Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, December 31, 2014 at 12:00 AM
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS
ARE (FINALLY) HERE AND WE’VE GOT
ROSE BOWL & SUGAR BOWL PREVIEWS AHEAD …
PLUS WE CHECK OUT THE OTHER
NEW YEAR’S DAY BOWLS IN THIS PIGSKIN-
FILLED JIM SEZ REPORT
Here’s some sage advice to you hard-core college football fans out there as we swing into the new year … stop worrying about whether or not the newfangled playoff system is gonna turn into an 8-team or 12-team field in the years ahead and enjoy what’s here right now!
Okay, so we’re merely echoing what most of the TV talking heads are saying these days and that’s the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee folks “got it right” with the inclusion of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State into this inaugural four-team field and – despite the current Las Vegas price tags (Alabama is favored by 9 over Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and Oregon’s favored by 8 ½ points over Florida State in the Rose Bowl) – gotta believe we’ll have at least one “instant classic” here but we’re like new Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and so no “guarantees” from our end!
THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS
ROSE BOWL – At Pasadena, CA
#3 FLORIDA STATE (13-0) vs. #2 OREGON (12-1) – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
The much-anticipated playoffs swing into high gear here with the defending champ Florida State Seminoles a hefty TD-plus underdog – and you have to go all the way back to late in the 2009 season to find the last time the ‘Noles were grabbing this many points (see whopping 25-point price at favored Florida back in ’09).
No doubt Florida State QB Jameis Winston (3,559 yards passing with 24 TDs and 17 INTs) and mates have been high-wire act specialists this year – Jimbo Fisher’s ACC champs have won seven of its 13 games by 6 points or less including an overtime win against Clemson and a wild 30-26 come-from-way-behind victory at Miami – and so if this one’s close-and-late it doesn’t figure to rattle the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and his star-filled cast that needs big games from WRs Rashad Greene (93 receptions for 1,306 yards) and budding frosh hero Travis Rudolph (32 catches and many of them big ones) and then there’s always the not-so-secret star PK Roberto Aguayo who has drilled 25-of-27 field goals including 3-of-3 from beyond 50 yards out but did you realize that heavy-duty fav Oregon has won eight in a row and the Ducks won those games by a per-game margin of 26 points?
Oregon’s Heisman Trophy-winning QB Marcus Mariota (3,783 yards passing with 38 TDs and 2 INTs to go along 669 rushing yards and 14 TDs) actually carted home all the big-name trophies this holiday season but right here the priority is a balanced attack – note the Ducks gained 4,016 yards through the air and 3,085 yards via the ground route and it’s that keep-’em-guessing mentality here that’s key for the Pac-12 champs.
If Mariota can gash the ‘Noles with some medium-range/long-range throws on first down, then FSU will be back on its collective heels for much of this Rose Bowl game – let’s tally up how many rushes for freshman RB Royce Freeman (1,299 yards rushing and 16 TDs) who Oregon would like to see get 20-plus touches here.
The Ducks do indeed spread you out but they can hammer the ball up the gut with second-year head coach Mark Helfrich seemingly perturbed that his club has been called a “finesse team” and so don’t be shocked if Oregon plays some smash-mouth to go along with Mariota’s spread option plays here.
Two players that really intrigue us here:
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook (905 yards rushing/5.8 ypg and 9 TDs) remains on the brink of superstardom and this could be his bust-out game should FSU’s beefy O-line create between the guard gaps from him to run here and so we’ll go out on a limb and say that if Florida State can rush for more than 160 yards here (they average just 134 ground yards per game) than the chance to snag the upset here rises big-time.
And Oregon C Hroniss Grasu (back) says he’s ready to go after not playing since early November – this Ducks’ O-line is proportionately better with Grasu on the field.
Spread Notes – Oregon is 9-4 ATS overall and that includes the current eight-game spread winning streak that dates back to Oct. 11th. The Ducks are a collective 31-17-1 spreadwise as betting favorites the past four years. Meanwhile, Florida State is a money-torching 3-10 against the odds this year and that includes and 0-and-4 spread mark against non-ACC foes. The Seminoles are, however, a resounding 9-1 against the numbers in their last 10 bowl game appearances.
SUGAR BOWL – at New Orleans, LA
#4 OHIO STATE (12-1) vs. #1 ALABAMA (12-1) – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
If the Alabama Crimson Tide is giving off vibes of “been there, done that” that you’ve gotta excuse them:
After all, this iconic SEC program has copped three of the last five BCS Championship Games – remember when! – and so even though a great deal of changeover occurred from the title team two years ago till now, there’s that championship pedigree on display for Nick Saban’s here-and-now crew that has a real personality shif
t with an attacking offense led by senior QB Blake Sims (3,250 yards passing with 26 TDs) and first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Sure, everyone likes to associate ‘Bama with big-time defense but the reality here is the Tide scored 33-or-more points in nine different games this year and the Sims-to-WR Amari Cooper (115 receptions for 1,656 yards and 14 TDs) combo was among the top two or three-best aerial tandems in the land.
If Alabama’s passing attack flounders here, than Saban (and Kiffin) will get back to basics with RB T.J. Yeldon (932 yards rushing with 10 TDs) toting the rock against an Ohio State defense that threw a shutout at Wisconsin in the recent Big 10 Championship Game but otherwise got roasted for 25-plus points in five different games this year. Let’s see how pass-rushing DE Joey Bosa does against some double-team blocks here – if he can’t get to Sims than 9-point underdog Ohio State’s a in a world of trouble.
Obviously, a major storyline here is the fact the Buckeyes are playing a third-stringer at quarterback as injuries to Braxton Miller (out for the entire 2014 season) and J.T. Barrett (kayoed in that Michigan game back on Nov. 29th) has opened the door for strong-armed slinger Cardale Jones (22-of-34 for 375 yards with 5 TDs and 0 INTs this year) but something tells us that Buckeyes’ head coach Urban Meyer will rely on a batch of other weapons – namely RB Ezekiel Elliott (1,402 yards rushing and 12 TDs) and a batch of able wide outs starring Michael Thomas (43 grabs for 690 yards).
The Buckeyes roll into N’Orleans on an 11-game SU winning streak; the Tide’s won eight in a row and you could make the case that along with Oregon these are the teams playing their best ball at this holiday time of the year – but is Ohio State’s “A game” good enough to defeat Alabama here?
Spread Notes – Alabama is just 5-7 against the odds this season but note the Crimson Tide’s covered five of their seven bowl games under boss-man Saban plus ‘Bama is 55-44-1 ATS under the eighth-year head coach overall. On the flip side, Ohio State’s 8-5 vig-wise this season and so the Buckeyes enter this Sugar Bowl bash at a perfect 4-and-oh spreadwise as underdogs in the Meyer Era. Ohio State’s just 8-9 ATS versus non-Big 10 foes the past four years.
Extra, extra …
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In other New Year’s Day Bowl games, it’s …
OUTBACK BOWL – at Tampa, FL
#19 AUBURN (8-4) vs. #18 WISCONSIN (10-3) – 12 p.m. ET, espn2
Another Wisconsin bowl game, another opportunity for one-time head coach Barry Alvarez to pop up back on the sideline:
You recall that following the rather abrupt departure of Bret Bielema back in 2012, there was Alvarez coaching up the Badgers in a 20-14 Rose Bowl loss versus Stanford and so this one comes straight from the “history-repeats-itself” category as Alvarez now steps into the vacancy left by Oregon State-bound Gary Andersen and, yes, w
e’ve noticed how the price tag on this clash has gone from Auburn favored by 4 ½ points to 6 ½ points following the coaching chaos.
If the SEC favorites are gonna snag this one to start off the New Year’s Day bowl festivities than jamming up the running lanes of Wisky RB Melvin Gordon – who led the nation with 2,336 yards rushing – is essential and note that the Badgers do figure to opt for a two-QB system here with both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy getting snaps while Auburn is a tad short-handed after it was announced WR D’haquille Williams (team-best 45 receptions for 730 yards) will miss this game because he violated some team rules.
So, QB Nick Marshall (2,315 yards passing and another 780 rushing yards) may have to be even more of a one-man gang than usual for a Tigers’ team that played for a BCS Championship a year ago and this year lost three games alone in the SEC West.
Spread Notes – Auburn is 4-8 versus the vig this season and that includes a current four-game ATS losing skid. The Tigers have covered five of their last six bowl games dating back to the 2006 season. On the flip side, Wisconsin’s 5-8 ATS this season and the Badgers are a composite 8-6-1 spreadwise as dogs the past six years.
COTTON BOWL – at Arlington, TX
#8 MICHIGAN STATE (10-2) vs. #5 BAYLOR (11-1) – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
You’ve got to give it up for Baylor head coach Art Briles – he lobbied hard to get his Bears into the mix of the four-team playoff this year and then railed loudly against the system once it was announced that his Big 12 co-champ team would be left on the sidelines.
Now, the major question here is will Baylor be “emotionally spent” even before it takes to the field at Cowboys Stadium or will this be a “prove-it” game for a Bears’ bunch that averaged a whopping 48.8 points a game behind star QB Bryce Petty (see 3,305 yards passing with 26 TDs and 6 INTs)?
Baylor will have to contend with a Michigan State defense that will be coached up by Pittsburgh-bound DC Pat Narduzzi – plus the Spartans have DB Kurtis Drummond and DL Shilique Calhoun at the ready and note M-State allowed 17 points or less in five of their last six regular-season tilts.
The real key here is a Michigan State offense that surprised many folks by averaging 43.1 points a game as Sparty registered 64 TDs from scrimmage (fifth-best in FBS play) and QB Connor Cook (2,900 yards passing with 22 TDs and 6 INTs) was brilliant while raising his draft stock immensely – can State now stick with Baylor point-for-point here and might this wind up less about Petty vs. Cook and more about the running backs … Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford rushed for 1,360 yards with 19 TDs while scatback Shock Linwood powered up a better-than-you-think ground game for Baylor with 1,226 yards and 16 TDs.
Hey, the totals price is “holding steady” at 70 points, in case you were wondering!
Spread Notes – Baylor is 7-4-1 vig-wise this season and did you know the Bears are 50-31-1 ATS overall in the Briles Era that began back in 2008. Michigan State enters this January 1 bowl bash at 8-4 against the odds this season and Sparty is 10-3-1 as point-grabbers the past four seasons.
CAPITAL ONE BOWL – at Orlando, FL
#16 MISSOURI (10-3) vs. #25 MINNESOTA (8-4) – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Maybe the most unsung and unappreciated team in this whole 2014 season was the Missouri Tigers – nobody talked about ‘em and all Gary Pinkel’s guys did was win the SEC East for a second straight year and snag impressive road wins at South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Now, if Mizzou is gonna win one more game away from the comfy confines of Columbia then QB Maty Mauk (9 TDs and just 2 TDs in his last six games) will have to zero in on a new favorite target ‘cause WR Jimmie Hunt (shoulder) after snagging six balls worth 169 yards in that SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama.
Minnesota – making its first New Year’s Day bowl appearance in some 53 years – was another “feel-good” story in the sport this season and Jerry Kill’s Big 10 club had its own “signature wins” against Nebraska and Iowa. The Gophers finished plus 11 in the all-important turnover margin category this year but if 4 ½-point dogs are gonna steal this one than RB David Cobb (school-record 1,548 yards rushing with 13 ground scores) must batter a Missouri defense that surrendered at least 210 rushing yards in all three of its losses.
Spread Notes – Missouri is 8-5 spreadwise this current campaign and the Tigers are now 18-8 ATS overall since the start of last year and that includes the 41-31 bowl win as 3-point dogs against Oklahoma State in last year’s Cotton Bowl. Meanwhile, Minnesota is a rock-solid 8-4 against the juice this year and the Golden Gophers have covered 10 of their last 12 games when in the dog role dating back to late 2012.
NOTE: Get our Jan. 2 Bowl Previews plus NFL Wild Card notes in the next edition of Jim Sez.