(Author’s note: There are several games in which SEC teams face ACC opponents. Those games are covered in the ACC version of Clear Your Schedule.)
January 4, 2006. You may remember the day. Vince Young combined for 467 yards of total offense in the Rose Bowl, including 200 of those yards on 19 rushing attempts. Those 200 yards also netted three rushing touchdowns for Young, who was the game’s offensive MVP. LenDale White also rushed for three touchdowns for USC, then went on to become Young’s teammate in Tennessee before they both flamed out of the NFL. Nine records were set on that day. As it turned out, none of it mattered. USC’s appearance in that game was vacated as part of the punishment for improprieties involving Reggie Bush.
That was the last day we crowned a non-SEC national champion.
Florida (twice), Alabama (twice), LSU and Auburn have flown flags for the conference since that day almost seven years ago. Whether Alabama gets their third — and the conference their seventh-straight — crown will have an answer in 60 short minutes on January 7th. There are a multitude of games that will take place before toe meets leather in Miami, however. We’ll break down each of those games in a two-part article…right after we ask a trivia question!
SEC Trivia, Bowl Edition (answer at the end of part 2 of the SEC preview): 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
BCS National Championship - Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) vs. Notre Dame (12-0)
Mon., Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Last week’s episode: Alabama 32, Georgia 28 (12/1); Notre Dame 22, USC 13 (11/24)
Program guide: There are so many great SEC bowl games — in fact, we may have to debut a new feature just to cover them all — but this is the shining star, for obvious reasons. Two storied programs. The unstoppable run game against the Heisman candidate defender. The young, exciting quarterback against the steady, veteran leader. Whether you plan to watch the game or sit it out, this matchup obviously has a lot of appeal to fans everywhere.
Oh, that Alabama run game. Eclipsed only by Texas A&M’s powerful attack in the SEC, the Tide ranked 19th in the nation with a 224.62 yards per game average. Alabama is also the somewhat inexplicable holder of a rushing average that is almost 70 yards per game higher on the road and in neutral sites than on their home turf at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and crew ran for 5.84 yards per carry in their four games against ranked competition during the regular season, topping it off with a 350-yard performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship.
Every rushing yard the Tide can compile will be hard-earned against a Notre Dame rush defense bested by only three teams — one being national leader Alabama — on the season. Heisman candidate Manti Te’o and the Irish allowed a ridiculous 3.16 yards per carry during the regular season, and just 3.08 yards per carry to ranked opponents. Only four opponents even managed to crack the 100-yard mark on the ground against the Irish, with the most recent coming when the Pittsburgh Panthers rushed for for 144 yards and a score two months ago in a 29-26 Irish victory.
It is said that defense wins championships, and while Notre Dame’s defense is tremendous, Alabama outperforms them by the smallest of margins. We mentioned a moment ago that Alabama was one of the three teams with a more prolific run defense than Notre Dame, and they finished the season allowing less than 80 yards per game to opposing rushers. The Tide’s rush defense showed some signs of slowing during the last five games of the season, but with 40-plus days to rest and prepare, expect this unit to be in top form to face the Irish. It bears mentioning that Alabama and Notre Dame shared Michigan as an opponent, with the Wolverines rushing for just 69 yards on 29 carries (2.38 per rush) against Alabama, while going for 161 on 41 carries against Notre Dame (3.93 per carry).
Finally, there are the leaders of each respective team. Notre Dame’s Everett Golson may not have the passing numbers of his counterpart, AJ McCarron (166-for-282, 2135 yards, 11 TD, 5 INT), but they both display tremendous poise in guiding their teams. Golson offers a bit more of a rushing threat (89 carries, 305 yards, 5 TD), while McCarron is a bit more of a prolific thrower (191-for-286, 2669 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT). McCarron recently announced plans to return for his senior year, and the sophomore Golson will have an interesting case study in how to succeed at the highest level on the opposite sideline. This matchup may not thrill those who wanted to see other teams play for the trophy, but it will surely be one we discuss for years to come.
Since we have so many great games, we’ll flash back to the days when networks used to feature special presentations to give you several of our own!
Outback Bowl – South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC) vs. Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten)
Tue., Jan. 1, 1:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Program guide: Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks notched another ten-win season in 2012, finishing the season on a high note by bashing Palmetto State rival Clemson. South Carolina battled a number of injuries as the season wound down, however, including a season-ending knee injury to star rusher Marcus Lattimore. Michigan also battled their share of injuries, and also partially lost a star in Denard Robinson. Robinson is expected to be at full-strength for the bowl game, and Michigan is going to need “Shoelace” at his best to get past Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and a ferocious Gamecock defense.
Why South Carolina may win the ratings battle: Dylan Thompson proved to be a more-than-capable backup to Connor Shaw in his absence, and Spurrier may be able to utilize Shaw’s running and Thompson’s throwing abilities to provide Michigan with different looks throughout the game. Carolina never rushed for 200 yards in a game after Lattimore’s injury — not even against FCS opponent Wofford — so changes of pace will be key in this one. Speaking of throwing, Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd will be suspended for this game for a violation of team rules. Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd will look to capitalize on matchups in the passing game, as well as on special teams, where Michigan punter Will Hagerup is also suspended.
Why Michigan may win the ratings battle: Michigan is, quite simply, battle-tested. Three of the Wolverines’ four losses were at the hands of the top three teams in the nation (Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State), and facing this level of competition surely has them prepared for the Gamecocks. Brady Hoke’s club also has arguably the top offensive player on the field in Robinson. Robinson accounted for 248.5 yards of total offense per game during the 2012 season, 40-plus yards better than South Carolina’s top performer, Connor Shaw (just over 207 yards per game). Sure, the Gamecocks rank 12th in the FBS in total defense, but Clowney and crew have not seen a quarterback the likes of Robinson all year. Even Clemson’s Tajh Boyd does not offer the same dual-threat capability.
Capitol One Bowl – Georgia (11-2, 7-1 SEC) vs. Nebraska (10-3, 7-1 Big Ten)
Tue., Jan. 1, 1:00 p.m. ET, ABC
Program guide: One would imagine this is not the draw the Husker fans desired. Fresh off getting hammered in the Big 10 Championship, the Huskers draw an angry Georgia team who came within a few yards — and seconds — of winning the SEC crown. Nebraska defeated Georgia the only time they have ever played, but to be fair, that meeting did come 44 years ago in the Sun Bowl. The Huskers emerged victorious, 45-6.
Why the Bulldogs might win the ratings battle: Despite compiling over 200 fewer yards per game against ranked opponents than unranked opponents, the Georgia offense has come to life over the last five games. The Bulldogs have amassed 2277 yards of offense in those five games, good for a 455-plus yard average per game. As great as Georgia’s run game has been — Mark Richt’s club has almost 2400 yards on the ground in 2012 — they are starting to see some signs of balance over those last five games. The potent Bulldog offense has averaged 7.14 yards per play in that five-game span. This could spell trouble for Nebraska’s 97th-ranked rushing defense. Sure, the Wisconsin game appears to be an outlier — a 539-yard, eight touchdown outlier, granted — but with Nebraska leading the nation in pass defense (148 yards and change per game), this appears to be a great matchup for the Georgia run game.
Why the Huskers may win the ratings battle: We mentioned earlier that Georgia’s run defense was thrashed to the tune of 350 yards against Alabama in the SEC Championship, and the assignment for the Bulldogs is certainly no easier in this one. Nebraska led the conference (8th nationally) in rushing yards, averaging just under 255 per game. The Huskers also placed two players (Ameer Abdullah #7, Taylor Martinez #10) in the conference’s top ten in rushing yards per game. They will get to take their cracks at a Bulldog defense which allows 178 rushing yards per game and has surrendered 958 yards to opposing rushers in their last three contests.
Set Your DVR
Gator Bowl – Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4 SEC) vs. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten)
Tue., Jan. 1, noon ET, ESPN2
Program guide: Had this game been played October 27, it would have been considerably more compelling. When the sun rose on October 27, the Bulldogs were riding high at 7-0 and looking like one of the darlings of the SEC. Four losses in five games (at Alabama, Texas A&M, at LSU and in the Egg Bowl to Mississippi, with a victory over Arkansas sprinkled in) later, the Bulldogs find themselves in Jacksonville.
Northwestern was 6-2 on that same October day — starting the season 5-0 — having sandwiched a victory over Minnesota between losses to Penn State and Nebraska. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad finished on a bit higher note, beating Iowa and Michigan State, thumping Illinois and falling to Michigan. The Wildcats lost to the top two teams in the Legends division, as well as the second-place team in the Leaders Division (Penn State). It is obvious that no loss is a good loss, but the Wildcats did at least fall to quality teams.
Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State club finished as a truly middle-of-the-pack SEC team. The Bulldogs finished eighth in the SEC in total offense (389.4 yards per game) and ninth in total defense (389.9 yards per game). Mississippi State hung 505 yards on Arkansas in their lone victory in the final five games, but never gained more than 351 in the four losses. By contrast, they allowed greater than 400 yards in three of those five games, including 693 to Texas A&M on November 3rd. The question to which no one seems to have the answer is whether we will see the pre-October 27th Bulldogs or the post-October 27th Bulldogs.
Northwestern also finds themselves in the middle of their conference in both offensive and defensive production. The Wildcats were seventh in the Big Ten on offense, averaging just over 397 yards per game. They were ninth on defense, allowing 385.3 yards per game. Before that same October 27th date we mentioned earlier, the Wildcats had just given up 543 yards of offense in a loss to Nebraska. They did not allow more than 419 yards (though they did this in back-to-back games against Michigan and Michigan State) in their remaining four games. Meanwhile, the Wildcats broke the 400-yard plateau on offense in three of their final four games. The question for the Wildcats, though, is the same as the one we ask for their opponent. Will we see the pre-October 27th Wildcats, or the post-October 27th Wildcats?
We’ve looked at four great games, and we’re still not done! Be sure to read part two for previews of the Sugar, Cotton and BBVA Compass Bowls! If those game previews are not enough to bring you back, we will also reveal the trivia answer in part two!
Happy New Year, faithful readers, and enjoy your bowl games!