While the holiday rush may be through, the bowl season is just heating up.
After three solid matchups on Friday, all on ESPN, Saturday explodes with goodness. If you’re looking for a “must see” time slot tune in from mid-afternoon all the way through the evening: Miami Fla.-South Carolina (ABC), Boston College-Penn State (ESPN) and Nebraska-USC (ESPN).
Saturday also features only the second bowl game with a ranked team on the card—No. 15 Arizona State and Duke in the Sun Bowl (2:00pm ET, CBS).
There are a handful of sleepers in this offering, but if you want just one tune in to North Carolina-Rutgers (ESPN) on Friday afternoon.
From a remote standpoint, all but two of the games are on ESPN, so it’s another steady flow of action without any unnecessary flipping.
Friday, Dec. 26
1:00pm ET, ESPN: ZAXBY’S HEART of DALLAS BOWL: ILLINOIS vs. LOUISIANA TECH (Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas): The only previous meeting between these two was in the 2012 regular season, a game Louisiana Tech won 52-24 in Champaign. This game features what looks like a mismatch—Louisiana Tech’s No. 13-ranked scoring offense vs. Illinois’ No. 107-ranked scoring defense—but that just masks a great strength-vs.-strength clash between the Bulldogs’ No. 44-ranked passing attack and the Illini No. 44-ranked secondary. What may make the difference is Illinois’ No. 123-ranked rush defense, tasked with containing Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon (#28), No. 5 in the FBS in touchdowns (21). No team has more takeaways this season the Bulldogs, leading the nation with 40, a number that includes 25 interceptions, tied with Louisville for the most in the FBS. Louisiana Tech hasn’t been bowling since 2011 and hasn’t won a postseason game since beating Northern Illinois in the 2008 Independence Bowl. Illinois hasn’t been to a bowl game since the 2011 Fight Hunger Bowl, a game it won 20-14 over UCLA.
4:30pm ET, ESPN: QUICK LANE BOWL: RUTGERS (7-5) vs. NORTH CAROLINA (6-6) (Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.): The sixth time these two have met in history, Rutgers has dropped three straight to North Carolina, last winning 21-16 in 2006. The Tar Heels have struggled epically on defense this season, ranked No. 119 in scoring, No. 117 vs. the run and No. 108 vs. the pass. This huge weakness should be less obvious vs. a Rutgers O that ranks No. 90 in scoring, No. 89 in rushing and No. 62 in passing. What could get interesting is Carolina’s No. 24-ranked passing attack taking on a Scarlet Knights’ secondary that ranks No. 68. This is the same unit that gave up an average of 289 yards through the air to its last six opponents, four resulting in losses. Check out Scarlet Knight receiver Leonte Carroo (#4), No. 13 in the FBS in touchdowns (10) and No. 21 in yards per game (86.9)—he’s suffered an upper body injury and is listed as probable for this game. Rutgers hasn’t won a bowl game since beating Iowa State in the 2011 Pinstripe, North Carolina has won three-straight bowl games, last losing to No. 17 Pitt in the 2009 Meineke Car Care.
8:00PM ET, ESPN: BITCOIN ST. PETERSBURG BOWL: NC STATE (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3) (Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.): Only the third-ever meeting, these two last clashed in 2010, a game NC State won 28-21. UCF has made its way this season with one of the best defenses in the biz: No. 9 in scoring, No. 5 vs. the run and No. 11 vs. the pass. This in stark to comparison to its young offense that ranks No. 72 in scoring. For the Wolfpack to have a chance it will have to hope its No. 38-ranked rushing attack can somehow score on the Knights’ defense. Keep an eye on NC State running back Shadrach Thornton (#10), he finished the regular season by hanging up 110 yards on Wake Forest and then posting a season-high 161 in the finale at North Carolina, both wins. At quarterback for the Wolfpack is Jacoby Brissett (#12), the once 4-star recruit who transferred from Florida to NC State after the 2012 season. For UCF, check out cornerback Jacoby Glenn (#12), he’s tied for the third most interceptions in the FBS (seven). This is NC State’s first bowl game since 2012, the Wolfpack haven’t won since beating Louisville in the 2011 Belk Bowl. UCF has won three-straight bowl games, last falling to Rutgers in, guess what, the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl.
Saturday, Dec. 27
1:00pm ET, ESPN: MILITARY BOWL: CINCINNATI (9-3) vs. VIRGINIA TECH (6-6) (Navy-Marine Corps. Stadium, Annapolis, Md.): These two have clashed nine times previously, Virginia Tech holds a 5-4 advantage including winning the only postseason meeting, the 2008-09 Orange Bowl. The provocative matchup in this one is Cincinnati’s No. 13-ranked passing attack taking on Virginia Tech’s No. 14-ranked secondary. The Hokies have only given up 220-plus yards through the air twice this season: 427 to East Carolina and 276 to Virginia. The Bearcats, on the other hand, have only been held to under 220 passing yards three times: 214 at Tulane, 176 at UConn and 174 at Temple. Keep an eye out for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel (#11), No. 9 in the FBS in touchdowns (30), No. 16 in passer rating (150.79) and No. 29 in yards per game (250.8). For Virginia Tech, check out defensive end Dadi Nicolas (#90), he’s got a whopping 25 quarterback hurries this season, 17 tackles for a loss (tied for the seventh most in the country) and 8.5 sacks (tied for the 12th most).
2:00PM ET, CBS: HYUNDAI SUN BOWL: No. 15 ARIZONA STATE (9-3) vs. DUKE (9-3) (Sun Bowl Stadium, El Paso, Texas): The first-ever meeting between the two schools, Duke continues its quest to win its first bowl game since 1960 when the then No. 10 Blue Devils upended No. 7 Arkansas 7-6 in the Cotton Bowl. To have a chance, Duke must shore up its No. 97-ranked rush defense, no easy task vs. the Sun Devils’ No. 18 ranked scoring offense, featuring running back D.J. Foster (#8), averaging 83.5 yards per game (No. 52). Not only is he the team’s top rusher, he’s also the No. 2 receiver for the No. 29 passing attack in the FBS. Though the Blue Devils rank No. 20 in turnover margin, the common thread in each of their losses has been coughing up the ball, losing a season-high three turnovers each in defeats to Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and North Carolina. This sets up well for an Arizona State team that ranks No. 6 in turnover margin and No. 25 in takeaways. The other exciting matchup is Duke’s O-line, tied for the sixth-fewest sacks allowed in the FBS (13) taking on a Sun Devil D that is tied for the seventh-most sacks (39). Check out Blue Devil linebacker David Helton (#47), No. 14 in the nation in tackles (125).
3:30PM ET, ABC: DUCK COMMANDER INDEPENDENCE BOWL: MIAMI FLA. (6-6) vs. SOUTH CAROLINA (6-6) (Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.): These two haven’t met since 1987 and have never clashed in the postseason, 13 of the 15 all-time games were played before 1961, the Gamecocks haven’t beaten the Hurricanes since 1940 when they won 7-2. The great strength-vs.-strength matchup in this one is South Carolina’s No. 21-ranked passing offense squaring off with Miami’s No. 9-ranked pass defense. The Gamecocks have averaged 281 passing yards per game this season, while the Hurricanes have held opponents to 184. What South Carolina hasn’t done well in 2014 is stop the run, ranking No. 109 in the FBS and No. 13 in the SEC. This sets up a golden opportunity for Miami running back Duke Johnson (#8), averaging 126.67 yards per game (No. 14 in the nation). Keep an eye on South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper (#11), as a sophomore he’s No. 30 in the FBS in yards per game (80.5). Also worth watching is the future of Hurricane football, true-freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya (#15), No. 19 in the nation in passer rating (148.20).
4:30pm ET, ESPN: NEW ERA PINSTRIPE BOWL: BOSTON COLLEGE (7-5) vs. PENN STATE (6-6) (Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y.): The 24th game between these two and the first since 2004. Boston College won its last three meetings vs. Penn State but before that only won once in 20 tries. These two have never met in the postseason. This is one of the best matchups of the bowl season featuring Penn State’s blistering defense, ranked No. 1 vs. the run, clashing with Boston College’s No. 15-ranked rushing attack. On the flip side, it’s a mismatch between the Nittany Lions quiet offense, ranked No. 115 in scoring, squaring off with an Eagle D that ranks No. 18 in scoring. Where Penn State can gain yards is through the air, an interesting matchup vs. a BC secondary that ranks No. 48 against the pass, its only statistical weakness. Keep an eye on Penn State linebacker Mike Hull (#43), No. 7 in the nation in tackles (134). Boston College hasn’t won a bowl game since 2007, when the then No. 14 Eagles nipped unranked Michigan State 24-21 in the Champs Sports Bowl. Penn State hasn’t been bowling since 2011 and hasn’t won since the 2009 Capital One Bowl when it, ranked No. 11, downed No. 13 LSU 19-17.
8:00PM ET, ESPN: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY HOLIDAY BOWL: NEBRASKA (9-3) vs. No. 24 USC (8-4) (Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, Calif.): Another first-ever postseason matchup, these two have met four times previously but Nebraska has never beaten USC, scoring a 21-21 tie in 1970 and losing in 2007, 2006 and 1969. The key to beating the Huskers this season is shutting down running back Ameer Abdullah (#8), the No. 11 back in the FBS in yards per game (126.92). He’s only been held to fewer than 100 yards on four starts: 54 in the 31-24 near miss to FCS McNeese State, 45 in 27-22 loss to Michigan State, 69 in the 59-24 loss to Wisconsin and 98 in the 28-24 loss to Minnesota. USC is ranked No. 27 vs. the run, holding 11 of its 12 opponents to fewer than 175 rushing yards. The exception, well, that was Sept. 13 when Boston College hung up 452 yards on the Trojans in a shocking 37-31 upset. The good news for Nebraska’s D, which has slipped to a No. 80 rank vs. the run, is that USC is a passing team, No. 15 in passing yards vs. No. 70 in rushing. The Huskers are No. 27 vs. the pass but haven’t seen an aerial attack like USC’s, with the exception of Miami (Fla.), which hung up a season-high 359 passing yards on Nebraska. That said, keep an eye on Trojan running back Javorius Allen (#37), he’s had eight 100-plus yard games this season and may breakout against the Nebraska D. With Bo Pelini out, look for Barney Cotton on the sidelines for the Cornhuskers. Cotton has served as an offensive assistant/associate head coach at Nebraska since 2008 and is set to move on to the OC role at UNLV after this game.