The thing to watch in Nebraska-USC and Saturday’s 4 other bowl games
Five bowls are on the Saturday docket, and four have spreads of seven or fewer points. The action won’t always be aesthetically pleasing, but it should be competitive. You don’t always get both.
Who wins: movable force or resistible object?
Any game involving Cincinnati (25th in Off. F/+, 88th in Def. F/+) can become a shootout. Any game involving Virginia Tech (91st in Off. F/+, fourth in Def. F/+) can become a defensive slog. Cincinnati won games by scores of 58-34, 54-46, and 38-31. Virginia Tech lost games by scores of 21-16 and 6-3.
This makes it difficult to know what to expect in Annapolis, doesn’t it?
Cincinnati has crafted a fun, nearly all-pass attack, with sophomore blue-chipper Gunner Kiel passing for 3,010 yards and 30 touchdowns. A young duo of receivers — freshman Artavis Scott and sophomore Mike Williams — has combined for 116 catches, 1,769 yards (10.9 per target), and 12 touchdowns, the line keeps Kiel upright (25th in Adj. Sack Rate), and the Bearcats rank 14th in both Passing S&P+ and Passing Downs S&P+.
Virginia Tech’s defense ranks even better: second in Passing S&P+, eighth on passing downs. The Hokies have the No. 1 pass rush in the country according to Adj. Sack Rate. Ends Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem have combined for 17.5 sacks, and while the Tech book-keeper is liberal in labeling hurries, Nicolas and Ekanem have 53, and tackle Corey Marshall has added 23 more. That makes life easy for corners Kendall Fuller and Chuck Clark and rover Kyshoen Jarrett.
So what gives? And what happens when a hapless Cincy defense is asked to stop a stoppable Tech offense? Anything from 10-7 to 40-37 is on the table. (And if you have post-Christmas chores to do around the house, wait until Cincy gets the ball.)
Can Duke master the Little Things™ again?
It’s easy to forget, but heading into a home game vs. Virginia Tech on November 15, Duke was a resounding favorite to win its second straight ACC Coastal title. The Blue Devils were 8-1, with a loss at Miami as the only blemish. With an efficient offense and one of the best special teams units in the country, the Blue Devils were tipping the field, finishing drives, and pulling off close win after close win — by six at Georgia Tech, by seven against Virginia, by three at Pitt, and by 17 at Syracuse in a game that was tied heading into the fourth quarter.
But the magic ran out. In a 17-16 home loss to Virginia Tech, Duke was minus-2 in turnovers and scored 16 points in EIGHT scoring opportunities (first downs inside the 40); Tech scored 17 points in three opportunities and won.
Against North Carolina, Duke lost the field position battle by an average of nine yards per possession, and a bend-don’t-break defense broke. Final score: UNC 45, Duke 20.
Duke rebounded with a 41-21 win over Wake Forest, giving the Blue Devils back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time. But if they want a second straight 10-win campaign, they’ll have to rally in the Little Things™ department.
Arizona State is basically a more stable North Carolina. The Sun Devils are dangerous but inconsistent, and while the defense has been pierced by big plays, it is athletic enough to slow down a Duke offense that regressed. After averaging 6.4 yards per play and 44 points per game in non-conference play (yes, against a weak slate), the Blue Devils averaged 4.9 yards per play and 27 points per game in ACC games. They averaged better than 5.1 yards per play twice in eight conference games.
ASU gets after you — big Marcus Mardison has 14 tackles for loss, and linebackers Salamo Fiso and Laiu Moeakiola have combined for 21.5. If Duke can fend ASU off enough to avoid three-and-outs and get special teams and field position involved, then the Blue Devils will have a shot.
Who wants to be in Shreveport?
Independence Bowl (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Miami Hurricanes (6-6) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (6-6)
Expectations are a zero-sum game. For every great story of exceeded expectations, there is an opposite. For every Mississippi State (10-2 after starting the season unranked), there is an LSU (started 13th, finished unranked). And for every Missouri (10-2 after losing to Indiana), there is a South Carolina.
The Gamecocks ranked ninth in the preseason AP poll and suffered through a stream of disappointment. There was a 24-point home loss to unranked Texas A&M in the season opener. There were four consecutive one-possession losses in conference play to Missouri, Kentucky, Auburn, and Tennessee. And there was the season-ending loss to Clemson, their first in the series since 2008. A 6-6 season was not what Steve Spurrier had in mind.
Meanwhile, though expectations weren’t high for Miami in September, they sprouted quickly. Road losses to three ranked teams kept the ceiling low, but on paper, the Hurricanes were strong, and they looked the part in big wins over Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, and UNC.
Miami had a chance to beat undefeated Florida State late on November 15 but faltered (as everyone does against FSU). And as in 2013, the ‘Canes followed a loss to the ‘Noles with two duds: a 30-13 road loss to Virginia, and a 35-23 home loss to Pitt.
Both have shown high ceilings, particularly on offense. South Carolina finished ninth in Off. F/+ (and 117th on defense), and Miami is 17th on offense and 34th on defense. But while some people like Shreveport just fine, it feels like a letdown compared to where these teams thought they might be. This is a “who wants it?” game.
Miami grades out higher and has a better A-game than the Gamecocks, because the Hurricanes can actually play defense from time to time. But the odds of both teams bringing said A-game are minimal.
This just feels right, doesn’t it?
Two of the Northeast’s better teams battling at Yankee Stadium. One has to assume this was the vision when someone said “We should put a bowl game in New York.” After hosting Big 12 teams from the Central time zone in 2010 and 2011, the matchups have been pretty lovely and location-specific over the last three years — Syracuse-WVU in 2012, Notre Dame-Rutgers in 2013. These teams have played each other 20 times in the last 50 games, and the atmosphere should be fun.
The matchups could be interesting as well.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s Penn State defense has been phenomenal in his first year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions rank 10th in Def. F/+, having held every opponent under 5.0 yards per play. BC ranks a healthy 22nd in Off. F/+. The Eagles have completely committed to the run (they rank eighth in standard downs run rate, seventh on passing downs), and they’re good at it. Florida transfer Tyler Murphy has fit in just about perfectly at quarterback, rushing for 1,000 yards and passing for 1,500. And a young backfield of freshman Jon Hilliman, sophomore Myles Willis, and freshman Marcus Outlaw have combined to nearly replace the output of last year’s anchor Andre Williams.
BC can run on just about anybody, but no one can run on Penn State.
BC is better defending run than pass, but Penn State really only passes; the Nittany Lions rank 111th in standard downs run rate and 113th in passing downs pass rate. Part of this has to do with the fact that the best offensive player is a pro-style quarterback (Christian Hackenberg), but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Penn State can’t run even a little bit. This offense ranks 106th in Rushing S&P+ and 115th in Adj. Line Yards. Attempting to run the ball would be irresponsible.
This has “low-scoring slog” written all over it. But at least the jerseys won’t clash.
Does Nebraska survive the Interim Coach hangover?
On paper, the Holiday Bowl takes shape nicely. A run-heavy Nebraska offense led by star back Ameer Abdullah takes on a pass-happy USC squad and ace receiver Nelson Agholor. Two aggressive secondaries. Two historic helmets.
But this is another bowl that might be decided by motivation. USC has been up-and-down in Steve Sarkisian’s first year — win at Stanford, lose to Boston College; lose at home to Arizona State, beat Arizona on the road, get thumped by rival UCLA, destroy rival Notre Dame. The Trojans grade out well overall (22nd in the F/+ rankings) but rarely seem to play to their ranking, skewing higher or lower.
Over the course of three weeks, everything about the present and future changed for Nebraska. On November 15, the Huskers were 8-1 and leading Wisconsin, 17-3, early in the second quarter. Head coach Bo Pelini was breaking through the four-loss barrier, and Nebraska was still alive in the national title hunt. Then Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon went crazy, rushing for 408 yards as the Badgers went on a 56-0 run. And then the Huskers lost at home to Minnesota. Pelini was fired after all, burning every bridge and bridge-like structure on his way out of Lincoln.
Pelini is not an administrator’s dream, but his players loved him. Can they rally in his absence and play well enough to threaten a USC team that isn’t playing far from home? If the Huskers a step slow, they will get slugged by a USC team that grades out well anyway. But if they pick up a step playing for interim coach Barney Cotton, the game is well within reach.
Coaching drama aside, the game could come down to how well Nebraska’s secondary can handle not only Agholor, but other receiving weapons. The Huskers’ pass rush has been disappointing — end Randy Gregory has seven sacks in 10 games, but nobody else has even four, and Nebraska ranks 84th in Adj. Sack Rate — but corners Josh Mitchell and Daniel Davie have combined for 19 passes defensed, and sophomore safety Nate Gerry (five interceptions, three break-ups) has been a pleasant surprise as a ball hawk. Might Gregory have a strong game against freshman tackle Toa Lobendahm? Can the Huskers force quarterback Cody Kessler to lean on options like freshman JuJu Smith or George Farmer?
One more question: is it possible for a USC quarterback to be underrated? Kessler has completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,500 yards, 36 touchdowns, and only four picks. That’s rather incredible, even if he did struggle a bit in the ASU and UCLA losses.