NCF Nation: Papajohns.com Bowl first take
Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Connecticut take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: The reason why UConn is going bowling is because of its late-season offensive improvement.
The Huskies are known mostly for their running game, and backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards this season. More than that, though, the passing game finally started to develop late in the year with quarterback Zach Frazer at the helm. UConn scored 45 points against Cincinnati, 33 at Notre Dame, 56 against Syracuse and 29 in the snow against South Florida on Saturday, engineering a winning field goal drive with less than a minute to play.
Just how far has the Connecticut offense come? Playing South Carolina should provide a good measuring stick.
The Gamecocks had one of the SEC's toughest defenses this season, allowing just 20 points per game. They held Alabama to that number and Florida to 24.
It's funny, because South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is a legendary offensive guru, while UConn's Randy Edsall built his reputation on defense. But now Spurrier is relying on his defense, while Edsall is hoping to outscore people while covering up holes on the other side of the ball.
The Huskies are one of the best stories of the bowl season, having overcome the death of Jasper Howard in October to rally together and make the postseason. They should get the bulk of the support from the nonpartisan fans sitting in the Birmingham stands and watching this game on TV.
South Carolina take by SEC blogger Chris Low:South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said the Gamecocks weren’t picky, that they’d go play wherever they were told to go. As it turns out, they were the last team picked in the SEC’s bowl pecking order and will square off against Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.
The game will be played at Legion Field, where Spurrier won his first SEC championship game while coaching at Florida in 1993. Some 16 years later, he hopes to cap South Carolina’s season with a win for only the second time in his five years as the Gamecocks’ coach.
At one point this season, it looked like the Gamecocks might be teetering after one-sided losses at Tennessee and Arkansas. But they regrouped and lost to Florida in a game that went down to the fourth quarter, and after a bye week, whipped Clemson in the regular-season finale in their most complete effort of the season.
There’s a lot of young talent on this team, led by freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore, freshman receiver Alshon Jeffery, redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Taylor and sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia.
The Gamecocks could be one of the teams to watch next season in the Eastern Division. Getting to eight wins and playing well in Birmingham would be a good way to go into the offseason.
Dec. 29, 3 p.m., ESPN
NC State take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Both of these teams made their turnarounds in the second half of the season. This is not the same Rutgers team that UNC beat in Piscataway on Sept. 11. This version of quarterback Mike Teel is much better. After losing five of their first six games, the Scarlet Knights finished the season on a six-game win streak. Rutgers is No. 2 in the Big East in total offense, and Teel has 3,099 yards and 23 touchdowns. NC State was plagued by injuries this season, but reeled off four straight wins to sneak into a bowl game.
The difference for the Wolfpack was also at quarterback, where Russell Wilson's mobility has caused opposing defenses headaches. He enters the postseason on a school-record streak of 226 passes without an interception, the longest in the nation. He has thrown 16 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past eight starts. Andre Brown and Jamelle Eugene have helped by getting the ground game going, and the defense has improved significantly in recent weeks.
Rutgers take by Big East blogger Brian Bennett: The two teams' records make this look like an unappealing game. But look again.
Few teams closed as well as these two. Rutgers won its final six games behind an explosive offense and hard-hitting defense, while North Carolina State won its last four to get eligibility for this at-large berth, whipping North Carolina and Miami in the final two weeks.
It's a compelling matchup of quarterbacks. The Scarlet Knights' Mike Teel has been on fire, throwing 20 touchdown passes in his last five games, while Kenny Britt finished second in the nation in receiving yards. The Wolf Pack ranked just 94th nationally in passing defense, so there's an area that coach Greg Schiano is sure to try and exploit.
On the other side, Russell Wilson has been remarkably efficient for NC State, passing for 16 touchdowns and just one interception this season.
The two coaches are very familiar with each other as NC State's Tom O'Brien had lots of success against Schiano when O'Brien was at Boston College. But Schiano was just getting the program going by the time O'Brien left for the ACC.
Rutgers seems like it's on a mission to prove that the 1-5 start was a fluke. The Scarlet Knights had hoped for a bigger bowl game to showcase its turnaround, but instead it gets a another team in a similar boat.