Liberty Bowl + Chik-Fil-A Bowl Preview
Liberty Bowl + Chik-Fil-A Bowl Preview
2013-12-31 12:00:00

Bowl season rolls on as Rice and Texas A&M take on intriguing foes.

 By Jake Shaw

Texas Tech and Texas opened the state's bowl season with a reminder of just how unpredictable the postseason can be. While Texas couldn't hang with Oregon, the Red Raiders stunned No. 14 Arizona State in a game that was just as one-sided as the Oregon win.

Today, it's now the turn for Rice and Texas A&M. previews both games below.

Rice (10-3/7-1 CUSA) vs. Mississippi State (6-6/3-5 SEC)
3 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee

The thing about the so-called power conferences: Because of the week-in, week-out grind, they often can mask the true identity of a team.

Take Mississippi State for example. It didn't qualify for the postseason until the final weekend of its season, beating rival Ole Miss, 17-10, to become bowl eligible. A 6-6 record doesn't look all that great, especially standing side by side with Rice's 10-win mark. But as always, a closer look reveals more telling details.

Mississippi State lost by just four points at Auburn. It played Texas A&M to a 10-point decision in College Station. It lost by just 13 to Alabama, ranked No. 1 at the time. It had a solid, albeit overlooked, 21-20 win over MAC champ Bowling Green. Really, Mississippi State was only out-classed in just one game, the 59-26 thrashing by LSU. Otherwise, the Bulldogs competed well in every outing.

And there's reason to believe Mississippi State is peaking right now. It had to play 'Bama and Arkansas the following week without dynamic QB Dak Prescott, out with an injury. He was supposed to miss the game against Ole Miss, too, but he came off the bench in the fourth quarter to lead MSU to a comeback win.

With a few weeks off, Prescott has been given a clean bill of health. The sophomore, who put up 2,408 total yards and 18 touchdowns, will be the focal point of Rice's defense.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, will likely center its attention around Rice RB Charles Ross, who very quietly finished 20th in the nation with 1,252 rushing yards, more than any other Texas-based running back. He did that despite missing two games because of injury. He had seven 100-yard games, including five in his final seven games.

Rice will rely on him almost as much as MSU will lean on Prescott. To me, this game might come down to which of these players reaches his average game's potential.

Spotlight matchup: Rice OL vs. Mississippi State DL. Rice ran the ball 667 times this year, 254 more attempts than what the Mississippi State defense faced all year. That's an average of about 17 more rushing attempts for Rice than what Mississippi State's used to defending. Don't expect Rice to change its game plan much. If it has a chance of winning, it will largely depend on how its offensive line handles the MSU front four.

Key Stat: 7, 10, the respective national rankings of Rice and Mississippi State in time of possession. Rice maintained possession of the ball for 33:24.31 every game, ranking the Owls seventh, just ahead of 10th-ranked Mississippi State (33:06.00). While time of possession often doesn't tell the story of the game, it does show that both teams don't have quick-scoring offenses. Thus, the winner in time of possession will give its offense more chances for extended drives, something both teams rely on.

Noteworthy statistical difference: Mississippi State had a hard time getting to the quarterback, finishing last in the SEC with 12 sacks. Conversely, Rice had trouble at times protecting its quarterback, allowing 33 sacks, the third most of all CUSA teams. THis is weakness against weakness -- an area both teams are capable of getting an edge.

The mob says: Mississippi State by 7
So says I: Mississippi State 27, Rice 19


No. 24 Duke (10-3/6-2 ACC) vs. No. 21 Texas A&M (8-4/4-4 SEC)
7 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN
The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia

It's a storyline that just can't be avoided, even if nothing is official.

This very well could be the final collegiate game for Johnny Manziel, the incomparable Texas A&M quarterback. His last chance to add to his already dazzling statistics. His last chance to make plays out of thin air, simultaneously dazzling TV viewers and frustrating would-be tacklers.

Manziel has said he'll announce his intentions -- return for a junior season or head to an all but assured first-round selection in the NFL -- in the days following the game. No matter his fate, beating Duke would be big for the program.

A win in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl would give A&M 20 victories in a two-year span for the first time since 1997-98. It would also give Texas A&M three straight bowl victories, something never accomplished in program history.

And despite a defense that held A&M well back of its preseason expectations, if this is Manziel's Aggie swan song, a win is the most likely conclusion. Manziel seemed physically off down the stretch, particularly in the two losses to finish the season. Whatever it was, the layoff between games should have him healed. And if it is his final game, don't you expect he'll want to put on one more show?

Duke, despite its program-record 10 wins, doesn't have the offense to hang with an A&M offense running at full speed. QB Anthony Boone, who started the final eight games for Duke (winning all but the last one, the 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC title game), runs an offense that relies on short and medium gains. He only averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, and as a team, Duke averaged nearly two fewer yards per play than A&M's offense. Duke also finished 70th nationally in "explosive" drives -- drives that averaged 10 or more yards per play.

A&M can rip off an 80-yard drive in two plays. Duke's game plan usually calls for 12-15 to cover the same distance. And that might be Duke's best shot. When up against an explosive offense, try to keep it off the field. It worked for a quarter against Florida State. Duke was the only team this year to shut out the Seminoles in the first quarter.

But the defense eventually caved in, and the huge deficit then forced Duke's offense out of its comfort zone. I see a similar game unfolding, though Duke will score more against A&M than it did against FSU. But it won't be enough to spoil the likely finale for Manziel in Maroon.

Spotlight matchup: Texas A&M DBs vs. Duke WR Jamison Crowder. Since Duke will be without leading rusher Jela Duncan -- suspended for the game, as is fantastic freshman Aggie MLB Darion Claiborne, who was arrested on drug charges -- the Blue Devils might have to rely even more on the passing attack. Crowder, coming off his second straight 1,000-yard season, is a dangerous receiver, both in the slot and downfield. He averaged just under 7.5 catches per game, so expect to see him targeted often.

Key Stat: 20, the percentage of drives by opposing team's offenses that lasted 10 or more plays, ranking Duke 111th out of the 125 FBS teams. Duke's defense was on the field for 965 plays this season (105 more than A&M's), a number that also ranks the Blue Devils 111th in the nation.

Noteworthy statistical difference: 13, the difference in percentage of times these teams convert on third downs. Texas A&M ranks eighth nationally in converting 50.66 percent of the time on third downs. Duke, meanwhile, ranks 85th in converting only 37.84 percent of the time. Duke actually converted zero times on 11 attempts against Virginia Tech -- yet still won the game, 13-10.

The mob says: Texas A&M by 12.5
So says I: Texas A&M 45, Duke 24


Charting My Predictions:
Bowl picks straight up: 0-2
Bowl picks against the spread: 0-2
Season straight up: 85-33
Season against the spread: 55-61-2

All times CST; all rankings from the Current BCS Top 25; odds courtesy of these guys.


Jake Shaw is a special contributor to Contact him by email whether you loved, hated, were excited by or depressed by this column.

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