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January 3, 2011

SCS.comORANGE BOWL - Virginia Tech vs. Stanford

Two of the hottest teams in college football meet in Miami, the Hokies on a 10 game winning streak and the Cardinal on a seven game winning streak. Each team fired up their prolific offenses behind two of the best coaches in the game today, Frank Beamer and Jim Harbaugh. While Harbaugh may move onto another pasture next season or later, each of these coaches are solely responsible for turning these programs around from the ashes before they arrived to make them national powerhouses. Virginia Tech is familiar with this stage and looks to cap their first ever undefeated season in ACC play with their second Orange Bowl win in 3 years. Stanford is most certainly not familiar with traveling across the country to the Orange Bowl, but their only loss came to an Oregon Ducks team playing for the BCS Championship in a week. No matter who comes out of the game with the bowl of oranges, each team can be confident that 2010 was a successful season and the building blocks are there for perhaps taking the next step in future years. Two teams with big winning streaks, two coaches of great pedigree, and two quarterbacks looking to overcome their biggest challege of the season...this year's Orange Bowl is set to be one of the best games of the season.

Stanford's offense carried them to this Orange Bowl appearance, and the star of the show is QB Andrew Luck. Luck amazingly completed over 70 percent of his passes and ended up second in Heisman voting behind Cam Newton. Luck also ran for 438 yards, but the big running threat is Stepfan Taylor, who went over 1000 yards and had 16 touchdowns. The reason Luck and Taylor have had so much success has been an unsung offensive line featuring three seniors Chase Beeler, Andrew Phillips, and Derek Hall. Although Luck and Taylor will each be back next season, they will hope the new linemen filling in for these seniors next year are as powerful and as successful at opening holes and pass blocking. Luck only threw six interceptions this season, but he will have to be careful as he goes against a Hokies defense with the second highest number of interceptions on the season. The Hokies defensive backfield is led by CB Jayron Hosley and SS Davon Morgan, each of whom will be looking to rattle Luck early with a turnover and hopefully get the break the Hokies need to grab an early lead. Although Virginia Tech had struggles at times in the special teams, the defense has learned to overcome these issues and will be a tough test for the Cardinal. Luck will likely find a couple openings as the game goes along, but do not expect Stanford's offense to run away with this game like they did many times in Pac-10 play.

The Hokies offense is also paced by a quarterback Tyrod Taylor who knows how to run the ball when the need arises. Taylor was the ACC player of the year after throwing 23 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and racking up 823 yards on the ground as well. Taylor spreads the ball relatively evenly to WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Danny Coale, and TE Andre Smith. The Cardnial defense will not be able to drop back against the pass though because of Taylor's unique running ability and the other two talented backs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. Although Frank Beamer's offenses may have established the run first in the past, this year he has just been able to set his senior quarterback free to do whatever he wants and the offense gets rolling no matter whether they come out passing or throwing. The Stanford defense plays a 3-4 and that will be a little different than the Hokies offensive line is used to. Stanford plays the 3-4 because they have a loaded linebacker corps and want to get as many of these game-changing athletes on the field at the same time. Look for sophomores Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov to contain Taylor from running with their speed and good tackling ability. Stanford may not be as opportunistic as the Hokies defense, but the Cardinal will provide a good challenge to the Hokies offense.

As soon as this game was announced a few weeks ago, the game looked like a true coin flip between two hot teams. Both teams average about 40 points per game, and both also hold the opposition below 20. Both teams dominated their respective leagues, although Stanford finished one game behind Oregon (and three games ahead of everyone else). Neither team has played many close games, and the experience of the past few seasons will be priceless for Virginia Tech. Despite the problems on special teams during the regular season, expect one or two huge plays from the Hokies special teams units in the bowl game to redeem the season. Stanford has a great team that will continue building for the future if Harbaugh stays, but this is Virginia Tech's stage and this is the swan song for one of the best senior quarterbacks in the country. Tyrod Taylor makes a big play to bring the Hokies from behind in the fourth quarter for a 3 point Virginia Tech win.

SUGAR BOWL - Arkansas vs. Ohio State

Does anybody remember that Arkansas is still showing up in New Orleans to play in this BCS bowl game? It seems like the Razorbacks have been largely forgotten in their first BCS appearance as the headlines have been dominated by Ohio State's problems, both on the field and off. On the field, Ohio State has created one of those great anomaly statistics in that the Buckeyes are 0-9 against the Southeastern Conference in bowl games. Although there's little shame in losing national championship games, John Cooper and Jim Tressel have not been able to break through against the best conference in the country. However, the Buckeyes have never played Arkansas. Furthermore, Ohio State has more pressing issues off the field to deal with, as six of their players are suspended for up to five games next season including QB Terrelle Pryor, RB Dan Herron, and WR Devier Posey. It remains to be seen whether these players will play in the bowl game considering their NCAA violations (selling gifts/awards from the unviersity), or how much they will play. Thus, a big question mark ends up hanging over this game and surprisingly, it's not the team making their first BCS bowl appearance, but instead, the team making their 9th BCS bowl appearance (most all time).

Dealing with that question mark up front, the Buckeyes offense is a typical Jim Tressel attack focused on the running game. However, Pryor developed as a pocket or rollout passer this season and threw for 2500 yards and 25 touchdowns to go with 639 rushing yards. Pryor has a lot of similarities in size and game-changing ability as Auburn's quarterback Cam Newton, who tore through the Razorbacks defense for over 60 points a month ago. Pryor's favorite target is WR Dane Sanzenbacher, who is a lot like former tough-nosed receiver Anthony Gonzalez in his approach and effort. Dan Herron broke 1000 yards rushing this year, although the Buckeyes have talented backups as well. The backup running backs led by Jaamal Berry and Brandon Saine could be critical if the NCAA violators are held out for a part or all of this game. If that happens, the burden will fall to backup QB Joe Bauserman, who has not looked confident in limited action this season. The Razorbacks defense will hope to learn from their struggles against Newton so that even if Pryor is in the backfield, they can contian his running ability. As long as Pryor is kept contained (or if Bauserman is taking the snaps), the Razorbacks defensive backfield will have opportunities to make some interceptions on risky throws that OSU tends to make. Look for senior corners Ramon Broadway and Rudell Crim to step up to the challenge of covering the talented Buckeye receivers, forcing OSU to grind this game out on the ground.

The more compelling battle of this game is the Arkansas offense against the Buckeye defense. QB Ryan Mallett has fit in perfectly with coach Bobby Petrino's pass-first system since transferring from Michigan, and the Buckeyes will see a much different Mallett than the younger version who threw three passes against them in the 2007 OSU-Michigan game. Mallett threw for nearly 3600 yards and 30 touchdowns this season, although no receiver topped 750 yards. Mallett's favorite targets are Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, although WR Greg Childs and TE D.J. Williams are also threats for big plays. Sophomore RB Knile Davis surprisingly ran for over 1100 yards this season after coming into the year as a third-string running back, although Davis should find the going a lot more tough against the Buckeye defensive front. The Buckeye defense has senior leadership at every level, including DL Cameron Heyward, LB Brian Rolle, LB Ross Homan, and CB Chimdi Chekwa. The emphasis will be on Chekwa and CB Devon Torrence to hold coverage long enough for Heyward and his fellow linemen to get pressure on Mallett. Homan and Rolle have each been solid pass coverage linebackers in their four seasons at Ohio State, so Mallett will likely not find the middle of the field as open as he usually does. The Buckeyes do not blitz often, but a well-timed blitz in this game could turn the tide and get the Razorbacks offense off the field, which will be crucial if the Buckeye offense sputters or is not running at full strength.

Will Arkansas be able to carry the bowl banner of the SEC proudly into another victory against Ohio State? The pass-happy offense and Ryan Mallett will certainly put some points on the board, which will put the pressure on the Buckeyes to do the same. If Arkansas gets ahead by two scores early, this game could get out of hand as Ohio State does not have a good offense for quick strikes. However, when the going gets tough at the end of a close game, Ohio State has been clutch this season while Arkansas has had some struggles. It seems like every year the Ohio State defense is faced with an unstoppable offense in the bowl game, and they always step up and give their team a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. Arkansas will be no different than Oregon, Texas, or Notre Dame before them...this game will come down to a fourth quarter drive. As long as Terrelle Pryor is leading that drive instead of Bauserman, the Buckeyes will do exactly what they did to Iowa and will make the touchdown to win the game by 4. If the Buckeye offensive stars are out of the game for a half or longer, Arkansas will win, but my official pick assumes that these players will be out no longer than a quarter.

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