Stomping the Jags leaves Washington No. 2 behind only Denver. But what can we really learn from one big win early in the season, before we are applying opponent adjustments?
31 Dec 2013
by Matt Hinton
The first week of the new year marks the final ride of the Bowl Championship Series after 16 tumultuous seasons, and the end is coming 16 years too late. Please, for the love of Knute Rockne, bring on the playoff. The BCS was shortsighted in conception, inadequate in execution and unfair in sharing the spoils. It failed to satisfy economists, statisticians or politicians off the field; it failed to satisfy fans or coaches on it. It combined the worst of old-school bias in the polls with random, nonsense math that allowed its overseers a fig leaf of "objectivity" without having to adhere to legitimate statistical analysis. (Whenever the computer polls came back with a result they didn't like, they just changed the rules the computers had to play by.) It was doomed to fail both because of what it was -– a cartel, drawing warranted skepticism from Congress and the Justice Department –- and what it wasn't, an actual playoff. As a fan, the BCS was an idiotic blight on college football, a constant object of frustration and ridicule from within the sport and without. As a writer, the perpetual frustration made for great copy.
Now that the end is officially nigh, though, it also deserves some acknowledgment for its essential role in the evolution of the sport. It must be said: Clumsy and futile though it was, in the long run the BCS did serve its purpose. I don't mean its stated purpose –- to match the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final regular season polls in a decisive championship game, a self-justifying process that always "worked," by definition –- or even its unstated purpose, to fill athletic department coffers with an ever-rising stream of television dollars. It achieved both, to an extent, but only to the extent that it became glaringly obvious how much more could be made by teasing out the money shot for another week or so. No, the real legacy of the BCS will be as a missing link, the bridge from one era to the next. After decades of split championships in the polls and relatively modest revenues from the major TV networks, college football is on the verge of embracing a future defined by a long-awaited playoff structure in the postseason and an unabashed economic model that flouts any conceivable definition of "amateur" or "nonprofit." In between? The crucial stage in the transition, the Homo habilis, was the BCS.
So, in its dying days, I am willing to give the Series this much: It was dumb, but it was less dumb than what came before it, and it was absolutely necessary for the playoff era about to emerge in its wake. (Sans the computers this time.) In its own way, it was a culmination of years of progress -– the first effort that successfully merged all competing interests under the same umbrella, and subsequently to convince most of the world that it did indeed represent The National Championship in major college football. If that's all it succeeded in doing, it was still a crucial success.
Now, off with its head and bury it forever.
Protocol dictates that we begin here by noting that this is a rematch of the 2013 Capital One Bowl, in which Georgia pulled away in the fourth quarter to win a 45–31 shootout. But the similarities from that game are easily overshadowed by the differences, beginning at quarterback, where prolific seniors Aaron Murray and Taylor Martinez are notably absent due to a torn ACL and a lingering foot injury, respectively, after combining to account for 23,795 yards of total offense and 64 wins over the past four years. After injuries, suspensions and standard attrition, roughly half of the starting lineups on both sides will be different than they were a year ago.
Unfortunately for Nebraska, Georgia's side of the ledger still includes chiseled tailback Todd Gurley, who ground out 125 yards in the last meeting on 5.4 per carry, and wide receiver Chris Conley, whose only two catches against the Cornhuskers went for touchdowns covering 49 yards and 87 yards in the second half. Neither Gurley nor Conley put up outrageous numbers in the regular season, largely due to injuries that kept them out of multiple games. Both were back with a vengeance in the triple-overtime finale at Georgia Tech, though, where they combined for 287 of the Bulldogs' 437 yards from scrimmage in a come-from-behind, 41–34 win with Murray inactive for the first time. Nebraska, on the other hand, ended the season in all-purpose meltdown mode against Iowa, led by head coach Bo Pelini in the most embarrassing turn of his tempestuous career. Even more embarrassing: An incredible –16 turnover margin in Big Ten games, the worst in-conference margin in the nation.
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Georgia 33, Nebraska 20
For traditionalists, mulling the very existence of the Heart of Dallas Bowl can feel like a descent into the Uncanny Valley: In a certain light, out of the corner of your eye, there's something disconcertingly familiar about a game that occupies both the venerable Cotton Bowl stadium and the Cotton Bowl's traditional, hangover-nurturing time slot. But then, of course, a second glance confirms that it is most certainly not the Cotton Bowl, which has long abandoned the decaying prestige of both downtown and New Year's Day for the contemporary glitz of Jerry Jones' suburban space palace and a prime-time, post-New Year's slot that allows it to masquerade as the BCS game it's always wanted to be. Instead, the Heart of Dallas belongs to a pair of relatively obscure outfits with a single January bowl appearance between them, in the 1948 Salad Bowl. For UNLV, this marks only the fourth postseason game in school history, and the first since 1984 that actually involves leaving the city of Las Vegas.
In fact, all things considered, the Runnin' Rebels might be the most unlikely team in any bowl game this winter, having won more games in their fourth season under coach Bobby Hauck (7) than in Hauck's first three years combined (6); in the preseason, they were widely projected to land in their usual place at or near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference. The turnaround was personified by the quarterback, Caleb Herring, who turned in one of the best seasons in school history after being converted from wide receiver in the third game. As a sophomore, Herring started every game under center in a miserable 2011 campaign, and subsequently lost his grip on the job in an equally miserable 2012. As a senior, he overtook his replacement, Nick Sherry, and proceeded to lead the Rebels to a 7–3 record as a starter, improving the team scoring average from 22.0 ppg in 2012 to 33.9 points in those ten games. In the process, UNLV also produced a 1,000-yard rusher (Tim Cornett) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Devante Davis) in the same season for the first time ever. Still, in the up-tempo, offensively oriented Mountain West, the Rebels were behind the curve, finishing eighth in total offense and seventh in scoring. Against the stingiest defense in Conference USA -– which, compared to its high-scoring track record, turned out to be an unusually stingy league in 2013 –- they're much more likely to find themselves in a slog.
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North Texas 34, UNLV 24
This game kicks off exactly one year removed from the hit -– you know, The Hit –- that made Jadeveon Clowney's reputation as a dreadlocked destroyer of worlds, and threatened to break it when he inevitably failed to reproduce the collision or the All-American production that lent it even greater weight. At various points this year, the collapse of Clowney's individual stat line has been blamed on injuries, apathy, constant double teams and every other conceivable explanation. (At one point, Clowney himself lamented the predictability of his role following an early loss to Georgia; a few weeks later, Steve Spurrier could barely conceal his exasperation after his star opted out of the Kentucky game just before kickoff.) But the focus on Clowney alone, and especially the idea that opposing offenses are paying him an inordinate amount of attention, obscures the backsliding of the defense as a whole along with its headliner:
That doesn't qualify as a collapse or anything, but where Wisconsin is concerned, the decline against the run is a glaring concern against an offense that ran at will against virtually everyone on its schedule, including comparable non-Big Ten defenses from Arizona State (231 yards on 7.2 per carry) and BYU (229 on 5.1 per carry). Most concerning: The dismal finish in Opportunity Rate, defined as the percentage of runs on which the offense gains at least five yards -– where Carolina struggled, dropping from 13th in Opportunity Rate in 2012 to 77th, Wisconsin's offensive line flourished, ranking seventh. Altogether, Badgers backs Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 81 carries covering at least ten yards, or roughly one in five attempts.
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Wisconsin 27, South Carolina 23
Resorting to the irresistible force/immovable object cliché would probably be overselling it, but certainly the meatiest aspect of this matchup is LSU's outstanding offense against Iowa's outstanding defense -– or it would be, anyway, if not for the giant question mark taking the place of injured LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. In Mettenberger's place, the Tigers are going with a true freshman, Anthony Jennings, who saw the first meaningful snaps of his career on a last-gasp, game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas in the regular season finale. So far, so good: On that drive, Jennings completed four of seven passes for 76 yards, including a 49-yard bomb to fellow freshman Travin Dural that supplied the winning points, and also broke a 21-yard run. How will he fare against a secondary less disposed to leaving his receivers running wide open in critical situations? We're about to find out.
If Jennings' head is on straight, his supporting cast is second to none: Surprisingly, LSU is the first offense in SEC history to produce a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr.) in the same season, not to mention a stable of backup tailbacks (Terrence Magee, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard) with just shy of 3,000 career rushing yards between them. With Mettenberger at the helm, the Tigers easily led the nation in third-down conversions, at 58.6 percent, and converted an astounding 56 percent in SEC games. The only offense Iowa faced in the regular season with anything approaching that kind of firepower was Ohio State's, which rang up season highs against the Hawkeyes in rushing yards (273), total yards (495) and points (34). Like Kirk Ferentz, Les Miles is more than willing to concede to a run-oriented slugfest that hinges on defense and field position, an option he has not had this season as often as he has in the past. Unlike Ferentz, Miles also has the firepower to light up the scoreboard if necessary. In this case, it's just a matter of whether he trusts his young quarterback enough to take off the reins.
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LSU 24, Iowa 20
The Spartans haven't had much use for drama, except as it concerns their ascendency into the national elite: As of November 1, Michigan State had yet to play a game as a ranked team, having just snuck into the AP poll for the first time this season (at No. 24) following a 42–3 romp over Illinois. (Even Auburn's meteoric rise wasn't that steep: The Tigers entered the poll for the first time a week earlier, just in time for their season-turning comeback at Texas A&M.) Quietly, though, all twelve of MSU's wins have come by double digits, and the Spartans are arguably a bogus pass interference call away from playing Florida State in the big one themselves. They've already set the school record for wins in a season; with one more, they'll finish with a conference championship, a Rose Bowl victory and a top-five ranking for the first time since 1953. Depending on what happens elsewhere, it's not inconceivable for them to rise from unranked to No. 2 in the nation in a span of six games.
The defense carries the day in East Lansing, always, and the Spartans would be nowhere without it. (There has been considerable angst over the suspension of senior linebacker Max Bullough, a two-time All-Big Ten pick who has started 40 consecutive games, but he's only one piece of a veteran whole that finished in the top five nationally in rushing yards per game, yards per carry, Rushing Defense S&P+, Adjusted Line Yards, Opportunity Rate, Power Success Rate and just about any other category you can come up with to measure the front seven.) But where would they be without dramatic improvement from the offense? Certainly not in the Rose Bowl: In September, the offense was so inept it managed a grand total of three touchdowns against Western Michigan, South Florida and Notre Dame to the defense's four. In Big Ten play, though, sophomore Connor Cook grew into a reliable presence at quarterback, and against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game he was a minor revelation: Stealing the show from his more decorated counterpart, Braxton Miller, Cook passed 40 times for 304 yards and three touchdowns in Michigan State's biggest win since its last Rose Bowl, in 1988, if not longer. While Miller faded down the stretch (see below), Cook finished by hitting 8-of-12 passes in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead touchdown, and finished with the first 300-yard passing game of his career. It won't be the last.
Stanford, on the other hand, has been on the Rose Bowl return track from day one, and despite its apparent enthusiasm has to be suppressing a case of "always the bridesmaid, never the bride." With four consecutive big-money bids since 2010, the Cardinal are owners of the longest active BCS streak, as well as the longest streak in Series history without cracking the championship game. This year, with four victories over teams that finished in the BCS top 20, Stanford boasts arguably the most impressive resumé anywhere in terms of quality wins, including the high-water mark, a thorough mauling of Oregon that ranks alongside Florida State's win over Clemson, Oklahoma State's win over Baylor and Auburn's win over Alabama as the most impressive performance of the season. (Elsewhere, South Carolina has three top-20 wins; no one else has more than two.) In that sense, the offense has been uncannily consistent all season, finishing within 30 yards of its season average on the ground (210 yards) in ten of thirteen games.
But the Cardinal were also one play away from finishing the drill in losses to Utah and USC, the second year in a row they've let a national title shot slip through their fingers in a pair of skin-of-the-teeth heartbreakers on the road. For now, the program is still close enough to the pre-Harbaugh doldrums to know better than to take conference championships and Rose Bowls for granted. Once the playoff is in full effect, though, there will be less patience with consolation prizes.
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Stanford 19, Michigan State 17
The Fiesta Bowl drew the short straw in this year's BCS draft, leaving it with no choice but to award the final big-money ticket to UCF, which claimed the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship thanks in part to come-from-behind wins over Memphis, Temple, South Florida and SMU by a combined 17 points. (In the first three of those games, the Knights trailed all three in the final five minutes.) Obviously, Baylor–Central Florida does not qualify as a traditional clash of the titans.
Still, the Knights are better than most of America is willing to give them credit for: With wins over Penn State and Louisville and no embarrassing defeats -– close calls notwithstanding, their only blemish is a 28–25 loss against South Carolina on September 28 –- they're on much sturdier ground than, say, Louisville was at this time last year, when the Cardinals made the Sugar Bowl as Big East champs despite losing two of their last three to Syracuse and UConn. From there, the Cards ambushed Florida in the biggest upset in BCS history, propelling Louisville into the top ten to open this season and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the top of draft boards everywhere. By contrast, the prospect of UCF's Blake Bortles maxing out his stock against Baylor shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's been attention. (It certainly won't to opposing AAC coaches, who voted Bortles over Bridgewater as the conference's offensive player of the year.)
But what to make of the UCF defense? Despite a rash of key injuries down the stretch, Baylor arrives averaging just shy of 624 yards per game in total offense, joining the 1989 Houston Cougars as the only attacks in FBS history to average 600 yards over a full season; with 639 yards in the Fiesta Bowl, the Bears will pass the Cougars for the all-time record. Against the best offenses on their schedule, the Knights yielded 28 points on 490 total yards to South Carolina and 35 points on 445 yards against Louisville, dramatically helping their cause in both games by recovering a combined five fumbles. Later on, the defense also suffered a temporary meltdown at Temple, yielding 518 yards in a come-from-behind, 39–36 escape against the worst team in the conference. Just as often, the defense had to keep the offense afloat, most notably in low-scoring wins over Houston, South Florida and SMU down the stretch. But Baylor doesn't do "low scoring": If Bortles doesn't come out of the gate ready to hold serve opposite Bryce Petty, by the time he gets up to speed it may already be too late.
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Baylor 45, Central Florida 26
Oklahoma is no upstart, having played in more BCS games under Bob Stoops than any other team under the same coach, but the 2013 edition is certainly one of the most out-of-nowhere BCS choices in recent memory. Before the Sooners' dramatic, last-second upset at Oklahoma State on the final day of the regular season, bowl projections unanimously accepted OSU as the automatic rep from the Big 12, leaving Baylor and Oregon to lobby for the final spot if (and only if) undefeated Northern Illinois bit the dust in the MAC championship game. Oklahoma was not in the picture. When the Cowboys and Huskies lost, though, and Baylor claimed the Big 12 auto bid instead, suddenly an OU outfit riding a three-game winning streak looked a lot more attractive than the Ducks, who had been trounced twice in November and didn't look much better in a narrow, one-point escape over Oregon State to close. After two-and-a-half years of mounting frustration, Oklahoma's presence in New Orleans is their most uplifting note in a very long time.
So, you know, enjoy it while it lasts. Because the reality is not so sweet: Prior to the game-winning pass against OSU, Oklahoma had gone more than 59 minutes without an offensive touchdown –- the Sooners' only trips to the end zone to that point had come courtesy of the special teams, on a long punt return and a fake field goal –- and they left Stillwater with an even murkier quarterback situation than they faced going in. Twenty-four hours earlier, local media was openly speculating about the future of junior Blake Bell, suggesting he might transfer after re-gifting the starting job to redshirt freshman Trevor Knight in mid-November. Indeed, when Knight was ruled out for the second half with an undisclosed injury, coaches turned first to another backup, Kendal Thompson. Ultimately, though, it was the "Belldozer" who led two crucial scoring drives in the fourth quarter, and the plan for the Sugar Bowl is anyone's guess. With Knight, the offense has been more run-oriented, to take advantage of his elusiveness on the read option; with Bell, a bruising runner in the body of a traditional pocket passer, the Sooners have more of the playbook at their disposal, but have not excelled in any particular aspect of it since a 35–21 win at Notre Dame. That was more than three months ago.
Against Alabama, of course, all success is relative. True, the last time we saw the Crimson Tide, they were being gashed to an unprecedented extent by Auburn, which racked up more rushing yards (296) on more yards per carry (5.7) against Bama than any opposing FBS offense since Nick Saban's second game in Tuscaloosa in 2007. And true, the vast majority of the Tigers' success came on various iterations of the option, which Oklahoma has run with intermittent success. But Saban's defense still ranks among the national leaders in every relevant category, easily upholding its reputation for merciless, machine-like consistency. At no point has Oklahoma's grab-bag approach replicated the results that propelled Auburn to the BCS title game against a respectable opponent. Throw in a patchwork offensive line missing two regular starters on the left side, and you have the makings of another January massacre from an outfit that has won its last four bowl games by an average of 27 points.
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Alabama 36, Oklahoma 13
Neither of these teams ended the regular season on a particularly optimistic note, but for Missouri's defense, the SEC championship game was no mere disappointment: With 59 points on 545 yards rushing, Auburn's triple-option attack inflicted a full-fledged trauma. Going into that game, the defense was a point of pride for Mizzou. Just seven days before, the Tigers had wrangled Johnny Manziel into the worst game of his career; the week before that, they'd held Ole Miss to a season-low 10 points. Even in their only previous loss, against South Carolina, Missouri shut out the Gamecocks for three quarters before suffering one of the most gut-wrenching turns of the season in the fourth. That game was disappointing, but the Tigers quickly recovered to win their next four. After a month of watching Tre Mason's Heisman audition tape, the turnaround is a little steeper.
On the other side, as with most teams against Missouri, the prevailing concern for Oklahoma State is matching up with Mizzou's lanky, athletic wide receivers: L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas are all future pros with at least 47 catches apiece, and all three tower above OSU's cornerbacks at 6-foot-4 or taller. Green-Beckham, especially, ended the regular season looking like the dominant downfield threat his recruiting hype suggested, coming down with eight touchdown receptions in the final five games; against Auburn, he scored twice, including a 55-yard bomb on which DGB easily outran man-to-man coverage. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds. On the biggest stage of his young career.
Certain pundits have made the mistake of calling Mizzou a "finesse offense," which couldn't be further from the truth for an attack averaging well over 200 yards per game on the ground against SEC defenses. (Anyway, if tailback Henry Josey "finessed" his way to a 1,000-yard season, they'll take it.) Still, much depends on how much pressure Oklahoma State is able to generate on James Franklin, who was white-hot in the SEC title game until Josey was knocked out of the game late and Auburn's pass rush was able to tee off on obvious passing downs. The Cowboys starting cornerbacks, Justin Gilbert and Tyler Patmon, can run with anyone, as they proved in a brilliant performance against Baylor. But if Franklin has time to set his feet on deep balls, they may find themselves quite literally in over their heads.
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Missouri 31, Oklahoma State 28
The last time Clemson was in the Orange Bowl, in 2012, the Tigers were vaporized by West Virginia in a 70–33 debacle that is about to go down as the most lopsided blowout of the BCS era. This week, many of the same Tigers who endured that humiliation as underclassmen insisted to reporters that it is ancient history: The stars of that team, quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, are two years older, and presumably two years better, while the defense has improved by leaps and bounds. (Statistically speaking, the latter point is undeniable.) And anyway, didn't they put the whole "Clemsoning" thing to bed in last year's comeback win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl? If anything, this year's team matches up much more favorably on paper against Ohio State than last year's did against LSU.
It's a cheap narrative, but one the Tigers have to bear some responsibility for stoking in their two biggest games of the year, an eye-opening, 51–14 thrashing at the hands of Florida State, and a 31–17 loss at South Carolina that extended Clemson's losing streak in the series to four years and counting. In those two games alone, Boyd threw four interceptions, endured nine sacks and watched his draft projection plummet to the middle rounds. The offense as a whole limped to its worst production of the season in terms of both yards and points. Even with every conceivable school and conference record in his pocket, Boyd has plenty to prove against a team he very nearly joined as a recruit, and not just to armchair quarterbacks.
The same can be said for Ohio State, a team that moved to the top of the BCS pecking order against a subpar schedule, then proceeded to look as ordinary against its first top-ten opponent in two years as skeptics guessed/hoped it would. Opposite the nation's No. 1 total defense in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeyes finished with season lows for total yards (374) and points (24), and junior quarterback Braxton Miller reverted to the glorified tailback role he played as a true freshman. For a while, that was fine: Miller's athleticism was the spark in a 24-point rally that put OSU in front of Michigan State, 24–17, late in the third quarter. From that point on, though, he made no impact as a runner, missed his last six passes of the night and finished just 8-of-21 passing for 101 yards; with the championship game slipping further into the rearview mirror in the fourth, the Buckeyes managed a single first down.
That said, Clemson's defense –- recent improvement notwithstanding -– is a far cry from Michigan State's against the run, and has struggled against the other top-shelf quarterbacks it's faced, Georgia's Aaron Murray (20-of-29, 323 yards, 155.6 efficiency) and FSU's Jameis Winston (22-of-35, 444 yards, 192.0 efficiency). Miller is not the passer either of them are, but that may be beside the point: For the season, Ohio State was the most productive run-blocking team in the nation, ranking No. 1 in Offensive Rushing S&P+, Adjusted Line Yards and Opportunity Rate. If Miller and the resident workhorse, Carlos Hyde, make good on those numbers, the passing game will take care of itself.
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Ohio State 39, Clemson 31
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