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BCS Title Game Preview – 1/6/14

PrintThe day is finally at hand.  Will Auburn’s team of destiny capture a crystal football, the school’s second since 2010?  Will Florida State break the SEC’s stranglehold on the national championship game?  Will the SEC collect its 8th title in a row?  Will great defense beat great offense as it has in so many of those previous title bouts?

Despite Bob Stoops getting the best of Alabama — which led most of the nation to say, “Yeah, the SEC is overrated,” Mike Slive’s league is actually 7-2 in bowl games on the season.  Georgia’s tight loss to Nebraska is the only other smudge on the conference’s resume this bowl season.  So while FSU does have the better defense and Auburn has reached Pasadena thanks to a pair of once-in-a-lifetime plays, the Tigers are the champions of a league that’s more than held its own this year.  This despite a drop in the SEC’s overall defense.

And that brings us back to our biggest question — Will defense once again rule the BCS title game?  Read on for our views and prediction…

 

The Vizio BCS Championship Game

#2 Auburn (12-1) vs Florida State (13-0)

TV:  8:30pm ET on ESPN (and a half-dozen other ESPN properties)

Opening Line:  Florida State -7.5

Current Line:  Florida State -10

Cool Factor:  While not the intersectional battle we like to see in title games, this one’s still for the national championship and that’s pretty darn cool.  Interestingly, if the Tigers lose, anyone suggesting that the SEC isn’t really all that will have to admit that it took another Southern team that recruits in the very same SEC zone to snap the SEC’s streak.  It will be a big boost for the ACC, but Deep South football will still be king regardless of who wins tonight.

What’s At Stake:  Read above.  A national title for Auburn or FSU.  The SEC’s string of national titles.

Keep An Eye On:  Auburn QB Nick Marshall.  Florida State will likely get theirs on offense because Ellis Johnson’s defense has been far from brick wall-stout this season.  The pressure, then, will be on Auburn to match points with the Seminoles.  That means Marshall will not only have to run AU’s offense and run the football himself, he’ll need to have another good night throwing when he’s called upon to do so.  Marshall was the league’s ninth best quarterback (in terms of yardage per game), but he did place sixth in SEC passer rating.  He’ll need to play like he did versus Mizzou and Bama if the Tigers are to win.  In those title-clinching victories, Marshall completed 20-of-27 passes (74.0%) for 229 yards (combined), three TDs and zero interceptions.

Hidden Tidbit 1:  The last time Auburn reached the BCS title game, they had Superman on their side.  Cam Netwon was the consensus Mr. Everything in 2010.  This season, Jameis Winston is the man with all the silverware — Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien Award, Walter Camp Award, etc.  But unlike Newton, he’s not a dual-threat, rushing for just 193 yards on the season.  Instead, he’s a passer of extraordinary talents.  A 67.9% completion rate, 3,820 yards through the air, 38 touchdowns to just 10 INTs and a passer rating of 190.0 — all stellar.  So what kind of secondary will he be throwing against tonight?  A unit that ranked 13th in the SEC in passing yards allowed (3,371), though many Tiger foes had to start throwing once they fell behind.  On the season, AU allowed just 17 touchdown passes (not bad) and they pulled down 13 interceptions (middle of the SEC pack).  Opposing quarterbacks notched a passer rating of 126.2 versus Auburn, good for just ninth place in their conference.  In worse news for the Tigers, ranked opponents had an even easier time throwing against them (64% completions, a 13-5 TD-to-INT ratio, and a passer rating of 162.08).   AU fans need to hope that playing on such a big stage will coax some jitters out of Winston, who is still just a freshman.  But that’s a hard thing to have to hang your hopes upon.

Hidden Tidbit 2:  FSU’s defense is dominant.  The Seminoles rank first nationally in scoring defense, 13th in rush defense, first in pass defense, third in total defense, first in interceptions, and fourth in long plays from scrimmage (10+ yards ) allowed.  But here’s the thing — Alabama ranks just above or just below Florida State in nearly every one of those categories.  And Auburn beat Alabama with a special teams play.  Unfortunately, FSU is pretty good in that area, too.  In addition to returns and kick and punt coverage, the Noles also boast the nation’s best kicker.  Roberto Aguayo is 18 of 19 on field goal attempts, 90 for 90 on extra points, and he’s outscored Florida State’s opponents 147-136 himself.  Re-read that last bit.  And, no, that’s not a typo.

Hidden Tidbit 3:  Turnovers.  You knew we’d go down this road.  In the SEC’s two bowl losses, turnovers were the difference.  Alabama lost that battle to Oklahoma five to one (ouch).  Georgia lost that battle to Nebraska two to one.  All seven of the SEC teams who’ve won their bowls either broke even or held the advantage on the turnover ledger.  It’s really not rocket science, folks.  Take care of the football and you’ll most likely win.  So which team has been best on the turnover front this season?  FSU was tops in the ACC in turnovers forced (34) and in turnover margin (plus-17).  Auburn came out even in terms of giveaways and takeaways (18 lost and 18 gained).  If AU is to spring the upset, the Tigers will need to do a much better job of forcing turnovers tonight.

Hidden Tidbit 4:  If tonight’s ballgame starts slow or turns sloppy, it won’t be the first title game to go in that direction.  Both squads have been off for more than a month.  Even with practice, it’s hard to believe their won’t be some amount of rust that will have to be knocked off early.  The advantage goes to the team that can rev its engine and get rolling first.

Hidden Tidbit 5:  Has Florida State been too good, too dominant?  Jimbo Fisher’s team has averaged 53 points per game this season.  Roll that one around in your head for a bit.  The Noles have dominated everyone they’ve played.  A 48-34 win over Boston College was FSU’s tightest contest all season long.  No other team came within — get this — 27 points of Florida State.  Auburn, on the other hand, beat Alabama by six, topped Georgia by five, bested Texas A&M by 4, and won tight games early versus Mississippi State and Washington State, too.  If The Tigers can hang around until the fourth quarter the odds might start to move in their favor.  They’ve won on tipped Hail Marys and last-second missed field goal returns.  At this point, Gus Malzahn’s bunch has to believe they can pull out any game… even if they need 109 yards in the final second.  But after 13 blowouts in a row, FSU might get spooked if it looks up and sees it’s in a real, honest-to-goodness football game in the final period.  So the trick for Auburn?  Get to the fourth quarter within 10 points of Florida State.

Hidden Tidbit 6:  While Auburn hasn’t been great on overall defense, the team has excelled in the clutch.  The Tigers rank seventh best in America in red zone defense.  Opposing teams have scored on just 70.8% of red zone trips and only 44.4% of the time have they scored a touchdown.  (FSU ranks #25 in that stat, but — truth be told — the Seminoles have allowed just 26 red zone trips all season while Auburn has allowed 48).  Auburn also ranks 21st in the country in third down defense allowing only 34.0% of thirds to be converted.  (FSU ranks third nationally allowing just 29.7% conversions.)  If AU is to keep this one close to the end they’ll need to force the Noles off the field when they get third-down opportunities to do so and they’ll need to hold State to field goals rather than touchdowns.  But in case you’re wondering, Florida State is tops in the nation in red zone offense scoring at a 97.1% clip with 55 touchdowns (and 12 field goals) on 69 red zone trips.

Our Thinking:  Before the SEC Championship Game, we picked Missouri because the Tigers had the better defense.  A week earlier we picked Alabama because they also had a better defense than Auburn.  Tonight, Florida State will have the much better defense.  Defense has won championships for the SEC in the past so we’re going to stick with the same logic that Auburn has ignored in those two games mentioned above.  We’ll take Florida State, but we would not be the least bit surprised to see Malzahn doused in Gatorade following yet another miracle win tonight.

Prediction:  Florida State 44, Auburn 31

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BBVA Compass Bowl Preview – 1/3/14

bbva compass bowlAfter a month of moaning, Vanderbilt fans will finally hit the road for Birmingham and the Commodores’ third bowl in three years.  Will the team be ready for action or will they have heard the booster grumbles and feel their “above” the BBVA Compass Bowl?  For that and more, here’s our game preview:

 

BBVA Compass Bowl

Vanderbilt (8-4) vs Houston (8-4)

TV:  1pm ET tomorrow on ESPN

Opening Line:  Vanderbilt -1.5

Current Line:  Vanderbilt -2.5

Cool Factor:  Uh.  Well.  Um.  Ask a Commodore fan and you’ll quickly learn that there’s zero Cool Factor for this one.

What’s At Stake:  Vanderbilt’s reputation as an improving football program.  Now, there’s no question that VU is indeed getting better under their fiery third-year coach.  But fans and media alike tend to swing from one extreme to the other.  Win a game and you’re the best team/coach/program ever.  Lose a game and you’re a bum coaching bums.  Dore fans are growing tired of hearing that just two of their school’s 17 wins over the last two years have come against teams with winning records.  They’re tired of hearing that bowls aren’t interested in them because of decades of losses and empty seats in a 40,000-seat stadium.  Facing a Houston team with a winning record is the perfect opportunity to shhh a lot of the naysayers.  It’s also a chance for Vandy fans to take over a city and a stadium.  Will they?

Keep An Eye On:  Vanderbilt’s attitude.  James Franklin has proven to be a master motivator in his short tenure in Nashville and his abilities will be tested once more.  The Dores enter the game with a back-up quarterback.  They’ll be playing in a bowl that many Vandy fans feel is beneath them in a stadium that’s been allowed to fall into disrepair.  Oh, and Franklin himself has been named in connection with head coach openings at Penn State, Texas, and Cleveland and Minnesota of the NFL.  (He’s said  that he loves Vanderbilt, but he hasn’t said he won’t leave.)  Add it up and there are plenty of potential distractions for VU’s players as they saddle up for this game with Houston.

Hidden Tidbit:  Backup QB Patton Robinette will be making just his third start of the year versus the Cougars.  In his previous two starts (in a loss at Texas A&M and in a win at Florida), the redshirt freshman completed 21-of-40 for 273 yards, one TD and two interceptions.  Robinette also came on in relief of Austyn Carta-Samuels in VU’s win over Georgia.  Down the stretch he was used as more as a running option, but he did see action in the Commodores’ last three games and scored the game-winning rushing touchdown versus arch-rival Tennessee.  That said, Robinette has thrown just nine passes in Vandy’s last three games.  A nice ground game would aid him.

Hidden Tidbit:  While Robinette might be rusty, receiver Jordan Matthews should be in his same sweet groove.  The SEC’s leading receiver this year (and all-time) caught 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns for the season.  Houston ranked just eighth in the 10-team AAC in pass defense.  They allowed more than 250 yards passing to Southern University (FCS), Rice, UT-San Antonio, BYU, South Florida, and Cincinnati.  They also surrendered 195 plays of 10 or more yards this season, which also ranked eighth in the AAC.  Expect the Cougars to try and double-up Matthews and/or sit over the top to prevent long gains and force Robinette to make one accurate short throw after another.  But others have tried to shut down Matthews in those ways and it hasn’t worked often.  The senior had seven or more catches in 10 of Vandy’s 12 games including eight games of 100+ yard production.

Prediction:  Vanderbilt 27, Houston 21

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Cotton Bowl Preview – 1/3/14

cotton-bowl-logo-attTonight’s game between Missouri and Oklahoma State takes on added meaning after Alabama’s bumbling performance last night.  The SEC doesn’t… well… we’ll save it for our game preview below:

 

AT&T Cotton Bowl

#8 Missouri (11-2) vs #13 Oklahoma State (10-2)

TV:  7:30pm ET on FOX

Opening Line:  Missouri -3.5

Current Line:  Oklahoma State -1

Cool Factor:  Well, from a Missouri perspective there’s very little cool about going back to the Cotton Bowl to play an old conference foe you split from just two years ago.  If it were Kansas on the other sideline, it’d be different.  But the OSU/Missouri rivalry isn’t exactly steeped in tradition.  Also, the Tigers are working hard to shift their recruiting base from Texas — where they’ll not play as often — to Florida and Georgia — where they’ll play on a regular basis.  But instead of getting a berth in a Florida bowl against a different foe from the Big Ten, they get a “back to the future” type game.  Worse, recruits watching on TV are much more likely to watch the BCS Orange Bowl between Ohio State and Clemson.  So, yeah, Mizzou got a bum deal.  On the plus side for viewers, this game could/should have plenty of offensive fireworks.  The Cowboys come in averaging 39.8 points per game while the Tigers put up 39.0 per contest.  (Then again, last night’s game was supposed to be a defensive struggle.)

What’s At Stake:  Bragging rights between the Big 12 and SEC.  The SEC swiped two Big 12 teams.  According to Arkansas AD Jeff Long, the Big 12 failed to coax the Razorbacks into thinking about a move of their own.  And the two leagues will now be working more closely together moving forward — the new basketball challenge, the Sugar Bowl becoming an annual SEC/Big 12 tilt, the Texas Bowl, etc.  No one in the SEC wants the Big 12 to kick off all those new agreements by besting a pair of top 10 conference representatives in big-time bowls.  Bama already wet the bed, so it’s up to Mizzou to carry their new league’s banner proudly.  If not, get ready to hear more talk of SEC “propaganda” from Bob Stoops and the folks in the Midwest.

Keep An Eye On:  The turnover battle.  Alabama lost last night because it gave away points via turnovers (including 21 in the first half alone).  You know our mantra around here — There is no more important stat in football than turnovers.  And these two teams force ‘em.  Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in turnover margin forcing 30.  Missouri led the SEC by forcing 29.  Offensively, Mizzou lost just 13 while OSU lost only 15.  We could break down a million angles to this game — as we did Bama’s last night — but turnovers are the key ingredient.  Whoever wins the turnover battle in Arlington tonight will likely win the game.

Hidden Tidbit:  Keep an eye on Missouri’s tall, lanky receivers.  When 6-4 L’Damian Washington and 6-6 Dorial Green-Beckham go out for passes, one of them will be paired up with 6-foot All-American corner Justin Gilbert and the other by 5-11 cornerback Kevin Peterson.  The Tigers will have the height advantage, but the Cowboys rank #4 in America with 20 interceptions and #16 nationally in passes defended.  James Franklin only threw five INTs in nine games played and MU ranks fifth in the country with 23 big plays of 40 yards or more.  If you’re looking battles within the battle, that’s a big one — Can Missouri go over the top against OSU?

Hidden Tidbit:  Missouri led the SEC in sacks this season with 38.  Gary Pinkel’s pass rushers have recorded a sack in each of their last 10 games and two or more sacks in eight of their last 10.  And it wasn’t just one man doing the rushing.  Michael Sam had 10.5, yes, but Markus Golden had 6.5, Kony Ealy had 6.0, Shane Ray had 4.5 and Matt Hoch had 3.0.  Those are all D-linemen so the Tigers know how to create pressure without having to blitz.  But.  Oklahoma State only allowed 11 sacks for minus-60 yards all season.  That was tops in the Big 12 and #6 in the nation.  The Pokes put the ball in the air 427 times which means they gave up one sack every 39.8 pass attempts.  Can The Tigers get to Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf?

Prediction:  Missouri 41, Oklahoma State 40

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Sugar Bowl Preview – 1/2/14

44940aIt was another good New Year’s Day for the SEC as the league took two out of three from the Big Ten and moved to 5-1 overall this bowl season.

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl

#3 Alabama (11-1) vs #11 Oklahoma (10-2)

TV:  8:30pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Alabama -14.5

Current Line:  Alabama -17

Cool Factor:  Are you kidding?  These are two of the winningest programs in college football history — Bud Wilkinson, Bear Bryant, Barry Switzer, Gene Stallings, etc.  The schools have met just five times previously.  Bob Stoops has stated that the SEC isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be and benefits from “propaganda.”  It’s a duel between two coaches who’ve captured BCS crowns.  Take your pick, folks.  While certainly not the most important bowl game this season, the Sugar Bowl might boast the most attractive matchup in terms of history, different regions of the country being represented, name brand value and the like.  Assuming it’s a good game, this one will likely earn the highest ratings of the non-title game bowls.

What’s At Stake:  The legacy of Alabama’s senior class.  The fourth-year seniors have already captured two BCS crowns.  Any fifth-year graybeards have a third title of which to boast.  But this season was supposed to be a cakewalk to a third title in a row and a fourth in five years.  A bungled last-second decision on the part of Nick Saban — really, a 57-yard field goal attempt? — and a once-in-a-lifetime play by Auburn slammed the door shut on Bama’s championship dreams.  Now, 20 years from now, this group will be rightly viewed as one of the biggest collections of heroes in college football history, but if they lose to the Sooners tonight, you better believe there will be a chunk of the spoiled Crimson Tide fanbase who dismiss them.  Anyone have much good to say about the 2008 team that suffered its first loss of the season in the SEC title game to Florida and then went on to get rolled by Utah in that season’s Sugar Bowl?  Fans of all sports are fickle and — at least in the immediate aftermath — a team is only as good as its last game.  If Bama loses, quickly head yourself over to Twitter to just watch the reaction.

Keep An Eye On:  Bama’s psyche.  In 2008, the Crimson Tide went in the tank after losing its first game.  Andre Smith’s surprising suspension was a gut punch before the Sugar Bowl.  And it was apparent the guys in crimson weren’t exactly fired up to face Utah.  Well, there have been no distractions during this year’s bowl run-up and it’s difficult to imagine anyone not getting up for a game with Oklahoma.  But the way Alabama lost its last game, who it lost to, and the fact that it had come to tantalizingly close to fulfilling what many saw as its destiny could cause a bit of a hangover for a team.  We suspect Saban will have his group properly motivated, but until the first five or six minutes play out… there will still a scintilla of doubt.

Hidden Tidbit:  Stoops has said his starting quarterback will be a gametime decision.  Whoever gets the start will lead the nation’s 48th best scoring offense (31.8 points per game) against a defense that’s allowing just 11.3 points per game (#2 in the country).  Oklahoma should have its hands full putting point on the board.  But it’s on defense where the Sooners will have to win this one.  Stoops’ team boasts the Big 12′s best defense overall and third best rush defense.  They must — must — stymie the Tide ground attack (third best in the SEC at 212.0 yards per game).  Bama’s magic number is 125.  With AJ McCarron under center Alabama is 42-1 when it gains 125 rushing yards.  The Red Elephants are just 4-5 when they don’t hit the 125-mark.

Hidden Tidbit #2:  Keep an eye on the special teams matchup in this one.  Alabama led the SEC in punt returns (running three back for scores) and finished third in kickoff returns (with one TD).  Oklahoma was ninth in the 10-team Big 12 in punt coverage and eighth in kick return defense.  Bama, meanwhile, will need to keep an eye on Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders who’s returned two punts for touchdowns himself.  Both teams have also blocked three kicks/punts this season.

Hidden Tidbit #3:  Teams can give up yards all day and all night, but if they keep the other team out of the end zone, they’ll win.  Alabama’s red zone defense was the best in the SEC and third best in America allowing a score on just 63.6% of red zone possessions (and just 50% of those possessions ended in touchdowns).  Oklahoma’s offense ranked seventh in the Big 12 in red zone scoring and just ninth in terms of converting red zone trips in TDs.

Prediction:  Alabama 31-17

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Gator, Outback, Capital One Bowl Previews – 1/1/14

bowl logosWith Mississippi State’s rout of Rice and Texas A&M’s come-from-behind victory over a game Duke squad, the SEC has moved to 3-0 this bowl season.  While no hater of the SEC will mention it, Tuesday was a very, very good day for the conference.  Arguably the 10th best team in the league (MSU) took apart the champions of Conference USA.  Then the fifth or sixth best SEC team knocked off the #2 selection from the ACC.  An impressive showing.

So do we think the SEC will go from 3-0 to 6-0 today?  Read on…

 

Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl

#22 Georgia (8-4) vs Nebraska (8-4)

TV:  12pm ET on ESPN2

Opening Line:  Georgia -10

Current Line:  Georgia -9

Cool Factor:  It’s a rematch from New Year’s Day 2013.  The only thing cool about this one is the possibility that Bo Pelini might blow his top and say something really ugly, really stupid, or both if his team loses to Georgia again this year.

What’s At Stake:  A quiet offseason for Mark Richt.  Georgia came into the 2013 season with aspirations of a BCS bowl, perhaps a BCS title.  Then a tsunami of injuries struck the Bulldogs, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.  A once promising season turned into a mediocre season (by UGA’s standards).  But here’s the thing — when a coach has been at a school for more than a decade and he finishes with five losses, fans tend to get angry.  And angry fans don’t give a hoot in hell — “Patton,” great movie — about excuses.  Even legitimate ones like all those injuries.  Richt needs a win to keep the grumblers at bay.

Keep An Eye On:  The quarterbacks.  Both schools will be trotting out backups as starters Aaron Murray and Tyler Martinez are on the shelf with injuries.  The Dawgs will start Hutson Mason, three years a Murray understudy.  On the season — including a last game start over Georgia Tech — Mason has completed 46 of 71 passes for 648 yards, four TDs and two interceptions.  Freshman Tommy Armstrong is expected to get the nod for the Cornhuskers.  He’s completed 62 of 117 passes for 803 yards with seven touchdowns and — uh-oh — seven interceptions.  Nebraska can’t afford to have their QB hurling picks on the morrow.

Hidden Tidbit:  Nebraska has just two wins against teams that finished winning records (7-6 Michigan and 7-5 Penn State).  Georgia went toe-to-toe with Clemson on the road, beat South Carolina, LSU and Georgia Tech, and lost to SEC champ Auburn on a last-minute deflected Hail Mary.  Forget the usual stats.  Georgia has played the better schedule.  If the Huskers beat Georgia, it would be their first win in three tries against ranked opponents this season.

Prediction:  Georgia 34, Nebraska 24

 

Outback Bowl

#16 LSU (9-3) vs Iowa (8-4)

TV:  1:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  LSU -8

Current Line:  LSU -8

Cool Factor:  LSU is just the third SEC West team to land a bid to Tampa since the late-90s.  Even though these teams met in the Capital One Bowl exactly nine years ago today (in Nick Saban’s last game as Tiger coach), this is still an unusual bowl matchup, which we like.  All those January 1st Big Ten/SEC bowl games usually wind up being Big Ten versus SEC East games.  So Big Ten versus SEC West is rather novel.

What’s At Stake:  Momentum for LSU in 2014.  Over the last seven seasons, the SEC West has been represented in Atlanta by either LSU or Alabama on five occasions (Auburn filled the other two slots).  For that reason, the late-season showdown between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers has become one of the nation’s most hyped rivalries.  But that could change.  Gus Malzahn led AU to the BCS title game  in his first year as head coach.  Texas A&M is viewed as a program on the rise.  If LSU drops to 9-4, some may begin to wonder if the Bayou Bengals are slipping.  In our view they’re not, but we aren’t purple- and gold-clad fanatics.  Fanatics want dominance every year despite youth and despite injuries.  Like Richt, Miles wouldn’t be in any serious trouble if he lost today, but he would have to put up with some more moaning and groaning from within his fanbase.

Keep An Eye On:  The LSU passing attack.  Zach Mettenberger had the SEC’s best overall quarterback rating before he was lost for the season due to a knee injury.  Freshman Anthony Jennings will get the starting nod after leading a late, game-winning drive against Arkansas in the Tigers’ season finale.  On the year, Jennings is just 8-of-14 for 49 yards with the one touchdown pass to beat the Razorbacks.  Though Jennings may be green, he will have two of the SEC’s best receivers to throw to in Jarvis Landry (1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Odell Beckham (1,117 yards and eight TDs).  Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will likely call more run plays for Jeremy Hill this afternoon, but the Hawkeyes are 17th in the nation versus the run.  LSU will need to find some amount of balance through the air (Iowa is #11 in the nation versus the pass) to keep the Hawkeyes honest.  Jennings has his work cut out for him.

Hidden Tidbit:  How well will LSU be able to convert on third down?  The Tigers were the SEC’s best in that area this season, converting 58.5 percent of the time, which suggests the Tigers were typically able to gain enough on first and second downs to make third downs manageable.  Iowa ranked fourth in a weak Big Ten in third-down conversion defense, allowing just 34.2% of third downs to be converted.  If the Tigers can keep the chains moving with Jennings as they did with Mettenberger, they’ll be just fine.

Prediction:  LSU 33, Iowa 20

 

Capital One Bowl

#8 South Carolina (10-2) vs # #19 Wisconsin (9-3)

TV:  1:00pm ET on ABC

Opening Line:  Wisconsin -1

Current Line:  Wisconsin -2

Cool Factor:  Raise your hand if you said to yourself, “He’ll never be able to turn those guys around,” when South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier.  If you’re being honest, there should be many a hand raised.  The Gamecocks were a ne’er-do-well program and Spurrier was a 60-year-old NFL washout back in 2005.  Now he’s going to be coaching Carolina in their sixth straight bowl game.  A win over Wisconsin would give the school its third consecutive 11-2 season.  In a word: Stunning.  And watching USC go from a cellar dweller to perennial top 15 team has been pretty cool indeed.

What’s At Stake:  As with the other two ballgames today, bragging rights are at stake.  The SEC is off to a perfect start to the bowl season.  The Big Ten?  Not so much.  Michigan and Minnesota have already lost to Kansas State and Syracuse, respectively.  Heck, even the two schools scheduled to join the Big Ten next season — Maryland and Rutgers — have dropped their bowl games.  You can be sure both Jim Delany and Mike Slive desperately want to win today’s three-game series.

Keep An Eye On:  The defenses.  You already know about Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles on the Cocks’ D-line.  Carolina ranked #34 nationally against the run and #19 versus the pass.  But Wisconsin’s defense put up even better numbers (albeit against a weaker schedule).  The Badgers ranked 12th against the pass and fifth against the run.  There’s one area, however, where USC holds a clear advantage.  When it comes to turnover margin, the guys in garnet and black are plus-11 overall with 26 takeaways.  Wisconsin was plus-three overall with 18 takeaways.  Both defenses are good, but the Gamecocks force more turnovers.

Hidden Tidbit:  This afternoon’s contest marks the final game for Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.  Facing a stout UW defense without injured #2 wideout Damiere Byrd, a lot will fall on Shaw’s shoulders.  The senior finished fifth in the SEC in passer rating and fourth among rushing quarterbacks (behind Nick Marshall, Dak Prescott, and Johnny Manziel).  But Shaw’s greatest gift might be his leadership (which was on full display as he rallied Carolina for a big comeback win at Missouri).  He leaves Columbia as the winningest starting quarterback in school history.  He also brings a TD-to-INT ratio of 21-to-1 into today’s game.  And, yes, you read that right.  He’s thrown just one interception in 259 pass attempts this year.  All things being equal, Shaw will be the difference in Orlando.

Prediction:  South Carolina 28-24

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Liberty, Chick-fil-A Bowl Previews – 12/31/13

liberty chickfila logosA happy and safe New Year’s Eve to everyone out there.  After a solid win by Ole Miss yesterday, the SEC is off to a 1-0 start this bowl season.  Two more games today… which we preview… right now.

 

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

Mississippi State (6-6) vs Rice (10-3)

TV:  4:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Mississippi State -7

Current Line:  Mississippi State -7

Cool Factor:  Meh.  Sorry, but this game rarely has a cool factor.  In most years, one of the SEC’s stragglers goes up against the champion of Conference USA.  The SEC’s reputation is on the line, though it’s a little unfair considering the matchup.  Mike Slive’s league is 4-1 versus C-USA in Liberty Bowls since 2006, but the games have always been close.  Carolina over Houston 44-36.  Mississippi State 10-3 over UCF.  Kentucky 25, East Carolina 19.  Arkansas 20-17 over East Carolina.  And UCF 10-6 over Georgia.  Pay attention, MSU.

What’s At Stake:  Dan Mullen’s popularity.  There was a widening gap between the pleased and displeased in Starkville this season.  An end of the year win over hated Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl seemed to shift the crowd back in Mullen’s direction.  A fourth consecutive bowl trip — for the first time in school history — didn’t hurt, either.  But make no mistake, there are some in the MSU camp who want wins over SEC teams with winning records.  Many believe Mullen cannot get the Bulldogs to the next level.  If State gets fried by Rice in front of a cowbell-ringin’ crowd today, State will finish 6-7 on the year.  If that happens, this offseason could be a noisy one in the Magnolia State as MSU fans debate the direction in which their program is moving.

Keep An Eye On:  The battle in the trenches.  Rice boasts the 15th best ground attack in the nation (240.1 yards per game).  The Owls ran for 306 yards versus Texas A&M back in September.  MSU has America’s 49th best rushing defense (allowing just 151.0 yards per contest).  However… five times State allowed a team to average more than five yards per rush against them (Arkansas, Alabama, Bowling Green, LSU and Oklahoma State, with the Cowboys averaging 7.1 yards per carry on 40 attempts).  We should know early on whether Rice’s ground game is good enough to challenge State.  On the season, the Fighting Pilafs have gained 4.97 yards per carry in the first halves of games and just 4.39 yards per carry in second stanzas.  Typically, the best rushing teams wear foes down in the second half.  Rice’s numbers suggest that if the Bulldogs hold their ground early, it’s unlikely — barring turnovers — that the Owls will be able to make a charge late.  Rice topped the 250-yard mark through the air just twice all season.  So focus on how well MSU stuffs the run early on.

Hidden Tidbit:  Rice is going for it’s 11th win overall and it’s 10th win in 11 games.  The Owls’ win total is impressive, but that tally includes some close calls with weak teams (18-14 over FAU, 30-27 over Tulsa in overtime, 27-21 over UT-San Antonio and 37-34 over UAB in overtime).  The Owls did hang 31 points on Texas A&M’s porous defense in their season opener (losing 52-31), but Dak Prescott and the MSU offense should be able to put up enough points to win this one.  After all, Mullen has made a career of beating smaller programs… and Ole Miss.  (State’s six wins this season came over Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green, Kentucky, Arkansas and the Rebels.)

Prediction:  Mississippi State 30, Rice 24

 

Chick-fil-A Bowl

Texas A&M (8-4) vs Duke (10-3)

TV:  8:00pm ET on ESPN

Opening Line:  Texas A&M -11.5

Current Line:  Texas A&M -12.5

Cool Factor:  If you like offense, this one figures to have lots of it.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise us if A&M/Duke come close to the point total of the last college football game played in the Georgia Dome (102 points in Auburn’s win over Missouri).  The Blue Devils had a below average ACC defense this season (allowing 24 points per game and 419.8 yards per contest).  The Aggies’ defense cost them a shot at greater glory (30.9 points per game allowed and 460.3 yards allowed per contest).  We still wonder what happened to all the A&M fans who bashed us in the preseason for daring to suggest this year’s team wouldn’t have the success of last year’s team, but that’s neither here nor there.  Expect points aplenty in Atlanta.

What’s At Stake:  Once again, the SEC’s reputation is at stake.  The Chick-fil-A Bowl — which will become the Peach Bowl again starting next season — enjoys the #2 selection from the ACC and the #5 pick from the SEC.  Like the Liberty Bowl, this really isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.  But if Duke wins, that won’t stop the masses from saying the Southeastern Conference is overrated.  (Unfortunately, when you have to win all of your bowl games every season just to silence the doubters, eventually you’re going to slip up.)

Keep An Eye On:  The Johnny Manziel-to-Mike Evans connection.  Reports claim they’ll both turn pro at after this game and it’s hard to blame them.  Manziel passed (3,732 yards) and ran (686 yards) his way to New York for another Heisman ceremony (after winning the trophy last year).  Evans (1,322 yards and 12 TDs) developed into one of the nation’s top wideouts.  What more do they have to prove at the college level when injuries are becoming more and more common?  Sure, it’d be fun to see these guys stick around the SEC (especially since Manziel has displayed a new level of maturity since August), but no Aggie fan should begrudge either young man for jetting if that is indeed his next action.  So enjoy one last Manziel/Evans show tonight while you can.  Years from now, folks will still be talking about extraordinary college skills of Johnny Football.  You can say you watched what should be his final scintillating performance in the collegiate ranks.

Hidden Tidbit:  If Duke is to upend A&M they’ll need a big day on special teams.  And that’s entirely possible.  The Blue Devils rank #8 in the nation in both kick returns (25.0 yards per) and punt returns (14.5 yards per).  DeVon Edwards led the ACC in kickoff returns averaging 31.0 yards per return and taking two to the house.  Jamison Crowder was second in his league in put returns (16.0 yards per return) and he scored two TDs as well.  Texas A&M wasn’t bad in kick coverage (third-best in the SEC), but they finished 13th in the league in punt coverage surrendering 10.4 yards per return.  Having coached at Tennessee where General Robert Neyland’s game maxims are gospel, expect David Cutcliffe to remind his Duke team to “press the kicking game,” where the breaks are made.

Prediction:  Texas A&M 48, Duke 38

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