December, 8, 2013
No. 1 Florida State Seminoles(13-0) vs. No. 2 Auburn Tigers (12-1)
Jan. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET, Pasadena, Calif. (ESPN)
FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES BREAKDOWN
For months, Florida State was happy to downplay its own talent. In each of the past two seasons, the Seminoles bore the burden of lofty expectations and eventually collapsed under the weight. This time, they were happy to fly beneath the radar. But make no mistake -- they knew this season would be special.
“The turning point was the spring, spring football when we started, and we knew we were going to have a special year,” quarterback Jameis Winston said.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJameis Winston transformed the Seminoles, starting with the spring game.
Winston has been the catalyst. The redshirt freshman was a revelation from the moment he stepped onto the field during Florida State’s spring game, launching a long touchdown throw on his first pass attempt. In his debut against Pitt, he was nearly flawless, accounting for five touchdowns in the win. He delivered the pregame inspiration in Death Valley, then delivered Florida State’s biggest win of the season, thumping Clemson 51-14. By season’s end, he had rewritten the record books at Florida State.
But if Winston was the man in the spotlight, he was pushed there by an immensely talented supporting cast. Three receivers and his top tailback are all within reach of 1,000 yards for the season. Nick O’Leary and Kelvin Benjamin provide two of the biggest matchup advantages in the country, and Winston has exploited their talents to the tune of 21 touchdowns. His offensive line employs five players who figure to land NFL jobs within the next two years. For the season, Florida State led the nation, averaging 7.8 yards per play.
The offense garnered headlines, but the defense shouldn’t be overlooked. Florida State lost seven starters and three assistant coaches from last season’s No. 2-ranked unit, and during the spring, new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt revamped the scheme. The adjustments didn’t take long to master. The Seminoles lead the nation in pass defense for the second straight year, but this season they added a penchant for takeaways, racking up 25 interceptions. The rushing defense was nearly as stout, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. The first-team defense didn’t allow a rushing touchdown all season. In the final nine games of the season, FSU’s first-team defense allowed just 42 points total.
Florida State wrapped up its berth in the Vizio BCS National Championship with one final dominant performance against Duke in the ACC title game. Winston accounted for four touchdowns. The defense forced three turnovers and nine punts. It was Florida State’s fourth win over a ranked foe by a combined score of 200-35. -- David M. Hale
AUBURN TIGERS BREAKDOWN
All around the Auburn football offices there are signs that read, "It's a New Day." Coach Gus Malzahn promised the return of championships to The Plains when he came back to the school after the 2012 season, and against all reason, he's put the previously inept Tigers back in contention to claim college football's coveted crystal football trophy less than one year later.
Auburn will play Florida State in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif., in the culmination of a turnaround few believed was possible.
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesNick Marshall (left) and Gus Malzahn have authored the season's best turnaround story.
Even before Michigan State beat Ohio State to open the door for Auburn's trip west, it felt like the start of something new on The Plains.
Auburn's resurgence from winless in the SEC to conference champs can be traced back to Malzahn and quarterback Nick Marshall. First, Malzahn had to rebuild the fragile psyche of a program that went through one of the worst slides in the history of college football. Second, he had to find a quarterback to execute his complex zone-read option offense. Lastly, he had to make it all work.
Marshall, who transferred to Auburn late in August after missing out on spring practice, knew only a quarter of the offense when he started at quarterback for the Tigers in Week 1. He accounted for only 126 total yards in the season opener against Washington State. But with the help of Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he started piecing things together. He led four game-winning or game-tying drives, and the offense has scored 30 points or more in each game since the team’s lone loss to LSU in September.
Auburn’s magical run hasn’t come without its share of drama, though. The Tigers needed a 73-yard Hail Mary in the final minute to knock off Georgia, and the town is still buzzing after the field goal return by Chris Davis to upset No. 1 Alabama. This team is being tabbed a team of destiny, and with what’s happened in the final month of the season, how can you pick against it? It’s been as unlikely a comeback story as you’ll ever see, but it’s not over yet. There’s still one game left to be played. -- Greg Ostendorf
December, 8, 2013
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAdam Kennedy led Arkansas State to a share of the Sun Belt title.
Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5) vs. Ball State Cardinals (10-2)
Jan. 5, 9 p.m. ET, Mobile, Ala. (ESPN)
ARKANSAS STATE RED WOLVES BREAKDOWN
Despite dropping their season finale to Western Kentucky, the Red Wolves were still able to claim a share the Sun Belt championship with Louisiana-Lafayette after finishing 5-2 in league play. Arkansas State has now won the Sun Belt for the third consecutive season.
The Red Wolves entered the month of November with a 3-4 record before winning four straight. During that stretch, Arkansas State score under 30 points just once. On the season, the Red Wolves averaged 414.2 yards per game, but also gave up an average of 417 yards an outing.
Arkansas State has made headlines recently because of its former coaches who have gone on to have immediate success in the SEC, but the Red Wolves claimed another conference title without them. Arkansas State has gone 20-3 in league games over the last three seasons and is 1-1 in its last two bowl games. -- Edward Aschoff
BALL STATE CARDINALS BREAKDOWN
AP Photo/Michael ConroySenior quarterback Keith Wenning threw for 3,993 yards and 34 touchdowns for Ball State.
A postseason trip was secure for a while, and another double-digit win total is wrapped up as well. Now the speculation shifts to whether Ball State can keep its coach around for another one.
Pete Lembo, like Brady Hoke before him, might be the latest to lead the Cardinals near the top of the MAC, knock off a BCS-conference opponent on the road, clinch a bowl bid and then spend December fielding job offers while preparing for a game. With 19 wins over the last two seasons, Lembo could be a popular target after overseeing a team that scores in bunches.
Ball State averaged more than 40 points per game thanks to quarterback Keith Wenning's eye-popping passing numbers, coming up just shy of 4,000 yards and throwing for 34 touchdowns -- more than enough to take pressure off a defense that finished fourth in the conference in points allowed. -- Austin Ward
December, 8, 2013
Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4) vs. Houston Cougars (8-4)
Jan. 4, 1 p.m. ET, Birmingham, Ala. (ESPN)
VANDERBILT COMMODORES BREAKDOWN
Coach James Franklin has turned his revival of the Vanderbilt program into a new golden age. These are heady times for the Commodores. Vandy recently completed yet another unbeaten November, giving it a nine-game winning streak in that critical month that dates to 2011.
Vanderbilt defeated Georgia and Florida for the first time in the same season, picking up the school's first road win against the Gators since 1945. VU's only SEC East losses were to the top two teams -- South Carolina and Missouri.
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesJordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver, has eight 100-yard games this season.
Despite a nail-biting loss in the season opener against Ole Miss and a big road loss to Texas A&M, the Dores won eight games and went .500 in the SEC. VU has eight wins in back-to-back regular seasons for the first time since 1927-28 and is making its third straight bowl appearance. Here's some perspective: Before Franklin arrived, Vanderbilt had been to four bowl games in 120 years.
The Commodores have a balanced offense that features the passing combination of quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. But this year has seen more emphasis on running the ball, as Vandy employs a committee that includes leading rusher Jerron Seymour, Brian Kimbrow, Wesley Tate and lately more designed runs for Carta-Samuels and backup QB Patton Robinette. The biggest star and most dangerous player, however, is the silky-smooth Matthews, who has an SEC-record 18 career 100-yard games and broke his own school record this season with 1,334 yards receiving (fifth most in SEC history).
Perhaps the biggest strides the program has made this season have been on the other side of the ball, where Vanderbilt has allowed 333.9 yards a game to rank No. 19 in the nation in total defense. This is an opportunistic bunch with 26 takeaways. On the whole, Franklin runs a tight ship. His offense doesn't give up the ball very often (20 turnovers on the year) and averages just more than five penalties a game.
In other words, Vanderbilt rarely beats itself. -- Jeff Barlis
HOUSTON COUGARS BREAKDOWN
The Cougars have quietly had a nice turnaround season, sitting at 8-4 in coach Tony Levine's second season after a 5-7 campaign in 2012.
Houston has improved in a number of areas, especially on defense. It leads the country in turnover margin (+25) and takeaways (40) under defensive coordinator David Gibbs.
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsTony Levine's Cougars have enjoyed a nice bounce-back season thanks to an opportunistic defense.
Each of the Cougars’ four losses have come by seven points or fewer -- not bad for a team with a true freshman quarterback (John O'Korn).
While he’s had some growing pains, O'Korn has been solid (26 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and he has many weapons at his disposal, namely sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry (76 receptions, 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns).
One note: Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham has accepted the same job at TCU so co-OC Travis Bush will call the plays in the bowl game. -- Sam Khan Jr.
December, 8, 2013
Oklahoma State Cowboys (10-2) vs. Missouri Tigers (11-2)
Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET, Arlington, Texas (FOX)
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS BREAKDOWN
Oklahoma State was one game away from its second Big 12 title and BCS bowl berth in three years. Problem for the Cowboys, that one game was the one they seemingly never can win.
The Cowboys will head to the AT&T Cotton Bowl with a sour taste after losing to Oklahoma for the 10th time in 11 years, spoiling what otherwise was a strong regular season.
Oklahoma State, which has already totaled double-digit wins for the third time in four seasons, hammered Big 12 champ Baylor by 32 points, a week after rolling Texas by 25 on the road.
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOklahoma State's offensive effectiveness tends to depend on how quarterback Clint Chelf is playing.
The Cowboys boast the best defense they've had under coach Mike Gundy. They lead the Big 12 in scoring defense, turnovers forced, red zone efficiency and several “Next Level” stats such as points allowed per drive. The defense is also deep and experienced, with seven senior starters and a standout at every level: Calvin Barnett at tackle, Caleb Lavey at linebacker and Justin Gilbert at cornerback.
On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys aren’t quite as explosive offensively as they’ve been in the past, but they can still put up points. Desmond Roland is a tough, one-cut running back, and the receiving corps is deep and talented, headlined by versatile playmaker Josh Stewart.
The offense, however, is usually only as good as quarterback Clint Chelf is. Chelf had the highest QBR of any signal-caller in the month of November, and as a result, Oklahoma State smoked Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.
But in the cold of Bedlam, he struggled with his accuracy for most of the game, and in turn, the offense bogged down, which allowed the underdog Sooners to hang around. -- Jake Trotter
MISSOURI TIGERS BREAKDOWN
Give Gary Pinkel his due. Missouri’s veteran coach never pushed the panic button after the Tigers’ SEC debut a year ago produced a disappointing 5-7 season. His message all offseason was the same. Pinkel was confident Missouri would be better in Year No. 2, and he wasn’t blindsided by anything the Tigers faced in their first season in the SEC.
He obviously knew what he was talking about because Missouri bounced back in a big way by winning 11 games and earning a trip to the SEC championship game. The Tigers enter the postseason on a bit of a downer after losing 59-42 on Saturday to Auburn in the SEC championship game. Missouri had no answers for Auburn’s running game and was shredded for 545 yards on the ground, but that was the exception this season.
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsDorial Green-Beckham leads a sizable group of Missouri receivers who are major threats in the red zone.
The Tigers entered that game ranked second in the SEC against the run and hadn’t given up more than 21 points in regulation in their last six games.
Whereas Missouri was decimated by injuries a year ago, the Tigers stayed relatively healthy this season. The notable exception was at quarterback. Senior James Franklin separated his shoulder against Georgia in the sixth game and missed most of the next four games. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk stepped in and helped keep the Tigers in the SEC East race, and then Franklin returned against Ole Miss in the next-to-last regular-season game to finish the deal.
He should be as healthy as he’s been since injuring his shoulder in the bowl game. Despite missing parts of five games, Franklin still passed for 2,255 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 474 yards and four touchdowns. The Tigers scored more than 30 points in 10 of their 13 games and were one of the most balanced offensive teams in the SEC.
Senior running back Henry Josey rushed for 1,074 yards and 13 touchdowns and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. Three different receivers had more than 45 catches, with Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington each surpassing 800 receiving yards. Green-Beckham, the No. 1 high school prospect in the country two years ago, caught 12 touchdown passes and Washington 10.
The Missouri receivers all pose difficult matchups for opposing defenses because of their size and athleticism. Green-Beckham is 6-foot-6 and Washington 6-4, and they both are excellent at going up and wrestling defensive backs for jump balls. -- Chris Low
December, 8, 2013
Clemson Tigers (10-2) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1)
Jan. 3, TBD, Miami (ESPN)
CLEMSON TIGERS BREAKDOWN
Despite its third straight season with at least 10 wins, Clemson ended the regular season by extending its sour streak with a fifth straight losses to rival South Carolina and once again looking up at Florida State in the Atlantic Division standings.
The Tigers were picked by the media in July to win the ACC, but they fell flat in their two most important games of the season -- against the Seminoles and against South Carolina. They also happened to be the two worst performances of the season for quarterback Tajh Boyd, who has since fallen out of the Heisman conversation.
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd and the Tigers committed six turnovers in their regular season finale at South Carolina. Can Clemson redeem itself in its bowl game?
It wasn’t just that the Tigers lost those games; it was the fact that they lost them in embarrassing fashion. Florida State rolled Clemson in Death Valley on Oct. 19, quieting the crowd with a 51-14 romp. In a 31-17 loss to the Gamecocks, Clemson turned it over six times, each gaff seemingly more unbelievable than the last. Clemson’s only two losses, though, were to top-10 opponents. Clemson committed 10 turnovers versus FSU and South Carolina and was outscored 45-0 in points off turnovers in those games.
Still, the Tigers will bring one of the country’s most productive offenses, led by Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, who has 224 career receptions and will need nine catches in the bowl game to break Aaron Kelly’s school career record of 232. The defense, led by Vic Beasley, has also shown significant improvement in the second season under coordinator Brent Venables. -- Heather Dinich
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES BREAKDOWN
The flawless, fairytale run wasn’t going to last forever, but Ohio State surely wasn’t planning on trying to start a new winning streak in its bowl game.
Undefeated under Urban Meyer until Saturday night’s loss in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State, “The Chase” the Buckeyes have been on for a national championship came up one game short. Their defense struggled to get off the field against the Spartans, and their powerful rushing attack was unable to get the yards that counted most.
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller will be a tough duo to handle in the Buckeyes' bowl game.
But the combined star power of Meyer, quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde and linebacker Ryan Shazier still made Ohio State plenty attractive for a BCS bowl, and it will have a marquee opportunity to post an impressive victory and cap what has still been a record-setting season for the program.
Few teams have been as explosive as the Buckeyes offensively, with both Miller and Hyde rushing for more than 1,000 yards and causing defenses fits with the zone-option attack. And while the passing game has regressed during the final month of the season, Miller has still come a long way as a passer, which has helped receivers Philly Brown and Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman find the end zone a combined 21 times.
The defense hasn’t been quite as consistent, particularly since the loss of stabilizing senior safety Christian Bryant in late September to a fractured ankle, but more often than not, it has made the plays needed to rack up wins. Typically, it has been Shazier doing the most damage, as the junior has routinely stuffed the stats sheet while leading the Big Ten in three different individual categories.
Neither side of the ball did quite enough to push the Buckeyes into the bowl they really had their eye on. But there was a nice consolation prize waiting for them, and a big opportunity to start over with, as well. -- Austin Ward
December, 8, 2013
Oklahoma Sooners (10-2) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (11-1)
OKLAHOMA SOONERS BREAKDOWN
Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, New Orleans (ESPN)
Outside of his 2000 national championship, this season might constitute Bob Stoops’ best coaching finish.
After the Sooners were blown out at Baylor a month ago, most pegged Oklahoma for an 8-4 finish. Instead, despite juggling three different quarterbacks, the Sooners rallied for road wins over red-hot Kansas State and Oklahoma State to secure their fourth consecutive double-digit win season and first BCS bowl since 2010.
Richard Rowe/USA TODAY SportsReceiver and punt returner Jalen Saunders is an integral part of the Sooners' success. He had a return touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the win over Oklahoma State.
The way the Sooners won Bedlam underscores just how improbable a finish it was. Oklahoma didn’t even score an offensive touchdown until the final 19 seconds of the game, yet somehow toppled the heavily favored, then sixth-ranked Cowboys, 33-24.
Unlike the Jason White, Sam Bradford and Landry Jones eras, the Sooners are not equipped to win in shootouts. But led by a veteran offensive line, a reliable running back in Brennan Clay and its mobile quarterbacks, Oklahoma does have a strong running game, ranking 18th in the country.
Even without a surefire all-conference player, the Sooners also have their best defense since 2009. They are undersized up front, but the pass defense is prolific. Aaron Colvin is a proven lockdown corner, and Eric Striker is one of the best blitzing linebackers in college football.
The true strength of this team, however, is special teams. Jalen Saunders, who had a touchdown return in Bedlam, is one of the most electric returners in the country. Roy Finch leads the Big 12 in kickoff returns. And Michael Hunnicutt is a reliable field-goal kicker.
It will be interesting, as it has been all season, to see what the Sooners do at quarterback in the bowl. Freshman Trevor Knight won the job late in the season and was terrific at Kansas State. But he suffered a dislocated shoulder just before halftime at Oklahoma State. Knight should be fine for the bowl. But Blake Bell, who struggled in the losses to Texas and Baylor, led Oklahoma on the game-winning touchdown drive in the final seconds of the fourth quarter that beat Oklahoma State. -- Jake Trotter
The sting of losing the Iron Bowl remains. The Crimson Tide didn't expect to fall to the Tigers in the final week of the regular season, miss out on the SEC championship game and, as a result, a trip to Pasadena, Calif., for a shot at a third-straight BCS championship. All of which begs the question: How will Alabama respond now that it has been relegated to the Allstate Sugar Bowl? And does Oklahoma stand a chance?
Judging by previous experience, expect Alabama to arrive in New Orleans with something to prove. The last time the Tide missed out on a shot in the title game, it went to Orlando and beat Michigan State in the most lopsided Capital One Bowl in the game's history.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCB Cyrus Jones and the Alabama secondary will have its hands full with OU's receivers.
But Alabama isn't the same team it was then.
On offense, Alabama is actually much better as Doug Nussmeier has guided UA to 38.8 points per game -- the most in the Nick Saban era. AJ McCarron might not win the Heisman Trophy, but he has a shot at making it to New York having thrown for 2,676 yards, 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The offensive line that was rebuilt after being the best in college football a year ago has actually allowed 12 fewer sacks this season than the last. And the running back tandem of T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake hasn't disappointed either, combining for 1,857 yards and 21 touchdowns.
The defense, though, has endured its ups and downs. Against Texas A&M, it gave up the most yards in school history, and against Auburn, it allowed the most rushing yards since 2011 (296) and the most rushing yards by a quarterback (99) in the Saban era. Discipline was an issue in those games and the back end of the defense was a troublesome spot throughout as strong safety Vinnie Sunseri was lost to injury midway through the season and the cornerback spot opposite Deion Belue was a revolving door with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith all taking unsuccessful turns.
The Tide’s defense will be tested by Oklahoma. With a few QBs that can run, if Alabama doesn't come out ready to play, it could turn into a shootout as the Sooners possesses the kind of spread offense that has given the Tide trouble (http://espn.go.com/blog/sec/post/_/id/75890/alabama-at-loss-defending-spread-offenses). LSU had the best tandem of receivers Alabama faced this season, but Oklahoma might have the best receiver corps with three wideouts with 20 or more catches. Jalen Saunders has 615 yards and five touchdowns of his own and Sterling Shepherd, who has 428 yards and six touchdowns, is the kind of shifty receiver that can hurt you. -- Alex Scarborough
December, 8, 2013
UCF Knights (11-1) vs. Baylor Bears (11-1)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, Glendale, Ariz. (ESPN)
UCF KNIGHTS BREAKDOWN
UCF entered its first year in the American Athletic Conference with high hopes. But nobody outside the program anticipated the Knights would win the conference championship. Not with preseason No. 9 Louisville standing in the way.
But the Knights served notice early on they were a team that should be taken seriously. They went on the road and beat Penn State in Week 3. Then they gave South Carolina everything they had in a 28-25 loss that came down to the very end. It became obvious their game at Louisville in October would have an impact on the conference title race.
AP Photo/John RaouxBlake Bortles has led UCF to the first BCS bowl in program history.
UCF went on the road and never flinched, not after falling behind 28-7. Blake Bortles calmly led a 38-35 comeback win, throwing the winning touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds remaining. The win paved the way for UCF to earn the American title outright and its first BCS bid as new league members. It also served as the biggest win in school history given where the Knights stand today.
Bortles keyed the season. The junior from Orlando threw for 3,280 yards this season, with 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He has risen up through NFL draft boards with his performance and now faces a decision about whether to return to UCF. But he wasn’t alone. The Knights have one of the deepest receiving groups in the league, as three players have at least 600 yards. Storm Johnson ran for 1,000 yards, and the Knights ranked in the top 20 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and rushing defense.
But the season was not without its share of drama. Five times UCF needed to come from behind in the second half to win conference games. That includes victories over Memphis, Temple and USF -- three of the worst teams in the league.
The Temple victory was perhaps the closest UCF came to seeing its BCS dreams end. The Knights trailed 36-29 with 2 minutes to go, but J.J. Worton made an acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch to tie the game, and Bortles got the Knights into field goal range with 2 seconds left to lead the win.
History has been made. As the American moves forward into a new era, UCF gives the league plenty to build on. -- Andrea Adelson
BAYLOR BEARS BREAKDOWN
Dreams came true in Waco, Texas, this season, as Baylor rose from the conference cellar to Big 12 champions under the direction of Art Briles. The Bears could win 12 games for first time in program history with a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win over UCF.
Yet, there was a time when it looked like the Bears might not even make a BCS bowl after getting drilled by Oklahoma State 49-17 in late November. But BU responded to win its final two games over TCU and Texas to finish 11-1 while securing the Fiesta Bowl berth and outright Big 12 title.
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty's Bears soared to new heights this season ... and they're not done.
Quarterback Bryce Petty was easily the best signal-caller in the conference and played a major role in the Bears’ FBS-leading 53.3 points per game and 624.5 yards per game this season. He will lead a passing attack that could be a handful for a UCF defense that allowed 229.83 passing yards per game, tied for 61st in the FBS.
Even though Briles’ squad featured the nation’s most productive offense, the real foundation of Baylor’s first Big 12 championship was its defense. The Bears defense ranked among the top three in the Big 12 in most categories and led the conference in yards per play allowed (4.53) and yards per rush allowed (3.26).
Safety Ahmad Dixon brought a physical tone and unyielding confidence to the defense, while its front seven, led by defensive end Chris McAllister, was underrated throughout the fall.
After its strong finish to the 2012 season, Baylor was viewed as an Big 12 sleeper heading into the 2013 season. Turns out the Bears were the Big 12’s sleeper team. And much more. -- Brandon Chatmon
December, 8, 2013
By Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
Stanford Cardinal (11-2) vs. Michigan State Spartans (12-1)
Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET, Pasadena, Calif. (ESPN)
STANFORD CARDINAL BREAKDOWN
Before last season, Stanford had never been to bowl games in four consecutive seasons. Following its dominant effort against Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship, the Cardinal is not only on its way to a fifth straight bowl but a fourth straight BCS game and second straight Rose Bowl.
Waiting in Pasadena for the 100th edition of the “Granddaddy” will be Michigan State. Winners of nine straight, including a 34-24 win against previously undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, the Spartans haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1988, when they beat USC 20-17.
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe downhill style of Tyler Gaffney and the Michigan State defense are on a collision course.
The first thing that jumps out about this matchup is the similar styles. As was the case in Stanford’s 20-14 win against Wisconsin last year, points could be at a premium. Both Stanford (18.6 ppg) and Michigan State (12.7) allow fewer than 20 points per game, and the Spartans lead the nation in total defense. Neither team has allowed more than 28 points in a game this year; both allowed 28 on two occasions.
Considering how well Arizona State had been playing, Stanford’s 38-14 win in the Pac-12 championship might have been its most complete win of the season. Just as it did at home against the Sun Devils early in the year, it jumped out to a big first-half lead. This time, however, Stanford extended the lead after halftime to win going away. Running back Tyler Gaffney earned the game’s MVP honors and now has 1,618 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns on the season.
The teams’ only common opponent is Notre Dame. The Irish handed Michigan State its only loss of the season, 17-13 on Sept. 21., but fell 27-20 at Stanford on Nov. 30. Stanford has won its last 10 games against ranked opponents, with the last loss coming two years ago in the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State.
Stanford is 6-7 all time in the Rose Bowl, while Michigan State is 3-1. -- Kyle Bonagura
MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS BREAKDOWN
As they’ve done after every win, the Michigan State Spartans held a Saturday night dance party in their locker room after upsetting Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
Noticeably absent from the hip-hop playlist: “Going back to Cali.” The Spartans are going back to California to play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season. After a disappointing 2012 campaign filled with close losses -- MSU dropped five Big Ten contests by a combined 13 points -- Mark Dantonio’s team made up the inches and became a complete team that won all nine of its Big Ten contests by 10 points or more this season.
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard leads Michigan State to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1987.
“Pasadena, here we come,” said Spartans senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti, a Lakewood, Calif., native. “I’ve got to show them In-N-Out [Burger], it’s a West Coast staple, Animal Style and all that. I’m excited.”
The nation’s No. 1 defense propelled Michigan State for most of the season and will be featured in Pasadena alongside Stanford’s equally hard-hitting crew. The 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO boasts a traditional matchup of teams rooted in physical defense, the power run and solid special teams play.
Michigan State leads the nation in fewest yards allowed (248.2 ypg), rush yards allowed (80.8 ypg) and third-down conversions allowed (27.7 percent), and ranks second in pass efficiency defense and fourth in points allowed. Pat Narduzzi coordinates a unit featuring six All-Big Ten players, including an All-America candidate in senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
Elite defense is nothing new at MSU, but the team needed a complementary piece on offense and found one during Big Ten play. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook came out of nowhere to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors, throw 20 touchdown passes against just five interceptions and win MVP honors in the Big Ten championship game. Cook and dynamic running back Jeremy Langford play behind a much-improved line that will be tested by Shayne Skov and Stanford. -- Adam Rittenberg
December, 8, 2013
Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4) vs. LSU Tigers (9-3)
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, Tampa, Fla. (ESPN)
IOWA HAWKEYES BREAKDOWN
Reports of Iowa's demise were premature.
After a dismal 4-8 season in 2012, many wrote off Kirk Ferentz's team before this season began. But the Hawkeyes managed a complete turnaround while embracing classic Ferentz traits like stout defensive play and a strong rushing attack. Iowa's 8-4 campaign looks even more impressive when considering that its four losses all came to ranked teams -- Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin -- and that it finished the year with back-to-back wins over Michigan and Nebraska.
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAnthony Hitchens was one-third of Iowa's outstanding senior linebacking group.
The Hawkeyes' success starts on defense, where they ranked in the top 20 nationally against both the pass and the run. Everything revolves around a standout trio of senior linebackers in James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey, who combined for nearly 300 tackles and more than 30 tackles for loss.
The offense isn't explosive, but a veteran offensive line led by junior left tackle and future NFL draft pick Brandon Scherff sets the tone for a physical attack. Mark Weisman, a 235-pound former fullback, rushed for 938 yards this year and seems to get stronger as games wear on. Iowa also can mix things up with shiftier backs in Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri.
First-year starter Jake Rudock completed 60 percent of his passes and showed the ability to extend plays with his legs. The Hawkeyes don't stretch the field as much as they grind out yards the old-fashioned way. And that way was good enough to get Iowa back to a nice bowl game. -- Brian Bennett
LSU TIGERS BREAKDOWN
Unfortunately for LSU, it won't be able to send out senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger with one last win. Mettenberger tore his ACL while taking a hit in the pocket after delivering a pass to Jarvis Landry during the Tigers' season-ending 31-27 win against Arkansas.
Mettenberger (3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions), Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs) worked with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to restore an aerial aspect to LSU's offense, which had become a bit stale with its ground-heavy mentality over the past few years. The Tigers can still run the ball with the best -- Jeremy Hill rushed for 1,185 yards and 14 scores and Terrence Magee added 207 yards and three TDs in the last two games -- but it was Mettenberger and the star wideouts who made LSU's offense explosive again.
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLSU wideout Odell Beckham helped lead the young Tigers to a 9-3 record.
Mettenberger's backup, freshman Anthony Jennings, completed the Tigers' comeback against Arkansas with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 to play, and he should gain some valuable experience for 2014 with a start in the bowl game.
It will be interesting to see how John Chavis' young defense performs in its final outing of the season. LSU ranked fourth in the SEC in total defense at 349.7 yards per game and sixth in scoring defense at 22.7 points per game, which was a step backward after ranking among the nation's best over the past few years. Shutting down Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in a 34-10 win on Nov. 23 might be a sign of positive things to come for Chavis' bunch, however. -- David Ching
December, 8, 2013
Wisconsin Badgers (9-3) vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2)
Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, Orlando, Fla. (ABC)
WISCONSIN BADGERS BREAKDOWN
The Badgers' streak of three straight Rose Bowls has come to an end. That doesn't mean, however, that Gary Andersen’s first season in Madison was a failure. Wisconsin actually added one more win to its total compared to a season ago, when it went 8-6.
Wisconsin's rushing attack ensured Andersen would find success this season, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined to form the No. 8 run game (283 YPG) in the nation. The speedy duo helped the Badgers average an FBS-best 8.3 yards per carry outside the tackles, and both rushed for more than 1,300 yards.
AP Photo/Morry GashJames White (left) and Melvin Gordon powered a Wisconsin run game that was among the best in the country.
Wisconsin's new 3-4 defense also helped it move up nine spots from last season's 15th-ranked defense. But that doesn't mean the Badgers didn't have their weaknesses. Besides the passing game (and lack of weapons outside of Jared Abbrederis), inconsistency plagued Wisconsin.
The Badgers allowed the opposition to score more than 30 points in just four games -- and three of those games wound up as losses. Wisconsin suffered a controversial ending against Arizona State, fell by a touchdown vs. the Buckeyes ... and then was somehow upset by a sanctions-depleted Penn State squad. Wisconsin is obviously hoping to bounce back after PSU's huge upset, and it should be ready for this bowl game. It can actually improve on last year's record despite playing one fewer game. -- Josh Moyer
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS BREAKDOWN
Quietly, Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to yet another 10-win season. A postseason victory, and South Carolina would have its third straight 11-win season under Spurrier.
It's been a fun season for the Gamecocks, who started it with a loss to Georgia but were on the heels of their second SEC Eastern Division crown after upsetting Missouri in double overtime on the road. But they just fell short of their goal to return to Atlanta after Mizzou won out after losing to the Gamecocks.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesConnor Shaw battled injury but South Carolina has finished strong.
The game that will really have this team kicking itself is that 23-21 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville. South Carolina turned it over twice and lost starting quarterback Connor Shaw to a knee injury but was clearly the more talented team. Fortunately for the Gamecocks, that was their final stumble. They won their last five games by a combined 181-81 margin, including a 31-17 win over Clemson that made it five in a row for South Carolina over the Tigers.
The star of the show for the Gamecocks was supposed to be defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Nagging injuries and constant double-teams left him with a pedestrian three sacks, but he did have 10.5 tackles for loss.
The top performers for South Carolina were Shaw and bell cow running back Mike Davis.
Shaw continued to show the country why he's one of the toughest players. His knee sprain sidelined him only briefly, as he returned in the fourth quarter against Mizzou only to throw for 201 yards and three touchdowns to erase a 17-point deficit. Shaw finished the year with 2,135 yards with 21 touchdowns to just one interception.
Helping Shaw along the way was Davis, who made a strong case for the title of the SEC's top running back. Davis, who was a home run threat and a legitimate between-the-tackles bruiser, rushed for 1,134 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. -- Edward Aschoff
December, 8, 2013
UNLV Rebels (7-5) vs. North Texas Mean Green (8-4)
Jan. 1, noon ET, Dallas (ESPNU)
AP Photo/David BeckerSenior QB Caleb Herring is coming off a career game -- 336 total yards and six touchdowns in a rout of bowl-bound San Diego State.
UNLV REBELS BREAKDOWN
Getting bowl eligible earned Bobby Hauck a three-year contract extension through the 2016 season.
A 7-5 finish now has UNLV playing in the postseason for the first time in 13 years. The Runnin' Rebels will ring in the new year against North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the Cotton Bowl. There they will try to extend the program's postseason unbeaten streak to four.
They can do that thanks to a five-win improvement from last year's 2-11 squad, which has done a good job of containing some of the Mountain West Conference's potent aerial attacks. UNLV ranks first in the MWC in pass defense and fifth in scoring defense, as they finished tied for third in the West Division with a 5-3 record in conference play. -- Matt Fortuna
NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN BREAKDOWN
[+] EnlargeJerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsDan McCarney's Mean Green defense is ninth in the nation in points allowed (18.1 ppg).Coach Dan McCarney has led the Mean Green to their best season since taking over the program three years ago. North Texas’ eight-win season is a four-game improvement over 2012.
The Mean Green are one of the better defensive teams in the country, allowing only 18.1 points per game, which ranks No. 9 nationally.
They're also No. 6 nationally in preventing touchdowns once teams enter the red zone, allowing them on just 45.5 percent of opponent's red zone trips.
Special teams is also an area of strength for North Texas.
The Mean Green have blocked eight kicks in 2013, and they have one of the country's best return men in Brelan Chancellor. The senior has a kickoff return touchdown and a punt return touchdown and ranks 11th in yards per kick return (28.14) and fifth in yards per punt return (16.82).
-- Sam Khan Jr.
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsDan McCarney's Mean Green defense is ninth in the nation in points allowed (18.1 ppg).
December, 8, 2013
Nebraska Cornhuskers (8-4) vs. Georgia Bulldogs (8-4)
NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS BREAKDOWN
Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)
Nebraska enters the bowl season with a chance to finish 9-4 for the third time under coach Bo Pelini. In the other three seasons, it finished 10-4.
This year, though, classifies as anything but routine.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJunior college transfer Randy Gregory anchored Nebraska's defense in his first season in Lincoln.
The Huskers lost record-setting senior quarterback Taylor Martinez to a foot injury that limited him to just one appearance in Big Ten play.
Right guard Spencer Long, their best offensive lineman, went down with a season-ending knee injury in early October. A devastating string of injuries along the line followed, transforming the offense from this team's strength in September to a liability by November.
If not for a 49-yard Hail Mary completion by third-string quarterback Ron Kellogg III to Jordan Westerkamp against Northwestern, Nebraska would have lost its final three home games.
Harrowing wins at Michigan, featuring heroics by freshman QB Tommy Armstrong, and in overtime at Penn State allowed the Huskers to stay afloat. The young defense matured behind breakout star Randy Gregory, but a five-turnover day against Michigan State eliminated the Huskers from league-title contention on Nov. 16 -- earlier than at any time previously under Pelini.
Nebraska finished minus-12 for the year in turnover margin, better than only three teams nationally. Repeated punt-return miscues also proved costly.
Throw in a loss to UCLA (in which the Bruins scored the final 38 points), the unearthing of an unpleasant two-year-old Pelini audio tape and a meltdown by the coach during and after a post-Thanksgiving home loss to Iowa, and you've got a season that was anything but normal in Lincoln. -- Mitch Sherman
Mark Richt's Bulldogs recovered from an injury-induced midseason lull by winning four of their final five games -- with the one loss coming in heartbreaking fashion, when Auburn's Ricardo Louis caught a deflected pass for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Georgia started the season as a top-five club, but its enormous expectations crumbled after a Week 1 loss to Clemson and a spate of injuries hit key players like receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall early in the season. The Bulldogs lost twice -- to Missouri and Vanderbilt -- in the middle of the season while many of their most valuable offensive players were sidelined, but recovered a bit once Gurley returned for the Florida game.
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley rushed for 903 yards and 10 TDs this season despite missing three games due to injury.
Georgia averaged 41.2 points per game once Gurley returned to the lineup, completing the season with a comeback, overtime win over Georgia Tech where Gurley scored four touchdowns even without SEC career passing leader Aaron Murray leading the offense.
Murray will miss the bowl game because of a torn ACL he suffered against Kentucky on senior night, so Hutson Mason will once again be under center for the Bulldogs. He has performed well thus far, going 46-for-71 for 648 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Meanwhile, Georgia's young defense has one more opportunity to develop some continuity heading into 2014. The Bulldogs surrendered a whopping 29.4 points and 381.2 yards per game, although they have generally started slowly and played better as games progressed in the second half of the season. -- David Ching
December, 8, 2013
Duke Blue Devils (10-3) vs. Texas A&M Aggies (8-4)
DUKE BLUE DEVILS BREAKDOWN
Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, Atlanta (ESPN)
As expected, Duke was overmatched in the ACC championship game and lost convincingly to Florida State, but the loss didn’t define the season, which includes a school-record 10 wins.
The Blue Devils still earned the title of Coastal Division champs and now have a chance to end the season on a winning note. Duke had won eight straight games heading into the ACC title game -- the program’s longest winning streak since 1941. The program was ranked in the BCS standings for the first time, and it defeated two ranked teams in then-No. 16 Virginia Tech and then-No. 24 Miami.
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe versatile Brandon Connette accounted for 26 total scores for Duke this season.
Although Duke lost to Florida State for the 19th time and remains winless against the Noles, what happened in that game wasn’t reminiscent of the “old Duke.” Instead, Duke just got a taste of what FSU had been doing to its opponents all season. Duke still has a much-improved defense, which was evident in the first quarter, when it held the Noles scoreless for the first time since they played Florida in 2012. Duke also forced Florida State into three turnovers, including one fumble in the red zone and two interceptions. Duke has now had four takeaways in the red zone this season. Duke’s biggest problem was that it couldn’t capitalize on Florida State’s mistakes or sustain a drive.
That wasn’t the case for most of the season, as Duke was able to score more than 20 touchdowns on the ground and in the passing game for the first time in school history. Despite the loss to FSU, it was an unprecedented season for Duke and coach David Cutcliffe, who was named the ACC’s Coach of the Year. -- Heather Dinich
This is not quite where Aggies fans thought their team might end up when they were previewing the season.
With 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews all returning, many in College Station thought the Aggies could achieve a BCS bowl and perhaps even flirt with an SEC title and a BCS title game berth.
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsMike Evans and the Aggies hope to finish their season on a high note with a bowl victory.
But an extremely young defense that was hit hard by graduation (at least in terms of key players) struggled throughout the season, and a beaten-up Manziel lost steam in the final two regular-season games, which led the offense to do the same.
All that being said, 8-4 isn't bad, and the fact that it's a "disappointment" in Aggieland speaks to how much progress the program has made in a short time. This team still has a high-powered offense, ranking sixth in the nation in points per game (43.6) and fourth in yards per game (538.2).
The defense has had its ups and downs but ended the regular season on a solid note on the road against a talented Missouri team, keeping the game within reach for its offense.
And this could be the last hurrah for Manziel, who seems destined to declare for early entry into the 2014 NFL draft. It could also be the final salvo for Evans, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, who is also draft-eligible. -- Sam Khan Jr.
December, 8, 2013
Rice Owls (10-3) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-6)
RICE OWLS BREAKDOWN
Dec. 31, 4 p.m. ET, Memphis, Tenn. (ESPN)
It has been a historic year for the Owls, who captured their first outright conference championship since 1957 by beating Marshall in the Conference USA championship game.
This is a program on the uptick. They've won 17 games in the past two seasons, accomplishing the feat for only the second time in their history. (The first came in 1953-54.)
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsCharles Ross (1,252 yards and 14 TDs) leads the way for Rice's potent rushing attack.
The Owls are an experienced, senior-laden group on both sides of the ball, having brought back all but two starters on each side.
Quarterback Taylor McHargue, a fifth-year senior, is a productive and steady signal-caller.
And Rice is one of the nation's better rushing teams, averaging 240.15 yards per game on the ground, good for 16th nationally with senior Charles Ross (201 carries, 1,252 yards and 14 TDs) leading the way. -- Sam Khan Jr.
For the first time, Mississippi State is headed to a bowl game for a fourth straight season, but it was far from easy.
The Bulldogs punched their postseason ticket in dramatic fashion by beating in-state rival Ole Miss 17-10 in overtime. In fact, each of the Bulldogs' last two wins came in overtime. They also needed an extra period to beat Arkansas 24-17 on the road the next-to-last week of the regular season.
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott returned to action against Ole Miss and should be even healthier for the bowl game.
Mississippi State showed its mettle down the stretch despite injuries to quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell. Prescott, who had a nerve problem in his non-throwing arm, came off the bench in the fourth quarter to engineer the win over Ole Miss and should be much healthier for the bowl game. He leads the team in both passing (1,657 yards) and rushing (751 yards) and has accounted for 18 touchdowns in 10 games.
Defensively, Mississippi State also played its best football when its season was on the line. In their last three games, the Bulldogs allowed a total of four touchdowns on defense and held Alabama to a season-low 20 points. Tackle Chris Jones is one of the most talented freshman defenders in the country. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Jones leads the team with seven tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries.
All six of Mississippi State's losses this season came to teams ranked in the top 25 of the current BCS standings. A win in the bowl game would assure Dan Mullen's Bulldogs of their fourth consecutive winning season, something that hasn't happened in Starkville since 1997-2000, when Jackie Sherrill was the coach. -- Chris Low
December, 8, 2013
By David M. Hale | ESPN.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Devonta Freeman has never been to California, and he’s already concerned about the long flight west. Six hours on a plane is more than he’s accustomed to, never mind that it’s a trip he’s been dreaming of since the spring.
The BCS made it official Sunday night, and No. 1 Florida State will face No. 2 Auburn in Pasadena on Jan. 6 with a national championship on the line. Freeman’s vacation plans in the interim are simple.
“I just want to grind,” Freeman said. “Get better.”
Freeman met with running backs coach Jay Graham on Sunday, asking for areas he could improve on before he takes the field again in 28 days. The work begins immediately.
There was celebration for Florida State, which wrapped up a conference title with a 45-7 win over Duke on Saturday, but Freeman’s mantra was the overwhelming narrative as the Seminoles begin the month-long wait for the final step on their march toward a national championship. They’ve come far, but the goal wasn’t simply to get here.
“It won’t mean nothing if we don’t go out and win this game and finish it the right way,” said linebacker Telvin Smith. “We’re going to go out, prepare well and play hard.”
There will be ample time for revelry between now and Jan. 6. A handful of Florida State’s stars will be on the banquet circuit, collecting awards for a season’s worth of goals met. Jameis Winston will be in New York next week for the Heisman Trophy presentation, which he’s the heavy favorite to win. There are holidays and vacations and down time, but Florida State is well prepared for the distractions. It has spent the entire season preparing for them.
From the Heisman hype to off-field legal drama, two turns on ESPN’s College GameDay and 11 other contests that seemed over before they kicked off, Florida State has ridden the roller coaster and still come away a bastion of consistency. Thirteen wins, all by at least two touchdowns, all because the mindset hasn’t changed.
And with one game left to go, the Seminoles insist it won’t change now.
“We’re 13-0. This is where we started the season off wanting to come here. Now we’re here,” said kicker Roberto Aguayo, who has outscored all 13 of FSU’s opponents by himself this season. “It’s been in our minds the entire time. It’s nothing new. We’re playing for a national championship and this is where we should be.”
The team gathered Sunday for its annual awards night. They watched the BCS announcement together at the stadium. They cheered the inevitable, and then they prepared to go back to work.
It’s funny, Freeman said. A few weeks ago, Florida State was dogged with questions about what might happen if four or five teams finished undefeated. Now, the Seminoles are the only team with an unblemished record.
It was no accident, Freeman said, and all that matters now is that Florida State keeps doing what’s gotten it this far.
“We’ve gotta win,” Freeman said. “We’ve gotta win. And I’m not doubting anything.”
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 20 Duke 7 1 Florida State 45 Final 2 Ohio State 24 10 Michigan State 34 Final 5 Missouri 42 3 Auburn 59 Final 17 Oklahoma 33 6 Oklahoma State 24 Final 7 Stanford 38 11 Arizona State 14 Final 25 Texas 10 9 Baylor 30 Final 16 UCF 17 Southern Methodist 13 Final Utah State 17 23 Fresno State 24