Lion’s Den: Let’s Go Bowling Pt. II

FSU vs Auburn BCS National Championship Lion's Den Preview Native Americans and Bengal TigersNow that Christmas is over, we are back at the lanes for a preview of the New Years Day and BCS Bowl Games.  We have lots of Bowls to get to, so I am going to hop right in to the previews and picks. (I am 2-0 on my bowl picks at the time of this writing)


Gator Bowl, 1/1 Noon, ESPN2: Georgia v. Nebraska +9

Last year, Georgia played Nebraska in the Capitol One Bowl. This year they play again after disappointing seasons. UGA and Nebraska’s seasons feel very different though. Nebraska frankly underachieved, and simply wasn’t very good. Georgia suffered a ridiculous amount of injuries. Aaron Murray will not be able to go in this game. Stud RB Todd Gurley will play. While I am a little bit concerned about UGA’s motivation in this game, it’s not enough for me to overlook that the Dogs are simply the better team. Mark Richt and Bo Pelini are perpetually on the hot seat and need to win this game. UGA has a lot of underclassman looking to build momentum going into next year, and you HAVE to take the SEC over the Big Ten.  The Line certainly favors UGA, and I think they can win by ten and cover this spread. PICK UGA.

Outback Bowl, 1/1 1pm ESPN: Iowa v. LSU -8

On paper this game looks like such a blow out. LSU finished the regular season at 9-3 with its only losses coming on the road to Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss, and it’s also the only team in the country that can say it beat Auburn this season. However there are serious concerns about taking them in this game. One is you have to question LSU’s motivation playing a snooze worthy Hawkeye team. More importantly, LSU’s QB Zach Mettenberger tore his ACL and will not be playing in this game. (Seems to be a theme with SEC QBs).  Anthony Jennings will make his first career start. Iowa does have a good defense and a nice ground game to control the ball, but it continually comes up short in games against more athletic teams. LSU is about as athletic as you can get. Look for Lion Prospect WR Odell Beckham Jr. to make a play in this game. While this is not a game I would bet due to my previous concerns, if I was in a pool, I will take the SEC team. PICK LSU.

Capitol One Bowl, 1/1 1pm ABC: South Carolina v. Wisconsin -1.5

This Bowl has an awful name, is used to be called the Citrus Bowl. Believe it or not it is more prestigious than the Gator Bowl, hence the broadcast on a network on a more favorable time. Both Wisconsin and SC have to be a little annoyed to be here. South Carolina was an inexplicable loss to Tennessee away from being in the SC championship game against Auburn. Wisconsin basically was screwed out of a game against ASU, and blew the last game of the season at home to a Penn State team they should have handled. The matchup everyone wants to talk about is the Gamecocks Defense v. the potent offense of the Badgers. While that is worth the price of admission, the match up the Lion thinks is the key to this game is the Badgers Defense lead by underrated LB Chris Borland against a running offense lead by underrated running QB Connor Shaw. Lots of motivation for both teams here despite the disappointing venue. This very well could have been a BCS game. It’s most likely the last game for many of Lion’s top rated prospects, including Gamecock DE Jadeveon Clowney, Badger RB Melvin Gordon, and WR Jared Abbredaris.  I think the star of this game will be the very underrated Mike Davis, RB from USC. Following my SEC over Big Ten mantra, I am taking the Cocks and the points here. I think they can win outright. PICK USC

FIESTA BOWL 1/1 8:30 PM ESPN Baylor v. UCF +17.5

This game could be very exciting to watch. You have the latest hot QB prospect Blake Bortles against the explosive Baylor offense. Baylor stumbled down the stretch but it was because of injuries to Lion Prospect RB Lache Seastrunk and WR Tevin Reese. The Bears are healthy going into this game. The nasty truth about this game is that Bortles shot to the top of the draft boards based off a one score win against Temple. Temple is one of the worst 10 D1 teams in the country this year. Baylor has so much talent it will overwhelm the Knights. UCF has been underrated all year, and they made me money with a very good defense, a running attack lead by Storm Johnson and Blake Bortles running around like Big Ben extending drives. However, I think they have a bad matchup in the Bears. Its Baylor’s first BCS game and they will not underestimate UCF. They will roll. PICK BAYLOR.

ROSE BOWL 1/1 5:00 PM ABC Michigan State v. Stanford -3

One of my absolute favorite traditions on New Year’s Day is watching the Rose Bowl. It really just feels important. This year there is a Lion dream matchup in Pasadena. Two hard-nosed, ground and pound, defense oriented teams. Those of you who read this column know that Sparty is a go to betting team for me. I have written about them all year long. I love their no name defense.  I need to give credit to a few of their individuals. One player I never mentioned but is absolutely fantastic is Darqueze Dennard.  He is a fantastic DB who I expect to see on Sundays. I love physical cornerbacks and Dennard is a great example of one. Another player who deserves to be mentioned is LB Max Bullough. He is the leader of the Defense. Huge problem for Sparty is that Max is suspended for this game. On the other side of the ball, Stanford has Shane Skov and Trent Murphy. I was going to go with Sparty here because they have been my go to cover team all year long and beat OSU for me, and they have the motivation factor. A Big Ten team hasn’t won the Rose Bowl in a while, and Stanford has played in the Rose Bowl already this year. Now, I have gone the other way. The loss of Max Bullough will be very hard to overcome for MSU. I do think this will be a one score game, but I have to PICK STAN.

SUGAR BOWL 1/2 8:30 PM ESPN Oklahoma v. Alabama -14.5

When you simply read this matchup out loud, it sounds great. Two of the best programs of all time head to head. On paper, this has all the makings of a blow out. Bama is still loaded on Offense and Defense, with future NFL players on the OL, and at WR, and the best LB and S in the nation in CJ Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Oklahoma is really not a great team. They have an opportunistic defense that relies on sacks and turnovers. Bama simply does not turn the ball over. On Offense, Oklahoma is quite frankly painful to watch. Bama is 6-1 ATS in Bowl Games under Saban. However, the only game they didn’t cover was the Sugar Bowl against an Urban Meyer and Alex Smith lead Utah team. In that Sugar Bowl, Bama was not especially motivated because they felt they should have been in the title game. But for the miracle return by Auburn, Bama would be playing FSU for the title. You have to wonder about their motivation here. Bob Stoops, while not as great of a coach as Urban, is very capable of winning a big game because he has no problem turning the game into a punt fest.  While this has tons of potential to be a Bama blowout, I think they win by only 14, and Oklahoma covers here. Ideally I would tease this up a little higher and PICK OK.

COTTON BOWL 1/3 8:00 PM FOX Oklahoma State v. Missouri -1.5

This game is a lot of fun. It features two of my favorite cover teams from during the season. I have written a lot about both so I will not repeat myself here. Both teams were one win away from winning their conference. On paper this game is a coin flip. Mizzou averages 40 points a game and OKST averages 39. They both have top 25 defenses.  They both play a fun style of football and I implore you to turn this on the Friday Night after New Year’s. Or at least go to a bar where this game is on. Ultimately, Mizzou is from a better conference, is better at running the ball, average 5.68 yards per-carry, 10th in the nation. Mizzou also has the best player on the field in WR Dorial Green Beckham. I expect the Tigers to win this game 30-28. PICK MIZZOU

ORANGE BOWL 1/3 8:30 PM ESPN Clemson v. Ohio State -2.5

Another great game for a Friday Night. Ohio State will face the best offense they have seen all year. It will be the last time Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins decimate a secondary together. Ohio State has to be a little bit upset that they are not playing FSU in Pasadena. Urban Meyer’s first loss as the coach of the Buckeyes came to MSU in the Big Ten title game. I find this matchup very interesting and I will break it down a little further since I have not said a lot about the Buckeyes this year. Clemson’s Defense isn’t particularly good. They will have their hands full with quintessential college qb Braxton Miller. He is mobile enough to extend plays and be a threat to run on a keeper, he has a good enough arm to throw the ball down the field, and makes good enough decisions to be an outstanding QB. He is undersized and not strong armed enough to play on Sundays, but he will go of f in his last game. The best OSU offensive player is Carlos Hyde though. He was suspended early in the year but since he came back he has dominated defenses. He is the rare huge RB who is also quick in a Jerome Bettis kind of way. Clemson isn’t particularly good at stopping the run so expect both Miller and Hyde to hit the century mark. On the Defensive side of the ball, OSU has a great defensive line. They did not allow a back to run for 100 yards until the loss to MSU. Clemson doesn’t beat you on the ground though; they beat you through the air. OSU’s NFL prospect CB is Brad Roby, but he has struggled against elite WRs all year long. Sammy Watkins is one of the two best around.  I expect him to get the better of Roby.  The key to the game will be turnovers. OSU will control the line of scrimmage and run the ball to keep Boyd and Watkins off the field. Will Boyd force throws to try to score quickly to keep up with OSU? In the ten wins this year, Clemson has twelve turnovers. In the two losses, Clemson has turned the ball over ten times.  While this seems to be a Clemson line, I am going to go with the team that is more balanced on both sides of the ball, and hope that Meyer has them motivated in what is really a letdown game for them. Plus Dabo Sweeney isn’t better than Urban. PICK OSU.

BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP 1/6 8:20 PM ESPN Auburn v. Florida State -8.5

If you are a big picture kind of guy, this is the only game that matters to you. Although I disagree that it is the only game that matters, I do think it is the game that matters the most, so I will give you a little bit extra in this breakdown…

THE CASE FOR FSU:  I am not sure if this is possible, but the Seminoles might be underrated. They are a team that lost 11 players to the NFL draft last year. This was more than any other team, including national champion and juggernaut Alabama. Despite losing this talent, they quite simply came out and beat the living shit out of teams this year. The statistics are dumbfounding. The Noles have beaten every team they played by 14 or more points. The last team to do that was 1995 Nebraska, which I would rate as one of the top 5 college football teams of all time. Wait, it doesn’t end there. FSU’s average margin of victory has been a RIDICULOUS 42.3 points this year. The last team to do that played in leather helmets. It’s not hard to see why. Jameis Winston had a Heisman Trophy season that was even more impressive than Johnny Football’s was last year. He is bigger, faster, stronger than Mr. Football and if you disregard the sexual assault allegations (he was NOT charged, so you should), he is actually way more likeable. Famous Jameis is not alone. WRs Kelvin Benjamin is only a sophomore, so I didn’t consider him in my WR rankings, but he would be in my top 5 at the position. His counterpart, Rashad Greene probably will also play on Sundays. (Look for updated draft evaluations in the upcoming months).  The running back by committee works because all of them are studs. Devonte Freeman is the leading rusher, but they have 3 guys who could start on any team in the ACC and more than half the teams in the SEC. Nick O’Leary, who is probably too small to play TE in the NFL, is a great athlete and is the grandson of the Golden Bear Jack Nicholas, so he has winner’s genes. The Noles also have one of the most physically imposing OL’s in the game lead by Lion’s Den prospect Cameron Erving at Tackle. It should come as no surprise then that the FSU Offense is balanced. They are 14th overall in the country in Passing Yards per Game and 25th in Rushing Yards per Game. Honestly, both rankings could and should be more but they often call off the dogs early due to the beat downs they hand out and the great field position the Seminole Defense gives the Offense. We will get to the Defense in a Minute. Perhaps a stat that better reflects FSU’s offensive prowess is that they average 53 points per game, which is good for 2nd in the nation.  Impressed? You should be. I haven’t gotten to the scariest part of the team yet. The Defense is terrifying. They are FIRST in the nation in points per game allowed. They have only allowed 10.7 per game. While I think MSU has a great no name defense, FSU’s D is loaded with NFL talent. DT Tim Jerngian could be a late first round early second round pick if he leaves early. I would have ranked him 3rd on my draft evaluations if I considered him as somebody who was leaving early. On the next level, I have already raved about LB Christian Jones, but Terrance Smith and Telvin Smith are equally as productive at the LB spot. Those 3 are as good as any LB unit in the game. The Secondary has two NFL prospects in Lamarcus Joyner at CB and Terrance Brooks at S. This seems unbelievable, but if every guy who can leave early does, this Noles team might have another 11 guys drafted in April. I know it sounds like I am gushing, but this game has all the makings of the 2001 Miami Hurricane beat down of Nebraska, or gulp, Bama’s beat down of ND last year (which was not nearly as bad as the 2001 Hurricane ass whopping, seriously, I am not being a homer, Miami put those guys in stretchers). So considering all that, should this game even be played? Of course. There is a case against FSU that I will make right now. Did FSU play an easy schedule? Absolutely they did. There best win was the 37 point bludgeoning of Clemson. Their second best win is either a Miami team that just got rolled on by Louisville, or Duke. Yuck. It should be no surprise then that their Strength of Schedule is ranked 63th by the Sagarin ratings. By contrast, Auburn’s is ranked 20th. Jimbo Fisher, while a fantastic recruiter, is not a particularly good game coach. While they haven’t been tested this year, FSU is not particularly good in close games under Fisher’s tenure. Most importantly, the team standing on the opposite sideline will be the best team the Seminoles have played in two years.

THE CASE FOR AUBURN: If you followed college football this year you have heard at least one talking head call the Tigers a team of destiny. You have seen the Hail Mary answered against Georgia and the miracle FG return against Bama. There is more to this team then luck however. First year Coach Gus Malzahn is an excellent game coach (at least better than Jimbo) and in his first year, Gus has installed the deadliest ground game in the nation. They are NUMBER 1 in the nation in rushing. They made me a believer by consistently moving the ball on the ground against Bama, (296 yards on a sick 5.7 yd. per carry). I fell in love with them when they dominated against Mizzou. They run a modified spread option at a blazing tempo. They have depth at the RB position. Tre Mason is the lead back and has run for more than 1600 yards and 22 TDs. Corey Grant is the change of pace back and has run for 650 yards on 65 carries. Even the Lion can do the math here and see that is a sick 10 yards per carry. The Mr. Inside of the Tigers ground attack is fire plug 5-11 210 pound Cameron Artis-Payne from the Lion’s natural habitat of Central Pennsylvania. Those of you that read this column know that since he is from Central PA, Mr. Artis-Payne must be tough as nails. He is. The OL has opened up holes against the best DLs in the country in SEC conference play. They have gotten better every week and will not be intimidated one bit by FSU’s front seven because they are not significantly better than Bama’s. The absolute key to the offense is QB Nick Marshall. We know he can run the option. He ran for more than 1000 yards. To beat FSU, he is going to have to throw the ball. His passing stats are not particularly impressive. He has completed just over 60% of his passes, (65% is my benchmark for college fb), for just over 1700 yards and only 12 Tds to 5 interceptions. Even these stats are a little skewed because a lot of times Marshall surprises the defense when he passes. I am not sure how good he is when defenses know he is going to pass. However, it does seem that he makes big throws when needed. He made huge throws to help win games against A&M, MSU, Bama and obviously UGA. I have no doubt Auburn will score enough on this elite FSU D to make this a game. If it sounds like I am gushing here, it’s because Auburn’s offense has been my absolute favorite to watch this year. I have not mentioned Auburn’s Defense yet. There is not much to say. They give up a very blah 24.0 points a game. Not great. However, when you consider that Auburn has played some powerful offenses like A&M, Ole Miss, and LSU, and that the Tigers have the number 11 scoring offense and averages about 40 per game, 24 points doesn’t seem so bad. I think that if the defense holds FSU to 24 here that will probably be enough to win.

PREDICTION: Considering everything I discussed above, there is so much to consider in picking this game. You cannot ignore the SEC’s dominance in national championship games, FSU’s weak SOS, and Auburn’s coaching advantage. I really want to pick Auburn and the points but you can’t bet on the title game with your heart. In games that feature strength versus strength, is often the matchup of weakness v. weakness that determines the game. The strength versus strength is obviously Auburn O v. FSU D. Thus, Auburn D v. FSU O will determine the game. This does not favor the Tigers, who rank 102 in passing yards allowed, and give up 4.6 yards per carry. FSU simply has more talent, and while Auburn’s ground attack will keep them in the game, FSU will be able to match them score for score. In the end, Winston, Benjamin and Greene will be posing with Herbstreit, Fowler and Corso at the end of the night. PICK FSU 42-31.

FINAL NOTE: It’s been a fun year of college football. I have given you more winners than losers and it’s really hard to beat the games on Thanksgiving Saturday and Conference Championship Saturday. With the awful state of officiating in the NFL due to “confusion[1]” about the rules; I maintain that college fb is the more entertaining game. One of its draws is that there are so many teams and players to follow you can always find a great game or a great player to watch. I hope my columns have given you a reason to watch and increased your interest. Even though this is my last college football column, I will not stop writing about football. I love the NFL playoffs. There is nothing like them. I will do my best to cover them for you, either by grading game tape or by making predictions. Happy New Year.

[1] By confusion, I mean owners shameless attempt to increase offense for stupid casual fans and fantasy football, that is comparable to what baseball owners did in the late 90’s to baseball.

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