NCF Nation: C-USA

SEC leads tight race in Power Rankings

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
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Joe Faraoni/ESPN ImagesWith a new college football postseason format comes a new trophy for the national champion
With the dawn of the college football playoff, conference strength will be examined more closely than ever before.

As the selection committee has noted, strength of schedule will be a factor in their decision-making process. That means out-of-conference and in-conference schedules will be examined.

Tom Osborne, former Nebraska coach and a member of the selection committee, noted, "A lot of teams are going to be at the mercy of the strength of their conference."

After all, at least one of the Power Five conferences will not have a team selected into the playoff.

Given the increased importance of conference strength, it is time to bring back ESPN Stats & Information’s conference power rankings.

What are the Conference Power Rankings?

Over the past few years ESPN Stats & Information has published weekly rankings of the FBS conferences during the college football season. The formula was originally crafted by then-Analytics Specialist Albert Larcada and has been adapted over the years.

In 2014, the formula is an equal blend of the rankings from the AP Poll (including the others receiving votes section) and ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).

The AP Poll will not only add a human element to the rankings, but it will also measure the relative strength of the top schools in each conference. Conversely, the Football Power Index will measure the relative strength of every team in the country to determine conference power from top to bottom. For more information on FPI, click here.

The AP Poll and FPI will be weighed equally and the results will be calculated on a 0-100 scale in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the FBS.

SEC leads preseason rankings

It should not be surprising that the SEC leads the conference power rankings after finishing at the top of these rankings in all four years of their existence.

The SEC begins the season with eight teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll, including five teams ranked in the top 13.

After having the most players selected in the NFL Draft for an eighth straight year, the SEC is ready to reload with more ESPN 300 players signed in the past two years (235) than the next two conferences combined.

However, the Pac-12 is gaining ground. After finishing last year in a distant second (14.1 point differential), the Pac-12 begins the 2014 season just 4.1 points behind the SEC as the top conference in the FBS.


USA TODAY SportsHeisman hopefuls Marcus Mariota, left, and Brett Hundley.


A lot of the Pac-12’s strength is based on the projected strength of its offenses. Ten of 12 starting quarterbacks from the Pac-12 return in 2014, including Heisman favorites Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley.

In comparison, only six of the SEC’s 14 starting quarterbacks from a year ago return, which leaves gaping holes for top teams such as Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.

Some believe this is the first time in years the Pac-12 will make a legitimate run at the SEC for the top conference in the nation.

Elsewhere in the rankings, the Big 12 comes in as the third-best conference in the country, largely because of its depth in comparison to the Big Ten and ACC.

Many would expect the Big Ten to slide in the rankings after the news of Braxton Miller's injury. The conference actually did not take too big of a hit because Ohio State remained in the top 15 in FPI even when accounting for its new starting quarterback.

However, the component of these rankings that measures the AP Poll remained unchanged. To give an idea of what a drop in the AP Poll would mean: if Ohio State falls to 10th in the AP Poll, the Big Ten would lose an additional three points in the conference power rankings.

Among Power Five conferences, the ACC is considered the weakest by both the AP Poll and FPI. That means if the top four conferences place a team in the playoff, it would leave the ACC on the outside looking in. Yet, there is a lot more that goes into those decisions, including the fact that the ACC has the clear No. 1 team in the country. Florida State received 57 of 60 first place votes in the AP Poll and has by far the best chance (39 percent) to finish the season undefeated according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

However, what if Florida State loses a conference game? Does the relative strength of the ACC come into play? Similarly, what if Marshall from Conference USA or Houston from the American Athletic Conference finish the season undefeated? Does the fact that they played in weaker conferences exclude them from the playoff?

All of these questions could arise throughout the season. Stay tuned after an exciting Week 1 of non-conference matchups that could significantly impact the conference power rankings going forward.

Video: Rice 41, Marshall 21

December, 7, 2013
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Charles Ross rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns to lead Rice past Marshall 41-21 in the Conference USA championship game, ending a 56-year conference title drought.

Does Ohio State have argument for No. 2?

November, 25, 2013
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After Baylor lost to Oklahoma State on Saturday, the number of undefeated teams from BCS AQ conferences is down to three with Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State all vying for a spot in the BCS National Championship.

It appears that the No. 2 spot is Florida State’s to lose, but does Ohio State have an argument to be included in the title game based on conference and schedule strength?

Florida State vs Ohio State

According to ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings – a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and Football Power Index (FPI) - the Big Ten has the advantage over the ACC.

Five teams from the Big Ten received votes in the AP Poll, including three teams ranked in the top 15. In comparison, three teams from the ACC received votes and only two are ranked in the top 15.

However, Ohio State has only played one of those Big Ten teams and it was at home. The highest ranked team that the Buckeyes beat on the road, according to FPI, was Northwestern (64th in FPI).

Florida State, on the other hand, won at No. 3 Clemson and is 3-0 on the road against teams ranked in the top half of the FPI. As a result, despite playing in a conference ranked ahead of the ACC, the Buckeyes have played an easier schedule that Florida State, according to ESPN’s SOS rankings.

Looking deeper into the numbers, Florida State has had a higher average in-game win probability than Ohio State, meaning it has been more dominant in its wins. The Seminoles lead the nation in FPI, a forecast of team strength, and are predicted to be 10.2 points better than Ohio State on a neutral field.

The good news is that there is only a 29 percent chance that Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State will all remain undefeated entering bowl season, according to ESPN Stats & Info’s projections. So, the argument of team and conference strength may be settled on the field.

Rivalry Week

After nine straight weeks of primarily conference games, next week features its share of notable out-of-conference matchups.

The ACC has three notable non-conference games against SEC opponents on Saturday as Florida State heads to Florida (12 ET, ESPN), Georgia Tech hosts Georgia (3:30 ET, ABC) and Clemson takes on South Carolina (7 ET, ESPN2). According to FPI, the ACC should be favored in all three of those games. If the ACC can go 3-0 against the SEC, it will get a boost in the Conference Power Rankings next week.

Elsewhere, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri have must-win games that will impact the SEC and National Championship races. Ohio State should be tested at Michigan and Stanford will face a tough test against Notre Dame, which could also shake up the conference rankings next week.

Power rankings: Fresno State has BCS edge

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
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The BCS Selection Process is clear:

The champion of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference or the Sun Belt Conference (the "non-AQ group") will earn an automatic berth in a BCS bowl game if either:

A. Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS Standings, or
B. Such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final BCS Standings and its ranking in the final BCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the BCS bowls.

However, no more than one such team from the non-AQ group will earn an automatic berth in any year, unless non-AQ teams finish both No. 1 and No. 2 in the final BCS Standings. If two or more teams from those conferences satisfy the provisions for an automatic berth, then the team with the highest finish in the final BCS Standings will receive the automatic berth.


This season, No. 15 Fresno State of the Mountain West Conference and No. 16 Northern Illinois of the Mid-American Conference are in prime positions to earn an automatic berth to a BCS Bowl game. Both teams rank in the top 16 of the BCS Standings and are ranked higher than No. 18 UCF, the highest-ranked team in the American Athletic Conference.

Only one non-AQ team will earn an automatic berth, so when evaluating the résumés of these two schools, conference strength is an important factor.

ESPN Stats & Information’s Conference Power Rankings can provide an objective measure of conference depth. According to these rankings, the Mountain West Conference is the strongest non-AQ conference from top to bottom.

The Mountain West has seven teams (out of 12) that are .500 or better, and is 18-8 against non-AQ opponents (including independent and FCS). Unlike other non-AQ conferences, the Mountain West does not have many weak teams.

The lowest ranked team in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) from the Mountain Conference is No. 106 Air Force. In comparison the MAC and Conference USA each has at least six teams ranked below 106 in the FPI.

However, when looking at the top teams of each conference, the MAC has the most teams (5) and highest percentage of team (38 percent) with at least seven wins. Northern Illinois, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo and Toledo are all bowl eligible and have at least seven wins.

When comparing Fresno State and Northern Illinois, voters will have to account for the strength of each team’s conference, their out-of-conference schedules and their dominance in their wins. Using ESPN’s new ratings systems, one can see that Northern Illinois has played a tougher schedule, but Fresno State has been more dominant in its games. It is up to the voters to decide which conference they believe is stronger and how much that affects their thinking.

This week, the MAC will be on display on Tuesday and Wednesday with three games on the ESPN family of networks -- Buffalo heads to Miami (OH) on Tuesday (8 ET, ESPNU), Kent State travels to Ohio on Tuesday (8 ET, ESPN2) and Northern Illinois will look to remain unbeaten at Toledo on Wednesday (8 ET, ESPN2). On Thursday and Friday, the Mountain West and Conference USA will have their time in the spotlight as Rice, UAB, UNLV, Air Force and San Jose State are all in action.

FPI favors Pac-12, ACC in power rankings

November, 11, 2013
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The SEC continues to lead ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings by a wide margin after an exciting slate of games in Week 11.

As noted in previous posts, the Conference Power Rankings are a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP Poll and ESPN’s new Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country.

The idea is that the AP Poll measures a team’s résumé and perception, and the FPI measures a team’s relative strength in order to predict future success. In other words, the AP Poll answers the question, “If there were a playoff, who would deserve to play in it?” and the FPI answers, “If there were a playoff, who would win on a neutral field?”.

How do these compare in terms of conference strength?

The SEC has seven teams ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll, including four teams ranked in the AP top 10. No other conference has more than four total teams ranked in the AP top 25.

In comparison, the Pac-12 leads all conferences with seven teams in the top 25 of the FPI. The SEC is second with six teams, but only one of those teams – Alabama – ranks in the top 8. The Pac-12 has four teams in the top 8.

It is important to note that the SEC has two more teams than the Pac-12, which makes the Pac-12’s lead in the FPI even more impressive.

This is not an indictment of the SEC; the conference had the most teams ranked in the FPI top 25 last season. However, this season, the SEC does not have as many elite teams as in past years. According to FPI, the majority of their teams rank in the 20 to 40 range.

The Pac-12 actually has the most depth at the top of its conference. When Stanford loses to a team like Utah, who has played the hardest schedule thus far according to ESPN strength of schedule rankings, it may not be as much of an upset as many would expect.

FPI also favors the ACC more than the polls. Florida State is the top team in the FPI, and Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Duke also rank in the top 25.

In the annual ACC vs. SEC matchups at the end of the season, FPI projections favor Florida State over Florida, Georgia Tech over Georgia and Clemson over South Carolina.

So, while the SEC is getting all the accolades in the polls, future performance may be on the side of their rival conferences. The good news is that this debate will be settled on the field. Keep an eye on the FPI as bowls approach in order to determine the relative strength of teams and conferences.

For more on FPI, click here.

Big 12 rises in conference power rankings

October, 28, 2013
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A quick refresher: ESPN Stats & Information’s 2013 conference power rankings are based off of a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP poll and ESPN’s new Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. For more information on the rankings and FPI, which will be released later this season, click here or here.

The SEC took its largest lead of the season in the ESPN Stats & Information conference power rankings after five of its top six teams won on Saturday, including three wins over non-conference opponents by a combined 112 points.

The SEC is now 38-7 in out-of-conference games (.844 win percentage), which is the best nonconference win percentage of any conference.

Despite two of its top four teams losing on Saturday, the Pac-12 remains the No. 1 conference in the Football Power Index. The Pac-12 has four of the top 10 teams in the FPI, a ratings system that measures overall team efficiency.

However, the SEC has a major edge in the portion of the conference power rankings that measures the AP poll. Six of the top-15 teams in the AP Poll reside in the SEC, three more than in any other conference.

Elsewhere in the rankings, the Big 12 jumped ahead of the ACC for third place this week. Four of the Big 12’s ten teams have one or fewer losses, most of any conference. Baylor and Texas are both unbeaten in conference play, which could result in a de facto Big 12 championship game in the final week of the season.

The top teams in the ACC Coastal division had a rough Saturday. No. 7 Miami needed a last-second touchdown in its win against Wake Forest, then-No. 14 Virginia Tech committed four turnovers and was held scoreless for the first 44:49 in its loss to Duke and Pittsburgh was outscored 17-8 in the fourth quarter in its loss to Navy. These struggles were reflected in the ACC’s rating in the conference power rankings.

Fresno State survived a 35-28 overtime thriller against San Diego State to remain unbeaten. The Bulldogs are carrying the Mountain West Conference in the rankings and have a chance to earn an automatic BCS bowl bid if they remain unbeaten. Similarly, the MAC’s eighth place spot in the rankings is a result of strong starts by Northern Illinois (8-0) and Ball State (8-1).

Next week there are only three matchups between ranked opponents, so look for upsets to have a major impact on rankings.

SEC remains on top after wild Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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Two weeks ago, ESPN Stats & Information released its 2013 conference power rankings, a formula that equally weighs the rankings from the AP poll and ESPN’s new Football Power Index (FPI) in order to determine the best and worst conferences in the country. For more information on the rankings and FPI, which will be released later this season, click here or here.

Week 8 was characterized by chaos and upsets; No. 3 Clemson, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 8 Louisville, No. 9 UCLA, No. 11 South Carolina and No. 15 Georgia all lost this week.

Overall, nine ranked teams were defeated, including five teams from the SEC, two teams from the Pac-12, one team from the ACC and the top team from the American Athletic Conference.

How has this wild week impacted the ESPN Stats & Info’s Conference Power Rankings?

The SEC did not fall as far as many would have expected because its losses came against fellow SEC opponents. Many of the points lost in the computer rankings (FPI) and in the AP Poll were picked up by their opponents.

For example, Missouri rose nine spots and gained 448 points in the AP Poll after its victory over Florida. Similarly, Auburn jumped 13 spots and gained 711 points in the AP Poll after beating Texas A&M on Saturday. In these cases, the Gators and Aggies did not lose as many AP points as their opponents gained.

Nonetheless, the SEC lost 2.9 points in the Conference Power Rankings after its top teams went down. The SEC had five teams fall at least seven spots in the AP Poll, and many of those spots were filled by other conferences, specifically the Big 12.

The Big 12 gained 14.8 points in the power rankings after its top four teams -- Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State -- all rose in the polls. As a result, the Big 12 jumped to second in the portion of the power rankings that measures the AP Poll.

Similarly, the Pac-12 moved from second to first in the computer portion of the conference power rankings (FPI). The Football Power Index (FPI) is one of ESPN’s new storytelling metrics that measures the relative strength of a team in terms of scoreboard points on roughly a -30 to +30 scale with 0 being average. The average Pac-12 team has an FPI rating of 14.6, meaning they are 14.6 points better than an average FBS team on a neutral field. In comparison, the SEC’s average FPI rating is 12.8.

Finally, the American Athletic Conference had the largest fall in the Conference Power Rankings after Louisville lost to UCF on Friday. Louisville was carrying the AAC in the polls and the computers after the conference went a combined 19-20 in its out of conference games. With the Cardinals’ loss, and their subsequent fall in the polls, there is a good chance that a non-AQ team will finish ahead of the American Athletic Conference champion in the BCS standings. If that team is also ranked in the top 16, it will be granted an automatic BCS Bowl berth.

If the last two weeks are any indication of what is to come, look for more chaos and upsets this upcoming weekend. Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Miami (FL) will look to avoid losses to unranked opponents at home. UCLA, Stanford, South Carolina and Texas Tech will all go on the road looking to take down a fellow ranked opponent.

Video: Former Marine eligible to play

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Mark Schlabach discusses the NCAA's decision allowing former Marine Steven Rhodes to play football for Middle Tennessee State this season. Click here to read the full story.

Ex-Marine hoping NCAA reconsiders

August, 18, 2013
8/18/13
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Under NCAA rules, student-athletes who fail multiple drug tests administered by their schools can still play college football.

Players who have been convicted of crimes like DUI, assault and statutory rape will suit up for their respective teams this coming season.

But a 24-year-old former U.S. Marine, who happened to play in a recreational football league during his active enlistment?

He's ineligible to play this coming season.

It's a wrong that the NCAA must right immediately.

Click here to read the rest of Mark Schlabach's story.

Tulsa season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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This year Tulsa has decided to introduce a dog ambassador for games and among the most important of Goldie the golden retriever’s tasks will be actually retrieving the kickoff tee after kickoffs -- reason enough to tune in for at least one game.

TULSA GOLDEN HURRICANE

Coach: Bill Blankenship (19-8, 19-8 at Tulsa)

2012 record: 11-3 (7-1 Conference USA)

Key losses: LB DeAundre Brown, C Trent Dupy, OG Brian DeShane, OT Jared Grigg, and the entire defensive line -- DE Jared St. John, DT Daeshon Bufford, DT Derrick Jackson and DE Cory Dorris

[+] EnlargeCody Green
AP Photo/John F. RhodesCody Green is one of the few returning starters that will have to lead a young Tulsa team.
Key returnees: QB Cody Green, WR Keyarris Garrett, WR Jordan James, RB Trey Watts, DB Marco Nelson, LB Shawn Harris

Newcomer to watch: CB Will Barrow. Tulsa lost three top guys in its secondary (including both corners) and Barrow comes in as the Golden Hurricane’s top defensive back in the 2013 class. This one-time Texas Tech commit has great instincts for the ball and is a player who could step in and contribute immediately.

Biggest games in 2013: at Oklahoma (Sept. 14), vs. Rice (Oct. 5), at East Carolina (Nov. 9), vs. Marshall (Nov. 16)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Tulsa get the same kind of defensive pressure while attempting a wholesale change of its D-line? Last season, the Golden Hurricane defensive line could regularly get to opposing quarterbacks without needing to blitz. This freed up its linebackers and secondary to make plays, specifically Brown, who accounted for 125 tackles during his senior campaign.

The starting D-line accounted for 144 tackles (including 41.5 for losses), 26 sacks and four forced fumbles. But with those four players gone, the chances that the D-line can build that kind of chemistry and accomplish the same amount for the defense just seems farfetched.

Forecast: A lot of production -- both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball -- are gone and fresh faces will be replacing those. And with the number of replacements that Blankenship needs to make, it seems doubtful that this year’s Golden Hurricanes will be the same as last season.

The defense, which ranked in the top 25 nationally in several categories -- tackles for a loss (fifth), red zone defense (fifth), sacks (third), total defense (25th), rushing defense (16th) -- just won’t be the same.

Even with that kind of changeover, though, another run at the Conference USA title isn’t out of the question completely for the Golden Hurricane.

Green returns for his senior season. In 2012 he threw for 17 touchdowns and more than 2,500 yards. Like much of the team, his receivers will be new but the run game (which actually does return some experience) will open up the passing game for Tulsa.

And Green isn’t the only bright spot -- their kickoff return game could be freakishly good. Tulsa finished the season last year as the third best return team in the nation with an average of 27 yards per return. Place kicker Daniel Schwarz also returns. He was 12-of-18 on field goals last season and 52-of-59 on extra points made. Another year of practice and maturity should help both of those numbers go up.

So while there are several question marks surrounding this transitioning team, it’s not all bad news. In its final year in Conference USA, Tulsa could definitely make a run for the title. Or they could end up being nowhere close. That’s the joy of a young team and Blankenship gets to try and make it work.
1. Nick Montana, the son of NFL legendary quarterback Joe Montana, appears to have found a home at Tulane. Nick started out at Washington and, not content with sitting behind Keith Price, transferred to Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College last season. In two Green Wave scrimmages last week, Montana completed 11 of 15 passes for 132 yards. The three other players competing with Montana for the Tulane starting job -- a redshirt freshman, a true freshman and a walk-on -- have never played college football.

2. In the days before air-conditioning, cooling off in the Deep South usually included an ice cold watermelon. It has been a tradition at Georgia, dating probably to the ‘70s, to mark the end of two-a-days with a watermelon cutting party. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has added another annual marking of the close of the toughest part of August. He takes the team to the Gabrielsen Natatorium, where the freshmen are expected to jump off the 10-meter board. College football without tradition wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

3. Big things have been expected of Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston ever since the Seminoles beat out Alabama, Stanford, Ohio State and LSU to sign him. It’s not just because of his athletic talent -- he pitched out of the bullpen and played outfield for Florida State last season -- but because of the good head on his shoulders. Coaches says he is a natural leader and his ego is clearly in check. I can’t wait to see him play at Pittsburgh on Labor Day night.

Video: Outside the Hashmarks

June, 12, 2013
6/12/13
10:00
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Mark Schlabach reacts to the report that the Group of Five conferences are thinking about starting their own bowl games in places like Little Rock, the Bahamas, and Dubai.

QBs the story in college football this fall

May, 20, 2013
5/20/13
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The 2013 college football season could showcase one of the best college quarterback classes ever. Here are five reasons why:

1. BEST TEAMS IN 2012 RETURN THEIR QUARTERBACKS
Each of the top six teams in last season’s final AP poll returns its leading passer. The last time that happened was entering the 1982 season. That 1982 group led to the famed 1983 NFL draft class that boasted six quarterbacks chosen in the first round -- including Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

2. BEST PASSERS ARE RETURNING
Each of the top five and 10 of the top 11 quarterbacks in terms of passing efficiency return to school. In all, seven players with a passing efficiency of at least 160 last season are coming back, more than in the previous three seasons combined.

3. DIVERSE ARRAY OF NFL TALENT
This class is expected to produce a number of NFL starting quarterbacks. Four of Todd McShay’s top 15 prospects in the 2014 draft are quarterbacks (Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Alabama’s AJ McCarron).

Yet, showing how deep this class is, Brock Huard ranks Georgia's Aaron Murray, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller ahead of either McCarron or Manziel on his quarterback draft board.

4. LITTLE QB TURNOVER IN SEC
The SEC is in prime shape to win its eighth straight national title with 11 of 14 starting quarterbacks from last season returning to school. Among the 11 are the starters of the top three teams in each division including Manziel, Murray and McCarron.

Last season, Manziel set the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards. Murray is on pace to set conference records for most career passing yards and total offense, and McCarron is the two-time BCS national champion.

5. AWARD WINNERS BACK ON CAMPUS
The SEC isn’t the only conference returning elite quarterbacks. The Big Ten, Mountain West and MAC each return their first- and second-team quarterbacks from last season. So would Conference USA and the WAC if realignment hadn’t altered those conferences. The Big 12 is the only conference that doesn’t return either its first- or second-team quarterback.

Among the returnees, Boyd could challenge the ACC record for total offense in a career, Troy’s Corey Robinson is on pace to shatter the Sun Belt’s career record for total offense, and Jordan Lynch returns after leading Northern Illinois to its first ever BCS bowl game last season.

In a day dominated by backup quarterbacks, Rice took down Air Force 33-14 in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl thanks to 26 unanswered points in the second half. It was Rice's first bowl appearance since the Owls beat Western Michigan 38-14 in the 2008 Texas Bowl.

It was over when: Rice junior safety Paul Porras intercepted Air Force quarterback Kale Pearson's pass at the Falcons' 36-yard line with Rice leading 27-14 with 3:52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Rice scored four plays later to make it 33-14.

Game ball goes to: Rice backup quarterback Driphus Jackson took over for starter Taylor McHargue late in the first half after McHargue suffered a head injury from a hit by Air Force's Steffon Batts. Jackson went on to complete 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: Air Force entered the game averaging 435.9 yards of offense per game but was outgained 503-214 Saturday. That was a season low for the Falcons. Rice also registered 24 first downs to Air Force's 12. The Falcons recorded just two first downs in the second half.

Stat of the game 2: The Falcons owned the nation's No. 2 rushing attack, averaging 328.8 yards per game, but registered only 166 yards against the Owls, which were allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game. Rice's rush defense stepped up in the second half, as the Owls allowed just 24 rushing yards in the final two quarters.

Unsung hero of the game: Jackson gave the Owls a nice spark in the second half, but he also got a lot of help from wide receiver Jordan Taylor, who caught nine passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns.

What it means for Rice: The Owls finished the season winning six of their final seven games and claimed its first bowl win since its last postseason appearance in 2008. It was only the second bowl win for Rice in the past 57 years.

What it means for Air Force: The Falcons ended the season losing four of their final five games, turning the ball over 17 times during that span. Air Force has lost two straight bowl games. For the first time since 2005, it lost to Army and Navy, lost its bowl game and had a losing season.
Here are three keys to today's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl between Rice and Air Force (11:45 a.m. ET, ESPN):

1. Keep that momentum going: Rice enters today's game on a four-game winning streak and having won five of its past six games. Remember, this was a team that started the season 1-5 and was just getting eaten up by opposing rushing attacks. From that low point, the Owls completely transformed when it came to stopping the run, allowing teams to average a measly 116.2 yards over the final six games and giving up just nine total rushing touchdowns. The Owls outscored opponents by 80 points during their final five victories and averaged 432 yards of offense during their four-game winning streak. How well that rushing defense plays will be crucial against Air Force, which ranks second nationally in rushing offense (328.8 yards per game) and has 37 rushing touchdowns on the season. If the Owls can contain that triple-option rushing attack, they'll have a good chance to get a win in their first bowl game since 2008.

2. Hold on to the ball: The Falcons might be able to run the ball down other teams' throats, but they have really struggled in the turnover department of late. During its first eight games of the season, Air Force turned the ball over just 12 times. But during the Falcons' 1-3 finish, they handed the ball to opponents 14 times. With how well Rice is playing right now, and with how efficient the Owls have been on offense, Air Force can't afford to turn the ball over and expect to win. With the way the Falcons can run the ball, and given how much Rice struggled earlier in the season to stop the run, it could be a major advantage for the Falcons if they can just keep feeding running back Cody Getz, who became the first player in school history to register three 200-yard rushing games in a single season, and have quarterback Connor Dietz make plays with his feet to keep that option attack going. Grinding it out will wear Rice down.

3. Act like you've been there before: This is Air Force's sixth consecutive bowl game, while Rice is making its first trip to the postseason since 2008. That year, the Owls throttled Western Michigan 38-14 in the Texas Bowl. For the Owls, it's all about not getting cold feet and letting the nerves take hold. They had to work extremely hard to get six wins after the 1-5 start, so it's not the time to let the bright bowl lights intimidate them. As for Air Force, the Falcons have a ton of bowl experience, but the confidence might be lacking after such a bad end to the season. This team has to realize that it has been here before. It knows how to handle the magnitude of the final game of the season. Rice hasn't been in this situation in a while, so the Falcons will have the advantage when it comes to nerves today.

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