Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
ACC programs knocked off the preseason No. 1 and No. 3 teams, USC's miserable year ends ignominiously, Vanderbilt wins a ninth game for the first time in 97 years, and Tulsa gets some revenge in Memphis.
College football is awesome.
1. USC's preseason ranking. The Trojans dropped an early game at Stanford, and considering the Cardinal ended up being Rose Bowl-caliber, that's rather excusable. They were still 6-1 and 10th in the country on October 27, but as with their trip to El Paso on December 31, when they encountered some true, unexpected adversity (in the form of a three-point upset loss at Arizona), they completely and totally folded. They were competitive in a home loss to Oregon, then whipped Arizona State, but that was it. They ceded control of Los Angeles (and lost quarterback Matt Barkley) in a 10-point loss at UCLA, they failed to generate any offense against a great Notre Dame defense, and then they generated even less offense in a 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl on Monday.
That's Georgia Tech, the team that allowed 600 yards to Miami, 600 yards to Clemson, 500 yards to Middle Tennessee, and perhaps most egregiously, 400 yards to BYU. With a linebacker at quarterback, Maryland gained 259 yards on Tech. With Marqise Lee and Robert Woods lined up wide, USC gained 205.
I was quickly on the record saying that USC shouldn't be ranked No. 1 to start the season. The Trojans were getting the benefit of the doubt because a) they were great for two games late in 2011, and b) they are the USC Trojans. They still faced serious depth issues because of NCAA sanctions, and they had still gone just 18-7 in Lane Kiffin's first two seasons. They weren't ready for that leap ... but they have absolutely, positively no excuse for finishing 7-6.
6. Trips by USC inside Georgia Tech's 40-yard line. Despite the ghastly yardage totals, the Trojans had chances. Their average starting field position (35.4) was about seven yards better than Tech's (28.7), which adds up, and between eight Georgia Tech penalties and some iffy Tech punting, USC actually generated more decent scoring opportunities than Tech despite getting outgained by 164 yards. But in these six trips, USC scored just once, on a short pass from Max Wittek to Silas Redd late in the first half. The Trojans also missed a field goal, turned the ball over on downs, and threw three interceptions, twice in the Tech end zone. Average yards per trip inside the 40: 1.2. Tech, meanwhile, averaged 5.3 points in its four trips.
11. LSU possessions that lasted three or fewer plays in a 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. The Bayou Bengals went three-and-out eight times, and scored 14 of their 24 points on immediate touchdowns. On the first drive of each half, LSU gained 80 yards in three plays and scored twice. In their other 45 plays, the Tigers gained just 139 yards. They went three-and-out in each of their final three possessions of the game. The Clemson defense, improved but still maligned in 2012, played what was easily its best game of the season, holding LSU to 4.6 yards per play and persistently harassing LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Three-and-outs are always a problem in football; punt too quickly, too often, and eventually your defense might wear down. But against Clemson, this is not dangerous, it's deadly. LSU indeed ran just 48 plays on Monday night; Clemson ran 100 of them. And eventually, LSU showed the slightest of cracks. After averaging just 4.1 yards per play and scoring 15 points in its first 13 drives, Clemson averaged 5.8 and scored 10 points in its final two.
LSU is too deep and too athletic to completely fall apart. But Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense were both relentless and scrappy, repeatedly bailing themselves out with third-down conversions (8-for-18 on the day), then coming through in an incredible way late. Down 24-16 and facing a third-and-11 with under four minutes remaining, Boyd found Brandon Ford along the sideline for 20 yards; Clemson scored a touchdown two plays later. And down 24-22 and facing a fourth-and-16 with 1:22 left, Boyd threw just about the best pass you'll ever see, connecting with DeAndre Hopkins for 26 yards against nearly perfect bracket coverage. A minute later, Chandler Catanzaro was booting a perfect 37-yard field goal, and Clemson was storming the field with its biggest win in a long, long time.
24. Consecutive points scored by Tulsa after a 17-7 start for Iowa State. The first time these teams played, on September 1 in Ames, Iowa State fell behind by nine points and finished on a 31-7 run. This time around, it was the reverse: Iowa State went up 17-7, and Tulsa surged to a 31-17 win. After allowing ISU quarterback Sam B. Richardson to begin the game 6-for-7 for 114 yards and a touchdown, Tulsa ate him alive; Richardson completed just four of his final 14 passes for 15 yards and was sacked three times for 13 yards. Richardson entered the game having not taken a single sack or pick in three contests. He finished the game with three of the former and one of the latter. Tulsa's defense is aggressive and strong, and after getting torched early (the Golden Hurricane were sucked in expecting run and burned over the top by tight end Ernest Brun), the unit did not get torched again.
Meanwhile, Tulsa's running game eventually got rolling; Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas combined to gain 228 yards on 33 carries, and after getting thumped in the first 12 minutes, Tulsa very, very much won the next 48.
24.9. Equivalent point value (as defined here) of N.C. State's five turnovers. That Vanderbilt somehow only beat the Wolfpack, 38-24, in the Music City Bowl shines a light on all of Vandy's upside and all of its limitations.
N.C. State outgained Vandy by 199 yards, averaged a reasonably healthy 5.4 yards per play, made six trips inside Vandy's 40 and virtually shut down the Commodores' passing game; Jordan Rodgers averaged just 3.9 yards per pass attempt for the game, and star receiver Jordan Matthews only gained 61 yards in 10 targets. But none of it mattered because the Wolfpack offense could not stop shooting itself in the foot, and Vandy never stopped taking full advantage of it. State quarterback Mike Glennon, while getting "He could be a first-round pick!" hype from the announcing crew, completed 66 percent of his passes, but three of his 18 incompletions landed in Vandy hands, two on awful decisions and one on a terrible throw.
Fortunately no NFL GMs will see Mike Glennon's play in this bowl game as they're all getting fired today.— Will Brinson (@willbrinson) December 31, 2012
Vanderbilt went up early (14-0 after 20 minutes, 28-14 at halftime, 31-14 early in the second half) and never completely pulled away, but despite the lopsided yardage totals, this one was never in doubt. Even when State threatened to make things interesting, we were only a play or two away from another State mistake.
38. Max Wittek's completion percentage. According to Rivals.com, Wittek was the No. 76 player in the recruiting class of 2011, four spots behind UCLA's Brett Hundley. The Santa Ana Mater Dei product is a blue-chipper with a pedigree and an incredibly strong arm. But faced with swirling wind and a Georgia Tech line that consistently got hands into passing lanes, he struggled terribly in El Paso. He completed six of 10 passes to star Marqise Lee, but most were on short, drag routes, and Lee gained just 41 yards in the process. Meanwhile, he completed just three of 10 passes to Robert Woods and only two of seven to tight end Xavier Grimble. And, of course, he threw three interceptions in Georgia Tech territory because of bad reads.
(Oh yeah, and Georgia Tech was without its leading tackler and its only pass rusher.)
USC seriously doesn't have a third quarterback?— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) December 31, 2012
USC faces a serious redemption project in 2013, and the Trojans will face it without either Matt Barkley or Woods. They will still have Lee, Grimble, Nelson Agholor and other skill position stars, and they will return most of a defense that actually held up reasonably well against the Tech Flexbone. But they will still need a quarterback. It would be incredibly unwise, obviously, to write Wittek off because of two bad games in his redshirt freshman season. But it probably goes without saying at this point that the battle between Wittek, Cody Kessler (the No. 71 player in the Class of 2011) and incoming five-star freshman Max Browne will be pretty close and pretty intense.
79. Clemson plays that involved quarterback Tajh Boyd either throwing or running. Running backs Andre Ellington and Roderick McDowell tossed in 18 carries for him, and receiver Sammy Watkins carried once before exiting the game with a leg injury, and that was about it. The rest was on Boyd.
Tajh Boyd is a bit turnover-prone at times, but he is an explosive hub for offensive coordinator Chad Morris' unit, and as he proved on Monday night, he is incredibly, ridiculously tough. He threw 50 passes, was sacked five times, and rushed 24 times for 50 yards and a score. He fumbled once, but he avoided picks, and he was still making plays after taking countless hits with and without the ball. As exhausted as the LSU defense had to be after the game, Boyd was probably doubly so. But there he was, completing a perfect fourth-and-16 pass on the eventual game-winning drive -- honestly, Boyd has to be one of the most accurate off-the-back-foot passers ever, which is often good and often lulls him into making ill-advised passes -- and driving Clemson to points on each of the Tigers' last three drives.
1915. The last time Vanderbilt won nine games in a season. We could nitpick if we really wanted to -- the 'Dores drew Auburn and Ole Miss from the SEC West, they were 3-1 in one-possession games, and they lucked into injuring Missouri's James Franklin early in the James Franklin Bowl (eventually a four-point win for Vandy that served as a catalyst for its 8-1 finish) -- but why? Vanderbilt just won nine games for the first time in 97 years. The SEC wouldn't exist for another 18 years. John Heisman was Georgia Tech's head football coach. Red Grange was 12 years old. This is awesome.
1990. The last time Clemson finished in the Top 10. The No. 14 Tigers will have a chance to sneak in there when the final polls come out in a week. They lost only to Florida State and South Carolina, they matched both LSU's physicality and athleticism, and depending on who returns, they could be a legitimate Top 10 team heading into 2013. Tajh Boyd is a junior who has completed 63 percent of his passes for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns in the last two years while also rushing for 700 yards and 15 touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins is a junior who crafted a Sammy Watkins-esque 2012 season while Watkins was struggling with injuries and just caught 13 of 22 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns (with two defensive pass interference penalties drawn for good measure) against the always stout LSU defense.
If both Boyd and Hopkins choose to return for 2013, alongside a healthy (in theory) Watkins and four returning starters on the offensive line, Clemson's could be the most interesting, exciting and potent offense in the country next fall. But neither Boyd's nor Hopkins' draft stock is likely to be much higher than it is after Monday night, and they will have both taken another season's worth of hits if they wait another year to leave college. The college football fan in me wants to beg them to stay. The pragmatic in me says they should go.