Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
02 Jan 2013
by Matt Hinton
Traditionalists did not take to their typewriters this summer to pound out strongly worded letters to the editor in favor of the pending playoff in college football, set to relegate the Bowl Championship Series to the dust heap in 2014. But they can take solace in this much: With the death of the BCS, New Year's Day may rise again.
College football hasn't exactly ceded its annual showcase to the NHL just yet, but the emphasis on the winner-take-all, No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the championship game has drained January 1 of much of its once formidable vitality: aside from USC's insurgent victory in the 2004 Rose Bowl, the annual January 1 smorgasbord hasn't featured a game with any sort of national championship implications -– insurgent or otherwise -– since 1998, when the newly-formed BCS began spreading the most prestigious New Year's Day bowls thin across the first week of January. More than a decade later, the result has been sagging television ratings for all BCS games, including the championship game, and a concerted effort by the conference commissioners who run the postseason to get the trend moving in the opposite direction. A more prominent role for New Year's Day and New Year's Eve is expected to be part of that effort, ensuring that all of the nation's elite teams are part of a 36-hour smorgasbord that will consume American sports on a level most of us are old enough to remember well. If the increasingly-sprawling BCS calendar has taught us anything, it's the value of one big defining bang over a series of isolated pops.
In the meantime, even a slightly diminished January 1 remains the most wonderful day of the year to be a college football fan. As long as we can still watch the sun set over Rose Bowl -– even a Rose Bowl featuring an unranked team, as the 2013 edition will for the first time in three decades –- the day will always feel right.
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It is not the happiest New Year for Purdue, which takes the field as the biggest underdog of the bowl season a little more than a month after firing its head coach for the sin of going 6-6 for the second year in a row. Not that long ago, back-to-back bowl bids at Purdue would have been good for a raise, especially in a season in which the Boilermakers came within a hair of beating two perennial overlords, Notre Dame and Ohio State, and closed the regular season on a three-game winning streak. But none of Purdue's six wins came against a fellow bowl team, and the sand in Danny Hope's hourglass ran out during a five-game skid at midseason.
It didn't help that the Boilers were forced to shuffle through three different starting quarterbacks, the best of whom, senior Robert Marve, spent most of the year trying to play through the latest in a series of knee injuries. On this point, Oklahoma State can relate: the Cowboys were also forced to start three different quarterbacks, eventually settling on junior Clint Chelf down the stretch after freshmen Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh were sidelined by assorted injuries. Chelf will start against the Boilermakers after throwing 13 touchdowns (against just four interceptions) in OSU's last four games, but if all goes according to plan, the Cowboys will keep the ball in the hands of All-Big 12 tailback Joseph Randle as often as possible.
Big Question: Can Oklahoma State turn yards into touchdowns? Explosive as the Cowboys are on paper, they left a lot of points on the field as the result of both turnovers (four giveaways at Arizona, five at Kansas State) and simply stalling out in scoring range. For the season, senior Quinn Sharp attempted more field goals than all but two other kickers nationally, and OSU settled for field goals in the red zone more often than any other team in the Big 12. The Cowboys will move the ball against one of the most generous defenses in the Big Ten, but putting Purdue away will require that they finish.
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Aside from USC, no team fell harder over the final five weeks than Mississippi State, which went into an October 27 date at Alabama boasting a 7-0 record and its highest ranking in the AP poll (13th) in more than a decade. From there, the Bulldogs left Tuscaloosa as victims of a sobering, 41-24 flop against rival Ole Miss, left MSU with a single win over a team that finished with a winning record (Middle Tennessee State), and without much to hang its hat on statistically except a top-shelf turnover margin.
You can say much the same about Northwestern, which opened with a pair of close wins over eventual winners Syracuse and Vanderbilt, but went 0-3 against the three best teams on the conference schedule: Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan. (The Wildcats also benefited from a pretty good turnover margin.) Unlike Mississippi State, though, Northwestern was at least competitive in those losses, leading Penn State and Nebraska in the fourth quarter and taking Michigan to overtime in Ann Arbor. Of course, the Wildcats won their share of close games, too, but any season that ends within 19 points of a perfect record at Northwestern is a banner year.
Big Question: Can Northwestern strike a balance? Between shifty tailback Venric Mark (1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns) and quarterback Kain Colter (820 yards, 12 touchdowns), the Wildcats can do plenty of damage on the ground. But only if they can force the Bulldogs to respect the passing game enough to keep them from crowding the box against the run. Colter shares the passing duties with sophomore Trevor Siemian, and occasionally lines up at receiver himself, but Northwestern doesn't have anyone who figures to challenge NFL-bound corners Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield on a consistent basis.
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The Cornhuskers and Bulldogs traveled eerily similar arcs to Orlando, though neither side is necessarily happy to be here after rebounding from midseason blowouts (at Ohio State and South Carolina, respectively) to win their respective divisions on the strength of a pair of six-game winning streaks. Now, both have to find something to play for after watching a coveted BCS bid –- the Rose Bowl for Nebraska, the BCS title game for Georgia –- slip from their grasp in the conference championship game.
Nebraska, of course, faces a steeper climb after being buried six feet beneath Lucas Oil Stadium by Wisconsin, but the Cornhuskers match up well with Georgia in two specific respects: a) they bring the Big Ten's best ground game against a defense that finished near the bottom of the SEC (and 76th nationally) against the run, and will also be playing without a future first-round pick at defensive tackle; and b) they can counter one of the most efficient passers in the nation, Aaron Murray, with a secondary that ranks second nationally in pass-efficiency defense. Against the defense that ranks first nationally, Florida, Murray was picked off three times and UGA was held nearly 200 yards below its season average for total offense.
Big Question: How will Nebraska deal with Jarvis Jones? When he wants to be, Jones is a one-man wrecking crew at outside linebacker, a consensus All-American for the second year in a row after leading the nation in tackles for loss and forced fumbles. Tuesday, Jones has the added incentive of impressing NFL scouts in what will undoubtedly be his final college game, with the No. 1 overall pick in his sights. There are plenty of good linebackers in the Big Ten, but the Cornhuskers have not faced an equivalent.
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Steve Spurrier built his first SEC dynasty on the "Fun 'n Gun," passing his way to seven conference titles and one national crown at Florida from 1990-2001, but in keeping with the times, his long-simmering resurrection at South Carolina has come to fruition on the back of the defense. Specifically, it's come courtesy of the front four: After sending five defensive linemen to the NFL Draft in the last three years –- including a first-rounder last year, Melvin Ingram, who was the first Gamecock defensive lineman to go in the first round since John Abraham in 2000 -– Spurrier has three more future pros on his hands in Devin Taylor, Kelcy Quarles, and Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney may already be the most disruptive pass rusher in the country after tying for the national lead in sacks as a true sophomore. With 4.5 sacks against Clemson in the season finale, Clowney put his name on preseason Heisman lists in 2013, and further confirmed that South Carolina finally has the juice up front that separated it from the SEC's elite for so long.
Ironically, what Spurrier lacks at the moment is anything resembling a reliable playmaker. The Gamecocks are limping into the New Year without their best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, the victim of a gruesome knee injury that effectively ended his college career, and possibly without their starting quarterback, Connor Shaw, who is expected to start but likely will be nowhere near 100 percent after suffering shoulder and foot injuries over the course of the season. Their leading receiver, Bruce Ellington finished with just 564 yards, and the offense as a whole finished 86th nationally in yards per game. Opposite a Michigan defense that finished tenth in yards allowed, defense and special teams will count for a lot.
Big Question: How will Michigan use Denard Robinson? Michigan has already named Devin Gardner the starting quarterback, meaning Robinson will close out his college career in the Wildcat/tailback role he exploited to good effect in the final two games of the regular season. In those games, though, Robinson was still recovering from a shoulder injury that had kept him out of the previous two games and severely limited his ability as a passer. With time to heal and add a few wrinkles to the Gardner/Shoelace package, don't be surprised if the Wolverines come up with some creative ways for Robinson to put the ball in the air.
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Seventy teams are playing in bowl games this winter, and none of them are quite as inscrutable as Wisconsin. On one hand, the Badgers are only in Pasadena due to the extraordinary fortune of sharing a division with not one but two teams banned from the postseason under NCAA sanctions, Ohio State and Penn State, allowing them to claim the Big Ten championship despite finishing in third place in their own division. Wisky is the first team since the 1983 UCLA Bruins to book its tickets to Pasadena despite being unranked in the AP poll, and the first ever to arrive with as many as five losses. It will also be arriving without its head coach, Bret Bielema, and a handful of assistants who decided to follow the boss to Arkansas.
On the other hand, the Badgers are also arriving off one of the most stunning massacres of the season, a 70-31 ambush of Nebraska in the B1G title game in which they steamrolled the Cornhuskers for 539 yards rushing on 10.8 yards per carry. Wisconsin's five losses in the regular season came by a combined 19 points, all by a touchdown or less, three of them in overtime. Almost everyone who will see the field Tuesday is already well-acquainted with the spotlight, having played in the Rose Bowl each of the last two years. Ditto their interim coach for the game, Barry Alvarez, who was 3-0 in Pasadena in the nineties before assuming the job of athletic director. The Badgers may show up looking sluggish and mediocre, as they did for much of the year, and further deflated by Bielema's abrupt departure. Or the taste of blood in Indy may have only whetted their appetite for more.
By contrast, Stanford is a model of stability, which is saying something for a former doormat that has lost a Heisman runner-up (Toby Gerhart), a top-notch head coach (Jim Harbaugh), and another Heisman runner-up (Andrew Luck) in consecutive seasons. The Cardinal closed the season with a 4-0 run against ranked opponents after benching quarterback Josh Nunes in favor of redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, adding a much-needed running option from shotgun/pistol sets to an attack that wasn't threatening defenses in the downfield passing game. Whatever the formation, the goal is still to grind away with workhorse Stepfan Taylor until play-action throws to huge, versatile tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are ripe for the picking.
Big Question: Can Wisconsin establish the run? To the extent the massacre in Indy restored the ground game to the status of "irresistible force," Stanford will be as close as any defense the Badgers have seen to an immovable object, despite falling from first nationally to third against the run after an uncharacteristically rough night in the Pac-12 Championship win over UCLA. The Bruins, like Oregon and (to a lesser extent) Arizona earlier in the year, had some success attacking the Cardinal out of spread sets, but no one has been able to line up and run it right at Stanford, Badger-style. Based on what we saw against Nebraska, Wisconsin's may be the first attack just burly enough to push the Cardinal around. Based on the rest of the year, the Cardinal front seven is more than capable of methodically swallowing them up.
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Poor Florida State. Seven long, turbulent years removed from their last BCS bid in 2005, and what is the Seminoles' prize for finally re-subjugating the rest of the ACC? A date with an obscure, two-touchdown underdog whose presence in one of the traditional prestige games was met with instant scorn, thereby casting FSU as Goliath on its biggest national stage of the season. It's a thankless role: When the script calls for a lamb to the slaughter, there is only room for disappointment if the scene isn't quite bloody enough.
Which is not to suggest that Northern Illinois necessarily is a lamb to the slaughter, or that it's any less deserving of a slot in a big-money game than, say, Louisville or Wisconsin, both of which finished behind the Huskies in every relevant poll. NIU arrives in Miami tied with Notre Dame and Ohio State for the nation's longest active winning streak at 12 games. It boasts the nation's longest conference winning streak at 17 dating back to last year, trouncing MAC opponents this year by an average margin of 26 points per game. The Huskies led the league in both total and scoring offense, and finished second in both total and scoring defense. Their prolific quarterback, Jordan Lynch, finished fourth nationally in rushing, third in total offense, and tied for the national lead by accounting for 43 touchdowns. As a team, they averaged more points per possession (3.4) than all but two other offenses in the entire country. In fact, Northern Illinois wasn't really "selected" at all, but qualified automatically under BCS rules.
It's also true that teams from outside of the "Big Six" conferences whose champions are rewarded with automatic BCS bids have fared extremely well as underdogs, scoring memorable upsets in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State over Oklahoma), the 2009 Sugar Bowl (Utah over Alabama), and 2010 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State over TCU, though the Horned Frogs also played in a "Have Not" league at the time). Altogether, teams from outside of the Big Six cabal are 5-2 in BCS games since 2004. Underdog label aside, though, the fact is that Northern Illinois doesn't look much like a Boise, TCU, or Utah. They haven't ascended over years of sustained success prior to their big breaks, and nobody is beating down the door to fit them into a Big Six conference. The Broncos, Frogs, and Utes all arrived in big-money games boasting perfect records and at least one win over a Big Six opponent. Prior to this season, NIU had never finished in the top 25, and opened this season with an 18-17 loss at the hands of Iowa, which went on to finish 4-8 and tied for last place in its division. The Huskies also struggled against a pair of non-conference doormats, Army and Kansas, trailing both in the fourth quarter. Their only victory over a ranked team came at the expense of another improbable BCS hopeful, Kent State, in a double-overtime nail-biter to decide the MAC championship. Florida State, boasting future pros at every position, is a slightly steeper challenge.
Big Question: Can NIU bring the heat? The Huskies led the MAC in sacks and tackles for loss, and both of their starting defensive ends, Alan Baxter and Sean Progar, were rewarded with first-team all-conference nods. If FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel can be pressured into a big mistake or two in a low-scoring slugfest, Northern Illinois has a fighting chance at the upset.
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The Sugar Bowl is a big, big deal for Louisville, which has reclaimed its status as an up-and-coming power under head coach Charlie Strong after the downward spiral of the Steve Kragthorpe era. But it's a full-circle moment for Florida, too, bringing the Gators back to the site of their last great triumph of the Tim Tebow/Urban Meyer era in January 2010. Then, Tebow ended his college career with a near-flawless performance in a 51-24 thrashing of Cincinnati, and Florida promptly hit the skids for the next two years.
It hasn't always been pretty, but it's safe to say the turnaround under Will Muschamp is complete. This year, the Gators have four wins over opponents who finished in the top dozen in the BCS standings –- LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Florida State –- where only three other teams (Alabama, LSU and Notre Dame) have even two. Of the losses suffered by the other eleven teams in the top dozen, nearly 25 percent of them, four of seventeen, have come at the hands of Florida. In September, the Gators held the soon-to-be Heisman winner to his worst game of the season in terms of total offense, and his team's worst on the scoreboard. In October, they hounded the highest-rated passer in the nation into three interceptions. LSU, a team that averaged more than 32 points per game in its other eleven, managed just six against Florida and failed to reach the end zone for the only time this season. South Carolina, a team whose only other loss came by two points in Baton Rouge, in a game the Gamecocks led in the fourth quarter, was laughed out of Gainesville in a 44-11 debacle. Florida State, another resurgent power that came into the season finale trashing opponents by upwards of four touchdowns per game, was held to a season low in terms of total offense while giving the ball away five times.
There's a flip side to that: a month-long offensive meltdown against Louisiana-Lafayette, Missouri, and Georgia, where the failure to move the ball finally caught up with the Gators when it was combined with six turnovers in the World's Largest Cocktail Party. But even there, the difference in the game came down to a matter of inches in the final two minutes. Which may be the only reason we're not talking about Florida preparing to play for a national title instead of fending off an upset bid from a two-touchdown underdog.
Big Question: Whither Louisville's special teams? Florida was terrific in the kicking game, producing All-Americans at kicker (Caleb Sturgis) and punter (Kyle Christy) as well as four blocked kicks/punts on the season –- one of which may have saved it from an embarrassing defeat against the Ragin' Cajuns. Meanwhile, Louisville's special teams finished among the worst in the country in punt returns, kick returns, and net punting. If they're struggling to move the ball against one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, the Cardinals can hardly afford to struggle in the field position battle, too.
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The Fiesta Bowl hit the jackpot for the second year in a row, following last year's dramatic, star-studded tilt between Oklahoma State and Stanford with a similarly Tortoise-versus-Hare-worthy encore between two teams that, as of late November, appeared to be on a collision course for the championship game. Beyond the obvious contrasts in philosophies, pace, and curb appeal, though, both sides in this year's edition will have to brace for a potential encounter with kryptonite. For Oregon, Kansas State will be the nearest approximation the Ducks have seen to the disciplined, veteran defense from Stanford that derailed their championship hopes by bottling up the Pac-12's most explosive offense. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly's up-tempo, run-oriented spread is a terrifying reminder of the Baylor attack that shredded the Wildcats for 52 points on the same night, knocking them from the top of the BCS standings. Both games should serve as blueprints that play to the other side's strengths.
But as far apart as Kelly and K-State coach Bill Snyder are philosophically, it would be a mistake to assume that Snyder's glacial approach can't keep the pace. What his team lacks in speed, it more than makes up for in efficiency, beginning with field position: the Wildcats led the nation in the regular season in a battery of categories –- namely kickoff returns, punt returns, and turnover margin –- that added up to the best average starting field position in the country. They also led the nation by a wide margin in fewest yards per point scored (10.1), and converted third downs at a higher rate than Oregon. Even when it came to explosive plays, a higher percentage of Kansas State's offensive possessions (21.9 percent) than Oregon's (20.9) averaged at least 10 yards per snap. It's just that K-State's deliberate pace resulted in far fewer possessions, so they weren't putting up the gaudy point totals to make us take notice.
For an example of how much the Wildcats can do at their own speed, look no further than their 55-14 shellacking of West Virginia on October 20. In that game, Kansas State had just ten offensive possessions all night, but scored on nine of them, including a run of seven consecutive touchdown drives behind quarterback/human locomotive Collin Klein. After two quarters, West Virginia's star-studded offense had managed just 17 snaps on three possessions, punted on all three, and trailed 31-7 going into the half. K-State is built to play keep-away, and the longer Marcus Mariota and the rest of Oregon's battery of warp-speed playmakers are on the sideline, the better.
Big Question: Is Collin Klein at full speed? Klein wasn't quite the same after leaving Kansas State's win over Oklahoma State on November 4 with what was assumed (though never confirmed) to be a concussion. The next two games, at TCU and Baylor, were Klein's lowest-rated performances of the season as a passer, and K-State's lowest-scoring on offense; the finale against Texas yielded a season-low for total yards. Including the OSU game, his completion percentage over the final month dropped by more than ten points, and his efficiency rating dropped nearly 50 points. No player in college football is more valuable to his team, but anything less than his star-making, midseason form is an invitation for Oregon to run away with it.
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It's nothing compared with the disappointment of 2011, but Oklahoma still comes into this game with a chip on its shoulder and plenty to prove. The Sooners won a share of the Big 12 championship, but as minority stakeholders due to a head-to-head loss against Kansas State. They won ten games, but none against a team ranked in the current AP poll entering the bowl season, and the last four of which were all decided by a touchdown or less. Two of those were come-from-behind, skin-of-the-teeth affairs that required Oklahoma touchdowns in the final 30 seconds of regulation. They were left out of a BCS bowl in favor of a MAC team with a lower ranking in the polls, marking the first time in Bob Stoops' 14-year tenure his team has fallen short of a big-money game two years in a row.
In that sense, perhaps no individual player is more emblematic of his team as a whole than senior quarterback Landry Jones. In 49 career starts, Jones has passed for far, far more yards than any other active quarterback (and more touchdowns, too), but that's largely a byproduct of the fact he's attempted far more passes than anyone else. He's obliterated all of Sam Bradford's school passing records, but never managed anywhere near Bradford's traction at the top of Heisman or draft lists. Including this year's co-championship, he's led two teams to conference titles. He's also been the starter overseeing four losses in which his team was favored to win by double digits. In the last two years alone. In the full flush of the spread era, he's a sign of the times: the first quarterback at a traditional powerhouse for whom all the yards in the world could never be enough.
Nothing could be further from the truth for Jones' counterpart in Arlington, Johnny "Football" Manziel, a shooting star of such magnitude his debut may ultimately eclipse the rest of his career. As a redshirt freshman, Manziel led the nation in total offense and set SEC records for total offense in a game (twice) and in a season, but it was his freewheeling, playground creativity –- as much on display against Alabama as against Louisiana Tech –- that set him apart from one-dimensional slingers and scramblers, and presents the biggest challenge to Oklahoma's defense. Texas A&M's only two losses this season came not in up-tempo, can-you-top-this? shootouts, but at the hands of the only two defenses (Florida and LSU) that managed to hem in Manziel as a scrambler.
Big Question: Can Oklahoma avoid a quick knockout? The Aggies are fast starters, to say the least, especially in big games. Against ranked opponents alone, they raced out to double-digit leads over Louisiana Tech (21-0), LSU (12-0), Mississippi State (31-0), and Alabama (20-0) before allowing a single point, and led Florida by double digits at the half, 17-7. In four of those games, though -– all but the trip to Mississippi State -– the decision went down to the wire, with A&M struggling and twice failing to hold on in the second half. This is not a new trend: dating back to 2011, seven of the Aggies' last eight losses have come in games they led by double digits. If the Sooners withstand the initial punch, they should find plenty of opportunities to land a few of their own.
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3 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2013, 8:08pm by sundown