NCF Nation: Bowls watch 0802

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

1. Keep the momentum going: The second round of bowl games will have a lot to live up to after the excitement the first week produced. Look for another set of games with close scores and a lot of offense.

2. Revenge is sweet: For the second consecutive week we'll have a rematch, this time between Houston and Air Force which played their first meeting in a hurricane in Dallas. With no inclement weather on the horizon, Houston's aerial offense will be looking to attack.

3. Exceeding expectations: The Independence Bowl has been declared the dog of the bowl season this year, but Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech have the ability to make it the type of close game since both teams have similar offenses and defenses.

4. End on a high note: Nevada coach Chris Ault challenged his team several weeks ago to be better than it was playing. The Wolf Pack responded and now have a chance to finish with eight wins with a win in the Humanitarian Bowl.

5. Historical careers: The record-setting careers of Rice quarterback Chase Clement and receiver Jarett Dillard will come to an end in the Houston Bowl so expect both to go out on a high note.

6. Nine more wins: Air Force exceeded expectations for the second consecutive season and are now in line for their second consecutive nine-win campaign. They'll have a tough time getting it against a Houston team that is playing about as well as any team in the country right now.

7. Run Vai run: Colin Kaepernick gets a lot of press for Nevada, but running back Vai Taua is the team's leading rusher with 118.33 and the catalyst of the nation's second-best offense. He's having a dream season considering he wasn't the starter at the beginning of the year, and he'll look to finish it of in style.

8. Just call me: There was a published story last week that FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger made some calls to get his team into a bowl, if that's true then the Owls better hold up their end of the bargain. Rusty Smith could have a career day against a porous Central Michigan secondary.

9. Live up to the hype: Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour has battled a couple injuries this year, which has limited his effectiveness. Still, he's one of the more dangerous quarterbacks in the country and he'll have a chance to put that on display in Detroit.

10. End the year in style: The non-BCS has had to carry the bowl load so far and it's time to end the year by changing opinions about the non-AQ schools. Boise State and TCU laid the groundwork on Tuesday and with several great matchups looming, the trend should continue.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Ah, bowl time. I feel like I've missed out on a lot of the early fun from a lot of great games already.

The Big 12 finally starts on Monday night when Missouri faces Northwestern in the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

We'll have Oklahoma State and Oregon Tuesday in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl in San Diego and Kansas and Minnesota in the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 31.

  • How Missouri handles the stinging disappointment of another Big 12 championship game loss: The Tigers say they are intent on finishing strong, becoming the first team to win 10 games in back-to-back seasons in school history. But they have struggled defensively at the end of the season, allowing 102 points in losses to Kansas and Oklahoma. Northwestern's offense shouldn't prove troublesome, considering the Wildcats scored at least 28 points in a game only once in their final nine games of the season. What Missouri defense will show up in its bowl game?
  • The end of an era at Missouri: Chase Daniel and Chase Coffman will end illustrious careers with the Tigers, along with offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who is off to his new job as head coach at Wyoming. Jeremy Maclin likely could be playing his final college game. This potent offensive mix has been the most productive offense in the school's recent history. Could they have one more huge outburst left in them in their final game together?
  • Better health for the Jayhawks: Key players like Kerry Meier, Jake Sharp and Todd Reesing were banged up most of the second half of the season for Kansas. After a month of rest and playing in the warm Arizona climate, will the potent Kansas trio be ready to take advantage of slumping Minnesota? The Gophers arrive with a four-game losing streak, compared to Kansas' excitement after a thrilling upset victory over Missouri in the Jayhawks' season finale.
  • Can the Jayhawks protect Reesing?: When Kansas was at its most successful offensively this season, Reesing was afforded protection and Sharp was a consistent runner. But the Wildcats often struggled to do that against the Big 12's power teams. It will be critical for Kansas redshirt freshman tackle Jeff Hatch to protect Reesing's blind size from Minnesota defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg, who led the Gophers with nine sacks.
  • Oklahoma State's defense without Tim Beckman: The Cowboys' former defensive coordinator left immediately for his new job as head coach at Toledo, leaving Mike Gundy without a coordinator for the bowl game against Oregon. First-year defensive line coach Glenn Spencer takes over Beckman's job of coaching linebackers. A game plan has been formulated with his work along with that of cornerbacks coach Jason Jones and safeties coach Joe DeForest. It could provide a big challenge against an Oregon offense that ranks fourth nationally in rushing, seventh in scoring and eighth in total offense.
  • A Holiday Bowl of points: Want to see a bowl game where the two teams combine for triple digits in points and into the thousands in yards between them? This could be your game. Oklahoma State features a talented array of offensive weapons like quarterback Zac Robinson, wide receiver Dez Bryant, running back Kendall Hunter and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Oregon will counter with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, running backs Jeremiah Johnson and LeGarrette Blount and tight end Ed Dickson. Considering that both teams have scored at least 40 points six times apiece this season, brace for a shootout in San Diego. Who needs a San Diego delicacy like fish tacos when you can gorge yourself on a delicacy like this?

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

A few things to watch as the first SEC teams kick off their portion of the bowl season on New Year's Eve. Vanderbilt takes on Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl (ESPN, 3:30 p.m. ET), and LSU faces Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET):

1. Angry or apathetic?: LSU coach Les Miles has talked a lot about how the Tigers are ready to come out and fight in this bowl game, how they're primed and ready to put a bow on an otherwise disappointing season. Honestly, it's been a while since we've seen that version of the Tigers. The defending national champions enter the matchup with Georgia Tech having lost three of their last four games. If they're genuinely ready to get it on, this has a chance to be one of the more interesting bowl games. If they're ready to get it over with, the Yellow Jackets and everybody else in the Georgia Dome may be asking what the rushing record is by the start of the second half. Remember, the last time the Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense faced an SEC defense, they rolled up 409 rushing yards against Georgia to end the regular season.

2. Defensive distractions: The LSU defense didn't play very well this season when there were no distractions. But the Tigers go into this game knowing one co-defensive coordinator, Bradley Dale Peveto, is headed to Northwestern State, where he's been named the head coach, while the other co-defensive coordinator, Doug Mallory, is headed to New Mexico to be the Lobos' defensive coordinator. It's called finding other employment before you're demoted or fired, and both of the Tigers' embattled co-defensive coordinators did just that. Now that they're on their way out and everybody knows so, let's see how an LSU defense that gave up 30 or more points in its last three games responds.

3. Proving ground for Eagles: Talk about a battle of bowl neophytes vs. bowl veterans. Boston College will be gunning for its ninth straight bowl victory, the longest such streak in the country. This is the Eagles' 10th straight bowl appearance. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is making its first bowl appearance in 26 years. Nothing against the Music City Bowl, but you know the Eagles had hoped for more this year, losing for the second straight year in the ACC Championship Game. They've just missed on some chances to land BCS berths in recent years and are annually passed over by other bowls because their fans don't typically travel well. Will they be determined to prove they deserve better, or will they be bummed to even be in the Music City in the first place?

4. Quarterback carousel: Who won't line up at quarterback for the Commodores? Senior Chris Nickson will likely get the start, but he's been wildly inconsistent this season. In his defense, he hasn't been the same since hurting his throwing shoulder, the same injury that plagued him all of last season. Junior Mackenzi Adams was strong in relief several times this season and took over the starting duties toward the end of the season, but he went down with injuries to his knee and chest. Redshirt freshman Larry Smith showed enough promise in the regular-season finale against Wake Forest that Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has said that Smith will figure into the mix in the bowl game. Smith's reps during the pre-Christmas practices went up considerably. Boston College has its own issues at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Dominique Davis will be making just his third career start after taking over for injured fifth-year senior Chris Crane. Davis threw a pair of interceptions in the ACC Championship Game loss to Virginia Tech.

5. Points at a premium: The first team to 20 is probably going to win this one. Boston College is sixth nationally in total defense, so few teams have taken the ball and driven it down the Eagles' throats. The Commodores haven't driven it down anybody's throat in a long time. They had a terrible time scoring points after starting out 5-0 this season. In fact, they were held to 14 or fewer points in seven of their last eight games. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, Vanderbilt is also shorthanded at running back. Jamie Graham, a receiver and return specialist this season, could see most of his time in the backfield depending on how much Jared Hawkins is able to play. There's also All-America cornerback D.J. Moore, who's proven he can make plays wherever the Commodores put him.

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Ten things to consider, underline or anticipate from the upcoming Emerald, Holiday and Sun Bowls.

California will do its Best against Miami's run defense: As the intrepid Heather Dinich pointed out, Miami's run defense, solid much of the year, went belly-up at season's end, surrendering an average of 345.5 yards over the final two games, which, not surprisingly, were defeats. California, the Hurricanes' Emerald Bowl foe, averaged 184 yards rushing per game, and speedy running back Jahvid Best might be the most explosive running back in the nation. He busted up Washington for 311 yards -- in just 3 1/2 quarters -- in the season finale and is capable of going yard every time he touches the ball.

Which D takes a Holiday? Culturally, Oregon and Oklahoma State couldn't be much more different. It will be amusing to see the fans mixing in San Diego's Gaslamp District before the Holiday Bowl. But, statistically, the teams are very similar. Both have top-eight offenses: Oregon ranks seventh in points per game (41.92) and eighth in yards per game (478.17). OSU ranks eighth in points per game (41.58) and seventh in yards (489.25). The defensive numbers also are nearly identical -- mediocre. The scoreboard figures to be churning in this one -- only Ball State-Tulsa has a higher over-under -- but at some point the winner will get one or two more big plays from its defense.

Who steps up for the Rodgers Brothers? With playmakers James and Jacquizz Rodgers out of the Sun Bowl with shoulder injuries, Oregon State will face a good Pittsburgh defense without 50 percent of its offense. That means other guys are going to have to step up. Big time. First, 236-pound running back Ryan McCants, who looked like budding star in the preseason before the Jacquizz Juggernaut began, will shoulder the rushing load with Jeremy Francis and keep the running threat alive. Second, receivers Sammie Stroughter and Shane Morales and quarterback Lyle Moevao will have to make plays downfield to keep the Panthers from ganging up against the run.

The Bears need to pressure the true frosh QB: Miami will start true freshman quarterback Jacory Harris in the Emerald Bowl because starter Robert Marve was suspended for missing classes. That sounds worse than it is. Harris has been a better quarterback than Marve much of the year. Harris finished the regular season with 10 touchdown passes, one more than Marve, completed a higher percentage of his passes (60.8 vs. 54.5) and threw interceptions at a better rate than Marve. But three of Harris' six picks came in the final two games. Cal, meanwhile, finished third in the nation with 23 interceptions while recording 33 sacks. The Bears could make things easy on themselves by rattling a young quarterback and forcing the Hurricanes to make mistakes.

D-Boyz vs. Zac & Dez: If there is a difference between Oregon and Oklahoma State, it's that the Cowboys are a better passing team -- 233 yards per game vs. 200 -- with All-American receiver Dez Bryant and solid quarterback Zac Robinson. In the preseason, the Ducks secondary was widely touted as among the best in the nation -- the unit even gave itself a nickname, "D-Boyz". But results weren't terribly good. The Ducks yielded 24 touchdown passes -- tied with Washington for most in the Pac-10 -- and allowed opposing offenses to complete 58 percent of their passes. The Ducks also only grabbed 14 interceptions. While All-American end Nick Reed led the conference's best pass rush -- 38 sacks -- the D-Boyz need to prove their "D" doesn't stand for debilitated, decrepit or delicate.

Stop LeSean, who's the real McCoy: Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy might be the best running back in the nation. He rushed for 1,403 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging nearly five years per carry. He's he engine of the Pitt offense. Oregon State had a highly ranked run defense until Oregon rushed for 385 yards in the Beavers Civil War bloodbath. If the Oregon State defense doesn't regain its run-stuffing form, it could be a long day for the Beavers.

How tasty is homecooking? Miami is crossing the country to play in the Emerald Bowl. California is crossing a bridge. The Hurricanes are 3,500 miles from home. The Bears are sleeping in their own beds. The crowd at AT&T Park figures to be hugely pro-Cal. How much will all this work in the Bears favor? Or will the Hurricanes, who've been known to enjoy wearing black hats, be inspired by playing the incorrigible house guests?

Cowboys may want to Duck: Folks have been talking about fancypants offenses in the Big 12 this season, but that's mostly inspired smirks on the West Coast, where if your offense is simple -- you know, like the Big 12 almost every previous season -- you can't survive. Now, Oregon's offense? It just plays at a higher level because coordinator Chip Kelly is smarter than nearly every defensive coordinator. The only team that stopped the Ducks rushing attack was USC. The Cowboys aren't USC. In fact, not a single player on their defense would start for USC. And they've not seen a team that combines scheme, speed and physical play like the Ducks. Oklahoma State needs Oregon to make mistakes because that's the only way it will slow down the Ducks.

Are the Beavers still pining for Roses? Oregon State coach Mike Riley is great at preparing his team for the post-season, see a 4-0 record in bowl games. But his Beavers were sniffing roses most of the season, and the Sun Bowl is a bit of a let down. Big time. Toss in the dispiriting defeat in the Civil War and the absence of the Rodgers brothers, and there are plenty of reasons for the Beavers to be down. Or, perhaps, highly motivated to prove themselves anew.

Will the Pac-10 vindicate itself? Win or lose the Rose Bowl, USC doesn't need to prove anything. Every college football fan with a brain knows what USC is: The nation's best program. But when folks criticize the Pac-10, they mostly take shots at USC's competition, and the Pac-10 struggled this year against perhaps the toughest nonconference schedule in college football history -- 2-8 in games vs. the top-18 of the final BCS standings. But the conference already posted a decisive win over a ranked team to open the bowl season -- Arizona whipping BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl -- and three more ranked teams remain ahead. Only Oregon is an underdog -- by three points -- and a 5-0 or 4-1 bowl r
ecord is not inconceivable. Such a tally could slam a glass of shutup down the throats of the Pac-10's critics.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

After a lengthy hiatus, What to Watch is back as we take a look at the first three Big Ten bowl games.

  • Champs Sports -- Wisconsin vs. Florida State, Dec. 27
  • Valero Alamo -- Northwestern vs. Missouri, Dec. 29
  • Insight -- Minnesota vs. Kansas, Dec. 31

Here are some things to keep an eye on as you watch the games (in order).

1. Wisconsin's power run game -- The Champs Sports Bowl will feature strength vs. speed, and Wisconsin needs to overpower a swift Florida State defense with 473 pounds of running back. P.J. Hill and John Clay form a bruising rushing tandem, and Wisconsin will have to control the clock and wear down the Seminoles. The Hill-Clay attack seemed to surge in the final five games.

2. Wisconsin linebacker Culmer St. Jean -- He appeared in every game this fall and racked up 16 tackles, but the Badgers sophomore linebacker takes on a much bigger role against the 'Noles. St. Jean will start at middle linebacker as Jaevery McFadden moves to the weak side to replace the injured Jonathan Casillas. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said St. Jean has been peaking in practice heading into the bowl.

3. Wisconsin wide receiver David Gilreath -- The sophomore could be an X-factor in this game. He took on a bigger role in the rushing attack late in the season, but Wisconsin has to find better ways to use his speed. It's baffling that Wisconsin ranks last nationally in kickoff returns despite having Gilreath as the return man. If offensive coordinator Paul Chryst finds creative ways to use Gilreath, Wisconsin could surprise Florida State.

4. The Badgers' offensive line -- Sure, they're big, and at times they've played well as a unit, but few things have gone according to plan for the Wisconsin offense this season. The next task is a daunting one -- finding a way to block Florida State defensive end Everette Brown. Sophomore left tackle Gabe Carimi receives the undesirable task of trying to keep Brown from digesting quarterback Dustin Sherer.

5. C.J. Bacher and Northwestern's passing attack -- Northwestern was able to win nine games without summoning superhuman performances from Bacher, who delivered a couple of them last season. But to get win No. 10, Bacher will need to be at his best. Missouri's high-powered offense probably can't be held down for 60 minutes, but the Tigers' pass defense is miserable. Bacher can put up big numbers with a veteran receiving corps, but he must avoid interceptions, his bugaboo, and make more plays in the red zone.

6. Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton -- There's some talk that Northwestern's all-conference end could enter the NFL draft after a stellar junior season. He can showcase his ability on a national stage against Chase Daniel and Missouri. Northwestern will have to generate a strong pass rush against Daniel, and Wootton leads a defense that led the Big Ten in sacks (33) this fall.

7. Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton -- Northwestern likely will get its best all-around player back for the Alamo Bowl, but how he responds from left wrist surgery is a big question. Sutton, who typically carries the ball in his right arm, will wear a cast for the game and expects to be fine. The Wildcats struggled to generate a consistent run game without him and need one to control the clock against Missouri.

8. Minnesota's offensive line -- Head coach Tim Brewster acknowledged his team got beat up down the stretch, and no unit suffered more than the offensive line. Brewster brought in veteran line coach Tim Davis after the regular season, and it will be interesting to see what impact Davis has on a young group. The Gophers need to reduce the pressure on quarterback Adam Weber and find a way to run the ball against Kansas.

9. Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker -- The first-team All-Big Ten selection underwent left knee surgery after the regular season but is expected to be fine for the Insight Bowl. Minnesota seemed to lose its consistency on offense after Decker sprained his ankle Nov. 1, and Weber undoubtedly will be thrilled to have his top target healthy again. If Weber and Deck regain their rhythm and keep Todd Reesing and the Kansas offense off the field, Minnesota should have a shot in this one.

10. Gophers secondary and forcing turnovers -- Minnesota built its 7-1 start on amazingly opportunistic defense, particularly from the secondary. The Gophers' four starting defensive backs -- Traye Simmons, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Sherels and Kyle Theret -- have combined for 10 interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The group also owns a whopping 47 pass deflections. Minnesota's secondary has to force mistakes from Reesing, who has thrown 12 interceptions this season.

What to watch in the ACC bowls

December, 24, 2008
12/24/08
10:42
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Here are a few things to watch in the pre-New Year's Day ACC bowls:

1. The ACC's win-loss record. With seven of the 10 games being played between Dec. 27-Dec. 31, this is the conference's chance to make a statement and show how far it has come since last year's two-win postseason. So far, so good, as Wake Forest got the ACC off to a 1-0 start.

2. North Carolina's defense against Pat White. The Tar Heels couldn't beat Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and White is even more dangerous. In addition to his 135.64 pass efficiency rating, White has also accounted for 83.5 rushing yards per game.

3. Wisconsin's time of possession. The Badgers best chance of winning this game is by running the ball repeatedly, wearing out FSU's defense and controlling the clock. It's what they've done all season, as Wisconsin is No. 22 in the nation in time of possession with 31:22. If the Seminoles can contain P.J. Hill, they should come out on top.

4. Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. He won when starter Robert Marve was suspended in the season opener and will have to do it again, as Marve is suspended for the Emerald Bowl. Harris has proven before he can win games, as he came off the bench and accounted for five touchdowns against Duke. But he has also looked cold and uncomfortable at times in the formula Randy Shannon has used him in. He has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1001 yards, six interceptions and 10 touchdowns.

5. Miami's run defense. The Hurricanes will need to play better than they did against NC State, when they allowed 219 yards on the ground. Cal running back Jahvid Best finished the regular season with 1,394 rushing yards and will be playing about six miles from his campus.

6. NC State quarterback Russell Wilson vs. Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel. Both have led their teams to impressive late-season rallies, and one will be the difference in this game. Wilson has a 134.28 passer rating and has thrown just one interception this season. Teel is 16th in the nation in passing efficiency at 148.53.

7. Georgia Tech's rushing offense vs. LSU's rushing defense. This is the key statistical matchup in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Yellow Jackets rank third in the nation with 282.3 rushing yards per game, and LSU is No. 17 in the nation in rushing defense, with 105.7 yards per game and just 3.3 yards per carry.

8. Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis. He's trying to rebound from a subpar performance in the ACC championship game and has been working hard to improve his pocket presence. He'll face a tough Vanderbilt defense.

9. BC's non-offensive touchdown streak. The Eagles are tied for first in the country with eight non-offensive touchdowns, and have scored on either defense or special teams in seven straight games, the longest streak in the nation. Can they keep it going until the end?

10. UNC's record-setting receiver, Hakeem Nicks. Nicks needs one more touchdown to set the school record with 10. One more would also equal the career record of 19. He also needs five more receptions to break the UNC career record of 177, and is just 58 yards shy of moving into 12th place on the ACC's career receiving list.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

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.

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