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?
20 Dec 2013
by Matt Hinton
Bowl games: There are a lot of them. Thirty-five to be exact, spanning 17 days from December 21 to January 6, 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 (hallelujah) we're about to get one beginning in 2014. The first week of the postseason bears no relationship whatsoever to the pursuit of a championship, or to anything else outside of its own existence.
Instead, the explosion of bowl games over the past decade has steadily degraded the quality of most matchups and erased any cachet that once came with being invited to a bowl, any bowl. 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. Coaches are more concerned with the final, crucial weeks of the recruiting calendar, or in where they're going to find their next job. Many of the teams below will even wind up paying for the privilege out of their own coffers, victims of 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 eleven 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 that might convince you to turn on and tune in to each game. (In the name of honesty, we've also included an excuse to drop out.) No, there is no good reason for many of these turkeys to exist. But they do, and we all know escape is futile.
TURN ON. After a decade of futility, Washington State is making its first postseason appearance since the 2003 Holiday Bowl, despite playing the toughest schedule in the nation according to Jeff Sagarin. (Three of the Cougars' six wins, over USC, Arizona and Utah, came against teams ranked in the top 35 according to both Sagarin and our F/+ ratings.) From 2008 to 2012 – its first year under coach Mike Leach – Wazzu was arguably the worst program in the nation, turning in a dismal record of 12–49 with four consecutive last-place finishes.
TUNE IN. Kapri Bibbs initially signed with Colorado State in 2010, as a high school senior,. Three years and two junior colleges later, he finally arrived on campus as a 20-year-old sophomore, and wasted no time establishing himself as the most productive back in the Mountain West. On November 9, Bibbs set a school record with 312 yards rushing against Nevada, immediately followed by a 291-yard, six-touchdown romp against New Mexico, his fifth consecutive game with at least three scores. (He finished with 28, one off the national lead.) Thirty yards on Saturday will give Bibbs the single-season CSU rushing record, surpassing Cecil Sapp's 1,601-yard campaign in 2002.
DROP OUT. Although Colorado State closed on a 5–2 run after Bibbs moved into the starting lineup, all five wins in that span came at the expense of losing teams that finished in the bottom half of the Mountain West standings; prior to that, its only victories over the first half of the season were over an FCS team (Cal Poly) and the worst team in Conference USA's West Division (UTEP). Against fellow bowl teams, on the other hand, the Rams were 0–3 by an average margin of 17 points, and lost their only game against the Pac-12 – a season-opening tilt against lowly Colorado – by two touchdowns.
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Washington State 36, Colorado State 28
TURN ON. USC has been one of the most volatile, unpredictable outfits in the nation from the opening kickoff on opening night, a direct effect (and cause) of the melodrama surrounding Lane Kiffin and his inevitable departure in late September. But the chaos was also fueled by a relentless succession of injuries: By midseason, the casualty list was so long the Trojans were forced to literally put the Notre Dame game in the hands of third-stringers and walk-ons in the fourth quarter, with predictable results. From there, though, they got healthier, upset the eventual conference champs as part of a month-long, five-game winning streak and arrive in Vegas as close to full strength as they've been since the opening weeks of the season.
TUNE IN. Derek Carr attempted more passes for more yards this season than any other FBS quarterback, the main beneficiary of which was sophomore Davante Adams, who led the nation in targets (164), receptions (122) and receiving touchdowns (23). But the vast majority that largesse came at the expense of the perennially overmatched secondaries of the Mountain West; meanwhile, the only two teams Fresno faced that finished among the top 40 pass defenses according to S&P+, San Diego State and Utah State, held the Bulldogs to their lowest point totals of the season. USC's secondary ranks fifth against the pass, and presents Carr with his first (and last) opportunity to test his first-round credentials against defenders who have a chance of joining him at the next level.
DROP OUT. How much do these teams want to be here? For Fresno State, the pride of its conference championship in 25 years is offset by the disappointment of missing out on the BCS bid that was theirs for the taking until a random, day-after-Thanksgiving loss at San Jose State. For USC, the looming void that defined a disappointing season has been resolved – although Clay Helton will assume the interim role on Saturday, new head coach Steve Sarkisian is very much on the job – and whatever interest may have existed for a bottom-rung bowl game has been easily eclipsed by the transition to 2014. Last year, the Trojans checked out mentally before a humiliating loss in the Sun Bowl, and although the 2013 edition was a much better team down the stretch, there is even less at stake in this one.
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USC 33, Fresno State 31
TURN ON. San Diego State is not a good team, by any stretch of the imagination, but it does have a penchant for playing in good games: After an 0–3 start, SDSU won seven of its next eight, the last six by a touchdown or less, the last two in overtime. (It also won an overtime game in October over Nevada, thereby matching an FBS record with three OT victories in the same season.) The Aztecs' only loss in that span: A tight, 35–28 decision against eventual MWC champ Fresno State, also in overtime.
TUNE IN. Buffalo finished with the best defense in the Mid-American Conference, thanks in no small part to the league's defensive player of the year, linebacker Khalil Mack. A potential first-rounder in April, Mack will end his career Saturday as the active FBS leader in tackles for loss, having recorded at least one TFL in 39 of 47 career games.
DROP OUT. Every year an obscure bowl game or two is elevated above its station by a pair of offenses going for broke in a wild, fan-friendly shootout. This is not going to be that game. Not only do these offenses prefer to play it close to the vest: When you get right down to it, they're not even very good at that, both ranking among the bottom 15 in the S&P+ ratings in Rushing Offense and on Standard (i.e. rushing) Downs. The most glaring difference between Buffalo and SDSU is turnover margin, where the Aztecs rank near the bottom nationally and the Bulls rank near the top. If it devolves into a defensively driven stalemate, though, who's interested in a battle of who can fumble less?
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Buffalo 20 San Diego State 17
TURN ON. For UL-Lafayette, the Superdome has become a kind of home away from home each December: The Ragin' Cajuns are making the short drive down I-10 for the third year in a row, looking for their third consecutive win. For Tulane, though, the Dome is home, and the in-state party should serve as a fitting farewell. After 33 years there, the Green Wave will finally ditch downtown in 2014 in favor of a brand-new, on-campus stadium that will not guarantee 50,000 empty seats on a weekly basis. (With any luck, however, it will be able to guarantee mummies.)
TUNE IN. Yes, Tulane's starting quarterback is named "Montana," and yes, he shares his genetic code with that Montana. But make no mistake: The Green Wave are here because of their defense, particularly the front seven, which made dramatic strides to finish sixth nationally in Adjusted Line Yards and first in both Power Success Rate and Stuff Rate. It can score in a pinch, too, accounting directly for five touchdowns.
DROP OUT. Resistible force, meet movable object. As bad as Tulane fares according to our offensive numbers, Lafayette is every bit as bad defensively, combining for what must be the least-anticipated matchup of the entire postseason: With the exception of the Cajuns' 93rd-ranked pass defense, both sides rank 100th or worse by every measure. When the Green Wave have the ball, walk the dog, check on the gumbo, do anything except watch them with any expectation of competence.
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UL-Lafayette 24, Tulane 19
TURN ON. Ohio is not exactly rolling into St. Petersburg on a wave of optimism (see below), but for fifth-year seniors who arrived in Athens in 2009 – including the headliner, quarterback Tyler Tettleton – this game marks the end of the most successful five-year run in school history. Prior to '09, the Bobcats had only managed five winning seasons over the previous 30 years, and hadn't delivered back-to-back winning seasons since 1979-80, when they went 6–5 both years. Since '09, Ohio is 41–23, and joins Northern Illinois as the only MAC program with a winning record in all five seasons.
TUNE IN. East Carolina blew its shot at a Conference USA title in an untimely, 59–28 flop at Marshall in the final game of the regular season. On paper, though, the Pirates remain the class of the conference by a comfortable margin, due mainly to the league's most productive passing game: Quarterback Shane Carden was voted C-USA's Most Valuable Player, and receiver Justin Hardy led the nation in catch rate (77.8 percent) among players who were targeted more than 100 times. Hardy was the only receiver in the nation in the regular season with at least 15 receptions in two different games.
DROP OUT. First of all, if you're anything like me, the prospect of staring at the superfluous apostrophe in "Beef 'O' Brady's" for four hours fills you with self-loathing. And the actual football does not figure to be especially uplifting, either: As far as the F/+ ratings are concerned, Ohio is the single worst team in any bowl, ranking 100th or worse in Offensive F/+, Defensive F/+, overall S&P+ and overall FEI, and Vegas lists the Bobcats as one of the biggest underdogs of the entire bowl season. (Only the Pinstripe and Fiesta bowls have wider point spreads.) In MAC play, they dropped three of their last four in November by an average margin of 36 points per defeat; meanwhile, their four conference wins came at the expense of teams that finished with a combined record of 8–40, with four of those eight wins coming against one another. Altogether, the Bobcats haven't played a winning team within four touchdowns since September.
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East Carolina 31, Ohio 24
TURN ON. For the first time since 2005, Boise State is taking the field with a head coach other than Chris Petersen, whose eight-year run at Boise set the gold standard for making an obscure, "Have Not" program relevant in the national conversation: On Petersen's watch, the Broncos claimed two BCS victories, four top-ten finishes and 92 wins from 2006-13, five more than any other FBS outfit in the same span. (Alabama is second with 87.) Does his decision to take the Washington job after rejecting so many other, similar opportunities mark the end of an era? At 8–4, the Broncos are closing out their worst season under Petersen – in his first seven, they entered the bowl game with at least ten wins and a national ranking in all seven – and if the window for upward mobility beyond the Mountain West hasn't been slammed shut, it is closing fast. For the first time in a very long time, the story at Boise isn't about taking the next step, but avoiding a step backwards.
TUNE IN. Oregon State's Brandin Cooks led the nation in receiving yards, and came by the title honestly: His catch rate (76.4 percent) ranked second among players who were targeted more than 100 times, behind only ECU's Justin Hardy (77.8 percent) and miles ahead of any other frequently targeted wide receiver in the Pac-12. Even when the rest of the offense went south in November, Cooks was money, hauling in 44 receptions for 494 yards over the course of a five-game losing streak to close the season.
DROP OUT. Cooks notwithstanding, it's hard to overstate how bad Oregon State looked in November, when the schedule steepened and nearly sent the Beavers careening over a cliff. No one fell as hard as junior quarterback Sean Mannion, whose touchdown-to-interception ratio plummeted from 23-3 over the first seven games to 7-11 in the losing streak, including ghastly, multi-INT turns against USC, Arizona State and Washington. Mannion looked more comfortable in the finale, a near-upset at Oregon, but at this point a "reversion to form" is exactly what OSU fans are afraid of.
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Boise State 32, Oregon State 26
TURN ON. Bowling Green claimed its first conference championship in 21 years earlier this month, and paid for it with its head coach, Dave Clawson, who immediately parlayed the title into a new gig at Wake Forest. By any measure, though, the Falcons ended the regular season on a tear, winning their last five by a combined 193 points, a run that including lopsided victories over fellow bowl teams Ohio and Buffalo and a convincing, 47–27 upset over previously unbeaten Northern Illinois to clinch the MAC. The only team with a wider collective margin of victory over the final six weeks was Florida State.
TUNE IN. There are few places more obscure than the middle of the defensive line on an ACC also-ran, which makes the ubiquity of Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald on the postseason awards circuit all the more impressive: Even for voters who never saw him play, Donald's production – 26.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 4 forced fumbles – spoke too loudly to ignore. (For the record, his final haul included the Nagurski and Bednarik awards as the nation's best defensive player; the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman; and unanimous All-America honors from every major selector.) As a whole, Pitt's defense finished 16th nationally in Adjusted Line Yards – fourth on standard downs – and held nine of twelve opponents below their season rushing average.
DROP OUT. Elsewhere, the Panthers as a whole remain a fathomless pit of mediocrity, limping to a 6–6 finish for the third consecutive season. This year, the living embodiment of that malaise was senior QB Tom Savage, who somehow remained intact throughout the season despite enduring more sacks than any other FBS quarterback. Despite relative stability on the offensive line – only left tackle saw significant turnover, and only over the last five games – Pitt ranked 120th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and lost more yards on those sacks (350) than any other offense except Florida International and Idaho.
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Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 24
TURN ON. This is the final college game for prolific NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch, an unlikely Heisman finalist whose NFL prospects hinge entirely on him agreeing to move to another position. Not that he can't throw at this level: As a junior, he became the first FBS player to pass for 3,000 yards and run for 1,500 in the same season, and his passing numbers this year were only slightly behind. But Utah State would certainly rather see him throwing than running if it has any say in the matter, which very few defenses before the Aggies have – Lynch already owns the single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback (1,881), with the single-game record (321 yards vs. Western Michigan) to go with it. The only active quarterback with more total yards to his name over the last two years is Johnny Manziel.
TUNE IN. Suffice to say, Utah State's defense is not Western Michigan's. In fact, on paper the Aggies look more like the supremely athletic Florida State defense that shut Lynch down in the Orange Bowl: The Aggies rank at or near the top nationally in Adjusted Line Yards, Opportunity Rate and Defensive Rushing S&P+, having held every single opponent on the schedule both a) Below its season average on the ground, and b) Below four yards per carry.
DROP OUT. It's hard to imagine a more yawning chasm than the one separating Northern Illinois' standing in the mainstream polls – the Huskies are 24th in the Associated Press poll, 23rd in the BCS standings – and our advanced measures, where F/+ and S&P+ rank them 61st and 66th, respectively. The difference is almost entirely a result of the schedule: Even by MAC standards, NIU had a suspiciously easy go of it, devouring eight (eight!) opponents that ranked 100th or worse in the final F/+ ratings. On the other hand, only one opponent, Iowa, finished higher than Utah State at No. 33, coming in at No. 28. Northern Illinois beat the Hawkeyes in the season opener, 30–27, rallying from a fourth-quarter deficit to win on a last-second field goal.
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Utah State 29, Northern Illinois 24
TURN ON. When last we left Marshall, the Thundering Herd were being pantsed by Rice in a lopsided, 41–24 upset in the Conference USA championship game. But there's a reason Marshall was favored to win there, and remains favored to win here: Prior to that game, the Herd were on a quiet but very real roll, having racked up at least 45 points in six consecutive games to close the regular season – including, most notably, the 59-point outburst against East Carolina to wrap up the East Division. In the process, the offense shed its pass-happy persona for a more balanced approach, averaging 277 yards per game rushing in the month of November in addition to a more predictable 324 yards through the air. After leading the nation in pass attempts in 2012, quarterback Rakeem Cato cut his attempts by more than a dozen per game in 2013 without a significant drop in touchdown passes, efficiency or scoring.
TUNE IN. According to S&P+, Maryland's offense has the edge on Marshall's defense in every major category, which may come as a fairly mind-blowing proposition to readers who last checked in on the Terps in August. Coming off a miserable, injury-plagued campaign in 2012, the offense made strides under senior quarterback C.J. Brown, who accounted for more than 54 percent of the team's total yards despite missing all or most of four games in October with a concussion and what the team described as a "trunk injury." In the eight games Brown started and finished, Maryland was 6–2 and averaged 32 points.
DROP OUT. Tale of the tape notwithstanding, the Terrapins are still without their two most gifted playmakers, wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom went down with major injuries in a midseason loss at Wake Forest. In their absence, the passing game relied increasingly on an unheralded redshirt freshman, Amba Etta-Tawo, who accounted for nearly half of the team's receiving yards (336 of 783) in the month of November. Without more from an anemic ground game, though, the most defining characteristic of the offense is its title as the most fumble-prone attack in the nation.
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Marshall 31, Maryland 27
TURN ON. Last year, Minnesota limped into this game as a 6–6 underdog that had just finished in last place in its own division. This year, the same Gophers look very different, arriving with a solid 8–4 record that includes upsets over Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State and their first .500 record in Big Ten play since 2005. How big a deal is a nine-win season at Minnesota? It's only happened once in the past 100 years, in 2003.
TUNE IN. If there's a headliner on the field, it's the Gophers' massive defensive tackle, Ra'Shede Hageman, who some draftniks regard as the best DT in next April's draft. But Hageman has not been wildly productive statistically – as a team, Minnesota has been below average against the run – and anyway, that distinction may depend on whether head coach Jerry Kill is actually on the field: In October, Kill took an indefinite leave of absence to manage his ongoing struggle with epilepsy, and spent the final six games coaching from the press box. This week, Kill said he hadn't decided where he'll be for the game, setting up some minor suspense for a return to the sideline.
DROP OUT. Not that Minnesota's starting quarterback, Philip Nelson, has been drawing rave reviews or anything, especially after the Gophers combined for ten points in season-ending losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State. But Syracuse's quarterback situation borders on the hopeless: In ten games against teams from BCS AQ conferences, senior Drew Allen and sophomore Terrel Hunt combined for an incredible four touchdowns to 17 interceptions, good for a rock-bottom efficiency rating of 92.0 in those games. By midseason, the job belonged almost exclusively to Hunt (mainly due to his running ability), and he delivered easily his best game in a season-ending, 34–31 win over Boston College. That's the bare minimum he needs against the Gophers to ward off a full-blown QB controversy in 2014, if it's not already too late.
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Minnesota 24, Syracuse 16
TURN ON. At one point this season, Washington tailback Bishop Sankey was being hailed as the second coming of Emmitt Smith for his vision and productivity in the absence of overwhelming size or speed. A midseason flop at Arizona State put a permanent end to the hyperbole, but not the production: From that point on, Sankey racked up 854 yards on 6.4 per carry over the last five games, breaking Corey Dillon's single-season school rushing record in the process, and putting Sankey within realistic striking distance of 2,000 yards.
TUNE IN. BYU is more egalitarian in its ground game, and ultimately more effective: Between quarterback Taysom Hill (1,211 yards) and tailback Jamaal Williams (1,202), the Cougars boast the nation's only pair of 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield, made doubly effective because they share the backfield at the same time. Either Hill or Williams has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in nine of BYU's 12 games, and on two occasions both hit the century mark in the same game.
OUT EVERYTHING. Washington has been occasionally shaky on kick-return coverage, but otherwise neither team has a glaring, contemptible weakness, and together they should make for one of the better matchups of the non-BCS calendar. If you only get around to watching one bowl game this week, this one is your best bet. Stick with it into Saturday morning, and go to bed knowing bowl season as you remember it is officially underway.
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Washington 35, BYU 29
4 comments, Last at 26 Dec 2013, 11:06pm by Sid