We continue our bowl coverage here at the NFP with a look at the six games taking place today — college football's default New Year’s Day.
To listen to a preview of all of today's games as well as a review of this postseason, check out my weekly appearance with John Harris on Yahoo! Sports Radio.
TicketCity: Houston (12-1) vs. Penn State (9-3) at Noon ET on ESPNU
Houston missed out on a BCS bid when it lost to Southern Miss in the Conference USA championship game. But we’ll still get to see the Cougars one last time this season against a marquee squad from the Big Ten in Penn State. And we’ll also get one final opportunity to see prolific quarterback Case Keenum, who will be going up against one of the finest defenses in the nation.
Kevin Sumlin won't be leading Houston in this one, as he left to take over the Texas A&M program. So interim head coach Tony Levine was tasked with the job of making sure the Cougars are ready to play after losing out on a BCS bid and seeing their head coach take another job. How focused will the C-USA runner-ups be for this early start in Dallas?
Meanwhile, the Cougars won’t have to worry about Penn State lighting up the scoreboard, as subpar quarterback play prevented the Nittany Lions from claiming a spot in the Big Ten title game. Starter Matt McGloin is out for this game because of a head injury he sustained during a locker-room scuffle with teammate Curtis Drake in mid-December, so sophomore Rob Bolden will get the start. Bolden started the first seven games but didn’t see much time down the stretch. He has completed only 42 percent of his passes with a touchdown and four interceptions. Drake will also miss the game because of suspension, so the Nittany Lions will lose their “Wildcat” threat that helped them against Ohio State.
Tom Bradley's squad relies on its defense, a unit led by Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still, who is battling a turf toe injury but will still give it a go. PSU finished fifth nationally in scoring defense and 10th in yards allowed and will get challenged by a Houston offense that averaged an FBS-best 50.8 points per game this season.
Capital One: Nebraska (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2) at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN
ICONTaylor Martinez and the Cornhuskers are ranked 103rd in the nation in passing offense.
The Cornhuskers didn’t receive the type of consistent defensive efforts week in and week out that head coach Bo Pelini expected, and a shakeup of the staff occurred on that side of the ball after the regular season with Carl Pelini taking the job at FAU. Nebraska catches a break in this game with Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks’ stud sophomore running back, remaining out after injuring his knee around midseason.
Offensively, Nebraska is ranked 103rd nationally in passing offense because dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez has yet to develop as a passer. However, “T-Magic” didn’t throw an interception in each of his final four games. Still, the Cornhuskers are a run-first team with Martinez and star running back Rex Burkhead leading the way. If the Gamecocks can limit the Huskers’ effectiveness on the ground, though, it could force Martinez to air it out more than Nebraska would like. He had to throw the football a season-high 37 times in the loss to Northwestern, and two weeks later in a loss to Michigan he only completed nine passes.
With the losses of Lattimore and quarterback Stephen Garcia, Steve Spurrier may have done his best coaching job this fall since arriving in Columbia. New starting quarterback Connor Shaw is growing in this offense, both through the air and on the ground, and the defense is the best coordinator/new Southern Mississippi head coach Ellis Johnson has had with the Gamecocks. It will be difficult for “T-Magic” to be effective in this game if he can't make plays through the air. As tough as he and Burkhead are on the ground, a one-dimensional offensive attack won't work against the Gamecocks' athletic defense. On the flip side, Shaw will need help from his running back Brandon Wilds, the 6-1, 223-pound freshman who has three games with at least 105 yards this season. He will need to be productive against the Blackshirts to take pressure off of Shaw.
Outback: Michigan State (10-3) vs. Georgia (10-3) at 1 p.m. ET on ABC
The last time the Spartans took the field against an SEC foe, they were smashed by Alabama on New Years Day in last year’s Capital One Bowl. This postseason, Mark Dantonio’s squad will look to make amends against a Georgia team that held LSU without a first down in the first half of the SEC Championship game.
This was a different Michigan State team in 2011 — a tougher squad. Their run game didn’t match expectations heading into the season, but the offensive line progressively became more cohesive, opening up holes for their deep backfield and protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins. And Cousins really only had one bad game — the loss to Nebraska. The Spartans were very close to a Rose Bowl bid, and they would like nothing better than to give Dantonio a bowl win after losing four straight postseason contests.
Georgia, meanwhile, bounced back from its 0-2 start to reel off 10 straight wins before falling to LSU in the league title game. And while the play of quarterback Aaron Murray and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell were two of the biggest reasons why the Dawgs were so successful, it was Todd Grantham's defense that was the catalyst for the revival as the unit looked comfortable in the second season of the 3-4 scheme. One problem that Georgia has dealt with all season, though, is special teams. The Bulldogs have given up five special teams touchdowns this season, and kicker Blair Walsh has missed 12 field goals. Keep an eye on Keshawn Martin, the Michigan State senior receiver who can change a game instantly on returns. He could be the difference on punts in a close game.
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