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.
28 Dec 2012
by Matt Hinton
Attempting to predict what's going to happen in a given football game is always a futile endeavor (as my record for the current season demonstrates), and never more so than in bowl games, when an entire season's worth of objective stats and not-so-objective assumptions can be rendered irrelevant by a simple question of motivation: who wants to be here? For three weeks every December, an entire industry of prognosticators turns into an amateur psychology session.
USC, a team that began the season fully expecting to play for the national championship, or at least in a BCS bowl, is stuck instead in the Sun Bowl after losing four of its last five games. Will the Trojans bother to show up? Texas Tech, briefly considered one of the season's brightest surprises, dropped four of its last five and woke up one morning to learn its head coach had just skipped town for another job. Who really expects the Raiders to play their hearts out in the Car Care Bowl? Virginia Tech is coming off its worst season as a member of the ACC. Iowa State and Tulsa are playing for the second time this year. Texas, already disappointed to be playing in the second-tier Alamo Bowl, just sent two players home the day before the game amid an investigation for sexual assault. With a handful of exceptions, the winter exhibition season is still just that: an exhibition. It's divorced from both the regular grind and the stakes of the regular season, offering little in the way of reward for a month's worth of extra effort. In some cases, that effort is overseen by a lame-duck interim coach. In most cases, even the losers get a trophy for showing up.
What you find when you watch these games, though, is that the players almost always do care, out of a fundamental sense of competitiveness that renders the cynicism over the glut of games, the corruption of the system, and even the mediocrity of the match-up irrelevant once the ball is kicked off. Cincinnati's wild, come-from-behind win over Duke in the Belk Bowl -– an utterly meaningless game (with a stupid name, to boot) -– was about as much fun as you can legally have on a Thursday afternoon without leaving your house. Four other games over the first two weeks of the postseason have come down to the final minute. All of them had stupid names and came with the usual accompaniment of empty seats. Given half a chance, the kids are still determined to put on a good show.
Below you will find the previews for Friday's games as well as the first three Saturday games. Saturday morning, we'll be adding the write-ups for all the games through New Year's Eve.
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There were more disappointing teams in 2012 than Virginia Tech, but none quite as unrecognizable. Coming into the season, the Hokies boasted at least 10 wins in eight consecutive seasons, the longest streak in the nation, all of them built on the twin pillars of "Beamer Ball," defense and special teams. Limping into the bowl game, they're 6-6, allowing more points per game (23.9) than in any season since joining the ACC in 2004, and failed to block a single kick or punt against an FBS opponent for the second year in a row. Combined with a tepid ground game and an erratic quarterback, Tech had nothing to hang its hat on from one week to the next. If not for last-second escapes against bottom-dwellers Boston College and Virginia in the final two games -– first in overtime, then on a game-winning field goal as time expired -– a team that typically measures success by conference championships and BCS bowls wouldn't have survived into the postseason at all.
For Future Reference: Linebacker Khaseem Greene is the quintessential Rutgers success story, an instate recruit from nearby Elizabeth who began his career as an unheralded, undersized afterthought and grew into one of the best defensive players in school history. As a senior, Greene led the Big East in solo and total tackles for the second year in a row and picked up his second-consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award at the center of a unit that allowed the fewest points in the league. Next up: One of the higher rounds of next April's draft.
Big Question: Who wins the turnover battle? In a designed defensive slugfest, the team that wins is the team that takes better care of the ball. The Hokies and Scarlet Knights combined to go 12-0 when they finished with a positive turnover margin, and 0-8 when they finished in the red. Considering Virginia Tech was about three times as likely to fall into the latter category, the tentative edge goes to the Knights.
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In late October, Texas Tech was 6-1, ranked 15th nationally, and boasted a top-10 defense that improbably defied every pass-happy Big 12 stereotype. Hell, the Red Raiders had even shut down the pass-happiest attack of them all, West Virginia, in a 49-14 rout that sent the Mountaineers' perfect season careening off the tracks. It seemed too good to be true, and it was: From that point on, Tech reverted to the standard shootout format, yielding 47.3 points per game in its last six en route to a 2-4 finish -– an unsettling callback to its 0-5 collapse at the end of 2011.
In its own way, this year's skid was every bit as depressing, maybe more so. Both of the Raiders' wins in that span, over TCU and Kansas, were decided in multiple overtimes, the latter of which proved so maddening that coach Tommy Tuberville was caught on camera taking a swipe at a graduate assistant on the sideline. A few weeks later, Tuberville was on his way to Cincinnati without warning or explanation, leaving his team in nearly the same state of uncertainty and chaos he inherited three years ago.
For Future Reference: Not only will you not find MarQuies Gray's name at the top of any draft boards, but after four years of shuttling between quarterback, wide receiver, and the injury list under two different coaching staffs, Gray himself isn't even certain where he stands on Minnesota's depth chart entering his final college game. While he failed to find a permanent niche for the Gophers, though, Gray still possesses the enormous potential that made him one of the most-hyped recruits in school history, and at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, will command a long look from scouts over the next four months.
Big Question: Does Texas Tech care? The Red Raiders have every advantage on paper, but also ended a once-promising season on a slump that culminated in the abrupt departure of their head coach. There is much anticipation locally for Tuberville's successor, Kliff Kingsbury, a former Tech quarterback who will openly embrace the wide-open "Air Raid" style that seemed to give Tubs the dry heaves. But is that enough for the 2012 Raiders to rally around one last time, or just one more reason to get on with 2013 as quickly as possible?
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In these uncertain, rapidly changing times, let this be your annual reminder that some things –- namely Air Force's offense -– will never change. Some three decades after the triple option took root under coaches Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry, the Falcons are still at it under Troy Calhoun, who ran the system as an Academy quarterback in the late eighties and has yet to make good on his initial promise to drag the playbook into the twenty-first century. Quite the opposite, in fact: this year, Air Force kept the ball on the ground on 85 percent of its offensive snaps, second only to Army, and set a new high for Calhoun's six-year tenure by averaging 329 rushing yards per game. Unfortunately, it also set a new low with a middling 6-6 record, the final three losses in November all coming by double digits.
For Future Reference: Okay, sure, it's not saying much when the most exciting player in a given game is a kicker. But if you only see one kicker this postseason, make it Rice's Chris Boswell, who booted his way onto the NFL's radar as a junior with six –- six! –- successful field goals on seven attempts from beyond 50 yards, more than any other kicker in the nation. Add his game-winner from 45 yards out against Kansas, and you're looking at a foot with a long career ahead of it.
Big Question: Can Air Force hang onto the ball? The Falcons lost a staggering 19 fumbles this season, coughing it up at least twice in eight of their last nine games. Turnovers are an occupational hazard in any triple-option scheme, but at that rate, the hazard it poses to the defense pales in comparison.
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I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting West Virginia is a good team, an illusion that was repeatedly shattered by opposing offenses over the course of a month-long, five-game losing streak in October and November. In terms of idle Saturday afternoon entertainment, though, the Mountaineers certainly live up to the hype as an exciting team, boasting as much firepower as any offense in America and a head coach, Dana Holgorsen, willing to light every fuse in Red Bull-fueled haze. The spark in that metaphor is still senior quarterback Geno Smith, whose ridiculous ratio of touchdowns (40) to interceptions (6) has him entrenched at the top of almost every mock draft. Smith's top two receivers, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, are both future pros with 6,329 yards and 67 touchdowns to their names over the last three years, let alone Austin's frequent, eye-opening cameos as a rusher and return man.
Syracuse hasn't seen an offense full of legitimate, NFL-caliber playmakers since September, when USC stars Marqise Lee and Robert Woods combined for five touchdown catches from their blue-chip quarterback, Matt Barkley, in a 42-29 win for the Trojans. Then and now, the Orange's challenge is just to keep pace.
For Future Reference: Of the two quarterbacks in this game, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib looks like the scrappy underdog, unless you happen to be one of the handful of scouts who have fallen head over heels this season for his pro potential. A 6-foot-2, 225-pound pocket type with 37 consecutive starts under his belt, Nassib quietly came into his own as a senior, especially down the stretch. Over the last six games, he racked up 13 touchdown passes to just one interception, and the formerly defensively-oriented Orange averaged 36 points per game en route to a 5-1 finish.
Big Question: Which defense breaks serve? West Virginia has a knack for turning games into track meets decided by whichever team has the ball last, a strategy distilled to its purest form in the Mountaineers' 70-63 win over Baylor back in September. Syracuse is not as generous defensively as Baylor, and doesn't move as quickly on offense, either. But at some point the Orange will have to resort to trading touchdowns, and just hope they've got one more in them.
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If college football ever launched some kind of awareness campaign for mediocrity, Arizona State would be its poster child. In 2010, the Sun Devils finished 6-6. In 2011, they finished 6-6 again, and fired head coach Dennis Erickson ahead of a meaningless bowl game. Through eleven games under Erickson's successor, Todd Graham, the 2012 Devils were 6-0 against opponents that finished with losing records, and 0-5 against opponents that finished with winning records. In keeping with that trend, they trailed rival Arizona (record: 7-4) by ten points heading into the final quarter of the regular season.
In that context, the Devils' subsequent rally to beat the Wildcats, 41-34, qualifies as real progress. With the win, Arizona State finished above .500 in conference play for the first time since Erickson's first season, 2007, which was also the last time it finished above .500 overall. A bowl win would be ASU's first since 2005, and would leave Graham's debut looking like ... well, not a success, really, but much closer than anyone would have guessed on Thanksgiving.
For Future Reference: It didn't help the Devils' cause that the toughest stretch of the season -– a three-week run against Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State –- coincided with a knee injury to their best player, defensive tackle Will Sutton, who missed all or part of all three games. Sutton returned with a vengeance, racking up 16 tackles (five for loss) in ASU's last three games, and was instrumental in the comeback in Tucson. For his disruptive efforts, he was rewarded as the Pac-12's Defensive Player of the Year and was named a consensus All-American.
Big Question: Can Arizona State handle the triple option? No catalogue of accolades can prepare Sutton or the rest of the ASU defense for Navy's relentless option game, designed specifically to keep bigger, faster opponents guessing while the Midshipmen chew up clock. The Devils' talent advantage won't mean much if they spend all afternoon over-thinking or over-pursuing.
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On paper, Texas has the makings of a complete, balanced team on both sides of the ball, which was true on the field to an extent: Everything worked, but it rarely worked at the same time. The offense showed up early against Oklahoma State and West Virginia; the defense did not, running for cover in a pair of down-to-the-wire shootouts. By the time the defense pulled it together for November slugfests against TCU and Kansas State, the offense had gone into hibernation. The starting quarterback, David Ash, was occasionally brilliant, and occasionally found himself benched for ineffectiveness. Three different guys had their turn as the feature back, delivered a big game or two, and spent the rest of the season struggling for carries. The defense managed to lead the Big 12 in tackles for loss while also finishing dead last against the run. Twice, the mounting optimism of a four-game winning streak was dissolved by the reality of back-to-back losses.
The sum was the most maddening campaign yet in an ongoing, three-year rebuilding project that seems to be measuring progress in inches. If the next step is a Big 12 title, lopsided losses at the hands of co-champs Oklahoma and Kansas State were sobering reminders of just how far the 'Horns still have to go.
For Future Reference: Texas' receiving corps includes a 2012 Olympian, Marquise Goodwin, but the more relevant track star on Saturday plays for Oregon State: Before he finished second in the Pac-12 in receptions, Markus Wheaton finished second in the league in the 100-meter dash last spring, outrunning Sports Illustrated's "Fastest Man in Football," De'Anthony Thomas, in the process. For his effort in pads, Wheaton picked up a first-team all-conference nod from Pac-12 coaches and a solid second-round grade from NFL scouts.
Big Question: Can Texas establish the run? Ash is an entirely different quarterback with the benefit of a reliable ground game, and there are no shortage of options between Joe Bergeron, Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown, who should be as healthy as he's been in months. But none of the three has stuck as a consistent, go-to back, and Oregon State has spent the entire season ranked among the best run defenses in the nation.
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If your'e the type of fan who still complains about the proliferation of new-age, up-tempo offenses and the runaway scoreboards in their wake, this is your game and Michigan State is your team. As good as the Spartans were defensively – and they were very good, leading the Big Ten in both yards and points allowed – they were equally bad on offense, averaging barely 20 points per game. And as ugly as that combination may be for three quarters, it turns out to be a pretty good for tense finishes in the fourth: Eight MSU games were decided by four points or less, including a pair of overtime decisions and (tellingly) five of the Spartans' six losses. In four of those, they led or were tied in the fourth quarter.
TCU can relate: Four of the Horned Frogs' last six games were decided by a touchdown or less, and they failed to top 20 points in four of their last five. Ravaged by youth and attrition – most notably the messy exit of starting quarterback Casey Pachall just a month into the season – the offense averaged fewer yards (397) and points (29.3) per game for the year than in any season since 2007.
For Future Reference: Draft watchers should already be familiar with Michigan State's William Gholston, a towering (6'6", 278) defensive end expected to throw his hat into the draft a year early. They may be less familiar with his counterpart, TCU freshman Devonte Fields, who turned in arguably the best season of any first-year defender in the country with nine sacks and Big 12-best 17.5 tackles for loss. In fact, along with MSU's Marcus Rush and TCU's Stansly Maponga, all four starting defensive ends in this game are future pros, as are at least six members of the starting secondaries.
Big Question: Touchdowns or field goals? Obviously, points will be at a premium. When that's the case, the difference usually comes down to which offense is able to maximize its few opportunities with six points instead of three, a dicey proposition for both offenses: The Spartans and Frogs both finished at or near the bottom of their respective conferences in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns, and at or near the top in forcing opponents to kick.
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Hey, James Franklin, how's that Vanderbilt rebuilding job going? Well, let's see, in Franklin's second season as head coach, the Commodores…
• Finished with a winning conference record for the first time since 1982.
• Won eight games in the regular season for the first time since 1955.
• Won six games in a row for the first time since 1955.
• Recorded their most lopsided win over Tennessee (23 points) since 1954.
• Recorded back-to-back wins over Tennessee for the first time since 1925-26.
• Earned back-to-back bowl bids for the first time ever.
With a win on Monday, the Commodores will almost certainly finish in the final polls (first time since 1948) and match a school record for wins in a season, set in 1915. Football in 1915 was basically a different sport. So, yeah, Franklin is off to an okay start.
For Future Reference: As a sophomore in 2011, N.C. State's David Amerson led the nation in interceptions and vaulted to the top of draft boards projecting him as the first cornerback off the board in 2013. As a junior, Amerson was burned for multiple touchdowns in the season opener, a nationally televised, 35-21 loss to Tennessee, and never quite recovered in the eyes of the scouts or ACC coaches, whose all-conference ballots relegated him to the second team. Against Vanderbilt, Amerson will line up across from another future pro, All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews, with plenty of questions to answer in man coverage if he plans to come out after the game.
Big Question: Does N.C. State care? The Wolfpack struggled down the stretch and, aside from an inexplicable upset over Florida State in October, didn't beat another team that qualified for a bowl game all season. Head coach Tom O'Brien was fired following the season finale, leaving the bowl game in the hands of an interim boss, offensive coordinator Dana Bible. Vanderbilt will be jacked to finish a banner year in front of a hometown crowd. N.C. State has to come up with a reason not to just go through the motions.
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Not only are the Trojans disappointed with its destination on the heels of an historically disappointing season: They're also playing without the most prolific passer in school history, Matt Barkey, who'll sit out his final college game with the same lingering shoulder injury that sidelined him for the regular-season finale against Notre Dame. In his place, the start will go again to redshirt freshman Max Wittek, who fits the statuesque USC prototype so snugly he once transferred to the same high school that produced Barkley and Matt Leinart.
So the game is a kind of live audition: With Barkley on ice, USC has used bowl prep to get a head start on the competition between Wittek, Cody Kessler and incoming freshman Max Browne to take over as the full-time starter next year. Fortunately for Wittek after his uninspiring night against the Fighting Irish (14-23, 186 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), Georgia Tech's defense is a long, long way from the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation.
For Future Reference: The undisputed bright spot in the Trojans' decline was sophomore receiver/return man Marqise Lee, who set a Pac-12 record for receptions, easily led the conference in receiving and all-purpose yards and won every possible accolade short of the Heisman Trophy. Then there's the guy who everyone thought would play that role, junior Robert Woods, whose final numbers (73 catches, 813 yards, 11 touchdowns) were fine, but came nowhere near matching the heights of his All-American breakthrough in 2011. Woods will announce his decision on the draft after the game, likely to confirm his departure. The truth is, with Lee coming back, he may have a better chance of becoming a No. 1 receiver at the next level.
Big Question: Can USC handle the triple option? The bowl will be the last game for venerable defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, a longtime NFL hand who never fully grasped the spread, read option and other new-age staples of the college game. The Trojans are obviously the more talented team, but that's true pretty much every time they step on the field, and hasn't stopped them from being gashed by well-oiled attacks before.
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These two teams have seen each other before, although even they might have a hard time remembering it: Way back in September, Iowa State rolled up 461 yards and forced three turnovers en route to a 38-23 win to open the season. From there, Tulsa ripped off seven consecutive victories, led Conference USA in total defense and eventually claimed the C-USA title' meanwhile, Iowa State spent the next three months shuffling between three starting quarterbacks, lost its best player for the season and finished with five losses in its last seven.
For Future Reference: By the end of this game, Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein will have 100 total tackles to his name for the third year in a row, and may have more stops than any active player in the Big 12. With fellow tackle machine Jake Knott on ice, Klein took over as the veteran heart of the defense over the final month, earning his second consecutive All-Big 12 nod from league coaches in the process. With Knott still on ice against Tulsa, Klein may also be the only player on the field on Monday who has a future on Sundays.
Big Question: What's changed since September? Besides Knott, Iowa State is also playing without its opening-day starters at tailback and quarterback, where true freshman Sam B. Richardson will make his second career start in place of Steele Jantz and Jamie Barnett. Richardson came on late with seven touchdown passes and no interceptions against Kansas and West Virginia, which also happen to be the most generous secondaries in the Big 12. Against the No. 2 pass defense and No. 1 pass rush in Conference USA, the jury remains very much out.
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The obvious draw in Atlanta is Clemson's explosive offense, best in the ACC in both yards and points per game, against LSU's typically bloodthirsty defense. But LSU's offense appeared to turn a corner after 14-6 flop at Florida in October, thanks largely to a) The emergence of freshman Justin Hill as the feature back at midseason, and b) The rapid maturation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger in November. Hill came out of nowhere with 100-yard games against heavy-hitting defenses from South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama, finishing with 638 yards and 10 touchdowns for the season despite spending half of it on the bench; Mettenberger, a first year starter, delivered unquestionably his best game in the near-upset of the Crimson Tide, and followed it with most efficient night against Mississippi State.
The result: Following the Florida flop, the Tigers averaged 380 yards and 27 points per game over their last six, against a handful of the best statistical defenses in the nation. With one more stop against Alabama, they might be the team preparing for a return trip to the BCS title game instead of the Tide.
For Future Reference: Monday will almost certainly be the final game for LSU defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo before they take their talents to the first round of the draft, a relief to opposing coaches who voted both to the All-SEC team for the second consecutive season. But the beastly bookends are only the beginning of the exodus: Between Montgomery, Mingo, tackle Bennie Logan, linebacker Kevin Minter, cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Craig Loston, the Tigers could conceivably return the most loaded defense in the nation in 2013, and could just as conceivably lose half of it to the next level with a year of eligibility remaining.
Big Question: Will the real Sammy Watkins please stand up? Clemson's big numbers offense have come largely in the absence of most dynamic talent, thanks to a two-game suspension and a subsequent illness that sapped Watkins of the explosiveness that made him an instant star in 2011. Watkins said earlier this month that he's felt more comfortable in bowl practices ("I feel myself really getting back that explosion") and predicted "everyone should see that old Sammy" on New Year's Eve. If not, it might be a very long night.
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