Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
14 Dec 2012
by Matt Hinton
College football is just a few hours from embarking on its annual bowl odyssey, now spanning 35 games over 23 days from December 15 to January 7, and even to the most diehard fans the exercise makes a little less sense every year. It's not just that we would overwhelmingly prefer a playoff format, or that we're about to get one beginning in 2014. The explosion of bowl games over the past decade has degraded the quality of the match-ups and erased any cachet that once came with being invited to a bowl, generally. (At no other point in the history of the sport, for example, would Purdue or North Carolina State have ever considered firing their head coaches with a second consecutive bowl game on the horizon, as both did last month.) Fully half of the postseason slate now consists of unranked teams playing in front of largely empty stadiums for the sake of keeping local hotels and restaurants in the black and giving ESPN –- which created and owns many of the lower tier games –- an easy ratings boost over the holidays. Most of these teams even wind up paying for the privilege out of their own coffers via ticket guarantees that amount to little more than a racket. Who cares?
So glad you asked! In the spirit of the season, the first installment of this year's Bowl Extravaganza has not only broken down each of the first 11 games of the season in typically in-depth Football Outsiders fashion, but also -– as a service to you, the discerning, understandably cynical reader –- gone out of its way to give you something, anything to care about in each game. No, there is no good reason for many of these turkeys to exist. But given that they do, it can't hurt to look on the bright side.
Justify Your Existence. Albuquerque in mid-December: Come for the Breaking Bad jokes, stay for the most prolific tailbacks in college football. Exploiting tried-and-true systems for piling up big numbers on the ground, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey and Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson finished first and second nationally in rushing yards per game, combining for 3,460 and 42 touchdowns, and neither has an excuse for failing to put on a show Saturday against two unusually generous defenses. By the end of the regular season, in fact, Nevada was fighting off a free-fall: After a 6-1 start, the Wolf Pack were ripped for 447 yards and 38 points per game over the last five, dropping four of them despite sustained success from the offense. The last time Carey faced a front seven this bad, he obliterated the Pac-12 rushing record and may have briefly ascended into orbit.
For Future Reference. Carey is the headliner at the expense of his quarterback, Matt Scott, who managed to lead the Pac-12 in total offense as a first-year starter despite a fairly dramatic November slump of his own. After four years spent almost entirely on the bench, Scott has already played his way into a mid-round projection as a senior. Surely he relishes one last opportunity to make up for his turn as the goat in a season-ending loss to Arizona State.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? Coaches Chris Ault and Rich Rodriguez are both innovators whose chief breakthroughs (the "Pistol" and the zone read, respectively) have infiltrated every level of the game while continuing to pay dividends for their inventors. If they can't break the scoreboard, we're in for a long month. WATCH.
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Justify Your Existence. Let's begin here by stating the obvious: The existence of a six-ton potato on the back of a flatbed truck justifies itself. Next to that, a football game is but a mere satellite striving to prove itself a worthy diversion. To that end, the Potato Bowl has brought back last year's runner-up, Utah State, which returns as the last team to bear the title of "WAC Champion" before the conference drops football next year. In their fourth year under head coach Gary Andersen, the once-hapless Aggies led the league in every defensive category, set a school record for wins (10), and have a very real chance of finishing with a national ranking for the first time in 50 years. If not for two late field goal misses in losses at Wisconsin and BYU, they'd be preparing for a much larger, more lucrative stage right now at 12-0.
For Future Reference. Only a sophomore, Chuckie Keeton already ranks alongside the best quarterbacks in Utah State history, having just set single-season records for total yards and touchdowns en route to a first-team All-WAC nod. With the conference title on the line at Louisiana Tech, Keeton went for 461 yards and four scores in a 48-41, overtime thriller that clinched the crown.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? Last year's Potato Bowl delivered one of the wildest finishes of the year, complete with one of the most transcendent moments in the history of instant replay. So keep an eye on the score, just in case, but it is safe to SCAN.
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Justify Your Existence. For some perspective on the kind of year it's been for BYU, consider that at one point this season, the Cougar defense held opposing offenses out of the end zone in 13 consecutive quarters over a span of four games. In the same span, they went just 2-2 and lost one of their quarterbacks, freshman Taysom Hill, to a season-ending injury while attempting to kneel out the clock. The 2012 edition produced arguably the best defense in BYU history, finishing among the top five nationally in both yards and points allowed, but it wasn't good enough to keep the Cougars from going 1-4 against teams that finished with winning records.
For Future Reference. He wasn't the Cougars' most productive player on paper (that distinction would belong to his counterpart at outside linebacker, Kyle Van Noy), but scouts inevitably flipped for 6-foot-6, 270-pound senior Ezekiel Ansah, a native of Ghana who is still only learning to play football after years of soccer, basketball, and track. Prior to emerging as a full-time starter this fall, Ansah had barely set foot on a field in an actual game; by next spring, there's a good chance he'll find a team willing to take a chance on him in the first round.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? Shockingly, San Diego State coach Rocky Long hasn't made good on his preseason promise to be more aggressive on fourth down. Unless a bowl game on his home turf suddenly brings out Long's inner gambler, you probably won't be missing anything if you PASS.
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Justify Your Existence. Technically, Central Florida was supposed to be ineligible for a bowl game this season after being slapped with a one-year postseason ban for alleged recruiting violations. Determined to keep its appointed winter rounds, however, UCF opted to delay the pain by mounting an appeal that won't be decided until January. If the ban is upheld then, it will apply to the 2013 season instead. The Knights' reward for fighting the power? A two-hour bus ride from Orlando to Tampa for an essentially meaningless game against an obscure opponent in a sterile, domed stadium intended primarily for baseball. If next year's team tanks completely in its first season in the Big East, it will all be worth it. (That is, uh, if there still is a Big East next season.)
For Future Reference. Ball State's recent six-game winning streak has corresponded with the emergence of sophomore tailback Jahwan "Quake" Edwards, a 5-foot-9, 225-pound thumper who churned out six consecutive 100-yard games and nine touchdowns during the streak. With starting quarterback Keith Wenning still questionable due to a fractured ankle, and backup Kelly Page likely out with a concussion, Edwards will get every opportunity to keep that trend rolling into the offseason.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? True, the atmosphere of a mostly empty Tropicana Field leaves a lot to be desired, even on television. But the best reason to PASS on this game is still the maddeningly superfluous apostrophe in "Beef 'O' Brady's."
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Justify Your Existence. This marks Boise State's third consecutive appearance in the Vegas Bowl, and the first one that actually feels right. Final record (10-2) notwithstanding, the 2012 Broncos were a far cry from the outfits that went 50-3 from 2008-11 and spent most of that time ranked in the top ten, relegated to the lower rungs of the bowl ladder only by their conference affiliation. This time around, Boise was just 3-2 against fellow bowl teams, including a 7-6 win over BYU in which the offense failed to produce a point despite the benefit of five turnovers. The defense held up its end, leading the Mountain West in yards and points allowed, but it's clear enough by now that Joe Southwick is not the next Kellen Moore.
For Future Reference. Freshman safety Shaq Thompson was Washington's most high-profile recruit in ages, and made good on the hype with 66 tackles (8.5 for loss), three interceptions, and a wave of freshman All-America notices. (He was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 pick by conference coaches, as well.) At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds –- and with a truly horrendous debut in minor league baseball -– the only question about Thompson's future is whether or not he's going to grow into a linebacker.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? Boise State's current standing in the polls owes more to reputation than accomplishment, but a bowl win over a Pac-12 opponent would instantly qualify as the Broncos' best win of the season, even if that opponent has struggled away from its home field and is coming off an embarrassing loss at Washington State. With both teams returning a lot of talent next year, the winner is in for a head start in the 2013 polls. WATCH.
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Justify Your Existence. On paper, the Pirates and Ragin' Cajuns are about as bland as they can be –- neither side cracked the top 30 nationally in a single conventional or advanced category –- but at least they're hot. East Carolina comes in with five wins in its last six, including a 65-59 win over Marshall in double-overtime that would have made for a classic if anyone had seen it. On the other side, UL-Lafayette won four its last five, the only loss coming in a near-upset at Florida decided by a blocked punt on the final play. This is the only match-up outside of the BCS Championship Game between two teams that have both won three games in a row.
For Future Reference. This may also be the only match-up of the bowl season that doesn't feature a single realistic NFL prospect. (Although if anyone has a chance to prove that assumption wrong, it's ECU linebacker Jeremy Grove, two years from now.) In fact, the most obvious up-and-comer here will be on the sidelines. With back-to-back bowl games under his belt at a school that had never been to one before last year, UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth cannot be far from the short list of coaches in line for a more high-profile gig.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? As a player or fan, I'd obviously rather be in New Orleans than, say, Tampa. As a viewer, no game on the slate has less to recommend it. PASS.
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Justify Your Existence. Technically, Fresno State had to share the Mountain West crown with Boise State and San Diego State, but by year's end the Bulldogs had pretty well established themselves as the class of their new conference. Their seven MWC wins came by an average of 23 points, all of them by double digits; in a five-game winning streak to close the season, they scored at least 42 points in every game. In Derek Carr, Davante Adams, and Robbie Rouse, Fresno boasted the leading passer, receiver, and all-purpose back in the league by wide margins, along with the No. 2 total/scoring defense. With a win in the islands, it will crack the 10-win barrier for the first time since 1991.
For Future Reference. If FSU's Phillip Thomas wasn't the best safety in college football this season, he fooled the media outlets, virtually all of which voted Thomas a first-team All-American based on a killer stat line: 82 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, four sacks, four forced fumbles, and three touchdowns. NFL scouts are not quite as enthusiastic, but for the first time this season, a national audience can actually judge for itself.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? You can do worse over the next couple weeks than SMU and Fresno State, but hopefully you can do a lot better on Christmas Eve. PASS.
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Justify Your Existence. Western Kentucky is no stranger to the postseason from its days as a mainstay in the I-AA playoffs, but this will be the Hilltoppers' first bowl game since moving up to the I-A/FBS ranks in 2008, a milestone they'll celebrate without head coach Willie Taggart. A former WKU running back in the mid-nineties, Taggart parlayed a remarkable turnaround at his alma mater –- from 0-12 in 2009, the year before his arrival, to back-to-back 7-5 finishes three years later -– into the top job at South Florida, near his hometown. With or without the guy who led them there, the Pizza Bowl will be the most visible stage Western Kentucky football has ever played on.
For Future Reference. No prospect has rocketed up draft boards more quickly this season than Central Michigan senior Eric Fisher, who is almost certainly headed for the first round next April and seems to have some scouts convinced he should be one of the first two or three offensive linemen off the board. Unfortunately, he's not going get a chance to prove it against the Hilltoppers' pass-rushing ace, Quanterus Smith, who was leading the nation in sacks before he went down with a season-ending knee injury in the next-to-last game.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? If you're into scouting offensive linemen, by all means, Fisher is a diamond in the rough. Otherwise, you may as well get a head start on your New Year's resolution to finally read the Russians. PASS.
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Justify Your Existence. Before this season, Duke's 18-year bowl drought stretching back to 1994 was one of the most depressing statistics in the sport –- only Kent State had gone longer between bids -– and kept getting more depressing by the year. By any other standard, the 2012 Devils would be just another 6-6 mediocrity backing into an irrelevant game off a four-game losing streak to close the regular season, boasting an 0-5 record against fellow bowl teams and the worst defense in its conference. By Duke standards, just being here is a victory in itself. Leaving with a winning record would be an historic triumph.
For Future Reference. Duke has had exactly one player drafted by the NFL in the last decade: seventh-round offensive lineman Drew Strojny in 2004, who never appeared in a pro game. Next year, the Blue Devils could realistically send two players to the next level: quarterback Sean Renfree and wide receiver Conner Vernon, owners of every relevant school record in their respective categories.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? The novelty of Duke in a bowl game ought to be good for a few series, and maybe some genuine drama if the Devils are closing in on a winning record in the fourth quarter. In the meantime, SCAN as necessary.
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Justify Your Existence. At this point, I'm not sure how many college fans have even heard of San Jose State quarterback David Fales, much less realize that he may have been, statistically, the most productive passer in the nation. In his first year out of junior college, Fales was No. 1 nationally in completion percentage and third in pass efficiency, hitting at least 65 percent with well over 200 yards through the air in every game. He also finished with multiple touchdown passes in nine of the last ten Spartans games (all but one of them a victory), eventually coming in with single-season SJSU records for touchdowns and total offense. If this was the best season in school history –- and a bowl win would pretty much clinch it -– Fales was the biggest reason why. And he went virtually unnoticed, even within his own conference.
For Future Reference. If he's lucky, Fales won't have the misfortune of being introduced to Bowling Green defensive tackle Chris Jones, an unlikely All-American thanks to his unlikely production (12.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss) from the interior line. Surprise: With the most disruptive defender in the league, the Falcons wound up leading the MAC in every defensive category.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? The Spartans and Falcons don't boast much brand awareness, but they are two hot teams that combined to go 11-3 in their respective conferences and feature legitimately underrated headliners on the field at the same time. You don't have to be hardcore to give them a SCAN.
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Justify Your Existence. Regardless of the calendar, watching Baylor is the gridiron equivalent of a sugar-coated holiday binge. The Bears openly mock the idea of "moderation." In last year's Alamo Bowl, they sent Robert Griffin out in a 67-56 track meet against Washington that set bowl records for combined yards (1,397) and touchdowns (18), which turned out to be prelude rather than an epilogue. In the absence of RGIII and his top target, All-American Kendall Wright, the 2012 Bears still led the nation in total offense on the indefatigable arm of senior Nick Florence and a rotating cast of backs and receivers who combined for nearly 7,000 yards from scrimmage. At the same time, they finished next-to-last nationally in total defense, the perfect combination for another outrageous post-Christmas confection. The average Baylor game this season featured 82 points on 1,093 total yards.
Now the part where I remind you all to brush your teeth. Offensive fireworks notwithstanding, the difference in the final score of those games always came down to the much more practical matter of which side took better care of the ball. When the Bears won the turnover margin, they were 7-1; when they finished in the red, they were 0-4. Their unexpected November surge to close the season was first and foremost a result of flipping the turnover margin.
For Future Reference: 2012 belonged to the precocious quarterback class of 2011, which produced the Heisman Trophy winner, the undisputed star of an undefeated team, and five of ten starters in BCS games, including the championship game itself. Long-term, though, the most promising of the lot may be UCLA's Brett Hundley, a versatile, 6-foot-3 prototype who completed 68 percent of his passes and accounted for more than 61 percent of UCLA's total offense as a redshirt freshman. At this stage, Hundley compares favorably to West Virginia's Geno Smith, who just so happened to ascend to the top of draft boards after reducing Baylor's secondary to a smoldering heap of ashes back in September.
Watch, Scan, or Pass? If you only tune in to one game this bowl season prior to New Year's Day, the Holiday Bowl should probably be the one, and that includes games in which your alma mater happens to be participating. Set aside those nagging feelings of guilt and WATCH while devouring an entire gingerbread house.
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