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.
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.
College football is closing in on an expanded playoff, as the conference continue deliberation for some type of “plus-one” setup, where an additional game would be added after the completion of the bowls. One of the first debates was whether the new format would have two bowls serve as national semi-finals in a four-team playoff or if conferences would go to their traditional tie-ins and then select the top two teams when the dust had settled. By all accounts, advocates of the four-team playoff have won this first level of debate. I believe that is a mistake.
I term this new proposal an “expanded playoff”, because contrary to popular view, we already do have a playoff. We guarantee that 1 vs. 2 will play at the end of the season and the winner will be the national champion. It might not be an NCAA-sanctioned bracket like the basketball or baseball tournaments are, and if the AP really wanted to, they could vote a different team as their national champ. But in the eyes of the college football world the BCS National Championship Game is the title game.
That semantical debate aside, I believe college football is strengthened, not weakened, by the concept of a conference having one bowl game that serves as the prize for its members, regardless of whether they are national title contenders. Having grown up in the Midwest, the pride the Big Ten took in the Rose Bowl was obvious and the Pac-10 felt the same way. There was tradition with the SEC in the Sugar Bowl. The potential for the new Big 12 to develop that same feeling to the Fiesta Bowl was real, as was the case with the ACC and the Orange (in years past, the old Big Eight went to the Orange and the ACC was non-aligned).
I liked the old alignments enough to write a book, The Last New Year’s, celebrating not just the bowl tie-ins, but the whole concept of playing all the season’s biggest games on January 1 and turning it into a college football feast. We still have the glut of games, but the impact is gone. But the controversies were enough that I also believe the sport badly needed a true championship game, something to give a real finish to the season.
If we play the national title game after a traditional bowl schedule, we make it possible that as many as three, four, and in the wildest circumstances, even five games can matter in the race for the national championship. If we play all these bowl games on January 1, we give the sport an all-day feast enjoyed nowhere else in sports. It’s the best of both worlds—while maintaining and developing the tradition each conference feels for its bowl game, we create a more exciting national championship process.
Furthermore, this proposal—rather than a 4-team playoff—is most likely to give justice to the non-BCS teams that were given short shrift in the days of old and still are today. Critics of Boise State say their schedule isn’t good enough to merit being in the top two—do you really think they’re going to have a sudden change of heart and put them in the top four? To do so last year would have required that you bounce one of the following: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State or Oregon. There’s no way any of the first three are being left out, unless we have a rule on prohibiting non-conference champs. Although even then, Wisconsin probably substitutes for ‘Bama. While Boise would get more people willing to give them a shot over Oregon/Wisconsin, the computer rankings aren’t going to like the Broncos’ schedule any more than they do now, and elitist observers aren’t going to suddenly go all populist.
But if you have a traditional bowl structure, you can put Boise to the test before committing to them. Last year’s matchups would have had LSU tied to the Sugar, Oklahoma State in the Fiesta and Wisconsin-Oregon in the Rose. For the sake of discussion let’s Boise had finished unbeaten rather than missing a late field goal against TCU. If that’s the case, send them to the Sugar to play LSU. If the Broncos win that game, no one’s going to argue they don’t deserve to play for the whole thing. If they lose it, no one can say they didn’t get a fair crack. And from an entertainment standpoint, we can watch them play on New Year’s Day in a major bowl rather than go up against 6-6 Arizona State like they did a year ago. Once again, it’s the best of all worlds.
Finally, the system I propose gives college football a perfect three-tiered postseason. We start on the first Saturday of December with all the conference championship games. Then we move up to January 1 and the bowl games. If you look at the scenario I outlined above, that would be two games with direct implications on the national championship chase, with Wisconsin-Oregon hoping for a chance to argue their case over non-conference champ Alabama if the Tide beat Oklahoma State (We’ll save the arguments over league champs vs. runner-ups for next week). Then throw in two more appetizer games—the Orange and one other bowl that we’d elevate to top-tier status to get 10 teams on January 1. When it all sorted out, we’d move to the off-week just prior to the Super Bowl and play the national championship game. In an ideal world, college football could even play it at the same site as the Super Bowl and turn one city into the football mecca of the world.
Or what we could do is have a four-team playoff where no one watches anything but two bowls, and have three of the four teams be from the SEC. I’m sure that’s what SEC commissioner Mike Slive wants and what conference fans are angling for. Rumor has it Slive also insists that baseball only televise the Yankees-Red Sox games, that college basketball center on North Carolina-Duke and that Kobe & LeBron be the only NBA players to get screen time. Yes, by all means let’s go that route. Opening things up with a cutting edge mix of traditionalist bowls with a modern championship game would be too much fun for the entire country.
There’s six bowl games set for January 2, and while the Rose and Fiesta will be the main showcases starting at 5 PM ET, there’s four games on the early undercard, all featuring Big Ten teams and three of them being Big Ten-SEC showdowns. Here’s the Notebook’s snapshot look at all four games…
Penn State-Houston (Noon ET, ESPNU): Most of the rumors around this game are about the Penn State coaching situation, with NFL names in the mix and an announcement in the next couple days assured. Houston is a seven-point favorite, and nobody spreads the ball around like Case Keenum. The prolific Cougar quarterback involves three receivers in Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson and Tyron Carrier, and his backs, Charles Sims and Michael Hayes are frequently targeted. But that’s against Conference USA. Now it’s a Penn State defense that was the best in the Big Ten. The Lions only lost three games. Two were to Alabama and Wisconsin, the other was to Nebraska the week the scandal broke. The teams that beat the Lions did it by running the ball and that’s not something Houston can do effectively. The Cougars also have problems defending the run, and I think Silas Redd can have a big day out of the Lion backfield. Penn State gets the win in Dallas.
All three Big Ten-SEC games kick off at 1 PM ET, which has to be one of the most ridiculous ideas come up for the bowls in some time. It was bad enough that the day most people still think of as THE prime college football showcase has been reduced to the Big Ten-SEC Challenge. Now you can’t even watch at least two of the games.
Ohio State-Florida (ESPN2): Has there ever been a game that could sound so good when you look at the school names, yet look so dry when you consider what the teams are this year? The whole “Urban Meyer Bowl” thing is about all this one has going for it, as the new Buckeye coach watches his future team play his old one. Both teams rely heavily on the running game and there’s some edges for Ohio State. They’ve got an effective running quarterback in Braxton Miller, while Florida does not. The Gators are also nursing some defensive line injuries that should enable Miller and Daniel Herron to find enough holes to produce an Ohio State win.
Michigan State-Georgia (ABC): This should be a good one, with both offenses very well-balanced. Kirk Cousins hooking up with big receiver B.J. Cunningham is a very potent combo for the Spartans and they have a nice two-pronged rushing attack with Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. Georgia’s own quarterback Aaron Murray, is a good sophomore who already has two years of starting experience under his belt. Murray works tight end Orson Charles into the offense, but the ultimate key for the Dawgs is the health of Isaiah Crowell’s ankle. The running back is perpetually listed as probable on the injury report, although that hasn’t always been a reliable indicator of whether he’ll play. If he’s in the backfield, Georgia wins. If he’s not, go with Michigan State. Either way, tune in, as this is the top game on the undercard.
Nebraska-South Carolina (ESPN): Was there a team luckier than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers’ 9-3 season was aided considerably by playing Michigan State one week after the Spartans’ miracle win over Wisconsin and playing Penn State during the week the scandal broke. Is there an unluckier team than South Carolina, who lost Heisman-caliber back Marcus Lattimore for the season, yet still went 10-2 against an SEC schedule and tacked on a win over ACC champ Clemson. For those who make today their main college football viewing day, be aware that Steve Spurrier has become a good defensive coach on his second go-around in college ball? Nebraska’s had turnover problems in its losses to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan and the Gamecock defense is better than any of that trio. Look for at least for four Cornhusker turnovers and an easy South Carolina win.