A primer for Monday's big games.
GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE DAY
Fiesta Bowl: OKLAHOMA STATE (-3½) vs. STANFORD • 8:30 pm ET, ESPN.
What's at stake: As consolation games go, you could do a lot worse: The winner will likely finish No. 2 in the final polls, which would be Stanford's best finish since 1940 and Oklahoma State's best finish ever. Obviously, these are fat times for both schools. And considering Monday night is the last college game for at least four soon-to-be first-rounders in next April's NFL Draft — Justin Blackmon, Andrew Luck and Luck's All-American protectors on the offensive line, David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin — as well as prolific Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, they're both advised to enjoy it while they have the chance.
Stanford wants: For all the attention afforded to Luck's prowess as a passer, the offense's first priority is still establishing an old-school, between-the-tackles power game that Vince Lombardi would appreciate as much as Luck does: Thanks to his first-rate offensive line and the respect the running game commands on play-action, the most valuable quarterback in the country has been sacked nine times all year, one of the lowest numbers in the nation. The top two backs, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, went for almost 1,300 yards with 11 touchdowns in Pac-12 games alone.
Oklahoma State hasn't fared well against the run, even by Big 12 standards. But Stanford's offense doesn't exactly lend itself to precedent, especially for a defense almost exclusively accustomed to spread passing attacks. Because they regularly play with two or three huge, versatile tight ends — Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, all of whom go upwards of 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, and are as effective as blockers as they are running routes against mismatched linebackers — the Cardinal can run virtually the entire playbook with the same personnel, allowing to pound straight ahead and stretch the field without tipping their hand. And with Luck, that does mean the entire playbook.
Oklahoma State wants: Scorin' and more scorin'. The Big Change from 2010 to 2011 — the much-lamented transition from spread passing maestro Dana Holgorsen to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken — didn't slow the pace at all: A year after leading the Big 12 in total and scoring offense under Holgorsen, the Cowboys actually improved on both counts with frequent breaks in the fourth quarter. It's a more balanced effort than they get credit for — Joseph Randle is on the verge of giving OSU a 1,200-yard rusher for the fifth consecutive season — but the relentless pace is designed to give 27-year-old quarterback Brandon Weeden maximum opportunities with his arm, and he'll put it in the air 50 times without blinking.
In Weeden's 25 career starts, OSU has scored at least 30 points in all but one — that one, coincidentally, happening to be the only one in which Blackmon wasn't on the field. He will be Monday night, and Stanford doesn't have anyone who can deal with him without a double-team that opens up one of the Cowboys' other weapons.
For the most part, the defense has managed to mitigate some truly ghastly yardage numbers by forcing gobs of turnovers — 42 of them altogether, more than any defense in the nation, and on pace for more than any defense since 2003. As steady as his arm his, Luck is hardly immune to mistakes under pressure, serving up a pair of pick-sixes against USC and Oregon to go with six other interceptions in the Cardinal's last eight games.
Constants: Stanford will establish an effective running game between the tackles. … Oklahoma State will force Luck into an ugly turnover. … Points, obviously.
Variables: Which defense is able to generate more heat on the opposing quarterback? … How will the Cardinal defend Justin Blackmon? … How consistently can Stanford stretch the field without its resident deep threat, injured senior Chris Owusu?
The Pick: Neither Luck nor Stanford seemed to fully recover from their triple-overtime slugfest at USC on Oct. 29, following up the comeback in the Coliseum with a lopsided home loss to Oregon and unremarkable wins over Cal and Notre Dame to close the year. Owusu's injury may have something to do with that, along with general November fatigue. The last time we saw Oklahoma State, on the other hand, the Cowboys were throttling Oklahoma to lock up the Big 12 title off a bye week. Stanford was within one game of a shot at the BCS title; Oklahoma State was within a few inches, at most, against a tougher schedule.
Still, the most glaring advantage of either side of this matchup is Stanford's pile-driving offensive line against a front seven that was shoved around on a regular basis and doesn't have Oregon or USC's athletes in the pass rush. The Cardinal have the muscle to control the line of scrimmage and the clock, and the golden arm to exploit it when the defense is forced to adjust to that reality. I don't have any suggestions for dealing with Weeden and Blackmon, but the more first downs Stanford is able to churn out, the fewer times it's going to have to worry about them.
Rose Bowl: OREGON (-6) vs. WISCONSIN • 5 pm ET, ESPN.
As different as they are stylistically, the offenses are a wash statistically: The Badgers and Ducks both led their respective conferences in rushing, total and scoring offense, ringing up well over 40 points on more than 200 yards per game rushing and passing. Both averaged almost exactly 7.0 yards per play. The star tailbacks, LaMichael James and Montee Ball, easily rank among the most versatile and productive runners in the nation.
If it's up to the defenses to break the tie, then the advantage on paper clearly belongs to Wisconsin, which led the Big Ten and finished in the top ten nationally in both yards and points allowed — miles ahead of Oregon, which languished in the middle of the pack on both counts. But that was at least partly a reflection of the overwhelming lack of offense on Wisconsin's schedule: The most potent attack the Badgers saw all season, Michigan State, was just 58th nationally in total offense and 37th in scoring, and the Spartans came through with two of their best games of the season against Wisconsin.
The closest approximation to Oregon's zone-read scheme the Badgers have seen was probably at Ohio State in October, when the Buckeyes racked up 268 yards rushing and scored 33 points in one of the upsets of the year. The Buckeyes found room to run despite a freshman quarterback and no passing game to speak of until their final snap of the game.
On the other hand, the last time Oregon saw a traditional, run-first scheme that makes its bread by sending big backs hurtling toward the line of scrimmage, it held Stanford to a season low on the ground and hounded Andrew Luck into the worst game of his career in a 23-point rout. Russell Wilson doesn't have to be nearly that bad to give Chip Kelly's offense the edge it needs in a shootout.
Capital One Bowl: SOUTH CAROLINA (-2½) vs. NEBRASKA • 1 pm ET, ESPN.
The Gamecocks spent most of the season lamenting the sad fate of their offense, afflicted by an exiled quarterback, an injured running back and an inexplicably invisible wide receiver. At last glance, though, it was South Carolina putting up 34 points in a blowout win over the soon-to-be ACC champs, and Nebraska limping through the end of a five-game stretch in which it failed to top twenty-five. After two full years as starter, there's still no predicting what the Cornhuskers are going to get out of quarterback Taylor Martinez on a week-to-week basis.
Carolina still isn't entirely sure what it has in Connor Shaw, who suddenly looks like a long-term answer after accounting for 317 total yards and all four Gamecock touchdowns in the win over Clemson. Another big game against the Blackshirts would put any remaining questions to bed heading into the spring. Opposite the nation's fourth-ranked total defense, though — and Carolina's real up-and-coming star Jadeveon Clowney — Shaw should be fine here as long as he's not turning the ball over.
Outback Bowl: GEORGIA (-3) vs. MICHIGAN STATE • 1 pm ET, ABC.
Again, the Big Ten-SEC exchange produces a pair of stellar defenses (9 of the top 10 total defenses in the nation come from those two leagues) that may be in for a little more than they bargained for from offenses with a little more going for them than their mediocre numbers let on — if they're compelled to open it up a little. Then again, as effectively as both of these teams get to the quarterback on blitzes, it's going to be a very long afternoon for the offense that finds itself in catch-up mode in the second half, courtesy of outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and/or Denicos Allen.
TicketCity Bowl: HOUSTON (-6½) vs. PENN STATE • Noon ET, ESPNU.
Penn State has much more pressing issues on its mind than winning a relatively meaningless bowl game named for an obscure website, and it's also coming in without its starting quarterback. The prospect of a passing duel between Case Keenum and Rob Bolden is… well, "duel" is probably the wrong for it when it's a machine gun against a slingshot.
Fortunately for Bolden, it shouldn't get that far: Houston has only faced one defense all season ranked in the top 40 nationally in yards or points allowed, and it wound up with its worst game of the season by far on both counts. If Southern Miss' defense is good enough to hold Keenum in check, Penn State's defense certainly is, and the offense should be able to get enough out of Silas Redd on the ground to keep Bolden out of trouble. You know, the usual.
Gator Bowl: FLORIDA (-2) vs. OHIO STATE • 1 pm ET, ESPN2.
I'm not sure what's behind this line, but in a 6-6 Battle of Who Could Care Less, it seems to me Ohio State has a lot more reason to care. For one, where Florida was last seen sinking to grotesque new offensive depths in an unwatchable loss to Florida State, the Buckeyes were putting together one of their better offensive efforts of the season in a high-scoring loss at Michigan. Where Gator quarterback John Brantley is wrapping up one of the most disappointing college careers in recent memory, OSU freshman Braxton Miller is on his way to emerging as one of the best young quarterbacks in the country. And where the honeymoon is most definitely over for first-year coach Will Muschamp in Gainesville, Urban Meyer's arrival as the new boss in Columbus has given Ohio State a shot of adrenaline after its year in the desert.
In more tangible terms, the Buckeyes probably aren't going to do much against Florida's still-breathing defense. But by the end of the regular season, the Gator offense couldn't move the ball in a moderately crowded parking lot. A face-to-face with Ohio State's defense, with an interim offensive coordinator filling in for Kansas-bound Charlie Weis, is no place to get the thing going in the other direction.