Articles By Steven Lassan
by Rob Doster
Teams: Virginia (8–4) vs. Auburn (7–5)
Date: Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
The defending national champion Auburn Tigers limp into the postseason at 7–5, losing in blowout fashion to the SEC's elite teams in the season's second half. The Tigers never could muster much offensive consistency without Heisman winner Cam Newton, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, formerly a rising superstar, was forced to slink off to the Sun Belt, taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State rather than holding out for a BCS job. Malzahn's absence simply adds an extra level of uncertainty for an Auburn team that had trouble finding any kind of rhythm this season.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were a pleasant surprise in Mike London's second season, improving from four wins to eight and finishing tied for second in the ACC Coastal Division at 5–3 a year after winning only one conference game. In only his second season as a head coach at the FBS level, London has established himself as a rising star in the profession. All four of the Cavs' losses came against teams that are playing in the postseason, and UVa boasts wins over Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Both teams are looking to erase the sour taste of uncompetitive losses to their chief rivals. The Cavs were dismantled by Virginia Tech 38–0 in their season finale, while the Tigers fell 42–14 to Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
WHEN VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:
The Cavaliers employ an effective mix of run and pass. During the four-game winning streak late in the season that clinched bowl eligibility, sophomore quarterback Michael Rocco was highly efficient, throwing seven touchdown passes and only one interception during that stretch. That level of ball security is extremely important for the Cavaliers, who turned it over 14 times in their four losses — including four turnovers in their 38–0 loss to Virginia Tech — and only 12 times in their eight wins. The Cavs do boast a nice one-two punch in the running game, as Perry Jones and Kevin Parks combined for 1,544 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Tigers were inconsistent on defense, although Corey Lemonier (9.5 sacks) maintained the recent tradition of a solid pass rush that has marked Auburn's defense of late.
WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL:
Gus Malzahn is headed to Arkansas State, but he will be on the sidelines in Auburn gear one more time. The Tigers scored 17 points or less in six of their eight SEC games and rank 104th in the nation in total offense at 328.2 yards per game. Throw in the loss of the Tigers' primary offensive threat, running back Michael Dyer, to a suspension, and Auburn will be hard-pressed to score many points. It's a stark contrast to last season, when Cam Newton was at the helm of an unstoppable offensive attack.
The Tigers will need solid play from quarterback Clint Moseley, who took the job at midseason but may share some snaps with freshman Kiehl Frazier, who looks like the quarterback of the future on the Plains. They'll also need production from running back Onterio McCalebb to compensate for the loss of Dyer.
The Cavs play solid defense, as evidenced by their propensity for tackles behind the line of scrimmage — they ranked second in the ACC in that category at 6.9 per game.
The Tigers did use special teams to their advantage at critical points this season. They led the SEC in kickoff return average (24.3), and Tre Mason ranked 19th nationally in that category. Auburn punter Steven Clark ranked only 57th in the nation in average (40.49), but the Tigers ranked 19th in net punting at 39.01. The Cavs' special teams play was unremarkable, although Robert Randolph did make 15-of-22 field goal attempts.
These two teams seem to be trending in slightly different directions. Their disappointing loss to Virginia Tech aside, the Cavs have to be ecstatic about Year 2 of the Mike London era, particularly the 14–13 win over Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium in the season's penultimate game. Auburn was alarmingly uncompetitive in its biggest games this season, and without the ground threat that Dyer provides, the Tigers have a steep hill to climb.
Virginia 23, Auburn 17
by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Illinois vs. UCLA
Date: Dec. 31, 3:30 PM ET
Location: AT&T Park, San Francisco, Calif.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl may have as much uncertainty as any game we will see in the postseason. Both Illinois and UCLA fired their head coaches following the season and will be led by interim bosses on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco. Bruins’ offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will take over in this contest for Rick Neuheisel, whose last game was a 49-31 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. UCLA missed the postseason in 2008 and 2010 under Neuheisel, and the Bruins had to have a waiver for this bowl after finishing 6-7. The departed UCLA alum did coach the Bruins to an EagleBank Bowl win in 2009 (30-21 over Temple).
After the bowl game, former Seahawks and Falcons coach Jim Mora will take over at UCLA.
Illinois’ defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will coach this game for the fired Ron Zook, whose Illini club started the season 6-0 before losing the final six games on the schedule. This will be the third postseason in seven years for Illinois. Zook took the Illini to the Rose Bowl in 2007 (49-17 loss to USC) and the Texas Bowl (38-14 win over Baylor) last season. Former Toledo coach Tim Beckman has been named as the new head coach at Illinois and will take over after this game.
WHEN UCLA HAS THE BALL:
Gritty junior Kevin Prince will start at quarterback, and he will need to stay healthy with backup Richard Brehaut suspended. UCLA was inconsistent throwing the ball this season. Prince is a solid runner, and his legs should help the Bruins avoid some of the ferocious Illini pass rush. UCLA leading receiver Nelson Rosario had 61 catches for 1,106 yards and four scores this year, while 6’8” tight end Joseph Fauria (nephew of NFL veteran, Christian) was a solid red zone target with six touchdowns.
The Bruins' pistol offense is led by the solid running tandem of Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, and they helped UCLA rank 29th in the country this season in rush yards per game. The speedy Franklin tallied 947 yards and five touchdowns, while the bruising Coleman added 726 yards and 11 scores. The Bruins should also get some yards on the ground from Prince, and mobile quarterbacks hurt Illinois late in the year.
The Illini rank seventh in the nation in total defense and fifth in tackles for loss. UCLA will have to know where defensive end Whitney Mercilus is at all times, as he led the nation in sacks with 14.5 as part of 19.5 tackles for loss. Additionally, Illinois had two other defenders with over 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Leading tackler Jonathan Brown had 102 stops to go with 19 TFLs and six sacks, while pass rusher Michael Buchanan added 12.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. Illinois obviously plays well against the pass, but the main focus against the Bruins will be stopping the running duo of Franklin and Coleman.
WHEN ILLINOIS HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can be quite the dual threat for the Illini, and he passed for 1,971 yards (12 TDs, seven INTs) this season while also adding 514 yards on the ground with six scores. However, the athletic sophomore can also be inconsistent. He threw for 10 TDs and three INTs in Illinois’ first six games, but then tossed only two touchdown passes against four picks over the final six contests.
The Illini will be missing leading rusher Jason Ford (600 yards, seven TDs) who is academically ineligible. Scheelhaase will move the ball on the ground and will also get contributions from senior Troy Pollard and freshman Donovonn Young (who could miss the game with an ankle injury). Scheelhaase’s favorite target – by far – is receiver A.J. Jenkins (84 catches for 1,196 yards and seven scores). Spencer Harris had the second-highest number of receptions, 25, on the team.
UCLA ranks 96th in scoring defense and 95th in the country against the run. Plus, the Bruins only had 13 sacks in 13 games this season (versus 14.5 for Illinois’ Mercilus). Linebacker Pat Larimore was the Bruins leading tackler with 81 stops on the year, but he will miss this game due to thumb surgery. With top safety Tony Dye also out, defensive lineman Datone Jones – who led UCLA in tackles for losses and sacks – will have to lead the way.
Both teams have good kicking games but do not get much at all in the return game. Illinois has a very good kicker in Derek Dimke, who was 8-of-9 on field goals and perfect on 32 extra points this season. The Illini split the punting duties between freshman Justin DuVernois and receiver Ryan Lankford. DuVernois received most of the work, and the duo combined for a 38-yard per punt average.
UCLA has an excellent punter and a great story at kicker. Punter Jeff Locke averaged a solid 44.1 yards on 56 attempts. He had 12 punts over 50 yards and put 23 (41.1 %) of them inside the 20-yard line. After two Bruins’ kickers were hurt and Locke struggled with place kicking, UCLA found a solid replacement in Tyler Gonzalez. He started the semester as student manager for the men’s soccer team, but went 7-for-10 on field-goal tries after stepping onto the gridiron.
This one is tough to predict because of the uncertainty surrounding both programs in the month of December. UCLA finished better than Illinois, but the Bruins were wildly inconsistent throughout the season. The same applies to the Illini, and it will be interesting to see if both teams are motivated for this game.
Illinois 23, UCLA 17
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
2011 Liberty Bowl
Cincinnati (9–3) vs. Vanderbilt (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
Vanderbilt is back in a bowl game for the second time in four seasons but only the fifth time in school history. First-year head coach James Franklin directed the Commodores to six wins — two more than they had the previous two seasons combined. Vanderbilt, despite its mediocre 6–6 record, played very solid football for much of the ’11 season. Four of the Commodores’ six losses came by six points or less and five of their six wins came by 23 points or more.
Cincinnati, too, was much improved in 2011. After struggling though a 4–8 mark in ’10 — Butch Jones’ first season as the head coach — the Bearcats went 9–3 in ’11 and shared the Big East championship with West Virginia and Louisville. Turnovers were a major reason for the turnaround; last season, UC ranked 119th in the nation in turnover margin (-1.25 per game). In 2011, they currently rank 11th (+0.92 per game).
WHEN VANDERBILT HAS THE BALL:
The Commodores’ defense has been stout — 19th in the nation in yards allowed — but the big story in Nashville has been the dramatic progress made on the offensive side of the ball. The Commodores improved from 16.9 points per game in 2010 to 26.9 in ’11 and from 298.3 yards per game in ’10 to 342.8 in ‘11.
The offense received a huge boost in Week 6 when Jordan Rodgers stepped in for Larry Smith as the No. 1 quarterback. In the final seven games, the Dores averaged 413.0 yards and 31.6 points. The passing game has been efficient — with wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd emerging as consistent threats — but this is a run-based attack that is led by junior tailback Zac Stacy. Snubbed by both the coaches and media for first-team All-SEC honors, Stacy rushed for 1,136 yards (a Vanderbilt single-season record) and 13 touchdowns and led the league with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
A key for the Commodores offense will be to protect Rodgers against a Cincinnati defense that leads the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss. Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggled earlier in the year, but made huge improvements in the latter half of the season. Rodgers’ mobility played a big role in the Dores’ reduced sack total, as well.
WHEN CINCINNATI HAS THE BALL:
The Bearcats’ offense will feature a talented tailback with an NFL future and a quarterback who can hurt you with both his legs and his arm. Isaiah Pead will be the primary ball-carrier, but we aren’t quite sure who will be taking the snaps for Cincinnati. Zach Collaros, the No. 1 quarterback, broke his ankle against West Virginia on Nov. 12. His recovery is reportedly ahead of schedule, but Jones said recently that it will be game-time decision as to whether the senior plays in the Liberty Bowl. If Collaros is unable to go, sophomore Munchie Legaux will get the nod. Legaux stepped in for Collaros in the final four games and completed 50-of-109 passes for 688 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions. Legaux has talent and is the Bearcats’ quarterback of the future, but Collaros gives this team a much better shot to win the bowl game.
Pead rushed for 1,110 yards and 11 scores, hitting the 100-yard mark against Tennessee, NC State, Louisville, Pitt and West Virginia. The senior will have to be productive for the Bearcat offense to flourish in Memphis.
Vanderbilt has been strong in all facets of special teams with the glaring exception of kicking field goals. Ryan Fowler and Carey Spear combined to hit only 7-of-13 field goals with a long of 37 yards. Cincinnati’s kicker, freshman Tony Miliano, converted 16-of-22 field goals, including 7-of-10 from 40 yards and beyond. The Bearcats are average in the return game but rank 17th in the nation in net punting (39.1-yard average).
The boys in Vegas must put a lot of stock in the power of the SEC. Vanderbilt, which went 2–6 in league play, is a 2.5-point favorite over a 5–2 Big East team. Some of that has to do with Collaros’ injury, but it’s also an indication that Vanderbilt is a solid football team that very easily could have won two or three more games. The key for the Commodores will be to protect Rodgers — which they have done very well in recent weeks — and get Stacy going in the run game.
Vanderbilt 27, Cincinnati 24
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Both Washington and Baylor ended long bowl droughts in 2010 and both kept the positive momentum going in 2011. Baylor lost 38-14 to Illinois in the Texas Bowl last year after not seeing postseason play since 1994. The Huskies topped Nebraska 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl last season in its first bowl game since 2002.
Much of the credit for each turn around belongs to two rising stars in the coaching profession. In his fourth season in Waco, Art Briles, with a little help from Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, has Baylor in back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1991-1992 — which is also the last time the Bears won a bowl. He carries a five-game winning streak into the Alamodome.
Steve Sarkisian is in only his third season in Seattle, and while he doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy winner under his belt, he has restored Husky Pride to the Pacific Northwest. He capped his season with his third win in three tries over rival Washington State in the Apple Cup. With two great offensive minds on the sidelines coaching two rosters loaded with offensive skill talent, the 2011 Alamo Bowl figures to feature plenty of fireworks.
WHEN BAYLOR HAS THE BALL:
It’s all about Griffin III. Or more specifically, how does Washington stop him? The reigning Heisman winner led the nation in points responsible for at 22.7 points per game, could set an NCAA single-season record as the most efficient passer in history if he can maintain his 192.31 passer rating and finished No. 2 nationally in total offense at 386.8 yards per game. He is a nasty combination of agility, speed, poise, leadership and accuracy.
Unfortunately for a Husky defense that ranked 94th overall at 426.3 yards allowed per game and 99th in scoring at 33.3 points per game, the Bears are not simply a one-man show. Tailback Terrance Ganaway finished No. 2 in the Big 12 in rushing at over 112.0 yards per game. Wide receiver Kendall Wright caught at least six passes in every game this year and finished No. 2 nationally at 131.0 yards per game. And fellow wide receiver Terrance Williams has scored in seven straight games.
Sarkisian and his defensive staff will have their hands full trying to stop one of the nation’s most dynamic and balanced offensive attacks. Griffin might be the only one who can stop Griffin as his focus — his parents are apparently currently interviewing NFL agents — might be the only thing standing in the way of the school’s second 10-win season in program history.
WHEN WASHINGTON HAS THE BALL:
The good news for Washington is that their best defense might actually be on the other side of the ball. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Chris Polk give the Huskies a 1-2 punch on offense that should be effective enough to keep RG3 on the bench. Baylor didn’t stop anyone this fall either, ranking 114th in total defense at 477.5 yards per game and 109th in scoring defense at 35.7 points per game.
Price, a sophomore, started his first season as the starter with six consecutive games with at least three touchdown passes before an injured left knee forced him to miss some snaps in losses to USC and Oregon State late in the season. Back healthy for the Apple Cup, Price threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns — bringing his season to a school-record 29 for the year. Look for him to spread the football around to a host of elite pass-catchers in senior Jermaine Kearse (42 rec., 501 yards, 6 TD), freshman Kasen Williams (33 rec., 408 yards, 6 TD) and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (36 rec., 479 yards, 6 TD).
As good as the passing game should be for Washington, it will be star tailback Polk who has the ability to slow the game down and keep RG3 on the bench. Polk rushed for his third consecutive 1,100-yard season and has scored 24 times over the last two seasons. His ability to get tough yards between the tackles, get to the edge when needed and catch passes on third downs makes him arguably the most important offensive piece in this game. Baylor allowed nearly 200 yards rushing per game this season and getting Polk rolling early and often gives the Huskies their best chance to win.
Give Washington the distinct advantage on special teams. Kicker Erik Folk missed four of his total 63 kicks all season and punter Kiel Rasp led the Pac-12 in punting (45.1 ypp). Meanwhile, Baylor kicker Aaron Jones missed seven of his 16 field goal attempts and three extra points this year. Baylor also finished 114th nationally in punting and has struggled in the return game.
If the Huskies want to beat the Heisman Trophy winner, they have to win the special teams battle and keep Griffin III on the sideline. A productive and versatile Chris Polk will do just that. Both of these teams average more than 31 points per game and both defenses have struggled to stop anyone so it should be a high scoring duel on the Riverwalk. This said, it will be virtually impossible to beat Griffin III in what should be his final game in a Bears uniform and one final chance at the school’s first bowl win in 20 years.
Baylor 42, Washington 34
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
Texas A&M (6–6) vs. Northwestern (6–6)
Date: Dec. 31 at 12 noon ET
Location: Reliant Stadium, Houston, Texas
Texas A&M is arguably the most talented 6–6 team in the nation. A consensus top 15 team in the preseason, the Aggies went 4–5 in the Big 12 — their final year in the league — due to their inability to protect a lead. A&M held a double-digit lead in five of its six losses, including halftime leads of 20–3 vs. Oklahoma State and 34–17 vs. Arkansas in back-to-back games early in the season. Mike Sherman was dismissed after going 25–25 in his four seasons in College Station and has been replaced by former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who was recently hired to be the head coach at Fresno State, will serve as the Aggies’ interim coach in the bowl game.
Northwestern suffered through a five-game losing streak — including a defeat at Army — earlier this season but bounced back to win four straight and is headed to a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season. The Wildcats only beat one team with a winning record (Nebraska, on the road), but they have some quality pieces on offense, and they improved on defense as the season progressed.
WHEN TEXAS A&M HAS THE BALL:
The Aggies had plenty of issues this season — scoring points was not one of them. They currently rank 11th in the nation in scoring (39.6 ppg) thanks to their ability to move the ball on the ground (208.1 ypg) and through the air (287.9 ypg). Ryan Tannehill, in his first full season as the starter, has thrown for 3,415 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions (12 of which came in the Aggies’ six losses). Tannehill has three receivers — Ryan Swope, Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu — who caught at least 45 passes.
The A&M rushing attack will not, however, be at full strength. Christine Michael, who averaged just under 100 yards rushing per game, was sidelined in early November with a season-ending knee injury. Cyrus Gray, who has five 100-yard games on his 2011 resume, is questionable with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go, sophomore Ben Malena will get the bulk of the carries.
Northwestern has struggled to stop the run and the pass for the majority of the 2011 season. The Wildcats gave up 30 points or more in six of their nine games against BCS opponents. It will be a surprise if A&M doesn’t score at least 35 points.
WHEN NORTHWESTERN HAS THE BALL:
When healthy, Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa has been among the most dynamic playmakers in the Big Ten in the past two seasons. He isn’t as much of a running threat post-Achilles injury, but Persa is still able to tuck it and run. Where he really hurts a defense is with his accuracy; he has led the nation in completion percentage in two straight seasons, 73.5 percent in ‘10 and 74.3 percent this season. The Cats don’t have a ton of big-time playmakers on offense, but they do have a solid corps of pass-catchers who can move the chains.
The leading rusher is quarterback/receiver/super back Kain Colter, who has 660 yards and five scores on 79 attempts. He saw significant action at quarterback early in the season when Persa was making his way back from his Achilles injury.
Don’t expect to see Northwestern running the ball out of conventional alignments too often. The Wildcats’ tailbacks are average at best, and stopping the run is something the A&M defense does well. Northwestern will lean on Persa to make plays in the passing game.
Texas A&M senior kicker Randy Bullock leads the nation with 25 field goals (in 29 attempts), and he has made 10-of-12 from 40-49 yards and 1-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. He is a big weapon. Northwestern, on the other hand, has only made six field goals all season. Sophomore Jeff Budzien is 6-of-10, with a long of 47 yards.
Texas A&M was arguably the nation’s biggest underachiever in 2011. You have to question this team’s motivation, but there are some key seniors who would love to go out with a win in their final game. Northwestern will be scrappy, as usual, but the Wildcats will have a tough time slowing down the Aggies’ offense.
Texas A&M 37, Northwestern 28
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Oklahoma (9-3) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Date: Dec. 30 at 10 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
The 23rd annual Insight Bowl will feature two teams that limped into the postseason. Iowa lost three of its last five, including the season finale against new rival Nebraska. However, the Hawkeyes own a three-game bowl winning streak after a win in this game over Missouri 27-24 last season.
Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, rolled through the first six weeks of the season unblemished before dropping three of its last six and two of its last three. An embarrassing 44-10 loss at the hands of rival Oklahoma State to cap the season further illustrated how far the Sooners have fallen. Like Iowa, however, the Crimson and Cream are riding a mini two-game bowl winning streak, including a dominating 48-20 Fiesta Bowl win over UConn last year.
WHEN IOWA HAS THE BALL:
Bob Stoops’ defense has struggled to stop anything in the second half of the season, and his beleaguered unit will be tested by Kirk Ferentz’ offensive triplets. Quarterback James Vandenberg played efficient football in his first season as the starter, finishing with 26 total touchdowns and only six interceptions. Wide receiver Marvin McNutt produced one of the great receiving campaigns in Iowa history and now holds nearly every major school receiving record. He caught 78 passes for 1,269 yards — which included eight 100-yard efforts — and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Coker was expected to be the focal point of the offense for this bowl, but he was suspended due to a violation of team rules. He led the Big Ten in rushing attempts (281) and finished second in the league in rushing (115.3 ypg). Unfortunately though, somehow Iowa finished last in the league in rushing as Coker accounted for 80.7% of Iowa’s rushing offense this fall. Without Coker, it's anybody's guess who the Hawkeyes will turn to at running back. Freshmen Jordan Canzeri and DeAndre Johnson figure to get a bulk of carries, but don't count out junior Jason White.
The Hawkeye offensive line will be the key to success in Tempe. They couldn’t get a consistent push in the ground game all season and finished 74th in the nation in sacks allowed (2.2 sacks per game). Protecting Vandenberg and clearing space for one of the inexperienced backs will be the only way Iowa tops Oklahoma.
The good news for Ferentz has been the play of Oklahoma on defense of late. The Sooners defensive woes started on October 22 when they inexplicably lost to Texas Tech 41-38 at home. Before that game Oklahoma was allowing 116 yards rushing per game, 201 yards passing per game and only 15.8 points per game. They were leading the Big 12 in total and scoring defense. Since the loss to the Red Raiders, Oklahoma has allowed nearly 30 points per game, 286 yards passing and 163 yards rushing per game. They finished the year 3-3 in the final six and are nowhere near the BCS national title game.
WHEN OKLAHOMA HAS THE BALL:
This was going to be a rebuilding year for Iowa on defense and it showed. They allowed 44 in a loss to Iowa State, 31 in a win over Northwestern, 37 in a loss to Michigan State and 22 in a loss to Minnesota. It certainly wasn’t a vintage Ferentz defense as Iowa finished last in the league in pass defense and no better than seventh in rushing, scoring, total and pass efficiency defense.
This means that Landry Jones and the Sooners offense — still sans Ryan Broyles — should be able to get back on track. The third-year starter at quarterback threw for 4,302 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. However, he managed only 506 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions over the final two weeks. The loss of Broyles has had a marked impact on the OU offense and it will fall to Kenny Stills, DeJuan Miller and a host of talented skill players to play better if the Sooners expect to win.
The football will certainly get passed around the offense. Aside from a receiving corps that is trying to find its stride after losing the most prolific receiver in NCAA history, running backs Roy Finch and Brennan Clay should all expect to see time in the backfield. This group has been trying to make up for the loss of Dominique Whaley — who had 627 yards and nine scores through the first six weeks of the season before being lost for the year to injury. Freshman Brandon Williams is also out, after transferring to Texas A&M.
Jones had plenty of talent to work with, both in the backfield and on the edge, so there is no reason why names like Stills and Finch cannot become dependable options in Sun Devil Stadium.
Oklahoma’s freshman kicker Mike Hunnicutt connected on 20-of-23 field goal attempts, including his last nine. Iowa’s Michael Meyer began the season by making 11-of-13 field goal tries before missing five of his last seven. Neither team should have a distinct advantage in the third phase of the game as both have been uninspiringly dependable in the punting game and both have struggled in the return game.
Even without Broyles and Whaley, this Oklahoma offense possesses enough firepower to score plenty of points on the Hawks. Will Vandenberg and the Iowa offense be able to take advantage of a besieged Sooner defense remains to be seen. If so, Iowa will keep this game close and make Stoops work for his third straight bowl win. If the Black and Old Gold offensive line fails to stand up to Frank Alexander and company, it could be a long day for Iowa fans.
Oklahoma 34, Iowa 24
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Utah Utes (7-5, 4-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
Date: Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas
The more things change the more they stay the same for Utah fans. In year one of Pac-12 play, Kyle Whittingham was able to extend his consecutive bowl streak to nine seasons — including two BCS bowl wins. The Utes have gone 7-1 over that span, but lost its last postseason game to Boise State 26-3 in the Las Vegas Bowl last season.
The Yellow Jackets are making their even more impressive 15th straight bowl appearance. Unfortunately, however, Georgia Tech has not capped a season with a bowl win in seven tries. Their last postseason win was 51-14 Champs Sports Bowl win over Syracuse in 2004. Tech lost to Air Force 14-7 last winter in the Independence Bowl.
Despite choking against Colorado in the season finale, the Utes won four of the last five to earn itself a trip to El Paso. The Jackets, on the other hand, started hot at 6-0 before struggling to a 2-4 second half finish, including a 31-17 drubbing at the hands of rival Georgia in the season finale.
WHEN UTAH HAS THE BALL:
Tailback John White IV certainly proved he belonged in the Pac-12 in 2011. He led the league in attempts with 290 carries, finished second in the conference with 1,404 yards and his 14 touchdowns were good for third in the league. He left the Colorado game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. He appears to be healthy for the bowl game and will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Utes offensive attack.
It is a good thing Utah can run the ball with White, because Jordan Wynn’s replacement has struggled to complete passes. Junior college transfer Jon Hays finished 12th in Pac-12 in passer efficiency, throwing only nine touchdowns and 140.7 yards per game since taking over for Wynn. This team finished last in the league in total offense (308.7 ypg) and passing offense (171.6 ypg).
The good news is this is one of Paul Johnson’s worst defense since taking over in Atlanta. Georgia Tech finished 70th against the run (162.9 ypg) and 60th in scoring defense nationally (25.8 ppg).
WHEN GEORGIA TECH HAS THE BALL:
While Utah’s strength on offense matches-up nicely with Tech’s weakness on defense, quite the opposite will be true when the Yellow Jackets offense takes the field. The Johnson triple-option attack once again led the ACC in rushing, ranking third nationally by churning out 316.8 yards per game on the ground. Five different players topped the 400-yard mark and three went over 600. The Utes finished seventh in the nation in rushing defense (97.0 ypg), allowing the opposition to top 152 yards rushing only once (185, Washington). Georgia Tech rushed for 44 touchdowns this fall while Utah allowed a paltry six rushing scores. The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
However, quarterback Tevin Washington is the fuel that makes the Tech engine purr. And he will need to be needed to complete passes to beat the stingy Ute defense. Over the first six games, he threw for 1,052 yards with ten touchdowns and only two interceptions. Tech was 6-0. Washington totaled 463 yards passing, never completed more than six passes in any game, topped the 100-yard mark once and posted a hideous 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Tech went 2-4. He will have to be better through the air if Tech expects to snap its bowl losing streak.
Tech kicker Justin Moore missed only four of his 66 total kicks this season (9-of-12 FG, 53-of-53 XP). Utah kicker Coleman Peterson had been equally impressive, knocking through 17 of his 21 attempts — until the final weekend of play. He went 0-for-3 in the three-point loss to Colorado and will be looking for redemption in El Paso.
This is an extremely interesting match-up of strengths and weaknesses. Both quarterbacks have struggled to move the football in the air while both teams have excelled at pounding the football down the opposition’s throat. The biggest difference will be the Ute’s ability to slow the triple-option and force Washington to beat them with his arm. Meanwhile, Tech has allowed 99 points in its last three games and won’t have enough on defense to slow White IV. Whittingham’s bunch barely outlasts Johnson’s squad in a game that should easily feature more than 100 running plays.
Utah 24, Georgia Tech 20
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
Music City Bowl
Wake Forest (6–6) vs. Mississippi State (6–6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 6:40 p.m. ET
Location: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Mississippi State is making its first trip to the Music City Bowl, leaving only Florida, South Carolina and LSU as the only SEC teams that have not spent the holidays in Nashville. The Bulldogs are saying all the right things, but this team no doubt expected to be in a bowl game in a warmer climate. Last year, MSU went 9–4 overall and capped off its season with a 52–14 victory over Michigan in the Gator Bowl. This fall, however, the Bulldogs had to win three of their final five games just to reach six wins and qualify for postseason play.
Wake Forest is back in a bowl game after a two-year hiatus, but the Demon Deacons aren’t exactly making the trip to Nashville with a ton of momentum. Wake won four of its first five games — highlighted by a 35–30 victory over Florida State — but managed only two more wins the rest of the way, at Duke and at home vs. Maryland. The season ended on a disappointing note when Vanderbilt dominated the Deacs, 41–7, in Winston-Salem. Jim Grobe’s club has a lot to prove as it prepares to play another team from the SEC.
WHEN WAKE FOREST HAS THE BALL:
The Deacons were dramatically improved on offense in 2011, thanks in large part to the emergence of Tanner Price at quarterback. The sophomore threw for 2,803 yards with 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions (and three of those came in one game). Price has two reliable targets in wideout Chris Givens, who led the ACC with 1,276 yards receiving, and slot receiver Michael Campanaro (63 receptions). Wake was rather ordinary in the running game, ranking 96th in the nation. Josh Harris began the season as the No. 1 back, but he has missed significant time due to a hamstring injury. Brandon Pendergrass emerged as a reliable alternative and rushed for 750 yards on a 4.5-yard average.
The Deacs will have to be sharp to move the ball on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs only allowed two teams to score more than 24 points — Auburn scored 41 in September and Arkansas rolled up 44 in mid-November. Wake will do its best to move the ball on the ground, but Price will have to make some plays in the passing game.
WHEN MISSISSIPPI STATE HAS THE BALL:
Mississippi State’s struggles this year are due mostly to its poor play on offense. Chris Relf emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC last season, but he did not have a productive senior season. Tyler Russell was given an opportunity to take over on several occasions but was never able to seize control of the position.
Dan Mullen has no issues with his No. 1 tailback. Vick Ballard was terrific as a senior, rushing for 1,009 yards and eight TDs on 179 attempts. And with Wake struggling to stop the run — the Deacs gave up an average of 220.8 yards in their final five games, including 297 vs. Vanderbilt — expect to see heavy doses of Ballard and LaDarius Perkins, a nice option as a change-of-pace back.
MSU does feature some playmakers at the wide receiver position — most notably Chad Bumphis — but it was difficult for this group to be much of a factor due to the inconsistent play from the quarterbacks.
MSU kicker Derek DePasquale was solid from close range (9-of-11 from inside 40 yards) but made only 2-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. Perkins averaged 23.3 yards on his 15 kickoff returns, and both Bumphis and Johnthan Banks each returned a punt for a touchdown.
Wake Forest doesn’t pose too much of a threat in the return game, though Camanero did return a punt 50 yards for a score. As a team, the Deacs only averaged 19.9 yards on kick returns. Placekicker Jimmy Newman made 16-of-20 attempts, only one longer than 40 yards.
It’s dangerous to put too much stock in one game, but it’s hard to believe that a Wake Forest team that was so thoroughly dominated at home by Vanderbilt, a team that went 2–6 in the SEC, will have too much success against another 2–6 SEC team, Mississippi State. The key for the Bulldogs is Ballard; if the senior tailback can get it going early, Wake could have a tough time slowing down the MSU offense.
Mississippi State 27, Wake Forest 17
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Champs Sports Bowl
Florida State (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (8-4)
Date: Dec. 29 at 5:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
In terms of name value, this bowl should be one of the most-anticipated non-BCS bowl matchups this season.
Notre Dame and Florida State both began the year with preseason top 10 hopes, but both teams struggled to meet expectations.
The Seminoles opened the year 2-0, but suffered a handful of key injuries in a 23-13 loss to Oklahoma in Week 3. After losing to the Sooners, Florida State lost its next two games (Clemson and Wake Forest), before winning six out of the final seven contests.
With 16 starters returning and the second season under coach Brian Kelly, Notre Dame was expected to improve off its 8-5 record from 2009. The Irish seemed to have trouble getting out of their own way, especially early in the season. Notre Dame committed five turnovers in the season opener against South Florida and its defense collapsed in the final seconds of a 35-31 loss to Michigan. Although the Irish won eight out their next 10 games, the 0-2 start turned any BCS bowl hopes into a longshot.
These two teams have played six times, with Florida State owning a 4-2 edge in the series. The Seminoles and Irish met in the 1996 Orange Bowl, with Florida State winning 31-26.
Considering both teams return most of its core next season, this game could be a springboard for another run at a top-10 finish in 2012.
WHEN FLORIDA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Injuries have affected the Seminoles’ offense in 2011, starting with quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior missed one game and was limited in others due to a shoulder injury suffered against Oklahoma. Manuel finished the year with 2,417 yards and 16 touchdowns, but should be closer to 100 percent for the matchup against Notre Dame.
Not only has Manuel battled injuries most of the year, but his receiving corps has also been banged up. The injuries and youth prevented the Florida State passing attack from finding its rhythm most of the year. Freshman Rashad Greene leads the team with 33 receptions, while Rodney Smith ranks first with 527 receiving yards. Kenny Shaw, Bert Reed and Christian Green are all key contributors and each has at least 25 receptions this year. Tight end Nick O’Leary is another young weapon for Manuel, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown.
Notre Dame finished the regular season ranked 34th nationally in pass defense, but much of their success on defense starts up front. The Irish averaged only 1.7 sacks a game, but there are a handful of potential gamechangers up front. Freshman Aaron Lynch finished second on the team with four sacks and also recorded one forced fumble. Linebacker Manti Te’o is one of the best in the college football and he collected 4.5 sacks and 115 tackles this year.
The Achilles’ heel for the Florida State offense this season has been the offensive line and rushing attack. The Seminoles ranked 99th nationally in rushing offense and averaged only 3.5 yards per rush. The offensive line also gave up 36 sacks – the worst total in the ACC.
Freshman Devonta Freeman leads the team with 531 yards and eight rushing scores. Jermaine Thomas ranked second on the team with 279 rushing yards, but has been ruled academically ineligible for this game. Freeman will see the bulk of the carries, but James Wilder and Ty Jones will also figure into the mix.
The Irish defense ranks 58th nationally against the run, but considering Florida State’s struggles in the trenches, they should be able to win this matchup.
Although the Seminoles don’t want to ignore their rushing game, they need to spread the field and take advantage of their speed and depth in the receiving corps.
WHEN NOTRE DAME HAS THE BALL:
Just like Florida State, the Irish have dealt with question marks on offense for most of 2011.
Inconsistency at quarterback has prevented the Irish from finding their rhythm, as three players have taken snaps under center. Tommy Rees is expected to start the bowl game, but he was benched during the regular season finale at Stanford and tossed four picks over his final four games. Andrew Hendrix has thrown only 29 passes this season, but thanks to his mobility, gives Notre Dame’s offense a different look. Don’t be surprised if both quarterbacks see time.
Despite the inconsistent quarterback play, receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert have produced solid numbers this year. Floyd caught 95 yards for 1,106 yards and eight touchdowns, while Eifert chipped in 57 catches for 713 yards and five scores.
Sophomore Cierre Wood became the first Irish back since Darius Walker in 2006 to reach the 1,000-yard mark, finishing with 1,042 yards and nine touchdowns. With Jonas Gray out due to a torn ACL, receiver Theo Riddick may see more touches out of the backfield to spell Wood.
Notre Dame’s offensive line has been solid all year, but it will be tested by Florida State’s defensive front. The Seminoles recorded 36 sacks this year, led by Brandon Jenkins (seven) and Bjoern Werner (six).
Considering the Irish’s struggles with turnovers, getting pressure on Rees or Hendrix is going to be crucial for Florida State’s defense. The Seminoles rank 19th nationally in pass defense, so passing opportunities for Rees will be limited.
Although Florida State is allowing only 81.8 yards per game on the ground, Notre Dame has to try to establish its rushing attack and limit the pressure on Rees.
The edge in this department goes to Florida State.
Kicker Dustin Hopkins was a Groza finalist after connecting on 20 of 25 field goals. He nailed 6 of 9 attempts from 40 yards and beyond. Punter Shawn Powell was one of the best in the nation this year, averaging 47 yards per punt and placing 21 inside of the 20.
The Seminoles are in great shape on returns, as Greg Reid is averaging 11.4 yards per return and has taken one back for a touchdown. Reid, Karlos Williams and Lamarcus Joyner will see time on kickoffs, with each averaging over 24 yards per return.
Notre Dame isn’t as strong as Florida State on special teams, but this isn’t a complete weakness either.
Kicker David Ruffer has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year, while punter Ben Turk is averaging 40.2 yards per punt.
Freshman George Atkinson III has ignited the Irish kickoff returns this season, averaging 27.4 yards per return and taking two for touchdowns. Notre Dame has struggled to get anything going on punt returns, which could open the door for Michael Floyd to see more time in this department.
The defenses should control the tempo of this game, which should make points at a premium.
Although Florida State hasn’t been perfect in the turnover department, it has been better than Notre Dame. Expect the Seminoles’ defense to force a few turnovers, putting their offense in short-field situations.
Notre Dame’s edge in the front seven will harass EJ Manuel, but the Seminoles’ offense will do just enough to win.
Florida State 24, Notre Dame 20
-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6)
Date: Dec. 30 at 3:20 p.m. ET
Location: Yankee Stadium, New York City, N.Y.
The second annual Pinstripe Bowl will feature two teams that have never met on the college gridiron. Both Iowa State and Rutgers missed out on a postseason experience in 2010 but have returned to the bowl scene in 2011. Iowa State, who is 3-7 all-time in bowl games, beat Minnesota 14-13 in the 2009 Insight Bowl its last trip to a bowl while Rutgers topped UCF 45-23 in the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl the last time the Knights went to the postseason. The Knights have won four straight bowl appearances and are 4-2 all-time — with five of those showing coming under current head coach Greg Schiano.
However, both teams enter the bowl season on the skids. The Cyclones lost its final two games of the regular season to Oklahoma and Kansas State after the monumental home upset of Oklahoma State. Rutgers, who will play its second game at Yankee Stadium this year, got inexplicably blown out by UConn 40-22 in the final regular season contest.
In the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, Syracuse topped Kansas State 36-34 in one of the most exciting (and unfortunate) games of the bowl season last winter. With two of the worst offenses in the postseason, last year’s offensive fireworks are highly unlikely.
WHEN IOWA STATE HAS THE BALL:
Quarterback Steele Jantz began the season as a cult hero in Ames after a triple-overtime thriller over Iowa in which he threw four touchdowns. But in the process of another stellar win over UConn, Jantz sprained his foot and was never the same — turning the ball over five times in the next three games. With Jantz struggling, coach Paul Rhoads turned to redshirt freshman Jared Barnett. The dual-threat won his first three starts including the miracle upset of Oklahoma State in which he accounted for 376 yards passing, 84 yards rushing and three total touchdowns.
Barnett rushed for 348 yards in his five starts and brings the ability to move the ball on the ground as well as through the air. He is responsible for leading the two best offensive performances of the season for Iowa State (568 yards against Oklahoma State and 512 against Texas Tech). Combined with the team's leading rusher, James White (701 yards, 8 TD), the Cyclones will undoubtedly look to take advantage of the Big East’s worst rush defense. At over 180 yards per game on the ground, this is easily the strength of the Iowa State attack.
That said, Iowa State finished last in the Big 12 in passing efficiency and will have to complete passes against the Knights’ conference leading pass defense if it expects to win. Rutgers has allowed a stingy, Big East-best 18.8 points per game in 2011.
WHEN RUTGERS HAS THE BALL:
To say that running the football was a struggle for the Knights in 2011 would be an understatement. As a team, Rutgers rushed for five total yards or less on four different occasions this season and miraculously won two of those games. Schiano will turn to a number of players to attempt to improve on the -9 total yards rushing Rutgers posted in the season finale loss to UConn. The good news? Iowa State is ranked 100th nationally at over 195 yards allowed per game. Look for a heavy dose of Jawan Jamison, who rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts in the 20-3 win over Cincinnati on November 19.
While Rutgers has struggled on offense all season (and Iowa State the same on defense), one player who has proven his talent is Knights’ wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The physically superior star athlete finished sixth in the nation at over nine catches per game (109 for the season) and will be a nightmare match-up for any Cyclone. Look for whoever is under center, be it sophomore Chas Dodd or freshman Gary Nova, to get the ball to No. 6 early and often.
Neither team will have much of an advantage in the third phase of the game. Both struggle to return or cover punts while both teams are solid in the kickoff return game. Although, Iowa State may have a slight advantage when it lines up for field goals. Cyclone kicker Zach Guyer only missed 25% of his attempts (9 of 12 FGM) this season where Rutgers’ San San Te missed 10 field goal kicks (18 of 28 FGM).
Don’t expect a bunch of beautifully executed big plays on offense in this one. At least three quarterbacks figure to see the field and points should be a premium. This feels like a sloppy affair with Rutgers winning behind one big play from the best player on either team: Mohamed Sanu.
Rutgers 17, Iowa State 14
by Mark Ross
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl
BYU (9-3) vs. Tulsa (8-4)
Date: Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Location: Gerald J. Ford Stadium, Dallas, Texas
Former conference foes will meet up once again when BYU and Tulsa face off on Dec. 30 at the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas. From 1996-99 the two schools were in the WAC together and this game represents the eighth time they will play each other.
BYU is finishing its first season as a FBS Independent and come into this game having won eight of its nine and have scored 41 points or more in its last three contests. Tulsa had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Houston in its final game of the regular season and during that streak averaged 42 points per game. So by all accounts, there should be plenty of offensive firepower on display, fittingly, at this year’s Armed Forces Bowl.
This is the seventh straight year BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to a postseason appearance in his seven years at the helm. The Cougars are 4-2 in bowl games under Mendenhall, including last year’s 52-24 victory over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
This is the second straight bowl appearance for Tulsa, who defeated Hawaii 62-35 in last year’s Hawaii Bowl, and the Golden Hurricane’s first under head coach Bill Blakenship, who took over the reigns from Todd Graham this season. Tulsa also has won the last three bowl games it has played in, averaging 56.6 points per game during this streak.
BYU comes into this game with one more win than Tulsa, but of the Cougars’ nine wins only one of them was against a team that is playing in a bowl. The Cougars went 1-3 against bowl teams this season, defeating Utah State (who is playing in the Potato Bowl), while losing to TCU (Poinsettia), Texas (Holiday), and Utah (Sun).
On the other hand, Tulsa played six bowl teams and went 2-4 against them with all four of their losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 10 at the time — Boise State (playing in the Las Vegas Bowl), Houston (TicketCity), Oklahoma (Insight) and Oklahoma State (Fiesta). So at least on paper, Tulsa has played the much more difficult schedule.
WHEN BYU HAS THE BALL:
BYU’s offense is led by quarterback Riley Nelson. Nelson, a junior, assumed the starting role from sophomore Jake Heaps halfway through the season and hasn’t relinquished it since. Nelson has completed 61 percent of his passes on the season for 1,467 yards with 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
Nelson suffered lung and rib injuries against Idaho on Nov. 12, forcing him to the following week’s game. He returned for the Cougars’ season finale against Hawaii and set career highs for pass attempts (37), completions (25) and yards (363) to go along with three touchdowns in BYU’s 41-20 win on the road.
Nelson appears healthy and primed to take advantage of a Tulsa defense that’s given up an average of 289.3 passing yards per game. That ranks the Golden Hurricane 118th out 120 FBS schools in the nation.
Overall, BYU’s offense is averaging 410.8 yards per game. Of that total, 165.8 yards per game are gained on the ground. The Cougars’ rushing attack is more of a committee with five different players having more than 200 yards on the season, including Nelson, who has rushed for 376 yards.
The leading rusher is senior running back J.J. Di Luigi who has 546 yards and three touchdowns. Di Luigi has combined with sophomore Michael Alisa to rush for 1,001 yards and six scores. Senior running back Brian Kariya leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Much like the ground game, the Cougars’ aerial attack is fairly balanced as well with nine different players having at least 11 receptions and 10 with at least one touchdown reception.
BYU’s leading pass catcher is sophomore wide receiver Cody Hoffman who leads the team with 53 receptions for 821 yards. Hoffman also has seven touchdowns, second to freshman wideout Ross Apo’s nine. Four different Cougar tight ends have caught touchdowns as well, further evidence of BYU’s tendency to spread the ball around.
The Cougars’ offensive line has done a good job of keeping the quarterback as they are tied for 25th in the country for fewest sacks allowed with just 14 on the season. The line will need to maintain this consistency against Tulsa’s defense, which is averaging two sacks per game, and especially since Nelson is just over a month removed from sustaining those lung and rib injuries.
Someone BYU’s offense should keep a close eye on is Tulsa linebacker Curnelius Arnick. The senior is a tackling machine as his 91 solo tackles were the third highest total in the nation and his 142 total stops were tied for fifth. Not surprisingly, Arnick was named first team All-Conference USA.
WHEN TULSA HAS THE BALL:
Tulsa has the 24th-ranked offense in the country when it comes to total offense, averaging more than 450 yards per game. It’s a fairly balanced attack, one that averages 204.6 yards rushing and 249.8 yards passing per contest.
The Golden Hurricane attack is led by senior quarterback G.J. Kinne. Kinne has started 37 consecutive games and is 23-14 as the Golden Hurricane’s starter. The 2010 Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kinne currently ranks second in Tulsa history in total offense and touchdown passes and is third in passing yards.
This season Kinne, a second team all-conference selection, has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,876 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kinne, like BYU’s Nelson, is also a capable runner, having gained more than 400 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Kinne is one of three Tulsa playmakers with 108 or more carries this season. The team’s leading rusher is sophomore Ja’Terian Douglas, who has 884 yards on just 108 carries. His 8.2 yards per carry average leads the entire nation.
Trey Watts leads the team with 147 carries and is second in rushing yards with 843 yards. Together Douglas, Watts and Kinne have combined for 2,132 rushing yards, which is more than BYU has as a team (1,990). And that number doesn’t include junior running back Alex Singleton, who has 279 yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns.
Just like BYU, Tulsa likes to spread the ball around. Fourteen different Tulsa players have caught at least one pass this season and the team’s leading receiver is a running back. Junior H-back Willie Carter has nearly five times as many receptions (61) as he does carries (13) this season. He finished sixth in Conference USA in receiving yards (868) and he also caught seven touchdowns. Watts also has caught three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Junior wide receiver Bryan Burnham leads the way with eight touchdown receptions and is second on the team in catches (50) and yards (737). Tight end Clay Sears also is a popular target for Kinne and comes into this game with 35 catches for 438 yards and six touchdowns.
BYU’s defense comes into this game ranked No. 17 in the nation, surrendering less than 317 yards per game. The Cougars have given up less than 119 yards on the ground and 200 yards through the air on average.
This season BYU has faced two other teams that are averaging close to Tulsa’s 454.4 yards per game in TCU (443.9) and Utah State (458.7). The Cougars went 1-1 in those games, defeating Utah State 27-24 and losing to TCU 38-28. The interesting thing is that they actually gave up more yards to the Aggies (406) than they did to the Horned Frogs (283), but in both games they held the opponent to less than their season averages. It remains to be seen if they can do the same thing to the Golden Hurricane.
Neither BYU’s nor Tulsa’s special teams units stand out, statistically speaking. BYU has returned one punt and one kickoff for a touchdown, while Tulsa has one special teams touchdown on a 94-yard kickoff return by Watts.
Tulsaappears to have the edge when it comes to placekicking with first team All-Conference USA kicker Kevin Fitzpatrick. The senior was the conference’s most accurate kicker, missing just two of his 17 field goal attempts, and made all three of his attempts from 50 yards and longer. On the other side, BYU’s Justin Sorensen made all 45 of his PAT attempts, but only 14 of 24 field goal attempts.
BYU comes into this game with more wins, but Tulsa played a more difficult schedule, both non-conference and as a Conference USA member, than the Independent Cougars. BYU’s defense has played well and has the statistics to support this; including giving up just over 20 points per game, but containing Tulsa’s potent offense will be a difficult task.
On the other hand, BYU’s offense has been productive in its own right and its overall numbers (410.8 yards and 30.6 points per game) aren’t too far behind those of Tulsa.
The difference lies with the defenses. Tulsa’s defense comes into this game surrendering more than 420 yards and nearly 28 points per game, and is the third-worst in the nation when it comes to defending the pass.
It is fair to say that Tulsa comes from a conference known for offenses which, along with its own offensive philosophy and production, could explain some of its defensive numbers. But the flip side of that is other than Boise State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Tulsa hasn’t played any teams known for their defense, either. So the real question is this — is BYU’s defense more likely to slow down Tulsa’s offense or can the Cougars feast on the Golden Hurricane’s defense?
In the end, I think it will be a little of both as BYU will gain plenty of yards and points on the board on offense, while the defense will slow down Tulsa just enough and come up with a big play of its own in the fourth quarter to help seal a close, hard-fought victory.
BYU 34, Tulsa 31
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The 2012 preseason college football top 25 is already starting to take shape. USC quarterback Matt Barkley has decided to return for another season, making the Trojans one of the early favorites to win the national title next season. Athlon has already released a very early top 25 for 2012, but as expected, underclassmen entering the NFL Draft will have a major impact on how the next release of the poll looks in mid-January.
Here some key players to watch as the underclassmen deadline approaches on Jan. 15, 2012 and how it could impact the national title race next season:
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball put together a monster junior campaign, rushing for 1,759 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 20 receptions for 255 yards and six scores. Ball is regarded as a likely second-round pick if he declares for the draft.
If Ball leaves: Wisconsin always seems to crank out productive running backs, so losing Ball isn’t going to completely shut down the rushing attack. James White ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but compiled only 683 yards and six scores in 2011. White will get first crack at replacing Ball, but Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis will also figure into the mix.
If Ball stays: Wisconsin is losing quarterback Russell Wilson and will have to replace the right side of the line. However, if Ball returns, it would give the Badgers a workhorse at running back and someone who can carry the offense until a new quarterback settles into the position. Also, with Ohio State’s bowl ban next season, Wisconsin is the early frontrunner to represent the Leaders Division in the 2012 Big Ten title game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu garnered the Heisman hype, but Claiborne might be the better cover corner. He picked off a team-high six passes and broke up six others. Claiborne also recorded 46 tackles.
If Claiborne leaves: Even if Claiborne leaves for the NFL, the LSU secondary will remain one of the best in college football. Mathieu will likely earn All-American honors in the preseason, while safeties Eric Reid, Craig Loston and Tharold Simon are all solid contributors. Losing Claiborne is a big blow, but the LSU defense will remain strong.
If Claiborne stays: It’s early to etch this in stone, but if Claiborne stays, LSU should have the best defensive backfield in the nation. Claiborne and Mathieu should be one of the top cornerback tandems, while the safety position remains in good shape with Loston, Reid and Simon returning.
Robert Griffin, QB, Baylor
Griffin raised the bar at Baylor, leading the Bears to their first nine-win season since 1986. He passed for 3,998 yards and 36 scores, while adding 644 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Griffin claimed the school’s first Heisman trophy and earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If Griffin leaves: Thanks to coach Art Briles, Baylor is in a better position to absorb the loss of any player. The Bears have earned back-to-back bowl bids, and Griffin’s successor will have talent to work with at receiver and on the offensive line. Nick Florence will likely get the call to start if Griffin departs, but Bryce Petty will also get a chance to compete. If Griffin leaves, Baylor won’t start 2012 in the preseason top 25.
If Griffin stays: If Griffin returns, Baylor should begin the year in many preseason top 25 rankings. The Bears were ranked No. 21 in Athlon’s very early top 25 for 2012. Repeating as Heisman winner won’t be easy, but Griffin will have a chance, especially with Baylor expected to compete for a finish in the top four or five of the Big 12. The offense will miss dynamic receiver Kendall Wright, but Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese and Lanear Sampson is a good trio to build around.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
Even after missing two games with a dislocated elbow, James led the nation with an average of 149.6 rushing yards per game. He finished with 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns, along with posting an impressive 7.4 yards per carry. James also earned first-team All-Pac-12 conference honors.
If James leaves: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that James is leaving. What else can he really accomplish? Although he has yet to win a Heisman or national title, James has recorded 746 carries in his career and there’s only so much workload a running back can handle in his career. The Ducks are in great shape at running back, with Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson returning. The Ducks will miss James’ explosiveness, but the offense shouldn’t drop off too much.
If James stays: If James makes the surprising decision to stick around in Eugene, Oregon’s offense will be one of the best in college football. He will also earn preseason first-team All-America honors and should be one of the frontrunners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
Jeffery’s 2011 production didn’t live up to the preseason hype. He caught 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine scores in 2010, but watched his production slump to 45 receptions for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. The dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia significantly contributed to Jeffery’s decrease in catches this season.
If Jeffery leaves: The Gamecocks have talent in the receiving corps, but there’s no go-to guy like Jeffery waiting in the wings. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones would have to pickup more slack for quarterback Connor Shaw. If Jeffery departs, expect South Carolina to lean even more on running back Marcus Lattimore to carry the offense.
If Jeffery stays: Give Shaw and Jeffery an offseason to work and this connection should be much better in 2012. If he returns, Jeffery could begin next season on many first-team All-SEC ballots. The Gamecocks will be in contention for the SEC East title next season and getting Jeffery back will be a huge boost to those championship hopes.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
After throwing for 4,718 yards and 38 scores last season, Jones had a disappointing 2011 campaign. He threw 4,302 yards and only 28 touchdowns, while tossing 14 picks. Also, he did not throw a touchdown pass in the final three regular season games, largely due to the absence of receiver Ryan Broyles. The Sooners began 2011 as one of the top picks to win the national title. However, a 9-3 record was a major disappointment for Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops.
If Jones leaves: With Matt Barkley’s decision to stick around at USC, Jones has to be moving up the quarterback draft boards for NFL scouts. Will that be enough to convince him to leave early? Blake Bell saw limited action for Oklahoma this season and would be the early frontrunner to replace Jones. The Sooners are the very early favorite to win the Big 12 in 2012, but without Jones, they could lose their grip on the top spot.
If Jones stays: Considering how poorly Jones performed over the final three regular season games, there’s a strong chance he returns for 2012. If he comes back, the Sooners should be the early favorite to win the Big 12. However, Jones can’t do it all alone and needs receivers other than Kenny Stills to step up next year.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
At 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds, Kirkpatrick is one of college football's most physical cover corners. He earned first-team All-American honors by the FWAA and recorded 26 tackles and nine passes broken up this year.
If Kirkpatrick leaves: The Alabama secondary is already getting hit hard by departures, as safety Mark Barron and cornerback DeQuan Menzie will expire their eligibility at the end of the year. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide are already going to be dealing with some key losses in this group next year, so Kirkpatrick's departure will only add more concern for coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Assuming Kirkpatrick is gone, Dee Milliner and John Fulton will have to take on a bigger role in the defensive backfield.
If Kirkpatrick stays: Kirkpatrick is considered a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft and will be among the first 15 picks off the board. Considering where Kirkpatrick is expected to go, it will be a major surprise if he returns in 2012. However, if he returns to Tuscaloosa, Kirkpatrick will be a lock for preseason All-American honors and help to keep Alabama's secondary among the best in the nation.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington (Declared for draft on Jan. 2)
Polk has quietly been one of the most impressive running backs in college football over the last three seasons. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last three years, totaling 3,902 yards and 25 rushing scores during that span. Polk has also caught 77 passes for 675 yards and four touchdowns in his career.
If Polk leaves: Polk is believed to be 50-50 on whether to return to school or enter the NFL Draft. Losing Polk would be a blow to a Washington team that is poised to contend for a spot in the top 25 next season. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey combined for 451 yards and two scores this season and would get first crack at replacing Polk. Deontae Cooper is another name to watch, but has missed the last two seasons with knee injuries.
If Polk stays: The Huskies are poised to crack the top 25 next season – if Polk sticks around. The offense will be among the best in the Pac-12, especially with quarterback Keith Price and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returning. If Polk returns, he should be a lock for first-team All-Pac-12 honors and deserves preseason All-American honors.
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Richardson was the workhorse for the Alabama offense in 2011, rushing for 1,583 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also added 27 receptions for 327 yards and three scores and finished third in Heisman voting.
If Richardson leaves: Losing Richardson would be a huge setback for the Alabama offense, but not something unexpected. Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler combined for 1,016 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and would be forced to take on a bigger role in 2012. Dee Hart missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL, but his return will add a speedy, change of pace option into the backfield. If Richardson leaves as expected, look for quarterback AJ McCarron to carry more of the offense next year.
If Richardson stays: The chances of Richardson returning are very, very small. The junior is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and other than winning a Heisman, doesn’t have much left to accomplish. Just like other running backs considering making the jump, there’s only so much wear and tear and carries they can make in their career. If Richardson decides to stay, it will be a boost to Alabama’s national title hopes next season. The Crimson Tide would have one of the top backfields in college football, and Richardson would begin the year as a preseason first-team All-American running back.
David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
In his first full season as Virginia Tech’s No. 1 back, Wilson rushed for 1,627 yards and nine scores. He also added 21 receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown. With a new quarterback (Logan Thomas) starting this year, the Hokies leaned heavily on Wilson early in the year. He was named the 2011 ACC Player of the Year.
If Wilson leaves: There’s a strong chance Wilson enters the NFL Draft, and the backfield depth (or lack thereof) behind him is a little scary. Tony Gregory has 129 yards in two seasons and would figure to get the first opportunity to win the No. 1 running back spot. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes will also figure into the mix, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen. Quarterback Logan Thomas played better as the year progressed and if Wilson leaves, he will become the focal point of the offense.
If Wilson stays: Virginia Tech has claimed the Coastal Division title four out of the last five years and should be the favorite in 2012. And Wilson returning would certainly solidify the Hokies place atop the division. There’s very little proven depth behind Wilson, so his return would boost Virginia Tech’s offense and chances of playing for the national title next year.
Five More Names to Watch
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama - Hightower is one of the leaders for Alabama's defense, especially helping to get everyone aligned and in position before the snap. He led the team with 81 tackles and collected 9.5 tackles for a loss. Hightower will be a first-round pick if he decides to leave early and his departure would be a huge blow for Alabama's defense.
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech - Hosley earned second-team All-ACC honors this year, after collecting 59 tackles and picking off three passes. He also helped Virginia Tech rank first in the conference pass efficiency defense. Hosley will likely go in the first round if he declares for the 2012 NFL Draft. He declared for the NFL Draft after the 2012 Sugar Bowl.
Brandon Jenkins, DE, Florida State - Jenkins has emerged as one of the top pass rushers in college football over the last two years, registering 20.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for a loss. Although Bjoern Werner has emerged as a solid defensive linemen for Florida State, Jenkins will be a big loss if he declares.
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama - Jones is one of the most valuable and versatile linemen in the nation. He announced his intentions to return to Alabama in late December and could move to center next season.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College - The 2011 Butkus Award winner is the heart and soul of the Boston College defense. Kuechly is a lock for first-team All-American honors should he return to the Eagles in 2012.
Other Underclassmen that Could Declare for the 2012 NFL Draft
Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Andre Ellington, RB, Clemson
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
Robert Lester, S, Alabama
Ronnell Lewis, DE, Oklahoma
Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
Already Declared for 2012 NFL Draft
Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State
Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
David DeCastro, OG, Stanford
Marcus Forston, DT, Miami
Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest
Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
Terrell Manning, LB, NC State
Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford
Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
Donte Paige-Moss, DE, North Carolina
Nick Perry, DE, USC
Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Chris Polk, RB, Washington
Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida
Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Olivier Vernon, DE, Miami
Brandon Washington, OG/OT, Miami
Returning to College in 2012
Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
T.J. McDonald, S, USC
Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Texas (7–5) vs. California (7–5)
Date: Dec. 28, 2011 at 8 p.m. ET
Location: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
Will the Holiday Bowl be Mack Brown’s last game as head coach at Texas? Following back-to-back mediocre seasons, the additional pressure of the ESPN Longhorn Network venture and no near- or long-term solution at quarterback, Brown retirement rumors have been swirling around burnt orange country lately.
Those rumors are not true, however, according to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. “Anything you are hearing, absolutely nothing about it is true,” Dodds told The Associated Press. “I’ve never seen him more energized and excited about the future.”
The 60-year-old former BCS national champ has a 2–1 record in the Holiday Bowl since taking over at Texas in 1998 — defeating Washington, 47–43, in 2001; losing to Washington State, 28–20, in 2003; and taking down Arizona State, 52–34, in 2007.
On the other side, Jeff Tedford is 1–1 in the Holiday Bowl since arriving at Cal in 2002 — falling to Texas Tech, 45–31, in Aaron Rodgers’ last collegiate game in 2004 and dominating Texas A&M, 45–10, in 2006.
WHEN TEXAS HAS THE BALL:
Neither Case McCoy (1,034 yards, 7 TDs, 4 INTs) nor David Ash (937 yards, 3 TDs, 8 INTs) will make anyone forget about Vince Young or Colt McCoy — a pair of UT gunslingers who spoiled the fan base during their unbelievable BCS bowl-laden seven-year reign. The Horns have the nation’s 85th-ranked passing offense and, as a team, have thrown more INTs (15) than TDs (14) this season.
Texas’ most dangerous playmakers are true freshmen. Running back Malcolm Brown (707 yards, 5 TDs) is the team’s leading rusher. But turf toe tackled Brown late in the season, causing the frosh to miss three of the final five games and limiting him to just 72 yards in the two games he did play. Receiver Jaxon Shipley — Jordan’s little brother — also missed three of the last five contests with a knee injury. But he bounced back with a four-catch, 121-yard effort in a loss to Baylor in the season finale and should be good to go in the bowl.
Cal has the 36th-ranked rush defense, allowing 130.33 yards per game and 16 rush TDs this season. Texas’ ground attack — led by Brown, Joe Bergeron (454 yards, 5 TDs), Fozzy Whittaker (386 yards, 6 TDs), D.J. Monroe (326 yards) and Cody Johnson (5 TDs) — could give the Golden Bears trouble. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks and end Trevor Guyton lead a Cal defense that held three Pac-12 opponents to 10 or fewer points.
WHEN CALIFORNIA HAS THE BALL:
Tedford is known for his quarterbacks but the offensive guru also keeps a top-flight running back on his roster at all times. Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) follows in the fleet footsteps of Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch.
The one-two punch of Sofele and C.J. Anderson (343 yards, 8 TDs) may have a tough time running against Texas’ 11th-ranked rush defense, which allows just 103.67 yards per game. First-year UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is one of the top young assistants in the game and his stop-unit will be counted on to carry the Longhorns. Take away Texas’ three blowout losses — to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor — and Diaz’s defense allowed an average of only 15.3 points in their nine other games.
But Texas was susceptible to the pass — O-State, OU and Baylor were the nation’s second-, fourth- and fifth-best passing offenses. First-team All-Pac-12 receiver Keenan Allen (1,261 yards, 6 TDs) could be the X-factor. If quarterback Zach Maynard (2,802 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs) can find Allen and Marvin Jones (758 yards, 3 TDs) down the field, the Bears could claw the Horns’ defense and scratch out a win in the Holiday Bowl.
Texas’ neon-Nike’d kicker and punter Justin Tucker has been a hero all season long and was carried off the field following his 40-yard game-winning boot to beat Texas A&M as time expired in the Aggies’ final Big 12 game before joining the SEC. Tucker is 17-of-20 on field goals, with a long of 52. If the game comes down to a kick, the wild child senior has proven capable of coming through in the clutch.
Cal punter Bryan Anger is the best in the west, with a 44.6-yard average and 18-of-46 punts dropping inside the 20-yard-line. With field position being crucial to Texas’ plodding offense, Anger’s ability to flip the field could make him the MVP.
Texas’ stingy, swarming defense keeps the Longhorns in the game until the end, putting Tucker in position to nail another game-winning field goal. Brown will end 2011 with a win. The question is whether or not the Holiday Bowl will be his last victory wearing burnt orange and leading Longhorn Nation?
Texas 26, California 24
by Nathan Rush
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.