Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Bowl Season Begins Today

Today is the first day of the college football bowl season, and I have analyzed each bowl game involving a Top 25 team, right up to the national championship showdown between Florida State and Auburn on Jan. 6.

There are four games on the schedule today — but only one involving a Top 25 team.

As Erick Smith reports in USA Today, however, there is no shortage of intriguing storylines to follow over the next couple of weeks — even if the game in question doesn't have a Top 25 team playing in it.

So let the games begin.
  • Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: #21 Fresno State vs. Southern Cal, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: We're only a few days from Christmas. This is the last shopping weekend before the big day. A lot of people wonder why they should watch Fresno State play football.

    The most obvious is that Fresno State as a team came within a single victory of breaking into a BCS bowl game in the last year of the BCS' existence. The Bulldogs have the third–best offense in the nation.

    A lot of teams in the NFL are in the market for a good quarterback, and Fresno's Derek Carr, who will be playing in his final collegiate game today, is worth watching. He completed 70% of his passes during the regular season, and he attempted 605 passes. That is an average of more than 50 passes a game. His performance against the Trojans is sure to be a factor in draft decisions.

    These schools have actually faced each other twice before, and it's been a split decision.

    In 1992, they met in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, and Fresno State prevailed, 24–7. They last met in 2005, and Southern Cal was the winner on that occasion, 50–42.

    I think Fresno State will win this time.
  • S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl: Utah State vs. #24 Northern Illinois, 8:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: As usual, the Heisman attention went to the winner, Florida State's Jameis Winston, and the runnerup, Alabama's A.J. McCarron. I suppose that is appropriate.

    Football fans can catch their last glimpses of both as collegiate players early in the new year.

    But the third–place finisher, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, will be finishing his collegiate career the day after Christmas. Lynch's numbers weren't eye–popping, but, like other quarterbacks who have gone on to success in the NFL, he did the things he needed to do to win — except in the Mid–American Conference championship game, which Northern Illinois lost to Bowling Green (I would argue, though, that the loss to Bowling Green was a team effort).

    These schools have only met once, in 1995, and Utah State won, 42–7. I expect Northern Illinois to return the favor.
Saturday, Dec. 28
  • New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers vs. #25 Notre Dame, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN: A year ago, the Irish were preparing to meet Alabama for the national championship. Now, after an 8–4 campaign, the 25th–ranked Irish will face Rutgers, then (presumably) watch the Florida State–Auburn game along with the rest of the nation a week later.

    After playing for a national title, it is hard to imagine what would motivate Notre Dame in this game. Perhaps the desire to get a momentum jump on the 2014 season is what will push Notre Dame in this game.

    These schools have faced off four times before, and Notre Dame has won them all, three by shutout.

    This time they are returning to the original scene of the crime — kinda. On Nov. 8, 1921, Notre Dame beat Rutgers in New York, N.Y., 48–0. Ninety–two years later, the Irish will face the Scarlet Knights in New York's Yankee Stadium.

    I think Notre Dame will win — and it won't be particularly close.
  • Russell Athletic Bowl: Miami (Fla.) vs. #18 Louisville, 5:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have met on the gridiron 10 times, but this will be the first time in a postseason setting.

    Miami won eight of those previous encounters, Louisville won one and there was a tie back in 1950.

    But get this: Louisville's only victory in the series occurred the last time the teams faced each other — in 2006. It has been nearly 10 years since Miami beat Louisville.

    Louisville's offensive leader is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the fifth–best quarterback overall and the only one with a higher completion percentage than Fresno's Carr (by .08 of a percentage point) although he attempted more than 200 fewer passes than Carr did.

    It is often forgotten that Bridgewater, a junior, originally committed to Miami, then signed with Louisville. Do you suppose there might be a revenge factor in this game? I don't know, but Bridgewater should be careful. Miami's defense isn't as good as it used to be, but its pass defense was much better than its run defense this season.

    Of course, that kind of recruiting reversal works both ways, as Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier–Journal observes. A safety who had committed to Louisville recently decided to sign with Miami instead.

    I pick Louisville to win a close one.
Monday, Dec. 30
  • Valero Alamo Bowl: #10 Oregon vs. Texas, 5:45 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be Texas coach Mack Brown's last game at the helm. He has announced his resignation at the conclusion of the Alamo Bowl.

    One of the many ironies of Brown's tenure that he is the only Texas football coach ever to lose to Oregon. He did so in the 2000 Holiday Bowl. Will he make up for it in his final appearance on the UT sideline?

    The schools met four times prior to that — in 1941, 1947, 1962 and 1971 — and Texas won them all.

    If Texas is going to beat Oregon, the defense, which has been frequently criticized this season, will have to play probably its best game of the year. Oregon's offense is ranked second in the nation, thanks to the presence of the sixth–best quarterback (Marcus Mariota) who is draft–eligible as a third–year sophomore, but he has already announced he will come back for his junior year. He completed 63% of his attempts and threw 30 TD passes while allowing only four interceptions.

    That's going to be quite a challenge for a Texas defense that is ranked 63rd in the nation overall. The Longhorns are better against the pass (#30) with 10 interceptions. Texas will have to put the brakes on Oregon's potent offense if Brown is going to end his 16–year tenure with a win.

    I don't think he will, though. He might — if Oregon is preoccupied by thoughts of the losses to Stanford and Arizona State that kept them out of the Pac–12 championship game and a BCS bowl.

    Not likely. I expect Oregon to win.
  • National University Holiday Bowl: #16 Arizona State vs. Texas Tech, 9:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: These schools have only met once — in 1999 — and ASU was the winner, 31–13.

    By the time they kick off for the second time, the Texas–Oregon game will be over, and speculation about Mack Brown's successor will be thrown into high gear. While the coaches in the Holiday Bowl, Arizona State's Todd Graham and Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury, are probably dark horses on anyone's list for the UT job, they are among the hottest coaches in college football, and a solid performance by one in this game, coming, as it would, on the heels of Brown's finale, could only enhance his case.

    It would be an upset if Texas Tech, which won its first seven this season but then lost its last five, managed to win this game, but perhaps the desire not to enter 2014 with a six–game losing streak will serve to motivate the Red Raiders.

    Doubtful. I expect Arizona State to win by a couple of touchdowns.
Tuesday, Dec. 31
  • Hyundai Sun Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. #17 UCLA, 1 p.m. (Central) on CBS: This is the first time these two storied programs have faced each other.

    And, in the absence of any sort of history between the two schools, pregame attention has focused on other things — like the coaching vacancy at Texas. UCLA coach Jim Mora apparently sought to dispel any such speculation about him, saying the only part of Texas he intends to visit is the site of the Sun Bowl, El Paso, which is roughly 525 miles from Austin.

    Virginia Tech retains its gridiron reputation, but the fact is that the program isn't what it was when Michael Vick was the quarterback. Tech's offense was lucky to be in the Top 100 when this season was over (UCLA finished 37th behind QB Brett Hundley). Tech's defense is pretty good, though — the unit is ranked fourth in the nation — and UCLA's 56th–ranked defense is arguably its weakness, yielding at least 23 points (usually more than that) to seven of its 12 opponents in 2013.

    With a win, though, UCLA can cap a 10–win season for the first time since 2005. My guess is that UCLA will win — by a touchdown.
  • Chick–fil–A Bowl: #22 Duke vs. #20 Texas A&M, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This is a match of arguably the two Cinderella stories of the last two seasons.

    Everyone knows the story of the Aggies, of course. Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 and led Texas A&M to victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. It was the Aggies' first 11–win season since 1998.

    Duke amazed everyone this year. Sports fans are accustomed to seeing Duke's basketball team playing for national honors, but the football team is a stranger to these parts. The Blue Devils were bowl eligible last year, but they lost by a couple of touchdowns and reverted to the familiar sub–.500 territory with a 6–7 record.

    Prior to that, Duke hadn't been to a bowl in 20 years, and the Blue Devils haven't won one since the Jan. 2, 1960 Cotton Bowl.

    It will be hard for Duke to end its winless skid in the postseason. The Aggies' fourth–ranked offense is likely to have a lot of fun with Duke's 72nd–ranked defense.

    On the other hand, even though Duke's offense is ranked 68th, it might not have to work too hard against A&M's defense, which is one of the worst in the land (#108).

    I expect a high–scoring game, but, ultimately, I expect the Aggies to wear down the Blue Devils. I think Texas A&M will win by at least two touchdowns.
New Year's Day

  • Gator Bowl: Nebraska vs. #23 Georgia, 11 a.m. (Central) on ESPN2: This is the third meeting of these schools, each time in a different bowl.

    They first met in the 1969 Sun Bowl, a 45–6 Nebraska victory. They met for a second time last New Year's Day in the Capital One Bowl. Georgia won that one with a second–half rally, 45–31.

    In the old days, I guess it would have been easy to pick Nebraska to prevail. But times have change, and Georgia is the one with the national ranking this time.

    And Georgia enters the game with the better offense by far. But that was almost entirely when star quarterback Aaron Murray was running the offense. Murray's season ended with a knee injury, and junior Hutson Mason, next year's projected starter, will be starting against Nebraska. Mason did all right in his first start, the season finale against Georgia Tech, but it remains to be seen if the Georgia offense will live up to its regular–season standards against the Cornhuskers.

    Nebraska does have a better defense than Georgia, and that might be significant against an inexperienced quarterback.

    Even so, I expect Georgia to win.
  • Capital One Bowl: #19 Wisconsin vs. #8 South Carolina, noon (Central) on ABC: These teams have never faced each other before so the Capital One Bowl marks the first chapter of their series.

    Even though South Carolina, as a team, is ranked higher than Wisconsin, the Badgers are ranked ahead of the Gamecocks in both offense and defense.

    In fact, Wisconsin is ranked sixth in both total and run defense.

    According to USA Today, the running game will figure prominently for both teams. I believe that is true. Wisconsin has the eighth–ranked rushing offense; South Carolina's running game is ranked 30th.

    I think Wisconsin will win.
  • Outback Bowl: Iowa vs. #14 LSU, noon (Central) on ESPN: The last time these teams met, in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, Iowa won a thriller to ruin Nick Saban's last game as LSU's coach.

    People tended to overlook Iowa this year, largely because the Hawkeyes lost their season opener and then lost three of four in the middle of the season. Also, Iowa fell from the national radar after going 4–8 last year.

    But Iowa had the seventh–best defense in the nation this year. LSU's offense is good — ranked 26th — which sets up an interesting confrontation.

    It probably won't be as interesting when Iowa has the ball. The Hawkeyes are 79th in offense while LSU is 20th in defense.

    There could be some psychological stuff at work here. While LSU retains its national reputation, the Tigers have lost three of their last four bowl appearances.

    I think Iowa will win.
  • Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO: #5 Stanford vs. #4 Michigan State, 4 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: The old adage that defense wins championships — or, at least, bowl games — may never have been better represented than in this year's Rose Bowl.

    These teams have met five times over the years, but the series has been dormant since 1996, when Stanford blanked Michigan State in the Sun Bowl.

    For that matter, Michigan State hasn't beaten Stanford since 1961.

    But things might change. Michigan State has the best defense in the nation. The Spartans aren't likely to be intimidated by Stanford's 65th–ranked offense.

    When Michigan State's 82nd–ranked offense is on the field, it will have to contend with Stanford's 14th–ranked defense.

    To say that I anticipate a low–scoring game is an understatement. I think 17 points will be enough to win it.

    And I give the edge to Michigan State.
  • Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: #15 UCF vs. #6 Baylor, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: My father usually only watches games that feature a personal rooting interest (team, player or coach) or a big name. A game between UCF and Baylor probably won't qualify.

    So why should you spend the first night of the year watching them play? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, Baylor is healthy again, and when all hands are on deck, the Bears are very entertaining. They have the best offense in the nation, averaging more than 50 points and more than 600 yards per game.

    UCF has the 19th–ranked defense in the land, but you have to wonder if the Knights will be able to contain Baylor's offense for 60 minutes.

    Baylor's 17th–ranked defense should have an easier time with UCF's 45th–ranked offense.

    The Wall Street Journal calls this the "Sharknado" bowl. I pick Baylor to win it by two touchdowns.
Thursday, Jan. 2
  • Allstate Sugar Bowl: #11 Oklahoma vs. #3 Alabama, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: As much as these schools have dominated the college football landscape for decades, I was astonished to learn they have only met four times — and two of those meetings came in the last 11 years.

    Oklahoma won the encounters in 2002 and 2003. The two earlier meetings were in bowl games — the 1963 Orange Bowl (won by Alabama) and the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl (a tie).

    Back before the season began, OU coach Bob Stoops alleged that the Southeastern Conference, which has been home to the last seven national champions, was top–heavy. I know Alabama is disappointed to not be playing for a third straight national title, but it seems to me that Nick Saban should drag out that press clipping if he wants to motivate the Crimson Tide.

    Heisman runnerup A.J. McCarron leads an offense that is ranked 36th in the nation but is 21st running the ball. Oklahoma has a good defense (13th in the nation), and it was successful against both the run and the pass this season, but the Sooners were more successful against the pass than the run.

    When Oklahoma has the ball, the Sooners probably would prefer to run the ball, given that their ground game is ranked 18th in the country. But Alabama's run defense is ranked 11th so common sense suggests that, at some point, OU will have to go to the air, and that is a recipe for disaster. Oklahoma's passing offense is 99th while Alabama's pass defense is ranked fifth.

    I expect Alabama to win by a couple of touchdowns.
Friday, Jan. 3

  • Discover Orange Bowl: #12 Clemson vs. #7 Ohio State, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: Someone ought to call this the Woody Hayes Bowl because these were the two teams that participated in the Gator Bowl 35 years ago when Hayes slugged a Clemson player and wound up being terminated by Ohio State.

    That is the only time these two schools have faced each other — until now.

    Clemson played in the Orange Bowl two years ago and gave up an Orange Bowl–record 70 points, smashing a record that had stood for nearly 60 years. There are probably a few Tigers remaining from that roster, and I'm sure they would like to leave Miami with a better taste in their mouths this time.

    As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes were a Big Ten championship away from playing for the national title but lost to Michigan State, snapping a 24–game winning streak that was often said to be light on quality opposition. A win over a credible program like Clemson would go a long way toward rebuilding Ohio State's legitimacy as a national contender.

    In the end, though, I expect about the same outcome as in the 1978 Gator Bowl — minus the Woody Hayes punch. I think Clemson will claim a narrow win.
  • AT&T Cotton Bowl: #13 Oklahoma State vs. #9 Missouri, 6:30 p.m. (Central) on FOX: As colleagues in the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences, OSU and Missouri have a long history.

    In fact, their first six games were played when they were not conference rivals. But every game they played between 1960 and 2011 were as members of the same conference.

    OSU came out on the short end of the stick nine of the first 10 times the schools met, and the Cowboys have never been able to overtake the Tigers in their all–time series.

    After they joined the Big 12, they didn't play each other every year anymore because they were in different divisions. But they met annually from 1960 to 1997. Missouri was the winner most of the time, but Oklahoma State did reel off seven straight wins over Missouri from 1984 to 1990.

    That was Oklahoma State's longest winning streak in the series. The Cowboys are currently enjoying their second–longest winning streak (three in a row) against Missouri. Will they extend it?

    I think it's a tough call. This has the potential to be the closest bowl game of them all, but I think Missouri will pull it off.
Monday, Jan. 6
  • VIZIO BCS National Championship: #1 Florida State vs. #2 Auburn, 7:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: History is on Auburn's side in this game. These teams have met 18 times since 1954, and Auburn has dominated the series, 13–4–1.

    But this series is kind of a "that was then, this is now" kind of series. Auburn went 9–0–1 against Florida State the first 10 times they played each other, but since 1977, the series is dead even, 4–4. In fact, the Seminoles have won three of the last four encounters, including a victory in the Jan. 2, 1989 Sugar Bowl.

    But they haven't met since 1990 — when Bobby Bowden coached the Seminoles and Pat Dye coached the Tigers.

    Florida State's offense and defense both rank higher than Auburn's, but many college football fans are quick to point out that Auburn plays in the mighty Southeastern Conference — in a division that requires the Tigers to play Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M every season — whereas Florida State plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, a conference that is better known for its basketball prowess.

    There is truth in that.

    But Florida State has been thrashing everyone it has faced this season, and Heisman winner Jameis Winston completed nearly 68% of his passes and had a ratio of touchdowns to interceptions of nearly 4–to–1. Auburn's defense is 63rd in passing efficiency, 104th in general passing defense.

    I pick Florida State to end the SEC's BCS dominance.
Last week: 7–3

Season: 224–46

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