By James Ward
This is the season finale of Ward’s Winners for the 2016 College Football season. Thanks a lot for reading this column all year and interacting with me throughout the season. Enjoy this week’s bowl action and follow me on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS) for my thoughts on the National Championship game.
Bowl Predictions: If you’ve read this column all year, you know that my predictions have been inconsistent (at best), and there’s no greater indicator to that than my bowl predictions for last week. My two ‘locks’ of the week were Boise State (-7.5) and Vanderbilt (+4), and both teams lost by a combined 43 points. No matter how much analysis you put into these picks, the bowl season is a complete crapshoot. Overrated.
Kyle Whittingham: The Utah Utes beat Indiana this week in the much-hyped Foster Farms Bowl and Whittingham improved to 10-1 in bowl games as Utah head coach. Since taking over for Urban Meyer in 2004, Whittingham has seamlessly transitioned the Utes from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, and turned them into one of the most consistent programs in college football. Underrated.
Group of Five Playoff: ESPN reported this week that the Group of Five schools are seriously considering their own playoff system. How awesome would that be? While we’re all awaiting Alabama vs. Washington and Clemson vs. Ohio State, how about Western Michigan vs. Temple and Navy vs. San Diego State as an appetizer for Group of Five bragging rights? That sounds like a great idea. Underrated.
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know:
1. The two worst offenses in the ACC both had epic offensive explosions in their respective bowl games. Boston College and Wake Forest are tied for the No. 117 ranked scoring offenses in the country AFTER scoring a combined 70 points this week. In addition, Wake Forest scored 31 points in the first half against Temple and Boston College scored 29 points in the first half against Maryland, eclipsing their 20.4 points per game total.
2. Boise State running back Jeremy McNichols was held to just 46 yards in his final college game, but the Broncos running back lineage is still impressive. McNichols took over for Jay Ajayi, who had three 200-yard rushing games in the NFL this season. Ajayi took over for 2-time Pro Bowler Doug Martin. Boise State isn’t usually thought of as a “Running Back U” like Alabama, but maybe that should change.
3. Earlier in the column, I mentioned Kyle Whittingham is 10-1 in bowls since taking over at Utah in 2004. Since 2004, the four remaining teams in the College Football Playoff have won a combined 23 bowl games. During that period, Alabama has won eight bowl games, which is the most out of the remaining four schools, but still short of Whittingham’s ten wins.
Liberty Bowl: Georgia (PK) & TCU: TCU has been an overrated and overvalued team all season. The Horned Frogs were favored in eight of their 12 games, but they failed to cover in seven of those games and they outright lost four times. Overall, TCU is 6-6 with wins against South Dakota State, Iowa State, SMU, Kansas, Baylor and Texas. FCS power South Dakota State is the only one of those teams with a winning record heading into the bowl season. In their final game of the season, TCU lost to Kansas State 30-6 at home, in what could easily be labeled a non-competitive effort. TCU wants to end this disastrous season, in which they were expected to compete for a Big 12 Championship. Yet, the Liberty Bowl is a pick ‘em.
Is Georgia a good football team? No. But they do have a lot of good players. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel announced they would return to Athens for their senior seasons. Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has had an up and down season, but he’s had a full month of practice to get ready for this game and he’ll be prepared for TCU. First year head coach Kirby Smart is 7-5 in his first year in Athens and a bowl win would go along way towards assuring Dogs fans that they have the right guy in charge in Athens. Take the Bulldogs.
Citrus Bowl: LSU (-3.5) & Louisville: No Leonard Fournette, no problem for the Tigers as Derrius Guice will take Fournette’s place as the starting LSU running back. Earlier in the season, Fournette set the LSU single game rushing record, but Guice broke that record against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night. While the star power takes a hit without Fournette, at this point of the season, Guice is actually a better player. In the four games Fournette missed this season, Guice had 89 carries for 764 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Cardinals have only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season, but Guice will get a ton of carries and he should have no problem breaking the 100-yard mark.
As for the Cardinals, Louisville has struggled in its last three games, with losses to Kentucky and Houston, as well as an epic fourth quarter comeback against Wake Forest. Lamar Jackson has been one of the biggest stories of the college football season, but heading into the bowl season, no Power Five quarterback had been sacked more than Jackson. Louisville’s offensive line is suspect and this should be a matchup that heavily favors the LSU defense. In Louisville’s loss to Houston, the Cougars sacked Jackson 11 times and this is an LSU defense that limited Alabama to ten points and smothered the Crimson Tide offense for three quarters. LSU’s defense will wreck this game, Lamar Jackson will have trouble getting anything going offensively and the Tigers will win by a touchdown.
Fiesta Bowl: Clemson (+3) & Ohio State: With two evenly matched teams, always take the points, but in this case, I actually favor the Tigers to win the game. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are two of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in college football, but Barrett’s inability to throw the ball in recent weeks is discerning for the Buckeyes against a Clemson defense that is stout against the run. The Tigers defense ranks No. 22 in the country in rushing yards per game and without a passing attack, the Buckeyes don’t have a chance in this game. If Clemson is able to stop Barrett, Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber on the ground, this game could get ugly.
On the flip side, Deshaun Watson finished second in this year’s Heisman Trophy vote, after finishing in third in 2015. People criticized Watson this year for taking a step back, but his passing numbers are almost identical to those of 2015. The big difference for Watson this year was running the ball. Watson rushed for only 524 yards, compared to 1105 yards in 2015, but he also had half as many carries. In the games where the Tigers needed Watson to be a dual-threat quarterback, Watson carried the ball, including 17 carries for 85 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney wanted to make sure Watson was healthy and ready to go for the playoff and I expect a major uptick in rushing attempts in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. If Clemson can hit a few big plays with their wide receivers against Ohio State, the Tigers will roll to the National Championship game. This is a bad matchup for Ohio State, as Clemson highlights their deficiencies.
Last Week: 0-3
Season Record: 21-27
Ward’s Winners Overall Record: 51-47-0
James Ward is the Associate Producer of the DA Show, as well as the Executive Producer of CBS Sports Radio Weekends and Sunday Morning Football. On Saturdays, you can find him in studio producing Eye on College Football and catching as many games as possible. Check him out on Twitter (@JamesWardCBS).