Dark-Horse Stars Who Will Shine This Bowl Season
With 35 bowl games involving clashes between different FBS conferences about to go down, you’ve got to figure that amazing individual performances will be coming out of the woodwork before you can say “Yule log.”
And though some of the names that will flash across our collective screens this holiday season will be familiar, others will be as fresh as the summer sausage Uncle Floyd brings in from Hickory Farms.
The following slideshow takes an excruciating look at the bowl matchups and highlights dark-horse stars who will ride out of nowhere to thrill us this bowl-blessed bowl season.
Each of these great athletes will, in their own unique way, cash in on a golden postseason opportunity to become a part of the rich fabric that is the 2012 version of the college football bowl extravaganza.
Though it’s a bus that only actually leads to a real destination one out of 35 times, it’s still a journey worth taking with a cast worth celebrating.
These guys are why we love the game.
Stefphon Jefferson, Nevada
Though it’s fairly safe to assume that Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (the No. 1 rusher in the land) ought to rip into Nevada’s No. 112-ranked rushing defense in the upcoming New Mexico Bowl, don’t get duped into thinking he’ll be the only back lighting it up.
Yes, there will be another mismatch in the nation’s first bowl game, and it involves Nevada’s Stefphon Jefferson (who just so happens to be the No. 2 back in the FBS) taking it to an Arizona rushing defense that ranks No. 89 nationally.
If you’re into rushing yards, the New Mexico Bowl on Dec. 15 is the one to watch, and don’t forget that Carey won’t be the only guy stashing yards in his stocking.
Indeed, though Carey rushed for 54 more total yards than Jefferson did in 2012, Carey pumped out two more TDs, earning him a tie for No. 2 overall in rushing scores.
Latavius Murray, UCF
Perhaps a guy you haven’t heard a lot about from a national standpoint, senior RB Latavius Murray cranked out 1,035 yards and 14 TDs in 2012, making him UCF’s No. 1 back.
Murray’s four-game run of 100-plus-yard performance was highlighted by a 192-yard, two-score bally-hoo at Memphis on Oct. 20.
What makes Murray a candidate for a “dark-horse” run during the 2012 bowl extravaganza is a clash with Ball State’s No. 108-ranked rushing defense in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl slated for Friday, Dec. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tune in to see if Murray can’t pump up the volume on a defense that has given up an average of over 205 yards on the ground to opponents this season.
Shane Carden, East Carolina
Sophomore QB Shane Carden has put up some stats worthy of respect in his first season as a starter at ECU, and the impending clash with Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl on Dec. 22 could make his resume look even sweeter.
Carden was 248-of-371 for 2,838 yards, 21 TDs and only nine picks this season, netting him a QB rating of 144.9 which ranks No. 32 in the FBS.
What looks good on paper for the Pirates and Carden in terms of their bowl matchup is that the Ragin Cajuns pass defense finished the season ranked a dismal No. 114 nationally.
This means that East Carolina’s No. 35-ranked passing attack, led by Carden, will square off with one of the worst pass defenses in the nation.
Derek Carr, Fresno State
The truth is, the festively slated Hawaii Bowl which is set to be played on Christmas Eve, may be one of the biggest mismatches of the bowl seasons.
One of the most blaring differences between SMU and Fresno State, at least on paper, is the Mustang’s No. 106 pass defense (which has given up 271 yards per game) vs. the Bulldog’s No. 15-ranked passing attack (which has averaged over 322 yards per game).
And this means that Fresno State QB Derek Carr (311-of-457 for 3,742 yards, 36 TDs and only five picks) could absolutely rip into the SMU defense.
To put this further into perspective, we’re talking about the No. 8-ranked passer in the country taking on one of the worst pass defenses in the nation.
This one could get seriously ugly.
Phillip Thomas, Fresno State
In case you haven’t heard, senior strong safety Phillip Thomas not only leads the nation in interceptions with eight, he is also tied for first nationally in pick-sixes with three this season.
Fresno State’s clash with SMU in the Hawaii Bowl matches up nicely for Thomas to add to his big totals as the Mustangs are led by QB Garrett Gilbert, who has thrown almost as many picks as TDs this season.
Gilbert is 245-of-478 (only 53.1 percent) for 2,720 yards, 14 TDs and 13 picks in 2012, netting him a dismal QB rating of 105.2.
Gilbert’s 13 INTs ties him at No. 11 nationally for the most thrown in the FBS, making the matchup with the opportunistic Thomas look pretty sweet.
Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
Really, the guy who is the No. 8 rusher in the nation shouldn’t be a “dark horse” coming into the bowl season, but when he plays for Western Kentucky, things become a bit more complicated.
Junior RB Antonio Andrews is that guy, and he’s reeled off 1,609 yards and 11 TDs in 2012 helping his team get to its first bowl game in program history.
What’s sweet for Andrews in WKU’s clash with Central Michigan in the Dec. 26 Little Caesar’s Bowl is that he’ll face the Chippewa’s No. 98 rush defense.
Yes, Andrews has eclipsed the 100-yard mark nine times in 2012 and the 200-yard mark on three occasions, and as a bonus he gets to go at a CMU D that has given up a generous 197 yards per game this season.
George Winn, Cincinnati
Though many a football fan will root for Duke to do the un-Duke-able and win its first bowl game since beating Arkansas 7-6 in the 1960 Cotton Bowl, to do so the Blue Devils must, must stop the run.
And in the case of Duke vs. Cincinnati in the 2012 Belk Bowl (Dec. 27 in Charlotte, N.C.) the Blue Devils must stop senior RB George Winn.
On the flip side, Winn has a great opportunity to add to his 1,204 yards and 12 TDs in 2012 by taking advantage of a Duke rushing defense that has given up 200 yards per game to foes this season.
At the end of the day, it’s the Blue Devils No. 104-ranked rushing D vs. the Bearcats No. 31-ranked rushing O, an attack led by George Winn.
Everyone involved has a huge opportunity.
Michael Carter, Minnesota
Definitely a dark-horse star and certainly a dark-horse game…we proudly present Golden Gopher senior DB Michael Carter, who will travel to Houston to face Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 28.
What sets up intriguingly for Carter and Minnesota is that they quietly own rights to the No. 11-ranked pass defense in the FBS, a valuable asset when you are facing the No. 2-ranked passing offense in the land.
Carter comes into the bowl season with two INTs, 12 broken-up passes and 16 passes defended; a number which ties him for No. 14 in the nation in that statistical category.
Though the Golden Gophers haven’t faced an offense like that of the Red Raiders this season, if they can come up big vs. Tech, Carter will be a huge factor, a sudden star and a key to winning.
That is if Minnesota’s offense can actually score some points.
Cody Getz, Air Force
Given the offense that Air Force runs, you could argue that either RB Cody Getz or QB Connor Dietz could shine in the Falcons' Dec. 29 meeting with Rice in the Armed Forces Bowl.
But for argument’s sake we will go with Getz because he’s been the more productive runner in 2012, and the mismatch with the Owls is all about a serious lack of a rush defense.
Yes folks, it’s the run-dominated Air Force offense (try a No. 2 national rank on for size, a stat that should be quantified by remembering that the Falcons run the option) taking on a Rice rush defense that ranks No. 92 in the nation.
To be specific, it’s a group that has averaged over 325 yards per game on all rushing defenses squaring off with a unit that has given up nearly 200 yards per game on a varying degree of successful rushing offenses.
And so, look for Air Force’s Cody Getz (1,213 yards and nine TDs) to rip into the Owl defense like a kid rips into a package on Christmas morning.
Ryan Nassib, Syracuse
Though the entire football nation may well expect to tune into the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl and watch Geno Smith and friends pick apart Syracuse’s No. 65-ranked pass defense on Dec. 29, this is an assumption that may be only half true.
Yes, while it’s safe to think that the Mountaineers will pile on the points in the house that Ruth built and then somebody else rebuilt, what about a West Virginia defense that ranks—wait for it—No. 123 vs. the pass?
This means that only one team in the FBS ranks lower than the Mountaineers against the pass (La. Tech), and it also means that every game West Virginia plays in versus a decent passing team is bound to be a score fest.
Therefore, enter into the picture senior Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib, who leads the No. 21-ranked Orange passing attack.
Yes, that’s the No. 21-ranked (that’s nationally) passing attack.
Nassib is 283-of-448 for 3,619 yards, 24 TDs and only nine picks this season, and though the Orange might not win the game, look for Nassib to light it up in New York City.
Alex Singleton, Tulsa
Though senior RB Alex Singleton isn’t even Tulsa’s No. 1 back (he’s the No. 3 guy), he is the high scorer on the No. 11-ranked rushing offense in the FBS.
It’s important to note that the Golden Hurricane don’t have a single back over 1,000 yards this season and takes more of a “running back by committee” approach as opposed to relying solely on one guy.
And the pot gets even sweeter when you throw in the fact that Tulsa will face Iowa State and its No. 69-ranked rushing D in the Liberty Bowl this New Year’s Eve.
Though this mismatch isn’t as blaring as others, the Golden Hurricane can flat run, and the Cyclones aren’t totally adept at stopping the ground attack—which means Singleton could, well, hit the ground running.
What’s fascinating about Singleton is that he’s not just the top TD getter at Tulsa, no sir; this kid has 21 TDs in 2012, making him tied for No. 4 nationally in rushing TDS.
Who is he tied with? Well, how about Kenjon Barner of Oregon and Montee Ball of Wisconsin?
Zach Mettenberger, LSU
On the surface, this might look like the craziest “dark-horse” pick in our fine presentation, but before you click to the next slide, read on.
Though LSU’s junior QB Zach Mettenberger certainly hasn’t lit up anything this season, he has done well when facing subpar pass defenses, which is exactly what he will find in his next opponent Clemson.
Indeed, LSU will square off with Clemson and its No. 82-ranked pass defense in the New Year’s Eve slate Chick-fil-A Bowl, creating a bit of a provocative situation for Mettenberger and friends.
To illustrate, the Tigers hung up 282 yards passing in their win over Ole Miss, and isn’t it not so ironic that the Rebels pass D finished the season ranked at No. 86 nationally?
Furthermore, how about the 217 yards LSU threw on the No. 116-ranked Arkansas pass D in the finale?
The truth is, Mettenberger and Co. have gotten better as the season has wore on, which means the true icing on the cake could come against a Clemson defense that has given up an average of 250 yards through the air this season.
Venric Mark, Northwestern
If you’re wondering how Northwestern managed to win nine games this season, consider junior RB Venric Mark who piled on 1,213 yards and 11 TDs in 2012.
And if you’re wondering how the Wildcats can score their first bowl win since besting Cal in the 1949 Rose Bowl, look to Mark taking advantage of Mississippi State’s rush defense in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day.
The truth is, the Bulldogs have been powered by their defense in 2012 (they rank No. 28 in scoring D), but this otherwise happy stat hides a small weakness versus the run where they rank No. 71 nationally.
If Mark can expose the MSU defense and add to his total of eight 100-yard-plus games on the season, he’s a star—and Northwestern is finally, at long a postseason major prize winner.
Tyler Russell, Mississippi State
The flip side of the story of potential dark horses in this year’s Gator Bowl comes via junior Mississippi State QB Tyler Wilson who, minus a fairly poor run in the finale vs. Ole Miss, had a great 2012 campaign.
Russell went 219-of-366 for 2,791 yards, 22 TDs and six INTs in 2012, and he may be just the guy who can shine-on and expose Northwestern’s very unsavory No. 102-ranked pass defense to win the Gator Bowl.
To put this into perspective, the Bulldogs haven’t necessarily lit it up through the air this season, but the Wildcats have given up an average of 226 passing yards per game in 2012, which means that Russell could suddenly look like the next Geno Smith.
Dark horse, shining star.
Robert Marve, Purdue
Despite the fact QB Robert Marve didn't really light it up through the air this year, he did hang up 348 yards and four scores on Indiana in a 56-35 win in the closer.
And the Hoosiers rank a somewhat respectable No. 57 in the nation in pass defense.
Enter into the bowl picture (the one with a Heart, in Dallas) an Oklahoma State passing D that ranks a dismal No. 115 nationally and suddenly Jan. 1 could be a career day, win or lose, for Marve.
Yes, it may be a score fest but look for Marve to really rack up some yards on a Cowboy D that has struggled epically through the air.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
An interesting footnote to Georgia’s 2012 regular season is the downward trend the Bulldog rush defense experienced as the season wound down.
To illustrate, Georgia allowed only one of its first seven opponents (South Carolina, the team it lost to) to eclipse the 200-yard rushing mark and then held its next three foes (Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn) to under 100 ground yards.
This makes the final three rushing totals to Georgia Southern, Georgia and Alabama—302, 306 and 350 yards, respectively—seem almost catastrophic.
Furthermore, it makes you wonder what Nebraska’s leading rusher, Ameer Abdullah (the No. 1 rusher on the No. 8-ranked rush offense in the FBS), can do to the Bulldog D in the Capital One Bowl?
Mike Gillislee, Florida
Though the words “Gators and offense” don’t exactly go hand in hand this season, you’ve still got to respect senior RB Mike Gillislee and his 1,104 yards and 10 TDs in 2012.
Gillislee is actually well suited to explode in Florida’s Jan. 2 clash with Louisville in the BCS Sugar Bowl due the fact that the Cardinals own the No. 53-ranked rushing defense in the FBS.
Though that may not sound like a huge deal, keep in mind that Gillislee rung up 140 yards and two scores on Florida State in the finale, and remember that the ‘Noles tout the No. 5-ranked rushing defense nationally.
Simply put, Gillislee could have a career-type day in the Sugar Bowl, which would be a huge way to go out for a guy who has provided a huge chunk of offense for a team that has needed every single yard, and more.
Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
Moving on to a guy few people on a national level will have heard much about who will play in a game that will be somewhat under marketed; it’s senior QB Ryan Aplin from Arkansas State playing in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
So, what’s the big deal?
Well, Aplin and the Red Wolves will take their No. 41 passing offense and try to ring up yards on Kent State's passing defense that has been generous enough to be ranked No. 111 nationally versus the pass this season.
Aplin’s numbers in 2012 are commendable; he’s 255-of-376 for 3,129 yards, 23 TDs and only four INTs giving him a pass rating of 155.8 that ranks No. 17 in the FBS.
Simply put, Aplin might have a career day on the Golden Flashes who have, on average, allowed a whopping 276.5 yards through the air this season.