ACC: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET, Orlando, Fla. (ESPN)
Rutgers take by Big East blogger Matt Fortuna: The Scarlet Knights enter the Russell Athletic Bowl on a two-game losing streak. Of course, a win in either of their final two games would have had them in their first-ever BCS bowl. Rutgers can still call itself a Big East champion for the first time in program history, just not in the fashion it had anticipated after a 5-0 start in conference play.
Rutgers got as far as it did this season behind strong defense and special teams play. Khaseem Greene is among the nation's best (and underrated) linebackers, totaling 125 tackles, 5.5 sacks and six forced fumbles this season. The Scarlet Knights surrender just 13.73 points per game. And if you think settling for a bunch of field goals instead of touchdowns -- or playing the field-position battle -- will help your cause, think again: Rutgers has blocked eight kicks this season, returning two for touchdowns. (It has blocked 31 kicks since 2009).
Offensively, Jawan Jamison has carried the load, carrying it 242 times for 1,054 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the third Rutgers player in the past 36 years to record a 1,000-yard rushing season. Quarterback Gary Nova has struggled at times, but he has an offensive line that has kept him standing up (sacked just eight times all season) and big wide receivers who are capable of making plays, as evidenced by Nova's five-touchdown effort in an early season win at Arkansas.
Rutgers is bound for the Big Ten in a few years, but it has unfinished business to tend to in the Big East. Though an outright conference title wasn't in the cards this season, a postseason win after a rough season-ending stretch could go a long way toward getting Year 2 of the Kyle Flood era off on the right foot next season.
Virginia Tech take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: The Hokies were arguably one of college football’s biggest disappointments this year, and a major reason the ACC’s Coastal Division was so weak. Virginia Tech, which began the season ranked No. 16 in the country and favored to win the division, had dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 after just three weeks.
The Hokies had suffered an embarrassing 35-17 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 3 in which they were beaten soundly up front on both sides of the ball. It was one of two losses to Big East teams this year, including Cincinnati. The matchup against Rutgers could provide Virginia Tech with some redemption against the Big East. In retrospect, the loss to Pitt was a foreshadowing of the troubles that would continue to haunt the Hokies throughout what would become the program’s worst season in 20 years.
Virginia Tech’s revamped offensive line, which had to replace four starters from 2011, was a weak link, quarterback Logan Thomas was plagued by mistakes and a supporting cast that didn’t help him look any better, and Bud Foster’s usually dominating defense was average at best. Virginia Tech struggled in all four phases of the game, including coaching, as the program’s nation-leading streak of eight straight 10-win seasons came to an end with a thud.
From Sept. 29 to Nov. 8, Virginia Tech went 1-5, its lone win coming at home against Duke. The Hokies won only one game on the road this year -- a 30-23 overtime win against Boston College. Virginia Tech had to squeak by rival Virginia, 17-14, in the regular-season finale just to become bowl eligible. The Hokies have long been criticized for their poor postseason play, but this year, just getting to the postseason was an accomplishment.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Heather Dinich
The ACC and Big East will square off three times on Saturday -- South Florida at Florida State, Rutgers at Maryland and Pittsburgh at NC State. Which means it's time for another round of blogger debate between the conferences.
|Melissa Majchrzak via Getty Images|
|Christian Ponder has gotten off to a fast start this season, passing for 813 yards and 4 TDs.|
Heather Dinich: Is it March yet? Look, Bennett, last I checked the ACC had four teams in the national rankings and the Big East had ... oh, that's right, Cincinnati. Isn't that the same team Virginia Tech beat in the Orange Bowl last year? South Florida lost its quarterback and Florida State found one. UNC beat Connecticut, and Rutgers ... well, I might have to give you that one. The Pitt game should be interesting, unless, of course, NC State uses the same
offense it did against South Carolina. But what exactly is it you think the Big East has on the ACC heading into this week?
BB: The Big East has a 16-5 nonconference record, compared to the ACC's 17-10 mark. Hey, we could sit here all day and discuss which conference is better -- and I'm sure some people would want us to do that -- but why don't we look at this week's games instead?
Let's start with South Florida at Florida State. What has gotten into the Seminoles? Are they really as good as they looked at BYU this week? I had to check my calendar because I thought for a minute it was 1999 again.
HD: Well, let's just say the Noles CAN be that good. Christian Ponder has been overshadowed by Jacory Harris at Miami, but he's played just as well, and I expect him to be the difference in that game, especially with Grothe out. The question for FSU is which defense will show up. They seem to have given up as many big plays as they've made. What are you expecting from that Tally quarterback, B.J. Daniels?
|AP Photo/Chris O'Meara|
|Tallahassee native B.J. Daniels will be making his first start versus FSU.|
I think we both agree that FSU has the edge in that game. What about Pitt at NC State? I watched the Wolfpack get crushed by South Florida last year and lose to Rutgers in the bowl game. Any reason not to think another Big East team will whip them?
HD: I picked NC State, but it's probably the one I was least sure of. The Pack could be starting its fourth different offensive line in as many games, and they've been banged up too much to have any consistency in their secondary. Tom O'Brien has been talking about those units as areas of concern all week, and rightfully so. He's so excited, though, to finally play some "smashmouth football," and he's hoping a win over the Panthers will open some recruiting doors in Pennsylvania.
I'll tell you what, though, Bennett, if there's one difference in this game it's on the sideline, and I'd take O'Brien over Wannstedt. You think he'll have the Panthers in the Top 25 this season? I see you have them at No. 2 in this week's power ranking behind Cincinnati.
|Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI|
|Dave Wannstedt has Pitt off to a 3-0 start.|
I think Pitt is one of the most underrated teams in the country right now. The Panthers have gobs of talent all over the field, and their one big question mark -- quarterback -- has thus far been answered by Bill Stull's solid play. He's completing 70 percent of his passes and making great decisions. If NC State has problems on the O-line and in the secondary, the Wolfpack are in trouble. Because Pitt is absolutely loaded on the defensive line and has plenty of receivers to burn those DBs, especially freakish athlete Jonathan Baldwin. I like Pitt to control this game from start to finish and win a low-scoring battle.
OK, let's get to the Rutgers-Maryland game. The Scarlet Knights apparently have three FCS teams on their schedule now with the way the Terrapins have been playing. What in the world is going on with Ralph Freidgen's team?
HD: Oh, man, there's not even enough space in the blogosphere to start dissecting Maryland's problems. The big man has pinned the Terps' 1-2 start on a bit of bad luck and a young roster, but the truth is their problems range from recruiting to staff continuity -- much deeper issues than their woes up front on both lines. At first it was the defense not holding up its end of the deal, but last week it was the offense, which had four turnovers. To lose to Middle Tennessee two years in a row and barely beat James Madison at home is worse than bad luck -- it's inexcusable.
This is quite a different Rutgers team, though, than when these teams last met in 2007 and the Terps upended a top 10 team. How low has Rutgers sunk since then?
BB: Well, I thought Rutgers was ready to break through this year, and I picked them to win the Big East -- and then they went out and laid an egg in the opener against Cincinnati. This is a team that should be pretty good, with an experienced offensive line and a talented defense. But the passing game has been slow to develop, and now they're starting a true freshman quarterback (Tom Savage) who is a little groggy from a head injury last week. The running game hasn't blossomed and the Scarlet Knights have struggled to score points. Perhaps Maryland will be the cure to what ails them, though I think this could be a sloppy game.
So let's wrap this up. I say the Big East goes 2-1 this week, with Rutgers and Pitt winning. Not bad considering all three games are on ACC turf. What do you say?
HD: Well, I say the ACC goes 2-1, with the lone loss coming in College Park. If I'm wrong, I'll talk to you in March.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
WHO TO WATCH: NC State linebacker Nate Irving. He's the heart of this team's defense and one of the best linebackers in the ACC. The Wolfpack are 4-0 since Irving's return from an ankle injury and he has posted 41 tackles during that span. He is tied for third on the team with 77 tackles despite missing three games.
WHAT TO WATCH: Quarterbacks. NC State's Russell Wilson and Rutgers' Mike Teel are the catalysts behind their teams' remarkable late-season surges. Wilson has thrown 226 consecutive passes without being picked off -- a school record and the longest active streak in the nation. Wilson, who has thrown just one interception this season, threw his lone pick in the first half of the Clemson game on Sept. 13.
WHY TO WATCH: Rutgers and NC State finished the regular season as two of the hottest teams in the country. Both teams have turned their seasons around in the second half, as NC State started 2-4 and finished 4-2. NC State is in a bowl game for the first time under second-year coach Tom O'Brien and the first time since 2005.
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
Check out this post by Big East blogger Brian Bennett. The Miami connection between Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and UNC coach Butch Davis makes for an interesting subplot in Thursday night's game.