10 Best Matchups of College Football Bowl Season

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2013

10 Best Matchups of College Football Bowl Season

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    Not all bowl games are created equal.

    We all accept this as the truth, but it sometimes bears repeating. Though every bowl should be savored—even something like Syracuse-Minnesota will look like a treat come Jan. 7, when the next college football game sits eight months in the distance—some stand out as significantly more intriguing matchups.

    Those matchups are great on both macro and micro levels. The programs playing each other catch our eye as quality and even, but within those broad-stroke matchups, there are smaller battles that make the game fascinating.

    Here's a look at the 10 best matchups on the schedule this bowl season—both on a team level, and also on a more specific plane.

10. Texas A&M vs. Duke

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    Matchup: QB Johnny Manziel vs. Duke's secondary

    This matchup isn't the "best" in terms of being even or one-on-one battles; it's the best in that it makes for insanely gripping television.

    Duke's secondary has been shredded at times this season, allowing an average of 374 passing yards in its four worst games against Pittsburgh, Troy, Miami and Florida State, respectively.

    That doesn't bode well for a secondary facing Johnny Manziel and the high-powered Texas A&M Aggies, especially in what could be Mr. Football's final college game. If he can't go out with a BCS-sized bang, as he had hoped before the season, Manziel will at least seek to make some waves with his stats.

    Watching the Manziel-Mike Evans combo go up against this woefully overmatched secondary should be one of the most fun bowl matchups, in large part because it cannot fail. If Duke somehow stops Texas A&M, that would be a story unto itself.

    It it doesn't, there will be fireworks worth watching.

9. Oklahoma vs. Alabama

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    Matchup: C Gabe Ikard vs. LB C.J. Mosley

    You don't often beat Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and C.J. Mosley in a chess match, but if anyone is capable of doing so, it might be Sooners center Gabe Ikard, one of the best and most cerebral players in college football.

    A Walter Camp First-Team All-American this season, Ikard has made 49 starts in his eminent OU career. He was also just named the Capitol One Academic All-American of the Year, according to Ryan Aber and Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman.

    Against Alabama's vastly superior defense, that type of experience will be paramount for Oklahoma's offense. Not only must Ikard deal with Mosley and A'Shawn Robinson after the snap, he must make quick, heady and precise adjustments before it.

    If he can help his quarterback by calling the right blocking assignments, Ikard might be able to help the Sooners shock the world and move the ball against Alabama. He has his work cut out for him.

8. Northern Illinois vs. Utah State

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    Matchup: QB Jordan Lynch vs. Utah State's rush defense

    Utah State was able to survive the loss of do-it-all quarterback Chuckie Keeton in 2013, advancing to the MWC Championship game despite losing its best player to a torn ACL back in early October.

    The biggest reason for that success was a defense that flew under the radar as one of the best in America—not just in the smaller conferences, but anywhere. The Aggies finished ninth in Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ and seventh with just 4.56 yards allowed per play.

    Against the run in particular, Utah State's defense has been dominant, finishing third nationally with 2.81 yards allowed per carry. That could spell trouble for NIU's offense, which is carried by the broad shoulders and churning legs of quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch ran his way to third place in the Heisman voting this season.

    Lynch is the fourth-leading rusher in college football; his 1,881 yards on the ground account for 46.3 percent of NIU's total offense this season. If he can't get going in San Diego, it's hard to see the Huskies getting to 20 points.

7. Miami vs. Louisville

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    Matchup: Stephen Morris vs. Louisville's pass defense

    Teddy Bridgewater will get his.

    Even if he wasn't stoked for the chance to play his hometown Hurricanes—the team he originally committed to—this being his likely last game in college football would give Bridgewater enough motivation to play one of his best games.

    The real question comes on the other side of the ball, where Miami's offense has struggled to replace injured running back Duke Johnson's production on the ground. Still, behind the play of Stephen Morris, the Hurricanes managed to stay explosive and finish No. 4 in Football Outsiders' offensive F/+ rankings.

    That offense will be given a stern test against Louisville, though, which most people fail to recognize as one of the better defenses in college football. The Cardinals finished second nationally in yards allowed per game and fifth in opposing QB rating, allowing just eight touchdown passes to 16 interceptions.

    Morris has a penchant for throwing picks and making bad decisions—but when he's on, he's really on. He'll have his hands full against the pass rush of Marcus Smith and the coverage of Hakeem Smith. How he performs could be the deciding factor.

6. UCF vs. Baylor

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    Matchup: UCF offense vs. Baylor defense

    For the most part, this list is intended to point out one-on-one or specific positional matchups to watch in the biggest bowl games.

    But with Baylor-UCF, there are questions on so many levels that I felt it necessary to stay vague.

    Even after a 12-game sample, it's hard to tell whether Baylor's defense is "for real." The Bears tied for fifth place nationally with 4.53 yards allowed per play, but the best QB they faced all year was...Clint Chelf? Probably.

    And Chelf led Oklahoma State to 49 points and 8.14 yards per play in Baylor's sole loss.

    Against UCF, Baylor will be tasked with stopping an offense similar to Oklahoma State's, which is capable of winning both through the air and on the ground.

    Quarterback Blake Bortles is making noise as a potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft, and this would be a great spot for him to expose Baylor's defense and win some more fans in the scouting community.

5. Missouri vs. Oklahoma State

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    Matchup: Coach Gary Pinkel vs. coach Mike Gundy

    That neither of these teams made a BCS bowl is a disservice to the seasons they enjoyed. After how each team performed in the final week, however, it's hard to say they didn't make their own beds.

    Missouri was gashed for 545 rushing yards in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn, while Oklahoma State lost Bedlam—on its home field, no less—to rival Oklahoma in heartbreaking fashion. Both teams' assailants are currently playing in the BCS, and though the Cotton Bowl is nothing to scoff at, it sure feels like a consolation prize.

    The task will be on Pinkel and Gundy, Missouri and Oklahoma State's respective head coaches, to wake their teams up and convince them otherwise. The Cotton Bowl is not a consolation, they must assure them. It might be the best non-BCS game in the country.

    Whichever coach gets his guys to rebound the strongest will likely come out victorious in Jerry's World. With all the Texas rumors swirling around Gundy (via the Tulsa World), he'll need to work extra hard to avoid distractions.

4. Clemson vs. Ohio State

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    Matchup: WR Sammy Watkins vs. CB Bradley Roby

    Roby has been a bit of a disappointment this season, struggling at times against Big Ten receivers and dropping his once-promising NFL stock considerably. Still, there's a reason that stock was so high in the first place—on talent alone, Roby is capable of shutting down anyone.

    That will be put to the test in a big way against Watkins, who has done nothing to hurt his once- and still-promising NFL stock with a fantastic junior season. He was named a Second-Team All-American by the Associated Press after racking up 1,237 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns this year.

    Doran Grant was burned repeatedly by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, so it's unlikely that Urban Meyer and Luke Fickell will let him line up against Watkins in Miami. Roby will draw the assignment as often as possible, with a chance to throw Clemson's offense out of whack.

    Solely in terms of pure, physical talent, it doesn't get better than this.

3. South Carolina vs. Wisconsin

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    Matchup: Gamecocks' pass rush vs. Badgers' offensive line

    This is the BCS bowl game that wasn't, featuring two teams that appeared to be headed for at-large bids as late as the last week of the regular season.

    Alas, it wasn't to be, as Wisconsin's loss to Penn State and Auburn's upset of Alabama put both teams' BCS hopes to rest. Now they're stuck "slumming" it in the Capital One Bowl, though their matchup is better than most of the signature games.

    Jadeveon Clowney's stats declined in 2013, but much of that has to do with opposing offenses double- and triple-teaming him on every down. That has freed up lanes for fellow linemen like Kelcy Quarles, helping South Carolina rack up 83 tackles for loss this season.

    Wisconsin, however, is not the type of team that likes providing special protection against one player. Madison is a breeding ground for NFL offensive linemen, and this year's outfit is just as big and deep and strong and mean as ever.

    The Badgers are willing to play Clowney and Quarles straight up, trusting their guys to hold their own in the trenches, as they have for most of the season. We'll see if it works.

2. Michigan State vs. Stanford

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    Matchup: CB Darqueze Dennard vs. WR Ty Montgomery

    This game is loaded with intriguing one-on-one matchups, especially when Stanford has the ball. Max Bullough versus Tyler Gaffney and Shilique Calhoun versus Andrus Peat both pit All-American candidates against one another in battles that could decide the ultimate outcome.

    But compared to Dennard versus Montgomery, even those might pale in comparison.

    Stanford's offense won't be able to push around Michigan State's front seven the way it did against Arizona State in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Even if the Cardinal find shreds of success on the ground, they won't be able to dominate, so at some point they'll need to throw the ball and test MSU vertically.

    Montgomery is the only true downfield threat on Stanford's team, but he'll be blanketed—ostensibly all game—by Thorpe Award winner Dennard, who has proven himself to be the premier cornerback in college football this season.

    This will be one of his biggest and most important tests to date.

1. Auburn vs. Florida State

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    Matchup: DE Dee Ford vs. OT Cameron Erving

    Much ado has been made—and deserves to be made—about Florida State's defense stopping Auburn's rushing game, and whether or not the Seminoles will be able to hang with an offense that pounded SEC teams down the stretch.

    On the other side of the ball, though, is a matchup that could also decide the fate of the national title game.

    Auburn's pass rush has shown up huge on the big stage this season, recording six sacks against Ole Miss and three apiece against Missouri and Texas A&M, the latter for 43 sack yards.

    Dee Ford is the catalyst of that Tigers pass rush, but at times he'll be going up against an All-American in Cameron Erving. If the future first-round pick can slow Ford down and keep Jameis Winston upright all game, it may not matter how many yards Tre Mason rushes for on the other side of the ball.

    Without applying pressure, the Seminoles can't be stopped.