ACC Bowl Primer, Part II
By Brandon Rink
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The ACC is hoping a strong finish to the bowl season will boost the conference's reputation.
Two top-16 matchups and a preseason No. 1 mark the second half of the ACC’s bowl slate.
Ranking and previewing this round of ACC bowl games.
3) Sun (El Paso, Texas): Georgia Tech v. Southern California, Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET
As the preseason No. 1 in the AP Top-25 and picked to win the Pac-12 on 102-of-123 media ballots, a December date in El Paso was the furthest thing from USC’s mind back in fall practice.
But five losses later, the Trojans (7-5) take on Coastal champ and sub-.500 Georgia Tech (6-7).
USC recovered from an early season loss at eventual conference champion Stanford to get off to a 6-1 start, but fell in four of its last five.
Preseason Heisman favorite quarterback Matt Barkley injured his shoulder in the Trojans’ third loss in the run against UCLA, and redshirt freshman Max Wittek started the season finale against No. 1 Notre Dame (14-of-23 for 186 yards; 1 TD-2 INT) in a 22-13 home loss.
Reports have surfaced recently saying that Barkley will not play against the Yellow Jackets.
Take off the names involved and recruiting rankings, the numbers aren’t exactly dissimilar.
Both teams have top-30 offenses, with Tech scoring 34.5 points per contest to USC’s 34.2.
And defensively, the Trojans are behind the Jackets in total defense (10 spots: 63rd to 53rd), but SoCal has the edge in scoring defense (24.5-29.9 PPG).
Paul Johnson’s spread option was held under 200 rushing yards for the second time this seaon against a second top-10 rushing defense last time out in the ACC Championship Game (183), but sthe Jackets had their chances in the 21-15 loss.
They face a USC defense that’s been susceptible to the run, surrendering 222 yards per game in their final five contests – 426 yards alone to Oregon.
But the question remains: will the extra time to prepare for the triple option be the factor in southwest Texas? Georgia Tech hasn’t won a bowl under Paul Johnson, in a run of seven-straight losses for the school overall. The Jackets were favorites in three of those four bowl defeats under Johnson (including this same Sun Bowl last year against Utah), but have lost by almost two touchdowns per game (13.8).
That pressure shifts to USC, who will likely have to battle some motivation issues, but Georgia Tech hasn’t shown enough historically or this season to justify any confidence in them.
Pick: USC 33-24
2) Orange (Miami, Fla.): No. 12 Florida State v. No. 16 Northern Illinois, Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
ACC champs. MAC champs. Orange Bowl?
Indeed, the Seminoles (11-2) advanced to south Florida by grinding out a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, while Northern Illinois (12-1) downed Kent State in the MAC title game and slipped into the top-16 of the BCS for an automatic bid.
The Huskies became the first non-BCS conference team to make a BCS bowl not going undefeated.
But forget the stage, this ain’t your daddy’s MAC team.
Since almost downing Iowa in Chicago in the opener (held a 17-9 lead in the fourth quarter), NIU reeled off 12-straight wins, with an almost 24 points per game average scoring margin. They’ve won two MAC championships in a row, and are on a run of five-straight bowl seasons.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch enters No. 4 in the nation in rushing (1,771 yards/136.2 YPG), and also in the top-25 in pass efficiency (152.9) with almost 3,000 yards passing and 43 total touchdowns.
He connects most with senior receiver Martel Moore, who has 71 receptions, 1,054 yards and 12 scores in 2012.
On the other side of the ball, part of Huskies’ success is quelling the offense-happy MAC, at No. 18 in scoring defense (19 PPG) and No. 35 in total defense (356.7 YPG).
The subhead is December’s coaching carousel taking from both sides of the aisle – key coaches taking over BCS conference jobs elsewhere.
FSU will miss the leader of its No. 2 total defense, Mark Stoops, as he heads to Kentucky as head coach, while NIU head coach Dave Doeren takes over the same position in the ACC, at NC State.
Balance has been a staple of FSU on the season overall, in the top-25 in total offense and defense, but the ‘Noles haven’t topped 400 yards since October, averaging 336.5 per contest with a loss (37-26 at home to Florida) and two wins by six each (at Virginia Tech and against Georgia Tech in Charlotte). They averaged a 46-11 final in the previous eight.
FSU signal-caller E.J. Manuel looks to go out on top, No. 2 behind Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in the ACC in pass efficiency (157.74), with a fourth bowl win of his career (played the majority of snaps in his first three).
That bowl success under Jimbo Fisher, to go with an interim coach on the other side, makes a Seminoles pick look more appetizing, but this is a good Northern Illinois team – don’t be surprised if it’s interesting late.
Pick: FSU 31-20
1) Chick-fil-A (Atlanta, Ga.): No. 13 Clemson v. No. 7 LSU, Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET
New Year’s Eve in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome just about has it all.
Top-15 showdown. Death Valley versus Death Valley. Tigers v. Tigers. ACC v. SEC.
Headlining the act is Clemson’s top-10 offense matching up with LSU’s top-10 defense.
Year two in Chad Morris’ no-huddle spread offense yielded 85 school records, at No. 6 in scoring nationally (42.3 points per game) and No. 9 in total offense (518.3 yards per game).
Part of that efficiency is converting on third down (52.1 percent – 4th nationally) and scoring in the red zone (94 percent – 2nd nationally), but a lot of it is also punching in touchdowns in the red zone. The ACC Tigers were among six teams with a 75 percent red zone touchdown rate with 50 or more opportunities (joined by Oregon, UL-Lafayette, Georgia, Ohio State and Louisiana Tech).
The Bayou Bengals aren’t lacking for answers defensively, though.
LSU is No. 8 in total defense (296.2 YPG), holding opponents to 31 percent on third down conversions (9th) and in the top-10 in red zone trips allowed (31).
They faced just one top-25 offense all season, but made it count in a 24-19 road win at Texas A&M. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel didn’t score and was intercepted three times, at 80 yards below his season average for total offense (303).
If Clemson coaches have used one word in bowl preparation describing what LSU wants to do offensively, it has been the word "physical".
LSU’s starting offensive line is imposing, averaging 315 pounds. And the Louisiana Tigers’ tailback-by-committee? They nearly outweigh Clemson’s starting linebackers (225.5-226.7 pounds).
The Bayou Bengals have four running backs averaging at least six carries per game, with true freshman Jeremy Hill breaking out in the latter half of the season. Hill leads the top-50 rushing offense, averaging 93.3 yards per game and scoring eight touchdowns the second half of the season.
Clemson is right in the middle nationally in rush defense, allowing 160.7 yards per, while LSU averages 179.9. Their performance has been directly tied to how effective the offenses were all season. Against opponents ranked higher than LSU in rush offense, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers gave up 292 yards a game and 11 touchdowns (three games), and against lower-ranked, 104.8 per game and three touchdowns (nine games).
Looking for a tipping point? It may be in an improving LSU passing game down the stretch. Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for over 200 yards in four-straight games, for the first time since 2006 at the school, with four touchdowns to two interceptions. Clemson counters with an 81st-ranked pass defense.
Both sets of Tigers have bowl redemption on their minds, after LSU could manage neither points nor 100 offensive yards in a 21-0 shutout loss to Alabama in the BCS Title Game, and of course, there’s the 2012 Orange Bowl for Clemson (70-33 West Virginia win, in case you forgot).
Clemson has played and lost to the two top-15 teams they played this season, leading at the half in both games, but not able to finish. LSU came oh-so-close to clinching an upset of a No. 1 Alabama, but overall, outscored opponents 193-96 (16-8 average) in the second half. It comes down to finally putting together a complete game against a top opponent for Dabo Swinney and co., and they get their shot come New Year’s Eve.
Pick: LSU 27-24