NCF Nation: stepping up 2010

You couldn't ask for much more from the Hokies right now, considering they'll enter the Discover Orange Bowl on an 11-game winning streak after having gone undefeated in ACC play. They're one of the best teams in the country since their 0-2 start, but there's one position that's a little unsettled heading into the matchup against Stanford.

Who's going to have to step up?

The linebackers. With starter Lyndell Gibson out with a fractured shoulder blade, Tariq Edwards is likely the next man up. He has 21 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this year. There could be a rotation at linebacker, though, with Bruce Taylor and Jack Tyler, who has 20 tackles, including five for loss this year. Taylor could be playing two positions, as he is listed as the starter at mike but also the backup to Edwards. Edwards and Tyler, both redshirt freshmen, will see increased playing time against an offense that ranks No. 8 in the country with 40.33 points per game.

Stepping up in the bowls: UNC

December, 23, 2010
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A total of 35 scholarship players have missed at least one game for North Carolina this year because of injuries and/or the NCAA investigation. The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl against Tennessee will continue that trend.

Who needs to step up?

The backups. This should be old hat for the Tar Heels, who have had to rely on backups and walk-ons all season as a result of the NCAA investigation, and the losses of starting guard Alan Pelc and linebacker Bruce Carter to injuries will force them to do it once again. It won't hurt as much at linebacker, where it's possible the staff could move Zach Brown from Will to Sam, but the loss of Pelc is significant. Travis Bond, a sophomore, is Pelc's backup at right guard, but the problem extends to center, where Pelc was the backup to Cam Holland. If anything happens to Holland -- which has happened before -- Pelc has been the one to move over. Bond will have to rise to the occasion. At linebacker, Herman Davidson, a career reserve, is No. 2 behind Carter. If Brown moves over, it will allow Davidson to continue that role.

Stepping up in the bowls: NC State

December, 22, 2010
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Few outside the program were expecting much from NC State this season, but the Wolfpack were surprise contenders for the Atlantic Division in late November, needing only a win over Maryland to advance to the ACC championship game. The Pack couldn’t get it done in College Park, but the program still has a chance at a nine-win season with a win over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl. It would be the second-most wins in school history and the most under coach Tom O’Brien, who needs one more victory to reach 100 in his career.

In order for that to happen, who needs to step up?

NC State’s offensive line: Yes, the defense is going to have to play better than it did in the regular-season finale loss to Maryland, but in order to win this game, the guys up front are going to have to give their magic man time to work. West Virginia has two standout pass-rushers in defensive ends Julian Miller (8.0) and Bruce Irvin (12.0), who have combined for 20 sacks this year. The Mountaineers’ 3.3 sacks per game ranks third nationally, just ahead of NC State, which ranks fourth with 3.25. Against Maryland, quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked on fourth down from the Maryland 8-yard line. NC State is tied for 104th in the country in sacks allowed with 2.83 per game and 34 total.

Stepping up in the bowls: Miami

December, 22, 2010
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It’s obviously not the ideal situation: An interim head coach on the sideline, the next head coach watching from the press box and some assistants who aren’t sure if they’ll be employed when the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Notre Dame is over. Still, this is a game featuring two storied programs elbowing each other to get back in the lead of college football.

In order for that to begin to happen, who at Miami needs to step up?

The quarterback. Doesn’t matter if it’s Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris. Either one will be tasked with managing the offense without turning it over -- something both the veteran and the rookie have struggled at times to do this year. Harris has 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this year. Morris has five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Notre Dame’s defense has been average, but the Irish have made the stops when it counted most and are holding opponents to 20.5 points per game. Notre Dame is No. 25 in the country in pass efficiency defense and has 14 interceptions this year. A strong running game will help take pressure off of either Miami quarterback, but this is a game in which the quarterback of 2011 is likely to emerge. One of them needs to be a leader, take control of the offense and get some confidence heading into the offseason with a new staff.
Georgia Tech and Air Force run similar option offenses, and they enter the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl with the nation’s top two rushing offenses, respectively. They’re not mirror images, though. Air Forces uses a tight end, lines up in the I-formation on occasion, and has a few more “bells and whistles,” according to Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who defeated the Falcons five straight times when he was coaching at Navy.

In order to make it a sixth, who needs to step up?

Georgia Tech’s defensive line: The Jackets’ size advantage won’t be much help in this game because Air Force is quick and athletic up front. They don’t have to double team a lot because they can wrap the legs of bigger defenders. Georgia Tech is determined to get a hand on the offensive tackles to keep them from getting to the linebackers. Defensive end Izaan Cross told Sting Daily he expects to be left unblocked at times, and hopes to get numerous chances to make plays. Somebody is going to have to if they’re going to stop Air Force, which averages 317.92 rushing yards per game. The Jackets have struggled to stop the run and rank No. 78 in the country at 169.67 yards per game. Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled some to adjust to first-year coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme, but if the Jackets are going to snap their five-game bowl losing streak, it has to start up front.

Stepping up in the bowls: Kentucky

December, 20, 2010
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Kentucky makes its fifth straight postseason appearance, taking on Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

The Wildcats (6-6) lost several close games this season and failed to take advantage of a down year in the Eastern Division. But by winning over the Panthers, they could ensure their fifth straight winning season. The last time that happened in Lexington was the 1950s.

Who's going to step up for the Wildcats?

Sophomore quarterback Morgan Newton: Kentucky coach Joker Phillips made a statement that reverberated throughout the entire football program when he suspended senior quarterback Mike Hartline for the bowl game. Hartline, coming off his best season at Kentucky, was arrested on disorderly conduct and alcohol intoxication charges. It was a tough decision for Phillips, but he elected to sit Hartline down for his final game. That means Newton will get another shot to lead the team after finishing up last season as the starter when Hartline injured his knee. There's also a chance that redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski could see some time, although Newton is up first. The most important thing he needs to remember is that he doesn't have to do it by himself. Randall Cobb was second nationally this season with 2,192 all-purpose yards and was tied for the SEC lead with 79 catches. The guy on the other side of the field from Cobb also had a big season. Senior Chris Matthews led the team with nine touchdown catches, and senior running back Derrick Locke should be as healthy as he's been for the bowl game. Newton has playmakers all around him. Being smart, protecting the football and getting Cobb, Matthews and Locke the ball will be his role.
Last week I started looking at who needs to "step up" for each bowl-bound team, and will continue today with the Seminoles. Florida State has a tough challenge in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against SEC East champ South Carolina. The Noles have a chance at the program's first 10-win season since 2003.

In order for that to happen, who needs to step up?

Florida State's defense: The Seminoles are coming off an unimpressive performance in the ACC championship game in which they allowed Virginia Tech 44 points, 442 total yards and no turnovers. Their biggest collapses, though, came on third down, when the Noles allowed the Hokies to convert on 13-of-18. That won't fly against a South Carolina offense that features two elite players in running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore ranks second in the SEC to Heisman winner Cam Newton with 1,198 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. Jeffery set single-season school records for receptions (79) and yards (1,387). Even if FSU can get its running game going against the Gamecocks' stingy run defense, it won't be enough if the Noles can't come up with more stops than they did against Virginia Tech.

Stepping up in the bowls: Georgia

December, 20, 2010
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Georgia takes on Conference USA champion UCF in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31. The Bulldogs (6-6) will be trying to avoid their first losing season since 1996.

Who's going to step up for Mark Richt's club?

Junior outside linebacker Justin Houston: He's been the big-play guy all season long for the Bulldogs with 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He's second only to Auburn's Nick Fairley in the SEC in sacks and has also become a more complete defensive end. If Georgia is going to win this game, getting to UCF true freshman quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey and forcing him into mistakes will be key. He's had an outstanding debut season and is a threat to both run and pass. Godfrey had 10 or more rushing attempts in eight of his 13 games this season and passed for 2,042 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Houston's good enough off the edge to rush Godfrey into some quick throws and to get him out of his comfort zone. If Houston can get to Godfrey early, either with a sack or some quarterback hurries, that's likely to change the way the Knights play offense. The Bulldogs, even though they finished fourth in the SEC in total defense, were still prone to giving up too many big plays this season. Making a few big plays on defense could really set the tone in this game, and that's where Houston comes in.

Stepping up in the bowls: Clemson

December, 17, 2010
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Clemson needs to beat South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to avoid its first losing season since 1998, but as Miami proved in its loss to the Bulls, nobody is invincible.

In order for the Tigers to have a better outcome, who needs to step up?

Parker
Parker
Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker: The last pass Parker threw was an interception in a loss to rival South Carolina. That didn’t exactly sit well. Instead of quitting early on his team, the first-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies decided to stick around for one more game and give it his best shot to end his career on a positive note. It’s not going to be easy, as South Florida has the nation’s No. 21 pass defense and No. 19 scoring defense. Parker has completed 62.4 percent of his passes over the past six games, but it’s that INT against the Gamecocks that fans will remember if he doesn’t find a way to beat the Bulls.

Stepping up in the bowls: Florida

December, 17, 2010
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It's Urban Meyer's final game as the Florida head coach and the Gators' last chance to generate some positive vibes about an otherwise disappointing season.

A loss to Penn State in the Outback Bowl would give the Gators (7-5) six losses. The last time they suffered that many losses in a season was 1987.

Who's going to step up for the Gators?

Junior quarterback John Brantley: At this point, he's not completely sure that he will be back next season. Brantley still wants to talk it over with new coach Will Muschamp before making up his mind. Maybe this will be an audition of sorts for both player and coach, even though the Gators will still be running Meyer's offense. It's obvious by now that Brantley was never a fit in the spread offense, and this staff didn't do enough to mold the offense around what Brantley does best -- which is drop back and throw the football. We'll see if that changes for this game. Muschamp has already said that he plans on running more of a pro-style offense.

If Brantley does end up returning to Florida for his senior season, there would be no better way to go into an offseason with a new staff than to play his best football in the bowl game. A lot of the Florida fans have been calling for Jordan Reed at quarterback, but the Gators are going to need Brantley to hit some plays in the passing game to soften up that Penn State defense. It's been a forgettable season for Brantley, who was being hailed as one of the best quarterbacks in the league back in August even though he'd never played any meaningful snaps in the SEC. Here's his chance to finally live up to that billing and help his team enter the Muschamp era with some momentum.

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