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SMQ Bowl Blitz: New Year's Quarterback, Part One

Very, very busy final day of 2007, and then a busier day to open 2008. This will be broken up into two parts: below, the New Year's Eve games, to be followed later in the day by predictions of the New Year's Day heavies, and then a totally killer open thread for Tuesday's smorgasboard. I know you're like socially obligated and stuff, but you don't actually have to move for the next 48 hours.

Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl • Clemson vs. Auburn
7:30 p.m. ET - Atlanta
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Overlooked in the hype over Auburn’s new spread experiment is the steady improvement of Clemson’s defense through Tommy Bowden’s tenure – the Tigers have been incrementally better every season since 2002, when they were 71st in total defense at 390 yards per game, until a fast, veteran group this year came in at sixth nationally, allowing a little under 300 per game; aside from the 41-point, turnover-and-special teams-driven debacle against Virginia Tech in early October (in which the Hokies only gained 219 yards, because the offense barely touched the ball), no opponent in the ACC scored more than 21 on Clemson, and half were held to 17 or less.

Part of that, of course, is the ACC outside of Clemson and Boston College being intrinsically conservative and generally terrible on offense, as evidenced by more than half the conference failing to average 25 points per game, but Auburn was in this category as well, failing to top 24 points in any SEC game except its 35-7 win over Vanderbilt. Brandon Cox finished his regular season career with five interceptions in his last two games and didn’t go over 200 yards passing in any of the Tigers’ last seven. The senior has always been "efficient" at best and inept at worst, and if his outrageously young offensive line (three true freshman starters!) is overwhelmed by Clemson’s extremely veteran front seven, there will be no space for Auburn’s clock-consuming power game or to work the kinks out of Tony Franklin’s up-tempo spread.

Cox predicts the over/under on inexplicable throws he’ll lob against Clemson.
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Anyone who’s paid attention to Auburn long enough knows the Tigers will play defense like wild but strangely disciplined animals and do just enough offensively to grind out first downs and keep the game in reach, as long as Cox isn’t tossing it away; they also know that a healthy Quentin Groves runs like a cornerback and any play he’s set free on a pass rush is a sack or game-changing hurried throw/fumble waiting to happen. Those Tigers, though, in wins over Florida and Arkansas, come in with the air of overachievers, while their counterparts, in losses to Georgia Tech and Boston College, didn’t maximize their potential. That juxtaposition makes for a tight game, but on close examination (or not-so-close, really), Clemson has been a better team across the board. Franklin is a miracle man if he’s whipped Auburn’s offense into shape in a week, because it was DOA for most of the last two months of the season.
Clemson 21 Auburn 16

Sun Bowl • South Florida vs. Oregon
El Paso - 2 p.m. ET
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This is pretty simple, really: Oregon’s offense lost a part-time starting running back (Jeremiah Johnson), two productive, veteran deep threats at wide receiver (Cameron Colvin and Brian Paysinger) and then, the piece d’ resistance of the Ducks’ offensive woe, the no-contact loss of Dennis Dixon, the all-American-worthy glue holding one of the most dangerous attacks in the country together. All of those players are still out against USF, and the only other experienced passer on the roster, Brady Leaf – who himself has been the losing quarterback in eight straight games since 2005 in which he throws ten or more passes – is doubtful with an injury he suffered against UCLA, a game his backups proceeded to turn into the worst overall offensive game in Pac Ten history.

It is some solace for Oregon that redshirt freshman Justin Roper appeared mostly competent under center in the overtime loss to Oregon State, and that Jonathan Stewart returned healthy and strong in that game (39 carries for 169 yards), because Stewart will be carrying a massive load against the Bulls, who on defense happen to be rolling out two future first day draft picks on the corners, the national leader in tackles for loss at one end and a sure-tackling set of long-in-the-tooth linebackers who have fared improbably well against the spread option look in two straight wins over the scheme’s Eastern belweather, West Virginia. USF probably will not have to light it up offensively, but Grothe and Co. went well over 400 in six of their last eight games and scored 41, 55 and 48 in the last three, so it’s not out of the question.

South Florida 30 Oregon 21

Music City Bowl • Kentucky vs. Florida State
Nashville - 4 p.m. ET
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Here’s the final toll on FSU’s record-breaking absenteeism today, including suspensions not related to the infamous ring of academic fraud but not including injuries:

J. Bryant CB Suspension Out indefinitely
J. Shaw WR Suspension Out indefinitely
J. Mincey DT Suspension Out indefinitely
N. Moffett DE Suspension Out indefinitely
M. Ball LB Suspension Out indefinitely
P. Griffin DT Suspension Out indefinitely
D. Thacker DT Suspension Out indefinitely
L. Guion DT Suspension Out indefinitely
C. Graham TE Suspension Out indefinitely
J. Claude G Suspension Out indefinitely
D. Rose T Suspension Out indefinitely
D. Watson LB Suspension Out indefinitely
P. Robinson CB Suspension Out indefinitely
X. Lee QB Suspension Out indefinitely
C. Piurowski T Suspension Out indefinitely
K. McNeil DE Academics Out indefinitely
J. Hannah TE Academics Out for season

I think I speak for us all when I say, "At least there’s still DeCody Fagg."

Oh, DeCody, dear DeCody, must thou graduate?
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There’s still Drew Weatherford, too, and Antone Smith, and lanky, leaping receiving wonder Greg Carr, but this bunch of Seminoles was a likely underdog (in my mind, anyway) to Kentucky at full strength. At barely half-strength, they are mincemeat for which to fatten André Woodson’s draft prospects. I briefly entertained the idea, as one must, that FSU could rally around this adversity and, just this once, live up to its tantilizing talent in the most heartwarming possible fashion where rampant online cheating is concerned. This would go against every shred of evidence over the last three months. Kentucky has been better offensively than Florida State in every facet – especially at the most important position – since the first day of Spring practice, and whatever advantages FSU might have had on defense have evaporated along with nearly half the starting lineup’s eligibility. The Noles keep it close for a half or three quarters at the very best.
Kentucky 35 Florida State 17

Armed Forces Bowl • California vs. Air Force
Forth Worth - 12:30 p.m. ET
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I was looking for some sign of either of two things in this game – that Air Force can handle Cal’s speed on offense, or that the Bears’ epic collapse over the second half of the season showed any signs of relenting at the end – and found neither. The Falcons played only one game against a team with talent allegedly on par with Cal’s, and won it convincingly, but it’s safe to presume based on performance that Notre Dame’s "talent" was still too nascent this season to judge it on the same scale as that of a team that walloped Tennessee, won at Oregon and rose to No. 2 in the country by the end of a perfect September. Then again, at least Notre Dame was able to win at Stanford down the stretch – losing to Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State and USC is one thing, but collapsing in the final two weeks against Washington and Stanford, technically finishing behind the Cardinal in the final Pac Ten standings because of the head-to-head loss, is a sign of some deep trauma that a month off will not heal.

Then again, it could also be merely a symptom of Nate Longshore’s badly injured ankle, which caused him to miss the first loss at Oregon State and then partially led to his eleven interceptions in the last six games, five of them losses. The Bears are still lethally fast by any standard on offense with LaVelle Hawkins and DeSean Jackson stretching the field and 1,400-yard rusher Justin Forsett out of the backfield. The Falcons will score, because that veer option offense is always much slipperier than expected and Cal is no powerhouse on defense, but if Longshore is anywhere near full strength, Air Force should be playing catch-up in the secondary all afternoon. Void if Longshore is hobbling around or can’t plant on downfield throws.

California 37 Air Force 28

Humanitarian Bowl • Georgia Tech vs. Fresno State
Boise - 2 p.m. ET
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Fresno State has a remarkably good record against mediocre BCS teams in bowl games over the last five years: the Bulldogs beat Virginia in Boise in 2004, UCLA in the Silicon Valley in 2003 and the vary same Yellow Jackets in the Silicon Valley in 2002, site of this rare and ill-fated instance of chutzpah by Chan Gailey at the end of his first season:

That may explain a lot about Chan’s attitude toward risk-taking in the subsequent five years: it’s not worth it. Dropping back with Taylor Bennett, lowest-rated passer in the ACC? Not worth it, especially given Fresno State’s regular struggles against remotely talented running games: FSU allowed 318 to Texas A&M, 307 to Oregon and 282 to Ian Johnson-less Boise State, to say nothing of big days by the likes of Nevada (211 yards rushing in a wild, 702-yard overall performance) and Idaho (290 rushing). The Bulldogs finished 8-4 by pounding the Charmin soft underbelly of the WAC into submission with what must be the most balanced offense in the country – 205 per game rushing, 202 passing – and in addition to taking Texas A&M to three overtimes on the road put a legitimate, all-purpose hurt on lame duck Kansas State just after Thanksgiving. But if ever there was a game to run Tashard Choice until his heart is a beat away from exploding like that disturbing NFL logo on the commercials, this is it. If the Jackets can control the ball and build a little cushion to unleash the most sack-happy attack in the country, the results from the perspective of within-the-offense hero Tom Brandstater will be far from humanitarian. The lower scoring, the better for Tech.

Georgia Tech 24 Fresno State 20

Insight Bowl • Indiana vs. Oklahoma State
Phoenix - 5:30 p.m. ET
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In a game ostensibly dedicated to an instance of apprehending the true nature of a thing, especially through intuitive understanding, and to penetrating mental vision or discernment or the faculty of seeing into inner character or underlying truth, Indiana will be driven by gut level, grief-stricken emotion in its effort to "Win one for Hep," or some such clichéd but very moving paean to lost coach Terry Hoeppner, a respected man who fended off cancer of the brain to be a part of last year’s failed bid for the postseason but couldn’t hang on long enough to see the Hoosiers’ 14-year bowl drought finally snapped. Under normal circumstances, I’d discount that sentiment on the grounds of Oklahoma State’s balanced, high octane offense, which put up 500-plus yards five times in Big 12 play (at least 459 in every conference game prior to running into the defensive buzzsaw of Oklahoma) and could put up obscene numbers on an IU defense that was ground to dust in losses to Illinois (288 yards rushing), Michigan State (368), Penn State (192), Wisconsin (279) and Northwestern (165; 456 yards overall), none of which possessed OSU’s versatility. But the Cowboys are missing offensive maestro Larry Fedora, gone to be the boss at Southern Miss, and managed to go 6-6 despite their offensive heroics by being significantly worse on defense than even Indiana, or most any other team in the country – Big 12 opponents averaged 483 yards and, outside of the Baylor game, incredibly outgained OSU on average. Even if Adarius Bowman plays (the star receiver is questionable), the Cowboys might sputter initially on offense with a new playcaller, and Kellen Lewis and James Hardy will leave too little room for error.

Indiana 44 Oklahoma State 38