In an era of spread college football offenses lighting up scoreboards across the nation, the 2013 Texas Bowl isn't likely to offer such thrills.
When the Syracuse Orange and Minnesota Golden Gophers do battle on Friday, Dec. 27 in Houston's Reliant Stadium, there won't be prolific passing games on display.
Rather, each team's top running back will go a long way in deciding the outcome, while a couple defensive stalwarts in the trenches should also play massive roles in determining who wins.
Let's take a closer look at the biggest stars from each team in this ACC-Big Ten showdown and the type of impact each of them should have.
Jerome Smith, RB, Syracuse
It's been tough sledding for the Orange all season on offense, as the program has fought its way to a 6-6 record in the first season of the post-Doug Marrone era.
Smith has been a big reason why Syracuse stayed afloat after its first two contests. The 226-pound junior has ground it out between the tackles with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average and has managed 11 rushing touchdowns.
With plans to enter the 2014 NFL draft, Smith will be stepping onto the field in a college game for the final time. He'll want to end his career with a bang—especially after recording just 46 yards in the team's last-second win over Boston College that made Syracuse bowl eligible.
The Orange offense has found some traction in the past two games under the guidance of quarterback Terrel Hunt, whose improved play has lessened the pressure on Smith to be the go-to guy.
However, in a game of this magnitude, it would be wise for Syracuse to pound the ball with Smith and limit what Hunt has to do to improve its chances at pulling off the upset.
And Smith has the frame to be the bell-ringer. Also, having the opportunity to prove himself to pro talent evaluators should spur him into having a great final performance.
David Cobb, RB, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers have a similarly punishing runner who is both more consistent and versatile. Cobb has run for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns to go with 16 receptions for 162 yards.
Even in facing the nation's top-ranked rush defense in Michigan State on Nov. 30, Cobb managed 101 yards on 27 carries in a 14-3 loss. That is all the context necessary to expect that he will flourish against the Orange.
Syracuse is no slouch versus the run, but Cobb is talented enough to still be productive. As tweeted by Marcus R. Fuller of the Pioneer Press, Cobb emphasized the need to capitalize on scoring opportunities:
Minnesota's offense has done well in the red zone this year, converting 24 of 26 of those chances into touchdowns, with 20 scores coming on the ground.
Earlier this month, Orange head coach Scott Shafer assessed how tough it would be to stop Cobb, per SUAthletics.com:
They've got a doggone good running back in Cobb. He can run the football and he runs it well because they block it well up front. They're a sound, tough team. They're going to be a team that doesn't shoot themselves in the foot. I've seen them get more consistent with the way they approach the game, the mistakes they don't make. They don't throw a lot of interceptions and they play a good, tough brand of football, but it's the run game first and foremost.
Look for Cobb to do just as well as Smith or even outperform him in what should be an outstanding showcase of two hard-nosed backs determined to carry their teams to victory.
Jay Bromley, DT, Syracuse
At 6'6" and 294 pounds, the senior defensive tackle is an absolute force on the inside. He is second on the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and first with eight sacks.
Bromley should be able to wreak havoc up front and neutralize Cobb's effectiveness between the tackles while also collapsing the pocket on elusive Golden Gophers QB Philip Nelson.
What gives Bromley an edge is that he seems to have an understanding of what the Golden Gophers are doing offensively, noting that there isn't much difference between what they did in 2012 to this season:
Linebacker Durell Eskridge leads the Orange in tackles with 78 tackles but will not be available for the Texas Bowl due to an upper-body injury, per Syracuse.com's Hank Domin.
That puts the onus all the more on Bromley to get penetration and allow Syracuse linebackers to make plays and shut down Cobb.
Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota
The 6'6" redshirt sophomore is a menace to handle coming off the edge with his great length and athleticism, and it's helped him register 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Syracuse quarterback Hunt will have to be on the lookout for Cockran swiping at the ball, even if he gets pushed too far upfield. Considering Cockran is a first-year starter, it's all the more impressive that he's been able to be so productive.
This is a great opportunity for the precocious defensive end to showcase his skills, and it's something he feels he needs to do. Fuller reported on Dec. 23 that Cockran is itching to be a bigger contributor after not recording any tackles in last year's bowl loss to Texas Tech:
"Coach [Jerry] Kill always says it starts up front, so it's up to the D-line to set the tone," said Cockran. "I feel a lot better this year. I feel like I'll be able to make more of an impact this year."
Syracuse's offensive line will have a tough time focusing on both Cockran and defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, who is an all-conference player and a disruptive force up the middle.
With the attention focused on Hageman in order to better establish Smith and the Orange's ground game, the stage is set for Cockran to have a breakout performance on a national stage.
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