There might not be two hotter teams in the country right now than Penn State and USC, the two that will face off in the Granddaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual. The Nittany Lions lost two of their first four games and haven’t lost since. Among head coach James Franklin’s wins are a 24-21 upset of then second-ranked Ohio State and an incredible 38-31 comeback victory over No. 6 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
The Trojans (9-3) have a similar story. After many thought they would be a College Football Playoff contender, USC got blown out in its opener with Alabama and then started the season 1-3. Head coach Clay Helton’s squad has not lost since either defeating a No. 21 Colorado and No. 4 Washington along the way.
The last time either team played in the Rose Bowl was in 2008 when USC beat Penn State 38-24. This time around, it will be USC’s defense trying to slow down the up-tempo spread attack of the Nittany Lions led by sophomore QB Trace McSorley. The Penn State quarterback set a Big Ten title game record for passing yards and has 25 touchdowns on the season. On the other end, the Nittany Lions secondary will have to deal with the Trojans receivers led by All-Everything Juju Smith-Schuster.
Both Florida State and Michigan started the 2016 season with high expectations and the Seminoles and the Wolverines were among those teams favored to make the College Football Playoff. But, Florida State was blown out early by Louisville, lost to North Carolina, and lost a third game to Clemson. The ‘Noles were probably out of the CFP after the loss to the Cardinals. Michigan was upset by Iowa but still appeared to have a shot at the playoff if it could only beat its biggest rival – Ohio State. When the Wolverines lost in double overtime to the Buckeyes, their playoff hopes were gone.
Now, the two perennial powers will meet in the Capital One Orange Bowl. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh would like nothing more than to end the season by making a statement. FSU mentor Jimbo Fisher would like a win to give the Seminoles some momentum as they head into the offseason. They will get superstar defender Derwin James back. The hybrid safety/linebacker missed most of the season and was a big reason why the ‘Noles had problems defending anyone.
Florida State did win their last four games in a row and did so by not allowing more than 20 points in a game. Running back Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns and redshirt freshman QB Deondre Francois got better through the season and finished with 3,128 yards passing. Cook, Francois, and the rest of the FSU offense will go up against one of the best defenses in the country in Michigan. The Wolverines are second in the nation giving up just 12.5 points per game. On offense, they will rely on a powerful running game that averages 223 yards a game. Quarterback Wilton Speight should be ready for the bowl game after missing the Wolverines final two games.
With two losses in their first three games, seventh-ranked Oklahoma played itself right out of the College Football Playoff . The Sooners won nine straight games, all in the Big 12, and won the conference title for the second consecutive season to earn a trip to the Allstate Sugar Bowl and a date with Auburn. Quarterback Baker Mayfield (3,669 yards, 38 TDs) and WR Dede Westbrook (1,465 receiving yards, 16 TDs) were invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation. The Sooners have two excellent running backs in Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
The Tigers (8-4) started the season much the same way Oklahoma did losing two of the first three games of the season, both to ranked opponents. Head coach Gus Malzahn’s job was on the line when Auburn responded with six straight wins including a 56-3 pasting of a No. 17 Arkansas. The Tigers did lose two of their last three games though the losses were to Georgia and Alabama.
While the Auburn offense isn’t what it is used to, the defense has improved by leaps and bounds. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has Auburn ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense (15.5 points per game) and 20th in total defense (343 yards per game). Defense is what has allowed the Tigers to finish in second place in the SEC West Division. That defense will have its hands full trying to stop the likes of Mayfield, Westbrook, Perine, and Mixon.
It is one of this college football season’s great stories. Western Michigan and energetic head coach P.J. Fleck have ‘rowed the boat’ to a 13-0 season and a MAC championship. As a reward, the Broncos get a date with eighth-ranked Wisconsin in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. While WMU does have two wins over Big Ten teams, those wins were over Northwestern and Illinois, not the elite of the conference.
The Broncos have a wealth of offensive talent led by senior quarterback Zach Terrell who has 3,376 passing yards and 32 touchdowns. Wide receiver Corey Davis has caught 18 of those scores and has 91 receptions for 1,427 yards. Western Michigan also runs the ball well with RB Jarvion Franklin who has gained 1,300 yards this season. The Broncos are not just an offensive machine. Fleck’s defense is 16th nationally in scoring defense yielding just 19.5 points per game.
For all the great accomplishments and hype, WMU has not faced an opponent like Wisconsin. The Badgers are consistently one of the best defenses in all of FBS. This year, head coach Paul Chryst’s defense is fourth in scoring defense (15.5) and second to only Alabama against the run (96.9 yards per game). Offensively, senior running back Corey Clement (1,304 yards, 14 TDs) leads a powerful running game. Quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and fifth-year senior Bart Houston will likely both play as they have for most of the latter half of the season. As good as they are, a Broncos win would be an upset of epic proportions.
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2015 College Bowl Predictions:
After successive 5-7 campaigns, Northwestern put together one of the best seasons in school history to earn a shot at Tennessee in the Outback Bowl. The Wildcats started the season with a huge win over Stanford, holding the Cardinal without a touchdown. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s defense is the reason Northwestern is 10-2. They have a big task ahead in defending Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs. The 6-3 junior threw for 2,125 yards and rushed for 623 more. Of the Vols (8-4) four losses, two were to teams playing the College Football Playoff. The SEC is too strong for the Big Ten in this one… Tennessee 34, Northwestern 17.
If you need to watch high-powered offenses put up loads of points, you might not want to watch the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl where Michigan takes on Florida. The Gators, fortunately, are 8th in the nation in scoring defense (16.5 points per game) because their offense is horrible. In Florida’s last two games of the season, both losses, the Gators offense scored just once, late in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to Alabama in the SEC title game. Michigan does average 31 points a game, but they do it with an old-school power offense that relies on the run and a controlled passing game. The Wolverines have the better QB and that will make the difference… Michigan 27, Florida 20.
Besides the College Football Playoff semifinals, the most anticipated matchup of the bowl season may be the Notre Dame-Ohio State battle in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. A late season loss to Michigan State cost the Buckeyes a shot at a Big Ten title and the chance to defend their national championship. They will look to win their 12th game with a high-powered offense led by QB J.T. Barrett and RB Ezekiel Elliott (1,672 yards rushing, 19 TDs). Notre Dame dropped the season finale to Stanford and with it a chance at the CFP. QB DeShone Kizer, RB C.J. Prosise, and WR Will Fuller lead a veteran Irish offense. The better defense will win this one… Ohio State 38, Notre Dame 37.
It is old school football at its finest in the Granddaddy of the All – The Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual as Stanford (11-2) battles Iowa (12-1). Both schools rely on tough, stingy defenses and powerful running games. The Cardinal have Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey, the team’s leading rusher (1,847) and leading receiver (540). It is senior QB Kevin Hogan that makes the offense go. Hogan, a three-year starter, has thrown for 2,644 yards and 24 touchdowns. Iowa relies mostly on RB Jordan Canzeri (976) but has two other backs with at least 450 yards. QB C.J. Beathard makes plays when needed, but Hogan has won more games. He wins this one too… Stanford 34, Iowa 27.
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The big story at this year’s Allstate Sugar Bowl is that Ole Miss DE Robert Nkemdiche will not play against Oklahoma State. The Rebels roster is still chock full of NFL talent, but not having their defensive leader will hurt. It will especially hurt the pass rush against a Cowboys offense that averaged 357.3 passing yards and 41.2 points per game. QB Mason Rudolph (3,591) leads one of the most explosive offenses in college football. His backup, J.W. Walsh, also plays a role with 13 TD passes and 11 more scores on the ground. While it’s a virtual home game for Ole Miss, don’t be shocked… Oklahoma State 42, Ole Miss 41.
Two underachievers, Penn State and Georgia, will meet in this year’s TaxSlayer Bowl. The Nittany Lions (7-5) have just one win over a team with a winning record (San Diego State). Georgia did go 9-3, but a span of three losses in four games (to Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida) sealed the fate of head coach Mark Richt. The Bulldogs did hire Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, but neither he nor Richt will present when Georgia takes on Penn State. Nittany Lions QB Christian Hackenberg will likely play his last collegiate game. Penn State DE Carl Nassib won the prestigious Lombardi Award and led the nation in sacks. He’ll wreak havoc on the Bulldogs offense… Penn State 24, Georgia 17.
Kansas State had to win its last three regular season games to send head coach Bill Snyder to his 17th bowl appearance in this year’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl against SEC opponent Arkansas. The Wildcats are 6-6 and have only won one of their last seven bowl games. Arkansas comes in having won five of their last six regular season games. Quarterback Brandon Allen has been phenomenal throwing for 3,125 yards and 29 TDs. Alex Collins leads the ground game with 1,392 yards and 17 scores. The Razorbacks defense could be a little better, but it will be their dominant offensive line that wins this one… Arkansas 35, Kansas State 31.
One thing is for sure in this year’s Valero Alamo Bowl – points will be scored, and lots of them. Two of the most prolific offenses of the past decade of college football, Oregon and TCU, will square off in San Antonio. After transferring from Eastern Washington, QB Vernon Adams struggled at first but then got hot and wound up completing 65 percent of his passes for 2,446 yards and 25 touchdowns. RB Royce Freeman took some of the pressure off of Adams with 1,706 yards rushing and 14 scores. The Ducks average almost 550 yards of total offense and 43.2 points per game. One of the few teams that can rival Oregon in most offensive categories is TCU. The Horned Frogs averaged 41.7 points and 564 yards of total offense per game. QB Trevone Boykin (3,575 yards, 31 TDs) leads the offense and star WR Josh Doctson (1,327 yards, 14 TDs) returns for the bowl game. This one will be fun to watch… TCU 51, Oregon 48.
The bowl season comes to a close on Jan. 2 when West Virginia meets Arizona State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl. The Sun Devils beat rival Arizona to become bowl eligible before dropping their season finale to Cal. West Virginia won four in a row – after losing four straight – before losing their season finale, 24-23, to Kansas State. The Mountaineers offense is guided by QB Skyler Howard (2,613 passing yards) but it is RB Wendell Smallwood (1,447 rushing yards) that makes WVU go. QB Mike Bercovici (3,442 yards, 26 TDs) is one of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and the Sun Devils have a 1,000-yard rusher of their own, Demario Richard (1,050). Arizona State gives up almost 33 points per game and that will be the difference… West Virginia 34, Arizona State 33.