4 Down Territory: Bowl Mania Reaches Its Peak--All The Insight You Need For The Big Games
Editor's Note: As of Posting Time for this article these games are all still scheduled to be played. Here's hoping that the rash of recent cancellations is over, and the games go on as played.
First Down: The Openers: 12/30: Duke’s Mayo Bowl: North Carolina vs. South Carolina: Be sure to tune in to see which coach is going to get a bucket of Mayo dumped on their head to celebrate the victory. Conventional wisdom says that the “Mayo” bath honor should really go to the coach that loses……Peach Bowl: #12 Pitt vs #10 Michigan State: Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi faces Michigan State, the school where he served as the defensive coordinator for a number of years before coming to Pitt. His defensive scheme thrives on stopping the run, rushing the passer and teams have to throw the ball well to beat them. MSU QB Payton Thorne has been able to throw the ball well, even in their season-ending snowy and windy win over Penn State. They utilize a number of talented receivers but keep an eye on their tight ends as well. But they will be without TB Kenneth Walker who opted out. Pitt QB Kenny Pickett has also opted out and will be replaced by junior QB Nick Patti. He’s played sparingly but will make this start against the nation’s worst pass defense and have Biletnikoff Award winner WR Jordan Addison with him…….Las Vegas Bowl: Wisconsin vs Arizona State: Will the real Badger team please stand up? The Badgers have been inconsistent this year, but a win here would make a nice closing statement on a season that started very slowly. As for the Sun Devils there are a number of off-field questions they will be facing when the season ends……..12/31 Gator Bowl: #17 Wake Forest vs Rutgers: Rutgers finished just out of bowl contention, which came down to two games that they would love to have back—losses to Northwestern and Maryland. But when Texas A&M pulled out, Rutgers grabbed the bowl berth. Wake has been a very good offensive team but lagged on the defensive side of the ball, which kept them from the ACC title. For Rutgers they have played solid defense most of the year but struggled on offense. This will be a big step up and measuring stick for Rutgers taking on a Top 20 team in a bowl in just the 2nd season at Rutgers for Greg Schiano.
Second Down: Can Rocky Topple the Champ ?: 12/31 Cotton Bowl: #4 Cincinnati vs #1 Alabama: Will Cincinnati become the underdog story of the year? Maybe the biggest match-up to watch here is the Alabama receivers versus a veteran and experienced Cincinnati secondary. If the Bearcats are to have a chance they will have to contest the throws, limit the big plays and force Alabama to play a patient offensive game plan. In Alabama’s 3 -near miss wins vs LSU, Auburn and Florida they were severely limited in big plays with only two pass plays of more than 30 yards in those three games combined. On the flipside in their lone loss to Texas A&M the Tide blitz had trouble getting to the Aggies’ QB. A&M was able to find the safeties in coverage and beat them one-on-one. This is not an invincible Alabama team but--and this a big but--when Saban’s teams have extra time to prepare, they are very dangerous. Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder will be the key for the Bearcats offense, and he is a guy who plays well against ranked teams. In 6 games versus ranked opponents the past two years he’s completed 61.5% of his passes for 1346 yards, 11 Touchdowns and just 1 INT, while adding another 276 yards and 5 TDs rushing. That running ability is an asset if Alabama plays a lot of man coverage. If can make plays running and passing and avoid the big mistake, he gives Cincinnati a chance. And speaking of mistakes, both of these teams thrive on turnovers. Alabama is a +10 in turnover margin while Cincinnati is +11 having forced an incredible 29 turnovers this year. Many will look at last year’s 3-point loss by Cincinnati against Georgia. That may be a good gauge, but the glaring number that stands out is the 8 sacks the Bearcats allowed. They cannot afford a repeat of that kind of pass rush to get to their quarterback.
Third Down: Big Ten Big Stage: 12/31 Orange Bowl: #3 Georgia vs #2 Michigan: Michigan takes the playoff stage and the Big Ten could really use a win here. Defense will be the name of the game in this one. Michigan has been very good on defense, not Georgia good on defense, but very good all the same. Conversely Michigan is one of just 16 teams in the country that averaged over 200 yards both running and passing which gives the Georgia defense more to worry about. Georgia’s offense has turned the ball over 16 times, an unusually high number for a playoff team. Of the four playoff teams they are the only one that is not on the plus side of turnover margin, but their defense has mostly kept those turnovers from hurting them. Georgia’s run game has not been as good as recent Georgia teams and if Michigan can force them to become one-dimensional and rely on the pass, Michigan’s edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo both rank among the top 15 in sacks nationally. Michigan’s offensive line is a very good unit, winning the Joe Moore Award given to the nation’s top line. They will face their biggest test of the season in trying to protect Cade McNamara and open holes for the run game. Big news for Michigan is the health of running back Blake Corum who gives them a big-play threat in the backfield averaging 6.7 yards per carry and gaining 939 yards and 11 TDs despite missing almost 3 complete games and being limited in two others. Prior to getting hurt on his first carry against Indiana in the 9th game he averaged 16 carries per game. In his absence power back Hassan Haskins saw his average carries per game go from 17 per game to nearly 25 per game. Hassan churned out 1288 yards and 20 TDs. Both backs will have to catch the ball and more importantly be great is pass protection. Over half of Georgia’s 41 sacks on the year have come from blitzing linebackers, and protection for that often falls to the running backs. Michigan ranked 2nd Nationally is fewest sacks allowed. Michigan has enough weapons in the pass game to keep the balanced attack that can have some success versus Georgia. Let's keep it simple. Georgia’s defense is better than Michigan’s defense, but Michigan’s offense is better that Georgia’s offense. And to top it all off both field goal kickers are excellent and both teams rank in the top 25 in net punting.
Fourth Down: New Year’s Day....Finally: Outback Bowl: Penn State vs #21 Arkansas: As of the time we wrote this there were at least seven significant opt-outs including the two best WRs –one for both teams, the best pass-rushers on both teams and Penn State’s top 2 linebackers and top safety. So where is the advantage? Arkansas has a balanced offense with multiple sets, motions and misdirection. That becomes very difficult to simulate in practice to get new starters ready to go. And expect the Razorbacks to throw a few wrinkles in the mix. Arkansas is as balanced as any team in the country averaging 223 yards a game passing and 217 yards a game rushing. Their quarterback KJ Jefferson ranks #7 in the country in pass efficiency and is a dangerous runner. On defense the Razorbacks play with 5 defensive backs which means they may be more vulnerable to a downhill run attack. Penn State WR Jahan Dotson has been described by Penn State coaches as their only big-play threat. With Dotson opting out they will need to have another receiver or tight end step up or establish a much better run game than they’ve shown this year. This season Penn State had the second-lowest regular season rushing total of the modern era (post-1945) with just 1277 yards (the worst was 2014 with 1243 yards). With extra bowl prep time Penn State may have the time to add some new things offensively and involve a now-healthy Sean Clifford to the running attack…….Citrus Bowl: #15 Iowa vs #22 Kentucky: The name of the game for Iowa is defense and turnovers. This is a team that has picked off an incredible 24 passes and racked up 29 turnovers for the year. Given that Kentucky has thrown 12 INTs this year, one suspects that Iowa may add to that total. The turnovers have been the key to an Iowa team that has struggled to find consistency on offense. Expect those struggles to continue against a Kentucky defense that is among the top 25 defenses in the country. With both teams’ strength on defense the value of turnovers is magnified even more. One wildcard for the wildcats will be the running ability of QB Will Levis so look for that……..Fiesta Bowl: #5 Notre Dame vs #9 Oklahoma State: Defense will be the name of the game in this one. Oklahoma State came up just short of a Big 12 title while Notre Dame’s lone loss was to Cincinnati. For new Irish Coach Marcus Freeman his new role will be magnified because he has yet to be a Head Coach before. But one thing has come through loud and clear from the Irish, the players love the guy and are excited to play for him. Notre Dame is riding a streak of major bowl futility that dates back to the 1993 season. In their last 9 Major Bowls (Orange, Cotton, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose or BCS Title game) they are 0-9 and have been outscored 152-335 for an average of 16.9-37.2. The streak of lopsided losses in major bowls fuels a perception that this program is not really a playoff-caliber program despite being in the playoff already. If Marcus Freeman wins this one he certainly will start off his career in South Bend with a welcome change……Rose Bowl: #6 Ohio State vs #11 Utah: If there was polling to gauge an enthusiasm gap in the fan bases for this Rose Bowl there is no doubt that Utah would show a humungous advantage. One suspects that they will outnumber Buckeye fans in Pasadena. OSU fans have come to expect a playoff berth every year. Ohio State has major opt-outs across their team, but nowhere will that be as glaring as it is at receiver. The Buckeye receiver room has collected major talent, so much so that big-time talents were scrapping for playing time. This will be the time for guys like Marvin Harrison, Julian Flemming and Emeka Egbuka to step up and give OSU fans a preview of coming attractions. It may also be a time for OSU to establish a stronger running game. Much like Michigan, Utah has a balanced offensive attack and that has proven to be a problem for the OSU defense. While Utah is on defense, keep an eye on #0 LB Devin Lloyd. He makes plays all over the field and is the lead guy on a defense that has been stingy all year—particularly in holding Oregon to 7 and 10 points in their two matchups this season…….Sugar Bowl: #8 Ole Miss vs #7 Baylor: Speaking of enthusiastic fans, these two fan bases will likely show up in numbers that will have the Big Easy bursting at the seams. Little known fact: Ole Miss has won 6 Sugar Bowls trailing only Alabama’s 9 wins there. Ole Miss comes at you with one of the most explosive offenses in the country, while Baylor thrives on defense. Baylor comes to this game by virtue of a last-play game-saving tackle against Oklahoma State in a game where they intercepted 4 Oklahoma State passes. One key for Ole Miss may be to get points on the board early and try to force Baylor to take more risks on offense. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral may be just the guy to get Ole Miss off to a fast start.