NCAAF bowl season preview: The Whole Nine Yards with Mia O'Brien
By MIA O'BRIEN
College Contributor Network
As 76 teams from across the nation prepare for the college football bowl schedule to begin -- and as fans gear up for the first-ever College Football Playoff -- here's this week's "Whole Nine Yards"-bowl edition.
9. New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Boston College vs. Penn State)
Yes, one team is 7-5. Yes, the other is 6-6. But this is BC-Penn State. This is northeast rivalry. This one will be at Yankee Stadium.
If not the most sound football game, this one will be a game of storylines. Penn State will be making its first postseason appearance since the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked State College and the college football landscape. Boston College is still rebuilding, having never really returned to national prominence since the days Matt Ryan was under center, and is in its second straight bowl game. For BC quarterback Tyler Murphy, a transfer from Florida, it's a transition from the fan seats where he watched the Pinstripe Bowl from last season to being under center and in the game itself.
The two teams have squared off 24 times before, with the Nittany Lions holding a 19-4 advantage; however, BC has taken the last three.
Bowl'd Prediction: Boston College
8. National University Holiday Bowl (University of Southern California vs. Nebraska)
Similar to BC-Penn State, this year's Holiday Bowl features two schools renowned across the nation -- although this matchup in San Diego will allow the Trojans to draw a large, hometown crowd from down the Pacific Coast Highway.
I initially wanted to start off this bowl game preview by noting how many expected the Trojans to vie for a national title this season. On second thought, I can't for sure say that A: fans expected that much of USC and B) if USC's 8-4 record and 6-3 mark in Pac-12 play could really be considered a "failure" of a season.
It was a season far from mission accomplished, certainly, but the Trojans played in the second-toughest division (not even conference) in all of college football and defeated the likes of Utah and Arizona. That strength of schedule may help them when taking on an opponent like Nebraska, who's had to play the likes of the Big Ten... and that's it.
Don't get me wrong: this is a Cornhuskers team that can put up a lot of points. But it's also one that gives up a lot of points, averaging 24.8 points allowed a contest. It took overtime to put Iowa away in the last week of the regular season, and even then, Nebraska gave up more yards than they amassed. They'll need not only senior tailback Ameer Abdullah to have a big day but for sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. to have a third straight, 200-yard passing day to take down the simply more-weathered Trojans.
Bowl'd Prediction: USC
7. Autozone Liberty Bowl (Texas A&M vs. West Virginia)
I like to think of this one as a battle of the "woulda, coulda, shoulda's" of the 2014 college football season.
The Aggies had the terrible misfortune of, like so many teams, playing in the SEC West this season. Like five of its divisional opponents, A&M got off to a 5-0 start to the season. However, the heart of its schedule -- featuring the likes of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama in back-to-back-to-back weeks -- would drop them to the cellar of the standings. It'd complete a big upset of then No. 3 Auburn in early November, proving that perhaps this Aggie team could hang with the big boys -- so long as it had two weeks rest coming into the game (yes, I am counting its win over UL-Monroe as a "week of rest" compared to the rest of its schedule...)
The Mountaineers are even more of an anomaly coming out of the Big 12, given that they more or less dropped off the national radar early on after losing to Alabama and Oklahoma in Week 1 and Week 4, respectively. However, they, unlike the Aggies, roared back to life thanks to the heart of their schedule, including the landmark upset of Baylor; the only reason they didn't make a four-game win streak five was because of a 31-30, heartbreaking loss to TCU.
That bears repeating: West Virginia defeated the one "co-champion" of its conference, and only lost to the other "co-champion" by one point. Imagine what would have happened come playoff-decision time if TCU's Jaden Oberkrom doesn't hit that field goal as time expires -- I don't think the Mountaineers would be one of college football's top four teams, but it still would make for an intriguing debate.
Nonetheless, the field goal was made, and it will be two of the big underdogs of 2014 going head-to-head.
Bowl'd Prediction: West Virginia
6. Belk Bowl (Georgia vs. Louisville)
Easily two of the lesser-talked-about teams this season, and I'm not entirely sure why, as both finished the regular season with 9-3 records. It'll be a big match-up between the high-powered offense of Georgia (41.7 points per game) and the highly ranked but hardly tested defense of Louisville (20.5 points allowed per game).
All the Todd Gurley drama aside, this is an exciting Bulldogs squad primarily because of how balanced it is and has been all season. When Gurley was ruled ineligible, freshman Nick Chubb stepped up to play alongside the leadership of senior quarterback Hutson Mason and leading senior wide receiver Chris Conley. Freshman tight end Jeb Blazevich ranks third on the team in receiving yards, while the senior duo of Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson have over 100 tackles each on the season.
To its credit, Louisville has, as mentioned, amassed the same record as Georgia, but with a pretty young squad: the Cardinals' starting quarterback and leading rusher are both sophomores. Perhaps youth was to blame, then, in Louisville's three losses this season to Virginia, Clemson, and Florida State -- all of which (even Virginia in some respects) were games the Cardinals were "supposed to lose." And, even then, they hung around with all three: the only opponent they lost to by more than a touchdown was the Seminoles.
And then, there's that moment we remember Georgia plays in the SEC, and Louisville plays in the Florida State Conference -- I mean, ACC.
Bowl'd Prediction: Georgia
5. Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl (Ole Miss vs. TCU)
Another matchup between the "woulda, coulda, shoulda's" of the 2014 season, although I'd say Ole Miss and TCU were more surprise contenders than West Virginia and Texas A&M -- not to mention, both Ole Miss and TCU were contending until the bitter end.
Bo Wallace and the Rebels went from "the place Eli Manning went" to a national title contender thanks to a 7-0 start and a big win over now No. 1 Alabama in early October. However, as its counterparts this weekend, the Horned Frogs, know all too well, "early season wins" meaning nothing coming down the stretch or with the playoff committee.
Back-to-back losses to LSU and Auburn didn't help Ole Miss' case either -- and the real dagger was a shutout at the hands of the last-place Arkansas Razorbacks. The Rebels did pull off an impressive route of their Magnolia State rivals in the last week of the season, so the momentum is there should the Rebels choose to ride it -- and several weeks of rest.
If TCU hadn't "lost to Baylor early in the season" -- even if it'd lost to a non-conference, ranked opponent and won out its conference schedule -- there's no doubt in my mind it's in the College Football Playoff. But it didn't beat Baylor, and, like the committee, I believe LOGICALLY that gave Baylor the head-to-head advantage should one team from the Big Ten have been selected.
Fortunately for all those keeping score at home, neither of the "co-champions" was selected, so it's to the Peach Bowl the Horned Frogs go, where they'll meet their first ranked, non-conference opponent of the season. Yes, you read that right: as high-powered as this TCU offense is -- and for as decent a job the Big 12 did collectively this season -- this will be the first time TCU faces a team from the SEC. Time to see if it really deserved that playoff spot.
Bowl'd Prediction: Ole Miss
4. Russell Athletic Bowl (Oklahoma vs. Clemson)
Another two sleeper teams this season, the Tigers came the closest of anyone not named Notre Dame in dethroning Florida State -- and finished second in the ACC to the Seminoles. An opening-week loss to Georgia plagued its season from the get-go, but Clemson was able to bounce back, save the heartbreaker against FSU and a hiccup late in the year against Georgia Tech (aka the other three "premiere" teams in the ACC). It got experience out of conference with that Georgia game, but, seeing as how early on in the season that was, will the Tigers be ready for a non-ACC opponent?
Speaking of "early on in the season"... yup, you guessed it: the Big 12. This time it's Oklahoma whose early season hiccups would tell the story of its season -- yet here they are with an 8-4 record. The first of those losses came at the hands of TCU prior to its meteoric rise, while another two came courtesy of Baylor and third-place finisher Kansas State (the fourth came in a wild, overtime with Oklahoma State, but in a rivalry matchup like that, you can't predict anything).
Point is, this Sooners team, with a fresh-faced sophomore quarterback and freshman starting tailback, never really got a fair shake. Part of that is because it plays in the Big 12. That's part of why it may have some luck against a team that hasn't weathered the storm.
Bowl'd Prediction: Oklahoma
3. Orange Bowl (Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech)
The surprise team of the early half of the season meets the surprise team of the second half.
Crazy to think that Mississippi State was the only undefeated team not named Florida State just over one month ago; and here it is in the Orange Bowl and out of the playoff picture. Some will say Dak Prescott just ran out of steam; others that the Bulldogs just didn't have the late-season-stretch experience of Alabama. Either way, one loss turned into two losses when Miss State hiccuped again in its rivalry game (to the hiccuping Ole Miss Rebels, nonetheless) and here it is: healthy and fully equipped to take on the Yellow Jackets but still with a sour taste in its mouth.
Meanwhile, in late October, one could rightfully say the Yellow Jackets were on the brink of not making a bowl game, let alone making one of the upper-echelon bowl games. They lost to a 4-1 Duke team (that would eventually go 9-3) and a 2-4 North Carolina team (that would eventually go 6-6). So, yes, both would end up in bowl games, but for a Georgia Tech team that was more or less handed a cake-walk (save Florida State) of a schedule, it was a surprise to see it falter. Fortunately for the Yellow Jacket faithful, the losses must've lit a fire beneath them, for they rattled off five straight wins after that -- including an overtime win over the SEC's Georgia.
Bottom line: can Mississippi State return to its mid-season form just in time for the holidays, or will momentum triumph over early season success?
Bowl'd Prediction: Miss State-but closer than one might imagine.
2. Fiesta Bowl (Boise State vs. Arizona)
And without further ado, it's time to introduce a team that no one ever talks about until bowl game time: meet the Boise State Broncos. They play on blue grass, have played in a couple of these "bowl games" before, and they won the Mountain West Conference with an 11-2 record.
Now to be frank, I'm as much of a sucker for a Boise State, Cinderella story as anybody. But looking at the numbers, it's gonna be a tough matchup for the Broncos against the Pac-12 runner-up Arizona. Boise State averages 39 points a game (against the Mountain West Conference) but allows an average of 26 points per game (against the Mountain West Conference). Its one "big opponent" was Ole Miss in Week 1, who it lost to 35-13; its other loss was to Air Force, but it's since compiled an eight-game winning streak.
And now, it gets to try and prove the legitimacy of that streak against the Wildcats.
Once again: here's a team who wished the early going's of the season mattered more. Arizona defeated eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon during the regular season, but got knocked around in the conference title game, losing 51-13. Throw in two losses to UCLA and USC, and that win didn't end up meaning all that much. The Wildcats did clinch big wins over Utah and ASU the two weeks prior to the title game, so there's some sort of momentum there -- just how prevalent it will be against the always feisty Broncos remains to be seen.
Bowl'd Prediction: Arizona
1. History in the making
We ain't talking 'bout practice -- we talkin' 'bout the playoffs.
Alabama. Ohio State. Oregon. Florida State.
Nick Saban. Urban Meyer.
Marcus Mariota. Jameis Winston
The makings of a reality TV show (or perhaps a Disney movie?).
It will be entertaining. It will be groundbreaking.
In the end, it will be Alabama.
I can't say for certain if Mariota and the Ducks can dethrone the Seminoles -- would love to see it, yes, but, if we've learned anything this season, no one knows exactly when Winston's luck will run out. However, whoever is facing the Crimson Tide in the title game will have its hands full. Because, as illustrated by all the other bowl games we've previewed, momentum means something come post-season time -- and the Tide haven't lost since Oct. 4.
They also say "defense wins championships," and with a defense giving up around 16 points per game -- and which has shut down the likes of Dak Prescott and the Auburn offense -- I'd be hard-pressed to say either Mariota or Winston could defeat them.
Bowl'd Prediction: Alabama over Oregon
Mia O'Brien is a senior at Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications, where basically everyone calls her "Mobrien." She's a fan of country music, a good debate, and French dressing -- in no particular order. For sports updates, random musings, and many a creative hashtag, follow her on Twitter: @OBSportsLive16