Tag: College Football
- Shane Buechele – SMU Mustangs
- Damonte Coxie – Memphis Tigers
- Reggie Roberson Jr – SMU Mustangs
- Brady White – Memphis Tigers
- Asher O’Hara – Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
- Jonathan Adams – Arkansas State Red Wolves
- Kylen Granson – SMU Mustangs
- Logan Bonner – Arkansas State Red Wolves
- Sandon McCoy – Army Black Knights
- T.J. McDaniels – SMU Mustangs
- Marcel Murray – Arkansas State Red Wolves
2018 record: 11-2 (6-2 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Josiah Deguara. A rock-solid blocking option who lacks for downfield speed and will be fighting for a Day 3 selection.
The case for: The Bearcats are coming off an impressive 11-2 season after ending 2017 with a 4-8 record. The incredible turnaround saw them average 34.9 points per game (23rd in the country) while only allowing 17.2 (9th in the country). This was all while using a number of young players in the starting lineup who shined. Almost all of them return, giving Bearcats enthusiasts plenty of hope for the upcoming season.
QB Desmond Ridder played exceptionally well as a freshman, completing 62.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt and posting a 20/5 TD/INT ratio. Even with last season’s top wideout out of the picture, the No. 2-No. 6 options all return. As long as one of them take a step forward, the receiving corps should be in pretty good shape. RB Michael Warren will likely be the centerpiece of the offense after rushing for 1,329 yards and 19 touchdowns on 244 carries. He was also utilized as a pass-catcher (25-232-1) and figures to remain the focal point of the offense.
The defense was stellar last season, ranking 36th in S&P+ while allowing the lowest completion rate in the country. They should be Cincinnati’s strongest unit again in 2019 after returning most of their best players in the secondary and linebacker group. Their defensive line will have a number of new faces but also return Kevin Mouhon after he suffered a season-ending injury in 2018. Cincinnati doesn’t have to play back-to-back road games at any point this season and has the benefit of playing four teams who rank outside the top-90 in S&P+. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Cincinnati rip off another double-digit win season in 2019.
The case against: The offense finished just 74th in S&P+ last season and lost more pieces than most think. A lot of issues may stem from the offensive line where three new players will be thrust into the starting lineup. There’s a legitimate chance they don’t pan out which dampens both the running game and Ridder’s upside. He’ll also be without last season’s No. 1 option, Kahlil Lewis, who racked up 782 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 56 receptions. Is it smart to bank on improvement from a young quarterback who lost his No. 1 wideout and will likely have less time to throw? I’d lean with no.
The defense doesn’t lose much on the back end, but the defensive line may need to be reworked. They lost their top tackles in addition to defensive end Kimoni Fitz. They have a number of players who hypothetically should fill the void, but that’s not a guarantee. While the schedule doesn’t look too intimidating on paper, they have to travel to Ohio State and Memphis while drawing UCF at home. Beyond the four games against teams who rank outside the top-90 in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+, every other contest is winnable for either side. This gives the Bearcats a fairly wide range of outcomes despite the 11-2 finish in 2018.
2018 record: 8-5 (7-1 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Anthony Russo. A pro-style thrower through and through, Russo couples smarts and an arm with a developing sense of the game. Stamp him as a sleeper behind the big boys.
The case for: Temple was expected to hire former Miami DC Manny Diaz as the team’s head coach – and technically did for about 18 days. Then Diaz bolted back to Miami after HC Mark Richt retired, leaving the Owls emptyhanded. Instead, they ended up with former NIU HC Rod Carey. Carey has been a much better defensive coach in his career as of late and specifically focuses on running the ball on offense.
They’ll likely turn to a combination of senior RB Jager Gardner and sophomore Jeremy Jennings. Neither has much experience but could thrive behind Temple’s offensive line which returns 4-of-5 starters from last season. The passing game could be more efficient this year with junior QB Anthony Russo having a full offseason to work as the starter. They return WR Branden Mack (44-601-5) and Randle Jones (23-445-4) who are expected to take on an even bigger role this year. Their offense ranked 76th in S&P+ last season and has a good shot of improving with plenty of talent returning.
The defense was their strongest unit, finishing the season ranked 42nd in S&P+. This is highlighted by their 7th ranked passing defense S&P+ finish. They lost a few starters but picked up a graduate transfer from Penn State in S Ayron Monroe who didn’t contribute much for the Nittany Lions but should make an impact for Temple. They also have a few players who saw some playing time in the secondary last season and should be able to step up and make an impact. Up front, Temple has two interesting defensive ends in Quincy Roche and Zack Mesday. They should make up a formidable pass-rush after combining for 10 sacks last season. The schedule is pretty favorable for the Owls who don’t have to play a single back-to-back road game and play against seven teams projected to rank 85th or worse in S&P+. If they win all the games they are expected to take care of and win a close one against Maryland, USF, or Cincinnati they can easily match last season’s 8-5 record.
The case against: Carey has been a run-first coordinator thus far in his career which may not be a great fit with the Owls’ personnel. They lost leading rusher Ryquell Armstead to the NFL this offseason. Their best returning running back is senior Jager Gardner who only had 253 rushing yards on 65 carries (3.9 yards per carry). Anthony Russo took over last season and was up-and-down. He completed just 57.4 percent of his passes while averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. He also threw exactly as many interceptions as touchdowns (14). He played fairly average and will need to step up if the running game isn’t clicking.
Unfortunately, a lot of the stellar defense had to do with Rock Ya-Sin who was selected with the No. 34 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They also lost their top three safeties from last season. They have a few guys who are expected to competently fill in, but there’s almost no shot Temple approaches the top-10 of passing S&P+ defense. Given the turnover, there’s a good chance they aren’t even in the top-50. With the pass defense likely taking a step back the overall unit won’t be nearly as strong. The offense will need to make up for the declining defense if they want to take steps forward as a team.
2018 record: 12-1 (8-0 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Gabriel Davis. At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, Davis has the frame for red zone work and an intriguing athletic profile which could push him up boards with strong testing work in the spring.
The case for: UCF completed their second-straight undefeated regular season in 2018 prior to the bowl game against a surging LSU team. While they had a better record than some of the college football playoff semifinalists, their strength of schedule gave them little chance of the committee giving them the thumbs up. Those same issues will ring true this year even if the Knights are able to string together another 12-0 regular season. While it’s easy to look at the team and say “no way they make another run,” they return plenty of exciting players on both sides of the ball.
QB McKenzie Milton won’t be available this year after last season’s disturbing injury at the end of the season. He’ll continue to rehab in hopes of a return in 2020. They aren’t completely out of luck at the position though with either Notre Dame grad transfer QB Brandon Wimbush likely at the helm. QB Darriel Mack was expected to compete with Wimbush but recently suffered a broken ankle and has no timetable for return. Even if Wimbush doesn’t take a personal step forward in accuracy, he’ll have a nice array of skill players around him. They return wideouts Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon who were the Nos. 1 and 2 pass-catchers from last season. RB Adrian Killins is also a factor in the passing game, averaging 19.8 yards per reception to the tune of 377 yards on 19 receptions. His speed makes a legitimate difference for the offense. He and Greg McCrae return in the backfield after combining for over 2,300 yards from scrimmage last season. Part of the reason for their success was the offensive line which ranked No. 8 in “Line Yards.”
The defense figures to remain strong in the secondary after ranking 50th in passing defense S&P+ and returning their top two corners and safety. They have plenty of depth at linebacker and brought in a lot of players to address the defensive line. That includes two JUCO transfers and five freshmen. The defense has a chance to maintain top-50 efficiency if some of the newcomers make an instant impact up front. Playing in the AAC, their schedule is by no means difficult. Everything is relative though, and after two straight undefeated regular seasons the bar is set incredibly high. They should be favored in every single game this season and only have one set of back-to-back road games. Luckily for them, that comes with a bye week in between and is against two of the weaker AAC teams in Tulsa and Tulane.
The case against: Grad transfers normally present exciting options but in the case of Brandon Wimbush that couldn’t be further from the truth. At Notre Dame he completed 50.5% of passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. He didn’t even finish out 2018 as the starter and was unseated by replacement-level QB Ian Book. Wimbush leaves a lot on the table with accuracy, a massive difference from McKenzie Milton who completed 59.2 percent of his passes while averaging 9.2 yards per attempt. Maybe Wimbush struggled due to the strength of schedule and system, but it’s tough to bank on a major improvement. They also lost their No. 2 wideout and slot wide receiver Dredrick Snelson who accrued 688 yards and five touchdowns on 43 receptions. The offensive line likely won’t be able to post another top-10 season in “line yards” or a top-50 season in “sack rate” after losing two big-time starters. This could spell trouble for Wimbush and the Knights offense.
While the secondary should be solid, they lost two of their top three safeties. The defense line also figures to be in bad shape after losing nearly all of their starters and depth. There’s a slim chance they repeat the ranking of 47th in S&P+ run defense. Beyond DE Brendon Hayes (three sacks) they only return two defensive ends who don’t have much to show for in their careers. They also lost last year’s starting MLB in Pat Jasinski. While their schedule isn’t overly challenging there are a few roadblocks along the way. A home game against Stanford should be close and a road trip to Cincinnati won’t be a walk in the park. It seems unlikely they post another undefeated regular season.
2018 record: 7-6 (3-5 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Mitchell Wilcox. A jack-of-all-trades tight end with sleeper potential but athleticism questions. In a thinner tight end class, has sleeper/riser potential.
The case for: Heading into the eighth game of the season against Houston last year, South Florida ranked No. 21 in the country and was 7-0. They had scored 20-or-more points in every game and 30-or-more in 4-of-7 contests. Everything changed after the 21-point loss to Houston as they tumbled to six-straight losses afterward. They scored less than 20 points in half of their games and allowed 27-or-more points in all of them. You couldn’t have imagined a worse ending for the Bulls. Luckily for HC Charlie Strong and company, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
They replaced their offensive coordinator with Kerwin Bell, a former Division 2 coach at Valdosta State. He’ll have plenty of weapons to create a formidable offense as QB Blake Barnett, RB Jordan Cronkrite, and WR Randall St. Felix all return. Barnett is a former four-star prospect who spent time at Alabama and Arizona State before finding a home at USF. He suffered a few minor injuries down the road and ended his season with a 61.1 completion percentage while averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. St. Felix figures to be his top option after a stellar freshman season (33-679-4). Change-of-pace running back turned slot wide receiver Johnny Ford should replace a good bit of production lost by WR Tyre McCants and has been described as a “natural” in the slot. With Ford lined up as a wideout (115 carries last season), Cronkrite figures to take on an expanded role as the lead back after racking up 1,121 yards on just 184 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season. The whole offense will be bolstered by the offensive line which returns seven players with some type of starting experience. This is made possible after injuries struck last year and forced multiple players into bigger roles. A bad turn of events last season will likely help them out this year.
The defense had its fair share of mishaps last year and will look to improve in 2019. They retain star linebacker Nico Sawtelle who was arguably their top defender in games he played (six). They also return a number of key players in the secondary – even if their depth isn’t great. As long as they stay healthy, they should be able to approach last seasons 51st-ranked Passing defense S&P+. The schedule gifts the Bulls with four games which should all be wins against teams ranked outside the top 110 in S&P+.
The case against: Barnett struggled down the stretch with the rest of the team and ended up with a 12/11 TD/INT ratio, something that will need to improve if the Bulls want to be a top-tier team within the AAC. It won’t help that he lost last season’s leading wideout Tyre McCants (59-617-3). There aren’t too many holes to poke in the offense other than maybe first-year offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell not working out. While his offensive stats were good at the Division 2 level, he is inheriting a mid-level division one program with a number of difficult matchups.
While the offense should have some hope to play better, I’m not as optimistic about the defense. They ranked 90th in rush defense S&P+ last season and lost a number of starters including two of their top three tackles. They lost essentially all of their depth at linebacker and over half of their secondary is gone including corner Ronnie Hoggins. The defense is one or two injuries away from seeing the bottom fall out and taking a big tumble in overall efficiency. In addition to the potentially poor defense, the schedule isn’t very favorable. They have a back-to-back road game scenario against Navy and East Carolina during conference play. Both teams would normally be easier games but anything can happen on a long road trip. They also have to play against three teams projected to rank inside the top-30 and five teams inside the top-50 of projected S&P+. Playing that many games against tough teams severely limits their ceiling given their roster outlook.
East Carolina Pirates
2018 record: 3-9 (1-7 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: G D’Ante Smith. Nice movement skills for a 6-foot-4, 294-pound tackle. Will need polish and scrub if he is to stick on an NFL roster.
The case for: The Pirates started off the 2018 season in a weird fashion, losing to North Carolina A&T by five then following that up by thrashing North Carolina 41-19. They continued with a 13-20 loss to South Florida and a narrow 37-35 win over Old Dominion. Things got ugly afterward, losing 7-of-8 to close out the season. Head Coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t survive the end of the year and finished his stint at ECU with a 9-26 record.
They’ve now hired Mike Houston, a long-time Carolina coach who’s been at a High school, Division 3, and Division 2 program within the state of North Carolina. His last stop was as James Madison where he won an FCS title in his first season in 2016. ECU is hoping Houston’s strong track record at lower levels continues into the ranks of Division 1. A lot of work will need to be done in order for the Pirates to be relevant especially after their finish of 119th in S&P+. QB Holton Ahlers returns after seeing plenty of playing time last season and posting a 12/3 TD/INT ratio. He also added 592 yards and six touchdowns on 119 carries (5.0 yards per carry) on the ground. The Pirates return five of their top six wideouts, giving Ahlers a solid base of weapons. At least one of them will need to step up to replace former No. 1 wideout Trevon Brown’s production. The running game was abysmal last season with leading rusher RB Anthony Scott compiling 405 yards on 103 carries (3.9 yards per carry). The good news is, the offensive line should give it a boost this season. After multiple injuries to the offensive line last season, they return seven players with starting experience. Between the line improving and a number of suitable replacements who should all be an upgrade over RB Anthony Scott, we can pencil in some type of improvement.
The Pirates’ defense returns nearly everyone from a unit which improved dramatically since 2017. It’s fair to be worried about the loss of DE Nate Harvey but they return the rest of their starters in the front seven and brought in a three-star JUCO transfer. The secondary returns a good majority of their starters and could improve solely due to continuity. The schedule features two matchups against FCS opponents at home in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary early in the season as well as a road game against Navy in between. They play a total of five games against teams projected to rank 115th or lower in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections and don’t have to play back-to-back road games once all year.
The case against: Even though they beat North Carolina, the Pirates were not a very good team. The offense scored 10-or-fewer points in four games while the defense allowed 40-or-more points in five games. East Carolina has won three games each of their last three seasons but now has a new head coach. Whether Houston can improve upon Montgomery’s woes remains to be seen. QB Holton Ahlers figures to be the starter in 2019 but was an abysmal passer last season, completing just 48.3 of his passes while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. The Pirates top pass-catcher from last season, Trevon Brown (74-1,123-9), has also since departed. He more than doubled the next closes pass-catcher in receptions and more than tripled the next closest in receiving yards. His loss can’t be understated, especially when the quarterback is hoping to improve as a passer. The running game was a trainwreck last year, largely in part to a mosh-posh offensive line. They figure to have better luck on the injury front this year, but none of the starters were very good when they played. Even though they return a number of starters on offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue their struggle.
The defense lost its best player on this side of the ball in Nate Harvey. He racked up 14.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss as a senior and will be greatly missed by the Pirates defense. Even with Harvey breathing down the necks of opposing passers, ECU still ranked 107th in passing defense S&P+. This could spell trouble in 2019 as ECU returns nearly all of their starters. Continuity is good unless the players aren’t very talented. The Pirates schedule looks pretty soft with five matchups against teams projected to rank outside the top-115 in S&P+. The issue is, outside of the two games against FCS opponents, the other three are all on the road. Both Navy and Old Dominion could give the Pirates fits on the road despite being some of their weakest opponents. Outside of those five games, the Pirates don’t have much of a chance to add to the win column. Every game except a matchup against Tulsa will be against a top-75 opponent or will be played on the road.
2018 record: 1-11 (0-8 in conference)
Best NFL Draft prospect: T Matt Peart. Has shown progress each year in college, particularly in terms of developmental technique. UConn might not have much, but Peart ain’t nothing. Potential Day 3 dude.
The case for: I’ve noted this before, but “the case for” section should always be viewed relatively. The expectation for UConn is a lot different than UCF this season and needs to be understood as such. How exciting can a team that’s gone 3-9 and 1-11 the past two seasons really be? Some changes have been made and there is room for relative optimism.
After allowing 605 points last year, they rightfully fired their defensive coordinator. He’s been replaced by Lou Spanos, a former analyst for UCLA and Alabama. He legitimately can’t get worse in terms of S&P+ (130th). If we are going to look at this situation with rose-colored glasses, the defense was extremely young last season and returns a vast majority of starters and contributors. They also added Columbia grad transfer Mike Hinton and JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris who could play a role pretty quickly.
The offense was much better than the defense (99th in S&P+) with a few highlights. The running game was strong and returns leading rusher Kevin Mensah. He added 1,045 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 225 carries (4.6 yards per carry). With former starting QB David Pindell departed, there will be a two-way quarterback competition between Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Krajewski is a former three-star recruit who has hypothetical potential. There are a few spots on the schedule where UConn could snag a win. They should actually start the season with a winning record as Wagner is first up on the schedule. Wagner was 4-7 last season in the FCS and have to play at UConn. The Huskies next winnable matchup comes against Massachusetts who is projected to rank 125th in S&P+. They then draw two home games against Navy (118th) and East Carolina (113th). If Connecticut takes even a slight step forward in some areas those games should be somewhat competitive. Four wins would be their best season during the Randy Edsall era, a relatively good year.
The case against: I could probably go on for quite a while in this section but I’ll try to keep it brief as I’m not a huge “kick em’ while their down” type of person. Randy Edsall remains the head coach after the team allowed the most points per game among all 130 teams (50.4) last season. They allowed fewer than 30 points just once and scored more than 30 points just twice. That’s not a very good recipe for success. Their only win came by seven against FCS program Rhode Island. The defense was so inexplicably bad that they ranked either 130th or 129th in all of Football Outsiders main metrics.
Their offense was significantly better but lost their starting quarterback. Pindell was a solid quarterback given their horrendous overall outlook and his rushing ability (1,139 yards) will be missed. Marvin Washington was last season’s backup quarterback and had an edge on the starting job but entered the transfer portal this offseason. This leaves just Steven Krajewski and Division II transfer Mike Beaudry. Neither are very appealing as starters on paper but maybe one of them surprises. The receiving corps is just as dreadful with redshirt junior WR Keyion Dixon in the transfer portal. Only one of their top eight pass-catchers from last year returns. They’ll need a nice influx of talent in order for their passing game to be even remotely close to last season’s. A 2.5 win total is honestly generous for a team that’s this bad. The only game I think we can pencil in a win is against a bad FCS team in Wagner. Their next easiest game is at Massachusetts where they will likely be touchdown underdogs. With the defense likely to remain in the cellar and the offense taking a step back with a new starting quarterback, it’s hard to imagine them winning more than one or two games in 2019.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide will decide the national championship on Monday night
College football’s 2018-19 season is down to its final game, as Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in Santa Clara for the national championship. The biggest stage in college football is nothing new for both teams. The Crimson Tide are the only team to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff in all five years since its inception prior to the 2014 season. Additionally, coach Nick Saban’s team has won two out of the last three national championships and five over the last nine years. The Tigers have earned four consecutive trips to the CFB Playoff and will make their third appearance in the national title game on Monday night.
Matchups between Alabama and Clemson in the CFB Playoff have become the norm in recent years, and considering the returning talent for the 2019 season, it may not change much next fall. Counting the matchup in Santa Clara, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have met in four consecutive postseason games. Alabama won the title for the 2015 season by defeating Clemson in a 45-40 thriller in Glendale. The Tigers got revenge the following year thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson, knocking off the Crimson Tide 35-31 in Tampa. These two teams met last season in a semifinal game, with Alabama winning 24-6 in dominant fashion in New Orleans.
Alabama has largely cruised to a 14-0 record behind a high-powered offense and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Of the Crimson Tide’s 14 victories, just three were decided by less than 22 points. Alabama opened the year with a 51-14 win against Louisville in Orlando and picked up victories along the way against Texas A&M (45-23), Missouri (39-10), LSU (29-0) and Mississippi State (24-0). After Tagovailoa was sidelined due to injury, the Crimson Tide needed some second-half heroics from Jalen Hurts to defeat Georgia 35-28 in the SEC Championship. Tagovailoa’s status was a major concern leading into the Orange Bowl showdown against Oklahoma. However, the sophomore was sharp throughout all four quarters, and Alabama’s defense propelled the team to a 28-0 margin that was too much for the Sooners to overcome in a 45-34 victory for the Crimson Tide.
Clemson’s season has mirrored Alabama’s in some ways. The Tigers were dominant throughout 2018, with only two games decided by less than 20 points. Clemson survived an early trip to College Station to beat Texas A&M (28-26) and rallied to beat Syracuse (27-23) after quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined due to injury. The Tigers capped the year by blowing out Pitt 42-10 in the ACC Championship. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team was nearly a two-touchdown favorite for its semifinal against Notre Dame. As expected, Clemson didn’t have much trouble with the Fighting Irish, as Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns to guide the team to a 30-3 victory.
In the all-time series between these two programs, Alabama holds a 14-4 series edge over Clemson.
College Football National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -5.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
The 2018 version of Alabama’s offense has shifted from a run-first/power football approach to more of a spread team. That’s largely due to Tagovailoa’s emergence as the No. 1 quarterback, along with a receiving corps that might be the deepest in college football. The Crimson Tide are averaging over 300 passing yards a game, with Tagovailoa completing 69.5 percent of his throws for 3,671 yards and 41 touchdowns to just four picks.
Tagovailoa’s No. 1 target is sophomore Jerry Jeudy, but Alabama has five players with at least 36 receptions this season. Jeudy enters Monday night’s game with 63 receptions for 1,176 yards and 13 touchdowns and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver in December. Freshman Jaylen Waddle ranks second on the team with 823 receiving yards, while Henry Ruggs (45 catches for 738 yards and 11 TDs) and DeVonta Smith (36 catches for 628 yards) round out the top options at receiver. Tight end Irv Smith (40 receptions for 667 yards) is another big-play threat for Tagovailoa to target over the middle of the field.
While this offense is more prolific through the air than Saban’s previous teams, Alabama certainly doesn’t abandon the running game. The workload on Monday night is likely to be split between three options. Senior Damien Harris paces the team with 819 yards and nine touchdowns, with Najee Harris (724 yards) and Josh Jacobs (593 yards) slated to see opportunities. Jacobs is also the best pass catcher of the trio, as he’s posted 19 receptions for 231 yards and three scores this season.
With Alabama’s versatile and deep collection of playmakers in place, along with one of college football’s top quarterbacks, Clemson’s defense is going to have its hands full on Monday night. However, the Tigers certainly have the pieces to slow down this offense.
The strength of Clemson’s defense rests in the trenches. All-American Christian Wilkins leads the way for a run defense that is only giving up 2.4 yards a carry and 92.6 rushing yards a game. Ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant anchor a pass rush that ranks first nationally with 52 sacks. Dexter Lawrence’s suspension is a big loss on the interior, but Albert Huggins played well against Notre Dame and will prevent a major drop in the production of this unit. Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar anchor a standout group of linebackers, with cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and A.J. Terrell leading the way in the secondary.
Clemson’s defense is only giving up 12.9 points a game and has surrendered just 11 plays of 40 yards or more in 2018.
It’s hard to find a flaw on Alabama’s offense, but the line has been susceptible (at times) to opposing pass rushers. Can Clemson’s front generate pressure on passing downs to prevent Tagovailoa and his receivers from making big plays downfield? While the Tigers have allowed only 11 passing scores all year, Texas A&M (430 yards) and South Carolina (510) showed this unit can give up some yardage if the quarterback has time to throw downfield.
Clemson’s front isn’t likely to give up much in the way of yardage, but Alabama still needs to have the threat of the run. With three talented backs in place, small yardage may turn into longer gains with fresh legs in the fourth quarter. Additionally, considering Alabama’s issues on field goals this season, Clemson shouldn’t be afraid to bend a little but hold in the red zone.
Expect the battle in the trenches to decide this game. If the Crimson Tide protect Tagovailoa, he’s going to hit open receivers and keep the offense performing where it left off in the Orange Bowl. But if the Tigers get to the quarterback with their front four and no additional pressure, this defense can slow down Alabama’s offense.
When Clemson Has the Ball
Monday night’s matchup is exactly why Clemson needed Trevor Lawrence to emerge as the team’s starting quarterback this season. After losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last year, it was evident the Tigers would have to throw downfield more to open up the entire offense. As expected, Kelly Bryant opened the season as Clemson’s No. 1 quarterback, but it wasn’t long before Lawrence was clearly the right pick to direct the offense. The freshman is only getting more and more comfortable with every snap, as he finished the year with 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns to just four picks. Additionally, Lawrence is connecting on 65.5 percent of his throws and has not tossed a pick in four straight contests.
Just how big of an impact has Lawrence made on the offense? After connecting on just 18 throws of 30 yards or more in 2017, the Tigers have 32 such plays in ’18. The offense also has 11 completions of 50-plus yards, including a 52-yard touchdown toss in the Cotton Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
Just like Alabama, Clemson is loaded with talent at receiver. Tee Higgins leads the offense in receptions (56), yardage (855) and touchdown catches (11) and has the size (6-foot-4) to be a nightmare matchup. Justyn Ross has been one of the top freshman playmakers in the nation this fall. He enters Monday night’s game with 40 catches for 847 yards and eight touchdowns and led the team with 148 receiving yards in the win against the Fighting Irish. Amari Rodgers (53 catches) and Hunter Renfrow (47) round out the top targets for Lawrence on the outside.
Travis Etienne has only 190 carries this season, but the sophomore certainly makes the most of his touches. Etienne has 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns, averaging a healthy 8.3 yards per carry. He’s also tied for fourth nationally with seven runs of 40-plus yards this season.
As expected from Nick Saban’s program, Alabama’s defense once again ranks among the best in college football. The strength of this group is up front. The Crimson Tide are holding opponents to 3.5 yards per rush and 120.3 yards a game on the ground. Nose guard Quinnen Williams has been unblockable for most of the season, recording 18 tackles for a loss and eight sacks through 14 games. Ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis have combined for 19 tackles for a loss this fall, while linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller have posted 21. Miller suffered a hamstring injury in the win over Oklahoma and is questionable for Monday night’s game.
Alabama’s secondary isn’t as deep or effective as the unit Saban brought to the national championship last season but still ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Only two teams – Georgia and Oklahoma – have managed more than 300 passing yards against this secondary in 2018.
As mentioned above, this matchup is why Clemson needed Lawrence in the starting lineup. Alabama’s front seven dominated in last year’s Sugar Bowl and another performance like the one in New Orleans spell trouble for the Tigers. But with Lawrence at the controls, Clemson’s offense can stretch the field and can attack Alabama’s secondary with its speed and athleticism on the outside. Etienne isn’t going to find a ton of running room, but the sophomore will have better luck if the Crimson Tide have to devote more attention to preventing big plays downfield.
Similar to when Alabama has the ball, can Clemson’s offensive line hold up at the point of attack? The Tigers have allowed only 17 sacks this year but three came against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Can Williams, Davis, Buggs and the Crimson Tide’s standout group of linebackers get constant pressure throughout the game on passing downs? If Alabama stuffs Etienne and gets Lawrence into third-and-longs, even though the receivers will make a handful of plays downfield, that could be a tough recipe for Swinney’s team to overcome all night.
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Expect plenty of offense when the Broncos take on the Eagles in Dallas
The Boston College Eagles and Boise State Broncos will meet up in the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in one of the more under-the-radar intriguing matchups of the bowl season.
Boise State (10-3, 7-1 MW) comes into the game disappointed with how its season turned out. The Broncos lost the Mountain West Championship Game to Fresno State in overtime, sending them to Dallas instead of Vegas. Be that as it may, head coach Bryan Harsin and his squad will be motivated to notch their third 11-win season in the last five years.
After starting the 2018 campaign 7-2, Boston College (7-5, 4-4 ACC) backed its way into bowl season with three straight losses. They’ll be anxious to get back on the field and finish the year on a high note against one of the very best Group of 5 teams in the country.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl: Boston College (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-3)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 26 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Cotton Bowl Stadium (Dallas)
Spread: Boise State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. AJ Dillon vs. the Boise State front seven
Dillon has been one of the best backs in the country during the last two seasons. He is the heart and soul of the Eagles’ offense, and this team goes as he goes. Four of Boston College’s five losses came when Dillon logged fewer than 20 carries or did not play. The coaching staff must make a concerted effort to get Dillon the ball early and often, and he must be able to consistently move the ball against a defense that has allowed fewer than 123 rushing yards per game. Wearing down the Boise State front seven early will be key for Boston College.
2. Brett Rypien vs. the Boston College secondary
Boise State wants to push the ball downfield through the air. It’s what the Broncos do, and they’ve done it well for a long time. They’ve got one of the most seasoned and capable quarterbacks in the country under center (or in the shotgun), and he can pick apart any defense you put in front of him. He’ll need to be careful against Boston College — especially in the red zone. The Eagles do allow plenty of passing yards (247.9 per game), but they also lead the nation in interceptions with 18 and have only surrendered 17 TD passes all season. A turnover in the red zone could leave to a significant swing in this game (and on the scoreboard). Boston College defensive back Hamp Cheevers — the nation’s leader in interceptions with seven — will play a vital role in how this all plays out. This matchup could end up being the difference.
3. Can Boston College stop Boise State on third down?
Boise State possesses the ball for about 33 minutes a game. One of the biggest reasons the Broncos are able to do this is their efficiency on third down. Their 52.7 percent success rate is third in the nation and Boise State’s 106 conversions are tops. For a team like Boston College that wants to run the ball, it is absolutely imperative that the Eagles’ defense gets off the field on the third down so Dillon can pound the ball and the offense can eat up clock. If Boston College can’t stop the Broncos on third down it will be a long afternoon for head coach Steve Addazio and company.
Despite Boston College leaning on the run, the Eagles score points at a decent clip (32 per game). They are facing a Boise State offense that puts up more than 35 points per contest. Suffice to say, possessions will be key, and Boston College needs to figure out a way to get more of them. The Eagles are among the nation’s leaders in turnovers gained with 26. Unfortunately, the Broncos are stingy when it comes to giving them away. having turned it over just 13 times in as many games. The pace of the game and Boise State’s ball security will end up being the difference in this one. The Broncos simply have more ways to score and can do so from anywhere on the field. Look for dynamic running back Alexander Mattison to play a huge role in that effort. A close contest early will eventually evolve into a sound Boise State win.
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The Panthers and Rockets meet in the Bahamas on Friday
The only bowl game played outside of the United States takes place on Friday, as Toledo and FIU meet in Nassau for the Bahamas Bowl. The pairing between the Panthers and Rockets is the fifth matchup in this bowl’s history, but this game has provided some intriguing and memorable games since its inception in 2014. Additionally, some conference bragging rights are also on the line. Over this bowl’s first four matchups, Conference USA and the MAC have split the games at two victories apiece.
Jason Candle continued to cement his place as a rising star in the coaching ranks by guiding Toledo to a 7-5 finish in the regular season. The Rockets won the MAC title last fall but opened the year with several personnel voids to address, including at quarterback with the departure of Logan Woodside. Candle’s team started 3-4, but the four defeats came at the hands of Miami, Fresno State, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan – all bowl teams. Toledo closed by winning four out of its last five matchups, with its only loss coming to Northern Illinois (38-15) on Nov. 7. Despite losing Woodside, the Rockets have maintained a high-powered attack. Candle’s offense averaged 41.1 points a game and 6.2 yards a snap in the regular season.
FIU is back in the postseason for the second consecutive year under Butch Davis. The Panthers went 8-5 in Davis’ debut last season but fell 28-3 to Temple in the Gasparilla Bowl. FIU followed up that strong 2017 campaign with another eight-win regular season, including a victory over C-USA East Division champ MTSU (24-21). If the Panthers knock off Toledo on Dec. 21, the program would exceed eight victories for the first time in school history. And with the work Davis is doing on the recruiting trail, FIU is poised to become an annual factor in C-USA’s East Division.
Toledo and FIU have three previous meetings. The Panthers hold a 2-1 series edge in those games. These two programs met in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, with FIU winning a 34-32 thriller.
Bahamas Bowl: Toledo (7-5) vs. FIU (8-4)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Toledo’s Passing Attack
Toledo’s passing attack wasn’t as prolific as its 2017 version, but the offense still ranked near the top of the MAC in production this season. The Rockets averaged 224.9 yards a game through the air, helping the unit rank second in the MAC in yards per play (6.24) and 41.1 points a game. Despite using two quarterbacks, Toledo has already exceeded its passing touchdown total (29) from last season (28).
Mitchell Guadagni opened the year as Toledo’s No. 1 quarterback and started seven of the first eight games. The Ohio native threw for 1,053 yards and 13 touchdowns to just three picks but was sidelined against Bowling Green on Oct. 6 and also missed the final four games due to injury. He’s not expected to play in this game, which leaves Illinois transfer Eli Peters at the controls. The sophomore threw for 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns to seven picks in the regular season, showing he’s capable of operating the Toledo attack at a high level.
When Peters drops back to pass, he’s got one of the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson are capable of scoring on any reception and have combined for 24 touchdown catches this season. Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson are tied for the team lead in receptions with 43, while Jon’Vea Johnson averages a healthy 21.1 yards per catch.
FIU’s pass defense enters Friday’s game ranked sixth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and held opponents to just 16 scores through the air. However, the Panthers didn’t face the gauntlet of passing attacks in conference play this fall. How will this unit hold up against Toledo’s high-powered passing game? FIU has only 21 sacks this season but generating a pass rush would help this defense in slowing the Rockets’ receivers.
2. The Rockets’ Ground Game Against FIU’s Defense
In addition to Toledo’s firepower via the pass, Candle’s group also brings an explosive ground game to the Bahamas. The Rockets averaged 223.6 rushing yards a game and 5.3 yards per carry this fall. Kentucky transfer Bryant Koback paces the offense with 875 yards and 13 scores, followed by Art Thompkins (563) and Shakif Seymour. Thompkins is leaving the program as a graduate transfer, so Koback, Seymour, Ronnie Jones and Nevone McCrimmon will take on even more carries against FIU.
FIU’s defense struggled to stop the run in the regular season, giving up 198.4 yards a game. The Panthers allowed five yards per rush and surrendered 19 scores on the ground. Standout linebacker Fermin Silva was lost due to injury earlier this season, which left a void in the middle of Davis’ defense. Junior Sage Lewis (126 stops) and Texas transfer Edwin Freeman (89) will be tasked with keeping Toledo’s running game in check from the linebacker spots, but this defense could use a big game from linemen Tayland Humphrey, Teair Tart and Anthony Johnson on the interior.
In addition to the struggles against the run, FIU allowed opposing offenses to convert 41.8 percent on third downs this season. If Toledo has success running the ball, Candle’s group can stay in third-and-manageable all game, only adding to FIU’s concerns on defense for this matchup.
3. FIU’s Offense Against Toledo’s Defense
FIU quarterback James Morgan is no stranger to matchups against Toledo. The Bowling Green graduate transfer tossed five touchdowns versus the Rockets in 2016 but did not play in last year’s matchup. The junior had a solid debut for the Panthers this fall, as he connected on 65.3 percent of his throws for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns to just seven picks. Morgan has a solid group of weapons on the outside to stretch the field, including CJ Worton (36 catches for 620 yards), Austin Maloney (28), Maurice Alexander (35), Bryce Singleton (28) and tight end Sterling Palmer (22).
In addition to the firepower through the air, FIU brings one of the top rushing offenses in Conference USA to the Bahamas. The Panthers ranked third in C-USA by averaging 170 rushing yards a game, with Napoleon Maxwell (673 yards), Anthony Jones (246) and D’Vonte Price (521) slated to lead the way on Friday.
Defense has been problematic for Toledo this season, so FIU should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball. The Rockets have generated 34 sacks but will be facing an offensive line that has surrendered just 10 all year. Statistically, Toledo enters Friday’s game ranked sixth in the MAC against the run, eighth in scoring defense and is allowing nearly six yards a play (5.8). The Rockets also finished sixth in pass efficiency defense and ranked eighth in the MAC in red zone defense.
Expect plenty of points in this one. Both teams have big-play potential through the air and on the ground, while the defenses have certainly allowed their share of yards and points this season. One x-factor to watch: Turnovers. FIU only lost 12 turnovers in the regular season and brings a plus-nine margin into this matchup. Toledo checks in at plus-three. If the Panthers can create a couple of takeaways, Davis’ team can keep the Rockets on the sideline and give Morgan and his passing game a chance to keep pace. Look for both teams to land their share of fireworks, but Toledo’s offense will be too much in the second half, as Candle’s team holds on for the win and finishes the year on a high note.
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Thundering Herd and Bulls meet for first time in Tampa
Two Group of 5 programs will meet for the first time in sunny Tampa when the Marshall Thundering Herd take on the South Florida Bulls in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. The game is now being played at the Bulls’ home of Raymond James Stadium — moving over from Tropicana Field in nearby St. Petersburg.
Marshall has made two appearances in this game (2011, when it was the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl; ’14, St. Petersburg Bowl), winning both against FIU and UConn, respectively. South Florida, meanwhile, has played in this bowl once, winning the inaugural game 41-14 against Memphis in 2008.
Now in his ninth season at the helm of the Thundering Herd, Doc Holliday is undefeated in bowls during his Marshall tenure. He’s tied with Bob Pruett — who led the Herd from 1997-2004 — for the most bowl victories (five) by a Marshall head coach. The Herd (8-4, 6-2 Conference USA) have had an up-and-down campaign with two non-conference losses courtesy of ACC opponents NC State and Virginia Tech and their two C-USA defeats coming by a total of 12 points to Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss. The loss to the Hokies — which was a makeup game scheduled for Dec. 1 after both teams had September dates canceled because of Hurricane Florence — snapped a three-game winning streak and ended any chance of Marshall posting its first 10-win season since tallying three straight from 2013-15.
In his second season in Tampa, Charlie Strong has an opportunity to guide the Bulls (7-5, 3-5 American) to their fourth straight winning campaign, South Florida also is looking for its third straight bowl victory. Most importantly, Strong has an opportunity to close 2018 on a positive note after so many tough finishes at the end of the regular season. South Florida took off in the first eight weeks of the season, starting 7-0 and scoring more than 35 points per game in that span. The Bulls then hit a serious rough patch, losing five in a row and averaging just 20.2 points per game.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: Marshall (8-4) vs. South Florida (7-5)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: Marshall -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run defense disparities
South Florida brings the ninth-worst run defense in the FBS into bowl season, allowing nearly 245 yards on the ground per game. The only other teams to finish worse than the Bulls in that category combined for 21 wins, with four of those teams (Georgia State, Louisville, Oregon State and UConn) winning either one or two games. On the other side, Marshall has done a fantastic job of limiting any opposing ground attacks from thundering through its defense. The Herd are giving up just 105.3 rushing yards per game, good for the 10th in the country. Opponents gain just 2.98 yards per carry against this Marshall team, which is the sixth-best mark in the nation. The Bulls will have a tough time running the football against the Thundering Herd, so they’ll need to get enough production from their passing game to help them move the ball down the field and put some points on the scoreboard.
2. South Florida’s deep threats
The good news for the Bulls is that they have the pieces to make things happen through the air. It starts with Blake Barnett — who ranks third in the AAC and 19th nationally in total offense (280.6 ypg) — as the leader to this offense. He has help on the outside in the form of Randall St. Felix and Darnell Salomon. The wide receivers are explosive and in the top five in the conference in yards per catch at 19.0 and 17.6, respectively. Their ability to take the top off the Marshall defense could go a long way in helping the Bulls keep pace in this one. Marshall is in the middle of the pack in Conference USA against the pass, but has struggled against other teams in his respect. In four non-conference games, the Herd gave up 273.5 passing yards per game (compared to 210.8 in eight C-USA contests) with an 8:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio (vs. 7:9) and 141.45 passer rating (vs. 107.78).
3. Momentum (or lack thereof)
Once again, we see a situation where bowl teams aren’t exactly playing their best football when they reach the postseason. Marshall won three in a row and four of five before dropping the regular-season finale to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which helped to give the Thundering Herd a boost entering December. South Florida, meanwhile, won its first seven games to stake its claim as one of the final undefeated teams in the nation. After a 21-point loss to Houston dropped the Bulls from the ranks of the unbeaten, the Bulls fell and fell quickly. Charlie Strong’s group lost its final five games of the regular season, including a 38-10 finish against UCF in the War on I-4. What remains to be seen is if Marshall will get over a small speed bump or if South Florida can manage to right the ship and send its seniors out with a win after a painful end to the regular season.
While both teams ended their respective regular seasons with a loss, it is Marshall coming in playing with much more momentum. With both teams having played in this bowl before, and because this is effectively a home game for USF as the teams square off at Raymond James Stadium, there is a level of familiarity for both teams that could serve to help them in preparation for the game. Look for the Thundering Herd’s defense to be a big factor, especially if the Bulls struggle to get their offense going early.
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Aztecs from the Mountain West and Bobcats from the MAC tangle for the first time in Frisco
The DXL Frisco Bowl will showcase two teams from opposite ends of the country with San Diego State and Ohio set to face off for the first time. Both teams will look to use this game as a springboard for a successful 2019 season.
San Diego State (7-5, 4-4 MW) comes into the Frisco Bowl in a bit of a slump, as the Aztecs have lost four of their last five games. This is still a team that should not be taken lightly, as SDSU’s season includes an upset of Arizona State and a 6-1 start. But the end of October and November were not kind to Rocky Long’s team, which lost close conference games on the road to Nevada (28-24), UNLV (27-24) and Fresno State (23-14) and finished things out with a one-point loss in overtime at home to Hawaii (31-30).
Ohio (8-4, 6-2 MAC) kind of followed the opposite path, starting out 3-3 with non-conference road losses to fellow bowl participants Virginia and Cincinnati. But the Bobcats were strong down the stretch, winning five of their final six MAC games, including a 52-17 rout of eventual East division champ Buffalo.
These two teams are certainly no strangers the postseason. San Diego State is making its eighth straight bowl appearance in as many seasons under head coach Rocky Long. It’s four in a row and nine of the last 10 years for Ohio under longtime head coach Frank Solich. This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools whose campuses are separated by 2,300 miles.
DXL Frisco Bowl: San Diego State (7-5) vs. Ohio (8-4)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 19 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
Spread: Ohio -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio ‘s running game vs. San Diego State’s rush defense
The Bobcats lead the MAC in rushing with an average of nearly 262 yards per game. Senior running back A.J. Ouellette leads the way with 1,142 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The 5-foot-9, 210-pound back averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry and also has two touchdown catches. Fellow RB Maleek Irons (831 yards, 8 TDs) and quarterback Nathan Rourke (816, 13) give Ohio multiple options to run the ball with, and the Bobcats will need those going up against the nation’s fourth-stingiest run defense. The Aztecs are surrendering 94.5 yards per game on the ground. They gave up a total of 386 rushing yards to the six bowl teams – Arizona State, Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada and Stanford – they faced in the regular season.
2. San Diego State LB Kyahva Tezino vs. Ohio’s offensive line
Tezino enters this game third in the Mountain West in sacks with 8.5 The junior also leads the Aztecs with 120 tackles (fourth in the conference) and 14.5 tackles for a loss (third). He really came on strong in November, recording 5.5 of his sacks in four games. Whether he can be as effective against Ohio remains to be seen. The Bobcats have given up a total of 19 sacks thus far, a number that’s helped by the running game as well as Rourke’s mobility in and outside of the pocket. So will the first-team All-Mountain West selection be able to add to his totals down in Texas? Or can Ohio keep San Diego State’s best defender from making plays behind the line of scrimmage?
3. San Diego State RB Juwan Washington vs. Ohio’s rush defense
A productive as the Bobcats’ running game has been, the Aztecs’ reputation for churning out productive running backs is well documented. Under head coach Rocky Long that’s a legacy that includes NFL players Rashaad Penny, Donnel Pumphrey and Ronnie Hillman. The current starter is Washington who has dealt with injuries this season and has still managed to compile 870 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games. Washington isn’t the biggest (5-7, 190) back but he has more than enough speed to break off long gains. San Diego State makes a living out of the running the ball, so Ohio’s defense will focus on containing Washington. The Bobcats are No. 2 in the MAC against run, allowing 135.8 rushing yards per game.
San Diego State slumped towards the end of the season, but the Aztecs’ last four losses have come by a total of 13 points. Ohio started off slow but really got things going in MAC play. Both teams have found success running the football, so this game will likely hinge on the team that does that better. It should be an entertaining game in Toyota Stadium, but the edge goes to the team from the MAC.
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The Blazers and Huskies meet in Boca Raton on Tuesday night
The Boca Raton Bowl features a rare meeting of conference champions in the 2018-19 postseason, as UAB meets Northern Illinois on Tuesday night in FAU Stadium. And if the regular season finale for both teams is any indication of how this game might go, Tuesday night’s matchup certainly won’t lack for intrigue or excitement. The Blazers used a late penalty against MTSU to hold on for a 27-25 victory in Conference USA’s Championship, while the Huskies rallied in the fourth quarter against Buffalo to a claim a 30-29 win in the MAC title game.
UAB’s play on the gridiron has been one of college football’s best storylines over the last two years. The program was disbanded following the 2014 season but was later reinstated in ’15, with the team returning to the field and Conference USA play in ’17. The Blazers shattered preseason expectations with an 8-5 record last fall and capped the year with an appearance against Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl. Coach Bill Clark’s team was even better in 2018, finishing 10-3 overall with the program’s first Conference USA title. UAB also won 10 games for the first time in its program history, helping Clark earn Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year honors.
Success at a high level is nothing new to Northern Illinois. The Huskies have the most appearances of any school in the MAC in the conference title game, claimed four league titles since 2011 and made five bowl trips in six full years under coach Rod Carey. After a 5-7 mark in 2016, Northern Illinois has posted back-to-back 8-5 records and claimed the MAC title over Buffalo in dramatic fashion this year. After trailing 29-10 in third quarter, the Huskies scored 20 unanswered points to claim a 30-29 victory. Carey’s team faced a brutal non-conference schedule – Iowa, Utah and Florida State – but both losses in MAC play came by seven points or less.
This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Northern Illinois and UAB. The Huskies are 4-8 in bowl games, while the Blazers are 0-2.
Boca Raton Bowl: UAB (10-3) vs. Northern Illinois (8-5)
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UAB -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. UAB’s Ground Attack
It’s no secret what UAB wants to do on offense in this matchup. The Blazers ranked first in Conference USA with 587 rushing attempts and ranked second in the conference by averaging 208.9 rushing yards a game. Sophomore Spencer Brown is the catalyst for UAB’s ground attack, as he eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year by ending the regular season with 1,149 yards and 16 scores. Brown is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and has just one run of 30 yards or more this season. Helping Brown’s cause as one of the top Group of 5 running backs in the nation is an offensive line featuring four senior starters, including first-team All-Conference USA selection Justice Powers. Rishard Cook, James Davis and Malique Johnson each earned second-team honors this season.
Production by Brown on early downs is going to be crucial for UAB on Tuesday night. The offense exceled at converting third-down attempts (44.3 percent success rate) in the regular season, but Northern Illinois has been stingy all year against the run. The Huskies rank first in the MAC in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 2.7 yards a carry and 109.7 yards a game. Additionally, Carey’s team allowed only one opponent (Iowa) to rush for more than 168 yards in a contest this fall. All-America end Sutton Smith (24.5) is the main disruptor, but he will have help from linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis (13.5 TFL) and fellow linemen Josh Corcoran (12.5) and Jack Heflin (8.0). Considering the talent off the edge with Smith and Corcoran, Brown and UAB’s ground game would be wise to pound away at the interior.
UAB’s passing game wasn’t prolific by any means, but quarterbacks A.J. Erdely and Tyler Johnston III made enough plays to keep the offense rolling this fall. Erdely connected on 56.1 percent of his passes for 1,539 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnston’s completion percentage was slightly higher (56.8), as he added 950 yards and seven scores through the air. The two quarterbacks combined for 15 picks in 2018. Erdely was banged up late in the year, allowing Johnston to start four out of the final five contests. All signs point to Johnston starting on Tuesday night, and the freshman will certainly have his hands full with a defense that is limiting teams to just 21.5 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. Receivers Xavier Ubosi (21.8 ypc), Andre Wilson (30 catches), Kailon Carter (22) and Collin Lisa (14) give Johnston a solid group of weapons with big-play ability on the outside.
In order for UAB to win on Tuesday night, it has to establish the run by giving Northern Illinois a heavy dose of its star running back (Brown). An x-factor to watch: Johnston’s mobility. The freshman rushed for 331 yards and four scores in the regular season and posted double-digit carries in three out of UAB’s last four games.
2. Northern Illinois’ Offense
Similar to UAB, Northern Illinois’ offense wants to lean on its run to setup the pass. The Huskies posted 553 carries to just 372 passing attempts in the regular season. Carey’s group wasn’t overly prolific on the scoreboard, as the offense averaged only 20.7 points a game and 4.6 yards a play. However, this unit showed signs of progress in the MAC title win over Buffalo. In the victory, Northern Illinois averaged 6.1 yards a play, recorded 23 first downs and threw for 300 yards (a season high) versus the Bulls. Additionally, the 409 total yards was the third-highest total for the Huskies all year. Can Carey’s team build off that performance?
While the Huskies are a run-first attack, this team doesn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher. Instead, a couple of players will tote the rock for Carey’s team, spreading the wealth in the NIU backfield. Tre Harbison needs just 15 yards to reach 1,000, as he leads the team with 985 yards through 13 games. Marcus Jones (523) and Jordan Nettles (215) are next up at running back, and quarterback Marcus Childers has chipped in 496 yards and leads the team with six rushing scores in ’18.
As mentioned above, Northern Illinois hopes the performance on offense from the MAC title game travels to Boca on Tuesday night. Childers’ 300 passing yards and four scores through the air were the most this offense has generated all year with its passing game. The sophomore has an experienced group of receivers at his disposal, including Jauan Wesley (49 catches), D.J. Brown (55) and Spencer Tears (34).
While there are reasons for Northern Illinois’ staff to be optimistic about its offense, UAB has been stingy all season on this side of the ball. The Blazers rank first in Conference USA in scoring defense (17.3), limit teams to 4.9 yards a play, rank second in the conference in pass efficiency defense and have generated 43 sacks in ’18. This unit is also holding teams to 3.5 yards a rush and less than 120 rushing yards a game. Jamell Garcia-Williams (9.5 sacks), Tre’ Crawford (8.0) and Quindarius Thagard (4.0) are the main disruptors up front for Clark and will be tasked with keeping the offense in check.
It may seem like a broken record, but we have to mention it again. Northern Illinois wants to run the ball, and Childers is a big part of that plan. However, considering UAB’s strength up front, the Huskies will need to throw downfield with success on early downs to win this game.
3. Havoc Plays and Turnovers
There are several similarities between these two teams, so it’s no surprise the spread is right around a field goal. However, with a tight (and low-scoring) game anticipated, one play by the defense or a mistake on offense could be the deciding factor.
In the turnover department, UAB comes into this game with a minus-one ratio. The Blazers have generated 18 takeaways and lost 19 turnovers through 13 games. Northern Illinois is almost identical in this area. The Huskies have an even margin, losing 18 turnovers and gaining 18 this season.
The continuing similarities between these two teams continues with sacks generated. Northern Illinois leads the nation with 50 sacks, while UAB is tied for third nationally with 43. Smith has recorded 15 sacks, with Corcoran (10) also in double-digits. The Blazers are led by Garcia-Williams (9.5) and Crawford (8.0), but eight players have recorded at least two this season.
One defensive area where UAB owns a big edge is on third-down stops. The Blazers are limiting opponents to a 25 percent conversion rate, with the Huskies allowing 38.1 percent.
Points will be a premium on Tuesday night. Both teams are averaging under 30 points a contest and will bring two of the nation’s top defenses to Boca Raton. With the defensive prowess in this matchup, timely offense and mistakes are going to be magnified. Winning the turnover battle and converting third downs to keep drives alive will loom large. Can UAB’s offense consistently generate enough push on first downs to keep Johnston out of third-and-long situations? When Northern Illinois has the ball, can Childers pick up where he left off in the MAC title game? Expect a low-scoring game, but the Blazers add to the best season in school history with the program’s first bowl victory.
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Former conference rivals and two of the nation’s top offenses face off in Albuquerque
North Texas and Utah State both used potent offenses to carve out successful seasons. Now the former conference rivals get to stake a claim on which team has the superior offense when they help open the 2018-19 bowl season at the New Mexico Bowl.
Utah State (10-2, 7-1 MW) is playing in a bowl game for the seventh time in eight seasons. The Aggies ran off 10 straight wins for the first time in school history before losing to Boise State in the regular-season finale. Utah State is 4-8 all-time in bowl games and is looking to snap a two-game postseason losing streak. The Aggies won a bowl game most recently in 2014 when they beat UTEP 21-6 in the New Mexico Bowl.
North Texas (9-3, 5-3 C-USA) has won nine games in back-to-back seasons for just the second time in school history. The Mean Green are appearing in their third straight bowl game and 10th overall. North Texas is 2-7 all-time in bowl games and, like Utah State, is looking to snap a two-game losing streak in bowls. The Mean Green earned their last bowl victory when they beat UNLV 36-14 in the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl.
This is the eighth meeting between the former Big West and Sun Belt rivals. Utah State leads the series 4-3, but North Texas holds a two-game winning streak in the series.
New Mexico Bowl: North Texas vs. Utah State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Dreamstyle Stadium (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Spread: Utah State -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Scoreboard explosion
A defensive battle isn’t likely in the works when Utah State and North Texas clash in Albuquerque. Both teams found success this season by overwhelming opponents with productive and efficient offense.
Utah State ended the regular season leading the Mountain West in total offense and scoring offense. The Aggies produce 47.2 points and 492.5 yards per game. Utah State already set school records after finishing the regular season with 72 touchdowns and 566 total points. Those marks eclipsed the previous records of 60 touchdowns set in 2011 and 454 total points set in ’12. The Aggies are within striking distance of the Mountain West record for points scored in a season. BYU set the current record of 608 points in 2001.
North Texas is almost as formidable on offense. The Mean Green lead Conference USA with 36.4 points per game. They are second in the league in total offense with 472.8 yards per game. North Texas is on pace to break school records in both categories. The current record for scoring offense in a season is 36.2 points per game, set in 1951. The current record for total offense is 454.7 yards per game, set just last season.
2. Jordan Love vs. Mason Fine
One of the appealing aspects of this year’s edition of the New Mexico Bowl is that it will feature two of the best quarterbacks in the country. Love and Fine have each put up ridiculous numbers while leading their respective teams to success.
Love threw for at least 300 yards six times during the regular season and crossed the 400-yard plateau twice. The sophomore has a strong and accurate arm, totaling 3,208 yards, 28 touchdowns, and five interceptions during the regular season. He ranks second in the Mountain West in pass efficiency (159.9), third in touchdown passes (28) and completion percentage (.658), fourth in passing yards per game (267.3) and fifth in total offense per game (272.3). Love also ranks in the top 30 nationally in all those categories.
While Fine’s numbers have dropped off a bit from a season ago, he’s still a major playmaking threat. He has totaled 3,734 yards and 27 touchdowns while throwing only five interceptions. Fine is the career leader at North Texas in passing yards (9,358), passing efficiency (140.05), completions (774), and passing attempts (1,229). Fine ranks as the top Conference USA passer in total yards and yards per game (311.2).
3. Can North Texas survive pressure from Utah State’s defense?
With both offenses being strong, the ultimate deciding factor will likely be defensive play. If that’s the case, Utah State has a definite edge in that department.
The Aggies know how to turn up the pressure on opponents and create disruption in the backfield. Utah State has totaled 89.0 tackles for a loss this season. More often than not, those plays lead to turnovers. The Aggies rank third nationally with 28 forced turnovers and are second among FBS teams with six defensive touchdowns. They have produced three or more turnovers in four games this season.
North Texas will need to do a good job of protecting its quarterback against Utah State. The Mean Green have been average in that department this season. They have given up 26 sacks and 84 total tackles for a loss in 12 games.
Utah State will be going through a coaching transition as Gary Andersen returns to the program to succeed his one-time successor Matt Wells. Frank Maile will coach the Aggies in the New Mexico Bowl and David Yost will stay on to call plays before heading to Texas Tech with Wells. That’s huge news for Utah State. The Aggies have a superior defense to pair with their potent offense and should be well equipped to handle what North Texas can throw at them. It should be a fun battle, but USU is the one who ultimately will get to snap their bowl losing streak.
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Preview: Clemson vs. Pittsburgh
Not many ACC teams can claim wins over Clemson in recent years, but Pittsburgh is one of them. The Panthers will try to play spoiler once again when they face the No. 2 Tigers on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, N.C.
The Panthers handed Clemson a 43-42 home loss in the most recent meeting in 2016 – the Tigers’ only loss en route to the national championship. Another loss to Pittsburgh would cost the Tigers their fourth consecutive ACC title, and it might deny them a chance to play for another national crown. Clemson has hardly been challenged lately, winning its past seven games by at least 20 points, though the vaunted defense had its most worrisome performance of the season in last week’s 56-35 victory over rival South Carolina. Pittsburgh had its four-game winning streak snapped with a 24-3 loss at Miami last week as the offense inexplicably fell flat after totaling 86 points in the previous two contests.
TV: 8 p.m. ET, ABC. LINE: Clemson -27.5
ABOUT CLEMSON (12-0, 8-0 ACC): The Tigers have been dominant on both sides of the ball as they rank third in the nation in total offense and seventh in defense. Clemson boasts one of the most prolific – and most balanced – offenses in the nation with freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence (2,488 yards, 22 touchdowns, four interceptions) and running back Travis Etienne (1,307 yards, 19 TDs) leading the way. The defense has been especially tough against the run, allowing more than 117 rushing yards once and holding seven opponents to 90 yards or fewer on the ground.
ABOUT PITTSBURGH (7-5, 6-2): The Panthers averaged 40.8 points during their four-game run to clinch the ACC Coastal Division title, but managed only 200 total yards and did not find the end zone last week. To have a chance Saturday, they’ll need a big rebound from running backs Qadree Ollison (1,134 yards, 10 TDs) and Darrin Hall (935 yards, nine TDs), and quarterback Kenny Pickett (1,825 yards, 12 TDs, 5 interceptions) can’t make many back-breaking mistakes. They’ll likely need to put up some points, because a defense that allows 399.9 yards and 27.8 points per game will have a tough time shutting down the Tigers.
1. Clemson has won eight consecutive games in December dating to a loss to Virginia Tech in the 2011 ACC Championship.
2. The Tigers have scored at least 27 points in a school-record 12 straight contests.
3. Pitt has won its last four games against top-three teams when unranked, including the 2016 victory over No. 2 Clemson and a 24-14 win over No. 2 Miami to close the 2017 regular season.
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Preview: Northwestern at Ohio State
Sixth-ranked Ohio State looks to strengthen its case for a College Football Playoff berth when it faces No. 21 Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday in Indianapolis. Ohio State eviscerated seventh-ranked Michigan 62-39 to capture the Big Ten East Division title and vault into contention for a postseason spot, but No. 4 Georgia and fifth-ranked Oklahoma are potential roadblocks in their path to the playoff as the Buckeyes aim to win their second consecutive conference championship game.
“When you start using terms like national championship and playoffs, that’s very rare air,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters. “That’s why we have a job to do … to go win the Big Ten championship and worry about that down the road.” Northwestern is making its first Big Ten Championship game appearance after ending Wisconsin’s dominance in the West division. The Wildcats have won seven straight conference games, including a 24-16 victory over Illinois to capture the Land of Lincoln Trophy last week, and hope to ride the momentum by knocking off the Buckeyes for the first time since 2004. “I’m fired up to take the purple down to Indy as every year our goal is to win the Big Ten West and we’ve gotten over that hump,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told reporters. “We have an opportunity to take the team to the Rose Bowl and if that doesn’t motivate you then I don’t know what does.”
TV: 8 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Ohio State -14
ABOUT NORTHWESTERN (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten): Clayton Thorson completed 12-of-18 passes for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns while adding another on the ground as the Wildcats downed the Fighting Illini for the fourth consecutive time. Linebacker Paddy Fisher earned All-Big Ten First Team honors after making 92 tackles and forcing three fumbles, while defensive end Joe Gaziano was named to the second team following six sacks and 11 tackles for loss in 2018. Fitzgerald was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year after guiding the Wildcats to eight conference wins, which matched a single-season program record.
ABOUT OHIO STATE (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten): Dwayne Haskins continued his push for the Heisman Trophy as he threw for 396 yards and equaled a program record with six touchdown passes in the win against Michigan. Haskins was named the Big Ten Player of the Week for a record sixth time after his dominant display against the Wolverines, breaking the old mark of five set by former Heisman Trophy winner and former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Defensive tackle Dre’mont Jones was selected to the Big Ten First Team after registering 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss to go along with a pair of touchdowns while Chase Young earned second-team honors.
1. Ohio State has won six consecutive meetings with Northwestern.
2. Haskins set Big Ten single-season records with 4,081 passing yards and 42 touchdowns.
3. The Wildcats have won 15 of their last 16 Big Ten games dating back to last year.
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Preview: Alabama vs. Georgia
Top-ranked Alabama will undoubtedly be part of the four-team College Football Playoff but fourth-ranked Georgia isn’t a lock as the two squads prepare for Saturday’s SEC championship game at Atlanta. The Bulldogs can clinch a CFP spot by beating the Crimson Tide but risk being bypassed for the playoff if they should lose the contest.
The two squads met in last season’s national title game with Alabama prevailing 26-23 in overtime in what was the coming out party for Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who came off the bench to throw three touchdown passes. “He can sit in the pocket and make every throw,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said during a press conference. “He’s very confident, and he’s got a presence about him in the pocket. He doesn’t fear rush; if he’s got guys bearing down on him, he sidesteps and gets the ball out, and that’s what makes him very special.” Alabama has been dominant all season but coach Nick Saban is very wary of Smart – his former defensive coordinator – and the Bulldogs. “Georgia is one of the most complete teams in the country,” Saban said at a press conference. “I think Kirby’s done a fantastic job there in terms of taking the players that were there and developing them in the style that he wants and doing a great job of recruiting to get new players to come and buy into their system. This is going to be the biggest challenge we’ve had to date.”
TV: 4 p.m. ET, CBS. LINE: Alabama -13.5
ABOUT ALABAMA (12-0, 8-0 SEC): Tagovailoa has thrown a school-record 36 touchdown passes against two interceptions and the sophomore fuels an offense averaging 49 points per game. Jerry Jeudy is enjoying a standout season with 56 receptions for 1,079 and 11 touchdowns while fellow sophomore receiver DeVonta Smith (27 receptions) will forever be remembered in Alabama lore for catching the game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass in the national championship game. The Crimson Tide give up an average of 13.8 points with sophomore nose guard Quinnen Williams recording a team-leading 16 tackles for loss and senior defensive end Isaiah Buggs notching a team-best 9.5 sacks.
ABOUT GEORGIA (11-1, 7-1): Sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm was intercepted twice in last season’s title game but has been picked off just five times this season while passing for 2,236 yards and 24 touchdowns. The attack that produces an average of 40.1 points per game also relies on two standout running backs in sophomore D’Andre Swift (962 yards, nine touchdowns) and junior Elijah Holyfield (896 yards, seven scores). The defense allows an average of 17.2 points with senior linebacker D’Andre Walker (team-high 6.5 sacks) and sophomore safety Richard LeCounte (team-leading 64 tackles) among the standouts.
1. Alabama has won the past four meetings.
2. Bulldogs junior WR Mecole Hardman leads the SEC with a 21.8 average on punt returns – he has one touchdown – and also averages 26.2 yards on kickoff returns.
3. Crimson Tide junior LB Terrell Lewis (knee) returned to practice from summer surgery and his availability will be determined later in the week.
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Preview: Memphis at Central Florida
Seventh-ranked Central Florida attempts to finish the job after an emotional week and earn a second straight American Athletic Conference title when it hosts surging Memphis in the championship game Saturday. The Knights extended their national-best winning streak to 24 games with a resounding 38-10 victory at South Florida last Friday, but the triumph came at a cost as star quarterback McKenzie Milton was lost to a severe right knee injury.
“Everyone in our program has great love and respect for McKenzie and our thoughts and prayers are constantly with him,” UCF coach Josh Heupel told reporters regarding the junior from Hawaii, who was responsible for 34 touchdowns this year. “At the same time, we’re gonna go out and play our hearts out. He’ll be part of who and what we’re doing on the field.” UCF, which is eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings, will hand out 40,000 leis to fans at the game to honor Milton, while freshman quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. gets the job of trying to lead the Knights to another title. Memphis comes to Orlando, Fla. with one of the nation’s best running backs in junior Darrell Henderson, a four-game winning streak and the confidence of two near misses against UCF during the Knights’ winning streak – but a 1-12 all-time record against the Knights. “We’ve competed extremely well against them, but at the same point, we always had mistakes late in games that have cost us,” Tigers coach Mike Norvell, whose team lost in double-overtime at last year’s title game and 31-30 against UCF on Oct. 13, told reporters. “They’ve made plays late in games that have helped them to victory.”
TV: 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC. LINE: UCF -3
ABOUT MEMPHIS (8-4, 5-3 American): Henderson is second in the nation in rushing yards (1,699), tied for second in TDs on the ground (19) and second in yards per carry (8.6) after gaining 178 and scoring twice in the 52-31 win over Houston last week. Junior quarterback Brady White is 53 passing yards from reaching 3,000 on the season, but has thrown four interceptions (seven overall) and three TD strikes (25 overall) in the last two games. Sophomore wide receiver Damonte Coxie is White’s top target with 63 catches for 1,062 yards and seven scores while junior Tony Pollard had career highs of eight receptions and 116 yards last week and is one of the top kick returners in the nation.
ABOUT CENTRAL FLORIDA (11-0, 8-0): The Knights will lean more toward the ground attack with the 6-3, 230-pound Mack at the helm as he has run for 281 yards (7.0 per carry) and completed just 48.8 percent of his passes in a limited role. UCF’s rushing attack has gotten better each game and sophomore Greg McCrae (895 yards, eight TDs on the ground) took the leading role at the end of October while junior Adrian Killins Jr. (1,023 yards rushing and receiving) is always a threat. The Knights’ defense, led by sophomore defensive back Richie Grant (team highs of 98 tackles, five interceptions) and senior lineman Titus Davis (six sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss), must step up again versus the talented Tigers.
1. Memphis junior RB Patrick Taylor Jr. needs 106 yards rushing to give the Tigers two players with 1,000 in a season.
2. UCF sophomore WR Gabriel Davis leads a balanced receiving corps with 44 catches for 655 yards and six TDs.
3. Tigers LB Bryce Huff is tied for 14th in the nation is tackles for loss per game (1.5) with 18 overall.