The SEC and Big Ten have completed their annual three-game appetizer on the New Year’s Day afternoon undercard. The Big Ten matched up a little better this season than was the case the past three years, aided by two missing SEC quarterbacks. They handed the nation’s top conference their first loss of the college bowl season. But at day’s end, the SEC still won two of the three matchups.
Nebraska 24 Georgia 19: It’s easy to attribute Nebraska’s win to the absence of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. While I won’t dispute that, we do have to point out that backup Hutson Mason still played reasonably well (21/39 for 320 yards, one interception). Well enough to win in fact. But Georgia couldn’t run the ball, getting only 96 yards on the ground, while Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah ran for 122 yards.
LSU 21 Iowa 14: The fact LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberg was out surely kept this one close. LSU pounded the ball on the ground with Jeremy Hill and rushed for 216 yards as a team. They had no one who could get the ball to their dynamic wideouts, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, and backup quarterback Anthony Jennings threw for just 82 yards. The lack of offensive punch kept Iowa in the game, but LSU’s defense was too good.
South Carolina 34 Wisconsin 24: One SEC team had its quarterback and Connor Shaw was the star of the show in Orlando. Shaw threw for 312 yards on 22/25 passing, and he got help from Bruce Ellington who made two spectacular catches at key moments in the game.
Wisconsinshowed they could pound the ball on the ground, as the tandem of Melvin Gordon and James White helped roll up 293 yards as a team. Four turnovers killed Wisconsin, as did missing a field goal and being stopped on 4th-and-1 near the South Carolina 20
And the one game outside the Big Ten-SEC trifecta turned into a somewhat surprising blowout. Although since the oddsmakers had North Texas has a (-7) favorite to begin with, maybe I was the only one who was surprised.
North Texas 36 UNLV 14: North Texas broke open a game they led 14-7 after three quarters, and the ultimate reason for their success was shutting down UNLV’s rush attack to just 66 yards.
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.
Two of college football’s most storied programs take the field on Thursday night in New Orleans. The Sugar Bowl matchup is Oklahoma-Alabama (8:30 PM ET, ESPN). What follows are the Notebook Nine, the key points to know going into the game… *If you think this game is a mismatch in favor of Alabama, you’re not alone. Las Vegas has established the Crimson Tide as a 16 ½ point favorite, the third-biggest line of the college bowl season (Notre Dame and Baylor being tied for the biggest favorite at 17). The totals line is 51.5, not very large for a game with a spread this big, so that tells you even more about how much the smart money likes ‘Bama. If the Sugar Bowl plays out according to the number, we’re looking at a 34-17 game.
*For two programs with this much history, there’s precious little in the way of head-to-head battles. They played a couple times in 2002-03, when Oklahoma was dominant and Alabama was still five years away from the Nick Saban revival. The only bowl matchup is a 1970 game that ended in a 24-24 tie. We never saw Bear Bryant and Barry Switzer go at it in a really big game.
*The history for Alabama fans to be worried about is more recent, and it’s the Sugar Bowl that followed the 2008 season. The Crimson Tide had lost the SEC Championship Game to Florida, and a chance at the national title. ‘Bama ended up asleep at the wheel against undefeated Utah, fell behind 21-0 and never caught up. On the Oklahoma side the historical concern would be that Bob Stoops and Nick Saban went head-to-head in the Sugar Bowl following the 2003 season and Saban’s LSU team won the game and the national championships.
*Alabama’s offense got off to a slow start this season, with the running game being up-and-down in a difficult four-game opening sequence against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Colorado State and Ole Miss. The soft portion of the schedule in the middle saw the Tide ground attack get some consistency, and T.J. Yeldon, an 1100-yard rusher, had good games down the stretch against both LSU and Auburn.
*Amari Cooper is the big name among the Alabama receivers, but quarterback A.J. McCarron spreads the ball around very well, and names like Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones are on the radar of NFL scouts. McCarron has completed nearly 68% of his passes and gets good yardage on those completions, 8.75 yards-per-attempt.
*The Tide defense has a good reputation and the front seven is stacked with future NFL players, in the same way the offensive line was in 2012. Oklahoma’s running game has been good, but they bogged down against their best opponent in Baylor. That doesn’t speak well to what might happen on Thursday in New Orleans.
*Oklahoma’s rush defense has had serious problems against good teams. Notre Dame, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma State all gashed the Sooners for significant yardage on the ground. OU was able to win two of those games, but of the many alarm bells that go off for Oklahoma in this matchup, the run defense’s play against quality is the one going off the loudest.
*Shaky quarterback play has bedeviled Bob Stoops’ offense all year. Blake Bell has posted mediocre passing numbers, and Trevor Knight is more a runner than a passer. Oklahoma has a good talent at receiver in Jalen Saunders, but no one to get him the ball.
*Last summer Stoops threw down the gauntlet against the SEC, saying he was tired of all the talk about the conference. I sympathize with the sentiments, but the reality is that the SEC’s record has been earned on the field. The only way for Stoops to quiet the talk is to go win the football game. Or at least play a nail-biter into the fourth quarter.
I’m picking Alabama, both outright and against the spread in this game. The only reason not to is if you think they won’t show up. That’s a valid concern, but I have the feeling that this group of Tide seniors won’t want to go out with another loss, on top of the Auburn heartbreak.
Keep in mind, Alabama mostly outplayed Auburn, and if not for some questionable game management decisions and losing the third down battle (4/13 for ‘Bama against 8/15 for Auburn), we’d have seen a different result. My psychological diagnosis says Saban has his kids ready, and the football diagnosis is easy—Alabama can name the score. Give the points and take the Under.
Bowl Handicapping Record (through December 30) Outright Winners: 8-9 ATS: 8-9 Totals: 10-7
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 ACC has been on display over the last two days of the college bowl season, both the present and the future and no game was more eye-opening than the whipping Louisville, arriving in the conference next year, put on current ACC member Miami.
Louisville came into the game at 11-1, but hadn’t beaten an opponent by as many as 27 points since back in September. That includes a lot of American Athletic conference games against less than stellar competition. But the Cardinals opened up and pounded the Hurricanes 36-9, in a display of complete dominance.
Head coach Charlie Strong built his reputation as a defensive coordinator, and the D was in full force in Orlando, holding Miami to just 14 rush yards. The Cardinal defense made the on-again off-again Hurricane quarterback Stephen Morris spend the night in “off” mode, as he went just 12-for-27 for 160 yards. Offensively, Louisville didn’t dominate in the trenches, but with 107 rush yards they got enough to allow for offensive balance.
All of the above set the stage for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to have an electric night, the best individual performance we’ve seen thus far in the bowl season. Bridgewater completed 35/45 for 447 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Mouths were surely watering in locales like Houston and St. Louis, which have a chance of picking first in the NFL draft (the Rams via Washington’s pick). I’m going to give the Bridgewater the highest compliment I can think of. For this one day alone he can have the nickname “Teddy Ballgame”, the moniker ascribed to Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, the greatest baseball hitter of all time.
Strong has been rumored for other jobs himself, from Texas to the NFL openings that will start to pop up tomorrow. The rest of the ACC, have gotten a taste of the ‘Ville shoved down their throat is undoubtedly hoping that Strong moves on and the junior quarterback decides to go pro.
Other games with the ACC connection included…
North Carolina 39 Cincinnati 17: The Tar Heels scored twice on special teams and got a safety on defense, quickly blowing open a game that had looked a little more even on paper. Terrific job from the Carolina defense in forcing Brendon Kay into an erratic 15-for-35 passing night.
Notre Dame 29 Rutgers 16:Notre Dame will soon start playing five games a year against the ACC, as the Irish join the conference in all non-football sports. Rutgers hung in for three quarters and only trailed 16-13, but the Irish pulled away and really controlled the game in all phases. Notre Dame picked off four passes defensively, stopped the Rutgers run and got a good game from Tommy Rees, at 27/47 for 319 yard.
Marshall 31 Maryland 20: This was a more alarming result for the ACC than the Miami loss, since it happened against a Conference USA team, and not even the league champion at that. Marshall’s Rakeem Cato lit up the Terps, at 28/44 for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17: Whatever alarm had been raised by Maryland was quickly calmed by Syracuse as they handed the Big Ten a damaging loss. The Orange came in 6-6 and barely qualified for a bowl, while the Gophers had gone 8-4. Syracuse used a punt return to set up a late touchdown that won it, but if you look deeper into the result, you see the Orange pushing Minnesota around for 208 rush yards.
The performance of the ACC was a mixed bag early on, which makes it tough for us to get a read on anything that points to how Florida State will match up against the SEC in the national championship game. The Syracuse-Minnesota result has to at least be kept in mind when we get to the Orange Bowl matchup of Clemson-Ohio State, another Big Ten-ACC challenge.
Minnesota’s loss raises such concern because they are a team built on defense and controlling the ball and they did this very well when matched up against Big Ten teams. The fact the Gophers suddenly looked hapless against the run when playing even a mediocre team from the ACC is enough to send the alarm bells.
All of this makes a nice segueway to our final two results of Friday-Saturday, one of which was another big disappointment for the Big Ten…
Kansas State 31 Michigan 14: The Wolverines were playing with backup quarterback Shane Morris, so their offensive problems can be forgiven. What can’t be excused is that Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters, who has not inspired a single comparison to predecessor Collin Klein all year, had a great night, going 21/27 for 270 yards and never forced an interception.
In spite of the fact Tyler Lockett was K-State’s only threat at the skill positions, Michigan couldn’t be bothered to cover the receiver, as he caught ten balls for 116 yards. Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke is going to hear about it during the offseason and he deserves it after this non-performance. A great end to the year for Kansas State and a terrific rebuilding job by Bill Snyder.
Washington 31 BYU 16: Washington won the battle of special teams, getting a kickoff return for a touchdown. And while they didn’t stop BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, they did at least force him into a somewhat erratic passing night (25/48) and the Cougars never got the conventional running game with Jamaal Williams going.
It was enough for a solid 95-yard night from Huskie running back Bishop Sankey to put Washington over the top. This game continues what’s been a good opening to the bowl season for the Pac-12. Washington joins Oregon State and USC in looking very good in wins, while Washington State lost a fluky game. The conference’s big guns still have to play (UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford), so keep these early results in mind.
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 major bowls are past us, and the BCS National Championship Game awaits on Monday. In between there’s still a brief spurt of three more games this college bowl season, and it starts Friday night with the Cotton Bowl battle between Texas A&M and Oklahoma. We’ll look at that game, plus a brief check on the two weekend wrap-around games. Pitt-Ole Miss on Saturday (1 PM ET, ESPN) and Arkansas State-Kent State on Sunday (9 PM ET, ESPN) are wrapped around the four NFL first-round playoff games.
Texas A&M-Oklahoma: The Aggies have the Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel. The Sooners are the team that feels like they should have been in the BCS rather than Northern Illinois. Each team has 10 wins and just one year ago this a heated rivalry between two Big 12 teams in the same division. Now they go head-to-head in Dallas.
A&M’s only losses were to LSU and Florida and they were by a combined eight points. The latter game came early, before the freshman Manziel was really locked in. Texas A&M made its reputation this season—and won their quarterback the Heisman with a November 10 upset at Alabama, and then mixed in wins over bowl-bound Mississippi State, Ole Miss, SMU and Louisiana Tech.
The flip side to this is that we don’t really know how good the SEC is—for all the rhetoric and the past national championships, the conference is only 3-3 in bowl games. Certainly if the Aggies win Friday, Ole Miss wins Saturday and ‘Bama wins the national championship, everything looks much better. And Texas A&M’s defense has had some less than ideal moments—notably giving up 57 points to Louisiana Tech, even if Manziel did steal a 59-57 victory.
Oklahoma, like A&M, lost both its games at home, but to good teams. The defeats came to Kansas State in September and Notre Dame in October. The Sooners took care of their business against the rest of the Big 12, although looking at the arc of their season, you wonder if they peaked a little early. In September and October, they beat Texas Tech by three touchdowns, decisively beat Iowa State and destroyed Texas 63-21.
Then in November, they barely survived Baylor (42-34), West Virginia (50-49), Oklahoma State (51-48, OT) and TCU (24-17). You might also look at those scores and notice that the Sooners seem defensively challenged. I don’t want to lose perspective—those are all good teams, in varying degrees and if you win all four, you’re doing something right. But doing something right and playing like an elite team are two different things and in that same timeframe, Texas A&M began to look like an elite team. And that’s the standard we’re measuring Oklahoma against right now.
OU quarterback Landry Jones led an offense that rang up 40 points a game, even having to go without a running game for good chunks of the year. If Damien Williams can get going on Friday night, it would make Jones’ life a lot easier. His career has been one of a Fantasy owner’s dream, with the boxscore-stuffing numbers, but games like this one have been an issue.
In the case of Manziel, he also leads his team in rushing. We’ve already seen two quarterbacks like that struggle in BCS games, Jordan Lynch for Northern Illinois and Kansas State’s Collin Klein. But since Manziel has already gotten done in Alabama, it seems safe to assume he’ll be the exception to the rule. That’s not to say a good game from running back Ben Malena wouldn’t help, but if Klein could beat Oklahoma, so could Manziel.
I’ve been high on the Big 12 all year, but the bowl season has been a mixed bag, with a 4-4 record. It seems a little simplistic to reduce the nuanced debate over conference strength to one game, but when it comes to bragging rights, I don’t think it’s unfair to say Texas A&M and Oklahoma decide whether the Big 12 or SEC had a better year. And even though I’ve been a Big 12 fan, I think the Sooners come up short here. A&M gets the win.
Ole Miss-Pitt: Both teams won tough games in the final couple weeks to get bowl-eligible. It’s a little strange to say the SEC is out for revenge on the Big East, but after the way Louisville demolished Florida in the Sugar Bowl, that’s the case here. In my podcast on Monday with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network, I picked Ole Miss. But after Louisville made the Big East 3-1 in bowl games, I’m going to shift gears and pick Pitt. Besides, I used to live in Pittsburgh and as a Wisconsin fan, I’m cheering on our former assistant Paul Chryst in his head coaching endeavors.
Kent State-Arkansas State: Both teams lose their head coaches, with Kent’s Darrell Hazel going to Purdue and Arkansas State’s Gus Malzahn on his way to Auburn. Both teams finished the season strong, with Kent only losing in double overtime to Northern Illinois, and Arkansas State surging to the Sun Belt title after a slow start. The difference in this game? Hazel, in a rare move, will coach his team in the bowl game. Based on that, I’m on Kent.
Outright Winner: Kent Pointspread Winner: Arkansas State (-4) Totals Line: Over 62.5
BOWL HANDICAPPING RECORD Outright Winners: 16-14 Pointspread Winners: 12-17-1 Totals Line: 16-14
*Did not pick Rose Bowl, due to fan bias towards Wisconsin
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
Like a great symphony, the college bowl season functions in movements, and after last Saturday’s opening doubleheader, the first real movement begins tonight. The BYU-San Diego State game kicks off the sequence where the crescendo builds slowly, with six games between now and December 26. The best of the six is Washington-Boise State on Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas and its there where our preview of the first movement will begin.
As we go through each game, I’m picking the winner, the pointspread winner and the Over/Under line. At the bottom of the column is my full disclosure segment, with how well those picks are doing after Saturday’s opening doubleheader.
Boise State-Washington (Saturday, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN, Las Vegas Bowl): Boise didn’t have a vintage season this year, but that’s a testimony to how high their program has risen under Chris Petersen. The Broncos still went 10-2 and the losses were close ones to Michigan State and San Diego State, and Boise still shared the Mountain West title. Not bad for a down year.
Washington had its moments this year—they beat Stanford in September and Oregon State in October and were all set to have an eight-win regular season, something that would have been a nice achievement in the tough Pac-12. But the Huskies inexplicably lost to Washington State in the season’s final game. I suppose we can write that off to the fact that it didn’t impact their bowl destination much, but I have a problem with a team that shows up flat against a bad archrival in the season finale.
More to the point, I don’t like how Washington matches up. The weakness of this year’s Boise team is that they are not explosive offensively. The run the ball well with D.J. Harper, and quarterback Joe Southwick is a good game manager, and they play good defense. If you’re going to beat them, you need to either get them out of their comfort zone, or play the same style, only better. I don’t see Washington doing either.
Washington quarterback Keith Price had a huge bowl game last year, going to toe-to-toe with RG3 and Baylor before losing 67-56, but if that’s your last memory of Price, you need to be updated. He hasn’t gotten the ball downfield well and he’s been mistake-prone. Washington plays the same style as Boise and they don’t do it as well. If the Huskies do win this game it would send a loud and clear message about Pac-12 strength in the middle. I do respect the conference a lot, but I don’t see it happening in Vegas.
Outright Winner: Boise State Pointspread Winner: Washington (+5) Over/Under: Under 43.5
Here are the other five games of the first movement, in chronological order…
BYU-San Diego State (Thursday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Poinsettia Bowl): San Diego State has homefield advantage for this one and even with quarterback Ryan Katz injured since late October, the Aztecs have been coming on strong. They beat Boise on the blue turf to get a piece of the Mountain West crown, and have won seven straight after a 2-3 start. And even those three losses weren’t bad, coming to Washington, San Jose State and Fresno.
The Aztec offense has been carried by running back Adam Muema, and while backup quarterback Adam Dingwell isn’t as effective down the field as Katz, and is a little bit more mistake-prone, he’s still proven to be a functionable stand-in. He’ll face an outstanding defense tonight, as BYU gives up only 14.7 ppg, with a schedule headlined by a 6-3 win over Utah State—a team you may recall went 10-2, won its bowl game on Saturday and sent its coach, Gary Anderson, on to the Wisconsin job.
BYU also played well in close losses to Boise, San Jose and most notably Notre Dame. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah can make life miserable for Dingwell if the ground game isn’t established, and even a back like Muema will face a challenge producing against a quality defense that makes stopping him their first priority.
But the Cougar offense is not very good, and there’s some inconstancy at quarterback, with Riley Nelson’s ribs being questionable and James Lark preparing to start. I suppose the positive is that you can ask if it really matters, because BYU’s not gotten much offensively all year.
Normally I take defense over offense and in that case that would mean BYU, especially against a backup quarterback. But I’m going to give San Diego State the benefit of the doubt because not only do they have homefield, but they lost a heartbreaker in a bowl game last year to UL-Lafayette, and I think there will be a little extra motivation. It should be a good game, but a close lean to the Aztecs.
Outright Winner: San Diego State
Pointspread Winner: San Diego State (+3)
Over/Under: Under 47.5
Ball State-Central Florida (Friday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Beef O’Brady’s Bowl): Ball State lost competitive games to MAC powers Northern Illinois and Kent State and then closed with six straight wins, including over good teams in Toledo and Ohio. The Cardinal offense is well-balanced, able to establish the run with Jahwan Edwards and then throw the ball, with quarterback Keith Wenning looking primarily for Willie Snead.
Central Florida doesn’t have the same sort of balance, but they play good defense and were competitive in a September loss at Ohio State, as well as to Missouri. UCF lost to on the road at Tulsa twice in the final three weeks of the season (the latter being the Conference USA championship game), but one loss was by two points and the other in overtime. They run the ball very well with Latavius Murray. And while I’m high on the MAC, we have to acknowledge that historically C-USA has been the significantly better league.
You can make a good argument that Central Florida is the best team in their league—had their regular season game with Tulsa been at home, they likely would have won it, which would in turn have ensured the championship rematch was in Orlando. They’ll have a home crowd advantage on Friday night in St. Petersburg, and I’m looking for Murray to have a big game and UCF to win.
Outright Winner: Central Florida
Pointspread Winner: Ball State (+7)
Over/Under: Under 61.5
East Carolina-UL Lafayette (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN, New Orleans Bowl): Lafayette beat San Diego State in this game last year, one of the best games of the early
college bowl schedule and I’d expect the Ragin’ Cajuns will have the same home crowd advantage for this game. They also have a talented quarterback in Terrance Broadway, who throws the ball downfield well and does it without locking in on one particular receiver. His backup Blake Gautier, was the engineer of last year’s win, so Lafayette has more than its share of quarterbacks on hand.
Lafayette also has some confidence rolling. They didn’t have a great year in the Sun Belt, with losses at North Texas and a blowout home loss to eventual league champ Arkansas State. But it was ULL who nearly shocked the world in November when they pushed Florida to the limit in Gainesville and the Cajuns are playing their best football right now.
East Carolina’s had a nice year, and this is a game that will be a big test of Conference USA strength, joining the UCF game discussed above. The Pirates have averaged 31 ppg, but Shane Carden’s throws are mostly underneath, so if the Cajuns’ simply wrap up on defense, they can slow ECU down and win. I’m very high on the Sun Belt this year and like Lafayette to win this game as a five-point underdog.
Outright Winner: UL-Lafayette
Pointspread Winner: UL-Lafayette (+5)
Over/Under: Over 66
Fresno State-SMU (Monday, 8 PM ET, ESPN, Hawaii Bowl): It’s the usual Christmas Eve festivities from Hawaii, but if you’re one of the many who will be unwrapping presents or doing other family things, don’t feel like you’re missing anything. This is the biggest mismatch of the first movement.
SMU’s only 6-6 and as the record shows, this isn’t one of the better teams June Jones has produced. They got a nice win over Tulsa the last week of the season to get bowl-eligible, but in that case the Golden Hurricane had already clinched their division and had nothing to play for. Garrett Gilbert’s had interception problems at quarterback and if you take away Zach Line running the ball, you can stop the SMU offense.
Fresno State , on the other hand, is playing extremely well. Their 9-3 and joined Boise and San Diego State in the Mountain West throne room. They’ve won six of their last seven, including decisive wins over SD State and bowl teams in Nevada and Air Force. Fresno does everything well offensively, from giving the ball to Robbie Rouse, to Derek Carr targeting Davante Adams in the passing game and using Isaiah Burse to ensure secondaries don’t get too comfortable focusing on Adams.
Unless you can think of a reason why SMU would be more motivated—and I can’t—then there’s not much argument against picking Fresno to win big.
Outright Winner: Fresno State
Pointspread Winner: Fresno State (-12.5)
Over/Under: Over 58
Western Kentucky-Central Michigan (Wednesday, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN, Little Caesars Pizza Bowl): Regular readers of TheSportsNotebook know I love the midmajors, but this matchup is absolutely atrocious. Central Michigan struggled to a 6-6 finish and lost to everyone on their schedule that was any good.
Western had a more interesting season. They started 5-1, including a win over Arkansas State and then dropped an overtime heartbreaker to UL-Monroe, a game that looked like it was for the Sun Belt title. Then the season just slipped away, with three straight losses and only a one-point win over North Texas getting the Hilltoppers to a winning season at 7-5. It still got head coach Willie Taggart a promotion to South Florida and now Bobby Petrino will begin his comeback at WKU next year.
For this year, Western’s got the better team and they can run the ball with Antonio Andrews, a 1,600-plus yard rusher who’s the best at his position in the Sun Belt. I am very concerned with Western’s focus coming into this game, given the lack of momentum and coaching change. This game will be played in Detroit, so Central Michigan will have a home crowd advantage. I guess I don’t have the guts to pick the Chippewas to pull the upset, but they kept it closer than the experts say.
Outright Winner: Western Kentucky
Pointspread Winner: Central Michigan (+5)
Over/Under: Under 59
The college bowl schedule kicks off on Saturday, with an ESPN doubleheader of Nevada-Arizona (New Mexico Bowl) and Utah State-Toledo (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl), starting at 1 PM ET. It’s definitely a warmup for better matchups down the line, but it’s also the due date for a lot of people—myself included—to get their bowl pool selections in—so we jump in with a look at what to expect tomorrow.
Nevada-Arizona: This is a big mismatch on paper. Nevada’s had a non-descript 7-5 season coming out of the Mountain West. They managed to lose at home to South Florida, a team that just fired its coach, Skip Holtz. Nevada had a narrow escape over Cal, who fired its coach, Jeff Tedford. Within the conference they struggled past New Mexico and needed overtime to beat Wyoming, neither of whom are playing anywhere in the postseason.
The Wolfpack did compete respectably in losses to San Diego State and Boise State, who each shared the league championship with Fresno. But compare that to Arizona—the Wildcats have blowout wins over Oklahoma State and Washington, have beaten USC, beat Toledo, took Stanford to overtime on the road and only lost by a field goal to Oregon State. The only team to beat up on Rich Rodriguez’s team was Oregon—and to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “Nevada, you’re no Oregon.”
Each team plays a similar style—they’ll try and run the ball, Nevada with Stefphon Jefferson and Arizona with the dynamic Ka’deem Carey. Each plays a high-percentage passing game, with Cody Fajardo and Mike Scott behind center. Fajardo is more versatile—the Nevada quarterback is also an integral part of the running game, but Scott has more weapons, with Austin Hill being the kind of big-play receiver who can break this game open.
If you were going to pick Nevada you’d have to conclude one of two things—that they play a style that will confound Arizona—which is the exact opposite of what’s actually the case. Or that the favorite won’t be motivated. Given that it’s Rich-Rod’s first year, I’m betting he’s hungry to go out on a strong note. That’s why I’ll take Arizona in a blowout.
Outright Winner: Arizona Point Spread Winner: Arizona (-9) Over/Under: Over 77.5
Utah State-Toledo: I like Toledo—they played competitively at Arizona and their two MAC losses were also competitive, to a bowl-bound Ball State team and Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois. They’ve got a good running back in David Fluellen and Terrance Owens is a nice all-purpose quarterback that did a good job after displacing Austin Dantin to win the starting job. In a lot of bowl situations I’d pick them.
This is not one of them. Utah State was robbed in having to play a game of this low magnitude. Their only losses were by two at Wisconsin (a game where a shanked field goal at the gun cost them the win) and by a field goal to BYU. The Aggies won the WAC by going on the road for their two toughest games in San Jose State and Louisiana Tech. Utah State plays tough defense, and have versatility in the backfield, with Chuckie Keeton able to both run and pass at quarterback and Kerwynn Williams adept both running and catching the ball out of the backfield.
The real question is whether Utah State should be in the BCS. I argued the case for Northern Illinoiswhen the bowl bids came out nearly two weeks ago, but that was in the context of NIU versus the power teams. If you want to shift the discussion of whether a midmajor team earned a spot to which midmajor team earned one, I’d frankly take Utah State.
I don’t see a letdown from the Aggies here. They aren’t a program that’s become so snobbish as not to still relish the chance to compete in their last game of the year, and they also lost a crusher in this same bowl a year ago to Ohio, a game I watched start to finish, read the box score and still can’t figure out how the Aggies lost. There’s no question I’m taking Utah State, and with my bowl pool being a confidence pool, I’m ranking them #35, the top pick on the board. The only question I have is this—why isn’t head coach Gary Anderson on his way to a bigger job? And as a Wisconsin fan who sat and watched the Aggies play in person this past September, I want to know why he hasn’t been made an offer to come to Madison.
Outright Winner: Utah State Point Spread Winner: Utah State (-10.5) Over/Under: Over 58.5