The big 2013 Texas Bowl breakdown: Volatile Orange vs. steady Gophers

Hannah Foslien

Run, run, run, run, run. The Texas Bowl (Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN) could take about two and a half hours if Minnesota and Syracuse get their way. Both teams want to run as much as possible, though that's about all they have in common.

In last week's New Mexico Bowl preview, I mentioned that Washington State vs. Colorado State would have been a big-time battle in 2002. Well ... this year's Texas Bowl matchup would have been enormous about 40 years earlier than that. Syracuse and Minnesota combined to win the 1959-60 national titles and once reflected the Midwest's and Northeast's college football dominance.

Times have changed, and the best recruits now come from other portions of the country, but in 2013, both the Orange and Golden Gophers played interesting, perhaps better-than-you-think football. Their reward: a trip south in late-December.

Now, for the season as a whole, one of these two teams played quite a bit better than the other. Minnesota entered late-November at 8-2 with an outside (very outside) chance at reaching the Big Ten title game.

Syracuse, meanwhile, was what we'll just call unpredictable. "Unstable" might be a better word. In a 10-game span, the Orange allowed 48, 0, 17, 49, 10, 56, 0, 3, 59, and 17 points. Only twice all year did they allow between 18 and 47 points. Meanwhile, they scored 34 or more points three times and 16 or fewer points five times. Their season averages are pretty poor, but let's not pretend like we know what to expect from Scott Shafer's 'Cuse in Houston. Even for a pretty young team, the Orange's variance was off the charts in 2013.

How they got here

Syracuse's season to date

Heading into 2013, Syracuse's five-year F/+ ranking was 68th. The Orange returned a decent number of starters but had to rebuild at the skill positions, and the four players they lost from their defensive front seven had combined for 42.5 tackles for loss in 2012. With a new offensive identity of sorts and inexperience at key positions, it was predictable that Syracuse would be pretty inconsistent.

But this was still impressive. Lose 48-27 to Northwestern, then beat Tulane, 52-17. Lose 56-0 to Georgia Tech, then beat Wake Forest, 13-0. Win 20-3 against Maryland, then lose to Florida State, 59-3. In the end, 6-6 feels right. Syracuse showed just enough quality to reach bowl eligibility but no more.

Minnesota's season to date

Really, Minnesota played at a top-40 level for most of the season aside from two awful weeks in early-October, in which they lost by a combined 65-20 to Iowa and Michigan and lost head coach Jerry Kill to a leave of absence. They responded with a lovely streak of wins and were at the very least defensively competitive in losses to Wisconsin (20-7) and Michigan State (14-3) in the season's final two weeks.

The Gophers have a decent run front and good special teams, and were at least mediocre in most other areas. Though they do not start many seniors, they played like the experienced team that Syracuse isn't, even if the ceiling wasn't especially high.

Regardless of the ceiling, though, they have a chance to win nine games for the first time since 2003 and only the second time since 1905. We have no idea what to expect from Syracuse, but we should have a pretty good idea that the Gophers are going to show up ready to play in Houston.

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Syracuse 6-6 NR 76 85 67 72
Minnesota 8-4 NR 48 -4.5 75 39 10
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Syracuse Offense 42 109 27 98 100 86 123
Minnesota Defense 71 37 74 33 46 53 79
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Syracuse Offense 39 96 7 50 33 24 59
Minnesota Defense 50 52 7 7 92 101 82
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
Minnesota Offense 85 62 73 63 60 92 47
Syracuse Defense 70 42 58 57 55 94 25
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
Minnesota Offense 70 76 89 67 116 121 89
Syracuse Defense 31 76 29 16 97 14 108
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
Syracuse Special Teams 68 96 64 69 13 101
Minnesota Special Teams 34 49 49 42 26 12

Syracuse's biggest advantages:

The Gophers won't get much of a push. Syracuse's defense may have been all over the map in 2013, but the defensive front was pretty consistently solid, prone to giving up a few downfield opportunities but likely to make up for it with tackles for loss and solid short-yardage stops. Syracuse takes risks, and near the line of scrimmage a lot of them pay off. Linebackers Marquis Spruill, Cameron Lynch, and Dyshawn Davis have combined for 30.5 tackles for loss, most of which came against the run. Throw in another 18.5 TFLs from tackles Jay Bromley (mostly sacks) and Eric Crume, and you see that the Shafer identity from 2012 (when he was defensive coordinator) remains: Blow up the middle of the line, and the offense will occasionally shatter.

The downside of aggression is that when you suffer a breakdown, it's a pretty big one. The evidence: Syracuse ranked 25th in allowing methodical drives but 94th in allowing explosive ones. The Orange will get gashed from time to time, but I'm not sure Minnesota is the team to do gash them. Yes, leading receivers Derrick Engel (out with injury) and Maxx Williams have averaged 16.5 yards per catch and score touchdowns on 20 percent of their catches. They also combine to catch fewer than four passes per game. The Gophers lean as heavily on the run as any non-service academy in the country, but while backs David Cobb and Rodrick Wiliams, Jr., have solid explosiveness, that's obviously going to be limited if they're having to make moves two yards in the backfield.

The 'Cuse can run. First-year offensive coordinator George McDonald has been an assistant on a lot of pass-happy offenses, but he played to Syracuse's strengths in 2013. Running backs Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley (possibly out with an ankle injury), George Morris, and Devante McFarlane combined for 32 carries per game, and mobile quarterback Terrel Hunt got the lion's share of the snaps at quarterback this season over Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen. Not including sacks, Hunt carried 79 times for 488 yards (6.2 per carry) himself.

Yeah, with all this running, this game's going to be over in about two and a half hours. But there's a chance that Syracuse will run more effectively than the Gophers, and if that happens, Minnesota's projected advantage disappears. The Gopher defensive line is big and interesting with players like tackle (and big-time Draft prospect) Ra'Shede Hageman and lanky end Theiren Cockran, but it will have its hands full.

Minnesota's biggest advantages:

The 'Cuse can't pass. At least, not downfield. Granted, the use of Hunt at quarterback plays to Syracuse's strengths well enough. But Allen might be playing more if he could avoid interceptions (he threw nine in 122 passes this year; an interception rate above about 3.0 percent his bad, and Allen's is 7.4 percent). And Allen might have thrown fewer interceptions if Syracuse had any receivers who can get open downfield.

Of the four players to catch more than 16 passes for the Orange this year, three of them -- Ashton Broyld, Christopher Clark, and Brisly Estime -- combined to average 9.1 yards per catch and 6.8 yards per target. That's bad. The only downfield threat, Jarrod West, had a miserable catch rate of 48 percent (that negates a 17.1-yards-per-catch average) and might not play because of injury. Syracuse's is an efficiency offense that cannot maintain efficiency over the course of a long drive and needs big plays to score.

Despite a mediocre pass rush, Minnesota's pass defense is pretty good … good enough to shut down this receiving corps, anyway. Corners Brock Vereen and Eric Murray have faced better units than this and fared just fine.

Field position advantage: Minnesota. When Syracuse fails on offense, it fails quickly. Combine that with decent move-the-chains ability from Minnesota and the fact that Marcus Jones is a hell of a return man (13.0 average on punts, 25.7 average on kickoffs, two touchdowns), and the odds are good that Minnesota is going to be much more capable of creating short fields for itself.

Both teams lean heavily on the run, and who does it better will go a long way in determining the winner here. But Minnesota has the projected advantage because the Gophers have been much more consistent with their strengths, they're more likely to strike deep (at least once) with play-action, and they could pretty easily tilt the field in their favor.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Syracuse's bowl depth chart features three projected starting seniors on offense, four on defense. The Orange will return a lot of pieces next year, and if experience brings some semblance -- any semblance -- of consistency, that could be a very good thing. If they fall harmlessly to Minnesota, that won't change; but if Good Syracuse shows up and whips the Gophers by a couple of touchdowns, that will certainly be a nice touch of affirmation of what's to come.

I speak as if Syracuse is the young team and Minnesota is full of wily veterans, but the Gophers' depth chart isn't exactly stocked with players who won't be around next year. Quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are a sophomore and redshirt freshman, respectively, the running backs are all underclassmen, the offensive line should return four of five starters next year, and while Hageman and Vereen are both outstanding, they're just about the only starters the defense will lose. This is a mature Minnesota team but not an old one, and the Gophers could expect to exceed this year's level of play in 2014 no matter what happens on Friday evening in Houston.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Minnesota 27, Syracuse 18
Win Probability: Minnesota 73%

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but on defense and in the running game, it appears Syracuse's ceiling is higher than Minnesota's. But the Gophers are the infinitely more steady team and are therefore the safe bet. Syracuse is volatile, Minnesota is consistent, and it wouldn't surprise me if this game were a blowout in either direction. The smart money is probably on the Gophers, but there's no such thing as smart money when Syracuse is involved.

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