a ton of fans, and we should see a physical, “running game and defense” type of game in Orlando. The Gamecocks finished 10-2, losing only to No. 6 Arkansas and defending national champion Auburn. Nebraska went 9-3 in its inaugural season in the Big Ten. This meeting will be the first between the two schools since 1987, and the Cornhuskers have won all three games between the programs.
Bo Pelini has taken the Huskers to a bowl game in each of his four seasons in Lincoln, while Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to the postseason in six of his seven years in Columbia. One interesting note with these two teams is that both defensive coordinators were hired as head coaches in December. Nebraska’s Carl Pelini is headed to Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt, while South Carolina’s Ellis Johnson is taking over at Southern Miss in Conference USA.
Nebraska has never met South Carolina in the postseason, but NU has faced a Steve Spurrier-led team in a bowl game. At the conclusion of the 1995 season, current Nebraska athletics director Tom Osborne led the 11-0 Big Eight champions against Spurrier and the 12-0 Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tommie Frazier-led Cornhuskers dominated the Gators, 62-24, and won that season’s national championship.
WHEN NEBRASKA HAS THE BALL:
The Huskers rank 13th in the nation in rushing, with over 223 yards per game. Running back Rex Burkhead was one of the more productive rushers in the country, finishing the season with 1,268 yards and 15 touchdowns. Quarterback Taylor Martinez is also a huge part of the ground attack, and he ran for 837 yards and nine scores on the season. The potent rushing duo accounted for 433 of Nebraska’s 565 carries on the year.
The Nebraska passing game is limited, but Martinez did throw for 1,973 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Huskers’ leading receiver was Kenny Bell, who had 29 catches for 408 yards and two touchdowns this season. Fans know what to expect when Nebraska plays, and the running game will be the key like usual.
South Carolina defense ranks fourth in the country in total defense and second in pass defense. The Gamecocks are led by a solid defensive line, with senior defensive end Melvin Ingram earning All-America honors after a season with 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and three touchdowns scored. Safety Antonio Allen led the team in tackles with 81, and the Gamecocks had four different defenders with three interceptions. Despite being stellar against the pass, South Carolina ranks 44th in the country versus the run. Rushing quarterbacks for Navy and Citadel were able to give the Gamecocks some headaches, so stopping Martinez could be a challenge.
WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL:
October was a very turbulent month for the South Carolina offense. First, frequently-suspended quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team. Second, the Gamecocks lost one of the better running backs in the nation when Marcus Lattimore suffered a knee injury in the Mississippi State game. Sophomore Connor Shaw took over at quarterback, and he has been more of a runner than typical Spurrier passer. Shaw played well late in the season and ran for seven touchdowns in South Carolina’s final five games.
Freshman runner Brandon Wilds did a solid job in replacing the heralded Lattimore. The rookie ran for over 100 yards in three of South Carolina’s final five games. Receiver Alshon Jeffery led the Gamecocks with 45 catches for 614 yards and seven scores, but his production dropped off from previous seasons with the inconsistent passing game. This Gamecocks’ team is not the old-school Spurrier passing type, instead relying on the ground attack and stellar defense.
The Nebraska defense is led by All-America linebacker Lavonte David, who topped the team in tackles with 122 while also adding 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. The Huskers did not get a ton of pressure on opposing passers this season, but defensive end Cameron Meredith was solid in leading the team with five sacks. Outstanding senior cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will cover Jeffery, but the key for the Cornhuskers in this game will be controlling the South Carolina run game.
Nebraska definitely has the advantage in this area. Kicker and punter Brett Maher had an excellent season and was named first-team All-Big Ten at both positions. He was 19-for-22 on field goals, and his three misses were from 50+ yards. Maher also averaged 45.0 yards on 54 punts, including placing 24 of them inside the 20-yard line. The Huskers also have one of the best returners in the nation in Ameer Abdullah. The speedy freshman from Alabama averaged an excellent 30.0 yards per kick return (while taking one to the house) and a solid 7.7 yards per punt return.
South Carolina kicker Jay Wooten was 7-for-10 on field goals and only attempted two kicks of less than 40 yards. Spurrier does not like to settle for three points, and the Gamecocks went for it on fourth down 28 times this year. Punter Joey Scribner-Howard averaged 38.9 yards on 47 punts, with 10 of them inside the 20-yard line. USC does have a solid punter returner in Ace Sanders, who averaged 9.3 yards per return and scored once. Bruce Ellington, who also plays on the Gamecocks’ basketball squad, will return kickoffs.
This will be a very physical game, where a key turnover or rare big play in the passing game could be the difference. I like South Carolina’s advantage in talent, but Steve Spurrier-led teams often struggle in the postseason. He has lost four of his five South Carolina postseason games, with the only win coming against Houston in the 2006 Liberty Bowl.
After winning their first two bowl games under Pelini, the Huskers looked bad in last season’s Holiday Bowl loss to Washington. It’s difficult to see that happening again. I’ll take the special teams edge with Nebraska winning a close, physical battle.
Nebraska 20, South Carolina 17
by Rob Doster
Teams: Virginia (8–4) vs. Auburn (7–5)
Date: Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
The defending national champion Auburn Tigers limp into the postseason at 7–5, losing in blowout fashion to the SEC's elite teams in the season's second half. The Tigers never could muster much offensive consistency without Heisman winner Cam Newton, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, formerly a rising superstar, was forced to slink off to the Sun Belt, taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State rather than holding out for a BCS job. Malzahn's absence simply adds an extra level of uncertainty for an Auburn team that had trouble finding any kind of rhythm this season.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were a pleasant surprise in Mike London's second season, improving from four wins to eight and finishing tied for second in the ACC Coastal Division at 5–3 a year after winning only one conference game. In only his second season as a head coach at the FBS level, London has established himself as a rising star in the profession. All four of the Cavs' losses came against teams that are playing in the postseason, and UVa boasts wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Both teams are looking to erase the sour taste of uncompetitive losses to their chief rivals. The Cavs were dismantled by Virginia Tech 38–0 in their season finale, while the Tigers fell 42–14 to Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
WHEN VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:
The Cavaliers employ an effective mix of run and pass. During the four-game winning streak late in the season that clinched bowl eligibility, sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was highly efficient, throwing seven touchdown passes and only one interception during that stretch. That level of ball security is extremely important for the Cavaliers, who turned it over 14 times in their four losses — including four turnovers in their 38–0 loss to Virginia Tech — and only 12 times in their eight wins. The Cavs do boast a nice one-two punch in the running game, as Perry Jones and Kevin Parks combined for 1,544 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Tigers were inconsistent on defense, although Corey Lemonier (9.5 sacks) maintained the recent tradition of a solid pass rush that has marked Auburn's defense of late.
WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL:
Gus Malzahn is headed to Arkansas State, but he will be on the sidelines in Auburn gear one more time. The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and rank 104th in the nation in total offense at 328.2 yards per game. Throw in the loss of the Tigers' primary offensive threat, running back Michael Dyer, to a suspension, and Auburn will be hard-pressed to score many points. It's a stark contrast to last season, when Cam Newton was at the helm of an unstoppable offensive attack.
The Tigers will need solid play from quarterback Clint Moseley, who took the job at midseason but may share some snaps with freshman Kiehl Frazier, who looks like the quarterback of the future on the Plains. They'll also need production from running back Onterio McCalebb to compensate for the loss of Dyer.
The Cavs play solid defense, as evidenced by their propensity for tackles behind the line of scrimmage — they ranked second in the ACC in that category at 6.9 per game.
The Tigers did use special teams to their advantage at critical points this season. They led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.3), and Tre Mason ranked 19th nationally in that category. Auburn punter Steven Clark ranked only 57th in the nation in average (40.49), but the Tigers ranked 19th in net punting at 39.01. The Cavs' special teams play was unremarkable, although Robert Randolph did make 15-of-22 field goal attempts.
These two teams seem to be trending in slightly different directions. Their disappointing loss to Virginia Tech aside, the Cavs have to be ecstatic about Year 2 of the Mike London era, particularly the 14–13 win over Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium in the season's penultimate game. Auburn was alarmingly uncompetitive in its biggest games this season, and without the ground threat that Dyer provides, the Tigers have a steep hill to climb.
Virginia 23, Auburn 17
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Illinois vs. UCLA
Date: Dec. 31, 3:30 PM ET
Location: AT&T Park, San Francisco, Calif.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl may have as much uncertainty as any game we will see in the postseason. Both Illinois and UCLA fired their head coaches following the season and will be led by interim bosses on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Bruins’ offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over in this contest for Rick Neuheisel, whose last game was a 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. UCLA missed the postseason in 2008 and 2010 under Neuheisel, and the Bruins had to have a waiver for this bowl after finishing 6-7. The departed UCLA alum did coach the Bruins to an EagleBank Bowl win in 2009 (30-21 over Temple).
After the bowl game, former Seahawks and Falcons coach Jim Mora will take over at UCLA.
Illinois’ defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will coach this game for the fired Ron Zook, whose Illini club started the season 6-0 before losing the final six games on the schedule. This will be the third postseason in seven years for Illinois. Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007 (49-17 loss to USC) and the Texas Bowl (38-14 win over Baylor) last season. Former Toledo coach Tim Beckman has been named as the new head coach at Illinois and will take over after this game.
WHEN UCLA HAS THE BALL:
Gritty junior Kevin Prince will start at quarterback, and he will need to stay healthy with backup Richard Brehaut suspended. UCLA was inconsistent throwing the ball this season. Prince is a solid runner, and his legs should help the Bruins avoid some of the ferocious Illini pass rush. UCLA leading receiver Nelson Rosario had 61 catches for 1,106 yards and four scores this year, while 6’8” tight end Joseph Fauria (nephew of NFL veteran, Christian) was a solid red zone target with six touchdowns.
The Bruins' pistol offense is led by the solid running tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, and they helped UCLA rank 29th in the country this season in rush yards per game. The speedy Franklin tallied 947 yards and five touchdowns, while the bruising Coleman added 726 yards and 11 scores. The Bruins should also get some yards on the ground from Prince, and mobile quarterbacks hurt Illinois late in the year.
The Illini rank seventh in the nation in total defense and fifth in tackles for loss. UCLA will have to know where defensive end Whitney Mercilus is at all times, as he led the nation in sacks with 14.5 as part of 19.5 tackles for loss. Additionally, Illinois had two other defenders with over 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Leading tackler Jonathan Brown had 102 stops to go with 19 TFLs and six sacks, while pass rusher Michael Buchanan added 12.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Illinois obviously plays well against the pass, but the main focus against the Bruins will be stopping the running duo of Franklin and Coleman.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can be quite the dual threat for the Illini, and he passed for 1,971 yards (12 TDs, seven INTs) this season while also adding 514 yards on the ground with six scores. However, the athletic sophomore can also be inconsistent. He threw for 10 TDs and three INTs in Illinois’ first six games, but then tossed only two touchdown passes against four picks over the final six contests.
The Illini will be missing leading rusher Jason Ford (600 yards, seven TDs) who is academically ineligible. Scheelhaase will move the ball on the ground and will also get contributions from senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young (who could miss the game with an ankle injury). Scheelhaase’s favorite target – by far – is receiver A.J. Jenkins (84 catches for 1,196 yards and seven scores). Spencer Harris had the second-highest number of receptions, 25, on the team.
UCLA ranks 96th in scoring defense and 95th in the country against the run. Plus, the Bruins only had 13 sacks in 13 games this season (versus 14.5 for Illinois’ Mercilus). Linebacker Pat Larimore was the Bruins leading tackler with 81 stops on the year, but he will miss this game due to thumb surgery. With top safety Tony Dye also out, defensive lineman Datone Jones – who led UCLA in tackles for losses and sacks – will have to lead the way.
Both teams have good kicking games but do not get much at all in the return game. Illinois has a very good kicker in Derek Dimke, who was 8-of-9 on field goals and perfect on 32 extra points this season. The Illini split the punting duties between freshman Justin DuVernois and receiver Ryan Lankford. DuVernois received most of the work, and the duo combined for a 38-yard per punt average.
UCLA has an excellent punter and a great story at kicker. Punter Jeff Locke averaged a solid 44.1 yards on 56 attempts. He had 12 punts over 50 yards and put 23 (41.1 %) of them inside the 20-yard line. After two Bruins’ kickers were hurt and Locke struggled with place kicking, UCLA found a solid replacement in Tyler Gonzalez. He started the semester as student manager for the men’s soccer team, but went 7-for-10 on field-goal tries after stepping onto the gridiron.
This one is tough to predict because of the uncertainty surrounding both programs in the month of December. UCLA finished better than Illinois, but the Bruins were wildly inconsistent throughout the season. The same applies to the Illini, and it will be interesting to see if both teams are motivated for this game.
Illinois 23, UCLA 17
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
2011 Liberty Bowl
Cincinnati (9–3) vs. Vanderbilt (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
Vanderbilt is back in a bowl game for the second time in four seasons but only the fifth time in school history. First-year head coach James Franklin directed the Commodores to six wins — two more than they had the previous two seasons combined. Vanderbilt, despite its mediocre 6–6 record, played very solid football for much of the ’11 season. Four of the Commodores’ six losses came by six points or less and five of their six wins came by 23 points or more.
Cincinnati, too, was much improved in 2011. After struggling though a 4–8 mark in ’10 — Butch Jones’ first season as the head coach — the Bearcats went 9–3 in ’11 and shared the Big East championship with West Virginia and Louisville. Turnovers were a major reason for the turnaround; last season, UC ranked 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25 per game). In 2011, they currently rank 11th (+0.92 per game).
WHEN VANDERBILT HAS THE BALL:
The Commodores’ defense has been stout — 19th in the nation in yards allowed — but the big story in Nashville has been the dramatic progress made on the offensive side of the ball. The Commodores improved from 16.9 points per game in 2010 to 26.9 in ’11 and from 298.3 yards per game in ’10 to 342.8 in ‘11.
The offense received a huge boost in Week 6 when Jordan Rodgers stepped in for Larry Smith as the No. 1 quarterback. In the final seven games, the Dores averaged 413.0 yards and 31.6 points. The passing game has been efficient — with wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd emerging as consistent threats — but this is a run-based attack that is led by junior tailback Zac Stacy. Snubbed by both the coaches and media for first-team All-SEC honors, Stacy rushed for 1,136 yards (a Vanderbilt single-season record) and 13 touchdowns and led the league with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
A key for the Commodores offense will be to protect Rodgers against a Cincinnati defense that leads the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss. Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggled earlier in the year, but made huge improvements in the latter half of the season. Rodgers’ mobility played a big role in the Dores’ reduced sack total, as well.
WHEN CINCINNATI HAS THE BALL:
The Bearcats’ offense will feature a talented tailback with an NFL future and a quarterback who can hurt you with both his legs and his arm. Isaiah Pead will be the primary ball-carrier, but we aren’t quite sure who will be taking the snaps for Cincinnati. Zach Collaros, the No. 1 quarterback, broke his ankle against West Virginia on Nov. 12. His recovery is reportedly ahead of schedule, but Jones said recently that it will be game-time decision as to whether the senior plays in the Liberty Bowl. If Collaros is unable to go, sophomore Munchie Legaux will get the nod. Legaux stepped in for Collaros in the final four games and completed 50-of-109 passes for 688 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Legaux has talent and is the Bearcats’ quarterback of the future, but Collaros gives this team a much better shot to win the bowl game.
Pead rushed for 1,110 yards and 11 scores, hitting the 100-yard mark against Tennessee, NC State, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia. The senior will have to be productive for the Bearcat offense to flourish in Memphis.
Vanderbilt has been strong in all facets of special teams with the glaring exception of kicking field goals. Ryan Fowler and Carey Spear combined to hit only 7-of-13 field goals with a long of 37 yards. Cincinnati’s kicker, freshman Tony Miliano, converted 16-of-22 field goals, including 7-of-10 from 40 yards and beyond. The Bearcats are average in the return game but rank 17th in the nation in net punting (39.1-yard average).
The boys in Vegas must put a lot of stock in the power of the SEC. Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in league play, is a 2.5-point favorite over a 5–2 Big East team. Some of that has to do with Collaros’ injury, but it’s also an indication that Vanderbilt is a solid football team that very easily could have won two or three more games. The key for the Commodores will be to protect Rodgers — which they have done very well in recent weeks — and get Stacy going in the run game.
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Both Washington and Baylor ended long bowl droughts in 2010 and both kept the positive momentum going in 2011. Baylor lost 38-14 to Illinois in the Texas Bowl last year after not seeing postseason play since 1994. The Huskies topped Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl last season in its first bowl game since 2002.
Much of the credit for each turn around belongs to two rising stars in the coaching profession. In his fourth season in Waco, Art Briles, with a little help from Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, has Baylor in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-1992 — which is also the last time the Bears won a bowl. He carries a five-game winning streak into the Alamodome.
Steve Sarkisian is in only his third season in Seattle, and while he doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy winner under his belt, he has restored Husky Pride to the Pacific Northwest. He capped his season with his third win in three tries over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. With two great offensive minds on the sidelines coaching two rosters loaded with offensive skill talent, the 2011 Alamo Bowl figures to feature plenty of fireworks.
WHEN BAYLOR HAS THE BALL:
It’s all about Griffin III. Or more specifically, how does Washington stop him? The reigning Heisman winner led the nation in points responsible for at 22.7 points per game, could set an NCAA single-season record as the most efficient passer in history if he can maintain his 192.31 passer rating and finished No. 2 nationally in total offense at 386.8 yards per game. He is a nasty combination of agility, speed, poise, leadership and accuracy.
Unfortunately for a Husky defense that ranked 94th overall at 426.3 yards allowed per game and 99th in scoring at 33.3 points per game, the Bears are not simply a one-man show. Tailback Terrance Ganaway finished No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing at over 112.0 yards per game. Wide receiver Kendall Wright caught at least six passes in every game this year and finished No. 2 nationally at 131.0 yards per game. And fellow wide receiver Terrance Williams has scored in seven straight games.
Sarkisian and his defensive staff will have their hands full trying to stop one of the nation’s most dynamic and balanced offensive attacks. Griffin might be the only one who can stop Griffin as his focus — his parents are apparently currently interviewing NFL agents — might be the only thing standing in the way of the school’s second 10-win season in program history.
WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL:
The good news for Washington is that their best defense might actually be on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Chris Polk give the Huskies a 1-2 punch on offense that should be effective enough to keep RG3 on the bench. Baylor didn’t stop anyone this fall either, ranking 114th in total defense at 477.5 yards per game and 109th in scoring defense at 35.7 points per game.
Price, a sophomore, started his first season as the starter with six consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes before an injured left knee forced him to miss some snaps in losses to USC and Oregon State late in the season. Back healthy for the Apple Cup, Price threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns — bringing his season to a school-record 29 for the year. Look for him to spread the football around to a host of elite pass-catchers in senior Jermaine Kearse (42 rec., 501 yards, 6 TD), freshman Kasen Williams (33 rec., 408 yards, 6 TD) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (36 rec., 479 yards, 6 TD).
As good as the passing game should be for Washington, it will be star tailback Polk who has the ability to slow the game down and keep RG3 on the bench. Polk rushed for his third consecutive 1,100-yard season and has scored 24 times over the last two seasons. His ability to get tough yards between the tackles, get to the edge when needed and catch passes on third downs makes him arguably the most important offensive piece in this game. Baylor allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game this season and getting Polk rolling early and often gives the Huskies their best chance to win.
Give Washington the distinct advantage on special teams. Kicker Erik Folk missed four of his total 63 kicks all season and punter Kiel Rasp led the Pac-12 in punting (45.1 ypp). Meanwhile, Baylor kicker Aaron Jones missed seven of his 16 field goal attempts and three extra points this year. Baylor also finished 114th nationally in punting and has struggled in the return game.
If the Huskies want to beat the Heisman Trophy winner, they have to win the special teams battle and keep Griffin III on the sideline. A productive and versatile Chris Polk will do just that. Both of these teams average more than 31 points per game and both defenses have struggled to stop anyone so it should be a high scoring duel on the Riverwalk. This said, it will be virtually impossible to beat Griffin III in what should be his final game in a Bears uniform and one final chance at the school’s first bowl win in 20 years.
Baylor 42, Washington 34
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Texas A&M (6–6) vs. Northwestern (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 12 noon ET
Location: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
Texas A&M is arguably the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. A consensus top 15 team in the preseason, the Aggies went 4–5 in the Big 12 — their final year in the league — due to their inability to protect a lead. A&M held a double-digit lead in five of its six losses, including halftime leads of 20–3 vs. Oklahoma State and 34–17 vs. Arkansas in back-to-back games early in the season. Mike Sherman was dismissed after going 25–25 in his four seasons in College Station and has been replaced by former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who was recently hired to be the head coach at Fresno State, will serve as the Aggies’ interim coach in the bowl game.
Northwestern suffered through a five-game losing streak — including a defeat at Army — earlier this season but bounced back to win four straight and is headed to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. The Wildcats only beat one team with a winning record (Nebraska, on the road), but they have some quality pieces on offense, and they improved on defense as the season progressed.
WHEN TEXAS A&M HAS THE BALL:
The Aggies had plenty of issues this season — scoring points was not one of them. They currently rank 11th in the nation in scoring (39.6 ppg) thanks to their ability to move the ball on the ground (208.1 ypg) and through the air (287.9 ypg). Ryan Tannehill, in his first full season as the starter, has thrown for 3,415 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions (12 of which came in the Aggies’ six losses). Tannehill has three receivers — Ryan Swope, Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu — who caught at least 45 passes.
The A&M rushing attack will not, however, be at full strength. Christine Michael, who averaged just under 100 yards rushing per game, was sidelined in early November with a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Gray, who has five 100-yard games on his 2011 resume, is questionable with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go, sophomore Ben Malena will get the bulk of the carries.
Northwestern has struggled to stop the run and the pass for the majority of the 2011 season. The Wildcats gave up 30 points or more in six of their nine games against BCS opponents. It will be a surprise if A&M doesn’t score at least 35 points.
WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE BALL:
When healthy, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has been among the most dynamic playmakers in the Big Ten in the past two seasons. He isn’t as much of a running threat post-Achilles injury, but Persa is still able to tuck it and run. Where he really hurts a defense is with his accuracy; he has led the nation in completion percentage in two straight seasons, 73.5 percent in ‘10 and 74.3 percent this season. The Cats don’t have a ton of big-time playmakers on offense, but they do have a solid corps of pass-catchers who can move the chains.
The leading rusher is quarterback/receiver/super back Kain Colter, who has 660 yards and five scores on 79 attempts. He saw significant action at quarterback early in the season when Persa was making his way back from his Achilles injury.
Don’t expect to see Northwestern running the ball out of conventional alignments too often. The Wildcats’ tailbacks are average at best, and stopping the run is something the A&M defense does well. Northwestern will lean on Persa to make plays in the passing game.
Texas A&M senior kicker Randy Bullock leads the nation with 25 field goals (in 29 attempts), and he has made 10-of-12 from 40-49 yards and 1-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. He is a big weapon. Northwestern, on the other hand, has only made six field goals all season. Sophomore Jeff Budzien is 6-of-10, with a long of 47 yards.
Texas A&M was arguably the nation’s biggest underachiever in 2011. You have to question this team’s motivation, but there are some key seniors who would love to go out with a win in their final game. Northwestern will be scrappy, as usual, but the Wildcats will have a tough time slowing down the Aggies’ offense.
Texas A&M 37, Northwestern 28
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Date: Dec. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
The 23rd annual Insight Bowl will feature two teams that limped into the postseason. Iowa lost three of its last five, including the season finale against new rival Nebraska. However, the Hawkeyes own a three-game bowl winning streak after a win in this game over Missouri 27-24 last season.
Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, rolled through the first six weeks of the season unblemished before dropping three of its last six and two of its last three. An embarrassing 44-10 loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma State to cap the season further illustrated how far the Sooners have fallen. Like Iowa, however, the Crimson and Cream are riding a mini two-game bowl winning streak, including a dominating 48-20 Fiesta Bowl win over UConn last year.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL:
Bob Stoops’ defense has struggled to stop anything in the second half of the season, and his beleaguered unit will be tested by Kirk Ferentz’ offensive triplets. Quarterback James Vandenberg played efficient football in his first season as the starter, finishing with 26 total touchdowns and only six interceptions. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt produced one of the great receiving campaigns in Iowa history and now holds nearly every major school receiving record. He caught 78 passes for 1,269 yards — which included eight 100-yard efforts — and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Coker was expected to be the focal point of the offense for this bowl, but he was suspended due to a violation of team rules. He led the Big Ten in rushing attempts (281) and finished second in the league in rushing (115.3 ypg). Unfortunately though, somehow Iowa finished last in the league in rushing as Coker accounted for 80.7% of Iowa’s rushing offense this fall. Without Coker, it's anybody's guess who the Hawkeyes will turn to at running back. Freshmen Jordan Canzeri and DeAndre Johnson figure to get a bulk of carries, but don't count out junior Jason White.
The Hawkeye offensive line will be the key to success in Tempe. They couldn’t get a consistent push in the ground game all season and finished 74th in the nation in sacks allowed (2.2 sacks per game). Protecting Vandenberg and clearing space for one of the inexperienced backs will be the only way Iowa tops Oklahoma.
The good news for Ferentz has been the play of Oklahoma on defense of late. The Sooners defensive woes started on October 22 when they inexplicably lost to Texas Tech 41-38 at home. Before that game Oklahoma was allowing 116 yards rushing per game, 201 yards passing per game and only 15.8 points per game. They were leading the Big 12 in total and scoring defense. Since the loss to the Red Raiders, Oklahoma has allowed nearly 30 points per game, 286 yards passing and 163 yards rushing per game. They finished the year 3-3 in the final six and are nowhere near the BCS national title game.
WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL:
This was going to be a rebuilding year for Iowa on defense and it showed. They allowed 44 in a loss to Iowa State, 31 in a win over Northwestern, 37 in a loss to Michigan State and 22 in a loss to Minnesota. It certainly wasn’t a vintage Ferentz defense as Iowa finished last in the league in pass defense and no better than seventh in rushing, scoring, total and pass efficiency defense.
This means that Landry Jones and the Sooners offense — still sans Ryan Broyles — should be able to get back on track. The third-year starter at quarterback threw for 4,302 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. However, he managed only 506 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions over the final two weeks. The loss of Broyles has had a marked impact on the OU offense and it will fall to Kenny Stills, DeJuan Miller and a host of talented skill players to play better if the Sooners expect to win.
The football will certainly get passed around the offense. Aside from a receiving corps that is trying to find its stride after losing the most prolific receiver in NCAA history, running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay should all expect to see time in the backfield. This group has been trying to make up for the loss of Dominique Whaley — who had 627 yards and nine scores through the first six weeks of the season before being lost for the year to injury. Freshman Brandon Williams is also out, after transferring to Texas A&M.
Jones had plenty of talent to work with, both in the backfield and on the edge, so there is no reason why names like Stills and Finch cannot become dependable options in Sun Devil Stadium.
Oklahoma’s freshman kicker Mike Hunnicutt connected on 20-of-23 field goal attempts, including his last nine. Iowa’s Michael Meyer began the season by making 11-of-13 field goal tries before missing five of his last seven. Neither team should have a distinct advantage in the third phase of the game as both have been uninspiringly dependable in the punting game and both have struggled in the return game.
Even without Broyles and Whaley, this Oklahoma offense possesses enough firepower to score plenty of points on the Hawks. Will Vandenberg and the Iowa offense be able to take advantage of a besieged Sooner defense remains to be seen. If so, Iowa will keep this game close and make Stoops work for his third straight bowl win. If the Black and Old Gold offensive line fails to stand up to Frank Alexander and company, it could be a long day for Iowa fans.
Oklahoma 34, Iowa 24
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Utah Utes (7-5, 4-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
Date: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
The more things change the more they stay the same for Utah fans. In year one of Pac-12 play, Kyle Whittingham was able to extend his consecutive bowl streak to nine seasons — including two BCS bowl wins. The Utes have gone 7-1 over that span, but lost its last postseason game to Boise State 26-3 in the Las Vegas Bowl last season.
The Yellow Jackets are making their even more impressive 15th straight bowl appearance. Unfortunately, however, Georgia Tech has not capped a season with a bowl win in seven tries. Their last postseason win was 51-14 Champs Sports Bowl win over Syracuse in 2004. Tech lost to Air Force 14-7 last winter in the Independence Bowl.
Despite choking against Colorado in the season finale, the Utes won four of the last five to earn itself a trip to El Paso. The Jackets, on the other hand, started hot at 6-0 before struggling to a 2-4 second half finish, including a 31-17 drubbing at the hands of rival Georgia in the season finale.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL:
Tailback John White IV certainly proved he belonged in the Pac-12 in 2011. He led the league in attempts with 290 carries, finished second in the conference with 1,404 yards and his 14 touchdowns were good for third in the league. He left the Colorado game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. He appears to be healthy for the bowl game and will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Utes offensive attack.
It is a good thing Utah can run the ball with White, because Jordan Wynn’s replacement has struggled to complete passes. Junior college transfer Jon Hays finished 12th in Pac-12 in passer efficiency, throwing only nine touchdowns and 140.7 yards per game since taking over for Wynn. This team finished last in the league in total offense (308.7 ypg) and passing offense (171.6 ypg).
The good news is this is one of Paul Johnson’s worst defense since taking over in Atlanta. Georgia Tech finished 70th against the run (162.9 ypg) and 60th in scoring defense nationally (25.8 ppg).
WHEN GEORGIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
While Utah’s strength on offense matches-up nicely with Tech’s weakness on defense, quite the opposite will be true when the Yellow Jackets offense takes the field. The Johnson triple-option attack once again led the ACC in rushing, ranking third nationally by churning out 316.8 yards per game on the ground. Five different players topped the 400-yard mark and three went over 600. The Utes finished seventh in the nation in rushing defense (97.0 ypg), allowing the opposition to top 152 yards rushing only once (185, Washington). Georgia Tech rushed for 44 touchdowns this fall while Utah allowed a paltry six rushing scores. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
However, quarterback Tevin Washington is the fuel that makes the Tech engine purr. And he will need to be needed to complete passes to beat the stingy Ute defense. Over the first six games, he threw for 1,052 yards with ten touchdowns and only two interceptions. Tech was 6-0. Washington totaled 463 yards passing, never completed more than six passes in any game, topped the 100-yard mark once and posted a hideous 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tech went 2-4. He will have to be better through the air if Tech expects to snap its bowl losing streak.
Tech kicker Justin Moore missed only four of his 66 total kicks this season (9-of-12 FG, 53-of-53 XP). Utah kicker Coleman Peterson had been equally impressive, knocking through 17 of his 21 attempts — until the final weekend of play. He went 0-for-3 in the three-point loss to Colorado and will be looking for redemption in El Paso.
This is an extremely interesting match-up of strengths and weaknesses. Both quarterbacks have struggled to move the football in the air while both teams have excelled at pounding the football down the opposition’s throat. The biggest difference will be the Ute’s ability to slow the triple-option and force Washington to beat them with his arm. Meanwhile, Tech has allowed 99 points in its last three games and won’t have enough on defense to slow White IV. Whittingham’s bunch barely outlasts Johnson’s squad in a game that should easily feature more than 100 running plays.
Utah 24, Georgia Tech 20
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Music City Bowl
Wake Forest (6–6) vs. Mississippi State (6–6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Location: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Mississippi State is making its first trip to the Music City Bowl, leaving only Florida, South Carolina and LSU as the only SEC teams that have not spent the holidays in Nashville. The Bulldogs are saying all the right things, but this team no doubt expected to be in a bowl game in a warmer climate. Last year, MSU went 9–4 overall and capped off its season with a 52–14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. This fall, however, the Bulldogs had to win three of their final five games just to reach six wins and qualify for postseason play.
Wake Forest is back in a bowl game after a two-year hiatus, but the Demon Deacons aren’t exactly making the trip to Nashville with a ton of momentum. Wake won four of its first five games — highlighted by a 35–30 victory over Florida State — but managed only two more wins the rest of the way, at Duke and at home vs. Maryland. The season ended on a disappointing note when Vanderbilt dominated the Deacs, 41–7, in Winston-Salem. Jim Grobe’s club has a lot to prove as it prepares to play another team from the SEC.
WHEN WAKE FOREST HAS THE BALL:
The Deacons were dramatically improved on offense in 2011, thanks in large part to the emergence of Tanner Price at quarterback. The sophomore threw for 2,803 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions (and three of those came in one game). Price has two reliable targets in wideout Chris Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 yards receiving, and slot receiver Michael Campanaro (63 receptions). Wake was rather ordinary in the running game, ranking 96th in the nation. Josh Harris began the season as the No. 1 back, but he has missed significant time due to a hamstring injury. Brandon Pendergrass emerged as a reliable alternative and rushed for 750 yards on a 4.5-yard average.
The Deacs will have to be sharp to move the ball on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs only allowed two teams to score more than 24 points — Auburn scored 41 in September and Arkansas rolled up 44 in mid-November. Wake will do its best to move the ball on the ground, but Price will have to make some plays in the passing game.
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE BALL:
Mississippi State’s struggles this year are due mostly to its poor play on offense. Chris Relf emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC last season, but he did not have a productive senior season. Tyler Russell was given an opportunity to take over on several occasions but was never able to seize control of the position.
Dan Mullen has no issues with his No. 1 tailback. Vick Ballard was terrific as a senior, rushing for 1,009 yards and eight TDs on 179 attempts. And with Wake struggling to stop the run — the Deacs gave up an average of 220.8 yards in their final five games, including 297 vs. Vanderbilt — expect to see heavy doses of Ballard and LaDarius Perkins, a nice option as a change-of-pace back.
MSU does feature some playmakers at the wide receiver position — most notably Chad Bumphis — but it was difficult for this group to be much of a factor due to the inconsistent play from the quarterbacks.
MSU kicker Derek DePasquale was solid from close range (9-of-11 from inside 40 yards) but made only 2-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. Perkins averaged 23.3 yards on his 15 kickoff returns, and both Bumphis and Johnthan Banks each returned a punt for a touchdown.
Wake Forest doesn’t pose too much of a threat in the return game, though Camanero did return a punt 50 yards for a score. As a team, the Deacs only averaged 19.9 yards on kick returns. Placekicker Jimmy Newman made 16-of-20 attempts, only one longer than 40 yards.
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, a team that went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State. The key for the Bulldogs is Ballard; if the senior tailback can get it going early, Wake could have a tough time slowing down the MSU offense.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Champs Sports Bowl
Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)
Date: Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
In terms of name value, this bowl should be one of the most-anticipated non-BCS bowl matchups this season.
Notre Dame and Florida State both began the year with preseason top 10 hopes, but both teams struggled to meet expectations.
The Seminoles opened the year 2-0, but suffered a handful of key injuries in a 23-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. After losing to the Sooners, Florida State lost its next two games (Clemson and Wake Forest), before winning six out of the final seven contests.
With 16 starters returning and the second season under coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was expected to improve off its 8-5 record from 2009. The Irish seemed to have trouble getting out of their own way, especially early in the season. Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the season opener against South Florida and its defense collapsed in the final seconds of a 35-31 loss to Michigan. Although the Irish won eight out their next 10 games, the 0-2 start turned any BCS bowl hopes into a longshot.
These two teams have played six times, with Florida State owning a 4-2 edge in the series. The Seminoles and Irish met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with Florida State winning 31-26.
Considering both teams return most of its core next season, this game could be a springboard for another run at a top-10 finish in 2012.
WHEN FLORIDA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Injuries have affected the Seminoles’ offense in 2011, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior missed one game and was limited in others due to a shoulder injury suffered against Oklahoma. Manuel finished the year with 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns, but should be closer to 100 percent for the matchup against Notre Dame.
Not only has Manuel battled injuries most of the year, but his receiving corps has also been banged up. The injuries and youth prevented the Florida State passing attack from finding its rhythm most of the year. Freshman Rashad Greene leads the team with 33 receptions, while Rodney Smith ranks first with 527 receiving yards. Kenny Shaw, Bert Reed and Christian Green are all key contributors and each has at least 25 receptions this year. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another young weapon for Manuel, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked 34th nationally in pass defense, but much of their success on defense starts up front. The Irish averaged only 1.7 sacks a game, but there are a handful of potential gamechangers up front. Freshman Aaron Lynch finished second on the team with four sacks and also recorded one forced fumble. Linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the best in the college football and he collected 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles this year.
The Achilles’ heel for the Florida State offense this season has been the offensive line and rushing attack. The Seminoles ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense and averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. The offensive line also gave up 36 sacks – the worst total in the ACC.
Freshman Devonta Freeman leads the team with 531 yards and eight rushing scores. Jermaine Thomas ranked second on the team with 279 rushing yards, but has been ruled academically ineligible for this game. Freeman will see the bulk of the carries, but James Wilder and Ty Jones will also figure into the mix.
The Irish defense ranks 58th nationally against the run, but considering Florida State’s struggles in the trenches, they should be able to win this matchup.
Although the Seminoles don’t want to ignore their rushing game, they need to spread the field and take advantage of their speed and depth in the receiving corps.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL:
Just like Florida State, the Irish have dealt with question marks on offense for most of 2011.
Inconsistency at quarterback has prevented the Irish from finding their rhythm, as three players have taken snaps under center. Tommy Rees is expected to start the bowl game, but he was benched during the regular season finale at Stanford and tossed four picks over his final four games. Andrew Hendrix has thrown only 29 passes this season, but thanks to his mobility, gives Notre Dame’s offense a different look. Don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks see time.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have produced solid numbers this year. Floyd caught 95 yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert chipped in 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Cierre Wood became the first Irish back since Darius Walker in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns. With Jonas Gray out due to a torn ACL, receiver Theo Riddick may see more touches out of the backfield to spell Wood.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been solid all year, but it will be tested by Florida State’s defensive front. The Seminoles recorded 36 sacks this year, led by Brandon Jenkins (seven) and Bjoern Werner (six).
Considering the Irish’s struggles with turnovers, getting pressure on Rees or Hendrix is going to be crucial for Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles rank 19th nationally in pass defense, so passing opportunities for Rees will be limited.
Although Florida State is allowing only 81.8 yards per game on the ground, Notre Dame has to try to establish its rushing attack and limit the pressure on Rees.
The edge in this department goes to Florida State.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins was a Groza finalist after connecting on 20 of 25 field goals. He nailed 6 of 9 attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Shawn Powell was one of the best in the nation this year, averaging 47 yards per punt and placing 21 inside of the 20.
The Seminoles are in great shape on returns, as Greg Reid is averaging 11.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a touchdown. Reid, Karlos Williams and Lamarcus Joyner will see time on kickoffs, with each averaging over 24 yards per return.
Notre Dame isn’t as strong as Florida State on special teams, but this isn’t a complete weakness either.
Kicker David Ruffer has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year, while punter Ben Turk is averaging 40.2 yards per punt.
Freshman George Atkinson III has ignited the Irish kickoff returns this season, averaging 27.4 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Notre Dame has struggled to get anything going on punt returns, which could open the door for Michael Floyd to see more time in this department.
The defenses should control the tempo of this game, which should make points at a premium.
Although Florida State hasn’t been perfect in the turnover department, it has been better than Notre Dame. Expect the Seminoles’ defense to force a few turnovers, putting their offense in short-field situations.
Notre Dame’s edge in the front seven will harass EJ Manuel, but the Seminoles’ offense will do just enough to win.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 20
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 3:20 p.m. ET
Location: Yankee Stadium, New York City, N.Y.
The second annual Pinstripe Bowl will feature two teams that have never met on the college gridiron. Both Iowa State and Rutgers missed out on a postseason experience in 2010 but have returned to the bowl scene in 2011. Iowa State, who is 3-7 all-time in bowl games, beat Minnesota 14-13 in the 2009 Insight Bowl its last trip to a bowl while Rutgers topped UCF 45-23 in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl the last time the Knights went to the postseason. The Knights have won four straight bowl appearances and are 4-2 all-time — with five of those showing coming under current head coach Greg Schiano.
However, both teams enter the bowl season on the skids. The Cyclones lost its final two games of the regular season to Oklahoma and Kansas State after the monumental home upset of Oklahoma State. Rutgers, who will play its second game at Yankee Stadium this year, got inexplicably blown out by UConn 40-22 in the final regular season contest.
In the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, Syracuse topped Kansas State 36-34 in one of the most exciting (and unfortunate) games of the bowl season last winter. With two of the worst offenses in the postseason, last year’s offensive fireworks are highly unlikely.
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Steele Jantz began the season as a cult hero in Ames after a triple-overtime thriller over Iowa in which he threw four touchdowns. But in the process of another stellar win over UConn, Jantz sprained his foot and was never the same — turning the ball over five times in the next three games. With Jantz struggling, coach Paul Rhoads turned to redshirt freshman Jared Barnett. The dual-threat won his first three starts including the miracle upset of Oklahoma State in which he accounted for 376 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and three total touchdowns.
Barnett rushed for 348 yards in his five starts and brings the ability to move the ball on the ground as well as through the air. He is responsible for leading the two best offensive performances of the season for Iowa State (568 yards against Oklahoma State and 512 against Texas Tech). Combined with the team's leading rusher, James White (701 yards, 8 TD), the Cyclones will undoubtedly look to take advantage of the Big East’s worst rush defense. At over 180 yards per game on the ground, this is easily the strength of the Iowa State attack.
That said, Iowa State finished last in the Big 12 in passing efficiency and will have to complete passes against the Knights’ conference leading pass defense if it expects to win. Rutgers has allowed a stingy, Big East-best 18.8 points per game in 2011.
WHEN RUTGERS HAS THE BALL:
To say that running the football was a struggle for the Knights in 2011 would be an understatement. As a team, Rutgers rushed for five total yards or less on four different occasions this season and miraculously won two of those games. Schiano will turn to a number of players to attempt to improve on the -9 total yards rushing Rutgers posted in the season finale loss to UConn. The good news? Iowa State is ranked 100th nationally at over 195 yards allowed per game. Look for a heavy dose of Jawan Jamison, who rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts in the 20-3 win over Cincinnati on November 19.
While Rutgers has struggled on offense all season (and Iowa State the same on defense), one player who has proven his talent is Knights’ wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The physically superior star athlete finished sixth in the nation at over nine catches per game (109 for the season) and will be a nightmare match-up for any Cyclone. Look for whoever is under center, be it sophomore Chas Dodd or freshman Gary Nova, to get the ball to No. 6 early and often.
Neither team will have much of an advantage in the third phase of the game. Both struggle to return or cover punts while both teams are solid in the kickoff return game. Although, Iowa State may have a slight advantage when it lines up for field goals. Cyclone kicker Zach Guyer only missed 25% of his attempts (9 of 12 FGM) this season where Rutgers’ San San Te missed 10 field goal kicks (18 of 28 FGM).
Don’t expect a bunch of beautifully executed big plays on offense in this one. At least three quarterbacks figure to see the field and points should be a premium. This feels like a sloppy affair with Rutgers winning behind one big play from the best player on either team: Mohamed Sanu.
Rutgers 17, Iowa State 14
by Mark Ross
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Date: Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Former conference foes will meet up once again when BYU and Tulsa face off on Dec. 30 at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas. From 1996-99 the two schools were in the WAC together and this game represents the eighth time they will play each other.
BYU is finishing its first season as a FBS Independent and come into this game having won eight of its nine and have scored 41 points or more in its last three contests. Tulsa had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Houston in its final game of the regular season and during that streak averaged 42 points per game. So by all accounts, there should be plenty of offensive firepower on display, fittingly, at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.
This is the seventh straight year BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to a postseason appearance in his seven years at the helm. The Cougars are 4-2 in bowl games under Mendenhall, including last year’s 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This is the second straight bowl appearance for Tulsa, who defeated Hawaii 62-35 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane’s first under head coach Bill Blakenship, who took over the reigns from Todd Graham this season. Tulsa also has won the last three bowl games it has played in, averaging 56.6 points per game during this streak.
BYU comes into this game with one more win than Tulsa, but of the Cougars’ nine wins only one of them was against a team that is playing in a bowl. The Cougars went 1-3 against bowl teams this season, defeating Utah State (who is playing in the Potato Bowl), while losing to TCU (Poinsettia), Texas (Holiday), and Utah (Sun).
On the other hand, Tulsa played six bowl teams and went 2-4 against them with all four of their losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time — Boise State (playing in the Las Vegas Bowl), Houston (TicketCity), Oklahoma (Insight) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta). So at least on paper, Tulsa has played the much more difficult schedule.
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL:
BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Riley Nelson. Nelson, a junior, assumed the starting role from sophomore Jake Heaps halfway through the season and hasn’t relinquished it since. Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes on the season for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Nelson suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, forcing him to the following week’s game. He returned for the Cougars’ season finale against Hawaii and set career highs for pass attempts (37), completions (25) and yards (363) to go along with three touchdowns in BYU’s 41-20 win on the road.
Nelson appears healthy and primed to take advantage of a Tulsa defense that’s given up an average of 289.3 passing yards per game. That ranks the Golden Hurricane 118th out 120 FBS schools in the nation.
Overall, BYU’s offense is averaging 410.8 yards per game. Of that total, 165.8 yards per game are gained on the ground. The Cougars’ rushing attack is more of a committee with five different players having more than 200 yards on the season, including Nelson, who has rushed for 376 yards.
The leading rusher is senior running back J.J. Di Luigi who has 546 yards and three touchdowns. Di Luigi has combined with sophomore Michael Alisa to rush for 1,001 yards and six scores. Senior running back Brian Kariya leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Much like the ground game, the Cougars’ aerial attack is fairly balanced as well with nine different players having at least 11 receptions and 10 with at least one touchdown reception.
BYU’s leading pass catcher is sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 821 yards. Hoffman also has seven touchdowns, second to freshman wideout Ross Apo’s nine. Four different Cougar tight ends have caught touchdowns as well, further evidence of BYU’s tendency to spread the ball around.
The Cougars’ offensive line has done a good job of keeping the quarterback as they are tied for 25th in the country for fewest sacks allowed with just 14 on the season. The line will need to maintain this consistency against Tulsa’s defense, which is averaging two sacks per game, and especially since Nelson is just over a month removed from sustaining those lung and rib injuries.
Someone BYU’s offense should keep a close eye on is Tulsa linebacker Curnelius Arnick. The senior is a tackling machine as his 91 solo tackles were the third highest total in the nation and his 142 total stops were tied for fifth. Not surprisingly, Arnick was named first team All-Conference USA.
WHEN TULSA HAS THE BALL:
Tulsa has the 24th-ranked offense in the country when it comes to total offense, averaging more than 450 yards per game. It’s a fairly balanced attack, one that averages 204.6 yards rushing and 249.8 yards passing per contest.
The Golden Hurricane attack is led by senior quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne has started 37 consecutive games and is 23-14 as the Golden Hurricane’s starter. The 2010 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kinne currently ranks second in Tulsa history in total offense and touchdown passes and is third in passing yards.
This season Kinne, a second team all-conference selection, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kinne, like BYU’s Nelson, is also a capable runner, having gained more than 400 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Kinne is one of three Tulsa playmakers with 108 or more carries this season. The team’s leading rusher is sophomore Ja’Terian Douglas, who has 884 yards on just 108 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average leads the entire nation.
Trey Watts leads the team with 147 carries and is second in rushing yards with 843 yards. Together Douglas, Watts and Kinne have combined for 2,132 rushing yards, which is more than BYU has as a team (1,990). And that number doesn’t include junior running back Alex Singleton, who has 279 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
Just like BYU, Tulsa likes to spread the ball around. Fourteen different Tulsa players have caught at least one pass this season and the team’s leading receiver is a running back. Junior H-back Willie Carter has nearly five times as many receptions (61) as he does carries (13) this season. He finished sixth in Conference USA in receiving yards (868) and he also caught seven touchdowns. Watts also has caught three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Junior wide receiver Bryan Burnham leads the way with eight touchdown receptions and is second on the team in catches (50) and yards (737). Tight end Clay Sears also is a popular target for Kinne and comes into this game with 35 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns.
BYU’s defense comes into this game ranked No. 17 in the nation, surrendering less than 317 yards per game. The Cougars have given up less than 119 yards on the ground and 200 yards through the air on average.
This season BYU has faced two other teams that are averaging close to Tulsa’s 454.4 yards per game in TCU (443.9) and Utah State (458.7). The Cougars went 1-1 in those games, defeating Utah State 27-24 and losing to TCU 38-28. The interesting thing is that they actually gave up more yards to the Aggies (406) than they did to the Horned Frogs (283), but in both games they held the opponent to less than their season averages. It remains to be seen if they can do the same thing to the Golden Hurricane.
Neither BYU’s nor Tulsa’s special teams units stand out, statistically speaking. BYU has returned one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown, while Tulsa has one special teams touchdown on a 94-yard kickoff return by Watts.
Tulsaappears to have the edge when it comes to placekicking with first team All-Conference USA kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior was the conference’s most accurate kicker, missing just two of his 17 field goal attempts, and made all three of his attempts from 50 yards and longer. On the other side, BYU’s Justin Sorensen made all 45 of his PAT attempts, but only 14 of 24 field goal attempts.
BYU comes into this game with more wins, but Tulsa played a more difficult schedule, both non-conference and as a Conference USA member, than the Independent Cougars. BYU’s defense has played well and has the statistics to support this; including giving up just over 20 points per game, but containing Tulsa’s potent offense will be a difficult task.
On the other hand, BYU’s offense has been productive in its own right and its overall numbers (410.8 yards and 30.6 points per game) aren’t too far behind those of Tulsa.
The difference lies with the defenses. Tulsa’s defense comes into this game surrendering more than 420 yards and nearly 28 points per game, and is the third-worst in the nation when it comes to defending the pass.
It is fair to say that Tulsa comes from a conference known for offenses which, along with its own offensive philosophy and production, could explain some of its defensive numbers. But the flip side of that is other than Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa hasn’t played any teams known for their defense, either. So the real question is this — is BYU’s defense more likely to slow down Tulsa’s offense or can the Cougars feast on the Golden Hurricane’s defense?
In the end, I think it will be a little of both as BYU will gain plenty of yards and points on the board on offense, while the defense will slow down Tulsa just enough and come up with a big play of its own in the fourth quarter to help seal a close, hard-fought victory.
BYU 34, Tulsa 31
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The 2012 preseason college football top 25 is already starting to take shape. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has decided to return for another season, making the Trojans one of the early favorites to win the national title next season. Athlon has already released a very early top 25 for 2012, but as expected, underclassmen entering the NFL Draft will have a major impact on how the next release of the poll looks in mid-January.
Here some key players to watch as the underclassmen deadline approaches on Jan. 15, 2012 and how it could impact the national title race next season:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball put together a monster junior campaign, rushing for 1,759 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 20 receptions for 255 yards and six scores. Ball is regarded as a likely second-round pick if he declares for the draft.
If Ball leaves: Wisconsin always seems to crank out productive running backs, so losing Ball isn’t going to completely shut down the rushing attack. James White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but compiled only 683 yards and six scores in 2011. White will get first crack at replacing Ball, but Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis will also figure into the mix.
If Ball stays: Wisconsin is losing quarterback Russell Wilson and will have to replace the right side of the line. However, if Ball returns, it would give the Badgers a workhorse at running back and someone who can carry the offense until a new quarterback settles into the position. Also, with Ohio State’s bowl ban next season, Wisconsin is the early frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu garnered the Heisman hype, but Claiborne might be the better cover corner. He picked off a team-high six passes and broke up six others. Claiborne also recorded 46 tackles.
If Claiborne leaves: Even if Claiborne leaves for the NFL, the LSU secondary will remain one of the best in college football. Mathieu will likely earn All-American honors in the preseason, while safeties Eric Reid, Craig Loston and Tharold Simon are all solid contributors. Losing Claiborne is a big blow, but the LSU defense will remain strong.
If Claiborne stays: It’s early to etch this in stone, but if Claiborne stays, LSU should have the best defensive backfield in the nation. Claiborne and Mathieu should be one of the top cornerback tandems, while the safety position remains in good shape with Loston, Reid and Simon returning.
Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor
Griffin raised the bar at Baylor, leading the Bears to their first nine-win season since 1986. He passed for 3,998 yards and 36 scores, while adding 644 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Griffin claimed the school’s first Heisman trophy and earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If Griffin leaves: Thanks to coach Art Briles, Baylor is in a better position to absorb the loss of any player. The Bears have earned back-to-back bowl bids, and Griffin’s successor will have talent to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Nick Florence will likely get the call to start if Griffin departs, but Bryce Petty will also get a chance to compete. If Griffin leaves, Baylor won’t start 2012 in the preseason top 25.
If Griffin stays: If Griffin returns, Baylor should begin the year in many preseason top 25 rankings. The Bears were ranked No. 21 in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. Repeating as Heisman winner won’t be easy, but Griffin will have a chance, especially with Baylor expected to compete for a finish in the top four or five of the Big 12. The offense will miss dynamic receiver Kendall Wright, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson is a good trio to build around.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Even after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, James led the nation with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game. He finished with 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with posting an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. James also earned first-team All-Pac-12 conference honors.
If James leaves: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that James is leaving. What else can he really accomplish? Although he has yet to win a Heisman or national title, James has recorded 746 carries in his career and there’s only so much workload a running back can handle in his career. The Ducks are in great shape at running back, with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson returning. The Ducks will miss James’ explosiveness, but the offense shouldn’t drop off too much.
If James stays: If James makes the surprising decision to stick around in Eugene, Oregon’s offense will be one of the best in college football. He will also earn preseason first-team All-America honors and should be one of the frontrunners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery’s 2011 production didn’t live up to the preseason hype. He caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine scores in 2010, but watched his production slump to 45 receptions for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. The dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia significantly contributed to Jeffery’s decrease in catches this season.
If Jeffery leaves: The Gamecocks have talent in the receiving corps, but there’s no go-to guy like Jeffery waiting in the wings. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones would have to pickup more slack for quarterback Connor Shaw. If Jeffery departs, expect South Carolina to lean even more on running back Marcus Lattimore to carry the offense.
If Jeffery stays: Give Shaw and Jeffery an offseason to work and this connection should be much better in 2012. If he returns, Jeffery could begin next season on many first-team All-SEC ballots. The Gamecocks will be in contention for the SEC East title next season and getting Jeffery back will be a huge boost to those championship hopes.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last season, Jones had a disappointing 2011 campaign. He threw 4,302 yards and only 28 touchdowns, while tossing 14 picks. Also, he did not throw a touchdown pass in the final three regular season games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners began 2011 as one of the top picks to win the national title. However, a 9-3 record was a major disappointment for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
If Jones leaves: With Matt Barkley’s decision to stick around at USC, Jones has to be moving up the quarterback draft boards for NFL scouts. Will that be enough to convince him to leave early? Blake Bell saw limited action for Oklahoma this season and would be the early frontrunner to replace Jones. The Sooners are the very early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012, but without Jones, they could lose their grip on the top spot.
If Jones stays: Considering how poorly Jones performed over the final three regular season games, there’s a strong chance he returns for 2012. If he comes back, the Sooners should be the early favorite to win the Big 12. However, Jones can’t do it all alone and needs receivers other than Kenny Stills to step up next year.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is one of college football's most physical cover corners. He earned first-team All-American honors by the FWAA and recorded 26 tackles and nine passes broken up this year.
If Kirkpatrick leaves: The Alabama secondary is already getting hit hard by departures, as safety Mark Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will expire their eligibility at the end of the year. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are already going to be dealing with some key losses in this group next year, so Kirkpatrick's departure will only add more concern for coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Assuming Kirkpatrick is gone, Dee Milliner and John Fulton will have to take on a bigger role in the defensive backfield.
If Kirkpatrick stays: Kirkpatrick is considered a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft and will be among the first 15 picks off the board. Considering where Kirkpatrick is expected to go, it will be a major surprise if he returns in 2012. However, if he returns to Tuscaloosa, Kirkpatrick will be a lock for preseason All-American honors and help to keep Alabama's secondary among the best in the nation.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington (Declared for draft on Jan. 2)
Polk has quietly been one of the most impressive running backs in college football over the last three seasons. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, totaling 3,902 yards and 25 rushing scores during that span. Polk has also caught 77 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns in his career.
If Polk leaves: Polk is believed to be 50-50 on whether to return to school or enter the NFL Draft. Losing Polk would be a blow to a Washington team that is poised to contend for a spot in the top 25 next season. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey combined for 451 yards and two scores this season and would get first crack at replacing Polk. Deontae Cooper is another name to watch, but has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries.
If Polk stays: The Huskies are poised to crack the top 25 next season – if Polk sticks around. The offense will be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with quarterback Keith Price and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returning. If Polk returns, he should be a lock for first-team All-Pac-12 honors and deserves preseason All-American honors.
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Richardson was the workhorse for the Alabama offense in 2011, rushing for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also added 27 receptions for 327 yards and three scores and finished third in Heisman voting.
If Richardson leaves: Losing Richardson would be a huge setback for the Alabama offense, but not something unexpected. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler combined for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and would be forced to take on a bigger role in 2012. Dee Hart missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL, but his return will add a speedy, change of pace option into the backfield. If Richardson leaves as expected, look for quarterback AJ McCarron to carry more of the offense next year.
If Richardson stays: The chances of Richardson returning are very, very small. The junior is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and other than winning a Heisman, doesn’t have much left to accomplish. Just like other running backs considering making the jump, there’s only so much wear and tear and carries they can make in their career. If Richardson decides to stay, it will be a boost to Alabama’s national title hopes next season. The Crimson Tide would have one of the top backfields in college football, and Richardson would begin the year as a preseason first-team All-American running back.
David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
In his first full season as Virginia Tech’s No. 1 back, Wilson rushed for 1,627 yards and nine scores. He also added 21 receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown. With a new quarterback (Logan Thomas) starting this year, the Hokies leaned heavily on Wilson early in the year. He was named the 2011 ACC Player of the Year.
If Wilson leaves: There’s a strong chance Wilson enters the NFL Draft, and the backfield depth (or lack thereof) behind him is a little scary. Tony Gregory has 129 yards in two seasons and would figure to get the first opportunity to win the No. 1 running back spot. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes will also figure into the mix, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen. Quarterback Logan Thomas played better as the year progressed and if Wilson leaves, he will become the focal point of the offense.
If Wilson stays: Virginia Tech has claimed the Coastal Division title four out of the last five years and should be the favorite in 2012. And Wilson returning would certainly solidify the Hokies place atop the division. There’s very little proven depth behind Wilson, so his return would boost Virginia Tech’s offense and chances of playing for the national title next year.
Five More Names to Watch
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama - Hightower is one of the leaders for Alabama's defense, especially helping to get everyone aligned and in position before the snap. He led the team with 81 tackles and collected 9.5 tackles for a loss. Hightower will be a first-round pick if he decides to leave early and his departure would be a huge blow for Alabama's defense.
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech - Hosley earned second-team All-ACC honors this year, after collecting 59 tackles and picking off three passes. He also helped Virginia Tech rank first in the conference pass efficiency defense. Hosley will likely go in the first round if he declares for the 2012 NFL Draft. He declared for the NFL Draft after the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State - Jenkins has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in college football over the last two years, registering 20.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss. Although Bjoern Werner has emerged as a solid defensive linemen for Florida State, Jenkins will be a big loss if he declares.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama - Jones is one of the most valuable and versatile linemen in the nation. He announced his intentions to return to Alabama in late December and could move to center next season.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College - The 2011 Butkus Award winner is the heart and soul of the Boston College defense. Kuechly is a lock for first-team All-American honors should he return to the Eagles in 2012.
Other Underclassmen that Could Declare for the 2012 NFL Draft
Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
Robert Lester, S, Alabama
Ronnell Lewis, DE, Oklahoma
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Already Declared for 2012 NFL Draft
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
Marcus Forston, DT, Miami
Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest
Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Terrell Manning, LB, NC State
Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina
Nick Perry, DE, USC
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Chris Polk, RB, Washington
Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida
Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
Brandon Washington, OG/OT, Miami
Returning to College in 2012
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Texas (7–5) vs. California (7–5)
Date: Dec. 28, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Will the Holiday Bowl be Mack Brown’s last game as head coach at Texas? Following back-to-back mediocre seasons, the additional pressure of the ESPN Longhorn Network venture and no near- or long-term solution at quarterback, Brown retirement rumors have been swirling around burnt orange country lately.
Those rumors are not true, however, according to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. “Anything you are hearing, absolutely nothing about it is true,” Dodds told The Associated Press. “I’ve never seen him more energized and excited about the future.”
The 60-year-old former BCS national champ has a 2–1 record in the Holiday Bowl since taking over at Texas in 1998 — defeating Washington, 47–43, in 2001; losing to Washington State, 28–20, in 2003; and taking down Arizona State, 52–34, in 2007.
On the other side, Jeff Tedford is 1–1 in the Holiday Bowl since arriving at Cal in 2002 — falling to Texas Tech, 45–31, in Aaron Rodgers’ last collegiate game in 2004 and dominating Texas A&M, 45–10, in 2006.
WHEN TEXAS HAS THE BALL:
Neither Case McCoy (1,034 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs) nor David Ash (937 yards, 3 TDs, 8 INTs) will make anyone forget about Vince Young or Colt McCoy — a pair of UT gunslingers who spoiled the fan base during their unbelievable BCS bowl-laden seven-year reign. The Horns have the nation’s 85th-ranked passing offense and, as a team, have thrown more INTs (15) than TDs (14) this season.
Texas’ most dangerous playmakers are true freshmen. Running back Malcolm Brown (707 yards, 5 TDs) is the team’s leading rusher. But turf toe tackled Brown late in the season, causing the frosh to miss three of the final five games and limiting him to just 72 yards in the two games he did play. Receiver Jaxon Shipley — Jordan’s little brother — also missed three of the last five contests with a knee injury. But he bounced back with a four-catch, 121-yard effort in a loss to Baylor in the season finale and should be good to go in the bowl.
Cal has the 36th-ranked rush defense, allowing 130.33 yards per game and 16 rush TDs this season. Texas’ ground attack — led by Brown, Joe Bergeron (454 yards, 5 TDs), Fozzy Whittaker (386 yards, 6 TDs), D.J. Monroe (326 yards) and Cody Johnson (5 TDs) — could give the Golden Bears trouble. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks and end Trevor Guyton lead a Cal defense that held three Pac-12 opponents to 10 or fewer points.
WHEN CALIFORNIA HAS THE BALL:
Tedford is known for his quarterbacks but the offensive guru also keeps a top-flight running back on his roster at all times. Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) follows in the fleet footsteps of Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch.
The one-two punch of Sofele and C.J. Anderson (343 yards, 8 TDs) may have a tough time running against Texas’ 11th-ranked rush defense, which allows just 103.67 yards per game. First-year UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is one of the top young assistants in the game and his stop-unit will be counted on to carry the Longhorns. Take away Texas’ three blowout losses — to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor — and Diaz’s defense allowed an average of only 15.3 points in their nine other games.
But Texas was susceptible to the pass — O-State, OU and Baylor were the nation’s second-, fourth- and fifth-best passing offenses. First-team All-Pac-12 receiver Keenan Allen (1,261 yards, 6 TDs) could be the X-factor. If quarterback Zach Maynard (2,802 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs) can find Allen and Marvin Jones (758 yards, 3 TDs) down the field, the Bears could claw the Horns’ defense and scratch out a win in the Holiday Bowl.
Texas’ neon-Nike’d kicker and punter Justin Tucker has been a hero all season long and was carried off the field following his 40-yard game-winning boot to beat Texas A&M as time expired in the Aggies’ final Big 12 game before joining the SEC. Tucker is 17-of-20 on field goals, with a long of 52. If the game comes down to a kick, the wild child senior has proven capable of coming through in the clutch.
Cal punter Bryan Anger is the best in the west, with a 44.6-yard average and 18-of-46 punts dropping inside the 20-yard-line. With field position being crucial to Texas’ plodding offense, Anger’s ability to flip the field could make him the MVP.
Texas’ stingy, swarming defense keeps the Longhorns in the game until the end, putting Tucker in position to nail another game-winning field goal. Brown will end 2011 with a win. The question is whether or not the Holiday Bowl will be his last victory wearing burnt orange and leading Longhorn Nation?
Texas 26, California 24
by Nathan Rush