The New Year's Six bowls begin on Wednesday, completing the slow, steady ramping up of bowl season. After Stage 1 of bowl season (pre-Christmas, mid-major battles) came a fun Stage 2 (post-Christmas games between mostly 7-5 and 8-4 power teams). Now it's time for the two-day, Stage 3 main event.
Here are the most important matchups for Wednesday's bowls.
Bo Wallace vs. the TCU secondary
It backfires when you speak with certainty about college football. This sport has a way of pantsing you every time you start to think you know what's going on. Still ... I don't see Ole Miss running the ball very well against TCU. At all.
Jaylen Walton's 91-yard romp against Mississippi State raised his 2014 per-carry average from 5.1 to 5.9, and fellow backs Jordan Wilkins (73-yarder), I'Tavius Mathers (56), and Mark Dodson (65) have seen their averages bumped up by singularly explosive runs. Efficiency isn't a Rebel strong suit, however. Even with the big plays, Ole Miss' offense ranks 37th in Rushing S&P+; TCU's defense: sixth.
Ole Miss' running game ranks an abysmal 120th in Stuff Rate, with 25.2 percent of its runs getting stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. TCU's defense ranks eighth.
In turn, this game might come down to Bo Wallace on passing downs. He's been good at them this year, all things considered. Ole Miss ranks 123rd in passing downs run rate, and Wallace is passing 80 percent of the time when the Rebels fall behind schedule. And despite the loss of star receiver Laquon Treadwell, he has managed to hit the trio of Vince Sanders, Cody Core, and tight end Evan Engram frequently. If he has time to find an open receiver (which is likely against an average TCU pass rush), he'll find one.
If Ole Miss can't stay ahead of schedule or catch back up, TCU might leverage the Rebels into failure. The Horned Frogs are second in the country in field position margin; their average starting field position is 9.6 yards better than their opponents'. They render you inefficient, they hit you with high tempo on offense, and even if you stop that offense a few times, you won't all game.
Ole Miss isn't much of a field position team (48th in field position margin), but it hasn't cost the Rebels because of big offensive plays and a dominant Land Shark defense that combines big-play prevention (first in defensive IsoPPP) with chaos (10th in Havoc Rate). They will give you yards if you remain patient (TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin is pretty patient), but the Horned Frogs will need the field position boost to put points on the board. They might get it, unless Wallace finds success against Sam Carter, Chris Hackett, and the speedy TCU secondary.
Wildcats vs. Broncos vs. fast starts
Arizona has outscored opponents, 106-58, in the first quarter. Boise State has outscored opponents, 132-94. The Broncos have been better in the second quarter, and the Wildcats have been better in the fourth, but the way this game begins will have a significant impact for three reasons.
First, this is a first-time big game for most of the participants. Arizona hasn't played in what we now consider a major bowl game since Dick Tomey's Wildcats throttled Miami in the 1994 Fiesta. And while this is Boise State's third Fiesta in nine seasons, it's the Broncos' first since 2009, when fifth-year seniors were getting ready to sign their letters of intent. This isn't a Playoff game, but jitters could play a role, and whoever manages them better could carve out a lasting advantage. If either offense quickly goes three-and-out, that could have a similar effect.
Second, both Boise State and Arizona utilize fast tempo. If one offense is in a better groove, it could have a cumulative effect on the opposing defense.
Third, both of these offenses are better on standard downs and don't handle must-pass situations (like the ones early deficits create) well. Boise State ranks seventh in the country in Standard Downs S&P+ but 33rd on passing downs. Quarterback Grant Hedrick has completed 74 percent of his passes on first and second down, with 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions; on third downs, he's at 61 percent with a 5-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio. Hedrick has one of the best standard downs weapons in the country in junior Shane Williams-Rhodes, who has caught an incredible 47 of 48 passes for 406 yards on such downs. But if Hedrick has to look downfield, he has sophomore Thomas Sperbeck (63 percent catch rate, 10.2 yards per target on PDs).
And of course, there's the matter of accounting for Scooby Wright III, Arizona's leading tackler and a pass rush dynamo. He and his 28 tackles for loss (and 14 sacks) are the primary reasons why the Wildcats have the second-best passing downs sack rate in the country at 14.4 percent.
Boise State's defense has similar advantages. The Broncos rank 14th in Passing Downs S&P+, while Arizona's offense ranks 80th. Sophomore defensive end Kamalei Correa erupted for 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, impressive totals for a non-Scooby mortal.
Arizona's Anu Solomon had an incredible campaign for a freshman quarterback, but his passer rating falls from the 130s to the 110s on third down, and on third-and-7 or more, he's just 34-for-67 with three touchdowns and two interceptions. This Arizona offense can wear you down if it stays ahead of schedule, but if Boise State is able to cut down on first-down ground gains, the Broncos could seize the advantage.
Dak Prescott vs. disaster
Georgia Tech had an incredible resurgence in Paul Johnson's seventh year. After going 7-7 and 7-6 in the past two seasons, the Ramblin' Wreck rebounded to 10-3 and came within three points of taking down Florida State and winning the ACC. His option offense, led by quarterback Justin Thomas (965 rushing yards, 1,594 passing yards) and fullbacks Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey (combined: 1,541 rushing yards and 15 scores), has been as good as ever. Actually, it's been better. Tech ranks first in the country in Off. F/+. You know what the Yellow Jackets are going to do, but damned if you can stop it.
Tech's defense has not made similar gains. Despite coordinator changes, it has been the wrong kind of consistent, ranking 58th in Def. F/+ in 2012, 57th in 2013, and 58th in 2014. In losses to North Carolina (48-43) and Florida State (37-35), Tech allowed 42.5 points per game and 7.1 yards per play. They also won while allowing 8.8 yards per play to Georgia Southern, 8.0 to Miami, and 8.0 to Pitt, but none of those teams has Mississippi State's defense.
Allow the MSU offense to go wild, and Tech's own offense will likely falter, especially if having extra prep time helps the Bulldogs' D.
Mississippi State is the favorite because, simply, it plays well on both sides of the ball. The offense slipped down the stretch in losses (against great defenses), and the defense didn't hold up its end of the bargain in allowing 532 yards to Ole Miss. But the Bulldogs still rank 14th in Off. F/+, ninth in Def. F/+, and sixth overall.
This game will probably be defined by the two to three plays in which Dak Prescott goes off-script. The junior from Haughton, La., has thrown for 2,996 yards and rushed for 1,048 pre-sack yards and has been responsible for 37 touchdowns. When he's in a zone, he's incredible; he made himself a Heisman candidate over the first half of the season with dominant performances against LSU (15-for-24 for 268 yards, 22 carries for 105) and Texas A&M (20-for-26 for 268 yards, three rushing touchdowns).
But a few times each game, Prescott will lose his mind. Sometimes that's a good thing, as evidenced by a wonderful, improvised touchdown against LSU. And sometimes that's not good. He threw three interceptions against Alabama, all inside the Bama 25. He has all the confidence in the world, but if Tech can turn that confidence into turnovers, the Yellow Jackets could control the ball. But if those improvised moments turn into big plays, Tech's done.