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Teams: Texas A&M (9-3) vs. LSU (10-2)
Date: Jan., 7 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern
Location: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
The 75th edition of the Cotton Bowl will take place in the monstrosity that is Jerry’s World for the second year. The Big 12 and SEC have squared off in this game for 12 straight seasons, with the SEC winning seven of those contests. The SEC has been dominant of late with six wins in its last seven Cotton Bowl appearances. LSU has made four trips to the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex with a 2-1-1 record. Its last trip to the Cotton Bowl was a 35-20 loss to Texas in 2003. This will be Texas A&M’s 12th trip to the game with a 4-7 record, including a current five-game Cotton Bowl losing streak. The Tennessee Vols destroyed the Aggies in its last trip to DFW 38-7 in 2005.
LSU has won 10 of its last 13 bowl games but is coming off a very muddy 19-17 Capital One Bowl loss to Penn State last season. Texas A&M has lost four straight, and eight out of nine bowl games culminating in a 44-20 Independence Bowl loss to Georgia last fall. The Aggie-Tiger series goes back a long way as they have played 49 times (LSU owns the series lead 26-20-3). The two teams have not played since 1995 and the Aggies have won five straight against LSU. Strangely enough, the two teams played every year from 1960 to 1975 — all of which took place in Baton Rouge.
This will be LSU head coach Les Miles’ second trip to the Cotton Bowl. He took Oklahoma State to the 2003 game and lost to Ole Miss 31-28.
When Texas A&M has the ball
The Aggies are riding a six game winning streak – and beat both Big 12 title game participants – and much of the second half success was due to the benching of starting quarterback Jerrod Johnson. The Aggies were 3-3 when head coach Mike Sherman put Ryan Tannehill under center and the team responded. Tannehill, a former wide receiver, completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 1,409 yards with 11 TDs against only three interceptions. A change at tailback coincided with the change at quarterback. Starting running back Christine Michael broke his leg in October and the ground game didn’t miss a beat as the explosive Cyrus Gray took over and thrived. Gray posted six-straight 100-yard games after taking over the starting job against Kansas. He scored 10 times over that span.
The Tigers defense began the season in elite fashion but limped to the finish. In its final four SEC games, the Tigers allowed 230.5 rushing yards per game. The Tigers two losses came in that span including the season finale to Arkansas (which cost LSU a BCS bowl bid). Still, the Tigers boast a talented and speedy defense led on all three levels by a superstar: tackle Drake Nevis, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and Thorpe award winner Patrick Peterson. A&M’s offense is balanced but Sherman wants to utilize freakish wide receiver Jeff Fuller in the passing game. One of the bowl season’s top individual matchups will come between Fuller and Peterson – both could be first round picks next spring. Slowing the balanced and varying formations of the Aggie passing attack will be key for Miles’ group.
When LSU has the ball
The Tigers were slightly less explosive that A&M on offense this season. As in, LSU ranked dead last in the SEC in passing offense and 11th in the conference in total offense. Quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee split time all season and neither has proven that they can take over a game. Jefferson took the majority of the snaps the final two weeks and is an excellent runner. Throwing the football has been a different matter entirely for most of his ordinary career. However, arguably his best two games as a passer came in those final two games of the year.
The ground game, led by Stevan Ridley, has been the strength of the offense. Ridley topped the 1,000-yard mark and scored 14 times, including three game-winners against Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama (go-ahead in this case). Much like when A&M has the ball, LSU’s strength on offense will face the strength of the Aggie defense. Linebacker/end hybrid Von Miller leads one of the better rush defenses in the nation (15th nationally). Miller, the Butkus Award winner this fall, led the Big 12 in sacks for the second straight season and should cause major problems for whichever quarterback is under center. Expect Jefferson (and Lee) to face plenty of eight and maybe even nine-man fronts.
This game will truly feature three phases of the game. LSU boasts one of the best special teams units in the nation. Peterson is an electric return specialist who finished in the top ten nationally in both punt and kick returns. He produced game-winning/changing punt return touchdowns against North Carolina and West Virginia. Tiger kicker Josh Jasper has been as good as Peterson. Jasper led the nation with 2.17 made field goals per game and was a unanimous first team All-SEC selection. LSU finished third in the SEC in punting.
In stark contrast, A&M finished last in the Big 12 in punting and was 73rd nationally in punt returns. Cyrus Gray did a solid job returning kicks before he was needed in the backfield and hasn’t returned a kick in five games. Junior Judie Coryell took over and has been excellent with two kick return touchdowns and averaging over 31 yards per return in four games. Kicker Randy Bullock was average this fall making 15 of 19 field goal attempts — although he single handedly beat Nebraska. His three made field goals were all the scoring A&M needed in their 9-6 win.
Texas A&M NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 43rd (165.8 ypg)
Pass Offense: 18th (281.8 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 37th (31.8 ppg)
Rush Defense: 15th (117 ypg)
Pass Defense: 94th (240.5 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 27th (20.3 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 66th (-0.17)
LSU NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 33rd (177.2 ypg)
Pass Offense: 107th (155.4 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 50th (28.8 ppg)
Rush Defense: 38th (135.8 ypg)
Pass Defense: 10th (165.8 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 9th (17.8 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 31st (+0.42)
This game has the makings of a tightly-played defensive struggle. Both defenses boast speed and talent. Both quarterbacks have shown signs of life but are largely unproven commodities, and both running games will face excellent run defenses. Special teams play will be the difference as Peterson will make one big play in the return game to set his team up for victory. LSU wins exactly as the betting line suggests.
LSU by 1