The NFL playoffs might take over the sports world for this weekend, but college bowl season still goes each day. It starts Friday night with a Cotton Bowl matchup that’s as good as any of the major bowl games, and then has lower-tier games on Saturday & Sunday, in the time slots that wrap around the four NFL first-round playoff games.
Each game includes the pointspread and Over/Under in parentheses, along with the TV coverage. TheSportsNotebook will make its pick on each game at the bottom.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 3
Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma State-Missouri (Pick’em, 62.5) (7:30 PM ET, Fox)—How you see the favorite in this dead even game might depend on how you frame the question.
Missouri has more notable players to take about. The receivers, L’Damian Washington and Dorial-Green Beckham, are big, fast and almost impossible to matchup with. James Franklin is a steady presence at quarterback, Henry Josey a 1,000-yard rusher and they have a defensive line that is highly regarded in SEC circles. By contrast, Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf is a little erratic, and leading rusher Desmond Roland has only 745 yards.
Oklahoma State has the resume. The Cowboys have a non-conference win over Mississippi State, and have blown out Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor. A crushing loss in bad weather to Oklahoma cost Okie State the Big 12 title, but they’ve consistently hammered good teams, while Mizzou has been more of a take-care-business team. The Tigers lost to South Carolina and gave up 59 points to Auburn.
So do we conclude that Missouri is going to supply the players to the NFL, while Oklahoma State wins the football game on Friday night in Dallas? It’s a reasonable conclusion, but that depends on how much credence you want to give the SEC vs. Big 12 angle. Baylor and Texas have looked bad in bowls. This post as going online as the Oklahoma-Alabama matchup in the Sugar Bowl kicks off, but if the Sooners are blown out, it won’t speak well to the Big 12’s ability to compete.
Saturday, January 4: Compass Bowl—Houston vs. Vanderbilt (-2.5, 53.5) (1 PM ET, ESPN)—Two good receivers will be on display here, with Vandy’s Jordan Matthews and Houston’s Deontay Greenbury. Vanderbilt has quarterback problems with Austyn Carta-Samuels not expected to play, but he missed two games earlier in the year, one of which was a win at Florida.
The Commodores have also beaten Georgia, and played competitively in losses to Ole Miss and South Carolina. Houston got off to a 7-1 start, that included a win over Conference USA champ Rice, and a one-point loss to BYU. The Cougars lost three straight close games in November to Cincinnati, Louisville and Central Florida, the upper crust of the American Athletic Conference.
Houston’s conference has fared well thus far, with Central Florida upsetting Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, and Louisville blasting Miami. None of those were against SEC foes, but with an injured quarterback and a coach rumored to be in the discussion for the newly vacant job at Penn State, will there be any distractions?
Sunday, January 5: GoDaddy.com Bowl—Arkansas State-Ball State (-7.5, 64.5) (9 PM ET, ESPN)—Arkansas State is becoming the cradle of coaches. Three years in a row the Red Wolves have lost their head coach to a bigger job. It was Hugh Frieze going to Ole Miss two years ago. Last year Gus Malzahn went to Auburn. Now this year, Bryan Harsin has departed for Boise State. I suppose Arkansas State won’t have a problem attracting talent with that kind of track record, but it makes life at a bowl game kind of hard when the coach has always departed.
Arkansas State will have a big problem in this one. While they closed the season winning four of the last five, none of the wins have been impressive, and quarterback Adam Kennedy is dealing with a knee injury that has him questionable.
Ball State rolled to a 10-2 season. They went 7-1 in MAC play, and the only losses were to North Texas and Northern Illinois. Ball State won at Virginia, and has explosive skill position talent in quarterback Keith Wenning, running back Jahnwan Edwards and receivers Willie Snead and Jordan Williams.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PICKS Cotton Bowl: Missouri (Pick), Over 62.5 Compass Bowl: Vanderbilt (-2.5) Under 53.5 GoDaddy Bowl: Ball State (-7.5) Under 64.5
Bowl Handicapping Record (Through games of January 1) ATS: 13-17 Totals: 17-13
The final two days of calendar year 2013 in thecollege bowl season saw Mack Brown coach his final game, and Johnny Manziel play what most believe will be his final game at Texas A&M. Mack didn’t get a fitting exit, but Johnny Football went out in style, leading a dramatic comeback. These two games lead up our review of December 30-31…
Texas A&M 52 Duke 48: The Blue Devils led this game 38-17 at halftime and the view that Manziel and the Aggies wouldn’t be fired up for Duke was decidedly holding sway. But Johnny completed 30/38 for 382 yards and A&M never turned the ball over despite being in a shootout. Duke turned it over twice and the final one was the killer blow—a pick-6 that the Aggies’ Toney Hurd took to the house with 3:33 left to complete the comeback.
Oregon 30 Texas 7: Oregon didn’t let Texas get anything in the passing game, as Case McCoy was held to 8/17 for 48 yards and threw two interceptions, the most inept passing display we’ve seen thus far in the bowl season. Both teams ran the ball pretty well, but you aren’t going to compete with anyone with those passing numbers. The Ducks had a pick-6 early in the fourth quarter to seal it.
The Texas A&M win over Duke was part of a 3-0 start to the bowl season for the SEC. The Duke defeat was part of a 0-4 sequence for the ACC, that included getting another loss to the SEC and then back-to-back blowouts at the hands of the Pac-12 that started New Year’s Eve day. Here’s the review of those four games…
Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17: I thought Georgia Tech hung in pretty well here and had a chance to win before an Ole Miss safety finally sealed it. The Rebel defense was able to contain the Yellow Jackets’ triple option, as Georgia Tech averaged barely more than three yards a pop on the ground.
Mississippi State 44 Rice 7: As the score indicates, this was an obliteration every which way. Dak Prescott was brilliant and the play of the Mississippi State quarterback makes you wonder what this otherwise bland offensive team might have done if Prescott had played more this season. He was 17/28 for 283 yards, and also led the team in rushing with 78 yards. The 10th-best team in the SEC handles the champion of Conference USA with ease.
Arizona 42 Boston College 19: The showdown of running backs, Arizona’s Ka’deem Carey and Boston College’s Andre Williams went all for Arizona. Carey had 175 yards, with Williams held to 75, on comparable carries. The big play came late in the second quarter when BC trailed 7-6 and was driving, but an interception went back the other way for a touchdown and the game was never the same.
UCLA 42 Virginia Tech 12: This game was close after three quarters, with UCLA leading 14-10. But VT quarterback Logan Thomas was out with an injury and UCLA counterpart Brett Hundley did everything. He ran for 161 yards, passed for 226 more and didn’t make any mistakes.
And we wrap with the other two games of the past two days…
Texas Tech 37 Arizona State 23: There’s always at least one head-scratcher game in the bowl season and this is it. The only way Arizona State loses this game is if they’re not interested in playing, something that is an indictment of the coaching staff—when your last game was a 24-point loss at home to cost you a Rose Bowl bid, how are you not at least mildly interested in getting the bad taste out of your mouth? The bad taste got worse, as Davis Webb threw for 403 yards to lead Tech’s win.
Navy 24 Middle Tennessee 6: Pretty much what you would expect. A ho-hum game where Middle Tennessee hung around for a while until the Middies finally put it away with a couple fourth quarter touchdowns, keyed by thorough controlling of the ground game.
New Year’s Night’s college football action will feature the Fiesta Bowl, as the Baylor Bears and the Central Florida Knights take the field in Tempe (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). The nine key points to take into this game—the Notebook Nine—based on personnel matchups, season-long performance, historical context and the view from Las Vegas are below.
*The smart money is in love with Baylor. The Bears are a hefty 17-point favorite and the Over/Under is 71. If the game plays out like that, we’re looking out a Baylor win to the tune of 44-27. The pointspread makes the Bears one of the two biggest favorites of the college bowl season. The other to give 17 was Notre Dame. For what it’s worth, the Irish won their game against Rutgers, but the 13-point margin was a little short for those who played the favorite.
*As far as historical context…there is none. This is the first appearance in the major bowls for Central Florida, as head coach George O’Leary has come all the way back from his humiliation in December 2002 when he got the Notre Dame job, then had to step down five days later after falsehoods on his resume were revealed. The last time Baylor played on college football’s biggest stage was 1980, when they reached the Cotton Bowl. They lost that game 30-2. The Bears have not won a major bowl since 1956.
*A head coach and a quarterback might be showcasing themselves for the NFL. Baylor boss Art Briles has seen his name start to surface for various openings in the pros. So far it’s only with the Washington Redskins, because of his connection to the school’s most famous alum, Robert Griffin III. But if the Bears put on an offensive show, the rumors might broaden. Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles is seeing his stock rise among NFL scouts, and a big night in Tempe might persuade the junior to come out early and be a first-round pick.
*The Baylor offense gets a lot of accolades and they deserve them. Quarterback Bryce Petty leads a passing attack that gets the ball downfield, to the tune of 10.80 yards-per-attempt. And it doesn’t come at the expense of efficiency, as Petty has thrown just two interceptions all year. Lache Seastrunk and Shock Linwood are both big-time runners, and Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese at receiver are each explosive.
*It’s the running game that will determine Baylor’s ultimate success. Petty got his numbers in the team’s two worst offensive games, a subpar win over Kansas State and a blowout loss at Oklahoma State. But the running game faltered in those two games.
*Baylor is a heavily penalized team, the fourth-most in the country. It hasn’t held them back thus far, and I suppose they can point to the fact that three teams ahead of them are Oregon, Washington and Texas Tech, all of whom have won bowl games. But it is something to watch, to see if the Central Florida defense can take advantage of some advantageous down and distance situations.
*Central Florida is just a very well-balanced offensive team. Bortles is high-percentage (68%), gets it downfield (9.35 YPA) and he spread the ball around to the entire receiving corps. Storm Johnson is a 1,000-yard rusher and on a game-by-game basis, the run-pass balance this team gets is striking.
*UCF played its best football in a stretch from mid-September to mid-October. They won at Penn State, only lost by three to South Carolina and upset Louisville. The downside is that while they won their last six games, this stretch was marked by some very unimpressive showings against truly bad competition. That includes two uninspired wins over South Florida and SMU to end the year.
*The Knights’ defense has had problems with good quarterback. Even in the win over Penn State, Nittany Lion quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a good game. The win over Louisville came in spite of a big night from Teddy Bridgewater. This is not necessarily a knock on the UCF pass defense—that’s one good quarterback and one great one that I just mentioned. But Petty is certainly in their class.
I’m going to pick Baylor, and in spite of my misgivings about this pointspread, I’ll take the Bears to cover the number. Because I feel like this game is also going Over 71, a 17-point margin isn’t quite as imposing as it was for Notre Dame, who plays defense-first games. I also like the Big 12’s early showing in the bowl season.
There is concern over how fired up Baylor can be to play Central Florida, but the last time the Bears won a major bowl game, Don Larsen was pitching a World Series perfect game, and Dwight Eisenhower was going back-to-back over Adlai Stevenson. If this isn’t a motivator, I don’t know what is.
We’ll look at how the early TV window breaks down. The pointspread and the total are listed in parentheses, and at the end of this post, TheSportsNotebook makes it picks.
Gator Bowl: Nebraska-Georgia (-8.5, 60) (Noon, ESPN2)—If this were the early 1980s, when Herschel Walker had Georgia in national championship race, and Tom Osborne was chasing his first ring at Nebraska, this game might have been interesting. Instead, it’s just a rematch from last year between two teams coming off disappointing years and playing with backup quarterbacks.
Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez has missed every game but once since September. The Cornhuskers have caught some magic and won close games over Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State. The Nebraska losses were decisive, to Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota.
The biggest surprise is that Bo Pellini survived to coach this game. The Cornhusker coach seemed to seal his fate when a rant criticizing the fan base was made public, and the fact his team continues to fall short of winning the Big Ten provided reasons for the fan base to be annoyed. Pellini still being employed is a bigger upset than Rex Ryan keeping his job with the New York Jets.
Georgia finished 8-4 in a year that began with national title hopes, and injuries have marked this season from the outset. Todd Gurley has missed a lot of time in the backfield and the Bulldogs have dipped into the third string at the running back spot. The year finally ended with the Dawgs losing on a desperation pass to Auburn, and then seeing quarterback Aaron Murray tear his ACL.
Heart Of Dallas Bowl: UNLV-North Texas (-7, 54.5) (Noon, ESPNU)—Two programs got themselves turned around and get to celebrate in Dallas. UNLV closed strong and hammered San Diego State 45-19 in the regular season finale. The Rebels run the ball well with Tim Cornett, they have a 1,000-yard receiver in DeVante Davis and they play smart, intelligent football. Quarterback Caleb Herring works short passes efficiently and doesn’t make mistakes.
Dan McCarney has put North Texas on the map in Conference USA, and the Mean Green won six of their last seven, including wins over bowl teams in Middle Tennessee and Rice. A 1,000-yard rusher in Brandin Byrd leads the offense.
I will see I don’t quite get this point spread. North Texas will have a home crowd edge, but the Mountain West is considerably better than C-USA, so I’m not sure how anyone gets to making UNLV a touchdown underdog.
Outback Bowl: Iowa-LSU (-7, 49.5) (1 PM ET, ESPN)—A quarterback injury looms over this game as well. LSU’s Zach Mettenberg is out with a torn ACL. The Tigers have tremendous talent at the skill positions, with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry at wideout and Jeremy Hill in the backfield. But with the Mettenberg injury coming at the end of the year, we have no read on whether they have anyone else who can get the ball in the hands of these players.
LSU did finish the year strong on defense after a year that was less than vintage on that side of the ball. The Tigers shut down Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a 34-10 win in November.
Iowa enjoyed a comeback year for Kirk Ferentz and their only losses in Big Ten play were to Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, the power elite of the conference, and the Hawkeyes were competitive in each game. They won’t wow you offensively, but Iowa has played good defense all season long.
Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin (-2, 51) South Carolina (1 PM ET, ABC)—One of the best non-BCS bowl games goes from Orlando. The Badgers have their usual potent running attack, with Melvin Gordon and James White each exceeding 1,300 yards on the ground. Wisconsin played good defense throughout the year, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis can get open against most anyone.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave is very inconsistent though. His 12 interceptions are a problem, and that doesn’t account for the countless poorly thrown passes, a problem that hit its apex in a season-ending loss to Penn State. Stave has to loosen up the South Carolina defense for the running game to have a chance.
We know the Gamecocks can play defense and they’ve got a 1,000-yard back of their own in Mike Davis. There are no problems at quarterback with this team. Connor Shaw gets the ball downfield well, at 8.24 yards per pass, and has a dazzling 21-1 TD/INT ratio.
Shaw missed some time this year with a shoulder injury, but he led a big rally for a win at Missouri. The win over the Tigers was part of a strong finish that saw South Carolina win their last five games.
Gator: Nebraska (+8.5), Under 60…Georgia wins outright Heart of Dallas: UNLV (+7), Under 54.5 Outback: LSU (-7), Under 49.5 Capital One: I’m a Wisconsin fan and am not picking this game.
Handicapping Record (through games of Saturday, December 28) Outright Winners: 6-7 ATS: 6-7 Totals: 8-5
The late afternoon of January 1 is when the major bowls begin, and TheSportsNotebook will have separate posts to break down the Rose Bowl, as well as the Fiesta Bowl, which goes on New Year’s Night.
The college bowl schedule took a break for the NFL on Sunday, but gets back going full blast on Monday. We’ll take a look at the eight games that will go over the course of December 30-31, as the SEC swings into action and the Pac-12 looks to build off a strong early showing as most of their upper crust takes the field.
TV times, point spreads and over/unders are included with each game. At the end of the post, TheSportsNotebook will make its picks on each game.
Armed Forces Bowl: Middle Tennessee-Navy (-7, 56.5) (11:45 AM ET, ESPN)—On the surface this seems like a mismatch. Navy has been coming on strong down the stretch. They won at San Jose State, beat Pitt and lost a close one at Notre Dame. Earlier in the year, the Middies beat a respectable Indiana team. Keenan Reynolds operates the triple option with skill and precision. If the Blue Raiders have anything going for them, it’s that they beat Marshall, a team that’s already won a bowl game. But that’s about it.
Music City Bowl: Ole Miss (-3, 57)-Georgia Tech (3:15 PM ET, ESPN)—These are teams with pretty similar resumes. The losses are to good teams and often competitive. Ole Miss in particular, came up just short against Auburn and Texas A&M, while beating LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas. The Yellow Jackets dropped tough games to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, while beating Duke.
Where the comparison falls apart is that Tech’s near-miss against Georgia and their win over Duke came when the opponents dealt with injured quarterbacks. And Ole Miss has more than good losses, they have quality wins. They also have a good young defense and an exciting quarterback in Bo Wallace. And on top of it, the SEC’s record of dominance against the ACC is now a bowl tradition. I’m surprised the pointspread is this short.
Alamo Bowl: Oregon (-14, 68)-Texas (6:45 PM ET, ESPN)—Mack Brown coaches his final game at Texas, and the question of focus has to override all else. If you simply focus on each team’s resume, there is really no comparison.
Oregon is 10-2 and Marcus Mariota is a quarterback who can run, make big plays in the air and do it without making mistakes. Texas, by contrast, struggled early in blowout losses to BYU and Ole Miss and struggled late in decisive defeats to Oklahoma State and Baylor.
But Oregon has already shown signs of mailing it in. They weren’t interested in going to the Rose Bowl, and turned in a non-performance in a 42-16 loss to Arizona that cost the Ducks the Pac-12 title. If Oregon is interested in playing on Monday night, they can cover that (-14) line by halftime. Otherwise, they become vulnerable to a team playing to send its coach out on a good note.
The one scenario I can’t see is one where Oregon wins but doesn’t cover. This has the feel of a game that’s either a blowout or an outright upset.
Holiday Bowl: Arizona State (-14, 71.5)-Texas Tech (10:15 PM ET, ESPN)—This is another mismatch if all goes according to form. The Sun Devils had won seven straight prior to getting smacked in the mouth by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Those wins included five over bowl teams in their conference and the offense was humming. ASU has a 1,000-yard receiver in Jaelen Strong and a good sophomore quarterback in Taylor Kelly.
What Arizona State doesn’t have is a healthy running game. Marion Grice, who rushed for 996 yards in spite of missing the last two games, is again ruled out for this one. Without him, ASU bogged down against Stanford, although his absence didn’t stop the Sun Devils from hanging 58 on Arizona in the regular season finale.
Arizona State is another team that may have a focus issue. They won their bowl game a year ago for head coach Todd Graham, so that’s not a motivating factor. They had a Rose Bowl bid in their grasp on their homefield before the Stanford loss. So how excited are they to play Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl?
One problem with this theory though, is that it’s debatable whether Texas Tech is good enough to capitalize on any Sun Devil indifference. After a 7-0 start, Tech then played the five Big 12 opponents of consequence all in succession. They lost all five and were blown out in four. They have no running game and no way to keep ASU off the field.
We see strange things happen every college bowl season based on what teams are mentally into it, but it would take a massive checkout by Graham’s team for them to actually lose this game outright.
Advocare V100 Bowl: Boston College-Arizona (-7.5, 57.5) (12:30 PM ET, ESPN)—It’s a battle of the running backs as Andre Williams, the BC Heisman finalist, and Ka’deem Carey, the Pac-12 MVP, go head-to-head. The game will be in Shreveport, LA, so weather may be a factor and further put the focus on the run.
Both teams closed the season on good notes. Arizona had the aforementioned blowout of Oregon, while Boston College got on a late run that started with a November 2 upset of Virginia Tech at the exact time the Red Sox victory parade was going through the Charles River. Apparently the baseball’s team magic was able to extend itself to football.
Sun Bowl: Virginia Tech-UCLA (-7.5, 47) (2 PM ET, CBS)—The Hokies faded badly in November. A road win at Miami had Frank Beamer’s team poised to win the ACC Coastal Division, but that victory was surrounded by losses to Boston College, Duke and Maryland.
Virginia Tech plays very good defense, and quarterback Logan Thomas has talent, but the supporting cast is so bad that it negates his ability. Tech will be further hindered in this game, as they have been all year, but oft-injured corner Antone Exum looking like he’ll be out.
UCLA is a 9-3 team that’s only lost to Arizona State, Stanford and Oregon. The Bruins, in spite of injuries in the offensive backfield, have been tough and physical all year, while retaining good offensive balance. Sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley is well-regarded by NFL scouts and has the ability to make plays with his feet and his arm.
We should note that UCLA no-showed its bowl game last year when they were embarrassed by Baylor. Whether that means the Bruins will be more focused this year or that this is going to be an emerging pattern is our psychology question for the day.
Liberty Bowl: Rice-Mississippi State (-7, 50.5) (4 PM ET, ESPN)—Mississippi State is the weakest bowl team out of the SEC, needing overtime wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss in their last two games just to reach the 6-6 threshold for eligibility. The Bulldogs have a bland offense, meaning that quarterback Tyler Russell missing the game with an injury isn’t that big a deal—in fact you could argue it’s a positive, since sophomore backup Dak Prescott has some potential.
Rice won Conference USA and peaked at the end of the season. They have a tough 1,200-yard runner in Charles Ross and a quarterback in Taylor McHargue who is a decent thrower and physical runner. Of course the only problem with all this, is wondering whether Mississippi State might have the same kind of profile if they played C-USA teams all year and Rice was in the SEC West.
Chick-fil-A Bowl: Duke-Texas A&M (-11.5, 76)—Most people are assuming this is the final college game for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and I’m one of them. Manziel and the Aggie offense closed the season on a dour note, with subpar performances against LSU and Missouri, but both those defenses are considerably more talented than what Duke can throw out there.
Manziel’s statistical showing has been dazzling—69 percent completion rate, over nine yards per pass and 33 touchdown passes. He has thrown 13 interceptions, in part because the defense is so awful that the quarterback has to take more chances. That’s where Duke’s opportunity comes in.
The Blue Devils have been one of the country’s nice stories this year in winning their division. Their loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship Game is the only defeat since September. Jamison Crowder is a great receiver who should have a big night, and head coach David Cutliffe has a good offensive mind.
The SEC-ACC matchup problem is in play here, but the focus issue also is—how fired up is A&M going to be in a year that hasn’t expectations? Is Manziel’s mind going to be halfway into the NFL? On the flip side, is Duke going to see this game as the showcase it is for their program?
One thing we can say for sure—it’s not to understand why the linesmakers have set the total at 76.
Armed Forces: Navy (-7), Over 56.5 Music City: Ole Miss (-3), Under 57 Alamo: Texas (+14), Under 68—Texas wins outright Holiday: Arizona State (-14), Over 71.5 Advocare V100: Boston College (+7.5), Under 57.5—Arizona wins outright Sun: UCLA (-7.5), Under 47 Liberty: Mississippi State (-7), Under 50.5 Chick-fil-A: Texas A&M (-11.5), Over 76
BOWL HANDICAPPING RECORD Outright Winners: 6-7 ATS: 6-7 Totals: 8-5
The first sequence of the college bowl season is in the books after last night. The first eight bowl games ran from December 21 through December 26, and set the tone for the steady all-day action that’s going to dominate five of the next six days. Let’s take a look back on those first eight games and sort out what we learned. And the first lesson is that the MAC’s problems on the postseason stage aren’t anywhere close to going away.
With the rise of schools like Northern Illinois, the MAC’s prominence has grown in recent seasons and they’re playing more competitive football in key non-conference games during the regular season. It isn’t translating into bowl success though, as MAC schools went 0-4, including defeats by its showcase teams in NIU and league champion Bowling Green. Here’s a look at the wreckage, listed in order of significance, rather than chronologically…
Poinsettia Bowl: Utah State 21 Northern Illinois 14—Utah State has played excellent defense all season long and that made NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, endure a miserable night in San Diego. Lynch was held to 39 yards rushing on 18 carries and once you take away his ability to run the ball, it’s much easier to keep the passing game confined to underneath routes.
Northern Illinois wasn’t helped by special teams, including a couple missed field goals, and Utah State controlled the tempo on the ground, with Joey Demartino rushing 23 times for 143 yards. What we’re really left to wonder is just how good the Aggies might have been had quarterback Chuckie Keeton not gotten hurt in early October.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Pitt 30 Bowling Green 27—The MAC champ was actually the favorite over a BCS opponent, albeit one with a 6-6 record. Still, it tells you how far the league has advanced in the eyes of Las Vegas, that Bowling Green was favored over a team that just beat Notre Dame in November and knocked off Duke earlier in the year.
Unfortunately for the MAC, the Falcons tough defense couldn’t stop a Pitt running game that never once conjured up memories of Tony Dorsett and the program’s 1976 national championship run. James Connor ran for 229 yards, and while Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson played very well for the second straight time at Ford Field (the previous instance being his five-touchdown effort against NIU in the conference championship game), the running game disparity was too much to overcome and the Panthers kicked a field goal with 1:17 left to win it.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: San Diego State 49 Buffalo 24—San Diego State committed thirteen penalties and quarterback Quinn Kaehler only completed 15-of-28 passes. Yet this game was a rout all the way, the lead growing to 42-10 at one point and it’s because Aztec running back Adam Muema went crazy, rushing for 229 yards.
Buffalo had a little more success running the ball than their other conference brethren, with Branden Oliver producing 114 yards, but there was no passing to help, and Kaehler’s 15 completions resulted in 211 yards for San Diego State.
Beef O’Brady Bowl: East Carolina 37 Ohio 20—Ohio actually led this game early in the fourth quarter at 20-17. But what did them in was an inability to stop the run. East Carolina’s Vintavious Cooper rolled up 198 yards. Ohio, having to rely more on throwing the ball, was turnover-prone. The Bobcats’ Tyler Tetttleton tossed three interceptions and was only 21-for-40, and the Pirates took the game over in the final quarter.
I trust that the careful reader has distinguished the obvious pattern that’s emerging here. MAC defenses aren’t stopping the run. The top back on each opposing team went for a minimum of 143 yards. When your opponent can play low-risk football and not give up production in the process, it’s going to be tough to beat anyone.
This isn’t to say all these games have been disasters. The Northern Illinois and Bowling Green games were both good. Ohio was a midlevel team playing the second-best team in Conference USA, so hanging until the fourth quarter is nothing to be ashamed of. The MAC is clearly making strides. Just as clearly, there are a few more strides to make before they’re really on a par with even a league like the Mountain West.
Speaking of the Mountain West, they had three other teams, in addition to San Diego State, in action for the early part of the college bowl season. The league is out to a 2-2 start, with Colorado State also winning, while the high-profile programs in Boise State and league champ Fresno lost decisively. Here’s how those broke down…
New Mexico Bowl: Colorado State 48 Washington State 45—This was the first bowl game of the year and it was a stunner in terms of the comeback. Colorado State trailed 35-13 in the second quarter, 45-30 early in the fourth and even down 45-37 with less than three minutes left, they managed to win in regulation.
The running game was an issue here. Washington State, as is their custom, threw the ball all over the lot. Connor Halliday was 37/58 for 410 yards, with six touchdown passes against one interception. But there was literally no ground support, and when you have to keep throwing with a lead you’re asking for a trouble. And Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs is a whole lot of trouble. He rushed for 169 yards as the Rams steal a shocking win.
Las Vegas Bowl: USC 45 Fresno State 20—There was talk the Trojans might not play hard, with players presumably being upset about Ed Orgeron not being given the head coaching job after saving the season from the Lane Kiffin-induced catastrophe in September. Turns out that was just so much talk.
USC dominated this game in every way you could want, and the most impressive was the play of the pass defense and collaring prolific Fresno passer Derek Carr. The Mountain West MVP was 29/54 and could only throw for 216 yards. By contrast, USC’s relatively mediocre quarterback Cody Kessler was 22/30 for 345 yards, and the Trojan line play gave them an edge in both running the ball and stopping the run.
Fresno’s defensive woes, what ultimately cost them a BCS bowl bid, even as they won the Mountain West, were again in evidence here.
Hawaii Bowl: Oregon State 38 Boise State 23—Chris Peterson wasn’t on the sidelines, having bolted for the Washington job. I don’t think Boise would have won in any case, but they surely would have been more competitive than this. Oregon State led this game 31-6 at halftime and then scored a touchdown early in the third quarter.
I didn’t see any of this game, as it fell on Christmas Eve as we exchanged gifts, but I have to think the relatively even stats in the box score are deceptive and that Boise made the numbers look respectable with their cosmetic points added at the end.
I think the Mountain West showing in these four games has to be considered modestly disappointing. The record of 2-2 is fine—they got the win they had to have with San Diego State, and stole a win from the Pac-12.
But for their two marquee programs to not simply lose, but be completely blown out by second-tier Pac-12 teams tells you the MWC is a ways away from being able to compete with top conferences. And with next year’s four-team playoff, that perception is going to cost potential undefeated teams coming out of this league.
And we conclude with the Battle of New Orleans…
New Orleans Bowl: UL-Lafayette 24 Tulane 21—This was a wild game, as ULL jumped out to a 21-0 lead, Tulane rallied to tie it, and then the Cajuns won it on a fourth quarter field goal.
As SanFrancisco 49er legend Joe Montana watched his son Nick split quarterback duties for Tulane, the father had to be reminded of the 1983 NFC Championship Game, when his Niners lost a game in Washington with the exact same ebb and flow, right down to the final score. Although San Fran fans would reasonably complain about some shaky pass interference calls at the end of that one.
Back in the world of 2013, this game was about missed opportunities for Tulane. ULL made a game-time decision to play injured quarterback Terrance Broadway, and while I’m sure it was inspirational, it was not necessarily effective. Tulane committed ten penalties and lost the turnover battle 3-2.
TheSportsNotebook’s coverage of the college bowl schedule has focused on the seven games of Friday and Saturday as our next segment. Those games are previewed here, and we’ll be back Sunday to sort them out.
The college football bowl schedule gets cranking on Friday, as we enter a period where five of the next six days have all day action, stopping only for the NFL this coming Sunday.
This segment of TheSportsNotebook’s coverage will focus on the Friday-Saturday run that takes us into the NFL intermission. The pointspread and the Over/Under totals line is listed next to the favorite for each game, along with the TV time…
Military Bowl: Marshall (-2.5, 63) vs. Maryland (2:30 PM ET, ESPN)–The common thread both these teams have is that they took Virginia Tech to overtime on the road, with Marshall losing and Maryland coming out with a win.
There’s no question who has the flashier skill position talent here and that’s the Thundering Herd. Rakeem Cato, the sensational junior quarterback and Conference USA MVP, threw for over 3,500 yards and 36 touchdown passes. Essary Taliaferro at running back and Tommy Shuler at receiver are prolific. If any of you remember an old New York Jets tight end named Mickey Shuler, a key part of some good teams in the early 1980s, Tommy is his son.
Maryland’s leading receiver is Stefon Diggs. That’s important because he was lost for the season in mid-October and is still the team’s leading pass-catcher on the stat sheet. The Terps don’t have players who have produced, so it’s up to you to decide how much value to give the ACC vs. Conference USA exchange rate.
Texas Bowl: Syracuse vs. Minnesota (-4, 47) (6 PM ET, ESPN)–The Gophers are 8-4 and concluding a year where they beat good non-conference teams in UNLV and San Jose State, scored quality Big Ten wins against Nebraska and Penn State and played competitive losses against Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Minnesota has an 1,100-yard rusher David Cobb and plays a physical style. Syracuse is 6-6 and scraped into bowl eligibility on the last week of the season. The Orange won a close game at home over Boston College after Heisman nominee Andre Williams left the game with an injury. In fairness to the ‘Cuse, they did also win a quality November game against Maryland.
Fight Hunger Bowl: BYU vs. Washington (-3.5, 60.5) (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)–I thought BYU closed the season on a kind of a down note. While the losses at Wisconsin and Notre Dame in November were certainly nothing to be embarrassed over, the Cougars seemed to be playing well enough to win at least one of those games. A narrow win over a shaky Nevada team raises more questions.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is also the team’s leading rusher, and that’s on an offense that already has a conventional 1,200-yard rusher in Jamaal Williams. The Coogs can play, but we need to see if they can get over the hump against a good team.
Washington finished 8-4 and the only losses were to the Pac-12 elite in Stanford, Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA. The Huskies have a 1,700-yard rusher in Bishop Sankey, a runner who gets overlooked in a league with Tyler Gaffney at Stanford and Arizona’s Ka’deem Carey. What Washington does not have is a head coach–Steve Sarkisian has left for USC, and Chris Peterson is on the way in from Boise, but there will be an interim in charge on Friday night in San Francisco.
Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers vs. Notre Dame (-14, 53) (Noon, ESPN)–When the college bowl schedule was first announced, the Irish were favored by as many as 17. I can see why the number has come down. Notre Dame’s offensive problems and the track record of this Yankee Stadium game being played on a wet field is reflected in a low Over/Under and makes covering a big number a little tougher.
Notre Dame has won eight games and beaten Arizona State, Michigan State, USC and BYU, but this is the kind of minor bowl game that can move a season from being acceptable and into failure. Rutgers, by bowl standards, is terrible. The Scarlet Knights lost their penultimate game of the regular season to UConn when Rutgers was still trying to get bowl-eligible.
Belk Bowl: Cincinnati vs. North Carolina (-2.5, 57.5) (3:20 PM ET, ESPN): Both teams finished the season on similar notes. They were both closing strong. The Bearcats had won six in a row, including a road trip to Houston. The Tar Heels took five straight, including Boston College and Pitt.
Cincinnati got great quarterback play from Brendon Kay after losing starter Munchie Legeaux early in the year. North Carolina got solid quarterback play from Marquise Williams after losing Bryn Renner mid-stream. Kay is a pure dropback passer while Williams is dual threat.
Each team then played well in its season finale, but lost a tough game. North Carolina lost to Duke on a late field goal, and Cincinnati fell in overtime to Louisville. The winner of this game goes into the offeseason with a good taste in their mouth, the loser will have a sense of some unfinished business.
Russell Athletic Bowl: Miami vs. Louisville (-3.5, 57.5) (6:45 PM ET, ESPN)–Each team has to be feeling a little disappointed with the way this season went, even though both had good years.
Miami finished 9-3, but a midseason run of losing decisively to Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke cost the Hurricanes a spot in the ACC Championship Game. Louisville went 11-1, but against a weak schedule, the Cards had been thinking undefeated season and BCS bowl game. And as gamblers can tell you, even in their wins, the ‘Ville often played below expectations.
The game itself will be defined by the Hurricanes’ attempt to run the ball, while the Cardinals air it out with the magnificent Teddy Bridgewater. The Louisville quarterback completed 70 percent of his passes, gets 9.22 yards-per-attempt and has a TD/INT ratio of 28/4. How much of that was the schedule and how much of that was pure excellence? Let’s find out.
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: Michigan vs. Kansas State (-4.5, 56) (10:15 PM ET, ESPN): Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as doubtful with a toe injury, a report that was updated on December 23.
Both teams have good receivers, Joey Gallon for Michigan and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, and each team has a problem finding someone who can get them the football consistently. Gardner’s troubles are one reason I’m not ready to rule out Michigan’s chances without him, though it does explain why Kansas State is the early favorite here.
Each team has one notable win–Michigan over Notre Dame, and Kansas State beating Texas Tech. The difference is that everyone knew the Wildcats were rebuilding this year. Conversely, while the Wolverines were young and some growing pains tolerated, they had not shown improvement in the second half of the season until finally coming together in the near-upset of Ohio State.
Even so, this is Michigan, and if the best thing head coach Brady Hoke can point to is a loss to his archrival, be assured that an offseason already set to be long, will get even longer.
The opening act of the college football bowl schedule begins Saturday, and TheSportsNotebook will focus on the first eight games–the octave, if you will–that will cover December 21 through December 26…
I’ve noted the pointspread and the Over/Under on each game and made predictions on each. The track record of last year suggests these are picks you can confidently bet against and finance your Christmas shopping that way.
SATURDAY GRAND SLAM: December 21
New Mexico Bowl: Washington State-Colorado State (2 PM ET, ESPN)–Washington State is a four-point and the Over/Under of 65 is tied for the highest in the eight games covered here. Colorado State has one of the best running backs in the Mountain West, with Kapri Bibbs, while WSU keeps the ball in the air constantly with Connor Halliday.
An interesting stat on the Cougar offense–in spite of the fact Halliday throws constantly, including 89 passes in a game against Oregon, none of the Washington State receivers have even 800 yards. Good job by the quarterback and head coach Mike Price in spreading the ball around. I’ll take the Cougars to win and for the game to go Over.
Las Vegas Bowl: Fresno State-USC (3:30 PM ET, ABC)–The Trojans are a solid touchdown favorite. Fresno went 11-1 and has a great passing game, with David Carr throwing the Davante Adams and Josh Harper. But the Bulldogs, as we’ve discussed here throughout the year, play no defense.
Fresno also barely survived games against Rutgers, Boise and San Diego State. That’s no disgrace, because those are all bowl teams, but it also suggests a considerable gap between the Bulldogs and USC, a team that beat Stanford down the stretch.
The fluid coaching situation at USC is a concern, with Steve Sarkisian announced as the new coach and interim Ed Orgeron already stepping down. That’s a reason to be at least a little wary, but I’m going with USC to get another win for the Pac-12 on Opening Day, and their defense is good enough that I’m taking the Under 62.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Buffalo-San Diego State (5:30 PM ET, ESPN)–Buffalo is a nice defensive team and has a 1,400-yard runner in Branden Oliver. San Diego State has had its disappointments, losing to Eastern Illinois to open the year and dropping a 45-19 decision to bowl-bound UNLV to end it. But the Aztecs did beat San Jose State and Boise, and they play in a better league than Buffalo.
All of which makes it a mystery as to why this is a pick’em game. I’ll take San Diego State and go Under 53.
New Orleans Bowl: Tulane-UL-Lafayette (9 PM ET, ESPN)–This would be a fun game to attend, with two New Orleans schools playing at the Superdome, but I don’t know how much fun it will be to watch. ULL quarterback Terrance Broadway is out, removing the most exciting player on the field. Tulane finished the season on a down note, losing three of the last four.
Without Broadway though, I have to go with the Green Wave. They beat good Conference USA teams in East Carolina and North Texas in October, and if they regain that mojo, they’ll win this bowl game. The total of 49.5 is the lowest of this grouping of games, and without Broadway that’s justified. I’m going Under.
CHRISTMAS BUILDUP–December 23 & December 24
Beef O’Brady Bowl: East Carolina-Ohio (Monday, 2 PM ET, ESPN): The biggest perceived mismatch of the Opening Act Octave, with East Carolina is a 13.5 point favorite. Look at each team’s resume and you see why. Ohio got off to a nice start, with September wins over Marshall and North Texas in non-conference play. But since mid-October they’ve only won three games, and those teams have a combined record of 3-33. Nor have the losses been anything to be proud of.
East Carolina had its own shameful loss, a 59-28 thrashing at the hands of Marshall to end the season, but the Pirates throw the ball extremely well, with the Shane Carden to Justin Hardy combination. I suppose you can look at the difference in how both East Carolina and Ohio fared against Marshall and make an argument for the Bobcats to cover this number and perhaps win outright.
I can’t get past Ohio’s steady decline though, and am going with ECU, and in a good passing environment at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, both Carden and Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton combine to push it Over 62.5
Hawaii Bowl: Boise State-Oregon State (Tuesday, 8 PM ET, ESPN)–How shaken will Boise be by the departure of Chris Petersen to Washington? The oddsmakers have made them a three-point underdog to a 6-6 Oregon State team.
In reality, this Boise team has been ho-hum all year. Their four losses were to Fresno State, BYU, San Diego State and Washington, which is nothing to be ashamed of. None of the eight wins were impressive though. Even a victory over Utah State came in the Aggies’ first game without injured quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
Oregon State got its wins early and its losses late, but that was a fluke of the schedule. Their five-game skid to end the year came against Stanford, USC, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon. In at least three of those games, including the finale, the Beavers almost won.
They can throw it as well as anyone with Sean Mannion and I’ll pick the Pac-12 to make it 3-0 against the Mountain West in this game. I will go Under 65 though, as the Boise offense is not explosive.
THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS: MAC teams under the tree
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Bowling Green-Pitt (6 PM ET, ESPN)–Bowling Green, riding high off their blowout of Northern Illinois to win the MAC title, is a five-point favorite against an ACC opponent. While Matt Johnson lit up the NIU defense with his passing, Bowling Green is still a defense-first team that runs the ball with Travis Greene.
Pitt’s had an up-and-down year and they’ve done just enough to get by including a November win over Notre Dame and another at Syracuse that got the Panthers to 6-6. I’m grabbing Pitt and the five in this spot, with the total going Under 50.
Poinsettia Bowl: Utah State-Northern Illinois (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)–Northern Illinois looks for some redemption after the loss to Bowling Green. Utah State survived the loss of their quarterback Chuckie Keeton. They lost the first game without him to Boise State, but then righted the ship, won five in a row and played a competitive 24-17 loss at Fresno State in the Mountain West championship game. The Utah State defense gave up just 68 points in those six games.
I wonder if Northern Illinois, who might have been in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama had they taken care of business, will be up for this game. I suspect so, but even if that’s the case, this is still an even game. NIU is only a one-point favorite and the total is 58. I’m going to predict some open offenses and say the game goes Over, but I lean Utah State for the win.
TheSportsNotebook will review these games on Friday, December 27. Prior to that we’ll have previews of the seven games that will go on December 27 and December 28, including games involving Notre Dame, Michigan and Miami.
The college bowl schedule is now set. With the announcement of the BCS bowl matchups yesterday evening, the door was opened for the rest of the schedule to fall into place as the bowls made their selections in accord with their conference commitments.
Bowl season is like a great symphony, with its gradual buildup, alternating between a rapid pace and slower movement, and finally building to its championship crescendo. What we’re going to do here today is break down the schedule by those movements. TheSportsNotebook’s bowl coverage will be structured around this schedule layout, with previews and wrap-ups as each movement begins and ends.
Here’s how the 2013 college bowl schedule sets up, with some editorial comments along the way.
THE OPENING ACT Sat, Dec 21 (New Mexico ): Washington State-Colorado State (2 PM ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 21 (Las Vegas): Fresno State-USC (3:30 PM ET, ABC) Sat, Dec 21 (Famous Idaho Potato): Buffalo-San Diego State (5:30 PM ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 21 (New Orleans): Tulane-UL-Lafayette (9 PM ET, ESPN) Mon, Dec 23 (Beef O’Brady): East Carolina-Ohio (2 PM ET, ESPN) Tue, Dec 24 (Hawaii): Boise State-Oregon State (8 PM ET, ESPN) Thur, Dec 26 (Little Caesars Pizza): Bowling Green-Pitt (6 PM ET, ESPN) Thur, Dec 26 (Poinsettia): Utah State-Northern Illinois (9:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Comments: The most interesting piece here was Northern Illinois going to the Poinsettia Bowl, something that’s good for college football. The Poinsettia has a spot reserved for Army, one we’ve known for some time would be an open berth. Normally those open spots go to teams at the very end of their conference pecking order.
The MAC has three bowl tie-ins, but apparently something worked out for NIU to go to San Diego, and this game with Utah State will feature two of the really good programs at the midmajor level. I expect both teams to come determined to win.
Commitment to winning isn’t always a part of the bowl game experience anymore, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to enjoy these opening act matchups as much as any. You can tell from looking at the schedule there’s a lot of midmajor teams involved and none of those kids, or their fan bases, take these opportunities for granted, or look down their noses at them.
FOUR-DAY FESTIVAL Fri, Dec 27th (Military): Marshall-Maryland (2:30 PM ET, ESPN) Fri, Dec 27th (Meineke Car Care of Texas): Syracuse-Minnesota (6 PM ET, ESPN) Fri, Dec 27th (Fight Hunger): BYU-Washington (9:30 PM ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 28th (Pinstripe): Rutgers-Notre Dame (Noon ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 28th (Belk): Cincinnati-North Carolina (3:20 PM ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 28th (Russell Athletic): Miami-Louisville (6:45 PM ET, ESPN) Sat, Dec 28th (Buffalo Wild Wings): Michigan-Kansas State (10:15 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: After the first two days of this four-day run that will leave you bleary-eyed, there’s an intermission for NFL Sunday, which will be Week 17. TheSportsNotebook will also split its coverage of this part of the schedule in half, and take two days at a time, both in previews and recaps.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s hard to criticize Rutgers-Notre Dame playing in Yankee Stadium, but the disarray the Rutgers’ program is in takes some of the shine off. I would have much rather seen the Pinstripe Bowl choose Houston as its American Athletic team. A Notre Dame-Houston matchup would have awakened the echoes of 1978 and the Cotton Bowl, when Joe Montana began forging his comeback legend, as he rallied the Irish from 34-12 down and beat the Cougars on the final play.
I was surprised the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl chose Michigan as its Big Ten team over Nebraska. Given that the opponent would be from the Big 12, it seemed an ideal chance to stir up some bad blood between the Cornhuskers and their old rivals.
Mon, Dec 30th (Armed Forces): Middle Tennessee-Navy (11:45 PM ET, ESPN) Mon, Dec 30th (Music City): Ole Miss-Georgia Tech (3:15 P ET, ESPN) Mon, Dec 30th (Alamo): Oregon-Texas (6:45 PM ET, ESPN) Mon, Dec 30th (Holiday): Arizona State-Texas Tech (10:15 PM ET, ESPN) Tue, Dec 31st (Advocare V100): Arizona-Boston College (12:30 PM ET, ESPN) Tue, Dec 31st (Sun): Virginia Tech-UCLA (2 PM ET, CBS) Tue, Dec 31st (Liberty): Rice-Mississippi State (4 PM ET, ESPN) Tue, Dec 31st (Chick-fil-A): Duke-Texas A&M (8 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: The Liberty Bowl did fans a disservice when they voluntarily picked a .500 Mississippi State team as the SEC opponent for Conference USA champion Rice, when an 8-4 Vanderbilt squad was available. The Commodores would have provided a good challenge for the Owls, and beating an SEC team of that caliber would have been a signature achievement for the Rice program.
I was mildly surprised at the Chick-Fil-A matchup. I thought this committee might opt for Miami over Duke as its ACC team, but was glad to see the Dookies get this opportunity on New Year’s Eve night. They’ll have a much better chance of a good showing here than they did against Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.
A bigger surprise was this same bowl opting for A&M over Georgia. I’m sure Aaron Murray’s torn ACL had something to do with it, but this game is played in Atlanta. How well will the Aggies travel after a disappointing season? How motivated is Johnny Manziel going to be as he presumably prepares for the NFL? Let me clarify that I don’t consider this like Rice-Mississippi State, where I feel fans are getting a raw deal. Duke-Texas A&M is a fine matchup. I’m just surprised is all.
THE NEW YEAR’S BUILDUP Wed, Jan 1st (Gator): Nebraska-Georgia (Noon ET, ESPN2) Wed, Jan 1st (Heart of Dallas): UNLV-North Texas (Noon ET, ESPNU) Wed, Jan 1st (Capital One): Wisconsin-South Carolina (1 PM ET, ABC) Wed, Jan 1st (Outback): Iowa-LSU (1 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: This is usually where the SEC cleans up on the Big Ten by something akin to a combined score of 94-36 in their three matchups that set the table for the major bowl games that start in mid-afternoon. Wisconsin-South Carolina is one of the spicier matchups of the entire non-BCS card, but the Nebraska-Georgia matchup is a disappointment.
We just watched a Nebraska-Georgia game a year ago in the Capital One Bowl. They’ll move the proceedings from Orlando to Jacksonville and just do it all over. This is why it would have been better if at least one of these teams had been chosen by other bowls, per discussion further above.
If you’re just looking for a good football game, don’t sleep on UNLV-North Texas. Both of these programs had breakthrough seasons and to be playing on January 1 is a great opportunity for both. You have to think the kids and coaching staff will want to make the most of it.
THE BCS BEGINS Wed, Jan 1st (Rose): Stanford-Michigan State (5 PM ET, ESPN) Wed, Jan 1st (Fiesta): Baylor-Central Florida (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) Thur, Jan 2nd (Sugar): Oklahoma-Alabama (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) Fri, Jan 3rd (Cotton): Oklahoma State-Missouri (7:30 PM ET, Fox) Fri, Jan 3rd (Orange): Clemson-Ohio State (8:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: The Cotton Bowl is not actually a BCS game of course, but the nature of the calendar left their game conflicting with the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma State-Missouri is frankly as good a game as any on the slate of the official major bowl games, so perhaps it works out just as well.
TheSportsNotebook will preview the four BCS games individually, while melding the Cotton Bowl preview into the Saturday-Sunday games below. As far as the matchups, it mostly went as expected. I was disappointed the Sugar opted for Oklahoma over Oregon. The Ducks would have been a better matchup for Alabama. But both Oklahoma and Oregon finished 10-2 and when you lose to Arizona by 26 points late in the year like Oregon did, you pretty well sign away complaining rights.
THE WEEKEND WRAPAROUND Sat, Jan 4th (BBVA Compass): Vanderbilt-Houston (1 PM ET, ESPN) Sun, Jan 5th (Godaddy.com): Arkansas State-Ball State (9 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: These games wrap around the NFL playoff doubleheader that will go on both days, with the pros kicking off at 4:30 PM ET on Saturday, and then finishing in the early evening on Sunday. Vanderbilt and Houston should both be in better games, but their head-to-head matchup will be a good one.
THE GRAND FINALE Mon, Jan 6th (BCS National Championship): Florida State-Auburn (8:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Comment: No controversy in the last year of the BCS. My only surprise is that Auburn is already getting as many as nine points in the early point spreads I’ve seen. We’ll talk about this game in much more detail when the time comes, and by that point we’ll be able to assess how both the ACC and SEC are faring in bowl competition, but (+9) for a hot team from the conference that’s won seven straight of these championship games seems like a lot.
There are nineteen games in the books for this college bowl season but none of them have involved the SEC. The nation’s most highly regarded conference now swings into action, with teams in five of the eight games that will take place from New Year’s Eve on Monday through the first part of New Year’s Day on Tuesday. Three of those involve SEC teams currently ranked in the Top 10 and likely playing to stay there.
It’s those games—involving South Carolina, Georgia and LSU that will lead our preview of what we’ll dramatically call the New Year’s Octave, the sequence of eight games that starts at noon ET on Monday and leads up to the Rose Bowl at 5 PM ET on Tuesday.
As has been the case throughout the bowl season, TheSportsNotebook will pick the winner, both outright and against the Las Vegas spread, along with the Over/Under totals line. At the end of the column my full disclosure record is posted (the ATS record is killing me, while the totals have been better). And since I’m reviewing these games out of their chronological sequence, the TV schedule is also listed at the bottom.
Georgia-Nebraska (Tuesday, 1 PM ET, ABC): The Bulldogs are ranked #7 and were just one play from playing for the national championship, a play that was denied them by some horrific clock management on the part of Georgia coach Mark Richt in the SEC Championship Game. On the other side, Nebraska was a mere forty points from going to the Rose Bowl, as a blowout loss to Wisconsin cost them the Big Ten title.
This game is really about playing amateur psychologist. How fired up are the Dawgs going to be about this game after being so close to the top prize? I understand the logic that says Georgia will be sleepwalking, but let’s keep in mind that Georgia has lost two straight bowl games—to Michigan State and Central Florida—and with Richt constantly on the hot seat, a loss here would stick in the craw of alumni for the next time the coach got vulnerable. I think Nebraska’s psyche is far harder to grasp—did the 70-31 loss to Wisconsin demoralize them, or will it be a motivator?
Nebraska has the offensive weapons, with a versatile quarterback in Taylor Martinez, a good wideout in Kenny Bell and the running of Ameer Abdullah, combined with Martinez, gives the Cornhusker ground game a versatility that’s hard to defend. I expect them to move the ball.
The issue is going to be what happens when Georgia has the ball. Nebraska has given up 133 points in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, plus 36 in a September loss to UCLA, who was just breaking in a freshman quarterback. What happens against Aaron Murray, whose numbers are outstanding in all facets of the passing game—he completes a good percentage, gets the ball downfield and steers clear of mistakes. The Dawgs have a two-pronged attack on the ground, with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Unless you think they’re not going to be emotionally into the game, there’s no rational argument to suggest Nebraska could stop Georgia.
Since I think Georgia will be ready, I’m not hesitating to pick Murray to light up the Husker secondary and win this one going away.
South Carolina-Michigan (Tuesday, 1 PM ET, ESPN): A brutal schedule cost South Carolina a fair shot at the SEC title, as the league lined up for three straight weeks with games against Georgia, LSU and Florida, the latter two on the road. Can you imagine the league doing that to Alabama? I digress. The Gamecocks blew out Georgia, lost a heartbreaker in Baton Rouge and then got hammered in Gainesville. But Steve Spurrier’s team got 10 wins with a big win in Clemson in the season finale.
South Carolina does it with defense, a unit that ranks 12th in the country in points allowed—and considering the caliber of the offenses they face in the SEC, that means they’re really much higher in quality. Michigan has done nothing offensively whenever they’ve had to face a good team. The Wolverines’ offense was overmatched in losses to Alabama and Notre Dame, and even played poorly against Nebraska, whose defensive woes were just documented
Michigan’s problem is their offense has no balance. Denard Robinson is versatile, as is Devin Gardner, who stepped in when Robinson was hurt. But they don’t have a running back who can run the ball, nor do they have quality receivers. The whole idea of spreading the field and letting the quarterback run around looks nice against a slow team from the mid-to-lower echelons of the Big Ten. It looks positively pathetic against a defense with players who are fast and a coaching staff that knows what its doing.
What Spurrier does have to be concerned about is his own offense. It was never the team’s strength and the devastating late October knee injury to Marcus Lattimore took away their one big playmaker. Starting quarterback Connor Shaw is back from injury, although even if he struggles, backup Dylan Thompson is capable. There are just not enough skill players to really open the field up the way SEC teams have usually been able to do against the Big Ten in these January 1 games.
Thus, I have no hesitation about picking South Carolina, nor projecting a low-scoring game. But I can see Michigan hanging around, and that makes a five-point spread a little concerning. Michigan played a similar team, Notre Dame, to a seven-point margin on the road, even though the flow of play heavily favored the Irish the whole way. I see the same type of result here, and on a neutral site, I’m not comfortable giving five.
Outright Winner: South Carolina Pointspread Winner: Michigan (+5) Totals Line: Under 48
LSU-Clemson (Friday, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN): There are two schools of thought on this game. The first school since this is a classic offense vs. defense showdown that makes a bowl game exciting. LSU brings a defense almost as good as the one that took them to the national championship game last year. The Tigers rank 11th in scoring defense, which as noted with South Carolina, suggests a real ranking that’s much higher. Clemson ranks 6th in scoring offense and does everything well. They can run the ball with Andre Ellington and you can’t lock in on one receiver—DeAndre Hopkins is the best, but quarterback Tajh Boyd also has Sammy Watkins at his disposable and in general Boyd is skilled at spreading the ball around. The clash of an elite defense and elite offense would make this final game of calendar year of 2012 more than just one of the best non-BCS games—it would be one of the best two or three bowl games period.
The other school of thought says this is a classic SEC vs. ACC showdown that makes a bowl game boring. The Saturday after Thanksgiving said it all—in four games where the two conferences squared off, the SEC not only won all four, but they won all four decisively. It included Clemson blowing their shot at a BCS game when they lost at home to South Carolina—by ten points, in spite of the Gamecocks committing double-digit penalties.
Then let’s look at each team’s body of work—Clemson lost its two notable tests, South Carolina and Florida State. The Tigers have beaten five bowl teams, but three of them were against .500 teams—Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech & Duke, one was against 7-5 N.C. State and the other was against Ball State. This is the long-winded way of saying that the ability of the Tigers to beat genuinely good teams is purely theoretical right now.
LSU may not have had the year people were anticipating when they were the preseason #1, but the only losses were close games to Florida and Alabama. The first was on the road, the second was a game the Tigers seemed to have until the final two minutes. LSU has a road win over Texas A&M, a victory that came in October when eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel was comfortably locked in. The Tigers won on the road over the Aggies in spite of a sloppy double-digit penalty game.
Therefore, I see little reason not to pick LSU. The caveat would be motivation—we know Clemson is going to be hungry for some type of signature win, especially after they gave up 70 points to West Virginia in last year’s Orange Bowl humiliation. Will the Tigers be similarly jacked up? And on the more subtle notes, LSU has suspended All-American punter Brad Wing. A team that relies on defense and field position to win might miss an elite punter more than most.
But in the end, those are cautionary concerns, not reasons to pick Clemson. I do have the same concerns about the pointspread—it’s LSU (-5.5) that I had with South Carolina, but I just have no confidence in Clemson’s defense to keep it low-scoring enough to cover that number in a loss. I see a 31-20 kind of game unfolding on Friday night in Atlanta.
OutrightWinner: LSU Pointspread Winner: LSU (-5.5) Totals Line: Under 60
MORE SEC ACTION
N.C. State-Vanderbilt (Friday, Noon ET, ESPN): It’s another SEC-ACC mismatch showdown. On that aforementioned Thanksgiving Saturday, Vandy hammered Wake Forest, a team not that much worse than N.C. State. The Wolfpack are going through a coaching transition, while the Commodores play solid defense and should coast home. Outright Winner: Vanderbilt Pointspread Winner: Vanderbilt (-7.5) Totals Line: Under 51.5
Mississippi State-Northwestern (Tuesday, Noon ET, ESPN2): While most of the Big Ten embarrassed themselves in non-conference play, Northwestern actually showed up and beat Vanderbilt, and also knocked off Syracuse. On the flip side, Mississippi State started 7-0 against the soft part of the schedule and when it toughened up, they began getting blown out. As far as motivation, how about this—Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl since 1948 and the media won’t let them stop hearing about it. Pat Fitzgerald gets that monkey off his back with a win in Jacksonville.
USC-Georgia Tech (2 PM ET, CBS): The injury that sidelined Matt Barkley for the end of the season will keep him out of this game, so the Max Witten era can begin in earnest—at least if Witten can prove he’s worthy of the job. The desire of the freshman quarterback to prove himself for next season might make him the one Trojan player who’s motivated for this game in El Paso. Witten and Marqise Lee will hook up on some big plays and win, but Georgia Tech will compete—just like they did in a closer-than-it-was-supposed-to-be loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship and keep this game competitive. And between USC’s passing game and Georgia Tech’s triple option, the points should be flowing.
Iowa State-Tulsa (3:30 PM ET, ESPN): Iowa State has played good defense and ran the ball well under Paul Rhoads, but never had a quarterback. With the late-season insertion of freshman Sam Richardson into the lineup, it looks like the Cyclones have the last piece of the puzzle. The one question would be how much this program—now consistent in reaching postseason play—will be for a Liberty Bowl date with Tulsa. I’m leery about it, but Iowa State is much better and the line is a virtual pick-‘em.
Outright Winner: Iowa State Pointspread Winner: Iowa State (-1) Totals Line: Under 51
Purdue-Oklahoma State (Tuesday, Noon ET, ESPNU): This is an appalling matchup, with Oklahoma State’s quality running game, led by Joseph Randle and improving passing game, with freshman quarterback J.W. Walsh. Purdue only went 6-6 in a mediocre Big Ten. Even if Okie State isn’t interested, they’ll still win. The problem is that the line of (-17) is ridiculous. To give the Boilermakers some credit, they played competitively at Notre Dame and nearly won at Ohio State. For Oklahoma State to cover that number, they’d need to completely jacked and stay that way for four quarters. I’m not buying they’ll be that into playing Purdue, so the dog gets a cover in a game where only the pointspread is in doubt.
Outright Winner: Oklahoma State Pointspread Winner: Purdue (+17) Totals Line: Under 70
THE MONDAY-EARLY TUESDAY TV SCHEDULE
Monday: N.C. State-Vanderbilt (Noon ET, ESPN), USC-Georgia Tech (2 PM ET, CBS), Iowa State-Tulsa (3:30 PM ET, ESPN), LSU-Clemson (7:30 PM ET, ESPN)
Tuesday: Mississippi State-Northwestern (Noon ET, ESPN2), Oklahoma State-Purdue (Noon ET, ESPNU), South Carolina-Michigan (1 PM ET, ESPN), Georgia-Nebraska (1 PM ET, ABC)
A BCS doubleheader starts at 5 PM ET, with the Rose Bowl, followed by the Orange Bowl. TheSportsNotebook previews of both games will be up early Tuesday morning.
The Big 12 has spent the regular season building a credible record as the nation’s best conference, with nine of ten teams going to bowl games, with Kansas State being a legitimate part of the national elite and Oklahoma not far behind. But just as championships aren’t won in September, nor is an honor for the nation’s best conference. The Big 12 needs to make a definitive case in the bowls, on Saturday night there are two noteworthy games. Texas plays Oregon State, followed by TCU matching up with Michigan State in an ESPN sequence beginning at 6:45 PM ET. It’s these two games that will serve as TheSportsNotebook’s focal point, as we preview the 11 games coming up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, as college bowl season heats up.
Texas has been one of the country’s harder-to-figure teams all year. They beat a pretty good team in Oklahoma State, and then gave up 63 to archrival Oklahoma. The Longhorns were supposed to be a good defensive team with quarterback issues. Instead, they struggled to stop people all year, while David Ash took the reins behind center and completely nearly 68 percent of his passes, while throwing effectively down the field with minimal mistakes.
Just when it seemed like UT had it figured out and was coming on in November, they threw a clunker at TCU on Thanksgiving night that cost them a shot at major bowl bid, then dropped a 42-24 decision to Kansas State that ended any hopes of playing in the Cotton Bowl—what would have been the ultimate grudge match opportunity against former conference rival Texas A&M and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
Oregon State is the reverse. They don’t haul in the five-star recruits the way Texas does, and you can’t say the Beavers have the same kind of upside, but what you can say is that Oregon State is consistent. They’ve beaten Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona, BYU and Arizona State. Two of the Beavers’ three losses were close, against Washington & Stanford. And even a 48-24 loss to Oregon wasn’t terrible, given how explosive the Ducks can be.
Mike Riley’s offense is built on the passing game, and targeting top receivers in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. The quarterback position has been in a little bit of flux. Sophomore Sean Mannion had the job and made some improvement off an interception-prone freshman year when he was thrown into the fire. But not enough, and even though it took an injury to get him out of the lineup, once Cody Vaz got a shot, he stepped up the caliber of play. Vaz drastically cut down on the interceptions, while still maintaining a higher yards-per-attempt than Mannion. Unsurprisingly, it’s Vaz that will get the start in San Antonio.
I’ve hated picking games involving Texas all year, because they have the capacity to make one look foolish in either regard. But given the opportunities they’ve cost themselves, how excited are they going to be to play Oregon State? And given how good Oregon State has been, should we make Texas’ motivation the only factor? There are just more reasons to like the Beavers in this game and that’s the direction I’m going.
Now we come to TCU. You can look at the Horned Frogs’ 3-4 finish to the season, a record compiled with freshman quarterback Trevone Boykin, who got the job after Casey Pachall was suspended, and figure it’s a team that’s fading. But look closer—three of those losses were competitive games against Oklahoma, Kansas State and a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Texas Tech. TCU had the aforementioned win over Texas when the Longhorns had much more at stake. So it’s true that this is not a vintage Horned Frog defense, the kind that gave them national prominence, but it’s also true that this is a team that’s played well against much better teams than the one they’ll face Saturday night in Tempe.
Whether you like Michigan State or are down on them—and with a 6-6 record in a conference that was terrible in non-league play, you’d be justified to be in the latter group—say this for Sparty. They play close games. Of their five losses, two were in overtime and the three regulation defeats were by a combined ten points. Conversely, they needed overtime to beat Wisconsin and barely escaped Indiana.
The strengths and weaknesses of Michigan State make it apparent what the reason is. They can play defense with anyone, and that includes a good showing in an non-conference win over Boise State and a decent showing against Notre Dame, a game they lost 20-3 with no help from the offense. The Spartans also run the ball very well with bruising back Le’Veon Bell. They just can’t throw it to save their life. Andrew Maxwell completes a low percentage, can’t complete it down the field and makes too many mistakes. Did I leave anything out?
I like Michigan State’s coach, Mark Dantonio. I believe he’ll have his team well-prepared and I think they’ll play hard. But I’m not picking any Big Ten team unless you can identify a clear reason why the opposition won’t be motivated. I suppose its possible TCU might not care—but I suspect that Gary Patterson will want to send a message that his team is ready to be a Big 12 contender in 2013. And as one who believes in the quality of this conference, I’m not going to pick them to lose both Saturday night games. Look for the Horned Frogs to get the win.
There have been eight bowl games so far, and in previous games I’ve picked an outright winner, a pointspread winner, and the Over/Under totals line. Further down is the full disclosure part of this column, with the complete record. Here is the complete picks for Saturday night’s featured doubleheader, followed by comments and picks on the nine games building up to that, starting on Thursday afternoon…
Texas-Oregon State Outright Winner: Oregon State Pointspread Winner: Oregon State (-2) Totals: Over 57.5
TCU-Michigan State Outright Winner: TCU Pointspread Winner: TCU (-3) Totals: Over 40.5
San Jose State-Bowling Green (3 PM ET, ESPN): San Jose is a much better team, with David Fales being one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country. He’s only a junior, so keep on him next season. And the MAC, where Bowling Green hails from, is 0-2 in the college bowl season, with two blowouts to show for their trouble. On the other hand…San Jose is without its coach, as Mike McIntyre left for Colorado. So while I like the Spartans enough to pick them, I can’t lay seven. Outright Winner: San Jose State Pointspread Winner: Bowling Green (+7) Totals Line: Over 44
Cincinnati-Duke (6:30 PM ET, ESPN): Duke’s a little nicked up in the secondary, but is being overly cynical to suggest that given how much Duke’s defense has struggled, it probably doesn’t make any difference? Look for the points to flow in this game, as Blue Devil quarterback Sean Renfree can put up the yardage against anyone, but the Bearcats can run the ball with George Winn and since the insertion of Brendan Kay into the quarterback spot, they’ve been much more efficient throwing the ball. On the surface, Cincy would be the better team, but this is another team that lost its coach. And consider this intangible—Duke’s playing in its first bowl game since 1994 and the game will be played in Charlotte, where their students can make the trip. I like the motivated Dookies in a shootout. Outright Winner: Duke Pointspread Winner: Duke (+8) Totals Line: Over 61
Baylor-UCLA (9:45 PM ET, ESPN): Think the points might be flying in San Diego? Las Vegas certainly does, with the total posted at 82, and it’s actually nudged up a point since the original posting. Baylor is a better version of Duke, in that an offense led by Nick Florence throwing the ball to Terrance Williams is churning out the yardage and points. The Bears are playing their best football of the season in November, with the shocking 52-24 rout of Kansas State that reshaped the national title race being the prime example (any chance Nick Saban sent Baylor coach Art Briles a little Christmas gift?).
Then there’s the Baylor defense—never mind considering whether they can stop UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin on the ground. They can’t. Can they even tackle him? UCLA could run a big-play offense doing nothing more than running Franklin off-tackle. Oh, and the Bruins can throw the ball with freshman quarterback Brett Hundley, who’s improved as the year went along. This is also the first year for the UCLA program under Jim Mora Jr., and I’m thinking he’ll want to seal a nice opening campaign with a bowl victory. If this were a few years down the road, maybe UCLA wouldn’t be motivated after losing the Pac-12 title, but right now I think they will be. Outright Winner: UCLA
Pointspread Winner: UCLA (-3) Totals Line: Over 82
THREE MORE ON FRIDAY
Ohio-UL Monroe (2 PM ET, ESPN): In the category of “I need to get a life”, my excitement for this game, certainly qualifies. Tyler Tettleton for Ohio and Kolton Browning at UL-Monroe are two outstanding mid-major quarterbacks and both of these teams made some noise against BCS conference teams. Ohio won at Penn State, a win that looks even more impressive now. Monroe won at Arkansas, a win that looks less impressive now. The ball will be in the air and the points should flow in Shreveport. Outright Winner: UL-Monroe Pointspread Winner: Ohio (+7) Totals Line: Over 61
Rutgers-Virginia Tech (5:30 PM ET, ESPN): I can’t imagine either team’s real thrilled about being in Orlando. Virginia Tech because they’re not accustomed to dragging into the postseason at 6-6, and Rutgers because they blew a Sugar Bowl bid by coughing up a two-touchdown lead at home to Louisville, in spite of having a top-caliber defense. I’m betting on Rutgers to have the hangover and the Hokies to be looking for at least some modest redemption. If it’s a close, low-scoring game—and with a totals line of 41, the smart money seems to think it will—then that makes special teams more important, which points to Virginia Tech. Finally, when in doubt, do you bet on Kyle Flood or Frank Beamer? There’s only correct answer to that latter question, regardless of the outcome on Friday and for me it’s the final seal on a Va Tech pick. Outright Winner: Virginia Tech Pointspread Winner: Virginia Tech (-1.5) Totals Line: Under 41
Minnesota-Texas Tech (9 PM ET, ESPN): This game is a complete mismatch. Minnesota is a borderline team from the worst power conference in the country. Texas Tech had a decent year in one of the best leagues in the nation. That’s why the line is set with the Red Raiders giving 12.5 points. But let’s consider the intangibles—Minnesota is thrilled to be in a bowl game. Texas Tech finished the season a little sluggish, and not only lost its coach Tommy Tuberville to Cincinnati, but Tuberville walked out on a dinner with recruits to take the job and never returned. Add to that, the complete lack of interest the Red Raider players surely have in playing the 6-6 Gophers. Can you spell upset? I’m too chicken to go that far, but I will spell “closer than the experts say.” Outright Winner: Texas Tech Pointspread Winner: Minnesota (+12.5) Totals Line: Over 55
THE FIRST THREE ON SATURDAY
Rice-Air Force (11:45 AM ET, ESPN): Meaning no disrespect to the men and women of the Air Force Academy, nor to the kids at Rice who took advantage of a schedule backloaded with its weaker games to get bowl-eligible, but I can’t think of one good reason to watch this game. I like Owls’ quarterback Taylor McHargue, but Air Force is a little more disciplined and after a disappointing 6-6 year I think they’ll be like Virginia Tech and ready to get a bit of atonement. The flip side? This is a Conference USA underdog facing a Mountain West team—just like the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve, and in that one SMU smoked Fresno State 43-10, my worst pick of the young college bowl season. But I’ll go to the well with the Mountain West one more time. Outright Winner: Air Force Pointspread Winner: Air Force (-2.5) Totals: Under 60.5
West Virginia-Syracuse (3:15 PM ET, ESPN):Geno Smith deserved the Heisman Trophy, even if the rest of his West Virginia team—especially the defense—was far from the same level. With WVA now in the Big 12, this is the rare road trip a lot of their fans can make, with the game being in Yankee Stadium. I look for that to neutralize any home crowd effect for the Orange and the Big 12 to trump the Big East. Outright Winner: West Virginia Pointspread Winner: West Virginia (-3.5) Totals Line: Over 74.5
Navy-Arizona State (4 PM ET, ESPN2): Arizona State is a heavy two-touchdown favorite and given the quality of the Pac-12, I certainly concede they’re the better team here in San Francisco. The passing game led by sophomore Taylor Kelly can put the Middies into an air war they can’t keep up in. And the last time Navy came west for a bowl game like this was 2010 when they were manhandled by San Diego State. The spread has a hook on the far side of two touchdowns and for that reason, I’m going to go with the dog. But the Sun Devils should have this one in control from the outset. Outright Winner: Arizona State Pointspread Winner: Navy (+14.5) Totals Line: Over 56
The city of New York opens the week in sports tonight, with the Jets playing Tennessee in Monday Night Football (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) and the Big Apple comes close to closing it as well, when it’s Giants-Ravens (4:25 PM ET, Fox) in the featured late afternoon game next Sunday. The Jets are unexpectedly in the playoff picture if they win tonight and the Giants are unexpectedly in danger of falling out, having lost control of their destiny in the NFC East and struggling to hold on for a wild-card.
In between Monday night and late Sunday afternoon, there’s NBA basketball action from New York, starting with tonight’s visit by Houston to Madison Square Garden to take on the Knicks. This game gets NBA-TV coverage starting at 7:30 PM ET, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why even New York TV demographics trump a Spurs-Thunder game going down in OkC tonight—the latter two only being the best two teams in the West. The Knicks continue to get love from national television, with their Wednesday tilt against Brooklyn going on ESPN at 7 PM ET, and then another home date with Chicago on Friday (7:30 PM ET, NBA-TV). If you love New York, you can spend the week in MSG and then around it sandwich big football games.
Cincinnati is another city with some prominence this week, although not quite at the same volume. The Bengals’ win at Philadelphia, coupled with Pittsburgh’s loss at Dallas, has given Cincy the lead on the AFC’s final playoff spot and their big battle in the Steel City will be the game CBS shows to most of the country at 1 PM ET on Sunday. The warmup for this game comes in college hoops on Wednesday when Xavier-Cincinnati play for bragging rights in the Queen City (7 PM ET, ESPN2). This game degenerated into a brawl last year and started a series of events that led Bearcats guard Mark Lyons to eventually transfer to Arizona, where he can be a difference-maker on a Final Four team. Looking for that kind of impact of this December’s game might be a stretch, but we can safely say the Bearcats and Musketeers keep things interesting.
TheSportsNotebook will delve deeper into the NFL playoff picture tomorrow when we do our weekly projections, but we do know that both Dallas and Washington control their destiny in the NFC East, where each is 8-6 and tied with the Giants, hold the tiebreaker on Big Blue and play head-to-head in Week 17. To set that up, Dallas has a home game with New Orleans (1 PM ET, Fox) that will go to most of the country as part of the doubleheader that sets the stage for Giants-Ravens. Washington has to take care of business in Philadelphia.
There’s no Monday Night game in the Week 16 schedule since a week from today is Christmas Eve, so it’s Saturday night that gets prime-time action in the NFL. That game is Atlanta-Detroit, a game that looked a lot more interesting in September, and even last week, before Atlanta’s 34-0 thrashing of the Giants yesterday eliminated any doubt about who would be the #1 seed in the NFC. The Sunday night game is another letdown. Had San Francisco simply lost at New England last night, their road trip to Seattle would have been for first place in the NFC West.
As it is, even if the Niners still lose, they still bail themselves out with a win over Arizona in the finale. It’s still important—San Francisco has to hold off Green Bay for the NFC’s #2 seed and first-round bye, but it’s no longer a title fight. TheSportsNotebook will preview all of NFL Week 16 on Friday.
We get a run of college football bowl games starting on Thursday night, although even as one who likes the midmajors, these games are pretty dry. The BYU-San Diego State game on Thursday (8 PM ET, ESPN) isn’t bad, and I’m interested in Washington-Boise State (3:30 PM ET, ESPN) on Saturday, but games like Ball State-Central Florida (Friday, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN), East Carolina-UL Lafayette (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN) don’t represent the best the midmajors have to offer. Neither do the two games early next week of Fresno-SMU on Christmas Eve (8 PM ET, ESPN) and Western Kentucky-Central Michigan on Wednesday (7:30 PM ET, ESPN). TheSportsNotebook will preview all these games as a chunk on Thursday.
College basketball is fairly quiet throughout the week, with Stanford-N.C. State on Tuesday (9 PM ET, ESPN2) and North Carolina-Texas on Wednesday (9 PM ET, ESPN2) being the best on the board. College hoops will also be fairly quiet here at TheSportsNotebook. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been checking in on the eight top conferences, plus the mid-majors to examine the top teams. You can check those in the college basketball archive. Since I’ve been griping about top teams being overrated, I’ll get off the fence this week and give four teams I think are worth betting on as true national contenders. Then college hoops will briefly slide off the agenda at TheSportsNotebook, to return after Christmas, as we again return to each conference, this time in more depth, in anticipation of the conference schedules that begin in early January.
The NBA will fill the basketball void over the next several days here, as we build up to Christmas Day feast of five games. Check the pro basketball archive, and you can see that after a broad summary of each conference to start the season, we’ve been checking in on different contenders over the last seven weeks. That process accelerates this week, with 2-3 articles covering several teams. By Christmas, each team will have close to 25 games under its belt and it’s time for the season to begin in earnest.
The games to watch in earnest this week, besides the Knicks games referenced above and the Spurs-Thunder game that only those with a League Pass subscription can watch, will be surprising Milwaukee’s visit to Memphis on Wednesday (9:30 PM ET, ESPN) and the pesky Minnesota Timberwolves, who host Oklahoma City on Thursday (7 PM ET, TNT).