|ESPN.com: NCF Nation||[Print without images]|
Here's what to watch for in the next batch of Big East-related bowl games, which include Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl, Monday's Papajohns.com Bowl and Wednesday's Brut Sun Bowl.
1. ACC vs. Big East bragging rights: We've debated all season which league is better, and the ACC had the upper hand during the regular season with much better out-of-conference performances. But the two showdowns coming up should tell us a lot about the two leagues' relative strengths. North Carolina and West Virginia are both 8-4 teams who finished near the top of their conference standings, while Rutgers and NC State were their leagues' hottest teams after awful starts. A split might not say much, but a sweep by either conference would be a strong statement.
2. Pat White: "The best winner in college football," as head coach Bill Stewart calls him, will play his last game for West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday. That alone is worth watching. But in this game especially, White needs to have a commanding finale. North Carolina's defense is athletic and well-schooled and will not give up too much easily. White, who hasn't committed a turnover in three previous bowl wins, will need to be sharp in the passing game and let free to run wild, too.
3. North Carolina's kickoff returns vs. West Virginia's coverage: The Tar Heels lost one of the most dangerous return men in the country when Brandon Tate went down with a knee injury. But Johnny White has been nearly as good in Tate's absence, averaging 25.7 yards per return. That's significant since West Virginia has one of the worst kickoff return defenses in the nation, ranking 117th out of 119 FBS teams. The Mountaineers are already playing on a virtual home field for the Tar Heels. They can't afford to give up short fields all day, too.
4. Where will the points come from? North Carolina's offense is not very explosive when the defense and special teams aren't helping it out. The Tar Heels scored only 15 points against Maryland and 10 versus NC State in two late losses that damaged their ACC title hopes. They've also been playing quarterback shuffle in an effort to jumpstart the dormant passing game. The most consistent force for West Virginia all season has been its defense. This could be a low-scoring game that comes down to a few key mistakes or big plays.
5. Mike Teel and Russell Wilson: The most intriguing aspect of the Papajohns.com Bowl is the quarterback play. Teel lit up the Big East over the last five weeks, throwing 20 touchdown passes in that span. Wilson, a freshman, turned NC State's season around when he got healthy, and he led the ACC in touchdown passes and passing efficiency. Whichever one has the better game probably will have his hands on the trophy at the end.
6. Turnovers: Perhaps Wilson's best attribute is his decision-making. He threw only one interception all season. Teel, on the other hand, has been prone to throwing picks much of his career. The Wolfpack defense had 17 interceptions this season, including seven in the final two games. They had a plus-12 turnover margin their final seven games, while Rutgers hasn't created a lot of takeaways all year. "Ball security has to be our No. 1 goal in this game," Teel said.
7. Kenny Britt: It may be the Rutgers receiver's final collegiate game, so get a load of this star junior while you can. Britt had 1,252 yards receiving this year and four games of at least 140 yards. He's tall, physical and fast and could well be the difference maker against a very sound NC State defense.
8. LeSean McCoy: The Brut Sun Bowl was supposed to be a matchup of the nation's top freshman tailback, Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, and the best sophomore runner, Pitt's McCoy. Rodgers almost certainly won't play, however, because of a broken bone in his left shoulder. So that leaves it to McCoy to, um, shoulder the star power burden in this game. He is the kind of player who lives for these challenges.
9. Pitt's secondary vs. the Oregon State passing game: Without Rodgers, the Beavers will have to look more to the air in this game. Quarterback Lyle Moevao threw for 374 yards and five touchdown passes -- but also two interceptions -- in the season finale against Oregon. Pitt's defensive backs have been burned at times this year by top-flight passing games. They're helped by the fact that James Rodgers -- Jacquizz's brothers and an electric receiving threat -- also won't play because of an injury. But they'll still have others to worry about, including Sammie Stroughter.
10. Pitt's offensive line: The Panthers have to do more up front than just spring gaps for McCoy. They have to give quarterback Bill Stull time to make plays downfield. Oregon State finished 10th in the FBS in sacks this season and eighth in tackles for loss. Pittsburgh's O-line has been a strength all season, even after C.J. Davis had to move from guard to center after an injury to starter Robb Houser earlier this year.