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2014 Bowl Season Primer, Part 3

We had the appetizers. We had the first course. Now we get the filet mignon (or poached salmon, if that's your thing) of a truly exceptional slate of New Year's Eve/Day games and the first-ever FBS playoff. Keep this viewing guide handy!

I don't care that this game was yesterday, this is my picture.
I don't care that this game was yesterday, this is my picture.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

First, make sure you have your fridge well-stocked with your choice of sparkling wine for the New Year's Eve festivities. Champagne is the classic option, of course, but if you're looking to update it a bit you could try a nice Italian Prosecco or Spanish Cava. I prefer Prosecco myself, but please, keep the fruit juice out of it. This isn't a freshman mixer. Also, you should have on hand Ritz crackers, a cheese ball, and pot lids, which were always part of the New Year's celebrations of my childhood and thus must be critical elements of all such celebrations everywhere for the remainder of time. QED.

We've had a pretty interesting bowl season so far, with nine of the eighteen games played through December 27th being decided by a single score. Vegas has been beaten up a bit, with favorites going 5-6 straight up and 2-9 against the spread. All that unpredictability is good for fans, of course, assuming you don't have any money on the games - and don't you have better things to spend your money on? Like Prosecco? This next batch of games should be the highlight of the season.

OFD Bowl Pick 'Em Update: Our new leader is Cluckevious Wingo, followed by Pelini's Piquant Posole and Weis-Guy. Jamie tops the OFD staff member performance at #11 overall, with me checking in at #19 and Eric at #21. Writing about this stuff apparently hasn't helped our picking acumen all that much. Check out the full standings (and/or edit your remaining picks) here.

Note that all times are Eastern, because it's really the only time zone that exists - the others are just red herrings designed to placate you weirdos from elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 31st

Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl
#9 Ole Miss (9-3) vs. #6 TCU (11-1)

Line: TCU -3, O/U 56
TV: ESPN, 12:30 PM

Irish fans watched a pretty bad backslide by their team in the second half, but Ole Miss gave that dip some competition with a four game stretch in which they went 1-3 and lost their best player to a broken leg, with the lone win coming against Presbyterian and the last loss being an utter domination at the hands of Arkansas. They rebounded with a solid win over Mississippi State, though, and will hope to carry some momentum from that into the bowl game.

Ole Miss's #1 ranked scoring defense has logged 19 interceptions on the season; 9 of those have come at the hands of senior cornerback Senquez Golson, who TCU must be aware of.

On the other side line is Gary Patterson and TCU, who may well be the angriest coach and team in the country right now. They feel they were jobbed twice this year - once by the referees at the end of the Baylor game, and once by the committee that left them just outside the playoff. On paper they're one of the more complete teams in the nation, ranking 2nd in scoring offense and 18th in scoring defense; Alabama (16th/3rd), Mississippi State (14th/10th) and Marshall (4th/20th) are the only other teams to be in the top 20 in both categories. If they strike the right balance of angry and focused, they could be a nightmare for the Rebels.

Expect to hear junior linebacker Paul Dawson's name often - the stalwart defender has logged a Manti-like stat line, with 128 tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 5 sacks on the season.

Vizio Fiesta Bowl
#20 Boise State (11-2) vs.  #10 Arizona (10-3)

Line: Arizona -3, O/U 68 
TV: ESPN, 4:00 PM

Consider that this is the weakest match-up - seriously - of the "New Year's Six" bowls, and you'll understand what I mean when I say the committee absolutely, inarguably got this part of their process right.

Boise State lost an early road game to Ole Miss and lost a head-scratcher to Air Force, but otherwise rolled through their schedule, with only one of their 11 wins coming by less than two scores. Their offense is good and balanced, ranking 26th in passing and 30th in rushing. Their defense is suspect, though, which helps explain the O/U on this game. Watch for junior running back Jay Ajayi, who has scored an absurd 25 times on the ground this year and added 4 receiving touchdowns for good measure.

Arizona had an outside shot at making it into the playoff if they could've won their rematch with Oregon in the Pac 12 title game, but those hopes lasted all of about 10 minutes. The Wildcats have still put together an impressive year, though, which has restored some of the luster to Rich Rodriguez's coaching star.

Sophomore linebacker Scooby Wright III (that name is all kinds of awesome) was a dark horse Heisman candidate for good reason - he racked up video game numbers, with 153 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles on the year.

Capital One Orange Bowl
#7 Mississippi State (10-2) vs. #12 Georgia Tech (10-3)

Line: Mississippi State -6.5, O/U 61.5
TV: ESPN, 8:00 PM

Mississippi State reached #1 for the first time in program history, only to fall to Alabama shortly after and then get smacked by Ole Miss to close out the regular season. They're a good offensive team with a lot of veteran leadership, but despite the lofty defensive scoring ranking (10th) their defense is a bit suspect. If they don't disrupt Georgia Tech's option game early, they could be in for a very long day.

The offensive engine is of course Dak Prescott, who has 37 total touchdowns on the year and is the team's second leading rusher. He's a pretty decent bet to go over 3,000 yards passing (4 to go) and 1,000 yards rushing (61 to go) on the season in this game.

Georgia Tech is one of the many teams that came oh so close to knocking off Florida State, losing by a mere 2 points in the ACC championship game. They probably would've ended up in the Orange Bowl even if they had won, so they shouldn't have to fight any mental letdown of ending up here. Their 3rd-ranked rushing offense against Mississippi State's 25th-ranked rushing defense could be interesting.

As usual with a triple option team, Tech's quarterback is the key to their success. Nobody will confuse sophomore Justin Thomas with Dak Prescott as a thrower, but he should also go over 1,000 yards rushing for the season today (35 to go) and has accounted for 22 total touchdowns.

Thursday, January 1st

Outback Bowl
Auburn (8-4) vs.  Wisconsin (10-3)

Line: Auburn -6.5, O/U 63.5
TV: ESPN, 12:00 PM

This looked like a decent match-up originally, but with Wisconsin in total disarray after the departure of Gary Andersen it's looking like a lot less of an even game. If Wisconsin had trouble with Cardale Jones, we can only imagine what Nick Marshall will do to them. Of course, Auburn closed the season on a 1-3 run, with the lone win coming over Samford, so they have their own problems to sort out. But enjoy the last collegiate game for Nick Marshall.

Wisconsin, as noted, is a wreck after their Big Ten championship game no-show and Andersen's move to Oregon State. They do still have arguably the best running back in the country in Melvin Gordon, though, who earlier this year set the FBS single-game rushing record and became the fastest player ever (by carries) to 2,000 rushing yards in a season. Will we see the team that hung tight with LSU on the road and killed Nebraska, or will we see the team that lost to Northwestern and got slaughtered by Ohio State?

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
#8 Michigan State (10-2) vs. #5 Baylor (11-1)

Line: Baylor -2.5, O/U 70
TV: ESPN, 12:30 PM

This is probably the best non-playoff game on the slate this year - the classic pairing of strength vs. strength. Baylor brings its #1 scoring offense and #1 total offense rankings against Michigan State's #15 scoring defense and #6 total defense rankings. Both teams are better on the other side of the ball than people tend to think, too, with Michigan State ranking 7th in scoring offense and Baylor ranking 38th in scoring defense (although both schools' performances were helped considerably by body bag games).

There are big questions about Michigan State's true quality, since they played only two really good teams this year and were handled pretty easily by both. On the other hand, both those teams - Oregon and Ohio State - are in the playoff, so maybe it doesn't say anything. Bellcow running back Jeremy Langford, who far and away leads the Spartans in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, will be critical to State's chances.

Baylor is just as angry to be left out of the playoff as TCU - probably more so, since they beat TCU and would be the Big 12 champ if the conference didn't have a completely ridiculous championship policy. The Bears have their own star tailback in sophomore Shock Linwood (which sounds fake), who similarly easily leads his team in carries, yards, and touchdowns. Which running back can get on track sooner may go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
#16 Missouri (10-3) vs.  #25 Minnesota (8-4)

Line: Missouri -4.5, O/U 47.5
TV: ABC, 1:00 PM

Missouri won the SEC East for the second straight year in just their third year in the SEC, which is impressive, went 7-1 in conference, and obliterated Florida. They also got waxed in the SEC title game for the second straight year, which is not impressive, lost to Indiana, and got destroyed by Georgia. They're a hit or miss team this year on both sides of the ball, although the defense did come on in the second half of the regular season in holding five out of six opponents below 300 total yards before the Alabama game.

Senior running back Marcus Murphy is 4th nationally in kickoff returns at 29.9 yards per return and tied for second nationally with 2 return touchdowns. He could be a swing factor in a close game.

Jerry Kill has done a respectable job in leading Minnesota to a second-place finish in the Big Ten West. They lost at home to Ohio State and on the road at TCU and Wisconsin, which is neither a surprise nor anything to hang their heads about - especially since they were competitive against Ohio State and Wisconsin. They also lost to Illinois and needed a 52-yard fourth-quarter field goal to beat Purdue, so like Missouri they've been a bit up and down.

Senior power back David Cobb is their most reliable offensive weapon, logging 1,545 rushing yards and 13 scores on the year.

Rose Bowl Presented by Northwestern Mutual
#2 Oregon (12-1) vs. #3 Florida State (13-0)

Line: Oregon -8, O/U 71.5
TV: ESPN, 5:00 PM

Oregon has recorded their seventh consecutive double-digit win season, a streak that has spanned three different coaching tenures (Mike Belotti, Chip Kelly, and Mark Helfrich). Think about that for a minute. This year, the quality of their defense may be what could propel them to the national title they haven't quite managed to grasp yet. While not nearly as elite as their offense, their defense is good this year - 18th in FEI Defense, 12th in S&P Defense, and 29th in scoring defense despite playing opposite an up-tempo offense.

One caveat to all that is that the Ducks will be without their best defender, senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. He'll likely be replaced by committee, but how well his usual partner Troy Hill can hold up in man coverage will probably be more important in determining how the Oregon defense can stand up to the Seminoles.

Florida State has flirted with disaster all year, going undefeated but winning seven games by a single score - including five such wins over teams that are not currently ranked - and trailing in the second half in other games before pulling away to make it look more comfortable, like NC State and Louisiville. If they come out in a similar sloppy fashion in this game, Oregon could put them away early. They'll need to be focused from the opening gun,

Freshman tailback Dalvin Cook was quiet against the Irish but has gamebreaker ability, sporting a 5.8 yard per carry average and a 9.4 yard per reception average.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
#1 Alabama (12-1) vs. #4 Ohio State (12-1)

Line: Alabama -9, O/U 58.5
TV: ESPN, 8:00 PM

Speaking of double-digit win seasons, Alabama also notched their seventh consecutive such season this year and will have a chance to play for their fourth championship in six seasons. They're playing a different game than everyone else. This year's edition is definitely not as strong as the 2009 or 2012 teams, particularly on the defensive side, but the addition of Lane Kiffin seems to have sparked their offense to new levels. Still, they've looked vulnerable at times, earning single-score wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State and getting in a track meet with Auburn.

The player to watch for the Tide is kind of a no-brainer - All-World receiver Amari Cooper, who is widely expected to go pro after his true junior season and would probably be a top 5 draft pick if he does. This will most likely be the last chance to see him in the college game.

Ohio State was left for dead after a season-ending injury to Braxton Miller in August and a convincing week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. They've had their shaky moments, particularly in a two-overtime win over lowly Penn State and a survival in Minnesota, but they stated their case for the playoff emphatically with a thorough demolition of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Urban Meyer put JT Barrett on the express development plan and then, when Barrett went down for the year against Michigan, coaxed that title game performance out of an offense led by third-string quarterback Cardale "We ain't come here to play school" Jones.

As you might expect, the player to watch here is indeed Cardale Jones - he has to stand tall in the glare of the klieg lights if Ohio State is to have any chance of holding up to Alabama in this game.

Friday, January 2nd

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Houston (7-5) vs.  Pitt (6-6)

Line: Pitt -3, O/U 53.5
TV: ESPN, 12:00 PM

Perhaps the most notable thing about an otherwise uninspiring match-up is that both of these teams will be led by interim coaches for the bowl game. Houston cut loose Tony Levine after just three seasons, which included an 8-5 record last year and this year's 7-5. Hmm. Paul Chryst, meanwhile, sent Pitt into crisis once again when he left for Wisconsin after Gary Andersen bolted to Oregon State - and in the process got Steve Pederson fired, which was probably a good move anyway.

Another odd parallel is that both schools hired Big Ten coordinators as replacements - Houston nabbed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and Pitt got Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Both are excellent hires, but neither will join his respective new team for this game. Irish fans may want to tune in to see Signing Day flip Deontay Greenberry for Houston, or to get an early look at 2015 opponent and potential Heisman candidate running back James Conner for Pitt.

TaxSlayer Bowl
Iowa (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6)

Line: Tennessee -3.5, O/U 51.5
TV: ESPN, 3:20 PM

Iowa had a disappointing year, losing to Iowa State and Maryland and getting obliterated by Minnesota. They had a couple of moral victories in their last two games, losing to Wisconsin and Nebraska by a combined 5 points, but 7-5 is 7-5. Kirk Ferentz doesn't seem to be in any danger of losing his job despite losing at least five games in each of the last six seasons and 11 times in his 16 seasons there. Nobody at the skill positions for Iowa really jumps out, so if you tune into this one watch All-American offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, who is a likely top 10 NFL draft pick.

It seems like Butch Jones is building something in Knoxville - his recruiting has been off the charts, and they've recorded some decent wins. But then you have head-scratchers like their awful 10-9 loss to Florida this year, and it's kind of hrad to figure where they're headed. If the McElwain hire works out for Florida, the Vols may have missed their chance to sieze the SEC East. Keep an eye on freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, who has 20.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks on the season.

Valero Alamo Bowl
#11 Kansas State (9-3) vs.  #14 UCLA (9-3)

Line: UCLA -1.5, O/U 59.5
TV: ESPN, 6:45 PM

This should be a great match-up and I could see it going either way, but I was still a little surprised to see UCLA favored. This game actually opened at Kansas State -3.5, so the betting public has quite a bit of belief in the Bruins.

Bill Snyder, who may be a cousin of Gandalf, put together another great season in the Little Apple. The balanced Wildcats rank 24th in scoring offense and 25th in scoring defense; they don't beat you by being excellent at anything, they beat you by being pretty solid and not making mistakes. When they've made mistakes this year, they've lost. All-American return man Tyler Lockett, with his 19-yard punt return average and 2 return touchdowns, is a lot of fun to watch.

UCLA had three consecutive close calls against mediocre teams to open the season that led many (including me) to doubt their quality. There's been discord on the sidelines between assistants at times this season, and of course there's the whole face paint thing. All in all, UCLA has seemed very Hollywood this year, but there is some substance behind the glitz - they have some athletes and are capable of scoring in bunches. Brett Hundley gets the press, but sophomore running back Paul Perkins is a huge part of their offense too, amassing 1,579 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns.

TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)

Line: Washington -6, O/U 56.5
TV: ESPN, 10:15 PM ET

Washington had a bit of an uneven record in former Boise State coach Chris Petersen's first year at the helm, but there were some signs of progress. The Huskies were 0-4 against currently ranked teams but looked respectable in the last of those games, a 1-point loss at Arizona, before closing out the season with blowouts of Oregon State and Washington State. Safety Shaq Thompson and defensive tackle Danny Shelton rightfully get plenty of attention, but senior linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha is a beast in his own right with 24 tackles for loss and 18 sacks on the year.

Oklahoma State lost a close game to Florida State to open the season and looked like they might have a decent year, but then they hit the decent part of their schedule and lost five straight games, each by blowout. When the wheels come off in Stillwater, they come off, apparently. They shocked Oklahoma in overtime in the regular season finale and may be able to carry some momentum into the bowl game. Leading receiver Brandon Sheperd and his gaudy 18.8 yards per reception could cause Washington some trouble.

Saturday, January 3rd

Birmingham Bowl
East Carolina (8-4) vs. Florida (6-5)

Line: Florida -6.5, O/U 56.5
TV: ESPN, 12:00 PM

East Carolina looked destined for great things after losing a close game to South Carolina and destroying North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Then their high-flying offense was shockingly shut down by Temple, they lost a shootout to Cincinnati, and they lost the finale to Central Florida to seriously darken the perception of their season. They're not exactly reeling, but they should come into this came with a chip on their shoulder. Senior quarterback Shane Carden logged his second consecutive 4,000-yard season to go with 34 total touchdowns (28 passing, 6 rushing).

Florida, notorious recently for coming out flat in "disappointing" bowl game match-ups, may be in danger of a similar situation here with both the venue and the dismissal of Will Muschamp weighing on their minds. The entire Gator nation is likely looking ahead to the start of the Jim McElwain era; while the fans no doubt would prefer a resounding win, I'm not sure how much the game result will really matter either way given the changing of the guard. Senior wide receiver Andre Debose is a catalyst on special teams, ranking 6th nationally in punt returns and 35th in kick returns.

Sunday, January 4th

GoDaddy Bowl
Toledo (8-4) vs.  Arkansas State (7-5)

Line: Toledo -4, O/U 67
TV: ESPN, 9:00 PM

If you're not an alum or parent for either school and you watch this game, you watch too much football. I haven't watched anything at all of either team this year so I can't offer even a poorly-informed opinion on them; instead, I'll just pick two players to watch:

Sophomore running back Kareem Hunt leads Toledo with 173 carries for 1,360 yards, a sterling 7.9 yards per carry average, and 11 touchdowns despite missing a quarter of the season.

Dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten looks like the offensive engine for Arkansas State, accounting for 19 touchdowns through the air and 11 on the ground. He should go over 3,000 yards passing (126 to go) and has a shot at 900 yards rushing (125 to go) on the season.