Let’s continue our peruse through every bowl game we have this year.
St. Petersburg Bowl – Miami (OH) vs. Mississippi State
October 15, 2016. Mississippi State loses in double-overtime to BYU. Miami (OH) scores a late 4th-quarter touchdown to beat Kent State for their first win of the year. Mississippi State falls to 2-3. Miami (OH) moves to 1-6. Bowl eligibility was the last thing on the minds of any Bulldog or RedHawks fan. Yet here we are. That late score to beat Kent State spurred the RedHawks on to a six-game winning streak, becoming the first team in FBS history to start 0-6 and finish 6-6. Mississippi State relied upon wins over Samford, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, plus a good APR score, to finish 5-7 a receive a bowl invitation. Thus, we’re treated/force-fed a 6-6 versus 5-7 bowl matchup with little excitement or intrigue. And frankly, I’m not even expecting an exciting game either.
You may look at this game and figure that Mississippi State has a major advantage, what with being from the SEC and all. But that’s not exactly the case. The Bulldogs weren’t really dominant against non-conference foes, beating only Massachusetts, one of the worst teams in all of FBS, and FCS Samford. That aforementioned loss to BYU and season-opening loss to South Alabama are the only other times Mississippi State has ventured out of the SEC. We knew it was going to be hard for the Bulldogs to replace QB Dak Prescott, but the Bulldogs don’t just have a QB problem. They have problems across the board. QB Nick Fitzgerald has performed admirably, and the sophomore will probably be the solution for the Bulldogs at quarterback for the next two seasons. But Fitzgerald, on top of being the leading passer, is also the team’s leading rusher by a wide margin. Fitzgerald has over 1,200 yards rushing on the season, with Aeris Williams coming in second with 656. The offense lacks playmakers at RB and WR. Fred Ross leads the team in receiving yards with 893 and Donald Gray is close behind with 691. The next best, however, is Malik Dear with 245. Despite the offense’s lack of a variety of playmakers, they’ve hummed along, scoring 31.3 points per game. That’s not prolific, but it’s also not dreadful. But ‘not dreadful’ doesn’t overcome what is a dreadful defense. At 33.1 points allowed per game and 461.3 total yards per game, the Bulldogs field one of the worst defenses in all of Power-5 football.
Compare that to the RedHawks, who, despite their 0-6 start, rank in the top 50 in FBS for total defense, points allowed, passing and rush defense, and even red zone defense. The RedHawks lost their first six games because of offensive futility, not because of defensive shortcomings. The difference between their first six games and their last six games, as you could maybe guess, is the offense finally finding their footing. Specifically, the RedHawks made a quarterbacking change, inserting sophomore Gus Ragland into the lineup. He’s responded by throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions over the final six games. The entire offense has elevated in response to Ragland’s emergence as a credible QB. In their last five games, especially, the RedHawks are averaging 32.2 points per game. Again, that’s not prolific, but it’s not dreadful. But unlike Mississippi State, the RedHawks defense more than pulls its own weight, as they’ve allowed only 20.4 points per game in that same five-game span. Heath Harding and De’Andre Montgomery have combined for eight interceptions and 17 pass deflections in the defensive backfield this season en route to being selected to the MAC All-Conference first and third teams, respectively. Defensive lineman JT Jones has tallied 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, as well as being named to the All-Conference second team.
Mississippi State is the more popular pick in this game. But your conference doesn’t play the game, and that’s the only reason I can see for picking Mississippi State in this game. Looking at the Bulldogs and the RedHawks, there’s simply not enough reason for me to think that Mississippi State is that much better than Miami (OH). In fact, I’d say it’s the other way around. Miami (OH) is that much better than Mississippi State.
Prediction: Miami (OH) 37 – Mississippi State 23
Quick Lane Bowl – Maryland vs. Boston College
What are two football programs who you didn’t realize were actually playing well this year? I mean, if you define 6-6 as ‘playing well’. In all seriousness though, both the Terrapins and the Eagles are an upwards trajectories right now and are prime candidates to ‘break through’ in the coming years as surprise contenders within the Big Ten and ACC, respectively. Both of these teams finished last season at 3-9, so while 6-6 doesn’t seem like an illustrious season, it’s a major step up for both of these programs. With both of these teams on the up-and-up, so to speak, this game has a decent amount of importance for being a battle of .500 teams. Bowl wins are important for a program. They’re important in recruiting, especially, and also in the building of confidence of players already on the team. Simply put, whoever wins this game will be in a better position at 7-6 with a bowl victory than the losing team will be at 6-7 with a bowl loss. That’s a major ‘duh’ statement when you put it like that, but it bears repeating.
While the game may have importance, the on-field product probably won’t look too pleasing. Boston College is next-to-last in all of FBS for total offense, averaging 288.3 yards per game. Only one other team, Rutgers, averaged fewer than 300 yards. Maryland is significantly better, but is still only 94th at 379.5 yards per game (if you want a standard by which to judge, Utah State was 96th at 376.7 yards per contest). In other terms, do not expect a lot of points here. On top of having poor offenses, the defenses are quite adequate. Boston College is 6-6 with that anemic offense for a reason. DL Harold Landry has been a beast in the trenches, tied for first in the FBS for sacks with 15 and being named to the ACC’s All-Conference second team. LB Matt Milano received honorable mention from the ACC for 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. The Eagles only allowed 310.6 yards per game. Put into perspective, 310 yards per game would have been the sixth-worst rate in the country. And that’s despite having to play Louisville, Clemson, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. As shown, Maryland doesn’t have an offense that can compare with the likes of the Seminoles or Cardinals. Boston College’s defense should have a good game here.
So the Terrapins’ hopes lay largely upon their ability to stop Boston College’s offense. Read the last paragraph again as to why that shouldn’t be that difficult. The Terrapins don’t have one dominant pass-rusher like the Eagles’ Landry, but they still have managed to get to the QB at an impressive rate. Jess Aniebonam leads the defense with nine sacks on the year, and the team as a whole averages 2.75 per game. The unit does lack star power, as no one received Big Ten All-Conference honors, but against Boston College, that might not be necessary. Boston College has only scored more than 30 points three times this season, and two of those games came against Buffalo and Wagner. Who wins this game will come down to whether or not Maryland can move the ball and score. QB Perry Hill has had a decent season for the Terrapins. He’s completed his passes at a 66 percent rate and has thrown 10 touchdowns to only three interceptions, but shoulder issues have plagued him the entire season. Hills did play in Maryland’s final game against Rutgers, and with several weeks off, Hills should be primed to face the Eagles. The rest of the offense goes with Hills, and has struggled mightily with Hills on the sideline. In the first four games of the year, the Terrapins topped 30 points in each contest, but have only done so once since. No Terrapin has rushed for more than 850 yards and there is no receiver who’s gone for over 600 yards as both phases of the offense have stagnated with Hills battling injuries.
There’s a lot that points to this being a defensive slugfest. Without a lot of offense, this game will be decided by big plays, whether offensive or defensive. My brain says that’s going to be Maryland. My gut says that’s going to be Boston College.
Prediction: Boston College 20 – Maryland 17
Camping World Independence Bowl – NC State vs. Vanderbilt
Two good defenses. Two inept offenses. One low-scoring game. That’s what the Independence Bowl looks to give us this year, and it’ll be somewhat of a shock if we don’t get it. Offensively, neither side has much to brag about. Both teams do boast a 1,000-yard rusher; Matthew Dayes for the Wolfpack and Ralph Webb for the Commodores. But even with that, the Commodores and Wolfpack rank a respective sub-average 79th and 86th in the country for rushing offense. The true story of these offenses is that of their sophomore quarterbacks. Kyle Shurmur has the chance to grow into one of the best QBs in Vanderbilt history, and that’s not an overstatement. His 416 yards passing against Tennessee in the season finale were the fifth-most in Commodore history. The sophomore has improved throughout the season and looks to pose a legitimate threat in the coming years. NC State QB Ryan Finley has been trending in the other direction. The Boise State transfer hadn’t thrown his first interception until the Wolfpack’s sixth game, a near upset over Clemson. After that INT-free streak, Finley has only six touchdowns with eight interceptions.
Regardless, both of these QBs will struggle to accomplish much against the defenses they’ll be facing. Vandy and NC State rank 27th and 33rd in the country for scoring defense, while NC State also sports the country’s fifth-best rush defense, allowing only 104.7 yards on the ground per game. The Wolfpack’s run defense is anchored by DT Justin Jones, who’s surrounded by DE Bradley Chubb and LB Airius Moore. Chubb and Moore have flown all over the field this year, with Moore tallying 12 tackles for loss on the season so far. Chubb has even outdone him, though, posting 20 TFLs and nine sacks. The Wolfpack rely on the likes of Chubb, Moore and Jones to control the line of scrimmage and stop the run without help from the secondary. While the rush defense is elite, the pass defense is quite less so, allowing 251.3 yards per game. The fewer defenders needed to stop the run, the more help the secondary is given. Against Shurmur, who is proving to be a legitimate focal point on the Commodore offense, the game could hinge on how well the Wolfpack’s front seven holds up and how well they can pressure Shurmur.
Vanderbilt’s defense is sneaky good. I say this in that there’s no major statistic in which the Commodores pose an elite number on defense, apart from their 22.6 points allowed per game. The Commodores rank in the bottom half of the FBS in both rushing yards and passing yards allowed per game. They don’t force turnovers at an incredibly high rate, forcing only 18 on the year. The Commodores are a classic bend-don’t-break defense, but they are excellent at it. In the redzone, the Commodores have posted the best percentage in all of FBS at 65.9 percent. In 44 trips into the redzone by opponents, the Commodores have allowed only 29 scores, nine of which have been field goals. On top of a resiliency with their backs against the wall, Vanderbilt also boasts one of the best defenders in the country. LB Zach Cunningham has posted 68 tackles on the season, including 16.5 TFLs and four forced fumbles. The junior linebacker received first team honors on the SEC Coaches All-Conference team as well as first team All-American honors. He is currently ranked as the 17th best overall prospect by CBS Sports for the upcoming NFL draft. Dude can play, to say the least. Cunningham covers up a lot of the flaws in the rest of defense with his outstanding play, and the Commodores will hope he can continue to do so in what could be his final game for Vanderbilt.
Close games come down to big plays. Big plays come from big time talents. Both defenses here are good enough to keep this game close, meaning whoever can come up with a timely big play will have the advantage here. Vanderbilt has the best player for either team in Zach Cunningham. I would expect several big plays from him in this game. Throw in the hot hand that Vanderbilt has at quarterback in Kyle Shurmur and I see them coming away with the victory here.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 28 – North Carolina State 21
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl – Army vs. North Texas
If it weren’t for the fact that this is Army’s first bowl game since 2010, this game would have almost nothing to get excited about. As it stands, it’s still a rematch of a game that happened less than two months ago. That game was won handily by the Mean Green, 35-18. Whether we’ll get a similar result this time around is practically a tossup. Neither team is playing spectacularly well right now. North Texas, on top of already being 5-7, finished 1-4 down the stretch with the lone win coming by six points at home over Southern Miss. Army is riding a two-game winning streak, but those two games came against Morgan State and a Navy team that hasn’t looked the same since being forced to play their third-string QB. With neither team playing that much better than the other, I see this game coming down to which team’s strength matches up against the opponent’s weakness. And in this case, that points to Army.
If you’ve ever seen an Army football game, you know they run. A lot. Due to the fact that very few 300-lbs offensive line behemoths exist in the armed forces, Army, as well as Navy and Air Force, run almost exclusively an option attack. Opponents know this, too, but the Black Knights run it so well that it’s still incredibly difficult to stop. That offense has been efficient to the umpteenth degree this year and has Army at second in the nation for rushing yards per game at 327.8. The trade-off here is that without an offensive line that can hold up in pass protection, Army has virtually no passing offense, but even here, the Black Knights are dangerous. Despite ranking dead last in the country in passing yards per game, Army ranks fourth in pass yards per completion with 17.58. When the Black Knights pass it, they will gash you. This is a particular conundrum for a North Texas team that’s been quite inept at stopping the run. At 105th in the country and 219.5 yards per game, the Mean Green will have their hands full trying to stop the Army option attack. Their pass defense is considerably more respectable, but if North Texas has to bring nine players into the box to control Army’s running game, it probably won’t matter. The beauty of the option attack is that no one player can be keyed in on by a defense, but QB Ahmad Bradshaw and RB Andy Davidson, the team’s two leading rushers, will be expected to have a field day. For North Texas to stand a chance in this game, they’ll need to force others to beat them. The problem, again, is that Army has plenty of players able to do that.
So, if North Texas isn’t geared to stop Army, how’d they beat them so handily earlier in the season? Well, seven Army turnovers explains that quite well. Unless you’re Utah playing BYU, you’re not going to win with that many turnovers. Four interceptions by Bradshaw all but doomed the Black Knights. The good news for Army is that probably won’t happen again. The other good news is that Army only gave up 35 points despite giving the ball away seven times. Army’s defense is good. Like, top 20 in the country in both pass and rush defense good. North Texas frankly doesn’t have an offense that wants to face a tough defense. The Mean Green average a paltry 336.2 yards a game. That’s… not good. In fact, it’s kind of bad. The Mean Green have fluctuated between senior Alec Morris and freshman Mason Fine at the QB position throughout the season. The fact that neither has outright claimed the starting spot yet speaks enough to the level of play they’ve been giving. North Texas currently lacks a solid passing attack, but they also lack a running game to rely on. The Mean Green lack a 1,000-yard rusher on the season and unlike Army, they don’t have the benefit of a ‘too many mouths to feed’ excuse.
If either team has been playing better than the other over the final stretch of the season, it’s been Army. Two losses to Air Force and Notre Dame over its final five games are forgivable in comparison to North Texas losing UTSA, UTEP, Louisiana Tech, and Western Kentucky in their final five. Yes, the Mean Green routed Army earlier this year, but I’m viewing that as more of a fluke than a premonition of what’ll happen this time around.
Prediction: Army 31 – North Texas 17
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman – No. 24 Temple vs. Wake Forest
If I’m being completely honest, I probably won’t watch this game solely to avoid hearing a thousand opinions, jokes and lines about ‘Wakeyleaks’. But on that subject, the biggest question yet to be answered in all of this is why anyone thought sabotage was necessary for Wake Forest to lose. Their six wins are the most in a season since 2011, and I don’t see them reaching seven in this game. Outside of Tuscaloosa and Ann Arbor, Temple has a legitimate argument as one of the best defenses in America. Meanwhile, outside of Boston College and Rutgers, Wake Forest has a legitimate argument as one of the worst offenses in America. Two plus two equals four, folks.
The Demon Deacons chances of winning this game resides with their above-average defense containing Temple’s above-average offense. While not quite on the same plane as the Owls, Wake Forest’s defense does allow only 21.8 points per game on 370.1 yards. They’re also 12th in the nation at forcing turnovers, claiming 25 on the season. Duke Ejiofor and Marquel Lee are two bona fide stars with NFL potential. The pair have combined for 34 TFLs and 17.5 sacks this year and are wrecking back of force for the Demon Deacons. CB Brad Watson is also on NFL radars. The senior has two interceptions and six pass deflections this season as Wake Forest’s top corner. Senior QB Phillip Walker hasn’t excelled in the passing game, but he’s been serviceable, throwing for 2,900 yards and 20 touchdowns. Walker is somewhat interception-prone, having thrown 12 this year and 43 in his four-year career at Temple. Running-wise, the Owls feature Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead, who both have exactly 918 yards this season.
While neither Temple’s offense or Wake Forest’s defense has much of an edge over the other, the Owl’s defense owns a huge advantage over Wake Forest’s offense. Get a load of some of these numbers for the Owl defense: 275.9 yards allowed per game (third in nation); 17.2 points allowed per game (seventh in nation); 130.8 rushing yards allowed per game (26th); 145.2 passing yards allowed (second in nation); 72.4 defensive red zone percentage (sixth in nation). In summary, this group is good. Haason Reddick, a projected early round NFL draft pick this coming April, has been a monster at the outside linebacker position, racking up 21.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks on the season. Sophomore CB Delvon Randall has been a ball-hawk on the back end, picking off three passes on the season with another four pass deflections. This team hasn’t surrendered more than 13 points in a game since October. And Wake Forest is one of the worst offenses they’ll play all season. The Demon Deacons 125th in the country in total offense and a slightly-better 121st in scoring offense. Their highest scoring output was 38 points against FCS Delaware. Junior QB John Wolford has struggled, throwing only seven touchdowns to nine interceptions. Wolford does combine with Matt Colburn and Cade Carney to give Wake Forest three 500-yard rushers on the season, but no one of them have eclipsed 600 yards and Wolford leads the group with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. Simply put, the Demon Deacons struggle to move the ball. Odds are they’ll struggle even more so in this game.
Temple should run away with this game. The Demon Deacons started the season 4-0, but have finished 2-6 with no wins against teams above .500. Temple comes in hot, having won their last seven, including the AAC Championship game. The Owls should ride the strength of their defense to an easy win here.
Prediction: Temple 32 – Wake Forest 13
National Funding Holiday Bowl – Minnesota vs. Washington State
Another game that will feature announcers repeating the same topic over and over. Minnesota’s football team has been at the forefront of national news after they threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl in protest of 10 football players being suspended in response to the school’s investigation into an alleged sexual assault. Frankly, I think the Gophers were threatening to boycott because they know they’re probably going to get destroyed.
If you’re watching this game, it’s to see Luke Faulk. The product of Logan, Utah is fourth in the country with 4,204 pass yards on the season. Outside of Texas Tech, which is in a category all on its own, the Cougars boast what is arguably the best passing attack in the country. It’s unclear whether Faulk will declare for the NFL following this year or if he’ll return for his senior season, but either way Faulk stands a good chance to not only be drafted, but to be labeled as a franchise QB. Faulk has several weapons at his disposal in the Cougar offense, as well. Even with senior wideout River Cracraft suffering a torn ACL against Cal, both Gabe Marks and Tavares Martin Jr. have topped 700 yards receiving this year. All told, Washington has 10 players who have caught 20 passes or more this season. Cracraft was the team’s leading receiver before his injury, but the offense shouldn’t be derailed by his absence. The trick to beating Washington State’s offense is to force turnovers. In their four losses this year, the Cougars have turned the ball over eight times, compared to eight turnovers in the team’s eight wins.
Minnesota does force a good amount of turnovers, forcing 24 on the year. Only eight of those were interceptions, however. The Golden Gophers are middle-of-the-road when it comes to pass defense, allowing 228.2 yards per game, good for only 69th in FBS. Minnesota will need an outlier-type of game from their secondary to slow down Washington State enough for their offense to keep up. They do have the talent for it, though. CB Jalen Myrick has nine pass deflections on the season while CB KiAnte Hardin and LB Jonathan Celestin both have four. The Gophers don’t have a singular pass rusher, as DL Steven Richardson leads the team with seven on the season, but as a team, Minnesota ranks 21st in the country with 2.83 per game. Against a quality offensive line led by senior C Riley Sorenson, that reliance on a community of pass rushers may not be enough to pressure Faulk.
The good news for the Gophers is that Washington State’s defense isn’t as lauded as their offense. Unfortunately for the Gophers, their offense still might not be capable of taking advantage. The Cougar defense is respectable, allowing 27.2 points per game. SS Shalom Luani anchors the unit on the back end. The senior has four interceptions and six pass deflection this year in addition to one forced fumble. The Cougars aren’t terribly adept at rushing the passer, though, collecting only 17 sacks on the season, but against Minnesota, that might not be entirely necessary. QB Mitch Leidner has struggled mightily this year, throwing seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. With the passing game barely eclipsing 2,000 yards on the season, the running game has struggled at times, too. RB Rodney Smith did top the 1,000-yard mark on the season, though he hasn’t topped 60 yards in a game since an early November game against Purdue.
I don’t see Minnesota being able to stop Washington State’s offense consistently enough to keep this to a low-scoring game. The Cougars are going to get theirs, meaning this game will come down to Minnesota’s offense being able to keep up. I don’t see enough firepower and skill on offense for them to do that.
Prediction: Washington State 44 – Minnesota 31
Motel 6 Cactus Bowl – Boise State vs. Baylor
Whatever happened to Baylor? The Bears started the season 6-0 and were viewed as a dark horse for the Playoff, only to become only the second team in FBS history to then finish 6-6. A disastrous 0-4 November sunk Baylor’s season. What caused such a calamity? Well, the offense Baylor relies on to win games sputtered and the porous defense became a dumpster fire. In those four losses in November, Baylor averaged 480 yards per game on offense. Not bad numbers on their own, but pretty bad when you notice that it’s over 70 yards fewer per game than their averages through September and October. Defensively, the Bears also gave up 580 yards per game, 170 more yards than they averaged during October. Penalties also skyrocketed in the latter half of the season. The defense stopped forcing turnovers and the offense suddenly couldn’t stop giving them away. In short, the Baylor train derailed sometime in late October/early November. It then subsequently blew up. Repeatedly. With more news of more NCAA allegations coming against the school, this time for several assistants committing several recruiting violations, it’s tough to see Baylor getting anywhere near its ‘glory days’ of just several years ago. Let alone where it was at 6-0 in October.
But, the bowl game must be played at Boise State looks poised to capitalize on the Bears’ misfortune. While Boise State’s season hasn’t gone exactly the way they planned, the Broncos still stand at 10-2 and are an extremely talented team. QB Brett Rypien has had an excellent season en route to being to the Mountain West All-Conference first team. The sophomore has compiled 3,300 yards and 23 touchdowns. Most impressively, though, is Rypien ranking second in the nation in pass yards per completion among QBs with 15 attempts per game. Rypien can thank his two 1,000-yard receivers Thomas Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson for much of that. The two wideouts have gone for 1,193 and 1,041 yards on the season, respectively. RB Jeremy McNichols is the indubitable star on this offense, though. McNichols ranks fifth in the nation with 1,663 yards rushing on the season. The future NFL draft pick has been a stud for the Broncos this season. And with both Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey sitting out their bowl games, the junior is one of the best running backs still to play a bowl.
Defensively, the Broncos should be fine for this game. Against Baylor, you’re always going to give up points. The trick is to force field goals and defend the pass very well. Boise State’s red zone defense numbers aren’t especially terrific, as they’ve given up a score on 30 out of 34 possessions inside the red zone this year, though 12 of those scores were from field goals. The Bronco pass defense, however, has been excellent this year. Boise State ranks 27th in the nation in pass yards allowed per game with an average 199.5 yards per game. Senior DB Jonathan Moxey has been a stone wall, breaking up 13 passes on the season. Fellow CB Tyler Horton, not to be outdone, has seven pass deflections plus an 85-yard pick six to his name.
You may notice that I’m going a little skimpy on Baylor stats here. That’s because the stats don’t tell the story for Baylor right now. Out of all FBS programs, Baylor is the most upheaval right now. There’s no stat that can illustrate that adequately. And while the Bears were able to keep such upheaval off the football field for a while, it appears the floodgates have opened. RB Shock Linwood has decided to forgo the Cactus Bowl, despite his status as a fringe draft prospect. No one knows if any of the coaching staff will remain for next year, including first-year head coach Jim Grobe. There is a lot of talent on this Baylor team, especially on offense; I really like Seth Russell as a spread quarterback. But how much punch can the Bears muster right now? The university brought much of this mess upon themselves, but with (at least to the extent of my knowledge) most of those responsible for Baylor’s past mistakes gone, it’s a bunch of innocent 18- and 19-year-old football players who have been left to try and play football. Football’s difficult enough as it is. It’s darned near impossible with a raincloud hanging over you like Baylor has right now. That’s what we’ve seen over the past few weeks for Baylor’s football program. It will probably continue.
Prediction: Boise State 45 – Baylor 27
New Era Pinstripe Bowl – No. 23 Pittsburgh vs. Northwestern
If you know what to make of Northwestern, congratulations. You’re one of the few. The Wildcats began the season with losses to Western Michigan (OK) and Illinois State (what?), but turned it around with wins over Iowa and Indiana while keeping it close with both Ohio State and Wisconsin. Then they finished the season beating Purdue, losing decidedly to Minnesota, and beating Illinois. There might not be another team in a Power 5 conference that we know less about. We know quite a bit more about Pitt. The Panthers’ four losses this year: Oklahoma State, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Miami. Translated, they haven’t had a bad loss all year. Furthermore, they’ve got wins over Clemson and Penn State on their resume. In short, we’ve got a team we know is pretty good versus a team that we know at least plays football.
The Panthers’ strength is in their offense, more specifically their rushing offense. You’ve probably heard about James Conner and his feel-good story of the year, but what you may not also know is that Conner is a freaking good running back in and of himself. The junior has amassed 1,060 yards on the ground this year along with 16 touchdowns. Along with Conner, there’s Quadree Henderson, who’s averaging over 10 yards per carry on the season. QB Nathan Peterman does pose a quality threat in the passing game when the Panthers do pass the ball. In his senior season, Peterman has delivered his best, eclipsing 2,600 yards passing with 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Defensively, Pittsburgh’s numbers haven’t been as stellar, maintaining a paltry 109th best scoring defense. There is talent on that side of the ball, however. OLB Ejuan Price has been a thorn in offenses’ sides this year, as the NFL prospect has totaled 21 TFLs, 12 sacks, and three forced fumbles on the year.
Northwestern’s offense relies almost exclusively on three players: QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson, and WR Austin Carr. Thorson has accounted for all but four passing yards for the Wildcats this season, while Jackson and Carr amount to 57% of the team’s rushing and receiving yards. The dependence on those four hasn’t been terrible for the Wildcats, though, but it hasn’t been terrific either, with Northwestern ranked a mediocre 76th in total offense. The defense falls very much into that same category. 59th in total defense isn’t bad, but it’s also not particularly good. DE Ifeadi Odenigbo is one of the leaders of the defense which you’ll hear the name of a lot in this game and also in the NFL draft. Odenigbo has tallied 12 TFLs and 10 sacks on the season and is projected to be selected in the later rounds of the NFL draft. S Godwin Igwebuike and LB Anthony Walker are the leading tacklers and playmakers for the defense. The pair have combined this season for 199 tackles, including 15.5 TFLs, 11 pass deflections, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. For Northwestern to hang with the Panthers, those two will have to be all over the field.
This game will lack a lot of pizazz. Outside of Conner’s victory over cancer, there’s not many intriguing storylines. Pittsburgh is a quality team that plays fundamentally sound football. And we’re still not sure what to make of Northwestern this season, though they are undoubtedly better now than they were in September. But with the ceiling of the Wildcats largely unknown, and the ceiling of the Panthers on clear display in victories over Clemson and Penn State, I’ll take what I know over what I don’t.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27 – Northwestern 19
Russell Athletic Bowl – No. 16 West Virginia vs. Miami
Frankly, it’s hard to label either of these teams as a truly good team. West Virginia is 10-2, yes, but their best win was probably at home over BYU. Miami has had an absolute roller coaster of a season, winning their first four before suffering a four-game losing streak and then winning their last four games of the season. But looking throughout their season, their best win is probably at home over Pittsburgh. Both teams had opportunities to make statements victories during the season, but both failed to fully capitalize on said opportunites. That makes some prime conditions for a good bowl game. Both teams will be wanting that victory over a quality opponent to validate themselves as a truly good team. And both teams have the talent to put on a good show while doing so.
You like good quarterbacking play? Silly question, who doesn’t? This game is going to have plenty. Skyler Howard for West Virginia and Brad Kaaya of Miami have been two of the nation’s best, with Kaaya tabbed as one of the top QB prospects of this year’s NFL draft should he elect to leave early. Howard has cooled off since his blazing start to the season, but the QB poses a major threat on offense, having thrown for 3,194 yards this season with 26 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Kaaya amassed 3,250 yards with 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Howard poses more of a running threat, having totaled 400 yards on the season while Kaaya hasn’t even recorded a rush all year. Each QB also has an arsenal of weapons at their disposal. The Mountaineers sport Justin Crawford and his season total of 1,168 rushing yards, while the Hurricanes counter with Mark Walton, who’s amassed 1,065 yards on the ground. Shelton Gibson, Daikiel Shorts, and Ka’Raun White man the wideout position for West Virginia, combining for 2,343 yards receiving. Miami has Ahmonn Richards, Stacy Coley, and David Njoku who together have gone for 2,223 yards receiving. Both offenses are more than capable of moving the ball down the field, though the Mountaineers undoubtedly have a decisive edge in that category.
Normally, when it comes to West Virginia, you expect the offense to be fairly grand and the defense to be fairly bland. That’s not entirely the case this year. The Mountaineers are a very pedestrian 80th in total defense, but a fairly superb 35th in scoring defense. To accomplish that, West Virginia has lived off of forcing turnovers on defense, ranking 12th in the nation with 25 on the season. CB Rasul Douglas has embodied that more than anyone on the team. The senior has eight interceptions on the season, plus one forced fumble. The Mountaineers lack a pass rush specialist, but with four players totaling at least six pass deflections, including Douglas, the secondary has been good enough to overcome the deficiency.
While not as opportunistic as the Mountaineers, the Hurricane defense has been far greater otherwise. The unit comes in ranked 27th in the country in total defense and an even better 13th in scoring defense. Miami predicates its defense on getting into the backfield. The Hurricanes rank sixth in the nation in tackles for loss, averaging 8.3 per game. On the back end, DBs Rayshawn Jenkins and Corn Elder have proven solid, teaming up for 19 pass deflections on the season. The pair are also quite adept at blitzing from the corner positions, as the two have combined for 4.5 sacks on the year. The Hurricanes do a lot of things well on defense, and against West Virginia high-octane offense, every phase will need to be on point for the Hurricanes.
To me, this is a marquee game that signifies that point of bowl season where games really start to become more ‘relevant’. In all probability, I see this game coming down to which quarterback has the better day. Miami’s defense poses much more of a constant threat than West Virginia, which I expect to make just enough of a difference. Brad Kaaya is a possible NFL first-round pick, and I think his performance here validates that status. Barely.
Prediction: Miami (FL) 42 – West Virginia 38
Foster Farms Bowl – Indiana vs. No. 19 Utah
Utah, you had a great season. In all honesty, you did. You flirted with the Playoff for a few weeks there. You almost took the Pac-12 South title. These season could’ve been so much more, but let’s not hold a pity party here, you still went 8-4. You’re oh so close to capturing that first Pac-12 title. As a reward for your quality campaign, you get to play… a 6-6 Indiana team. Congratufreakinglations. This has to be a slap in the face for Utah fans. Stanford gets to tangle with North Carolina. Even Washington State gets to play Minnesota. But Utah? You get an obviously inferior Indiana team. And Indiana? Well, you’re just happy to be here.
That isn’t exactly true. On the surface, this looks like an easy win for Utah. An 8-4 Pac-12 team that competed for the division title should surely storm over a 6-6 Big Ten team who’s best win this year is probably against Maryland. But games are often decided by match-ups. And this isn’t a terrific one for Utah. Utah has neither a top-50 offense or defense according to total yards this year. Their defense has two strengths: takeaways, where they rank fifth in the country, and their 25th-ranked rush defense which allows only 129.7 yards per game. The turnover battle bodes well for the Utes, as the Hoosiers have given the ball away an FBS 7th-worst 26 times this year. Apart from that, Indiana doesn’t run the ball a whole lot. They rely quite a bit on the passing game, where they average 277.9 yards per game. Utah doesn’t have a terrific pass defense. At 256.8 yards allowed per game, the Utes are 103rd in the country at defending the pass. Yes, sophomore Chase Hansen leads the Utes in tackles, and has three interceptions and six pass deflections on the year. Hansen’s probably the best player in all of Utah right now, but he can only cover so much space. The key in this game will be Utah’s pass rush against Indiana’s O-line. Indiana’s line is talented, with G Dan Feeney projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, but as a unit, the Hoosiers have been fairly mediocre in pass protection, allowing a little over two sacks per game. Utah, meanwhile, has one of the best pass rushes in the country. Hunter Dimick has 13.5 sacks on the season, plus 19.5 TFLs. Pita Taumoepenu has pitched in seven sacks of his own, as well. The Utes average well over three sacks per game and will need an excellent, quick pass rush in order to alleviate some of the concerns in the secondary.
As I alluded to earlier, Indiana is somewhat turnover prone, while Utah is very much takeaway prone. Indiana QB has 3,174 passing yards to his credit this year, but also 16 interceptions. Devine Redding eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for rushing in the Hoosiers’ previous game, but almost lost his starting job earlier in the season due to an inability to protect the ball. Even more worrisome is that turnovers peaked in November for Indiana, as the team averaged 3.3 giveaways through four games. Utah did slow down on its takeaway pace at the same time, however, but that could also be attributed to playing teams like Washington and Colorado over the final month of the season. Simply put, Indiana isn’t on that same level. The Utes and Hoosiers and evenly matched in a lot of statistical categories, but Utah has a sizeable advantage in the turnover battle, which could make all the difference here.
Coaching will also be a deciding factor here. Kyle Whittingham for the Utes is one of the most underrated coaches in all of college football. He’s lost only one bowl game in his entire coaching career, with a total record of 9-1 in the postseason. On the opposite sideline, former defensive coordinator Tom Allen will be making his FBS head coaching debut after Kevin Wilson was dismissed amid allegations of player mistreatment. The Hoosiers held a simulated game during their bowl prep almost solely to give Allen experience with clock management and fourth-down decisions. Allen may prove to be a good or even great head coach, but Whittingham has an obvious advantage here. With a turnover advantage also in his back pocket, I’d expect Whittingham and the Utes to continue their postseason success, albeit closer than many expect.
Prediction: Utah 31 – Indiana 27
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl – Texas A&M vs. Kansas State
What the heck is an ‘AdvoCare’? Like, do they just advocate care or something? “Yes, we see you have a broken leg. We suggest you go to a doctor.” Some of these bowl sponsors are super weird. At least the Potato Bowl gives us ‘Spuddy Buddy’, the best mascot ever (sidenote: you know how in NCAA football video games, you can play a game with an entire team of mascots? I wish you could still do that but with Spuddy Buddy). In terms of the game, the word is bland. Texas A&M went from being unpopular playoff candidate to finishing 2-4 down the stretch, with wins over New Mexico State and UTSA. Kansas State had the quietest 8-4 season possibly ever.
Possibly the biggest story here is Myles Garrett. Garrett is frequently slotted in as the number one overall pick in next April’s NFL Draft, but unless you’re a big fan of CBS and their near-exclusive coverage of the SEC, then you probably haven’t seen a whole lot of him. To sum it all up, he’s good. Like, so good that he’d still be good even if he got drafted by the Cleveland Browns good. He’s only played in nine games this year due to injury, and he’s faced a lot double teams when he does play, which explains, in part, his relatively low sack total of 8.5 this year. But he amassed 32 in the two seasons prior. Despite having one of the best defenders in the country, however, Texas A&M’s defense as a whole isn’t near as formiddable. The Aggies do allow only 23.8 points per game, a pretty good mark, but rely heavily on turnovers to do so. Texas A&M allows 444.2 yards per game, ranking in the bottom third of the FBS. 24 takeaways have helped the Aggies to salvage what has been a fairly porous defense, apart from Garrett. Over the final month of the season, those takeaways also diminished, and the Aggies’ scoring defense jumped to 32 points allowed per game.
Kansas State doesn’t give the ball away. Head coach Bill Snyder again has the Wildcats playing fundamentally sound football, giving the ball away only 12 times on the year. The offense hasn’t been as prolific as in years past; junior QB Jesse Ertz is no Collin Klein to say the least. Ertz has only eight touchdowns to four interceptions on the season, while throwing for only 1,560 yards. The rushing offfense is still clicking well, with a 25th best 232.9 yards per game. Ertz also leads the Wildcats in this category, too, by a good margin. Ertz has 945 yards rushing on the season while no other teammate has eclipsed 600. Defensively, the Wildcats aren’t nearly as porous as the Aggies, though they do still rely on generating turnovers. Kansas State ranks 50th in the nation with 382.2 yards per game, while also forcing 23 turnovers on the year. OLB Jordan Willis and DB D.J. Reed have been the stars for the unit this season. Willis has 16.5 TFLs and 11.5 sacks on the year, while Reed three interceptions and a remarkable 15 pass deflections while manning the secondary.
If you’re watching this game, don’t expect it to be a super exciting game. The Foster Farms Bowl is on at the same time; watch that instead. But watch a few plays here during commercials to get used to seeing Myles Garrett. You’ll be seeing him a lot more soon. But despite Garrett’s status as one of the best players in the country, my gut says to side with Snyder and the Wildcats.
Prediction: Kansas State 24 – Texas A&M 17
Birmingham Bowl – South Florida vs. South Carolina
My nominee for most lopsided match-up in all of bowl season. USF, of the AAC, is 10-2. South Carolina, of the SEC, is 6-6. Sorry, but the SEC isn’t that much better than the AAC to account for that large of a difference. The Gamecocks also have one of the worst offenses in the entire country. Meanwhile, USF is in the top ten for total offense. Neither team is terrific, defensively, though the Gamecocks are undoubtedly the better team on that side of the ball. But South Carolina will not have the personnel necessary to slow down the Bulls’ offense, nor do they have the players necessary to exploit USF’s less-than-average defense. Even with USF losing head coach Willie Taggart to Oregon, Charlie Strong is more than capable of coming in to lead the Bulls to a victory here.
The Bulls sport one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, ranking fifth in total rushing yards. The difference between the Bulls and a team like, say, Navy or New Mexico, however, is that USF can still throw the ball effectively. The four teams ahead of the Bulls in rushing also rank in the bottom five in all of FBS for passing yards. USF ranks 72nd in that category. Not terrific, but combined with that elite rushing offense, it’s a tough handle. South Carolina does play decent defense, having forced 25 turnovers on the year while allowing 24.8 points per game. But USF QB Quinton Flowers has thrown for over 2,500 yards on the season and also leads the Bulls in rushing at 1,425 yards. He’s accounted for 37 touchdowns so far this season, but he’s not alone on the Bulls’ offense. RB Marlon Mack also has 1,137 yards rushing on the season, while nine separate receivers have caught a touchdown on the year.
The Gamecocks have rotated through three QBs throughout the season, and their offense has struggled from the lack of stability. Jake Bentley, Perry Orth, and Brandon McIlwain have all spent time running the offense, but none have overly impressed this year. Rico Dowdle has done his best to carry the rushing offense, but at only 714 yards, it hasn’t been enough. USF, again, isn’t spectacular on defense. But junior CB Deatrick Nichols has four interceptions and seven passes broken up on the season while LB Auggie Sanchez leads the team with 107 tackles. With USF not scoring less than 35 points all season, their defense should be just fine against South Carolina.
Short, sweet, and to the point, South Carolina is still in rebuilding mode while USF is trying to assert itself as one of the best Group of 5 teams in the country. A solid bowl win here should help USF to legitimize that argument.
USF 45 – South Carolina 23
Belk Bowl – Arkansas vs. No. 22 Virginia Tech
The Belk Bowl is the best Bowl Game Twitter. That’s reason enough to watch this game and follow along on Twitter, but the game should be plenty good, as well. Virginia Tech still hasn’t lived up to their potential this season, while Arkansas has Bret Bielema as their head coach. There’s sure to be some shenanigans going on here.
Virginia Tech, first of all, is frustrating. The Hokies rank in the top 40 in the country for both total offense and defense. They’ve forced 21 turnovers. They have a good red zone defense while scoring consistently when they reach there themselves. The Hokies do a lot of things really well… except avoiding turnovers. 24 turnovers all but explains why the Hokies have failed to capitalize on the complete team they’ve fielded this year. Luckily, though, the Razorbacks aren’t superbly adept at forcing turnovers, with only 19 on the season.
Arkansas isn’t as well rounded as the Hokies. At 76th and 428.7 yards allowed per game, the Razorbacks defend simply isn’t as formidable. Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans is one of the better quarterbacks Arkansas will face all year. Evans has 3,309 yards passing on the year, 759 yards rushing, and accounts for 37 touchdowns on the year. Sophomore RB Travon McMillan has been an adequate sidekick, too, rushing for 637 yards on the year. Isaiah Ford has more than filled the wideout position for the Hokies this year, as the junior has gone for 1,038 yards receiving on the year en route to receiving All-ACC first team honors. Arkansas probably doesn’t have the defensive personnel to stop the Hokie offense for a full game, but the Razorbacks have been excellent at creating big plays on that side of the ball. Four different defensemen have scored a touchdown on the season and the Razorbacks will be hoping for more of the same here.
Arkansas’s offense can match Virginia Tech’s, but it’s whether or not the Razorbacks can find as much success against a much better defense. Junior QB Austin Allen has enjoyed a superb year, throwing for 3,152 yards with 23 touchdowns. RB Rawleigh Williams III leads the SEC for rushing yards with 1,326 on the season. Unlike the Hokies, though, the Razorbacks do not sport a singular wide receiver, opting for more of a committee approach at the position. Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, and Jared Cornelius have all manned the position admirably and have each amassed above 500 yards receiving on the season. Against Virginia Tech, however, the lack of a ‘special’ talent on the perimeter could cause trouble. Virginia Tech’s rush defense will depend on three All-ACC second team selectees. DT Woody Barron, LB Andrew Motuapuaku, Tremaine Edmunds man the center of the field and have proved an integral part of the Hokies’ rush defense. Arkansas’ offensive success, and thereby the fate of the game, largely rest on the Razorbacks’ ability to run the ball. First team All-SEC OL Dan Skipper will need to have an excellent game, along with the rest of the O-line, to open up enough room for Williams III to operate.
I can’t figure out for the life of me how Virginia Tech got blown out by Tennessee or how they lost to Georgia Tech and Syracuse. The talent and ability that this team has shown at parts of this season make those results extremely puzzling. With nearly a month to prepare, I expect the Hokies to play more like they did in their close loss to Clemson in the ACC championship. When they play like that, there’s not enough deficiencies and weak spots for Arkansas to be able to exploit.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 42 – Arkansas 26
Valero Alamo Bowl – No. 12 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Colorado
I’ve never trusted Oklahoma State. It seems that every year the Cowboys rampage over lesser opponents in the Big 12 and set up ‘huge’ clashes with Big 12 powers like Oklahoma or TCU. Yet despite plenty of opportunities, the Cowboys rarely actually end up on the victorious side of such battles. But my distrust of the Cowboys will be put to the test against Colorado. I like the Buffaloes turning it around and being successful this year. But if the Buffaloes had been selected for the Rose Bowl to play Penn State, I’d be hard pressed to pick Colorado, if you know what I mean.
We know what Oklahoma State is by now: a snapshot of the rest of the Big 12. Really high-powered offense with an atrocious defense. QB Mason Rudolph has thrown for 3,777 yards with 25 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Justice Hill is a 1,000-yard rusher on the season. James Washington is the next man up in Oklahoma State history of 1,000-yard receivers, with a total of 1,209 yards on the season. Let’s be honest. For Oklahoma State, none of those numbers impress you that much. They’re good numbers, yes, and they show that the Cowboys are still capable of scoring points in bunches. But this isn’t the best offense we’ve seen from Stillwater. Defensively, the Cowboys may actually be slightly better than usual, though. That’s still not saying a whole lot, as Oklahoma State ranks 109th in total defense. But, the Cowboys do rank in the top 50 in country for total sacks and red zone defense. With 28.1 points allowed per game, the defense has been just good enough for the offense to largely carry the team through the season.
Colorado, though, is here largely because of their defense. Offensively, the Buffaloes have had quality play. Sefo Liufau has been great when healthy, throwing for 2,171 yards with 11 touchdowns in what amounts to about nine games of play. Phillip Lindsay has 1,189 yards rushing on the season. But defense is where Colorado has staked its claim. DBs Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson have combined for eight interceptions and 25 pass deflections. LB Jimmie Gilbert has 10.5 sacks on the season. As a unit, Colorado ranks 17th in total defense in the nation, 26th in total sacks, and, most importantly against Oklahoma State high-octane passing attack, 13th in passing yards allowed. The Buffaloes have been great defensively. With about a month to heal and prepare, the offense should be close to full strength. The combination of those two units would make the Buffaloes an imposing task for any team not from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The job that Mike MacIntyre has done at Colorado is nothing short of miraculous. That isn’t an understatement and can’t be applauded enough. Think about when Colorado made the move to the Pac-12. No one was talking about the Buffaloes being anything more than filler for the conference. Now, Colorado represents one of, if not the best conference addition we’ve yet seen. If the Colorado Buffaloes can keep this level of excellence up for even a few years, the Pac-12 could legitimately have a shot at the claim of the best conference in America. If you can’t tell, I’m picking Colorado here. I still don’t trust Oklahoma State, and I can’t bring myself to do it here. Colorado is the real deal.
Prediction: Colorado 41 – Oklahoma State 27