Boxing Day represents the true beginning of the power conferences' bowl schedule. Utah was the only power team to play before Christmas; four play among today's three bowls. Let's take a look at the key questions for each game.
On whom do the big-play gods smile?
One of the primary purposes of the stats I create for Football Outsiders is the separation of efficiency and explosiveness. We measure efficiency with Success Rate and the magnitude of the successful plays with IsoPPP. Both the Illinois and Louisiana Tech offenses rank better in IsoPPP than success rate, and both defenses rank better in success rate than IsoPPP.
In other words, there will be a few three-and-outs and a few big plays in this game.
So who has the bigger big-play advantage? It's hard to say. Louisiana Tech is less likely to go three-and-out, which will give the Bulldogs more opportunities at big plays; perhaps that makes the difference.
Tech running back Kenneth Dixon has been impressively all-or-nothing, ripping off a 99-yard touchdown run at one point and putting together 13 rushes of 20-plus yards (17th in the country) but still barely averaging five yards per carry. Meanwhile, leading receiver Trent Taylor, a sophomore and one of seven Bulldogs with at least one catch of 36 yards, averages a solid 13.1 per catch and 8.7 yards per target, and freshman Carlos Henderson (25 catches, 476 yards) is good for a big gain or two.
Tech's other advantage: while the Bulldogs spring leaks, their defense is far more likely to make a big play of its own. In Manny Diaz's first year as defensive coordinator, Tech has improved from 104th in Def. F/+ to 23rd, a startling surge. Only Tech and Utah State have managed 100-plus tackles for loss, and we've grown to expect those things from USU. With time to prepare for Illinois, Diaz will probably be able to dial up some havoc using his usual weapons of choice: tackle Vernon Butler (13.5 tackles for loss), cornerback Adairius Barnes (four tackles for loss, 14 passes defended), and, most poetically, Illinois transfer Houston Bates (10.5 tackles for loss, 12 hurries). It might bear mentioning that star linebacker Terrell Pinson is academically ineligible. For that matter, so are two offensive linemen and three other regulars.
Wes Lunt Illinois and its weapons -- primarily freshman Mike Dudek (965 yards, 9.2 per target) and junior Geronimo Allison (533 yards, 7.6 per target) -- find time before Tech's aggressive defense makes a play?
Which UNC shows up?
On paper, the Quick Lane Bowl gives us what could be the most even matchup of bowl season. Rutgers ranks 73rd in the F/+ ratings with a minus-4.4 percent rating. UNC is 74th at minus-4.5 percent. That's as close to a tossup as you can get.
I'm not sure that UNC has played like the No. 74 team in the country in any game, however. The Heels have either been top 50 or not even top 100 most of the time. They allowed at least 500 yards six times and at least 6.0 yards per play eight times. They averaged under five yards per play four times (including once against Liberty) and got shut down in the regular season finale, a 28-point home loss to rival NC State.
Oh, and they scored 40-plus points six times and held Duke's offense well below its season averages in the second-to-last game. They gave up 70 points and almost 800 yards to East Carolina in September, then beat No. 10 Georgia Tech a month later. They ended Duke's division title hopes, then laid a big, fat egg against NC State.
There's a reason. UNC starts just five seniors and 11 freshmen or sophomores. There are almost no seniors on the roster. The team leadership is young. The Heels are pretty much guaranteed to suck me into predicting a HUGE BREAKTHROUGH in the 2015 UNC season preview (just as I did in the 2014 season preview), and I'll have evidence on my side when I do it.
But 2015 is 2015. In the Heels' last game of 2014, I have no idea what to expect. Neither do you.
Rutgers is a safer bet, at least when it comes to knowing how the Scarlet Knights will play. They rank between 60th and 80th in Off., Def., and Special Teams F/+, and while they've had some variation of their own -- the offense has averaged 6.0 or more yards per play seven times and 4.7 or fewer three times (last four games: 2.5, 6.4, 3.9, and 6.4 yards per play, respectively) -- their level of play has more or less matched the quality of their opponent. They're 0-4 against teams ranked in the F/+ top 40 and 7-1 against everyone else.
If this game turns into a shootout (as UNC games often do), look for big passing numbers. UNC sophomores Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins have combined to average about 110 yards per game and 9.2 yards per target, and Rutgers junior Leonte Carroo (1,043 yards, 11.6 per target) began to live up to his immense potential in his first year playing for offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
Who wins the trenches?
As one would have expected, the UCF offense suffered a setback in 2014 following the loss of quarterback (and first-round draft pick) Blake Bortles, running back Storm Johnson and three all-conference linemen. The Knights fell from 12th to 68th in Off. F/+. Sophomore quarterback Justin Holman had his solid moments, passing for 2,600 yards and helping UCF to a No. 44 ranking in Passing S&P+, but the run game has been abysmal. Sophomore backs William Stanback, Dontravious Wilson, and Micah Reed have combined to average just 3.7 yards per carry, forcing Holman into must-pass situations.
It will be strength against strength and weakness against weakness in the Bitcoin Bowl. UCF cannot run, and NC State cannot stop the run; UCF's predictably strong defense will have to figure out how to knock the efficient Wolfpack offense off-course.
The State offense throws on standard downs and runs on passing downs. The Wolfpack keep defenses off balance, give quarterback Jacoby Brissett (2,344 yards, 22 touchdowns, five interceptions) easy throws, and carve out yards and field position advantages with a trio of solid running backs: Shadrach Thornton, Matt Dayes, and Tony Creecy (combined: 1,588 yards, 5.5 per carry, 17 touchdowns).
The battle of NC State's offensive line and UCF's defensive front will probably tell the story. The Wolfpack might be a young team, with 21 true and redshirt freshmen seeing action and eight true freshmen starting at least one game, but the line has been a source of experience. Senior tackles Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler and junior center Quinton Schooley are all wrapping up their second respective seasons as starters. If the State line can keep UCF out of the backfield -- the Knights have six players with at least eight tackles for loss, including middle linebacker Terrance Plummer (12.5) and end Thomas Niles (11) -- the Wolfpack should keep up on the scoreboard.
Both of these teams finished strong. After starting 0-2, then suffering a frustrating upset loss to UConn on November 1, UCF won four in a row to win a share of the AAC title for the second straight year. NC State lost four games in a row to fall to 4-4 heading into November, but won three of four including a romp in Chapel Hill to finish 7-5.
These are two pretty young teams who should receive a decent amount of hype next season. The winner will get a little bit more.