An Exhaustive Bowl Games Preview, Part II: Dec. 29-31
Welcome to Part II of my series of bowl game previews; to read Part I, click here.
Let's quickly review how the first 11 games of the bowl season played out, along with a glance at how my picks succeeded (or didn't). I'll keep these short, just one sentence each, so we can get to the next slate of games.
New Mexico Bowl: Wyoming showed some surprising offense and sent Fresno State to its second straight loss in New Mexico, this time in double OT. (My pick: Wrong)
St. Petersburg Bowl: Rutgers dominated from the start, denying UCF its first bowl win. (Right)
New Orleans Bowl: Simply a showcase for QB Dwight Dasher, who carried Middle Tennessee over Southern Miss. (Right)
Las Vegas Bowl: BYU jumped all over placid Oregon State in a rout. (Wrong)
Poinsettia Bowl: Utah rallied from 14-0 to take Cal down. (Right)
Hawaii Bowl: SMU's big pass plays shredded the Nevada defense and without its two best running backs, the Wolf Pack couldn't keep up. (Dead wrong)
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl: Marshall scored 21 straight and then held on for a tight victory over Ohio. (Wrong)
Meineke Car Care Bowl: Pitt used a last second field goal to edge North Carolina. (Right)
Emerald Bowl: USC pulled away in the fourth for a hard-fought 24-13 victory over Boston College. (Quite right—I had USC 25-16.)
Music City Bowl: Clemson pulled away in the fourth quarter, topping Kentucky. (Right)
Independence Bowl: The Texas A&M offense forgot to show up for the shootout, but Georgia remembered, triumphing 44-20. (Wrong)
For those of you keeping score, I went 6-5 in my predictions—not great, but still bowl eligible. Let's move on to the next nine bowls.
As I mentioned previously, unlike voters in the coaches' poll, I can't magically watch every single game during the season and be aware of every team's detailed strengths and weaknesses. Because of that, I expect to be corrected by teams' fans on my predictions and write-ups. Let me know what I'm missing.
EagleBank Bowl: UCLA-Temple, Dec. 29
It’s the bowl matchup that almost didn’t happen. UCLA just barely sneaked into the postseason when Army lost its annual matchup with Navy to finish 5-7 and became ineligible for a bowl game.
Before this matchup was finalized, I wondered if the Midshipmen would throw a bone to their service academy brethren and let the Black Knights pull out a win to make a bowl. Then I came to my senses.
Would Ohio State let Michigan win just so it could make a bowl? No! (See this year’s game for an example.) Would Alabama take pity on Auburn so the Tigers could reach the postseason? No way. And would USC let UCLA win the battle for Los Angeles just so the Bruins could collect bowl goodies? Not a chance.
Luckily UCLA had already won six games this year before its season-ending loss to the Trojans.
UCLA, to some, exemplifies the Pac-10’s strength in 2009. After beating Tennessee in Knoxville and topping six-win Kansas State, the Bruins lost five straight to Pac-10 bowl squads before notching wins over the conference’s three bowl-ineligible teams to secure bowl eligibility.
There’s nothing spectacular about UCLA’s offensive game, as their rankings in total offense (93rd), rushing (99th), and scoring (99th) attest. As well, starting quarterback Kevin Prince is not guaranteed to start the bowl game due to a shoulder injury.
The Bruins’ defense carried the team to a bowl berth, led by defensive tackle Brian Price, the Pac-10’s Defensive Player of the Year, and ball-hawk Rahim Moore, who led the country with nine interceptions.
Temple, meanwhile, has been waiting 30 years to make it to a third bowl game—a mere moment compared to the 45 years they had to wait between their first and second bowl appearances. Rest assured the Owls are excited for this game.
Temple rode the nation’s 28th-ranked rushing offense to a 9-3 record, with freshman Bernard Pierce (above) spearheading the attack. Pierce gained 118.9 yards per game on the ground (11th nationally) and amassed 1,308 rushing yards on the season, 17th in the country.
The Owls were strong against the run as well, allowing just 108.8 yards per game, 20th-best in the nation.
Temple benefited from one of the weakest schedules in the nation, fifth-worst according to CBSSports.com. The Owls played just three bowl teams, losing big to Penn State and Ohio, while emerging victorious from a nail-biter at Navy.
Matchups like this are what make bowl season so fun, and so difficult to predict. Two teams travel from opposite ends of the country, with dissimilar records, from conferences with vastly different reputations. Can a lower-level Pac-10 squad take out one of the MAC’s top teams?
UCLA’s strong defense, along with its offensive ineptitude, indicates that a low-scoring game is in store.
That said, the Bruins’ rushing defense is the weaker part of their game, and my guess is that Pierce and Temple will pick up enough yards to barely outscore UCLA for the 13-10 victory.
Champs Sports Bowl: Miami (FL)-Wisconsin, Dec. 29
Wisconsin makes an appearance in this sporting goods bowl for the second consecutive year and will look for revenge against the ACC after getting pasted 42-13 by Florida State in 2008.
The Badgers improved on their 7-6 record of last year by beating four bowl teams, all in the first five weeks of the season, to finish 9-3. Their three losses came to arguably the three best teams they faced (Ohio State, Iowa, and Northwestern).
Wisconsin boasts one of the nation’s top rushing attacks (14th in the country), led by sophomore John Clay (left), who finished with the 10th-most rushing yards in the nation, along with 16 rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Scott Tolzien competently stewarded the complementary passing game.
As well as the Badgers run the ball, they’re even better at stopping the run, allowing just 90.5 yards per game on the ground, eighth in the country. The pass defense reflects the offensive air attack—right about the middle of the pack.
Miami took a different approach to an identical 9-3 mark, ranking 27th in the country in passing offense.
Sophomore QB Jacory Harris skillfully orchestrated the show, amassing 3,164 yards through the air (16th nationally) with 23 touchdowns, though he did throw eight of his 17 picks in the team’s three losses. Four times he passed for over 300 yards in a game, including a monster 386-yard performance in the season-opening victory over Florida State.
The Hurricanes’ run defense is solid, allowing 118.3 yards per game, good for 28th nationally, while the pass defense does the trick, coming in 42nd in pass efficiency against.
Miami knocked off five bowl teams this year, including a big win over ACC champion Georgia Tech, and all three defeats came against bowl teams.
Miami is one of three Florida schools staying in-state for the bowl season, UCF and Florida State being the others. Right about now is when Big Ten fans start grinding their teeth, saying, “Let those warm-weather teams come up here in the winter—then we’ll see who can really play!” Then they happily booked their tickets for balmy Orlando.
My guess is that Badger fans who make the trek down South will come home happy. Wisconsin’s running game has been limited a few times this season, but it’s never really been shut down. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes’ Harris is battling a painful thumb injury, which clearly hampers Miami’s strength.
I say the Badgers come out determined to erase bad memories of last year’s bowl game and bull their way to a 29-23 triumph.
Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl: Idaho-Bowling Green, Dec. 30
Boise’s Humanitarian Bowl looks to compete with the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas as the coldest bowl of the year, with current temperatures just under freezing—which explains why parkas, gloves, and hand warmers are all part of the game’s gift package.
Luckily, both participants in the bowl—Idaho and Bowling Green—are used to chilly climates.
The Idaho Vandals definitely possess the home field advantage, with the game being in their home state, but their recent play has been just as cold as the weather.
They lost four of five to end the season, giving up over 52 points in three of the losses (52 to 4-8 Utah State, 63 to Boise State, and 70 to Nevada).
The poor end to the year put a bit of a damper on what was otherwise an extremely successful season, as Idaho is in a bowl game for just the second time ever. They had raised expectations with a 6-1 start that included a five-game win streak and a road win over Northern Illinois—their only triumph over a bowl team.
The Vandals scored over 31 points per game thanks to the passing game, which ranked 11th nationally with 290.6 yards per contest. Quarterback Nathan Enderle threw his way to the country’s seventh-best passer rating, with receiver Max Komar serving as his favorite target, reeling in 62 catches for 1,036 yards.
As you might guess, however, Idaho’s defense is awful, giving up 35.5 points per game (112th in the nation). The passing defense was particularly vulnerable, ranking 117th in passing efficiency against en route to giving up 268.9 yards per game (114th). Just once did they hold an opponent under 20 points (New Mexico State, who finished 3-10, only mustered six).
Bowling Green, on the other hand, roars into the Humanitarian Bowl having won four straight and six out of their last seven. The Falcons’ hot streak coincided with the easy part of their schedule, as the last six wins came against sub-.500 MAC teams. They only beat one bowl team on the season (Troy, in the season opener) while losing to the five others they played.
The Falcons’ passing game is even stronger than Idaho’s, ranking eighth nationally with 310.2 yards per game. Quarterback Tyler Sheehan (above) passed for the fourth-most yards in the country, racking up 3,665 and throwing for 23 touchdowns.
Sheehan completed an astounding 40 percent of his passes to one Freddie Barnes. The senior wide receiver caught 138 passes, easily the most in the country (his closest competition had 107 receptions), for 16 TDs (also tops nationally) and 1,551 yards (third best).
Bowling Green’s defense also had its struggles, giving up over 390 yards per game. Opponents’ ground games pounded through the Falcons defenders to the tune of 193 rushing yards per game, a dismal 103rd nationally.
Fans tuning in to this game will see an aerial assault from both sides, but Idaho may try to take advantage of Bowling Green’s poor rush defense as well. The Vandals have three backs averaging over 4.5 yards per carry and manage a respectable 160.8 yards per game on the ground.
However, teams don’t usually run the ball when they’re behind. With the Falcons’ pass defense much less leaky than the Vandals’, my guess is Bowling Green takes advantage of Idaho’s weakness against the pass to jump out to an early lead, makes a few more stops defensively, and pulls out a 36-30 win.
Pacific Life Holiday Bowl: Arizona-Nebraska, Dec. 30
For both teams, the Holiday Bowl is an improvement on last year’s bowl berth, but the way they got here couldn’t be more different.
Arizona clinched its place in San Diego by breaking a seven-game losing streak to USC, defeating the Trojans in LA in the last game of the regular season and completing USC’s fall from grace. The win capped a season in which the Wildcats beat five bowl teams, with their four losses all by 10 points or fewer.
After shuffling quarterbacks through the first three games, coach Mike Stoops tabbed sophomore Nick Foles as his starter. The move paid off as Foles completed 66.1 percent of his passes, 11th-best in the country, for a team that threw the ball nearly 39 times a game, 14th most in the FBS.
The rushing game played a strong supporting role. Keola Antolin picked up the slack for the injured Nic Grigsby throughout the year. Both rushers amassed over 550 yards on the season, at 5.5 yards per carry for Antolin and a 7.5-yard clip for Grigsby, who should be back for the bowl game.
A strong defensive effort also carried Arizona to its 8-4 record, as they are 21st in total defense and 22nd in rush defense.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers, meanwhile, thought they were on their way to a BCS bowl after the final seconds ticked off the clock in the Big 12 championship game against Texas. Alas, officials determined the Longhorns still had one second to operate with, and a game-ending field goal crushed Husker hearts around the country.
If Nebraska manages to shake off that disappointment and get fired up for the Holiday Bowl, it will likely be thanks to the efforts of defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. The Heisman finalist and AP Player of the Year racked up 12 sacks this season, including 4.5 in the Big 12 title game.
Suh leads a dominant Huskers defense that gave up just 11.2 points per game (second in the country), 95.5 rushing yards per game (11th), and 284.5 total yards per game (ninth best) and also ranked third in pass efficiency against. They held all but two of their opponents under 20 points and six times gave up fewer than 10.
You do have to score to be able to win, however, and running back Roy Helu Jr. catalyzed the offense with 1,139 yards on 5.2 yards per carry. Quarterback Zac Lee played capably throughout the year but struggled mightily in Nebraska’s last two contests, particularly in the Big 12 championship game, where he hit on just six of 19 passes for only 39 yards and tossed three interceptions.
The Holiday Bowl has typically been an offensive showcase. Only once in the past nine games has the point total come in under 48. This year, though, the only fireworks will be on defense.
Arizona and Nebraska slugged it out in the 1998 Holiday Bowl, with the Wildcats earning a 23-20 victory. Expect even fewer points this year.
I say Arizona focuses its attention on neutralizing Suh and has enough success to pick up some points through the passing game, while Nebraska’s offense continues to struggle, resulting in a 16-9 Wildcats win.
Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl: Air Force-Houston, Dec. 31
This game shifts the bowl season into high gear as the first of five bowl games on New Year’s Eve. It’s also the only rematch of the bowl season; Houston came away with a 34-28 win last year to break an eight-game bowl losing streak.
The Houston Cougars had a very successful year, but they must feel like they could have done much more. They beat three Big Six teams (Texas Tech, Mississippi State, and then-No. 5 Oklahoma State at Stillwater) and beat two other bowl-bound squads.
On the other hand, they gave up 58 points in a defeat to UTEP when they were sky-high and 12th-ranked after a 3-0 start, suffered a close loss at UCF, and couldn’t get by East Carolina in the Conference USA title game—three winnable games away from being in the BCS buster conversation.
Houston’s passing game is out of this world with 450 yards per game to lead the nation, nearly 70 yards more than second-ranked Texas Tech—amazing that the Red Raiders would finish second to anyone in passing. The Cougars scored 43.9 points per game, just behind first-ranked Boise State.
Not surprisingly, Case Keenum dominated the nation’s passing leader board as he finished first with 5,449 yards (over 1,500 more than second place Levi Brown of Troy) and 43 touchdowns (to just nine interceptions), as well as second in completion percentage (71 percent) and sixth in QB rating at 159.3.
Houston’s defense is also out of this world—out of this world bad. How about 88th in scoring defense (28.8 points per game), 108th in total defense (442.7 yards per game), and 111th in rush defense? As you might guess, that last stat is particularly relevant to this matchup.
Air Force (Ground Force?) runs the ball nearly 83 percent of the time—the second most often in the nation to Navy—and picks up 273.6 yards per game on the ground, third most. Quarterback Tim Jefferson had just 79 attempts in nine games this year. Keenum had 76 attempts in one game (the loss to UTEP).
The Falcons rode the running game to a 7-5 mark this year, going 1-5 against bowl teams, with the only victory a 10-0 shutout over Wyoming. They scored 15 points per game against bowl teams and 41.5 against everyone else.
Air Force has the right tool to stop Houston, boasting the nation’s stingiest pass defense—just 148.7 yards per game. However, the Falcons were torched by BYU’s 12th-ranked pass attack in the season finale to the tune of 377 passing yards. Can Houston follow the example of its Cougar brethren?
This is actually the third matchup between these two in the last two years. Air Force beat Houston 31-28 on Sept. 13, 2008, so these teams are no doubt familiar with each others personnel and offensive and defensive schemes.
While the Cougars’ weakness at stopping the run plays right into the Falcons’ hands (talons?), Air Force has had trouble beating above average teams. My guess is those struggles continue here.
Houston’s air attack will be slowed, but it won’t be stopped, and Air Force’s option won’t be enough to keep them from their third straight Armed Forces Bowl defeat. Hell, let’s even say they repeat last year’s score—Houston wins 34-28.
Brut Sun Bowl: Stanford-Oklahoma, Dec. 31
It’s really unbelievable how many bowl games pit a team thrilled to be here (e.g. Stanford) against a team that can’t believe how far it’s fallen (e.g. Oklahoma).
The Stanford Cardinals are in their first bowl in eight years and are looking for their first bowl victory since 1996’s Sun Bowl triumph.
The Sooners, on the other hand, had played in seven BCS bowl games over the last nine years, yet they come into this matchup hoping to win a bowl game for the first time since their last non-BCS shindig (the 2005 Holiday Bowl).
Stanford didn’t give much indication of its future success during the first part of the year. As of mid-October the Cardinal sat at 4-3, coming off road losses to Oregon State and Arizona.
A month later, following monster wins over No. 8 Oregon and No. 9 USC (scoring 50-plus points each game), everybody knew Stanford—and running back Toby Gerhart—was a force to be reckoned with.
Gerhart powered his way to 1,736 rushing yards in 2009, good for third in the nation, and 26 touchdowns, first nationally. Three times this season he rushed for 200 yards or more in a game. It’s no wonder Stanford ranked 11th in the country with 224.3 rushing yards per game.
Freshman quarterback Andrew Luck capably directed the offense, but a finger injury may force him to cede the bowl start to senior Tavita Pritchard. The Cardinal’s offense would undoubtedly suffer without Luck, as Pritchard has only thrown three passes all year.
As long as Pritchard throws a few passes Chris Owusu’s way, however, he’ll probably be fine. Actually, the sophomore receiver and returner extraordinaire doesn’t need anyone to throw him the ball. His 32.5-yard kick return average ranks fifth best in the country, and with three return TDs, he’s always a threat to halt the opposition’s momentum.
On the other hand, Oklahoma staggered its way through a bizarre year, overcoming numerous injuries to future NFL draft picks to make the postseason.
Starting QB Sam Bradford got knocked out of the season-opening loss to BYU, came back with a vengeance in the fifth game against Baylor, but was finally lost for the year in the Red River Shootout. Top tight end Jermaine Gresham didn’t play a down this season after an injury in training camp.
Defensive end Auston English and team captain and tight end Brody Eldridge both suffered season-ending injuries in the ninth game of the year.
Now comes news that the Sooners may start their fourth player at center this year in the bowl game due to an injury.
Despite all that, they picked up a few good wins this year, including victories over bowl teams Texas Tech and rival Oklahoma State. The 27-0 blanking of the Cowboys was the Sooners’ third shutout of the year.
The defense was extremely strong, ranking seventh in rush defense, seventh in total defense, seventh in scoring defense (lucky sevens, I guess), and 10th in pass efficiency against.
Also, the offense still put up points despite lacking Bradford. Landry Jones took over under center and put up a variety of performances—some exceptional, some subpar—as the Sooners finished 17th nationally in passing offense. Receiver Ryan Broyles (above) helped Jones adjust to the starter’s role, catching 76 balls for 946 yards and 12 TDs.
The Sun Bowl promises to be a study in contrasting offenses, as Stanford pounds the ball on the ground while Oklahoma airs it out. The Sooners’ rush defense has completely neutralized some teams’ running games but has also given up over 115 rushing yards six times this year. That’s not too much, but it does show they can be run on.
However, Stanford hasn’t shown much ability to stop the pass, ranking 95th in pass efficiency against and 105th in passing yards allowed at 252 per game.
My guess is that Gerhart still compiles over 100 yards, but the Cardinal passing game can’t get going without Luck against the Sooners’ tough D. The Stanford secondary can’t keep the Sooners off the board, and Oklahoma’s seniors finally win a bowl, 26-16.
Texas Bowl: Missouri-Navy, Dec. 31
What, no sponsor? The Texas Bowl is one of just three bowls without a title sponsor (the other two being the New Mexico and International Bowls).
But there’s still time; after all, the St. Petersburg Bowl reeled in Beef ‘O’ Brady’s just 10 days before the game.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? BleacherReport.com Bowl, here we come!
Navy is in a bowl game for the seventh straight year but is looking to snap a three-bowl losing skid. The Midshipmen picked up close wins over bowl teams SMU and Air Force, as well a victory over Notre Dame, among their nine wins.
Quarterback Ricky Dobbs (above) led Navy’s charge this year, running for 1,026 yards and scoring 24 touchdowns on the ground, breaking the QB record previously held by Air Force’s Chance Harridge and one Tim Tebow of Florida.
The Middies boast the nation’s fourth-best rushing game, picking up 272.5 yards per game in running the ball nearly 87 percent of the time. Fullback Vince Murray racked up 925 yards on 5.4 yards per carry, while running back Marcus Curry picked up seven yards per carry on his way to 476 yards on the season.
Navy’s defense does the trick, allowing just under 20 points per game while stopping the run (36th in the country) a bit better than the pass (52nd in efficiency against).
Missouri struggled in the middle of the year but finished strong, winning four out of five (all wins against the Big 12 North) to reach its sixth straight bowl with eight wins. The Tigers beat three bowl teams but lost to arguably the three best teams they played (Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and Texas, consecutively), as well as Baylor.
Sophomore QB Blaine Gabbert did a fine job stepping in for the departed Chase Daniel, finishing 13th in the country in yards with 3,302 and tying for 14th with 23 TDs.
However, Danario Alexander did an even better job filling the shoes of current pro Jeremy Maclin.
Alexander led the nation with 1,644 yards receiving, including over 200 yards in three of his last four games, finished second in the country with 107 receptions, and hauled in 13 scores, fifth nationally.
No surprise, then, that the Tigers’ passing game ranked 13th nationwide with 285 yards per game, helping them score over 30 points per.
But can they stop anyone? Not through the air—Missouri allows nearly as many yards (261.6) as it puts up, placing it a dismal 109th in the country. However, that’s not too relevant to this matchup. What is relevant is the Tigers’ 12th-ranked rush defense, giving up just 96 yards per game.
One criticism of the option offense is that it won’t work against big schools with elite athletes possessing the speed to run sideline to sideline.
Tell that to the Ohio State Buckeyes, who gave up 186 yards on the ground to Navy in a near loss at home, or to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who were dominated on the ground for 348 yards in a home loss.
Missouri’s defense hasn’t allowed much on the ground all year, but it’s possible teams just took the easier route through the air. Besides, against Nevada, the closest comparison to Navy among the Tigers’ opponents, Missouri gave up 218 rushing yards at a 4.8 yard per carry clip.
I say Navy has enough success on offense to control the clock, keeping Missouri’s passing attack off the field and allowing the Midshipmen to earn a hard-fought 23-20 victory.
Insight Bowl: Minnesota-Iowa State, Dec. 31
Welcome to the 6-6 Bowl, where two mediocre teams sporting losing conference records battle for the right to finish on the sunny side of .500!
Minnesota and Iowa State both went 3-5 in conference, including identical 4-3 home and 2-3 road marks. Both teams averaged around 21 points per game, with just six points separating their year-end point totals, and both feature negative scoring margins—not to mention the schools are only three-and-a-half hours apart by car.
The Golden Gophers picked up a few solid wins this year, beating bowl squads Air Force, Northwestern, and Michigan State, but lost to all four ranked teams they played and needed a nail-biting win over South Dakota State in the season’s penultimate game just to make a bowl.
Quarterback Adam Weber played inconsistently in 2009, completing less than 52 percent of his passes and throwing more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12). Getting sacked three times a game—10th worst in the country—will do that to a QB, as will losing your top target, as receiver Eric Decker missed the Gophers’ last four games and won’t play in the Insight Bowl either.
Unsurprisingly, Minnesota’s offense struggled all year, particularly the running game, picking up just 97.6 yards per game, a sorry 112th in the country. The passing game wasn’t much better, at just 82nd nationally with 198.3 yards per game. The defense did its best but was strictly middle of the pack.
What did Iowa State do to become bowl eligible? Well, the Cyclones beat Big 12 runner-up Nebraska by forcing eight turnovers in an ugly 9-7 win, but they lost to the other four bowl teams they faced. Otherwise, they beat four losing teams and FCS North Dakota State to gather up their six wins.
Dual-threat QB Austen Arnaud leads the Cyclones, with about 1,800 yards through the air and nearly 500 on the ground. Arnaud completed over 60 percent of his passes in four games but less than 50 percent in two others.
While Arnaud led the offense, running back Alexander Robinson starred, amassing 1,058 yards—five per carry—in carrying Iowa State to the 36th spot in the rushing offense rankings nationwide. The Cyclones’ 177.3 yards per game on the ground nearly matched their 182.1 yards through the air, just 97th in the country.
You might think the defense overcame the offense’s struggles to lift the team to this bowl bid. Not so much. The Cyclones gave up 414 yards per game, 99th in the nation, and were equally poor at stopping the run and the pass. Despite all those yards, however, they only allowed 22.6 points per contest, a 43rd-place ranking that defies the other statistics.
It’s a good thing I love bowl games, because this is a tough one to get up for. The Golden Gophers might be feeling the same way as they travel to Tempe for their third straight Insight Bowl (over the past four years). Then again, they’re hoping to finally win this thing, as they’ve lost their previous two appearances and three straight bowls overall.
On the other side, none of the Cyclones have ever played in a bowl game—this is their first postseason appearance since 2005—so you'd have to think excitement and motivation are on their side.
This game promises to be ugly, and in my eyes, that plays right into Iowa State’s hands. I say the defense bends but doesn’t break, and the Cyclones rely on the kicking game to eke out a 15-13 triumph. 7-6 never smelled so sweet.
Chick-fil-A Bowl: Virginia Tech-Tennessee, Dec. 31
The nightcap of a long day of bowls promises to be the best game of the day, with one-time championship contender Virginia Tech taking on Tennessee, back in a bowl after a one-year hiatus.
Quick, when was the last time the Hokies missed out on bowl season? Don’t know? It’s been a while—since staying home after the 1992 season, Va Tech has been invited to 17 consecutive bowls.
Virginia Tech played eight bowl teams this year and beat five of them. Even the out of conference slate featured four bowl teams, including two conference champions (Alabama, East Carolina) and one runner-up (Nebraska). They got a break at the end of the schedule, playing and beating the ACC’s three worst teams to finish the season.
The Hokies ran the ball 67 percent of the time and posted the nation’s 15th-most rushing yards per game (206.4), largely on the legs of freshman Ryan Williams. Williams rolled up 128.2 yards per game on the ground (fifth nationally) and 1,538 rushing yards on the season (sixth), along with 19 touchdowns rushing (tied for fourth).
Dual-threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor (above, handing off to Williams) added 344 yards on the ground, but it was his work throwing the ball that really impressed. His 149.3 rating was 15th-best in the country and he boasted a solid TD-INT ratio of 13-4.
The defense was characteristically strong, ranking sixth against the pass, sacking opposing quarterbacks 2.8 times per game on average (14th in the country), and allowing just 15.8 points per game (11th-best).
Tennessee overcame a slow start to beat four bowl teams on its way to a 7-5 mark in coach Lane Kiffin’s first season in Knoxville. Just 3-4 after a heartbreaking loss at Alabama, the Volunteers rebounded to win four out of five to end the season.
The offense put up over 30 points a game on the strength of solid efforts of both the pass and run games. QB Jonathan Crompton bounced back from a dismal 2008 to post a quality campaign, with 26 TDs and just 12 INTs.
Running back Montario Hardesty averaged 4.9 yards per carry en route to 1,306 rushing yards. He finished the season on a high note, with 171 yards against Vanderbilt and 179 against Kentucky, both Tennessee victories.
With a safety like two-time All-American Eric Berry in the secondary, it’s no surprise the Vols defense ranked eighth in pass efficiency against and 10th in passing yards allowed (165.9). The rushing defense was nothing to write home about (58th), but it did its part in helping Tennessee hold opponents to 21 points per game (26th nationally).
After the ACC lost two rivalry games to the SEC in the last week of the season (Georgia Tech to Georgia, Clemson to South Carolina), some questioned the conference’s strength. How good could it really be when the two division winners fell to mid-level SEC squads? On the other hand, were those games just signs of the SEC’s dominance in college football?
Clemson did its part this bowl season to defend the ACC’s honor with its Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky; can Virginia Tech do the same? The Hokies couldn’t keep up with Alabama to start the season, but then again, nobody has this year.
I say Va Tech’s excellent rush offense finds success against Tennessee’s simply decent rush defense in a game decided on the ground. With the help of a few sneaky big pass plays, the Hokies take a stand and pull away late for a 26-16 victory.