We asked for New Year's Day to be awesome again, and it appears we are getting what we wished for: five games, all with ranked teams, three fun table-setters, and the first two national semifinal games in FBS history. So grab your hangover cure of choice, and let's look at the most important questions for each of January 1's five bowls.
Which defense has recovered?
January 1 kicks off with a battle between run-heavy teams with defenses that weren't as bad as they showed at the end of the year.
Wisconsin ranks 18th in Def. F/+, having allowed 4.8 yards per play and having allowed more than 28 points once all year. But they gave up 59 points and 10 yards per play in a Big Ten title massacre at the hands of Ohio State.
Auburn ranks 38th in Def. F/+; the Tigers were 18th after eight weeks but slid, giving up at least 6.9 yards per play in three of their five final and letting Alabama put up 539 yards and 55 points in 61 snaps. Gus Malzahn dismissed coordinator Ellis Johnson. Charlie Harbison will serve as interim for the bowl until Will Muschamp takes over.
So which defense is ready to relive happier times? Auburn's steady run game and better-than-you-think passing game make for a better attack than any Wisconsin has faced beyond Ohio State. Meanwhile, Auburn managed to give up 200 yards rushing three times, all against teams that didn't have Melvin Gordon.
If there's a hidden defensive advantage, it might be Auburn's. The Tigers' run defense has been solid this year -- they're 18th in Rushing S&P+. Their issues have come mostly in pass defense. Wisconsin doesn't pass well. If the Tigers stack the box, can Wisconsin punish them?
Can Michigan State run?
Michigan State hasn't been Michigan State this season. The Spartans grade out better on offense (15th in Off. F/+) than defense (24th in Def. F/+), and they actually move quickly between snaps. Using Adj. Pace, State has been the 24th-fastest team from a tempo perspective. Michigan State!
That said, the Spartans don't want to turn the Cotton into a shootout. Their two losses came against two of the most high-powered offenses in the country, Oregon and Ohio State. They allowed 47.5 points per game and 7.8 yards per play in those two, and Baylor will happily do that if the Spartans allow them to dictate the tempo.
Michigan State's offense puts on its quarterback. The Spartans are one of the most run-heavy teams in the country on standard downs (they run 70 percent of the time, 19th in FBS), but they throw almost exclusively on passing downs -- their 20 percent run rate on passing downs is 125th. They give quarterback Connor Cook few easy second-and-3 throws, but they ask him to do a lot of dirty work. For the most part, it's worked.
Baylor's defensive backfield is aggressive (too aggressive sometimes), and its pass rush is strong (ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate). The Bears could make the Spartans pay if they fall into passing downs, and State will need to run well to avoid those.
Can they? The Bears rank 19th in Rushing S&P+ and ninth in Adjusted Line Yards. Linemen Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings, K.J. Smith, and Beau Blackshear each has at least 9.5 tackles for loss. Will Jeremy Langford find room to run, or will State have to take to the air?
Who wins in the trenches?
Minnesota runs. And runs and runs and runs. A 79 percent run rate on standard downs is higher than Boston College's, Auburn's, LSU's, Arkansas', Wisconsin's, et cetera. Hell, it's almost higher than Air Force's. Quarterback Mitch Leidner will put in just enough carries to keep you honest, and Berkley Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood, and Rodrick Williams Jr. will spell David Cobb from time to time. And hey, about 10 times in a given game, Leidner is going to throw a play-action pass. Four to five of them may work.
But you and they both know that Cobb is coming at you a lot. And you will beat Minnesota if you can keep him in the two- to four-yard range instead of four to six.
No matter how many angles you take, the keys come back to the lines. Minnesota runs as frequently as almost any non-flexbone team and wants to slow the game to a crawl. Missouri isn't in much of a hurry, either.
David Cobb is probably going to get his yards, because he's going to get a ton of carries. But in Minnesota's losses, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry. In wins, he averaged 5.5. It's not a huge difference, but it could mean Minnesota facing a manageable proportion of passing downs or a lot of them.
And Minnesota wants no part of Missouri's pass rush on third-and-long.
On the flipside, without injured SEC Championship star Jimmie Hunt, Missouri could be limited, especially against an exciting Minnesota secondary. Missouri doesn't want Maty Mauk scrambling around, looking for open receivers who aren't there, and the Tigers will rely on standard downs success as much as Minnesota. So who's getting five or six yards on first down, and who's getting three to four?
Can Oregon's defense get off the field?
Oregon's defense had a bad year and a half. After years as one of the most underrated units in college football -- the Ducks ranked sixth in Def. F/+ in 2010, 12th in 2011, and fourth in 2012 -- it slid to 22nd in Nick Aliotti's final season as defensive coordinator. And in the first half of 2014, it slid some more.
The Ducks allowed at least 5.6 yards per play in their first five games against FBS opponents this season. But they shored up, allowing 14 points per game and four yards per play against Colorado, Oregon State, and Arizona. They are back up to 13th in Def. F/+, complementing a Duck offense that ranks second.
Oregon relies on red zone stops and turnovers, however. The Ducks rank fourth in the drive-based component of Def. S&P+ but 35th in the play-for-play component. They allow only 3.7 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent's 40), 19th in the country. But they also give you a few too many opportunities.
Oregon's defense ranks 64th in Passing Downs S&P+. Florida State's offense? Twelfth. Oregon blitzes well (27th in passing downs sack rate), but if you get the pass off, you're finding an open man. Opponents completed 61 percent of at nearly 13 yards per completion on third-and-4 or more. FSU quarterback Jameis Winston: 54 percent completion rate and 16.5 yards per completion in those situations.
And Oregon's stats came with Ifo Ekpre-Olomu playing No. 1 cornerback. He's out, and everybody moves up a weight class. Troy Hill (one interception, 16 break-ups) and Chris Seisay (three break-ups) will take turns trying to guard FSU's prolific Rashad Greene. Ekpre-Olomu and Hill were already No. 1 and No. 1a, but there could be a trickle-down effect. If Hill's on Greene, then someone less experienced is on the emerging Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, or other members of FSU's explosive corps.
Scheme might matter as much as Ekpre-Olomu. That, and accounting for one of the best bailout options in college football, tight end Nick O'Leary.
Losing Ekpre-Olomu hurts the Ducks in controlling career FSU receiving leader Rashad Greene. But stopping Winston is really about playing tight matching coverage and filling passing lanes in the middle of the field. That's where Jimbo Fisher's ball control passing attack can chew up yardage in a hurry. [...]
If Oregon's outside linebacker can't get consistent pass rushes, they may as well use that player to jam O'Leary on every play before they rush Winston, in order to allow the linebackers to get in position against the big fellow.
The first few drives might tell the tale. When Oregon is able to create second-and-9 or third-and-7 situations, are they able to close out drives? If so, the offense should generate a lead. And while FSU has been known to play well down the stretch of close games (to say the least), Oregon is better than Boston College, Miami, and the other teams that played FSU close.
If FSU relies on another comeback to reach the Playoff finals, the Seminoles are probably going to find they're out of luck. But Oregon's specific weaknesses give FSU a chance to avoid an early deficit.
Who wins strength vs. strength?
Last year, with Braxton Miller at quarterback, Ohio State ranked first in Rushing S&P+, first in Standard Downs S&P+, and second in overall Off. F/+. The Buckeyes replaced four offensive line starters, lost Miller to injury before the season, installed redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, suffered growing pains, lost Barrett to injury late, went to third-stringer Cardale Jones ... and rank first in Rushing S&P+, first in Standard Downs S&P+, and fourth in overall Off. F/+.
Urban Meyer, outgoing offensive coordinator Tom Herman (new Houston head coach), and co-coordinator Ed Warinner have created what might be the most quarterback-friendly system in football. (It helps to have mountains of blue-chippers. Needless to say, Jones is better than most teams' third-stringers.) They are creative in how they create angles, and they could make life hell for Alabama up front.
Of all the teams in the Playoff, Ohio State might be the one most capable of running on an honest Tide front. For all the stunts, fronts, and calls Saban has for disrupting a running game, Meyer has just as many variations of zone and power to match. While the Tide DL excels at taking on blockers and protecting linebackers, the Buckeye OL has grown into an excellent unit and Heuerman one of the best blockers in the country.
With Barrett and Miller out, it falls to 1,402-yard sophomore Ezekiel Elliot to provide the primary punch.
If anybody can run on Alabama, it's Ohio State. And if anybody can stop Ohio State, it's Alabama.
Of course, the rushing yards haven't exactly flowed against elite defenses. Ohio State has faced two defenses ranked in the Def. F/+ top 10 (No. 4 Virginia Tech, No. 10 Penn State), and the results weren't amazing. Buckeye backs had 49 carries for 201 yards in those games (4.1 per carry). J.T. Barrett did rush 34 times (not including sacks) for 218 yards, but he was also sacked a lot, because Ohio State was facing more passing downs than normal. And Barrett and Jones are a little bit different.
Regardless, this will probably come down to Jones' ability to provide a run threat and Alabama's ability to pressure him into mistakes. This is a hell of a spot to make your first career start.
It's strength vs. strength on the other side of the ball, too. Ohio State's defense is young and glitchy, but the Buckeyes create chaos near the line. The Buckeyes rank seventh in Havoc Rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays), second among all front sevens. End Joey Bosa (20 TFLs, 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) is the face, but tackle Michael Bennett (12.5 TFLs, six sacks) and linebackers Joshua Perry and Darron Lee (22 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, seven passes defensed) also wreck shop when given the opportunity. A scary front seven keeps pressure on quarterbacks and allows the secondary to stay aggressive on the outside.
But the combination of Alabama's offensive line and Lane Kiffin's propensity for mixing runs and short passes keeps aggressive defensive fronts on their heels. Just ask Missouri, whose star ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray (37 combined TFLs) had almost no presence in the SEC title.