Bowl Picks: Who let the Dogs out
By Queen Carioca
Come in and have a seat. Close the tent flap behind you as once again I glance into my crystal ball.
Check out my bowl prophecies for the early games on New Year’s Day:
TAXSLAYER.com GATOR BOWL
MISSISSIPPI ST. (8-4) vs NORTHWESTERN (9-3): It’s all about the Cats and the Dogs. Don’t look now but both these squads quietly put together seasons to be proud of - but only one gets to head into the offseason with one final cherry on top in the form of a New Year’s Day bowl win. The Bulldogs started off hot, going 7-0 before a brutal stretch of the SEC West schedule knocked them off their feet with 4 losses in five games down the stretch. The most deflating of those was a one-sided setback on the road in Oxford against rival Ole Miss in a game that saw MSU shredded for 294 yards and 5 TD tosses by Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace. Unfortunately for Northwestern, the Wildcats aren’t built to seize on any of the holes that particular game tape is sure to reveal. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad is 108th in the country throwing the football (167/game) and seven times this year the Cats have been held to 135 or fewer yards through the air. Instead, Northwestern has leaned on a robust ground game (14th nationally) that’s been paced by junior feature back Venric Mark (1,310 yards & 11 TDs). The Dogs will answer with hot-handed signal caller Tyler Russell and a passing attack that churned out over 300 yards in each of State’s final three games. But, as you might have guessed in a match-up between two the nation’s top teams in the critical category of turnover margin (MSU 5th, NW 10th), this one will be won or lost with ball security. A plus-1 margin in this game could mean all the difference, and that’s the ratio the Bulldogs will find a way to reach in helping them win their 6th straight bowl. Once again, poor Pat Fitzgerald is cast as the Susan Lucci of postseason coaches. Maybe next year. Mississippi State 34, Northwestern 27
HEART OF DALLAS BOWL
PURDUE (6-6) vs OKLAHOMA ST. (7-5): These are exactly the kind of quirky match-ups that make bowl season so much fun. It’s the top-ranked scoring offense in the Big 12 against the 10th ranked scoring defense in the Big Ten. At first blush, doesn't it seem like a lot more than a single win separated these two teams this year? Oklahoma State is dynamic, explosive and dangerous. Three different OSU quarterbacks have registered a 300-yard passing performance this season. Moreover, the Cowboys boast their conference’s top rusher (Joseph Randle, 113/game) and have scored 30 or more points in 29 of their last 30 games. Purdue, on the other hand, has been plain-Jane from start to finish. A team extraordinary only in its ordinariness. A middle of the pack Big Ten team in every major statistical category, including its record. Okey State has had 85 plays of 20+ yards; the Boilermakers have had just 48. You can hardly be surprised that Vegas pegged the Boilermakers as 17 point underdogs in this one. But, as former Vikings coach Bud Grant used to say: “Distractions are the ultimate equalizer.” Oklahoma State spent the last month watching its coaching staff suffer losses while listening to the possibility of more to come. O-Coordinator Todd Monken is gone, off to take the head coaching job at Southern Miss. But the chatter didn’t stop with Monken’s departure. There were also persistent rumors of Head Coach Mike Gundy’s name being attached to various openings, as well as the possible retirement of veteran D-Coordinator Bill Young. With the coaching carousel finally at a stop (for now), Gundy and company have the Cowboys focused on reaching 8 wins. The problem for Purdue is that it has its own share of distractions. Head Coach Danny Hope was fired in early December and replaced by Kent State’s Darrell Hazell, but offensive assistant Patrick Higgins will lead the Boilermakers in the bowl game. Purdue is the hotter team, having won its final three down the stretch to reach bowl eligibility. The Cowpokes, though, will be eager to get the sour taste out of their mouths left by hard fought season ending losses to Oklahoma (51-48) and Baylor (41-34). Junior signal caller Clint Chelf (12 TD, 6 Int.) will get the start against Purdue. Expect Chelf to make some headway against a Boilermaker defense that struggles to pressure the passer (9th in the Big Ten in sacks) and has yielded 321 or more yards through the air four times this year. In a strange statistical twist, Purdue is 6-0 when RB Akeem Shavers hits paydirt but 0-6 when he doesn’t. Shavers will reach the endzone – maybe even twice - but this time around it won’t matter. Oklahoma State 44, Purdue 24
CAPITAL ONE BOWL
GEORGIA (11-2) vs NEBRASKA (10-3): Orlando plays host to this intriguing match-up between the losers of their respective conference games. Georgia blew a 4th quarter lead and came within a whisker of upsetting Alabama last month in Atlanta in a game that likely represented a shot to play the BCS national title. Nebraska, meanwhile, lost by . . . several whiskers to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. The Huskers trailed 42-10 by the intermission and got shredded for 539 yards rushing en route to a 70-31 loss. Defensive woes typically won’t be made better by squaring off against the Bulldogs. Georgia scored 37 or more points in 9 of 13 games this year and was led by one of the most lethal passers in college football. Aaron Murray threw for 3,466 yards and 31 scores against just 8 picks to finish 2nd in the nation in passing efficiency, and he did an incredible job of spreading the wealth as ten different Bulldogs caught at least one touchdown and six different players hauled in a pass of 43 yards or more. The Georgia ground game, paced by Todd Gurley (1,260 yards & 16 TDs), has provided enough balance to make OC Mike Bobo’s offense especially dangerous. Defensively, the Huskers are either hot – or they’re not. In the team’s 10 wins, Nebraska has held the opposition to 17 points/game. In its 3 losses, however, that figure balloons up to 57 per outing, including the aforementioned 70-31 demolition against Wisconsin, a 63-28 beat down by Ohio State and a 36-30 loss at UCLA. The Huskers did finish no. 1 nationally against the pass (148/game) but that ranking was more the product of a porous run defense (Nebraska allowed 344 or more yards rushing three times) than an exceptional pass defense. Nearly 60% of the snaps taken against the Cornhuskers defense were rushing attempts. Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense is capable, averaging 35 points/game and ranking no. 8 nationally on the ground (255/game), but they won’t make a big enough dent in the UGA defense to keep pace. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Jones has been an unstoppable force (22.5 Tackles-for-Loss, 12.5 sacks, 7 Forced Fumbles & 1 Int.) in the Bulldogs front seven and a careless Huskers attack that has turned the football over 32 times makes for an inviting target. After heading into the Big Ten championship game with such high hopes at 10-2 last month, Nebraska fans are about to find out how much they hate it when bad things happen to good seasons. Georgia 35, Nebraska 27
SOUTH CAROLINA (10-2) vs MICHIGAN (8-4): First things first. Denard Robinson (4,395 career yards rushing) enters this game needing 86 yards to unseat West Virginia’s Pat White (4,480) as college football’s all-time rushing champ among quarterbacks. If D-Rob does break the record it should at least come with an asterisk attached. Part of his yardage on the ground this year has come not as a quarterback but rather as a running back out of specialty formations. After suffering a nerve injury to his elbow against Nebraska, Robinson returned in the Wolverines final two games of the regular season – but he was still unable to throw the football. Instead, Michigan O-Coordinator Al Borges worked him in to run the Wildcat and as a slot receiver. In those two contests, Robinson ran for 220 yards. During D-Rob’s injury the Wolverines turned to talented junior Devin Gardner. Gardner slid in under center and posted a 3-1 record as the starter, averaging 251 yards/game through the air and accounting for 15 TDs (8 passing, 7 rushing) in four outings. As you might expect, Brady Hoke has kept a lid on how he plans to utilize Gardner and Robinson against a South Carolina team that has its own dual-threat quarterback in junior Connor Shaw (67%, 15 TDs, 7 Int). A foot injury forced Shaw out of the regular season finale against Clemson, but he is expected to return against Michigan. With All-American workhorse Marcus Lattimore (662 rushing yards & 11 TDs) out for the year following a late October injury, Steve Spurrier will continue to turn to Shaw to handle a larger share of the offensive load. Lattimore’s injury, coupled with a dinged up Kenny Miles (358 yards), could result in more playing time against the Wolverines for rising freshman Mike Davis (275 yards). In the end, Spurrier will likely play things close to the vest and lean on Jadeveon Clowney (13 sacks, 21.5 Tackles-for-Loss) and the Gamecocks' 11th ranked defense to force UM into enough mistakes to bring it home. That might be a recipe that could cost the ole' ball coach. Michigan 27, South Carolina 23
Check back later for previews of the later games on New Year’s Day - the Rose and the Orange!