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2015: A Look Ahead

Johnny Carson Carnac

What’s that you say?  It’s barely stopped raining confetti following  and we’re already talking about a 2015 season that won’t start for another eight months or so?

You’re damn right I am.  And you know why?  ’Cause that’s how I roll.  Or something.

After a one-year sabbatical because of health-related issues — Urban Meyer is my muse — “A Look Ahead” is back, replete with numerous predictions that will, for the most part, prove to be criminally wrong as I’m the resident Nostradumbass.  In the “A Look Ahead” for the 2013 season, my early Top Five was Alabama, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Oregon and Stanford.  Two of those teams finished in the final BCS Top Five (Tide, No. 3; Cardinal, No. 5), although the Buckeyes were just outside at No. 7.  The other two were 10th (Ducks) and 21st (Aggies), so, in actuality, the year before last wasn’t all that bad compared to 2012. (my gawd, USC, unranked at season’s end, No. 1?)

Or 2011. (Oklahoma, which finished 14th, topping the Top Five?)

Or 2010. (Not a single team finished inside the final Top Five, and two — Texas and Iowa — weren’t even ranked at season’s end) (I had had Iowa ranked No. 5?!?!?) [/facepalm]

In other words, enjoy this for what it is: for entertainment purposes only, meaning all y’all can entertain yourselves making fun of me in the comments section.

FOUR COMPELLING STORYLINES

1. BUCKEYES’ QB CONUNDRUM
They say if you have two quarterbacks you don’t have any; what happens when you have three?

There’s no road map for Ohio State in this situation as it’s unprecedented: three quarterbacks who have shown that they are very capable of playing at a very high level and winning football games for the Buckeyes.  Braxton Miller, a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year knocked out for the season with a shoulder injury.  J.T. Barrett, 11-1 as a starter and in the thick of the Heisman discussion when a serious leg injury knocked him out of the regular-season finale.  Cardale Jones, who’s first three starts included wins in the Big Ten championship game, the Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal and the CFP title game.  All three of those players could be back in 2015.  Barring a transfer, which direction will they go at the most important position on the field?  Barrett showed that, in his first season as a starter, that he was already a much better passer than Miller and nearly as big of a threat on the ground.  Jones, though, showed that he might be a better overall option for OSU’s passing game as he can stretch the field and is extremely effective in getting yards on the ground as well.

The best guess is that Miller, already the subject of significant speculation, decides to transfer out at some point between now and spring practice, which he likely won’t be able to participate in any way as he’s not expected to be healthy enough quite yet.  Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, it’s one helluva dilemma for Urban Meyer and his offensive coaching staff to have.

2. SEC TITLE DROUGHT
For nearly a decade, chants of “S-E-C!!! S-E-C!!! S-E-C!!!” would rain down at season’s end.  The past two years, however, it’s been S-E-C ya when it comes to titles.

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CFT Previews: The College Football Playoff championship game

CFP Trophy AP

WHO
No. 2 Oregon (13-1) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (13-1)

WHAT
The College Football Playoff championship game, presented by AT&T

WHEN
8:30 p.m. ET

WHERE
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Tex.

HEAD COACHES
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (37-3 in three years with Buckeyes, 141-26 overall)
Oregon’s Mark Helfrich (24-3 in two seasons with Ducks)

 

STATISTICAL LEADERS
Ohio State
Rushing: Ezekiel Elliott, 1,632 yards, 14 touchdowns
Receiving: Michael Thomas, 50 receptions; Devin Smith, 886 yards, 12 touchdowns
Punt returns: Jalin Marshall, 12 yards per on 21 returns, one touchdown
Kick returns: Dontre Wilson. 24 yards per
Punting: Cameron Johnston, 45.3 yards per, 24 of 45 inside 20
Tackles: Joshua Perry, 118
Tackles for loss: Joey Bosa, 20
Sacks: Joey Bosa, 13.5
Interceptions: Vonn Bell, six
Passes defensed: Doran Grant, 14

Oregon
Rushing: Royce Freeman, 1,343 yards, 18 touchdowns
Receiving: Byron Marshall, 66 receptions, 834 yards; Devon Allen, seven touchdowns
Punt returns: Charles Nelson, 15.5 per on 11 returns, two touchdowns
Kick returns: Devon Allen, 26.1 per on eight returns
Punting: Ian Wheeler, 39 yards per, 10 of 41 inside 20
Tackles: Erick Dargan, 90
Tackles for loss: DeForest Buckner, 13
Sacks: Tony Washington, six
Interceptions: Erick Dargan, seven
Passes defensed: Troy Hill, 19

STATISTICAL MATCHUPS
Ohio State’s 10th-ranked rush offense (262.2 ypg) vs. Oregon’s 50th-ranked run defense (154.2 ypg)
UO’s 18th-ranked rush offense (241.9 ypg) vs. OSU’s 33rd-ranked run defense (139.8 ypg)
OSU’s 52-ranked pass offense (247.5 yp) vs. UO’s 103rd-ranked pass defense (259.5 ypg)
UO’s 11th-ranked pass offense (311 ypg) vs. OSU’s 17th-ranked pass defense (188.2 ypg)
OSU’s 5th-ranked scoring offense (45 ppg) vs. UO’s 29th-ranked scoring defense (22.5 ppg)
UO’s second-ranked scoring offense (47.2 ppg)) vs. 23rd-ranked scoring defense (21.2 ppg)

STAT THAT MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING… OR NOTHING
Oregon is 115th out 125 teams in penalty yards per game at 72, while Ohio State is 46th at 48.46 ypg.  The Ducks are 116th in penalties per game (8.07) and the Buckeyes are 51st (5.64).

COMMON OPPONENTS
Michigan State.  Oregon won 46-27 in Eugene Sept. 6, Ohio State won 49-37 in East Lansing Nov. 8.

LOSSES
Ohio State: 35-21 to Virginia Tech (7-6) in Columbus Sept. 6
Oregon: 31-24 to No. 10 Arizona (10-3) in Eugene Oct. 2

PORTFOLIO
Wins vs. bowl teams: Ohio State 11, Oregon 8
Wins vs. current CFP Top 25 teams: OSU 4, UO 5
Wins in true road games: OSU 4, UO 5
Wins by 10-plus points: OSU 10, UO 12

Wandering Webfoots

NOTES TO NOTE
— Ohio State and Oregon played in the first-ever NCAA men’s basketball championship game in 1939. The Ducks won by a score of 46-33, and it’s very possible that both team will top the winning cager’s point total in this title matchup.

— Ohio State is 8-0 all-time vs. Oregon on the gridiron. The first game was played in the Rose Bowl following the 1957 season, the last coming in the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season. Of the six games played in between those two Rose Bowls, five were played in Columbus and one in Eugene. The average margin of victory for the Buckeyes is 16.6, with the Ducks not scoring more than 17 points in any of those contests.

— There are three players (tight end Pharaoh Brown, defensive back Troy Hill, wide receiver Dwayne Stanford) from the state of Ohio listed on Oregon’s roster, while there are no players from the state of Oregon listed on Ohio State’s roster. Neither coaching staff has any assistants who are from the opposite state.

— 23 Ducks were born in Oregon, while 62 Buckeyes hail from Ohio. Seven of Urban Meyer‘s nine assistants, the lone exceptions being co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chris Ash and defensive line coach/assistant head coach Larry Johnson, were born in Ohio. Meyer was as well.

— Ohio State claims seven national championships, the first in 1942 and the last in 2002. Oregon has never won a national championship since it began playing football in 1915.

— The three finalists for the 2014 Heisman Trophy were Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper and Oregon quarterback, and winner, Marcus Mariota. The Buckeyes beat Gordon’s Badgers in the Big Ten championship game, then in their next game beat Cooper’s Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

— In the 2007 BCS title game, Meyer’s Florida Gators beat Ohio State and Heisman winner Troy Smith 41-14. In the 2009 BCS title game, Meyer’s Gators beat the Oklahoma Sooners and Heisman winner Sam Bradford 24-14.

OHIO STATE WINS IF…
Cardale Jones remains Cardale Jones and doesn’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight.

Jones, who found himself third on the quarterback depth chart in mid-August, has started the past two games and showed absolutely no signs that the stage was too big for him.  In 69 pass attempts this season, including 52 in the wins over Wisconsin and Alabama, Jones has thrown just one interception.  Some of the most impressive throws for Jones, nicknamed 12-gauge for both his number and arm strength, have been his decisions to throw the ball away and live to play another down.

In the Ducks, Jones will be facing a defense that intercepted just 12 passes this season (their .857 picks per game is 75th nationally) and has shown a propensity to give up yards in chunks through the air.  Jones, and the stout OSU rushing attack led by Ezekiel Elliott for that matter, will get their yardage if the defensive theme from the 2014 season continues.  The Buckeyes need to capitalize on their scoring chances and, again, avoid the turnovers on which the Ducks’ offense thrives and, ultimately, buries the opposition.

Big plays have been a staple of OSU’s offense, especially after Jones took over.  However, given their opposition’s offensive firepower, long, sustained drives — that end in touchdowns, not field goals — might be in order as it looks to keep the Ducks off the field.

Rose Bowl - Oregon v Florida State

Rose Bowl – Oregon v Florida State

OREGON WINS IF…
… it creates turnovers and general havoc around an inexperienced quarterback.

OK, maybe not at the level of the semifinal blowout of Florida State, when the Seminoles coughed the ball up five times in looking like a team that hadn’t played the game in years, but the Ducks will need to, as they have all season long, continue creating turnovers in what’s expected to be a back-and-forth offensive affair.  This season, the Ducks are plus-20 in turnover margin, the best in the country this season.  Just as importantly, the Ducks need to capitalize off the turnovers like they did in the semifinal, scoring touchdowns after all five Seminole miscues.  In UO’s lone loss of the season, to Arizona, the Ducks were unable to score any points off of the Wildcats’ two turnovers.

In OSU’s only loss of the year, to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes turned it over three times to the Hokies’ defense.  Overall, the Buckeyes are T-61st in turnovers lost with 22, so there could be opportunities for the Ducks’ defense to get the ball back for its high-powered offense.

Both teams have shown all season long that, for the most part, no defense will stop their respective offenses for any appreciable length of time.  Thus, a safe bet is that whichever team wins the turnover battle will stand a better-than-average chance of winning the game. It may be trite or a cliché, but that, the number of turnovers, will very likely prove to be the bottom line.

Sean Nuernberger

Sean Nuernberger

IF IT COMES DOWN TO A FIELD GOAL…
… Ohio State could be screwed.

Sean Nuernberger has made just 13 of his 20 field-goal attempts this season.  He’s missed half of his 10 attempts from between 40-49 yards, and hasn’t attempted one from beyond 50.

Meanwhile, two Oregon kickers, Aidan Schneider and Matt Wogan, have combined to make 16 of the team’s 19 field-goal attempts.   Oddly enough, though, they’ve missed four extra point attempts this season, while Nuernberger has made all 83 of his point afters.

When it comes to punting and the possibility of flipping field position, though, that’s a decided advantage for OSU.  Cameron Johnston is one of the top punters in the country, averaging 45.3 yards per punt (seventh nationally).  He’s put 24 of his 45 punts inside the 20-yard line, and 16 of his efforts went 50 or more yards.

Conversely, UO’s punter, Ian Wheeler, averaged just 39 yards per punt, with only 10 of his 41 boots pinning the opposition inside the 20.

Devon Allen

Devon Allen

INJURY REPORT
This is another significant advantage, Ohio State.

Devon Allen, Oregon’s kick return and receiving touchdown leader, has already been ruled out after sustaining a knee injury on the opening kickoff of the Florida State win.  And that’s on top of its top cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, having missed the playoffs because of a significant knee injury and its top tight end, Pharaoh Brown, out with a gruesome injury sustained in early November, out as well.  The Ducks’ top offensive linemen have been beat up to varying degrees throughout the season, but are all relatively healthy and will play in the title game.

While not an injury, there will be another absence of significance for the Ducks as second-leading receiver, yardage-wise, Darren Carrington will miss the title game because of a failed drug test.  Special teams ace Ayele Forde will not play either because of his own suspension for a failed drug test.  The injuries and suspensions, though, means that the Ducks will be without three of their top five pass-catchers in 2014 for the biggest game in the football program’s history.

For OSU, they are relatively healthy for having played 14 games, (likely) getting back top tight end Jeff Heuerman and running back Dontre Wilson (broken foot) for good measure. Heuerman, despite missing four complete games, is tied for the team lead among tight ends with 17 receptions while Wilson is sixth on the team with 112 rushing yards and fifth in receptions with 21.

Wilson, incidentally, is from Texas and was originally committed to the Ducks before flipping to the Buckeyes in February of 2013.

FASHION REPORT
For those into this kind of thing — not that there’s anything wrong with it — below are the uniforms that both teams will be wearing during Monday night’s first-ever CFP championship game:

CFP Uniforms

(Photo credit: Nike)

THE LINE
Ohio State, +7 (opened +7)
Over/under, 73½

THE PREDICTION
Ohio State 48, Oregon 43

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What to watch? The Army All-American Bowl on NBC, that’s what

Andrew Luck

We’ve witnessed the college stars of today put their best postseason foot forward over the last couple of weeks. Saturday afternoon, some of the brightest future stars of the sport will do the same.

At one p.m. ET on your local NBC affiliate, top high school prospects from all over the country will gather in San Antonio’s Alamodome for the 15th annual US Army All-American Bowl. The game, again broadcast on NBC, features 90 of the of the highest-ranked recruits, who are then split into East and West squads.

As for the quality of players in this game? There are more than 200 former US Army All-Americans who are currently on NFL rosters. Some of the former Army game participants include Ndamukong Suh, Adrian Peterson, Vince Young, Andrew Luck (pictured), Reggie Bush, Sheldon Richardson, Mark Sanchez and Percy Harvin among many, many others.

While the play on the field is worth watching, it’s the on-camera verbal commitments that some of the players will make that garners most of the attention. In that vein, we’ll have a running wrap-up of those commitments, including videos of some of the more high-profile verbals.

So, if the Birmingham Bowl’s not your thing, stop in to CFT and tune into NBC to see the future stars in action. And if you’re not around a television and want to watch the game? Click HERE for NBCSports.com‘s live stream of the action.

(Photo credit: US Army All-American Bowl)

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CFT Previews: Your Jan. 2 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Joshua Dobbs AP

Taking a quick-hit look at the Jan. 2 bowl menu, the final multi-game day of the 2014-2015 postseason.

WHO: Houston (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
WHAT: The 12th Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
WHERE: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Tex.
WHEN: noon ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: You could very easily dub this one the Interim Coaches Armed Forces Bowl as both squads will be led by someone other than the one who did the leading during the regular season. Houston’s Tony Levine was replaced by Tom Herman, the Ohio State offensive coordinator who stayed with the Buckeyes for their playoff run, while Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst returned home to Wisconsin.  Regardless of what you dub it, it marks the third meeting between the football programs and the first since 1997.  Pitt is a team of streaks, having won its first three games of the season and its last two, while a stretch in the middle portion of the schedule featured a pair of three-game losing streaks wrapped around a win over Virginia Tech.  Both teams are middling scoring offenses, but UH is 12th in the country in points per game at 19.5.  The Panthers, meanwhile, eclipsed that total in 11 of 12 games.  Pitt will also look to prop up its conference’s subpar postseason record this go around, with the ACC currently struggling along at 4-6.  That’s fourth among the Power Five conferences, ahead of only the Big 12’s 1-4 mark.  Perhaps the most interesting matchup will be Houston’s run defense vs. James Conner as the latter is fifth in the country in rushing yards per game at 139.6 while the former is 29th at 136.3 ypg.  UH has only given up 14 rushing touchdowns, while Conner’s 24 are tied for third nationally.
THE LINE: Houston, +3
THE PREDICTION: Houston 26, Pittsburgh 17

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WHO: Iowa (7-5) vs. Tennessee (6-6)
WHAT: The 70th TaxSlayer Bowl
WHERE: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
WHEN: 3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY:  The last of four Big Ten-SEC bowl matchups (the Big Ten currently leads 2-1) is the third matchup between the two football programs.  The only other postseason game between the two was the 1982 Peach Bowl, a 28-22 Hawkeye win.  After struggling through the first two-thirds of the season at 3-5, Butch Jones righted the listing ship to push the Vols to their first bowl game since after the 2010 season.  The bad news for the Vols is that they struggle sometimes to score as they average 23.4 points per game — that number drops to 16.6 ppg if you take out the 95 combined points in wins over South Carolina and Kentucky — while the Hawkeyes give up 24 points per game, 35th in the country.  The player I’ll be watching the closest?  UT quarterback Josh Dobbs, who is a star in the making.  The sophomore had a game for the ages against the Gamecocks, and the Vols went 3-1 in games he started.  While the Vols struggled to score for most of the 2014 season, they didn’t when Dobbs was under center.  That could very well be the difference in the contest.
THE LINE: Iowa, +3½
THE PREDICTION: Tennessee 31, Iowa 28

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WHO: Kansas State (9-3) vs. UCLA (9-3)
WHAT: The 22nd Valero Alamo Bowl
WHERE: Alamodome, San Antonio, Tex.
WHEN: 6:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: As mentioned earlier, the Big 12 is struggling mightily this postseason, and it could really use a quality win to salvage something from what’s been a lost bowl season.  And, fortunately for that conference, K-State is just the team that can do that; whether they do it is another matter entirely.  The Wildcats have one of the best offenses and defenses in not only the league but in the country, entering the third-ever meeting between the teams (last: 2010) 24th nationally in scoring offense (35.8 ppg) and 25th in scoring defense (21.8 ppg).  The fact that K-State can put points up on the board doesn’t bode well for a UCLA defense that is currently 75th nationally and ninth in the Pac-12 by giving up 27.5 ppg.  Eight times this season, the Bruins gave up 30 or more points; in all three of their losses, they gave up 30-plus points.  K-State has struggled in the postseason of late, though, going just 1-5 in its last six bowl games.  They did, however, claim the 2013 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, so they have that going for them.  Which is nice.
THE LINE: Kansas State, +1½
THE PREDICTION: Kansas State 44, UCLA 31

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WHO: Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
WHAT: The 26th TicketCity Cactus Bowl
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
WHEN: 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: In a weird oddity, this is the fourth of the four games today that marks the third-ever meeting between the two teams.  If you had to pick a squad with momentum heading into this game, it would have to be Washington as Oklahoma State lost five of its last six games to close out a disappointing campaign.  All five of those losses, incidentally, came by at least 21 points.  The Huskies haven’t exactly been world-beaters of late, though, as, prior to winning its last two games, dropped five of seven.  There likely isn’t a more uneven mismatch, at least on paper, in this 2014-15 postseason than Oklahoma State’s offensive line vs. Washington’s front seven.  OSU has given up 37 sacks this season, tied for 17th-worst in the country; UW’s defense is second in the country in sacks with 49.  If the Cowboys can’t protect their quarterback, it could very well be a long day as they likely won’t even have a running game on which to fall back — OSU is an abysmal 102nd (135.3 yards per game) out of the 128 teams at the FBS level.  Even worse?  The Huskies are 21st in run defense at 121.9 ypg.  Yes, there’s a reason why OSU is nearly a touchdown underdog as this is just not a good matchup for the Big 12 squad.
THE LINE: Oklahoma State, +6
THE PREDICTION: Washington 27, Oklahoma State 13

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CFT Previews: Your Jan. 1 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Barry Alvarez

Taking a quick-hit look at the Jan. 1 bowl menu, which on the first day of 2015  features the first-ever College Football playoff semifinal games.

WHO: Auburn (8-4) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
WHAT: The 29th Outback Bowl
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
WHEN: Noon ET on ESPN2
THE SKINNY: This the first of three Big Ten-SEC New Year’s Day matchups, and the former conference needs at least two wins — with one coming in the big one to cap off the night — to help its flagging reputation.  That task, though, won’t be easy right out of the gate.  Auburn lost its last three games of the 2014 regular season, including the last two, to Georgia and Alabama, by a combined 38 points.  Wisconsin, meanwhile, closed out the season on a 7-1 run; that one loss, however, was a 59-0 embarrassment to Ohio State that setup tonight’s OSU-Alabama semifinal showdown.  The Badgers also bring a four-game bowl losing streak into the game, while the Tigers have won 8 of their last 10 bowl games.  Another bad sign for UW? AU runs an offense that some would consider eerily reminiscent of OSU’s, the same one that waylaid the Big Ten West champs in the conference title tilt.  This meeting, incidentally, will mark the fourth between the two football programs, and the first since the 2006 Capital One Bowl.
THE LINE: Wisconsin +7
THE PREDICTION: Auburn 41, Wisconsin 34

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WHO: No. 8 Michigan State (10-2) vs. No. 5 Baylor (11-1)
WHAT: The 78th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Dallas, Tex.
WHEN: 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Missouri (10-3) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
WHAT: The 68th Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
WHERE: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
WHEN: 1 p.m. p.m. ET on ABC
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: No. 2 Oregon (12-1) vs. No. 3 Florida State (13-0)
WHAT: The 101st Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual
WHERE: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
WHEN: 5 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: No. 1 Alabama (12-1) vs. No. 4 Ohio State (12-1)
WHAT: The 81st Allstate Sugar Bowl
WHERE: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 31 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

AP Poll New Years Eve AP

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 31 bowl menu, which on the last day of 2014  features the first three of the so-called New Year’s Six games.

WHO: No. 9 Ole Miss (9-3) vs. No. 6 TCU (11-1)
WHAT: The 47th Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
WHEN: 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: No. 20 Boise State (11-2) vs. No. 10 Arizona (10-3)
WHAT: The 44th VIZIO Fiesta Bowl
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
WHEN: 4 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: No. 7 Mississippi State (10-2) vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech (10-3)
WHAT: The 82th Capital One Orange Bowl
WHERE: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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Jim Harbaugh’s B1G move significant for all involved

Jim Harbaugh

Rewind to a couple of months ago, most insiders at both the professional and collegiate level would’ve scoffed in your general direction at the mere suggestion there was the possibility that Jim Harbaugh could deign to drop back down to the collegiate level after such a successful stint at the professional one.  Fast-forward to today and…

Surprise!

Tuesday at noon ET, the previously scoffed was officially announced: Jim Harbaugh is the new head coach at the University of Michigan.

Let that sink in for a moment. And then a couple of moments more. A man who had led the San Francisco 49ers to NFC Championship game appearances his first three years with that NFL club is now, after one non-playoff season, out in the Bay Area and in at Ann Arbor.

Surprise? Uh, wow! is more like it.

It’s an unexpected win on multiple levels for those who still put the acronym “FBS” above “NFL.”  How so?  Allow me to count down the ways.

THE SPORT
Yes, the NFL is still king when it comes to any American sport. However, college football has just sneaked into the king’s court and swiped one of its most successful, visible and well-known princes. Regardless of the reasons behind it, this is huge for the sport.

It could very well be the reported $8 million-per offer (that wasn’t) waved in his face that pushed Harbaugh back to the collegiate level. It could very well be that the available NFL openings weren’t even remotely worth considering and that the less-than-amicable divorce persuaded the coach that long-term sustainability in the pros simply wasn’t possible at the moment, even as an eventual return to The Shield might be in the cards as Harbaugh’s a restless soul. Regardless of the myriad could-very-well-be’s, there’s one irrefutable truth: college football got over, and got over at the expense of the behemoth that is the NFL.

Aside from what’s really just flexing and gloating over being on the good side of a coaching move for once instead of another Chip Kelly the other way, there’s this: much like with Alabama and Ohio State and Tennessee and Texas and a handful of other historically significant football programs, the sport is a better one when Michigan is relevant. And, since that epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash in the 2006 edition of The Game, UM has been anything but that on the national stage, aside from being the butt of increasingly easy one-liners.

Yes, Harbaugh’s hiring doesn’t guarantee a move back to relevance; it does, though, get the football program pointed in that direction.

I say this armed with the knowledge that Harbaugh’s “act” eventually got old at the professional level. At the collegiate level, the nerds that littered the Stanford roster had no problem with said “act,” and even flourished after previously floundering prior to his arrival.

Your loss, NFL, is college football’s gain.

THE CONFERENCE
Prompted by numerous members of the media, Kevin asked Monday if Harbaugh was the Big Ten’s “savior.” The short, easy and undeniably correct answer? Despite the hype from national pundits, of course he’s not. It’s a laughable and knee-jerk supposition. There’s not a single person who can “save” the Big Ten from its wounded football reputation nationwide.

What Harbaugh can do, though, is become one of the pieces to the conference’s puzzle that helps shift its national reputation from one of disdain and derision to, well, something more palatable than that. Gradually. Eventually, that reputation will evolve… though, slowly but surely, the pieces are coming together for the conference at the position it matters most: head coach.

Just look at the Big Ten East’s coaching roster, which is becoming a veritable northern lite version of the SEC West when it comes to name recognition: Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, Penn State’s James Franklin.  An impressive-looking roster to be certain.

Yes, the B1G West needs to step-up its coaching game — to paraphrase Lou Brown in “Major League,” though, “there are two or three potential all-stars there” — but, then again, so do the SEC East coaches when it comes to recent performance.

Savior he’s not when it comes to the singular, but Harbaugh could be one of many who helps “save” the conference from its recent past.

Michigan Ohio StateTHE GAME
For those who are new to CFT, or have come aboard after my most recent “confession,” here you go: I was born, raised and lived a sizable portion of my life in Northeast Ohio, and was a fan of all things Cleveland sports and, yes, THE Ohio State University. I still consider The Game to be the greatest rivalry in all of sports, and consider any argument to the contrary invalid.

There was high-level hatred for That School Up North — hatred that’s waned quite significantly over the past few years given my job, I should note — although respect for TSUN has always been paramount and, more importantly, a given. While the grudging respect for UM is still there amongst my family and friends, the hate has, on many levels, been replaced by something much, much worse: pity.

Yep, the storied rivalry that has a section of it cordoned off as “The 10-Year War” has morphed over the past decade or so, since the arrival of The Sweatervest, into one side feeling sorry for the other in every other game of the year but The Game. Pity? You kidding me? That can’t stand. It’s not right. Hell, it’s borderline un-American.

And something that Woody would punch someone over. Or impale someone with a yard-marker over.

Yet that’s the current state of the rivalry. Certainly Harbaugh can change the buzz around the rivalry off the field, especially with Meyer and his stout pedigree firmly entrenched in Columbus. Off-field buzz is one thing; on-field success for both sides is what’s needed.

Whether Harbaugh can take his Stanford success of a handful of years ago and ratchet it up several notches is the The Big Game question that will determine where this rivalry moves nationally.

(Photo credit: Michigan athletics)

Michigan Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh, Bo Schmbechler

THE SCHOOL
In the grand scheme of things, the three previous topics are important off into the future. In the here and now? They pale in comparison to what this hiring means to the hundreds of thousands of alumni and millions of fans of this storied program.

Hope.

Boundless, unabashed hope for a fan base mired in mediocrity and a suffocating malaise that stretches back to Brady Hoke‘s well-intentioned but ultimately torturous tenure to the epic fail of a Rich Rodriguez experiment to Lloyd Carr‘s inability to solve the vexing ‘Vest problem after winning a national championship less than five years before Jim Tressel‘s arrival.  Harbaugh is the veritable oasis in the midst of years of desert wandering, with the football program stumbling upon the drink of water at the exact right moment in the coach’s career.  Hope in what’s being dubbed “Ann Arbaugh?”  Yes, he’s just that.

And it’s not just that Harbaugh comes armed with a pedigree that, at the collegiate level, took an academically-inclined Stanford program into one of football relevance on a national scale and, at the professional level, took a 49ers club that had been spinning its wheels for years and, very quickly, turned it into an annual Super Bowl contender. Yes, that résumé is certainly part of it; a large part of it, actually.

There’s this, though — he’s one of them. He’s one of them, one of those “Michigan Men” that the man who hired him was determined to phase out.  And he’s not just a “Michigan Man” at the collegiate level.  It’s more ingrained than just a four- or five-year year stint on the campus.

Jim’s dad, Jack Harbaugh, was the Wolverines’ defensive backs coach under Bo Schembechler from 1973-79, the first year when Lil’ Jim was 10-ish. Jack’s son went to middle school and junior high and high school in Ann Arbor before graduating from high school in Palo Alto, Calif. … and then played his college football at Michigan… and then got his first FBS head-coaching job at Stanford… and then got his first NFL job in the Bay Area… and then, now, returned to Ann Arbor where his formative years truly began.

Most people don’t come full-circle once; UM’s new head coach has now done it twice.

While he’s been here, done that twice when it comes to Ann Arbor, he’ll be coming into his first go-’round as the leader of the state’s flagship football program. What he won’t be coming into is a bare personnel cupboard.

For all of the on-field angst that Hoke inspired — after an initial 11-2 record with RichRod-recruited players, UM proceeded to go 8-5/7-6/5-7 — the fired head coach recruited well. In 2013 and 2012, UM’s recruiting classes were ranked fifth and seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten, respectively, according to Rivals.com. Even in 2014, amidst much speculation that Hoke was as good as done, he still pulled in a class that ranked 31st in the country and fourth in the conference.

What that says is that, even as it’s been tattered and tarnished a bit, the Michigan brand still means something on the recruiting trail. What it also says is that Harbaugh, who maneuvered his way through the academic minefields at Stanford to pull in top-level talent, is the type of recruiter who can restore some of the lost brand luster by simply being in the living room.

And then there’s this: the Hoke system is closer — much, much closer — to the Harbaugh system than the RichRod system ever was to his successor’s.  In other words, there’s talent in that cupboard that Harbaugh will immediately recognize and can utilize, while Hoke fumbled through the ingredients he inherited trying to find the right recipe… and damn-near burned down the kitchen in the process.

The Harbaugh hire has a chance to be a program-changing moment for UM football.  Now it’s up to Harbaugh to take what he’s got, add to it, and turn it into something befitting such a storied institution.  No pressure, coach.  No pressure at all.

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CFT Previews: Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Music City Bowl logo

WHO: Notre Dame (7-5) vs. No. 23 LSU (8-4)
WHAT: The 16th Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
WHERE: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
WHEN: 3:00 p.m. ET Dec. 30 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Both the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the No. 23 LSU Tigers limp their way into the 2014 edition of the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Fighting Irish lost its last four contests and five of its last six. LSU, meanwhile, lost two of its last three games.

The obvious starting point for both teams is which quarterbacks will take the field.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly revealed Friday that redshirt freshman Malik Zaire will get his first career start for the Fighting Irish, while senior Everett Golson will rotate into the lineup throughout the flow of the game.

”I want to put Malik in a position and really challenge him and put him in this kind of environment,” Kelly told the Associated Press.

In limited action, Zaire didn’t fare as well as Notre Dame hoped. The young signal-caller was 9-of-20 passing for 170 yards in six previous appearances. He’ll now face one of the nation’s most tenacious defenses.

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis — in what may be his final game with the program — is a master of dialing up pressure on opposing quarterbacks. LSU’s athletic front will certainly be breathing down Zaire’s neck the entire afternoon.

LSU head coach Les Miles, on the other hand, will again trot sophomore Anthony Jennings out as his starting quarterback. Despite completing less than 50 percent (48.8) of his passes and freshman Brandon Harris playing in eight games this season, Jennings received the majority of first-team repetitions during bowl practices.

“I don’t think I’m in a competition at all,” Jennings told NOLA.com. “I get all the one reps. I come in every day and continue to get better. I run with ones, and those guys know that. That’s not really what everybody thinks it is.”

With Jennings behind center, LSU will attempt to set the tone by running the football, which the Tigers have done successfully throughout the season.

“You won’t see much new in this game at all,” Miles told ESPN.com. “What we’re doing is we’ve got young players and we’re trying to grow them up and have them do the things they’ve done in the past here and see if they can do them better, execute well on game day.”

The three-headed backfield of Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hillard combined for 1,867 rushing yards. Against Notre Dame’s 61st-ranked run defense, there shouldn’t be a reason for Jennings to throw the ball all that often.

LSU will likely prove to be a little too big and a little too physical in the trenches for Notre Dame to overcome.

THE PREDICTION: LSU 17, Notre Dame 14

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

NCAA Football - 2007 AllState Sugar Bowl - Notre Dame vs LSU AP

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 30 bowl menu, which today features three games in which all six participants hail from — or are connected to — Power Five conferences.

WHO: Notre Dame (7-5) vs. No. 23 LSU (8-4)
WHAT: The 17th Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
WHERE: LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
WHEN: 3 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The last meeting between these two venerable football programs was the 2007 Sugar Bowl, a 41-14 win for LSU.  The previous postseason meeting was favorable for the SEC school as well, a Tigers win in the 1997 Independence Bowl.  In between was a three-point Notre Dame regular-season win in South Bend in 1998.  Of course, that history doesn’t mean anything; what matters is the present.  And, at the present, the Irish ain’t a very good football team.  Or, seemingly, their opposition either.  After beginning the season at 6-0, and then 7-1, ND enters the postseason on a four-game losing streak.  It’s not like the South Bender’s are facing a rampaging stalwart, though, as the Bayou Bengals have lost two of their last three heading in.  In the end, the talent on both sides will speak volumes, with Les Miles‘ charges being much, much, much louder than his counterparts on Brian Kelly‘s side.
THE LINE: Notre Dame +7½
THE PREDICTION: LSU 31, Notre Dame 20

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WHO: No. 13 Georgia (9-3) vs. No. 21 Louisville (9-3)
WHAT: The 13th Belk Bowl
WHERE: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Maryland (7-5) vs. Stanford (7-5)
WHAT: The 13th Foster Farms Bowl
WHERE: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Cali.
WHEN: 10 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: This game, the first-ever between the two football programs, features the biggest line of the 2014-15 postseason, with Maryland a whopping two-touchdown underdog; no other game remaining on the bowl calendar has a double-digit favorite.  Three of the Terps’ five losses this season have come by 22 or more points — their other two losses by three points each — with the Cardinal beating five FBS teams by 17 or more points in 2014.  Maryland will be seeking its first bowl win since the 2010 season, the last year under Ralph Friedgen, while Stanford is playing in its first non-New Year’s Six née BCS bowl game since the 2009 Sun Bowl.  The Terps struggled to score points to close out the regular season, averaging less than 21 points per game in their last five.  That trend doesn’t bode well for the Big Ten school as the Cardinal is second in the country in scoring defense at 16 points per game.  The Cardinal has given up 20 or more points just three times this season, all of them losses — Arizona State, 26-10; Oregon, 45-16; and Utah, 20-17 (2OT).  This game will essentially serve as a home contest for The Farm boys — they’ve already played at the new home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers this season, and Santa Clara is less than a 20-mile drive from Stanford — further adding to the checkmarks in the negative column for the Terps.
THE LINE: Maryland +14
THE PREDICTION: Stanford 27, Maryland 17

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 29 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Skyler Howard AP

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 29 bowl menu, which features three games in which all six participants hail from Power Five conferences.

WHO: Texas A&M (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
WHAT: The 56th AutoZone Liberty Bowl
WHERE: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
WHEN: 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: With starting quarterback Clint Trickett being forced to retire do to multiple concussions, most would think it’s be advantage Texas A&M.  However, Trickett’s replacement, Skyler Howard, has performed well in taking over for the starter, throwing for nearly 500 yards, five touchdowns and, most impressively, zero interceptions the last two games.  A&M will be looking to extend its bowl winning streak to four straight (last loss: 2010) while WVU will be trying to win its first postseason game since 2011.  Neither team played particularly well down the stretch, with the Aggies going 2-5 in its last seven games while the Mountaineers closed out the regular season on a 1-3 run.  The two teams ended up having one common opponent in Alabama, with both losing to the Tide.  The respective scores, though, showed a showed a significant difference in margin of defeat as WVU fell by 10, 33-23, in Week 1 while A&M was rolled by the Tide in Week 8 to the tune of 59-0.
THE LINE: Texas A&M +3½
THE PREDICTION: West Virginia 31, Texas A&M 30

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WHO: Oklahoma (8-4) vs. No. 17 Clemson (9-3)
WHAT: The 25th Russell Athletic Bowl
WHERE: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Arkansas (6-6) vs. Texas (6-6)
WHAT: The 9th AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
WHERE: NRG Stadium, Houston, Tex.
WHEN: 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: These are two teams entering this particular bowl game on very similar trajectories.  Texas won four of its last six games to become bowl-eligible, while Arkansas won three of its last five.  UA’s spurt, though, was far more impressive as two of the wins came over ranked teams (LSU, Ole Miss) by a combined score of 47-0, while its two losses were to ranked teams (Mississippi State, Missouri) by a total of 14 points.  This game is one for the traditionalists in the crowd as it marks the renewal of an old SWC rivalry that’s been played 75 times, the first in 1906 and the last in 2008.  The two teams have previously met one time in the postseason, a 27-6 Razorbacks win in the Cotton Bowl played after the 1999 season. One thing that doesn’t bode well for the Longhorns avenging that loss?  UT is 63rd in run defense (162.1 yards per game) while UA is 28th in rush offense (220.3 ypg).  Perhaps an even bigger question for the ‘Horns is which Tyrone Swoopes shows up, the one that tossed four interceptions in a regular season-ending loss to TCU or the one who completed nearly 73 percent of his passes for 305 yards in a win over Oklahoma State the week before.  Incidentally, this is the Razorbacks’ third game in the state of Texas this season, and they are currently 1-1: a 49-28 win over Texas Tech in Week 3, a Week 5 35-28 overtime loss to Texas A&M.
THE LINE: Texas +6½
THE PREDICTION: Arkansas 24, Texas 17

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 27 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Boston College Vs. University Of Maine Football At Alumni Stadium

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 27 bowl menu, which among its five games features nine Power Five conference teams, the lone exception being Cincinnati.

WHO: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
WHAT: The 7th Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman
WHERE: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Maryland
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Were it not for a four-point win over in-state rival Virginia in the regular season finale, Virginia Tech would’ve been home for the postseason holidays for the first time since 1992.  And this was a team that began the season 2-0, with the second win coming on the road by 14 points over College Football Playoff participant Ohio State.  The low point of a 4-6 skid to close the regular season was a 6-3 double overtime loss to Wake Forest in Week 13 that left Tech needing a win the following weekend to become bowl-eligible.  Cincinnati, meanwhile capped its second consecutive nine-win season with a co-AAC championship.  The Bearcats also come into this game on a veritable roll, following up a three-game losing streak in late September and early October with a seven-game winning streak.  The two teams had a trio of common opponents: Ohio State, Miami and East Carolina.  The Hokies were 1-2 against those teams (35-21 win over OSU, losses of 28-21 and 30-6 to ECU and The U, respectively) while the Bearcats went 1-2 as well (54-46 win over ECU, 50-28 and 55-34 losses to OSU and The U, respectively).
THE LINE: Virginia Tech, +3
THE PREDICTION: Cincinnati 31, Virginia Tech 20

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WHO: No. 15 Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)
WHAT: The 80th Hyundai Sun Bowl
WHERE: The Sun Bowl, El Paso, Tex.
WHEN: 2 p.m. ET on CBS
THE SKINNY: To say that Arizona State is disappointed with its bowl destination would be a massive understatement.  After nine games, ASU was looking at a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and, possibly, a berth in the College Football Playoff.  Two losses in their last three games — an inexplicable 35-27 loss to 5-7 Oregon State and a seven-point loss to in-state rival Arizona in the finale — shattered both of the dreams and sent them to this mid-major bowl.  How the Sun Devils respond to being sent to a lower profile bowl than what had been expected a month ago will go a long ways in determining the outcome.  Duke, though, is in a similar situation.  With three games remaining, all Duke needed was a pair of wins to clinch its second consecutive ACC Coastal title.  Instead, they lost two of three — 17-16 to Virginia Tech, 45-20 to North Carolina — to hand the division and a marquee bowl berth to Georgia Tech.  The Blue Devils, though, are playing in their third consecutive bowl game, the first time in the football program’s history that’s happened.  In fact, prior to the start of that streak in 2012, the program had a total of three bowl appearances in a span of 54 years. ASU will mark the first ranked opponent Duke has faced since Georgia Tech Oct. 11.
THE LINE: Duke, +7½
THE PREDICTION: Arizona State 34, Duke 24

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WHO: Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
WHAT: The 39th Duck Commander Independence Bowl
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Boston College (7-5) vs. Penn State (6-6)
WHAT: The 5th New Era Pinstripe Bowl
WHERE: Yankee Stadium, Bronx, NY
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: If you’re suffering with a bit of insomnia, boy do we have a cure for you.  Although, if you love tremendous defense, you’re in luck.  Boston College is 19th in the country in points allowed (20.5 ppg) while Penn State is even stingier, coming in at seventh (17.7 ppg).  The latter gave up more than 30 points just twice (Michigan State 34, Ohio State 31) and 20 or fewer eight times.  As good as they are defensively, both teams are woeful offensively.  BC is 123rd in passing yards (132 ypg) and 84th in scoring (25.9 ppg), with PSU a paltry 115th in scoring offense (19.8 ppg).  The lone redeeming offensive quality in this game will very likely be BC quarterback Tyler Murphy.  While he was just 111th among quarterbacks in passing yards (1,526), he was third to only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds (1,182) and Georgia Southern’s Kevin Ellison (1,096) in rushing yards at the position (1,079).  The best hope for the Nittany Lions?  That quarterback Christian Hackenberg reverts to the promising form he showed as a true freshman.  In 2013, Hackenberg tossed 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.  This season, it was eight touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in just 42 more attempts.  If Hackenberg can somehow recapture that 2013 magic, the Nittany Lions, playing in its first bowl game since being slapped with a postseason ban by the NCAA in 2012, could very well see their first bowl win since 2009.
THE LINE: Penn State, +3
THE PREDICTION: Boston College 13, Penn State 10

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WHO: Nebraska (9-3) vs. No. 24 USC (8-4)
WHAT: The 37th National University Holiday Bowl
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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CFT Previews: Duck Commander Independence Bowl

Steve Spurrier

WHO: Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
WHAT: The 39th Independence Bowl
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. ET Dec. 27 on ABC
THE SKINNY: In a battle to see which team emerges with less of a disappointing season than the other, the underachieving South Carolina Gamecocks face the Miami Hurricanes in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

Both teams entered this season with aspirations of winning their divisions. Instead, both are 6-6 with one team leaving Shreveport, Louisiana with a record over .500.

Steve Spurrier‘s Gamecocks limped their way through a worse overall season. The program was expected to compete for the SEC East with the Georgia Bulldogs to eventually play in the SEC Championship Game. After finishing 11-2 the previous three seasons and opening the 2014 campaign ranked ninth overall, expectations remained sky high. Instead, the Gamecocks feel flat by losing five of their last eight games.

When South Carolina was successful, though, the Gamecocks offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Running backs Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds combined for 1,494 rushing yards. Davis already stated he will leave Columbia after this year to join the NFL ranks. The junior will likely be showcased in his final game with the program.

Likewise, Miami’s best weapon is running back Duke Johnson. Johnson, who is also expected to leave Miami after this season for the NFL, is the barometer for the Hurricanes’ success. During a six-game stretch through the middle of the season, the running back ran for over 100 yards in each contest. Miami finished 4-2 during that stretch. The program is 2-4 in the games when Johnson ran for less than the century mark.

As the program’s all-time leading rusher, Johnson’s success is vital for Miami to emerge victorious.

But the Gamecocks can take over a game with its talented offensive line. Those big eaters up front should give South Carolina a slight advantage in a game that pits two of the nation’s most inconsistent teams against one another.

Spurrier succinctly summed up exactly what’s on the line, “They’re 6-6 just like us, so somebody is going to be a winner and someone is going to leave a loser. So, a lot on the line for this game.”

THE PREDICTION: South Carolina 24, Miami 21

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 26 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Illinois at Northwestern AP

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 26 bowl menu, which features two teams each from the ACC and Big Ten, the first time those two conferences have taken part in the 2014-15 postseason

WHO: Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
WHAT: The 4th Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
WHERE: The Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Tex.
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Illinois saved its season — and likely head coach Tim Beckman‘s job — by winning its last two games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, the year prior to Beckman’s arrival.  Louisiana Tech is also playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2011, and the first time under second-year head coach Skip Holtz.  The first month of the season, though, it didn’t look like Tech would reach the postseason as the Bulldogs stumbled out of the gate at 2-3; they righted the listing ship over the last two months, however, as they closed out a 6-2 run to end the season with a Conference USA West division title and a spot in the league title game.  Those two losses to close out the season, incidentally, were by a total of six points — on the road in overtime against Old Dominion (30-27) and against Marshall (26-23) in the conference championship game.  One thing to note about the Illini: they went 4-3 with quarterback Wes Lunt starting and 2-3 when he didn’t start.  On the bowl depth chart, however, the quarterback position is listed as Reilly O’Toole or Lunt, in that order.  Another thing about the Illini, which doesn’t bode well for the Big Ten school: they were 109th in points allowed per game (33.9), while the Bulldogs were 13th in scoring offense (37.5 ppg).
THE LINE: Illinois, +6
THE PREDICTION: Louisiana Tech 41, Illinois 27

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WHO: Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
WHAT: The inaugural Quick Lane Bowl
WHERE: Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: In games that Gary Nova has thrown fewer than two interceptions, Rutgers is 26-7 since 2011.  In games that Nova has thrown two or more interceptions, RU has gone 2-10, with the last of those wins coming in November of 2012.  North Carolina, meanwhile, was 49th in the country and fourth in the ACC with 12 picks during the regular season.  After jumping out to a 5-1 mark in their first season in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights stumbled to the regular-season finish line with a 2-4 record, with all four of those losses coming by at least 18 points and three of them coming by 20-plus.  The bad news for RU?  They’re 92nd in the country in points allowed per game (30.9), while UNC is 36th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg).  The good news for RU?  UNC’s defense is even worse, finishing the regular season 119th in points allowed (38.9 ppg).  Even worse for the Tar Heels, they’re 105th in passing yards (263.5 ypg) and have given up 34 or more points in eight of their 12 games this season.  In other words, this has all the makings of a good old-fashioned postseason shootout, one that would bring back memories of the old BYU Holiday Bowl appearances from years gone by.
THE LINE: Rutgers, +3
THE PREDICTION: Rutgers 48, North Carolina 45

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WHO: North Carolina State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
WHAT: The 7th Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
WHERE: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: If you find defensive football soothing to your palate, this bowl game has the potential to be extremely soothing, especially when it comes to the AAC representative.  UCF is ninth in the country in points per game allowed at 17.9, while North Carolina State is a middling T-68th (27 ppg).  In three of their last four games — all wins, incidentally –the Knights allowed a total of 14 points.  Neither offense figures to offer much resistance as NCSU finished the regular season 61st in scoring (29.8 ppg) and UCF finished 71st (28.2 ppg).  Since losing its first two games of the season to Penn State and Missouri, UCF reeled off wins in nine of their last 10 games.  NCSU, after winning its first four games, went 3-5 in the last two-thirds of the season, although they close out by winning three of four to become bowl-eligible for the first time under second-year head coach Dave Doeren.  UCF is currently riding a three-game bowl winning streak after losing the first three postseason games in the football program’s history, with each of those wins coming by double-digit margins.  The player to watch offensively is NCSU’s Jacoby Brissett, a dual-threat quarterback who posted nearly 3,000 yards of offense (2,344 passing, 498 rushing) and 25 touchdowns.  Arguably the most impressive part about the Florida transfer’s season is that he threw just five interceptions in 344 attempts, the third-fewest picks in the country, behind USC’s Cody Kessler (4, 413) and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (2, 372), among the 62 quarterbacks who attempted at least 340 passes.  UCF, though, was tied for ninth in the country with 18 interceptions.
THE LINE: North Carolina State, +2
THE PREDICTION: UCF 20, North Carolina State 13

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 24 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Brandon Doughty, Joe Manley, Jared Singletary

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 24 bowl menu, which features two teams from Conference USA and one each from the MAC and Mountain West.

WHO: Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
WHAT: The inaugural Popeyes Bahama Bowl
WHERE: Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium, Nassau, Bahamas
WHEN: Noon ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: This game serves as a rematch of the 2012 Little Caesars, won by Central Michigan 24-21.  That’s of little import to this game, however, as the head coaches are different, the quarterbacks are different, etc.  What is of import is that Western Kentucky comes into this game with a ton of confidence, riding a four-game winning streak that includes a win over Conference USA champ Marshall in the regular-season finale that knocked the Herd from the ranks of the unbeaten and out of a potential New Year’s Eve/Day bowl appearance.  Even better for WKU?  Central Michigan is a middling 45th in passing yards allowed and T-69th in touchdown passes given up, while Brandon Doughty leads the nation in yards passing (4,544) and touchdown passes (44).  The Chips gave up more than 17 points in their seven wins just once (27, Miami of Ohio) and only gave up more than 27 points in four games total; conversely, the Hilltoppers scored fewer than 34 points in a game this season one time (59-10 loss to Louisiana Tech).  When it comes to WKU’s scoring offense and CMU’s scoring defense, something has to give.
THE LINE: Central Michigan, +3½
THE PREDICTION: Western Kentucky 51, Central Michigan 34

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WHO: Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)
WHAT: The 13th Hawaii Bowl
WHERE: Aloha Stadium, Honolulu
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Much to the dismay of some, I’m sure, this bowl game has the distinction of being the only one of the 38 postseason games on the 2014-15 slate to feature a team with a losing record (Fresno State, courtesy of a 14-point loss to Boise State in the Mountain West championship game earlier this month).  Rice actually had a very real shot at earning a 13th game in Week 14, but a humiliating 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech kept the Owls out of the Conference USA championship game.  Not only are the Bulldogs looking to avoid the ignominy of an eighth loss in a bowl season (last accomplished: UCLA, 2011), but they are looking to snap a five-game bowl losing streak that stretches back to a loss in the 2008 New Mexico Bowl.  In their last nine games, the Owls’ only losses were to the two teams that played for the league title (Marshall, LaTech).  Two of their other losses came on the road to Notre Dame and Texas A&M the first two weeks of the season.  Then again, three of the Bulldogs’ losses came against Power Five schools USC, Utah and Nebraska, with two others coming at the hands of MWC champion Boise State.  A bad omen for Fresno?  They are 113th in stopping the run (206.9 ypg) while Rice has rushed for 150-plus yards in seven of the last eight games.  If the game is close, keep it out of the hands — or feet — of the kickers as both the Owls (63.1%) and Bulldogs (63.6%) struggled on field goal attempts this season.
THE LINE: Fresno State, +2
THE PREDICTION: Rice 34, Fresno State 31

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CFT Previews: Your Dec. 22 & 23 Bowl Viewer’s Guide

Connecticut v Memphis

Taking a quick-hit look at the Dec. 22 AND 23 bowl menu, which features one game Monday and two more on Tuesday.

WHO: BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)
WHAT: The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl
WHERE: Marlins Park, Miami, Fla.
WHEN: Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: Under the direction of Justin Fuente, Memphis went from a 3-9 disaster in 2013 to the 9-3 AAC co-champions in 2014.  The Tigers finished up 2014 riding a six-game winning streak, with five of those wins coming by double digits.  For BYU, its season can be broken down into thirds: unbeaten first and last thirds, winless middle third.  Two of those four losses in the heart of the season, though, came by a mere seven points, including an overtime loss on the road to AAC co-champion UCF.  Three of the Cougars wins, meanwhile, came against Power Five conference members (Texas, Virginia and Cal).  The Tigers’ most impressive performance of the season may have been one of its three losses, a 42-35 setback to UCLA in Pasadena in Week 2.  All in all, this should be one of the better non-marquee matchups of the 2014-15 bowl season.
THE LINE: BYU, +1
THE PREDICTION: Memphis 27, BYU 24

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WHO: Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
WHAT: The inaugural Boca Raton Bowl
WHERE: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Fla.
WHEN: Dec. 23 at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN
For the remainder of an extended preview, click HERE.

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WHO: Navy (7-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)
WHAT: The 10th San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Cal.
WHEN: Dec. 23 at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
THE SKINNY: San Diego State is 13th among Group of Five teams in stopping the run at 145.6 yards per game.  Navy, meanwhile, is third out of all 128 FBS teams in rushing yards per game at 345.1.  The two teams had two common opponents in 2014: Air Force and San Jose State.   SDSU went 2-0 vs. those two (30-14 over AF Week 13, 38-7 over SJSU Week 14) while Navy went 1-1 (41-31 win over SJSU Week 9, 30-21 loss to AF Week 6).  And then there’s this: 35-14.  That was the score of the Aztecs’ 2010 Poinsettia Bowl matchup with the Midshipmen.  What does it all mean?  I have no clue.  I’m just looking forward to watching yet another service academy in the postseason.  And yet another opponent trying to stop its version of the triple-option.
THE LINE: Navy, +3
THE PREDICTION: Navy 41, San Diego State 34

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