When these two get together Friday in Shreveport, the viewer will be reminded of why neither is playing on New Year's Day this season. Between them, the Rebels and the Cornhuskers have accumulated only one win more than their twelve combined losses. Hardly bowl material, from a record standpoint at least.
What this game does have going for it, however, is name-brand drawing power. Nebraska playing anytime against anybody and on any field would attract a bit of a crowd. Ole Miss is playing close to home, and that should suffice to get a few car-riders to the game, even in cold weather.
At first glance this could be exciting, considering Nebraska's inability to defend the pass and Ole Miss's ineptitude against strong running teams. Indeed, the points may add up in a hurry. The Huskers' running game lost some depth when backup tailback Thunder Collins gave up football to help his family survive. But former starter Dahrran Dietrich has been ably assisted by freshman TB Chris Horne. That's been a help, though not enough to make up entirely for Husker QB Jammal Lord's 10 interceptions and his overall inability to throw the ball all year long.
Nebraska Coach Frank Solich fired some assistants at season's end to appease disgruntled alumni, and Rebel Coach David Cutcliffe made some enemies when he expressed an interest in the Kentucky head coaching job in recent weeks, so this game is up in the air in every way. As is life in the 21st Century. Nebraska 34, OLE MISS 27.
The Razorbacks travel East on I-40 to Nashville Monday afternoon where they collide with the South-bound Golden Gophers of Minnesota in the cold bowl at the coliseum-formerly-known-as-Adelphia on the frigid banks of the Cumberland River. The Pigs are coming off their disappointing 30-3 barbecue at the hands of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game December 7. Before that loss, Arkansas had won six in a row, and this will be the fifth straight bowl game for the Pigsters, the longest consecutive streak among SEC Western Division teams.
Minnesota has no leg to stand on in this game as the Gophers have been horrible on defense and were good enough only to win three Big 10 games in 2002. QB Asad-Abdul Khaliq has been the offense, which is not so bad. But Minnesota's four-game losing streak to end the season saw a porous Gopher dee give up an average of 42 points per game. For the season, Minnesota allowed 4.4 yards per rush. This does not bode well for the Minnesota Ground-hogs, whose Ozarkian opponents should be well-rested for a what could be called the Music City Pig Stomp as the above-ground Hogs will almost certainly lay waste to their sub-terrainean cousins from the Big 10. ARKANSAS 34, Minnesota 17.
New Year's Eve in Atlanta will be fun as the Tennessee Vols take on the 20th-ranked Maryland Terrapins in the Georgia Dome. For some reason the odds-makers have called this one close, and looking at UT's woeful offensive efforts in its biggest games this season you can understand why.
Maryland didn't start so well itself, losing its first two big games of the season (Notre Dame and FSU) before putting together an eight-game winning streak. Terp Coach Ralph Friedgen is one of college football's best offensive minds, and his star running backs, Bruce Perry and Chris Downs, should be ready for some football in Atlanta.
UT QB Casey Clausen is finally healthy and TE Jason Whitten is the league's (and maybe the nation's) best. But the real trouble for Maryland is two-fold: Vol tailback Cedric Houston, who is on the verge of stardom, and a Tennessee defense that, despite severe injury woes, still managed to dominate opponents this year by allowing just 286 yards and 16.4 points per game. The Vol defense also had 28 sacks and 24 takeaways while allowing only 125 yards per game rushing. Don't expect any Atlantic Coast miracles in this one. Besides, this is UT's kind of football game--against someone they out-talent. TENNESSEE 42, Maryland 21.
The once-mighty Gators nearly won the SEC East this year, despite being mauled at home by LSU and giving a game away in Oxford to Ole Miss. Beating East rivals Tennessee and Georgia was big, but not big enough in light of the Bulldogs' 11-1 season.
Michigan comes into this Tampa bowl fresh off a last-second loss to hated rival Ohio State in Columbus. The Buckeyes have gone onto a National Championship date with Miami while the Wolverines have had to settle for a match with what may be the third-best major college team in Florida.
In the past few years, the Big 10 hasn't fared so well against the SEC in bowl games. And despite the likely heroic play of Gator signal-caller Rex Grossman, this year could be different. Florida recently lost the services of expert defensive coordinator John Thompson to East Carolina where he will be the head coach. That distraction could spell doom even against mediocre QB John Navarre and an average Michigan offense. Michigan 31, FLORIDA 28.
This is no bargain for the SEC as the most talented team in the country, backed by a house full of rabid followers, welcomes Nick Saban's Western Division has- beens into Dallas for this year's Cotton Bowl.
Some predict an LSU upset, but without a healthy and capable starting quarterback the Tigers have been mediocre at best this year. Current starter Marcus Randall has only six touchdown passes in 136 attempts on the year, a far cry from the Rohan Davey-to-Josh Reed season of a year ago. The talent level is there for LSU, but the playmakers aren't, especially with flanker Devery Henderson possibly sidelined by injury. Scoring could come from sophomore star Michael Clayton or any one of several fine tailbacks, but the offense can hardly be called explosive.
Ninth-ranked Texas doesn't have to be too well-coached to win this one. Mack Brown can just sit back and watch QB Chris Simms pose for the NFL draft and RB Cedric Benson turn heads for a likely NFL future of his own. Despite much criticism, Simms has put up some great numbers this season: 24 touchdowns, 2,938 yards, only 11 interceptions and a 60 percent completion average. Benson has rushed for more than 1,100 yards.
Both teams play good defense with each allowing about 16 points per outing, so the game should not get out of hand either way. But the contrast in QBs and the home field may make all the difference for the Longhorns. Texas 31, LSU 20.
What a disaster the season has been for the Seminoles. Or was it? A BCS game? Got that. An ACC Championship? Won that again, too, despite losing to NC State. A season-ending win over Florida? Yep, in the bag. So what's so bad about 2002? A ridiculous loss to Louisville, maybe. And, of course, that missed FG against Miami stung a good bit. Losing to Notre Dame was certainly embarrassing. 9-4 is not a top-five record, but FSU still seemed like FSU. Until disaster struck, that is.
In a span of three weeks, QB Adrian McPherson was suspended for some high-risk conduct, and his backup, Chris Rix, slept through an exam and was consequently suspended for the Sugar Bowl. Throw in a late-season injury of stud RB Greg Jones, and the Seminoles don't seem so unbeatable anymore, do they?
Georgia, on the other hand, has had it all go its way in 2002. No debilitating injuries at RB--Musa Smith finally made it through a season without missing any key plays or games. QB David Greene continues to win every road game and most every home game as well. (Just a little blip at that "neutral site" in Jacksonville). Even the mishandling by Head Coach Mark Richt of second string QB D.J. Shockley did not ruin the season for Georgia. For the first time in 20 years, the Bulldogs are SEC Champs, and there is no phase of the game in which they do not excel. WRs Terrence Edwards and Fred Gibson are as good as the come. Defensive linemen David Pollack and Jonathan Sullivan are tremendous as are linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert. Glory, Glory to ole Georgia.
On paper this looks like an easy one for the Bulldogs, but remember, Miami thought the same thing about playing the 'Noles before escaping by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin back in mid October. GEORGIA 33, Florida State 31.
But for a few calls and a few plays these teams might both be conference champions. Penn State lost close and late at Ohio State. The 10th-ranked Nittany Lions gave up an overtime loss to Big 10 powerhouse Iowa at home after coming from two touchdowns behind. The Lions also lost in overtime at the Big House to Michigan. Indeed, with a little luck, it could be Penn State instead of Ohio State taking on Miami at the Fiesta Bowl for all the marbles.
Auburn, on the other hand, could easily have been the SEC Champs, playing on this date in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. Even a season-ending injury to superstar tailback Cadillac Williams took little from the character of this team which rallied to win big games against SEC Western Division rivals LSU and Alabama. But so it is with football. A few plays here, a few plays there and oh, what might have been.
The Tigers received some bad news this past week when offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino accepted a job offer to be head coach at Louisville. Petrino had been instrumental in turning around the Tiger offense and supervising the transition from senior QB Daniel Cobb to sophomore Jason Campbell. The future is indeed bright for Auburn Football, and a win in the Capital One Bowl would go a long way in setting the tone for what should be a banner year in 2003. Petrino will coach his last game for Auburn against Penn State.
Penn State has earned its lofty reputation in 2002. RB Larry Johnson gave Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer a run for his money, and became the ninth player in NCAA history to surpass the 2,000 single-season rushing yardage mark. He came away with the Doak Walker and Maxwell awards at season's end. Johnson is an animal. Even in games against good teams, who kept his rushing totals in check, he caught the ball out of the backfield for big plays. On the season, Johnson caught 39 passes.
Defensively, Penn State has two great players on the line. Tackle Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes at end have combined for 37 tackles for losses and 20 sacks. Safety Shawn Mayer has led a Lion secondary that has picked off 19 passes this year, one shy of Auburn's impressive total. Penn State has, however, given up some completions, but the Lions have allowed only 334 yards per game, including just 107.8 on the ground.
For Auburn to win this game, the power running attack of recent games must re-establish itself with a healthy Ronnie Brown led by a nearly-healthy Brandon Johnson. That should open up the passing game for rapidly developing Jason Campbell and the young AU receivers. It will be interesting to see just how productive the Auburn offense can be when it has to score some points. The defense must put the clamps on Larry Johnson and force QB Zach Mills to make the plays for Penn State. It should be exciting. AUBURN 31, Penn State 30.