The SEC makes its debut in the college bowl season Friday afternoon in Shreveport as Steve Spurrier's upstart South Carolina Gamecocks belly up to the bar against college football iconic quarterback Brad Smith and the Missouri Tigers of the Big 12.
If nothing else, this matchup does have marquee value and should serve as an offensive shouting match waged against defenses headed in opposite directions at season's end. Senior Smith has made a career of big plays and timely upsets in his stay in Columbia, and his ability to create fantasy out of hopelessness should never be discounted. Big upsets for the Tigers this season included a 41-24 stomping of conference nemesis Nebraska in October. In that game Smith set a school record with 480 yards of total offense, personally accounting for four touchdowns on the day.
Brad Smith makes the Missouri Tigers a dangerous opponent for the Gamecocks.
However, South Carolina, 7-4, has quietly put together a solid group of stop troops under the direction of Tyrone Nix, who only recently took over the lead coordinator role from co-operator Dave Wommack. The Gamecock team strength is in the secondary where standout sophomore Ko Simpson is the lead prowler at safety.
For 6-5 Missou, defense has been an Achilles heel this season, leading directly to embarrassing losses to New Mexico (35-45), Baylor (16-31) and Kansas State (28-36) in the season finale in Manhattan. If the Tigers stop Carolina sophomore quarterback Blake Mitchell and freshman All-SEC wide receiver Sidney Rice, they will have to give too much ground to fast-developing Gamecock freshman running back Mike Davis. In the end Davis may win game MVP for Carolina, but Brad Smith will demonstrate at least a little of what has made him a three-year Heisman candidate for the Tigers. Should be fun to watch. Missouri 24, SOUTH CAROLINA 23.
The most talented team in the Southeastern Conference takes on perennial college football heavyweight Miami in Atlanta in a game, which, under slightly different circumstances could have been for the National Championship. The only thing holding these two star-studded programs back has been coaching, the lack of which led to losses to FSU, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Georgia, collectively.
LSU's glaring question mark at quarterback remains the big unknown as hulking sophomore Jamarcus Russell was sidelined in the second half of the SEC Championship Game with a shoulder injury. His backup, sophomore Matt Flynn, was shaky in relief but seemed to gain a measure of composure as the game faded from the grasp of the Western Division champion Tigers.
QB Matt Flynn
Miami, meanwhile has spent a season developing a quarterback of its own in sophomore Kyle Wright, whose streaky play this season was highlighted by a steady performance in Blacksburg in November against defending ACC champ Virginia Tech. The 'Canes destroyed the Hokies in that one 27-7, largely by forcing Tech quarterback Marcus Vick into two interceptions and four fumbles. Defense is still king in Miami.
And so it is with LSU, as the Tigers have forged ten wins primarily from stellar defensive play. Both teams currently rank in the nation's Top 10 in total defense giving up less that 280 yards per game. LSU has given up an average of 15.2 yards per game while Miami has allowed but 11.9. Each team allows less than 30 percent on third down conversions.
This is a game for the NFL scouts with marquee individual matchups galore. Yet, the winner will be the team whose quarterback makes the fewest mistakes against a great defense. If Russell cannot go, look for Flynn and steady Tiger running back Joseph Addai to step up and make the difference. LSU 20, Miami 17.
Glowing red with embarrassment after being lit up by Auburn last month, the Alabama Crimson Tide hopes to turn the spotlight of humiliation onto someone else to start the New Year. Fortunately for the Tide, a willing Big 12 victim awaits in the Texas Tech Red Raiders whose offensive fireworks under Coach Mike Leach have always been good for a headline or two.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach's offense should test the Tide.
While greatly improved on defense in 2005, Texas Tech is still no stone wall, allowing 52 to Texas, 24 to Oklahoma State and 21 to Oklahoma. But Tech has given away fewer that 20 points per game on average, and average is what the Alabama offense has become since losing star wide receiver Tyrone Prothro to a broken leg against Florida.
What the Tide can do to win this game is run the ball with tailback Ken Darby until the Red Raiders turn blue in the face. Alabama's defense will be without nickel cornerback Simeon Castille, but the know-how and ability are still there to slow the Tech offense to a manageable output.
This game could be very interesting, but look for the "must-win" mental condition of Alabama to prevail over the "think we can" notions of Texas Tech. ALABAMA 23, Texas Tech 20.
The Florida Gators are suddenly riding high on the heels of their 34-7 annihilation of hated rival Florida State. For Urban Meyer, a slow start in Gainesville has been transformed into the smoothest sailing imaginable as high school recruits have landed on the Gator deck like flying fish, and the media and fans, ever willing to back a winner, have forgotten all about earlier-season losses to Alabama, LSU and South Carolina, all embarrassments. A Seminole scalp commands a high price in college football's marketplace.
Iowa, on the other hand, is the forgotten team. Coach Kirk Ferentz has parlayed a steady seven years in Iowa City in relief of the legendary Hayden Frye and last year claimed a win over famed SEC martinet Nick Saban in a thrilling 30-25 win over LSU in the Capital One Bowl.
This season hasn't met with preseason expectation for the Hawkeyes, in part because of a strong and balanced league, but injuries too, especially to dynamite quarterback Drew Tate, have played a role in a somewhat dovish 7-4 record. The stabbing 23-3 loss at inter-conference rival Iowa State occurred as a result of an injury to Tate. Losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern were somewhat more expected as the Wildcats surprised the entire league in '05 with dynamic offensive play.
Drew Tate is a key performer for the boys from Iowa City.
What Florida must account for is sophomore Hawkeye tailback Albert Young, who stepped up with 1,300 yards this season, supplanting last year's 1,000-yard rusher Fred Russell as the Hawks' chief mail-carrier. Young now makes it 11 1,000-yard rushers in a row at Iowa, which sounds more like a Southern Cal statistic than something out of the mid-level of the modern Big-10.
What seems to be taking shape in this Florida "home game" in Tampa is another "Urban meets his match" affair in which high expectation is met with disastrous disappointment. The Gators, despite late-season momentum and the return of Gator Pride throughout the state, are a collective sitting duck for a swirling and determined hawk, eye on its green-skinned SEC prey. Iowa 31, FLORIDA 27.
The now-you-see-em, now-you-don't Georgia Bulldogs play a third straight Atlanta game on January 2, this one against the one-loss beast of the modern-day Big East, West Virginia. The Mountaineers under fifth-year head coach Rich Rodriguez have over-achieved like no other team this year, winning the league and beating powerful Louisville with a squad that returned only eight starters from the previous season, fewest in the Big East. How do you do that?
Coach Rich Rodriguez
What Rodriguez appears to have discovered is the importance of the running game and physical, Pat Dye-style football. The offensive resurgence has been led by a couple of freshmen, quarterback Pat White from Daphne, Ala., and running back Steve Slaton, who scored 14 touchdowns while accumulating 924 yards rushing. White averaged an amazing 8.2 yards per carry on the ground himself.
For those not paying attention, West Virginia turned the corner in October after losing 34-17 to defending ACC Champion Virginia Tech. From that point on, the Mountaineers went 6-0, averaging almost 46 points per game and, aside from allowing Louisville 44 points in overtime, West Virginia gave up a mere 10.5 points average to the other five finishing opponents. Yikes. This may be the most improved team in the country and will be a true dark horse in 2006.
And what is to be said about Mark Richt's laid-back bunch in Athens? Like a popular actress, the Dawgs always make an appearance for their fans, but coyly hide their talents behind a façade of delicate, small margin lingerie, like the narrow wins over South Carolina (17-15), Mississippi State (23-10) and Arkansas (23-20). Georgia also is usually good for at least one panties-down expose like the 14-10 loss to Florida in Jacksonville, a game for which the Dawgs have become known as the annual female companion canine for the Gator.
Quarterback D.J. Shockley will try to wrap up his collegiate career as winner for the Bulldogs.
What would have severely shaken a more rational team was the other loss, a 31-30 heartbreaker to Auburn in the home finale. Yet somehow these girly-dogs continue to show for the curtain call like the 34-14 win over LSU in the SEC Championship game. Go figure the Richt factor. I can't. One thing is certain, on the night of January 2, Georgia must come to play, else West Virginia will make its 2006 national debut as a title contender an impressive one. GEORGIA 17, West Virginia 14.
The last time the Tigers prowled the sandy streets of Orlando, it was football, fireworks and Ronnie Brown as the Tigers shaved Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions 13-9 in the 2003 Capital One Bowl. Brown managed a bowl-week best 183 rushing yards, far out-distancing Lion All-American counter-part Larry Johnson, whom the fierce Tiger defense held to less than 80 yards. It was a fun-for-all game for Auburn, which left Orlando feeling mighty optimistic about their championship possibilities in 2003.
Coach Tommy Tuberville celebrates last season's bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
So here we are again, three long seasons later, and Auburn returns, a wiser, more respected and more feared opponent than the last one to visit Disney World in 2003. Wisconsin will be playing its final game for legendary head coach Barry Alvarez, who in 16 seasons at the helm in Madison, has guided that program to a very impressive 117-73-4 record, including seven wins in his last ten bowl games. Give him time, and Barry will find a way. One of those three losses came at the hands of the aforementioned 2003 Auburn Tigers, who lopped off the Badger head in Nashville's Music City Bowl in December. At that time, Jason Campbell, Jeris McIntyre, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Karlos Dansby and Reggie Torbor took turns making plays in a 28-14 Tiger win.
For Wisconsin, the team strengths in 2005 are on offense. Running back Brian Calhoun has ably replaced former Badger great Anthony Davis with his tremendous speed, 1,423 yards and 21 touchdowns. Wideout Brian Williams has scorched opposing secondaries with 53 catches for 923 yards and five touchdowns. Teammate Jonathan Orr, a 6-3 190-pound senior, has done damage as well, scoring eight touchdowns on only 36 catches. All totaled, the Badger offense averaged 35 points per game in 2005. Both offensive tackles are good which mitigates, to some degree at least, a terrifying Auburn pass rush led by defensive ends Stanley McClover, Quentin Groves and Marquies Gunn.
Auburn's offense in this game could be spectacular against a struggling Badger defense. Not only has the running game retuned to excellence behind 2005 All-SEC running back Kenny Irons, but sophomore quarterback Brandon Cox appears to have taken the Borges offense to heart and mind, as did Jason Campbell before him. The machine, for now at least, has interchangeable parts. And this is in no way good news for Wisconsin. The Big Red defense tumbled to 102nd in the nation in 2005 and has given up a frightening 4.77 yards per run to opposing offenses.
To make uncomfortable matters even worse is the fact that Badger quarterback John Stocco is one of those stand-up kind of players, you know, he stands up like a bowling pin, not seeking the sideline for cover as many more mobile Auburn opponents have had to do this season. The only '05 AU opponent that compares to the Stocco style is Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle, who finally just backed up and covered up against the Tiger pass rush in last month's Jordan-Hare annihilation. One remembers former Bama coach Gene Stallings' proclamation that taking a knee is "the best play in football." Right you are, coach. And Auburn agrees with you wholeheartedly. We have Shug's Seven D's, and now Brodie's eleven knees. Football can be a really fun game. AUBURN 42, Wisconsin 16.
Editor's Note: Mark Green's record for the season is 66-20 (.767).