One of the more unusual seasons in recent ACC history is behind us, with Florida State capturing the proverbial brass ring over three weeks ago in Charlotte. The Seminoles received the ACC’s automatic bid to the BCS, while their opponent, Georgia Tech, also received a bowl spot by virtue of an NCAA waiver. With the Sun Bowl and Orange Bowl accounted for, it’s time to take a look at those games and the other contests involving ACC teams…but first, trivia time!
ACC Trivia, Bowl Edition (answer at the end of the article): Which university obtained the first bowl victory by an ACC member, and whom did they beat?
Top of the Ratings
Chick-fil-A Bowl – Clemson (10-2, 7-1 ACC) vs. LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
Mon., Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last week’s episode: South Carolina 27, Clemson 17 (11/24); LSU 20, Arkansas 13 (11/23)
Program guide: It seems odd that these two southern powers have only played twice in their storied histories, both in bowl games. One of those victories resulted in a national championship for LSU, a 7-0 win over the orange-and-white Tigers in the 1959 Sugar Bowl. The third contest between the sets of Tigers looks to be quite the intriguing matchup.
Clemson had their streak of nine straight games of 37 or more points broken in a loss in the Battle of the Palmetto State over a month ago, a game in which they managed just 18 first downs and Tajh Boyd went 11-for-24 passing for 183 yards with a score and two picks. Clemson’s concerns in the defensive secondary were repeatedly exploited by Gamecock backup quarterback Dylan Thompson. Thompson completed 23-of-41 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. Carolina’s speedy receivers particularly caused matchup problems, with Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington combining for 13 grabs for 191 yards and all three scores.
Boyd’s struggles aside, the further troubling number for the Tigers was their performance on third down. Clemson is fourth-best in the FBS in third-down conversions, piling up a percentage of 52.13% (98-for-188). Dabo Swinney’s club managed to convert just 42% (5-of-12) of their third downs against the Gamecocks, leading to the banged-up Tiger defense spending extra time on the field. This caused additional struggles while trying to stop Thompson, Sanders and Ellington.
LSU struggled in many ways against Arkansas their last time out, allowing 462 yards of total offense to the Razorbacks. This was almost identical to the 463 they allowed to Mississippi the previous week. Though LSU still ranks eighth in total defense (296.2 YPG), they have shown a clear vulnerability in facing two back-to-back passing teams. Razorback passer Tyler Wilson completed 31-of-52 passes for 359 yards in that November contest, adding a touchdown and a pick.
The vaunted LSU defense will face a Clemson offense that ranked first in the ACC and in the top-20 nationally in almost every offensive category. Clemson, on the other hand, ranks 74th in total defense, 60th in rushing defense and 81st in passing defense. If Clemson rediscovers their high-flying offensive ways, this could be a reasonably high-scoring affair. It should be noted that LSU will be without punter Brad Wing for this game, and this may limit their ability to flip the field as they have successfully done all year. Field position will be an item to watch in determining the success of the Clemson offense.
Discover Orange Bowl – N. Illinois (12-1, 8-0 MAC) vs. Florida State (11-2, 7-1 ACC)
Tue., Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last week’s episode: Northern Illinois 44, Kent State 37, 2OT (11/30); Florida State 21, Georgia Tech 15 (12/1)
Program guide: Though not the most popular choice among pundits everywhere, the Northern Illinois Huskies make their way to a BCS bowl by virtue of their top-15 finish. They will be without their head coach from the 2012 season, Dave Doeren, as he leaves — ironically — to coach an ACC club, the NC State Wolfpack. Doeren’s offensive line coach, Rod Carey, will lead NIU. No matter who coaches the Huskies, he will have a tremendous weapon under center in quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Lynch combined for tremendous numbers on offense this year, completing 222-of-353 passes for 2962 yards, piling up 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions. He was also quite the weapon on the ground, rushing for 1771 yards and 19 scores. This dual-threat star helped NIU rack up the ninth-ranked offense in the FBS in points per game (40.77) and rushing (250.15 yards per game). The Huskies were 15th in the nation in total offense, finishing just shy of 486 yards per game. Lynch’s passing numbers against Kent State in the MAC title game were somewhat pedestrian (19-of-34, 212 yards, TD, INT), but his 36 carries for 160 yards and three touchdowns punished the Golden Flashes.
While the Seminoles have a lot to worry about with Lynch, they also have to account for a relatively stout Husky defense. The Huskies allow just 139 rushing yards per game (33rd in FBS), and the Seminoles will need continued success on the ground as they enjoyed all year (203-plus yards per game) to control the clock and keep the high-octane Husky offense on the sidelines. Though Florida State struggled in the second half against Georgia Tech, going scoreless for just the fifth and sixth quarters all year, running back James Wilder carried the ball 10 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets. FSU lost leading rusher Chris Thompson to injury weeks ago, but they have seemingly not missed a beat behind Wilder and Devonta Freeman.
Florida State forced two Georgia Tech interceptions in Charlotte, with one coming from an ill-advised pass from wideout Synjyn Days on an end-around. The Seminoles themselves committed three turnovers, with two of those on fumbles. Ball control will be key for EJ Manuel and crew to maintain the advantage in this contest. It also bears mention that, despite Northern Illinois also having a skilled running quarterback, their passing game is considerably more developed and featured than that of Georgia Tech. Florida State’s ball-hawking defensive backs will need to be on their toes from the opening kickoff. Both teams are also in the top 30 in the FBS in kickoff returns, so special teams may play a large role in Miami.
Set Your DVR
Music City Bowl – NC State (7-5, 4-4 ACC) vs. Vanderbilt (8-4, 5-2 SEC)
Mon., Dec. 31, noon ET, ESPN
Program guide: As you saw in the capsule for the Orange Bowl, Tom O’Brien has been replaced as the Wolfpack’s leader by NIU coach Dave Doeren. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible will guide NCSU in the bowl game, and he will look to utilize the ACC’s leading passer, Mike Glennon. Glennon averaged 304 yards per game passing, and this appears — on paper, at least — to be a highly unfavorable matchup. Vandy is a top-10 defense against the pass, allowing just 175 yards per game. The Wolfpack are 106th in the nation in rushing offense, so the passing game will need to strike early and often for NC State to gain the offensive advantage.
NC State ranks 79th in total defense, and Vanderbilt’s 69th-ranked offense does not appear to pose too much of a threat. The Commodores never topped 447 yards of total offense during their six-game winning streak to end the season, amassing just 371 yards of offense against the only bowl team they faced (Mississippi) in those six games. James Franklin’s squad makes its name on defense, and that defensive unit allowed 310 yards or fewer in five of those six wins. The Commodores’ defense is also highly ranked in points against (18.25 per game) and total defense (326.42 yards per game). Vanderbilt will look to continue to flex their defensive muscle and keep Glennon at bay to attempt to go 2-0 all-time against the Wolfpack. Sure, the most recent matchup between the two came 66 years ago, but a win is a win.
Belk Bowl – Duke (6-6, 3-5 ACC) vs. Cincinnati (9-3, 5-2 Big East),
Thurs., Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Program guide: After starting the season strong, Duke experienced a myriad of struggles after becoming bowl-eligible. The Blue Devils’ defense finished 11th of 12 teams in the ACC, allowing 462 yards per game. Duke allowed over 545 yards per game in their six losses, while allowing just 379 per game in their six victories. Quarterback Sean Renfree is under 20 completions away from the all-time Duke lead, and he will look for his reliable senior Connor Vernon early and often, along with the other emerging weapons on the Duke offense. It is worth noting that Duke averaged 130-plus fewer yards per game on the road than in Durham.
Duke has also encountered their share of struggles in the run game. Duke rushed for just 70 yards per game in their five road contests, 77.5 yards per game in their six losses and just shy of 72 yards per game in their three games against ranked competition. This is going to present a considerable problem against the Bearcats.
Cincinnati allows 130.5 yards per game on the ground, while giving up 244 passing yards per game. Cincinnati’s only regular-season game against a current ACC opponent came in a 27-24 victory over Virginia Tech on September 29th. The Hokies accumulated 402 yards of total offense in a relatively balanced attack in that game, rushing for 160 yards and throwing for 242. Given how easily Virginia Tech handled Duke in Blacksburg after the Blue Devils jumped out to an early lead, this has to concern Blue Devil fans.
The thing that has to concern Bearcat fans — while giving Duke fans clear hope — is the recent struggles of the Cincinnati offense. After easily clearing 400 yards of offense in each of their first six games (including 495 against Virginia Tech), they only managed to break the 400-yard barrier twice in their final six. Cincinnati did not break 100 yards rushing against Rutgers or Connecticut, which also must spark some concern. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling will lead Cincinnati from the sidelines in Charlotte, as Butch Jones has departed for Tennessee. With Tommy Tuberville not taking over until the opening of the 2013 season, it will be interesting to see how many changes are made on the offensive side of the football, and how much quarterback Munchie Legaux is given the keys to the offense against the Blue Devils.
Russell Athletic Bowl – Virginia Tech (6-6, 4-4 ACC) vs. Rutgers (9-3, 5-2 Big East)
Fri., Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Program guide: The Hokies’ streak of bowl appearances extends to 20 with the 2012-13 season, but there was very little room for comfort in doing so. Virginia Tech relied upon a 29-yard field goal from Cody Journell with two seconds left to defeat cross-state rival Virginia 17-14 over a month ago. Despite some questionable time management from Cavalier coach Mike London and some occasional periods of anemic offense on their side, the Hokies did what needed to be done and secured their sixth victory. This victory gets them to Orlando to face a very interesting Rutgers team.
Quarterback Logan Thomas has been the clear leader of the Hokie rushing attack of late. Despite back-to-back lackluster efforts on the ground against Florida State and Boston College, Thomas rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown against Clemson, 124 yards and a score against Miami and 89 yards with a touchdown against Virginia. Thomas carried over 20 times in each of those three contests, though the Hokies went just 1-2 in those outings. Thomas is fifth-best in the ACC in total offense at 276.2 yards per game, and that well-rounded offensive leadership will need to be in the spotlight again in order to defeat Rutgers. Thomas must also limit mistakes in this game, as he has the previous two games. Thomas had thrown interceptions in his previous eight games (14 total) before avoiding doing so against Boston College and Virginia.
Rutgers brings a nine-win team to Orlando, and much of that success has been achieved on the backs of their defense. The Scarlet Knights rank between 83rd and 100th in the FBS in every major offensive category, though they allowed greater than 20 points just twice this season (a win at Arkansas and a loss at Kent State). Rutgers’ defense finds a home in the top 15 in every major defensive category except passing defense (40th).
This defense also finds itself having allowed 400 or more yards just twice this season, with opposing rushing attacks breaking the 100-yard mark just four times. The two teams’ common opponent, Cincinnati, rushed for just 90 yards in a 10-3 loss to Rutgers, while throwing for 251 yards. While the Hokies’ defense will not face an offensive juggernaut, a repeat of the Hokies’ struggles to control the football and limit mistakes could be their eventual undoing.
Hyundai Sun Bowl – Georgia Tech (6-7, 5-3 ACC) vs. USC (7-5, 5-4 Pac-12)
Mon., Dec. 31, 2:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Program guide: The Yellow Jackets find themselves making the trip to El Paso by virtue of an NCAA waiver after a 21-15 loss to Florida State in the ACC title game. Georgia Tech struggled throughout the first half of that game, finding themselves down 21-6 at the half. They rebounded nicely to shut out the Seminoles in the final two quarters, however, and were an interception on the final drive away from possibly representing the conference in the BCS. The Ramblin’ Wreck’s passing game was mostly ineffective, as was their third-down conversion percentage (4-of-15), but their rushing attack and defense kept them afloat.
That fourth-ranked rushing offense finds a potential ally in USC’s rush defense. The Trojans allow 155 yards per game to opposing rushers, placing them in the middle of FBS teams. The Jackets must avoid falling behind early, as they struggle to throw the football (Georgia Tech’s passing offense is ranked 115th in the nation), and USC’s pass defense is ranked 25th. Though the Jackets have worked out of early deficits before (their game against Miami being the best example), their odds are considerably lessened if USC jumps out early.
The Trojan offense is quite potent this year, as usual. Lane Kiffin’s squad rolled up 513 yards of offense against cross-town UCLA in their next-to-last outing, though they fell 38-28. Their output was somewhat slowed against Notre Dame in their final contest, as backup quarterback Max Wittek went just 14-of-23 for 186 yards in that outing. That game and the game against Stanford aside, the Trojans averaged over 486 yards of total offense per game.
Georgia Tech contained EJ Manuel to some degree in the ACC Championship, but they will need to account for two All-American quality receivers in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods in this game, along with quarterback Matt Barkley. The USC passing attack has gone for 300-plus yards in six of their games this season, and if they do so in this one, they appear to be the favorites — on paper, at least — to leave El Paso with a victory.
ACC Trivia: I asked earlier: Which university obtained the first bowl victory by an ACC member, and whom did they beat?
Answer: Duke defeated Nebraska 34-7 in the 1955 Orange Bowl.
Enjoy bowl season, and happy New Year, everyone!