NCF Nation: What we learned bowls 010913

What we learned in the SEC bowls

January, 9, 2013
Now that the bowl season is over, it's time to take a look back at what we learned in the SEC during the postseason:

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesNick Saban and Alabama will be among the favorites to win the national title again next season.
1. It really is Alabama's world: For the second straight year and for the third time in four years, Alabama took home college football's crystal hardware. After the first 15 minutes of the Discover BCS National Championship, it didn't even look like No. 1 Notre Dame deserved to be on the same field as the Crimson Tide. Alabama wore down the Irish defense in the first half, and its defense tormented Notre Dame's offense for about 90 percent of Monday night's game. Nick Saban didn't have his most talented team, but he had his squad way more prepared than Brian Kelly did. Saban's way of making sure his players approach every game the same way proved to be excellent again. Notre Dame was completely overmatched, and with the talent coming back in 2013, Alabama should again be the favorite to win it all. Three-peat?

2. The SEC's dominance is still being challenged: Even though Alabama brought home the SEC's seventh straight BCS title, the SEC's perception is still being challenged. Social media has been buzzing with chants of "overrated" directed toward the SEC because Mississippi State, LSU and Florida all fell flat in their bowl games. Mississippi State lost by 14 to Northwestern, LSU lost to Clemson on a last-second field goal and Florida was run ragged by Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heading into bowl season, Florida and LSU weren't expected to lose, but they got away from their ground games and paid for it dearly. Still, the SEC went 6-3 (.667) in bowl games, including Texas A&M's 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Georgia and South Carolina downing Big Ten teams. Only the WAC (2-0) and C-USA (4-1) had better winning percentages, and neither had nearly as many bowl teams. So is the SEC down? Well, while the SEC took a couple of bad losses in bowl season, seven teams finished the year in the Associated Press Top 25, including five in the top 10. The Big Ten and Big 12 had losing bowl records, the Pac-12 went 4-4 and the ACC was 4-2. So, if the SEC is overrated, what are the other conferences?

3. Florida's offensive issues are still a major problem: All season, we wondered what we'd see from Florida's offense. However, for 11 games, even if the offense came up short, the Gators found ways to win. Against Louisville, the Gators went in reverse and never got right again. Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six on the first possession, and the offense imploded from there. Mike Gillislee, who was easily Florida's best offensive weapon, carried the ball just nine times. The Gators panicked, but when they had to pass, they couldn't.

This has to be a major concern for the Gators going forward, because Gillislee is graduating and tight end Jordan Reed declared for the NFL draft. Driskel has to find some major help in the passing game this spring/summer, or Florida's offense will get pummeled again. Driskel's health is now a major concern because backup Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving the Gators with no experience behind Driskel.

4. More eyes will be on Ole Miss ... and Vanderbilt: Before the season, no one gave Ole Miss a chance at the postseason -- or even five wins -- but the Rebels went out and had a tremendous first year under Hugh Freeze. If not for a couple of horrendous second halves, the Rebels might have won eight games during the regular season. After a dominating performance in their BBVA Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, the Rebels could be looking at a spot in preseason Top 25 polls. Most of this team, including what could be a stellar recruiting class, will be in Oxford next fall, so expectations will be much higher.

The same can be said about James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. After a historic nine-win season that ended with a commanding bowl win over NC State, the Commodores will be expected to keep up this act after being even better in Year 2 of the Franklin era. Vandy will lose some talent up front defensively, and Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will be gone, but a host of playmakers will return, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.

5. Johnny Football's legend just keeps growing: After Texas A&M lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, Johnny Manziel's field maturity was really going to be judged in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against the Sooners. Well, all he did without one of his best mentors was set a bowl record for total yards (516) in the Aggies' rout inside Jerry's World. Manziel zigged and zagged as though Kingsbury was feeding him info through an earpiece. People don't understand how much Kingsbury helped Manziel with his composure during games, but Manziel did just fine without him. It shows how much he's grown during his Heisman year. Things will be different next season with some key players also missing on offense, but to see Manziel play like that without Kingsbury has to be very encouraging for Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Aggies' coaching staff.
What we learned from the seven Big Ten bowl games:

1. Need for speed (and skill): The narrative about the Big Ten being slow is tiresome and oversimplified. But the bowls showed it's not entirely inaccurate. Whether it was Michigan struggling to contain South Carolina's Ace Sanders, Minnesota getting burned by Texas Tech's passing game, Wisconsin desperately lacking a game-breaker versus Stanford or whatever it was Purdue attempted to do against Oklahoma State, the bowl games exposed a need for several teams to increase their overall athleticism at the skill positions. Big Ten teams came close to winning in four of the league's five postseason losses. The difference in those games often comes down to one or two playmakers, and the league could use a few more.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsIs there more success in store for Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald ? He said he'll have his fastest team ever in 2013.
2. Northwestern has become a complete team: The Wildcats have often brought good offenses into their bowl games. They usually have not been as good on defense or suffered from special-teams problems. Northwestern won its first bowl game since 1949 because Pat Fitzgerald finally crafted a complete team this season. The defense limited Mississippi State to just 106 passing yards and intercepted Tyler Russell four times in a 34-20 victory in the Gator Bowl. The offense featured a balanced attack between its rushing and passing games, and Northwestern had one of the best punt returners (Venric Mark) and field goal kickers (Jeff Budzien) in the business. In a season when many Big Ten teams lacked essential elements (defense at Nebraska, running game at Michigan, passing game at Michigan State, etc.), the Wildcats managed to put it all together for the league's best bowl win.

3. Quarterback competitions are on for Spartans, Badgers: The biggest surprise of the league's bowl season might have been that Connor Cook led Michigan State's game-winning drive against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cook, a redshirt freshman, hadn't played since Week 2, and it appeared that Andrew Maxwell had the quarterback job locked down despite an inconsistent season. But after a poor performance by Maxwell and the spark provided by Cook, the Spartans now have an open competition at quarterback that will be fascinating to watch this offseason. The competition is also on at Wisconsin, where Curt Phillips is expected to get a sixth year from the NCAA and battle with sophomore Joel Stave, who appeared for two plays in the Rose Bowl after breaking his collarbone against Michigan State. Stave is a better passer, while Phillips showed some good wheels versus Stanford. There's a new coaching staff in place to give each a clean slate. Who wins at each school is important, because both the Spartans and Badgers need to improve their passing attacks to contend for division titles in 2013.

4. Minnesota is on the way up: The Gophers suffered a heartbreaking loss against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, where they led 31-24 with less than 90 seconds to play but somehow lost 34-31. Yet the overall takeaway remains a positive one for Jerry Kill's team. After struggling mightily to move the ball down the stretch of the Big Ten season, Minnesota pounded the Red Raiders for 222 rushing yards, while freshman Philip Nelson threw two touchdown passes. Kill must find and develop more wide receivers, but Minnesota showed the physical style the team is capable of when its offensive line is healthy. The Legends Division will be deep in 2013, but the Gophers should continue to make gains.

5. Darrell Hazell and Bo Pelini need to focus on defense: New Purdue coach Hazell saw just how much work awaits him in the Boilermakers' 58-14 thrashing by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Purdue gave up at least 34 points seven times in 2012 and loses its best player in defensive tackle Kawann Short. There's no doubt where Hazell's focus must be in his first spring in West Lafayette. The same goes for Nebraska, which surrendered 115 points in its final two games and a staggering average of 53.5 points in its four losses. Pelini will replace eight defensive starters and is optimistic that some young, athletic players will step into those roles and restore the Blackshirts' honor. The Huskers -- which scored 31 points in a little more than three quarters against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl -- should again field one of the most prolific offenses in the country next season. It won't matter if that defense doesn't figure out some answers.

What we learned in the ACC bowls

January, 9, 2013
The entire 2012 season is in the books. So what did we learn during bowl season?

1. The ACC had a rockin' bowl performance. You guys know as well as I do that the league did not exactly earn much national recognition for its performance in the regular season. The league only had two ranked teams and was forced to go with a 6-6 team in the ACC title game because of postseason bans. But who cares about the regular season when you have such an outstanding bowl season! The ACC went 4-2, its first winning bowl record since 2005, beating to a pulp the dismal 2-6 mark from a year ago. That means the ACC joined the SEC and Big East as the only leagues among the automatic qualifiers with winning bowl records. So sorry Big 12 (4-4), Pac-12 (4-4) and Big Ten (2-5). Better luck next year. You can check your ACC jokes at the door while you're at it.

[+] EnlargeNorthern Illinois' Jordan Lynch
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's defense dominated Northern Illinois and quarterback Jordan Lynch.
2. Heavy D! By all accounts, this was a down year for defense in the ACC (outside of Florida State), if only because offenses exploded and set league records left and right. But when it counted most, defenses stepped up big time in the four ACC bowl wins. I have gone back and forth on which team had the most impressive performance: Florida State and its complete shut down of Jordan Lynch? Georgia Tech holding USC to seven points? Clemson with its best defensive performance of the season? Virginia Tech giving up less than 200 yards of total offense in a game that went into overtime? No sense in picking. They were all outstanding performances -- just what the ACC needed after an up-and-down season across the league.

3. The ACC can beat the SEC. So the ACC split against SEC competition during bowl season, with Clemson beating LSU and NC State losing to Vanderbilt, but that beats the dreadful performance in the final week of the regular season when the league laid a big ol' goose egg against its SEC opponents. The highlight, of course, was Clemson beating No. 8 LSU with a thrilling come-from-behind 25-24 win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Not only was that game one of the best during bowl season, but the win marked the highest-ranked SEC team Clemson has beaten since taking down No. 6 Tennessee in the 2004 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers ended the year with the only two ACC wins over SEC competition. So maybe this should read: "Clemson can beat the SEC ..."

4. Duke still has a ways to go. Props to the Blue Devils for getting back to a bowl game, but this program still has a long way to go on the road toward respectability. Duke dropped its final five games of the season -- all to teams with winning records. In fact, it only beat one team with a winning record all season. There is no doubt that final stretch was brutal, but this team had opportunities to beat winning teams throughout the year. Duke blew first-quarter leads against Virginia Tech and against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl and had its chances late against Georgia Tech. To take it to the next level, the Blue Devils have to find ways to win these games. Next season is absolutely critical for momentum.

5. So long Werner and Rhodes. The Discover Orange Bowl marked the last time we got to see Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes in Seminoles uniforms. Both players declared early for the NFL draft in the days after the win over Northern Illinois. No doubt both were major impact players on a defense that ended the year ranked No. 2 in the nation. Werner was a unanimous All-American selection and ACC Defensive Player of the Year; Rhodes was an All-ACC first-team selection as one of the top shutdown corners in the nation. Good luck to both as they embark on their new careers.

What we learned in the Pac-12 bowls

January, 9, 2013
1. The Pac-12 is top-heavy: Well, duh. The top two teams in the conference, Stanford and Oregon, both won their games -- BCS bowl games at that -- doing exactly what they did to get there in the first place. Stanford won the Rose Bowl with physical play and Oregon, not exactly lacking in physicality either, ran circles around Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. The middle of the conference, however, didn't fare as well. Oregon State and South champ UCLA both tanked in their games against Big 12 opponents.

2. North-South split: While the consensus is that the North Division is the stronger of the league's two divisions, the results in the postseason have it as a draw. The North went 2-2 and the South went 2-2. North representatives Stanford and Oregon won, while Oregon State and Washington lost. From the South, the Arizona schools both pulled off wins, while the Los Angeles schools face-planted. The fact that the North schools won BCS games certainly carries more weight.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Bishop Sankey
Josh Holmberg/USA TODAY SportsWashington's Bishop Sankey ran past Boise State for 205 yards -- one of several impressive bowl performances from Pac-12 running backs.
3. Pac-12 running backs are awesome: The conference's ground game was on full display in the postseason. In five of the eight games, a Pac-12 running back went for at least 100 yards and three backs gained more than 150 yards -- Arizona State's Marion Grice (159), Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (172) and Washington's Bishop Sankey (205). Even the backs who didn't gain 100 yards -- Stepfan Taylor and Silas Redd -- had respectable games. The only real back to have a down day was UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, who had just 34 yards on 14 carries in the Holiday Bowl. When you're facing a run blitz almost every play, that can be tough. As a group, the backs averaged 24.8 carries for 143.8 yards per game with nine total touchdowns -- three from Carey, two from Grice and Oregon State's Storm Woods and one apiece from Taylor and Sankey.

4. There's a one-point safety? Full disclosure: I had no idea this rule existed. In my 17 years in this business, I have never come across this. But apparently when a blocked PAT is recovered, taken into the end zone and then the player is tackled in the end zone, the result is a one-point safety for the kicking team. Thanks to that Oregon-Kansas State game, aren't we all a little smarter now? The rule is as obscure as it is enlightening.

5. Coaches are committed: Chip Kelly is sticking around -- at least for another year. David Shaw is sticking around -- for an undisclosed amount of time. Jim Mora is sticking around -- as far as we know. All three coaches took a ride on the to-the-NFL rumor roller coaster -- Kelly reaching the highest velocity -- but all three are back. Kelly picked up the phone, and then hung up. Shaw signed an undisclosed contract extension and Mora apparently hasn't entertained any offers to return to the league despite rumored interest from at least one NFL team -- San Diego. High-profile coaches are a good thing for the league. And when they stick around, that's even better.

6. Kerplunk: USC's bowl season ended much the way the regular season did -- historically horrific. USC became the first preseason No. 1 in history to lose six games and the first since 1964 to finish unranked. Remember when we were talking about how devastating it would be if they lost two? Well, the Trojans lost five of their final six, including an embarrassing performance against Georgia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. History will look at USC in 2012 as one of the worst -- if not the worst -- wastes of talent college football has ever seen, while the rest of the country will look upon them with a schadenfreudeian smile. It was, in a word, unacceptable.

7. Pac-12 isn't No. 1: The SEC finished the bowl season 6-3 and Alabama won the national championship. Yes, it is the best conference in college football. The question of who is No. 2 can rage between the Big 12 and the Pac-12. Texas and Baylor beat Oregon State and UCLA, respectively, in non-BCS games. Oregon beat Kansas State in a BCS game. The Pac-12 is heavier at the top; the Big 12 probably has more depth. The Pac-12 went 4-4 and the Big 12 went 4-5. You can argue the ACC belongs in the Nos. 2, 3, 4 conversation as well. Its teams went 4-2, won a BCS bowl game, Clemson knocked off a top 10 team and the ACC won its only head-to-head game against the Pac-12 (see the aforementioned kerplunk). You can't make an argument for the Pac-12 being No. 1. But you can make a case for it falling anywhere between 2 through 4.

8. How 'bout them kickers: For as much guff as Pac-12 kickers took during the regular season -- and there was guff a'plenty to go around -- they actually showed up in the postseason. Pac-12 kickers completed 10 of 12 field goal attempts (83 percent). Stanford's Jordan Williamson exorcised his Fiesta Bowl demons and clutched up with a 47-yarder and a 2-for-2 performance for the Cardinal (who won by six points). And the accuracy level was much higher than the league's 67 percent (148-of 218) in the regular season. The eight schools playing in bowl games were 104-of-154 on the season (67 percent), so this was a much better showing all around.

What we learned about Notre Dame

January, 9, 2013
Notre Dame's first loss was its last one, as the Irish fell 42-14 to Alabama in Monday's Discover BCS National Championship at Sun Life Stadium. Here's what we make of that finale:

1) The gap remains. This isn't specifically pointed to Notre Dame so much as it is to the rest of the non-Crimson Tide college football world. The Irish were physically manhandled, especially their defense, and it became clear early and often that this Alabama team was going to do whatever it wanted, and there was little anyone could do to stop it.

2) Everett Golson grows, and must continue to. The redshirt freshman quarterback was nothing special Monday, but he wasn't all that bad, either. Truth is, the Irish weren't winning this game even on his best day, but the experience that the 20-year-old got out of this season is priceless.

3) Defensive performance uncharacteristic. It won't do Notre Dame any good to worry about it now -- not with as many as eight starters on the way back from a unit that finished the regular season atop the nation in scoring defense -- but the missed tackles, lack of execution and all-around sloppy play Monday night was remarkable for all of the wrong reasons.

4) Yes, the Irish deserved to be there. They were the only eligible team to run the table, and the fact no teams knocked them off is not Notre Dame's problem. The Irish entered the season unranked and with 23 consecutive mostly unfulfilling years. They exit 12-1, having exceeded any and all expectations, and have plenty of talent and more on the way to suggest that this was more than a one-year wonder.

What we learned in the Big 12 bowls

January, 9, 2013
The Big 12 bowls are over, and here's what we learned over the past couple of weeks.

The top of the Big 12 is weak. Oregon and Texas A&M are bona fide top 5 teams in my book this year, and Oklahoma and Kansas State showed quite obviously that neither was in the same league. The Sooners and Wildcats suffered lopsided losses and didn't even look like top 10 teams, which the final polls confirmed. K-State was in position to play for the national title, but how many believe it would have done all that much better vs. Alabama last night? I buy Oklahoma State last year, but for the second time in three years, the Big 12 didn't have a team that belonged in the national title picture at the end of the season.

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsLache Seastrunk and Baylor arguably played better than any other Big 12 team late in the season.
The middle of the Big 12 is anything but weak. You saw it on display big time. Oklahoma State flexed, and so did Baylor, though the Bears were probably the most impressive of the bunch. Baylor was the Big 12's hottest team to close the season, but Oklahoma State was probably better than its record and lost a couple of heartbreakers to close the year. Both were solid teams that probably deserved nods in the top 25 to close the season. Texas has its issues, but the Longhorns successfully grabbed the Big 12's best nonconference win of the entire season, coming back to knock off then-No. 13 Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.

The Big 12 can stop the run, sort of. You have to be amazed at what TCU and Baylor did to two really good backs in Le'Veon Bell at Michigan State and Johnathan Franklin at UCLA. Kenjon Barner of Oregon got the best of K-State in the second half and Oregon State's Storm Woods gave Texas trouble, but Franklin managed just 34 yards on 14 carries. Bell managed 145 yards on 32 carries, but it was below his season average for the season. Point is, this wasn't the running game nightmare from a few years ago, when the Big 12 racked up losses because of its inability to slow down average backs.

The league has a flare for the dramatic. We saw some great games down the stretch this season like Texas Tech and Baylor, Oklahoma and West Virginia/Oklahoma State/TCU and more. That didn't stop in the bowl season. The Red Raiders rallied in the final two minutes to beat Minnesota on a last-second field goal and Texas knocked off Oregon State with a late bomb from David Ash to Marquise Goodwin to erase a double-digit deficit in the game's last nine minutes. TCU also lost on a late field goal, just a minute after going ahead with a crazy 53-yard field goal from Jaden Oberkrom.

The bottom of the Big 12? Questionable at best. West Virginia's got all the flash with quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and Iowa State stays in games (and eventually wins them) with its defense. Both units had disastrous bowl games against average teams in Syracuse and Tulsa. The snow is a legit excuse for West Virginia's high-flying passing game, but Tulsa completely dominated the line of scrimmage against Iowa State's defense and brought the league's bottom two bowl teams down a peg. Even Texas Tech struggled with a mediocre Minnesota team, though to its credit, rallied for an emotional win.
It's hard to believe, but the 2012 season is over. That was fast. So what did we learn during bowl season? Glad you asked.

1. Louisville gets national recognition. One of the best ways to earn respect in college football -- beat a top-5 team from the SEC. Louisville sent the college football world into a tizzy with its 33-23 win over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl because, well, teams from the Big East are not supposed to beat teams from the SEC. Especially in BCS games. At least that is the old script. The new script? Teams from the Big East are, well, yeah OK, they are not too bad. Not when you have an All-American-caliber player in Teddy Bridgewater running the show. Bridgewater made a statement -- and got his Heisman campaign underway in the victory. Louisville vaulted eight spots in the AP poll to finish No. 13. Bigger things are in store.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Teddy Bridgewater
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsTeddy Bridgewater gets a thumbs up for a bowl performance that jump-started next season's Heisman campaign.
2. Another winning bowl record. I know Big East fans get tired of the naysayers, but all they have to do is point to the facts -- the Big East went 3-2 during bowl season, joining the ACC and SEC as the automatic qualifying conferences with a winning bowl record. That marks seven straight seasons for the Big East. For those who want to say the league is crumbling, the Big East would still have a winning bowl record without departing teams Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville. They went 2-2 in their bowl games. Incoming teams UCF, SMU and San Diego State (maybe?) went 2-1. That would still give the future Big East a 3-1 bowl record.

3. Syracuse has some major talent in the backfield. The Orange finished their final game in the Big East with an impressive 38-14 win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and their backfield talent was on full display. Prince-Tyson Gulley ran for a career-high 213 yards in the second-best bowl performance by any running back, while 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith added 152 yards. And Syracuse did it without suspended running back Adonis Ameen-Moore. I know the Orange will lose a lot as they move on to the ACC, but their backfield is going to be in terrific hands.

4. Paging Rutgers' offense. The Scarlet Knights managed 196 yards of total offense against a down Virginia Tech team in a game that most will remember for the way coach Kyle Flood stuck with Gary Nova despite another off game. But as Flood explained earlier this week, "If I felt like the quarterback wasn’t playing well, but the rest of the offense was and I felt like a change could have a significant impact then you consider it. But in that game on offense, there were not a lot of things going right at any position. To expose somebody who hadn’t been in the game and to put him in that, I didn’t see what kind of positive outcome that could have." So if the offensive struggles are not only on Nova, this does not bode well for 2013, considering the offense returns more starters than the defense and Jawan Jamison is gone.

5. Cincinnati showed up. The talk going into the Belk Bowl was that Cincinnati would have a hard time focusing, what with coach Butch Jones gone, along with half the staff. Only five assistants stuck around to coach bowl practices, leaving the Bearcats at a serious disadvantage. It looked that way early against Duke, but I give the Bearcats helmet stickers for not letting a bad quarter and a half lead to an entire-game meltdown. The Bearcats showed their moxie in a 48-34 come-from-behind win over Duke, getting them to 10 wins for the fifth time in six seasons. Shorthanded no less. All Cincinnati does is keep on winning.