This past weekend marked the second beginning of bowl season.
If you are playing in a bowl game between December 26 and 31, you are likely a team from a name-brand conference, one with athleticism, upside, and nearly fatal flaws. Of the 10 teams that played on Saturday, nine were from power conferences (and the 10th was Cincinnati, which still feels like a major-conference team), and seven began the day between 6-6 and 8-4.
Of the six teams kicking off on Monday, three are from the Big 12, two are from the SEC, and one is from the ACC. Five of six finished between six and eight wins, and all six spent at least part of the season looking like a top-15 or top-20 team. Flaws overpowered strengths for all six at times, but every team playing Monday could put on a fun show.
Let's take a look at the day's primary matchups.
1. A&M's receivers against WVU's sticky secondary
Liberty Bowl (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN, WatchESPN)
Texas A&M Aggies (7-5) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5)
Dana Holgorsen's fourth season as West Virginia head coach was successful and confusing. His Mountaineers unexpectedly improved from 4-8 to 7-5, carving out solid results -- they knocked Baylor out of the title race with a 41-27 win, and they played well in losses to Alabama, Oklahoma, TCU, and Kansas State (average score: Opponent 34, WVU 27).
The confusing part: WVU's rebound had as much to do with defense as offense. Despite Holgorsen's air raid reputation, his offense ranks 49th in Off. F/+.That's an upgrade over last season's No. 92, but the offense actually dragged down a defense that ranks 25th in Def. F/+.
WVU's defense is built to handle a Big 12 spread; coincidentally, that's still what Texas A&M employs. The Mountaineers play aggressive pass defense, willing to risk a big gain in the name of preventing consistent ones. They have been good at this despite a nonexistent pass rush.
Big gains have been lacking for A&M, at least relatively. Despite a mid-season funk and quarterback change, the Aggies rank a solid 30th in Off. F/+, powered mostly by efficiency. Quarterback Kyle Allen developed a solid rapport with sophomore Josh Reynolds near the end -- Reynolds caught 11 balls for 213 yards and four touchdowns against Auburn and Missouri. But Allen still averaged just 10.7 yards per completion, 10.5 in four starts.
A&M is one of the most pass-heavy teams in the country. The Aggies' receiving corps is one of the most athletic and dangerous in the country, but hands and consistency were not strong suits (that's to be expected when five of your top six targets are underclassmen). Reynolds, Malcome Kennedy, Speedy Noil, and Ricky Seals-Jones will be asked to catch balls in traffic. If they do, A&M probably wins. If they suffer through another bout with the dropsies, A&M probably loses.
The other side of the ball will play a role, too. Sophomore quarterback Skyler Howard is taking the reins of the WVU offense ahead of schedule after senior Clint Trickett announced that his football career is over due to head injuries. Howard was intriguing in late-season starts against Kansas State and Iowa State; he was less efficient than Holgorsen would like (completion rate: 55 percent), but he looked downfield and generated a few big plays. He used all-conference receiver Kevin White as a decoy (11 catches, 111 yards) but found Mario Alford and Dalkiel Shorts (combined: 17 catches, 300 yards).
He also handed off to Rushel Shell quite a bit. The sophomore carried 37 times for 206 yards in the last two games and has put up 766 yards for the season. "Hand to the running back" has been a good recipe for beating the Aggies.
2. Tigers vs. Sooners vs. motivation
Over the course of three games [to finish 2013], Oklahoma went from a preseason ranking between about 15th and 25th straight into the top five. They benefited from the West Virginia Effect, in which your bowl performance bumps you up about 10-15 spots in the preseason bowls. They enter 2014 a national title contender.
And of the nine fumbles that took place in those last three games, Oklahoma recovered all nine. That's not luck, that's "stock up on lottery tickets" luck. That's Mr. Magoo luck. That's 2011 Kansas State luck. [...] Yes, they won each of those games by more than one possession. But on a per-play basis, they were outgained in each one -- 7.3 to 6.5 against KSU, 5.7 per play to 4.9 against OSU, and a whopping 7.9 to 5.8 against Alabama.
That they won each of those games was stunning and exciting, but they used a recipe that is in no way sustainable and in no way indicative of a team with true national title ambition.
Some insane luck propelled Oklahoma to an 11-2 finish and Sugar Bowl title in 2013. In 2014, the luck didn't just regress to the mean; it crashed into it at 190 miles per hour.
Three of the Sooners' four losses came by a combined eight points. They threw pick sixes in losses to TCU (by four points) and Kansas State (one). Kicker Michael Hunnicutt made 12 of 14 field goals in 10 games and missed three of four in losses to KSU and Oklahoma State (by three in overtime). They lost quarterback Trevor Knight AND star running back Samaje Perine to injury against Oklahoma State, and they STILL would have beaten the 'Pokes if not for a punt return touchdown with 45 seconds left.
That OU got its doors blown off by Baylor proved that the Sooners weren't true contenders. But rarely does luck so voraciously even out.
Clemson had its own battles with luck. The Tigers faced a Florida State team that was without quarterback Jameis Winston: lucky! They lost anyway because, while milking the clock for a game-winning field goal, they lost a fumble. Unlucky! They survived tight battles against Louisville (23-17) and Boston College (17-13), which required a little bit of good fortune. And they lost blue-chip freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to injury on two separate occasions: unfortunate!
With Watson, Clemson is possibly a top-10 team. Without him, the Tigers are all defense. Clemson ranked 58th in Off. F/+ and, thanks to an exciting front seven, first in Def. F/+. Vic Beasley and that front are phenomenal, but when Cole Stoudt is in charge of the offense, it doesn't do much to help.
The key matchup could be Oklahoma's run offense -- Samaje Perine is healthy -- against Clemson's stout front.
But really, it's both teams against disappointment. Both were close to something better than 8-4 or 9-3. With a couple of field goals and interception return tackles and one fewer injury, Oklahoma is 10-2 or 11-1. With a healthy Watson and a recovered fumble against FSU, Clemson is 10-2 or 11-1. Which is ready to battle in Orlando, and which is ready to start over in 2015?
3. Texas' offense vs. first down
I unintentionally revealed an assumption in Sunday's bowl recap piece when I said that Miami is "virtually guaranteed to hold the 'best loser of 2014' mantle" in reference to the best team with a losing record. Miami came into bowl season ranked 24th in the F/+ ratings, while fellow 6-and-6er Arkansas came in ranked 20th. If the Hogs lose to Texas, they would finish with that mantle. But I struggle to see that happening.
The reason is simple: Arkansas has a strong offense and a strong defense; Texas only has a strong defense.
If this game is whittled down to two scores in the teens, with turnovers or special teams playing a key role, then Charlie Strong's Longhorns could come out victorious. And this option is on the table. While Arkansas does rank 23rd in Off. F/+, the Hogs haven't had a strong offensive performance (i.e. averaging at least 5.0 yards per play) since October. Texas allowed more than 23 points just once in its final five games. One could see "low-scoring slog" as an option.
Still, at some point, Texas will have to move the football. That could be problematic. The 'Horns rank 94th in Off. F/+, and Arkansas ranks 19th in Def. F/+. Texas faced two top-20 defenses in 2014 (No. 6 TCU, No. 16 Baylor) and averaged 4.3 yards per play and 8.5 points per game.
Texas aims for balance -- the Longhorns rank 48th in standard downs run rate and 84th in passing downs run rate -- but can't pass. They are 86th in Passing S&P+ and 92nd in Passing Downs S&P+; they have a solid No. 1 target in John Harris (1,015 receiving yards, 10.3 per target), but their next five have combined to average an awful 5.3 yards per target. Only once in the last five games did Arkansas allow a passer rating higher than 116.0; Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes' passer rating against Baylor and TCU: 70.9 and 94.4, respectively.
To move the ball, Texas will have to run. It's a strength of sorts (51st in Rushing S&P+), but Arkansas has one of the best run defenses in the country. The Hogs rank seventh in Rushing S&P+, 11th in Standard Downs S&P+, fifth in Adj. Line Yards, and 12th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line). They held Alabama to 2.1 yards per carry, Mississippi State to 3.7, and Missouri to 3.9 and have allowed greater than 5.1 per carry just twice all year, once since the season opener against Auburn.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is good at casually ticking people off. He's done so in Houston, generating bowl season's silliest controversy with a sneaky (and, yes, only alleged) Horns Down sign. An Arkansas-Texas game isn't going to lack for intensity, but HornsDownGate has assured a little bit more.
This should be a hard-hitting battle in front of one of the most fun crowds of bowl season. And in a 14-13 scenario, Texas will have a chance. But they might face the burden of proof when it comes to scoring 14.