One of the most appealing aspects of bowl season is just how wild and unpredictable it is. All logic and reason gets thrown out the window, and there are upsets galore. Some teams are rusty after lengthy layoffs while others are so fired up just to be playing in a bowl. On the flip side, some teams are lethargic and unmotivated after disappointing seasons or unmet goals. The ripple effect of coaching searches means some teams are unprepared. Other squads overlook their opponents and find out the hard way what a mistake that is (cough*Arizona State*cough).
It all adds up to a zany couple weeks of college football that are impossible to predict but highly entertaining to watch.
Week 2 Recap: Favorites Drop Like Flies
This week has been chock full of upsets as favorite after favorite goes down. Even the BCS games were not immune.
It all started on Monday night in the National University Holiday Bowl. Pac-12 runner-up Arizona State was a heavy favorite over unranked Texas Tech. The Red Raiders were mired in a five-game losing streak and had to start a new quarterback after Big 12 offensive freshman of the year Baker Mayfield announced he was going to transfer. As a result, Arizona State was a 22-point favorite.
Instead, Tech raced out to a 27-6 lead early in the second quarter and never looked back en route to a 37-23 victory. Quarterback David Webb was brilliant, throwing for 403 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Duke and Texas A&M closed 2013 out with a bang in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Aggies rallied to win a 52-48 thriller in what was likely Johnny Manziel’s final collegiate game. Manziel was superb in leading his team back from a 38-17 halftime deficit against the dogged Blue Devils. Manziel went 30-of-38 for 382 yards and 4 touchdown passes while tacking on another 73 yards and 1 touchdown on the ground. In true Manziel fashion, he had another highlight-reel escape for a touchdown, eluding numerous defenders and even vaulting over a guy before finding an open receiver for a touchdown.
Duke’s Anthony Boone nearly matched Manziel play-for-play, passing for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns, but two costly interceptions late in the fourth quarter gave A&M the win.
2014 started off well for the Big 10. Nebraska notched a win over an SEC power–albeit an injury-depleted one–24-19 in the TAXSLAYER.com Gator Bowl (however, the SEC won the other two inter-conference matchups: LSU prevailed 21-14 over Iowa while South Carolina handled Wisconsin 34-24).
That win was merely a precursor for Michigan State’s continued ride in the national elite. After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter of the 100th Rose Bowl, the Spartans took control of the game. Michigan State’s vaunted defense held Stanford’s powerful offense to just 159 yards in the last three quarters while quarterback Connor Cook shook off a costly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and 2 touchdown passes.
In fitting fashion, Michigan State’s defense came up huge with the game on the line. With the Spartans clinging to a 24-20 lead with 1:46 to play in the game, Stanford faced 4th-&-1. The Cardinal opted to give the ball to fullback Ryan Hewitt, but linebacker Kyler Ellsworth–filling in for suspended star Max Bullough–flew over the top of the line and met Hewitt head-on, stopping the fullback in his tracks and denying Stanford the first down. Ellsworth’s play sealed the win and gave the Spartans their first Rose Bowl victory since 1988.
The upsets continued as Central Florida stunned Baylor that night in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Golden Knights were 17-point underdogs against Baylor and its explosive offense, but they were the ones racking up big play after big play. Quarterback Blake Bortles was 20-of-31 for 301 yards with 3 touchdowns while also rushing for 93 yards and a touchdown. Running back Storm Johnson contributed 20 carries for 124 yards and 3 touchdowns, and receiver Rannell Hall had a huge game with four receptions for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Baylor’s Bryce Petty threw for 356 yards with two touchdowns and also rushed for three scores, but it wasn’t enough and the Bears’ defense had no answer for Bortles and UCF. When Baylor tied the game at 28 in the third quarter, UCF scored touchdowns on its next four possessions.
As surprising as that upset was, the most shocking outcome occurred one day later in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Alabama is the two-time defending national champion, and had it not been for a miracle play against Auburn, the Crimson Tide would likely be playing for a third-straight title. Nick Saban is the best in the business while Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops has seen the luster wear off his “Big Game Bob” moniker after several losses in BCS games.
Oklahoma has fallen off in recent years, and while the Sooners are still good, many wondered if they were still truly an elite program. In fact, Alabama was favored by 16 points.
So the Crimson Tide easily walked away with a win, right?
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!”
Behind freshman quarterback Trevor Knight’s 348 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, the Sooners stunned Alabama 45-31. The Sooners forced three turnovers from Heisman finalist AJ McCarron and converted them into points. McCarron was sacked seven times, bringing back memories of Utah’s relentless pass rush in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Looking Ahead: The Grand Finale
All good things must come to an end, and so it is with Bowl Season. With only five games left, the 2013-2014 is winding down to a close.
Friday night features a nice double header between conference royalty. The AT&T Cotton Bowl pits two former Big 12 foes in Oklahoma State and SEC runner-up Missouri. The teams are a combined 21-4 but are both coming off heartbreaking losses that cost them conference titles and BCS appearances. This should be a good one as the teams appear to be pretty evenly matched. Both are capable of putting up points, with Oklahoma State 14th in the nation in scoring at 39.8 points per game while Missouri is right behind them at 15th with 39.0 points a game.
While the offenses get most of the attention, both teams can play some defense, too. Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is an AP first-team All-American and the SEC defensive player of the year after recording 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Oklahoma State counters with second-team All-American cornerback Justin Gilbert, a Thorpe award finalist who tallied six interceptions this season.
The late game on Friday features Ohio State against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes were 12-0 and ranked #2 in the BCS polls before falling to Michigan State in the Big 10 title game. Will there be a hangover after coming so close yet falling short of a national title shot? The Spartans shredded Ohio State’s vaunted defense for 34 points, which is serious cause for concern since Michigan doesn’t have near the firepower that Clemson can bring to bear.
Led by senior quarterback Tahj Boyd, the Tigers average over 40 points and 500 yards of offense per game. Boyd has thrown for 3,473 yards and 29 touchdowns while adding another 9 touchdowns on the ground. His favorite weapon is second-team All-American receiver Sammy Watkins, who caught 85 passes for 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season.
Then again, Clemson’s defense is nowhere near the caliber of Michigan State’s rugged unit, and that could pose major problems as Ohio State’s offense is no slouch, either. The Buckeyes average nearly 520 yards per game and ranked fourth in the country at scoring at 46.3 points a game. Quarterback Braxton Miller is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who ran for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding another 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air. Running back Carlos Hyde contributed 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns despite being suspended for the first three games of the season.
The weekend offers a couple of games that lack the name-recognition of Friday’s contests but could prove to be just as entertaining. Saturday’s BBVA Compass Bowl matches 8-4 Vanderbilt–and one of the most sought-after coaches in the country, James Franklin–against the AAC’s 8-4 Houston Cougars. Vandy is appearing in a bowl for the third-straight season after only making four bowl appearances in the program’s first 120 years of existence. The Commodores will be without starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels but will have the services of star receiver Jordan Matthews and his 107 catches for 1,334 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Houston has its own receiving weapon in Deontay Greenberry, who caught 76 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. True freshman quarterback John O’Korn threw for 2,889 yards and 26 touchdowns against only 8 interceptions for a Cougar offense that averaged 33.9 points a game.
Sunday’s Godaddy Bowl features two of the best mid-major programs in recent years with Arkansas State squaring off against Ball State. The Red Wolves have ruled the Sun Belt the past few years, compiling a 27-11 record since 2011, but have been victims of their own success. For the third-consecutive season, ASU’s coach has left after one year to take over another team. Hugh Freeze left in 2011 to take over Ole Miss, Gus Malzahn did it last year (that worked out pretty well), and Bryan Harsin left in December to replace Chris Petersen at Boise State. This year’s team isn’t as explosive as its predecessors after losing some significant talent, but they do take care of the football. Senior quarterback Adam Kennedy is steady and accurate, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes
Ball State posted the third ten-win season in school history but is still looking for its first-ever bowl win. The Cardinals have one of the best offensives in the nation and rank 12th in scoring offense at 40.1 points a game. Senior quarterback Keith Wenning holds a plethora of school passing records and had a stellar 2013 season, throwing for 3,933 yards and 34 touchdowns with only 6 interceptions. His favorite target is wideout Willie Snead, who posted 97 catches for 1,429 yards and 14 touchdowns.
And of course, there is that one other game on Monday night.
The Vizio BCS National Championship game gives us unbeaten and top-ranked Florida State against 12-1 and #2 Auburn. The Seminoles have been dominant this year, winning every game by at least 14 points and all but one by at least 27. They outscored the opposition by an average of 53-10.7. Quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide after completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Florida State isn’t a one-trick pony, either; the Seminoles are nasty on defense, too, leading the nation in scoring defense.
All the lofty stats and rankings may not matter, however, as Florida State’s opponent seems to be a team of destiny. Auburn has taken a difficult path to the title game, needing not one, but two miracle finishes just to get to the SEC title game. A deflected pass on 4th-and-18 turned into a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds remaining to give the Tigers a 43-38 victory over Georgia. That was topped by Chris Davis’ stunning return of a missed field goal for a game-winning touchdown as time expired that resulted in a 34-28 win over archrival Alabama, handing the Crimson Tide its first loss and knocking Alabama out of the national title chase. Then, the Tigers had to outlast Missouri 59-42 in the SEC championship game and wait to see if Ohio State would fall in the Big 10 title game.
Auburn’s defense has struggled this season and figures to get shredded by Winston & Co., but the Tigers have plenty of firepower of their own. Auburn averages over 500 yards of offense and 40 points a game, and running back Tre Mason was a Heisman finalist after rushing for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns. Quarterback Nick Marshall added another 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.