Articles By Steven Lassan
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
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Toledo (8–4) vs. Air Force (7–5)
Date: Dec. 29 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: RFK Stadium, Washington D.C.
High-flying Toledo heads to the nation’s capital with one of the most explosive offenses in college football. The Rockets, however, will not have their (former) coach, Tim Beckman, who was hired last week to replace Ron Zook at Illinois. The man in charge now is 32-year-old Matt Campbell, who was promoted to the top job after a successful two-year run as UT’s offensive coordinator. Campbell will lead a confident Toledo team that has won seven of its past eight games. The Rockets tied for the MAC West title with a 7–1 record but lost the tie-breaker to Northern Illinois. Toledo lost earlier in the year at Ohio State by five points and would have defeated Syracuse if not for a botched call on an extra point.
Air Force is back in a bowl game for the fifth straight year, but the 2011 season was a bit of a disappointment for the Falcons. Expected to be a factor in the Mountain West, AFA went 3–4 in league play to finish alone in fifth place. The Falcons won seven games but did not defeat a team that ended the season with a winning record. Their best win was over rival Navy, which went 5–7. The main issue for Troy Calhoun’s team has been on defense. Air Force can’t stop the run (113th in the nation) and have trouble generating big plays (118th in tackles for a loss and 93rd in sacks).
WHEN TOLEDO HAS THE BALL:
The Rockets averaged 42.3 points per game for the season (first in the MAC and eighth in the nation) and an incredible 52.8 over the final six games. The offense is balanced; Toledo is one of only two teams (Nevada is the other) that averaged over 220 yards rushing and over 270 yards passing. The Rockets played two quarterbacks for much of the season — juniors Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin — but Owens got all of the snaps in the final two games while Dantin recovered from a concussion. Both are available for the bowl game.
Adonis Thomas leads the rushing attack. He ran for 963 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing three full games and the majority of another with a broken arm. He averaged 162 yards in his final four games
As mentioned, Toledo can beat you through the air or on the ground, but expect to see a heavy dose of the ground game against an Air Force defense that was torched for 348 yards rushing in its season-finale against Colorado State and 259 the week before vs. UNLV.
WHEN AIR FORCE HAS THE BALL:
As expected, Air Force does most of its damage on the ground. The Falcons rank second in the nation in rushing (320.3 ypg) and 113th in passing (138.5 ypg). Quarterback Tim Jefferson was relatively efficient throwing the ball (60.1 percent, 12 TDs, six INTs), but that is simply not a big part of the team’s attack. Only twice this season was Jefferson asked to throw the ball more than 16 times, and, not surprisingly, the Falcons lost both of those games.
Jefferson was solid on the ground (492 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns), but the Falcons were led by halfback Asher Clark, who ran for 1,134 yards and six touchdowns, and fullback Mike DeWitt, who added 543 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Toledo’s defense was strong against the run in 2011, allowing only 123.2 yards per game, but the option figures to pose a big challenge.
Toledo’s kickers, Ryan Casano and Jeremiah Detmer, combined to make 15-of-18 field goal attempts. Casano made all 10 of his tries from inside 40 yards while Detmer was 3-of-3 from 40 and beyond. Air Force, too, was solid in the kicking game, with junior Parker Herrington connecting on 15-of-18. Neither team does anything that stands out in the return game.
Air Force has won two straight bowl games, beating a pass-first team in Houston in 2009 and a run-based option team in Georgia Tech in ’10. Toledo might not be as talented as either the ’09 Houston Cougars or ’10 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, but the Rockets’ balance on offense will be too much for the Falcons to stop.
Toledo 35, Air Force 27
by Rob Doster
Little Caesars Bowl
Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6)
Date: Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: Ford Field, Detroit. Mich.
Purdue has a chance to post its first winning season since 2007, and the Boilers face a similar challenge to the one they encountered that season: needing a win in Detroit over a MAC team with a potent offense. That year, Purdue beat Central Michigan 51–48 in the Motor City Bowl, and the Boilers may need a similar offensive output this time around. Purdue, which never won as many as two games in a row during the regular season, ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed (26.4 ppg) but did earn a couple of clutch wins down the stretch to eke out bowl eligibility, most notably a 26–23 overtime win over Ohio State, finishing third in the Leaders Division at a respectable 4–4. Now they face a Western Michigan team that averaged 49.3 ppg over its last four outings, a 3–1 stretch marred only by a 66–63 loss to Toledo.
The game presents an intriguing contrast in styles: Western Michigan's all-out aerial assault against a Purdue team that prefers a more balanced approach. Boilers coach Danny Hope will be feeling the pressure to get that elusive seventh win to turn down the simmering heat starting to build in West Lafayette.
WHEN WESTERN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:
Broncos quarterback Alex Carder is the best player you may never have heard of. The strong-armed junior threw for 3,434 yards and 28 touchdowns, including four games of 400-plus yards and a 548-yard, seven-touchdown performance in the loss to Toledo. Carder, who's battling a shoulder injury, keys a passing attack that produced 329 yards per game, many of them coming on throws to receiver Jordan White, who led the Football Bowl Subdivision in receptions (127) and yards (1,646) and caught 16 touchdown passes. The Broncos' air-oriented offense managed only 127.4 yards per game on the ground, so look for Purdue to try to disguise coverages and dial up pressure packages to hurry Carder into mistakes.
WHEN PURDUE HAS THE BALL:
Stoppable force meets movable object; Purdue ranked 79th nationally in total offense, while Western Michigan ranked No. 100 in total defense. Quarterback Caleb TerBush had an up-and-down season highlighted by a two-touchdown performance in a 21–14 over then-No. 23 Illinois, the Boilers' first win over a ranked opponent of the Danny Hope era. But the Boilers will be wise to establish the ground game to chew clock and keep Carder off the field. Purdue averaged a respectable 174.7 yards per game on the ground and will be facing a run defense that ranked No. 107, yielding 215.9 ypg. However, the Boilermakers will be without running back Ralph Bolden, who suffered a torn ACL in the season finale.
The Broncos' White is a dangerous punt returner as well as receiver, averaging 13.1 yards per return. Purdue's Raheem Mostert ranked eighth nationally in kickoff returns (31.0). Both teams boast reliable kickers in John Potter (Western Michigan), who was 15-of-21, and Carson Wiggs, who was 16-of-21, including a 4-of-4 performance in the bowl-clinching 33–25 win over Indiana.
Western Michigan hasn't beaten a Big Ten team since 2008, losing its last six against its BCS big brothers. That's a significant mental obstacle to overcome, even though this is an eminently winnable game for the Broncos. Look for the Boilers to try to control the game on the ground and limit Carder's opportunities.
Purdue 31, Western Michigan 28
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Louisville (7–5) vs. NC State (7–5)
Date: Dec. 27 at 8 p.m.
Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
We knew Charlie Strong could recruit, and we knew he could run an outstanding defense. Now, we know the man is a terrific head coach. In his second season at Louisville, Strong guided a team that was predicted by most to finish near the bottom of the Big East to a share of the league title. The Cardinals overcame a slow start — they were 2–4 with home losses to FIU and Marshall after six games — and won five of their final six regular-season games, including their final three on the road. An offense that stagnated early in the year scored 27 points or more in four of the final five games.
NC State, too, played well late in the season — and the Pack beat some quality teams along the way. In a five-week span, Tom O’Brien’s club won at Virginia, shut out rival North Carolina, 13–0, and pounded eventual ACC champ, 37–13. This late-season push quieted rumors about O’Brien’s job security; he lost seven games in each of his first three seasons but is 16–9 since the start of the ’10 campaign.
WHEN LOUISVILLE HAS THE BALL:
Strong handed the offense over to true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in early October. The Cards lost Bridgewater’s first three starts — though he played well statistically — then got on a roll in late October beginning with a win at home vs. Rutgers. Bridgewater’s overall numbers won’t wow you — 1,855 yards passing with 12 TDs and nine INTs — but he did a solid job running the offense and did not throw more than one interception in any of his final eight starts.
The Cardinals used three tailbacks throughout the 2011 season, with Dominique Brown (131 attempts), Vic Anderson (99) and Jeremy Wright (72) all getting significant work at various points. Wright was the only U of L back to have more than 100 yards in any game (108 vs. Rutgers). NC State had trouble stopping the run early in the season but did a much better job late in year, holding North Carolina to three yards, Boston College to 72 and Clemson to 34. It will be important for Louisville to run the ball well to take pressure off of Bridgewater, who will be operating against an NC State defense that led the nation with 24 interceptions.
WHEN NC STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Mike Glennon had a fine season, but he is not Russell Wilson — something that NC State fans were reminded of on a weekly basis. Glennon, a junior, threw for 2,790 yards with 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first full season as the starter. He was forced to carry much of the load because the Pack struggled to get the running game going. With Mustafa Greene out for the year with a foot injury, James Washington emerged as the primary ball-carrier. He had his moments — 131 yards vs. Georgia Tech, 110 vs. UNC — but he averaged a rather ordinary 4.0 yards per carry.
Statistically, Louisville was among the stingiest defensive teams in the nation, allowing only 19.2 points and 327.8 yards per game, but the Cards did not face too many top-flight offenses. The Pack should be able to move the ball.
Louisville struggled in the return game, averaging only 5.2 yards on punt returns and 22.8 yards on kickoff returns. Chris Philpott converted 11-of-16 field goal attempts.
NC State’s T.J. Graham was one of the top special teams weapons in the ACC. He led the league with a 12.1-yard average on punt returns and ranked fifth in kickoff returns at 22.5.
Bowl games are often about motivation, and both teams should be motivated to play well at the Belk Bowl. NC State has to be feeling pretty good about itself after beating Clemson by 24 and rallying from 27 down in the third quarter to beat Maryland in the final two weeks of the season. Louisville has a ton of momentum as well and is well-positioned for future success in the Big East. The talent level is pretty even between these two teams. If Bridgewater can protect the football, the Cardinals have a great opportunity to win a bowl game for the second straight season.
Louisville 27, NC State 20
by Mark Ross
AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl
Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5)
Date: Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. ET
Location: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
When Missouri and North Carolina meet up on Dec. 26 in Shreveport, La., it will represent more than just the season finale for these two schools. For Missouri, it will be its last game as a member of the Big 12 Conference as the Tigers are headed to the SEC next season. For North Carolina, this will serve as interim head coach Everett Withers’ last game at the helm as former Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora was hired in early December to take over the reigns.
Missouri will enter the SEC next season with a string of seven consecutive bowl appearances, while this represents a fourth straight bowl bid for North Carolina. The Tigers are 3-3 in their previous six bowl games and have lost their lost two, including a 27-24 defeat to Iowa in last year’s Insight Bowl. The Tar Heels are just 1-2 in their last three postseason games with that lone win coming in last year’s Music City Bowl when they beat Tennessee 30-27 in overtime.
Although their overall records are the same at 7-5, Missouri fared better in conference than North Carolina with the Tigers going 5-4 in the Big 12 compared to the Tar Heels’ 3-5 mark in the ACC. The Tigers also are riding a three-game winning streak headed into this game, while the Tar Heels have dropped four of their last six.
Statistically speaking, Missouri comes in with the more productive offense, especially when it comes to the running the ball, while North Carolina’s defense is a little stingier, especially when it comes to stopping the run. See a developing trend here?
Missouri also holds the historical advantage, having beaten North Carolina the previous two times they have played, but the teams have not met since 1976.
WHEN MISSOURI HAS THE BALL
Missouri comes into this game averaging 472.4 yards of total offense, good for 12th in the nation, with it split 50/50 between the run (236.2 yards per game) and pass (236.2 ypg). The Tigers boast the 11th-ranked rushing attack, but will be without its best ball carrier. Sophomore Henry Josey, the team’s leading rusher and a first team All Big 12 selection, went down with a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 12 against Texas. Even though he missed more than two games, Josey still led the Big 12 and finished 12th in the nation in rushing with 1,168 yards on just 145 carries, good for a mind-boggling 8.1 yards per carry.
With Josey gone, the rushing duties fall to junior back Kendial Lawrence and sophomore dual-threat quarterback James Franklin. Franklin leads the team in carries with 199 and has gained 839 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground. Lawrence has rushed for 263 yards on 50 carries (5.3 ypc) with two touchdowns since becoming the Tigers’ lead running back.
North Carolina has done a good job of stopping the run, giving up an average of 106.2 yards per game, which ranks 14th in the nation. If the Tar Heels can contain the Tigers’ running attack, they will have a better chance of slowing down this potent offense. Key to that effort are defensive linemen Quinton Coples and Tydreke Powell. Coples was named All-ACC first team for the second year in a row and with Powell the duo has combined for 96 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 8.5 sacks.
As Missouri’s quarterback, Franklin came into this season having to fill the big shoes of the departed Blaine Gabbert, but the sophomore signal caller has more than shown himself to be capable. Franklin has more touchdown passes (20 to 16), a higher yards/attempt average (7.7 to 6.7), a higher passer rating (141.2 to 127.0), despite attempting more than 120 fewer passes than Gabbert did in 2010.
Franklin also has posted the same completion percentage (63.2 to 63.4) this season when compared to what Gabbert, the 10th overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft, did last season. Add the rushing element and you get the nation’s 15th-ranked player in total offense (297.7 yards per game) and the North Carolina’s primary reason for concern when it comes to defensive game planning.
The Tigers have two viable pass-catching threats in wide receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew. Moe’s numbers are down considerably from last season, when he caught 92 passes for 1,045 yards, but the junior still leads the team with 54 receptions for 649 yards and has scored four times.
Egnew earned first team All Big 12 honors after catching 47 passes for 484 yards with three touchdowns. The senior has the size (6-6, 245), talent and ability to play on Sundays next year and will be a tough test for Carolina’s linebackers and secondary to contain. The Tigers also have Marcus Lucas, a sophomore wideout with good size (6-5) and who led the team with five touchdown receptions.
North Carolina has been susceptible to the pass, giving up nearly 250 yards per game through the air, so it will need to stay strong against the run in hopes of keeping Missouri’s offense as one-dimensional as possible. With a dual-threat quarterback like Franklin, however, that is far easier said than done.
WHEN NORTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL
North Carolina’s offense revolves around quarterback Bryn Renner, running back Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Dwight Jones. Renner, just a sophomore, has established himself as the Tar Heels’ leader in his first season as starter.
He ranks ninth in the country in passing efficiency (161.2 rating), having completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,769 yards with 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has bounced back from a two-interception effort against NC State to throw for nearly 500 yards with four touchdowns and just one pick in his last two games combined.
Jones is Renner’s primary target as the senior led the ACC with 79 receptions, was third in receiving yards with 1,119 and tied for the conference lead with 11 touchdown catches. The Tar Heels also have a pair of big play threats on the other side in junior receivers Erik Highsmith and Jheranie Boyd, who have combined for 54 catches, 846 yards and eight touchdowns.
This trio, who each stand 6-2 or taller, has combined to average 14.8 yards per catch. Their size, combined with their speed could prove troublesome for Missouri’s secondary, which has just one defensive back taller than 6-1 listed on its depth chart. Missouri, like Carolina, has also struggled to defend opponents’ aerial attack, giving up a near-identical average of close to 250 passing yards per game.
As far as Carolina’s ground game goes, its head battering ram, if you will, is redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard. He has made quite a first impression as he finished third in the ACC in rushing with a school freshman record 1,222 yards. He has averaged 5.4 yards per carry, rushed for 100 yards or more in seven games and scored a total of 14 touchdowns. Put it all together and you get just the second freshman tailback in school history to earn first team All-ACC honors.
Missouri has been fairly solid against the rush and will need to maintain that consistency to try and limit Bernard and not allow the Carolina offense to sustain drives and stay on the field. Leading the defensive charge for the Tigers is a pair of senior defensive lineman in Jacquies Smith and Dominique Hamilton. Together, they combined for 89 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Across the board, special teams appear to be fairly even with neither team standing out in any one category. Missouri punter Trey Barrow was first in the Big 12 conference and ninth in the nation averaging 45.0 yards per punt, while Carolina’s punter, Thomas Hibbard, averaged 38.4 yards on his punts. However, when you take into consideration net punting averages, the two teams are separated by less than two yards — 37.0 for Missouri, 35.4 for Carolina.
Barrow also took over the placekicking duties after Grant Ressel missed the final five games due to a hip flexor injury. Combined Barrow and Ressel have made just 14 of 23 field goal attempts, with seven of those misses coming from 40 yards or longer. Like Barrow, Carolina’s Casey Moore took over the placekicking duties from Casey Barth early in the season and also has struggled with his accuracy (5 of 9).
Missouri is the better team statistically when it comes to punt returns, averaging 8.9 yards per return compared to Carolina’s meager 4.1. The Tar Heels have the edge when it comes to kickoff returns as their 24.4 yards per return ranks 13th in the nation, while the Tigers are 68th with 21.2 yards per return. North Carolina’s T.J. Thorpe returned a kickoff against Clemson 100 yards for a score, while Missouri’s returned a punt 44 yards for a touchdown against Western Illinois.
Both teams do a good job of limiting return yardage, so unless someone breaks a big one, most of the yards in this game figure to be generated by the offenses.
Besides having the same record (7-5), these two teams are very similar in a number of statistics. They both come into this game giving up an average of 23.5 points per game and aren’t that far apart in scoring offense either (32.2 points per game for Missouri, 28.3 for Carolina). They also are separated by a mere 13 yards per game when it comes to their respective passing attacks.
Missouri’s offense has generated more yards, while Carolina’s defense has surrendered less. Missouri’s running game has been more productive to this point, but the Tigers will be without their all-conference running back, while the Tar Heels will have theirs and also have done a good job of defending the run.
This game most likely will come down to which team’s quarterback plays better and makes fewer mistakes. While both Franklin and Renner have been accurate and productive passers, Franklin brings an additional element with this running ability, similar to two ACC quarterbacks that Carolina faced earlier this season — Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.
In those two games, Boyd and Thomas combined for 602 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns, and not surprisingly, Carolina lost both of these games. Expect a similar script and outcome in this game too.
Missouri 31, North Carolina 24
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and now Matt Barkley. USC’s recent tradition of quarterbacks sticking around for their senior season continued on Thursday with Matt Barkley’s announcement that he will return for one more year in Los Angeles.
After throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns, there was a lot of doubt that Barkley would return for another season. However, the opportunity to contend for a national title was too much to pass up. Barkley was expected to be the No. 2 quarterback selected in the 2012 draft, but could move to the top of the wishlist for teams wishing to take a signal-caller in 2013.
Barkley’s decision to return to the Trojans is huge for their national championship hopes. USC’s two-year bowl ban is over and with most of its core returning, this may be the Trojans best shot at winning a title until the scholarship reductions are over. USC didn’t make it through the offseason without a few departures to the NFL. Two key players - offensive tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry - will enter the draft.
Although the Trojans have to replace Kalil, four starters return on the offensive line. Also, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods headline one of the nation’s top receiving corps. The defense showed big improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin, and the back seven will remain intact. Replacing Perry and defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris are going to be the biggest question marks entering the 2012 season.
In Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012, USC checks in at No. 2. The Trojans aren’t without flaws, but considering what is coming back, they look like one of the team’s to beat next season. Could we see a Lane Kiffin vs. the SEC in the national title? It certainly isn't out of the question. Additionally, USC is the clear favorite to win the Pac-12 South.
USC’s 2012 Schedule
Non-Conference: Hawaii, Syracuse (at New Jersey) and Notre Dame
Conference Home: Arizona State, California, Colorado and Oregon
Conference Away: Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, Utah and Washington
Here’s an early outlook for the rest of the teams in the Pac-12 South for 2012:
Arizona: New coach Rich Rodriguez was a terrific hire, but it may take a year or two to get his players in place. The Wildcats will have to transition from a pass-first offense, but Matt Scott is a good building block at quarterback. Rodriguez has yet to hire a defensive coordinator, which will be the most important addition to his staff. The Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in rush, total and scoring defense – something that cannot happen if they want to contend for the conference title in 2012. Considering the change in schemes, it may be difficult for Arizona to compete with USC for the Pac-12 title next year.
Arizona State: After a promising 6-2 start, the Sun Devils finished the year with a dud, which also cost coach Dennis Erickson his job. New coach Todd Graham is bringing his brand of high-octane football from Pittsburgh and there are some nice pieces in place for the offense next season. Quarterback Brock Osweiler should get better with another set of spring practices, and running back Cameron Marshall is also back for his senior year. The defense loses some key players, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict will likely declare for the NFL Draft. Just like rival Arizona, the Sun Devils may need a year or two to adjust to Graham’s schemes. However, if Osweiler and Marshall quickly pick up the offense, Arizona State should contend for a finish in the top three of the Pac-12 South.
Colorado: After a 3-10 season, coach Jon Embree has a lot of work to do in his second year in Boulder. The Buffaloes have a lot of holes to fill, starting on offense with the departure of quarterback Tyler Hansen. Running back Rodney Stewart has also finished his eligibility. Receiver Paul Richardson is a good building block on offense, but can Colorado get him the ball? The Buffaloes also need to show improvement on defense if they want to make a bowl. Although it’s very early, Colorado is likely to be picked last in the Pac-12 South next season.
UCLA: If there’s a mystery team to watch in the Pac-12 South, the Bruins would be the choice. New coach Jim Mora does not have any collegiate head coaching experience, but is putting together quite a staff. Can UCLA put everything together and contend for the conference title next season? It’s unlikely the Bruins can beat out USC, but there is talent returning. Settling on a quarterback for coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread offense is going to be critical for UCLA next season.
Utah: The Utes’ first year in the Pac-12 wasn’t bad (7-5), but losing to Colorado in the regular season finale cost them a chance to play in the conference title game. Although the division wasn’t overwhelmingly difficult, coach Kyle Whittingham deserves a ton of credit, especially after losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to a shoulder injury early in the season. The Utes have some holes to fill, starting with offensive coordinator, as Norm Chow has departed to be the head coach at Hawaii. Although the quarterback position needs to be sorted out, running back John White is back after rushing for 1,404 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. The offensive line also loses both tackles. Utah led the Pac-12 in scoring defense and this unit figures to rank among the best in the conference next season.
by Nathan Rush
Southern Miss (11–2) vs. Nevada (7–5)
Date: Dec. 24, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu, Hawaii
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Well, Southern Miss and Nevada will do just that when the Hawaii Bowl kicks off as the only game on television Christmas Eve.
This is the 10th anniversary of the Hawaii Bowl. Nevada is making its third appearance — having defeated Central Florida, 49–48 in overtime, in 2005 and lost to SMU, 45–10, in 2009. Meanwhile, this is Southern Miss’ first postseason trip to the island of Oahu.
The stars come out to shine in the Hawaii Bowl, whose past MVPs include local Hawaii record-breaking quarterbacks Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, as well as Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, Central Florida’s Brandon Marshall and East Carolina’s Chris Johnson, who broke the NCAA bowl record with 408 all-purpose yards in 2007.
USM coach Larry Fedora will pace the sidelines for the final time for the Golden Eagles before taking over at North Carolina. On the other side, 65-year-old Chris Ault still has a few bullets left in the old Pistol offense in his 27th non-consecutive season leading the Wolf Pack. Although Ault has a 226–102–1 record all-time — leading Nevada from Division II to I-AA to I-A in the Big Sky, Big West and WAC — he is only 2–6 in bowl games.
WHEN SOUTHERN MISS HAS THE BALL:
The Conference USA champs ran circles around the nation’s No. 1-ranked offense, Houston, winning 49–28 en route to Southern Miss’ first Conference USA title since 2003.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Austin Davis leads a balanced attack that features several athletic playmakers. Davis passed for 3,331 yards, 28 TDs and 11 INTs this season, while scrambling for another 332 yards and four scores on the ground. Davis was recently awarded the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given annually to the nation’s top player who started his career as a walk-on.
Top receiver Ryan Balentine (742 yards, 8 TDs) and leading rusher Jamal Woodyard (683 yards) are impressive, but the Golden Eagles’ top all-around threat is Tracy Lampley, who accounted for 999 total yards and six TDs this season — saving his best performance for crunch time, with six catches for 125 yards and two TDs, and 14 carries for 71 yards in the title-clinching win at Houston.
The Wolf Pack ranked 52nd in total defense and 58th in scoring defense (25.25 ppg) this season. Senior end Brett Roy has been a terror off the edge, with 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. But Nevada has produced little pressure (22 total sacks) outside of Roy. But corners Khalid Wooten (4 INTs) and Isaiah Frey (5 INTs) have proven capable cover men and ball-hawks.
WHEN NEVADA HAS THE BALL:
After losing all-everything quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who was a second-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers after becoming the only FBS quarterback in history to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards — there were many question marks surrounding the Wolf Pack offense heading into this season.
But the QB combo of Cody Fajardo (1,647 passing yards, 6 TDs, 5 INTs; 680 rush yards, 11 TDs) and Tyler Lantrip (1,496 passing yards, 10 TDs, 6 INTs) proved effective. A left ankle injury kept star freshman Fajardo out of the season finale, allowing Lantrip his Senior Night start — which he made the most of, completing 24-of-31 passes for 340 yards, four TDs and zero INTs in a 56–3 win over Idaho.
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the ball is going to star wideout Rishard Matthews, who had 91 catches for 1,364 yards and eight TDs this year. On the ground, Lampford Mark (728 yards, 8 TDs) will be more of a feature back following the dismissal of Mike Ball (704 yards), the team’s second leading rusher.
As usual, Southern Miss has fringe-SEC talent and speed on defense. Sophomore cornerback Deron Wilson likely will be lined up on Matthews. Wilson has made teams pay for testing his side of the field, with four INTs for 114 return yards and two TDs — his second straight season with two defensive TDs. All of the Eagles know how to fly to the house, however, as USM has 18 total INTs for 513 return yards (28.5 ypr) and eight pick-sixes this season.
Southern Miss scored on a blocked punt against Houston, and notched three punt-return TDs by three different Eagles this year. Kick coverage has been an issue, as USM allowed two kick return TDs. Kicker Danny Hrapmann is inconsistent and has limited range.
For Nevada, Matthews is a dangerous punt returner, with a 13.3-yard average and one TD. Field goal kicking is a weakness for the Wolf Pack, with three kickers combining to connect on 13-of-19, while going just 2-of-7 from 30 or more yards.
The Golden Eagles are soaring into the Hawaii Bowl as unexpected Conference USA champs. The Wolf Pack should just be happy to hang their stockings on a coconut tree while vacationing on Christmas Island. Fedora’s final game at Southern Miss will end in a Gatorade bath.
Southern Miss 38, Nevada 27
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Las Vegas Bowl
Arizona State (6-6) vs. Boise State (11-1)
Date: Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nev.
Another season, another near miss for Boise State. The Broncos will be making their second consecutive bowl trip to Las Vegas, while certainly wondering what might have been. A missed game-winning field goal against Nevada last season and TCU this year likely have cost Boise State two BCS appearances.
While the Broncos come into this game hoping to send a prolific senior class out on a high note, Arizona State enters with a four-game losing streak. The Sun Devils appeared to be in full control of the Pac-12 South before the November slide, which cost coach Dennis Erickson his job. He will coach the bowl game, and Todd Graham (from Pittsburgh) will be taking over in Tempe after this matchup.
Boise State has won its last two postseason games, including a decisive 26-3 victory over Utah in this bowl last season.
Arizona State has never played in the Las Vegas Bowl and it is riding a two-game losing streak in bowl games.
These two teams have only met one time, with Arizona State winning 56-7 in 1996.
WHEN ARIZONA STATE HAS THE BALL:
While the 2011 season was a major disappointment for Arizona State, scoring points certainly wasn’t a problem. The Sun Devils ranked 25th nationally in scoring, averaging 33.9 points a game, along with recording 450.9 total yards per contest.
Quarterback Brock Osweiler was solid in his first full season as the starter, throwing for 3,641 yards and 24 touchdowns, while tossing 12 picks. Osweiler likes to spread the ball around, as four Sun Devils had at least 36 receptions. Gerell Robinson led the team with 64 catches for 1,156 yards, while Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie will figure into the gameplan. Jamal Miles was a big part of the receiving corps in the regular season, but won't play on Thursday night.
Although the Sun Devils averaged 310.2 passing yards a game, the rushing attack shouldn’t be overlooked. Cameron Marshall led the way with 1,038 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns, while also catching 23 passes for 192 yards. He has scored at least one rushing touchdown in nine consecutive games.
Arizona State runs a lot of quick passes, which should be a good gameplan against Boise State’s defense. The Broncos are rock solid up front, led by three all-conference linemen – tackle Billy Winn and ends Shea McClellin and Tyrone Crawford. Boise State is allowing only 18.3 points a game and led the Mountain West in rush defense.
Although the Broncos are strong up front, the secondary has been a weak link most of the year. The pass defense ranks 25th nationally, but that number is a bit deceiving. TCU gashed the Broncos for 473 yards and five touchdowns through the air, while San Diego State threw for 350 yards and three scores in mid-November. Injuries have played a large role in the struggles of the defensive backfield, which will be tested once again by Arizona State.
With the struggles in the secondary, Boise State needs to get pressure on Osweiler and not allow him to get comfortable in the pocket. If the Broncos get to Osweiler, the Sun Devils will have trouble getting their offense on track.
WHEN BOISE STATE HAS THE BALL:
This is the final game at Boise State in a prolific career for quarterback Kellen Moore. The senior has thrown 140 touchdown passes and 14,374 yards in his career, while also setting a NCAA record with 49 career wins.
Moore should star in his final collegiate game, especially against an Arizona State secondary that ranks 107th nationally against in the pass. The Sun Devils have allowed only 18 passing scores this year, but opposing quarterbacks are completing 64.9 percent of their throws against this defense.
The Broncos entered the year with a glaring question mark at receiver, but this group has emerged as a strength. Tyler Shoemaker leads the team with 59 receptions for 959 yards and 15 scores this year. Matt Miller has also been another favorite target for Moore, catching 58 balls for 647 yards and eight touchdowns. Mitch Burroughs, Geraldo Boldewijn and Kirby Moore round out the receiving corps, while tight ends Gabe Linehan and Kyle Efaw combined for 49 receptions this year.
Running back Doug Martin is often overshadowed by Moore’s accomplishments, but he is quietly one of the top running backs in college football. The senior finished the regular season with 1,148 yards and 15 scores and caught 25 receptions for 229 yards and two touchdowns.
Arizona State’s defense has struggled throughout the team’s four-game losing streak, as it has allowed 29 or more points in each matchup. The Sun Devils rank 59th nationally in rush defense and that will be tested against Martin and one of the best offensive lines in college football.
If the Sun Devils want to knock off Boise State, getting pressure on Moore is going to be priority No. 1. Arizona State cannot allow Moore to have a clean pocket all night or he will pick apart the secondary. The Sun Devils have done a good job of winning the turnover battle this year, and they will have to force a few turnovers to win this game.
Field goals have been a headache for Boise State all season. Dan Goodale has connected on three of five attempts, while Michael Frisina has hit on three of four. Neither player has made an attempt longer than 32 yards, and coach Chris Peterson probably doesn't have a lot of trust in going for field goals.
While field goals have been an adventure, the rest of the groups on special teams have been solid for Boise State. Punter Brad Elkin is averaging 41.8 yards per punt and has placed 24 inside of the 20. Mitch Burroughs is averaging 13.3 yards per punt return, while Doug Martin is averaging 26.8 yards per kick return.
Arizona State hasn’t been much more reliable than Boise State on field goals this season, as kicker Alex Garoutte has hit on 14 of 21 attempts.
Sun Devils’ punter Josh Hubner is averaging 41.8 yards per punt, while placing 23 inside of the 20.
Jamal Miles earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors for his work on returns, averaging 16.6 yards per return on punts and 26.3 on kickoffs. Miles has taken three returns for a score this year. However, he won't play against the Broncos, leaving Arizona State with a significant void on returns.
Arizona State certainly has the firepower to hang around in this game. However, does it have any motivation after losing its final four games?
While Boise State probably deserved a better bowl, there is no question the motivation is clearly on its side. Kellen Moore and this senior class have a chance to close out a special tenure in Boise by earning their 50th career win.
The Sun Devils passing attack could give the Broncos’ secondary trouble early. However, Boise State’s defensive line will eventually win the battle in the trenches, and the Broncos will assume control of this game late in the third quarter.
Boise State 41, Arizona State 24
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Ohio State’s football program has been under investigation since last December, and the NCAA finally announced its penalties on Tuesday. And the news is not good for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State was hit with a one-year bowl ban and must vacate nine scholarships over the next three seasons. The Buckeyes will serve their bowl ban in 2012 and won’t be eligible to play for the Big Ten title next season.
Losing scholarships is never a good thing, but vacating nine shouldn’t drastically impact Ohio State’s roster. The biggest loss is easily the bowl ban, which also takes away Ohio State’s opportunity to play for a national title next year.
Former coach Jim Tressel was also hit with a show-cause penalty. Although Tressel was facing an uphill battle to get another head coaching job, this penalty likely ends any hope he had of returning to the sidelines in college.
The investigation centered on players exchanging memorabilia for tattoos and cash. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Daniel Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and tackle Mike Adams were the key players in the scandal, with each getting suspended for several games in 2011. Pryor decided to leave Ohio State before the season began, but Herron, Adams and Posey eventually played this year.
The NCAA does not follow precedent in future cases, but Ohio State’s penalties cannot be good news for North Carolina, Oregon and Miami.
What does this mean for the Big Ten race in 2012?
Ohio State was expected to be the Leaders Division frontrunner in 2012, especially with new coach Urban Meyer taking over.
However, the Buckeyes will have to wait another year to play in the Big Ten title game. And the race to win the Leaders Division is now wide open.
Ohio State was predicted as the No. 6 team in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. With a young team coming back next season, the Buckeyes were expected to contend for a 10-2 or 11-1 record. Although Ohio State could still achieve that next season, one has to wonder about the motivation, especially with nothing to play for.
Wisconsin arguably benefits the most from Ohio State’s bowl ban next year. The Badgers already capitalized off Ohio State’s scandal by winning the Big Ten title this season. And they should have a good chance to repeat as the division champs in 2012.
Replacing quarterback Russell Wilson is going to be crucial to Wisconsin’s success, but is there another challenger in the Leaders Division? Penn State is still in disarray and has yet to name a head coach for 2012. The Nittany Lions certainly have some talent, but considering all that has transpired this year and the uncertainty facing the team, it’s hard to envision Penn State as division champs in 2012.
Outside of Wisconsin and Penn State, is there another threat to win the division? Illinois has some talent returning, but it will also be coach Tim Beckman’s first in Champaign. The Fighting Illini could also lose defensive end Whitney Mercilus to the NFL Draft.
Purdue and Indiana figure to be picked at the bottom of the division next year. The Boilermakers showed some progress in 2011, but are unlikely to jump from 6-6 to division champ. After a 1-11 finish this year, Indiana is considered a longshot just to get bowl eligible next year.
Wisconsin isn’t the only team that will benefit from Ohio State’s bowl and conference title ban next year. Michigan should enter the year as the favorite in the Legends Division, and with the Badgers expected to take a step back in the win column, the Wolverines would figure to have a favorable path to the conference title. Michigan has be a heavy favorite to play in the Rose Bowl next year.
There’s no question the bowl ban is a huge blow to the Buckeyes next season. Considering the excitement surrounding Meyer’s arrival and a young team expected to be better, 2012 had the chance to be a Big Ten title season in Columbus. However, those celebration plans will have to wait until 2013 – but don’t expect that to slow down Ohio State’s momentum on the recruiting trail.
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
TCU (10-2) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4)
Date: Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
TCU and Louisiana Tech will meet for the first time in history when they lock horns in the seventh annual Poinsettia Bowl. This will be the third Poinsettia Bowl appearance for the Horned Frogs, while Louisiana Tech is making its first trip to Qualcomm Stadium. The Mountain West has won five of the six match-ups in San Diego, including the last five —two by TCU (2006, 2008). The Horned Frogs have won five of their last six bowl games, including the 21-19 Rose Bowl Championship last season. This is only Louisiana Tech’s third bowl appearance since 1990 and the school’s sixth overall postseason trip. The Bulldogs are 2-2-1 all-time and won their last postseason appearance over Northern Illinois in the 2008 Independence Bowl.
Both TCU and Louisiana Tech enter the postseason as two of the hottest teams in the nation. Both bring a seven-game winning streak and a conference championship to America’s Finest City. And there should be plenty of fireworks as both teams averaged more than 30 points per game on offense in 2011.
WHEN TCU HAS THE BALL:
Sophomore quarterback Casey Pachall had some huge shoes to fill as the school’s greatest signal caller Andy Dalton departed Ft. Worth for the Cincinnati Bengals last spring. However, the offense barely skipped a beat as Pachall led the nation’s No. 9-rated scoring attack (41.7 ppg). And he saved his best game for the conference-deciding trip to Boise State. The super soph posted a career high 473 yards and five touchdowns in the 36-35 “Mountain West Championship Game.” He finished his first full season as the starter with a tidy 24:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and ranked No. 7 nationally in passer efficiency (161.87).
Much of the credit for TCU’s offensive success this fall, however, also needs to go to the incredibly deep collection of skill players. The powerful Horned Frogs’ rushing attack featured a trio of 600 yards rushers: Waymon James, Matthew Tucker and Ed Wesley. Each scored at least five times and each carried the ball between 104 and 116 times. Package the talented triple-headed ground game with the emergence of sophomore wideout Josh Boyce and Louisiana Tech will have to slow one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the nation (210.2 yards rushing per game, 233.8 yards passing per game). Boyce is 68 yards shy of becoming the program’s second 1,000-yard receiver.
While the muscle of Gary Patterson’s running game will find a formidable opponent in the shape of the WAC’s top rushing defense, Pachall and the passing game should find it easier to move the ball through the air. Expect Boyce to reach his 1,000-yard plateau as Louisiana Tech has struggled against the pass this season, sporting the 96th-ranked pass defense (252.7 ypg). However, Pachall will need to be extra careful with the ball as the Bulldogs led the WAC and finished third nationally with 20 interceptions — including 11 picks in its last five games.
WHEN LOUISIANA TECH HAS THE BALL:
Through 10 games, Tech tailback Lennon Creer had rushed for 805 yards and nine touchdowns before sustaining an ankle injury in the 27-7 win over Ole Miss. If he is not at 100%, expect a heavy dose of Hunter Lee — who rushed for 26 times for 148 yards and three scores against lowly New Mexico State to cap his freshman season.
With some uncertainty in the backfield, Sonny Dykes has to be pleased with the play of quarterback Colby Cameron. Midway through the season, Dykes benched starter Nick Isham for Cameron and the junior responded with 280.6 yards passing per game, 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions in just five starts (all wins).
The reigning Rose Bowl MVP Tank Carder will be charged with stopping the Dykes offensive attack. While this is not a vintage Patterson defense, Carder and company will still pose a major threat to the Bulldogs. Baylor (aka Robert Griffin III), Boise State (aka Kellen Moore), SMU and BYU are the only teams that managed to score more than 20 points against TCU this season. Cameron will have to overcome what appears to be a sizeable talent differential.
TCU should be able to tip the field with a major advantage on the kickoffs while Louisiana Tech should be able to return the favor in the punting game. The Frogs lead the nation in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per) while Tech ranks 48th. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are eighth in the nation in net punting (40.2 yards per punt) while TCU struggled mightily with the 107th-rated punting game.
While Dykes and the Bulldogs have a chance at their first nine-win season since 1997, the talent differential might be too much to overcome. The Frogs are balanced, talented and favored by 13 points for a reason. Tech is the third-largest underdog of the 35 bowl match-ups.
TCU 34, Louisiana Tech 20
by Mark Ross
Beef O’Brady’s Bowl
Florida International (8-4) vs. Marshall (6-6)
Date: Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
So what happens when a Golden Panther meets up with a Thundering Herd? That’s what we will find out come Dec. 20 when Florida International (FIU) and Marshall meet for the first time ever on the football field in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. This is the second straight bowl appearance for Florida International, whose football program started in 2002, while it represents Marshall’s first bowl since 2009.
Fifth-year head coach Mario Cristobal has already led this Panthers team to a school-record eight wins and is looking for second straight bowl win to cap the season. On the other side, second-year head coach Doc Holliday had to rally his Herd to win their last two games just to become bowl eligible, including the crucial sixth win in overtime against East Carolina.
Both teams went 5-3 in their respective conferences, FIU in the Sun Belt and Marshall in Conference USA, so the difference in their overall record comes down to non-conference games.
FIU defeated Louisville, who is playing in the Belk Bowl, with its other non-conference opponents being UCF (win), Duke (loss) and Akron (win). Those last three combined for an overall record of 9-27.
Marshall’s non-conference slate featured four bowl teams, including two headed to BCS bowls. The Herd, like the Golden Panthers defeated Louisville, but lost to Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl), West Virginia (Orange) and Ohio (Idaho Potato).
Taking a closer look at their games against Louisville, Marshall had more total yards of offense against the Cardinals (353 to 293) compared to the Golden Panthers and the Herd surrendered considerably less on defense (281 to 363).
The difference in FIU’s 24-17 win over Louisville was a first-quarter interception returned for a touchdown and two long touchdown passes, while Marshall scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game to earn a 17-13 victory over the Cardinals. Will the Louisville game serve as a sign of what to expect on Dec. 20?
WHEN FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL HAS THE BALL:
The Golden Panthers’ offense enters the bowl game on a roll, averaging 33.3 points per game during their current three-game winning streak. Prior to that, they were averaging 23.8 points per game.
FIU runs a balanced offensive attack that’s directed by senior quarterback Wesley Carroll. Carroll has 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions this season. He has done a much better job of taking care of the ball this season, compared to his junior year when he threw 16 interceptions.
FIU’s primary playmaker is wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. Hilton is the school’s all-time leader in receptions (221), receiving yards (3,443), touchdowns (24) and total touchdowns (36), as the senior is also a dangerous return specialist. Hilton finished second in the Sun Belt in both receiving yards (950) and all-purpose yards (145.8 ypg) this season.
On the ground, the Panthers have turned to Kedrick Rhodes as their main ball carrier. Rhodes rushed for more than 1,100 yards this season and his 93.4 yards per game ranked him third in the Sun Belt. He and Hilton were tied for the team lead with eight touchdowns.
FIU should be able to move the ball against Marshall’s defense, but needs to be wary of standout defensive lineman Vinny Curry, Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Curry was second in the nation in tackles for loss (1.8 per game) and sixth in sacks (11 in 12 games). The Panthers’ offensive line has done a good job of protecting the quarterback this season, ranking 17th in the nation in sacks allowed (1.1 per game).
Marshall, coming from Conference USA, is no stranger to defending potent offensives, having already faced the likes of Houston, Southern Miss and Tulsa, all ranked in the top 25 in the country in total offense, this season. FIU’s offensive capability simply doesn’t match up with these teams, so it will be interesting to see if the Golden Panthers can take advantage of a defense that has allowed more than 400 yards and 30 points per game on the season.
WHEN MARSHALL HAS THE BALL:
Unlike FIU, Marshall is considerably less experienced under center with freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato running the offense. Cato has started a total of eight games this season, including the last two that Marshall won to become bowl eligible.
Cato resumed the starting role after sophomore A.J. Graham went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. On top of that, current back up freshman Blake Frohnapfel underwent a procedure on his shoulder in late November, putting his status for this game up in the air. With Graham done for the season and Frohnhapfel questionable, Marshall’s quarterback depth pretty much starts and ends with Cato.
Cato is coming off his best game of the season, completing 23 of 29 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime win over East Carolina. For the season, Cato has completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,833 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Marshall’s top rushers, Tron Martinez and Travon Van, are also young, with Martinez a sophomore and Van a redshirt freshman. The duo has basically split the carries and combined have rushed for 1,120 yards on 276 carries (4.1 ypc) with six touchdowns.
As a team, Marshall gained an average of 123.1 yards per game on the ground, whereas FIU surrendered 120.9, which ranked them 23rd in the nation in rushing defense. If the Herd can’t run the ball against the Panthers defense, it will put even more pressure on Cato and the passing game.
Marshall’s top threat in the passing game is junior wide receiver Aaron Dobson, whose 10 touchdown receptions put him third in Conference USA. In order for Dobson to have a chance to add to his touchdown total Marshall’s offensive line will need to protect Cato from FIU’s pass rush, which ranks 14th in the nation in sacks with 34 (2.8 per game) coming into the bowl game.
The Golden Panthers have a significant advantage when it comes to special teams thanks to the aforementioned Hilton, who is third in the nation in kickoff returns with 32.0 yard per return average. He’s also returned a punt for a touchdown and as team, FIU ranks first in the nation in punt returns (15.9 yards per return) and sixth in kickoff returns (26.3 ypr). Contrast that to Marshall, which comes into this game ranked 64 in the nation in punt return yardage defense and 82nd in kickoff returns.
Both kickers are fairly accurate with FIU’s Jack Griffin having almost twice as many field goal attempts (21 of 25) compared to his counterpart, Marshall’s Tyler Warner (10 of 13).
Although they are from the Sun Belt, FIU should not be taken lightly. The Golden Panthers’ three losses in conference were all to winning teams, two of which earned bowl bids, and outside of an 18-point loss to Sun Belt champion Arkansas State, their other three total losses were by a combined nine points.
FIU’s defense comes into the game ranked 33rd in the nation in total defense, giving up 347.6 yards and allowing less than 20 points per game, and also does a good job of getting pressure on the quarterback. The Panthers’ offense is balanced and their return units are among the best in nation.
Marshall’s offense is among the least productive in the nation, averaging 335.3 yards per game and 22 points per game. The defense is steady against the run, but susceptible to the pass and needs the offense to sustain drives so it can stay fresh.
Marshall needs to keep this game close, as that has been its winning formula this season. Five of its six wins have been by seven points or less, while the Herd’s average margin of defeat in their six losses has been 27.5 points per game.
On paper, it looks like Marshall will have trouble moving the ball against FIU’s defense and the Panthers’ offense should be able to chip away and at some point take advantage of a defensive breakdown by the Herd. The Panthers’ special teams prowess will put even more pressure on the Herd and a big kick return will help FIU pull away in the second half.
Florida International 27, Marshall 17
Bowl season kicks off on Saturday, Dec. 17 in Albuquerque and ends on Jan. 9 in New Orleans with the BCS Championship. With 35 games on the docket, there's plenty of options to keep college fans interested over the next month.
Athlon's editors offer their predictions for all 35 games with a slight twist. The picks were made with confidence points, 1 being the least and 35 being the most.
The six editors were split on the Rose Bowl, but all are picking Alabama to knock off LSU in the national championship.
|Braden Gall||Charlie Miller|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Wyoming (4)||Wyoming (11)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Utah State (5)||Utah State (1)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||UL Lafayette (6)||UL Lafayette (20)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (7)||FIU (9)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||TCU (34)||TCU (30)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (31)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Nevada (8)||Southern Miss (28)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||Missouri (17)||Missouri (8)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Purdue (23)||Purdue (15)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||Louisville (27)||NC State (13)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (24)||Air Force (12)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||California (3)||Texas (10)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (25)||Florida State (18)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (30)||Baylor (33)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (2)||Tulsa (19)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (22)||Rutgers (6)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (9)||Mississippi State (29)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (29)||Oklahoma (32)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (21)||Texas A&M (24)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Utah (20)||Georgia Tech (2)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (33)||Vanderbilt (21)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||UCLA (11)||Illinois (14)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Auburn (26)||Auburn (27)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (31)||Penn State (17)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (16)||Georgia (7)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (12)||South Carolina (4)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Ohio State (15)||Florida (3)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Oregon (28)||Wisconsin (5)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Stanford (1)||Stanford (23)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Michigan (19)||Virginia Tech (16)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (14)||Clemson (34)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (32)||Arkansas (26)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh (10)||Pittsburgh (25)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (18)||Northern Illinois (22)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (13)||Alabama (35)|
|Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Temple (6)||Temple (31)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Utah State (13)||Utah State (32)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||San Diego State (3)||San Diego State (22)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (30)||Marshall (21)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||TCU (31)||Louisiana Tech (4)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (35)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Southern Miss (25)||Southern Miss (9)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||Missouri (24)||Missouri (23)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Western Michigan (10)||Purdue (24)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||NC State (2)||Louisville (10)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (15)||Toledo (25)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||Texas (11)||California (2)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (29)||Notre Dame (26)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (33)||Baylor (20)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (16)||Tulsa (11)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (4)||Rutgers (12)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (34)||Mississippi State (27)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (32)||Oklahoma (33)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (21)||Texas A&M (28)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Georgia Tech (22)||Georgia Tech (29)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (19)||Vanderbilt (19)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||Illinois (1)||UCLA (7)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Virginia (12)||Virginia (8)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (7)||Penn State (18)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (18)||Georgia (5)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (9)||South Carolina (6)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Ohio State (20)||Ohio State (13)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Wisconsin (5)||Oregon (3)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State (23)||Oklahoma State (17)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Michigan (8)||Michigan (16)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (27)||Clemson (34)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (28)||Arkansas (30)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh (14)||Pittsburgh (14)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (26)||Northern Illinois (15)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (17)||Alabama (1)|
|Mark Ross||Patrick Snow|
|New Mexico: Temple vs. Wyoming||Temple (34)||Temple (27)|
|Idaho Potato: Utah State vs. Ohio||Ohio (16)||Utah State (17)|
|New Orleans: SDSU vs. UL Lafayette||UL Lafayette (11)||San Diego State (23)|
|St. Petersburg: FIU vs. Marshall||FIU (33)||FIU (18)|
|Poinsettia: TCU vs. Louisiana Tech||Louisiana Tech (9)||TCU (33)|
|Las Vegas: Boise State vs. Arizona State||Boise State (35)||Boise State (35)|
|Hawaii: Southern Miss vs. Nevada||Southern Miss (17)||Southern Miss (14)|
|Independence: North Carolina vs. Missouri||North Carolina (1)||Missouri (26)|
|Little Caesars: Western Michigan vs. Purdue||Western Michigan (2)||Purdue (8)|
|Belk: Louisville vs. NC State||NC State (22)||Louisville (7)|
|Military: Air Force vs. Toledo||Air Force (3)||Toledo (16)|
|Holiday: California vs. Texas||Texas (4)||Texas (19)|
|Champs Sports: Florida State vs. Notre Dame||Florida State (28)||Florida State (15)|
|Alamo: Baylor vs. Washington||Baylor (25)||Baylor (34)|
|Armed Forces: BYU vs. Tulsa||BYU (21)||BYU (13)|
|Pinstripe: Rutgers vs. Iowa State||Rutgers (12)||Rutgers (6)|
|Music City: Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State||Mississippi State (30)||Mississippi State (32)|
|Insight: Iowa vs. Oklahoma||Oklahoma (23)||Oklahoma (29)|
|Meineke Car Care: Texas A&M vs. Northwestern||Texas A&M (32)||Texas A&M (28)|
|Sun: Georgia Tech vs. Utah||Utah (5)||Utah (5)|
|Liberty: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt (6)||Vanderbilt (24)|
|Kraft Fight Hunger: Illinois vs. UCLA||Illinois (29)||UCLA (1)|
|Chick-fil-A: Virginia vs. Auburn||Virginia (19)||Virginia (9)|
|TicketCity: Penn State vs. Houston||Penn State (20)||Penn State (12)|
|Outback: Michigan State vs. Georgia||Georgia (7)||Georgia (22)|
|Capital One: Nebraska vs. South Carolina||South Carolina (31)||Nebraska (4)|
|Gator: Ohio State vs. Florida||Florida (18)||Ohio State (31)|
|Rose: Wisconsin vs. Oregon||Oregon (15)||Wisconsin (2)|
|Fiesta: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State (26)||Oklahoma State (21)|
|Sugar: Michigan vs. Virginia Tech||Virginia Tech (8)||Michigan (10)|
|Orange: Clemson vs. West Virginia||Clemson (14)||Clemson (20)|
|Cotton: Kansas State vs. Arkansas||Arkansas (24)||Arkansas (25)|
|Compass: SMU vs. Pittsburgh||SMU (13)||Pittsburgh (11)|
|GoDaddy.com: Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State||Northern Illinois (27)||Northern Illinois (3)|
|BCS National Title: LSU vs. Alabama||Alabama (10)||Alabama (30)|
USC’s 2012 national title hopes hinge squarely on the NFL decision of two players – quarterback Matt Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil. The Trojans were dealt their first blow for next season on Thursday night, as Kalil decided to forego his final year of eligibility and will enter the NFL Draft. He is expected to be one of the first 15 picks off the board in April.
Barkley has yet to make a decision on his future, but most believe the two players are a package deal. However, the junior quarterback could still return to USC, but will be missing arguably his top offensive lineman next season.
Kalil’s departure is huge loss for a team that was just starting to find the right mix on the offensive line. The Trojans finished first tied for first nationally with just eight sacks allowed in 2011.
With a gaping hole at left tackle, USC could move Kevin Graf from the right side to fill Kalil’s spot. One bit of positive news for USC: The rest of the group should return intact. Center Khaled Holmes earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors this season and should be one of the top linemen in the conference in 2012. Also, guard Marcus Martin was one of the top freshman linemen in college football this year.
With Kalil’s decision out of the way, the focus shifts to Barkley. If he returns, the junior will likely be the Heisman frontrunner, as well as leading the Trojans to a top-five ranking in preseason polls. Considering USC has been on a bowl ban the last two years, there is an opportunity for Barkley to lead this team back to a BCS bowl or a spot in the national title game. But will that be enough for him to stick around?
Barkley is widely-regarded as the No. 2 quarterback on most draft boards, just behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck. And considering he would likely be one of the first five players selected in the NFL Draft, it’s unlikely he will return to Los Angeles for his senior year – especially with Kalil announcing his departure.
If Barkley goes to the NFL Draft as expected, three candidates will battle for the starting quarterback job in the spring: Jesse Scroggins, Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
Even though all three candidates are inexperienced, the cupboard wouldn’t be totally bare for the new quarterback. The receiving corps is among the best in the nation, as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee should contend for All-American honors. Also, tight end Randall Telfer had a solid freshman campaign and figures to be a bigger part of the attack in 2012. The Trojans also have a good stable of running backs, led by Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan.
If Barkley joins Kalil as an early entrant into the NFL Draft, USC’s national title hopes will take a back seat in 2012. However, coach Lane Kiffin has done a good job on the recruiting trail and the talent in the program is back on the rise. Even if the Trojans aren’t a national title contender next year, with all of the coaching changes and turnover in the Pac-12 South Division, it’s very likely they will remain the favorite to play Oregon in the 2012 conference title game.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
One year after winning the national championship, Gene Chizik is looking at a turning point in his tenure at Auburn.
Chizik’s coaching staff took a hit over the last few weeks, with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof departing for other jobs. Malzahn left to be the head coach at Arkansas State, while Roof left to become the defensive coordinator at UCF.
Roof’s defenses never finished higher than 60th in total defense and 53rd in scoring in his three years at Auburn. The 2011 version ranked 11th in the SEC in rushing, total and scoring defense, while the pass defense finished last in the conference. Youth and a lack of proven depth were to blame for much of the issues this season.
Chizik is going to call the plays for the defense in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia, but will hire a coordinator in the offseason. Florida State’s Mark Stoops has been rumored as a possible target by Auburn and other names are sure to emerge.
Malzahn’s departure is clearly a bigger loss for Chizik. The Tigers finished 17th nationally in scoring in 2009 and seventh last season.
Auburn will certainly pay well for its coordinators next season, so Chizik will be able to attract some top talent to rebuilding his coaching staff. However, it won’t be easy to replicate Malzahn’s system. The Tigers have recruited to run Malzahn’s spread offense, so choosing a different scheme could add transition time. Considering the question marks on defense and strength at running back, Auburn may not want to continue its with up-tempo offense.
With quarterback Cam Newton leaving early to the NFL, the offense was never the same this year. The up-tempo scheme never took off, and the Tigers averaged only 20 points in SEC play this year. Quarterback was a question mark all season, as Clint Moseley, Barrett Trotter and Kiehl Frazier all took snaps for Auburn. And neither was able to clearly separate from the others as the No. 1 guy.
Quarterback won’t be the only question mark for Auburn’s offense this offseason. Running back Michael Dyer is suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and isn’t a lock to return to the roster for next season. The sophomore rushed for 1,242 yards and 10 scores this year, which followed up a terrific freshman campaign.
With Dyer sidelined for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason will be forced to shoulder the workload in the backfield. McCalebb rushed for 532 yards this season, while Mason added 97.
If Dyer does not return to the team in 2012, the outlook in the backfield won’t be much better. McCalebb and Mason will return, while Florida transfer Mike Blakely will be eligible next season. While that trio isn’t bad, Auburn – assuming he does not return – will miss Dyer’s ability to be the clear go-to back. And there’s also the issue of who will be Auburn’s quarterback next year?
It’s unfair to say Chizik is on the hot seat one year removed from winning the national title. However, his tenure has reached a critical juncture. Take away last season’s record and Auburn is 15-10 in two years under Chizik. With Malzahn and Roof departing, Chizik has another chance to put his stamp on the program.
There’s no question the Tigers have talent in the program. After all, this team has ranked among the best in college football in recruiting over the last couple of seasons.
Another 7-5 season won’t sit well in Auburn and there will be a lot of turnover and uncertainty facing this team going into 2012.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4)
Date: Dec. 17 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Bronco Stadium, Boise, Idaho
The second matchup of bowl season features a battle on the blue turf in Boise. Although this game won’t register much interest on the national radar, this one could be one of the most entertaining pre-Christmas bowls.
The last four winners of this bowl have scored 40 points, so a shootout isn’t out of the question.
Although Utah State finished 7-5, it was a season of several close calls. The Aggies were unable to hold onto a lead late in the fourth quarter against Auburn, lost by one point to Colorado State, were defeated by three points to BYU and fell by a touchdown to eventual WAC champion Louisiana Tech. Since losing to the Bulldogs, the Aggies have won five in a row.
Ohio enters this matchup with victories in five out of its last six games. However, the Bobcats closed out the season on a disappointing note. Ohio led Northern Illinois 20-0 at halftime in the MAC title game, but the Huskies rallied for a 23-20 victory. Although two weeks have passed since that loss, it’s fair to wonder if the Bobcats will carry the disappointment from that loss to Boise.
This is Utah State’s first postseason appearance since playing in this bowl in 1997 against Cincinnati. The Aggies are 1-4 in bowl trips, with their lone victory coming against Ball State in the 1993 Las Vegas Bowl.
Ohio is 0-5 in bowl appearances, including a 48-21 blowout loss to Troy in last season’s New Orleans Bowl.
WHEN OHIO HAS THE BALL:
In first season as the starter, Tyler Tettleton has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the MAC. The sophomore threw for 3,086 yards and 26 scores, while adding 635 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. His dual-threat ability has been a huge asset in the development of Ohio’s offense this year.
Tettleton isn’t the only player doing damage on the ground for the Bobcats, as running back Donte Harden is 61 yards away from getting to 1,000. The senior has only two rushing scores, but is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has caught 23 passes this year.
Senior LaVon Brazill is Tettleton’s go-to target in the passing game. Brazill caught 66 passes for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Riley Dunlop, Donte Foster, Jordan Thompson and Phil Bates will all factor into the receiving corps, giving the Bobcats a deep group of targets for their passing attack.
The Aggies gave up 28.3 points a game this year, but led the WAC in total defense and finished second in the conference against the run. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the nation’s top defenders from outside of the BCS conferences, recording 140 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions this season.
Stopping Tettleton is likely to be Utah State’s No. 1 priority on defense. However, it would be a surprise if the Aggies are able to completely shut down Ohio’s offense. Utah State’s defense held its last two opponents to 21 or fewer points, but gave up at least 31 in the three prior contests.
WHEN UTAH STATE HAS THE BALL:
Running back Robert Turbin missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but has showed no ill-effects from that injury. Turbin rushed for 1,416 yards and 19 scores on 229 attempts this season, while catching 16 passes for 164 yards and four touchdowns. Turbin is clearly Utah State’s go-to back, but Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams will also get touches. Both players add more big-play ability in the backfield, as Smith averaged seven yards a carry, while Williams averaged 6.7 yards per attempt.
The Aggies will lean on their rushing attack (277.5 yards per game), but Ohio won’t be pushed around in the trenches. The Bobcats owned one of the MAC’s top defenses, ranking 30th nationally against the run and allowing only 11 touchdowns on the ground this year. Three Ohio defenders earned second-team All-MAC honors, including linebacker Noah Keller, who has to play a key role in slowing down Turbin.
Chuckie Keeton was one of the top freshman quarterbacks in the nation before an injury against Hawaii forced him to miss the final four regular season games. Adam Kennedy assumed the starting job in Keeton’s absence, throwing for 700 yards and eight touchdowns in the final four contests. Keeton is expected to be available to play, but Kennedy will start.
With their success on the ground, Utah State has been averaging only 23 passing attempts a game this year. However, Kennedy and Keeton are capable passers and are averaging 12.5 yards per completion. The Aggies don’t have an incredibly deep group of receivers, but Matt Austin (34 receptions) and Stanley Morrison (25 receptions) are solid options.
Ohio kicker Matt Weller earned second-team All-MAC honors this season, connecting on 24 of 33 attempts. He displayed good long-range ability, nailing 6 of 14 attempts from 40 yards or more.
The Bobcats also got a solid year from Donte Harden on kickoff returns, as he averaged 26.3 yards on 21 returns.
Utah State kicker Josh Thompson attempted just nine field goals this season, but connected on six. Punter Tyler Bennett averaged 44.2 yards per punt and downed 19 inside of the 20.
Kerwynn Williams was one of the top kickoff returners in the WAC last season, but his averaged dipped from 27.2 per return in 2010 to 22.7 this year. Williams and Eric Moats will handle the bulk of punt return duties.
If you are hungry for college football action this Saturday, this should be the game to watch. Both teams aren’t lacking for talent on defense, but all signs point to a high-scoring affair. The Aggies seem to have turned a corner under coach Gary Andersen and a victory over Ohio would be their eighth of the season – equaling their best win total since 1979. Expect a back and forth game, but Utah State’s rushing attack will be the difference in the end.
Utah State 31, Ohio 27
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
With Todd Graham leaving for Arizona State, Pittsburgh has to embark on its third coaching search in the last two seasons. Mike Haywood was hired to replace Dave Wannstedt last December, but was fired two weeks later due to a domestic violence charge. Graham was hired from Tulsa to replace Haywood, but chose to depart after just one season.
Who will replace Todd Graham at Pittsburgh?
Steve Addazio, head coach, Temple – Addazio is in his first season as a collegiate head coach, leading Temple to an 8-4 regular season record and a berth in the New Mexico Bowl. He is regarded as a good recruiter and has spent time as an assistant at Notre Dame, Indiana and Florida. Addazio is very familiar with the East Coast, as he grew up in Connecticut and worked there as a head coach on the high school level. There's very little track record as a head coach on the FBS level, but Addazio's ability to recruit and success with the Owls in 2011 makes him an intriguing candidate for Pittsburgh.
Teryl Austin, defensive backs coach, Baltimore Ravens – Austin’s name popped up in last season’s coaching search and will likely do so once again. He played at Pittsburgh from 1984-87 and was born in Sharon, Pa., so there's certainly a lot of familiarity with the Panthers. He has plenty of experience on the college level, working at Penn State (1991-92), Wake Forest (1993-95), Syracuse (1996-98), Michigan (1999-02) and at Florida in 2010. Austin has never been a head coach, but he has a solid resume and NFL experience.
Tom Bradley, interim Penn State coach – Bradley nearly landed the Pittsburgh job last season and figures to be in the mix once again. However, he is also in the running to keep the full-time spot at Penn State. Bradley was born in Johnstown, Pa. and has spent his entire coaching career at Penn State. His blue-collar attitude and approach would work well in Pittsburgh, but he has very limited experience as a head coach. One tricky question that must be answered: Is Bradley too toxic after the situation at Penn State? Although Bradley would be a solid hire, it would be difficult for Pittsburgh to hire him after what transpired in Happy Valley this season.
Paul Chryst, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin – Chryst is a highly-regarded offensive mind and seems ready for his first head coaching position. Under his direction, Wisconsin has led the Big Ten in scoring offense for three consecutive years and finished fourth nationally in scoring with an average of 44.6 points a game in 2011. Chyrst has stops as an assistant at Oregon State and in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers. He graduated from Wisconsin in 1988, so he may not be anxious to leave Madison. However, Bret Bielema is entrenched as the head coach, so he will have to look outside of Wisconsin for a chance to lead a program. Chryst wouldn't be flashy, but all signs point to him being a successful head coach.
Frank Cignetti, offensive coordinator, Rutgers – Cignetti is a Pittsburgh native, and it would be a major surprise if he didn't have interest in the position. He has been a successful assistant throughout his career, making stops with Fresno State, North Carolina, California and Rutgers, along with NFL experience in Kansas City, New Orleans and San Francisco. Cignetti had a short stint as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator under Dave Wannstedt from 2009-10. Although he has never been a head coach, Cignetti’s background and experience at Pittsburgh has to be attractive for athletic director Steve Pederson.
Mario Cristobal, head coach, FIU – There's no question Cristobal is one of the top coaches from a non-AQ school. But is he ready to make the jump to a BCS job? Cristobal inherited a disaster at FIU and has recorded a 24-37 record in five seasons, while leading the Golden Panthers to back-to-back bowl games. He played at Miami and has spent most of his coaching career in South Florida, so he may not be eager to take a job out of the state. Hiring Cristobal would be a home run for Pittsburgh, but the interest may not be mutual.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – Coaching at Eastern Michigan is arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. The Eagles have had just two seasons of at least six victories since 1988. English went 2-22 in his first two seasons in Ypsilanti, but led Eastern Michigan to a 6-6 record in 2011. He also has made stops as an assistant at San Diego State, Arizona State, Michigan and Louisville. English’s background on defense and blue-collar approach would be a good fit in Pittsburgh. Like Paul Chryst, English would not be a flashy name, but would be a good hire for a program that needs stability.
K.C. Keeler, head coach, Delaware – Keeler has very successful on the FCS level, leading Delaware to an 81-46 record over the last 10 years. Also, the Blue Hens have made four playoff appearances under his watch, including a FCS championship in 2003. Before coming to Delaware, Keeler was also a successful head coach at Rowan, posting an 88-21-1 record in nine years. He grew up in Emmaus, Pa., but graduated from Delaware, so he may not be too interested in leaving - even for a chance to land a good FBS job.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson – Morris recently inked a lengthy extension at Clemson, but an opportunity to be a head coach could be enough to convince him to leave Death Valley. He has experienced a quick rise through the coaching ranks, as he has spent just two seasons on the FBS level. Morris coordinated a Tulsa offense that averaged 41.4 points a game last season, while leading the Tigers to an average of 33.6 this year. Before coming to Tulsa in 2010, Morris was a high school coach at Lake Travis in Texas. Not having collegiate head coaching experience has to work against Morris, but he’s emerging as one of the top offensive minds in college football.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State – Narduzzi has been steadily moving up the coaching ranks over the last 10 years. He worked at Miami (Ohio) in 2003 as defensive coordinator, before jumping to take the same position at Cincinnati with Mark Dantonio in 2004. He joined Dantonio at Michigan State in 2007 and has developed one of the top defenses in college football this season. The only blemish on Narduzzi’s resume is the lack of head coaching experience. It's only a matter of time before Narduzzi lands a FBS head coaching gig - but is he ready to lead a BCS school? Considering Pittsburgh needs stability, choosing someone with no head coaching experience could be risky.
Paul Rhoads, head coach, Iowa State – Luring Rhoads away from Iowa State won’t be easy. But it would be a mistake if Pittsburgh didn't at least call about his interest. Rhoads has been one of the nation’s most underrated coaches over the last three years, leading the Cyclones to an 18-19 record and two bowl appearances. He previously coached at Pittsburgh as the defensive coordinator from 2000-07. Rhoads is a coach with a blue-collar attitude, which will work well in Pittsburgh. Considering Rhoads is from Iowa, leaving behind the Cyclones could be difficult. However, winning at Pittsburgh in the Big East (until 2014) is an easier road to handle than the Big 12.
Sal Sunseri, outside linebackers coach, Alabama – Although he has no extended head coaching experience, Sunseri has to be an attractive target for Pittsburgh. He played with the Panthers from 1978-81 and worked at the school from 1985-92 as a defensive assistant. Sunseri also has stops as an assistant at Louisville, LSU, Michigan State and with the Carolina Panthers. He joined Alabama’s staff in 2009, working with the outside linebackers and serving as an assistant head coach to Nick Saban. Considering Sunseri’s playing and coaching experience, he would likely consider this a destination job and wouldn’t be looking to bolt anytime soon (if ever).
Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida State – Stoops has been rumored to be a target for the open Auburn defensive coordinator position, but for now, appears to be staying at Florida State. Stoops is due for his first coaching position soon, and he’s paid his dues as an assistant, working at South Florida, Wyoming, Houston, Miami and Arizona. He has no connections to Pennsylvania, but grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, so he is somewhat familiar with the area. And his recruiting connections in Florida could pay dividends if he is hired at Pittsburgh. Florida State is bringing back one of the top defenses in college football next season, which could entice Stoops to stick around and raise his profile for 2012 openings.
Willie Taggart, head coach, Western Kentucky – Taggart signed an extension at Western Kentucky this offseason, but that likely won’t stop Pittsburgh from pursuing him if it is interested. The Hilltoppers won just two games in the two years prior to his arrival, but Taggart has brought steady improvement, leading Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. He worked under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007-09 and is one of the youngest head coaches (35) in college football.
Bud Foster, defensive coordinator, Virginia Tech – Despite opportunities to interview as a head coach – including Pittsburgh last season – Foster has been content to remain an assistant with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. He has coordinated the Hokies’ defense since 1995, emerging as one of the top assistants in college football during that span. With the Panthers moving to the ACC in 2014, would Foster want to compete against Beamer? Or is he content to remain a defensive coordinator? Considering Foster's history of sticking around in Blacksburg, it would be a surprise if he left for Pittsburgh.
Todd Haley, former Kansas City Chiefs coach – Haley spent a good chunk of his youth in Pittsburgh, as his dad (Dick Haley) worked as the Steelers’ player personnel director from 1971-1990. Although Haley is certainly familiar with the area, he does not have any collegiate head coaching experience. However, Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson hired a NFL dropout (Bill Callahan) at Nebraska, which makes Haley one to keep on the radar.
Jeff Jagodzinski, former Boston College head coach – It’s been a surprise Jagodzinski hasn’t landed another college head coaching position after two successful years at Boston College. He did not have an amicable divorce from the Eagles, as he was fired for interviewing with the Jets for their head coaching position at the end of the 2008 season. Since getting canned from Boston College, he has spent one year with the Buccaneers and one with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State – If you are looking for a wildcard to watch in this search, Lembo is the name to remember. He recorded a 44-14 record and two FCS apperances in five seasons at Lehigh, before leading Elon to a 35-22 record and one playoff appearance in five years. After finishing with six victories in the two years prior to Lembo’s arrival, the Cardinals won six games in 2011. Lembo is a bright offensive mind and has had success at every stop.
Randy Shannon, former Miami head coach – Shannon has no ties to the Pittsburgh area, but has head coaching experience, posting a 28-22 record in four years at Miami. Although he didn’t have tremendous success on the field, Shannon helped to cut down the off-the-field incidents and improve the Hurricanes’ work in the classroom. After a disappointing tenure at Miami, he is hungry to get back in the mix and prove he can have more success on the sidelines than he did with the Hurricanes.
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in college football, working as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator since 2004. He is a Kansas native and has only coached in the Midwest, so it seems unlikely he would jump at an opportunity to coach at Pittsburgh.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
New Mexico Bowl
Temple (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-4)
Date: Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
The 2011-2012 bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, N.M. with a matchup of two 8-4 teams. Wyoming is making its second bowl appearance under coach Dave Christensen, while Temple is led by first-year coach Steve Addazio.
Christensen has engineered quite a turnaround after a 3-9 record last year. The Cowboys closed the regular season with wins in three out of their last four games and nearly knocked off TCU in early November.
Temple has been on the rise over the last few seasons. Before departing to Miami, former coach Al Golden went 27-34 in five seasons with the Owls and successfully resurrected the program into a contender in the MAC. Addazio has picked up where he left off, leading Temple to a season of at least eight victories for only the second time since 1979.
This is the Cowboys’ second trip to the New Mexico Bowl, as they defeated Fresno State 35-28 in 2009. Wyoming is also riding a two-game winning streak in bowls after beating UCLA 24-21 in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2004.
Temple is making just its fourth bowl game in school history. The Owls’ last postseason appearance came in 2009, losing 30-21 to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl.
WHEN TEMPLE HAS THE BALL:
Don’t expect to see the ball in the air much when the Owls are on offense. Junior running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown led the way for Temple to rank seventh nationally in rushing at 256.7 yards per game. Pierce earned first-team All-MAC honors this year, finishing sixth nationally with 125.6 rushing yards per game. He also posted 25 rushing scores.
Chris Coyer assumed the starting quarterback job for Temple’s final three regular season games, but suffered a shoulder injury against Kent State and his status for the New Mexico Bowl is uncertain. Coyer threw only 23 passes in his three starts, but proved to be an effective runner, finishing the regular season with 491 yards and three scores. If Coyer doesn't start, expect to see Chester Stewart or Mike Gerardi under center.
When Temple decides to throw, tight end Evan Rodriguez is the No. 1 target. The senior leads the team with 33 receptions and 427 receiving yards. Rod Streater adds big-play ability to the receiving corps, averaging 18.9 yards per reception this season.
Wyoming’s defense will be tested early and often in this game, particularly on the ground. The Cowboys allowed 230.1 rushing yards per game (115th nationally) and gave up 26 touchdowns on the ground. Temple’s offensive line has a significant size advantage in the trenches, as the Owls average 318.8 pounds per offensive lineman, while Wyoming checks in at 270.3 per defensive lineman.
Although the Cowboys have struggled to stop opposing rushing attacks, the secondary finished 34th nationally against the pass. And safeties Luke Ruff and Tashaun Gipson earned second-team All-Mountain West honors.
Even though Wyoming may give up some yards, it has done a good job of winning the turnover battle this year. The Cowboys have forced 31 turnovers and will need to create a few to win on Saturday afternoon.
The Owls finished seventh in the MAC in total offense, but ranked 10th nationally in time of possession. If Temple wants to win its first bowl since 1979, controlling the clock and getting Pierce on track is essential.
Considering Wyoming’s issues against the run, it has to find a way to get Temple in obvious passing situations. Also, the defense could get some help from the offense, especially if it can get up by two scores and force the Owls to throw.
WHEN WYOMING HAS THE BALL:
The Cowboys are averaging 27 points a game, but that will be put to the test against a solid Temple defense. The Owls rank third nationally in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and 15th nationally in yards allowed per game (315.5). Only two opponents (Ohio and Toledo) have managed to score more than 21 points against the Owls this year.
Freshman quarterback Brett Smith is the focal point of the Wyoming offense. He has thrown for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns, while adding 645 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Smith has been careful with the football, throwing only eight interceptions this season.
While Smith has been a major contributor on the ground, he’s not the team’s only option. Alvester Alexander leads Wyoming with 678 yards, while Brandon Miller and Kody Sutton combined for 446.
The Cowboys have a solid group of receivers, but No. 1 target Chris McNeill is out for the remainder of the season with an arm injury. With McNeill sidelined, Smith will rely more on Mazi Ogbonna, Dominic Rufran, Josh Doctson and Robert Herron even more and each has at least 32 receptions this season.
Some of the credit for Wyoming’s success on offense goes to the offensive line. Led by senior left tackle Clayton Kirven, the front five has allowed only 11 sacks this year. This group will be tested by an active Temple defensive line, which is registering 2.7 sacks a game. Ends Adrian Robinson and Morkeith Brown earned All-MAC honors this season.
Considering the Temple defense has been a strength all year, this won't be an easy matchup for Wyoming. The Owls will focus on stopping Smith – especially on the ground – and getting pressure on him when he throws. Also, Temple’s offense and ball-control attack will help keep the ball away from the Cowboys.
A slight edge goes to the Owls in this department.
Temple punter Brandon McManus earned second-team All-MAC honors after averaging 45.9 yards per punt this season. McManus placed 15 punts inside of the 20. He also connected on 13 of 19 field goal attempts.
Junior running back Matt Brown is a dangerous option on special teams for Temple, averaging 26.7 yards per kick return and 10.1 on punt returns.
Wyoming punter Austin McCoy had a solid regular season, averaging 40.3 yards per punt on 72 attempts. Kicker Daniel Sullivan nailed 7 of 10 attempts, but only one from beyond 40 yards.
The Cowboys will likely use freshman Blair Burns on punt returns, while Dominic Rufran will lead the way on kickoffs.
Three of the five previous matchups of the New Mexico Bowl were decided by eight points or less. And another close one can be expected this season.
These two teams had one common opponent: Bowling Green. Temple lost to the Falcons 13-10, while Wyoming won 28-27.
There’s really no secret to how this game will be decided. If the Cowboys find a way to stuff the Owls’ rushing attack, they will win the game. If Wyoming’s rush defense struggles, expect Temple to come away with the victory.
Temple 27, Wyoming 24
Putting together an All-America team is never easy and that’s certainly the case in 2011. Several players didn’t make the cut on Athlon’s All-America team, but that doesn’t take anything away from the season they had.
On defense, sorting out the best of the best in the linebacking corps and in the secondary was difficult. On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon was an easy selection at one receiver spot, but the other was a close call between Western Michigan’s Jordan White, USC’s Robert Woods and Baylor’s Kendall Wright.
How does the postseason team compare to the preseason? Take a look at our preseason All-American team and see who we got right and wrong.
Related: How did Athlon's 2011 All-American team rank as Recruits?
2011 Athlon All-America Team
QB Robert Griffin, Baylor
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
WR Kendall Wright, Baylor
TE Dwayne Allen, Clemson
C Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OG David DeCastro, Stanford
OG Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OT Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
OT Barrett Jones, Alabama
DE Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DT Devon Still, Penn State
DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
CB Morris Claiborne, LSU
CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama
S Mark Barron, Alabama
S Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State
K Randy Bullock, Texas A&M
P Brad Wing, LSU
KR Greg McCoy, TCU
PR Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
AP Sammy Watkins, Clemson
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
(Published December 8th, 2011) Click here to view Athlon's updated top 25 for 2012.
It's never too early to start thinking about next season. There's a lot that's going to change over the next few months, including coaches and players leaving for the NFL Draft. With that in mind, this is a very, very, very early look at how the preseason top 25 could appear when Athlon's 2012 college football magazine is released.
Keep in mind, this is more an off-the-cuff early ranking, as we will dive more into the schedule and depth chart once the season is finished. Expect lots of changes when we release a pre-preseason top 25 in January.
Related: 2012 SEC Schedule Analysis
Related: Athlon's 2011 All-Americans as Recruits
1. LSU – Regardless of what happens in the national championship game, expect to see the Tigers start the year ranked No. 1 in many preseason polls. The offense will have to replace quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, but Zach Mettenberger is talented, and the offense can lean on a talented rushing game to ease him into the starting lineup. The defense suffers a few losses, but cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and end Sam Montgomery will keep this unit among the nation’s best. One scheduling break: LSU will host Alabama next season.
2. USC – Will he or won’t he? That’s the question surrounding quarterback Matt Barkley. If the junior decides to enter the NFL Draft, the Trojans will tumble in our next release of a very early preseason top 25. However, should Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil decide to return for their senior year, it could be a special season for USC. And if both players return, the Trojans may overtake LSU for the No. 1 spot.
3. Oregon – The Ducks have claimed the Pac-12 title for three consecutive seasons and could be in line for a fourth. If Matt Barkley returns to USC, Oregon will likely be picked just a couple of spots behind the Trojans in preseason polls. Should Barkley leave, the Ducks will likely be in the top three of many preseason polls. Running back LaMichael James is likely leaving for the NFL, but replacements Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas are more than capable of keeping this offense among the best in the nation.
4. Alabama – Trent Richardson is likely off to the NFL, and the defense will have to replace several key contributors. However, don’t expect that to stop Alabama from contending for the national title next season. Quarterback AJ McCarron will have to carry this team early on, but the offense will get a boost from running back Dee Hart, who missed all of 2011 with an ACL tear. The Crimson Tide open the year with an intriguing non-conference battle against Michigan.
5. Georgia – Expect the Bulldogs and South Carolina to be picked at the top of the SEC East once again next season. With Texas A&M and Missouri coming into the conference, the schedules for both teams are up in the air, but that matchup could go a long way towards determining the division champ. Aaron Murray returns as the SEC’s top quarterback, and the defense will remain among the nation’s best. However, the offensive line will be a major question mark entering spring practice.
6. Ohio State – After a disappointing 6-6 record this season, expect the Buckeyes to rebound in a big way in 2012. Urban Meyer was a home run hire, and it won’t be long before Ohio State is back in the national title discussion. Quarterback Braxton Miller should thrive in Meyer’s spread offense, while a young group of receivers should be better next year. The offensive line has a few holes, which loses center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams. Unless defensive lineman John Simon bolts for the NFL, the Buckeyes will have nine returning starters on defense.
7. Oklahoma – Quarterback Landry Jones could enter the NFL Draft, but appears more likely to return for Norman for his senior year. The Sooners clearly missed receiver Ryan Broyles since his ACL tear, but spring practice will allow the offense plenty of time to get Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds and Kameel Jackson more acclimated into roles that will allow the passing game to click. The Sooners should be strong on defense, but will miss defensive end Frank Alexander.
8. Florida State – Sure, the Seminoles may have been one of 2011’s most disappointing teams, but there’s too much talent to expect another 8-4 record. Injuries to quarterback EJ Manuel and the receiving corps early in the year slowed the progress of the offense. In order for Florida State to win the ACC, the rushing attack and offensive line has to be better next season. The defense is filled with talented underclassmen and should be one of the best in the nation.
9. Michigan – 10 wins – including one over Ohio State – was a terrific debut for Brady Hoke at Michigan. But 2012 could be even better. Quarterback Denard Robinson returns, along with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to form a potent one-two combination on offense. The line must replace two starters, including center David Molk, but left tackle Taylor Lewan is a good building block. The defense showed major progress this season and should only get better next year.
10. Virginia Tech – It’s a close call between the Hokies and Florida State for the very early No. 1 spot in the ACC predictions. For now, the edge goes to the Seminoles. The Hokies fell short of winning the ACC Championship this year, but return a solid core for 2012. Quarterback Logan Thomas will only get better with another round of offseason practices, while Marcus Davis and D.J. Coles should emerge as the new go-to threats at receiver. The biggest concern on offense will be the line, which has to replace four starters. Running back David Wilson could also depart for the NFL. The defense is likely to only lose one or two players, and should challenge Florida State for the best unit in the conference.
11. Arkansas – Bobby Petrino has led the Razorbacks to a 20-5 record over the last two seasons, but can this program knock off LSU or Alabama for the SEC West title? Barring any schedule changes due to realignment, Arkansas is slated to host those two teams next season, which is huge for its chances of winning the division. The offense will remain one of the best in the SEC, despite the departure of Joe Adams and Jarius Wright at receiver. Knile Davis will add some punch to the running game, after missing all of 2011 with an ankle injury. There’s no question Arkansas has the offensive firepower to win the conference. However, the defense has to be much better if the Razorbacks want to return to Atlanta.
12. Clemson – The defending ACC champions are in great shape heading into next season. The offense returns mostly intact, with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins one of the top pass-catch duos in college football. Clemson was also proactive in keeping offensive coordinator Chad Morris, which is essential to its ACC title hopes in 2012. The defense will have some holes to fill, as nose guard Brandon Thompson, defensive end Andre Branch and free safety Rashard Hall are all departing. The Tigers also have to travel to Tallahassee for a key Atlantic Division showdown.
13. Michigan State – Replacing quarterback Kirk Cousins won’t be easy, but the Spartans should be able to lean on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses and a solid rushing attack to contend once again in the Legends Division. Michigan State finished the regular season ranked fifth nationally in total defense, while allowing only 17.5 points a game. Next year’s schedule is challenging, featuring non-conference games against Boise State and Notre Dame, while hosting Ohio State and Nebraska in Big Ten play and road matchups against Michigan and Wisconsin. Coach Mark Dantonio has turned the Spartans into a consistent contender for the Big Ten title.
14. Nebraska – Michigan is the frontrunner to win the Legends Division, but the Michigan State-Nebraska debate for second place is going to be very interesting in the spring. The Cornhuskers return quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, but the offensive line is expected to have three new starters. Linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard must be replaced on defense, and the run defense has to be better after finishing eighth in the Big Ten this year.
15. South Carolina – The Gamecocks just missed out on back-to-back SEC East titles, but should push Georgia in the division once again next year. Running back Marcus Lattimore will be back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in mid-October. Quarterback Connor Shaw played well in the final two regular season games, but needs to translate that into a full year. The Gamecocks will also need a new No. 1 receiver, as Alshon Jeffery is likely gone to the NFL. The defense finished No. 4 in the SEC in yards allowed this year, but are losing end Melvin Ingram, linebacker/safety Antonio Allen, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore could leave early for the NFL.
16. Notre Dame – Brian Kelly is moving the Irish closer to contending for a BCS bowl, but it may not happen in 2012. Standout receiver Michael Floyd is gone, and the jury is still out on Tommy Rees' future as Notre Dame's No. 1 quarterback. Running back Cierre Wood is back, and the offensive line should be in good shape, despite the departure of guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Taylor Dever. The secondary must be revamped, but the front seven on defense should be stout. The schedule isn’t easy, featuring road dates at USC, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
17. Texas – The Longhorns are making a slow climb back into Big 12 title contention. After finishing 5-7 in 2010, Texas rebounded with a 7-5 record and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. There’s plenty of talent in Austin, but it’s also young and inexperienced. Quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash will likely battle for the No. 1 job in spring practice, but the one-two punch of Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron at running back can carry the offense early next year. The defense loses tackle Kheeston Randall and linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho, but should still be one of the best in the conference.
18. West Virginia – It’s still up in the air which conference the Mountaineers will be in next year. West Virginia has sued for its release from the Big East, but the conference has no intention of letting it leave early. The guess here is things will be resolved, and the Mountaineers will play 2012 in the Big 12. Adjusting to a new league won’t be easy, but West Virginia’s spread offense is a good fit for the Big 12. However, the Mountaineers have to work on stabilizing the offensive line in spring practice, along with developing a consistent rushing attack.
19. Wisconsin – With Russell Wilson out of eligibility, there’s no question the Badgers are going to take a step back in 2012. However, things could get worse. Running back Montee Ball and center Peter Konz could declare for the NFL Draft, which would be another setback for the offense. Who will replace Wilson? Keep an eye on Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist. Just like Wilson, Crist decided to transfer with one year of eligibility remaining and could be another short-term fix for Wisconsin’s quarterback situation.
20. Boise State – The Broncos short voyage in the Mountain West will conclude next season after accepting a bid to join the Big East in 2013. With TCU off to the Big 12, it would be a major surprise if Boise State does not finish conference play unbeaten. However, there are a lot of holes to fill on the depth chart for coach Chris Petersen. Quarterback Kellen Moore, running back Doug Martin and left tackle Nate Potter will leave big shoes to fill on offense. The defensive line also takes a hit, as tackles Billy Winn and Chase Baker and ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McClellin are all gone.
21. Baylor – Just like USC, Baylor’s preseason ranking will weigh heavily on its quarterback’s NFL decision. Robert Griffin will likely be a first-round pick if he chooses to leave school early, which would be a huge loss for the Bears. If Griffin returns, despite the losses of running back Terrance Ganaway and receiver Kendall Wright, the offense will remain one of the best in the Big 12. The defense should also show improvement in the second year under coordinator Phil Bennett.
22. Kansas State – The Wildcats were easily one of 2011’s biggest surprises. Can they follow that up with another 10-win season? It’s unlikely Kansas State will fly under the radar once again, especially with quarterback Collin Klein returning for his senior year. The biggest question mark on offense will be replacing three starters up front. After a disappointing 2010 season, the defense showed improvement this year. However, the Wildcats have to replace five starters, including cornerback David Garrett and nose tackle Ray Kibble.
23. Louisville – The Cardinals came up just short of winning the outright Big East title this season. However, the future looks very bright. Louisville had a plethora of young players see time this season, including true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The offensive line struggled this year, but should be better in 2012 with a full season from center Mario Benavides. With West Virginia off to the Big 12, the Cardinals should be the favorite to win the Big East.
24. Washington – Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies on the right track and should take another step forward in 2012. Quarterback Keith Price had a solid year in his first as the starter and there’s no shortage of weapons coming back in 2012. Tight end Austein Seferian-Jenkins and receivers Kasen Williams and James Johnson will form a talented trio of options for Price next season. The defense has been an issue over the past few seasons and will be a question mark once again. The defensive line loses two starters, but will get end Hau’oli Jamora back from a torn ACL. Washington also has to do a better job in pass defense, as it finished 116th nationally in yards allowed.
25. TCU – The Horned Frogs’ maiden voyage through the Big 12 won’t be easy. But there’s also plenty of reasons to be optimistic next season. Quarterback Casey Pachall is back after a solid debut year as the starter. The offense also has talented weapons at receiver in Skye Dawson and Josh Boyce, while running backs Matthew Tucker, Waymon James and Ed Wesley form a deep trio of options. Expect the defense to remain a strength under coach Gary Patterson, but linebacker Tank Carder departs, and the secondary loses three starters.
Others to watch
Arizona State – There’s talent to work with, but the collapse at the end of the year was puzzling. Also, who will be the coach next season?
Auburn – With only five returning starters coming into 2011, the Tigers were expected to take a step back. With a year to grow into the starting lineup, will Auburn jump back into SEC West title contention?
California – Are the Golden Bears back on track? California finished with wins in three out of its final four games, but need more improvement from quarterback Zach Maynard.
Florida – A disappointing 6-6 record has coach Will Muschamp searching for answers this offseason. The Gators will have to find a replacement for quarterback John Brantley, but the defense should be solid.
Georgia Tech – Not much was expected of the Yellow Jackets in 2011, but they finished 8-4 and return a good chunk of their starting lineup next season.
Iowa – The Hawkeyes are coming off a disappointing 7-5 season, but return quarterback James Vandenberg and running back Marcus Coker. The defensive line will be a concern going into next year.
North Carolina – Quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard are solid building blocks for the new head coach. Losing end Quinton Coples, tackle Tydreke Powell and linebacker Zach Brown will hurt the defense.
Oklahoma State – With quarterback Brandon Weeden finishing his eligibility and receiver Justin Blackmon off to the NFL, the Cowboys will take a step back. However, Oklahoma State shouldn’t fall too far, but a deep Big 12 could push it to a finish of fifth or worse next year.
Stanford – Without quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cardinal will fall in the Pac-12 North standings. Coach David Shaw has done a good job on the recruiting trail, so the Cardinal should still remain a bowl team.
Utah – The Utes need more from their offense in 2012 and will get a boost from the return of quarterback Jordan Wynn from a shoulder injury. Expect the defense to remain one of the best in the Pac-12, despite losing end Derrick Shelby and two starting linebackers.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Finally. After losing Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC in September and West Virginia to the Big 12 in late October, the Big East is ready to expand. According to CBSSports.com, the conference will formally add Boise State, Houston, San Diego State, SMU and UCF. The Big East is expected to announce the additions on Wednesday.
Houston, SMU and UCF will join for all spots, while Boise State and San Diego State may send its other sports to the WAC.
All five teams are expected to join in time for the 2013 season. However, there could be some leeway with that date. The Big East plans to hold Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia to its exit agreement (27 months). However, the Mountaineers are suing to leave the Big East in time for the 2012 season.
If West Virginia does leave the conference next season, could Boise State join in time for 2012? The Broncos would have to pay a large exit fee, but it would be worth it for the automatic bid into the BCS. Boise State is rebuilding next season, but assuming West Virginia leaves, the conference race is wide open.
With the defections of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the future of the Big East was uncertain. However, the conference has stabilized – at least for now – with the addition of five teams.
Despite the expansion, the Big East can’t let its guard down. Rutgers and Connecticut have been rumored as possible targets for future ACC expansion, while Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati are believed to be on the radar for the Big 12.
Although the Big East could lose teams in the future, getting the conference to 12 members by 2013 or 2014 will at least help to build a solid foundation.
The Big East is expected to add two more teams – likely Air Force and Navy – in the near future. However, Air Force is still trying to decide if it wants to make the move or not. If the Falcons do not join the Big East, Temple or East Carolina would figure to be the next team to get an invitation. BYU was believed to have some interest in joining the Big East, but the two sides were unable to come to an agreement.
Although the geography and the name of the conference make this an odd fit, it makes sense for both parties. The Big East needed to do something to assure its survival. Without any expansion, the conference was looking at having just five football teams in place for 2014.
For the teams joining the conference, this allows Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF, SMU, Navy and Air Force a chance to have an automatic bid into the BCS for at least one season. There may be changes to the BCS bowls starting in 2014, but it seems unlikely automatic qualification will be completely removed from the equation. Also, this move should benefit the revenue stream for the incoming schools. The Big East is expected to sign a new television deal, which will help with exposure and money.
A history of the five new Big East teams and their previous conferences (Since 1970)
Boise State: Big Sky (1970-95), Big East (1996-00), WAC (2001-2010), Mountain West (2011)
Houston: Independent (1970-75), Southwest (1976-95), Conference USA (1996-current)
San Diego State: Pacific Coast (1970-77), WAC (1978-98), Mountain West (1999-curent)
SMU: 1970-95 (Southwest), 1996-2004 (WAC), Conference USA (2005-current)
UCF: Independent (1996-01), MAC (2002-04), Conference USA (2005-current)
Here’s what the Big East could look like in 2014 – assuming Air Force and Navy join.
Navy – Expected to join
San Diego State
Quick thoughts on the five new Big East members
Boise State – There’s no question Boise State is the crown jewel of Big East expansion. The Broncos have been one of the most successful teams in college football over the last 10 years and have played in two BCS bowls. Boise State is making facility and stadium improvements, as well as finding ways to keep coach Chris Petersen happy. The Broncos heavily recruit Texas and California, so playing in a division with San Diego State, Houston and SMU makes a lot of sense.
Houston – Although a loss to Southern Miss ended the Cougars’ chances of getting to a BCS bowl, this has emerged as a consistent winner in Conference USA. Also, Houston is making a commitment to upgrading the facilities, which are needed to continue moving up the ladder in program/conference rankings. Another solid recruiting area and television market for the Big East.
San Diego State – The Aztecs have had only two winning seasons since 2000, but has made back-to-back bowls. In order for Boise State to join the Big East, it wanted to have a Western partner, and San Diego State is a good fit. The Aztecs are taking a step down in basketball, but this should help with exposure for their football program.
SMU – The Mustangs are a team on the rise in Conference USA, making three consecutive bowl games under coach June Jones. SMU is also located in Dallas, a good television and recruiting market for the Big East.
UCF – The Knights are finally in the Big East. After years of wanting to get into the conference, UCF is ready for its debut in a BCS conference. The Knights are located in a terrific state for recruiting and opened a new stadium in 2007. Everything seems to be in place for UCF to be a consistent winner in the Big East.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Whether you are for or against it, the rematch is set for Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime victory. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, no conference has had two teams play for the national championship. However, that's about to change as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will invade New Orleans for their second meeting of 2011.
What does Alabama need to win the national title? Athlon will have an extended breakdown before Jan. 9, but here's five things to watch when the game kicks off in New Orleans.
1. AJ’s Time to Shine – Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron has done a nice job in his first season as the starter, throwing for 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns to only five interceptions. In the 9-6 loss to LSU, he completed 16 of 28 throws for 199 yards. However, McCarron tossed a costly interception, which allowed LSU to tie the game 6-6 in the third quarter. With LSU aiming to take away Alabama running back Trent Richardson from the gameplan, McCarron will have to step up once again. It's unfair to say the national title rests solely on McCarron's arm, but he has to have a good performance if Alabama wants to win.
2. Special Teams – This was an area of concern in the first matchup, as Alabama missed four field goals and got virtually nothing on kickoff returns. If the Crimson Tide wants to get revenge for LSU’s win in Tuscaloosa, they have to be better in this department. Kicker Jeremy Shelley connected on 16 of 20 attempts during the regular season, while Cade Foster hit on only 2 of 9. Considering Alabama missed four field goals and nearly won, one play on special teams in the rematch could be the deciding factor. The bottom line is Shelley and Foster have to be better, while the team also needs Marquis Maze or Trent Richardson to step it up on returns on Jan. 9.
3. Trick plays? – In the first meeting between these two teams, Alabama went into its bag of tricks for a wide receiver pass by Marquis Maze, but it proved to be a costly call. Maze’s pass was intercepted on the goal-line, ending a solid Crimson Tide drive and the chance to put points on the board. While calling the wide receiver pass wasn’t a terrible idea, Alabama doesn’t need to get too cute on offense to win this game. The Crimson Tide outgained LSU 295 to 239 in the first meeting, but has to do a better job of cashing in on opportunities once it gets past midfield.
4. Load up the box – Slowing down the LSU offense is pretty simple: Crowd the line of scrimmage and force the quarterbacks to beat you. Alabama did a good job of limiting LSU’s rushing attack to 148 yards in the first matchup, but that’s double the yardage the Crimson Tide allowed on average per game this season (74.9). One reason the Tigers continue to be successful – even against crowded line of scrimmages – is a deep backfield. Michael Ford leads the team with 755 yards, but Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are all capable running backs. Even though LSU may not get much yardage early, the depth will take its toll on any defense in the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide has to limit the success of the Tigers on first and second down, forcing Jefferson or Lee to make plays in third and long situations.
5. Stop the Honey Badger – There’s no question LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is one of the nation’s most exciting players with the ball in his hand. He has forced six fumbles this season, while taking two of those back for a touchdown. Mathieu has been a dynamic returner, taking two back for touchdowns and averaging 16.2 yards per punt return. While he may not have the every play impact of Trent Richardson, Mathieu can be a game changer for LSU. Eliminating his impact on defense will be tough, but expect Alabama to kick away from him on returns.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Whether you are for or against it, the rematch is set for Jan. 9 in New Orleans. Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa earlier this year, with the Tigers claiming a 9-6 overtime victory. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, no conference has had two teams play for the national championship. However, that's about to change as the Crimson Tide and Tigers will invade New Orleans for their second meeting of 2011.
What does LSU need to win the national title? Athlon will have an extended breakdown before Jan. 9, but here's five things to watch when the game kicks off in New Orleans.
1. Stop Trent Richardson – Much like defenses trying to stop LSU’s offense, the way to beat Alabama is to take away its rushing attack. In the first meeting between these two teams, Richardson was held to 89 yards on 23 attempts. The junior leads the SEC with an average of 131.9 yards per game in conference play. Richardson also made a big impact in the passing game in the first matchup, catching five passes for 80 yards. Stopping the run is priority No. 1 for the Tigers, but they also have to do a better job of keeping Richardson contained out of the backfield.
2. Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee? – Jefferson took control of the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after the win over Alabama, but did not play well in the SEC title game against Georgia. Jefferson completed only 5 of 13 throws for 30 yards and one touchdown against the Bulldogs, while Lee has tossed only 12 passes in the last five games. In the first matchup between these two teams, Jefferson and Lee combined for just 91 yards on nine completions. Alabama’s secondary is one of the best in the nation, which won’t make life easy for the quarterbacks. However, LSU might want to shake up the offense and get both players involved. Lee would allow the Tigers to open up the passing game more, while Jefferson can hurt the defense with his legs. LSU doesn't need 300 passing yards, but can it win with under 100 yards again?
3. Unleash the Honey Badger – Alabama probably isn’t going to give Tyrann Mathieu many opportunities to touch the ball on special teams. Why not give the Honey Badger a shot on offense? Of course LSU can’t ask Mathieu to play 20 plays on offense, but how about less than 10 snaps? Mathieu is averaging 16.2 yards per punt return and 9.8 yards on fumble returns this season. Why not get him in the game on a reverse or running out of the Wildcat? If nothing else, Alabama will have to devote attention to Mathieu, which could open up the possibility for a big play by someone else on the LSU sideline. Considering points and first downs will be at a premium, getting Mathieu involved on offense isn’t a bad idea.
4. Win the Turnover Battle – LSU finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 30 and only lost eight on offense. In the first matchup between these two, the turnover battle was tied at two. Considering how close the first contest was, a fumble or interception could be the deciding factor. Neither team has a big-play offense, but the Tigers could probably use more help in this area, particularly with an inconsistent passing game. Although LSU rallied to beat Arkansas and Georgia, it does not want to face an early deficit.
5. Let the Punter Win the Game – Seriously. That’s not a joke. LSU punter Brad Wing is among the best in the nation, averaging 44.1 yards per punt and placing 23 of his kicks inside of the 20. While it may seem strange to lean on your punter, Wing can flip field position and back opposing offenses deep into its own territory. Although LSU or Alabama can’t win the national title by being ultraconservative, there’s no reason to take unnecessary chances either. With Wing’s ability to pin opponents inside of the 20, LSU doesn’t need to be afraid to punt the ball and put its defense back on the field.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Which bowls should you tune into? Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid.
35. Little Caesars Pizza Bowl – Western Michigan (7-5) vs. Purdue (6-6) – Dec. 27
Despite being less than 200 miles outside of Detroit, this is Western Michigan’s first appearance in this bowl. The Broncos should have a homefield advantage over the Boilermakers, who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2007. If you are looking for an individual matchup to watch, keep an eye on Western Michigan receiver Jordan White against Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen. White caught 127 passes for 1,646 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Allen was selected by the coaches as a second-team All-Big Ten defensive back.
34. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7) – Dec. 31
Is there really much to get excited about this one? Both teams will have interim coaches and combined for a 12-13 record this year. It’s just over a six-hour drive from UCLA to San Francisco, which should make this a home game for the Bruins. However, as it is with many bowls, whichever team wants to be there more after a disappointing regular season will win.
33. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl – FIU (8-4) vs. Marshall (6-6) – Dec. 20
Coach Mario Cristobal continues to push the FIU program to new heights, posting a school-record eight victories this year. This is also the Golden Panthers’ second bowl appearance after beating Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl last season. Marshall is returning to the postseason after a one-year absence and this is a good spot for a team that recruits heavily in Florida. FIU receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the nation’s top all-around players and will be a handful for the Thundering Herd’s defense.
32. Compass Bowl – Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. SMU (7-5) - Jan. 7
Out of the 35 bowl games, Birmingham has to be one of the least desirable locations for a postseason trip. And Pittsburgh certainly isn’t thrilled to be in this game after making a trip to Birmingham last year. This is SMU’s third consecutive bowl appearances, but will coach June Jones make the trip? Jones is rumored to be in the mix at Arizona State and UCLA. Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham went 2-2 against the Mustangs while he was Tulsa’s head coach from 2007-10.
31. Poinsettia Bowl – TCU (10-2) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-4) – Dec. 21
Coach Sonny Dykes did an underrated job with the Bulldogs this year, leading this team to a WAC title and their first bowl appearance since 2008. The Horned Frogs were on the doorstep of a BCS berth, but didn’t reach the top 16 in the latest release of the BCS standings. This is the first matchup between these two teams and interestingly enough, both enter with seven-game winning streaks.
30. New Mexico Bowl – Wyoming (8-4) vs. Temple (8-4) – Dec. 17
Bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque, with Temple making the long trip from Philadelphia to take on the Cowboys. Wyoming has quietly put together a nice season behind freshman quarterback Brett Smith. The Owls were left out of the postseason last year, but are making their second bowl trip in the last three years. Coach Steve Addazio did a good job in his first season at Temple, leaning on running back Bernard Pierce for a solid 8-4 record.
29. New Orleans Bowl – San Diego State (8-4) vs. UL Lafayette (8-4) – Dec. 17
One of the nation’s top first-year coaching jobs went to UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns finished 8-4 after a 3-9 record last season and are back in the postseason for the first time since 1970. The Aztecs are making back-to-back bowl appearances in program history. This could be the final game at San Diego State for running back Ronnie Hillman, who ranks third nationally with 138 rushing yards per game. The sophomore is eligible for the NFL Draft at the end of this season. It’s a short drive from Lafayette to New Orleans, so this should be a virtual home game for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
28. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Utah State (7-5) vs. Ohio (9-4) – Dec. 17
2011 was a season of near misses for Utah State. The Aggies lost close games to Auburn, BYU and Louisiana Tech, but closed out the year with a five-game winning streak. Coach Gary Andersen is a rising star and will eventually get a shot at a BCS program. Ohio is 0-5 in previous bowl appearances and doesn’t have much time to erase a disappoint loss in the MAC title game. Both teams are averaging over 30 points a game, so a shootout appears likely.
27. Music City Bowl – Mississippi State (6-6) vs. Wake Forest (6-6) – Dec. 30
Nashville is all about music, but it will be a different type of noise invading LP Field. The Bulldogs will be bringing their cowbells from Starkville for their first appearance in the Music City Bowl. The Demon Deacons are also making their first bowl appearance in Nashville and will look to earn their third consecutive postseason win in a row. After giving up 297 rushing yards in the season finale to Vanderbilt, Wake Forest’s rush defense will be under attack from Mississippi State running back Vick Ballard.
26. Pinstripe Bowl – Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6) – Dec. 30
The first Pinstripe Bowl ended up as a classic between Syracuse and Kansas State and this one seems to be another even matchup. The Cyclones have made two bowl appearances in three seasons under coach Paul Rhoads, while the Scarlet Knights are happy to be back in the postseason after a disappointing 4-8 record last year. This will be the first meeting between these two teams.
25. Hawaii Bowl – Southern Miss (11-2) vs. Nevada (7-5) – Dec. 24
The Golden Eagles are disappointed to miss out on a trip to the Liberty Bowl, but can you really complain about Hawaii in mid-December? Look for this matchup to be a high-scoring affair, as both teams rank in the top 15 of total offense and are averaging over 30 points a game. Nevada quarterback Cody Fajarado missed the season finale against Idaho with an injury, but should be back under center for this matchup. One question to ponder: Is Larry Fedora Southern Miss’ coach by the time this one kicks off?
24. Armed Forces Bowl – BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4) – Dec. 30
This matchup could be one of the hidden gems of the bowl season. BYU won eight out of its last nine games, largely sparked by a quarterback change. Riley Nelson took the starting spot from Jake Heaps and finished with 16 passing scores to only five interceptions. Tulsa had a similar finish to the season, winning seven out of its last eight games. Quarterback G.J. Kinne is an underrated player nationally, throwing at least 22 passing scores in each season at Tulsa. The Cougars rank 29th nationally against the pass, but will be tested by Kinne and a solid group of receivers.
23. Military Bowl – Air Force (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4) – Dec. 28
With Navy not qualifying for the postseason, Air Force was a logical replacement for this game in Washington, D.C. With nearly a month to prepare, Toledo will have plenty of time to develop a game plan to stop the Falcons’ option attack. The Rockets ranked 28th nationally against the run this season and allowed opponents to manage only 13 rushing scores. Toledo’s offense should provide plenty of fireworks after scoring at least 40 points in each of its final five games.
22. Chick-fil-A Bowl – Virginia (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5) – Dec. 31
The Cavaliers were one of the biggest benefactors of Virginia Tech’s BCS berth. Virginia was likely headed to the Music City Bowl, but jump over Florida State to land in Atlanta. With several young players stepping into key roles, Auburn took a step back in the standings after winning the national title last season. Points could be at a premium, as both teams averaged under 25 points a game this year. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is usually a solid matchup, but this year’s game is not that inspiring.
21. Independence Bowl – Missouri (7-5) vs. North Carolina (7-5) – Dec. 26
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels and Tigers, the Dec. 26 date for this bowl means spending the holiday season in Shreveport. It’s not an ideal location, but both teams have to be happy to be in the postseason. The 2011 season did not get off to an ideal beginning for either team, as Butch Davis was fired by North Carolina in late July, while Missouri got off to a 2-3 start. This will be the Tigers’ final game as a member of the Big 12, as they will be joining the SEC for the 2012 season.
20. GoDaddy.com Bowl – Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Arkansas State (10-2) – Jan. 8
This bowl is the last one before the national title. And it’s actually a pretty solid matchup. Both teams averaged over 30 points a game and are led by starpower at quarterback. Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin led the Sun Belt with an average of 320 yards of total offense per game, while Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is averaging 332.6 per game. Expect plenty of points in the appetizer to the big one in New Orleans a day later.
19. Belk Bowl – Louisville (7-5) vs. NC State (7-5) – Dec. 27
A matchup of 7-5 teams usually won’t register on most national radars, but there is some intrigue with this one. Both teams will be bringing a lot of talent back next season and should easily threaten more than seven wins. The Wolfpack won three out of their last four to get to seven wins, while the Cardinals got on track after a 2-4 start. NC State quarterback Mike Glennon will test a Louisville secondary that ranks 61st nationally in stopping the pass.
18. Liberty Bowl – Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3) – Dec. 31
After disappointing 2010 seasons, both teams have to be excited to ring in the New Year in Memphis. The Commodores won only two games last year, while the Bearcats finished with a disappointing 4-8 record. James Franklin has done a terrific job in one season with Vanderbilt, and a win over Cincinnati would give the program its second winning record in the last four years. One aspect to watch over the next couple of weeks will be the health of Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros. He suffered an ankle injury in the Nov. 12 loss to West Virginia and did not play in the final three games. Collaros could return for this game, which would provide a boost for the Cincinnati offense.
17. Sun Bowl – Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Utah (7-5) – Dec. 31
Even though the Utes missed out on a chance to play for the Pac-12 title game, a lot of credit is due to coach Kyle Whittingham. In its first season of Pac-12 play, Utah managed a winning record, despite losing starting quarterback Jordan Wynn early in the year to a shoulder injury. This game will be decided in the trenches, as Georgia Tech ranks third nationally in rushing offense, while the Utes rank seventh nationally in rush defense. Utah doesn’t want to get into a shootout, but the Yellow Jackets are averaging 34.9 points a game.
16. Meineke Car Care Bowl – Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Northwestern (6-6) – Dec. 31
Can the Wildcats snap their bowl drought? Northwestern has not won a bowl game since 1949 and have lost its last eight postseason trips. Texas A&M has lost its last five bowl contests and with a coaching change, one has to wonder if this team will be motivated for this one. Assuming the Aggies are motivated, this should be an entertaining matchup. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa should light up a Texas A&M secondary that ranked 113th nationally against the pass.
15. Insight Bowl – Iowa (7-5) vs. Oklahoma (9-3) – Dec. 30
Considering the Sooners were picked by many to win the national title this year, landing in the Insight Bowl is definitely a disappointment. Iowa appeared in this game last season, beating Missouri in an entertaining 27-24 contest. An intriguing storyline to this matchup will be Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. He played at Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1979-1982 and this will be his first game on the Sooner sideline against his alma mater. After a disappointing regular season, will Oklahoma be motivated for this bowl game?
14. Holiday Bowl – Texas (7-5) vs. California (7-5) – Dec. 28
2004 may be seven years ago, but has California forgotten? The Golden Bears appeared to be on the way to the Rose Bowl, but some late politicking by Texas coach Mack Brown propelled the Longhorns into that spot. While that might be in the back of the mind for California coach Jeff Tedford, it won’t factor any into this one. Texas is making a slow climb back into Big 12 contention, and will catch a break with running backs Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron returning to full health after missing time throughout November. California closed out the year on a high note, winning three out of its last four games.
13. Capital One Bowl – South Carolina (10-2) vs. Nebraska (9-3) – Jan. 2
With both teams struggling on offense at times this year, the Capital One Bowl might not be the most entertaining to watch. The Gamecocks lost running back Marcus Lattimore to a torn ACL in mid-October, but finished with a 4-1 record the rest of the way. Nebraska’s first year in the Big Ten was solid, but fell short of preseason expectations to reach the conference title game. Whichever quarterback gets on track through the air – Connor Shaw (South Carolina) or Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) – will likely be the deciding factor.
12. TicketCity Bowl – Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3) – Jan. 2
It’s rare to see a 9-3 Penn State team fall so far in the Big Ten bowl pecking order, but considering all that has transpired in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were not an attractive team during bowl selections. The Cougars also had quite a fall, losing the Conference USA title game and missing out on a BCS bowl. This matchup will come down to whether or not Penn State running back Silas Redd can get going. If the Nittany Lions can get their rushing attack on track, it will be their best chance to slow down Houston’s wide-open passing attack.
11. Cotton Bowl – Kansas State (10-2) vs. Arkansas (10-2) – Jan. 6
The Wildcats were one of the most surprising teams in college football this year, getting picked near the bottom of the Big 12, but finishing with a 10-2 record and nearly earning a berth in a BCS bowl. The Razorbacks have also had quite a year, but lost to the top two teams in the nation (Alabama and LSU). Kansas State’s secondary ranked 104th nationally in stopping the pass, which is going to be under fire from Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson and a deep group of receivers.
10. Las Vegas Bowl – Boise State (11-1) vs. Arizona State (6-6) – Dec. 22
Kellen Moore vs. Vontaze Burfict. What an interesting contrast in personalities. The Broncos just missed out on a BCS bowl, while the Sun Devils will hope to salvage some pride after a disappointing finish to the season. This will be the final game for Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson, who was fired after the regular season finale against California. Boise State appeared in this game last season, defeating Utah 26-3.
9. Gator Bowl – Florida (6-6) vs. Ohio State (6-6) – Jan. 2
There is no shortage of storylines for this one – even with two 6-6 teams squaring off in Jacksonville. Urban Meyer won’t be coaching in this bowl game, but he will be in the spotlight as he gets ready to take over in Columbus after this game. It’s been a disappointing year for both teams, but the bowl is a chance to at least salvage a winning season.
8. Sugar Bowl – Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2) – Jan. 3
The decision to choose the Hokies over Kansas State or Boise State certainly raised some eyebrows when the bowl schedule was released. Although Virginia Tech’s selection into the game was a surprise, this should be a relatively close matchup. And the teams are almost mirror images of each other. Both feature a dynamic, mobile quarterback and defenses that are allowing 17 points a game. Michigan has only played in the Sugar Bowl once (1984), while Virginia Tech is 1-2 in three previous trips.
7. Alamo Bowl – Washington (7-5) vs. Baylor (9-3) – Dec. 29
If you like offense, this game is for you. The Huskies rank 116th nationally against the pass, which is bad news with Baylor and quarterback Robert Griffin averaging 356.2 yards a game through the air. Washington began the year 5-1, but lost four out of its last six games. The Bears were headed in the opposite direction during that stretch, winning their final five games to finish 9-3 overall.
6. Outback Bowl – Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3) – Jan. 2
Conference pride will be on the line on Jan. 2, as the Outback Bowl is one of three matchups featuring the Big Ten against the SEC. The SEC has won the last two games in the Outback Bowl, but on paper, this one looks like a tossup. Both teams are strong on defense, ranking in the top 10 of yards allowed this season. The Bulldogs could benefit the most from the long layoff, as the time off will allow running back Isaiah Crowell to return to 100 percent after an ankle injury late in the year. These two teams met in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, with Georgia winning 24-12.
5. Orange Bowl – Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3) – Jan. 4
The last three Orange Bowl matchups have been short on excitement, but that should change with this one. Clemson-West Virginia was a good draw and a game that should provide plenty of offensive fireworks. The Tigers snapped out of a late-season funk in the ACC title game, defeating Virginia Tech 38-10. The Mountaineers were part of a three-way tie atop the Big East standings, but get the BCS berth due to the higher rank in the BCS standings. If West Virginia’s offensive line can hold up against Clemson’s defensive front, this should be a high-scoring matchup.
4. Champs Sports Bowl – Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4) – Dec. 29
In terms of name value alone, this has to be one of the most intriguing bowls outside of the BCS. Both teams began the year with BCS bowl hopes, but neither matched preseason expectations. Considering there’s a lot of young talent returning at both programs for next season, this could be a springboard to a big 2012. The Seminoles’ defense is one of the best in college football, but will be tested by Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd and running back Cierre Wood. Florida State owns a 4-2 edge over the Irish in previous matchups, including a 31-26 Orange Bowl victory in 1996.
3. Fiesta Bowl – Oklahoma State (11-1) vs. Stanford (11-1) – Jan. 2
The Cowboys are certainly disappointed about missing out on the national title game, but has to be excited about making a BCS bowl for the first time in school history. Stanford is making a return trip to the BCS after demolishing Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl last season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game, so the scoreboard operators will be busy. The Cardinal’s secondary has been vulnerable this year, which is bad news against Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon.
2. National Title – LSU (13-0) vs. Alabama (11-1) – Jan. 9
Some may be disappointed with a rematch, but these are the two best teams in college football. The Tigers won 9-6 in overtime in the first meeting, but the last four games in this series are split 2-2. LSU has navigated a difficult schedule outside of winning in Tuscaloosa, including wins over Georgia, West Virginia, Oregon and Arkansas. Will the rematch produce a different result? Expect another close game and one that may be decided on a field goal once again.
1. Rose Bowl – Oregon (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (11-2) – Jan. 2
The matchup of Oregon’s speed and hurry-up offense against Wisconsin’s power will be one of the most interesting contrasts of styles of the bowl season. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game and rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense, so a high-scoring game can be expected in Pasadena. If the Badgers can control the clock and keep the Ducks high-powered offense on the sideline, they should get revenge for last season’s Rose Bowl loss to TCU.