Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) vs. Syracuse Orange (6-6)
Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET, Houston (ESPN)
MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS BREAKDOWN
The Gophers were the surprise team in the Big Ten this year, as they overcame low expectations and fought through uncertainty surrounding coach Jerry Kill to clinch their first eight-win season in a decade.
Kill suffered his fifth game-day seizure on Oct. 5, took medical leave and began resuming some coaching duties a little more than three weeks later. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has taken over as needed, but the Gophers haven't missed a beat.
It's not as though this team is loaded with stars. Only one player -- DT Ra'Shede Hageman -- was a unanimous selection on the All-Big Ten team. But, week after week, the Gophers relied on a bend-but-don't-break defense (No. 17 in the nation in the red zone) and a run-heavy offense (200.9 ypg) to find a way to win.
Their bread and butter has been the run game, but the Gophers have played their best football when they have struck a balance. During their key four-game winning streak during the conference season -- against Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State -- the Gophers averaged 182.5 passing yards per game compared to 121.5 yards outside of that streak.
Minnesota is still not one of the best teams in the Big Ten, as it lost to both Wisconsin and Michigan State. But, behind quarterback Philip Nelson and tailback David Cobb, the Gophers have taken a step forward -- and are now hoping for their first bowl win since 2004. -- Josh Moyer
SYRACUSE ORANGE BREAKDOWN
The Orange not only had key personnel losses to fill when the season started, they also had a new head coach and a new conference to call home. Doubters wondered how Syracuse would get back to a bowl game given all the questions.
Well, it took nearly every second of the season, but Syracuse got the job done. The Orange became bowl eligible on the final weekend of the regular season with a 34-31 win over Boston College, securing the victory on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Terrel Hunt to Josh Parris with 6 seconds remaining. This is the first time since 1998-1999 Syracuse is going to consecutive bowl games.
It was not pretty at times. Drew Allen started the season at quarterback but threw too many interceptions and was benched after three starts. Hunt was better, but he was nowhere near elite. He didn’t throw his first touchdown pass in league play until the second-to-last game of the season. There were ugly losses to Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech, too.
But first-year coach Scott Shafer was able to keep his team together. What got his team four ACC wins was its physical play. Jerome Smith had 840 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season, and the rushing defense played inspired. In three of those wins, Syracuse held its opponents to a combined 13 points.
In addition, Jay Bromley posted nine sacks and forced three fumbles to lead the defense. The Orange ended up in a tie for third in the Atlantic Division. Certainly not a bad way to open Year 1 in the ACC.
-- Andrea Adelson