ACC Bowl Primer, Part I
By Brandon Rink
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The ACC's bowl season gets started when Duke takes on Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl on Thursday.
The ACC hasn’t had a winning bowl season since 2005 (5-3) and finds itself underdogs in four of six contests this postseason.
The conference’s first crack at an upset comes in Charlotte, with Duke’s first bowl bid in almost 20 years, against Big East foe Cincinnati.
Down in Orlando, Virginia Tech needs a victory over Rutgers to stave off its first losing season since 1992.
And in Nashville, Vanderbilt stays home for the holidays hosting NC State – playing its first game without Tom O’Brien as head coach since 2006.
Ranking and previewing the first half of ACC bowl games…
3) Music City (Nashville, Tenn.): NC State vs. Vanderbilt, Dec. 31, Noon ET
The Wolfpack (7-5) send-off senior quarterback Mike Glennon and the remnants of Tom O’Brien’s former coaching staff in Nashville, against Vanderbilt (8-4). The Commodores are making back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history.
In just two seasons, former Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin has made Vandy relevant in the SEC, winning seven of eight down the stretch after a 1-3 start. They’ve outscored opponents 38-14 on their current six-game winning streak, behind a strong defense and solid offensive production.
In their last eight games, the ‘Dores have held opposing teams to 301 yards per game (would be top-10 over the season), while scoring 31 points a game themselves.
The schedule hasn’t hurt the run, though, as the Commodores beat just one bowl-bound team (Ole Miss) this season.
State’s resume isn’t much better – their lone win over a bowl-eligible team against a then-undefeated and third-ranked Florida State, 17-16, in Raleigh.
Glennon finished atop the ACC in passing yards per game (304) and second in touchdown passes (30), with a league-leading 511 attempts and a solid interception rate (36.5 attempts per pick). His offensive coordinator, Dana Bible, assumes charge of the Wolfpack in O’Brien’s absence, bridging the gap to the new hire of Northern Illinois’ Dave Doeren.
NC State had three of its better games offensively down the stretch, with its best perfomance coming in a 62-48 shootout loss at Clemson – racking up 597 yards and Glennon throwing five touchdown passes. On defense, they gave up 754 yards.
Meeting for the first time since 1946 (a 7-0 Vandy win), the two do have a pair of common opponents. Both teams drilled Wake Forest, but the Commodores rolled over Tennessee 41-18 in Nashville, while the Wolfpack lost by two touchdowns in Atlanta to the Vols.
Vandy should get the victory, but it’s up to Franklin to keep his players motivated, as the team is not leaving the city limits for their bowl “destination.”
Pick: Vandy 31-24
2) Russell Athletic (Orlando, Fla.): Virginia Tech vs. Rutgers, Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET
This is one of the two ACC bowls in which the conference is favored.
Rutgers (9-3) lost its bid for a BCS bowl by coming from ahead (a 11-point halftime lead) to lose a Big East winner-take-all game at home against Louisville to close the season.
The Hokies’ struggles are well-documented – breaking an eight-year run of double-digit win seasons, with quarterback Logan Thomas suffering a second-year slump as a starter.
Thomas finished eighth among conference QBs in pass efficiency (119.7), with 14 interceptions to 17 touchdowns. After throwing six picks in a three-game losing streak midseason, the junior did recover to clinch Virginia Tech’s bowl bid, with five total touchdowns and no interceptions, beating Boston College (30-23) and Virginia (17-14).
Defensively, Bud Foster’s unit delivered three of its best performances in key situations – holding ACC-leading offenses Clemson and FSU to 303 yards on average. Needing a win to go bowling, Virginia Tech limited rival Virginia to 217 yards.
Relevant in part to this game, the Hokies’ defense struggled mightily with Big East foes Pittsburgh (35 points/537 yards in a road loss) and Cincinnati (27 points/495 yards at a neutral site) early in the season.
Rutgers isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, averaging just 22 points (94th) and 341 yards per game (100th), but especially dipped with leading rusher Jawan Jamison’s late-season ankle injury. Jamison rushed for over 100 yards in six of the Scarlet Knight’s first eight games, but after the injury against Army, Jamison carried the ball 28 times for 34 yards per contest in the final three games. He is expected to be a full-go against the Hokies.
The lack of a consistent running game has hampered Virginia Tech at times this season. Thomas is leading all Hokies with 528 yards and nine scores, but a committee of backs combined for 174 yards to control the clock to close the season for the Commonwealth Cup.
They’ll need the ground game to open the pass against Rutgers’ top-15 total-and-rush defense. The Scarlet Knights make Frank Beamer’s boys play their style and pull out the win.
Pick: Rutgers 24-20
1) Belk (Charlotte, N.C.): Duke vs. Cincinnati, Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET
Don’t adjust your flat screens, America. Duke (6-6) is bowling, returning to the postseason for the first time since 1994, and they take one of the Big East’s four co-champs in the Queen City.
Cincinnati (9-3) saw its championship hopes go down the drain in a 10-3 home loss to Rutgers on Nov. 17, but recovered to win two-straight down the stretch for a share of the title (with Louisville, Rutgers and Syracuse).
Bearcats running back George Winn anchors the offense, averaging 100 yards per game with 12 touchdowns.
The Bearcats have a top-50 total offense (430.8 YPG) and defense (373.75), while Duke has neither (65th and 104th respectively).
The two are as far apart as it comes, in the bowl season, in Football Outsiders’ FEI rankings (based on efficiency). The Bearcats are 18th overall (32nd-best offense/13th-best defense) and the Blue Devils’ 94th (104th-ranked offense/112th-ranked defense).
Duke struggled through a gauntlet to the finish after clinching bowl eligibility, losing four-straight.
The model to follow might be from their one marquee win, over UNC (an eight win team) – pounding the ball, passing efficiently and limiting turnovers. Duke averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 53 attempts and hit 7.7 yards per pass with one interception in the 33-30 victory.
If scoring is at a premium with a lack of big plays, don’t be surprised – both are in the top-15 in red zone defense and outside the top-30 in red zone offense.
Will it be a classic case of happy-to-be-here syndrome for Duke? Will Cincinnati stay focused under an interim coach (losing Butch Jones to Tennessee)? Tough to say on both accounts – they may very well cancel each other out – the Bearcats pulling away late.
Pick: Cincinnati 31-20