(Author’s note: This is the second part of a two-part preview of SEC bowl competition. To read part one, including the BCS National Championship, click here.)
The ball has dropped, the spirits have been consumed and 2013 has been welcomed with the traditional fanfare. As families across the southern United States settled in for their ham, collard greens and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, they did so after seeing comeback victories from Georgia and South Carolina. They also enjoyed the realization that the conference has four remaining opportunities to take down bowl victories, including the BCS National Championship. We broke down the BCS National Championship in part one, but we still need to take a look ahead at the Sugar, Cotton and BBVA Compass Bowls. We will do just that…right after we remind you of the SEC bowl trivia question!
SEC Trivia, Bowl Edition (answer at the end of the article): In the days before the BCS, different entities crowned “split” national champions many times. The most recent time where Alabama and Notre Dame were crowned national champions in the same year was 1977. Who were the quarterbacks for their respective teams in the 1977 season?
Top of the Ratings
Sugar Bowl – Louisville (10-2, 5-2 Big East) vs. Florida (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Wed., Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last week’s episode: Louisville 20, Rutgers 17 (11/29); Florida 37, Florida State 26 (11/24)
Program guide: That Louisville-Rutgers result you see above this paragraph is what got them to this Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals never played a ranked team all year, but they take their ten-win club to New Orleans in an attempt to land a signature win against the Gators. This contest matches Charlie Strong against the club for whom he was once the defensive coordinator, and he will look to get it done with his offense.
Though the Cardinals suffered their two losses among their final three games of the season, they still managed to put up over 400 yards of total offense in both games, losses at Syracuse and to Connecticut at home. Louisville broke the 400-yard mark of total offense eight times during the season en route to over 5100 total offensive yards in 2012. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, however, despite quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s success, their rushing attack hit a wall after losing running back Senorise Perry to an ACL injury in a loss to Syracuse. Louisville averaged just 39 rushing yards per game in those final three, heavily relying on Bridgewater to get them to this game.
The Cardinals’ recent offensive struggles may find no relief against the fifth-ranked Florida defense. The Gators allow just 283 yards of total offense per game, going four of five games without allowing 100 yards on the ground before surrendering 112 to the Seminoles in their final outing of the season. Florida’s pass defense is equally stingy, allowing just 186 yards per game. The number that has to be more alarming to Cardinal fans is that the Gators have allowed just five passing touchdowns this season. By comparison, Bridgewater threw for five scores…against Temple.
Louisville has a top-25 defense of their own, allowing 345 yards per game. The Cardinals allowed 200 passing yards or greater just five times this season, while the Gators passed for 200-plus yards just twice all year (against Tennessee and Kentucky). Florida has relied on workhorse back Mike Gillislee to carry them on the ground this year, and they will look to do the same in this game. The Gators are left to wonder, though, whether they will face the Louisville run defense that allowed 47 yards to Giovani Bernard and North Carolina, 54 to Rutgers and 93 to Kentucky and Pittsburgh or 224 to Southern Miss, 255 to Temple and 278 to Syracuse.
Cotton Bowl – Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. Oklahoma (10-2, 8-1 Big 12)
Fri., Jan. 4, 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Last week’s episode: Texas A&M 59, Missouri 29 (11/14); Oklahoma 24, TCU 17 (12/1)
Program guide: Look, everyone! It’s Big 12 football all over again! The Aggies leave for the SEC to start the year, then close the campaign facing off against their old foe, the Sooners — in Dallas, no less. Familiarity aside, this looks to be an outstanding game. We get to see two top-ten offenses (Texas A&M #3, Oklahoma #10) and two top-eleven players in total offense (Johnny Manziel #1, Landry Jones #11). Jones was a bit more of a known commodity coming into the season, while Manziel took the nation by storm to win the Heisman in Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. Kingsbury may be heading to Lubbock to take over at Texas Tech, but the Sooners will still have quite the task ahead.
The Aggies’ video-gamish offensive numbers have been duly chronicled. 552.3 yards per game. 546.3 yards per game against SEC opponents. Six games over the 600-yard mark in total offense. The Aggies also rank 13th in rushing offense, mostly behind Manziel. Manziel has 1181 yards rushing, more than his top two running backs, Ben Malena and Christine Michael have combined — with the tandem having a higher carry total. These totals almost make Manziel’s passing numbers (273-for-400, 3419 yards, 24 TD, 8 INT) seem secondary, in a sense. Texas A&M also features a 1000-yard receiver (Mike Evans, with 75 catches for 1022 yards and five scores) to add to the embarrassment of offensive riches.
It should not be said that Oklahoma is necessarily bad on defense — allowing 407 yards per game to Big 12 competition notwithstanding — but they have tough sledding ahead against the Aggies. The Sooners faced another top-three offense in Baylor, allowing a decent 424 yards in a 42-34 victory over the Bears. Amazingly, though, West Virginia followed that effort by hanging 778 yards of offense on the Sooners the following week — with Oklahoma still managing to win the game. Oklahoma followed up that effort by giving up 840 total yards in their two final games against Oklahoma State and TCU. The challenge is easy: stop Johnny Manziel. The execution of that challenge, however, is nowhere near that easy.
Oklahoma also offers a problem to A&M’s Wrecking Crew defense, as well. The Aggies allow 389 yards per game on defense, and opponents have gained 40-plus yards per game more on A&M in road games than in Kyle Field. Just as Oklahoma played a top-three offense in Baylor, A&M faced one in Louisiana Tech. Louisiana Tech totaled 615 yards of offense in that contest, though they only gave up 400-plus yards twice in the remaining six games.
And then there’s Jones, whom we mentioned earlier. Jones has completed 65.5% of his passes this year (332-for-507, 3989 yards, 29 TD, 10 INT) in leading the Sooners into the red zone. Once they arrive in the red zone, though, they break out the heavy machinery, led by the Belldozer. Backup quarterback Blake Bell has carried the ball 58 times this year out of Tim Tebow-like formations, but has parlayed those 58 carries into 11 touchdowns. The Aggie defense has to hold contain and keep Bell in the first level to neutralize the threat he provides. Bell is not the only Aggie with 11 touchdowns, though, as Damien Williams has 11 rushing trips to pay dirt and Kenny Stills has 11 touchdown grabs. Locking down Stills, Jalen Saunders and the Sooners’ multitude of offensive weapons will be key to getting the Sooners off the field, giving the ball back to the high-powered Aggie offense.
BBVA Compass Bowl – Pittsburgh (6-6, 3-4 Big East) vs. Mississippi (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Sat., Jan. 5, 1:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Program guide: The final (non-BCS title, at least) contest involving an SEC member involves two teams who have already essentially won playoff games to get to a bowl game. Pittsburgh had to win their final two against Rutgers and South Florida to become bowl-eligible, while Mississippi had to snap a three-game skid and beat cross-state rival Mississippi State to get their elusive sixth win. One team will leave the field in Birmingham having continued their mini-streak, while the other will go home under .500.
Pittsburgh brings a statistically middle-of-the-road offense to the table (the Panthers rank 60th in the FBS), but they have enjoyed great years from many offensive players. Quarterback Tino Sunseri has put up quietly effective numbers, completing 240-of-361 passes for 3103 yards and 19 scores against just two interceptions. Sunseri has enjoyed a quality rushing tandem in Ray Graham (222 carries, 1042 yards, 11 TD) and Rushel Shell (116 carries, 562 yards, 4 TD). With Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Graham, Sunseri also has several targets to whom he can throw. The Panthers accompany this offensive output with the 17th-ranked defense in the nation, and they have allowed greater than 345 yards just once in their last six games, a 29-26 loss to Notre Dame on November 3rd.
The Rebels are also quite familiar with high offensive numbers. Hugh Freeze’s Mississippi club put up 527 yards of offense in that victory we mentioned against Mississippi State, their third 500-plus yard outing of the season. Quarterback Bo Wallace leads the offense, completing 213-of-336 passes for 2843 yards and 19 touchdowns. The alarming number from Wallace, though, is his 15 interceptions on the season. Five of those picks have taken place in the last two games (three against LSU, two against Mississippi State). The Rebel defense will also look to continue their turnaround from their three-game skid, surrendering just 333 yards against Mississippi State after allowing an average of 444 yards per game during the three consecutive losses.
SEC Trivia, Bowl Edition: I asked earlier: In the days before the BCS, different entities crowned “split” national champions many times. The most recent time where Alabama and Notre Dame were crowned national champions in the same year was 1977. Who were the quarterbacks for their respective teams in the 1977 season?
Answer: Joe Montana was, as most fans might imagine, the quarterback of the 1977 Fighting Irish. Alabama was led by Jeff Rutledge, who played 13 seasons in the NFL for the Giants, Rams and Redskins. Rutledge played in Super Bowl XXI with the Giants and in Super Bowl XXVI with the Redskins, while Montana enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with the 49ers and Chiefs.