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CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: Top 25

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Yes, I know — another meaningless preseason poll tossed atop the overflowing pile of myriad other meaningless preseason polls.  Just take a deep breath, come to grips with it and move on.

Last year at this time, I had Ohio State, TCU, Auburn and Michigan State Nos. 1-5; only MSU finished the regular season in the Top Five.  2015 national champion Alabama was No. 7 in my preseason rankings — just behind Arizona State, incidentally — while the team the Tide beat for the title, Clemson, was 14th.  Oklahoma, the other of the four College Football Playoff semifinalists, came in at No. 16.

It’s at this point in the program where I introduce the word “Nostradumbass,” and quickly move on.  It’s also at this point where I state, once again, polls should not come until at least the first week of October.  But I digress.

The Big Ten, believe it or not, leads all conferences with six teams in my Top 25, including three of the first eleven.  The ACC, Pac-12 and SEC are next with four teams each, with the Mountain West and Big 12 coming in at two teams apiece.  The AAC and a football independent account for the other two teams.

Below is the entire Top 25, which was a consensus of polls cobbled together by myself and five other individuals who would prefer to remain nameless.  Below that is a poll in which you can vote as to who you feel should start the season No. 1.  Below that is where you may complain and/or whine and/or moan and/or bitch about how disrespected your team and/or conference is.

Enjoy.  And complain/whine/moan/bitch away.

Oklahoma v Oklahoma State1. OKLAHOMA
Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who should’ve been a Heisman finalist a year ago, returns from last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal squad.  So too does leading rusher Samaje Perine, as does 13 other starters.  The Sooners will likely be favored heading into all 12 games this season, with three of their toughest tests, Ohio State, Baylor and Oklahoma State, all being played in Norman.  At least on paper, the Sooners have one of the most talented and experienced teams in the country.   Beware, however, as Bob Stoops‘ squad have, more times than not in recent years, failed to live up to lofty preseason rankings and fallen miserably short of high expectations.

2. ALABAMA
Fun fact: ‘Bama has never started the preseason No. 1 and then gone on to win a national championship under Nick Saban. Unfortunately for the Tide, that’s exactly where the Associated Press has placed them entering 2016. To break that “jinx” and go back-to-back, the Tide will need to lean heavily on a once-again dominant defense as their backfield will be the most inexperienced one Saban has fielded, with presumptive starter Cooper Bateman raw while the two running backs who are expected to carry the load, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, have combined for 264 career rushing yards.

3. FLORIDA STATE
Last year was a quote-unquote “rebuilding year” at FSU, and the Seminoles still managed a 10-win season and a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.  They return nine starters on offense — one of those starters, quarterback Sean Maguire, will begin the season on the sidelines due to injury, replaced by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois — and six on the defensive side of the ball.  Since winning the national championship in 2013, Jimbo Fisher has pulled in recruiting classes ranked second (2016), third (2015) and fourth (2014).  So yes, there’s plenty of talent.  And, perhaps most importantly, they get national runner-up Clemson at home in Tallahassee.

4. CLEMSON
You could easily make the case for Clemson to sit atop this list, and for good reason.  They have the best quarterback in the country returning in Deshaun Watson for what should be his final season of college football.  Watson is one of eight starters on offense who are back for another run at the playoffs, but it’s the other side of the ball where there’s the most concern.  The defense brings back just three starters, and it’s that inexperience that’s keeping them behind the three schools in front of them.  If Brent Venables can quicken the learning curve — after opening at what should be a subpar Auburn team, they get Troy and South Carolina State before opening ACC play at Georgia Tech — the Tigers will be in great shape both in the conference and nationally.

Auburn v LSU5. LSU
A whopping 18 starters return for the Tigers this season from last year’s nine-win team, including arguably the best football player in the country in Leonard Fournette.  They get Alabama and Ole Mis in Death Valley, and none of their four true road games — they play Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in the opener — feature teams currently in the Top 25.  The path is there for a run to the postseason… if, as seemingly is always the case, they can merely get consistent play at the quarterback position.  They don’t need their signal-caller to be a modern-day Dan Marino; rather, they just need Brandon Harris to not throw up all over himself or trip over his own junk.  If they get just average play at the most important position in sports, the Tigers are primed to be players in the postseason once again.

6. NOTRE DAME
And here comes the first screams of “you’re an idiot, Taylor!”  Or “JT!” as the case may be.  The offense will be in good hands whether its DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire pulling the trigger, and whichever one emerges as the starter will have skill players who are talented but raw surrounding him.  More than likely, it’ll be a suspect defense that determines whether this ranking is way too high.  The Irish do play 10 teams who played in bowl games last season, although they’ll have just three true road tests.  They open up and close out the season with a pair of those, at Texas and at USC, that could go a long way in determining where the Golden Domers stand nationally.  Well, those and a mid-October game against Stanford in South Bend.

7. WASHINGTON
And here’s the second.  As I wrote in the Six-Pack of Storylines preview, I’m buying into the Huskies hype.  Jake Browning is ready to take the next step and become one of the elite quarterbacks in the country.  Additionally, UW will, once again, have one of the top defenses in not only the Pac-12 but in the country, period.  Then there’s the 17 returning starters.  How far UW goes conference-wise, and perhaps nationally, could very well likely come down a two-game stretch in Weeks 5 and 6: hosting Stanford Sept. 30, then traveling to Oregon a week later.  Those two teams have had a stranglehold on the Pac-12 North since the conference went to divisions in 2011, with one of those two teams representing the division in the league championship game every season; if UW wants to break their collective hold, they’ll have to drop one of those teams, and possibly both, in that two-game stretch.

8. TCU
Here’s one thing I can state with a fair degree of certainty: the Horned Frogs will play defense at a championship-caliber level this year, as it’s done almost every year under Gary Patterson.  The biggest question marks are on the other side of the ball, with just three starters returning.  The hope is that either Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill or Foster Sawyer can stabilize the quarterback position in replacing Trevone Boykin.  That said, whichever of those two players emerge as the starter won’t have All-American Josh Doctson to throw the ball to, which leaves the receiving corps very thin when it comes to experience and past production.

9. MICHIGAN STATE
Mark Dantonio will only see 10 starters from last year playoff semifinal team take the field in 2016.  Connor Cook, the most decorated quarterback in the program’s history, will be the most difficult starter to replace, and arguably the most important.  Playing in place of the injured Cook, projected starter Tyler O'Connor helped lead — and by “helped lead” I mean “didn’t throw a pick” — MSU to its upset of Ohio State that helped pave the way to the playoffs.  Last year, MSU beat both OSU and Michigan on the road; this year, they get to host both of those rivals in East Lansing.  Before then, however, is a stiff early-season test: a Sept.17 date with Notre Dame in South Bend Week 3.

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee10. TENNESSEE
Year Four for Butch Jones is supposed to be the year all of the recruiting efforts under the head coach are supposed to begin paying dividends.  His first class finished 24th nationally, but classes that were ranked seventh, fourth and 14th have led to high hopes, and even higher expectations, for Volunteer Nation.  In fact, anything less than an SEC East championship will be considered an abject failure by most of the fan base.  The Vols have 17 returning starters from a team that managed a 5-3 record in SEC play, it’s best record in the conference since going 5-3 in 2006.  UT ended the 2015 season on a six-game winning streak, punctuating that strong stretch run with a 39-point bowl blowout of a 10-win Northwestern team.  Add in the fact that their four losses last season (Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama) came by a combined 17 points, and, again, nothing less than a title will sate the masses.

11. OHIO STATE
Urban Meyer calls this 2016 Ohio State squad probably his most talented team ever.  Unfortunately for his Buckeyes, it’s probably his most inexperienced as OSU returns just six starters, the fewest of any Power Five team.  Whether the 2016 team can repeat what the 2014 team did — peak a year earlier than expected and win a national championship — remains to be seen.  The combination of J.T. Barrett starting at quarterback all season long like he should’ve last year along with the talent Top-Seven recruiting classes each of the past four years has added should leave tOSU in good enough shape to contend with Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East.  And, depending on the rate of the youngster’s growth, compete once again on the national stage.

12. HOUSTON
Coming off a 13-1 season, Houston is the media’s darling to crash the playoffs as a Group of Five member even as they return a mere 11 starters.  One of those, though, is Greg Ward Jr., one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country and arguably the Cougar who’s gained  the most from Tom Herman being the head football coach of the program.  Just where the Cougars stand nationally will be known right out of the gate as UH will square off with national power Oklahoma in a neutral-field opener.  They also play two of their main competitors in the AAC West, Navy and Memphis, on the road, while also traveling to face an annual challenger in the East, Cincinnati.  If an inexperienced secondary can improve faster than expected, the Cougars are again poised to make some noise nationally.

13. MICHIGAN
As I wrote in the previous preview, Jim Harbaugh has spent his first 19 months as the head coach at his alma mater Michigan making headlines off the field.  In Year 2 with the Wolverines, is Harbaugh’s bunch ready to make a leap back to the national stage on the field?  The Wolverines find themselves comfortably inside the Top 10 of most preseason polls, so the hype os certainly there.  The schedule sets up well for a strong start, with their toughest games in that stretch, vs. Penn State and Wisconsin, coming in the Big House.  What will decide UM’s fate are three games in October and November: at 2015 East champion Michigan State (Oct. 29), at 2015 West champion Iowa (Nov. 12) and at hated rival Ohio State (Nov. 26).  Those three games will show the whole of college football whether or not Big Blue is really back.

14. UCLA
Coming off a superb true freshman season, Josh Rosen is already considered one of the top young quarterbacks in the country.  In fact, some have pegged him as the first-overall pick of the 2018 draft.  While just three other starters return on his side of the ball, and the Bruins are shifting to a new pro-style offense — his coaches say Rosen had already mastered it to the point he was playing tutor to his teammates in camp — recruiting successes under Jim Mora leaves the Bruins stocked with on-paper talent to replenish those lost.  The defense, meanwhile will return nine starters from an injury-ravaged unit.  At the very least, the Bruins will be in contention all season long for a Pac-12 South title.

Delaware v North Carolina15. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels allowed two touchdowns fewer per game last season than the year before, and they return six defensive starters from that much-improved squad.  While they return seven starters on the other side of the ball, one of those that has to be replaced is record-setting quarterback Marquise Williams.  The good news is that Williams’ replacement, Mitch Trubisky, has plenty of experience, having thrown for 1,014 career yards.  Last season, he completed 85% of his 47 passes, throwing six touchdowns for good measure.  The schedule could prove problematic in getting back to double-digit wins as UNC opens the season on a neutral field against Georgia, then travel to Florida State, Miami and Duke the rest of the year.  Still, the Tar Heels should be a factor in the ACC Coastal race throughout the year.

16. STANFORD
This is the first of a couple of teams who I think I’ll end up regretting putting too low to start.  Christian McCaffrey is one of the top all-around talents in the history of the game, and is poised to improve on a spectacular season that saw him in New York City as a Heisman finalist.  The schedule, however, could prove problematic.  They play USC at home in Week 3, then face three tough road games in a span of four weeks: at UCLA (Sept. 24), at Washington (Sept. 30) and at Notre Dame (Oct. 15).  Then, later in the year, they travel to Eugene to face Oregon.  It’s certainly not an insurmountable slate, but it doesn’t bode well for a team needing to replace 13 starters.

17. BOISE STATE
The second of three Group of Five teams in my Top 25, Boise is set to bounce back from a four-loss season in their second year under Bryan Harsin.  The offense is in fine shape as it returns eight starters from a year ago, including true sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien.  The defense is a concern, especially the defensive line as all four starters need replaced.  The schedule, though, sets up well as the Broncos will face just a single team on the road that had a winning record a year ago.

18. LOUISVILLE
After winning six of their last seven games last season, Louisville is seemingly poised to provide Clemson and Florida State with a challenge in the ACC Atlantic.  The Cardinals nearly derailed the Tigers’ early-season title hopes but came up three points shy of the upset.  That was followed a month later by a 20-point loss to the Seminoles.  With 16 returning starters, including superb dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, the talent is certainly there for the U of L to, potentially, compete with the big boys of the division.

19. SAN DIEGO STATE
This is the second one I think I may have too low.  Coming off a school-record-tying 11-win season, the Aztecs return 13 starters from a team that wiped the Hawaiian Islands’ floor with Cincinnati in their 42-7 bowl win.  Seemingly the only thing standing between SDSU and a 9-0 start to this season is a road trip to Cal in Week 2.  Another road trip, to Nevada Nov. 12, could very well determine the West Division’s representative in the MWC title game.

TCU v Oklahoma State20. OKLAHOMA STATE
If Jimi Hendrix were alive and asked the Cowboys the question, “are you experienced,” the answer would be a resounding yes.  Not only does OSU return 16 of their starters from the team that won 10 games a year ago, nearly 40 players from the two-deep depth chart are back as well.  After winning their first 10 games in 2015, they ended the season on a down note as the Cowboys lost their last three games by a combined 73 points.  That skid notwithstanding, the Cowboys have the kind of depth, talent and experience that can help them compete with Oklahoma and TCU in the Big 12.  The schedule doesn’t do them any favors, though, as they face both of those teams on the road, as well as Baylor.

21. IOWA
Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons likely won’t be in the cards for Iowa, but the Hawkeyes should still be the class of the Big Ten West.  There’s good news on the scheduling front, though, as they again avoid both Ohio State and Michigan while they get Michigan and West rival Nebraska at home.  They will, though, have to travel to Evanston to face Northwestern.  The way things are set up, Iowa would have to be considered a decided favorite to come out of the West and face the surviving beast of the East.

22. OLE MISS
Ole Miss finished the 2016 season on a high, beating LSU by 21, knocking off rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and trouncing Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.  The Rebels have the most talented quarterback in the SEC, Chad Kelly, and get Alabama — who they’ve beat each of the last two seasons — Georgia and MSU at home.  Just where Ole Miss stands in the big picture will be clear immediately as they will square off against Florida State in the opener.

23. NEBRASKA
Mike Riley‘s first season in Lincoln was a miserable one as the Cornhuskers’ dropped seven games, the most losses since the 2007 season.  That could be considered deceiving, however, as five of those losses were by five points or less — including two last-second losses and one in overtime — while the other two losses were by a combined 18 points.  Th road schedule is tough this season, with games at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern on tap; there’s a home game against Oregon thrown in for good measure.

24. OREGON
Before the year is over, I have a sneaking suspicion that this positioning will be way too low.  The Ducks have won at least nine games in each of the last nine seasons, and they have the kind of schedule that points to making it an even 10.  Two newcomers will likely determine whether the Ducks make it to double digits in that category: Dakota Prukop and Brady Hoke.  The former is the second straight FCS-to-FBS quarterback transfer for the Ducks, and he will be surrounded by the most talented skill players in the Pac-12 as he makes the transition up the college football ladder.  The latter will take over a Ducks defense that was 115th in the country in points per game and 116th in red zone efficiency.  Anything the former Michigan head coach provides will be considered an upgrade.

25. NORTHWESTERN
A 39-point loss to Tennessee in the bowl game put a damper on a season that saw the Wildcats win 10 games for just the fourth time in the program’s history.  The schedule will make a double-digit repeat extremely difficult as Northwestern will be forced to take road trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.  Pat Fitzgerald, with six returning starters on each side of the ball, will have his work cut out for him this season.

ACC media poll has Clemson repeating as conference champions

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DeShaun Watson is back from last year’s College Football Playoff runner-up, and with that, there was little debate in the ACC media poll about who will repeat as conference champions in 2016.

Clemson, with 144 votes, was picked to repeat as ACC champions in the conference’s annual media poll. Florida State (39), North Carolina (seven) and Louisville (one) also received votes.

Watson, the Tigers’ junior quarterback, was picked to be the ACC Player of the Year with 164 votes. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (18), North Carolina running back Elijah Hood (four), Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya (two), Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson (two) and Duke cornerback/returner DeVon Edwards (one) also received player of the year votes.

Here’s how the voting broke down by division, with first-place votes in parentheses:

Atlantic                    
1. Clemson (148) – 1,293
2. Florida State (42) – 1,176
3. Louisville (1) – 961
4. NC State – 704
5. Boston College – 441
6. Syracuse – 426
7. Wake Forest – 347
Coastal                
1. North Carolina (121) – 1,238
2. Miami (50) – 1,108
3. Pitt (14) – 859
4. Virginia Tech (3) – 697
5. Duke (2) – 597
6. Georgia Tech (1) – 588
7. Virginia – 261

ACC releases list of players attending media days

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The SEC’s done it.  So have the Big 12 and Big Ten.  Now, it’s another Power Five’s turn to do.

The it, as the headline suggests, is the players attending media days, which the ACC revealed to the masses Monday afternoon.  The 14 teams that make up the ACC will send, along with their head coaches, two players from each of their teams to the July 21-22 event in Charlotte.

In a refreshing change, as many linebackers ( six) will be in attendance as quarterbacks (six).  Four defensive linemen have been invited, three each of running backs, offensive linemen and defensive backs will take part.  Interestingly, two of the three linemen are centers, while all three defensive backs are cornerbacks.

Also, for those interested, one punter is on the list — Miami’s Justin Vogel.

Below is the complete list of attendees for the 2016 ACC Media Days:

Boston College
Myles Willis, Running Back, 5-9, 194, Senior, Conyers, Ga.
Matt Milano, Linebacker, 6-1, 218, Senior, Orlando, Fla.

Clemson
Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, 6-2, 210, Junior, Gainesville, Ga.
Ben Boulware, Linebacker, 5-11, 240, Senior, Anderson, S.C.

Duke
Thomas Sirk, Quarterback, 6-4, 220, Senior-R, Glen St. Mary, Fla.
DeVon Edwards, Cornerback, 5-9, 180, Senior-R, Covington, Ga.

Florida State
Dalvin Cook, Running Back, 5-11, 206, Junior, Fla., Miami, Fla.
DeMarcus Walker, Defensive End, 6-3, 273, Senior, Jacksonville, Fla.

Georgia Tech
Justin Thomas, Quarterback, 5-11, 185, Senior-R, Prattville, Ala.
Patrick Gamble, Defensive Line, 6-5, 277, Senior, Carrollton, Ga.

Louisville
Lamar Jackson, Quarterback, 6-3, 196, Sophomore, Boynton Beach, Fla.
Keith Kelsey, Linebacker, 6-1, 236, Senior, Gainesville, Fla.

Miami
Brad Kaaya, Quarterback, 6-4, 210, Junior, Los Angeles, Calif.
Justin Vogel, Punter, 6-4, 208, Senior, Tampa, Fla.

North Carolina
Ryan Switzer, Wide Receiver-Punt Returner, 5-10, 185, Senior, Charleston, W.Va.
Des Lawrence, Cornerback, 6-1, 185, Senior, Charlotte, N.C.

North Carolina State
Matthew Dayes, Running Back, 5-9, 203, Senior, Weston, Fla.
Jack Tocho, Cornerback, 6-0, 200, Senior, Charlotte, N.C.

Pittsburgh
Nathan Peterman, Quarterback, 6-2, 225, Senior-R, Jacksonville, Fla.
Ejuan Price, Defensive End, 6-0, 250, Senior-R, Rankin, Pa.

Syracuse
Jason Emerich, Center, 6-3, 284, Senior-R, New Ringgold, Pa.
Zaire Franklin, Linebacker, 6-0, 229, Junior, Philadelphia, Pa.

Virginia
Jackson Matteo, Center, 6-5, 290, Senior-R, Ashburn, Va.
Micah Kiser, Linebacker, 6-2, 245, Junior-R, Baltimore, Md.

Virginia Tech
Sam Rogers, Fullback, 5-10, 228, Senior, Mechanicsville, Va.
Ken Ekanem, Defensive End, 6-3, 255, Senior-R, Centreville, Va.

Wake Forest
Tyler Hayworth, Offensive Tackle, 6-4, 325, Senior-R, Kingsport, Tenn.
Marquel Lee, Linebacker, 6-3, 235, Senior, Waldorf, Md.

Louisville starts fast, hangs on to beat Texas A&M in Music City Bowl

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Louisville exploded for 20 first quarter points and then hung on for dear life to hand Texas A&M a 27-21 defeat in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Wednesday night in Nashville.

The Cardinals were keyed by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who accounted for all four of Louisville’s touchdowns on the night. He raced in from six yards out on the Cardinals’ opening drive, then hit Micky Crum on a two-yard toss at the 5:22 mark of the first quarter to stake Louisville to a 13-0 lead.

After Tra Carson juked his way in for a nine-yard score on the ensuing possession, Jackson raced 61 yards to the house on Louisville’s next touch, pushing the Cardinals’ advantage to 20-7 with 1:14 still remaining in the first quarter.

And then the game turned into an ugly, chippy, ugly, grudge-filled and did I say ugly affair over the final three quarters. Jake Hubenak, making his first career start following the transfers of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, found Ricky Seals-Jones for a four-yard scoring toss — capping an eight-play, 97-yard drive — with 1:51 to go in the first half.

Jackson then notched the only score of the third quarter, a 17-yard strike to Keith Towbridge, to give Louisville its third 13-point lead of the night.

Accepting the ball at its own 14 with 6:58 to play in the game, the Aggies raced 86 yards in eight plays, the final one a 29-yard toss from Hubenak to Christian Kirk, to pull within 27-21 with just under five minutes to play. Texas A&M immediately forced a three-and-out, then methodically forced its way down field on a would-be game-winning drive. The march appeared to stall after an incomplete pass on 4th-and-10 at the Lousiville 41, but James Hearns was flagged for hands to the face, providing the Aggies new life. Hubenak appeared to hit Kirk for a complete pass that would have given Texas A&M a first-and-goal, but the completion was overturned on review, instead sentencing Texas A&M to a 3rd-and-8 at the Louisville 24.

Hubenak fired incomplete on the two following plays, and Louisville consumed the final 90 seconds to seal the win.

Jackson, a freshman, completed 12-of-26 passes for 222 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing 22 times for 226 yards and two more scores, allowing the Boynton Beach, Fla., native to join Vince Young (2006 Rose Bowl) and Johnny Manziel (2013 Cotton Bowl) as the only players in FBS history to record a 200/200 bowl game.

Hubenak hit 28-of-48 passes for 307 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while Carson led the Aggies with 20 carries for 106 yards and one score. Kirk and Josh Reynolds carried the vast majority of the Aggies’ passing game, combining to catch 21 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown.

Louisville out-gained Texas A&M 534-445, and Jackson edged the Aggies by himself, 448-445. The teams combined to post more penalties (19) than third-down conversions (11).

The loss dropped Texas A&M to 8-5 on the year, and handed Kevin Sumlin his first non-conference defeat in 20 tries. The loss, however, meant the Aggies’ win total has decreased or remained the same for the third consecutive year under Sumlin after an 11-2 debut in 2012. This season also marked the second straight year the Aggies finished 8-5 after starting 5-0.

Lousville closes at 8-5 as well, but the end result doesn’t feel nearly as identical as the numbers indicate. The Cardinals started the year 0-3 and rebounded to win eight of their final 10 games.

And there is, of course, the matter of one team’s quarterback position is in shambles while the other just saw its freshman post one of the better bowl games in college football history.

That’s music to Bobby Petrino‘s ears.

 

CFT Previews: Your Dec. 30 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

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Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 30 bowl menu, which features seven Power Five teams, including a pair of ACC-SEC matchups.

WHO: Auburn (6-6) vs. Memphis (9-3)
WHAT: The 10th Birmingham Bowl
WHERE: Legion Field, Birmingham, Alabama
WHEN: Noon ET, ESPN
THE LINE: Memphis, +3
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. Mississippi State (8-4)
WHAT: The 14th Belk Bowl
WHERE:
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
THE SKINNY: If you’re a fan of multi-dimensional quarterbacks, this matchup is one helluva way to close out 2015.  Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott is 26th nationally in passing efficiency while his counterpart, North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brissett, is sixth in the ACC in that very category.  Prescott also leads his team in rushing, while Brissett is fourth on the Wolfpack on the ground.  If you’re the opposing secondary and looking to get the ball back via a turnover good luck as the two quarterbacks have combined to throw eight interceptions — four apiece — in 802 attempts this season.  Should MSU grab its fourth bowl win (in six tries) under Dan Mullen, it would mark the first time in the football program’s history that the Bulldogs have won nine or more games in back-to-back seasons.  An NCSU win would give Dave Doeren eight wins for the second time in his first three seasons, the first Wolfpack coach to pull off that trick his first three seasons since Chuck Amato in 2000 (8-4) and 2002 (11-3).  And a factoid that might only interest me?  The Wolfpack’s last bowl win against a team from the SEC came back in 1994 against… the Starkville Bulldogs.  That said, history likely won’t repeat itself as MSU is playing for the beloved Prescott and wants desperately to send the senior out on a winning note.  That emotion should prove to be the difference, especially in a game that could very well be decided by the two opposing offenses.
THE LINE: North Carolina State, +6
THE PREDICTION: Mississippi State 48, North Carolina State 45

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WHO: Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Louisville (7-5)
WHAT: The 18th Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
WHERE:
WHEN: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
THE SKINNY: The biggest question mark surrounding this game is what exactly Texas A&M will get under center.  A&M has already seen the quarterback who began the 2015 season as the starter decide to transfer… and then watched as the player who finished the 2015 season as the starter bolt as well.  With Kyle Allen (the former) and Kyler Murray (the latter) gone, enter Jake Hubenak, he of the stat line that includes 12-of-27 passing for 92 yards and a touchdown in his career.  Conversely, Louisville is very stable at the position for the foreseeable future as true freshman Lamar Jackson has grabbed the job by the throat, becoming one of just a handful of FBS quarterbacks to lead his team in passing and rushing.  The much-improved Aggies defense, though, has shown the ability to contain running quarterbacks this season, although the Prescott mentioned up above did manage 96 yards in a losing effort in early October.  And then there is sophomore Myles Garrett, the Aggies defensive end who is tied for sixth nationally with 11.5 sacks and could prove to be a very disruptive force for such a young player.  With a win, the Aggies will extend their bowl winning streak to five straight… a skein that comes on the heels of losing five in a row.  The U of L could end their 2015 season with back-to-back wins over teams from the SEC for the first time in program history, and could also beat a team from that conference in a bowl game for the first time since 1990 (Alabama, Fiesta Bowl).  One final note: expect Kevin Sumlin‘s name to be very much a part of the NFL coaching carousel once the final gun sounds on this game, regardless of whether the Aggies win or lose.
THE LINE: Texas A&M, +4½
THE PREDICTION: Louisville 27, Texas A&M 26

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WHO: USC (8-5) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)
WHAT: The 38th National Funding Holiday Bowl
WHERE:
WHEN: 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
THE LINE: Wisconsin, +3½
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.