NCF Nation: 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl

There are finally two sides to this LSU story in 2012. When the Tigers ring in the new year in Atlanta against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, they'll do so with a more complete attack than they had for most of the season.

For the better part of the 2012 season, most of the talk surrounding LSU's football team had to do with its extremely aggressive defense. The offense was mentioned in more of a negative light because of the slow development of starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireAfter a slow start this season, Zach Mettenberger has invigorated LSU's passing attack.
Before the month of November, Mettenberger was averaging just 177 passing yards per game and threw seven touchdowns to four interceptions. He looked lost at times, especially when the pressure came from defenses. The skillful quarterback everyone expected to see directing the Tigers' offense was nowhere to be found. The good news for the Tigers was that the running game was still extremely stout and pushed the offense along when Mettenberger couldn't.

But after the bye week leading up to the Nov. 3 game with Alabama, Mettenberger turned into a different quarterback. After failing to go consecutive games with 200-yard passing performances, Mettenberger finished the season passing for 200-plus yards in all of LSU's final four games, including a career-high 298 in the loss to Alabama.

During that span, Mettenberger threw four touchdowns to two interceptions and completed more than 55 percent of his passes. He had failed to complete more than 48 percent of his throws in the three games prior to the Tigers' meeting with Alabama.

What this all means is that Clemson now has to worry about two solid attacks from the Bayou Bengals. This team isn't just about defense, which currently ranks eighth nationally. These Tigers have more offensive bite because of Mettenberger's improvement, and that doesn't bode well for a Clemson team that ranks 75th in total defense, giving up 411 yards per game.

Clemson has surrendered more than its current average on defense five times this season, including allowing 667 yards to Florida State and 597 to NC State. In those five games, Clemson allowed an average of 522 yards and 37 points per outing.

That's very good news for LSU -- and Mettenberger.

In nonconference games, Mettenberger completed at least half of his 15-yard passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On throws of 15 yards or more, he completed 66.7 percent of his passes in those games, averaged 18.6 yards per attempt, threw six 30-plus-yard passes, and tossed four touchdowns to zero interceptions.

Clemson's defense has allowed 13 touchdowns on passes thrown 15 yards or longer this season, tied for the sixth most among AQ schools, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Clemson's defense was eaten alive in last year's Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, and now this unit will have its hands full once again with a very balanced LSU offense. Clemson not only has to worry about LSU's top-notch defense, but it now has to worry about Mettenberger and an LSU offense that has just gotten better during the latter part of the season.
LSU will be without one of its most recognizable players when the Tigers take on Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31.

The school announced on Thursday that redshirt sophomore punter Brad Wing has been suspended for LSU's bowl game after he violated team rules. Specifics weren't given about what Wing did to earn his suspension.

The Melbourne, Australia, native has been one of the nation's best punters over the past two seasons, and averaged 44.8 yards on 59 punts for the Tigers this year. Freshman Jamie Keehn of Miners Rest, Australia, will replace Wing. Keehn has averaged 41 yards on three punts this year and has a long of 51 yards.

Wing already missed the opener this season with what coach Les Miles said was a hamstring injury.

While Wing hasn't been as dominant booting the ball this year like he was last year, he still has the ability to change a game with his leg. He has tremendous power and accuracy and has gotten the Tigers out of plenty of jams over the past two years by blasting the ball deep into opposing teams' territory. When the Tigers have needed to completely change the field position game, Wing has been there countless times.

He has a long punt of 69 yards this year, has punted 21 inside opponents' 20-yard line and has 19 punts of 50 or more yards this season.

It's unusual for kickers or punters to leave early for the NFL draft, but with Wing being draft eligible, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility that he would heavily consider leaving school early. He's more than proved what he can do when the ball touches his foot and there has been word that he's at least contemplating it.

Predictions: ACC bowls

December, 26, 2011
I finished the regular season with a picks percentage of 74.2, but I missed the one that mattered most and failed to pick the upset in the ACC championship game. That’s why they call it an upset. My grand total for the season stands at 72-26 heading into bowl season. Plenty of room for improvement, but there are a lot of tough calls and games that can go either way this bowl season. Here are your picks for the non-BCS bowls:

Advocare V100 Independence Bowl -- Missouri 31, North Carolina 28: The Tar Heels will get an inspired performance in interim coach Everett Withers’ last game, but Missouri is a better team than its five losses indicate. North Carolina will make one or two costly turnovers, and the Tar Heels’ defense won’t be able to make enough stops in the red zone.

Belk Bowl -- NC State 28, Louisville 21: Both quarterbacks will need to get better protection than they have for most of the season, and both teams have seen their defenses improve, but NC State has done a tremendous job this year of forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, and Teddy Bridgewater will find that out quickly. The difference will be NC State’s front seven on defense.

Champs Sports Bowl -- Florida State 21, Notre Dame 17: This is significantly below the 30 points both teams are averaging this year, but Florida State’s defense will again be the difference. Even if the Noles can’t get things going again offensively, Florida State’s defense and special teams are good enough to offset it against the Irish. Notre Dame is No. 116 in the country in turnover margin, and Florida State is capable not only of forcing quarterback Tommy Rees into a turnover, but also of scoring on it.

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl -- Wake Forest 24, Mississippi State 21. The Demon Deacons have too many difference-makers on both sides of the ball for the Bulldogs to overcome. It’s been a record-setting year for Price and receiver Chris Givens, and freshman cornerback Merrill Noel leads the nation with 20 passes defended. The difference will be Wake Forest’s passing game and its ability to protect the ball.

Hyundai Sun Bowl -- Georgia Tech 28, Utah 24. The Utes couldn’t handle a floundering Colorado team that had just one league win in the regular-season finale, and this will be a much more difficult challenge. Those within Georgia Tech’s program are tired of hearing about the six-game losing streak, and coach Paul Johnson is at his best when he’s got something to prove. Georgia Tech will catch Utah off-guard with several big plays, control the clock and in turn the game.

Chick-fil-A Bowl -- Virginia 24, Auburn 21: The Tigers lost both coordinators in a span of a week, and leading rusher Michael Dyer has been suspended for the bowl game for a violation of team rules. Without those three components, Virginia has an edge. Plus, Auburn is a shadow of its 2010 national championship team, while Virginia has made a dramatic turnaround this year. Statistically, Auburn has one of the worst offenses in the country, and the defense has been at the bottom of the SEC.

Upset Watch: ACC bowl edition

December, 21, 2011
The Upset Watch is back, this time in postseason form. For those of you who paid attention during the regular season, you know that this list has been the kiss of death for several teams this year. There was a seven-week stretch during the season in which every game listed at No. 1 on the upset watch came true. None of the games listed in the final week of the regular season, though, came to fruition. Virginia Tech dominated UVa once again, Clemson lost to South Carolina for a third straight time, and -- would you believe it? --Maryland blew a 27-point lead against NC State (believe it).

As we head into bowl season, here is a look at which teams have the best chance to be upset -- or in some cases, play the role of spoiler. Remember, these are NOT predictions (those are coming soon). Rather, it’s an impartial look at the most likely upsets involving the league:

Virginia vs. No. 25 Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. We’re going with the final BCS standings, but the perception also seems to be that just because Auburn is in the SEC and is still the defending national champ (oh, and also because Virginia got blown out 38-0 by rival Virginia Tech in the regular-season finale), the Tigers will win. Not so fast. Consider that Auburn lost both of its coordinators in a week’s span and its leading rusher is suspended for the game. Those are factors that can’t be ignored, and anyone who’s paid close attention to the Cavaliers this season would probably tell you they’re better than they played against the Hokies.

No. 11 Virginia Tech vs. No. 13 Michigan in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. If you’re going by the final BCS standings, a Michigan win would be considered an upset. If you’re going by public perception and the Associated Press Top 25, which has Michigan at No. 13 and Virginia Tech at No. 17, it wouldn’t be. consistently refers to the BCS standings, so we’ll stick with that. Both programs have faced their fair share of criticism for their at-large BCS bowl bids, but it seems (at least from this chair) that the Hokies have endured more. They are out to prove they deserve to play in the Sugar Bowl, but Michigan’s stingy defense coupled with the abilities of quarterback Denard Robinson will make that a difficult task.

No. 15 Clemson vs. No. 23 West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl. The Tigers should be favored to win this game, and they are the higher-ranked team, but Clemson, as you know, is a wee bit unpredictable. Which team will show up? The one that dominated Virginia Tech twice, including in the ACC championship game? Or the one that lost three of its final four regular-season games and turned the ball over too frequently? The Mountaineers, much like Clemson, have a high-powered offense with several of the nation’s top playmakers. If Clemson’s defense isn’t up to the challenge, the ACC will strike out again on the BCS stage.
The intangibles are adding up in Virginia’s favor.

Auburn has lost its offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn, who was introduced on Wednesday as Arkansas State’s new head coach.

Auburn lost its defensive coordinator, Ted Roof, who left last week to take the same position at the University of Central Florida.

Auburn lost its leading rusher, tailback Michael Dyer, who was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl game against Virginia.

At some point, these changes become an issue, but Virginia coach Mike London said Auburn’s loss of Dyer hasn’t affected the Cavaliers’ approach.

“It really doesn’t affect how we prepare,” London said. “This is a great team. They’re the defending national champs, so you better believe they have high school All-Americans and some kids that are highly recruited. You look and you see other guys that also carry the ball and when they put the ball in their hands, there’s no shortage of talent there.”

There is, however, a lack of identity for Auburn right now, and a sense of uncertainty. That’s not the case at Virginia, which couldn’t be more positive about the direction the program is heading under London. In only his second season, London won the ACC’s Coach of the Year Award, and he’s not done yet. If the Hoos beat Auburn, they will tie a school record for improvement from one season to the next. Virginia went from 3-8 in 1986 to 8-4 the following year. So far, Virginia has gone from 4-8 to 8-4.

If they can take advantage of Auburn’s personnel changes, an already good season could become great for Virginia.
ATLANTA — Distractions are nothing new to Auburn coach Gene Chizik.

During last year’s national championship run, he was smothered by the off-field monster, but still came away with the Sears Trophy.

So, it only makes sense that right before Auburn’s bowl game — the game that could generate the needed momentum for spring — Chizik and his Tigers are once again surrounded by distractions.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
John Reed/US PresswireAuburn coach Gene Chizik says he has no qualms about keeping the program's detractors at bay.
There are coaching distractions with defensive coordinator Ted Roof leaving and rumors running rampant about the future of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Things then took another disappointing step forward when star running back Michael Dyer was indefinitely suspended from the team for violating unspecified team rules.

Privately, these are probably headaches that keep Chizik tossing and turning at night, but he said he doesn’t have time to consume himself with selfish players and he certainly won’t waste his time with rumors floating around about his program.

“I don’t pay any attention to the outside chatter,“ Chizik said. “I think that’s what makes college football great that everyone has an opinion, and I appreciate it and respect it. But that’s not how I proceed with my football team. We know what’s going on within our four walls and that’s all I concentrate on.”

For now, Chizik is concentrating on not just preparing his team for Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl but he’s trying to get his defense back into shape, after taking over as defensive coordinator following Roof’s departure. Chizik has 11 years experience as a defensive coordinator, so he has the credentials, but he expects the next couple of weeks to be a challenge with him pulling double duty.

“I did it for a lot of years,” Chizik said of being a defensive coordinator. “I gotta get back on the horse and ride that horse again.”

As far as hiring someone to take over as coordinator after the bowl game, despite the rumors swirling about who’s up for the job, Chizik said he has no timetable for making a hire.

“Certainly, we’ve started the process,” he said. “Once we find the right man, the one we feel is the best fit, then we’ll hire him.”

In the meantime, Chizik’s focus is on improving a tremendously young team. A year removed from that national championship run, Auburn basically had to start over after losing just about every component to last year’s special season.

Couple a boatload of youth with a pretty tough schedule, and Chizik expected growing pains and struggles.

He got both, as the Tigers head into their bowl with a 7-5 record.

Regardless of the season he and his team have had, Chizik refuses to make excuses and he refuses to say that expectations for this team should have been tempered. In fact, he thinks fans should have expected another championship push.

“In this conference, everyone who has allegiances to their schools have high expectations. That’s not going to change and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Chizik said. “People expect to win and at Auburn right now we’re all about championships.”

Two undefeated seasons in the last eight years will create that.

“That’s the expectation that we’ve come to know and that’s the expectation that everyone has -- that Auburn wins,“ Chizik said. “At the beginning of the year, we don’t make excuses about how many guys we do have or don’t have. We continue to move forward with the program and try to lay the foundation for a long time.”

And to Chizik, that foundation looks pretty solid. This season wasn’t always easy, but Chizik saw a young group that rallied behind its youth and remained strong. There were squabbles along the way, but underneath it all, Chizik found a group of talented youngsters who he believes will get this program back on track.

“I’m extremely excited about the future and what’s going on,” he said. “We have guys that want to win and guys that just had an unbelievable amount of exposure to a lot of things in this league and a lot of experience. It’s going to be great carryover.”